Review: Blackbird

IMG_20160216_161720757There’s a shocking contrast between the gorgeous interior of the Belasco and the scenery onstage. The recently-refurbished Belasco is dark and ornate, with lush stained glass lighting. Onstage, we see a harsh, cold office setting, with gray walls, fluorescent lighting and frosted windows. I took one look at the set for Blackbird and thought “Ugh. A work play.”

But that’s ridiculous. Blackbird is no office drama. (And I already knew that, anyway.) It’s inspired by the story of Toby Studebaker, a man who groomed, then ran off with a 12-year-old girl in 2003. In Blackbird, the now-grown young woman (Michelle Williams as Una) finds, then confronts fiftysomething Ray (a wonderful Jeff Daniels) fifteen years after he molested her at age 12. He has moved several hours away, changed his name, and started a new life. Lucky guy. His victim wasn’t able to do any of that.

But this isn’t an entirely straightforward story of a predatory pedophile. Both Una and Ray found their three-month flirtation and affair the central emotional experience of their lives; their tough facades crack and then shatter as the play goes on. It’s a harsh, difficult play, with an unflinching approach towards its subject. Its characters speaking in halting, uncertain sentences, full of meaning and tension.

It’s an impressive piece of writing. I didn’t like it much.

Blackbird, written by David Harrower, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005, then won the 2007 Olivier for Best Play. Its New York debut was also in 2007, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starring Mr. Daniels and Alison Pill as Una. The director then was Joe Mantello, who has also directed the production I saw last night. (I believe, but don’t know for certain, that the staging was a recreation of his original direction. The 2007 production looks just the same in the photos.)

To be honest, I’d probably have liked it better had I seen it then. The first reason is obvious: a play like this would fit perfectly in an intimate — even claustrophobic– space. (It started at the Edinburgh Fringe, for crying out loud.) The Belasco isn’t huge, but it’s not a 300 seater, either. My seat was far enough away for some of that tension to dissolve.

And the second reason: Michelle Williams. She’s a committed performer, and I really did want to like her. But I just wasn’t convinced. Every line she spoke seemed soaked in pathos. Or more bluntly: she overacts. Now, her character has been through a lot, and her line readings were convincing on an individual basis. But on the whole her performance felt out of sync with the fragile character she was portraying. Now, this is an early preview, and I hope that her performance smooths out as time goes on. Still, though, I wish I’d seen Alison Pill. Jeff Daniels was utterly convincing, and the script was impressive, and the direction was clear and dynamic. But without a strong leading lady, the whole thing fell apart a bit.

Even in the best possible production, though, I’d imagine Blackbird is never really a play you enjoy. (I’d say it’s a play you simply survive, but that sounds a little catty, I suppose.) On the other hand, I went home thinking about the sex offender registry and how people might move on after this kind of abuse. So maybe even though I didn’t have fun watching it, it was a thought-provoking and worthwhile play, full of shades of gray. But I have to admit I preferred Spotlight, which is far more black and white in its treatment of pedophilia.

My Grade: C+
Running Time: 90 minutes
Ticket price: $45 (TDF)
Worth it: Iffy
Standing Ovation Watch: In the orchestra

Tony Nominations 2014

My first thoughts when it comes to Tony nominations and awards are always about the shows I’ve taken “ownership” of for one reason or another. Since I saw all of them before I even started this blog, I thought I’d talk a bit about my reactions to the nominations (or lack thereof) for some of my big favorites of the season.

