Tony Awards 2016

A recap of the Tonys is something of a Show Me Shows tradition, but it’s also a little dangerous. Truth is, I’m not generally very critical about the Tonys. You could even call me a Tony cheerleader. So, fair warning: You may be up for several paragraphs of Julia squealing about how much she likes Broadway.

The other thing, of course, is that it feels a little wrong to post merry Tony ramblings after a national tragedy like the mass murder in Orlando. My sister Elizabeth admitted this morning that she couldn’t even really think about the Tonys in the light of the massacre, and I can understand that.

But I’ve decided to put up a few thoughts for anyone who might like to think about something a little happier for a few minutes.

The Host
James Corden was a really wonderful Tony host: charming, unobtrusive, fun. Hard for me to imagine anyone disliking him, to be honest. And I’d have him back anytime. His variety-show type opening number seemed cute but not memorable. In fact, I feel like I barely remember it even now, and it was only a day ago. But then he brought it up a notch (and I got a lump in my throat) when all the kids onstage transformed into the 2016 musical acting nominees. Bringing the nominees together in that way is one of those ideas that seems so obvious in retrospect, but I don’t remember seeing anything like it before. Such a beautiful idea to bring these talented folks together before ruining all the fun by actually picking favorites.

My only Corden quibble that I can think of: I didn’t quite understand why they showed the Carpool Karaoke segment again. It’s still cute, but we all watched it already five days ago! In a year when the Tonys went 17 minutes over its three hour time slot, it seemed completely unnecessary.

The Numbers
Hamilton and School of Rock were particular highlights in the song department. Since I’ve had little-to-no interest in School of Rock, I was a little surprised at how much fun it was. (So this is the show I’ve been sneering about for all these months. Hmm. Maybe I should rethink my uninformed opinion.) As for the other shows: not bad, for the most part! I generally take an anti-medley stance, but the She Loves Me numbers worked well, probably because they all look like they’re having so much fun. Spring Awakening‘s number was which was a jubilant excerpt, whereas Shuffle Along seemed a little jumbled. (But maybe that’s because everyone watching at Cheryl’s house got distracted trying to figure out how far along Audra McDonald is. Surely no more than four months? Four and a half?)

Some other ones didn’t quite work for me, though: On Your Feet gave me no indication that this was a must-see. Although I believe people tend to like it, so maybe I’m not giving it a shot. Maybe I’ll check it out eventually, but it’s pretty low on my priority list. As for Gloria Estefan, who performed with the cast: my friend Meredith hilariously pointed out how annoying it would be to have to sing and dance next to a decades younger, and far more limber version of yourself. Yikes. But maybe Gloria Estefan isn’t troubled about things like that. (After all, it didn’t seem to bother Carole King back in 2014.) Bright Star was all right, I suppose, because Carmen Cusack really is great, but those lyrics sound worse and worse every time you hear them.

More problematic: I really wish musicals would stop featuring the Big Act Two diva number on the Tonys. I’m referring specifically to Waitress and The Color Purple. Now, as I said in my reviews, I’m a big fan of both Jessie Mueller and Cynthia Erivo, but both of their songs come as the climax after a long build-up through the course of the show. Why not save the big number for the theater, and include something a little more accessible for the Tony viewers? I vividly remember seeing the Caroline or Change Tony number in 2004 and thinking “WHAT is this woman shouting about???” Of course, that song is incredibly powerful in context, but it seemed so incomprehensible without knowing the show itself. I later fell in love with the song — and the show — but only because I was given a free ticket and gave it another chance.

On the other hand, I can admit that Bernadette Peters’s Rose’s Turn, which is exactly the kind of song I usually rail against, was a wonderful documentation of an incredible performance. The same can be said for many others, I’m sure. I generally go for winning over the audience rather than documenting a performance, though, and I tend to think producers are crazy for not agreeing with me.

The Big Winner
I just looked over my Tony recaps from 2014 and 2015, and funnily enough, both of them end with a mention of Hamilton. In 2014 I mentioned the shows I was looking forward to in the year to come:

… And all the exciting Off-Broadway shows we’ll be getting, like Hamilton and who knows what else.

Then in 2015:

In any case, I’m happy to relax and celebrate Fun Home‘s very well deserved win while waiting for Hamilton‘s coronation next year. For once, a Best Musical race won’t be stressful. (I’d say “famous last words” but seriously. No one is beating Hamilton.)

Last night was the culmination of all that. It felt like the end of the road in a sense — I know the show isn’t going anywhere, but I can’t afford another ticket, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is leaving in a month, and I know the CD by heart. What more is there to do, or say here? I’ve even found myself listening to Hamilton a lot less lately. Just feels like time to move on.

