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.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


Steven (Matt McGrath) and Stephen (Malcolm Gets) have been together 16 years. They have an amazing relationship and a fabulous son named Zack. But there are cracks in the plaster. The relationship isn't actually that amazing. Zack is a bit of a klepto. At the start of the play, the two Steves and their best friends--Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon), a long-time couple in an open relationship, and Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson), a lesbian with terminal cancer--are celebrating Steven’s birthday. Steven mentions his class in optical art. He orders a vodka stinger. He's snotty to everyone. No one can figure out why he’s acting even more pissy than usual. The thing is, Zack took Stephen’s iPhone, and when Steven retrieved it, he got a glance at some of Stephen’s texts. Add young and attractive waiter-dancer Esteban (Francisco Pryor Garat), who I'm sure can fox trot, and a trainer we never see (named, wait for it, Steve), mix thoroughly, season with many Sondheim references, cook for 90 minutes, and you have Steve, Mark Gerrard's entertaining but unsatisfying play at The New Group, directed by Cynthia Nixon.

Cantone, Gets, McGrath,
Dixon, Atkinson
First, the entertaining parts: The show is frequently funny; the theatre refs are great fun if you tend to find theatre refs great fun; and there is some fine acting. The play is framed by nice bits that I won't spoil here. And the play has ambition. It explores, or at least dips into, aging, death, monogamy, what it means to lead a good life.

Here be spoilers

Then, the unsatisfying parts: Steven is an obnoxious, self-centered man whose redeeming characteristics are so well-hidden as to be invisible. He's tedious, always brooding on the wrongs that happened heaven knows how many years ago. He makes no effort to deal with Carrie's reality, refusing to admit that she's dying and always changing the subject to himself. (In one case, he segues to "Every Day a Little Death" and his relationship when Carrie is trying to have an honest conversation with him about her impending demise.) That's a legitimate, if unattractive characterization. But by the end of the play, author Gerrard himself has treated Carrie less as Steven's best friend and more as a token lesbian whose death is only significant as a growth experience for Steven. It's been annoying for decades to have gay men treated in this way in mainstream works; it's even more annoying to have a gay woman treated this way in a gay play.

End of spoilers

Overall, this is a perfectly competent, by-the-numbers play. If you are part of its main demographic--middle-class gay guys, mostly white--chances are that you will get more out of it than I did.

On the other hand, although I was ultimately unimpressed by Steve, I did laugh a lot.

Wendy Caster
(5th row, press ticket)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Allegiance, the Broadway musical about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, is not the most flawlessly rendered musical you will ever see. Some of its lyrics are a little clunky, some of its character motivations don't quite resonate, and some of its scenes feel a little heavy handed. I agree, for the most part, with the criticisms my fellow blogger Sandra listed in her review of the show, which she posted on Show Showdown a few weeks back. But like Sandra, I ultimately fell for Allegiance nonetheless: It's honest, earnest, and charming, and it manages to shed light on an ugly chapter in American history without being too pedantic on the one hand, or too flip on the other. It has some rough spots, sure, but they were hardly disruptive enough to keep me from rooting for its (wholly well-performed) characters, connecting with its swiftly-paced plot, or surreptitiously swiping big fat tears from my eyes in the final moments. In short, for its flaws, Allegiance does exactly what a Broadway musical is supposed to do: entertain its audiences, perhaps teach them a thing or two about inclusion (an endlessly reiterated tenet in American musicals), and move them emotionally with song, dance, and plot.

Matthew Murphy
With all this in mind, I suppose I agree, as well, with Charles Isherwood's assessment of the aesthetic shortcomings noted his review in the New York Times. Yet his final comment, which he seems to have intended as something of a sting, has been stuck in my head for days: "If anything, the authors, feeling the responsibility of illuminating this shameful chapter in American history, pack the show with so much incident and information that 'Allegiance' often feels more like a history lesson than a musical. A singing history lesson, yes, but a history lesson nonetheless." This comment has stuck with me not because I agree with it--rather, I can't shake it because it really, really pisses me off.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Sometimes seeing a mediocre production of a play can be surprisingly elucidating. For example, the Onomatopoeia Theatre Company's version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is (definitely and unfortunately) mediocre, still manages to provide a fair amount of the humor and mystery of Tom Stoppard's classic work. The amazing, unbreakable spine of the piece shows through. On the other hand, this R&G lacks most of the piece's emotion, rarely going below the surface of this complex work.

