Friday, December 17, 2021

Diana The Musical (Broadway edition)

Sometimes--maybe especially when the whole world is screaming and sad and broken--a not-very-good musical can be the perfect balm. On Broadway at the Longacre for a few more days before it shutters, Diana The Musical remains the not-very-good production it was on film, though I'd argue that the stage version is vastly superior to the Netflix debacle that dropped this fall. I've been pretty jokey about the show, but I've also grown weirdly attached to it. I've long harbored a large place in my heart for stage musicals that don't quite work despite the time, energy, hope, labor and money that get poured into them. I think I've connected with Diana as well because of all the things it tries and does not manage to be in this exceedingly weird time and this thoroughly damaged place. Yes, sure, Diana is culturally irrelevant, dramaturgically sloppy, unsure of what tone it is supposed to take, and saddled with ridiculous lyrics. It doesn't ever do much more than shine, glimmer, pop, and blare at top volume. Is it a little backward, a little sexist, a little heavy on the visuals, and a lot short on any perceptible message? Oh, you bet your ass. Then again, I'm sad and anxious and frustrated and exhausted and enraged all the damn time lately, so I just don't have the time or energy it takes to get even the teeniest bit riled up about....Diana The Musical. The show has become, at least for me, a delightfully, garishly wonderful distraction from right now, and I find I am deeply grateful for it--jewel-encrusted warts and all.

Unlike like the Netflix version, which was comparatively ponderous (and which I thus consumed in multiple minutes-long excerpts over a few weeks), the stage production swirls, gyrates, rotates and swings in and back out again at a remarkable clip. The show still doesn't make much sense, even with a few improvements in the form of some new exposition about the existence in the show (and in general) of Barbara Cartland, a bit more attention to Diana's struggles with postpartum depression and self-harm, and even more scenery, set-pieces, and shiny stuff to look at. The people of Wales are no longer dressed like chimney sweeps--they instead wear an enormous amount of tweed; lest they get confused with other tweed-wearing populations, there's now a huge new sign dangling above them that spells WALES in huge wrought-iron letters. The AIDS scene remains genuinely touching, even if the ward it takes place in still makes its patients sit around in a large circle on folding chairs. Judy Kaye as Queen Elizabeth is still in an entirely different show, though her Barbara Cartland is slightly campier now, as is Diana's butler. Try as I might, I cannot and likely never will figure out what "a lonely girl aswirl" means. And Diana's death scene at the end of the production remains utterly pointless and tacked-on. But then, that's cool with me given all the actually traumatizing, genuinely sad, enormously relevant death happening right outside the doors of the Longacre. 

A live audience makes a world of difference, especially compared with the cavernously weird film that was shot without one. At the performance I attended, the spectators were kind, supportive and clearly eager to be entertained, even as they frequently erupted in hoots, hollers and applause at some of its clunkier moments, and the occasional jeer (I assume Roe Hartrampf, as Prince Charles, expects to be called an asshole at least once a performance at this point). Even as the James Hewitt scene fell flatter onstage than it did on film (dammit!), the number about the fuckety dress so delighted the crowd that its--um--lyrics were hard to hear at points. Diana may still be made up of about 50 different puzzles, some of which are missing half their pieces because the dog ate them. But the pieces that have made it into the mix sure are pretty. And as an added bonus, none of them will end up killing you.   

I've said it before, but it needs to be said again: absolutely enormous kudos to the company. To a one, the cast is professional and hard-working, but not so much that they can't be in on the joke. Not a one broke character or came off as if they were phoning it in, and a significant number seemed to be having as good a time as the audience was. I hope very much that they were. I also hope that every single one of them moves on to other, better projects--and that, in the meantime, they have all become dear friends who go out together and drink and laugh and bond over their strange situation, performing mid-pandemic in a show that dips and soars into mawkish melodrama, keeps its distance from the current moment, and functions as a true distraction in a historic stretch where precious little diverts. 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Alchemist

Robert Frost once said, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." To this I add, theatre is what gets lost in streaming. Please don't misunderstand: I am totally grateful for all the theatre-related material available during the covid-induced shutdown. I loved, eg, the Sondheim 90th birthday celebration, the plays that The Mint shared, and new work such as PCP/NYC's Standing on the Edge of Time and MasterVoices Myths and Hymns. And I don't know what the ticket price would have been if Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski sang "Ladies in Lunch" in person, though I do know I couldn't afford it.