Yesterday I spent an embarrassingly large portion of the day watching old highlights of Tony performances. I couldn’t get enough. Seeing those shows again after all these years — shows like like Ragtime, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George, Annie, Cabaret, In the Heights and dozens more — I felt as though I was getting a welcoming hug from an old friend. It brought back so many good memories. So who knows? Maybe in 20 years when Hamilton is well past its prime or long closed, I’ll turn on that clip and see Barack Obama’s introduction, and the youthful and vibrant cast, and Lin-Manuel Miranda performing his own songs and I’ll think. “Oh yes. What a magical time.”

What’s Next?
I’m freely admitting that I’m way behind on plays, and I hope to catch up over my summer blogging sabbatical*. Obviously I’ll have to get to The Humans, but I don’t think I’ll get to The Father before it closes. Intellectually, I’m interested in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but I must say that Cheryl dampened my enthusiasm a bit at her Tony party by reminding me that it’s four hours of people making each other miserable. (Ugh, do I hafta? Sounds like homework.) As for musicals, I’m going to try and catch School of Rock, and everyone at Cheryl’s party felt like Fiddler would be fun to experience again. We may arrange an outing.

As for next year? I missed Dear Evan Hansen at Second Stage, but rumor has it it’s already a strong contender for Best Musical next June. Looking at Playbill’s schedule of upcoming Broadway shows, it looks like we’re in for a lot of play revivals (The Cherry Orchard, The Front Page, The Master Builder, etc). What else is new, though? We have a lot of play revivals every year. But a few of the new musicals (A Bronx Tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Bandstand) look intriguing. And I did like Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet a whole lot when I saw it in the tent a few years ago. I will say that nothing on Playbill’s upcoming shows page makes me think we’ll have anything like another Hamilton on our hands. But as a great man once said: “There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, ‘You never know.'” So who knows what 2016-2017 will feature? Bring it on!

* – Note: I am not announcing that I am absolutely taking a summer sabbatical from writing blog posts, but it may happen despite all my best intentions. Seems to be a pattern with me.

Tony Nominations 2016

First of all: Happy Tony day, everyone! I’ll be watching the show from my friend Cheryl’s house and playing Tony Bingo. (Aside: You wouldn’t believe the Hamilton-related prize I have for the bingo winner. ) I had been planning to do a full post on a few of the plays and musicals nominated for a Tony. And here it is, Tony Sunday already, so I’d better get something up before I run out of time! I’m a little behind on plays, to be honest, so I’ll just focus on musicals for today.


hamiltonHamilton is, of course, nominated for nearly everything and a lock to win quite a few awards tonight. I haven’t mentioned Hamilton much on this blog since my original review of the Off-Broadway production. (I’ve been telling people to buy tickets since I first saw the show back in February of 2015. This has the effect of making everyone even more annoyed at my I-told-you-sos than they are at Hamilton’s producers for the ticket prices.) I have since seen it twice on Broadway, and am proud to take full responsibility for introducing nearly my entire family to the show. (They all love it. But then so does everyone.)

What’s left to say? It’s a wonderful show, and it deserves much of the hype it has received. And yet. Like many others, I have been feeling a bit of backlash. I mean, Hamilton is a great show, but there are lots of great shows on Broadway. Can’t get a ticket to Hamilton? Go see Fun Home, or The Color Purple, or Waitress, or Shuffle Along, or any one of a dozen other terrific shows currently on Broadway.

Oh, and one more thing: If you do snag tickets to Hamilton, I’d recommend doing what I did when my mom and sister came to see the show: try visiting Hamilton Grange before your performance. It’s a great and quick tour of his uptown home, and seeing it gives a wonderful context to the show’s history. And if you get the same tour guide as I did, you’ll be amused at how hilariously dismissive he is of the musical. (Ask him if he plans to see it, or if he knows the song “It’s Quiet Uptown”, or what he thinks of the cast recording. It will drive him up the wall.)

Bright Star

bright starI’m going to try and be quick about this, because I’m really trying not to get too negative on this blog these days. I mean, I am sometimes of two minds about this blogging thing altogether. These people are working their hardest to put on a Broadway show, and I come in and announce that it’s no good for x, y and z reasons. It just seems hubristic, right? Who the heck am I to say anything about the ultimate quality of a show? Maybe it was always their dream to get to Broadway. And here I’m dismissing it altogether?

On the other hand, I use this blog as a way to engage with the art that I love. And I pay for most of the shows I see, and the box office is very happy to accept my money. So why shouldn’t I express my opinion? Furthermore, this is not a high-trafficked blog, anyway, so I don’t worry about it too much. But I still don’t want to be mean about shows just for the fun of it. Which is why I never blogged about Bright Star, even though I saw it back in February. I hated it, and I hated it so much that I get a little startled when some people tell me they kinda liked it. My honest opinion is that it would never have made it to Broadway if it weren’t written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.

