Wednesday, May 30, 2018

the hollower

I saw Liza Birkenmeier's the hollower three days ago and I have been avoiding writing a review because I don't know what to say. Well, yes, I know that the cast is excellent. And, yes, I know that the writing is often wonderful. But I can't figure out what the damn thing is about, and that's even after reading the script. However, I need to write a review, so here goes.

Patrena Murray, Reyna de Courcy
Photo: Hunter Canning

The show starts with a middle-aged African-American woman staring into a window and maybe talking to herself. This is Otto (Patrena Murray) who is sweet, forgetful, and strangely passive. In totters Bit (Reyna de Courcy), on insanely high heels. Bit lives with Otto. She is white, 16, creative, needy, and damaged; she dresses in bright and odd combinations of clothing and wears candy-colored wigs. The relationship between Otto and Bit is unclear. What is clear is that Bit needs Otto's attention desperately and that Otto gives her as much as she can, in her foggy way. It is not enough for Bit.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Hello Dolly

About 15 minutes into Hello Dolly, I thought, "I love this stupid show." By the end of the first act, I had eliminated "stupid." Hello Dolly has a silly plot, yes, and some of the songs come out of nowhere, yes, but, damn, it is an unstoppable joy machine. And while I don't think that musicals must have instantly hummable melodies, it is great fun when the audience comes out singing and, yes, humming the songs. There were a lot of women not letting the parade pass them by while in line for the ladies room.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

And then there is Bernadette Peters. When I saw the show with Bette Midler, I enjoyed it immensely, but Midler didn't even make believe she was playing Dolly (link to my review here). Bernadette Peters plays Dolly, and it raises the show a whole level up. I don't think she's a great actress, but she's warm and likable, and I love her voice, and she's Bernadette Peters. (In a scrapbook I have from my early teen years, I have an interview with her from 1969. I've been a fan for nearly half a century.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Peace for Mary Frances

Lily Thorne treads familiar ground in her new play, Peace for Mary Frances. Estranged members of a family gather due to the death of a parent. Old grudges are revisited, old wounds are reopened, and, well, you know. In this case, however, instead of assembling after the death (e.g., as in August, Osage County, Crimes of the Heart, and many more) they come to care for Mary Frances while she's still alive. Mary Frances, tired and in pain, is ready to die; she has decided to refuse further treatment. The family accept her decision, but they don't accept much of anything else.

Johanna Day, J. Smith-Cameron, Heather Burns 
Photo: Monique Carboni

One daughter, Fanny--the official fuck-up and ex-heroin user--has been living with Mary Frances but supposedly not taking good care of her. The other daughter, Alice--the quirky, angry one, who works as an astrologist--is jealous of the Fanny's relationship with their mother and neither trusts nor likes Fanny in general. The son, Eddie, who charges Mary Frances for helping with her paperwork, is largely oblivious. Alice's adult daughters are there too: one, a mother, is loving and able to push herself to do uncomfortable care tasks; the other, a famous actress, spends more time crying than helping.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tony Award Predictions 2018

LIZ: Were I to take awards seasons seriously, I’d join with the city’s professional theater critics in wringing my hands over the purported death of Broadway at the end of this weirdly inconsistent and ultimately disappointing season. But I don’t take them seriously, and I’m not a professional theater critic. Yay for me! Also, since critics have been bitching off and on for at least a century over the imminent death of Broadway, I can leave the histrionics to them. Sure, whatever, it’s not been the most thrilling season, but then, it still beats the daylights out of reality lately, so there’s that. I’m just as eager as I always am to watch the awards, and to catch up on shows I’ve missed—whether on, Off, or Off Off Broadway—this summer. While I haven’t seen as much on Broadway as I usually have by this point in the year, I’ll venture my most educated guesses below.