Manoel Felciano, Reg Rogers
Photo: Carol Rosegg

But: theatre is about being there, in the moment, with those wonderful living people on stage in front of you, sharing their talents and working their butts off. Eight performances a week they are shot out of a cannon and expected to be perfect--every time, with no pauses, pratfalls, or do-overs. Live performance is in many ways the bravest of arts, and perhaps the most human. It's all of us, in a room, interacting in real time, having an experience that will never be--can never be--repeated.

All this leads me to the rollicking Red Bull Production of Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, as adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Jesse Berger. It is that most theatrical form of theatre, the farce, full of schemes and changing identities and bawdy humor and pointed satire and greed and hypocrisy and, yes, doors swinging open and closed as near-miss follows near-miss. 

Hatcher's adaptation is first-rate--clear, funny, and witty. In one aspect I think he actually improves on the original (it would be a spoiler to say anything more). There are some disappointing facets to his work. For example, there is no good reason why one female character spends much of the first scene wearing so little clothing that she is in danger of flashing the audience. For another example, having the one Black character, a full-out fop, suddenly spew a "Goddamn motherfuckers!" is, if not racist, at least racially uncomfortable and cheap. But the play's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses (which actually makes the disappointments that much more disappointing).

Berger's direction is as madcap, quick, and fluid as one could wish. And, oh, that cast. Reg Rogers as the alchemist delights with a performance that boasts the stamina, speed, and reflexes of an Olympian. Also delightful are, well, everyone else: Nathan Christopher, Stephen DeRosa, Carson Elrod, Manoel Felciano, Teresa Avia Lim, Jacob Ming-Trent, Louis Mustillo, Jennifer Sánchez, and Allen Tedder.

The design elements are attractive, appropriate, and hard-working. Alexis Distler provided the handsome, clever set, Tilly Grimes the splendid costumes. Cha See and Greg Pliska (lighting and sound design, respectively) also contributed richly.

The Alchemist was the second show I saw after that long, painful covid entertainment desert, but the first one was mediocre, and this one was so  much fun, and so thoroughly theatrical, that I consider it my real first time back. Thank you, Red Bull. Missed you a lot.

Wendy Caster

Monday, November 15, 2021

Diana: The Musical (Netflix version)

Hi, it's been a while because--well, you know. But I'm back with news of Diana: The Musical, which received mixed to positive reviews during its 2019 La Jolla run, despite what were cited (politely and with weary resignation) as minor problems (among them: character development, lyrics, scene-work, plot trajectory, length, tone, depth, pacing, set design, and an unsettling distance from anything remotely British). Clearly encouraged though they probably should not have been, the producers transferred the show to Broadway, where it ran for nine previews before the shut-down of March 2020. At some point thereafter, the producers made the innovative if fateful decision to film a performance of Diana before an empty house for an October 2021 release on Netflix in hopes of stimulating the box office in time for the production to resume at the Longacre (it finally opens on November 17). 

This is one jolly well-done son, Diana! 

The decision to prerelease Diana is easily the most interesting thing about the show. In the Before Times, it was typically argued that audiences wouldn't pay to see something live if they could stream it at home. But the industry has an enormous amount of restructuring and rethinking to do as it drags itself out of the pandemic. At the moment, attempting to lure audiences to live versions of productions they've fallen in love with from home no longer seems like such a ridiculous idea. So while Diana gets props for introducing a new approach that can truly only be improved upon, I have less faith in the musical itself.

That's a shame, because a show about how Diana challenged and modernized the royal family would seem musical theater-ready in lots of ways: it's a melodramatic story that justifies some serious pomp and circumstance, it has hugely famous characters that people nevertheless want to know more about, and it ends in Great Tragedy but also offers Much Hope and Enormous Promise. Alas, Diana is a huge fail in that it never digs into the characters or their motivations, so none seem to have even a hint of an inner life. The result is two hours with a bunch of stick figures who change costumes many, many times, between performing frantic dance numbers and singing a sequence of late-80s-power-pop songs set with thuddingly unimaginative lyrics (composer-lyricist David Bryan played keyboards and wrote songs for Bon Jovi).   

