Category Archives: Broadway
‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,’ Lorraine Hansberry’s Mastery of Ideas in a Superb Production
Oscar Isaac’s Sidney Brustein in Lorraine Hansberry’s most ambitious play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (directed by Anne Kauffman) never catches a break. Hansberry’s everyman layman’s intellectual is in pursuit of expressing his creative genius and achieving exploits he can be proud of. When we meet him at the top of Hansberry’s masterpiece, which is full of sardonic wisdom, sage philosophy and political realism, Sidney is a flop looking for a reprieve. This revival, first produced on Broadway in 1964, was tightened for this Broadway revival (one noticeable end sequence with Gloria was shaved, not to the play’s betterment). Currently running at the James Earl Jones Theatre with one intermission, the production boasts the same stellar cast in its transfer from its sold out run at BAM’s Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn. The production is in a limited run, ending in July.
It is to the producers’ credit that they risked bringing the play to a Broadway audience, who may not be used to the complications, the numerous thematic threads, the actualized brilliance of unique characterizations and their interrelationships, and Hansberry’s overall indictment of the culture and society. Sign is a companion piece to her award-winning Raisin in the Sun. It explores the root causes why the Younger family is where it is socially and economically. Vitally, it examines the political underpinnings of institutional oppression and discrimination via reform movements, symbolized by the efforts of Brustein and friends who promote the reform candidacy of Wally O’Hara.
To focus her indictment of the perniciousness of political and social oppression, Hansberry examines the vanguard of reformists, Greenwich Village artists, activists and journalists who are emotionally/philosophically ready to make social/economic change of the type that the Younger family in Raisin in the Sun yearns for. However, these Greenwich Village mavericks are the least equipped tactically to sidestep co-optation and the political cynicism of the power-brokers. They realize too late that the money men will fight them to the death to maintain a status quo which inevitably destroys the vulnerable and keeps families like the Youngers and drug addict Willie Johnson struggling to survive.
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is timeless in its themes and its characterizations. When we measure it in light of current social trends, it is fitting that the play transcends the history of the 1960s in its prescience and reveals political tropes we experience today. Additionally, it suggests how far society has declined to the point where cultural and political co-optation (a principal theme) have been institutionalized via media that skews the truth unwittingly. The result is that large swaths of our nation remain oblivious to their exploitation and dehumanization, ignorant that they are the pawns of political parties, who promise reform then deliver regression. In short they, like Sidney Brustein and his friends, are seduced to hope in a better world that reform politicians say they will deliver. But when they win, through a plurality of votes from a diverse population, they renege on their promises and continue to do what their “owners” want, which is to “screw” the little people and deprive them of power and a “place at the table.”
Hansberry’s setting of Greenwich Village is specifically selected as one of the hottest, most forward-thinking, “happening” areas in the nation. Brustein’s apartment is the focal point where we meet representative types of those found in sociopolitical/cultural reform movements. His community of friends are activists who believe their friend and candidate Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), is positioned to overturn the Village’s entrenched “political machine.” Sidney, reeling from his bankrupted club, which characterized his cultural/intellectual ethos (idealistically named Walden Pond after Henry David Thoreau’s book), purchases a flagging newspaper (The Village Crier) to once again indulge his passion for creative expression. He does this unbeknownst to his wife Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), a budding second-wave feminist who waitresses to support them financially. She chafes at her five-year marriage to Sidney, shaking off his definitions and the identities he places on her, one of which is his “Mountain Girl.”
Activist and theoretical Communist (separated from the genocidal Stalinist despotism) Alton (Julian De Niro), drops in with O’Hara to encourage Sidney to join the crusade to elect O’Hara with the Crier’s endorsement. Sidney declaims their persuasive rhetoric and assures them that he will never get involved in political activism again. However, as events progress, his attitude changes. We note his friends, including artist illustrator Max (Raphael Nash Thompson), stir him to support O’Hara with his excellent articles. Sidney, mocked by Iris about his failures, is swept up in the campaign. When he hangs a large sign in his window that endorses O’Hara, his adherence to push a win for the “champion of the people” increases in fervency.
The sign symbolizes his hope and his seduction into the world of misguided activism, but its meaning changes over the course of the play. Hansberry doesn’t reveal the exact moment that Sidney decides to take up the “losing cause” after he disavowed it. However, his fickle nature and passion to be enmeshed in something “significant” with his friends helps to sway him.
In the first acts of the play, Hansberry introduces us to the players and reveals the depth of her characterizations as each of the characters widens their arc of development by the conclusion. We note the development of Mavis (Miriam Silverman), Iris’ uptown, bourgeois, housewife sister, who is married to a prosperous husband and is raising two sons. We also meet David Ragin (Glenn Fitzgerald), the Brustein’s gay, nihilistic, absurdist playwright friend, who lives in the apartment above theirs and is on the verge of success. Both Mavis and David, like Sidney’s other friends, twit him about Walden Pond’s failure. Mavis and Iris are antithetical in values and Mavis views her sister and brother-in-law as Bohemian specimens to be observed and secretly derided as entertainment. We discover Mavis’ bigotry when she opposes the union of their sister Gloria (Gus Birney), a high class call girl, to Alton, the young light-skinned Black friend.
The genius of this work is in Hansberry’s dialogue and the intricacies of the characterizations. It is as if Hansberry spins them like tops and enjoys the trajectory she creates for them, which ultimately is surprising and sensitively drawn. Organically driven by their own desires, we follow Sidney and Iris’ family machinations, pegged against the backdrop of a political campaign that could redefine each of their lives so that they could better fulfill their dreams and purpose. However, the campaign never rises to the sanctity of what a true democratic, civic, body politic should be. Indeed, the political system has been usurped in a surreptitious coup that the canny voter “pawns” are clueless about.
Tragically, instead of political power being used to combat the destructive forces Hansberry outlines, some of which are discrimination, drugs, law-enforcement corruption, economic inequity and other issues that impact the Brustein’s and their friends’ lives, O’Hara and his handlers have other plans. But first, they cleverly convince the voters a win is unlikely and they pump them up to believe in the possibility of an O’Hara success that would be earth-shattering and revolutionary. This, we discover later, is a canard. The “revolutionary coup” can never occur because the political hacks control everything, including Sidney’s paper which they exploit to foment support for O’Hara. How Hansberry gradually reveals this process and ties it in with the relationships-between Iris and Sidney, Alton and Gloria, Iris and Mavis and the other friends-is a fabric woven moment by moment through incredible dialogue that pops with quips, peasant philosophy, seasoned wisdom, and brilliant moments that evanesce all too quickly.
By the conclusion, the solidity of the characters’ hopes we’ve seen in the beginning have been dashed to fold in on themselves. Both Iris and Sidney learn to reevaluate their relationship with each other and their misapplication of self-actualization, which allowed a tragedy to happen. Likewise, Alton’s inflexibility about his own approach to his place in an exclusionary, oppressive culture ends up contributing to a tragedy that might have been prevented. In one way or another, these characters particularly, along with David’s self-absorbed nihilism, contribute to Gloria’s death.
Symbolically, Hansberry points out that love and concern for other human beings is paramount. Too often, relatives, friends and cultural influences contribute to daily tragedies because human nature’s weaknesses in “missing the signs” contort such love and service to others. Ironically, politics, whose idealized mission should be to reform and make the culture more humane, decent and caring, is often hijacked by the powerful for their own agendas to produce money and more power and control. The resulting misery and every day tragedies accumulate until there is recognition, and the fight begins to overcome the malevolent, retrograde forces that O’Hara and his cronies represent.
