Sunday, December 31, 2017

Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical (Toronto)

For this last day in 2017 I treated myself to a Young People's Theatre (YPT) Production of Beauty and the Beast: The Broadway Musical. Watching this well-known story amongst the chattering of young people (otherwise known as children) did give me a new perspective on this "tale as old as time"--which is exactly what YPT's production aimed to do.

This production cut Disney Theatrical's Beauty and the Beast down to 85 minutes and transferred it to a much smaller stage. I usually do not read any program notes until after I see a show, but in this case I am glad I read Artistic Director Allen MacInnis's preface to this "chamber sized" production. It allowed me to focus on the story underneath all the spectacle: love and true acceptance between two outcasts, Beauty and the Beast.

Beast and Beauty dancing in YPT 2017 production of the Broadway Musical

I have been dreaming of the live staging of Beauty and the Beast since I was four years old. And in the past year, I have watched both the animated 90's version and live action 2017 movie many times--so switching that off to focus on a smaller retelling of the story did not come naturally. Then again, it didn't for the other young audience members either. I counted three different little girls wearing tiaras and the yellow Belle ballgown from the Disney movies. In the post show Q&A, the cast was quick to remind the children--and me--that they made Belle's dress pink instead of yellow on purpose. Without quite as much spectacle, MacInnis's production asked the audience to instead look at the characters and how they decided to change.

Sandra's Faves of 2017

Here's seven of my 2017 favorites. Why seven? Well, in many cultures seven is considered sacred, both beneficial and protective for its bearer.

Honestly? Seven is all I got. I probably saw about two dozen shows this year, but these are the ones that stayed with me.
Christine Lahti
1.Signature Theater's Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks takes Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and goes all The Handmaiden's Tale on it. This play was produced in tandem with Parks' In the Blood as part of The Red Letter Plays, where the playwright presented two works under a common theme. I never saw the other play; I only saw Fucking A after a friend offered me an extra ticket -- and I'm glad she did. Maybe it's the time we live in, but this piece with no real heroes, and rampant with class conflict, sexism, corruption and greed resonated with me, offering pleasure in the discomfort of it all. Yet, still humanity is evident: in the loyalty of friendships; in the unwavering love of a parent; of the surprise that in a terrible, dark world, there is goodness. A contemporary Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) seeks to buy her jailed son’s freedom — by becoming the reviled, but needed, local abortionist in a story that blends dialogue and song, directed by Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney (Father Comes Home From the Wars). The entire cast is outstanding, with Lahti making her character sympathetic despite her myopic focus on vengeance and Marc Kudisch, evoking the brutish charm from his long-ago role as Gaston and notching it a bit higher as a corrupt mayor. 

2. Hello, Dolly! provided delightful escapism wrapped in spectacular technicolor sets and costumes (Santo Loquasto). Tony Award-winner Bette Midler deserves her accolades - she makes the most of every moment on stage, whether she's eating a meal or walking regally through a calvacade of singing waiters wearing a sequined red dress. While her dancing is more like well-choreographed placement than spirited, she always is riveting, the center of attention. Another outstanding cast is here, headed by David Hyde Pierce playing the cranky Horace Vandergelder, Gavin Creel as Cornelius Hackl and Kate Baldwin as Irene Molloy. I also love Jennifer Simard as Ernestina - I've been a fangirl of hers since she played a gambling-addict nun in Disaster! Add all this to Jerry Herman's music and lyrics, with standards such as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Before the Parade Passes By," and I almost forgot how uncomfortable the upper-level seats in the Shubert Theatre were.

