King John

-Folger Theatre

The picture isn’t fuzzy, the playbill is intentionally so!

I can’t tell you how excited I was when I realized that Folger Theatre was including this play in their season! Admittedly, not because I have a great love of the matter, but it has been several years since I’ve been able to “check-off” a new (to me) Shakespeare play. King John counts as number 30! Leaving me a mere 7 more plays to see before I’ve seen them all. Many thanks to the Folger Theatre for the assist in achieving this milestone!

But back to the play. I had some concerns that, being one of the Bard’s later plays and infrequently performed, it must be somehow inherently flawed, and it may be but I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. I haven’t nerded out (yet) and gone back and read the play to verify this but my impression is that liberties were taken and some editing employed but all were to the benefit of the performance. Director Aaron Posner’s decision to have the cast introduce their characters and motivations as the prologue was great, in addition to giving you helpful background for the narrative, its wit winked at the audience and set the tone for the rest of the show.

The plot centers around the succession to the throne after the death of Richard the Lionhearted. John, with the backing of his mother Elanor of Aquitaine, has been crowned but his legitimacy is being challenged by Constance, the wife of John’s deceased older brother. Constance feels her son Arthur should be King and she has the backing of the French King and Dauphin, and weirdly the Duke who killed Richard…and mayhem ensues. War, political maneuvering, personal grudges, arranged marriages, mad monks, double crosses and Papal meddling take their turn on stage. And it ends badly for nearly everyone. You know, a rollicking good time, Shakespeare style! The only thing left out was the Magna Carta, aren’t they supposed to sign that somewhere along the way; it’s actually the one thing I know about King John outside of what I’ve seen in Robin Hood movies.

One standout in this play is that, unlike many of Shakespeare’s history plays, there was no shortage of strong female characters. Some of them were even men. Wait, that’s not right. Some of the male characters were acted by strong female actors. That’s what I meant. The triumvirate of Holly Twyford (Constance), Kate Goehring (Queen Elanor) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Phillip Faulconbridge) are a force to be reckoned with. Actually, you know how sometimes Shakespeaer’s plays aren’t really about the title character (I’m looking at you Henrys IV), in many respects I feel the play was more about Phillip Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Richard Lionheart, or perhaps Ms. Norris’s performance was so wonderful that that’s what stood out to me the most. It really was a very compelling performance, I found myself rooting for her…him.

Before the show I had a chance to visit the exhibit Churchill’s Shakespeare and I can only assume that the costume design was an intentional nod to the exhibit. The costuming quite clearly evoked the spirit of Edwardian/WWI era clothing, with just enough of a twist to not be literal and evoke the witty tone of the show itself. I loved the use of the flowers as a means of distinguishing the different sides of the conflict, it was a nice visual cue as peoples allegiances merged, diverged and changed. Sometimes with Shakespeare you really do need a score card to keep up with all the machinations.

And to bookend this review, and just in case anyone if curious, the seven Shakespeare plays that I am missing are:

  • Two Noble Kinsmen
  • King Henry VI-Part I
  • King Henry VI-Part II
  • King Henry VI-Part III
  • Henry VIII
  • Timon of Athens
  • Troilus and Cressida

More than half the plays I need to see are all about Henrys, or so the titles would lead you to believe! If you hear of a production let me know!

The Sweet Science of Bruising

-Southwark Playhouse, London

This production has already closed but it was intriguing enough that I still want write about it. The premise grabbed my attention immediately; Victorian era women’s boxing. I am perpetually on the lookout for the new and different and this seemed to fit the bill. It also had the added bonuses of being a world premiere and unlikely to cross the pond anytime soon.

Set in the latter part of the 19th century the play revolves around four women of different social classes: Violet, nurse with ambitions to be a doctor; Anna, upper middle class housewife; Matty, typesetter by day, prostitute by night; and Polly, lower class workaday who genuinely wants to be a boxer. The play explores how each of them are drawn into the underground world of women’s boxing and the inevitable intersection of their lives. It is both an interesting vignette of Victorian London and a good allegory of modern feminism (in a look how far we’ve come, but look how far we must still go).