This, Sidney vows to do with his paper and Iris’ help in a powerful speech to O’Hara proclaiming a key theme. To be alive and not spiritually, soulfully dead, one must be against the O’Haras of the world and the forces of corruption. To support them is to support death and dead things. To recognize how the power-brokers peddle death, one must discern their lies and avoid being lured into their desperate cycle of destruction, which they control to keep the populace oppressed, hopeless and suicidal.
The actors’ ensemble work is superior. Both Isaac and Brosnahan set each other off with authenticity. Miriam Silverman as Mavis hits all the ironies of the self-deprecating housewife, who has suppressed her own tragedies to carry on. And Julian De Niro’s speech about why he cannot love or marry Gloria is a powerhouse of cold, calculating, but wounded rationality. Hansberry has crafted complex, nuanced human beings and the actors have filled their shoes to effect their emotional core in a moving, insightful production that startles and awakens.
The play must be seen for its actors, direction, and the coherent artistic team, which perfectly effects the director’s vision for this production. These artists include dots (scenic design), Brenda Abbandandolo (costume design), John Torres (lighting design), Bray Poor (sound design), and Leah Loukas (hair & wig design).
This must-see production runs under three hours. For tickets and times go to their website https://thesignonbroadway.com/
‘Camelot’ Revival at Lincoln Center, Superbly Re-imagined for Our Time
The original 1958 musical Camelot. performed with Alan Jay Lerner’s book and lyrics, and Frederick Loewe’s music, adapts theArthurian legend from T.H. White’s collection of fantasy novels entitled Once and Future King (1958). White’s adaptation was loosely based on the 1485 work Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Aaron Sorkin’s book updates the musical and puts an interesting spin on the events of legend, heightening the characters and shifting the emphasis to King Arthur, superbly portrayed by Andrew Burnap (Inheritance). As a result, Sorkin diminishes the love affair between Phillipa Soo’s Queen Guenevere (Hamilton) and Jordan Donica’s Lancelot du Lac (My Fair Lady), aligning it more with romantic tradition which fails. With outstanding set design and fine direction by Bartlett Sher, Camelot is a stunning revival of symbolic political moment, currently running at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont until September.
At the top of the play Sorkin introduces us to one of the most important aspects of Arthur’s kingdom, the feudalistic power structure and Arthur’s previous isolation from it. Before we even meet Arthur, we meet the lords who serve the king and make up his court, as well as Merlin (Dakin Matthews), Arthur’s counselor, whose wizardry is seen through his balanced demeanor, wisdom, erudition, time transcendence, foreknowledge and keen ability to redirect the perspectives of less enlightened individuals.
Tasked to meet Arthur’s bride-to-be at the top of the hill near the castle, the lords exclaim that her carriage is at the bottom of the hill. We note Merlin’s attributes in his initial discourse with these three knights, Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez), Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), who rant that the Guenevere’s carriage has gone against tradition, as they watch her disembark from her carriage far away from them. This change in tradition upsets them, until Merlin uses gentle wisdom to calm their responses and show them they can merely change the law to update tradition. This exchange among the knights and Merlin indicates the conflict to come, tradition vs. progress. The knights’ acceptance of Arthur’s changes is paramount to Camelot’s success.
The ruling elites are conservative traditionalists. But Merlin handles them easily and emphasizes the power of laws to change useless, outmoded ways of being. These men have power and influence over an unequal class system, institutionalized by feudalism (the peasants who serve and the lords who protect and luxuriate over them). Arthur must step around them and gain their trust to overturn traditions which have harmed and caused wars and bloodshed.
Not a member of the royal class per se, Arthur must navigate the knights’ entrenched power with wisdom, if he is to rule his kingdom well and remain effective. This not only requires steadfast courage and acute psychological and personal skills, it demands a political philosophy and will to unite the lords and prevent division. Additionally, training and counsel from Merlin, whose extraordinary gifts of wisdom provide a broader, endowed perspective and understanding, are a boon.
In Sorkin’s different spin of Merlin, we understand that the time has been stepped up one hundred years, so that the medieval age is coming to a close, and Arthur is pushing his kingdom in the direction of the Enlightenment with the help of Merlin. Unfortunately, Merlin’s assistance remains all too brief. After his death, he is replaced by one of the oldest knights in the kingdom, Pellinore, also portrayed by Dakin Matthews, who Guenevere invites in to their circle.
Sorkin advances Arthur’s human graces, contrasting them with the backward knights of his time, who he must manipulate against their own stupidity, which manifests in Act II, encouraged by Mordred (Taylor Trensch) in “Fie on Goodness.” Arthur is not a royal in arrogance, presumption or privilege. He is a people person, decent, kind, likeable and extraordinarily generous. He is more like a Christ-like figure, who forgives Guenevere and Lancelot’s “treason,” and refuses to brutally punish them for their lack of faithfulness.
He invites his son Mordred into his circle, as a reconciliation for his past abandonment, which his mother caused by refusing Arthur’s pleas for her to come and live in the castle. He announces to the kingdom that Mordred is his out-of-wedlock son who is being treated equally like everyone else and has the opportunity to learn and become a knight, if he wishes. But Mordred refuses to listen to Arthur’s explanations why he is not with Morgan le Fey (Marilee Talkington), and he gives lip service to Arthur’s largesse. Instead, Mordred manufactures his own victimization and weaponizes it against his father. Indeed, as the villain, Mordred exploits Arthur’s kindness and love. In his wicked world, these traits are a weakness to set up Arthur’s downfall (“The Seven Deadly Virtues”).
Especially in the characterization of Arthur, Sorkin presents the idealization of a king whose humility, love, intelligence, forgiving nature, and equanimity is all that the Enlightenment promises. Unfortunately, Arthur is a man out of his time, more an influence for future generations in inspired legends and stories of his exploits, frailty and kindness, which can guide by example to bring hope and light to others. Though his reign and Camelot only lasted for for a brief time, the antithesis of the stability and “happy ever aftering” Arthur and Guenevere sing about in the beginning (“Camelot”), is mythic. All individuals, even the current day audience can aspire to Arthur’s ideals of a place of congeniality for persons great and small.
Each of the characters we see immersed in feudalism are lesser in nature, greedy for power, brutal, judgmental, calculating and self-absorbed. In the dialogue to some of the songs, we note Sorkin cleverly magnifies this. For example in the ironic “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” that Guenevere sings about wanting knights to die and sacrifice themselves for her love, Arthur brings up the notion that this isn’t much fun for the knights. Not only is Guenevere naive, she is brutal in her unrealistic romanticism, a clue to the source of her treachery with Lancelot, spawned from her privileged background. Indeed, the same knights that would kill for her, would just as soon end her “maidenhood,” in a rape, which Arthur seems to note in his ironic comment, but Guenevere conveniently ignores.
Guenevere is a traditionalist in all of her “modernity.” A spouse by arranged marriage to prevent war between England and France, she is born of royalty and has the presumption, lack of humility, and fieriness to prove it. Her expectations are royal, and she doesn’t understand Arthur’s personality and hoped for kingdom. Initially, she presumes Arthur will behave according to the traditions of kings, like her father. Kings are sexually promiscuous. They treat women as objects for their pleasure; they make demands on them, requiring they be passive creatures without individuality or autonomy.
