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: This is Our Youth

2014-09-11 11.18.15I’m bored with reviews! How about a show timeline instead?

Monday, 5:30 pm: I listen to last week’s episode of Maxamoo podcast, in which Isaac claims that This is Our Youth is one of the five best plays of the 1990s, and also one of the rare plays that’s just as much fun to read as it is to see. Based on this assessment, I get really excited about seeing the show Tuesday night (and a little embarrassed that I am not already familiar with it.)

Tuesday, 7:58 pm: My friends Karen, Rachel and I are told by the house manager at the Cort Theater to go across the street to the bathroom at the Chipotle, because we might not get through the line in time for the performance. And then we sat down behind tall people and had to crane our necks to see the center of the stage. Honestly, Thomas Lamb! What’s your problem with women and short people?

Tuesday, 8:07 pm: This is Our Youth begins. It’s a three-character play starring Michael Cera, well known to all of us as George Michael Bluth and a million other variations on that same role. His role of Warren is no different: he’s awkward, sweet, hesitant, and fumbling. Ungainly physicality and flawless comic timing. (You’ve seen Arrested Development. You’ve got the idea.) It also stars Kieran Culkin, who is dynamic, funny and likable as drug-dealing Dennis, Warren’s charismatic best friend.

Tuesday, 9:15 pm: At intermission, Rachel admits she’s having a bit of trouble connecting with the play. It’s about a young man (Mr. Cera) who has just been kicked out of his home, and in a fit of revenge has stolen $15,000 from his father. When he arrives at his friend Dennis’s (Mr. Culkin) apartment, they plot to try and get the money back (and to get Warren a bit of romance while they’re at it). But that’s just the plot, which isn’t really what this show is about. As the title indicates, this is really a piece about being young, wondering who you’ll be in the future, trying to connect, not knowing where to go or how to act, feeling aimless. For Rachel, this kind of rumination-as-drama wasn’t totally compelling; I can see why she thinks so. I’m a bit of a sucker for memory plays, however, and even though this isn’t precisely a memory play, it has many of the hallmarks of one. Right up my alley.

Tuesday, 10:15 pm: At the end of the show, both Karen and Rachel agreed that Tavi Gevinson as Jessica, Warren’s feisty love interest, was the weakest performer of the three. “It’s like she just got out of acting school,” Karen said, referring to her heavy use of mannerisms. True, her performance is a little more affected than the other two, but I found her likable. Perhaps that’s because the Jessica/Warren scenes — with their anxious flirtations and hilarious arguments — just felt a little more interesting than the Dennis/Warren scenes. Especially in the first act. It’s when Warren is trying to woo Jessica — somewhat successfully — that this play is at its strongest: both a contemplation on what it’s like to be young and a dynamic interaction between two characters.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Ticket price: $39 on TDF
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50 (Rachel says it was more like 25% standing, 25% getting ready to leave)

Review: The Cripple of Inishmaan

CAM00531[1]Boy does Daniel Radcliffe ever know how to fake a limp! His character, Cripple Billy in The Cripple of Inishmaan, has such trouble walking that his leg pops out awkwardly every time he moves. His hips and shoulders get into it too, as if his whole body is protesting every step. This is like the Porsche of fake limps.

To be honest it’s a little distracting. But it does speak to Daniel Radcliffe’s commitment, which I’ve long found impressive. If you watch the first Harry Potter again, it’s pretty obvious he isn’t a natural when it comes acting, but over the years he clearly worked hard, took tons of lessons, made risky choices, and has become a solid actor. By the end of the Harry Potter series I liked him more than I ever thought I would.

Before this blog post turns into a manifesto on Daniel Radcliffe, though, shall I discuss the play a bit? The Cripple of Inishmaan is an early dark comedy from Martin McDonagh — it might be the most audience-friendly of his shows. This London import (from director Michael Grandage) is the first Broadway production of Cripple, though it was here a few years ago off-Broadway too. It’s about a tiny community off the coast of Ireland in the 1930s, and is filled with comic interactions and dotty characters. The plot has to do with Billy’s longing to leave Inishmaan any way he can.

The play is funny mostly because of the hilariously blunt things these people say to each other (Billy is constantly being harassed for his disability, for example). It’s almost refreshing to hear such lack of tact, because the tone of it all is fairly good-natured, or so it seems. We see a few flashes of darkness later, especially in one jarringly violent scene. The play feels slight, though, and I think it would have worked better if it were shorter and intermissionless. There’s not really enough to sustain two and a half hours.

In any case, this show is still worth seeing (especially if you get the $27 balcony ticket and bring your trusty binoculars), because this is a really strong production. The marquee and Playbill cover might lead you to think this is star vehicle for Mr. Radcliffe, but it’s actually an ensemble piece. So it’s a good thing that the cast is all-around terrific, especially (Tony nominee!) Sarah Greene as Billy’s spitfire love interest Helen, who is constantly on the warpath about something or other. Daniel Radcliffe’s limp is the flashiest part of his performance, but he’s convincing and sweet throughout.

Oh and when I googled “Cripple of Inishmaan excerpt” I found this. It’s the whole play! Online! How is that not copyright infringement?

My Grade: B+
Ticket price: $27
Worth it: Yes
Standing ovation watch: A smattering