Some of the weirdness of the filmed version is that it was taped before an empty house, which surely helped the production avoid health risks but did nothing to boost it artistically. Live theatre, after all, depends on an audience--especially when your show is wildly inconsistent in tone and mood, and features characters with the collective depth of water in a toilet bowl. Is Diana a straightforward biography? A campy romp that winkingly shows us a royal marriage we all know is doomed? A flight of fancy that takes wild, fantastically liberties for the sake of entertainment? Are Charles and Camilla evil manipulators or just two innocent kids in love? Is Diana a scheming, monarch-challenging mastermind, or just relatively down to earth, lonely and bored? Why does the Queen double as Barbara Cartland, and who slept with whom to get Judy Kaye to be part of this exercise? Absent an audience whose reactions might have provided valuable clues for schmucks like me viewing from home, it's difficult to figure out what parts of the show were meant to be funny, moving or serious. I ended up settling on "inadvertently hilarious" as my go-to interpretation, which was fun for me but not a good sign for Diana.   

Anyway, here's what happens: the show opens with Diana alone, singing a huge rock anthem about how she's livin' large but feelin' small. This number, like virtually all to follow, sounds like those late-80s MTV-ready rock anthems where dudes with electric guitars sing wistfully about how hard touring can be, and how they are forced to take comfort in an unending supply of groupies and blow. I guess Diana's rosy life had its thorns, too, man.

Charles, who in this show is supposed to be (a) dashingly handsome and (b) a huge enough player that he can't find a wealthy woman in all of England that he hasn't already nailed and dumped, is under pressure to marry because of some stiff exposition the Queen utters at him about The People. Everyone holds their arms very still and in formal positions to imply their royalness, and I found myself disappointed that no one did the Queen wave even once, especially because this is the kind of show where such a move, correctly timed, might actually work to bring the house down.

Camilla Parker-Bowles is supposed to be the real villain in Diana because she is (a) older and (b) not as beautiful as Diana and (c) that's the way mainstream entertainment created by men tends to roll. Camilla pushes Charles to marry Diana because she strikes them both as unintelligent, young and foolish, and thus surely someone who will leave them to their affair(s) in exchange for getting to be a princess.

Charles takes Diana to a concert and Diana gripes about how Charles likes the music of Dead White Men (like Bach and Beethoven), while she prefers the much cooler music of Slightly Younger Dead White Men (like Freddie Mercury and David Bowie). She also mentions Elton John, whose involvement in this show would have surely made it less cringeworthy, and I say this as someone who loathes that fucking song about the fucking candle and the fucking wind. The Queen sings Charles a song about love and her own experiences, which are thoroughly unrelated to anything Charles is concerned about, so he and Diana get hitched. The press dances maniacally around Diana while singing about having a wank and drinking Guinness because oo, British references!

Charles and Diana meet the People of Wales, who apparently all dress like chimney sweeps and live horrible, dark lives that improve instantly when Diana says hello to them. Charles is not nice to Diana but does manage to congratulate her for having their child by singing appropriately bad lyrics at her. Charles and Camilla sing of their everlasting love for one another with more bad lyrics. Diana sings in passing about her struggles with self-harm and bulimia, but then realizes that changing up her wardrobe will be truly liberating for her, hurrah.

Diana does genuinely impressive charity work, which in this production apparently involves sending cases of eyeliner to an AIDS ward because she's good with makeup. The patients are initially camera shy, given the fact that their illness might result in all sorts of inconveniences like losing their homes, jobs, and families, but once she bonds with them over clothing, they come right around and smile pretty for the camera. Charles attempts to contain Diana's popularity by speaking publicly about architecture. Diana starts an affair with James Hewitt, who rises shirtless from beneath the stage floor on a pommel horse, and whose name surely made the lyricist's day by conveniently rhyming with "Let's do it!"

All of the characters debate the possibility of divorce while they dance, fight, drink tea and hop into bed with one another. Diana's affair with Hewitt ends when, despite constant pleas to run off with her to America, he suddenly decides that his career matters and that his new position in Germany will make it absolutely impossible to ever again see one of the richest and most powerful women on the planet because borders are difficult to navigate and flights are prohibitively expensive, or something. Diana becomes newly bothered by the fact that Charles and Camilla are still Doing It now that she and Hewitt are no longer going to Do It, so there is a fight that is likened to a thrilla in Manila but instead is just a shoutfest in some palace basement or moat or back alley or something.