That Arthur doesn’t have women at his sexual disposal at court, and expresses belief in the fidelity of marriage is a striking and revelatory contrast. Additionally, he fosters the novel idea they must prevent fighting, war, bloodshed, abuse of the lower classes and women. Remarkably, he gladly accepts her input of ideas. It is during their discussions that the “knights of the round table” come into being. In this acceptance of Guenevere as his ruling partner, he reveals that he is dynamically striding toward enlightened governance.
Appealing to her better nature constantly, Arthur trusts her with Lancelot. Ignoring her suggestion, he refuses to expel the narcissistic knight from the kingdom, before they have their momentary affair, which Mordred has “encouraged,” unbeknownst to Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. Above all, Arthur provides her with freedom and power to rule with him. This is unlike anything that is supposed to happen to a female royal anywhere. And in the musical’s memorable signature song, he imagines his vision of Camelot in order to engage her to want to be Queen, and woo her, before she knows his identity.
In retrospect, at the conclusion of the musical, we learn it is his intentions of good will toward her that prompts Guenevere to fall in love with him early on. However, since both of them are unpracticed at love, they never express it to each other. It is one of Arthur’s chief weaknesses of pride. Ironically, he fails at his own express thoughts in “How to Handle a Women,” and doesn’t love her, so that she understands his love, understands that his freedom and trust in her are love, decency and generosity in the Arthurian time of patriarchy on steroids. She is still stuck in the romantic notion of love, reinforced by her ladies in waiting, who push romantic tradition on her to her detriment.
Sorkin’s book is deeper and more complex than the original musical, so that before each song, one must catch the nuance. For example the humorous repartee before and after the song, “Camelot,” works beautifully and heightens the ironic, fantastical lyrics, symbolizing the fickleness of the place in its hyperbole, “The snow may never slush upon the hillside, by 9 P.M. the moonlight must appear.” In expressing his metaphor, Arthur encourages Guenevere to realize he is unlike royalty, and his kingdom and reign with her will be unique, maverick, loving. The tragedy is that the depth of their love is unrealized and misunderstood. Guevenere, entrapped by the tradition of her place and status, and Arthur overwhelmed by his sense of inferiority to express his feelings to her, contribute to the fall of the kingdom.
An express, underlying irony is that Arthur’s view and behavior toward women is even more forward thinking than many in the US South today, and especially some of the GOP political party antithetical to equanimity between women and men. Thus, Arthur is not only schooling Guenevere about equanimity and generosity as love, he is also reminding the audience of the beauty of such an approach between men and women for our own time.
Of course, this is legend, and it is hard to come by in reality, which makes the final exchange between Arthur and Guenevere, and their relationship, all the more poignant and tragic. In a failure of her character and bondage to her identity, Guenevere is too late to recognize and receive Arthur’s love and freedom to express it. Instead, she opts out for fleeting passion which is another form of bondage, and is the antithesis of freedom. It is why she regrets her affair with Lancelot, does not run off with him, but goes to a convent. The rest of her life she does penance for contributing to his death, Lancelot’s death, and the destruction of the kingdom.
Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap are perfectly cast in their respective roles and are simply smashing in voice, authenticity and aura, making us empathize with their characters who are victims of their own frailties. Burnap, especially at the conclusion, coalesces the poignant tragedy that Arthur’s dreams are broken, and that by a combination of rotten timing, privileged selfishness (by royals Lancelot and Guenevere), bitterness and resentment by an ungrateful Mordred, he is undone and must pay the forfeit with his death.
Jordan Danica’s Lancelot is both funny and dangerous, for we know what is coming when his resistance to Guenevere “protests too much” in selfishness. The right way to serve King Arthur would to leave and escape his lust, which he can’t because of his own self-betrayal. The bedroom scene is perfectly directed to suggest the thrill of passion, but not love. It is appropriate that their “aftermath” falls flat in disgrace, as they realize the import of what they’ve done. Sadly, as the pawns of Mordred, they’ve betrayed their king, and the golden idea which elevated their lives and the kingdom. Interestingly, Donica’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” indicates he can’t leave because of how she “looks” in the changing seasons. If he really loved her, not the image of her and him together, he would have left the moment he sensed the attraction to save her and himself. So much for his boasted purity. To insure his leaving, he would have been truthful with King Arthur. Donica’s voice and interpretation of that song in particular are non pareil, just fantastic.
Sorkin mitigates the “magical” in this Camelot update, palatably. For example it is suggested Arthur is able to pull the sword Excalibur out of the stone because previously, ten thousand men loosened it. Lancelot’s “resurrection” of Arthur occurs because he was just knocked unconscious and not killed. No miracle occurred. Arthur’s characterization is a forerunner of the rational man of the Enlightenment, when Europe will experience many transformations. Then, rigorous scientific, political and philosophical ideas burgeon in the society with the rise of the middle class. In his approach to ruling his kingdom, Arthur is bold to overthrow the most noxious elements of feudalism to bring ideals of equanimity, peace and honor that “might for right” and “justice for all” are the better way.
The thoughtful production has humor, vibrance and poignance. The treachery and resentment of unforgiving Mordred (the fine Taylor Trensch), who helps explode the Camelot ideals of equanimity, peace and honor are a potent reminder that such a “heaven on earth” is impossible because of human fallibility. Thematically, the musical warns us that only in the aspirations of future generations, represented by Camden McKinnon’s Tom of Warwick, may that possibility become reality in limited circumstances.
In the meantime, hope must be kept alive for a time when such dreams are possible. Realistically, all the characters fall from their own grace. It happens with the best of individuals, who cannot govern their own passions, and with the worst who rebel against a more perfect order for the sake of power. Sorkin reminds us in this complex re-imagining that most important is the striving for equity and equilibrium, not the achievement of it, which in itself is too fantastic to sustain. In the striving is the learning and revelation which is priceless. As such they provide the way for the hope of tomorrow, arriving at democratic polity hundreds of years in the future: i.e. a democratic Ukraine in the face of genocidal aggression by Russia, a democratic United States in practice not in lip service.
The sets by Michael Yeargan are suggestive, stylized, minimalist and symbolic, perfect for scene changes to the castle, Arthur’s study, a maypole dance, the tournament and more. Noted the black tree on stage never blossoms or has leaves, regardless of season. At one point the projection of the beautiful Camelot is seen in the distance. However, the tree does have leaves on the program cover as a figure peers out from its branches, and we, like him, wait for a “more perfect union,” and peace, justice and equity for all.
Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are richly appropriate and gorgeous. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design, Marc Salzberg & Beth Lake’s sound design, Cookie Jordan’s hair & wig design cohere to manifest Bartlett Sher’s vision. Projections by 59 Productions are, as usual, marvelous.
I had forgotten how lyrical, memorable and powerfully touching are Lerner and Loewe’s songs and music. “Guenevere” is heartbreaking. Special recognition goes to Kimberly Grigsby’s music direction which does justice to the score. Noted are the original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett & Phillip J. Lang, and dance & choral arrangements by Trude Rittmann. These artists, no longer with us, had a prodigious history of creating the beauty of Broadway (Bennett over 300 productions, Lang and Rittmann over 50 productions). Byron Easley’s choreography is energetic in “The Lusty Month of May.” B.H. Barry’s fight direction and the staging/choreography of swordfights of Lancelot proving his mettle with the three knights and Arthur, appear as dangerous as the crashing blades sound.
Camelot runs with one intermission. Every minute is worth seeing. Don’r believe some of the critics. Judge for yourself. For tickets and times at the Vivian Beaumont go to their website https://www.lct.org/shows/camelot/
‘New York, New York’ is a Wow, Manhattanhenge is Here.
