Friday, March 10, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen

I saw it! I finally saw it! I purchased a ticked from Stubhub twenty minutes before curtain and ran to the theatre, but that is a story for another day. I resisted the urge to listen to the cast recording before I saw the show and I'm so glad I did. 

In terms of storytelling and musical tone, I would say this show is the child of Rent and Next to Normal, which interestingly enough, were both directed by Michael Greif. Pasek and Paul's songs serve the characters, and the book brings the characters to a place where they can sing. They live harmoniously in the world of Steven Levenson's book. This isn't a show where you feel the actors are breaking into song. The songs come from such a natural place and they grow out of the dialogue in the sense that you feel they're singing a conversation, not a song. 

Ben Platt's voice is in tip top shape, though it's his acting that truly shines. I saw the show several months into the run and he was giving an opening night performance. The nuance with which he colors his portrayal of Evan is both heartwarming and devastating, depending on the scene. "So Big/So Small" is a highlight for his mother Heidi (Rachel Bay Jones). She sings about how difficult single motherhood is and performances like these are why the "best feature actress" category was create for the TONYs. Laura Dreyfuss in the role of Zoe is so reminiscent of Natalie in Next to Normal, another show helmed by Greiff, in her ability to show vulnerability under a hard exterior. Will Roland gives another standout performance as Jared, Evan's family friend, who helps him build his web of lies and provides comic relief in and otherwise heavy show.

I sat in the second row of the orchestra and I don't think I've ever seen such raw emotion on an actor's face as I saw on Ben Platt's, particularly during his speech before he sings "You Will Be Found". I am a teacher and I have many students who, like Evan, suffer from social anxiety. In the hands of a less capable actor, Evan could have easily become a caricature or a joke, but Platt plays him with such honesty and humanity. His facial expressions and vocal inflections are reminiscent of those I see everyday in the classroom as children struggle to make friends and fit in. I'm sure that they feel invisible like Evan and Connor. I only wish they could see this fantastic production and find hope that one day things will be different and they will only have to be themselves.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Come From Away

Come From Away is the second big musical to come to Broadway this season after a successful run in DC. This unique new show is written by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. This is not the first show to explore facets of 9/11, but it's certainly a fresh take. The creative team interviewed residents of Gander, Newfoundland and the people who were temporarily stranded there during the terrorist attacks.

This musical is much more uptempo and hopeful than you would expect. It certainly references the 9/11 attacks and who the passengers felt when they could not find their loved ones, but it focuses more on the humanity of the Gander residents. We learn that Gander is a town of around 7,000 which is ironic because they took in nearly 7,000 displaced people during the week of the attacks. The folksy, small town attitude of Gander is reflected in the music. The score is energetic and homey with a few more pensive ballads mixed in, though you won't leave humming any particular tune. The songs really run together, not because they aren't memorable, but because the pace of the show is so rapid and is directed in such a way that the action is nonstop with seamless transitions. Jenn Colella's "Me and the Sky" is a highlight as Beverly sings about her struggle to become one of the first successful female pilots. There is a lyric where she, reflecting on the terrorist attacks, says that the thing she loved most in the world was used as a bomb. It will darn near break your heart. This cast features Broadway veterans Chad Kimball and Kendra Kassebaum, though it is truly an ensemble piece with no leads in the traditional sense.

Christopher Ashley's direction and Kelly Devine's choreography are beautiful in their simplicity. Did they borrow the chairs from The Color Purple? The actors rarely leave the stage unless it is to grab a new shirt or take off a hat. The performers and chairs are the set, making everything from an airplane to a bar. This choice creates an often frantic and chaotic scene on stage that mimics what the Gander locals felt like when the size of their town doubled for those five days. I never once felt that I was watching a scene, but rather a continuous stream of action and emotion. The kindness of the people of Gander is palpable, as is the gratitude of the come from aways. I was emotional through the entire show and choked up several times when I remember that I wasn't just watching a performance, but a real story of the goodness that can emerge in horrifying situations.

