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: Straight White Men

2014-11-11 19.58.08Here’s what Young Jean Lee said about the Tony-winning Broadway play Clybourne Park in a recent New Yorker: it was “good, in terms of, you know, being a play, with a beginning and end and all.” The comment seemed so flip and dismissive (and kinda badass) that it probably set entirely unrealistic expectations for me in terms of Straight White Men, her new play at the Public (and the first Young Jean Lee play I’ve seen). Surely this show would be edgier, smarter, more uncomfortable, and all-around better than your typical middlebrow Broadway fare?

Well, I’m not so sure it is. But I’ll get to that.

First you need to know that it’s about three grown brothers and their widowed father spending Christmas together. These guys are jokey but socially conscious; caring but playfully aggressive with each other; smart but wary of intellectualism. The oldest, Matt (James Stanley), recently moved back in with his father Ed (Austin Pendleton! So lovely to see him!) and the central conflict of the play revolves around Matt’s brothers and father wondering why Matt has gotten so pathetic — i.e., living with dad, temping, lacking friends — despite his brilliance and caring nature. Is it the weight of expectations Matt faces as a privileged white guy? Is it his concern that he might be propagating the inherent unfairness in society just by succeeding? Is it crippling shyness?

If all that sounds heavy and pretentious and thinky: don’t worry. Straight White Men isn’t like that. In between the ruminations on what it means to be a white dude, there’s lots of joy — outlandish dancing, goofy singing, teasing galore. A good chunk of this play — much of the first two acts — is just fun (if a bit aimless) in its depiction of a family’s idiosyncrasies and Christmas traditions. 

But then there’s that third act. This is the conflict-heavy portion of the show, and the point when it went a bit off the rails for me. It might be Mr. Stanley’s performance as Matt. To me he came off as a shy, sweet guy, and nothing like the negative cipher his brothers and father continually attack. What’s so awful about living with a parent and temping for awhile? (I’ve done both of those things in my adult life.) I kept thinking “Oh my gosh, leave the poor guy alone!” His father even refers to Matt’s behavior (which has been nothing but helpful throughout the show) as “repugnant” at one point.  Perhaps if Mr. Stanley had put out more of a toxic persona I’d have understood where the others were coming from. But, as it was, I felt like this was a bit of a manufactured crisis.

Possibly because I couldn’t quite swallow the central conflict of the show; its ideas about what it’s like to be a straight white guy didn’t quite speak to me either. For example, the middle brother, Jake (Gary Wilmes) argues that when they succeed as white guys, it necessarily pushes others minorities and women out of the way. Maybe that’s true, but, well, middle class guys talking about white guilt doesn’t seem like such exciting drama to me.

Straight White Men is still in previews, and I think some of the kinks may get worked out in time. It’s certainly an interesting show, and I’m glad I saw it, but to be honest I liked Clybourne Park better.

My Grade: C+
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Ticket price: $30 (with Public membership)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review Roundup for October

If you’re wondering where I’ve gone: nowhere! But I have been really busy at work lately, and had quite a few baseball games to watch over these past few weeks. Plus I’ve been taking dance lessons! Plus I’ve been sewing! Plus I’ve been keeping an eye on Sycamore!

But of course, I’ve managed to sneak a few shows in as well. To eliminate the backlog of shows I had planned to write about, I’ll just spit them all out in one go. My apologies for this: All of these shows deserve a full post. But I was getting so far behind!

Starting with the most recent:

2014-10-21 18.49.56The Fortress of Solitude: “Was that show wankery? Because the book was wankery,” my friend Jeremiah said. I instantly wanted to defend the new musical’s many assets: a fantastic score, wonderful cast, lively choreography, evocative characters. The new musical (based on the Jonathan Lethem novel) is set in the 1970s and is about two boys (one white, one black) growing up in Brooklyn long before it became trendy. Dylan is a smart kid whose hippie parents relocate from Berkeley; his best friend Mingus is the son of a coke-sniffing backup singer who once had aspirations to be the next Marvin Gaye. The Fortress of Solitude beautifully evokes this musical era, with splashes of R&B, 1970s funk, hip hop, and some traditional Broadway mixed in, too. The music (by Michael Friedman) is just outstanding. Now Fortress of Solitude has got a lot of problems, too: the most prominent is the unclear storytelling that had me wanting to find the plot summary on wikipedia to find out all the stuff that wasn’t clear in the show. The (sometimes sexual) relationship between Dylan and Mingus also feels forced — I never understood why these boys connected so deeply with each other. It’s certainly a flawed musical, but it’s nevertheless an entertaining one. And hey, at least it’s not wankery.