For these women boxing is a means to an end; self-determination and fiscal freedom from the men who control their lives, be they boyfriends, husbands, employers and/or tricks. That their only means of achieving that freedom is by allowing themselves to be exploited for the titillation of these selfsame men is the irony that drives the narrative. It is further highlighted when Polly, the one woman who really wants to be a boxer, is the one who gives it up to be with the man she loves and to sooth and bolster his ego.

I enjoyed the play, it was entertaining and interesting and very well acted. The four female leads were very good and I especially enjoyed Fiona Skinner as Polly, there was an effortless genuineness to her performance that made me really like the character.

The material itself could use some refining. Mostly in the story of Anna, the housewife with the philandering and abusive husband. I rather wish that her husband’s abuse wasn’t what drove her to boxing, or that he was even physically abusive. Perhaps the bloodlessness of her existence motivates her to seek out the adrenaline rush of boxing. Of the four women she has and loses the most. I rather wish, SPOILER ALERT…

…I rather wish, instead of Anna being executed for beating her husband to death she was incarcerated in the sanitarium as her husband threatened. I think it would have been a stronger condemnation of society’s hypocrisy and how little power she had in the world. For doing that which her husband himself enjoyed watching, she is considered deviant and can be  summarily punished. As long as I’m wishing for things, I also wish that the physical altercation with her husband had taken place on stage. I was anticipating that moment, the build-up to it was palpable, and I feel a little robbed by having the cathartic moment of confrontation happen off stage.

The weakness of this production was the boxing. This may be a picky criticism but when the premise is women can do anything men can do, don’t give me bad fake boxing. Certainly the show isn’t actually about women boxing but boxing did comprise a significant number of the scenes and the poor choreography and execution took you out of the moment and disrupted the flow of the play. It could be why I enjoyed Ms. Skinner’s performance the most, of all the actresses she seemed to have the best handle on how to (fake) box. Her altercation with her husband/sparing partner was the most realistic in the show. It’s the only time the audience gasped.

What did they do to my Heathers? The Musical.

What an inauspicious start to my first visit to the West End. This will be a short and bitter screed;  these few things may be used to ameliorate my critique 1) my well know disdain for the movie to musical genre, 2) I was pretty tired when I saw it, but highly caffeinated, 3) this was a beloved and seminal movie of my teenage years.

In no particular order here’s what I didn’t like about the show:

  1. It was loud. It’s supposed to be a rock musical but rock music does have nuances. Every time I thought “Oh, this song is going to be different!” Nope, a quarter  of the way through the song, they’re stage front yelling the lyrics at me at the top of their voices. You know, because loud equals intense emotion. I don’t even remember a single song from the show. Martha Dunstock’s song is the only one that stands out because that was the least yellie of the songs.
  2. I assume the band was 17 drum sets and 3 bass guitars because it was all percussive all the time.
  3. I wish this had been a jukebox musical (and you know how I feel about jukebox musical right?) Pre-show and at intermission they piped in some of the great of the 80’s music I grew up with, Hey Mickey, Come on Eileen, 99 Luftballons; it was my favorite part of the show. I mean how crazy would it have been to write an 80’s style score/songs to go with this iconic 80’s movie? Or at least one that wasn’t a perpetual Billy Idol-AC/DC-Twisted Sister mash-up.
  4. I really really really did not like how they portrayed Heather #1 (aka Chandler). While in the movie she is a supreme mondo bitch, the movie also touched on her own insecurities. The musical touched on Heather #2’s bulimia but it totally skipped the these girls prostituting themselves to the jocks and the college age guys as part of the price of popularity. Here she just was a bitch and you were glad she died, but then she kept coming back! And whoever told the actress speak all her line in that high pitched nasal tone needs to reevaluate that particular piece of direction.
  5. It just wasn’t funny. The original movie wasn’t funny “haha” but funny in a darkly ironic way. This show never even gets close to what the movie achieved. I’m pretty sure I didn’t laugh once.
  6. There are very few people, who are not Christian Slater, that can do justice to the role of JD.
  7. Spoiler Alert: The show tries to redeem JD at the end. He sacrifices himself to save the others because it’s important to Veronica!?!? What!!! No!! He commits suicide and cedes the battle, but there is no altruism in his act. He’s a sociopath. He did not love Veronica, he thought he could control her just like the Heathers.
  8. The musical also tries to give the boys a sympathetic back story by showing you the abusive relationships they have with their fathers. Having douches for fathers does not excuse douchebag behaviors. And they completely changed JD’s father, he was not loud and abusive, he was utterly disinterested, which can be far more devastating.
  9. I think giving Veronica’s back story was entirely unnecessary! In the movie her backstory was woven into the narrative. All that exposition did is stretch a pithy 90 minute movie into 2 and 30 minutes of my life that I won’t get back.
  10. And just to round it out to an even 10, Veronica shouldn’t be blond! Okay, that’s totally on me, I just can’t with the blond Veronica.

