Monday, March 19, 2018

Art Times: The Thing About Revivals

My latest essay is up at Art Times. I would love to hear what you all think about the issues discussed.
Periodically, old shows with iffy depictions of women are revived on Broadway. People, mostly but not all women, complain about those depictions. Then other people complain about the complaints. Rinse and repeat.
Read more.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Good for Otto

What if the most heroic thing any of us can do is simply to survive?

[spoilers, arguably, but this is not a plot-driven show]

In Good for Otto, David Rabe gives us a microcosm of a small town--and perhaps of humanity--through scenes from a mental health center. Dr. Michaels (Ed Harris), whose mother killed herself when he was nine, devotes himself to his patients, often marrying calm acceptance with sympathetic guidance. But he also over-identifies with ssome patients, including the smart, volatile, and frighteningly ill Frannie (Rileigh McDonald), 12 years old with a brain full of "storms" that she relieves by cutting herself. Michaels' colleague Evangeline (Amy Madigan) also devotes herself to her patients, though her boundaries may be sounder. Both therapists despair at the bureaucratic limitations that threaten their patients' care.

Ed Harris and cast (and some audience members)
Photo: Monique Carboni

The patients vary widely. There's Timothy, on the autism spectrum and trying to learn how to "widen his circle," but unable to absorb the subtle rules of social interactions. This role verges on stereotype. (Although Mark Lynn-Baker's performance is charming, an actor on the spectrum might have offered more insight and less stereotyping.) Barnard (F. Murray Abraham) is trying to find a post-retirement reason to get out of bed. Alex is a manipulative gay man (also verging on stereotype), lonely enough to invent imaginary relationships. Jane is mourning her son Jimmy, who committed suicide. (Rabe's treatment of suicide is insightful and, perhaps accidentally, an excellent argument for gun control. Jimmy isn't planning to kill himself, but then he notices a shotgun in the corner. It speaks to him much as a piece of pie might speak to someone on a diet. And he picks it up, as he has hundreds of times, but this time he points it at himself. As he dies, he thinks, "Oh shit.")

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Bunny (Toronto)

When the stage went dark at the end of Bunny, my mouth dropped and I did not know what to feel. Empowered? Astounded? And just a tiny bit jealous that Hannah Moscovitch, Sarah Garton-Stanley, Maev Beaty, and the rest of the creative team had created this, a hauntingly beautiful story of a woman's sexual and emotional growth.

Maev Beaty as Sorrel in Bunny

Faced with the sexual advances of a much younger man (Jesse Lavercombe), Sorrel (Maev Beaty) runs back through the relationships that have shaped her life. Starting with the farmer's son she lost her virginity to (Tony Ofori) up through her college years to the man she married (Matthew Edison), Sorrel narrates what it felt like to grow into her body overnight and to navigate her desires with lovers and friends alike as a twenty-first century woman. Though the play's arc depends much upon the four men who shaped Sorrel's life, it is through her friendship with Maggie (Rachel Cairns) that Sorrel finds herself truly defined, as "Bunny."

The lines from the play haunted me the next day, as I thought through every phase in Sorrel's journey. She referred to men as "kittenish" and other bon mots--which kept the entire audience laughing and gasping at her honesty, the kind of honesty that most women think and yet never hear spoken aloud. Because women are not supposed to want sex. They are supposed to want love and marriage only. The girls at Sorrel's high school hate her for breaking these unspoken rules. Later Sorrel realizes that even her favorite Victorian novels hammer home that a woman's place can only be either blissful wedlock or disgraced in sin. Sorrel rejects this at every turn, not always consciously but because she just does not fit in these categories.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

[spoilers throughout]

Yes, curse words sung operatically by incredibly talented people are startlingly funny. And arguments about who's cheating on who, complete with hair-pulling, are also great fun presented operatically. But they have diminishing returns, and, although I completely was completely enjoying the first act of Jerry Springer: The Opera, I began to wonder if it goes anywhere.