Finally, the Queen tells Diana they are a lot alike before launching into a song about how they are nothing alike. She insists that Diana will never be permitted to divorce and then magically grants her a divorce. Diana sings about how she is newly happy and motivated and eager to make good in the world and maybe have a daughter or several. Then she does a slow walk upstage that is meant to represent her death. The ensemble, clearly exhausted from gyrating in multiple outfits, earnestly tells the audience that the people you don't think are going to make change in the world sometimes do, and that is the end.

Is the show any better in front of a live audience? Hell if I know, but I think now I need to find out. Stay tuned....

Thursday, August 05, 2021

Standing on the Edge of Time

The Potomac Theatre Project's recent streaming play, Standing on the Edge of Time, consists largely of people talking--alone, in pairs, or in groups--about  history, theatre, relationships (romantic and not), and meaning. Each segment is by a different playwright or poet, resulting in a pleasing and thought-provoking verbal kaleidoscope of words and ideas. (I've provided a list of the shows represented below.) With many young people in the cast, the show sometimes feels like groups of college kids got together for slightly buzzed, totally heartfelt, 2-a.m. discussions. I frequently wished I could join them. 

Rather than discussing the individual segments, of which there are almost 20, I offer some of the lines that stood out for me.
  • All theatres are haunted.
  • Most people are stupid and couldn't tell a play from a pineapple.
  • My real sister became a nun to meet men.
  • To be or nobody.
  • Paranoia transcends politics; it becomes spiritual.
  • God wants peacocks, not ravens.
  • These are cold days, not to be believed.
  • I believe humans will walk on the surface on Mars.
  • The flying car will radically alter [making out].
  • [There will be] a global epidemic of panic and mass despair.
  • Sex will become [boring]; Tupperware will make dildos.
  • They fucked up in the 60s. They took away all the values and didn't put anything in its place.
  • On this planet one is overwhelmed.

One of my favorite lines comes from "What Do You Believe About the Future?" by David Auburn. After around a dozen people make their predictions, some of which are in the list above, a young man says, "I believe I will get a date."

Two points: (1) I wish I had been able to see this in a theatre. (No shit, huh?) I am much better able to sink into the mood and pacing of a word-driven piece like this in a dark theatre than in my studio apartment. (2) I really wish that the pieces had been identified as they started. I completely get why director Cheryl Faraone would not want to interrupt the flow of discussion with title cards or captions, but not knowing was problematic too. I was sometimes distracted by thinking, for example, "Wait, I've heard that before. Is that Kushner? Churchill?" And then I was distracted by thinking, "Wow, I really should be able to distinguish the voices of such individual playwrights." (The only author I identified with no problem was Ntozake Shange; she truly sounds like no one else.)

Faraone forestalls the inevitable Zoom-ness of streaming plays with an appealing, overtly theatrical opening including atmospheric shots of an old theatre and a ringmaster sort of person discussing exactly what theatre is ("Like the inside of a human heart. Only bigger, and not as empty."). When sections do have the dreaded Zoom-like boxes, Faraone uses interesting angles and various other devices to provide variety, plus a few sections are shot outdoors.

The show is well-acted by Alex Draper, Stephanie Janssen, Christopher Marshall, Tara Giordano, Sheyenne Brown, Aubrey Dube, Wynn McClenahan, Becca Berlind, Gabrielle Martin, Maggie Connolly, Madison Middleton, Francis Price, and Gibson Grimm.

It is unfortunate that this show is already gone, but Potomac has one more show this season. A Small Handful is based on the poetry and life of Anne Sexton and utilizes speech, song, and performance to "discover something about the endurance of Anne Sexton’s complex journey." It runs August 13 to 17; more information can be found here.


The plays and poems of Standing on the Edge of Time.

Crowbar by Mac Wellman

Next Time I'll Sing to You by James Saunders

The Enemy by Mike Bartlett

Excerpts from "Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia" by Francis Wheen

Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau

Tales of the Lost Formicans by Constance Congdon

Red Noses by Peter Barnes

A Bright Room Called Day (Oranges) by Tony Kushner

Roar by Anna Deavere Smith

Spell of Motion by Stacie Cassarino

What Do You Believe About the Future? by David Auburn

Serial Monogamy by Ntozake Shange

Tickets Are Now on Sale by Caryl Churchill

In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe by Eric Overmyer

Mornings at the Lake by Stacie Cassarino

The Internet is Serious Business by Tim Price

Thursday, April 08, 2021

The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 4 (book review)

 My latest review is up at Talkin' Broadway.