I couldn't help but shed a tear when I thought about the people from my own small hometown. I know they would have reacted in exact same way that Gander did: cooking, gathering supplies, and hugging nonstop. I think people from small towns will appreciate this show a little more than city folk. We know our neighbors, we say hello to people in the grocery store, and we all know people like Annette, Bob, and Beulah. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be attending opening night, and if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to our neighbors up north for their role in helping America through that most horrific time of grieving. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Come Back, Little Sheba

Elia Kazan once said of William Inge that he wrote with "quiet terror". This is a perfect characterization of Come Back, Little Sheba, produced in repertory with Picnic by Off-Broadway's The Transport Group. This 1950s drama begins in the midwestern home of Doc (Joseph Kilinski) and Lola (Heather Mac Rae) Delaney. Marie (Hannah Elless) is an art student boarding in their home, and from the opening moments Doc's attraction to the beautiful young Hannah is palpable. His aversion to her playboy boyfriend Turk (David T. Patterson) goes beyond paternal protection and verges on jealousy. It is revealed early in act I that Doc suffers from alcoholism and Lola encourages his sobriety by asking him to repeat the serenity prayer. This is the only the tip of the iceberg of difficult themes examined in Inge's first play.

Jack Cummings III's production is staged in the round, which allows the audience of under 200 to observe the action up close, as if the characters are under a microscope. The dented kitchen cabinets, scratched coffee table, and torn couch depict a middle class lifestyle and a couple that could have been so much more. The Delaneys married young when Lola, the prettiest girl in her high school, became pregnant. They lost the baby and were unable to have more children, beginning a cycle of loss that included losing their dog, Little Sheba. Lola frequently dreams of Little Sheba and often calls out to her from the front door, as if in a trance. Mac Rae slips into a child-like state when she references her missing dog. Lola does not have the words to express the incredible void in her life and clinging to Little Sheba is her way of holding onto the life that passed her by.

The emotional climax in act II is extremely difficult to watch, but it also features the strongest acting. Doc realizes that Marie has had sex with Turk and he spins out of control, finding solace in a bottle of whisky. Unable to cope with Marie's lost innocence, he stumbles home and takes decades of despair out on Lola. Kilinski's portrayal of an alcoholic at the end of his rope is absolutely gut wrenching. He is erratic, twitchy, and the look in his eye as he berates Lola is nothing short of murderous. His insults are shocking as he calls her fat and a slut. Mac Rae's Lola is resolute on the outside while she is clearly crumbling inside, listening to her husband dig into every insecurity she feels. The most uplifting moment in the show occurs when the neighbor, Mrs. Coffman (Jennifer Piech) comes to her rescue. Her strength and nurturing keeps Lola from falling apart. A few days later, Doc returns and apologizes, though for what he does not remember, realizing how much he needs his wife to retain some semblance of normalcy.

In the final scene, Lola discusses a recent dream and agrees to stop calling for Little Sheba. Doc replies that it doesn't make much sense to continue, and she goes back to scrambling his eggs. They have resumed life as usual, but has anything really been resolved? This is an unfortunate reality for so many small town families as life must go on, and realizing ones dreams is secondary.

The show's themes are heavy, and the small size of the theatre and proximity to the actors increase the intensity exponentially. It is crucial to go into the show in the correct mindset. You cannot see this piece and expect to go about your day normally. It gets under your skin and makes you examine your own family, particularly if you grew up in the Midwest. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

In Transit

In Transit is a feel good show that makes New York City look like a squeaky clean place where everyone gets alone, smiles at one another, and finds their path in life. I wish this were true, but those who live here know differently. When is the last time you spoke to a random stranger on the subway? We don't look up from our phones long enough to make eye contact, let alone actually have a conversation.

In Transit is the first Broadway musical to feature a cappella music. The creative team features Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, though this piece doesn't soar nearly as high. One's opinion of this show will depend largely on their fondness for a cappella music. I honestly find it exhausting to listen to. For me it's overwhelming to hear all of that sound and try to take it in while also trying to decipher lyrics and a story. If you sang in one of those vocal groups with a quirky name in college, you may feel differently.

