Book of Mormon-National Tour

Okay, I've seen this show three time now, once on Broadway with the original cast (it never gets better than that) and twice with the national tour and I just have to say, apparently this sh#t just does not get old! You would think it would, but it doesn't. Having seen the show more than once you're anticipating the funny parts you remember and the funny parts you don't remember take you by surprise. It's here in DC until August 16th at the Kennedy Center, if you're in the mood to laugh. I'm not writing a new review, but my original post from 2011.

May 31, 2011: So it has taken a little mulling over and chewing and writing and re-writing to try and figure out how to best describe this show. The show got a lot of buzz early on, just because of the people involved in this production and the topic they’ve chosen to feature. If you are not aware of this show it is the brain child of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, yes the South Park guys, the guys who showed up to the Oscars in dresses, the ones who keep killing Kenny, those guys. I will admit that South Park is not my typical cup of tea; I’m more of a chai girl. When I heard that they had been developing the show for over seven years and were collaborating with Broadway veteran Robert Lopez I was much reassured. Mr. Lopez is a Tony award winning writer for Avenue Q, a hilariously wrong, wrong spoof of the Sesame Street genre. The Book of Mormon was conceived when these three men met and hilarity is the result.

I have to give them a lot of credit, they have written a tight, clever and ridiculously funny show. If you want to see it any time soon I suggest you take a moment and get on line and get your tickets now. It’s selling out quickly and months in advance. Once it cleans up at the Tony Awards in a couple of weeks (as all trends seem to be indicating) tickets will only be harder and more expensive to get.

The show for all of its irreverence and eschewing of standard mores actually follows some classic musical formulas. The plot, at its core, is the classic buddy road movie combined with typical young man coming of age story. It’s somewhere between Bing and Hope in the “Road to Morocco”, “Stand By Me” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Okay, it tends to tilt towards Bill and Ted but that doesn’t make it any less funny. The show follows the adventures of two young Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Kevin) and Elder Cunningham (Arnold) that have been sent to convert the inhabitants of a small village in Uganda. As in most “buddy” stories the pair consists of the alpha personality (Kevin) who is seemingly strong, good and an ideal Mormon and his goofy misfit mission partner Arnold who has problems “misapplying” his imagination.

The show pushes and frequently hurdles, with feet to spare, the boundaries of propriety and good taste but usually I was laughing too hard to notice. The insidious thing about this show is that underneath all the humor and inappropriateness they’re exploring some basic ontological questions about the nature of faith and the role of organized religion in modern society. You could probably replace most freshman level theology courses with this show, and class enrolement would increase tenfold. Kevin learns that faith isn’t a quid pro quo situation, just because you’ve been a good Mormon all your life and prayed every day doesn’t mean that God is going to send you on Mission to the most beautiful place on Earth, Orlando. Nor will a devout belief in God’s word necessarily provide actual physical protection and will not in all likely hood stop General Buttfuckingnaked (that’s his formal title) from shoving your Holy book somewhere the Heavenly Father never intended it to reside. Fear of Hell is not sufficient motivation for doing good works. The show questions the nature of missionary work, it’s hard to be concerned about the nature of God when you’re too busy trying not to die from dysentery or AIDS. In one of the funniest parts of the show Arnold, in his zeal to convert people and an attempt to actually improve the villager’s lives, allow his “imagination” to run away with him and adds some interesting verses to the Book of Mormon.

There are a few times in the show where I did inhale sharply; you have to tread delicately when dealing with female circumcision, but they do come down firmly against it and stopping it is one of the main plot points. I could actually get behind a tenant that states “For a clitoris is Holy amongst all things,” that’s not a bad starting point for a religion.

Is the show offensive to Mormons? You’ll have to find one who’s seen it and ask them. It actually made me curious about the religion, apparently there’s more to it than the tabernacle and polygamy. An angel named Moroni, really? Aren’t angels supposed to have strong names like Gabriel and Michael? Ancient Jews sailed to upstate New York? You get your own planet? I’m going to have to look this up. Meanwhile, every time you laugh at the Mormon beliefs, the show is questioning the belief systems of every organized religion. Why are the Mormon beliefs any more ridiculous than water into wine or oil that burns for much longer than it should? Such is the nature of faith is it not, belief without understanding.

The songs throughout are laugh out loud funny and frankly not as profane or really even as sacrilegious as I expected. After all, half the characters are Mormon and it would not be in character for them to be cussing up a storm. This leaves the profanity to the African characters (which is only slightly more appropriate but somebody needed to do the cussing) and even then, there are only a couple of songs that are overtly profane. The song Hasa Dega Eebowai is the worst song as far as profanity and blasphemy goes, it is intentionally the opposite sentiment expressed in the song Hakuna Matata from the Lion King (which is mocked throughout the show) and expresses a less than exemplary opinion of God.  When the cast of whiter than white Mormon characters sing “I am Africa” I nearly peed my pants. The penultimate moment of the show is when the African villagers present to the head of the Mormon mission a play enacting the story of Joseph Smith, with Arnold's embellishments; I'm certain that this is the first time someone has successfully incorporated the danger of dysentery into a Broadway musical.

