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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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

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 Ado…is 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.