It does: it goes to purgatory, complete with biblical characters (e.g., Satan, Adam, Eve, Jesus). And guess what? They have as many issues as the humans in Act I and behave as badly. And, yes, it's a blast.

I suspect the show wants to provide social commentary, and perhaps it did when it was first written. Now, it mostly provides entertainment--first-class, top-notch, occasionally side-splitting entertainment. And much of the music is beautiful, to boot.

Richard Thomas (music, book, and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) could not ask for a better production than the one currently being presented by the New Group. John Rando directs the craziness of the show with perfect pacing and mood, and Chris Bailey's choreography is wonderfully character-specific and wonderfully wonderful.

And the cast is full of amazingly talented people who can sing magnificently, act well, and move--and who also have prodigious amounts of energy. They are Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras (remarkably poised and effective subbing in two challenging roles), Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terence Mann (a convincingly glib Jerry Springer), Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, Will Swenson (a sexy, commanding Satan), and Nichole Turner.

The design components are also top-of-the-line, appropriate, and funny. Scenic design is by Derek McLane; costume design is by Sarah Laux; and lighting design by Jeff Croiter.

One of the strengths of this fabulous production is the small theater in which it is currently appearing. I would imagine that Jerry Springer: The Opera will move to Broadway and will still be marvelous. However, if you can see it in its current incarnation, do so. The show happens all around the audience, and the intimacy is one of its major charms.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row on the aisle; shook "Jerry Springer's" hand)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

For all its highbrow associations, there's a hell of a lot of lowbrow to opera, what with all the really dumb cases of mistaken identity, lurid psychotic breaks, incestuous couplings, and lovers' quarrels that end in brutal violence or surprisingly lengthy deaths from tuberculosis. Men who like to wear diapers and act like babies, women who dream of becoming strippers, and transgender pimps with hearts of gold would ultimately fit just as well into the world of opera as they do into the world of Jerry Springer. I guess that's kind of the point of this show.

Richard Thomas's Jerry Springer: The Opera, currently receiving its Off Broadway premiere at the Signature Theater complex courtesy of the New Group, reimagines The Jerry Springer Show (still in syndication! Who knew?) as something more Wagnerian than I'm sure Springer ever intended. As silly as it is sonically lush, the production is engaging, brisk and light, and in the second act even gently moving under the typically deft, never-too-self-important direction of John Rando. The cast is talented and interesting, Terence Mann is hilariously deadpan as Springer, and Will Swenson, who plays jerks very well, is notably well-cast as Satan, the supreme jerk among all jerks. The ensemble, too, is strong to a one, which is good, since this is very much an ensemble piece. I somehow expected Jerry and Satan to have much meatier roles, but there's a lot going on that does not always involve either one of them. In brief, and perhaps somewhat snobbishly, I would happily sit through this production again, whereas the thought of watching a few minutes of the real Jerry Springer Show makes the comparable thought of rolling around naked in ground glass just a titch more inviting.

The only issue I have with Jerry Springer: The Opera, really, is that for its groovy conceit--opera Jerry gets shot and, in purgatory, learns that Jesus, Mary, God and Satan are all as whiny, crazy, argumentative and flawed as his television guests are--there's ultimatlely not much more to it. Which is, I suppose, just fine: sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar, a well-performed opera is just a well-performed opera, and a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked is just a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked.

Maybe, more specifically, it's the marketing for this particular production that doesn't fully jibe for me. The New Group's web-page copy insists that Jerry Springer: The Opera is "deeply in tune with the chaos and unrestrained id of our times," and that may be the case, but frankly, the opera seems postively quaint considering how low the bar has fallen and how much of what used to raise eyebrows on Springer has within mere decades become just another astoundingly sad news day. There's nothing at all wrong with the production. It's just kind of a bummer to realize how much of its content is rooted in a more innocent time--a time when the very basest of human behavior was relatively contained to a few afternoon talk shows. How newly foreign it is to realize that Jerry Springer: The Opera, so sweet and ultimately tame, actually caused enough of an uproar to spark boycotts that made the national news.