Why did I hate it? Well, mostly because of the book. It’s a totally ridiculous story about a fortyish book editor (Carmen Cusack, who is actually really great) who meets an aspiring young writer with a surprising connection to her secret past. (Hmm. That doesn’t sound so bad. Well, it would sound awful if I told you the ridiculous plot twists. Let’s just say the show may or may not feature a baby being tossed off a bridge.) And it’s so, uh, white. (I believe they’re calling it “White Star” over on Twitter.) I don’t know. I mean, writers have to tell the stories they want to tell, but here’s the thing. A story set in the post World War II South that doesn’t even mention that black people exist, or portray any onstage, just seems a little tone deaf in a season of musicals like Hamilton and Shuffle Along.

That said, there’s one thing I did like about Bright Star, and that’s the music. Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell apparently got the idea for the show from their award-winning bluegrass album. So the songs are good, though the lyrics are pretty trite and ridiculous (“If you knew my story, my heaven and my hell, if you knew my story, you’d have a good story to tell”). The voices and the band and the harmonies sound so glorious in the theater that I was occasionally tempted to forgive the show’s flaws and just flow with the music. Other bluegrass lovers may feel the score washes away the show’s problems, for the most part. But I wasn’t able to overcome my distaste for the story. So I can’t recommend this show.

She Loves Me

she loves meI just saw this one ten days ago, actually, and have been too busy with work and travel since then to write a full blog post about it. Critics have been calling this production a nearly perfect restaging of a nearly perfect musical. I don’t know that I’d go so far, to be honest. I’ve only just realized it, but I have some problems with the show’s writing.

But that sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it? Let’s start with the positive: first of all, the music is just as good as it ever was. Everyone else grew up listening to the cd too, right? (If you didn’t: She Loves Me is based on the same story as You’ve Got Mail or The Shop Around the Corner). What fabulous musical theater songs!

The set is so beautiful that I wanted to get a job at Maracek’s Parfumerie myself — imagine working in that jewel box! Scott Ellis’s direction is smooth, perhaps even occasionally overly slick (I could have done with a little less physical comedy, perhaps). But that’s a quibble. Because best of all is the cast: Zachary Levi is completely charming as leading man Georg, and both Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel are letter-perfect in their featured roles. This is truly an ensemble show, and absolutely everyone does a wonderful job.

Including leading lady Laura Benanti. Let it be said that I totally love Laura Benanti. She’s a great actress, her voice is lovely and she has fantastic comic timing. Basically, she’s a gift to Broadway and has an awesome Twitter feed to boot. I truly don’t think what I’m about to complain about is her fault. But why is everyone calling this a perfect musical when the character of Amalia is a bit of a mess? This is a girl who charges into a parfumerie and gets a job through sheer moxie. She doesn’t seem shy. She seems awesome! But then her lyrics tell a different story:

Will he like me when we meet?
Will the shy and quiet girl he’s going to see
Be the girl that he’s imagined me to be?


I make believe nothing is wrong
How long can I pretend?
Please make it right, don’t break my heart….

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. I guess this is supposed to represent the inner life of the character, but I wasn’t convinced. Because Laura Benanti can play a shy and quiet character. (She won a Tony as Louise in Gypsy for crying out loud.) But this role isn’t shy! She’s open, brash, fun, a little klutzy. Why aren’t her songs more reflective of the character we see in the book scenes?

If your big complaint about a show, though, is a nitpick about some a few of the lyrics for the leading lady, you are sitting pretty. She Loves Me is a great pick if you are looking for a show to take your parents, or your date, or if you just want to take your mind off your troubles, or if you just want to see a musical that truly appreciates ice cream.

The Color Purple

color purpleI was in the ticketholders’ line outside the Jacobs a few weeks ago when I heard the news: Cynthia Erivo was out sick that night. (I do believe I moaned in dismay.) I’d heard so many good things about her performance that I decided to rebook. The box office folks switched my ticket with no extra charges, and the next week I tried again.

And wow. Does she ever live up to the hype! Where do I begin describing her performance? Well, let’s start with this: she’s got a voice and a half. I mean, we’re talking Whitney Houston-caliber vocals. The songs sound incredible. And she is onstage for the vast majority of the show. It must be an incredibly physically demanding role. (How on earth did she run a half-marathon and do two shows, all in one day?) But that’s not really what impressed me so much. Her character, Celie, transforms from an abused and downtrodden girl into an independent powerhouse woman, and is totally believable throughout. She nails the comedic moments, and the drama, and the songs as well. Ms. Erivo is a beautiful lady, of course, but her demeanor in the first act of the show even had me believing it when other characters kept calling her ugly. And then by the end of the end of the show, when Celie has made a new start for herself, I thought “Oh my goodness. She radiates joy.” I’ve said before that expressing joy is what musicals do best, and Cynthia Erivo is doing it better than anyone I’ve seen in a long time. For the first time in my life, I burst into tears at the curtain call. Bravo.