Inspired by the titular MGM motion picture written by Earl M. Rauch, the musical New York, New York at the St. James Theatre is an ambitious, updated adaptation from uneven source material. Its spectacular production values guided by the prodigious five-time Tony winner, Susan Stroman, who does double duty with direction and choreography, is set over the course of one year with the four seasons structuring the arc of development in the lives of the characters who want to “be a part of it in old New York,” from the Summer of 1946 through the Summer of 1947. Written by David Thompson, co-written by Sharon Washington with additional lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, New York, New York’s music differs from that featured in the titular 1977 Martin Scorsese film.
The noted exceptions are a few songs like “Happy Endings” and two schazam hits sung by Liza Minnelli in the film. Minnelli was initially associated with “New York, New York,” until Liza told Uncle Frank it was his to sing. Afterward, it became a part of every concert, TV show or gig Sinatra starred in. “But The World Goes ‘Round” is singularly Minnelli’s, though others have picked it up and run with it applying their own versions.
With such song classics, the production doesn’t capitalize on their tonal motifs threading intermittently from Act I to Act II more than just once. Instead, saving the best for last, they explode toward the conclusion. At the end Jimmy Doyle’s band (the real orchestra) rises up from the pit, playing “New York, New York” with bravado and glory. By far, the two songs are the richest, most seismic and memorable of the score. Despite who is singing them, they are a pleasure because of their symbolic associations.
The first is New York City’s anthem played as an encouragement around every dooms day disaster the city experienced in recent memory from the Terrorist Attack of 9/11 to the COVID-19 botch job by the twice-impeached former president, when nightly the city came out to applaud healthcare workers and some played Sinatra recordings of the signature song from their balconies. The other lush beauty about the irrevocability of life’s changing turns, highs and lows, is a classic best remembered for Minnelli’s fabulously impassioned rendition.
These songs, in their own right, are like the North Star. “But the World Goes ‘Round” appears to guide the writers to effect a richer, stirring musical about making it in a tough, unforgiving town which necessitates growing a thick skin because regardless, the world will spin, whether one plays the broken-hearted victim as Jimmy Doyle does initially in Act I, or become the heroes of their own myths as do all the characters who serendipitously meet in a Booking agent’s office, then join Doyle to play in a “tired club” in Act II in a reviving number “San Juan Supper Club.” However, reaching success takes a while.
Specifically, the book meanders as it strikes out into different story-lines of immigrants and ethnics, who come to Manhattan to establish their unique voices and become the stars of tomorrow. Problematically, the music, which should lead in a brassy, bold pop style of the latter forties reimagined, follows without the same consequence and heft of the two signature songs we long to hear that show up in full force by the end. The story lines take wayward side directions, straying away from “the heart of it,” making Act I (17 songs) much longer than necessary to spin the characters’ struggles in New York. The central focus becomes redirected. Eventually, it comes back and the lens crystallizes on salient themes, before flitting away to feature another plot-line.
The centrality, which is supposed to be how Jimmy Doyle’s Major Chord Club and musical group comes together, is delayed by scenes of the violinist from Poland and Mrs. Veltri waiting for her solider son to come home. What is represented is the loss and death from the war, a loss which explains why Doyle drinks, is angry and argumentative with those who could help him. He grieves his talented brother dying, while he, the inferior with “flat feet,” serving unheroically behind a desk, feels guilt as the ghostly shadow of his glorious sibling occludes him.
The impact of grieving New Yorkers out from under a cataclysm of the holocaust, which took violinist Alex Mann’s family and the heroic sons of America’s war dead is important, but diluted in the mix of all that is going on. Doyle, Mann (Oliver Prose) and Mrs. Veltri (Emily Skinner) are meant to carry that theme of loss and grieving as one more aspect of the “city that never sleeps,” but the power fades too fast for the audience to fully appreciate it, as the action springs to another scene and character. This is the nature of the city which acknowledges then moves on with forward momentum.
Not all the story-lines need specific scenes for explication. Some either should have been edited to a stark jabbing point with the songs either pumped up and primed, or eliminated. They seem extraneous, done for the sake of inclusiveness, rather than out of a visceral, organic need driving the characters in their forward momentum. Editing might have slimmed down the excess that sometimes dissolves the production’s vitality. Though the writers moved away from the film’s story, to be inclusive and representative in an update, they do feature the relationship between multi-talented musician Doyle (Colton Ryan really picks it up in Act II) and powerhouse singer Francine Evans (Anna Uzele has the creditable voice).
However, the idea of a New York City, where inclusiveness and freedom, born out of anonymity and size, that also has a down side, is not manifested with unique particularity beyond the concepts of struggle and making it. Only Jimmy Doyle’s character is nuanced and shaded with interest to reveal a convincing transformation that is believable, effected beautifully by Colton Ryan.
Despite these problems with the book, Stroman leaps over them creating terrific moments in representing the lifestyle of New York City street scenes. She materializes a pageantry of perfection in staging the dance numbers with delightful framing assists from Borwitt’s scenic design and Billington’s lighting design. These gloriously drive the production, along with the fabulous projection design by Christopher Ash and Beowulf Boritt, which majestically integrates historical photographic blow-ups with the sets (scaffolding erected to look like apartment buildings). New York City in their vision is a treasure to behold back in the day, as they remind us of how we got from then to now. Of course, the heartbreaking projections of the old Pennsylvania Station torn down in contrast with Grand Central Station which we are eternally grateful for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s crusade to save it, are vital historical references in an ever changing Manhattan.
Stroman choreographs the ensemble with excitement, energy and vibrance. She shepherds the musical’s technical team to strike it hot. They create the atmosphere and stylized beauty of post war New York neighborhoods, synchronizing the scenic design, lighting design and projection design. Along with Donna Zakowska’s stunningly hued costumes pegged to the period, Michael Clifton’s period makeup design, Sabana Majeed’s hair and wig design and Kai Harada’s sound design (I heard every word) these talents manifest Stroman’s concepts of a bustling, charged city hyped up to establish the nation’s new-found prominence after winning WW II in Europe and the Pacific. The city of dreams is once more collecting its dreamers who will sink or swim according to luck and perseverance.
There are many moments in New York, New York I loved. The song “Wine and Peaches,” performed with the ensemble’s tap dance on a foundational iron beam, beautifully set “high in the sky” with the city projected from down below during the ironworkers lunchtime is gobsmacking. It’s a remembrance of the iconic black and white photo of the Empire State Building being erected and ironworkers sitting on the structural beams over 80 + stories up. The song is emblematic of New York City construction workers who are brave, balanced and accustomed to such heights, that they might dance “for the hell of it.” It is also a testament of the tremendous development in the city whose air rights allow buildings to rise taller and taller. Symbolically, visually and musically performed with grace and fun, the number is one of the most memorable and brilliant.
Another moment that is thematically important is the song “Major Chord,” as Jimmy Doyle and friend Tommy Caggiano (Clyde Alves, a fine song and dance man) discuss that “music, money and love” combined in a harmonious chord become what drives a purposeful life for them. In the lead up praise of the city, Tommy’s humorous truism rings clear for New Yorkers when he says, “It’s the greatest social experiment. Everybody lives here and everybody’s natural enemy lives here. And we manage not to kill each other. For the most part.”