Much more than a nostalgia trip, Jerry Springer: The Opera nevertheless harkens back to a recently bygone era of slow news days. Maybe we'll get back to that point someday; in the meantime, I guess, we'll always have JERRY! JERRY! JERRRR-Y!!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cottagers and Indians (Toronto)

After becoming a permanent resident last year, considering how I can now participate in Truth and Reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples is important to me. When I noticed that Cottagers and Indians had replaced another production in Tarragon's 17/18 season, I knew I needed to see it and see it with the right person sitting next to me, someone who also cared about how art can seriously contribute to these conversations.

Drew Hayden Taylor's two-hander tells both sides of an argument on Starling Lake, an area of Northern Ontario now popular with Toronto cottagers but home to the nearby reserve's inhabitants for much longer. The two sides of the stage house each side of the feud: Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) sits in his canoe on the lake on stage right, and Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) lounges on the deck of her cottage on stage left. They speak to the audience and each other, interjecting to tell together of their feud over the lake's true purpose--to provide growing grounds for the wild rice or manoomin that feeds Copper and his people or to remain empty and free for the cottagers' boating, swimming, and property values.

Drew Hayden Taylor headshot. Crossed arms and cartoon purple tree in front of him.

I recognized the space from the moment I walked in, as I have been to visit enough Canadian cottages to know what they look like. But I too have helped plant a healing canoe garden, and recognized the significance of the canoe arranged on stage right for Arthur Copper. The stage was set and I knew what conflict I had come to witness--one that I hear about in the news and at work as we discuss reconciliation.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Green Room 42 (Venue Review)

A year ago, a new cabaret space opened at the Yotel on 42nd Street and 10th Avenue (entrance on 10th): The Green Room 42. My first foray there was on February 14th, its first anniversary, for an evening of love and love-ish songs by the fabulous Lillias White. It's a nice room, comfortable, with tables not too-too squished together.

And here's the thing: no cover charge. Ever. And reasonable prices. Its not perfect; the sound at the Lillias White performance could certainly have been better. But it's a financially accessible cabaret in Manhattan!

Photo: Madrid Kuser

I realize that I'm a tad late to this party; after all, The Green Room 42 opened a year ago. But, better late than never (I made that up). For a list of upcoming shows, click here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Heart (Toronto)

Instead of going to a Superbowl party on Sunday night, I went to the theatre. Honestly, I forgot to put the game on my calendar and when it came down to switching my tickets for Dark Heart or watching the NFL, there was no turning back--Genevieve Adam's new play promised werewolves.

Dark Heart invites its audience at the Assembly Theatre to enter a forest back in 1661 when this land was not yet called Canada. Amable Bilodeau (Michael Iliadis), a green soldier just arrived in New France, gets himself thrown in the middle of marital drama, conflict between the settlers and the native tribes, and supernatural danger when he pulls Metis trader Toussaint Langlois (Garret C. Smith) out of the river.

Three stories begin to weave together, with Toussaint and Amable at the core. Nobleman Seigneur Louis de Lamonthe (Paul Rivers) put his wife Madeleine (Audrey Clairman) into the asylum at the local hospital, not for madness but punishment for cheating on him with a member of the local tribe. But after a few days, Sister Marie St. Bonadventure (Brianne Tucker) assisted Madeline in escaping. Dr. Joseph Sarrazin (John Fitzgerald Jay) and Amable go off to find and protect Madeleine, while Louis blackmails Toussaint into tracking his wife--until all come together in the woods where the loups-garous or werewolf is said to lurk.

