Review: Spring Awakening

Hello again after an unexpected summer off blogging and theater. There were several reasons why I didn’t see much of anything since the Tonys, and why I didn’t post about the few shows I did see. But who needs excuses? (OK, for those of you who do need excuses: I broke my foot, spent two months on crutches, and had to take cabs everywhere. I felt too poor and immobile to want to go see any theater.) In any case, I’m back and feeling refreshed. (Though I’m still limping.)

Now shall we get right to it?


spring awakeningEver wonder why I abandoned my dream of becoming a professional theater critic? One reason was my reaction to Spring Awakening. I had long appreciated the Wedekind play, so I saw the musical at the Atlantic in its original off-Broadway incarnation in 2006. (This is the same production that took Broadway by storm a few months later.) Long story short: I didn’t care for it much. It’s nearly a decade ago now, so I don’t remember my thoughts precisely, but as I recall I thought it was a little ham-fisted. In any case, I later saw the Broadway production a number of times, and completely changed my mind about the musical. My revised opinion: it was powerful, beautifully staged, edgy, and very, very exciting. I recommended it to nearly all my friends, and even purchased tickets FOR them on occasion. I wondered how I could ever have disliked this. And how could I ever be a theater critic when I could change my mind so completely about a show?

Here’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, I’ve come full circle on Spring Awakening after seeing the new Broadway incarnation. It’s a fascinating musical, and it’s given a wonderful new production, but once again: I didn’t really care for it. (But I still don’t want to be a professional theater critic, as it turns out. Blogging is more fun!)

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, let me talk about the revival, which is a Deaf West production. You probably already know about the show, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2007. But in case you forgot: Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla are teens in 1890s Germany who have been given little to no information about sex from their parents. The consequences are tragic. Now, if you are lucky, you also already know all about Deaf West, because you saw their unforgettable Big River back in the early aughts. (Absolutely stunning!) In terms of spectacular staging, Spring Awakening is on a par with Big River. The new staging certainly brings added meaning to the musical: in the Playbill, there’s a fascinating director’s note that tells us sign language for Deaf students was banned in 1880 (with the idea that Deaf students needed to learn to read lips and adjust to life in a hearing world). In this version of Spring Awakening, awkward and confused young Moritz is Deaf, and his struggles in school clearly result from his failure to understand his teachers. It makes perfect sense, and his ultimate fate feels even more tragic.

Director Michael Arden uses a cast of both Deaf and hearing actors to portray the teenagers as well as their parents and teachers. Sandra Mae Frank is an expressive Wendla, for example, who communicates through sign language during most of the show. Her constant companion onstage is Katie Boeck, who sings all of Wendla’s songs, and frequently holds hands with Ms. Frank. Seems bizarre that a young Deaf German girl’s inner soul would look like a modern indie rocker, doesn’t it? But it works beautifully in the context of the show.

The entire production is fluid and beautifully staged, with terrific acting all around. Plus there’s that evocative choreography from Spencer Liff (though I don’t know if the movement was as beautiful as Bill T. Jones’s choreography in the original production).

But as I said, I didn’t like it. I think it’s mostly because once you’ve gotten past the shock factor of explicit sex in a Broadway musical (and I’m certainly past it, given how many times I saw and listened to the original) you may start to realize something. Spring Awakening, to my mind, just doesn’t hold up very well. The script reads like a clunky translation of Wedekind’s original German, with odd skips in dialogue. (The original play is more episodic, but each scene seems to make more sense.) Plus there are definite plot holes, though to be fair some of those were in the original script. And then there are the lyrics. I understand that Steven Sater was trying to do something different, and more modern, with the lyrics more like those in rock songs than musical theater. But these aren’t even very good rock lyrics. Plus they don’t really sit on the music very well. For example, a teen sings: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on/Shoot up some you in the ‘you’ of some song.” I sort of understand what he’s saying, I guess, but it’s just a bizarre way to say it. The awkward phrasing and (literally) purple imagery kept taking me out of the moment, precisely the opposite of what a musical theater song should do.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Spring Awakening at all — it seems like it just left Broadway a few years ago, and i didn’t particularly feel like paying $50 to see a retread. Especially not when there are so many new shows to see! But I was convinced by the rapturous recommendations from friends as well as critics. I don’t regret going to see it, because this is truly a beautiful production with stunning direction from Michael Arden. It left me wanting to see Deaf West come back to Broadway with a show that’s even worthier of its many talents.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $51 (TDF)
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95%