My Grade: B Running time: 2 Hours, 45 minutes Ticket price: $40 (with Public membership) Worth it: yes Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50

2014-10-21 19.07.41The Old Man and the Old Moon: I saw this show two years ago at the Gym at Judson, and remember liking it. But I hadn’t planned to see it again, until Cheryl offered me a free ticket. This family show is an adventure story about an old man willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find his wife. The results of his adventure are more or less disastrous — but all turns out well in the end. The show, written and performed by the handsome (erm, very handsome in fact) and talented young gentlemen of Pigpen Theatre, contains all sorts of low-budget theatrical tricks — lots of puppetry, lighting tricks, and the like. It’s also got some terrific songs (All these guys can play instruments as well as act and write — they’re a band as well.) But even with the quick 90-minute running time, I still found this show to drag a bit. The Old Man’s story feels aimless and the troubles he faces aren’t terribly exciting. Even when he’s fighting in a war/swallowed by a whale/discovering an underground city. I just kept thinking these guys should get to the point. What’s interesting is that I remember being charmed by all this the first time I saw the show. Perhaps it just doesn’t hold up all that well to a second viewing. Nevertheless, I can’t wait to see what PigPen does next. Perhaps a show for grownups? Or maybe I should just listen to their cd.

My Grade: C Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $0 (comp from Cheryl) Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: Can’t remember! Think it was about 25% standing

2014-10-12 13.58.49Brownsville Song (B side for Tray): Real life kept intruding as I watched Brownsville Song at LCT3. I was thinking of my students (some of whom live in Brownsville); I was thinking of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in the play; it’s just that a show about a young black man gunned down in the street doesn’t feel like escapism right now. Brownsville Song has an incredibly wrenching opening scene, in which Lena (Lizan Mitchell, who is wonderful) mourns her grandson Tray (Sheldon Best), and informs us that the story shouldn’t begin with her grief. We then travel back in time to several months prior, when Tray was a sweet big brother, a great employee, a promising student. His death, it becomes clear, is the result of a random act of gang violence. Playwright Kimber Lee has a good ear for realistic dialogue, and at 90 minutes the story moves along quickly. To be honest, though, that opening scene had me prepared for a societal indictment that could help me make sense of all the real life issues swirling in my head as I watched the show. Instead, it’s an intimate drama of a close-knit family ripped apart by violence. I didn’t quite connect to it, though, because Tray has few flaws and seems to be more of a symbol than a real person. So this play wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. But man, that opening scene will stick with me a long time.

My Grade: B Running time: 90 minutes Ticket price: $24.75 Worth it: Yes Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: Much Ado About Nothing

2014-07-06 19.44.56The skies are clear; the warm summer day has cooled off; the pondside setting is gorgeous; your seats are terrific; you’ve got a glass of wine and are about to see a free play with friends. And there are no guarantees in the theater, but the Public usually puts on a damned fine show with an excellent cast and high production values. No wonder Shakespeare in the Park is so popular!

Last night was the final performance of Much Ado About Nothing, so this post is a bit useless for the rest of you, but it does give me a chance to endorse Shakespeare in the Park, so I’ll go ahead and do just that. This production, directed by Jack O’Brien, was really a delight from the very beginning. The prologue in Italian, the vegetable garden at the front of the stage, and the sun-drenched lighting beautifully called to mind an Italian villa in summertime. I feel transported just thinking about it, actually. The show was nearly three hours long, but didn’t ever drag, because it was full of wit, romance, high jinks, and of course, Shakespeare’s poetry.

Lily Rabe was sharp and very funny, nearly flawless as Beatrice. Though she is basically always flawless, right? Even better was Hamish Linklater as Benedick. During the first act I got a bit distracted by his wild beard (he eventually shaves it off, as you might remember), but he brought a nice mixture of brashness, physical humor, wit and energy to Benedick. Plus there was Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Pedro. Casting people: if you want charm and gravitas in your show, Brian Stokes Mitchell should be the first guy you call. Not to mention his glorious singing. It’s definitely been too long since he starred in a Broadway musical.