To top his comments as New Yorkers are wont to do, Jimmy says, for him, New York City is a “major chord,” and Uzele’s Francine joins in to ask how to find her major chord (music, money, love). Tommy and Jimmy help her find an apartment near Jimmy to start her journey to become a star. Eventually, as fate throws Francine and Jimmy together (more through events he causes) they marry, have ups and downs and reconcile at the “Major Chord,” Jimmy’s successful club which concludes the musical with a resounding and stupendously staged “New York, New York,” sung by Uzele’s Francine.
In Act I, “New York in the Rain” is beautifully sung and staged with colorfully hued umbrellas skipping across the stage, under their own power, and others held by the ensemble who twirl them in uniformity with graceful energy. As Jimmy, Ryan’s “Can You Hear Me?” and “Marry Me,” are appropriately winsome and romantic as Act I concludes with Francine and Jimmy’s relationship sealed in love and marriage.
Act II picks up the forward momentum. Jimmy pushes for his “major chord” in his relationship with Francine, “Along Comes Love” and in the dynamic “San Juan Supper Club” (Ryan, Angel Sigala, John Clay III) which is a rousing, dance number where the musicians we’ve met in Act I come together to form Jimmy’s band which will headline his club Major Chord. In the superb “Quiet Thing,” Ryan’s Doyle shares the preciousness of arriving at his dream, not with great fanfare, but with the inner knowledge of its success, which is the confidence that the dream is the reality. The lyrics and music are Kander and Ebb at their finest, and Ryan delivers a superb, heartfelt slam dunk that any artist can identify with.
As Francine understands that the villain with a smile, Gordon Kendrick (Ben Davis), wants to unrealistically take her, a black woman, out on the road so he can sexually seduce her, Francine affirms what her husband Doyle has told her all along. Kendrick is a hypocritical wolf in a “promoter’s clothing.” She concludes her last song on the radio after Kendrick tells her “she’s finished.” “But the World Goes ‘Round” is Uzele’s home run and Francine’s realization that she must move away from him and join Jimmy at the Major Chord Club.
An incredible and breathtaking encomium to New York City is in one of the final musical numbers “Light” presented by Jesse (John Clay III) and the ensemble. Kudos go to the technical team and Stroman to effect Manhattanhenge through the projections, sets and lighting. It is absolutely magnificent and of course, symbolic that light, love and musical goodness can be in a city that is its own memorial to industry, dreams and aspirations.
Manhattanhenge occurs when the sunset perfectly lines up with the east-west streets on the main street grid in Manhattan. It’s Stonehenge in NYC! Happening twice over a two-day period, on one day you can see the sun in full and on the other day you get a partial view of the sun. Then to encapsulate the “light” in the city that is its own monument, Francine concludes accompanied by Jimmy Doyle’s band with “New York, New York.” And indeed, the show ends in a major chord at Doyle’s Major Chord Club in a beautiful flourish with Uzele singing her heart out as the audience stands with applause dunning the critics who panned the production.
New York, New York is exuberant, complex and bears seeing twice. There is so much happening you’re going to miss something and think the fault is in the production, as I did initially. Stroman is her representative genius. If one goes without expectation, your enjoyment will be immense. Look for the fine performances. Colton Ryan is sensitive and heartfelt especially in Act II and his gradual transformation is exceptional in “Quiet Thing,” and afterward. There’s nothing like knowing one is a success and at home in that confidence. The principals, especially Uzele, Janet Dacal, Ben Davis, Angel Sigala and the others mentioned above have golden voices. All are their own major chords, thanks to the music supervision and arrangements by Sam Davis.
For tickets and times go to the production’s website https://newyorknewyorkbroadway.com/
‘Good Night, Oscar’ Sean Hayes in a Marvelous Must-See
It is not that Sean Hayes looks like Oscar Levant (he is taller), or speaks like Levant (not really), or accurately displays Levant’s neurotic ticks and eye blinks (he ticks away), or imitates his posture (he slumps, cutting off 2 inches of his own height). What Hayes does nail is Levant’s pacing, deadpan delivery, comedic sentience and his self-effacing, desperate, sorrowful heart. And it is these latter Levantesque authenticities that Hayes so integrates into his being that when he shines them forth, we believe and follow Hayes wherever he takes us during the brilliant, imminently clever Good Night, Oscar, currently running at the Belasco Theatre with no intermission.
With a well-honed, drop-dead gorgeous book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), and superb production values (Rachel Hauck-scenic design), (Emilio Sosa-costume design), (Carolina Ortiz Herrera & Ben Stanton-lighting design), (Andre Pluess-sound design), and J. Jared Janas for hair & wig design, director Lisa Peterson’s vision brings us back to 1958 in NBC Studios’ inner sanctum, where the backstage drama is more incredible than what happens on live camera. Of course, by the time Hayes’ Levant appears live on The Tonight Show, we, Parr (Ben Rappaport), June Levant (Emily Bergl), Alvin Finney (Marchánt Davis) and head of NBC Bob Sarnoff (Peter Grosz), have lived two lifetimes fearing the worst. After all, this is live television with no splicing tape or editing. Whatever happens is. And that makes the tension and thrill of this production that duplicates the fear of “live,” (just like on Broadway, but with no extended rehearsals), just smashing.
Doug Wright acutely, craftily ups the ante of danger in the 80% probability that Levant will make a mess of things. Perhaps, he won’t make it to the studios, just like the time he left an audience of three thousand waiting in fancy dress to hear him play the piano, concert style, which was popular in those days. Then, he let them wait and never showed up.
Levant is noted for his version of the stellar George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Parr and the TV audience expect Levant to play it, but of late, he is hesitant and may refuse and walk off the set. So Levant might be on time but blow-up his appearance, as he has done before, saying the extraordinary and surprising, if asked to comment on religion, politics or sex. Furthermore, he is plagued by the spirit of Gershwin and has reveries of the past where, at times, he makes no sense. So much can go wrong, like Murphy’s Law states: “If something can go wrong, it will.” With Levant this has become a truism with scheduled bookings and appearances.
As Grosz’s apoplectic Sarnoff and Rappaport’s reasoned Parr go head to head about the high-risks they are taking because they cannot fail during “sweeps week,” we discover that recently, Levant is completely unreliable and “out there.” Sarnoff refers to him as a “freak.” On the other hand Parr has specifically chosen Levant because he needs his new Burbank show to be a success. Levant always delivers because Parr knows his close friend and can set him up for the best one-liners and witticisms in the business.
With Levant, Jack hopes to compete his way into prime time with a low budget and the talk show format he has perfected. It is a difficult task because he is on every evening, is rather high-brow, and the network underestimates him. However, Rappaport’s Parr believes Levant is a “true original,” who “treats chit chat with all the daring, all the danger of a high-wire act.” Parr knows that he will score with Levant because his unexpected brilliance lands his one liners all the time. Jack will start the engine, and Levant will speed off with the cues for a perfect show, nose diving into space and leveling off every time. He only needs to show up and get in make-up. Wright has created the set up for anticipation so that when Levant arrives, if he does, we are ready for his prime time antics, which happen behind the cameras.
That Parr doesn’t convince Sarnoff to calm down remains a problem. Sarnoff tells Parr he has booked “chica chica boom boom” Spanish musician and band leader Xavier Cugat as Levant’s replacement. He will save the day if Levant stiffs The Tonight Show, like he stiffed The Eddie Fisher Show the week before. In other words, as Levant keeps the studio waiting, the greater the likelihood that Levant’s career is down the toilet, along with the bad will that Parr has contributed making his goal to be in prime time a pipe-dream.
