Friday, February 27, 2015

John & Jen

It is a wonderful thing that John & Jen exists. Written in the early 1990s, it was never going to be a huge hit or a big money-maker. Clearly Andrew Lippa (music and book) and Tom Greenwald (lyrics and book) simply had something to say, and a unique way to say it. The story of Jen and her brother John and then Jen and her son John, it addresses serious themes of abuse and the meaning of love, and the heavy parts outweigh the light ones. It is largely sung, and it covers nearly 40 years. Many of the songs are excellent: funny, sad, emotional, informative, silly, etc, as needed. Some are beautiful.

Kate Baldwin, Conor Ryan
Photo: Carol Rosegg
And it is a wonderful thing that Keen Company is presenting this strong revival. Kate Baldwin is lovely as Jen, and Conor Ryan does an excellent job as both Johns. All in all, this is a piece of work that should be seen.

That being said, I have to admit that I didn't much like it. I admired it tremendously, but I was never quite emotionally involved. I think this is due to the book, which I found problematical.

[here be spoilers]
The show begins with John sitting quietly. He seems to be a young adult. Jen says something along the lines of "can you forgive me?" Then we go back to their childhood, with Jen striving to protect John from their abusive father and promising to always be there for him. But when Jen goes off to college, she ignores John for years as she lives the '60s full out, and he ends up allied with their father. John joins the army, goes to Vietnam, dies.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

On the Twentieth Century

All aboard, ladies and gentlemen! The express train to musical theatre heaven is departing the station eight times a week. You can catch it at the American Airlines Theatre, where a sublime revival of On the Twentieth Century, the 1978 operetta by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, is currently in previews. Dazzlingly designed, brilliantly choreographed, and featuring the peerless Kristin Chenoweth in a career-high performance, this shimmering production is sure to leave audiences tap-dancing their way up West 42nd Street when the curtain comes down.
Kristin Chenoweth performing "Veronique"
photo: Joan Marcus
As Lily Garland, the mousy young girl who is transformed--with the help of her former lover, theatre impresario Oscar Jaffe--into the greatest star of stage and screen, Chenoweth has found a role that is perfectly tailored to both her virtuosic vocal gifts and her razor-sharp comic timing. She lands every joke, ably filling shoes once worn by some of the greatest comic actresses of all time (Carole Lombard in the 1934 film, Madeline Kahn in the original Broadway production). Musically, she deploys her pristine soprano to thrilling effect, but she never lets her acrobatic vocal feats quash the comedy of Comden's airtight lyrics. She looks smashing in William Ivey Long's eye-popping gowns, radiating every inch of early Hollywood glamour. Never have I seen this fine actress so well-suited to a role.

At the performance I attended, both of Chenoweth's leading men--Peter Gallagher as Jaffe, and Andy Karl as her celluloid co-star and lover, Bruce Granit--were felled by illness. They were ably spelled by James Moye and Ben Crawford, respectively. If Moye lacks some imperiousness, he makes up for it with clarion singing and comfortable chemistry with Chenoweth. Crawford also sings beautifully, though he could use a few more performances to fully nail the physical comedy required by his role. The rest of the supporting cast--which includes dependable veterans Mary Louise Wilson, Mark-Linn Baker, and Michael McGrath--is largely superb.

This is Chenoweth's moment. There is so much to enjoy in this production, but surely nothing surpasses the instant-classic performance she's giving. It will be talked about for years.

[Fifth row mezzanine. Highly discounted ticket.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Academy Awards

Awards shows can tell us a lot about ourselves, which is why I insist on watching them, even when I haven't consumed much of the entertainment content being awarded. Last night was a case in point: I think I've seen about four films in the past year, only two of which were up for awards. I was pretty bored for most of the Academy Awards ceremony, and some of my ennui certainly had to do with my lack of connection to the films themselves. But my lack of enthusiasm was not entirely due to the fact that I don't go to the movies much of late. Nor was it entirely due to the thudding predictability that plagues such ceremonies at this point.

