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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Some Like It Hot

I saw Some Like It Hot too early to give it a full review, but I do have some comments. 


At first I was put off by the show. It's so energetic, and so enthusiastic, and so cheerful that it feels like an attack. But eventually I surrendered and embraced its hyperactive broad-stroke old-fashioned Broadway-ness. (It would have been a big hit in 1980.) 

Many of the songs are catchy and fun (though there too many of them). The ensemble work their collective butts off. The choreography is clunky. For example, there's a farce-type extended number that lacks logic and rhythm and ends up abrasive and annoying. However, the ensemble sells everything with that wonderful Broadway-triple-threat energy and skill. 

The main performances make or break a show like this, and Some Like It Hot features two kick-ass, star-making turns. Adrianna Hicks as Sugar and J. Harrison Ghee as Daphne have all the skills you could possibly ask for, topped with great charm and likeability. They are both consistently delightful. Christian Borle is ok; I don't think he is well-cast.

There has been some controversy in the chat rooms about this being a "woke" musical. "Woke" is often used judgmentally, so I don't want to go there. However, the way that the show embraces the existence of people of color and differing sexualities and identities is lovely

The show needs polish. I hope that they will use the rest of previews to fix the timing on one-liners (give them a moment to breathe!), balance the sound (50% of the lyrics are not intelligible!), trim the show, and dial the vibe down from 125% to, oh, 110%.

Some Like It Hot is not great. It is fun. And Ghee and Hicks are fabulous.


Wendy Caster

Friday, October 28, 2022

Carmen

Benjamin Franklin said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. However, he left out another important certainty: when MasterVoices puts on a show, it is always worth seeing.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Photo: Erin Baiano

Carmen, which MasterVoices recently presented, is a case in point. Although a concert production, it was fully performed, with top-of-the-line soloists, the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke's, enough costumes to set the scene and the mood, dancers, and that fabulous 120+ person chorus. Ted Sperling, MasterVoices's artistic director and general all-round gift to New York, led a lucid, energetic performance of the original Paris Opera Comique, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. It was a truly delightful evening, except for one thing. And that thing is not the fault of MasterVoices--it's Carmen itself, going back to the novel by Prosper Mérimée. 

Carmen (beautifully sung and acted by Ginger Costa-Jackson) could not be more open about who she is and what she wants. She explains, clearly, that the most important thing to her is freedom. She adds, in paraphrase, "If you love me, I won't love you. If you don't love me, I might love you. If we love each other at the same time, boy, are you in trouble." This is not a woman who wants to settle down. So, as occurs in about a million books, operas, and shows, after Corporal Don José, madly in love with Carmen, cannot force her to "be true" to him, he calls her a whore and kills her. 

Yes, the piece is of its time. Yes, it's just a show. Yes, people are spending too much time focusing on trees rather than forests these days. I get it! But, the bottom line for me, and for the friend I saw the show with, is that, yet again, we see a woman killed for not being who a man wants her to be. And Carmen is a fabulous vibrant character. She kicks ass. I wish she had kicked Don José's. 

But it was a great production. 

It always frustrates me that MasterVoices performances come and go so quickly, and that I can't tell you in time to make sure to catch them. But, since it's pretty much certain that their upcoming shows will be at least worthwhile and possibly wonderful, click here to get more info and perhaps tickets for the rest of their season.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

F*ck7thGrade

Jill Sobule's terrific autobiographical rock-concert musical, F*ck7thGrade, traces her life from tomboy riding a Raleigh Blue Chopper, to junior high outcast, to accidental performer in a nightclub in Spain, to closeted Tonight Show guest, to--right now--proud queer woman in a proud queer show at the fabulous Wild Project. 


It's a delightful trip, despite some dips into sadness and even despair. In many ways, Sobule's life pivoted around her hit "I Kissed a Girl." It was the nineties, and she succumbed to pressure to treat it as a "novelty song" rather than the lesbian anthem it is. In a way, she broke her own heart by not standing up for herself. 

But she also grew up, and embraced herself and her music. She is really funny (the excellent book is by Liza Birkenmeier, but the voice is sheer Sobule), and her songs are wonderful musical short stories. Most importantly, the show takes place in the sweet spot where the specifics of an artist's particular story expand into universality. Really, how many people enjoyed 7th grade? (If you did, by the way, you still would probably like the show. But you won't be in the majority in the audience.)

The show could use more of a transition between Sobule singing "I sold my soul, and nothing happened" and her response to Katy Perry's different "I Kissed a Girl." All we are told is that years passed, and that Sobule found herself feeling that, although she had somewhat disowned the song, she was the "I Kissed a Girl" girl! Also, F*ck7thGrade ends three times, and the last song is one song too many. (That last song shouldn't be played for anyone under 50, or even 60, with its list of potential--and realistic--ways the world may go to hell; I saw the show with a 28-year-old, and that's way too young to be told that it's okay if everything comes to an end because you've had a "good, good life.") 

Now that I've finished the "I'm a reviewer" part of the review, I need to add the "I'm a lesbian of Sobule's generation who has had her CDs for years" part of the review. For me, much of F*ck7thGrade felt like catching up with an old friend. When "I Kissed a Girl" came out, my friends and I were thrilled. I managed to tape the music video (on BetaMax!) from TV, and that tape was passed around to friend to friend to friend. We assumed that the enforced heterosexuality of the ending of the video (Sobule and the woman she kissed are shown pregnant by their loser men) was not Sobule's choice, and we had no doubt that Sobule was one of us. It's sad to hear how much pain the whole thing caused Sobule, because that song and that video were major gifts to the rest of us. Honestly, in 1995 the song felt miraculous. (I dealt with that awful, stupid, tagged-on ending by simply pressing "stop" before it came on.)