SANDRA: The Tony Awards are fun to watch, and they do recognize theatrical talent ... but not every person who deserves a Tony wins one. Laura Linney, Victor Garber and Judy Kuhn are statue-less (all nominated four times!). So, here are my predictions/preferences for the prize ... submitted with me wishing that occasionally you could have two individuals win the same category.

WENDY: When people argue about who will win an award, they often leave out a tricky wild card: math. If you have five nominees, someone could win with as little as 25% of the votes—far from a majority. Is it likely? No, but it’s absolutely possible. And this is an interesting year, in that a number of categories have no shoo-in winner.

Monday, May 14, 2018

League of Professional Theatre Woman presents Chita Rivera in conversation with Richard Ridge

Richard Ridge and Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera may be known primarily as an actress and a dancer, but she knows how to choreograph a punchline. She provided plenty of laughs as she spoke about her career with Richard Ridge, the lead correspondent for Broadway World--where he hosts "Backstage with Richard Ridge"--at an event presented in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women on May 7 at The Bruno Walter Auditorium inside the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

In an hour, Ridge did a remarkable job steering the conversation to hit all the high points of Rivera's career. From her start as a student for Doris Jones to her audition for choreographer/ballet master George Balanchine to her Broadway career. Rivera mixed wit with insight throughout the presentation. She recounted being scared at her Balanchine audition: my teacher [Jones] said, "Just stay in your lane, Chita." To this day, she tells people she meets that, "You find out who you are by being who you are."

Rivera also spoke about how learning comes from observing the greats. In Call Me Madam, she remembers watching Elaine Stritch, in Can-Can - Gwen Verdon. "I lived in the wings of every show and learned so much that way," she said.

Playing Anita in West Side Story also taught her - "suddenly we had words," she remembered. She enjoyed working with composer Leonard Bernstein, learning her songs with him in his apartment. "It's kind of fun to say 'Lennie." She liked nicknames - choreographer/director Jerome Robbins was dubbed, "Big Daddy," because "he had all the answers," Rivera said. The show tested her but "there's nothing better than working hard and finding out you can do it."

Observing Dick Van Dyke, when she originated the role of Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, also became a career highlight - "If you watch, you learn," Rivera said, who referred to many theatre greats by first names. When discussing Chicago she spoke about composer John Kander's talent: "John wrote great vamps," she said. In her head, she kept wishing for a vamp ... and you got what she wanted with "Cell Block Tango."

Aurora in Kiss of the Spider Woman was a hard character for her to find because she showed in fragments through the show. Rivera also "did a lot of climbing during the show, but my name's Chita."

Rivera expressed gratitude about her opportunity to work with talented colleagues. She said that the reason she her tango electrified in Nine had everything to do with her leading man  - "You would be able to do that, too, if you were standing next to Antonio Banderas." In The Visit, a show she commented was about love not revenge "even though a few people die," she adored working with actor Roger Rees.

Ridge, an obvious fan, balanced his admiration with questions that gave insight to Rivera's career and showed the audience her grit, determination and sense of humor. "Every single day you are different," Rivera commented on injuries and aging. "You accept it as it is and you keep going."

Rivera will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2018 Tony ceremony.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Sea Concerto

Before the Internet, daily-newspaper theater critics would see shows on opening night and write their reviews immediately after. Although these reviews often determined the fate of the show, the critics barely had time to think about what they had seen before their deadlines.

Morgan McGuire, Corey Allen
Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

This is on my mind because I saw Flux Theatre Ensemble's new play, The Sea Concerto, last week, and I'm still not 100% sure what I think about it. I've considered it at length, and I've read the script as well, but I'm still not sure. Also, it's possible I didn't understand everything.

Follies (second viewing)

When I wrote my first review of  the fabulous APAC production of Follies, I was short on details. Then someone on the often-infuriating but also often-invaluable All That Chat asked for more details (shout out to lordofspeech), and I wrote a long answer to his post. Here it is, with a bit of polishing and updating.