The issues appear to be settled when June Levant, Oscar’s wife, sweeps through the doors in her period piece, flowery outfit looking chic and composed. Parr is relieved until June tells him that she committed Oscar, and he’s in an asylum because she finally had enough. Parr becomes as apoplectic as Sarnoff and the rest of the play spins out of control, is brought back into control, then goes up into the high-wire act Parr wished for, after Levant shows up and fills everyone with expectation and sometime dread that he will blunder irreparably and destroy all they’ve planned.
To add to the tension, right before Levant goes on the air, he downs a bottle of Demerol and seems comatose. The saving grace is that Levant is a drug addict and his body is accustomed to so many drugs of his choosing, he has to take a bottle of it to stop his hand from shaking. (I reminded you of that, if you question how taking that many pills and functioning is possible. Think functioning alcoholic.)
Who is this drug addict? Who is Jack Parr? In what century are we? One of the salient take-a ways of Good Night, Oscar is its reverential nod to the Golden Age of Television, when culture, wit, superior comedy shows and superb programs (I Love Lucy, Playhouse 90, Your Show of Shows, What’s My Line, etc.), and actual bona fide news graced the air waves. Jack Parr was one of the first hosts of The Tonight Show franchise, which has lasted to this day and has been duplicated many times over in other shows on other channels.
Then, Parr made individuals famous during his five-year stint. One of his frequent guests was comedic concert pianist and Hollywood celebrity Oscar Levant. Thanks to Doug Wright’s incredible, stylized portrayal of Levant, and Sean Hayes’ remarkable ability to don the ethos of the exceptional pianist and tortured artist, we understand his emotional underpinnings. And we empathize with the psychological whirlwinds captivating Hayes’ Levant. Figuratively haunted by George Gershwin’s shadow, Levant glorifies in and also regrets riding Gershwin’s coattails to celebrity. Wright fancifully manifests this haunting by materializing Gershwin, who cajoles, persuades and torments Hayes’ Levant with remembrances of his greatness and serene notes of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Davis’ Alvin tells Parr assistant Max (Alex Wyse) that these babblings are auditory and visual hallucinations.Max should just “go with it.”
After June Levant and Parr tell Hayes’ Levant he must play, that the concert grand is waiting, Levant goes head to head with Gershwin’s ghost. Portrayed by John Zdrojeski, we note Gershwin’s arrogance and dapper, mordant, ghostly looks. However materially insubstantial he is, to Levant, the only one who sees him, he is beautiful and elegant. We understand that compared to Gershwin, Levant is a midget in looks and talent (in his own flawed estimation). Levant has undermined himself becoming Gershwin’s fawning adherent. Thus, eventually Levant obeys his hallucinations, as the Gershwin ghost compels him. Will Hayes’ Levant be able to play anything with arthritic hands and twenty-five concentrated doses of Demerol in pill form churning around in his stomach?
There is no spoiler alert. How Levant, his body hungering for drugs, manages to manipulate Parr assistant Max and his own nurse assistant Alvin to get what he wants is frightening, funny and ironic. Wright employs Max and Alvin as devices to reveal Levant’s backstory and acquaint the audience with his former grandiloquence, while we take in his deteriorating condition. Levant, Judy Garland and other celebrities shared the same fate with the pills and drugs that the studio doctors offered. Ironically, the tragedy of Oscar Levant and his glory and folly, which Hayes portrays with perfection, has great currency for our time.
Though Levant’s story is a throwback to that crueler, exploitive time of the studios, where the industry ground up artists in its maw and left them at the side of the road to deal with their own damage, we see the effects of big pharma today, expanding their client base beyond celebrities to the US public. Additionally, we note that corporations have become even more insidious than the Hollywood studio system as exploiters of writers and other artists. Good Night, Oscar is vital in showing how the then parallels the now.
Wright, Peterson and importantly, Hayes, elucidate how artists were encouraged to destroy themselves gradually for the sake of their “careers.” That Parr and June Levant are similar in their persuasions, pushing Oscar to “entertain,” is answered by the fact that Oscar adores being in front of an audience, even if it’s only for the four hours he has been “sprung” from the asylum. However, his self-harm becomes irrevocable as celebrity self-destruction through addictions to drugs and alcohol, unless redeemed is irrevocable in our time as well.
Wright’s play is an encomium to Levant’s genius, his humanity and his artistry, beautifully shepherded by Peterson and the creatives who convey her vision. And Sean Hayes’ performance is one for the ages.
There are gaps in this review for the sake of surprising the reader. Most assuredly, Good Night, Oscar is a must-see. You should go a few times to appreciate the wit, humor and spot-on performances, all of which are superb. Sean Hayes is especially poignant and authentic. For tickets and times go to their website https://goodnightoscar.com/
‘Summer, 1976’ Laura Linney and Jessica Hecht are Terrific
Summer, 1976 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is predominately two solo performances with a few dynamic interchanges, the principal one occurring at the conclusion. The static, expository “play,” directed by Daniel Sullivan, occurs in the minds and reflections of Diane (Laura Linney) and Alice (Jessica Hecht). Through their discourse, we learn how they established a close friendship over a summer which gradually fades into memories when Diane moves away a few years later. If not for the brilliant, authentic performances by Linney and Hecht, and the enlightened direction by Sullivan, one might think that “the dramatic event” that supposedly initiates the conflict never occurs. Nor does the conflict occur manifestly. However, the performances and direction overcome the lack of theatricality, and make Summer, 1976 interesting enough thematically to put this on one’s radar to see.
One of the key themes that playwright David Auburn (Proof) explores in Summer, 1976, is how the right connections, though brief in the span of a lifetime, may vitally change one’s development and help individuals evolve in a direction they might never have taken without such influence. Diane and Alice become friends who, for no particular reason, share their memories revealing this thematic point in this stylized storytelling that alternates back and forth from Diane and Alice as each reflects and remembers. Through their perspectives as reliable/unreliable narrators, they discuss themselves and each other, sometimes offering conflicting details, leaving us to decide for ourselves who is the more accurate storyteller, if it even matters. During the course of their reveries, we note there are more similarities than differences between them, if we carefully tease out the deeper levels in their personalities.
Superficially, Diane has an immaculate house and is a foodie, with some quirky lapses in her perfection. Interestingly, she is unconventional in one regard. She carelessly becomes pregnant having a fling with a man who wasn’t “all that,” and who she dismisses from her life so she can raise her daughter alone. She doesn’t give much thought that Gretchen might need a father, but is confident within herself not to be desperate for a man at her side. which would cause more stress and complication. Besides, Diane has enough inherited money to raise her without worries and continue with a quasi-serious art career which Alice encourages.
Alice points out that Diane’s work reminds her of Paul Klee’s. Diane confesses that she used to be influenced by Klee, but has moved on. Diane never finishes her art pieces, a revelation which Diane eventually confides to us and discusses with Alice. For her part Alice doesn’t think Diane’s art is very good, precisely because they are unfinished. We learn this through Alice’s commentary after Diane makes various disclosures.
Alice contrasts with Diane. Her housekeeping is messy. None of the furniture matches and she isn’t a foodie or an excellent chef as Diane is. Also, Alice is a laid back housewife who helps husband Doug, He doesn’t make much money as a college professor and their lifestyle reveals it. In those days women could still live (not comfortably) on one salary. Doug and Alice manage, though Diane notes that they don’t have style, class or much dynamism. Ironically, staying at home doesn’t encourage Alice to be a superior housewife or foodie. What she does all day is take care of her daughter and Doug, read and clean up the house as best as possible, when it moves her .