Even now, in 2022, movie, TV, and theatre characters that I can truly identify with are rare. Watching F*ck7thGrade gave me that unusual, wonderful sense of being seen, of being. That's a real gift.

The excellent back-up band/supporting cast includes Nina Camp (guitar, back-up vocals, "the sexy characters"), Kristen Ellis-Henderson (drums, Jill's junior high nemesis, other characters), and Julie Wolf (keyboards, various characters).   

The show runs through November 8. You can get tickets here. I hope you do.


Wendy Caster

Saturday, October 01, 2022

Leopoldstadt

Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard's newest play, and possibly his last, offers a journey through the life of a Jewish family in Vienna, from 1899 to the 1950s. They are well-off and mostly happy. Some have married non-Jews (Protestants, to be specific, although the matriarch of the clan persists in calling them "Papists"). While not specifically based on Stoppard's family, it is clearly an outgrowth of his later-in-life discovery that his mother was Jewish and that most of her relatives--most of his relatives--were killed in the Holocaust. 


Leopoldstadt may be Stoppard's wordiest play, and that is saying something. It may also be his least play-like play. In the majority of scenes, two people disagree about an issue involving the Jews. They argue their points, lading their conversation with a tremendous amount of history. Stoppard makes this remarkably compelling, particularly for a Jewish audience. (I am an ethnic, nonreligious Jew whose family came to the US well before World War II.) Few of the scenes feature action of any sort; they are the best in the play. 

Overall, Leopoldstadt is a history lesson, largely ignoring the admonition to show, not tell. But it's elegantly written by Stoppard, smoothly directed by Patrick Marber, and well-acted by a large cast. And the final scene brings the show home with power and emotion.

The show has been called a masterpiece, and I respectfully disagree. I don't think I'd even put it in the top five of Stoppard's plays. But, for all its flaws, it's a Stoppard play. With occasional sparks of his genius. And it's possibly his final play. That makes it a must-see in my book.

Wendy Caster

Sunday, September 25, 2022

King Charles III (movie review)

My friend and I were psyched to go to the play King Charles III on Broadway in 2016. We had read the rave reviews and heard the buzz. Come intermission, we looked at each other and said, pretty much at the same time, "What's the big deal?" and "It's good, but..." When the second act ended, we looked at each other and said, pretty much at the same time, "Now I understand," and "Wow!"


I didn't rush to see the movie version, which came out in 2017, because I didn't want to mess with my memories of the play, which was so damn good. But, more recently, I decided to watch it because

(1) Enough time had passed;

(2) The screenplay is by the playwright, Mike Bartlett; the movie is directed by Rupert Goold, who also directed the play; and most of the original Broadway performers are in the movie; and

(3) For some strange reason, King Charles III has been on my mind recently.

The movie is remarkable, every bit as good as the play, so much so that I'm linking to my original review, here. I would only add that Bartlett was so insightful as to be prescient. (If you watch the movie, and you should, keep in mind that the play first appeared in 2014.) I'll be fascinated to see how much life imitates art going forward.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Broadway Revival (book review)

I remember learning in my teens that George Gershwin was only 38 when he died. I felt so sorry for him, but also for me. What music died with him? Gershwin had mentioned to a friend that he had a string quartet in his head, but hadn't had time to write it down. Heart-breaking!


Author Laura Frankos shares my sense of loss, as does the lead character of her entertaining novel, Broadway Revival. It is 2070, and David Greenbaum, in mourning for his late husband, starts obsessing about Gershwin. In David's world, the brain tumor that killed Gershwin could  be cured. And, as it happens, David's brother has access to a time machine. What if ... ?

Frankos's alternate history builds on her comprehensive understanding of the time period. The book is a great read, combining wish-fulfillment with smooth story-telling. If you care about Gershwin, or the American songbook, or musical theatre, or time travel, or alternate history, this book has much to offer you.

Wendy Caster

Friday, July 29, 2022

Into the Woods

Sometime right after the 9/11 bombings, I had a nightmare: I was doubled over with laughter in a comedy club, when a plane crashed through the roof. It was a pretty straightforward dream, borne of the sorrow, trauma and anxiety of the moment, but it also drove home how wracked with guilt I felt about missing joy as keenly as I did in the weeks following the attacks. Laughing didn't come easy in a stretch when the whole city was crazy with grief, and displays of mourning became briefly, unsettlingly common. I'd never seen as much public weeping before; I'd never been more aware of how inappropriate joy felt, or how deeply I craved it.  

I'm grateful that no one involved in the giddy, bubbly revival of Into the Woods gave in to guilt, trauma, grief or anxiety, or even the urge to refer in any way to the current state of things. I'm sure the temptation was there: fairytales perpetuate precisely because their broad strokes fit just about any cultural moment with ease, and we're mired in a pretty dark one to which most live productions have chosen at least a passing nod. Also, any musical that deigns to reflect the entirety of human existence, including the whole spectrum of emotions, practically demands at least a few moments of weight. Especially if said musical happens to be by an intensely loved and only recently deceased artist whose genius has been loudly reinforced for over a half-century. If there was ever a time during which Woods might lean into its characters' angsty disappointments, anxieties and heartbreaks, it'd be now. 

Then again, things were pretty bad during the Great Depression, but that didn't stop Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from having the most delightful time gliding across some tastefully decorated ballroom. What makes this production similarly sublime is that it opts to be loose, broad, frothy and fun without ever cheapening the material. Audiences don't always need to reminded that they're traumatized, disillusioned, and sad. The characters in this production surely are too--they're us, after all--but they're also tough, adaptable, funny and thoroughly unwilling to let life's disappointments, crises, or even unspeakable tragedies get in their way. 