Best Musical Tony Nominees, 2015

First, let me apologize for the unexpected intermission. If Previous Julia (that’s Julia 2014, or PJ as I call her), Future Julia (the me of 2016 — FJ) and me (Jules) had a discussion on why I’ve been so disinterested in blogging over the past few months, it might go something like this:

PJ: So wait, I started this blog in March of 2014 and you have already lost interest by April of 2015?
Me: Well, no, I– I’ve been really busy—
PJ: What on earth happened? Did you come up with another ridiculous, expensive and time-consuming hobby along the lines of boardgaming (2013)/homebrewing (2006)/sewing (2014)/knitting (2009)/whatever?
Me: Erm– Well, yes, but—
FJ: Oh you won’t believe her latest ridiculous hobby. She’s trying to swing dance!
PJ: Oh, hmmm, actually I’ve always wanted to learn to swing dance. Maybe I should take it up. Am I good at it?
FJ: Not remotely good at it. And Jules still hasn’t been doing anything for me either in terms of saving money.
Me: Wait, why are Past and Future Julias both so judgy? Can the three of us talk about something more pleasant? Like my desperate longing for Fun Home to win Best Musical on Sunday?
PJ: Wait, Fun Home MIGHT NOT WIN? It swept all those Drama Desk/Lortel-type awards in 2014!
Me: I know. I’m feeling blindsided too.
FJ: I know who won!
Me: You are always so cagey with your information, FJ.
FJ: Anyway, Jules, can you please buy a subscription to Playwrights Horizons? And start working out more?
Me: I could tell Past Julia the same thing.
PJ: I hate working out.
FJ: Me too.
Me: Me too.
PJ: Anyway, Jules, please start blogging again. You’re embarrassing me.

(Yes, I really do talk about Previous Julia and Future Julia all the time. Usually I’m complaining about PJ failing to do nice things for me. Or sometimes I announce that I’m leaving FJ to deal with my problems later.) Anyway, enough with that nonsense. Shall I get right into it, then? Here are my thoughts on the Best Musical Tony nominees of 2015.

2015-04-09 20.01.05Fun Home
“Now THAT’s a musical!!!” — My first thought when the lights came up after seeing this remarkable show on Broadway.

In fact one of the reasons I’ve felt so inclined to start writing again is that I’ve been unable to stop talking about Fun Home in the runup to the Tonys. It’s a little embarrassing. The #juliaspeeches have really revved up since the Tony nominations came out, because it’s recently come to my attention that this show may not win the Best Musical Tony. Apparently the favorite is actually An American in Paris. (WHAAAAAT? But more on that in a minute.)

What makes it so good? For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania with a closeted father and the dawning realization that she was gay, too. Fun home is the family’s nickname for their funeral home, the family business.

Has musical theater written all over it, doesn’t it?

Maybe not, but the authors — Jeanine Tesori (music) and Lisa Kron (book and lyrics) — have done a phenomenal job of dramatizing the story. Alison is played by three terrific actresses: Beth Malone as our 43-year-old narrator, Emily Skeggs as a college-aged Alison, and Sydney Lucas as a child. The story jumps around quite a bit, but no matter: the storytelling is sharp, crystal-clear and compelling as hell. Despite the seriousness of the show’s themes — you find out early on that Alison’s father committed suicide just a few months after Alison came out in college — it’s not a heavy or preachy show like some I could name (cough cough, The Visit, cough cough); it’s a joy to sit through. That’s because Fun Home handles its coming-of-age themes with wit, creativity, and intelligence. Plus the songs are great! (Is Jeanine Tesori a gift from the Broadway gods, or what?)

And the production is outstanding too: in addition to Three Fantastic Alison Bechdels (or T-fab, as I like to call them), you have Michael Cerveris giving his customary textured, intense, affecting performance as Alison’s miserably closeted father Bruce. And you have the always wonderful Judy Kuhn as Alison’s long-suffering mother Helen. It’s performed in the round at Circle in the Square, and for the most part the staging (by Sam Gold) plays even better than it did at the Public in 2013. (There are a few moments I couldn’t see, but mostly it was fine.)

I told my roommate, who doesn’t care for musicals at all, that this is the type of show I’d take him to see if he’d let me. I don’t think it would sell him on musicals, but if he saw Fun Home, I feel like he’d have a better sense of just what a musical can do. A terrific musical can turn an ordinary moment in life into a magical, joyous, seemingly spontaneous expression of emotion, realization, or connection. It can take a philosophical, thoughtful, deeply personal graphic novel and make it into a coming-of-age story for all of us. And it can make us laugh and cry while doing so.