These superficial differences would stand in the way of their becoming best friends, if their daughters were not thrown together at the beginning of the summer. Because their daughters adore one another and beg Diane and Alice for play dates, the mothers reluctantly get together to please Gretchen and Holly. It is during these hot days of summer, Diane and Alice move beyond the surface to reveal deeper elements about themselves and their circumstances to forge a beneficial relationship.
Auburn uses narration and the women’s solo reveries to reveal their lives. However, it is the nuanced performances and portrayals by Linney and Hecht that elevate this play and make us interested in these two women, who live unadventurous outer lives. The actors land on the humor of their confessions and judgmental criticism (only given to the audience) about each other. It is only when the women take day trips, the first to an antique store where Diane buys Alice a Bauhaus desk, that their relationship takes off. Afterward, we note that there is a soulful simpatico that they seem to have with each other that transcends their differences.
That soulfulness is brought to the fore during two crucial events that Linney’s Diane and Hecht’s Alice reflect upon. During one summer day Diane has a wicked migraine. Alice lovingly nurtures her and gives her time generously, as Diane attempts to overcome the waves of pain. In supervising the situation while Diane writhes in pain, Alice even allows Gretchen to watch the TV channels Diane doesn’t permit normally. However, this situation warrants it because, as Diane suggests, she can’t deal with her daughter and a migraine at the same time. In Diane’s perspective, Alice’s comfort and care saves her life and the migraine goes away the next day. However, a thread has been woven between the two women that never dissolves, despite their not keeping up the relationship in later years.
Diane helps Alice when she has an argument with Doug that blows up into a full on discussion about divorce. Alice takes Holly and seeks solace from Diane, who readily gives it and comforts her. Diane always thought Doug boring and she encourages Alice to consider other possibilities. Even when Alice resolves to herself emotionally that she and Doug can work out their marriage, Diane offers her place to stay to regroup. This is an offer that later could have become a living arrangement, however, Alice is faithful to Doug and never takes her up on it.
Another theme that comes up when Alice stays the night with Diane is happiness. Diane asks Alice if she is happy, but Alice is more concerned with “keeping up appearances” and trying to make the marriage work after Doug tells Alice he “can’t do this any more.” The idea that people can’t make people happy and rarely does anyone find sustained happiness is something Alice considers as a result of her conversation with Diane that evening. Certainly, it influences Alice in her relationship with Doug, and they eventually divorce in 1978, after Diane moves away.
During the summer and their weekly dinners in the fall, they gradually see each other less and less during 1977 because Alice is engrossed with saving her marriage. However, Diane’s wisdom helps Alice.
At one point Diane lightly suggests they should just travel together and have adventures. Alice’s traditionalism and conventionalism won’t permit it. It is as if Diane intuits Alice and Doug’s marriage will end, but Alice is not ready to admit it. For Holly’s sake she must go through the arduous process of salvage that is fruitless anyway. The possibilities of their close friendship remaining and becoming something more becomes swallowed up in Alice’s conservatism and her fear about leaving Doug. Her inner conflict prevents her from considering other possibilities and freeing herself. Ironically, by the time Alice and Doug divorce and she is free, Diane has left.
Almost a decade later, both women are in New York City. When Alice sees the banner featuring Diane’s works on exhibit, she goes inside the gallery and they meet and discuss how their circumstances have changed. Alice is a middle school English teacher. Diane has become a professional artist who finally finishes her work. When they say their farewells and Alice expresses that she misses Diane and gives her a hug, Diane’s response is “matter-of-fact,” and distant. She reveals to the audience that Gretchen has moved back in with her, has a drug dependency and perhaps made a suicide attempt. She reveals none of this to Alice which is unclear why. When considering if she misses Alice, she reminisces that they were close only for that summer and that is why they drifted apart completely when Diana left and Alice divorced in 1978. Diana even suggests that perhaps it is the memories that she misses.
The final meeting and hand off are fascinating because we note that Diane dismisses Alice, yet gives herself away when she says that Alice is the only one she sends her “art cards” to annually for a decade then stops. Alice loves them and assumes she sends them to everyone, but never replies back. That Diane only sent them to her is momentous. The relationship was important to her for her artistic development. Furthermore, considering Diane and Alice have no partnerships, though Alice admits there were men, but nothing spectacular, we are left wondering that perhaps in a time when the culture wasn’t as oppressive for female-female relationships, they might have had a deep and abiding love. By the play’s end, we understand that their candle of friendship may have nearly blown out, nevertheless they have contributed to each other’s lives and careers beyond measure. Perhaps, it may be rekindled again if one of them takes the step forward.
Summer, 1976 occurs in the undercurrents, the aside comments to the audience, and the subtext. There are the nuanced perspectives and the unspoken spoken. Nothing is manifest. Sullivan’s superb direction and the stellar Linney and Hecht fascinate, in this character study of two women who subtly influence each other to evolve and grow. One day when they are ready, they may possibly reaffirm their connection in the future after their New York meeting. The rest is uncertain as is true to life.
The scenic design (John Lee Beatty) is a minimalist latticed backdrop through which Japhy Weideman’s lighting design flips on the turn of events in their storytelling with beautiful hues. Linda Cho’s costume design is aptly pegged to the characters and Auburn’s characterization. Kudos to Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design, Hana S. Kim’s projection design and Greg Pliska’s original music which elucidates Sullivan’s stylized vision.
Summer, 1976 runs with no intermission, but Linney and Hecht with prodigious authenticity keep the audience rapt and the time becomes transcendent. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/summer-1976/
‘Prima Facie,’ Jodie Comer’s Tour de Force is a Must-See
One receives a stunning, thematic walk-away from Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, directed by Justin Martin, currently at the Golden Theatre for a limited engagement. Prima Facie (the Latin legal term means on the face of it), stars the inimitable Jodie Comer in a well-heeled, solo performance. She won the U.K.’s Olivier Award for her portrayal of the assertive, successful, high-powered barrister, Tessa Ensler, who adores the rules of the law with an almost religious fervor. How Comer, the director and Miller effect Tessa’s roller-coaster ride toward hell, engaging the audience so you can hear a pin drop, reveals their prodigious talents. In Prima Facie, they’ve created a thematically complex production of theatricality and moment.
Though there are gaps in the play, Cormer’s performance bestrides them and raises numbing, thematic, rhetorical questions. Initially, the answers escape us, as we become involved in Tessa’s journey toward personal revelation. The strength of the play is in the slow arc of character development, which Cormer senses in her bones and conveys with power and flexibility, as she draws us in to Tessa’s plight. Her vocal and emotional breadth are superb and wide-ranging. Comer’s near-flawless expose, starkly pinpoints Tessa’s confession and admission of repeated self-betrayal and unwise decision-making. How Tessa is prompted to self-destruction by the patriarchal culture’s influence, confounds us. However, the audience cycles through the nullifying events she experiences and gradually becomes enlightened to her devastation.
From the top of the play, through to Miller’s characterization and Cormer’s sometimes breezy, dualistic, self-satisfied and impassioned recounting of her success as a defense barrister, we note she plays to win against the tricks of the police and the tactics of the prosecution. Her metaphoric descriptions are humorous. She is a winner at the law, always up for social justice, jumping into challenging cases against the prosecution. We learn many of the cases are for sexual assault, which she defends her clients against to “get the criminals off,” as her mother suggests. Blindly, with her own rational justifications, Tessa has greedily internalized the patriarchy’s folkways and legal mores. She believes herself immune as a barrister in a justice system, which she thrillingly and ferociously advocates. It is a game to her. She humorously pegs herself as a thoroughbred in a race, during which she expertly uses her strategies to anger, lure and upend the prosecution’s witnesses, who can’t “see her coming.”