The more I think about the show the more I think of the show as being akin to the fool in most any of Shakespeare’s plays. They speak the truth in jest. But, lest you start thinking the show is too erudite, the last word sung in the score of the show is “scrotum.”

I do have to give some love to the cast; they give their all to the material and really make the show work. The leads Josh Gad as Arnold and Andrew Rannels as Kevin and Nikki James as Nabulungi are all most deservedly Tony nominated but it truly is an ensemble effort. The entire cast is wonderful and I would love to post some videos of them performing but the producers of the show have been quite stingy with any videos of the production. Here are a few of the songs; I tried to keep them PG-13.

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Dear Evan Hansen... turns out it's going to be a pretty damn good show!

DearEvanIn this era of, "take a moderately successful movie, throw in some stunt casting and turn it into a musical," I search for those ever more rare gems that are original works for the stage. Friday night, in Dear Evan Hansen at Arena Stage, I hit that even rarer theatrical Grand Slam, original book, original lyrics, original score and...AND, it was really, really good! I went into this show blind, I knew nothing about it except it was directed by Michael Greif (i.e. Next to Normal, Rent, that fact alone is sufficient to get my posterior into any theater seat!) I was rewarded with a wonderful and moving evening of theater. It's one of the reasons I try and encourage people to take a theatrical risk here and there, if you always default to the known quantity how are you going to discover something new, something potentially great? With all the truly exceptional shows I've seem multiple times (and will see again), Cabaret, Next to Normal, Les Mis, Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...the second or third time around are never as good, you can never recapture that moment of discovery.

But, before I get totally side tracked, let me get back to this show.

Dear Evan Hansen, I don't want to give too much away, covers a not uncommon and universal topic of the outcast teenager and explores too often relevant affects social media can have in both aggrandizing and ostracizing people, especially teenagers. The story revolves around two teenage boys, Evan Hansen and Conner Murphy, both social outcasts who could not be more different, yet shared many similarities. Both had no friends, both were being medicated, both had less than ideal family lives and both felt trapped, with little concept of escape.

Minor spoiler alert here.

These characters were never friends until one commits suicide; after that they develop a pretty strong bond. Their first song together is easily my favorite song in the show. You'll have to trust me this posthumous relationship just works. The suicide comes out very early in the show and if I'm going to recommend you see this show, which I am doing, I feel an obligation to mention it. Everyone I spoke to at intermission and after the show mentioned someone they knew who committed suicide; which plays right into the premise of the story. We all have some internal need to connect with a tragedy, especially suicide, and if this is a tender topic for you, perhaps this show is not for you. I think it confounds us, this act, where the perpetrator is the true victim, yet so many can suffer the affects and also feel victimized. The core of the story revolves around how the families, schoolmates (after all he had no friends before he died) and complete strangers (enter the social media aspect) react to the tragedy; the recriminations, the search for consolation, the need to place blame and the search for absolution.

Lest you be concerned, this show does not devolve into some sort of Wagnerian death cycle. Rather, this complex topic is explored with honest forthrightness and just the right touch of humor and is in the end an uplifting story. A coming of age story. A story that says it does get better, you're not trapped.

The music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, which lean not unpleasantly toward the modern rock opera style, have gained neat purchase in my not-so-sub-conscious and are a great compliment the book by Steven Levenson. I'm mildly frustrated not to have a song list to reference and even more perturbed that a soundtrack is likely nowhere in the near future. The song "Sincerely, Me" (no idea if that's the actual title) is easily my favorite song and establishes the relationship between Conner and Evan; it's actually quite funny and helps to set the balance between the drama and comedy. The poignant sister's song, "No Requiem," questions why everyone is mourning someone they did not know and did not like and she resolves that she will not feign grief for someone who made her life difficult, despite the fact that she is quite obviously grieving. There were so many good songs!

What's most impressive about this show is how complete it feels. I know they've been work shopping it for a while but the Friday night performance was the first preview performance and if they were that good on the first night think what they're going to be like in a a couple of weeks when they've really settled into their roles. Sure there weren't a few things here and there, the first number was a little wobbly, there was one duet with Conner and Evan where the actor's dynamics seemed a little off; some minor audio issues, mostly when the sister was singing; but really that's just being a picky. The positives of the show far outweigh any first performance wobbliness. I am very tempted to go back towards the end of the run and see where they are then, it can only get better.

Not to take anything away from the rest of this excellent cast but the core of the show are Ben Platt and Mike Faist as Evan and Connor, respectively. I suppose casting Mr. Platt could be considered "stunt casting" (personal per peeve) but as I am totally unfamiliar with the Pitch Perfect-verse it concerns me not at all. Plus, young Mr. Platt has some serious theater cred, most impressively having recently played Elder Cunningham (Book of Mormon) on Broadway, and he has an actual theatrical resume. Mr. Faist, likewise, while young is building an significant resume and his turn as Connor is quite impressive. I might actually prefer it to Mr. Platt's performance, but that's a fine hair to split. The two actors have great chemistry as their characters depict the opposite sides of the "outcast" coin. Also, I would be remiss if I didn't give special praise to Rachel Bay Jones, who's "Mother's Lament" (see without a song list I make up my own names) had me in tears, it was a powerful performance of a very poignant and truth filled song.