I loved Tina Stafford. I thought she nailed Sally's complexity: yearning, angry, disappointed, hopeful, and sadly aware that she's at least a little silly. She wears her heart on her sleeve even though she knows it isn't a great idea. Her "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" were both excellent. 

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

While the city's theater critics revive the century-old debate about the death of Broadway at the tail end of a reasonably disappointing commercial season, reassurance can be found in a visit to the tiny Gene Frankel: a musty, impossibly crowded blackbox theater that is home to a remarkable revival of Kurt Vonnegut's 1971 Happy Birthday, Wanda June. I've been hearing about this production for a while, beginning when Wendy Caster raved about it early in its run, so when the run was extended and I stumbled into press tickets, I jumped. I'm so glad I did.

Jeremy Daniel

A scathing case-study of toxic masculinity written long before "toxic masculinity" was a common phrase, Happy Birthday, Wanda June subverts Homer's Odyssey and relocates it in a strange, ridiculous dreamland that boomerangs between reality and some droll netherworld, which could just as easily be the late Vietnam era in the US as it could be purgatory. The revival remains rooted in the American past--those groovy, polyester costumes!--while simultaneously reflecting the frustrating fever-dream state of the nation right now. Therein lies both Wanda June's powerful appeal and the heartbreak of it: must a strange, dusty old piece that so efficiently bottled the darkness of the edgy, moody past have to be so damned apt again?

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America's Past (book review)

After all that's been written about Hamilton, one might think that there's nothing left to say. Turns out there's at least 400 pages' worth, as shown in Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical is Restaging America's Past (edited by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter; see table of contents, below). The book should be of interest to people who love theatre, more interest to people who love history, and a treat for those (myself included) who love both. (For the record, three of the people who contributed to Historians on Hamilton specialize in theatre, rather than history. One of them, Elizabeth Wollman, writes for this blog.)

Some of the questions discussed in Historians on Hamilton: Who was Alexander Hamilton? How true is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton to the real man? How much historical accuracy should we expect from art? Is Hamilton doing good work by getting young people engaged with history? Or is it doing bad work by getting young people engaged with inaccurate history? How has Hamilton managed to have a significant effect on thousands of people who will likely never see the show? How has Hamilton managed to win over people on both the left and the right? What is the role of race in Hamilton? Does it matter that none of the characters are actual people of color? Does Hamilton represent a revolution or the next step in theatre's evolution?

Monday, May 07, 2018


How much did I enjoy the APAC production of Follies? I've already purchased my ticket to see it again.

APAC (Astoria Performing Arts Center) has an excellent reputation and many awards, as well it should. Even with limited resources, APAC provides top-notch productions again and again. (See my review of Merrily We Roll Again here.)
How do they do it? I think a big part of the answer has to be Artistic Director Dev Bondarin.

Nailing "The Mirror Number":
Andrea McCullough, Victoria Bundonis,
Tina Stafford, LaDonna Burns,
Marcie Henderson, Denise DeMars,
Rusty Riegelman.
Photo: Michael Dekker

In this production, as the other shows she has directed, Bondarin honors and trusts the work. This Follies has plenty of flaws, as might be expected with an Off-Off-Broadway group choosing such an ambitious project, but that's okay: the important thing is that Bondarin has nailed the show's true Follies-ness. She is a smart director who eagerly serves the work, and this production is full of her smart decisions. The result is more excellent theatre than we the audience have any right to expect for a ticket price of $18! ($12 if you're a student or senior.)

