Tuesday, February 9, 2016

HAMILTON: From the Public to the Rodgers

When I was lucky enough to win the TodayTix lottery to Hamilton at the Public Theatre last February, I had no idea what I was about to experience. In my entire theatre-going life, I've never experienced such a phenomenon. It seemed like every week there were more and more celebrities in attendance and the show just kept extending its run. When the producers announced that they were moving uptown to The Richard Rodgers, I had mixed feelings. This was such a perfect theatrical experience in the intimate Public Theatre, that I feared it would lose its energy in the bigger space. But regardless, I was so happy that I could say, "I saw Hamilton before you even knew what it was." I scoffed when it became part of the mainstream media and normal conversation, asking myself, "is it really that great?" I purchased the cast recording in September and after one listen, I had my answer. "Yes it is".

As an English teacher and a writer myself, I am enamored with Lin's use of language. It is incredibly complex and layered, yet simplistic enough to move the story forward. When I first saw the show downtown I was focusing so hard on the lyrics and got the gist of it, but when I began to listen to the cast recording on repeat, I understood the intricacies of his verbiage. Each time I revisit a song, I pick up on a new phrase that speaks to me. My personal favorite, from the song Burn, is "you have married an Icarus, he has flown too close to the sun". Lin's references to history, mythology, and other works of literature are inspired. My head spins when I consider the amount of time, research, and energy that he poured into this piece. But enough about my obsession with the cast recording....let's fast forward to this past Saturday morning when I checked my email to find that I'd won the lottery yet again. I was skeptical. Would it ruin the perfect experience that I'd had last year at the Public? As I sat front row center at the Richard Rodgers and listened to the opening drumbeats, my question was answered with a resounding NO! 

I know every single word of every song, so not having to concentrate on the lyrics and plot freed me to look at the bigger picture. I saw aspects of the staging, particularly the choreography, that I completely missed the first time. Andy Blankenbuehler's use of postmodern movement seamlessly conveyed the production's overall goal of telling a historical story through a modern lens. I am a dancer myself, and I love that there were so few moments where I could name the movements. Sure, there was an arabesque here and a penche there, but most of the movement was completely unique. While this is largely the same production I saw downtown, the layers were so much more apparent to me. The minimalist set, a tavern setting with a turntable, allows the the text and acting to shine through. Thomas Kail's staging accentuates the material without distracting from it. This show is so special and unlike anything we have ever seen on Broadway.

Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson) my second favorite actor in the show was not performing last Saturday and I greatly missed his rapid fire pace as Lafayette the tongue-in-cheek quality with which he imbues his Jefferson. His understudy was fine, but he didn't have Diggs' twinkle in his eye. My number one guy, however, is Leslie Odom Jr. and his performance grabbed me so much more than it did downtown. Don't get me wrong, I loved him downtown, but he has certainly grown into the role. I have seen many a show in my day and I have never seen so much passion in one performance. He had a fire in his eyes that you would normally expect from an opening night performance, not a random Saturday in February. I saw his Aaron Burr more as a narrator this time. Though it is Hamilton's story, Burr is telling it. The songs that reprise the opening theme are a perfect example of this. "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore," "Watch this obnoxious, arrogant, loud-mouthed bother, be seated at the right hand of the father" "How does a rag-tag volunteer army in need of a shower, somehow defeat a global superpower" and "How does Hamilton the short-tempered protean creator of the Coast Guard," etc. Clearly, The Room Where it Happens is a straight up showstopper and a huge highlight, but when he sings "now I'm the villain in your history" he truly had my sympathy. Yes, he killed Hamilton, but when you consider everything Hamilton achieved before Burr even became a senator, you can understand why he felt so much resentment. If someone was constantly steps ahead of you for your entire career, how would you handle it?

What strikes me is that it is so commercially successful, but before it was popular it was extremely well written and artistic. It is rare that these combine in a musical. It is more common that you have saccharine shows like Mamma Mia that runs for a decade juxtaposed with beautifully cerebral shows like Sunday in the Park with George that absolutely flop. Hamilton has shown the next generation of composers that you can write something intelligent with artistic merit and still sell tickets. I only hope that this is a gateway to a new generation of musical. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Musical Mondays: VANITIES

I'm embarking on a new journey called Musical Mondays. I want to spotlight some of my favorite musicals: old, new, popular, unsuccessful, hits, flops, and everything in between. These will not simply be my favorites shows, but more specifically the shows that were personally meaningful to me at one point in my life or currently. Come back every Monday to learn about another show that is near and dear to my heart!