I may very well be the cheese that stands alone on this one. The majority of the audience, which skewed heavily towards those who were not alive when the movie came out (or in the decade or two following) cheered each song like it was the score of Hamilton. Kids today…what are you going to do.

Passion – Signature Theatre

Passion – Signature Theatre

Signature Theatre is starting off its ’18-19 theater season with  this beautiful and moving production of Passion and in the process are making me seriously reconsider my “I’m not really a Sondheim person” stance.

This unlikely/bizarre love triangle, set in 1860’s Italy, is one of those shows that has stuck with me and I’ve been forced to hunt down the soundtrack to try and recapture the wonderful experience I had in the theater. Listening to the soundtrack for the past week has reinforced the beauty and complexity of the music and moreover it highlights what a truly clever writer Mr. Sondheim is. Dammit.  The opening duet between Giorgio and Clara, “Happiness”, foreshadows so much of what is to follow and one line in particular rather summarizes the plot for you:

“How quickly pity turns to love!”

The story, as a good story should, takes you on a journey of discovery, it challenges your perceptions of the characters and exposes their truer selves as the plot advances. When you first meet Giorgio and Clara they are young lovers unfairly separated by Giorgio’s military obligations. When you meet Fosca she is a pitiable victim of life’s unfairness. As the story progresses you find out…okay I’m not going to tell you that but none of these characters are what they seem at first blush. Clara is no dewy eyed ingenue, Giogio’s honor is not so burnished, and Fosca is culpable in her own misery. Their imperfections alternately make these character’s unlikable and pitiable and therefore lovable…if the lyric is true. 

Of course the most flawed of the characters has to be the good Doctor who seems to have graduated from the Friar Lawrence School of Advice for the Lovelorn. Granted, unlike Romeo and Juliet, these are grown people allowing him to meddle in their lives and following his such bad advice; good judgment may just be the common failing of our characters.

Fosca’s character, for any modern woman, is especially hard to find likable. There are plenty of “Woman! Have some self-respect!” moments in her relentless pursuit of Giogio. Based on the many audible gasps, hrumphs and murmurings of the woman sitting next to me, I was not alone, if certainly more silent, in that feeling. Of course on the flip side, her determination to pursue what she wants regardless of the consequences (she stops short of boiling his rabbit, but not by much) would be quite progressive if her objective wasn’t a man.  

Thankfully the triumvirate of Natascia Diaz, Steffanie Liegh and Claybourne Elder are more than capable of handling these complex characters, music and melodies. They are the core of the show and I have nothing but praise for those performances.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the scenic design for the show, it is one of my favorites in recent memory. How does one achieve a design that is both austere and lush? The minimal set below is crowned by the explosion of flowers above, the colorless firmament and the radiant ever after? The starkness of life versus the beauty we all seek? Whatever the intent is was beautifully done.

There are only a few weeks left to see this beautiful show, and as most really interesting pieces of work it may not be for everyone, but that could be said of many of Mr. Sondheim’s works. This is not a conventional love story but one worth seeing none the less.