Swiftly, playfully directed by Lear DeBessonet, Into the Woods features a stellar cast of Broadway veterans, relative newcomers and some very endearing puppets. The actors lean almost consistently into life's pleasures: Julia Lester's voracious Little Red Ridinghood is most obvious (and hilarious) in this respect, but Patina Miller's Witch, for all her tsuris, does a bodily undulating dance whenever she hears Rapunzel's voice, and Sara Bareilles' headstrong and breezily independent Baker's Wife makes a lot more sense than she ever did: sure she loves her husband, but why not take a quick roll in the hay with a fatuous Prince (Gavin Creel) while your heart's still beating? 

The whole cast exudes joy and  makes Sondheim's complicated score sound as easy and as miraculous as breathing. I'm sure it helps to have an audience as adoring and as eager to be delighted as the one I saw the show with: just about every number threatened to bring the house down; a couple of entrances and exits did, too. A little girl danced energetically (and impressively quietly) up and down the far aisle through much of act II. I knew how she felt. 

So what if all the puppeteering, joking and lightheartedness results in a breezier, less emotionally impactful--or even clear--second act? I'm not sure exactly what was going on with the Witch's departure, and none of the characters grieve for more than a split second upon learning of the deaths of loved ones. No matter: We all know pretty damned well by this point that people don't always make it out of the woods. I'm certainly willing to trade a few muted moments for a consistent reminder that joy is like oxygen, that it's futile to feel guilt about seeking it out, and that a light touch can be a magical elixir for the weary, traumatized masses. That there can be moments of such unadulterated joy in the midst of so much awful is about as profound a reminder of why we soldier on in the first place. 

Go. Have fun; I hope you leave feeling a little lighter than you did when you walked in.  


Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sex, Grift, and Death

Caryl Churchill is a remarkable playwright. She's smart and funny and political and personal and humane and moving and very very entertaining. Reading her scripts reveals that she is also a great collaborator: for example, for a funeral scene in Here We Go, part of the excellent Sex, Grift, and Death at PTP/NYC, she wrote a bunch of little speeches, unattributed, allowing the director to choose who says them and in what order. (In the fabulous Love and Information, done by NYTW some years ago, Churchill provided only the dialogue--no characters, ages, genders, locations, or situations--for dozens of short pieces.) 

David Barlow, Tara Giordano
Hot Fudge
Photo: Stan Barouh

In another section of the exceptional Here We Go, Churchill provides the mere scaffolding of a play in a way that invites audience members to provide their own storylines and details. The resulting experience becomes extremely personal to each viewer. It is a tour de force of writing that consists of almost no writing. 

Churchill is fortunate to have director Cheryl Faraone as one of the major interpreters of her work in the United States. We in the audience are fortunate as well. Faraone meets Churchill full on, mining her humor and emotion and giving us productions full of texture and clarity, perfectly timed, beautifully acted. 

Danielle Skraastad
Photo: Stan Barouh

There are two Churchill works in Sex, Grift, and Death. The first, Hot Fudge, is a complete pleasure as it depicts a family of grifters whose daughter is discovering that honesty just might be a worthwhile option. Faraone has guided the excellent cast to perfectly calibrated, extremely funny performances. Particularly noteworthy are the fabulous Danielle Skraastad, whose every utterance has the audience hysterical, and Tara Giordano, who anchors the fun in reality. 

The other play, Here We Go, is about illness, dying, and death. It is in three parts; the first and third are discussed above. In the second part, the versatile David Barlow plays a dead man trying to suss out just what death is. It's funny and thought-provoking and amazingly imaginative. It genuinely makes a person think about the meaning of life.

Jackie Sanders, Bill Army
Lunch
Photo: Stan Barouh

There's a third play in Sex, Grift, and Death, called Lunch. Written by Steven Berkoff, it deals with the sex part of the evening's title. A woman sits on a bench near the ocean, seemingly waiting for something/someone. A man appears--is he the one she is waiting for? The rest of the play deals with the answer to that question as they chat and spar and flirt and jockey for position. Their interaction turns sexy, thoughtful, and ugly in turn, and then back again. They are not named in the written script--just Man and Woman--though they are named in the play itself. Are they supposed to represent all men and women? Is the play about the striving of humanity for connection--or just for something to happen? With its occasional references to TS Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the play clearly has something to say, but it is too wordy for a brief one-act; one would have to read it multiple times to digest what is going on.

Ultimately, Lunch is an interesting and often entertaining show, and it features some impressive writing. But to watch rather than read, it might benefit from some serious pruning. Bill Army and Jackie Sanders are both quite good (although Army could be slower and clearer in his long speeches). 

Overall, Sex, Grift, and Death is a real treat. Welcome back to in-person theatre PTP/NYC. You were missed! 

Wendy Caster

Reverse Transcription

It is difficult to review Reverse Transcription, an evening of plays covering AIDS and covid, as theatre. The first piece, Robert Chesley's Dog Plays, is a story of despair and death written by a despairing and dying playwright. The second, A Variant Strain, written by Johnathan Adler and Jim Petosa as a continuation of the first, brings the AIDS-stricken main character into the days of covid. These plays depict deep pain, grief, and loss, and they are vivid reminders, if any are needed, of the tragedy of AIDS-related and covid-related deaths. I honor the emotions of these plays and I am sorry for everyone's losses.