Finally, this post would be incomplete without the cherry topper of the evening, while loitering after the show, thanks to the quick eye of new friend, I was able to get Michael Greif's autograph! No disrespect to the lovely actors but that just really made my day! It's a pretty rare opportunity.

I sincerely hope this makes it way to Broadway, and I'm quite willing to forego the opportunity to see Clueless the Musical or Fight Club: the Rock Opera, to see something like this instead.

Categories: General, Opinion, Reviews, Up Coming Shows | Leave a comment

Tony Awards Predictions

These are a my picks for the Tony Awards, some categories are really tough, there was a lot of good theater this year! Show's I've seen are marked with ** shows I think will win are in bold; shows I would give the wind to are are in italics. I'm looking forward to tonight and seeing how close I got it! What are your favorites? UPDATE: are the ones I get right, 17 out of 24, not bad!

Best Play

⇑ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time **
Author: Simon Stephens

Disgraced** (I really liked Curious Incident and it's the odds on favorite... but this play was phenomenal, it dealt with an intense modern topic that I really connected with both intellectually and emotionally, that none of the actors were nominated was an injustice!) 
Author: Ayad Akhtar

Hand to God
Author: Robert Askins

Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Co-Authors: Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton

Best Musical

An American in Paris**
⇑ Fun Home** (Okay, I missed that one totally! But I won't argue with the decision, it was a very good show)
Something Rotten!** (I could be wrong here, I think it's a dead heat between American and Something, but I will always give the edge to the show that wrote original music.)
The Visit

Best Revival of a Play

The Elephant Man
⇑ Skylight  (I saw none of the revivals, I'm relying on the conventional wisdom on this) 
This Is Our Youth
You Can’t Take It with You

Best Revival of a Musical

⇑ The King and I** (no brainer! this was a fantastic revival)
On the Town**
On the Twentieth Century

Best Book of a Musical

An American in Paris - Craig Lucas **
⇑ Fun Home - Lisa Kron** (really well written show)
Something Rotten! - Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell **
The Visit - Terrence McNally

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre

⇑ Fun Home**
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics: Lisa Kron

The Last Ship**
Music & Lyrics: Sting

Something Rotten! **
Music & Lyrics: Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick

The Visit
Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play

Steven Boyer, Hand to God
Bradley Cooper, The Elephant Man
Ben Miles, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Bill Nighy, Skylight
⇑ Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time**

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play

Geneva Carr, Hand to God
⇑ Helen Mirren, The Audience ** (Dame Mirren does not cross the pond not to win, plus, she was pretty awesome; another no brainer)
Elisabeth Moss, The Heidi Chronicles
Carey Mulligan, Skylight
Ruth Wilson, Constellations

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical

⇑ Michael Cerveris, Fun Home ** (I think this was a great performance, just no dancing) (yay! not sad to be wrong!)
Robert Fairchild, An American in Paris **
Brian d’Arcy James, Something Rotten! **
Ken Watanabe, The King and I **
Tony Yazbeck, On the Town **

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical

Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century
Leanne Cope, An American in Paris **
Beth Malone, Fun Home **
⇑ Kelli O’Hara, The King and I ** (The conventional wisdom says Ms. Chenoweth, but I think Ms, O'Hara is woefully overdue and this was a winning performance) (So excited to have been wrong on this one!)
Chita Rivera, The Visit

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play

Matthew Beard, Skylight
Todd Freeman, Airline Highway
⇑ Richard McCabe, The Audience (This is who I meant to pick but it was left off the lift somehow, oh well)
Alessandro Nivola, The Elephant Man
Nathaniel Parker, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Micah Stock, It’s Only a Play

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play

⇑ Annaleigh Ashford, You Can’t Take It with You
Patricia Clarkson, The Elephant Man
Lydia Leonard, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Sarah Stiles, Hand to God
Julie White, Airline Highway

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical

⇑ Christian Borle, Something Rotten! ** (Honestly, any of these guys could and should win but I think it's a toss up between Mr.s Borle, Karl and Uranowitz) 
Andy Karl, On the Twentieth Century
Brad Oscar, Something Rotten! **
Brandon Uranowitz, An American in Paris **
Max von Essen, An American in Paris **

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical

Victoria Clark, Gigi **
Judy Kuhn, Fun Home **
Sydney Lucas, Fun Home
⇑ Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I ** (another no brainer, she sang one song and devastated me) 
Emily Skeggs, Fun Home **

Best Scenic Design of a Play

⇑ Bunny Christie and Finn Ross, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time **
Bob Crowley, Skylight
Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
David Rockwell, You Can’t Take It with You