As for the rest of the cast — well, they’re all great. And I don’t mean to pick favorites, but Heather Headley (a new arrival to the cast) is fabulous as Shug (Celie’s friend and sometime love interest). Confident, sexy, warm — no wonder everyone onstage loves Shug so much. It is so good to see Heather Headley on Broadway again. And Danielle Brooks lights up the stage as Sophia, Celie’s ballsy friend.

And what did I think of the show itself? Well, I thought that it seemed like a pretty strong musical, actually. The songs were lively, the story propelled along nicely, the characterization was great, and all in all I liked it a lot.

If my description sounds like it’s a new musical, that’s because it was a new musical to me. I had missed the entire original run of The Color Purple (I don’t recall why — perhaps I was busy ushering?). So who can say if I’d have liked it? The critical consensus is that original was not great, whereas this new production is revelatory. I wonder if that’s really true. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the show, and I would certainly vote for it as Best Revival of a Musical. (And I think it will win! Hooray!) But — and I’m just throwing this out there — maybe the fault is a little more with us than we’d like to admit? Could it be that The Color Purple had virtues that few noticed in the original run? I make this suggestion because my friend Vanessa, who has seen both, seemed a little confused about why this production was considered so superior to the original. I think for those who were looking, The Color Purple was always a little better than what it had been given credit for.

Best of luck to all the Tony nominees and congratulations to everyone one such a stellar season. I feel so lucky to have been a witness to it. Cheers to Broadway!

Review: American Psycho

IMG_20160503_215155191Have I lost my critical faculties? Do I just like everything now? I wondered, as I walked away from the Schoenfeld theater after seeing American Psycho on Broadway. Because the truth is that I had a great time, and found the new musical daring, dynamic, funny, and memorable. I felt a little embarrassed, because I wasn’t totally sure that it was a good show. But then as my friend Christine said: “I know a lot of people who liked American Psycho, and they’re all kind of embarrassed about it.”

So why did we like it? And why are we a little embarrassed?

Let’s start with the story. I know that everyone else has seen the movie American Psycho, or finished the book. I haven’t done either, and I found the slasher story pretty compelling. Patrick Bateman is a shallow, preppy, materialistic 1980s Wall Street type who is obsessed with Donald J. Trump. (It’s hard to believe the Trump thing is actually from the original source material, but it certainly is.) He’s a wealthy consumer — he loves telling us about his high-end lotions, clothing, electronics and so on — with an equally consumerist fiance (Helene Yorke) and materialistic group of friends. And he just happens to be a serial killer.

It’s a razor-sharp satire — or, well, to be more exact, American Psycho WAS a razor-sharp satire. I’m still in the middle of reading Bret Easton Ellis’s original novel, and it pulls no punches. The musical, on the other hand, is half murderous satire, half 1980s nostalgia comedy. Part of this can’t be helped: that’s where the story is set, after all. But this show has a lot of fun with its 1980s backdrop. This is certainly evident in Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s sometimes uneven book. Much of Ellis’s original prose is preserved, but now functions as a knowing wink to the past. And the nostalgia is amplified in director Rupert Goold’s production. Everything from the movement to the scenery to the costumes is totally, outrageously of its era. So maybe this adaptation distances us from some of the more horrifying aspects of the story, or the more biting satirical commentary. Oh well. Who cares? American Psycho the musical (like its characters) may be a little relentless in its search for a good time. But it kind of feels like something that Patrick Bateman himself would love.

The music and lyrics are by Duncan Sheik, of Spring Awakening fame. His songs sound vaguely 1980s: high energy, pulsing rhythms, electronic instrumentation, a little cheesy. The music is good; the lyrics are not. (“You’re such a card,” the guys sing to their business cards.) There are also a few genuine 1980s songs, as well: Hip to Be Square, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Don’t You Want Me, In the Air Tonight. Given that I always want original music in a musical, I felt a little guilty for preferring the real 1980s music (by Phil Collins et al) to Mr. Sheik’s score. On the other hand, most people in my generation would probably feel the same way. It’s in our bloodstream by this point.