Johnathan Tindle, James Patrick Nelson
Photo: Stan Barouh

However, and this is the dicey part, watching these plays was a deeply unpleasant, abrasive experience unmitigated by art or insight. The playwrights' anger lashed out at the audience, and I kept thinking, "What the fuck did we ever do to you?" Rather than inviting the audience in, the pieces put up blockades of blame and manipulation. 

Attacking your audience with loud, endless speeches and unremitting rage is not good writing, at least in my opinion. (Though some of the speeches were truly excellent.) How about a little humor? Warmth? Likeability? Look at Angels in America, The Normal Heart, even Boys in the Band. There are genuine people in those plays, not just spewing mouthpieces. It was pretty much impossible to feel involved and sympathetic at Reverse Transcription, except for the brief scene shown above, where the admirable Johnathan Tindle brought a depth and sensitivity otherwise missing in the evening. 

I agree that the shows' creators have the right to produce exactly what they want to produce. I agree that anger is a legitimate topic for theatre. I agree that AIDS was an unimaginably horrible agent of destruction. I think every day of my friends who have been dead half my life and all they have missed. But those plays being in the audience's faces for two hours added nothing to our existence or understanding and, well, cost us those two hours.

I realize as I write this that I was angry watching the plays and am angrier now. Maybe this means that Reverse Transcription was actually successful. I don't know. But I sure don't recommend that you go and see it.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Chains

In Elizabeth Baker's play Chains, currently in a strong production at the admirable Mint Theatre Company, Charley recognizes that he has much to be grateful for. He loves his wife Lily. He has a secure job in a terrible economy. He has a garden and a small but nice home. But his job is tedious and ill-paid; his garden is small with "filthy soil"; and he and Lily have had to take in a border to make ends meet. Still, Charley accepts his situation--albeit crabbily--until the border, Tennant, announces that he is moving to Australia. Friends and neighbors agree that Tennant is a "stupid ass" for giving up a steady job to try his luck on the other side of the world. But Charley too wants to break the invisible but oh-so-real chains that strangle his dreams and the dreams of many working class people.

Laakan McHardy, Jeremy Beck
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Chains was written in 1910, but the story is sadly resonant today. When a character says, "Last week our firm wanted a man to do overtime work, and they don't pay too high a rate—I can tell you. They had five hundred and fifteen applications—five hundred and fifteen! Think of that!" he sounds like many job hunters today. Similarly, the whole idea that workers should be grateful merely to have work, however unfulfilling or awful, remains alive and well. And Charley being called a socialist because he thinks there should be another way to live--that's very 2022 as well. 

Brian Owen, Olivia Gilliatt,  Peterson Townsend 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

As always, the Mint production is first-class all the way. The performers are excellent: Jeremy Beck, Anthony Cochrane, Christopher Gerson, Olivia Gilliatt, Laakan McHardy, Ned Noyes, Brian Owen, Claire Saunders, Peterson Townsend, Amelia White, and Avery Whitted. While I love multicultural casts in general, in this show, I wish the performers had been of one ethnic group/race (not necessarily white). In most Shakespeare plays and many musicals, for example, race is incidental. But in a play about class in 1910, race is not incidental. 

The production values are also, as always, superb: sets, John McDermott (the set changes are great fun); costumes, David Toser; lights, Paul Miller; sound, M. Florian Staab; props, Chris Fields. 

Overall, Chains does well in making vivid the invisible chains of being poor; however, the play takes too long to make its points and could easily have been a more powerful one-act (it was originally a one-act, as it happens, but Baker was convinced to expand it). Baker's The Price of Thomas Scott, done by the Mint a few years ago, was also a bit flabby, but it hit harder and said more. (Review here.) I am intrigued to see Partnership, the third play in the Mints' Meet Miss Baker.

Wendy Caster 

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber

You have only a couple of days to catch the delightful and odd musical The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber, running at Dixon Place through Sunday May 29th. It's worth the trip.

Eunji Lim, Yura Noh, NamPyo Kim, Kyongsik Won, Ju Yeon Choi .
Photo: Stefan Hagen

Presented by Concrete Temple Theatre, Playfactory Mabangzen, and Yellow Bomb Inc., The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber is a bicultural mash-up of Friedrich Schiller’s play The Robbers and the Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong. With a cast of actors from both the US and Korea, the show is performed in Korean and English, each supplemented by supertitles in the other language. It takes place in a dystopian setting where two people--the robber and the waitress, natch--choose to break away from the rules and restrictions and act from the heart. For the robber, that takes the form of separating people from their cell phones. For the waitress, it's "kidnapping" senior citizens who are being abused or neglected by their families and providing them with a friendly home. Unsurprisingly, (entertaining) chaos ensues.

While the storyline is a bit wobbly and unfocused, the songs, directions, and performances are good, and the show has a beguiling madcap sweetness. 

One of the show's main strengths is the scenery, designed by Carlo Adinolfi. Made up mostly of cardboard and plywood (I think), it lends the show a sense of fairy tale or cartoon. "Props" are charming drawings of the items on cardboard. Doors resemble the frames of cartoon panels. Combining simplicity, utility, and wit, the scenery gently anchors the show in its own reality.

The Legend of the Waitress and the Robber was written by Renee Philippi, with a score by Lewis Flinn. Philippi directed with Eric Nightengale. The cast includes Carlo Adinolfi, Rolls Andre, Ju Yeon Choi, Hye Young Chyun, Lisa Kitchens, Nam Pyo Kim, Won Kyongsik, Eunji Lim, James A. Pierce III, and Noh Yura. Costumes were designed by Laura Anderson Barbata; the musical directors are Jacob Kerzner and Hee Eun Kim; Quentin Madia is the Production Stage Manager.