The program says that Amable is the protagonist of the play, but I found the women he encountered in New France more compelling. Genevieve Adam wrote one of the most confusing, yet exciting characters for herself in the bone-setter or Eleonore "Lizzie" Ramezy. She seduced both of the male leads in the play, as the true puppet-master. As the only settler born and raised in New France, she seems to hold the most knowledge about how to survive, practically and culturally, amongst all the conflicts whirling around her. I suppose that is the trick of the play--though the men believe they are in charge, it was truly the women like Eleonore pulling the strings.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Calpurnia (Toronto)

I wish I could tell you all to go see Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre's Calpurnia... but the rest of its run sold out after the first week. So instead, I'm going to tell you how this 90-minute family comedy, set around another dinner party, challenged my beliefs about allyship, racism, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julie (Meghan Swaby) has hit a wall in writing her screenplay, the untold story of the Finch family's maid Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. As she goes to great lengths to unlock this character's voice, she unsettles and unravels the racial politics within her own house--most importantly, the relationship between her upper class Jamaican-Canadian family and their Filipino housekeeper, Precy (Carolyn Fe).

I have missed going to Buddies in Bad Times! Toronto's LGBTQIA+ theatre felt so much more open than other theatre houses in Toronto. Walking in, I didn't recognize the same faces in the audience. Which meant it wasn't just members of the theatre community attending, but members of so many other communities, too. I also wasn't the only one with crazy-colored hair. Best of all: this rainbow of an audience made up the background for every scene in Calpurnia. Due to the profile staging, I got to watch the other half of the audience react to each uncomfortable moment.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A New Brain (Brooklyn)

While watching the Gallery Players' highly entertaining production of William Finn's odd but engaging musical, A New Brain, I found my own old brain full of questions. First, about A New Brain itself:

Jesse Manocherian, Justin Phillips
Photo: Alice Teeple

  • What makes a musical worth writing?
  • How does a writer decide what specifically to musicalize?
  • Is Finn's leaning toward silly rhymes a form of brilliance, audacity, or laziness?
  • How do you know when to end a musical?
  • What does a song need to offer in order to be worth keeping in a show?
  • What is Finn really about as a writer? 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation

Who assassinated Malcolm X? The answer remains a matter of debate in some quarters and may never be totally resolved until the New York Police Department releases the files on the case, which they have thus far refused to do. In X or, Betty Shabazz v. The Nation, Betty Shabazz, Malcolm's widow, is certain about the assassins, and she argues her case in a court in the afterlife, somewhere between earth and heaven.

Jimonn Cole, Roslyn Ruff
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Playwright Marcus Gardley is a powerful and poetic writer, and X is well worth a visit. However, the play is also overwritten, with much repetition and a framing device and songs that are wonderful in themselves but also slow down the play. X is full of strengths but ultimately uneven; I suspect that, with judicious cutting, it would be brilliant.

Director Ian Belknap maximizes X's strengths through dynamic, imaginative, and beautifully paced direction. The cast is excellent, led by Jimonn Cole--who has a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X and presents a man full of love and anger, hope and despair, and great intelligence--and Roslyn Ruff, who brings vivid life to Betty Shabazz. The other cast members are Harriet D. Foy, Kevis Hillocks, Cedric Mays, J.D. Mollison, Austin Purnell, Joshua David Robinson, William Sturdivant, and Tatiana Wechsler.

Jimonn Cole
Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Lee Savage's scenery is imposing and attractive; Mary Louise Geiger's lighting adds a great deal to the emotion and clarity of the play.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

I would wish two things: (1) that the program include a brief history of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and (2) that Marcus Gardley also write a play focusing on Betty Shabazz herself.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 4th row)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Art Times: Let's Make Sure Their Time Is Up

My latest piece is up at Art Times. It's about how we can help women in the arts get more power.
Almost as far back as I can remember, people have been labeling various time periods as “The Year of the Woman.” Each of these years succeeded in getting conversations started and speeches given, but progress remained slow.
read more

Hamlet (Toronto)

For an English major who only took one course on Shakespeare, I have very strong ideas about Hamlet. Usually these keep me from enjoying any production because the director's choices will inevitably fail to line up with my expectations.

I thought the same would happen when I attended Tarragon Theatre's 2018 production. Instead, I found myself captivated by a minimalist production of Hamlet set to live music.

