Friday, June 08, 2018

Spring roundup: Mean Girls, Our Lady of 121st Street, Paradise Blue, Dance Nation

Mean Girls
Mean Girls is cute and funny, well-staged, a little too long for what it is, occasionally miked too loud, and ultimately better than getting a cavity filled. I wish I'd been thrilled by it, but again, it was hardly an ordeal. Some of my tepid reaction has to do with my own preferences, one of which is not to shell out serious buckage to see something from the rear balcony that I saw from a better seat in a movie theater fifteen years ago. I also didn't dig the score, which struck me weirdly as a thin interpretation of Broadway musicals in some vague generic sense but without a real grasp of the blood and guts that make some representations of the genre work way better than others do. And honestly, some of it was just that I was knee-deep in the end of my semester when I saw it, and thus even more overwhelmed and grumpy than I usually am, especially when it comes to encountering such sweet, well-meaning baubles.

The performers were game and some of them were really terrific. The audience I saw it with seemed to love it. It's apparently selling very, very well. And truly, whatever, it was fine, I've never written a film or adapted one into a Broadway show, so what the hell do I know? I can't help but wonder how it would have fared had Fey and her husband not been behind it, but we'll never know, and anyway, that's just not how show biz works.

Our Lady of 121st Street
Stephen Adly Guirgis's Our Lady of 121st Street, in colorful revival at Signature Theater, is an imbalanced work, but ultimately its strengths win out over its weaknesses. I wish like hell I'd known before I'd seen it that it's wonderful when it comes to affectionate, deft character analysis, but that it doesn't tie up all its loose plot threads in nice little bows by the end of the swift two hours. Or maybe I'm just a moron for having expected such a sprawling piece to resolve so completely in the final minutes. Either way, I felt momentarily disoriented when the play just kind of ended.

So I'm doing you the favor I wish someone had done me, whether you want it or not: Go. See it. Enjoy the very fine production and the numerous three-dimensional characters (as well as a few two- and one-dimensional ones who are still worthy of your time and consideration). This is a very good episodic, day-in-the-life play. It is well acted, insightful, and often genuinely hilarious. Enjoy the ride, don't expect resolution, and you'll have a wonderful time.

Paradise Blue
Joan Marcus
Dominique Morisseau's play, which is being staged just down the hall from Our Lady in the Signature complex, could use some workshopping to tie up its own loose ends. As it stands, there's an awful lot packed into the show: struggles against postwar gentrification; the legacy of African-American culture and art; the specter of hereditary violence and emotional affliction; spirituality and its promise of an afterlife; race, class, gender, and all their discontents; the relationship to time and place; mental illness and domestic violence.

The play focuses on Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a troubled trumpeter struggling in the years after World War II to keep his nightclub, the Paradise, alive in the rapidly gentrifying (and now completely gone) Detroit neighborhood known as Black Bottom. Haunted by memories of his mentally ill father, also a gifted musician, Blue struggles over whether to sell his venue and move away with his bookish and resistant partner, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), or stay and fight his demons--and the white investors who want to buy up the neighborhood. Meanwhile, his bandmembers (Keith Randolph Smith and Francois Battiste) hang out, argue with Blue, and struggle through their own lives and with their own demons, which are stirred in part by the appearance of the mysterious and beautiful Silver (Simone Missick). Are the characters symbolic? Is Silver a real woman or is she being sent from the beyond? Is the action actually happening, or is it allegorical? Engaging though Paradise Blue is, due to the typically excellent direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson and an exceptionally strong and committed cast that's not above chewing a little scenery from time to time, I'd love to see it mounted again after some sharpening. A few revisions, I think, would nudge Paradise Blue beyond an enjoyable, engaging, and provocative stew into an absolutely dynamite piece of theater.

Dance Nation
My daughter, herself a kid, really hates shows with nothing but kids in them. (Don't ask: we had one bad theatergoing experience that she continues to hold over my head because apparently you never know what well-meaning outing will end up scarring your offspring for life.) So when I first described Dance Nation to her as a show about preteens in a dance competition, she nixed it, only to change her mind immediately when I explained that the teens are all played by adults ranging from their 20s to well into their 60s. The notion made her laugh, and indeed, the show is funny and very sweet. The fine cast, however, captures the tail end of childhood very well without slopping into parody, and this is a big part of what makes this show as good as it is.

Like The Wolves, to which it is being regularly if not always fairly compared, Dance Nation is so loving of and respectful to its young, mostly female characters that it functions as a stark reminder of how little else is: usually, depictions of girls are either sexualized, infantalizing or condescending, and sometimes all three at once. Dance Nation is most like The Wolves in its refusal to do any of that. Here, a group of middle-American suburban girls (and one boy) prepares for a big dance competition under the tutelage of Dance Teacher Pat (Thomas Jay Ryan) and the watchful eyes of a group of doting moms (all Christina Rouner). I had absolutely no trouble believing these grownups as the tweens they were playing. I loved some of the monolgues, during which characters break from the action to speak of their lives from a perspective that involves the collapse of time: they are at once the children they were and the adults they've become. Not as cleanly structured as The Wolves, and prone to more experimental leaps in form and presentation, Dance Nation is, as a result, a little chillier and harder to follow at times. Still, it's wonderful, engaging, and worth a look; the fact that it keeps getting extended is testament to that.  

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