Best Scenic Design of a Musical

⇑ Bob Crowley and 59 Productions, An American in Paris** (I said so didn't I?)
David Rockwell, On the Twentieth Century
Michael Yeargan, The King and I ** (Honestly, it could go to American, just as easily)
David Zinn, Fun Home **

Best Costume Design of a Play

Bob Crowley, The Audience **
Jane Greenwood, You Can’t Take It with You
⇑ Christopher Oram, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
David Zinn, Airline Highway

Best Costume Design of a Musical

Gregg Barnes, Something Rotten! **
Bob Crowley, An American in Paris **
William Ivey Long, On the Twentieth Century
⇑ Catherine Zuber, The King and I **

Best Lighting Design of a Play

⇑ Paule Constable, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time **
Paule Constable and David Plater, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Natasha Katz, Skylight
Japhy Weideman, Airline Highway

Best Lighting Design of a Musical

Donald Holder, The King and I **
⇑ Natasha Katz, An American in Paris **
Ben Stanton, Fun Home **
Japhy Weideman, The Visit

Best Direction of a Play

Stephen Daldry, Skylight
 Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time **
Scott Ellis, You Can’t Take It with You
Jeremy Herrin, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two
Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Hand to God

Best Direction of a Musical

⇑ Sam Gold, Fun Home **
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten! **
John Rando, On the Town **
Bartlett Sher, The King and I **
Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris **

Best Choreography

Joshua Bergasse, On the Town **
Christopher Gattelli, The King and I **
Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time **
Casey Nicholaw, Something Rotten! **
⇑ Christopher Wheeldon, An American in Paris ** (it could just as easily be On the Town)

Best Orchestrations

⇑ Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, Bill Elliott, An American in Paris **
John Clancy, Fun Home **
Larry Hochman, Something Rotten! **
Rob Mathes, The Last Ship **

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A Tale of Two Cities - Synetic Theater

As the frequency with which I go to the theater has expanded from casual attendance to OCD levels of attendance (that some may say required professional intervention,) I have made it a conscious decision not to just attend the traditional theatrical performances of a known quantity/quality, but to widen my scope to include what some would call "fringe" productions; of course a production is only fringe until it's successful critically and financially; Rent is a good example of such a transition. This is how I came to be a frequenter and often admirer of Synetic Theater productions; this is a group that is not afraid to push boundaries and take risks that other theater companies are less inclined to take.  It is one of my favorite things about them but this is also my way of sugar coating a bitter pill.

Two-Cities-03With risks there is always the danger of failure. If I'm being kind I would call this production "uneven;" if I'm being less than kind I would have to say it fell more into the category of "hot mess." I'm not sure if this is a failure of material or method but as in most things it's likely a combination of the two; although I'm not sure anyone could make this material work.

The material was tough. The conceit of the show was that a budding drag queen finds an abandoned baby on her door step and in an attempt to calm the baby she reenacts the majority of the movie of "A Tale of Two Cities." Something that complex with that many characters and backstory being relayed by one person, that's a lot of acting.  Thanks goodness she wasn't reenacting the book we'd still be there, Dumas Dickens was not known for brevity. If you were not familiar with the story being depicted, I'm not sure at all that you would have gotten a handle of it from this material. I think greater clarity would have come from brief periods of narration to help ground the tale; this show seemed to rely on the assumption that audience was familiar with the characters and their relations to each other. Granted, I'm assuming the retelling A Tale of Two Cities was not the point of the story but what was is not quite clear to me. If I was digging for some relevant modern day meaning, one could draw parallels between the persecution of people (not just the aristos) during the French Revolution with the persecution and marginalization of LGBTQ community, that's not a difficult reach.

Two-Cities-01As far as the execution of the work goes, it definitely did not feel...what's the word? settled? gelled? fully formed? any and all of those really. I appreciate keeping the show with-in it's 2 hour run time, especially with no intermission, but the entire production felt rushed and frentic and it needed a better construct to help contain all the characters that inhabited that stage. Alex Mills, who's work I've enjoyed at Synteic and elsewhere, cannot be faulted for lack of effort, he's selling those characters as fast as he can but he can't seems to find a good rhythm with which to progress the narrative. I am curious if the decision to make the baby character interactive was part of the original off-Broadway production or if that was an invention of Synetic to give Mr. Mills a foil to play off of on stage. The Vato shaped baby-head worked better than I would have expected had anyone forewarned me of it; it was simultaneously amusing and just little disturbing.

It was not an awful production and there were a couple of instances where Mr. Mills landed on one character long enough to create a moment that was quite good but then we were off to the races again. It was obvious by the paucity of attendance that the concept of this show is not appealing to their typical audience but I must admire Synetic Theater's willingness to take risks and I will likely meet them on that limb again.

Their next season has been announced and I think there's great potential there and I am especially looking forward to them bring back their wonderful production of Twelfth Night.