This one-act goes by at a feverish pace. The intention is to keep the energy flowing, like a rush hour express train, though it keeps any character or storyline from fully developing. The majority of characters are stereotypes: the out of work banker, the closeted gay man with a born-again mother, his eager to be married fiance, a recently dumped twenty-something, and because it's New York, a struggling actress. These roles are performed with vocal precision and palpable energy by James Snyder, Justin Guarini, Telly Leung, Erin Mackey, and Margo Seibert respectively. The one character who is written in three dimensions is Seibert's Jane. She shows genuine heartbreak when she finally wins a Broadway role, only to have it stolen by a star. The best scene in the show involves Jane riding the subway back and forth to JFK, unable to get on the plane to her high school reunion and face failure. Boxman, a subway performer with whom she often crosses paths, gives her a few inspirational words that help her to press onward in her pursuit of Broadway.

This piece should do very well touring and regionally, particularly in places without public transportation. In this world, the subway is a land of opportunity where all of your dreams can come true. But, New Yorkers...we know better.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Sunset Boulevard

Every once in a while, a show lands a theatre that suits it perfectly. Wicked and Lion King can fill big barns like the Gershwin and Minskoff, Next to Normal was right at home in the intimate Booth, and then there is the revival of Sunset Boulevard, which I cannot imagine anywhere but the historic and grandiose Palace. The ghost of Judy Garland must be very much at home in this morose, reflective production.

As a Broadway fanatic, I am embarrassed to say I didn't have much knowledge of Sunset Boulevard other than the casting drama involving Patti LuPone. Glenn Close certainly has a commanding presence as the tragic Norma Desmond. Her voice is not first rate, though the vocal impurities add to the sadness of the aging diva who is cracking before our very eyes. That being said, I don't see anything singular about Glenn Close's permanence that wouldn't have been conveyed by any other film actress of a certain age. Jessica Lange comes to mind as another woman who could fill Demond's pumps. Lady Gaga is someone I could see playing the role in future revivals, but that is a conversation for another day.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's scores are known for recognizable numbers that become hits, such as Music of the Night, I Don't Know How to Love Him, Memory, and Don't Cry for Me Argentina. Sunset has two such numbers in with One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye. Both are show stoppers, and though Close doesn't sing "Goodbye" like Patti did, she acts the heck out of it. Unfortunately the rest of the score is largely forgettable.

The full orchestra onstage is one of the highlights of this production as it harkens back to the old MGM films of the golden age. This production features a few interesting technical elements, such as the interesting construction of Norma's car using actors and lights, and extremely ornate costumes that queens will die for.

The Patti fan in me loves to hate Glenn Close's singing, but you cannot deny her extraordinary range as an actress. The finesse and nuance in the final scene is a thing of beauty. After Norma kills Joe in a jealous rage, we have every reason to loathe her, but we don't. We cry for her when she shouts her famous line "Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up." This once powerful woman has been so undone by the pressures of Hollywood that she has tricked herself into believing that the present is not real. In the hands of a less capable actress, the scene would be pathetic, but the greats like Close (and LuPone) have you so cleverly nestled in the palm of their hand that you fall for their every move. 

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

Tolstoy's War & Peace is an obvious subject for a musical, right? This may be a loose adaptation, but Tolstoy's seminal work was the inspiration, nonetheless. I chose not to read much about the show before seeing it because I wanted to be surprised. I was expecting a classical, traditional piece of theatre. Consequently, I was shocked to hear a rock/folk opera. Dave Malloy's score is cerebral, evocative, and quite quirky. His lyrics mirror the Russian writing style in the sense that they take paragraphs to convey what other others could say in a sentence. The prologue is a highlight in the way it quickly introduces each primary character and their relationships to one another, repeatedly adding one new character for each round of the song. By the time the prologue finishes, we've heard about Andrey and Natasha on a loop, though the brooding Pierre remains a mystery until the final seconds.

Josh Groban as Pierre is clearly selling the tickets. Though I would have loved to hear his stellar voice more often, it's refreshing to see a major celebrity perform in a show without being the singular star. There was something very folksy about seeing him sit onstage playing the accordion while lesser-known performers stole the spotlight. His "Dust and Ashes," building from delicately pensive to raw and powerful is somewhat of an 11 o'clock number for act I. The majority of his work in act II  is upstage by the erratic Natasha and Anatole, though his duet with Natasha provides an emotional climax in the penultimate song. "The Great Comet of 1812" is another vehicle for Groban's pristine vocals, highlighted by the backing of sweeping choral arrangements.