The responsibility lies squarely in the lap of director and actor Thomas R. Gordon (who is also Onomatopoeia's artistic director). As a director, he relies too much on shtick and busyness with frenetic blocking, distracting bits for background characters, and awkward pacing. He allows his actors (or asks them for) amateurish arm-waving and face-making. His direction lacks depth. He also plays the pivotal role of The Player, but he lacks the style and charisma necessary to make the part work, leaving a large hole in the play's potential gestalt.

Jean Larson as Rosencrantz and Jocelyn Vammer as Guildenstern manage to give effective performances (although Vammer is a bit too fond of arm-waving and face-making). This is the third production of R&G I've seen with women in the lead roles (the other two productions had all-female casts), and the cross-gender casting works. I'm glad whenever women get good roles. Of the rest of the cast, Gregory Pike stands out as a Hamlet I'd like to see do Hamlet. He makes a surprisingly strong impression in a small role.

Wendy Caster
(first row, audience left, press ticket)

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Incredible Fox Sisters

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus is clearly fascinated with the past, factual and fictional, and how it reflects on the present. In You On The Moors Now, she examines romantic tropes as handed down to us by the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Louisa May Alcott. In the amazing, funny, and captivating Men on Boats, she deconstructs depictions of the heroic male with an all-female cast. Now, in The Incredible Fox Sisters (directed by Tyler Mercer), her topic is 19th-century Spiritualism.

Katrina Day, Hannah Vaughn
Photo: Jonno Rattman
Somewhat based on a true story, The Incredible Fox Sisters takes off when the not-exactly-reputable Dr. Amphitheater meets Kate and Maggie Fox and decides to turn their psychic powers into money. The Foxes go on tour and experience all the levels of celebrity, good and bad. They also genuinely help some people. The Fox sisters' time away from home and their fame affect the sisters in different ways, as Maggie's powers seem to grow as Kate's seem to shrink. Their much older sister Leah tours with them, aware of the pressures on the younger girls, but also aware that their financial success allows their desperately ill mother to receive medical attention. Meanwhile, Dr. Amphitheater just wants to keep the money rolling in.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


Last night, the cast of Ripcord, David Lindsay-Abaire's play at MTC, seemed a little off. Maybe it had been a rough weekend, or someone got accidentally plastered during the half-hour call, or was working with a fever or an injury or something. For whatever reason, lines were flubbed and focus occasionally seemed to wane. But while I would have loved to see the cast at their very best, the occasional missteps didn't matter in the long run: Ripcord is hi-freaking-larious. 

Off night or not, the cast is filled with pros, who are briskly directed by David Hyde-Pierce (yeah, the actor, proving here that he is as droll and funny behind the scenes as he is in front of the camera). And while the show is predictable in some ways, it's genuinely surprising and inventive in others.

Monday, November 02, 2015


I saw something I've never seen when I went to an October evening preview of Allegiance: a 69-question survey taped to my seat. From queries about story lines and characters to why you chose the show, every possible topic seemed covered, including a song-by-song list where you evaluated each musical number using a Likert scale. My hope is that the production does some tinkering, but mostly stays intact after it opens on November 8th. For Allegiance tackles a moment in American history that deserves more discussion. Impressively, rather than sanitizing the time's brutality, the show shines a harsh light on the oppression Japanese-Americans suffered while offering humor, love and hope.

The story, inspired by George Takei's (Mr. Sulu from "Star Trek," "Heroes") own internment in his childhood starts in present time when an embittered World War II veteran, Sam Kimura (Takei, in his Broadway debut), goes to his sister's funeral and remembers all that his family suffered in the early 1940s. The show flashes backwards, opening to a lovely scene where young Sam's family is celebrating an annual Japanese ritual, where individuals tie wishes on trees, a ceremony explained in the lilting number "Wishes on the Wind." Especially potent is the presence of friends and neighbors -- the same people who turn on the family in the next scene, offering them a mere pittance for the farmlands the Kimuras must sell prior to going to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming.

       Michael K. Lee, George Takei and Lea Salonga

Allegiance tries to show the many sides to this story: why some Japanese-Americans moved to the internment camps without complaint; why some rebelled against their treatment while others accepted it; and why some tried to prove their patriotism by joining an unwelcoming Army. Young Sam or "Sammy" (Telly Leung of "Glee" fame) tries to make the best of the situation, planning baseball games and dances, and then becoming a military hero. Frankie Suzuki (Michael K. Lee) characterizes the side of the resistance and clashes with Sammy frequently. Meanwhile, Sammy's dutiful sister, Kei (Lea Salonga), begins questioning her own loyalties -- to her family and her country -- as her father (Grammy-nominated baritone Christópheren Nomura) is jailed for refusing to sign a fealty oath.