Tony Awards 2017 Predictions

Yes…it’s been a full year since I posted. I haven’t stopped going to shows, quite the opposite, but I’ve been lacking time in which to write properly. We’ll consider this a mini-relaunch and I intend to write more. Even if it’s just a quick and dirty review or opinion piece I hope to post something on each show for the ’17-’18 season.

But as for this year’s Tony Awards the smart money is on Pasek and Paul’s “Dear Evan Hansen” to take away many awards but I can’t help but root for scrappy “Come From Away.” What I’ve seen has an the rest I’ve gleaned from general opinion and earlier awards or just made a random guess.

Best Play:
A Doll’s House, Part 2
Oslo (still on my list of plays to see)

Best Musical:
Come From Away*
Dear Evan Hansen* (this is my intellectual choice, my heart wants Come From Away)
Groundhog Day The Musical
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812*

Best Book of a Musical:
Come From Away — Irene Sankoff and David Hein*
Dear Evan Hansen — Steven Levenson* (actually anywhere I pick Dear Evan Hansen, I’d be okay with Come From Away winning)
Groundhog Day The Musical — Danny Rubin
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 — Dave Malloy*

Best Original Score:
Come From Away — Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff and David Hein*
Dear Evan Hansen — Music & Lyrics: Benj Pasek & Justin Paul*
Groundhog Day The Musical — Music & Lyrics: Tim Minchin
Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 — Music & Lyrics: Dave Malloy*

Best Revival of a Play: (I was very bad getting to see plays this year)
August Wilson’s Jitney
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Present Laughter*
Six Degrees of Separation

Best Revival of a Musical:
Hello, Dolly! (sigh…kind of a foregone conclusion)
Miss Saigon

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play:
Denis Arndt, Heisenberg
Chris Cooper, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Corey Hawkins, Six Degrees of Separation
Kevin Kline, Present Laughter
Jefferson Mays, Oslo 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play:
Cate Blanchett, The Present
Jennifer Ehle, Oslo
Sally Field, The Glass Menagerie
Laura Linney, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical:
Christian Borle, Falsettos
Josh Groban, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Andy Karl, Groundhog Day The Musical
David Hyde Pierce, Hello, Dolly!
Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen (but I’m king of rooting for Andy Karl, the man performed with a torn ACL! Hard core!)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical:
Denee Benton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Christine Ebersole, War Paint
Patti LuPone, War Paint
Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly! (sigh…it’s almost not fair to let Bette on Broadway)
Eva Noblezada, Miss Saigon

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play:
Michael Aronov, Oslo
Danny DeVito, Arthur Miller’s The Price (big ol’ WAG)
Nathan Lane, The Front Page
Richard Thomas, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
John Douglas Thompson, August Wilson’s Jitney

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play:
Johanna Day, Sweat
Jayne Houdyshell, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Cynthia Nixon, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Condola Rashad, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Michelle Wilson, Sweat

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical:
Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!
Mike Faist, Dear Evan Hansen (this is well deserved)
Andrew Rannells, Falsettos
Lucas Steele, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Brandon Uranowitz, Falsettos

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical:
Kate Baldwin, Hello, Dolly!
Stephanie J. Block, Falsettos
Jenn Colella, Come From Away (I really want her to win…awesome performance!)
Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen
Mary Beth Peil, Anastasia

Best Scenic Design of a Play:
David Gallo, August Wilson’s Jitney
Nigel Hook, The Play That Goes Wrong
Douglas W. Schmidt, The Front Page
Michael Yeargan, Oslo

Best Scenic Design of a Musical:
Rob Howell, Groundhog Day The Musical
David Korins, War Paint
Mimi Lien, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (really confident about this one)
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!