Denee Benton's Natasha has a strong presence and she's downright effervescent with youthful hope and joy in act I. But when she falls for Anatole, you stop rooting for her. You see that she's shooting herself in the foot and as an observer, feel helpless to stop it. I shifted my allegiances to Sonya (Brittain Ashford) as she tries desperately to stop her friend Natasha from ruining her life in her Lilith Fair-esque solo "Sonya Alone". I felt about Benton's Natasha like I've felt about every Cosette I've ever seen in Les Miz. She has a beautiful voice, but she's not a fully developed character. She allows her entire future to be undone when Anatole (Lucas Steele) bats his eyelashes. Speaking of Steele, this is what it means to be a scene stealer. He verges on pushing his flamboyant Anatole over the top, but he never quite crosses the line. His portrayal stays grounded in the sense that all Anatole is really after is love, but he doesn't yet understand what that means and how his pursuits affect those around him.

Rachel Chavkin's direction is the true star of the show. I am a big fan of scrapping the traditional proscenium staging and Mimi Lien's scenic design completely reimagines the Imperial. With onstage banquets and tables, each seat in the house provides a completely different perspective on the action. If you are unnerved by being approached closely by actors, even in the mezzanine, steer clear of this show. The close proximity of the performers and the club-style design puts the audience in the middle of the party in 19th century Russia. This piece is provocative, so if you don't like your Russian theatre edgy, you should probably walk a block south and see Anastasia.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sunday in the Park with George

I will preface by saying that Sunday in the Park with George is a very close second behind A Chorus Line on my list of favorite musicals, so you won't get objectivity from me. In my opinion, this is the most perfect score ever written for the musical theatre. The complexity of Stephen Sondheim's work, and the way in which it mimics Seurat's pointillistic style, is a marvel. It is highbrow and cerebral, yet also emotionally resonant and accessible.

I love Annaleigh Ashford, but I was surprised when she was cast as Dot/Marie. She doesn't fit the mold of the women who have played the role in major production. That being said, I found myself actually laughing tonight. This show presents pretty heavy material, but Annaleigh was able to mine out every little nugget of comedy. Conversely, this made her more emotional moments even more heart wrenching. I found her Marie to be more engaging than any of the others I've seen. Her southern drawl peppered act II with sass, which again, made the ballads ever more powerful. Her connection to her mother in the painting during "Children and Art" was palpable.

Jake Gyllenhaal is thoroughly impressive as George. You'll be shocked when you hear him sing. He's not just one of those actors who happens to sing well...he's a Singer with a capital S. His portrayal of the dogs is a highlight as the comedy juxtaposes the seriousness of Act I George. His impeccable diction makes the fast paced numbers,  namely "Color and Light" and "Putting it Together," a dream to listen to.

The supporting cast fills out the painting with standout performances from Erin Davie and Ruthie Ann Miles. This is truly an ensemble show and it's refreshing to see actors, the aforementioned specifically, who have starred in previous shows be able to blend into the chorus, yet deliver a knockout line when the libretto dictates.

I firmly believe that our favorite shows affect us differently at different phases of our lives. We relate to characters differently, a previously ignored song stands out, or a particular scene is revealed to us in a new light. That new moment for me tonight was Dot's speech before "Move On". When she explains what she learned from George, she talks about concentration. When she was younger, she thought it meant standing still and focusing, but now she knows concentration means feeling comfortable where you are, not living in the past or the future. This really stuck me. It's a common sentiment to live in the moment and live for today, but the idea of concentration really gripped me. In a sense, she's admitting that George was never in the wrong in their relationship, but he helped her to grow and change, which helps her to go forward. It's absolutely gutting to think that two people can be right for one another all along, but the timing doesn't work. However, Dot and George don't feel that way in the end. They honor their time together and move forward. I always say that Sunday is the most cathartic closing number in the entire musical theatre canon and George's final spoken sentence really provides closure and hope for the audiences. "White a blank page or canvas, his favorite, so many possibilities."