Review: Sunset Boulevard

sunset playbillSo I haven’t had much interest in blogging lately. Clearly! As it turns out there’s a (possibly fatal) flaw in having a theater blog: seeing a ton of shows and writing about them too (on top of job, social life, and an overwhelming number of ridiculous hobbies)… Well, it seems to burn me out. Since I have started this blog, I’ve lost interest in updating it after every Tony Awards. And for longer and longer stretches! I’ve still seen plenty of shows, but I just haven’t been writing about it. So what should I do? Delete the blog?

But then a revival of Sunset Boulevard opens and it turns out I really do want a forum for my opinions. Because here’s the thing: no one is more qualified to pontificate about Sunset than I am. Remember when I mentioned my teenage love of Phantom and Les Miz? My love for Sunset trumped them all. Sunset was the show I saved for two years to see on Broadway during my first-ever trip to New York City. I had cast recordings, audio bootlegs, video bootlegs, merch. You name it. Ask anyone in my family: I was completely obsessed. I moved on, eventually, but Sunset still brings to mind my overenthusiastic, overjoyed 18-year-old self in the first row of the Minskoff Theater during my first trip to New York City.

And then there’s my love for the movie. I’m second to no one in my appreciation of the Billy Wilder original. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it. It’s certainly one of my top five movies ever (probably my favorite movie ever, now that I’m thinking of it). I get irritated whenever I see a Best Movies of All Time list and Sunset isn’t in the top ten or fifteen. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading, go watch, and come back later. The rest of this review is going to assume you’re familiar with the property.

Most people who truly love the original movie also hate the musical. There are a lot of very good reasons for this. In short, the movie is much tougher, much cleverer, has brilliant performances, and an authenticity the musical can’t match. It’s also more artful: Things that are only implied in the movie are stated outright in the musical. (Joe, in the show: “I’ve seen too many optimists sinking like stones/Felt them suck all the marrow clean out of my bones.”)

That’s not all. There are a ton of fantastic moments in the movie that disappear in the musical:

  • Joe’s love interest Betty admits to having a nose job because she came from a “picture family” who always expected her to become a big star. In the musical, she tells the exact same story, minus the nose job. This leaves me spluttering. They took out the best part! In Hollywood even the young innocent white bread love interest has had a nose job!
  • There’s a scene in which Norma puts on the “Norma Desmond Follies” for a very, very, very bored Joe. Absolutely brilliant moment from both William Holden and Gloria Swanson. The poor woman. I’ve joked around with friends about doing a tap dance to try and sustain male attention before, so I definitely know where she is coming from.
  • The quietly disgusted look on Joe’s face when Norma dries him off with a towel.
  • Max had a black patent leather dressing room on the Paramount lot. Let me say that again. Max had a black patent leather dressing room on the Paramount lot.
  • This exchange between Betty and Joe: “Don’t you sometimes hate yourself?” “Constantly!”
  • The bit with the vicuna coat. The musical, again, misses the entire point of this moment. (Jesse Green explained this one really well in his review, so I won’t get into it.)

I could go on and on.

As you can see, I know every reason you should like the movie better. I also don’t care. I love the show. I love it. I love the story, I love the music, I love the characters. Why? Well, to begin with the songs are lovely. Norma’s songs are reminiscent of Phantom, with soaring, dramatic melodies. Joe’s numbers, on the other hand, are jazzier, more energetic. Both fit their characters really well. And the story is tailor made for the Lloyd Webber treatment, too: A friend pointed out the other day that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lush scores don’t always have a story that can hold up the outsized music, but Sunset‘s script is better than most of his other shows. And people make fun of the lyrics sometimes, but I think they’re fine. They get the job done, and Norma’s big numbers (“With One Look” in the first act and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” in the second) are huge crowd-pleasing showstoppers. It’s not Sondheim, but it’s not embarrassing, either.

I’ll even stand up for the Joe and Betty scenes. Now, granted, this is never going to be the most interesting part of the show, but with the right Joe and the right Betty, their story can work beautifully as a counterpoint to Norma’s. Norma’s numbers are all emotion and volume, while the Joe/Betty numbers are sweeter, more thoughtful, more intellectual. In some productions of Sunset, they really do feel like they’re meant for each other, making the upcoming tragedy even sadder. (That is, if the cast and staging are right. A very big if.)