Richard Rose and Thomas Ryder Payne's Hamlet begins as soon as the lights go down. There is no context, no preamble or pre-show speech, but suddenly the lights change. The light blasts at the audience through an opaque fog, two characters appear, and it begins.

Throughout the play, sound and lighting creates another character--the atmosphere of Denmark. With the set of a rock concert, only a few feet were left at the front of the stage for the playing space. But as the actors move between making the music behind the play and stepping into the playing space, it never feels like a limit. Or at least, it feels like one that makes sense in the "prison" of Denmark.

Hamlet ensemble. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

The rock and roll setting leans into Hamlet's teenage angst. Hamlet (Noah Reid) wears a hole-y hoodie the entire time and the cast passes microphones back and forth, a la Spring Awakening. Leaning into this, instead of away from it, focuses the production on the big dramatic gestures and the lyric images woven into all of Hamlet's language instead of the psychological motivations of each character.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hindle Wakes

Sex. It's a tricky thing, is sex.

Throughout history, including now, cultures have sought to tame sex's complexity via rigid rules, assumptions, and limitations (particularly for women), with little success. In fact, the rules invariably make sex more complex by adding layers of morality, expectations, and even property ownership. Perhaps most importantly, rules deny sex's mundane side: sometimes people just want to get laid.

Jeremy Beck, Rebecca Noelle Brinkley
Photo: Todd Cerveris

In the excellent Hindle Wakes, it's the early 20th century, and Fanny Hawthorn (a weaver at the Jeffcote mill) has just had a weekend tryst with Alan Jeffcote (son of the mill's owner and engaged to be married to someone else). Due to an unexpected circumstance, their parents find out, and all hell breaks loose.

Monday, January 08, 2018


In Robert O'Hara's futuristic, dystopian fable Mankind, currently at Playwrights Horizons, women are extinct and men have evolved to reproduce without them. In an opening scene that is reasonably funny the first time, if exponentially less so each time it's repeated, Jason (Bobby Moreno) informs casual fuck-buddy Mark (Anson Mount) that he's pregnant. Despite Mark's impulse to "get rid of it," Jason ends up carrying the baby to term, because while women no longer exist, abortion remains illegal. As the play progresses, wackiness ensues: there are court trials and prison sentences, deaths, the invention of a new religion that splinters into various factions, a double marriage, many arguments, and two airings of a news-/reality-/game-/talk-show hybrid called "The Bob and Bob Show," featuring a Tom Brokaw-inspired Bob (Ariel Shafir) and a goofy, morning-show inspired Bob (David Ryan Smith).

Joan Marcus
In short, Mankind takes a lot of fantastical turns that I had no trouble buying: Absent women, the future is even more fucked up than it is now? Yup, sure. Money will win out over morality, ethics, or spiritual devotion? You bet. Various forms of lowbrow entertainment have merged with serious journalism? That's already happened, so why not? Lawyers will wear huge conical wigs and dress like the title character of The Wiz? Makes sense, especially since Andre DeShields himself plays the lawyer.

But abortion? Still illegal a century after women cease to exist? Even seemingly without the presence of some other oppressed group whose collective bodies become the endlessly manipulated tools of politics, religion, and all other aspects of culture? Sorry, buddy, you've lost me.

With Mankind, O'Hara repeatedly returns to the idea that the patriarchy destroys everything it touches: commerce, religion, intellect, law, the family, the environment, humanity. That's all well and good, but the play, which O'Hara also directs and which features an all-male cast, never attempts to wrestle with, or even approach, ways that a culture’s myriad ingrained hierarchies breed control, and thus institutionalized sexism. With some discussion of that in place--with even a fleeting examination of the fact that sexual inequality is bound with centuries of culturally sanctioned power and control ranging from the violently obvious to the impossibly subtle--O'Hara might have produced a compelling play about women's subjugation. But because he never digs below the surface--of the characters, the words they say, the world they occupy, or the ways any of this relates to the contemporary world--Mankind is simply an overlong, undercooked premise that has been explored more deftly elsewhere. The play purports to consider women's struggles for equality, but has erased women at every step. I'd say I've never experienced anything like it, but, of course, like pretty much everyone else in the world, I encounter entertainment that is overwhelmingly by, for, and about men, presented as universal, and dressed up as something more profound than it actually is pretty much every day, all my life.

