Review: Casa Valentina

wpid-cam00513.jpgI didn’t really want to write about Casa Valentina, the new Harvey Fierstein play at Manhattan Theatre Club‘s Friedman Theatre. Something about the cross-dressing bothered me. This morning on the way to work I said to myself: “Ugh Julia when did you get so freaking heteronormative?” The last thing I wanted to do was blog about my discomfort for all the Internet to see. But then I went a-Googling and came to more of an understanding.

Actually let me back up and explain a bit. Casa Valentina is the story of a group of straight, married men in the early sixties who spend weekends at a lodge up in the Catskill mountains. Once they arrive, they assume feminine personas. The weekends consist of chitchat, card games, makeovers, dancing. Basically it’s a slumber party. Most of these men don’t want to live fully transgendered lives and are content with the occasional secret weekend away as girls. Problem is, one of the girls (the wonderful Reed Birney as Charlotte) wants the rest to go public. She proposes signing a pact stating they are not gay; the goal is to gain some social acceptance as cross dressers in the real world. She says, incredibly enough:

“Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

I usually hate lines like this. A character makes a wildly incorrect prediction about the future and the audience laughs knowingly. It’s a lazy playwriting trick. But in this case it’s forgivable, because the world Charlotte describes is so difficult to imagine now. In any case, the other girls are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of cutting off gays. Gays, they point out, are the only people who have ever accepted them. The issue becomes more personal in the second act, when a central conflict is the question of whether a character is secretly gay or not.

Anyway, my mixed feelings, I think, had to do with the way these characters see women. I kept thinking about how these people had no concept of what life as a woman was really like, especially in that era. During the play I hoped the central couple, the married pair who owns the resort, would have it out about this. When was the supportive, caring Rita (Mare Winningham) going to tell her husband George (Patrick Page) that he was dressing up and acting in such a way that ultimately played up gender stereotypes, rather than fighting them? (To be fair, she does note at one point that these men might wear dresses but they don’t understand women very well, but it’s something of a throwaway line.)

However, reading a few articles about the original inspiration for the play (a real-life lodge called Casa Susanna) helped me to understand their predicament a lot better. There’s a line in the show about how nice it is to escape the responsibilities of being male, but Mr. Fierstein articulated it better in an interview with Time:

“Their dressing is to lose the male role. ‘I don’t have to take the car in. I’m freed from having all the answers. I’m freed from being the breadwinner.’ It’s to take on the female – they call it ‘the girl within.’ It’s to become this idealized female… It’s all the pleasures and none of the pain [of being a woman], because it’s a fantasy,” Fierstein notes. “It has nothing to do with being a real woman — except that some of these men went on to become women.”

And I was suddenly fascinated. I now saw these men as being just as straitjacketed into their predefined gender roles as the women were. Plus I had questions. Which characters went on to become full-time women? What were their experiences as transgender women in the 1960s? Are they still alive? It’s never a good thing when you need to read newspaper articles for insights that could have been contained within the play. Ultimately, I found this 2006 New York Times article on Casa Susanna to be more fascinating than Casa Valentina. Reading about the real lives of these people finally made me step out of my problematic “But what about the WOMEN?” frame of mind, which I couldn’t seem to do during the show itself.

So ultimately, I think my interests (forced gender roles) and Mr. Fierstein’s dramatic focus (the cross dressing community’s relationship with the gay community, the search for “normal”) just didn’t quite fit together. Still: with a Fierstein play you get some consolations. His wit is still in full force, with plenty of great one-liners and compelling monologues. He also creates a warm community between the girls; you get a real sense of the camraderie of the lodge. Plus, the performances are all-around excellent. (Praise here also goes to director Joe Mantello.) Ultimately, Casa Valentina brought me into the world of a group of people I don’t often encounter. Clearly this is a thought-provoking and worthy topic: it certainly helped me to question my own assumptions. (So much so that I’ll probably regret posting this!)