So, I dunno. Perhaps because I knew the musical before I ever saw the movie. Perhaps it’s just grandfathered in because I loved the musical as a teenager. Perhaps it’s just because I like theater even better than I like movies. Perhaps it’s just because the musical is more, well, fun. I think it’s a good show. It’s a good adaptation of the movie. Of course, this should be put in perspective. Sunset the movie may be one of the best films ever made, but Sunset the musical probably wouldn’t be on my top fifty greatest musicals ever. I love it to pieces, but come now. It’s no My Fair Lady or West Side Story in ambition or innovation.

So that’s where I stand as far as Sunset is concerned. If I haven’t lost you yet, perhaps I should say something about the production? It’s directed by Lonny Price, and is quite different from the original. Where the original had a gigantic and ornate set, this production is minimal. It’s meant to look like a movie set with lots of platforms and steps and catwalks. (A friend asked after we saw it: when are Broadway musicals going to stop duplicating the Jersey Boys set?) The movie set theme is continued throughout: essentially, this Sunset has Joe as film director, guiding us from one scene to the next with a snap of the fingers or an aside to the audience. The new interpretation works fine, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it an improvement over the much more realistic original production. And there are some nice touches: archival video footage of Los Angeles opens each act and really brings us into the world of Old Hollywood. The real problem occurs when Mr. Price’s direction gets intrusive. For example, a ghost of young Norma Desmond (in all her glory as a movie star) wanders the stage through a bunch of scenes. She’s supposed to be a haunting presence, I suppose, but she mostly just distracted me from whatever the characters were doing at that moment.

Of course, there’s very little possibility of being distracted when Ms. Glenn Close is on the stage. In fact, she’s the major reason to see the show.  Now, I never saw her original performance live, but you can catch bits of it on YouTube. Go ahead and watch! I’ll wait. Now, did it seem a bit overdone to you? According to my friend Heather, who saw the original many times, as a live performance it worked beautifully. But man does it ever come across as hammy on the video! In any case, her performance now is quite different. She’s still got stage presence for days, and is completely nuts of course, but it’s a lot less over the top throughout. Her Norma Desmond in this production is textured, hilarious, convincing, heartbreaking.

Even as familiar as I was with the story, I found myself incredibly moved by Norma’s plight. A colleague and I had a discussion recently about mentally ill patients during that era — just imagine what Norma’s life would have been like after the show ends. Electroshock, hydrotherapy, maybe even a lobotomy. The poor woman. There was nothing good in her future.

It should be noted, however, that Glenn Close can’t sing very well. I mean, she’s fabulous as an actress, but she really can’t do justice to Norma’s numbers. In the theater she sounds even more wobbly than she did on the original CD. And that’s a shame, of course. But in this universe — where Emma Stone wins the Best Actress Oscar for La La Land even though she can’t really sing or dance — I’m hardly going to complain. You can’t have everything in life, and what we get from Glenn Close — weak voice and all — is plenty good enough to justify buying a ticket. (Or, three separate tickets on three separate nights, if you are me.)

Now, let’s talk about Joe Gillis. To be honest, I think this character is the key to the show, and I think he’s an even harder character to nail than Norma is. This isn’t a criticism of Glenn Close, but Norma’s a big character. If you’ve got a big stage presence, you’re already well on your way to being a good Norma. Joe’s a trickier sort. He’s the narrator, so he needs to be fairly likable, but he’s also a bit of a user and makes a lot of icky decisions throughout. The one thing you absolutely don’t want is a standard musical comedy performance. Which brings me to Michael Xavier. If you want to get a sense of how he plays the role, all you’d need to do is watch the jokey vlogs he posted to Broadway.com. His Joe is a lot like that. Mr. Xavier is a cheerful, likable performer. Great charisma, strong rapport with the audience, expressive face, nice voice, and very handsome. And absolutely the wrong choice for Joe Gillis.