Best Costume Design of a Play:
Jane Greenwood, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Susan Hilferty, Present Laughter
Toni-Leslie James, August Wilson’s Jitney
David Zinn, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Costume Design of a Musical:
Linda Cho, Anastasia
Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!
Paloma Young, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (some seriously awesome coat porn in this show!)
Catherine Zuber, War Paint

Best Lighting Design of a Play:
Christopher Akerlind, Indecent
Jane Cox, August Wilson’s Jitney
Donald Holder, Oslo
Jennifer Tipton, A Doll’s House, Part 2

Best Lighting Design of a Musical:
Howell Binkley, Come From Away
Natasha Katz, Hello, Dolly!
Bradley King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Japhy Weideman, Dear Evan Hansen

Best Direction of a Play:
Sam Gold, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, August Wilson’s Jitney
Bartlett Sher, Oslo
Daniel Sullivan, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes
Rebecca Taichman, Indecent

Best Direction of a Musical:
Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
Rachel Chavkin, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Michael Greif, Dear Evan Hansen (it’s wrong that he hasn’t won sooner…this should be his year)
Matthew Warchus, Groundhog Day The Musical
Jerry Zaks, Hello, Dolly!

Best Choreography:
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand (Hamilton redux?)
Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, Groundhog Day The Musical
Kelly Devine, Come From Away
Denis Jones, Holiday Inn, The New Irving Berlin Musical
Sam Pinkleton, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Best Orchestrations:
Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand
Larry Hochman, Hello, Dolly!
Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen (Hamilton redux redux?)
Dave Malloy, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812

Tony Awards 2016 Predictions

Updated to reflect the winners .

This years predictions could be simplified to what categories Hamilton won’t win! I’m going to go out on a limb and say they have not a hope in any of the play categories, but only because they weren’t nominated. I will admit that in a post-Hamilton fit of ennui the remaining shows of the season were not particularly inspiring but I made a good faith effort to see some of the more interesting options. What I’ve seen has an the rest I’ve gleaned from general opinion and earlier awardsor just made a random guess.

Best Musical
Bright Star*
Hamilton*  There is not debate on this matter Period
School of Rock-The Musical
Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed*

Best Play
Eclipsed* – Danai Gurira
The Father – Florian Zeller
The Humans* – Stephen KaramI admit I did not find the play as charming as reviewers but this seems a lock. I prefered Eclipsed
King Charles III – Mike Bartlett

Best Revival of a Play
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible*
Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Total guess but such a depressing roster of plays makes me want to gived it to Noises Off!
Noises Off

Best Revival of a Musical
The Color Purple*
Fiddler on the Roof
She Loves Me – This is still on my list of shows to see although I really enjoyed Color Purple
Spring Awakening

Best Book of a Musical
Bright Star* – Steve Martin
Hamilton* – Lin-Manuel Miranda – Again no questions at all.
School of Rock-The Musical – Julian Fellowes
Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed* – George C. Wolfe

Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre
Bright Star* – Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Hamilton* – Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda – Foregone conclusion!
School of Rock-The Musical – Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Waitress – Music & Lyrics: Sara Bareilles

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Gabriel Byrne, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Jeff Daniels, Blackbird
Frank Langella, The Father  – Because we’re afraid not to give it to Mr. Langella
Tim Pigott-Smith, King Charles III
Mark Strong, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Jessica Lange, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – This is based on the general consensus and Jessica Lange’s Jessica Lange-ness but I thought Ms. Nyongo and Ms. Okonedo both gave excellent performances.
Laurie Metcalf, Misery
Lupita Nyong’o, Eclipsed *
Sophie Okonedo, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
Michelle Williams, Blackbird

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Alex Brightman, School of Rock-The Musical
Danny Burstein, Fiddler on the Roof
Zachary Levi, She Loves Me
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton *
Leslie Odom, Jr., Hamilton* – Honestly this could go either way but I think by the splitting of a hair I’d give it to Mr. Odom and because Mr. Miranda has a lock on Book and Music.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Laura Benanti, She Loves Me
Carmen Cusack, Bright Star *
Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple * – I would like to give this to Ms. Soo but Ms. Erivo is the clear winner here. I can count on one hand the number of mid-show standing ovations I’ve given and Ms. Enviro has this won hands down!
Jessie Mueller, Waitress
Phillipa Soo, Hamilton*