Anyway, it was an utterly wonderful evening, and all four of us sailed out of the theater on a Shakespeare high. And we weren’t the only ones, as the following story might tell you:

In the bathroom line at intermission, a girl ahead of me told her friends: “This is great, but I thought we were going to see the original Shakespeare. I didn’t know they were going to translate it.”
Her friend said: “This IS the original Shakespeare.”
“No it isn’t. It’s in modern English. I can understand everything!”
Another friend of theirs interjected: “Well there are a few different translations….”
“No, there aren’t! This is the same Shakespeare as it always is!”
“Shakespeare wrote in old English,” the first girl kept insisting.

At this point the lady ahead of them jumped in before I could: “No, it’s not like Chaucer, they don’t have to translate. This is the original Shakespeare. But this show is one of the easier ones to understand. They’re not all like this one.”

I was fairly astonished at this whole exchange. I wonder if the modern American accents in the production threw that girl for a loop? But in any case, she made an excellent case for Shakespeare in the Park as a free event. To be honest, I’d been feeling a little fed up with the whole Shakespeare in the Park thing, even though it’s a summer tradition. The long wait for tickets (we arrived before 4 am on Sunday morning) prevents so many of us who love theater from being able to go. I hadn’t been in several years. I know what you’re thinking: Wow. I never knew Julia was so incredibly entitled! She thinks she should automatically get free Shakespeare tickets just because she likes shows? Which is why I was happy to be reminded that not everyone who sees these shows are part of the theater community. Lots don’t have any familiarity with Shakespeare at all. That’s the whole point, if I’m not mistaken?

Next up at the Delacorte is King Lear, which I will try to see (it’s the year of Lear, after all!), though a summer evening tragedy doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. But the Public definitely earned my good will with Much Ado, so bring on the next eight hour wait, I suppose!

My grade: A+
Running Time: 3 Hours
Ticket Price: $0 (with eight hour wait)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes*

*- Everybody stood, except for my roommate (the birthday girl! Happy birthday Rachel!) who was really reluctant to do so because she was worrying about what I’d say in my Standing Ovation Watch.

Review: Here Lies Love

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Great Immensity

2014-04-29 19.23.19The Great Immensity, a new show at the Public Theater, was always a stand-in for the play The Library, also at the Public. Let me explain: I was dying to see The Library at the Public, so I could go to the library, then go to the Library, then go to The Library. Tickets were pricey, though, so I decided I’d just have to make do with going to the library (for work), then going to The Library (for a drink), then going to The Great Immensity (for a show). Yeah. Not as exciting.

Nevertheless, The Great Immensity, at the Public Lab, has a number of things going for it. I was interested to hear the music of Michael Friedman (the composer/lyricist for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Love’s Labour’s Lost). And to say this show is ambitious is putting it mildly: this new musical wants nothing less than to dramatize climate change itself. Plus, the Civilians are apparently a lively and dynamic theater company, and this is the first show of theirs I’d seen.

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a messy, preachy slog. The story, about a filmmaker who goes missing and his wife’s attempts to find him, is totally farfetched, and more irritating than moving. The hackers trying to fight for climate regulations seemed dastardly rather than heroic. (Are we supposed to be rooting for these people? But they’re awful!) On the other hand, the kooky scientist characters were often pretty funny. And the best thing about The Great Immensity is the clever use of videos and projections. I’m not sure they needed so much video — the projections sometimes took the place of live performance for no particular reason — but for the most part, they added a bit of zing.

There were some lovely musical moments (especially the passenger pigeon song), but most of the score felt like a first draft, with the better songs still waiting to be developed. Perhaps this show is still early enough in its development that a lot of these issues will be resolved. During the course of this show I had a fantasy of Hal Prince coming in and cutting all the dull songs and fixing up the book and really whipping this thing into shape. Maybe a Hal Prince climate change show would be too entertaining, though. Perhaps a show about the biggest problem humans are facing right now should be a bit of a slog.