Overall, the show is unique and lovely.

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

2021-2022 Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations

The 2021-2022 Outer Critics Circle Award Nominations

Outstanding New Broadway Musical
MJ the Musical
Mr. Saturday Night
Mrs. Doubtfire
Paradise Square
Six

Outstanding New Broadway Play
Birthday Candles
Clyde's
Skeleton Crew
The Lehman Trilogy
The Minutes

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical
Black No More
Harmony
Intimate Apparel
Kimberly Akimbo
Little Girl Blue

Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play
Morning Sun
On Sugarland
Prayer for the French Republic
Sanctuary City
The Chinese Lady

John Gassner Award (presented to a new American play, preferably by a new playwright)
Cullud Wattah by Erika Dickerson-Despenza
English by Sanaz Toossi
Selling Kabul by Sylvia Khoury
Tambo and Bones by Dave Harris
Thoughts of a Colored Man by Keenan Scott II

Outstanding Revival of a Musical (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
Assassins
Caroline, or Change
Company
The Music Man
The Streets of New York

Outstanding Revival of a Play (Broadway or Off-Broadway)
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
How I Learned to Drive
Take Me Out
A Touch of the Poet
Trouble in Mind

Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Justin Cooley, Kimberly Akimbo
Myles Frost, MJ the Musical
Rob McClure, Mrs. Doubtfire
Jaquel Spivey, A Strange Loop
Chip Zien, Harmony

Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Kearstin Piper Brown, Intimate Apparel
Victoria Clark, Kimberly Akimbo
Sharon D Clarke, Caroline, or Change
Carmen Cusack, Flying Over Sunset
Joaquina Kalukango, Paradise Square

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
Quentin Earl Darrington, MJ the Musical
Matt Doyle, Company
Steven Pasquale, Assassins
A.J. Shively, Paradise Square
Will Swenson, Assassins

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Shoshana Bean, Mr. Saturday Night
Jenn Colella, Suffs
Judy Kuhn, Assassins
Patti LuPone, Company
Bonnie Milligan, Kimberly Akimbo

Outstanding Actor in a Play
Patrick J. Adams, Take Me Out
Simon Russell Beale, The Lehman Trilogy
Adam Godley, The Lehman Trilogy
Adrian Lester, The Lehman Trilogy
Sam Rockwell, American Buffalo

Outstanding Actress in a Play
Betsy Aidem, Prayer for the French Republic
Stephanie Berry, On Sugarland
Edie Falco, Morning Sun
LaChanze, Trouble in Mind
Debra Messing, Birthday Candles

Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Chuck Cooper, Trouble in Mind
Brandon J. Dirden, Skeleton Crew
Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Take Me Out
Michael Oberholtzer, Take Me Out
Austin Pendleton, The Minutes

Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Chanté Adams, Skeleton Crew
Uzo Aduba, Clyde's
Francis Benhamou, Prayer for the French Republic
Phylicia Rashad, Skeleton Crew
Nancy Robinette, Prayer for the French Republic

Outstanding Solo Performance
Alex Edelman, Just For Us
Jenn Murray, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing
Arturo Luís Soria, Ni Mi Madre
Kristina Wong, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord

Outstanding Director of a Play
Camille A. Brown, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
Scott Ellis, Take Me Out
Sam Mendes, The Lehman Trilogy
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Skeleton Crew
Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes

Outstanding Director of a Musical
Warren Carlyle, Harmony
Moisés Kaufman, Paradise Square
Jessica Stone, Kimberly Akimbo
Christopher Wheeldon, MJ the Musical
Jerry Zaks, Mrs. Doubtfire

Outstanding Choreography
Camille A. Brown, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf
Warren Carlyle, Harmony
Warren Carlyle, The Music Man
Bill T. Jones, Alex Sanchez, Garrett Coleman, and Jason Oremus, Paradise Square
Christopher Wheeldon and Rich + Tone Talauega, MJ the Musical

Outstanding Book of a Musical
Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, Mr. Saturday Night
Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell, Mrs. Doubtfire
David Lindsay-Abaire, Kimberly Akimbo
Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel
Bruce Sussman, Harmony

Outstanding Score
Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen, and Masi Asare, Paradise Square
Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Doubtfire
Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, Harmony
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six
Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, Kimberly Akimbo

Outstanding Orchestrations
John Clancy, Kimberly Akimbo
David Holcenberg and Jason Michael Webb, MJ the Musical
Greg Jarrett, Assassins
Jason Howland, Paradise Square
Doug Walter, Harmony

Outstanding Scenic Design (Play or Musical)
Beowulf Boritt, Flying Over Sunset
Es Devlin, The Lehman Trilogy
Scott Pask, American Buffalo
Adam Rigg, The Skin of Our Teeth
David Zinn, The Minutes

Outstanding Costume Design (Play or Musical)
Jane Greenwood, Plaza Suite
Santo Loquasto, The Music Man
Gabriella Slade, Six
Emilio Sosa, Trouble in Mind
Catherine Zuber, Mrs. Doubtfire

Outstanding Lighting Design (Play or Musical)
Jon Clark, The Lehman Trilogy
Natasha Katz, MJ the Musical
Bradley King, Flying Over Sunset
Brian MacDevitt, The Minutes
Jen Schreiver, Lackawanna Blues

Outstanding Sound Design (Play or Musical)
Nick Powell and Dominic Bilkey, The Lehman Trilogy
André Pluess, The Minutes
Ben and Max Ringham, Blindness
Dan Moses Schreier, Harmony
Matt Stine, Assassins

Outstanding Video/Projection Design (Play or Musical)
59 Productions and Benjamin Pearcy, Flying Over Sunset
Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch, Space Dogs
Shawn Duan, Letters of Suresh
Luke Halls, The Lehman Trilogy
Jeff Sugg, Mr. Saturday Night

Special Achievement Awards 
Johanna Day, David Morse, Mary-Louise Parker, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson for reprising their outstanding performances in How I Learned to Drive and Lackawanna Blues two decades later. All were eligible in previous seasons.