I saw Vanities when it ran Off-Broadway at Second Stage in in the summer of 2009. It was supposed to transfer to Broadway, but it wasn't to be. Vanities a three-person show performed in three acts without an intermission. The story spanned several decades of the friends' lives from a Texas High School to an Upper East Side apartment. Kathy (Anneliese Van der Pol) Mary (Lauren Kennedy) and Joanne (Sarah Stiles) grew up together as cheerleaders and sorority sisters, but they went their separate ways after graduation. This show, with music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, is based on Jack Heifner's play of the same name which was wildly successful in the 1970s.

I was enamored with this show when I first saw it as a college Junior, but it's really stuck with me and I've been drawn to different parts of the show at different times in my life. I immediately connected with Kathy, the organized one, who plans every single aspect of her life down to the last second. She firmly believes that if she plans everything she can keep her life under control, and I can certainly relate. She leads the other characters on the cheerleading squad, as the head of the school dance committee, and later as members of Kappa Kappa Gamma. Her mantra is "Take care of little things, you'll have an organized life," while Joanne and Mary prefer to "let life happen, relax, and that is the key." The characters remain basically unchanged from high school (1963) to college graduation (1968) but the third act is where we see the changes.

As I said earlier, I was a Kathy through and through in high school and in college. I lived by my Lilly Pulitzer dayplanner and my to do list, but then something funny happened after I graduated college. I looked around and nothing worked out as I had planned. This is where we find Kathy at the beginning of act three. It is 1974 and the once inseparable friends have reunited on Kathy's Upper East Side terrace after half a decade. We learn that Joanne, who has always dreamed of having a family is happily married with several children, or so it seems. Mary, who creates erotic installation artwork, blows up this fantasy when she reveals that she's been having an affair with Joanne' husband Ted. But even though their lives are falling apart, they rely on Kathy to have it all together. Much to their surprise, she has lost her job, and "spent a couple of years hanging out at every singles bar, and every therapy group on the east side." She then became so depressed and she couldn't leave her house. Her friends are shocked that her life didn't go according to plan. The rest is in the lyrics:

I sat around all day, without the slightest clue,
It shouldn't sound so sad, it's what I had to do,
'Cause I had worked so long, and I had tried so hard,
And I was so demanding, I was so relentless,
Always in control, and never letting down my guard,
And if that's how you organize your existence, you have an organized nervous breakdown,
You get strung out and neurotic, messed in the head,
That's what you tried to tell me way back in college, call it a bitterly hard-won knowledge,
But there's something to be said for simply living your life.

As someone who always joked that I would plan my own nervous breakdown, these lyrics hit me like a ton of bricks in my post-collegiate life when things didn't go even remotely as planned. They made me cry, they made me have full on breakdowns in my shower, but then they guided me forward, reminding me to stop trying to plan everything and just live! I loved this show so much and I wish that more people had gotten to see it. It's probably too small for Broadway, but I hope that it has life in regional theatre because so many young women could benefit from these characters and these lyrics. If it's playing in your area, go see it--you won't regret it! 

ON YOUR FEET Cha-Chas on Broadway

I was fortunate enough to win lottery tickets to On Your Feet last Wednesday night and I was certainly not disappointed. If I had to describe this show in one word...ENERGY! From the musicians to the dancers to the scene-change-ography and the fierce abuela, the Marquis Theatre is on fire! Jerry Mitchell squeezes every ounce of excitement out of the Estefans' music and Sergio Trujillo mirrors that with the spicy choreography.

Structurally, the show employs flashback to show Gloria's childhood and very tiny glimpses of Emilio's. Both came from Cuban families who immigrated to Miami in search of a better life. One of the most powerful moments in the story happens when Emilio fights with a record producer who is trying to screw him over and he replies by saying "I pay my taxes and take a very good look at my face because this is what an American looks like." This show is the story of immigrants who have fought for every ounce of respect they ever earned in the music business and keep fighting throughout their lives. The emotional climax of the show comes when the Estefans' bus is in an accident and Gloria comes within an inch of paralysis. She uses her fans' well wishes to propel her through physical therapy, culminating in a comeback performance a the American Music Awards. Ana Villafane is fantastic as Gloria and Josh Segarra is equally effective as Emilio. Alma Cuervo's Consuelo, Gloria's Abuela, is the highlight acting performance in the show. She may not have a huge amount of stage time, but when she is onstage, she packs a punch. She also has a major role in the show's turning point, by encouraging Gloria to sing with Miami Sound Machine (then Miami Latin Voice) even when her mother discouraged her. Speaking of which, Andra Burns plays Gloria's mother, also named Gloria, in a beautifully layered way. She is a fierce, strong woman who has done everything she can for her family and is extremely protective, even at the expense of sacrificing her own dreams. She is very stern and emotionally closed off, especially toward Emilio, until Gloria's accident when she realizes how much she has missed by pushing the family away.