This is what you call a terrific musical.

2015-04-15 19.51.17The Visit
My wordiness and exuberance come to a screeching halt when I think about The Visit. When people have asked me about it, I can’t get much beyond merely saying: “Well, it’s bleak.” I wasn’t familiar with the play beforehand, but it’s about a rich old lady (Chita Rivera!) who comes back to her hometown to exact revenge on the teenage boyfriend who jilted her.

Already bleak, but then there’s the John Doyle production, full of drab colors and sad faces. It’s heavy-handed too. (For example, there’s a coffin used as a prop throughout.) You do have the wondrous Ms. Rivera onstage, and that accounts for something indeed: at 82 she can still command a stage and win over an audience with just a few words. But no matter how much I liked her (and the rest of the cast, including Jason Danieley and Roger Rees), I couldn’t warm up to the show. I just wish it gave me a little something to hang onto. I constantly felt the Brechtian distancing techniques pushing me away, so much so that I couldn’t feel for any of the characters at all. Even when the show seemed to want me to.

All that said, this is probably the last new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway, and it feels wonderfully unapologetic and uncompromising. It’s far from their best, but it does remind you just why we are so lucky that they decided to write musicals together. Thanks, fellas.

Something Rotten!
This one is fun. I keep thinking of Spamalot as a kind of equivalent show: it was similarly funny, with a terrific cast, an audience-pleasing tone, and a shiny, happy sheen to it. In a weaker year Rotten! might well have won the Best Musical prize (I think it’s quite a lot better than Kinky Boots, for example), and even if it wins this year, it’s a decent choice.

I also think that the book (by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, whose An Utterly Impartial History of Britain is also hilarious) is continually clever, with a ton of great one-liners and an inventive original story. Two brothers in Renaissance England, Nick and Nigel Bottom, want to get out of Shakespeare’s shadow, and set out to write the world’s first musical comedy in order to steal the spotlight. High jinks ensue, as do lots of jokes, as do a truckload of musical theater and Shakespeare references. The songs (by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick) are winning, the cast is great, and it all just… works. Again, it’s a fun, happy, crowd-pleasing show and I hope it keeps all my friends at the St. James employed for several years to come.

On Tony Sunday, Something Rotten! will be performing the big Act One showstopper “A Musical.” The big problem with “A Musical” is that this number is so incredibly good that really nothing else in the show can come close to matching it. (“Oh No!” I thought when I heard that was what they’d be doing for the Tony broadcast. “They’re giving the whole show away!”) But it’s probably the right call, and I would imagine the song will sell a ton of tickets. It’s a big, splashy, clever production number: a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) tries to explain what a musical is to Nick Bottom (Brian D’Arcy James), who has obviously never heard of such a thing. “The crowd goes wild every time,” as they say in the song, and at the James it frequently earns a well-deserved standing ovation. To be honest, I think “A Musical” actually makes a pretty good argument for the musical as an entertainment — sure, it’s not deep, but this number embodies pure glee, technical expertise, dancing, winking humor, and a big ol’ cast. You’ll see what I mean when you see it Sunday.

But after that, the rest of the show was a bit of a letdown. Which is an odd thing to say, because I was giggling throughout. It’s still funny, the audience ate it up, and again, it has a wonderful cast (especially Brian D’Arcy James and John Cariani as the brothers Bottom, Christian Borle as Shakespeare, and Brad Oscar as the soothsayer). It’s a good show. I liked it a lot. It just doesn’t reach the heights I had hoped for in “A Musical”.

An American In Paris
Now I haven’t seen An American in Paris yet. Why not? Well, I don’t particularly care about ballet, or corny, idealized visions of postwar Europe, or another jukebox Gershwin show, or a movie musical from the 1950s, or gamine French girls. But the mere fact that “I haven’t seen it” hasn’t stopped me from unfairly bashing it to anyone who will listen. I hope to go see it soon, so I can either A) eat my words or B) start bashing it fairly. I think it’s just that I always hope the Best Musical Tony goes to a NEW MUSICAL. It’s really nothing against An American in Paris.

I agree with you if you are thinking that I am totally embarrassing myself with my disdain for a show I haven’t seen yet. What will be even more embarrassing is that it’s very possible I’ll end up completely changing my mind on this one. (For an example of this, check out my Rocky review. I totally bashed that one before seeing it too.)