When Variety reviewed the Old Globe version of Allegiance  in 2012, Bob Verini praised the cast of the production, but said that "the writing would need considerable toughening up to withstand Broadway's harsh glare," and the Los Angeles Times offered that "Allegiance presents a surprisingly mild story of family fractures, not an indictment of American failures. … Though peppered with promising scenes and powerfully sung by the largely Asian American cast, Allegiance retreats from the challenge of its own material and hasn’t found a consistent focus, tone or musical idiom." Since those reviews, the show has evolved: some roles, such as Tatsuo Kimura, Mike Masaoka and Hannah Campell are cast differently; and songs like "Better Americans," which Verini called a flop, is gone, as are a few others. Generally, the current score by Jay Kuo pleases, with a nice blend of upbeat numbers and sweet ballads -- which  infuse aspects of Japanese culture and the Big Band sound of the time period into a few numbers.

(SPOILER ALERT AHEAD) Still, some material continues weighing down the production. For instance, Greg Watanabe's scenes as Japanese-American advocate/figurehead Mike Masaoka (the only actual historical figure of the show and a character that has undergone revisions) still never really reveal the complexities of the situation, or of the man who accepted such compromises for his people. The show continues to vilify him too much rather than, oh, say, the American government, which imprisoned 120,000 of its citizens. Some of the plot goes outside the perimeter of believability as well -- for instance, Sammy's sudden and surprising transformation to a more jaded and opinionated self, someone capable of family estrangement, and the final scene, where forgiveness is abruptly found. (SPOILER ALERT ENDED) During the internment camp scene, the song list need a little whittling, too, since "I Oughta Go" and "Should I," where Hannah and Sammy begin their relationship, seem too similar (IMHO, I'd eliminate the first song.).

Despite that, the book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione creates vivid and compelling characters, and it's a delight to see such a superb cast embody them. Takei is both whimsical and sagacious as Ojii-chan, the Kimuras' eldest family member, who talk-sings adorably in just one musical number. In this sweet moment, the always-sublime Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Misérables, Flower Drum Song) winningly sings "Ishi Kara Ishi," with him, interweaving some quiet Japanese traditionalism amid the more buoyant songs, such as the fun "Get in the Game" and "Paradise," two pieces that showcase Sammy's and Frankie's polarized positions. Later, Salonga shows off her pipes by belting "Higher," her character's self-discovery number, where she leaves her mousy presence behind to embrace a more fighting spirit. Leung transforms easily from an earnest farm boy to an angry survivor sure of his own allegiances. Lee and Katie Rose Clarke (as Nurse Campbell) offer feisty and likable love interests. Even the supporting characters deliver -- from Christópheren Nomura's dignified metamorphosis from pacifist to protester, to the delight of seeing ensemble member Scott Wise (Tony for Jerome Robbins' Broadway) again on the Great White Way. Also adding to the production is the clever set by Donyale Werle, which uses shifting panels to convey the internment camp, and the projection design by Darrel Maloney. Both depict the bleakness of the camp and the lives of the people in it.

Sandra Mardenfeld
( Orchestra, Purchased Ticket)

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Hot L Baltimore

The T. Schreiber Studio and Theatre is one of the undersung jewels of New York City theatre. Year after year, T. Schreiber presents solid productions, often featuring long-time director-teacher Terry Schreiber's students in some of the roles. For a tiny sliver of the price of a Broadway ticket, you can see top-notch productions of important plays with excellent casts.

In front: Stephanie Seward, Anna Holbrook, Alexandra Hellquist
 In back: Philip Rosen, Peter Judd
Photo: Bob Degus
Even more underappreciated is playwright Lanford Wilson. He tends to be ignored when people assemble lists of "great American playwrights," yet his body of work is superb. His four-decade career includes Balm in Gilead, The Rimers of Eldritch, Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, and Book of Days. He was recognized during his lifetime, with three Tony Award nominations, the Pulitzer Prize, the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Obie Award, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Master American Dramatist, and the Artistic Achievement Award from the New York Innovative Theatre Awards. So why doesn't he make top 10 or even top 50 lists? I've been trying to come up with a theory, and I've had no luck. But I do know this: it is an unacceptable oversight to leave him out. He is a major American playwright, and indeed one of the greats.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


Songbird, the new musical by Michael Kimmel (book) and Lauren Pritchard (music and lyrics), directed by JV Mercanti, brings The Seagull to Nashville in the 21st century. The book is effective and the songs soar.