3. The Band's Visit -- in a world where Mean Girls and Cruel Intentions are future options, here's a movie adaption I can truly endorse. Based on a 2007 Israeli film directed by Eran Kolirin, David Yazbek and Itamar Moses’s soft-spoken story of Egyptian musicians stranded in a beleagured Israeli desert town, shows the beauty of brief, unexpected connections. The plot is slight - no one falls in love, no dilemas solved - yet, for a moment, loneliness meets kinship; the quiet is filled with music; and strangers offer kindness, food and shelter rather than disdain and hatred. Director David Cromer links in lovely moments of hope fulfilled - from a lover who waits by a pay phone for hours each night, waiting to be remembered by his girl to a shy boy learning to flirt from a foreigner who tags along on his blind date. For 24 hours, everyone is exposed to "Something Different" (beautifully sung by Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub) and that becomes a lasting memory for all.

Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk 
4. Arcadia -- when I saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in 1995 I loved it so much I bought the script during intermission. The revival by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2 this summer allowed me to revisit that moment. Their delightful production features a stripped down set by Mark Evancho that the audience can walk through parts during the intermission. It's this intimacy that makes this production so special. As the play switches between time periods, the set and props remain the same -- even as different characters inhabit the space. These details seem more noticeable in a 98-seat theater. Andrew William Smith is also terrific as Septimus Hodge.

5. A Doll's House, Part 2. The audacity Lucas Hnath showed writing a sequel to Ibsen's play impressed me. His middle-aged Nora Helmer feels authentic and feisty. The show is funny, even as it questions serious, complex topics such as the role of women in society and the institution of marriage (Does love last forever? Does marriage imprison its participants?) Tony Award winner Laurie Metcalf offers us an imperfect, sympathetic Nora: selfish, brave, risk-taker. Anne Marie, the maid, is played by Jayne Houdyshell, who provides an excellent foil for the jokes and a voice of reason when things become more complicated.

6. Cost of Living -- A flawed show with a too-pat, coincidental plot, where no one is readily likable -- my favorite Ani (Katy Sullivan), a red-headed double amputee from New Jersey, is foul-mouthed and petulant. But most grow on you. Martyna Majok's play offers a compelling look at two disabled characters and the people who care for them: Ani and her ex-husband Eddie (Victor Williams) and John (Gregg Mozgala), a rich, arrogant grad student who has cerebral palsy, and Jess (Jolly Abraham), who works several jobs and still can't make ends meet. The intimate look at what such care taking requires sometimes shocks the audience. When Ani slips in the bath after Eddie leaves her momentarily alone, audible gasps are heard. Ultimately, though, this is a play about relationships, not disabilities -- and how people fail, and support, each other.

7. The short-lived Bandstand offered a compelling view of the price the survivors of war pay, packaged in the bright days of the Bandstand era. Director Andy Blakenbuehler's choreography suggests that patina of darkness when his characters move in sudden moments of anguish, with one number, "Right This Way," showing the war's burden as individuals are dragged down even as they try to move forward. The story centers around Donny (Corey Cott), who struggles through his homecoming, finally finding some satisfaction by forming a band to compete in a "Tribute to the Troops" contest. All the members saw active service and suffer from their war memories. I can see why Bandstand had trouble finding an audience - this darkness mixed with so many upbeat scenes is discomforting. This is not the typical, linear upbeat musical. Plus, the musical has flaws - many of the band members aren't fully fleshed out nor do all the plot lines feel authentic. Still, the upbeat numbers such as "First Steps First" and "You Deserve It" are fun ... as is watching the dancers perform the period's signature shrugs and swiveling hips. Laura Osnes sings the heck out of the score, too.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Robert O'Hara's new comedy Mankind, which he also directs, doesn't officially open at Playwright's Horizon until January 8, so it's way too early to review it. But I do have a comment or two.

The show takes place in a future in which only men exist. O'Hara takes this premise to some surprising and some unsurprising places.

Audience response was extremely mixed, with some people walking out during intermission and others laughing their butts off.

One problem is that the pacing is waaay, waaaay, waaaaay too slow. Between actors drawing out their dialogue with more pauses than words, much repetition, and tedious, too-frequent scene changes, the show runs easily 15 minutes longer than it needs to. I wonder if O'Hara would be better served by a different director than himself.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Liz Wollman's Top Ten of 2017

Good golly, Miss Molly, a top-ten list is a hard list to come up with, especially during a year when I found myself escaping to the theater as often as I possibly could. So many choices! So much talent! So much horrible, soul-sucking news to run away from every damn day!