Categories: General, Opinion, Reviews | 3 Comments

The Audience - Broadway

The latest Broadway Blitz* was a lovely, lovely weekend of theater with not a dud in the bunch! And I'm already plotting as to how I can get up there again, preferably before I the Tony Awards, I'm a little low on the play quotient this year; I've only seen one of the Tony nominated plays! But that's for another post.

audience01We kicked off our weekend of show-tasticness with something that really could not be missed, Dame Helen Mirren as QEII(Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, not to be confused with the ship) in The Audience. This really was a simple decision, I'd heard great things about this show when it played in London and was very excited when they announced it was coming to Broadway. Dame Mirren is one of those actors that you just go see; although, not to brag, it was not the first time I got to see her on stage. Several years ago she was in a quite wonderful in a production of Phèdre at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, right here in our modest little city on the Potomac. See... not at all braggy.

But back to the show; The Audience depicts 60 years of the Queen's meetings with the different Prime Ministers that have served during her reign...but it is actually quite interesting and entertaining. It's an interesting journey through a history I admit I'm a bit lax in knowing. I always love the shows that make me go back to my computer and google things. It is also a very interesting glimpse beyond the stoic royal faςade, that may or may not be accurate, but you leave the play hoping that it is. The play portrays the Queen not only as intelligent and thoughtful, even at a young age, but also as kind of wickedly funny.

audience02The play does not follow a strict chronology but bounces back and forth between the different decades of her reign; Dame Mirren's (yep, going to keep calling her that) first transformation, from the Queen in her mid-60's to her mid-20's, which they manged to do almost seamlessly on stage, was rather awe inspiring. Yes, the costuming does help, but the subtle and not so subtle changes in the portrayal was quite exceptional. You start with the 65+ year old queen with 4 decades of rule under her belt and you regress to the 26 year old woman, not yet even crowned, dealing with the onset of a vast amount of responsibilities and having to wrangle with a Winston Churchill, who has distinct ideas of how things should be done. As you move forward and backward through the history her reign Dame Mirren continuously transforms herself, yet maintains a continuous thread of who Her Majesty is beneath the required royal protocol. Flashbacks to Elizabeth as a child lays what seems to be a pretty good argument that QEII has always found the Royal Life rather chaffing and restrictive and having been given her druthers she would have been quite content with a life in the Scottish highlands, having been able to take her husbands name as "normal" women were wont to do.audience04

The Prime Ministers, and don't worry you don't go through all 12 of them, only seven of them, were a diverse and varied group of actors. Dylan Baker is nominated for his role as John Major, although I have to say that amongst all the other excellent actors he did not leap out as exceptionally better. Not that I'm disagreeing with nomination, just and observation, all the actors were quite good. I found it interesting that of all the Prime Ministers it seemed that Margaret Thatcher got the least sympathetic portrayal; and that's even with Anthony Eden causing the whole Suez Canal Crisis (look it up, it's and interesting early slice of the West meddling in the Middle East over oil.) Although my understanding is that the Queen actively disliked Mrs. Thatcher and since this is her story perhaps it is not in appropriate.

audience05One interesting construct in the play is that Queens Equerry (Majordomo/Factotum) did not change at all throughout the play, obviously this position would have been filled by different people throughout the 60 years but he is our guide/narrator for the play and remains unchanged. Perhaps this is a nod to the consistency of the Queen's reign, or perhaps even of the British Empire? Or I'm just reading too much into it. The coronation scene that ends the first act is one of the most moving scenes of the play, it brought a tear to my eye, and is a wonderful argument to give Dame Mirren the Best Actress Tony, besides the fact that she's Dame Helen freaking-Mirren, and we should all just shut up and give her the award already!

All that aside, an excellent and entertaining evening of theater, would I give it the Best Original Play Tony? Probably not, I still think Disgraced is a much better play.

Coming up Next my review of the new musical, Fun Home. Don't let the name fool you.

*Broadway Blitz = a weekend spent seeing as many shows as possible
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Dunsinane - National Theatre of Scotland

dunsinane photographs october 14It is now officially a requirement that I go see whatever the National Theatre of Scotland sends "across the pond" and I sincerely hope the Shakespeare Theatre Company maintains their current relationship. Out of the 4 shows that I've seen over the last several years, Blackwatch, The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, Macbeth (Lincoln Center) and now Dunsinane all have been excellent original pieces of theater. And I think David Grieg, who also wrote wonderful The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, is going to have to go on my list of modern playwrights to follow. This play was both engaging and entertaining and annoyingly thought provoking (that's a good thing).

Dunsinane04The play begins roughly where Shakespeare's Macbeth leaves off, with Great Birnam Woods marching to high Dunisnane and with Macbeth's head on a pike. Where it deviates from the original story is that Lady Macbeth is not dead (not a spoiler) and there is a fantastic and not unfunny speech by Malcom that explains why it "seemed" she was dead. Mr. Grieg's play does however continue the oft supposed precept that Lady Macbeth (Gruach, is her given name in the play) is the real strength and power behind the throne and that defeating Macbeth does little to secure peace in Scotland nor quash the dispute over who is the rightful heir.