Erin Dilly, Kate Baldwin
Photo: Jenny Anderson Photography
There's just one problem: they don't add up to a musical. The entire score is diegetic, which doesn't have to be a negative, but in this case it is. Unlike Dreamgirls, where the diegetic songs act almost as character songs by matching the mood and situation of each person, Songbird metes its music out almost at random. There are few songs that could be sung only by that character at that moment. The result is a country version of The Seagull featuring people who happen to sing a lot. The whole becomes less than the sum of its parts.

But the parts are good enough that Songbird is still worth seeing, particularly with its excellent cast. Kate Baldwin, fine as the endlessly bitchy mother who cannot relinquish even one watt of the spotlight, sounds the best I've ever heard her. Considering that she is always wonderful, that is saying something. Baldwin nails the country sound, and I would gladly listen to her sing all night. Erin Dilly is also at her impressive best. Adam Cochran is heart-breaking as the son who would die for his mother's attention. Kacie Sheik nicely shows the cost of compromise as the Masha equivalent Missy. Bob Stillman is excellent as the diva's brother, trying to bring peace to the family, and it's fun to see him cast against type. The rest of the cast also shines: Ephie Aardema, Don Guillory, Drew McVety, Eric William Morris, and Andy Taylor.

The more I think about it, the more I would prefer to see an evening just of Lauren Pritchard's work, sung by those terrific singers. The Seagull plot kinda got in the way.

Wendy Caster
(8th row, press ticket)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

William Finn: Broadway Close Up

William Finn, lyricist-composer of Falsettos, Elegies, and Little Miss Sunshine, writes at the corner of idiosyncratic and heartfelt. His topics range far and wide: e.g., a baseball game, trying to recover from a stroke, and having sex with a Republican. And, yes, he also tackles the biggies, like family and romantic love. Sometimes Finn's music is cozily melodic; other times, not so much. Sometimes his lyrics are tight and perfect; other times, they feel jammed together with almost random rhymes that somehow work. His songs dazzle, entertain, reveal people's secrets, make you laugh, and break your heart.

William Finn
As seen in the Broadway Close Up evening of his songs, Finn is also a fabulous interviewee, gravel-voiced, dry, funny, and deeply grateful for what life has given him. (He can also truly sell a song, as when he did "Stupid Things," from The Royal Family of Broadway, somewhat in the style of Elaine Stritch, who originated the number.)

Finn clearly had a great time all evening, as did the audience. The highlights for me included Sally Wilfert's three numbers: "Anytime," from Elegies; "Something Better Better Happen," from Little Miss Sunshine; and "Raise Up Big Please This Umbrella," from What You Think When You Can't Sleep (music by Deborah Abramson). The songs required three distinct moods and styles, and she did each with subtlety and verve.

Betty Buckley was lovely on "Only One" and "14 Dwight Avenue, Natick, Massachusetts" (ably assisted by Finn's student Matthew Krob).

Monday, October 26, 2015

Big Apple Circus: The Grand Tour

For its 38th season, the Big Apple Circus presents an frequently charming, often thrilling new show called The Grand Tour. Using large travel posters and appropriate scenery and costumes, the Big Apple's clowns, Joel Jeske and Brent McBeth, take us around the world on various modes of transport, including the Orient Express and a (fake) camel. (I'm not a big fan of clowns, but Jeske and McBeth had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion.)

The Dominguez Brothers 

on the Wheel of Wonder
Photo © maike schulz: Big Apple Circus
Along the way, we are treated to truly amazing wonders of the world:
  • Chiara Anastasini, a 9th-generation circus performer, is, I would imagine, the world's foremost hula hoop artiste. Her act is both kinda silly and completely impressive. 
  • Alexander Koblikov juggles with more balls than I could even count, but for me the highlight of his act was when he balanced one ball across his arms and shoulders with preternatural grace. 
  • Want to see beautiful, lithe men with zero body fat do acts requiring 1,000% strength and agility? The Chinese hand balancers, The Energy Trio, are for you.
  • One of my favorite acts of the show, the Dominguez Brothers, are both thrilling and terrifying on the Wheel of Wonder. They are talented, dexterous, athletic, and seriously brave.
  • The African acrobatic troupe Zuma Zuma provide a jolt of beauty and energy and fun.
  • And my other favorite act of the show, the Dosov Troupe, soars off the teeterboard, landing on each other's shoulders and on extremely high chairs. Their finale is one of the coolest things I have ever seen at a circus.
And at the Big Apple Circus, you get to see all of these wonderful acts up front and personal. As advertised, no seat is further than 50 feet from the stage, and that level of intimacy ups the oohs and aahs.