The Winner

Today I found myself wishing Avenue Q had never won the Best Musical Tony over Wicked. Or Gentleman’s Guide over Aladdin and Beautiful, for that matter. Because those two shows winning gives me hope. If it were the case that the more commercial hit always won, it would be one thing. Just as an example, look at just a few recent years when the bigger hit beat what I would consider to be the more deserving show:

  • 2009: Billy Elliot beats Next to Normal
  • 2005: Spamalot beats both The Light in the Piazza and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
  • 2002: Thoroughly Modern Millie beats Urinetown (This one still stings.)

I could go back a lot further, too. It happens a lot. The problem comes when the Tony voters sometimes get it right. And it has a real impact on the life of a show. Because of its win, Gentleman’s Guide has probably lasted a lot longer than it would have otherwise. So I’m crossing every finger and toe that the voters get this one right. But as I keep reminding myself, Fun Home’s artistic accomplishment is not dependent on what happens Sunday.

So I’m going to drink a heck of a lot of champagne and hope that the predictions are wrong. Let’s go Fun Home!

Review Roundup for Spring, Part 1

“I’m in a fallow period,” I announced to my roommates the other day. I was referring, of course, to my infrequent updates to this blog, despite having seen lots (LOTS!) of shows in the past month. In the interest of catching up, I thought I’d post fairly brief thoughts on the plays I’ve seen since my last update. The first four are here, and I’ll post the next four as soon as I can. And once that is taken care of, I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule.

2015-03-08 13.55.41The Iceman Cometh (March 8): I’d managed to avoid Eugene O’Neill’s famous tragedy for my entire theatergoing life. Up until the recent production at BAM starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, that is. Why avoid an American classic? Well, in my experience Eugene O’Neill plays are often a bit of a slog; I rarely respond to his work with much emotion or enthusiasm. This production of Cometh, however, was acclaimed as an outstanding, and so I gave it a shot. It’s the story of despondent, dejected barflies, who look forward to the periodic visits of a charismatic salesman friend, Theodore Hickman (Nathan Lane). Hickey (as they call him) decides to rouse everyone from their drunken stupor; the consequences are ultimately tragic.

I spent much of the play frustrated — “Good grief,” I thought, “Eugene O’Neill never takes one minute to say something when he can take 15! — despite the many excellent performances. (Especially Nathan Lane, who is always terrific, and Brian Dennehy, who looked every bit the broken anarchist.) Now this play was nearly five hours long, so you understand my impatience with all the wordy passages. I continued to resist it throughout the first three acts (and through all three intermissions). I could see the writing was skilled, but I found little to connect with. By the play’s final curtain, however, I felt differently. It’s just so rare to see a play with that kind of expansive vision and grand ambition these days, and to my surprise, the wordiness and lethargic pace of the earlier acts ultimately really built towards something very moving indeed. I don’t know that I’ll bother with The Iceman Cometh again, but I’m glad I saw it this time around.

2015-03-14 20.04.33Hand to God (March 14): It just opened Tuesday night, but it was already in very good shape a few weeks ago. The show is about a teen named Jason (Steven Boyer) whose hand becomes possessed by his sock puppet, a truly vile, foul-mouthed, ugly creature named Tyrone. Violence, sexual repression, and buried emotions quickly bubble up to the surface when Tyrone is around — and since this play is set in the meeting room of a Texas church, you can imagine the shock waves that result from Tyrone’s reign of terror. I found it scathingly funny and very dark; it’s chock full of excellent performances, especially Mr. Boyer’s performance as both Tyrone and Jason. Over the weeks since I saw Hand to God, though, I’ve rarely given it much thought. A friend asked about it the other night and I was surprised at how little I had to say about it. (“Well, yeah, I really liked it” followed by a stony silence.) Perhaps its darkness put me off a bit somehow. It’s a play that I found viscerally compelling while watching it, but its sharp edges may have made me too uncomfortable to ponder outside the theater. My loss, I suppose.

2015-03-17 19.50.44It Shoulda Been You (March 17): Everything I’d heard about this wacky wedding day musical was incredibly negative, so I went into the theater expecting incompetence. Now, I know incompetent musicals. I’d even say I’m deeply familiar with them: I spent several years as a script reader for the New York Musical Theater Festival, and man, did I ever come across a ton of clunkers. All this to say It Shoulda Been You is NOT actually a clunker. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a great musical, probably not even a good musical. Don’t go unless you’re willing to turn your brain off: if you start to think too much about the ridiculous plot twists that crop up throughout the show, you’ll probably want to bang your head against a wall. I actually enjoyed myself, though, because it sets out to be a fun, frothy, silly piece and mostly succeeds. This might have been mostly thanks to the hilarious performances of Tyne Daly (as the bride’s nasty mother) and Harriet Harris (as the groom’s nasty mother), and the very winning leading lady Lisa Howard (who actually plays the sister of the bride). It Shoulda Been You doesn’t feel like it belongs on Broadway. It’s a dinner theater piece. My guess is that it only got to Broadway because of David Hyde Pierce’s involvement (he directed the show, and his husband Brian Hargrove wrote the book). But hey, like I said, it’s not a complete clunker!