The conflict of play can be distilled down to a battle of wills between two people, Gurach and Siward and it does great justice to Mr. Grieg's skills as a writer that both these characters, despite some decidedly questionable actions, are never unlikable; they are actually quite likable and the play is never better than in the scenes they have together. It doesn't hurt that their actions, within the constructs of their world and how they understand it are justifiable. Gurach is repelling a foreign invader who wants to install a usurper on her son's, and her clan's, throne and rob her son of his rightful place and even his life. Siward is a soldier tasked with a mission to unify and bring peace to disparate nation and to serve the greater good. Two powerful people equally matched in wit and wills, it's makes for a very engaging first act.

Dunsinane05Our Lady Macbeth, Gurach, is quite the Woman, never does she waver from her purpose, never does she seem to lack confidence in her ability to achieve her will and never does she seem not to be in control; you always feel she somehow has the upper hand even as a prisoner. She personifies the Scotland that befuddles the invading army; she is never as she seems, she wraps lies in truth and truth in lies; she is beautiful, charming and vastly deadly. Even in loss she is victorious.

Dunsinane01Siward, is the classic prototype of the noble soldier. He is tasked with a mission and honor demand that he deliver and he makes every attempt to complete the mission with his honor intact. He is the soldier tasked by politicians to achieve impossible deeds. Invade a country and bring peace, as if peace is achievable with force of arms and foreign invaders will ever be welcomed as liberators. All forces work against Siward, and you feel sympathy for him even as he cuts a bloody swath though the country. He is saddled with trying to make peace with a culture he does not understand, allies who speak in riddles, and an army whose purposes often cross that of the mission, it is enough to drive anyone to the brink of destruction.

The play draws very obvious parallels between this ancient story and current conflicts around the world. Can you think of anywhere else in the world foreign armies are simultaneously welcomed and reviled, where we have little understanding of the culture, where we don't really know what victory will look like?  It's one of those plays that lingers in you mind long after the curtain has dropped.

The cast is wonderful, Siobhan Redmond and Darrell D'Silva are wonderful as our respective Gruach and Siward. Their scenes together are the best part of the play. And Ewan Donald performance as Malcom was excellent, he gave the perfect portrayal of a politician, and while you did not want to like him it was hard to deny his perspective even though he is the last ally one would ever want.

Sadly the run has closed here in DC but there are a coupe of other opportunities to see the show both at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and  Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in LA

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Much Ado About Nothing - Synetic Theater

synetic_logoAfter Synetic Theater's wonderful production of Twelfth Night last year I was really excited to see what they would do with this play. Much one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, easily my favorite of his comedies and Beatrice and Benedick are probably my favorite romantic couple (is it odd that the Macbeths are number two? but I digress) so I had expectations, which can be dangerous, but can I tell you how much I love it when my expectations are exceeded?

This show...this show is Synteic Theater doing what it does best at its best. It was fun, it was intense, it was laugh out loud funny, it nicely skirted along the edge of absurdity, it was poignant, it had perspective and it was beautifully choreographed and fantastically performed. What I'm trying to say is I really liked the show. One of the hardest things to do in Shakespeare comedies is to make them genuinely funny, mostly you realize "Oh, that's funny, ha-ha," rarer is it just to spontaneously laugh at a funny moment (not that it doesn't happen.) In stripping the language out of the story Synetic allowed the humor to take center stage and then they just had fun with it.

MuchADo01Largely, the success of this show has always rested on the couple "too wise to woo peaceably," Beatrice and Benedick, and I can't think of performers more capable of bringing these characters to life than Ben Cunis and Irina Tsikurishvili. They have great on stage chemistry, this is a battle royale between equals in character and temperment and they portrayed the love/hate/love, nature of their relationship beautifully. I really liked the backstory vignette they created for the couple and I really like adding the PTSD factor to Benedick's backstory, it makes sense, it's topical and it lent some intensity to the story. Mr. Cunis gives a wonderful performance, with a distinct young Brando vibe (think The Wild One, 1953,) with a deadly combination of machismo, charisma and vulnerability, that is so unattractive in  a leading man right? Ms. Tsikurishvili as Beatrice is an equal to her Benedick and their scenes together are always entrancing and entertaining to watch. It would have been very easy for the romance to tip over into treacly territory but they balanced out the sweetness of genuine love with sufficient pride and stubbornness to keep the relationship interesting. Bravo!

But let me not diminish the rest of the cast, this was a wonderful collaborative performance and there was no weak link. The scenes where the actors are tricking Benedick and Beatrice in to falling (back) in love with each other are hilarious, and I'm mildly amazed at how well the narrative came a cross. There is a fantastic scene in between Don Pedro (Philip Fletcher) and his bastard brother Don John (Dallas Tolentino) where a struggle over a leather jacket becomes a phenomenal pas des deux and yet still serves to highlight the power struggle between the characters. Actually it would have been very easy for the individual performances to overwhelm the narrative but throughout the entire show the performances, the choreography all worked together to serve the narrative most effectively.

And I have to give special kudos to Vato Tsikurshivili, Zana Gankhuyang and Justin Bell as Doggberry and the Nightwatch! That was just flat out, straight up, comic genius. From the moment they came on stage they stole show, just a little bit, the facial expressions the, "driving," the chasing, I was nearly in tears. Just really really well done!