As for the cast: I’ve already gone too long without mentioning Benjamin Walker. In other words: I’m starting to understand the hoopla. From his first moment he was mesmerizing, charismatic, creepy. He’s hilarious too. The role is enormous — he’s onstage nearly the entire show — and he absolutely commands the space. It’s a highly physical part, too. I honestly don’t understand why Mr. Walker wasn’t nominated for a Tony. (But more on that in a different post.) It was that kind of compelling performance, as far as I was concerned. (On the other hand, I’m a little worried that people will think I only liked him because he is quite handsome, very toned, and spent half the show in his underpants. Not true! Not true at all!)

Then there’s Helene Yorke, who I remember well from her brassy performance in the mediocre Bullets Over Broadway. Evelyn, Patrick’s fiance, is a similarly cartoonish character to Olive of Bullets Over Broadway, but it seems to fit Ms. Yorke better, somehow. It could be the characterization is funnier, or it could be that the tone of American Psycho fits better with her style of comedy than Bullets did. Either way, she’s great here.

I was at a bit of a loss with Jennifer Damiano’s performance. Ms. Damiano plays Patrick’s secretary Jean. She’s a sweet girl and secretly in love with Patrick. (Bad choice, Jean!) Ms. Damiano surprised me with the utter expressionlessness of her performance. Seemingly every line was delivered in a deadpan monotone. I was completely fascinated by this. I mean, this is clearly a performance decision and not just bad acting. But I couldn’t really figure out why. Maybe to set Jean off from the cartoonishness of the rest of the company? Or… or… maybe she is speaking in a completely normal voice, and it only sounds monotonous because the rest of the cast is so over the top? Or… is it actually bad acting? I’m not sure.

So maybe by this point you can see where I’m coming from. There are reasons why I’m embarrassed (the lyrics, the overt nostalgia, the sometimes clunky book) and reasons I liked American Psycho anyway (Benjamin Walker and the rest of the cast, the compelling story, the excellent comedic moments, the music). At this point it seems pretty obvious why the show got such divided reviews. And why it got mostly ignored by the Tony nominators. But I call “no fair.” This is a show that takes more risks than any other new musical on Broadway this season (except Hamilton). And I think that’s something we should root for.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Ticket price: $59 (Box office with discount)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: My Tony nomination reactions

Review: Shuffle Along


not one but TWO fabulous retro Playbills

This might surprise you, but I’ve never really been a tap dance person. (And this coming from a swing dancer!) It wasn’t necessarily in vogue when I fell in love with Broadway (the dominant shows at that time were, of course, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, etc.) and musicals that spoke to me most weren’t likely to use tap much anyway. I liked the big, emotive music and dramatic, expressive dances. The kind of thing you’d see in West Side Story or Cassie’s dance in A Chorus Line. In comparison, 42nd Street or any of the other shows that featured a ton of tap dancing seemed stodgy, old fashioned. I’d see those chorus members (with smiles PASTED on — those fake toothy smiles still grate on me, by the way) tapping and the whole feel of it would be along the lines of “Hey this is BROADWAY so we are going to tap for you!” It’s always seemed a little… cheesy? Dorky?

I know that way back in 1996, George C. Wolfe and Savion Glover’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk changed the way a lot of people viewed tap, but I never saw Noise/Funk, unfortunately. As I said, tap just didn’t seem all that interesting to me at the time. And nowadays you don’t see a lot of really innovative tap. (Well, maybe you do if you are paying attention, but I can’t say that I have been. I’ve probably been actively avoiding it, now that I think about it.) Shows like The Book of Mormon and The Producers (among many others) use it to brilliant comic effect, of course, and that’s where I thought tap fit best.

Now. Shuffle Along, or, the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed might have transformed my attitude towards tap dancing. And that’s not even the best thing about it. It’s not a perfect show, but I thought it was a truly wonderful, kinesthetic production. The performances are phenomenal, the story is fascinating and moving, and the staging is wonderfully clever.

And, of course, there’s tap dancing. But I’ll get to that.

It’s about Broadway’s biggest hit of 1921: Shuffle Along, an all-black extravaganza full of terrific songs, raucous dancing and lots of jokes. Now, the original Shuffle Along is all but unperformable now. It didn’t age well, to say the least. The original had black performers wearing blackface for further comic effect, for one thing, and a ridiculous, cliched storyline. So what our Shuffle Along has done is use the (still-terrific) songs from the original and enfold them in the story of how the show came to be, and what happened after it barnstormed Broadway.

It’s right in my wheelhouse in a lot of ways. I love plays that teach me about an era of history (All the Way and Wolf Hall, for example), and Broadway in particular (Act One). Go ahead and toss in any “let’s put on a show” cliche you want to, because as I established when I saw Act One, I’m a sucker for that stuff. I’m also a sucker for old-fashioned theatrical delights, and this show is full of them. An old-style playbill, song title cards above the stage, and so on. It’s like they made a show specifically for people obsessed with old-timey jazz, vintage Broadway, and 1920s dance. And you wonder why I liked it?