Still, I'm copying Wendy (and nearly every other writer, critic, editorial board, website, and borglike crystalline entity that generates year-end lists) by keeping my list to ten (though there is an honorable mention list. So sue me). Here they are, then, in alphabetical order, because coming up with a tippy-top of the top ten is just too hard in my tail-end-of-an-exhausting-year state of mind.

1) Bandstand. 
This short-lived musical had trouble finding an audience or selling itself in any plausible way. Who can blame it? "Hey! Come see our really dark, depressing musical about broken, shattered, completely fucked-up GIs home from World War II! There's really groovy period dancing!" I was surprised by how much I loved it, my kid loved it, and the friends we saw it with loved it. Groovy period dancing notwithstanding, this portrait of people coping with PTSD ("shell shock") by forming a band was deeply engaging. I wish very much that it had caught on.

2) Cost of Living. 
I am so grateful for the small explosion of plays by, about, and for people with disabilities that has been happening on local stages in the past few years. Martina Majok's four-character piece about disability, intersectionality, and human connections leaned a little hard at times on conventional plot turns, but the characters were real, their situations fleshed out and appropriately complicated, their lives never presented as feel-good disability porn. And gee, wow, what a concept: actors with actual disabilities were cast as the disabled characters!

3) Dear Evan Hansen
Is Evan a sweet, well-meaning if cripplingly neurotic teenager, or a manipulative, lying little shitbag who should burn in hell for all of eternity? Either way, whatever, the musical totally worked for me. Ben Platt was as incredible as everyone said he was, and the rest of the cast was pretty amazing, too. Also, "So Big/So Small" is possibly the best song about being a mom I've ever heard, and Rachel Bay Jones' rendition of it levels me every single time I hear it.

4) The Glass Menagerie.
A production that was hotly polarizing in local theater circles, Sam Gold's stripped-down Menagerie was hated as much as--if not (alas) more than--it was loved. But it resonated with me like little else did this year. See #2 above for at least a few of the reasons I appreciated it as much as I did. Thanks to everyone involved for taking the risks you did with this. You can't win 'em all, but for what it's worth, you won me over in a big way.

5) Jesus Hopped the A Train.
Stephen Adly Guirgis has been around for a long while now, but for whatever reason, I never got around to seeing The Motherfucker with the Hat or Between Riverside and Crazy, or any of his other many plays that are staged frequently in New York. Big ups to the wonderful Signature Theater for beginning a retrospective of his older plays this fall;  I can't wait to see more.

6) Jitney.
A gorgeous revival of one of Wilson's most accessible plays. I grew up in a very different (read: white, affluent) Pittsburgh, which remains as stubbornly segregated as it was when I was a kid (feh, name an American city that isn't.). Still, I love the complicated, endearing, real characters in this show, I love the town the characters live in, and I have always thrilled at Wilson's references to various neighborhoods and local institutions (Damn it, Turnbo, Monroeville's houses are no nicer than the ones in Penn Hills!).

7) Mary Jane
OK, so I maybe lied when I said above that coming up with a tippy-top favorite of the year was impossible. I loved absolutely everything about this show--every finely-wrought character, every honest if difficult depiction, every directorial choice, every nuanced performance. An added, if random bonus: Jake Gyllenhaal sat a few rows behind us in the small New York Theater Workshop, and it was fun watching other audience members devise increasingly inventive ways of casually checking him out before and after the show.

8) People, Places and Things.
An import from London, this harrowing piece about an actress trying to get and remain sober was not nearly as conventional as I feared it would be. Denise Gough's tour-de-force performance was certainly worth the price of admission, but then, the rest of the cast was pretty brilliant, too. No trite, feel-good play about beautiful, fragile addicts triumphing over adversity, People, Places and Things instead emphasizes just how incredibly hard sobriety is, how much emotional work goes into it, and how very easy it is to get sidetracked by everything the play's title suggests.