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Reed Birney, The Humans *
Bill Camp, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible *
David Furr, Noises Off
Richard Goulding, King Charles III
Michael Shannon, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Although it could also be Reed Birney

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Pascale Armand, Eclipsed *
Megan Hilty, Noises Off
Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans *
Andrea Martin, Noises Off
Saycon Sengbloh, Eclipsed*I’m diverging from conventional wisdom here just because I enjoyed her performance so much. It’s as likely to go to Ms. Houdyshell.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Daveed Diggs, Hamilton *As much as I enjoyed Mr. Goff’s hilarious turn as George III and Mr. Jackson’s impressive turn as the founding father of our country Mr. Digg’s performance is so charming, impressive and iconic it would be a crime not to give it to him.
Brandon Victor Dixon, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed *
Christopher Fitzgerald, Waitress
Jonathan Groff, Hamilton *
Christopher Jackson, Hamilton*

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple*
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Hamilton* – Although Ms. Brooks give a touching and funny performance Ms. Goldsberry should have this in the bag.
Jane Krakowski, She Loves Me
Jennifer Simard, Disaster!
Adrienne Warren, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed*

Best Scenic Design of a Play
Beowulf Boritt, Thérèse Raquin – Based on images of the play and my enjoyment of the name Beowulf.
Christopher Oram, Hughie  –
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge
David Zinn, The Humans*

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Es Devlin & Finn Ross, American Psycho
David Korins, Hamilton* Just because everything else was relatively conventional
Santo Loquasto, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed *
David Rockwell, She Loves Me

Best Costume Design of a Play
Jane Greenwood, Long Day’s Journey Into Night – This is a total guess.
Michael Krass, Noises Off
Clint Ramos, Eclipsed*
Tom Scutt, King Charles III

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Tuck Everlasting
Jeff Mahshie, She Loves Me *
Ann Roth, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed *
Paul Tazewell, Hamilton – For providing a nice hybrid of conventional and modern costimes.

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Natasha Katz, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Justin Townsend, The Humans *
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible*
Jan Versweyveld, Arthur Miller’s A View from the BridgeRandom guess based on the images of the play

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Howell Binkley, Hamilton *
Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed *
Ben Stanton, Spring Awakening
Justin Townsend, American Psycho

Best Direction of a Play
Rupert Goold, King Charles III
Jonathan Kent, Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Joe Mantello, The Humans *
Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed *
Ivo Van Hove, Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge

Best Direction of a Musical
Michael Arden, Spring Awakening
John Doyle, The Color Purple *
Scott Ellis, She Loves Me
Thomas Kail, Hamilton*
George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed*

Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton* – It’s hard to go against Mr. Glover’s incredible skills but in Hamilton the Choreography was elemental in the telling of the story, but I won’t be mad if he wins.
Savion Glover, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed *
Hofesh Shechter, Fiddler on the Roof
Randy Skinner, Dames at Sea
Sergio Trujillo, On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan

Best Orchestrations
August Eriksmoen, Bright Star *
Larry Hochman, She Loves Me
Alex Lacamoire, Hamilton* –  Again this should be a foregone conclusion
Daryl Waters, Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed

Hamilton…and why I’m mad at a Musical

hamilton02My grievances against the Hamilton musical are specific and threefold.