Anyway, at least Mankind is too thinly developed, inconsistently written, and clunkily directed to be genuinely offensive. It comes off instead as sort of eye-rollingly typical: some man or another realizes that women have had it bad for a long time, does a smattering of research to back that eureka moment up, and then his project gets support, encouragement, and an audience. At its worst, Mankind's humor feels forced and its attempts at gravity patronizing; at its best, it's diverting. Truly, I dug "The Bob and Bob Show," especially the fine work done by Bob. The cast does what it can with scenes that go on too long, an awkward set, unflattering lighting, and a bunch of WTF costumes.

At the curtain call, the company solicits contributions to Planned Parenthood from the audience, which is nice, but feels like a hasty afterthought: a curt, pitying nod toward the far corner where the poor relatives have been seated for the sumptuous, expensive feast. I'd have appreciated the gesture a lot more had O'Hara's play seemed as if anyone involved had actually attempted to genuinely concern themselves with the plight of women--maybe, even, to have consulted with a couple in the process of writing, directing, producing, mounting, dramaturging, and writing program notes for a play that pretends to include us and help us bear our trials while so casually, even chummily, shoving us aside.

The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman

You may have heard of director Gerald Freedman. You may not have. But you've certainly heard of his work: Freedman assistant-directed the original West Side Story and Gypsy. He directed an early version of Hair before Tom O'Horgan brought it to Broadway. He directed various revivals of West Side Story and dozens of classics. He taught at Julliard in the early 1970s and was the dean of the University of North Carolina School of Arts for many years. He devoted seemingly every waking minute of his life to theater and its relatives film and opera. He was and is deeply admired by performers such as Mandy Patinkin, Christine Baranski, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Kevin Kline, and many others.

And now there is a book that's sort of by him, sort of about him, and mostly about his beliefs on the making of theater. The School of Doing: Lessons From Theater Master Gerald Freedman is an odd, cobbled-together book. Author Isaac Klein took Freedman's words (gathered from personal interviews and various publications) and quotes from a who's-who of theater professionals and added his own commentary to create a book that is choppy, repetitious, uneven, and frequently annoying yet ultimately worthwhile reading for actors, directors, playwrights, and audience members interested in how the sausage is made.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Maggie Sulc's Top 10 of 2017 (Toronto)

I did not start reviewing until much later in 2017 for Show Showdown, but I still found it difficult to bring my list down to 10. Although, if I am being truly honest, only four of these are from Toronto. Read on for my performances to remember from 2017.

The Millennial Malcontent
Tarragon Theatre
I did not expect to enjoy this play. In fact, based on the title I was ready to skip it--yet another group saying bad, cliche things about my generation. But instead Millennial Malcontent took the tropes and structure of a Restoration drama and put it in the present day. I could tell that the older members of the theatre were uncomfortable during much of the show, but my friend and I were laughing up a storm. We could--for better or for worse--see parts of our present day reflected on stage.

Interstellar Elder
Toronto Fringe
The science fiction theme drew me in, and the amazing dance/clown performance held me for the entire hour-long performance. The sound design provided amazing narration and characterization for a pod carrying the human population in perpetual sleep until planet Earth becomes habitable again--but the physical performance by Ingrid Hansen stretched and looped time so we could experience life stuck on a space ship endlessly orbiting.