2015-03-20 20.10.10Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2 (March 20 and 21): If you want to know how I felt about Wolf Hall the play, you’ll have to hear about Wolf Hall the book first. In brief: I thought the first book was a real slog, and didn’t entirely understand the acclaim for it. Then a friend loaned me Wolf Hall‘s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and I simply flew threw it. We puzzled over this, because Hilary Mantel’s writing style is exactly the same in both novels. And you can’t skip the first novel and just read the second (you’ll have missed too much).

In any case, I’m glad I read the books before seeing the plays, which are really wonderful. Beautifully staged, compelling, tense. The cast is terrific (no surprise from this Brit import) and the stark, open-staged production moves at a really fast clip. Intelligent, illuminating historical plays are one of my favorite genres, and this one comes to life beautifully. Plus it’s clever. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the books: I kept recognizing lines and thinking “Wow, I remember this from the book. I didn’t realize how witty it was.” The tickets for the two plays were bundled together, so I saw Part 1 on a Friday, and Part 2 on a Saturday. And it was a great way to spend a weekend: the shows were Interestingly enough, I found the first play to be clearly better than the second (the exact opposite of how I felt about the novels). To be fair, I’d gone out for a few beers before the second play, and may have been in less of a theatergoing frame of mind.

Four down, four to go. Stay tuned for even briefer thoughts on the other shows I’ve seen since then: Something Rotten, It’s Only a Play, Living on Love, and The King and I.

Review: Hamilton

2015-02-10 19.40.51In describing Fun Home I’d have used the word terrific; I’d have called The Book of Mormon gleefully brilliant; Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is adorably delightful. The word that keeps popping into my head for Hamilton: Magnificent. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new musical about our “ten-dollar founding father” — currently onstage at the Public Theater — is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. It even tops the three wonderful musicals I just mentioned. It’s the kind of production you would want to travel to New York to see. And all I can say is that I hope this one’s going to be around a long, long time.

Are you taken aback by my hyperbole? Am I laying it on too thick? Then let me try to convince you.

You might be familiar with Alexander Hamilton as our first Treasury Secretary, author of the Federalist papers, adversary of Thomas Jefferson, victim of a duel with Aaron Burr. The show gets into all that, and it’s totally fascinating. But what makes it even more interesting is Mr. Miranda’s modern and joyous approach. He said a few years ago that Alexander Hamilton “embodies hip-hop” because of his immigrant background, illegitimate birth, and passionate belief that his writing could get him anywhere in life. Hamilton, then, is a musical grounded in actual history but using very contemporary urban vernacular. In other words, the founding fathers — here played by actors of many cultures — rap. A lot.

In Mr. Miranda’s earlier shows, hip-hop had been a sort of fun alternative to the traditional sung numbers, giving the shows a vibrant feel but never taking over dramatically. Hamilton is different. It’s sung-through, but the majority of the songs are rapped: A cabinet meeting becomes a rap battle, for example. It’s fantastic stuff. In fact it works so well that I am bit stunned it’s taken so long for me to realize the full dramatic potential of rap in a work of theater. Honestly, the language is so dense and colorful that it feels almost Shakespearian. (Stop rolling your eyes! I said almost. Anyway Oskar Eustis says something along these lines in the show program too.)

2015-02-10 19.31.26And the songs aren’t its only strength. I knew Mr. Miranda could write terrific numbers (In the Heights, of course, but also Bring it On and his Tony raps) but I wasn’t entirely certain that he would be as good when it came to constructing a dramatic arc. That’s because my big complaint about In the Heights was that it involved ridiculous plot twists: a character winning the lottery, for example. (My Puerto Rican friend Cristina, upon hearing this criticism, said, “Julia, you don’t understand Latino culture. The lotto is a part of our daily lives!”) In any case, I have no such reservations with Hamilton. It builds beautifully from Hamilton’s first meeting with Burr — who is the cautious foil to the hotheaded and passionate Hamilton — to their final duel. It’s beautifully structured, and along the way there is a ton of humor, clever callbacks, subtle characterization. This show seems to have simply everything going for it.