As a caveat, I haven’t seen three out of the four best musical nominees. (Good grief! That sounds so embarrassing! What kind of Broadway blogger am I?) I do want to see Beautiful and After Midnight in the weeks to come, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to snag a ticket for Aladdin. For the plays, I’ve seen All the Way, Outside Mullingar and Mothers and Sons, but not Casa Valentina or Act One. I’m not convinced I’ll get around to seeing either, so my fairly uninformed pick for Best Play is currently All the Way.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
My pick for best musical of the year (since Fun Home isn’t eligible), and my current go-to selection for those who ask me what show they should see on Broadway. So naturally I was really delighted with all the nominations for this piece. Both actors (Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham) are wonderful and I’d love to see either win (though I know they won’t, not with Neil Patrick Harris in the running). I was happy for Lauren Worsham, though her nomination made me wonder if Lisa O’Hare (who is also terrific) got her feelings hurt a bit. I know I would, if I was the only one of the four major actors in a show not to get a nomination. She’s probably way more professional than I am, though. In any case, I’m rooting for this show to win nearly everything but best score, though the songs are terrific. A friend pointed out that a comedy like Gentleman’s Guide doesn’t even need to have songs that are this good. But it does, and it’s wonderful. I just think the score was bettered, just by a teeny tiny bit.

The Bridges of Madison County
I’ve been pretty apologetic about my regard for this show. When people ask me how it is, I say something along the lines of this:

“Yeah, I really do think it’s great, but then of course I’m a Jason Robert Brown fan and I tend to love his music. And you know, I don’t even care about the love story that much, because Robert Kincaid isn’t even all that interesting of a character*. Mostly I love it for Francesca and her story.”

You know what? The heck with that. I’m going to stop apologizing. It’s a lovely show, full of heart and intelligence. (And oh that music! My favorite score of the year. Again, the caveat is that Fun Home isn’t eligible.) I got really irritated with the New York Times review, which seemed to imply that Kelli O’Hara’s performance was the only real reason to see this show. I agree that she is marvelous, but there’s plenty to like about this show. The writers did a great job of opening up the story, it’s beautifully staged, the sets are evocative, the cast is all-around terrific. Basically, the whole thing is a really strong effort. I agree with Jesse Green, who said “That the musical succeeds in extracting something so smart and powerful from the treacle is little short of miraculous.” It deserved a nomination for best musical, for crying out loud. Tony committee, what’s the matter with you people?

* – I still don’t think Robert Kincaid is nearly as interesting as Francesca is, though. I get that theirs is a Great Love, but geez. He really doesn’t ever experience intimacy except for those four days in Iowa? That’s totally neurotic! I want to see a musical about how nuts that guy is. The gorgeous, heartfelt song “It All Fades Away” doesn’t actually do him any favors in my book, because who wants to live a life like that? I tend to justify it to myself, however, by saying it’s a song basically along the same lines of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. Yes, over the top, but since when did Broadway shows shy away from “hearts on sleeves” moments? Still, though, next to Francesca’s lovely and complex “Always Better” immediately afterwards, it’s a bit hard to swallow.

Bullets Over Broadway
Boy can Susan Stroman ever stage a musical. Wow. Every number, every transition is winning and clever and joyous. I just love to watch her dancers move onstage. Particularly during that gangster tap dance number, which is a real old-fashioned showstopper. (Do they get a Tony number? Can they pretty please do the gangster tap number on the Tonys?) Of course, transitions and choreography don’t necessarily make for a wonderful show. To be honest, I prefer the movie. I keep telling people who ask me about it “Well, the whole reason I like musicals is for the new songs and this show doesn’t have any of those.” (Which is why I haven’t gotten around to After Midnight or Beautiful yet.) (I shouldn’t mention my unabashed love for Jersey Boys as it might contradict my point.) But the lack of new songs probably isn’t the real reason. I just wish it was a bit funnier, and that it didn’t take out some of my favorite moments from the movie, like Cheech’s final script suggestion, and the film’s lovely closing scene. I don’t think I would have picked it over Bridges for a nomination, but snubbing both Bridges and Bullets just seems mean. But I’m really happy for Nick Cordero as Cheech, who is just as good as you’ve heard. Marin Mazzie’s lack of a nomination was a bit of a shock, though. What more does the woman have to do? Geez louise.