Zbigniew Bzymek
9) The Town Hall Affair.
The Wooster Group's multimedia re-enactment of Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall says a lot about second-wave feminism and its discontents in the course of one fleeting hour. I recognize that we're living through an extraordinarily tumultuous, challenging and important period in American feminist history right now; this production made me appreciate the fact that even though we've clearly got miles to go, we've nevertheless come a very long way, too. To that end, the decision to have Norman Mailer played by two guys at the same time was a stroke of fucking genius.

10) The Wolves
How often do you see a play--or any kind of mass entertainment--that perfectly captures the social lives of average American teenage girls? And when you do, how often is what you see ultimately played for condescending laughs, or cheap sexualized thrills or both? Teen girls are almost never taken seriously as three-dimensional human beings, and it's only with brilliant, nuanced shows like this that one becomes fully aware of how very often their conversations, vocal inflections, slang, and cultural tastes are used for cheap comic effect: oh, those dumb little geese! How trivial they are! How shrill! How silly their music, style and social codes are! Like, ohmigoooood, squeeeee, riiiiight? Still, they're so young and perky, let's objectify them! The Wolves, an absolutely dead-on portrait of teenage girls who play together on a suburban soccer team, slides a little too close to conventional theatrical devices near the very end, but who the hell cares? It's funny, affecting, fascinating, and not even the teeniest bit nasty, condescending, or objectifying. More, please.

Honorable mention:
1984 (Broadway), 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (St. Ann's Warehouse), A Doll's House Part 2 (Broadway), Everybody (Signature), The Golden Apple (Encores), Hamlet (the Public), Hello, Dolly! (Broadway, with Donna Murphy), Meteor Shower (Broadway), Say Something Bunny (UNDO Project Space)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Wendy Caster's Best of 2017

It's that time of the year again. I've limited myself to 10 best shows, since that's the number everyone likes, and I've included "honorable mentions" as well. Shows that I reviewed are linked to the reviews. (Note that some of the links are blue and some aren't. I have no idea why.)
  • A Doll's House, Part 2--a lovely surprise, fascinating as a comment on the original and compelling in its own right.
  • Arcadia--I've always enjoyed PTP/NYC, but they really won me over with their excellent production of Arcadia, a show I would gladly see once a year for the rest of my life.
    PTP/NYC's Arcadia
    Photo: Stan Barouh
  • Cost of Living--a solid show made even better by wonderful acting.
  • Dear World--The show was good and Tyne Daly was magical.
  • Escaped Alone--Caryl Churchill at her best: compelling, puzzling, subtle, political, funny, surreal yet realer than real.
    Escaped Alone
    Photo: Richard Termine
  • If I Forget--wonderful proof that really good writers can take the familiar--family squabbles, political differences--and make it new, engaging, and funny.
  • Jitney--an almost perfect production of a superb play.
  • Mary Jane--another case where excellent writing rises above the familiar--in this case, taking care of a family member with serious health problems. And that cast!
    Mary Jane

  • Nellie McKay: The Big Molinsky--Considering Joan Rivers--sui generis.
  • The Tempest--this all-female production, ostensibly performed in a women's prison, was amazing. Harriet Walter presided brilliantly over both the prison block and the magical island.

    Image result for harriet walter the tempest
    Harriet Walter in The Tempest
    Photo: Helen Maybanks

Honorable Mention: Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood (Flux), As You Like It (CSC), All the Fine Boys (New Group), Everybody (Signature), Hello Dolly (Broadway), Pacific Overtures (CSC), The Suitcase Under the Bed (The Mint), The Winter's Tale (Public Mobile Unit), The Show-Off (The Mint), Yours Unfaithfully (The Mint), After the Blast (Clare Tows), How to Transcend a Happy Marriage (LCT).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Winter's Tale

The Public Theater's Mobile Unit is presenting a highly entertaining, streamlined version of The Winter's Tale through December 17. It's a lovely evening in the theater, if not quite Shakespeare's version of the play; I suspect Shakespeare would enjoy it. And it's free! (For more info, click here.)