According to their interviews in The Untold Stories of Broadway: Volume 4, Ed Dixon has great affection for The Scarlet Pimpernel; Krysta Rodriguez saw Assassins at Studio 54 three times; and Arbender J. Robinson auditioned 30-plus times over many years before being cast in The Lion King. At 8 years old, Andrew Keenan-Bolger was so moved by Les Mis that he cried when characters died. Liz Callaway misses "when theatres were grungy and the area was in danger" (as do I). There were columns in the set of Grand Hotel because there were columns in the rehearsal room. As a kid, William Finn thought that My Fair Lady had always existed, like the Talmud. Longtime stagehand Manny Diaz has never seen a Broadway show from the audience. Twelve-year-old future-director Lynne Meadow thought her first Broadway show (Destry Rides Again) wasn't that good. Pretty much every other interviewee was gobsmacked by their first.
To read more, click here.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Tom Stoppard: A Life (book review)

My review of Tom Stoppard: A Life appears on Talkin' Broadway.

Hermione Lee's Tom Stoppard: A Life is a formidable achievement. Not only does Lee cover the story of Stoppard's life in great detail, but she also examines the genesis of each of his plays, offers social and political context, and provides thumbnail bios for dozens of the people in Stoppard's life. The result is 872 pages long, including copious notes; it is simultaneously fascinating and a bit of a slog. 

To read more, click here.

Monday, February 01, 2021

Myths and Hymns (Chapter 1): Flight

I'm going to cut to the chase here. I highly, highly, highly recommend the MasterVoices streaming production of Myths and Hymns, chapter one of which is available right now. The music, by Adam Guettel, is gorgeous. The lyrics are often lovely, sometimes silly and funny, occasionally grand. The designs are graceful and beautiful. The cast is amazing. And it's free, although you can certainly give a donation. I did.

Here are some excerpts from the press release to give you all the info you need:

Mastervoices Presents Flight, The First Chapter Of Adam Guettel’s Four-Part Theatrical Song Cycle Myths And Hymns, In A Digital Production Conceived And Supervised By Ted Sperling

Flight features the MasterVoices Chorus; singers Julia Bullock, Renée Fleming, Joshua Henry, Capathia Jenkins, Mykal Kilgore, Norm Lewis, Jose Llana, Kelli O'Hara, and Elizabeth Stanley; the a cappella gospel music group Take 6; actress Annie Golden; and pianists Anderson & Roe. It can be found at the ensemble's YouTube channel and on

Myths and Hymns - CHAPTER ONE: FLIGHT
Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel
Additional lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh
Orchestrations by Don Sebesky and Jamie Lawrence
MasterVoices, Ted Sperling, ​Artistic Director and Conductor​ 

Anderson & Roe, piano duo
Greg Anderson, arranger and director

Saturn Returns: the Flight
Joshua Henry, soloist
Ted Sperling, director   


Mykal Kilgore, soloist (Icarus)
Norm Lewis, soloist (Daedalus)
Sammi Cannold, director
Lucy Mackinnon, designer

Migratory V
Julia Bullock, soloist
Renée Fleming, soloist
Kelli O'Hara, soloist
Lear deBessonet, director
Danny Mefford, co-creator
Yazmany Arboleda, co-creator and illustrator
Cloud Chatanda, animation 

Annie Golden, narrator
Jose Llana, soloist (Bellerophon)
Capathia Jenkins, soloist (Pegasus)
Elizabeth Stanley, soloist (Gadfly)
Ted Sperling, director
Steven Kellogg, illustrations

Jesus, the Mighty Conqueror
Take 6, soloists
Mark Kibble, arranger
Khristian Dentley, director

Mastervoices Presents Work, The Second Chapter Of Adam Guettel’s Four-Part Theatrical Song Cycle Myths And Hymns, On February 24, 2021

With the MasterVoices Chorus; Singers Shoshana Bean, Daniel Breaker, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Michael McElroy, Ailyn Pérez, and Nicholas Phan; and actor John Lithgow.

Wendy Caster