So this is the point were I usually talk about what I didn't like about the show...I got nothing. As I was watching it the first act break didn't come where I expected it, but I was wrong, they put it in the right place. There may be flaws in the show (all shows have them) but the positives of the show are so thoroughly overwhelming they just don't matter. I think, I might have to go see the show again, to see if there's anything I really don't like; yes that is the excuse I'm going to use to go see the show again. Actually there is a friend I've been meaning to introduce to Synetic and I think this is the show to do it with and if you haven't gone to see them yet, this is an excellent place to start.

The show runs through March 22nd so there is ample time to go see this and I encourage you to go. I would rate if PG 13 for sex and drug content but it's no worse than whats on Prime Time cable. There aren't any videos of the performance but here's a little behind the scenes.

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Gigi - Pre-Broadway Run

GiGi06Well I managed to catch the show on it's next to last day in town, but fear not, if you're a fan of the movie and music this was merely the out of town try-out and GiGi is headed for a revival on the Great White Way, starting mid March.

So lets start with the good stuff and we'll work our way down to Vanessa Hudgens; well, that was mean right off the bat, sorry. I was excited when I heard of the revival and then less so when I heard the casting of the lead, I am not a fan of stunt casting but being a firm believer in taking chances (on theater) I decided to give the show a whirl. I am always willing to be pleasantly surprised.

GiGi03The show is a frothy, frivolous, fun slice of La Belle Époque en Paris. Don't look too far below the surface or the border line pedophilia and grooming your granddaughter to be whore, albeit a refined and high class one, might make you a little queasy. And, boy were there were a lot of mothers with their little girls at the show. But it's Paris! at the turn of the century, that's just the way things were! My understanding is that the book has been reworked since the shows original (and unsuccessful) run on Broadway and I did notice a distinct effort to ameliorate the viewpoint of beautiful women merely as disposable objects of entertainment for men of wealth. I liked taking the iconic "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," originally charmingly and kind of creepily warbled by Maurice Chevalier and making it a duet between Mamita and Aunt Alicia; it was a nice point/counterpoint of two women's philosophies. Mamita in her gentile but honorable poverty and Aunt Alicia in her grand accommodations, yet both secure in their independence even if by different means.

Speaking of these two ladies, Victoria Clark as Mamita and Dee Hoty as Aunt Alicia,  are the best part of this show, easily. I'm going out on a limb, especially since I haven't seen ANY of the recent contenders and say Ms. Clark is going to get herself a Tony nod. She grounds that show and gives it heart while the rest of the cast twirls and glitters around her. She is the real Paris, beneath the frivolity and froth. She was excellent, as one would expect, and she and Dee Hoty seemed to be having much fun on that stage. Ms. Hoty's Aunt Alicia can throw some very elegant shade, it was most entertaining to watch.

GiGi04That I'm halfway thought the post and haven't mentioned GiGi yet should be telling, there I go being mean again! Not that Ms. Hudgens was bad. Actually, GiGi as a young naive girl doesn't really have a great deal of depth for an actress to portray, her character is all surface. For the first 3/4 of the show Ms. Hudgens does fine playing the bubbly, giggly, not a care in the world girl, it suits her relatively well. But when it comes for her to transform to the grown woman ready to make grown decisions it starts to falter a bit. One issue might be the transition is too abrupt. I would have gotten rid, or seriously cut down the "contract" negotiations song (which was supposed to be funny but wasn't) and done some great song and dance medley of GiGi being "trained," clothes, walking, talking balancing things on her head to segue in to grown and ready to be a whore self supporting GiGi. Granted, it probably did not help that poor Ms. Hudgens had to share most of her stage time with Ms.s Clark and Hoty, its is easy for a young actress to seem diminished in the presence these two talented ladies.

GiGi02It also probably did not help that there is no discernible scrap of chemistry between GiGi and her leading man, played by Corey Cott, at least not from my seat in the balcony. I think they cast Gaston as too young; because in this day and age it's far more palatable if an 18 year old girl is sold to a 25 year old man instead of a 35 year old man right? Mr. Cott is charming but Gaston is supposed to be a sophisticated world weary man in the grips of ennui, and GiGi is his escape form that. The relationship did not seem to evolve in any organic way from an avuncular relationship to a romantic one. (It really sounds wrong when you write it like that doesn't it, an avuncular relation ship should never become a romantic one, right?)

I'll wrap up with the set and costume design which were beautiful. The sets evoked the Eiffel Tower and the beautiful Art Deco wrought iron detailing and architecture of the time and place. It was unmistakably Paris. The only off note in the costuming, oddly enough, were GiGi's costumes. They've quite clearly used the movie as the inspiration for her costumes but they looked cheap; from the 2nd row of the balcony they looked cheap. Even the penultimate gown she wears to Maximes, looked shiny and wrinkly and like they were trying to use the feather boa to hide it. It just struck me as odd; all the other costuming was beautiful and rich looking and it really stood out. Weird.