Twelfth Night
After I saw this, I told all my friends that “Twelfth Night makes SO MUCH SENSE now! It should always be an all-male cast!” Finally, the Viola/Sebastian mixups are just as funny as they were written to be! I never thought the Anne Hathaway Central Park production could be topped, but then I wasn’t accounting for Mark Rylance. Obviously I’d love to see him win for both lead actor (for Richard III) and featured actor (Twelfth Night), just because of the possibility of seeing two of his kooky Tony acceptance speeches in one evening. I didn’t see Richard III, though, so I can’t say for certain that he’s likely to top Bryan Cranston. Anyway, just about everything in this production was delightful, and I’m very happy the Tony committee seems to agree, with nominations for Stephen Fry, Samuel Barnett, and Paul Chahidi.

Best of luck to all the nominees! I look forward to toasting you on Tony night from home, a glass of Prosecco in hand.

Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

2014-04-24 20.04.20Awhile back I was at Marie’s Crisis with a few friends when they started playing a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Everyone happily began to sing along. Everyone except me, that is. To be honest I didn’t even recognize the song. Somehow Hedwig had passed me by: I’d seen the original production, I believe (with Michael Cerveris) as well as the movie, but I barely remembered either. I’m most certainly not OK with being the only person who’s unfamiliar with a modern classic of the musical theater, so right there and then at Marie’s Crisis I decided I needed some good quality bonding time with the original cast recording.

I listened to it a bit, but am not sure I ever really got it. And I wasn’t planning to see this new production, mostly because tickets are so pricey. But then a journalist friend (thank you Jada!) came to the rescue, and I got a last-minute ticket for this past Thursday. (When I found out I’d be able to see Hedwig, I’d just bought a sewing machine and ended up having to lug it to the theater with me. A friend wondered if I may have been the first person in the history of the Belasco Theatre to drop a sewing machine off at the bag check?)

But enough of my story. Want to hear about the show? Hedwig is, of course, an East German emigrant to the United States, and a victim of a botched male to female sex change operation. (Hence the “Angry Inch”.) She’s arrived on Broadway for one night only, to perform in protest to the massive Times Square concert her ex, superstar Tommy Gnosis, is putting on just outside the theater. There’s an elaborate backstory to justify how Hedwig ended up at the Belasco, complete with fake Playbill. This sort of falls apart, however, when you see the outstanding projections (Benjamin Pearcy for 59 Productions), fancy costumes (by Arianne Phillips), and uberprofessional physical design (by Julian Crouch). This show (directed by Michael Mayerfeels like a big Broadway production; all this razzle-dazzle is probably antithetical to the spirit of the show.

Oh well. I’m not complaining. That’s because of what we get in return: Neil Patrick Harris‘s performance. He yet again proves himself to be the consummate entertainer: outstanding energy, terrific rapport with the audience, unwavering commitment, and wonderful comic timing. Lena Hall was another real stunner as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s husband. Goodness what a voice. Could both of them have dug a little deeper into their characters, in terms of pathos? Possibly. But given the sparkly tone of the production, both are just about perfect.

As a piece, Hedwig really stands in stark contrast to much of the rest of contemporary musical theater. It feels brave, clever, and best of all unapologetically individual. And still edgy even 16 years after the original production. Geez Louise, even the rock sound of the piece is rarely matched all these years later. (Come back, Stephen Trask!) I can’t imagine ever seeing another musical quite like it. Which is why I’m so glad I really got to experience it properly this time around. Third time lucky, eh?

However, I don’t think it will ever be an absolute favorite of mine, because I could use a bit more clarity in terms of storytelling. (Sorry. I get like that sometimes. I need to have things spelled out for me. I’m not being sarcastic or cutesy. In grad school my theater criticism professor used to tease me about this.) Wait, so why did Tommy reject Hedwig: is he a closeted gay guy, or was he under the impression that Hedwig was born a woman and he got grossed out by the dangly bits? If Yitzhak is a drag queen, why is he performed by a woman? Is he transgender too? Why exactly does Hedwig show herself to be so… male at the end of the show? In fact, that muddle is probably what this show is all about — here, gender isn’t clear, answers aren’t obvious, and you have to do a little thinking for yourself.