Oh, and one more thing. Casa Valentina had something in common with most of the Broadway shows I see, which is the standing ovation at the end of the performance. I’m always disappointed when an audience stands at the end of a show, but I generally join along with them anyway, just so I can see the bows. There’s really no point in fighting it. It’s like being annoyed at pedestrians walking in the bike lane, or commuters clipping their fingernails on the subway. People are going to do what they’re going to do. No use speechifying against it. Perhaps that’s partially because theater tickets are so expensive these days. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if a standing ovation was reserved for the best thing you’ve seen in years?

Review: Here Lies Love

2014-05-27 22.03.30She’s the one who had lots of shoes, right? About the extent of my knowledge on Imelda Marcos, the subject of the new musical Here Lies Love, which has returned to the Public after a smash run last summer. But shoes don’t feature into this bio-musical about the great beauty’s rise to prominence and gradual corruption as First Lady of the Philippines. The story is a lot like Evita, without the early death.

But this show is actually nothing like Evita. That’s because no Evita I’ve ever heard of would be set at a dance club, complete with line dancing, karaoke, jumping up and down, being herded around the theater at various points in the show, and seeing the performers weave in and out of the crowd. I’m not much of a dancer, so before the performance I thought hopefully: Maybe I wouldn’t really have to dance? Wrongo! There is no “I’m not dancing” allowed for audience members in Here Lies Love, not unless you want to be a real party pooper. Almost all tickets are general admission, and hot pink-clad handlers will steer you around as the stage moves and the performers move along with it. Then at various points you’re exhorted to dance.

What does all this have to do with Imelda Marcos? Why is it set in a nightclub? I don’t know. Is it just because it’s awesome and fun? (Which is most certainly is!) Another reason: at the top of the show they mention that Filipinos love dance clubs, karaoke and line dancing. Whatever. How about I stop quibbling? As a theatrical device the setting is totally effective. I was physically involved, which helped me to get utterly absorbed in the piece. To be honest, I’m not sure that would have happened if I’d been sitting. Here Lies Love started out as a 2010 concept album from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, and the tunes are high-energy but a little uneven. More problematically, the writing is flimsy. For example: Imelda seems delighted after her marriage to Fernando Marcos, but very soon afterward she says something along the lines of “What does he want from me?” and then promptly starts popping prescription pills. If I wasn’t having so much fun, I’d have gotten a little frustrated with this kind of clunky storytelling.

But I was having too much fun. I think most of the credit for how good this production is should probably go to Alex Timbers, whose work on Rocky was also excellent. Just in case you aren’t bombarded with enough sensations already: he’s included lots of projections of documentary photography and original video footage, which contextualizes the deteriorating situation in the Philippines. (The script itself doesn’t really provide enough context). The cast is also great: Ruthie Ann Miles looks wholesome and sweet (and a LOT like Imelda) I now have a new show to recommend for anyone visiting New York… You really feel like you’re seeing something dynamic, unique, and consuming. and becomes utterly deluded and vainglorious (but still kinda sweet) by the end of the show. I also loved Josa Llana, who’s got lots of charisma as Marcos, and Conrad Ricamora as the nation’s conscience, Aquino.

I now have a new show to recommend for anyone visiting New York. It’s fun, it’s got incredible visuals, the performers are committed and high-energy, it’s got fabulous projections and best of all, you’re definitely a part of the show. You really feel like you’re seeing something dynamic, unique, and consuming. This is that rare show that had me shelling out for full price tickets ($100! OUCH!) but the investment was certainly not wasted. If ever a production gives you your money’s worth, it’s this one.

Review: The Few

2014-05-15 20.09.07I can’t say the loneliness of the long distance trucker is something I ever gave much thought. Not until seeing The Few, that is, a new play by Samuel D. Hunter at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. His previous work includes the excellent The Whale (at Playwrights Horizons last year). The Few, like The Whale, is about isolation. The show’s about a newspaper for truckers, and during the play callers occasionally leave messages with the text of their personal ads. These tend to be sad, sweet, funny, or odd little pleas for companionship; all these voicemails give you a good idea of just how isolated these people are. It’s set in 1999, and I wonder if nowadays these sort of trucker personal ads would be mostly online? (Google says yes.)