So, yes, this isn't a star-studded production. The production values could be higher. Some performers aren't quite up to the task (though many others are quite good). But this Follies sings, it dances, it feels. It's Follies. If those two words have any meaning to you, make sure to catch this show. Tickets are available here. You'll rarely in your life get such value for your money.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, 5th row)
Show-Score Score: 90

Cast: Denali Bennett, Victoria Bundonis, LaDonna Burns, Denise DeMars, Tia DeShazor, Susan Cohen DeStefano, Christine Donnelly, Andrea Dotto, Dan Entriken, Jonathan Fluck, Spencer Hansen, James Harter, Marcie Henderson, Greg Horton, Kathleen LaMagna, Andrea McCullough, SharaĆ© Moultrie, Ben Northrup, Rusty Riegelman, Bruce Sabath, Carolyn Seiff, Cliff Sellers, Lauren Alice Smith, Tina Stafford, Noah M. Virgile, Mandarin Wu.

Production Staff: Director: Dev Bondarin; Musical Director: James Higgins; Choreographer: Sara Brians; Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Costume Design: Jennifer Jacob; Lighting Design: Annie Wiegand; Sound Design: Caroline Eng; Prop Design: Andrew Short; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Jessica McIlquham; Assistant Stage Manager: Robert Peatman.

Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

Sometimes, it's genuinely unfair when shows on Broadway flop. Countless worthwhile productions close in debt due to poor timing, a few weak links, material that's too dark or sophisticated or sad to lure mainstream audiences, not enough money to attract audiences in the first place. These poor, innocent, not-all-bad flops are somehow even more heartbreaking when compared with shows that are totally, astoundingly, mesmerizingly terrible in so many ways you lose count--especially when such shows do surprisingly well, at least at the outset. Which brings me to Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, the title of which, now that I think about it, says a lot about the production. What the hell does summer have to do with anything, or are we not referencing the season? If we aren't, why bother to mention the woman's stage name twice? Couldn't anyone have come up with a more creative, less repetitive title--maybe one that draws on her songs or legacy? The Queen of Disco? Or Hot Stuff, or Bad Girls, or, hell, Dim All the Lights Sweet Darling 'Cause Tonight It's All About Reenacting Donna Summer's Life in the Dumbest Ways Possible, But At Least the Songs Are Catchy? Because I'm on a roll here, I'm going to toss one out that I think fits the show best: Someone Left the Cake in the Rain. You know, cuz it's a soggy mess. Get it? Get it? Get it?

Kevin Berne
Look, I know, slamming an entertainment product that people work hard on for a long time is cheap and easy. And truly, I'd hold back and be a lot nicer about this one, but Summer was created by a group of very accomplished, ludicrously established dudes who know from Broadway--Des McAnuff, Sergio Trujillo, the effing Dodgers, for pity's sake--and who, I assume, will live to see another day and better shows. I don't feel terribly bad for them for having spawned this disaster, especially since it's just so insulting in its half-assedness. Also, the show appears to be raking it in for now; to me, this implies that plenty of gullible people will shell out enormous buckage to sit for just over ninety minutes in a big shiny theater and come away impressed because some familiar songs are performed by a cast that, as a group, is curiously moving in its ability to look like they give a flying fuck about what the hell they're doing up on the stage eight times a week. It's not easy, I imagine: the only thing the creative team seems to have agreed on with this show is that a musical about Donna Summer really, really needs lots of blue lighting and the excessive use of hydraulic lifts.

Summer is in many ways derivative of McAnuff's more creative, compelling, and uncondescending Jersey Boys. The creative team seems here to have decided to borrow amply from that show in terms of structure, look, and design, but the result is less smart and sharp, and more like someone took a lot of pasta, dyed it a variety of cool blue hues, threw it against a sleekly-lit wall, and then moved it around on platforms that sank below the stage and back up again, as if constant movement would maybe trick the audience into believing that this production actually works