No, what bored me--what bores me in general--is how rooted our entertainment industries are in routine, and how truly resistant they seem to real, actual, honest change.

I don't mean to imply, here, that films themselves can't reflect life in interesting and important ways. Nor do I mean to imply that people who make movies can't do so with insight, intelligence, and the real desire to teach, reach, inspire, and impel. I'm not saying that at all. We are a country that makes great movies (and also plenty of really shitty ones). That's a good thing. But the disconnect between what is made and what is lauded by the industry that makes it riles me, and I found myself especially riled by last night's flat, strange, strained charade.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Winter's Tale

The Winter's Tale is my personal favorite of Shakespeare's plays. It's also one of the hardest to stage well. Neither comedy nor tragedy, it's classified (alongside Cymbeline and The Tempest) as a "romance," that tricky category that often places the most extreme elements of the other two genres side by side. How should a director, or dramaturge, or company handle the tonal switch from Leontes' bombastic dismissal of Hermione to the slapstick humor of Autolycus and the Clown? Do you set a consistent tone early so that the final scene--to my mind, some of the most beautiful writing in the Western canon--is equally devastating and joyful? And just how are you going to handle that old "exit, pursued by a bear" matter? Of the dozen or so productions of The Winter's Tale that I've seen, none has ever hit the sweet spot and gotten it just right.

photo: Richard Termine
I'm sorry to say that the current Off-Broadway revival, presented by The Pearl Theatre Company at The Peter Norton Space, does not buck this trend; in fact, this is one of the most disappointing productions of the underappreciated masterpiece that I've ever seen. Directed by Michael Sexton and featuring numerous members of The Pearl's resident acting company, it often feels like a woeful attempt at cleverness, or an MFA thesis project that went off the rails. Presented (as most of Shakespeare's plays today are) in a two-act structure, the scenes in Sicilia take place in the well-appointed dining room of a contemporary house. The actors more closely resemble the literature faculty of a second-tier liberal arts college than a royal court; Hermione's trial could easily pass for a particularly heated meeting of the tenure and promotion committee. Bohemia, on the other hand, is depicted as a hayseed and trailer-park paradise, where men in long beards wear their jorts with suspenders and the Natty Light flows freely. After the intermission, the actors begin to deconstruct the proceedings; I guess we wouldn't be able to understand what was going on otherwise? Nothing kills a classic faster than a director who thinks his concept is superior to the work to which it's supposedly in service.

The performances range from strong to competent to downright embarrassing. The guest artists easily overshadow the members of the Resident Acting Company. Peter Francis James makes a fine Leontes, and Steve Cuiffo finds the funny in Autolycus' writing without going overboard (a rarity). Imani Jade Powers, though green, makes a lovely and sincere Perdita. No other actors merit specific mention.

[8th row center, press ticket]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Robert Sella, Anna Camp, Matt McGrath
Photo: Erin Baiano
I've seen shows that I disliked. Shows that bored me. Shows that confused and confounded me. Yet rarely have I seen a show that is so irredeemably awful that I leave the theatre completely clueless as to how it managed to make its way onto a professional stage, let alone a prestigious one. Verité by Nick Jones, currently playing at the Claire Tow Theater under the auspices of LCT3, is such a show. A supposedly satirical take on consumer culture, the publishing industry, and the lengths to which some people will go to achieve a modicum of fame and success, this torturously boring tantrum of a play wastes the considerable talents of an unusually fine ensemble cast. When actors as strong as Robert Sella, Jeanine Serralles, Matt McGrath, and, in the largest and, in many ways, most thankless role, Anna Camp, are at sea, you know that something is hugely amiss. These terrific performers will move on to better things; for the sake of the American theatre, I pray that Mr. Jones will not.

