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: Thérèse Raquin

Therese RaquinBoy was I deflated when the usher at Thérèse Raquin told me the show was a solid 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 20 minute intermission. Say what? My first thought: Ugh, I won’t be getting home until midnight. My second thought: This is a very good excuse for buying myself and my friend Jessica drinks at intermission. If I’m going to sit through a long, dark, heavy play, at least I could do it with a beverage in hand, right?

As it turns out, though, neither of us felt the need to ply ourselves with alcohol. Thérèse Raquin was compelling, haunting, and overall a very entertaining evening. Nice performances; fascinating story; impressive production. We were both glad we’d seen it. I had seen it years ago (in London) but didn’t remember much about it. Before I forget the plot again, here’s what it’s about: Keira Knightley stars as Thérèse, a passionate young woman caught between desire and duty in nineteenth-century Paris. She and her lover, Laurent, conspire against her annoying ninny of a husband, Camille. Violence, death, madness and revenge all follow. Cue the ominous music, right?

Actually there was a lot of melodramatic music during the show. It feels more like a modern psychological thriller than a 19th century tragedy. The adaptation, by Helen Edmundson, is a sparse, taut retelling of the Zola story, with lots of telling pauses and knowing glances. It’s cinematic, too, in that there are lots of jumps and short scenes. To be honest, chunks of it lacked subtlety. The plot requires Therese and Laurent to be overcome with guilt in the second act, so Madame Raquin turns from an overbearing, domineering woman in the first act into a saintly, self-sacrificing one in the second act.Thérèse desires Laurent, so Thérèse visibly leans towards Laurent. Thérèse is lonely, so she stares out the window and barely responds to the world around her. (She seems a little aspy in the first half of the play, actually.)

That’s basically how Keira Knightley plays it. In the past, I’ve generally liked her performances, but she does bring a bit of a sameness to many of the roles she portrays, and Thérèse is no different. If you have seen her in Pride and Prejudice, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or Anna Karenina, you probably have the general idea of what her performance is like. That said, she does carry the show fairly well, and perhaps I would have sensed more texture in her performance if I had been sitting a little closer. (We were in the center of the mezzanine, and Studio 54 is a large theater. I always feel like intimate dramas such as this should be in smaller performance spaces.) The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent: Gabriel Ebert is perfectly irritating as Camille, Judith Light is phenomenal as Madame Raquin, and Matt Ryan is charming-but-deadly as Laurent.

And the physical production was excellent, too. Now I’m not sure if it was necessary to turn the back half of the stage into a pool, or to have such an intricate household set flying in from the rafters, but it certainly made for beautiful and impressive visuals. (Just looked it up: Beowulf Borritt, of Act One fame, was the designer. No surprise there, then! That man’s a genius.) I do wish the lighting had been a little brighter, however. There’s a difference between “atmospheric” and “hard to see.”

And the show ended at 10:38 (seven minutes ahead of schedule)! So all in all it was a successful evening and a play worth seeing. If you like it dark.

My Grade: B+
Ticket price: Jessica bought them (thank you Jess!)
Worth it: Ask Jess, but I think so
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 70%

Review: Cabaret

2014-04-16 07.42.31Last night I went to see Cabaret. It was a sort of birthday present to myself, and a farewell to the Roundabout Hiptix program. It’s for 35 and under, so I’ve aged out of it as of today. In fact I’d seen this production before, but not with Alan Cumming. I’d actually seen it with Michael C. Hall and Susan Egan (and I think, Michael Hayden as Cliff? I’d have to dig around and check the Playbill) on one of my visits before I moved here permanently. My sister and I saw it the night after we had attended LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, and I remember thinking, “Wow. Cabaret does a lot of what The Wild Party was trying to do, only much, much better.” The whole production was in terrific shape when I saw it; I walked away thinking that this is definitely one of the greats. Top ten for certain. This is also the kind of musical I’d take a friend who doesn’t like the form, because boy does it ever show you what just how powerful of a medium musical theater can be.

In any case, it was well worth revisiting on a rainy, snowy night in April. First and foremost for Alan Cumming. What a performance. Basically all he had to do was grin during “Wilkommen” and he had the entire audience (including me) eating out of his hand. That naughty smile; that angular frame; that magnetic stage presence. He was the absolute perfect tour guide to Weimar Berlin, both its sexual excesses and its dark foreboding. Boy am I glad he returned to the role, and anyone with a few bucks to spare should go ahead and scoot over to Studio 54 for a real treat.

Michelle Williams as Sally Bowles, on the other hand? Well, the news is not so good in that direction. She’s just all wrong for the part. Her soft, retiring stage presence is basically the opposite of Sally: she doesn’t have the desperation, the charisma, the fearlessness you’d need for a good Sally. She was soft where she needed to be hard and I found myself rarely looking at her onstage. As I told my friend on the way out of the show, I’ve never seen a Cabaret in which the title song isn’t a devastating coup de theatre*, but sadly enough, this is the first. Both of us felt bad for her that she is trying so hard and clearly failing, but then as my friend pointed out, “I have to do things in my job that I’m not cut out for either. It happens to all of us.”

Because Ms. Williams is so uneven, the whole production feels a little out of whack. I don’t remember having a huge problem with the lack of subtlety back when I saw the production in 2000. Back then, it felt harsh, but unflinching and brave. Necessary. This time it was more apparent, and more bothersome. Does everything need to be so… obvious? Rob Marshall’s choreography for a start (constant bumps and grinds everywhere! pelvic thrusts! crotch grabs!), the   concentration camp ending, even the costumes. All this darkness was already in the text and I’m not sure that making everything so utterly blatant is really what this show calls for. We all know how things ended in 1930s Berlin; the Emcee’s “Where are your troubles now? Forgotten! No troubles here!” is all I need. The gas chamber, therefore, was overkill.

I hope that’s not because I’m getting old and prudish. Does turning 36 do that to you?

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* — Oh great. Now I’m the type of person who uses the phrase “devastating coup de theatre”.  A hundred apologies!