Again, go back to the movie. With all the times I’ve seen Sunset, I’ve never seen a Joe that even comes close to William Holden’s performance. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible, given the way the musical is written. As Heather pointed out, do you really want your leading man in a musical to be so full of self-loathing? That said, I have certainly seen Joes that do a far better job of holding their own against Norma. It’s not entirely Mr. Xavier’s fault: Lonny Price’s direction did him no favors. He’s given almost no moments in which to show his uglier side. Even the title number — traditionally the moment when the character can really let loose, show us his cynical worldview and explain why he’s decided to stay with Norma — is treated here as simply a chance to show off Joe’s toned physique in tight swimming trunks. (To be fair, Mr. Xavier looks fantastic in tight swimming trunks. So did William Holden, but Mr. Holden had the benefit of closeups and a better take on the character. What I mean to say is that the movie can afford to let us goggle at Joe for a minute or two. The musical can’t.)

Without a strong Joe, the show feels incredibly lopsided. Another friend freely admitted that she barely even watched the actors when Norma was offstage. (She gazed at the wonderful 40 piece orchestra onstage instead.) It didn’t surprise me to hear her say this, because Mr. Xavier and Siobhan Dillon as Betty have no chemistry at all. I have never felt less invested in their love story than I did here. (And like I said before, I love the Joe and Betty songs.)

And so what are we left with? We’ve got two fantastic performances (Ms. Close as Norma and Fred Johanson as Max) and a 40-piece orchestra that makes the score sound even lovelier than it did 20 years ago. We’ve got a fabulous story and a lot of fun songs. But we don’t have a great musical. And I think it’s a shame that the critics are blaming the material, when I really believe that intrusive direction and miscasting account for most of the production’s problems.

Even so, it still just makes me happy to know that Sunset is alive on Broadway and this wonderful story gets retold every night. It’s not a perfect production — in fact, I’d say the original was superior in almost every way — but I’ll take it.

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.

Hamilton

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?

Or:

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

IMG_20160420_194957555

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

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?

Review: Allegiance

IMG_20151203_124622783“I don’t want to see this show,” I suddenly realized as the curtain went up at Allegiance. I’d had a long and tumultuous day, and seeing (what I assumed would be) a heavy-but-ultimately-uplifting story about the Japanese internment camps of World War II sounded like a dreadful idea. This is not the way you want to feel at a Broadway show, and if any other critic admitted such a thing at the beginning of a review, I’d be skeptical of what kind of review he or she would write.

So there’s my caveat. But guess what? I was right. Allegiance was just as I feared. I applaud its ambition and its terrific cast, but unfortunately, this is a musical that doesn’t contain the craft it would need to tell the story it wants to tell. At least not in a believable, moving, entertaining way.

Allegiance is loosely based on the life story of George Takei, and the scope of its story is enormous. The family drama: A (mostly) happy Japanese family is sent to a camp after Pearl Harbor, igniting latent father-son conflicts. The commentary on America: the United States cruelly confined hundreds of thousands Japanese Americans during World War II, forced them to live in squalid camps, and sent off its Japanese-American soldiers on senselessly dangerous missions. And the meet-cute romance: both daughter and son have stereotypical musical theater love stories.

You’d need a spectacularly well-crafted show to switch gears between these elements. But Allegiance is a mess. It’s one of those musicals that drives me crazy: full of corny power ballads, awkward plot contrivances, and comedic songs that aren’t funny. (I kept thinking: “This is what people who hate musicals think musicals are like! Aaargh!”)

Need a bright side? The cast is wonderful. George Takei is totally adorable and appealing in his double role: he briefly appears as the older Sammy, but spends most of his time onstage as the mischievous Grandpa character Ojii-chan. Lea Salonga is — as ever — in fabulous voice as Kei, though I’m not sure her character gives her much to work with. Finally, Telly Leung is very winning and charismatic as Kei’s brother Sammy, who later becomes a heroic soldier.

True confession time: I wrote this post a month ago, immediately after seeing Allegiance, but felt guilty about its negativity and kept postponing publishing it. I kept thinking maybe I should soften my criticism, and even now I’m still not sure I should hit publish. But on the other hand, I’m overdue for a post. And anyway I haven’t changed my mind. You want to be a Les Miz, you’ve got to execute like Les Miz does. Allegiance doesn’t.

My Grade: C-
Ticket price: $51.00
Worth it: No
Running Time: 2:20
Standing Ovation Watch: Oh, probably. But to be honest I don’t recall for certain. I need to start writing this stuff down.