The Skin of Our Teeth

My review of The Skin of Our Teeth is up at Talkin' Broadway: 


Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize three times: for the novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and for the plays Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. In distinctly different ways, all three focus on the meaning of life for individuals and for humanity in general. While "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" and Our Town are quiet and subtle creations, The Skin of Our Teeth throbs with energy and noise, bursting out of theatrical conventions, time, and reality.

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Thursday, April 14, 2022

Penelope, Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written

I was excited to see the York Theatre Company's new musical Penelope, Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written (book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg) because I had had sooooo much fun at Desperate Measures (book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg). While I ended up enjoying Penelope, it was no Desperate Measures.

Britney Nicole Simpson
Photo: Carol Rosegg

The first problem was the first act, which slogged along, covering the same ground over and over. While Penelope waits for Odysseus to come home, a gaggle of suitors try to woo her, meanwhile eating her out of house and home. The songs, although often entertaining and listener-friendly, do little to advance the plot, except in the most expository manner. They largely ignore the writing 101 admonition to show, not tell. 

Another problem is the suitors; they come across as a group of petulant gay men in a jokey way that was tired years ago. Each gets maybe half a trait to distinguish him. They are boring company, and while they have way too much to do in terms of stage time, they have way too little to do in terms of remotely being characters. Why not have one who actually loves Penelope? Maybe have two that are a couple but need/want to marry into money and power? And maybe one who is embarrassed at being a parasite, but has no other options? Yes, this is a comedy and, yes, you don't want to focus on them too much, but they could be twice as interesting in half the time. And the feyness is just old.

The third problem is the direction, which focuses heavy-handedly on silly, which is okay in and of itself, but silly for the sake of being silly grows tiresome. 

The thing with silly comedy is that it is still theatre and still benefits from calibration, characterization, and a sense of actual stakes. To me, the best comedies are the ones where you care about the characters. 

Luckily, in the second act, stuff actually starts to happen. The scenes between Penelope and Odysseus work because they are actual scenes, with conflict, interaction, and, yes, actual stakes. I suspect that with the first act cut in half, no intermission, and subtler and more specific direction, Penelope could be a pretty wonderful show.

In terms of performance, the women steal Penelope. Britney Nicole Simpson is excellent and sometimes even thrilling as Penelope. She comes across as the love child of Debbie Allen and Patti LuPone, and really, could you ask for better parents? It's her Off-Broadway debut, and I suspect/hope that she has an exciting career ahead of her. Leah Hocking nails the role of Odysseus's mother, and Maria is lovely as Daphne, shepherdess of the pigs and love interest to Odysseus's son. Among the men, Ben Jacoby and Philippe Arroyo stand out as Odysseus and his son, respectively.

The music, by Stephen Weiner, is fairly generic but quite pretty, and it is well presented by the five-piece band (musical director David Hancock Turner, Gregory Jones, John Skinner, Mike Raposo, and Allison Seidner). While Kellogg's book definitely needs work, his lyrics are clever and often quite funny. James Morgan's set is attractive, and while I wish the show wasn't miked in that small theatre, Bradlee Ward's sound design is clean and well-modulated. 

As it stands, Penelope's second act is a fun ride, but a much better overall show is definitely in there.

Wendy Caster

Monday, April 11, 2022

Queens Girl in the World

By Linda Drummond Johnson, Guest Reviewer 

Queens Girl in the World is an extraordinary one-woman play currently in its New York debut at Theater Row. It stars Felicia Curry, an actor with many honors, awards, and accolades, and it was written by the also multiple-award-winning playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings. It is part of a “Queens Girl” trilogy, which has been performed across the country. Queens Girl in the World is the first to be performed in New York City.



Queens Girl is a semi-autobiographical tale about a Black girl growing up in a middle income/working class Black enclave in Queens in the 60s. I also was a Black girl growing up in a middle-income/working class Black enclave in Queens in the 60s. Apparently, so was the writer, Ms. Jennings, who is pitch perfect in capturing the tone, dilemmas, personalities, sounds, conversation, and backdrop of what it meant to be a young, naive Negro girl of (relative) privilege coming of age during a politically and culturally turbulent time. 

I was grinning from ear to ear under my mask a full 30 minutes before I was aware of it. Felicia Curry as Jacqueline Marie Butler (“Jackie”) wastes no time luring us into her orbit. With her shining face and beaming smile, she is wide-eyed with promise, and she inhabits the body of a self-conscious, flat-chested, “pre-mens” young lady. You will laugh every time Jackie screams as she learns about how s-e-x actually works!) 

We, the audience, are seated in an intimate theater with the set of a simple stoop (“front steps” for you non-urban dwellers) and a house’s brick front backed by a large silk screen on which is projected everything from sunny skies to stars to historical figures. With Motown sounds piped in and Daisy Long’s ingenious lighting design, we are taken back to the early 1960s where Jacqueline Marie lives with her Caribbean doctor-father Charles and proper genteel mother, Grace. They, along with neighborhood and City folk, Black, Jewish, white, male, female, and of varying ages are all deftly portrayed by Ms. Curry. 