GiGi opens at the Neil Simon Theater, March 19.

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Macbeth - Shakespeare's Globe #44

macbeth01All Hail Macbeth! I know not why I love this play so much but I really do; I’ve seen it numerous time and I am certain I will see it many times more. It is a powerful story with complex character relatively simply told (compared to many of Shakespeare’s works.) And the play is kind of difficult to screw up, I've yet to see a production that has failed to be enjoyable (not that I'm issuing a challenge.) But as one would expect from Shakespeare's Globe they do this show great justice.

I am assuming I don't need to recount the story of Macbeth, it is the iconic tale of a man who initially bettered himself by doing the right thing, fealty to crown and country; then in attempting to achieve greatness started doing the smart thing and thereby ended up screwed royally, or royally screwed. It's also a valuable cautionary tale about not taking advice from weird bearded women who appear to you out of the mist. That lesson is appropriate across the board.

macbeth03This is simply an excellent production, the cast is uniformly excellent, Joseph Millson, as Macbeth anchored the performance and give us a fantastic ride from erstwhile King to monomaniacal madman. One interesting decision in this production was the treatment of Lady Macbeth, played wonderfully by Samantha Spiro, toward the end of the 1st act, they portray her as a battered wife. There is a pivotal scene where Macbeth's ambitions fully consume him and become self driven, they need no more encouragement and beratement from his dear love. It starts simply with a bruised eye and by her mad sleepwalking scene she is a battered husk of who she was. I assume this is symbolic of the shift in power in the relationship, her dominance early in the relationship is clear. The other character that was very well plays was that of Banquo. Don't you hate it when an actor is so familiar but you can't quite place them, well this actor was Billy Boyd, the Hobbit! I have to say complete transformation and phenomenally acted; he disappeared entirely into the character. I always love it when an actor surpasses my expectations of them. Not that I really had any, but playing a kick-ass Banquo is not something I would have connected to that actor.

macbeth05I am entirely enthused that Shakespeare's Globe is diving full force into the screening trend, that will not however stop me from going there to see a show on my soon to be planned sojourn to explore the London theater scene. Also, if you have not heard of it they are launching Globe Player where you can rent or buy there previously recorded productions. I'm totally in on this!!

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Indian Ink #43

indian inkI have an ongoing pact with a close friend to see as many of Tom Stoppard’s works as possible. A noble goal, all will agree, and not an undaunting task. Mr. Stoppard has been staging a play every 2-3 years since the mid ‘60s! And he’s still writing! Nevertheless, we are resolute and that is how we came to spend a lovely fall afternoon in a darken theater.

I really enjoyed the show, it was entertaining, well-acted, well written and even educational but at the end I’m not sure what the point was, or if there was a point. Being a work by Mr. Stoppard it possible that meaning is too subtle for me to discern or that the play is no more than it was, a snapshot of a person and a time. Which is entirely acceptable. Not to say that the play is irrelevant, there was conflict, and character growth and culture and history, but at the end none of it seemed to tie together, at least to me. Still, an enjoyable afternoon of theater.

IndianInk063rThe play takes place in two time periods and two places, 1930’s Royal India and 1980’s England and India. The story follows the adventure of a slightly known (and fictional) poet Flora Crewe who travels to India for her health. Her story is recounted from letters she wrote to her younger sister, Eleanor Swan, who as an old woman in 1980’s England is sharing the letters with an English professor who is attempting to write a biography of Flora. Flora has had minor success as a poet and is known for having a scandalous life, although she intimates that her life is less scandalous than most credit. Although there is almost certainly an affair with the artist Modigliani, which may or may not be the source of her illness. The majority of the story focuses on Flora’s relationship with an Indian artist, Nirad Das, who befriends her and asks to paint her portrait. He is the main conduit through which Flora experiences the culture of India. During this period of history British Expats in India had done a pretty good job of making India Britain, except for the heat and humidity. Flora is disappointed with the portrait when she sees it as the artist has rendered her in a continental style. “I thought you were and Indian artist,” she says; she quite clearly wanted a portrait in a “native” style, while he was attempting to please her by painting in a style he thinks she would prefer.

One of the mysteries that Ms. Crewe’s erstwhile biographer is attempting to solve is a reference to a nude portrait and her travels to India to find it. For some reason, not explained, both Flora’s sister and Nirad Das’s son conspire to keep this information from her biographer, initially independently of each other and them in collusion with each other. This is a curious point of the story, why does it matter to them now that this be kept secret when all other aspect of her life have been revealed. It’s not like in this day and age a nude portrait would hardly be shocking, it was barely shocking then. I suppose it’s a way to keep a piece of her for themselves or perhaps they are merely trying to protect Flora's and Nirad's memories from further exploitation for someone elses ambition.

The performances were all very good. Rosemary Harris as Eleanor was quite charming and funny. Firdous Bamji was excellent as the artist Nirad Das, I really enjoyed his performance very much as I did Romola Garai as Flora. In enjoyable and entertaining afternoon of theater and for 2-1/2 hour play very well paced.

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