In the new Shuffle Along, F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter), two comic performers, join together with songwriters Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) to write the show that became Shuffle Along. All four of these performers are outstanding. Charm, individuality, fantastic voices, terrific comic timing. When will you see a better cast than this? And boy is it ever good to see Brian Stokes Mitchell back on Broadway. (It feels like it’s been awhile. Is that true?)

I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, yeah. But why hasn’t she mentioned Audra McDonald yet? From what I understand, I got really lucky as Ms. McDonald missed the next few performances with bronchitis. But she was in the night I saw the show, and giving a typically fabulous performance. If she was already getting sick, I heard no hint of it. Her voice is as stunning as ever. She was warm and dignified as Lottie Gee, the fashionable and proud but minor diva given the leading role in Shuffle Along. But more than that, she was also hilarious. Frankly, it’s just refreshing to see her having fun, after all the horrible onstage suffering that has earned her so many Tonys. This isn’t the kind of performance that is likely to win her another one, but I almost liked her better for all of that. This show is an ensemble piece, and Ms. McDonald fits in beautifully.

And that tap dancing. This wasn’t the Broadway tap I thought I knew. This was hoofing: percussionistic, passionate. The large ensemble numbers burst onstage like a locomotive, driving the narrative and adding syncopation to the music. And there are quieter solo moments that shine, as well. It’s fantastic stuff, and I can’t wait to see which song they choose for the Tony broadcast. Choreographer Savion Glover gets the credit for this, of course, but dance is so seamlessly incorporated into George C. Wolfe’s cinematic staging that basically everything feels choreographed. I can’t say enough about the charismatic staging, to be honest. There are a ton of joyous or clever moments in the piece that surprised me: I was left with the sense of Broadway masters showing us how it’s done.

If there’s something to pick at in Shuffle Along, it’s probably the book, also by Mr. Wolfe. The first act, which tells the story of Shuffle Along‘s gestation and journey to Broadway, is so zippy, energetic and well-constructed that the show seems unstoppable. I noticed some tried-and-true Broadway bits, such as the leading lady jazzing up her big hit number (a moment straight outta Showboat!) but I was having too much fun to care. The second act, however lacks that narrative drive. It’s all about what happened after Shuffle Along opened, and feels a little messier and directionless at times. And the show as a whole is probably overlong, at nearly three hours the night I saw it. No matter, really, though. By the end, it packed quite an emotional punch as you see the (sometimes tragic) outcomes of the people we met and fell for in Act One. I was sobbing.

It’s a show that fits perfectly into the season: while Hamilton reimagines American history through wonderful multiracial storytellers, it’s still about a bunch of white guys. Shuffle Along focuses on actual black history. Both are smashingly powerful. Look around, look around at how lucky we are, Broadway fans.

My Grade: A
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $69 (Box office with discount)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: American Psycho

Review: Waitress

IMG_20160421_103343371_HDRMovies turned into Broadway musicals. We are in the midst of an onslaught, and there’s no end in sight. I tend to roll my eyes whenever I hear of a new one. I mean, they can bring out the worst of Broadway’s qualities, right? It can force a weird, hilarious, original piece of film into a standard Broadway template: “I Want” song followed by comic relief followed by conditional love song followed by Big Act 2 number followed (almost always) by a happy ending. All clocking in at exactly 2 hours and 30 minutes.

(I’m not just bashing Broadway here. Stage musicals turned into movies are even worse. Remember when the film version of Jersey Boys extracted all the joy out of the show?)

On the other hand: they’re not uniformly bad. Once breaks the pattern with beautiful staging and choreography. Hairspray’s terrific score makes up for the loss of John Waters’ original voice. The Bridges of Madison County easily surpassed its hokey source material with an intelligent adaptation, beautiful music, and transcendent performances. The stage version of The Lion King, with its staging and use of puppetry, is certainly superior to the movie. Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler’s contributions to Bring it On vaulted it from humdrum movie remake to vibrant, energetic stage production. I could go on, of course. But overall these are the unusual ones. In my experience, most musical versions of movies simply aren’t as good as the original.

So where does Waitress fall? Well, good news, musical theater fans: this is more of a Hairspray than a Legally Blonde. It’s got an excellent and very tuneful score from singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, a wonderful and warm leading lady in Jessie Mueller, a lot of humor, and a lovely production. It’s an audience-pleaser: a clever show with a soul. It got a rapturous audience reaction when I saw it, and it seems pretty clear this will be a big hit.