This piece uses the same template that Beautiful used with Carole King's music and it has become a huge hit. This show is equally effective in telling the story of the Estefans through their music, but I wonder if these songs are as appealing to a New York audience as King's. The Marquis theatre has also been known to eat shows, in fact I cannot remember the last time it produced a hit. I did love this show though, and it's an extremely entertaining night at the theatre. If you love Conga, 123, On Your Feet, Turn the Beat Around, and my personal favorite, Reach, I highly recommend this. If nothing else, you'll cha-cha out of the theatre with a song in your heart.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Spring Broadway Preview

The 2015-2016 Broadway season is fully underway! Hamilton has risen to stratospheric levels of success, Jennifer Hudson has The Color Purple selling like hot cakes, Noises Off has already extended, On Your Feet has audiences cha-cha-ing home nightly, and my personal favorite, Allegiance, is sadly closing next week. But, on with the show!

While I'd love to see everything, this teacher's salary won't allow it so these shows are on my "MUST SEE" list!

She Loves Me
Opens: March 17th
Laura Benanti is one of my guiding stars, so obviously I already have tickets, but Jane Krakowski's sass has also gotten me through many a tough day. What could be better than these two broads singing Bock & Harnick? Plus, I used to do "Vanilla Ice Cream" with my fabulous voice teacher..done and DONE!

Bright Star
Opens: March 24th
I must admit, I hadn't heard much buzz about this show until a good family friend saw it at The Kennedy Center. I luckily already have tickets to this one as well and I hope it's such a big deal! I too grew up near the Blue Ridge Mountains and I hope this is just as folksy as all get out.

The Crucible
Opens: April 7th
I am the newest convert to Ivo Van Hove after seeing his phenomenal direction in A View From the Bridge. I am fascinated by this Arthur Miller series that he is doing and I like The Crucible even more that the former. It takes a lot for me to rank a play above a musical and Ivo Van Hove is the singular reason I will be skipping Tuck Everlasting until later this summer.

American Psycho 
Opens: April 20th
So I'm going to be perfectly honest and tell you that Alice Ripley was the first musical theatre star that I stalked. I was one of the proud Stage Door Jennies at Next To Normal who was able to facebook friend her before she maxed out and Zuckerberg gave her the heave-ho. Please forgive me, I was interning at Dance Magazine that summer. Anywho, I digress. Duncan Sheik is a brilliant songwriter and this production has assembled the perfect cast of crazy in Lady Ripley, the former Mr. Mamie Gummer, Benjamin Walker, and Spider-Man survivor Jennifer Damiano. (P.S remember in SMASH when Meg Hilty said, of Liaisons, "they are auditioning real names like Jen Damiano"). This is a must see. It may run forever or close after 1 performance, but Madame Ripley will make it memorable.

Opens: April 24th
I didn't know what this Jessie Mueller character was all about and then my dear friend Sarah Jones VanFossen had me obsessed with Beautiful. I fell in love with Jessie and I am so happy she is coming back to us. Allegedly, Ms. Bareilles has written one of the best musical theatre scores in years, but I'm refusing to listen to it until I can experience it live onstage. Plus, I love Keala Settle because she tweets with me sometimes!

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Opens: April 27th
Jessica Lange.......enough said. But also, John Gallagher Jr......I will stop talking now.

Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and all that Followed 
Opens: April 28th
Please see this show if you want to see Audra McDonald her 87,345th TONY....and TAP DANCE! Just let me name drop for a second.....Diva McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, even though he blew off my friend Pam at the Women on the Verge stage door on the way to the BK Whopper Bar, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Joshua (my Violet crush) Henry. This show could be about teamsters tapping the morse code and I would still see it. Also....Savion frickin Glover! Mic drop...Barbie out!