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the book, music, and lyrics for, and stars in the show and I find it very upsetting that one person should be so extraordinarily talented. It seems unfair to all the really talented people; although, Mr. Miranda didn’t direct and choreograph the show as well so, maybe, he’s only extremely talented. Not to mention that creating this show is just unfair to all the other shows out there. Typically, when I journey to NYC, I see multiple shows; thank goodness I didn’t this time. Imagine having to be the poor show that had to be held in comparison to the verve, intensity and intellect of Hamilton.
    I have a strict policy of not listening to soundtracks or reading reviews before I see a show; I like to preserve the moment of discovery and I don’t want to go into a show with expectations. Granted, with  all the accolades surrounding this show it was impossible not to have expectations. I was mostly hoping it would live up to the hype, I was not expecting it to so thoroughly o’er leap the hype. I was expecting the show to be witty and energetic and entertaining; I was not expecting it to be moving. I was not expecting to be in tears.
    We have distilled the creation myth of our country to facts and figures and bloodless profiles on our currency, and we forget these were passionate, purpose driven, not unflawed people. By using integrated casting and placing everything in a modern vernacular Mr. Miranda strips the audiences of their visual and aural perceptions (everybody has some perception of our founding fathers) and you’re forced to see these historic characters as people, not as the icons of our nation’s birth. Amongst the current divisive nature of our national politics, where the founding fathers’ “intent” is often a rallying cry, this show reminds us that creation of our nation was not by consensus but by compromise. This show manages to be entirely patriotic and at the same time completely subversive. That’s a neat trick.
  2. hamilton01The second reason that I’m mad at Hamilton is that I learned things and it made me want to learn more things.  The narrative and representation of characters is so intriguing that I had to go out and buy that damn 800+ page biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Not only am I now interested in learning more about Hamilton but also in the secondary characters, which in this case ironically are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lafayette, but even more so the tertiary characters. John Laurens’ character, whom I’ve never heard of, reminds us that racial equality is not a issue we’ve been debating for 50 or 100 years but since the inception of our country. If you had asked me two weeks ago who Hercules Mulligan was I would guessed the the Greek God of Irish stew not, pivotal spy for the Continental Army.
    hamilton06Mr. Miranda has admitted that he has taken some artistic liberty and strayed here and there from the facts. For instance, apparently, George Washington’s Cabinet debates were not decided by rap battles; but how cool would that be? I have heard “Shakespearean” applied to the language in Mr. Miranda’s creation and as a devotee of the Bard, I would not contest that assertion. The language is dense, intense and requires you to put on your grown up listening ears to get it all. And you’re not going to get it all the first time you listen to it, get the soundtrack. I’m kind of obsessed with it right now. It is also, like Shakespeare’s work, a representation of a specific time and place in history. This is a specific product of modern America, you cannot mistake it for anything else.
    While this is a verbose work it also is very purposefully written and consistent themes tie the narrative together. The specter of the duel (everyone knows about The Duel right?) is woven throughout the show, from the gun imagery of the very early line “put a pencil to his temple,” and is firmly established in the double entendre of “not going to waste my shot,” which carries you though the end of the show. While furiously wordy there are also moments were the show is most effectively concise; a scant 2  dozen lines establishes the loving father/son relationship between Hamilton and his eldest son Phillip in a scene that is the catalyst for many tears later in the show.
  3. Finally and frankly the most maddening issue is that there are not enough accolades to go around!! (I won’t use the T word, don’t want to jinx anything.) It’s one thing to learn the lines, it’s another thing to repeat it at the sometimes rapid fire speed required, but to be able to give the words weight and emotion and passion is just something that approaches the phenomenal.  And don’t forget adding in the choreography! As an example of how good the cast is, I did not get to see Mr. Miranda perform (being so near godlike he does not work Sundays), neither did I get to see the normal alternate, I got to see the alternate’s understudy, and he killed it. So a special nod to John Rau, this is an amazingly difficult role to understudy and he has to be heart of the show. He did an amazing job.
    Then there’s the rest of the cast, there is not a weak link in the chain. Leslie Odem Jr. as Burr, Christopher Jackson as Washington are awesome but I really have to give serious credit to Daveed Diggs for his dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. He has some of the fastest and tounge-twistyest numbers in the show and you would not know that this is a Broadway novice (although a seasoned performer). His Jeffersonian rap battles with Hamilton are just fun…they leave you a little breathless. And Jonathon Groff, crap, his turn as King George III, is hilarious. You will notice that he is the only character that appears as the visual stereotype we expect for his character, because he’s not a person so much as the personification of England. Still hilarious.
    hamilton04And let us not forget the ladies, in a show about the founding fathers it would have been quite easy to gloss over the women or relegate them to convenient back drops to be rolled onto and off stage as needed. Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry, as the Schuyler sisters, hold there own on stage and are presented as strong intellectual integral parts of the world that they live in. In a musical about Alexander Hamilton the show wraps up with a recounting of the accomplishments of his wife. See I told you the show was subversive.