The Winter's Tale is considered a "problem play" due to its sometimes bizarre combination of fevered jealousy, dead family members, merry shepherds, low comedy, and romance. The Mobile Unit chooses to focus mostly on the fun, although Justin Cunningham's depiction of Leontes, a man gone crazy with jealousy, is deeply upsetting, as it must be. The rest of cast is also impressive, full of energy, acting talent, and beautiful singing voices. They are Christopher Ryan Grant (wonderfully silly as the old shephard), Nina Grollman, Nicholas Hoge, Patrena Murray, Chris Myers, Sathya Sridharan, Ayana Workman, and Stacey Yen.

The Winter's Tale is smoothly directed by Lee Sunday Evans, with great imagination and humor.

Catch it if you can--free Shakespeare, well-done, is a beautiful thing.

Wendy Caster
(free ticket; first row)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Meteor Shower

"Well, now, that was a mess," my daughter mused during the curtain call at Meteor Shower, currently running at the Booth through late January. "Yeah," I agreed. "Didn't really hang together, huh?" "Maybe Steve Martin wants another de Kooning or something," my husband mused. And with that, we bundled up and walked out of the theater into the snow.

But don't let the comments above throw you: all three of us laughed our asses off through the whole show, and you should totally go see it so that you can laugh your ass off, too. Just don't expect to encounter an actual play at any point during the process. Because Meteor Shower is to drama what a can of Chef-Boyardee ravioli is to dining.

Matthew Murphy
Here's the thing, though: I loved that canned, viscous glop. At some points during my reasonably happy if occasionally depressive childhood, I'd venture that there was absolutely nothing better than an entire can, heated over the stove and dumped into a plastic bowl. Just like sometimes--especially at times when the world has become a hot, flaming pile of endless disappointment and despair--a whizzing series of not-especially-connected one-liners, short bits, and sight gags that only kind of resolve at the end of a fleetingly satisfying seventy-five minutes is absolutely heavenly.

It's not worth recounting the plot, in part because there isn't much of one and in part because what does count as a throughline doesn't really make any sense. But whatever, in case you're curious, two married people (Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos) hang out with their alter egos (Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key) at their place in Ojai during a meteor shower, and wackiness ensues. Said wackiness ranges from mysterious eggplant-sending and related attempts at gaslighting, some increasingly convoluted sexual couplings, the speaking of invented languages, the use of hard drugs and the lifting of silverware, a handful of nicely-timed sight gags, and a smattering of garden-variety dick jokes. Because the four actors cast in the roles are brilliant with comic timing and are clearly having a blast playing for every guffaw they can milk out of the script, the fact that there's no logical whole doesn't matter at all.

Meteor Shower has been likened to a Saturday Night Live sketch that goes on too long, I disagree with this. Instead, it reminds me of Martin's most hilariously bizarre standup work: his grandmother's song; his fondness for names like Gern Blanston and the one it's impossible to spell out accuratelythe cruel shoes. Martin quit doing standup years ago, but I suppose a brilliant comic doesn't ever stop coming up with random bits; Meteor Shower strikes me as a long list of gleefully strange gags he kept track of, gradually strung together, and finally tried to drape a practically nonexistent plot around. Not quite a straightforward standup routine, the show still functions less like a play and more like an excuse for four very broad comics to be collectively ridiculous for a little over an hour. Go if you can, take your mind off the world, guffaw a little. You'll be especially amused, I think, if you're a fan of any of the people involved: the goofily funny people who make up the cast; Jerry Zaks, who has been directing since Broadway was invented and does a typically fine job here; and Martin, whose flair for the absurd is on full display. Hell, even the costumes are amusing (Keegan-Michael Key's mandals nail the landing, Ann Roth).