[Last row, full price ticket which, thankfully, only put me out $20]


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Film Review: The Last Five Years

The film adaptation of Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years is remarkably faithful to its source material. That is not necessarily a good thing.

Strictly speaking, this musical (which premiered Off-Broadway in 2002, and was revived in 2013) would not strike anyone as a clear candidate for cinematic treatment. Both the style and the structure are intensely theatrical. Performed in one act, with two characters, and almost entirely sung-through, The Last Five Years chronicles a relationship using a parallel storytelling technique: one story line (the husband's, Jamie) is told chronologically from beginning to end, while the other (the wife's, Cathy) begins at the end of their marriage, and works backwards towards their first date. Despite some issues I have with the story (it's far too kind to Jamie) and the score (Cathy's material is far more interesting, both musically and dramatically), both productions largely worked.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Mystery of Love & Sex

[This review contains plot elements that are necessary to properly critique the production, which some might consider spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.]

Gayle Rankin and Diane Lane
photo: T. Charles Erickson
In spite of what its cheeky title may suggest, Bathsheba Doran's The Mystery of Love & Sex has less to do with carnality than with that other form of supreme intimacy: friendship. Its central characters, Charlotte and Jonny (Gayle Rankin and Mamoudou Athie), best friends since childhood, use each other as springboards for self-discovery. They talk frankly about sex and desire, and occasionally tease the possibility of a relationship, yet it's clear that their relationship is to remain firmly in the friend-zone. They spend the majority of this overlong, fairly sloppy, occasionally entertaining play trying to figure out their sexual wants and needs, and how those impulses correspond with their non-sexual relationship.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Here are some of the shows that have excited me as much as Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton:

  • A Little Night Music (original Broadway production)
  • Pacific Overtures (original Broadway production)
  • March of the Falsettos (original Off-Broadway production)
  • Cabaret (1997 Broadway revival)
  • James Joyce's The Dead (original Off-Broadway production)
  • Caroline, or Change (original Off-Broadway production)
  • Next to Normal (original Broadway production)
  • Fun Home (original workshop; original Off-Broadway production)
Renee Elise GoldsberryLin-Manuel MirandaPhillipa Soo
Photo: Joan Marcus
What do these shows have in common? Well, they're all brilliant, for a start. But more than that, they expand what musicals can do, whether in form, content, or both. Most of them deal with serious topics, with humor, compassion, and humanity. And their craft is absolute top-of-the-line, with every song a new and precious gift.

You On The Moors Now

You On The Moors Now, written by Jaclyn Backhaus, is a de- and re-construction of the romantic tropes that have permeated our culture from Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, and Wuthering Heights. This production, currently playing as part of the SubletSeries@HERE, was created and produced by Theatre Reconstruction Ensemble, a group of talented and attractive young performers. The director is John Kurzynowski.

Claire Rothrock (River Sister), Kelly Rogers (Lizzy), Lauren Swan-Potras (Jo),
Anastasia Olowin (Cathy), Sam Corbin (Jane)
Suzi Sadler
The script has a note that says: Script lives on page different than on stage! Have the most fun with whatever this means.

A Month in the Country

Talk about an anticlimax.

First there is the announcement: Peter Dinklage and Taylor Schilling (aka, "The woman from Orange is the New Black") in Turgenev's A Month in the Country at CSC. Having seen Dinklage as Richard III, I immediately move this to my "must-see" list. One problem, though: between Dinklage's Game of Thrones's fame and Schilling's Orange/Black fame, the demand for tickets slikely to be immense. Also, what kind of seats will be available once single tickets go on sale?

And then comes the news that CSC has almost sold out its subscriptions and memberships. My friends and I make the decision, and nab three just before they run out.

I'll spare you the work it takes for my friends and I to come up with dates that work for all three of us, but think D-Day, albeit on a considerably less important level.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The World of Extreme Happiness

I suspect that there is something kind of brilliant and heart-breaking going on in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play, The World of Extreme Happiness. It didn't quite come across in the early preview I saw, but I don't feel that it would be fair to review it before it gets its sea legs.