My one complaint is that the Big Apple Circus still has animal acts. Those dogs and horses just don't look happy, with the smaller dogs quivering and one horse clearly not wanting to do as told. I think the day of the animal act has passed...

On a whole, however, the Big Apple Circus is both a great deal of fun and a testament to how wonderful human beings can be. Listening to the news, I sometimes forget the human race's good points, but the Big Apple Circus is a marvelous reminder.

(around 6th row, press ticket)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Humans

In The Humans, Stephen Karam's funny, sad, squirmily accurate play about family dynamics in troubling times, the supernatural is repeatedly implied. The newly rented, ground-floor New York apartment the play is set in--creepy enough as it is in its whitewashed, prewar emptiness--makes all kinds of strange creaks and groans, is subject to frequent and random power outages, and is regularly stomped upon by a never-seen upstairs neighbor who is, even by New York standards, excessively noisy. Family members talk over dinner about the unknown: scary comic book creatures, brushes with death, strange and unsettling dreams. And while the ending of The Humans builds toward a climax befitting the kind of terrifying surprise one expects of a horror flick, the eerie vibe infusing this smart, affecting play ultimately has little, if anything, to do with the otherworldly. People, it turns out--especially the ones you love and trust the most--can burrow into and fuck with your head way better than any ghost can. Especially when they, like you, are preoccupied with the most terrifying of human anxieties: rejection, poverty, sickness, age, death.

Joan Marcus


Photo: Joan Marcus
My colleagues Wendy and Liz generally offered praise for Robert O'Hara's Barbecue, which runs through next Sunday at The Public's Newman Theater (read their thoughts here and here). In keeping with their earlier reviews, mine will be somewhat cagey, as I agree that knowing too much about this play before going in may spoil the experience. However, unlike my co-writers, I am not going to enthusiastically recommend this play, which too often feels like a Tyler Perry movie without the Christian subtext. O'Hara may have set out to skewer the ways in which Hollywood/Broadway/the memoir industry prey on the sad, drug-addled lives of the downtrodden, but the finished product is neither profound nor particularly interesting. The large cast work their butts off but can't overcome the fact that the play isn't as funny the author thinks -- and I had a hard time believing that many of the actors, playing siblings, were family. (Most of them seemed like they'd just met moments before taking the stage.) Kent Gash's production is, oddly, too slow and too short. I wanted to like Barbecue, but like a burger that stays on the grill a few minutes too long, it left an odd and unsatisfying taste in my mouth. -- by Cameron Kelsall

[Member tickets, mid-orchestra]

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rothschild & Sons

Have you noticed that whenever someone announces a "re-imagining" of a musical, the show gets smaller? Why does no show ever get bigger? Why does no one add more instruments? Why doesn't Dames at Sea have a chorus on Broadway?

Jamie LaVerdiere, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper,
David Bryant Johnson, Robert Cuccioli,
Curtis Wiley, Christopher M. Williams
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Of course, I'm being disingenuous here. We all know the answer: money. Shows with smaller casts and orchestras--i.e., less expensive shows--have a better chance of being produced in New York and elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Honeycomb Trilogy: Advance Man, Blast Radius, Sovereign

On one hand, Mac Rogers' Honeycomb Trilogy is a highly entertaining sci-fi epic, covering over 20 years and an extraterrestrial invasion or two. It has everything you could ask for: a fascinating alien race, a believable version of earth, characters with strong desires and stronger personalities, danger, and suspense. It's also funnier than many comedies I've seen. On the other hand, Honeycomb Trilogy is a smart and thoughtful examination of family, free will, the power and powerlessness of love, the arrogance of people who decide to change the world, the importance of that arrogance, and many other important and thought-provoking topics. In its own way, it's a masterpiece. What Mac Rogers has done is extraordinary: he has nested philosophy in frivolity and the result kicks ass.

Advance Man 
Sean Williams, Kristen Vaughan
Photo: Deborah Alexander
The current Gideon production at the Gym at Judson Church is splendid. Jordana Williams directs masterfully, succeeding on the macro and micro levels and everything in between. Her attention to detail is lovely, and her ability to keep the machinery of the trilogy (6 acts; 29 performers; 3 sets) moving is impressive. Kudos as well to her assistant directors (Audrey Marshall, Mikell Kober, Sara Thigpen) and stage managers (Victoria Barclay, Nikki Castle, Devan Hibbard). If "it takes a village" for most shows, this one took a small city, I'm sure.