Including a fantastic production. Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Hamilton, of course, and is as winning as he ever is, leading a phenomenal cast. Standouts include Daveed Diggs as the Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson and Leslie Odom, Jr. as the doomed Aaron Burr. Brian D’Arcy James was pitch-perfect as the hilariously arrogant King George III. And my favorite of all was Christopher Jackson as George Washington, who embodies incredible dignity and strength. You understand, watching Mr. Jackson, just why George Washington towered over his fellow revolutionaries.

There are other musicals that succeed in doing just what they intend to. Lots, in fact. Hamilton is unusual, though, in that few of the big hits of recent years contain this kind of dramatic weight. To my great surprise, Hamilton had me in tears by the end of the evening. To be honest, in its historical sweep and raw emotional power I kept thinking of Les Miserables. (This morning I read the New Yorker article on Hamilton in which Mr. Miranda says “I really got my Les Miz on in this score,” so I suppose the link was intentional. He’s definitely obsessed with Les Miz, that’s for sure.) Here’s a dramatic musical that earns its emotional payoff without ever being maudlin. Even better is that all of these historical figures are portrayed by such a wonderfully multiethnic cast. They, along with the score, help illustrate that the founding fathers’ story isn’t some remote tale of heroes or dead white guys. We got here because of a bunch of passionate and determined people, who fought for what they believed in and ultimately created something greater than themselves. And that’s an origin story for all of us.

2015-02-10 13.30.09Now that I’ve gotten this far, I feel like I should backpedal. Am I overselling this? I’ve certainly been guilty of buying into hype over new musicals before. But even if that’s true, Hamilton is still quite an achievement. This show is incredibly rich with wit, heart, intelligence, character. It’s beautifully performed. The staging from Thomas Kail is flawless. The choreography from Andy Blankenbuehler perfectly suits the vibrance of the score. The lyrics contain a richness and symbolism that is rare for a musical. I wish I could see it again.

Magnificent.

My Grade: A+
Running Time: 2 Hours, 50 minutes
Ticket price: $50
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: Pretty Filthy

playbill“You’re going to see a PORN MUSICAL??”
“Well, I don’t think so. I think it’s a musical about the porn industry.”

(Ah, opening a blog post with cheap clickbait. What fun!)

But we are Serious Theatergoers, so I’ll skip further titillation and get right to discussing Pretty Filthy, a new musical from The Civilians. They’re a popular and innovative “investigative theater” company focused on bringing the stories of real people to the stage. Their performances are generally based on interviews conducted by the company themselves, and Pretty Filthy, a show about making it in the porn industry, is another product of this process. You can see it at the Abrons Arts Center through March 1.

Anyone curious about how the industry works — and who isn’t? — would probably get a kick out of it. Pretty Filthy features fascinating perspectives on the porn industry from agents, stars, former stars, cameramen, directors, wannabes, distributors, and more. Porn stars tell us how they got their stage names; a cameraman discusses framing angles; a famous porn star couple explains how they negotiate their relationship; straight guys talk about the appeal of working in gay porn movies. There’s a fairly thin story connecting all these delightful vignettes. Nice girl Becky — very much one of the Me Generation — aspires to porn stardom, and this show traces the ups and downs of her career and introduces us to the people she meets along the way.  It’s extremely clever, nicely constructed, funny, and continually interesting. And it has lots of room to improve.

Why’s that? Well, I think that there’s more substance to this subject than the treatment we see onstage. It’s not as though I was hoping for a vicious exposé of the porn industry (though come to think of it, a musical theater version of Frontline does sound like fun). To be honest, however, i think this show could ask a few more difficult questions. Because for the most part, this is the porn industry from their own perspective. So you get a very funny song about the guy who found the G-spot, but not a whole lot on the character traits that might lead one to a life in the industry. Or the industry’s potentially exploitative relationship with young girls, or its damaging effect on body image, or any one of a hundred other issues. In my mind, a more thorough exploration of one of these angles might have given the show more punch.

And it feels unfair to say I was disappointed with the music, though I suppose I was. That’s simply because the music was written by Michael Friedman, whose score for Fortress of Solitude is one of the best I’ve heard in the last year (as I said a few months ago). It’s not that the Pretty Filthy songs are bad; it just has nowhere near the texture and depth of his music for Solitude. For those of you familiar with the (excellent) Civilians podcast: the songs are in that vein. Small, and funny, and fine (as Sondheim would say), but not the sort of number that will stick with you.