If you haven’t seen the movie: small-town waitress Jenna (Ms. Mueller), surrounded by a group of colorful friends and colleagues (it’s like the southern version of Stars Hollow), finds herself knocked up, further entrapping her into a loveless marriage with the brutish Earl (Nick Cordero). Things get complicated when she finds herself attracted to her obstetrician (Drew Gehling).

Now. About Jessie Mueller. Throughout the show people kept raving about Jenna’s homemade pies as “unearthly” or some equally hyperbolic adjective. That’s basically how I feel about Jessie Mueller’s voice, which is gorgeous, soulful, powerful. And combine that with her ever-appealing persona (she honestly seems like the nicest person on the stage) and you get a sense of how lucky we are to have her on Broadway. She also sounds quite a bit like Sara Bareilles at times, interestingly enough. (Well, since she can mimic Carole King perfectly too, I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise.) The rest of the cast is also really strong. Drew Gehling’s performance as Dr. Pomatter is hilarious, klutzy and appealing (and isn’t it nice to see the MAN as the klutzy one in a romantic comedy?), though his performance might be a little less riotous for those of us who have seen the movie. (The funniest moments were straight out of Nathan Fillion’s book.) And both Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn are memorable and in great voice as Jenna’s best friends. I do wish that Nick Cordero got to show off some of the charm we saw in Bullets Over Broadway, though. He’s flat-out villainous here. His one-note characterization seems, frankly, a little out of sync with the rest of the show. I wish the role had been written with a lighter touch.

Ms. Bareilles, it seems, grew up a theater nerd, which is why I wasn’t too surprised that the score was so strong. She can write everything from a standout opening number to a throaty act two climax, and do it all well. The music is buoyant, and the lyrics are thoughtful and honest, full of the humor and warmth that is infused throughout the show.

Waitress is notable for having an all-female creative team: in addition to Ms. Bareilles, it was directed by Diane Paulus, written by Jessie Nelson (relying heavily on the movie version by Adrienne Shelly), and choreographed by Lorin Lotarro (who I remember well as the associate choreographer and swing when I ushered at American Idiot). It does indeed feel like a women’s musical, and I mean that as a compliment. It passes the Bechdel test within the first few moments of the show, and it’s all about the importance of friendship, love, community and food.

On the other hand, I could see those who love the movie not caring for the musical Waitress. Sentiment is tuned up a notch. Its harsh and quirky edges have been rounded off (or turned into “musical theater quirky”, which is an entirely different thing). The comedic moments seem brasher, the romantic ones lusher. Jessie Mueller is warm and endearing in a way that Kerri Russell never was in the film, so I could see how some might say the piece overall feels a little less brave, somehow. It’s easier on the senses.

But I didn’t care about any of that. It’s a good show: smart, tuneful, well-cast. The band sounds great and the company is wonderfully diverse. It does exactly what it sets out to do, and what more can you ask? I’m happy it’s on Broadway and I’m even happier it looks to be a big hit.

Now, it must be said that Waitress has zero chance of winning the Best Musical Tony this year. If I thought it would win, I might be less enamored of it. Sound crazy? Well, here’s what it comes down to: this is a really well-executed adaptation, and I certainly liked it better than the movie. But I like musicals best when they (in the words of Mr. Sondheim) “tell ’em things they don’t know,” or when they do something unexpected in terms of writing, staging, performance. And in a season where so many productions do all of those things, Waitress falls just a tiny bit short. It’s just like the movie, only better.

My Grade: A-
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 minutes
Ticket price: $79 (Box Office with discount)
  Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: Shuffle Along



The playbill was the least satisfying thing about the show

Here’s what I knew about YOUARENOWHERE before I saw it:

  1. Team Maxamoo praised it to the heavens. (I knew they absolutely loved it, but I didn’t actually listen to the episode in which they discussed it, so I didn’t know why.)
  2. It’s a one man show that involves a physics lecture somehow

I love the Maxamoo folks, so I went ahead and bought a ticket based on their recommendation. And now I’m in a quandary about writing a review. I have quite a bit to say, but I don’t really want to say any of it. To be honest, I’m really glad I walked in to YOUARENOWHERE knowing very little. This is a show that really benefits from going in cold, so I worry anything I say will detract from the piece itself. My official recommendation: stop here and go get a ticket (London-based readers: it’s coming to you too!) Then call me and we can discuss it.

YOUARENOWHERE (according to a NY Times article, you can read this as “You are now here” or “you are nowhere”) is a fragmented, dynamic examination of life-changing moments. Or the moment before death. Or something else that was entirely beyond me. (Unless it wasn’t. I have no idea. I need you all to go see the show so we can discuss this.)