It is a show that is worthy of all the praise it has received and in the end I am just very glad to have been in the room where it happened.



Salomé – Shakespeare Theatre Company

salome-2Every so often you get to see one of these types of shows, a show that tips over from entertainment to actual Art. Yes, yes, yes, I know all theater is art but this is serious, with a capital ‘A,’ Art! Everything about this show is so well conceived, constructed, so thoughtfully assembled, and has such depth of the performance that it created a most compelling work of Art. If someone told me they were just winging it would break my heart; the truth being that you don’t put something like this together without a great deal of thought and effort a forehand. Yaël Farber, who both wrote and directed the play, obviously had a vision of how she wanted to portray the legend of Salomé and she created a very compelling narrative and a visual feast for the eyes.

I will admit that I am only passingly familiar with the story of Salome, I knew it had something to do with biblical times, a beheading and dancing and veils, but I really enjoyed this telling of the story, it resonated with a feeling of mythic truthfulness as well as sociopolitical/theological currency. I say truthfulness acknowledging this is a fictional (or at least mythological?) tale but the tale told here feels like a story that would survive millennium and be retold by people who cannot conceive the reality of the time and place. Watching the show it’s evident that Ms. Farber borrowed from a variety of cultural/artistic sources in creating the rich tapestry of the show. I will admit I caught on to the visual ones more readily than the narrative ones.

salome-4Everything in this production had a purpose that served to deepen the narrative, there was nothing extraneous. The Judean priests moved and spoke in a stylized manner that dripped heavy with the nature of their rituals, with hands permanently stained with the blood of the perpetual sacrifices at the alter. Iokonnan, the prophet (John the Baptist) from the wilderness, speaks only his own language (here a classical version of Arabic); his voice is the one that has not bent under the yoke of compromise, of corruption, his voice is the one that is different from all the others; the speaker of truth.

Salomé, for the majority of the production is voiceless. Her narrative is given to an old woman who is unnamed but could be alternately considered Salome as on old woman, as they seem to say Salome did not die; or (as I prefer) as the eternal spirit of Salomé who could not be killed but is ever nameless because those who had power, those who wrote the history, swore to strip her of her identity and swore that her life and actions would never be known and never have meaning. In that context they did fail to kill her, there is no reference by name in the bible to Herrod’s daughter, Salomé is an invention of centuries later, but her story is everlasting. In this story, Salomé is no wanton, rather the opposite, her actions have purpose and meaning. The death of Iokannan is less murder, more sacrifice, one in which he is complicit. This references back to the descriptions of the bloody sacrifices in the temples, but here sacrifice is in the name of change and not in the maintenance of the exiting order. Salomé by invoking the death of the prophet, whom everyone in power wanted to but feared to kill, is a catalyst, the tipping point from which there is no return. Beheading tend to be that way.

salome-5This performance is rich with threads that weave back and forth throughout connecting different parts of the tapestry of the story. Enriching that tapestry is the visual feast provided by the set deign and lighting. It is rare that I bother to flip through the playbill to see who did the lighting design but I am little surprised to see that Donald Holder has a couple Tony awards and many more than a couple nominations for lighting design. He created moments of chiaroscuro that would have made Caravagio jealous. I have spent a few moments on line trying to confirm the reference to famous pieces of are that seemed to be scattered through the production. The Last Supper was pretty obvious but there was a mad man who in me kept invoking Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, which seems appropriate to the nature of the story; not only in the destructive relationship of Harrod and Salomé but also in the way the Roman’s sought to civilize the natives and in the way the priests were more concerned with worship rather than tending to the people.

You have only through next weekend to see this show, and I really recommend it if at all possible and I sincerely hope that there are plans to perform the show elsewhere as well.


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.

Dear Evan Hansen…

…it 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.