The voicemails are actually just part of the scenery as far as the characters are concerned. When Brian (Michael Laurence) returns after four years to the newspaper he created for truckers — an artsy sort of publication with essays and poems — he clashes with his ex-girlfriend QZ (Tasha Lawrence), now running the newspaper. Their conflict is about their failed relationship as well as the paper: she has morphed it into a more commercial endeavor (mostly consisting of personal ads) and hired a fellow misfit, 19-year old Matthew (Gideon Glick), who is dying to turn the newspaper back into the ambitious and artistic publication it once was.

These three people may not be truckers, but they are in reality just as isolated as the callers leaving personal ads on the answering machine. This is just the sort of story I like to see onstage: an intimate, thoughtful, compelling play about real life. All three actors are great. Mr. Glick in particular plays an irritating character — it’s an affected performance — but still managed to make me really feel for him. Towards the end I wanted to play dramaturg and quibble with some of Mr. Hunter’s plot and character choices, but ultimately none of my reservations really matter so much. What’s important is that this is the kind of show that sticks with you for awhile.

I’d actually forgotten I’d bought a ticket for The Few and nearly missed seeing it. I just happened to notice it on my calendar yesterday afternoon (“Whoa! I’m seeing a show tonight?”). Lucky for me, as this little play is more affecting than many of the big Broadway productions I’ve seen this year.

Review: Rocky

2014-05-14 19.59.58Ever heard of the Long Count Fight? Neither had I, until reading Bill Bryson’s latest book. One Summer: America, 1927 contains a description of a famous championship boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. Apparently people gathered around radios all over the country to experience the big fight as it happened. Obviously we still have boxers and championship fights (I guess — Do we?) but any notion of it being so central to popular culture is long gone. The same could be said about Broadway musicals, which carry nowhere near the cultural influence they did several decades ago. Let’s bring these two once-ubiquitious, now-peripheral forms of entertainment together and see what we get, shall we?

We get Rocky. We all know the story (underdog Rocky versus champion Apollo Creed) so I won’t bother rehashing. The classic boxing movie was adapted with the blessing and collaboration of Sylvester Stallone, its original author and star. The musical hasn’t been terribly well received: the reviews were lukewarm, it didn’t get a Tony nomination for best musical, everyone’s complaining about the lackluster score, and there’s a general annoyance at the wasted potential given all the talent involved in its creation.

So I basically expected to hate it. But lo and behold: I had a good time! Two major reasons stand out: the staging (from Alex Timbers, with choreography from Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine), and the star, Andy Karl. Andy Karl is absolutely heroic in his performance. His nightly to-do list includes the following:

  • Make us forget Sylvester Stallone
  • Stay onstage for most of the show
  • Sing lots
  • Show incredible athleticism in all the workout and training sequences
  • Win over the audience with charm and lunkheaded appeal
  • Get beat up at the end of the show (or pretend to, at least)

Plus he’s obviously incredibly fit, so clearly he has to work out for hours every day as well. I’m trying to decide what Mr. Karl does after each performance. Either he faceplants into his dressing room sofa from complete exhaustion, OR he eats four cheeseburgers, an entire pizza, and a bucket of ice cream.

2014-05-14 19.48.42The other star of the show is the production, which is really slick and splashy. Normally I’d say that with scorn (“Well, Bullets over Broadway is definitely slick, if THAT’s what you’re looking for”) but in this case it suits the material so well that I mean it as a compliment. The story (book by Mr. Stallone and Thomas Meehan) is just as slight and sentimental as it was in the movie; what it needed was a production that justifies telling this story theatrically. Which we definitely got. Mr. Timbers, Mr. Hoggett and Ms. Devine show off their best stuff: quick cuts, effective movement, nice use of an ensemble to recreate the feel of South Philly. They’re especially masterful in the “Eye of the Tiger” training sequence in Act 2 (the audience goes a bit loopy during the opening bars of that song, by the way).

Timbers is also clearly a fan of immersion, gradually escalating the use of the auditorium-as-extension-of-the-stage concept until the final fight scene, when the stage actually moves into the auditorium itself. (I didn’t want to put that in bold, but I can’t help myself: The stage actually moves into the auditorium itself.) It’s stunning and this scene alone justifies the price of admission. The fight is just as impressive choreographically as it is technically: every movement between Rocky and Apollo Creed feels spontaneous, though it’s actually planned down to the second. I was sitting on the far right side of the orchestra, near the front, and my entire section stood up to watch the fight. Theater usually isn’t particularly good at showcasing the excitement of sports — movies are far better in that regard — but Rocky‘s final scene really gives you a sense of just why people find boxing compelling.