Ugh. I can do a little better than that. Let me start again. Performance artist and designer Andrew Schneider uses light, sound, video, and his very charismatic stage presence in an hourlong performance that manages to make you think and make you feel. He’ll tell you anecdotes, he’ll describe the twelve-step program, but don’t expect a real story. I’m not entirely sure I understood a lot of it. But no matter, because this is one entertaining show, and on several levels. There’s Mr. Schneider’s rapid-fire speech and appealing persona, there’s the incredible technical achievement (including its signature device, a LED frame that blacks out an actor’s face), there are songs and dancing, there’s a bit of physics (the fun kind), and there are the moments of sheer surprise and astonishment. So many elements and it all fused together so well. How much rehearsal and preparation did this thing call for? The mind boggles.

IMG_20160318_122603611Theater doesn’t generally shock me. (To be fair, I probably don’t seek out shocking theater very often.) But my jaw actually dropped at certain moments in the show. And my first thought was: “Ok, I’m coming back to see this again.” Ten minutes later: “Maybe I’ll come see this again twice.” At the end of the show, Mr. Schneider encouraged everyone to stay for a beer and hang out. I hadn’t planned to, but by this point I was ready to do whatever he said. So I stayed for a beer.

At $25, I can’t think of a better deal as far as theater goes. Congratulations to Andrew Schneider. You, sir, have created something beautiful. I hope to go back next week.

>Running Time: 60 minutes
My Grade: A+
Ticket price: $25
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos

IMG_20160306_082912172I doubt I would have had any interest in seeing The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos had it not been for Hamilton. As I said last year, I had never realized the dramatic possibilities of hip hop until seeing the Founding Fathers rap. So when I was offered press tickets (Hey, press tickets! A first for Show Me Shows!), I thought “Hey, why not? I love theater rap! And free tickets!”

The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is exactly as advertised: an hourlong, mostly rapped show about the world’s greatest crisis. (Think An Inconvenient Truth, basically, in hip hop form.) It’s written and performed by Baba Brinkman, a Canadian white dude who (according to the bio) has written several other Rap Guides (on evolution and religion, for example) and has legit environmental cred: he has planted over a million trees!

And he’s also an impressive performer. Now I don’t know from raps, but he certainly packs in wit, intelligence and scads of information into each of the show’s 24 songs. Throughout, there’s a projection screen behind him with video clips to explain and clarify his arguments. The show is chock full of references to hip hop artists and albums, but all of this would have flown over my head without the helpful projections (Example: “Ok, so he must be making a reference to 2Pac” I thought, as an album cover flashed on the screen). More relevant to Brinkman’s point, though, are the charts and graphs that illustrate what he’s saying. I didn’t understand all of them, but got the gist of it: things aren’t looking good for the planet.

So it’s dense, it’s lively, it’s passionate, it’s interesting. But did I like it? Well, yes and no. Mr. Brinkman’s energy kept me intrigued throughout, but The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is more lecture than theater. It would be a great way to teach kids about climate change, but it does feel a little bit like homework at times.

And despite the fact that facts and figures are so densely packed into this Rap Guide, I actually didn’t particularly feel like it taught me a lot that I didn’t know. Which is a ridiculous thing to say, right? Baba Brinkman clearly knows a ton about climate change, and this show is nothing if not informative. I feel like I must be lying when I say I didn’t learn anything. It could be just the preaching-to-the-choir feel of the thing. More likely, I just didn’t retain all that much. With this type of thing, I understand it better with Al Gore’s methodical and thorough powerpoint (with sad polar bears on ice floes), or a Radiolab back-and-forth conversation, rather than a full-on sensory assault such as Mr. Brinkman’s. At one point, Mr. Brinkman stopped rapping to engage directly with the audience, and I felt a little relieved. It gave me a chance to take things in a bit.

A sidebar: this was also one of the more interesting moments in the show for me personally. Brinkman asks the audience members to give suggestions about other climate change-related issues he should incorporate into the show. One lady said ordering fewer things online would be one way to go. Brinkman dismissed this idea out of hand, calling this sort of sacrifice “moral masturbation.” Government solutions are the only way to really solve anything, he argued. I get his point, but come now. That’s a little harsh! You could make the same argument about voting. (As a vegan, I am probably oversensitive to the accusation of moral masturbation. Oh dear.)

In any case, A Rap Guide to Climate Chaos is compelling, though not exactly memorable. But does it need to be? It certainly has me reengaged with the topic. I have been thinking about climate change frequently in the days since I saw the show. Climate change is tough: it’s such a major issue that it demands consideration, but so daunting that it’s tempting to deal with it later. Easiest just to ignore it and keep ordering stuff off Amazon.

My Grade: B-
Running time: A little over an hour
Ticket price: Free for me.
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: I forgot. I think so?