Sometimes, it is a subtle change of inflection with shoulders and back hunched forward, an authentic dialect, and a particular gesture that signals the change from one character to another in a choreographed call and response. Other times, with a hip thrown one way with her body leaning the other, Curry uses a voice like a screeching metal swing to mimic the bobble-headed wise-aleck girl down the block. Ms. Curry is able, even wearing a skirt and with her hair in two “Afro puffs,” to morph into a tall, full-bodied teenage boy without becoming the caricature of one. Kudos to director /choreographer Paige Hernandez, who clearly knows when enough is enough but never too much as she keeps us in the story throughout these changes, even during one shocking encounter. 

While it has a timeless coming of age theme, this story is set in a very specific place and time, where a girl “assigned Negro at birth” is hemmed in by unique circumstances: her assigned identity, the nationally burgeoning “Black” identity, and finding a personage of her own, all within unspoken class warfare between “Strivers” (the first real Black professional class, disproportionately represented in Queens by Caribbean immigrants) and their lower income American neighbors.

If that is not enough, Jackie is sent by her parents to an elite all-white private school in Greenwich village where she must navigate a progressive Jewish establishment and where she goes from being the smartest girl in her local school to needing a tutor to keep up. “Caught between the Irwin School and Erickson Street” is one of the ways she describes her quandary. (During one scene where I probably laughed a little too loudly, Jacqueline “interprets” the items in her overnight bag to a white friend during a sleepover. When she got to hair products, I lost it.) 

Dad, Dr. Butler, is an activist and separatist, with a healthy distrust of white America. He is friends with Malcolm X and a fan of natural, Black beauty. The regal Mrs. Grace Butler wants her beloved only child to succeed and integrate into American society, and she grooms her to keep up with the establishment that her father disdains. Mom Grace reminds Jackie that she is not like those other (read: lower class, Southern born) Negro girls. Grace Butler also acts as the “grammar police,” ensuring that her daughter enunciates every  i-n-g  at the end of a word and never, ever, answers a question with, “Huh?” That was spot on enough to give me flashbacks! 

Racism is a concept too new to Jackie to have formed an opinion about, but when it hits, it hits. She goes through puberty during a civil rights period that is moving from nonviolent resistance to the beginnings of the Black liberation movement following Malcolm’s death. Her political consciousness develops simultaneously with her breasts going from training bras to “big girl” brassieres. 

This often upbeat and entertaining rendering can also wring a tear out of you as the realities of a violent world slowly leave their stain on Jackie’s innocence (while never dampening her resilience). You may also cry with laughter watching Jackie/Ms. Curry do “the Pony,” "the Jerk," and other 60’s dances with hilarious over-enthusiasm. And most everyone will identify with trying to put on the personage that will please the audience you are with, while eventually realizing, usually far into adulthood, that the audience you most need to please is in the mirror. Run, do not walk, and get your tickets to this marvelous experience. Prepare to be transported and transformed. 

Linda Drummond Johnson 

Friday, March 11, 2022

Anyone Can Whistle: MasterVoices

The MasterVoices' concert of Anyone Can Whistle was a lovely and poignant reminder that although we have lost Stephen Sondheim, we will always have his work. And, oh!, that work!


Elizabeth Stanley
Photo: Nina Westervelt

Anyone Can Whistle is, to say the least, a problematic musical, bloated here, thin there, sometimes smart but too often cutesy. But the score includes gems: in particular, "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Anyone Can Whistle," and "With So Little to Be Sure Of." And, like all of Sondheim's work, Anyone Can Whistle rewards multiple hearings and viewings. I have known the original cast recording by heart since the late 1970s, yet I was surprised and delighted over and over again by Sondheim's brilliance, humor, and heart.

The cast of the MasterVoices concert was uneven. Elizabeth Stanley was magnetic, brilliant, moving, thrilling, superb, and fabulous. On the other hand, Vanessa Williams was little better than mediocre; frequently, she seemed uncomfortable with the music, and she lacks the presence necessary to give dimension to the Mayoress. She just wasn't interesting. Santino Fontana is always likeable, and he has a lovely voice, but his performance was bland. While Stanley prepared for and gave a full performance, Williams and Fontana seemed less prepared, and they sang songs rather than playing characters.

One of the highlights of the evening was Joanna Gleason's entrance (she narrated the show). Over 2,800 people greeted her as an old friend, roaring and clapping as she beamed with pleasure. And of course she was wonderful as the narrator. 


Ted Sperling, Vanessa Williams
Photo: Nina Westervelt

Ted Sperling did a nice job as director and an excellent job as conductor. The orchestra sounded terrific. The MasterVoices chorus was entertaining but underused. Weirdly enough, the sound was erratic. Carnegie Hall is famous for its acoustics, and during intermission my friend told me of sitting in the last row of the highest balcony years ago and hearing every unmiked word. I guess the miking was a problem, because the sound was sometimes murky, and occasionally crackly, with much dialogue completely lost.

Before the concert started, Sperling spoke a few words of introduction. He showed us his vocal score, given to him by Victoria Clark in 1984. It was a mistake to put Victoria Clark in our minds, because it was so easy to imagine how amazing she would have been as the Mayoress. 

But the evening's two stars made it a concert well worth seeing: Stephen Sondheim and Elizabeth Stanley. They made astonishingly beautiful music together.

Wendy Caster

Monday, March 07, 2022

JANE ANGER or The Lamentable Comedie of JANE ANGER, that Cunning Woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his Peasant Companion, Francis, Yes and Also of Anne Hathaway (also a Woman) Who Tried Very Hard.