What I do want to do is to tell you to read the insert in the Playbill when you see The World of Extreme Happiness. The play deals with Chinese culture and politics, and it helps a great deal to have the background that the insert offers. It covers One-Child Policy, Monkey King, coal mining, factories, the Great Hall of the People, and self-help books. The play covers even more than that!

If you do see it, please leave a comment about what you thought of it.

Rasheeda Speaking

I don't believe that every white person in the United States is a racist at heart , waiting only for the right provocation to reveal his or her true colors. I also do not believe that every white person will inevitably default to racist assumptions when having a disagreement with a black person. Or perhaps I believe that some white people at least struggle with their racism and have good manners.

Pinkins (standing), Wiest
Photo:Monique Carboni
Joel Drake Johnson clearly disagrees with me, and he makes his case, awkwardly, in his play Rasheeda Speaking, currently being produced by the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The play takes place in the small front office of a surgeon, where two women, Jaclyn (the always compelling Tonya Pinkins) and Ilene (the disappointing Diane Wiest) greet patients and deal with paperwork. The surgeon, Dr. Williams (the bland Darren Goldstein), feels that Jaclyn doesn't fit in. He is clearly uncomfortable with her blackness (his particular racism rings true).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rasheeda Speaking

The central question of Joel Drake Johnson's Rasheeda Speaking, currently in previews at the Signature Center, in a production by The New Group, can be summed up by an utterance one character makes halfway through the play: "Why can't black people and white people just get along?" The person doing the asking is Jaclyn (Tonya Pinkins), an African American receptionist in the office of a white Chicago surgeon, who's figured out that her boss (played by Darren Goldstein, who's very good) has enlisted her co-worker, Ileen (Dianne Wiest), to find a reason to let Jackie go. Hiring Jackie was a mistake, he says. She doesn't fit in. She makes the patients nervous. He already has a replacement in mind, a better fit: a white woman. The dog whistle rings loud and clear.
photo: Monique Carboni
Ileen, at first, is reluctant. She considers Jaclyn a friend (a notion that, with a gimlet eye, Jaclyn rebukes), but more piquantly, she doesn't want to see herself as complicit in a racially-motivated act. Jaclyn is wise to the situation long before anyone says or does anything overt. Pinkins and Wiest play well off of each other; they imbue their benign small-talk with just the right amount of barbed double-speak. Unfortunately, the writing is not always up to the level of the fine actors tasked with performing it. The office interactions between Jaclyn and Ileen are meant to build tension in their banality, and they occasionally do, but more often than not, they just seem dull. By the time the play really starts to cook, in the final twenty minutes or so, you're left to wonder if all that exposition was necessary for such a fleeting pay-off.

The production is helmed by the actress Cynthia Nixon, in her maiden voyage as a director, and I'm afraid that her relative inexperience does no favors to the deficits in the writing. There is nothing visually or stylistically interesting about the staging; Wiest and Pinkins spend most of the ninety minutes seated at their tall desks, which eclipse much of their body language. It's hard to give a complete performance with such an impediment. It's a testament to the talents of the cast--which also includes Patricia Conolly as an elderly patient who, in her brief scenes with Pinkins, does more to answer the play's central question than anyone else--that they are able to bring the nuance to their performances that's largely missing from the writing and the direction.

[Rear orchestra, TDF]

Monday, February 09, 2015

Big Love

photo: T. Charles Erickson
"There is no such thing as an original play." Those words belong to the playwright Charles Mee, who has spent the better part of the last twenty years proving that, while plots and dialogue and situations in theatre may not be strictly original, what you can do with them certainly can be. (Just look at Shakespeare). Mee calls his effort the (re)making project, and he focuses mostly on harvesting, re-focusing, and re-telling the works of Ancient Greece. One of his earliest efforts, Big Love (2000), is just now receiving its New York premiere, in a superb production by Tina Landau for the Signature Theatre Company.

