Monday, August 28, 2023

How to Steal an Election

In this sad time of theatres' laying off staff, shortening seasons, and disappearing altogether, there is at least one bright spot: the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti are back!!

Musicals in Mufti are somewhat informal (actors get only four days of rehearsal, they carry scripts during performances, costumes tend to be simple, etc) but always worthwhile. Sometimes they bring back familiar titles: eg, Tenderloin, Subways Are for Sleeping, I Love My Wife, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, The Baker's Wife. Sometimes they reconsider iffy but interesting shows: Cyrano, Roadside, Big, Minnie's Boys. And sometimes they provide rare looks at the odd and/or historical: Keen, Theda Bara and the Frontier Rabbi. Sometimes the original creators are involved; Comden and Green rewrote a bit of Billion Dollar Baby, a show they had created 53 years earlier! And the performers are often amazing, whether early in their careers (Kristin Chenoweth) or well-know (Tyne Daly).

I would categorize the current Musical in Mufti, How to Steal an Election, as odd and historical. The cast is astonishing. A satirical revue in which Calvin Coolidge (the charming Jason Graae) explains politics to disaffected young people in the late 1960s, its humor is hit and miss, and its point of view a bit inconsistent. Some of the songs are funny, a few are beautiful, and some aren't either. Is it a great show? No. Am I glad I saw it? Yes: partially just to have seen it; partially to enjoy the high points; partially to watch/listen to that amazing cast; and partially to just be at a Musical in Mufti again after so many years. 

Years ago, when I saw Kristin Chenoweth in Billion Dollar Baby, I knew the second she opened her mouth that she was a star, as did the rest of the audience. You could feel the excitement. A similar moment happened last night when Alex Joseph Grayson started singing. Electricity zinged through the audience, and his applause was long and loud. Gorgeous voice, gorgeous man. For his sake and ours, I hope he works for many, many years in many, many shows. (Some of you may already know his work; he was recently in Parade on Broadway. But he was new to me, and a real revelation.)

While Grayson was extraordinarily extraordinary, the rest of the cast was also wonderful, with beautiful voices, good comic acting, and even some dandy tap dancing: Courtney Arango, Kelly Berman, Emma Degerstedt, Drew Tanabe.

How to Steal an Election is on through next weekend; it closes Sept 3rd. The rest of the season consists of The Lieutenant (opening Sept 10th), Golden Rainbow (Sept 24th), and When We Get There (Oct 8th). The York's website is here.

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

If I were forced to name one favorite show, it might well be Sweeney Todd. (Actually, it would be Sweeney-Night Music-Follies, but that's cheating.) Sweeney's size, wit, pathos, beauty, and lushness add up to an evening of riches. It can also be enjoyably frightening.

The current Sweeney, starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford, leans heavily on the wit and humor (and, unfortunately, shtick), leaving it less emotional and devastating. However, it is beautifully sung and often quite funny, and its (relatively) large orchestra is a gift. 

I have in the past discussed with friends whether Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett ever had sex. Most of my friends said no. I thought they did, although not necessarily good sex. In this production, they are definitely lovers, and they enjoy each other. Whereas most of the Sweeneys I've seen have sung "A LIttle Priest" with humor, they have still been somewhat stiff, definitely damaged. Groban's Sweeney is loose, giggly, and even flirty, and it's nice to see Sweeney having fun for once. While the production's emphasis on humor undercuts its power, having Sweeney like Mrs. Lovett makes her betrayal hit particularly hard.

Josh Groban lacks the gravitas to totally pull off Sweeney, but his voice is gorgeous. Annaleigh Ashford carries her shtick too far into the story, undercutting the show's impact, but she is frequently wonderful.

The direction is messy. Sometimes it is impossible to find what you should be focusing on. And, ironically enough, despite the production's humorous bent, it misses some of the best jokes in the show. Also, the choreography is a total minus for the show and completely unnecessary.

Overall, though, this Sweeney is well worth seeing. While not the best version I've seen, it is solid. And, oh, that music!

Wendy Caster 

Monday, August 14, 2023

Orpheus Descending

Tennessee Williams’s play Orpheus Descending (recently at the Theatre for a New Audience) was the first of his works to be produced. While it is not one of his masterpieces, it is still rich, sad, funny, fascinating, and compellingly overwrought.

As described on TFANA’s website, the play “tells the story of the passion of two outcasts—Lady Torrance, a storekeeper’s wife and daughter of a murdered Sicilian bootlegger, and Val, a wandering guitar player—and their attempt to escape from a Southern Hell.”

Lady (the excellent Maggie Siff) and Val (Pico Alexander) must negotiate dealings with a wide variety of townspeople: Maggie’s husband, deathly ill but still quite powerful and mean; Carol Cutere, a needy young woman with little chance of ever getting her needs met; Vee Talbott (the wonderful Ana Reeder), who turns her religious visions into paintings; and her husband, the sheriff, who operates in a much more concrete–and dangerous–manner. There are also the town gossips, Maggie’s husband’s nurse, and others. 

Lady and Val exist in a different world than the rest of the town, and they inevitably get involved, despite the dangers of doing so. They talk and actually listen to each other, they understand each other, and they are deeply drawn to each other physically. Most importantly, they find hope in each other.

Erica Schmidt’s direction of the TFANA production left much to be desired in terms of clarify and use of space. The cast was uneven. Maggie Siff had the presence and skill necessary to ground the play in the underpinning of reality that it needs. Pico Alexander lacked the animal magnetism required by his role, which threw off the balance of the play. But all in all, the TFANA production was vibrant and alive.

Wendy Caster

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Once Upon a One More Time

Once Upon a One More Time is not a show I would usually see. The only thing I know about Britney Spears is that she's in the news a lot and has had some tough times. And I don't care much about fairy tales. And I relate to princesses not at all.

But my old friend Linda's son is in the show. Many years ago, Linda and I used to sneak into shows together; we'd travel an hour and a half each way to see a 50-minute second act! We saw entire shows when we had the money, but that was not often. We were kids.

The thing is, Broadway was complete magic to us. The people on stage were otherworldly--certainly not regular humans. Broadway was a place for joy and pain and catharsis and wonder and breath-taking talent. My view of Broadway has gotten a bit less shiny over the years, but there is still part of me that is gob-smacked by Broadway talent. So if Linda's son is in a show, I'm going! 

He's Joshua Daniel Johnson, and he's a particularly fabulous part of a particularly fabulous ensemble. He and they are wonderful, energetic, radiant. And they work their butts off! I'm in awe. 

The show itself is fun, full of wild choreography and great singing. Spears' songs are great to listen to, and the entire cast is top-notch. 

It's too bad that the book, while full of funny lines and good ideas, doesn't engage the audience emotionally (or at least this audience). It's hard to care about Cinderella, Prince Charming, and Snow White (despite the hard work and excellence of the performers) when they are written as stick figures. 

Once Upon a One More Time is an excellent concert, however, and I had a great time.

Wendy Caster