Photo of Ingrid Hansen by Laura Dittmann (from press release)


Hogtown Collective at Campbell House
Immersive theatre in the heart of Toronto that reflects Toronto history--and includes song and dance! I'm so glad I did not miss the 2017 remount of Hogtown. Guests go back to 1926 on the eve of the next mayoral election to follow gangsters, flappers, and a huge cast of characters through the rooms of the historic Campbell House. I found it the perfect combination of guided and free exploration and a great use of this public performance space. I can't wait to experience whatever this collective produces next.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

SpongeBob SquarePants

All entertainment, they say, is a reflection of its time, place, and culture. That certainly applies to the cheerfully gaudy, brilliantly staged SpongeBob SquarePants musical. It's an unapologetically--and, now, absolutely typically--cross-marketed vehicle, so there's that whole American obsession with commerce, consumption and getting more and more of the same shiny baubly things right there. Also, for its incredible silliness and good humor, its plot turns out to be pretty dark in ways that mirror contemporary preoccupations: Oh, no! Because of climate change, the deep-sea town of Bikini Bottom is going to be destroyed by an underwater volcano! Sandy (Lilli Cooper), the science-minded Texan squirrel who lives among the sea creatures, has a brilliant plan to save the day, but because she's an outsider, the townfolk won't listen to her. Some descend into heavily armed anarchy, while others idly put their faith in the town's incompetent, corrupt politicians. Some agree with the scheming Plankton (Wesley Taylor) that raising money for a huge escape pod is the way to go; SpongeBob's boss, Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), is especially beholden to the almighty dollar. A group of sardines forms a cult and makes the dimwitted starfish Patrick (Danny Skinner) their unwitting leader. And all poor Squidward (Gavin Lee) wants to do is take to the stage for a big sing-and-dance routine (he gets the eleven-o'clock number, and it's glorious). As all hell breaks loose and the town nears doom, will SpongeBob (Ethan Slater)--along with the misunderstood if brilliant Sandy and the perpetually befuddled if well-meaning Patrick--be able to save the day?

Joan Marcus
Um, yeah, of course, because if Bikini Bottom blew up, there'd be no more SpongeBob. So--spoiler alert!--the trio saves the day, and everyone Learns Something About Themselves and Others. In the process, there are plenty of reasonably catchy songs in a variety of styles, and flashy production numbers ranging from intimate to enormous, from Blankenbuelher to Ziegfeld. The show zips along, it's perfectly well-timed and charming, and the audience I saw it with seemed to have fun with it.

And yes, still, I realize I sound a little cynical about all this. That's because I am, much as I did enjoy the show. I've never been one to kid myself into thinking that the most intensely commercial center for American stage entertainment is ever purely concerned about art, but in the old art/commerce balance, this show leans a titch too hard into the commerce zone to gobble up without the occasional raised eyebrow. Sure, the show's fun, spectacular, and gorgeously realized, and the cast is incredibly game. Still, something about SpongeBob SquarePants left me colder than I wanted to be left. Maybe it's because it really did rely on tropes that serve to constantly remind spectators about how awful the world is right now. Maybe it was my mood, which because of the previous sentence tends toward the sour these days. Or maybe it's because the show is so completely, totally, overwhelmingly rooted to the cartoon from which it springs that I left the theater unconvinced that it was genuinely fulfilling--not just for me, but for the company. Is imitating the characters' voices and movements really accurately, reciting lines taken verbatim and reenacting entire scenes from the cartoon genuinely fulfilling for the monstrously talented cast? Is singing the SpongeBob theme song at the curtain call not a little tiring after a while? Behind the day-glo colors and the cheery facade, is this show a challenge for--well, for anyone? And does it have to be, or am I just an enormous buzzkill?

I know, I know, I sound like a snob--and a waffly one at that. But truly, in this case, and for all the charm and innovation on display, I just couldn't subsume my concerns enough to get lost in this production.

This being said, word of mouth on the show is what convinced me to see it in the first place. And I came in with prejudice: I don't typically like shows based as wholly on tv shows and movies as this one is. You might not care; a lot of people I know and respect were way more tickled by the production than I was. Still, for all its cheer, its goodwill--its heart--I couldn't help but feel like something about this production lacked soul.