Still though, the ensemble cast is delightful. I loved Luba Mason as an older porn star, and Steve Rosen is fantastic as some of the sleazier (and more hilarious) characters. Plus the production is nicely staged (by Steve Cosson, who also co-conceived the project). If Pretty Filthy doesn’t ever reach the satirical heights of a Urinetown, it still has plenty to enjoy. Though you might feel a bit icky at the end. Comes with the territory, I suppose.

One final admission: Like a jerk, I’m reviewing the very first preview performance. (If I were really a Serious Theatergoer, I would tell myself “But that is simply not done, my dear!”) I’m sorry, Civilians. I didn’t realize this until after I left the theatre last night. I’m hoping the fact that I enjoyed it way more than I liked the last Civilians production I saw helps make up for my rudeness.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $29 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Standing Ovation Watch: Maybe 10%

Review: Into the Woods

Into the Woods playbillThey put up a chalkboard in the lobby of the Laura Pels theater, so theatergoers at the new Roundabout/Fiasco production of Into the Woods can share their own “I wish” fantasies. Last night I noticed someone had written “A Broadway transfer!” Understandable, because it’s always great to have Sondheim shows back on Broadway. Plus this is a can-do, cheerful, likable production, and the audience seemed delighted with it. But seriously: the intimate Laura Pels is already too big for this homemade production. Let’s not ruin it completely by taking it to Broadway, all right?

Here’s what I mean by that: Fiasco is an ensemble theater group that puts on inventive but bare-bones productions of classics. A pair of curtains on a rod, for example, represent ballgowns; a few fluttery slips of paper become a flock of birds. I’d previously seen their phenomenal production of Cymbeline: their accessible, familial, collaborative energy worked beautifully in bringing Shakespeare’s text to life. Now they’ve turned their creative attention toward Into the Woods, which is definitely having a Moment since the movie’s debut a few weeks ago. This production couldn’t be further from the lush, star-studded treatment the movie gets, but to be honest I liked it even better than the film. Well, for the most part. There were definitely a few problems.

Everyone who reads this blog is familiar with Into the Woods, I suppose, but just in case you aren’t: this 1980s musical — one of Sondheim’s most popular — is a mishmash of a number of fairy tales including Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. The first act is mostly light and entertaining; the second act is far darker and sadder. It’s a bit tricky to pull off that change in tone, and I know some critics complained about that when it came to the movie. (Didn’t bother me.)

This Into the Woods works mostly because its cast is so well suited to the material. There is lots of nifty double-casting in the ten-person ensemble. My favorite was that the actress who plays Little Red (Emily Young) also doubles as Rapunzel. They also eliminate the role of the storyteller and narrate the story themselves. Probably appropriate that there’s no one singular storyteller, because Fiasco feels like an old-fashioned acting troupe who have gathered to tell us a story. (In fact, according to the playbill, Jessie Austrian, who plays the Baker’s Wife, is married to Noah Brody, Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf. How cute! They really are familial!) Fiasco also establishes a rapport with the audience at the beginning of the show, which continues throughout. Meaning: this Into the Woods features a sprinkle of audience participation. (But don’t worry. It’s not that distracting.)

As for the performances themselves, they’re all pretty strong, except possibly Jennifer Mudge as the witch. She doesn’t quite have the necessary charisma, comic timing, or even a believably evil persona. Her transformation into gorgeousness is certainly not a stretch, though. I think she’d have done better as Cinderella or Little Red, to be honest.

James Lapine’s book is still very, very clever and witty (though I’ve still never seen a production that captures its humor quite as well as the original Broadway video does). And Mr. Sondheim is in even better form. When you know a show by heart, sometimes the lyrics become so ingrained in your brain that you barely hear them anymore. (That was the case when I saw the movie a few weeks ago.) Last night, though — perhaps because of the production’s inventiveness — I heard them with a fresh ear, and lyrics like “Princes wait there in the world, it’s true/Princes, yes, but wolves and humans too” seemed especially poetic and moving. I don’t know that it’s his greatest work as a composer, but boy are there some lovely melodies. Particularly “No More”, which was an emotional highlight of this production. Though this production doesn’t really do Sondheim justice, musically. Save for piano, the company plays all the instruments themselves, and the resulting sound is fairly thin. Plus most of the actors are stronger at acting than they are at singing. This production isn’t going to present you with a transcendent aural experience.

The appeal of this kind of production (as far as I’m concerned) is that you could see a dynamic Into the Woods without the Broadway trappings. I got my tickets through my roommate, who has a Hiptix account. At $25 it’s a fantastic deal. At $35-45, it would still probably be a pretty good deal. But if you’re paying more than $50 it might start to feel like you’re paying more than your money’s worth.