All that said: everyone is probably right to be disappointed with Rocky. In a less dazzling production, without a star like Andy Karl, this thing is going to fall flat. Mostly because the score (by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) doesn’t sing the way it should. Actually, listening to it made me think of Woody Allen. Let me explain: in a recent New Yorker profile on Susan Stroman, Woody Allen’s sister said: “He hates the new music for shows, the new composers,” a comment which doesn’t make much sense to me (I mean, all of them? But there are so many! I mean, is Sondheim included? How far does this go back? Does he like show music from the 1980s? 1970s? 1960s? A lot of it isn’t so different from the standards he adores!). But I imagine the score for Rocky was the exact type of score Woody Allen would think of as typical modern show music. It sounds pleasant enough. But it’s totally forgettable; it’s probably too earnest; it just doesn’t really do anything in terms of the story. And this from some of Broadway’s better talents!

On my way out of Rocky, I heard a few people around me chatting about which of the Rocky movies were their favorite. (A compelling case was made for Rocky III with Mr. T.) That’s the kind of show this is, I suppose. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll leave talking to your friends about how much you loved the movie.

Review: Act One

wpid-cam00421.jpg“Too slow,” barked the guy directly behind me, immediately after act one of Act One. This view seems to be the consensus. A friend’s one-word review of the show was “loooooong” and other friends have told me the same. The main reason I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing it was its three-hour running time.

But who cares if it’s long? I got a huge kick out of it: it’s sweet, it’s funny, it’s full of character, and it’s about my favorite subject, Broadway. Act One is a dramatization of Moss Hart’s popular 1959 memoir about growing up poor in the Bronx and falling in love with theater, eventually dazzling Broadway with Once in a Lifetime, his first collaboration with George S. Kaufman. When I mentioned Kaufman and Hart to my roommates this morning, they hadn’t heard of either man. I suppose this isn’t that surprising; 1930s Broadway playwrights aren’t exactly well known today. But as Frank Rich pointed out, Moss Hart was a superstar during Broadway’s golden age. As an indication of how highly people thought of him, here’s Alan Jay Lerner, who worked with him on My Fair Lady:

Moss Hart. Moss Hart, as I was to find out, had no understudies. He is and forever will be irreplaceable to more people in more ways than any man I have ever known. When he died in 1961 it was more than simply the death of one man. It seemed as if the gods had broken in and robbed us of some of our most precious humanity. … He was in every sense of the word a man of the theatre, a gentleman of the theatre, and the last of his breed. (The Street Where I Live, 1978, p. 71-72).

(Alan Jay Lerner, you are wonderfully over the top.) Clearly, people loved this guy. Anyway, this is Moss’s rags-to-riches autobiography, as adapted and directed by James Lapine. The role is performed by three actors: Matthew Schechter as a boy, Santino Fontana as a young man, and Tony Shalhoub as a fiftysomething narrator. The first act deals primarily with Hart’s childhood and early ambitions; the second act is mostly about the genesis of Once in a Lifetime. Why did I like it so much? I can think of three major reasons:

  • First, it’s wonderful to be immersed in the world of Old Broadway (you must of course pronounce it the old fashioned way, BroadWAY, instead of our BROADway). Even the size of the cast (twenty plus actors!) feels incredibly retro. I only wished it was actually taking place in the Music Box, instead of Lincoln Center‘s Vivian Beaumont. But you can’t have everything in life.
  • Second, even if the show were a real stinker, Beowulf Boritt’s set alone might be worth the ticket price. What an astounding design. It’s a massive circular structure on a turntable, becoming everything from Moss’s Bronx home, to Kaufman’s fancy townhouse, to a theater, to various offices and hotel rooms, and even more. It’s difficult to convey the scale of this thing. This is the most impressive set I’ve seen in ages. (Here are a few pictures, though I’m not sure these shots really do Boritt  justice.) It’s also set towards the back of the stage, so it never really overwhelms the action. At least not from where I was sitting on the side.
  • Third and most importantly, there’s the colorful characters. Nearly all of the best ones are given to Andrea Martin (fabulous as Moss’s dotty, theatre-obsessed aunt; a spitfire theatrical agent; and Mrs. Kaufman) and Tony Shalhoub. Oh, Tony Shalhoub, what you do for this play! Like Ms. Martin, he’s got three roles. In addition to playing the mature Moss, he also puts on a cockney accent as Moss’s dad Barnett. But really he’s best as George S. Kaufman, Moss’s mentor and great partner. The role of Kaufman shares some OCD tendencies with Mr. Shalhoub’s TV detective Monk, so I suppose he’s is in his element here. Whatever. Mr. Shalhoub’s Kaufman is hilarious and compelling and lovable and brilliant and a total weirdo.

Interestingly, Moss Hart himself is still something of an everyman at this point, just a kid that wants to make a splash on Broadway. For the vast majority of the play, the role is Mr. Fontana’s, and he’s got the hardworking, likable persona down pat. But the character isn’t incredibly dynamic. If you love this show, it will be for the recurring characters like Sam Harris (Bob Stillman), Jed Harris (Will LeBow), and any character played by Mr. Shalhoub or Ms. Martin.

It’s definitely not a perfect play. About that length: I wish James Lapine had let someone else direct, or had found a collaborator to help write the thing, or something. The parts that could use some cuts are so obvious to me. (Any of those cameos with the celebrities of the day, really. What’s the bit with Langston Hughes doing in there? Why do we need to meet Edna Ferber for 90 seconds?) Still, I’d call Act One methodical rather than plodding. There’s a lot of story to be told here, and I found the pacing fine. By the time Once in a Lifetime, which had an incredibly arduous development process, opens as a smash hit on Broadway, I felt like I’d earned the emotional payoff.

2014-05-07 19.29.41There are shows I pick apart ruthlessly, and there are shows I allow to get away with murder. Act One is probably the latter. On the way home, I wondered if Act One wasn’t my equivalent of the feel-good sports movie. If that sounds dismissive, I don’t mean for it to be. I was just so delighted with my trip to 1920s Broadway that I’d forgive it if it ran a little long, or got overly sentimental in places. Here was a chance for all of us to celebrate the magic of Broadway, and to see some fabulous sets, and to experience wonderful performances. And all we can say about it is that it’s long?

Review: Red-Eye to Havre de Grace

2014-05-04 18.58.06Want to make a show like Red-Eye to Havre de Grace? You’ll need the following:

  • 1 part primary source materials (poems and letters from Edgar, newspaper accounts, remembrances from friends, period music, and translations of Poe’s work)
  • 1 part dance (mostly from the evocative and expressive dancer Alessandra L. Larson)
  • 1 part original music (sometimes dissonant; often evocative)
  • Dash of quirky humor

Mix. Serve immediately. May wilt after 45 minutes or so.

All right, all right, I’ll stop being cutesy. Edgar Allan Poe (Ean Sheehy) is falling apart by the time this show begins: broke, nervous and constantly haunted by his dead wife (Ms. Larson). For the next 90 minutes we follow him as he tries to get back to his home in New York, all the while battling against his paranoia and increasing weakness. (He accidentally ends up in Havre de Grace, Maryland, which explains the show’s title.) Throughout, dance and music is interwoven with Poe’s interactions with hoteliers and train conductors, his poetry recitations, and his wanderings around the east coast. The music is performed by the composers of the piece: Jeremy Wilhelm (an outstanding vocalist) sings, accompanied by his brother and co-composer David Wilhelm.

Great concept, and I love a good historical gem.  And parts of it are wonderful, for several reasons. First, this show has got a sense of humor, both in the text and in the staging. (For example, everyone’s always harassing Poe to recite a certain famous poem.) Second, the music is perfectly suited to the tone of the piece. And third, director Thaddeus Phillips has a fantastic eye for visuals. The highlight is a phenomenal performance and interpretation of The Raven. A bored Poe begins by rushing through the poem, then gradually succumbs to its darkness. It’s haunting and bizarre and ultimately very effective.