And, oh, that cast. Brilliant performance after brilliant performance after brilliant performance. Each actor inhabits his or her role fully; even the smallest role becomes a rich presence, a person you know incredibly well. A lot of this is in Rogers' writing, of course, but the actors, guided by Williams, bring his world vividly alive. Becky Byers and Hanna Cheek play Ronnie at different times of her life; both are fierce, funny, and frightening as a small and difficult woman who becomes a great leader by sheer personality and conviction. David Rosenblatt and Stephen Heskett play Abbie at different times of his life; together they skillfully show us how a shy and sweet boy can turn into a dangerous man. Kristen Vaughan plays Amelia, Ronnie and Abbie's mother, who is (to say the least) pushed out of her comfort zone as the rules of society change or disappear; Vaughan is superb, as always. Sean Williams gives a wily performance as Ronnie and Abbie's father, an astronaut and maybe a hero, who may or may not ever be completely sincere. Jason Howard is extraordinary, as always, as the astronaut who returns from space drastically changed. Brian Silliman oozes cheerful sleaze as a venture capitalist thrilled to be in the presence of people who have actually been to Mars. The rest of the amazing cast comprises Rebecca Comtois, Neimah Djourabchi, Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy, Matt Golden, Felicia J. Hudson, Erin Jerozal, Ana Maria Jomolca, Yeauxlanda Kay, Daryl Lathon, Carlos Martin, Joe Mathers, Lori E. Parquet, Amy Lee Pearsall,  Seth Shelden,  Nancy Sirianni, Alisha Spielmann, Adam Swiderski, C.L.Weatherstone, and Cotton Wright. Each contributes significantly.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Honeycomb Trilogy Returns: Don't Miss It

We don't usually publish press releases at Show Showdown, but I want to make sure everyone is aware that The Honeycomb Trilogy is back. I recommend it very highly! (And if my plug is not enough, see the reviews below.)

Tickets are available here:

Marathon tickets are available here:





Gideon Productions will present the much-anticipated return of Mac Rogers’ three-part science fiction epic, The Honeycomb Trilogy, directed by Jordana Williams and running in rep October 13-November 14 at The Gym at Judson (243 Thompson Street between West 3rd Street and Washington Square South). Tickets ($25) are available online at or by calling 866-811-4111.

THE HONEYCOMB TRILOGY is back by popular demand. A Critic’s Pick in The New York Times, Time Out New York and Backstage and winner of the Best Premiere Production honor from the New York Innovative Theater Awards, this decade-spanning science fiction epic follows one American family through an extraterrestrial invasion and occupation of earth. As son Abbie allies with the conquerors and daughter Ronnie leads the human resistance, THE HONEYCOMB TRILOGY explores culture, terrorism, sexuality, loyalty, justice, and forgiveness over the course of three action-packed, emotionally-charged stories. The entire saga takes place in the same house, as it – much like the world around it - is ravaged by war and rebuilt by hand over the course of twenty years. The three parts of the trilogy (Advance Man, Blast Radius, and Sovereign) will be presented individually on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights. On Saturdays and Sundays audiences can binge-watch the entire trilogy.


We at Show Showdown seem to be in a Public Theater frenzy right now, but their season has just begun, it's very promising thus far, and I love the Public something fierce, so I'm happy to keep spreading the love. Especially since I just saw Eclipsed, Danai Gurira's moving, informative, brilliantly feminist play, in the appropriately intimate LuEsther Hall. Eclipsed was superbly acted by a cast of five women under the skillful direction of Liesl Tommy. I am glad to have seen it and haven't stopped thinking about it since I did.

War-is-hell stories tend to focus on men: men going to war, men bonding and dying in war, men returning home broken from war. But Eclipsed, which tells its story unflinchingly and without condescension, emotional sog, or melodrama, examines women's roles in wartime. The play takes place during the second of back-to-back civils war in Liberia (the first began in 1989 and lasted through 1996; the second started in '99 and lasted until 2003).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Constance Shulman, Arden Myrin
Photo: Joan Marcus
As Elizabeth Wollman points out below, Barbecue is a challenging show to review. Almost anything one could write about it would be a spoiler.

I am only posting about it here to say this: Go see Barbecue. It is funny, surprising, insightful, and thought-provoking. (It is also about 20 minutes too long, and it occasionally goes for cheap humor. However, its strengths truly tower over its weaknesses.)