Good ideas abound, sure, but something--or a lot of things--seem to have gotten lost between page and stage. There are, for example, three perfectly fine actors portraying Donna Summer at various points in her life. But what the hell with the names and who is playing whom at any given time? Storm Lever plays Summer as a child--she's listed in the program as "Duckling Donna," I think because there was some conversation about the ugly duckling story in the show, but whatever, I wasn't paying attention at that point. Ariana DeBose plays "Disco Donna," which I guess would be Donna in the 1970s. This was confusing, though, because for some reason, many of the '70s scenes are aesthetically reminiscent of the '80s, which makes me feel incredibly old, and also pissed off that no one on the creative team could bother to remember that neon lighting and Robert Palmer videos were '80s phenomena, not '70s phenomena, for fuck's sake. Anyway, the great LaChanze, who deserves way better than this, is "Diva Donna," because I suppose "Born-Again Christian Donna Who Gives a Farewell Concert and Looks Back on Her Life Before She Dies, or Maybe It's Supposed to Be After She's Dead But Either Way, There's More Hydraulic Lifting" is way too wordy. Whatever; the names of the three Donnas at different ages is consistent with the fact that nothing at any age seems remotely clear, consistent, or well-developed. Sometimes La Chanze plays Summer; sometimes she plays her mother; sometimes Storm Lever plays Donna's daughter. You'd think the creators would give the poor women a break and hire more people so Donna Summer wouldn't have to play her own mom and/or kid all the damn time.

Among the many other things that are frustrating about this musical is that Donna Summer actually seems to have lived a pretty interesting life, which I genuinely would have liked to know more about. As it stands, fleeting, thin scenes touch very superficially on the fact that she was, at various points, sexually abused by her priest, the witness to a murder, a wild bohemian expat in Germany, an abused girlfriend, a drug addict, a disco queen, an ardent feminist, an open-minded embracer of difference who reigned supreme at Studio 54, a born-again Christian, a homophobe, a painter, a devoted wife, a loving mother. Any one of those things, really, could be enough for a musical. But so much of her life story is here told through fleeting narration in place of action or nuanced scene work, and the result feels flat and forced for all the effort. There's no depth or exploration to anything presented onstage, which makes the whole show seem manipulative and cheap. Worst of all, notwithstanding the manipulative and bullshitty scene excusing Summer's homophobic comments as misunderstood jokes, is the decision by the all-male creative team to capitalize on the current women's movement by featuring an almost-but-not-quite-all-female cast, which makes no sense at all. Why are chicks playing dudes sometimes, but not at other times, and why are there dudes in the cast at all, and who the hell came up with the idea that Donna Summer's one late-career hit about women's work made her some kind of ardent feminist warrior? Are you kidding me? And truly, how dare you?

Again, the songs are fine. It was nice to hear them again, even if some of them are remarkably stupidly staged. It's an example of how half-assed this show is that "Dim All the Lights" is re-envisioned as a funeral dirge for Neil Bogart, and that this is nowhere near the worst idea. I'd vote for the car chase as even dumber, but then, I just don't have the energy to revisit the musical ever again to assess all the dumbness more carefully.

I've been chided in the past by friends in the business for expressing any pity at all for working actors, but truly, I feel for this cast, I hope they're paid well, and I hope something better comes along and hires them all away from this mess. They're hard for the money.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Unexpected Joy

No doubt: the York Theatre Company is on a roll. Its last show, Desperate Measures, received a bouquet of nominations for best musical (Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, etc.) and will soon open at New World Stages. And now the York is presenting the lovely Unexpected Joy.

The fabulous Courtney Balan, Celeste Rose,
Luba Mason, and Allyson Kaye Daniel
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Joy is a singer best known as half of the successful duo Jump and Joy. Jump died a year ago, and Joy is organizing a concert in his memory. She hopes to get her daughter, Rachel, and granddaughter, Tamara, to participate. Joy is a committed hippie (when someone is asked if Joy still smokes weed, she answers, "Only when she's awake") for whom protest is as important as breathing. Rachel has gone completely in the other direction; she is married to a TV preacher and lives a rule-bound life. Tamara is more like her grandmother, chaffing against restrictions and boundaries. The three women try to use this occasion to make peace. As you might imagine, it doesn't exactly go smoothly.