But I’d had enough of Red-Eye after 45 minutes or so. At that point, it starting feeling repetitive and confused to me, even though the images remained provocative and the performances (especially Mr. Sheehy as Poe) were great throughout. I guess I just became inured to the otherworldliness of the thing. If it had a little more narrative drive, I think I’d have been fine. But perhaps that isn’t what they were going for. After all, a cogent story wouldn’t be the best way to convey the nightmarishness of Poe’s last days.

So it’s ultimately not the kind of play that speaks to me. But let me briefly mention my favorite thing about this show. It happens right at the beginning. Before the curtain rises, Jeremy Wilhelm comes out and introduces himself as Steve, a park ranger from the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site. Steve gives us a brief introduction to Poe’s life and mentions a few things to look out for in the show (for example, that the set features a door that also acts as a table). It’s a hilarious and extremely clever way to begin. Best of all, Steve makes occasional reappearances throughout the show, cutting through all the weird music and eerie feel to tell us exactly what’s going on or why Poe is acting a certain way.

Whenever Steve came back, I started falling for this show again. To be honest, I think I might like it if Ranger Steve came in and explained things at every boring or confusing show I attend. Thanks, Steve!

Review: King Lear (NT Live)

2014-05-01 18.59.19For those of us who can’t easily pop across the pond, NT Live had a virtual alternative: a recording of King Lear, currently at the National Theatre in London. If you missed the screening, it’ll be on again at BAM on May 31.

Initial reaction: Simon Russell Beale, you are a motormouth, sir. I say that in the most complimentary way. I was dumbstruck at how he can wrap his tongue around Shakespeare’s elaborate text, and so quickly. Almost too fast. By the time I had digested one thing he’d said, he was three steps ahead of me. His take on Lear was that of a man suffering from a physically and mentally degenerative disease (he said in the intermission documentary that he was trying to portray something akin to Parkinson’s). He was terrific, though you expect nothing less from the guy. Sam Mendes’ production was set in some kind of modern totalitarian state, and featured stunning visuals and an absolutely enormous cast. If the first act dragged a bit (maybe that’s just something I’ll have to get used to with Lear) the second act was totally spellbinding.

The production was pretty clearly the best of the three King Lears I’ve seen this year (the BAM and the TFANA are the others), but of course it was on video, and that always makes it lose a few notches. Actually it makes a production lose a load of notches. It’s great to have access to absolutely marvelous performances that you’d never be able to see otherwise.  But (and I know this is incredibly obvious) it’s so much less interesting than real theater is that it’s almost not even worth it. Watching a baseball game at a bar can be just as fun as watching at the game at a stadium (and I should know). Theater isn’t really like that. A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • The visuals don’t quite come through as well: When I saw the sets I thought “Oh I bet that looks GREAT in person.”
  • I like being able to choose what to look at myself. Stop bossing me around, camera crew!
  • The audience tends to be more responsive when they’re in the same room as the performers are.
  • You don’t get the visceral physical reactions (that eyeball scene! Out vile jelly indeed) that you would if you were seeing it live.

On that note, I don’t understand the appeal of something like the upcoming NT Live production of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, which is also coming to Broadway in the fall. Why on earth would you pay $25 to see a show you could see in the flesh in six months? Why would you ever want to see War Horse on video? It played here for ages! It’s on tour! I’m mystified.

On the other hand, I suppose I’m thinking of this as an incredibly privileged person would. (“But it’s not even WORTH it to fly coach. Just go first class!”) I get to see a lot of theater, and have lost all concept of what life is like when you have to make a monumental effort to go see a show. This wasn’t always the case. When I was a theater-obsessed teenager, I’d often have to wait TWO YEARS before getting to see a new musical at the Fox in St. Louis. I’d have flipped out if I could have seen a screening of Sunset Boulevard or Titanic right when they opened on Broadway. Though musicals are rarely filmed for TV anyway, so perhaps that’s an uneven comparison. Who knows though — maybe NT Live will inspire a similar theater-at-the-movies series over here for all those theater-obsessed types that can’t go see shows regularly. Well, it works for opera.