Mee's foundational text for Big Love is Aeschylus' The Danaids, in which fifty sisters abscond from their grooms (who are also their cousins) on their wedding day. In this revision, the brides sail to modern-day Italy and take up residence at a luxurious seaside villa. Only three of the fifty brides appear on stage: the gentle Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who believes in the power of love, if not the duty of forced wedlock; the fiery Thyona (Stacey Sargeant), who views the male sex as a dangerous insurgency and quotes from Valerie Solanus' SCUM Manifesto; and the bewildered Olympia (Libby Winters), whose evident inexperience marks her as a target for the agendas of others. In short succession, their three grooms (played by Bobby Steggert, Ryan-James Hatanaka, and Emmanuel Brown) decamp, and the ensuing hundred minutes is a fantasia on the roles marriage, gender, culture, expectation, and, of course, love play in the formation of society.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Texas in Paris

Osceola Mays was the daughter of sharecroppers and the granddaughter of slaves. She sang for the love of singing, her family, and Jesus. John Burrus was a rodeo cowboy who sang cowboy songs and hymns. In 1989 they were brought to Paris to sing a series of concerts together. Texas in Paris, presented by the York Theatre Company, was written by Alan Govenar, based on his interviews with the actual Mays and Burrus and on the actual concerts they gave. Govenar is a writer, folklorist, photographer, and filmmaker. What he is not, unfortunately, is a playwright.

Photo: Carol Rosegg
Texas in Paris is slight and rife with missed possibilities, some of which are also director Akin Babatundé's responsibility. The plot, such as it is, follows the changing relationship between Mays and Burrus. Specifically, it shows Burrus's growing acceptance of a friendship with the cheerful, talkative Mays, despite his lack of experience with African-Americans, mild-mannered racism, and general laconic grumpiness. It is a slight plot, but potentially serviceable--except that it is treated as little more than filler between the songs. For example, [slight spoiler], the pair sings their songs separately. Mays sings a cappella; Burrus accompanies himself on the guitar. The first time she sings harmony with him, it should be a moment. Burrus should at least give her a look of surpris. He doesn't. And the first time he starts playing guitar for one of her songs, it should be a big moment. In fact, it should be as climactic as anything can be in this little piece. It's not. [end of spoiler]

Texas in Paris is not without its charms, the main one being Lilias White's lovely performance as Mays. White tamps down her usual theatrical exuberance and gets to the heart of this unassuming woman who sang for the love of singing. Scott Wakefield is good as Burrus. Best of all, they are not miked, and it is a treat to hear their unadorned voices in the York's cozy theatre.

Ultimately, Texas in Paris is a pleasant but minor 80 minutes in the theatre.

(press ticket, fifth row)

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Film Chinois

The concept of Film Chinois, by Damon Chua, is a good one: noir goings-on in 1947 China, with a femme fatale who also happens to be a Maoist revolutionary. The writing is smart, with knowing winks at The Big Sleep and other classics, and an interesting attempt to marry overt politics with traditional fictional cynicism. Some of the performers are excellent, in particular Rosanne Ma, as the narrator and femme fatale, and Jean Brassard, as the knowing Belgium ambassador who may not know as much as he thinks he does. The scenery, costumes, lighting, and sound (by Sheryl Liu, Carol A. Pelletier, Marie Yokoyama, and Ian Wehrle, respectively) add exactly the right sense of atmosphere and foreboding. These are the makings of an excellent show.

On the other hand, the writing can be murky, and it's hard to know--or care--exactly what's going on. Some of the acting misses the boat; it's fascinating how thin the line is between deadpan and lackluster. Most importantly, the direction, by Kaipo Schwab, lacks the pacing, energy, and spark needed to ignite the proceedings.

There is enough worthwhile here to keep the audience rooting for the show to get really good, but it never quite does.

(press ticket, 5th row)