My grade: B
Ticket price: $25 (Hiptix)
Worth it: Yes
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with intermission
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

Review: The Last Ship

2014-12-19 13.01.35So how was the The Last Ship? How was Sting? The answer to both questions, I’m sorry to say, is “not very good”. And yet as I walked out of the theater, I had a newfound appreciation for the guy, because there’s a heck of a lot of fantastic work on display in this new musical. This one gets marked as an “ambitious failure”, cross-referenced under the “worthwhile undertaking” and “unfortunate mess” subject headings.

But that’s the librarian getting ahead of the critic, isn’t it? Let me back up: Sting has written music and lyrics for a Broadway musical called The Last Ship, and for the next month he’s performing in the cast to help the struggling show get through Broadway’s dead of winter. It’s an ensemble piece about a town (Sting’s hometown, near Newcastle) that decides to fight back against the closure of its shipyard by building one last great ship. The story mostly focuses on Gideon (Michael Esper) and his long-lost love Meg (Rachel Tucker); Sting is featured as Jackie, the foreman of the doomed shipyard. It’s a dreamy sort of show, one that beautiful conveys a community in despair.

But completely falls apart when it comes to plot. To begin with, very little in the story makes sense. Starting with the central plot point: the unemployed former shipyard workers dream of building a last great ship for the fun and glory of it. Whaaaat? That would cost millions upon millions of pounds! There’s absolutely no way. But let’s give that one a pass and say it’s supposed to be a fable. Which I guess it is. There are still problems here. To begin with, plot gaps galore. I was frequently confused about how things were proceeding (“wait, so I thought they were going to prison for trespassing? No?”) and more or less gave up on understanding the plot by the end. Even fables need clarity in storytelling, right? And finally, the central love triangle (the star-crossed Gideon and Meg, and her new boyfriend Arthur) isn’t terribly compelling, because Meg herself is indecisive and wishywashy about the situation, and I didn’t feel vested in any outcome. Actually I’ll go further than that. I was bored. This story drags along and never really brought me along for the ride.

On the other hand, there’s the score. I’m no Sting expert by any means, but to me the melodies were instantly recognizable as his work and feature lovely Celtic-tinged orchestrations. So many Broadway musicals have a similar sound to them; this music sounded fresh and dynamic. His lyrics are more rock than musical theater (i.e., vaguer and less rooted in character). In years past I’d have criticized this, as I always felt that musicals need lyrics with greater specificity in the moment. But after having seen shows like American Idiot and Once which use rock lyrics to fantastic effect, I’m backing down on that assertion. I will say, though, that given the show’s book problems I wouldn’t have minded a little more lyrical exactitude.

More for the good column: the score is beautifully embodied by Steven Hoggett’s choreography. Mr. Hoggett must be my favorite Broadway choreographer at this point, as I’ve already discussed his wonderful work on Rocky and Once on this blog. Here — as ever — his work is evocative, passionate and fluid.

Sting's bio is adorably buried in the cast list

Sting’s bio is adorably buried in the Playbill

And the cast has a number of very talented performers, especially Mr. Esper (who sounds frighteningly like Sting when he sings). Of course, the performer we all want to hear about is Sting himself. Here’s what I meant when I said his performance was “not very good” at the start of this post: He’s not a very convincing actor. Not remotely. Partly it’s the way the character is written: Jackie is resolute and stubborn, but without much depth. And he just started performances last week, and may ease into the role further as the month goes by. So that’s something to keep in mind. But let’s get real. Who actually cares about his acting? We’re not buying tickets to see Sting in a Broadway show because we think he’s going to completely submerge himself in a character. What we want is stage presence. Which is where he’s more effective, because it really does add something to The Last Ship to see its rock star composer onstage and so clearly committed to his work. Plus no one can sing Sting’s songs better than Sting himself. But Sting’s not the typical rock star in a Broadway show: he seems determined to be just one of the cast. There’s no hamming it up; no upstaging his fellow cast members. He doesn’t even take the last bow at the curtain call or list himself first in the playbill bios. Maybe that’s why I came away so impressed with the guy, even though his acting leaves room for improvement.

The Last Ship isn’t a good show, and I wonder if Sting will ever write another musical. I hope he does. I’d say Broadway would be lucky to have him back. But what a shame, because THIS should have been a much better musical than it actually is. It’s got so much going for it already. Except for a good script.

My Grade: C+ (mostly for the score)
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Ticket price: $49 (TDF)
Worth it: Probably not. The cd would be, though!
Standing Ovation Watch: 90%