As I watched the annoyingly written, directed, acted, and titled JANE ANGER,or The Lamentable Comedie JANE ANGER, that Cunning Woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his Peasant Companion, Francis, Yes and Also of Anne Hathaway (also a Woman) Who Tried Very Hard, I pondered why so many of the people around me were laughing so hard and so long.

Amelia Workman, Talene Monahon
Photo: Valerie Terranova
  

I came up with a few theories:

  • They had never seen first-rate camp, so were easily pleased.
  • They had never seen a farce before, so were easily pleased.
However, the conversations I overheard before the show suggested an experienced audience, so I considered other theories:

  • The audience simply enjoyed the cheap, predictable anachronistic humor.
  • They were just in the mood to laugh.
    • My friend, who didn't find the show as annoying as I did, but also didn't like it, had another theory, perhaps the best one:

      • They were friends of the cast, writer, director, and/or crew.
      In all fairness, I can be a bit on the crabby side when it comes to humor, though shows that have reduced me to hysterics include Noises Off, A Little Night Music, The Real Inspector Hound, Musical of Musicals, many generations of Forbidden Broadway, and most recently, Red Bull's fabulous production of The Alchemist. Perhaps the show just was not my cup of tea. And, like I said, many people had a great time.

      The plot, such as it is, focuses on William Shakespeare (Michael Urie, working hard) during the great plague. He is stuck inside a small apartment with a creepy member of his theatre troupe whom he happily mistreats and insults, much to the amusement of the audience. A "cunning woman" by the name of Jane Anger (Amelia Workman, also working hard) appears, having climbed up a drain pipe to avoid the barricaded door to the building. Jane is a woman with many pasts who is trying to get her writing published. Shakespeare cannot comprehend a woman writing, but Jane tries to get him to support her work, as the name "Shakespeare" would of course open many doors. Then Anne Hathaway appears, also via the drainpipe. She is angry at Shakespeare due to his long neglect of her and the family; he didn't even go home when their son Hamnet died.

      Author Talene Monahon has some interesting things to say about originality, feminism, and creativity, and under the noise she seems to be aiming for meaning. I wish that she had been more choosy with her jokes, replacing the many subpar specimens with more substance. (Monahon provided the best performance of the evening, with her silly yet human Anne Hathaway.)

      I sometimes envy reviewers and critics who consider their own opinions to be the correct opinions. It might be fun to have that level of confidence, but it would be pointless (and pompous). Everyone's feelings about the arts, and particularly about theatre, are affected by our personalities, our frames of reference, our moods, the people sitting next to us, and our dinners. What we love Saturday we might hate Monday, and vice versa.

      So I'll end on this. I believe very strongly that JANE ANGER or The Lamentable Comedie of JANE ANGER, that Cunning Woman, and also of Willy Shakefpeare and his Peasant Companion, Francis, Yes and Also of Anne Hathaway (also a Woman) Who Tried Very Hard was bad. But I might be wrong.

      Wendy Caster

      Wednesday, February 23, 2022

      The Daughter-in-Law

      The Mint Theater Company's production of D.H. Lawrence's drama, The Daughter-in-Law, so successfully evokes life in the East Midlands of England in 1912 that I was shocked when I glanced at the audience and saw people in contemporary clothing--and masks! This visit to another time and place is the cumulation of all the things that the fabulous creators at the Mint do so well: pick a compelling play, direct it with art and clarity, perform it beautifully--and provide scenery, costumes, lighting, and sound that perfectly set the scene, while also being a great pleasure to hear and see.

      Tom Coiner, Amy Blackman
      Photo: Maria Baranova

      The mining families in Lawrence's play balance two serious concerns: (1)  the wear and tear of mining, with a strike looming, and (2) trying to understand, impress, escape, and love each other, while tangled in passivity, ambition, fear, and desire.

      Mrs. Gascoyne's situation is ostensibly clear: she wants what's best for her grown sons. But what does that mean? And according to who? One son, Luther, a gruffly masculine man who has neither the intelligence nor the need to make much of himself, is married to Minnie, a woman he barely knows. Minnie has a small inheritance that becomes almost another character in the play, with its vibrations of power and class difference. Mrs. Gascoyne unsurprisingly has no use for Minnie. 

      Over the course of the play, the characters surprise themselves and each other, and sometimes us as well. The plot also takes an unexpected turn or two. It's difficult to say how much Lawrence was trying to honestly represent the reality of the people of his time and how much he was working out his mother issues, and that adds texture to the story. The end is not exactly justified by all that precedes it, and that too is intriguing. Was Lawrence trying to make a point or was it a failure of his writing?

      Sandra Shipley, Amy Blackman
      Photo: Maria Baranova

      The main thing to be said about The Daughter-in-Law is that it is a completely satisfying theatrical experience, often moving, often funny, and vivid in depicting class issues. Even the set changes are are compelling.

      The Mint single-handedly keeps a whole subsection of theatre alive, rediscovering unappreciated plays and presenting them with astonishing consistency. In doing this, they also help keep alive the people of the past, as described in their present. It's so easy to think that people were different from us, partially because history and the arts have misled us, and partially because their clothing, surroundings, and values can seem so foreign. But the Mint reminds us again and again that being human has always been a messy and challenging adventure. (Yes, and that sex has always been complicated.)

      CAST

      • Amy Blackman
      • Ciaran Bowling
      • Tom Coiner
      • Polly McKie
      • Sandra Shipley
      CREATIVES

      • Director: Martin Platt
      • Sets: Bill Clarke
      • Costumes: Holly Poe Durbin
      • Lights: Jeff Nellis
      • Sound: Lindsay Jones
      • Props: Joshua Yocom
      • Dialects: Amy Stoller
      • Illustration: Stefano Imbert
      Wendy Caster