(member ticket; 2nd row)

Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway (book review)

It's difficult to review Michael Riedel's Razzle Dazzle because it's difficult to figure out exactly what he's trying to accomplish. In the author's note, he writes that the book is about the struggle by the Shuberts and the Nederlanders to save Broadway in the 1970s. In the first chapter, where nonfiction generally sets the stage for the rest of the book, he focuses on "ice," or the money box office treasurers made in the 1960s by selling tickets, above list price, to brokers. The book then dips into the history of the Shuberts and Nederlanders, the takeover of the Shuberts by Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, the rivalry between Nine and Dreamgirls, Michael Bennett's prodigious drug use, the effect of AIDS on Broadway, David Merrick's tricks, the development of A Chorus Line, the English invasion of Broadway, the Disneyification of Broadway, and so on.

In other hands, this breadth of content could be a selling point. But the chronology is random and awkward, and Riedel does not handle the transitions with a sure hand. Even worse, Razzle Dazzle lacks an overall theme. Nor does it have the sort of insight that can make reading nonfiction worthwhile.

Instead, the book is a haphazard collection of gossip that Riedel has collected over the years and in various interviews, with his signature focus on the petty, the nasty, and the mean. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, "Was everyone on Broadway really this juvenile, this stupid, this unforgiving, this narrow-minded?" And I kept reminding myself, "It's Riedel. This is what he likes to write about." And I also kept wondering, as I often do when I read his column or watch his TV show, "Does this guy even like theatre?"


Annaleigh Ashford garnered praise and a Tony nomination for her scene-stealing work in Kinky Boots; a year later, she walked away with the prize for her dizzyingly satisfying turn as Essie Carmichael in an otherwise banal revival of You Can't Take It With You. The occupational hazard of being a brilliant supporting performer is that one can end up fenced into the sidelines, never given the chance to shine in a leading role. And, of course, there are those whose talents don't translate to the ability to carry a production (I'm reminded of the usually wonderful character actor Michael Park, who floundered when tasked with leading Atlantic Theatre Company's revival of The Threepenny Opera). When it was announced that Ashford would headline the Broadway premiere of A.R. Gurney's sweetly funny 1995 play Sylvia, I found myself excited and trepidacious. Would her quirky comic style extend widely enough to cover this fairly substantial role? Or would it become clear that her gifts are best sampled in small doses?

I don't know why I worried. Ashford's Sylvia is a marvel, and one of the most ebulliently joyous comic performances I've witnessed in years. The role is tricky -- in case you didn't know, the lady in question is a an anthropomorphized dog -- and some of Gurney's humor can feel middlebrow. Ashford transcends any weakness in the writing, offering a master class in physical comedy, pitch-perfect timing, and even surprising subtlety.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bound for Broadway XVI

Part of the yearly Broadway Close Up series, Bound for Broadway presents songs from new musicals that may or may not actually be "bound for Broadway" (only time will tell). Past shows that made the promised land include Avenue Q, Next to Normal, High Fidelity, The Drowsy Chaperone, It Shoulda Been You, and Now. Here. This. Also, a few shows have appeared Off-Broadway (e.g., Musical, the Musical and Murder for Two). This is not a high success rate considering that over 100 shows have been featured, but there is something sweetly aspirational about retaining the name Bound for Broadway. After all, as poet Robert Browning pointed out, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"

Bound for Broadway host Liz Callaway
This year's show presented four wanna-bes: The More Things Change, with book and lyrics by Kellen Blair and music by Joe Kinosian; LMNOP, with book and lyrics by Scott Burkel and music by Paul Loessel; The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, with book and lyrics by Lezlie Wade and music by Daniel Green; and Amelie, with book by Craig Lucas, lyrics by Nathan Tysen, and music by Dan Messé.

The more interesting shows were LMNOP and Amelie. The press release describes LMNOP as follows: "When letters begin to fall from a monument in town, government officials ban them one by one. Chaos ensues until a determined teenage girl rallies the community to fight for freedom of speech. This unique musical is part romance, part clever word game and part adult fable that reminds us of how precious our liberties are; how quickly unbridled extremism can take them from us; and how important it is to have the courage to stand up for what we believe." The two songs presented had clever lyrics and were wryly inviting.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cloud Nine

Cloud Nine, Caryl Churchill's brilliant riff on sexual politics, colonialism, identity, and love, is receiving an excellent revival at the Atlantic, directed with a sure hand by James Macdonald. As the Playbill explains, "Act I takes place in a British Colony in Africa in Victorian Times. Act II takes place in London in 1979. But for the characters, it is 25 years later." This is not the only device that Churchill utilizes. Women are played by men, and vice versa; a doll plays a baby; a white man plays a black man. Years before people wrote about "performing gender," Churchill made the concept unmistakably vivid.