Go. Enjoy. If possible, sneak a can of ravioli in with you; you'll thank me.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Miss Saigon and M Butterfly

What are the odds that I'd see two different takes on Madama Butterfly in rapid succession? Pretty high, it turns out: they're both running in revival here, I have a student writing an honors thesis about Asian stereotypes on Broadway, I'm teaching a seminar about musicals and American politics that we had money to spend on tickets for, I dig Julie Taymor. It happens that the Puccini original is in repertory at the Met this season; Wendy suggested I hit that, too, and make this writeup a trifecta. Beautiful though the opera is, I've officially hit my saturation point with this damn story line, so no, I'm not going to the Met and you can't make me.

Matthew Murphy
Miss Saigon is--and this is putting it very nicely--not one of my favorite musicals. I saw the original production the week I graduated from college, and it failed to grab me; I spent most of the show wondering distractedly what the hell I was going to do with my life, pausing occasionally to seethe over a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who couldn't keep his pants on for five minutes whenever I went anywhere without him. Sure, a few scenes yanked me to attention: the one with the helicopter, you bet, and that other one in which Jonathan Pryce, by that point refreshingly free of yellowface and eye prosthetics, humped a cadillac. Otherwise, though, the show didn't stay with me for long, and by "long" I mean "more than five minutes after I left the theater."

Seeing the revival 25 years later with a group of students roughly the age I was when I first saw it had its charms, for sure. Reception was mixed among them, but even the biggest critics remained awake during the show and did not sneak out at intermission, which translates as a raving success when it comes to class trips to venues of any kind. As an added bonus, most were genuinely thrilled when I suggested we take the empty seats in the front few rows to the right of the stage for the second act. It's no wonder: the very hugeness of the show is, without question, one of its major assets. Aside from the scenes involving large vehicles, there are enormous backdrops and huge musical numbers, some with acrobats and giant billowy flags, during which cast members gradually appear at tiered levels you didn't realize were there. And as a primer on the megamusical, Miss Saigon has just about every ingredient required: high emotion, universal themes, hummable songs, visual enormity, dazzling and often mechanized spectacle. I'd add, in this case, a nobly committed cast, a very talented Kim (Eva Noblezada), and a mesmerizingly good Engineer (Jon Jon Briones). Miss Saigon just isn't my bag--really, megamusicals in general just don't do it for me, but that's not to say that the production isn't done very, very well. If you like shiny romantic sappy bigness and don't mind two-dimensional characters that threaten to dip into outright stereotype, the show just might be yours.

Sara Krulwich

The original production of M Butterfly stayed with me a lot longer than Miss Saigon did, and I was eager to revisit the show with Taymor at the helm, but I was disappointed by the revival. So, apparently, are a lot of people: the show was originally supposed to run through February, but is closing six weeks early. It's curiously flat, especially for a Taymor production. Not especially pretty to look at (though damn if that woman can't work wonders with a few carefully angled rays of soft, white light), the revival feels sluggish, talky, and distant. I wasn't especially impressed with Clive Owen, who I usually like a lot, and the added material does little more than make the show...feel...longer. While I appreciate the attempt on Hwang's part to subvert the Madama Butterfly story--and to toy, especially, with the stereotype of the fragile, delicate, passive Asian naif whose life is consumed with longing for the white western man--there's little else that really takes hold: no depth or nuance of character, no one especially likable or ultimately very interesting.

At least in my case, the best thing about seeing both shows was the opportunity it gave me to learn from my students. A few Asian-American kids in my seminar love Miss Saigon because they thrill at seeing representations of themselves--but they are also fully aware of and willing to criticize its many problems, oversights, assumptions, and caricatures. My honors student has written extensively about M. Butterfly; I wish the revival was, in the end, as brilliant as her reading of the play is. So while the two productions didn't amount to the most thrilling experiences I've ever had at the theater, the conversations I had with my students about the shows after having seen them were well worth the price of countless admissions.