Chris Perfetti as Betty, Izzie Steele as Ellen
Photo: Doug Hamilton
In Act I, Betty, the mother, Clive, the father, Edward, the son, Victoria, the daughter, and Maud, Betty's mother, live in Africa, where Clive happily and pompously takes on the "white man's burden." He sees himself as the adult in all situations, and the others, including Clive's "boy," Joshua, seem to agree. But Betty chafes under her limitations; Joshua is not what he seems; and Edward wants to play with dolls. Enter Harry Bagley, the dashing, and omnisexual, explorer, along with a "native uprising," and all assumptions start to fray.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Fool For Love

Sam Shepard's Fool For Love is a strange, searing play. Although it takes place in real time, in the stark and unforgiving Western landscape the author so often favors, one cannot shake the feeling that the play is part dream, part nightmare. Does the dusty motel room occupied by May (Nina Arianda) truly exist? Is her long-lost cowboy lover, Eddie (Sam Rockwell), recently returned from a long absence, a figment of her imagination? And who, exactly, is the old man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) who haunts the periphery?

The weirdness that can make this work thrilling also renders its execution beastly. The two central actors need to be in perfect syncopation; the play's single act (70 minutes) must unfurl at a breathless clip. The director must strike a delicate balance between realism and fantasy. Robert Altman took too heavy a hand in the 1985 film version, starring Shepard and Kim Basinger. When watched today, it comes across as an unintentional comedy. A 2006 London production starring Juliette Lewis drew poor reviews. What, then, would be the fate of its long-awaited Broadway debut, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, under the direction of Daniel Aukin?

Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Barbecue, Robert O'Hara's twisty, turny play at the Public, is a show I don't want to write extensively about for fear of giving any of the many Big Reveals away. So I won't say much of anything at all, except that the show makes me even sorrier than I was before to have missed Bootycandy last year. And that with Barbecue, O'Hara says a number of clever, layered things about race, class, representation, and the media. And that the play is very, very funny. And that the cast is, to a one, committed, appealing, and probably all loading up big-time on vitamin B and throat lozenges, what with all the wackiness and antics and herbal cigarettes and shouting (not to mention the occasional tasing). And that there is nothing more wonderful--or, goddamn it, more rare--than watching a play that treats all of its characters pretty equally--even if that means with equal amounts of snark--while sitting amid a truly diverse audience, the members of which seemed to take as much pleasure in the play as I did. Why is that so fucking hard?

Joan Marcus
I have a few--um--bones to pick about Barbecue: even with some of the Big Reveals in mind, the first act felt a little shrill, and in general, making the poor and uneducated the butt of extended jokes--however equally applied thouse jokes are--seems pretty cheap. But the ensemble work here is excellent--so is the direction and the set, which I dismissed as fairly dull at first and then somehow fell for midway through. And for my quibbles, the play's a genuine hoot. So if I happen to land on the most brilliant, deep, moving, and paradigm-shifting show at some point during my theatergoing adventures, I'll be sure to let you know. Meanwhile, Barbecue will do just fine.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Christians

Lucas Hnath's The Christians, which has recently been extended through mid-October at Playwrights Horizons, is a compelling play about contemporary evangelical Christianity. It asks a number of interesting and complicated questions about religion as a means to unite and to divide, to connect and to alienate, to sustain and to harm. It also touches on the need for religions to grow and change in order to adapt to the contemporary world, and on altogether more earthly matters: building maintenance, membership numbers, mortgages, money. It is not a perfect play, but it is a very good one, which is worth seeing for the questions it raises, its conception and direction, its strong and committed cast, and its totally excellent megachurchy set.

Joan Marcus
At the start of the play, which begins with a few energetic (if seriously underharmonized) numbers by the church choir, Pastor Paul (an appropriately soothing Andrew Garman) delivers a sermon in celebration of his huge church's final mortgage payment. Professing a spiritual crisis that began when he learned of a boy who gave up his own life to save his sister from a burning building, he announces to his congregants that such a boy should not be damned to Hell because he was not a Christian. Even further, he informs them, he no longer believes in the concept of Hell and feels that no one in his congregation should, either.