Believing herself to be in control, she succeeds in becoming a star defense barrister, who wins her cases for her male clients. That she is a dupe, and a puppet female that the legal system has cultivated to perpetuate its entrenched hierarchy and male-informed justice, she only awakens to when she herself falls prey to assault. Too late, she becomes like the female victims she shreds, victimizes and makes look guilty on the witness stand to benefit her male clients. As Cormer and Miller subtly reveal, Tessa has been riven asunder by her desires to best the upper class barristers she competes against. To do this, she must take on their most obnoxious of attributes and suppress her true identity as the attractive, vulnerable, learned, emotional woman, who desires love and a relationship with a guy.
Thus, like most women in the patriarchal culture, she must negotiate two selves and protect both from each other. Importantly, she must not allow the predominance of one over the other in a blood sacrifice to “rise to the top,” or be the handmaiden of a partner, supporting him financially, if he is a slacker. Worse, she must not couple up with another barrister as ferocious as herself in a competitive, combative relationship. Nor must she throw down her career to wrap herself in the “lesser roles” of housewife, mother, wife, while her partner enjoys the power and amenities (sexual peccadilloes) his career may offer. However, as Cormer and Miller portray Tessa, the “feminine” side is not tended to, so it erupts when a guy lures her away from her career identity.
Interestingly, to convey the mystery of this inner conflict, which Tessa ignores, Miller sanitizes Tessa’s descriptions and removes gender references, when discussing her cases as “the barrister.” She doesn’t use names. Instead, she employs legal terms. Objectification and impersonalization are paramount. Cormier’s Tessa internalizes the abusive male folkways and embraces them because she is in a position of power. She doesn’t realize that she is a dehumanized robot, exploited by the patriarchy precisely because she is a woman defending men (a supreme irony). Just like the guys she competes with, she is all about the legal game and winning the race. We understand that the police predominately are males, and she bests them and her male barrister colleagues. One she excels against is Julian, who ruefully comments on her repeated success.
Occasionally, a clue is given. Her upper class friend, who started law school with her, drops out and becomes an actress. Tessa is the one in three, who makes it because of her persistence, brilliance and aggressiveness against all comers. Indeed, the very attributes that are rewarded in the legal profession are more masculine than feminine. That she has chosen to defend males against females in a crass exploitation of her skills is pointed out by a female colleague, who questions her.
Though her colleague intends to bring Tessa to enlightenment, Tessa describes how she conveniently ignores the question which hits us over the head with its answer. Apparently, Tessa doesn’t mind that her position is being undermined by defending men in cases against women. Nose to the grindstone, she aggressively succeeds, and all should get out of her way. The undaunted barrister personality proves she is the best and “fits right in.” However, there is the suppressed side of her personality, where she can’t compete with “all comers,” and she will never fit in. She can’t compete with males in their gender antics. She can’t behave like men sexually because the standards are different for men and women. Such traditions and double standards die hard.
There’s the rub. Women are still oppressed by the ancient folkways that manifest in sub rosa male and female attitudes. These egregiously include the notions that men are not “whores,” they’re just good ole boys, having fun. After all, boys will be boys. On the other hand, women are referred to as “sluttish” according to double standards. Thus, a woman’s response to sexual assault can be easily confounded by the legal questioning in a system that “doesn’t get how females respond and freeze,” when they are sexually assaulted. The legal interrogation system that allows for only one word answers is oriented toward the masculine. If there is fuzzy thinking and confusion on the stand, it means intentional obfuscation and guilt. The legal system’s foundation is historically entrenched in preeminent male beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, integral to its structure of obtaining justice for the accused. This is especially so when the charge is a gender crime against women.
The event that turns Tessa’s world upside down and opens her understanding is her non-consensual rape by a colleague with whom she previously was intimate. The legal parameters of justice indicate that non-consensual sex is the red line beyond which no partner can go, because it involves force and pushing oneself on the autonomy of another. Tessa ends up in a situation with barrister Julian making one bad decision after another that she knows will make her appear guilty. In effect, she is making herself the victim, but can’t stop herself. In applying the law to her own behavior, she realizes her mistakes, however, she decides to press charges against Julian. Despite knowing she should wait for a female officer, who will understand from a female perspective, she relates what happened to a male officer in charge. She knows what to do, but does the opposite, time again during this experience with Julian to seek justice.
We follow Tessa’s story from one sequence of events after another, during Tessa’s two year waiting period to eventually get into the courtroom and testify on her own behalf. As she faces Julian and the defense barrister colleague realizing what’s coming, she is shocked. The entire courtroom of officials is filled with men. She is the only woman. And it is there that the tactics she strategically, confidently, aggressively used against females to defend her male clients, now are employed against her. She becomes her own victim. By her own barrister standards, she realizes she is guilty. However, she is not on trial, Julian is.
In her final self-betrayal, the internalized patriarchy of justice must release Julian as an innocent. There is one guilty person, the woman, who somehow is lying and magically fabricating that a non-consensual rape occurred. Because of her fuzzy and at times confused, frozen responses, she raises doubt that a rape occurred. Thus, victimizing herself, she turns the barrister Tessa against her female identity, and is guilty. The prosecution loses the case to Julian, who she victimized with her accusation.
In an interesting turn, Tessa is able to express her feelings. She addresses the court absent the jury and finds her voice. Cormer rises to the occasion during the courtroom scenes she effects. She is especially powerful in her indictment of a patriarchal legal system established for the betterment of males, particularly those who have money and are in the upper class.
In her concluding salvo to the audience, tears streaming down her face, Comer’s Tessa adjures wistfully that “something must change.” Though we agree, after her revelations, the self-absorbed, anti-climactic assertion rings hollow. Indeed! She must change. She must stop internalizing “the perfection” of male folkways, which historically have destroyed women. She must resign from her position of defending men in sexual assault cases. She must negotiate the balance in her personality. She must not allow “the barrister” to predominate and harm the feminine Tessa, mistakenly applying male double standards to her personal life. She must not forget her gender places upon her an unforgiving female ideal of perfection and purity, she must adhere to. Ironically, there is no move to understand that she must transform herself to bring about the change that she seeks. This irony needed to be emphasized in the staging, which at times is lacking in pointing up the dualism in her character.
However, Cormer’s plaintive cry reveals her regret, which is a self-betrayal and utter confusion at finding herself where she is in her life. She has backed herself into a corner. If she leaves the profession after losing the case, the patriarchy will have won. If she stays and continues to defend men, as she has done before to “put the terrible events behind her,” the patriarchy will have won. If she moves to the prosecution side, she will no longer be “the star” at the top of the ladder. She is left broken and crying at her self-entrapment in the stunning irony as the stage lights dim. The effect is numbing. What did we just see? Her generalized cry for change lacks impact and force. However, her tearful regrets are the first step in a long process of self-correction, which may lead to social reform.
Miller’s thematic “call to arms” is clear. Every woman in the audience must change internally. They must uproot every internalized desire of the patriarchy which defines them and denies them. They must define themselves. They must not believe the lie they can compete with men as Tessa attempted to compete and allowed herself to be duped and exploited. Sadly, in the attempt to compete women internalize folkways that necessitate their own co-optation that leads to self-harm.
Miller’s point about the judicial system concerning rape and sexual abuse is thought-provoking. Only with protests might the legal system be reformed to accommodate the female perspective about rape to use a different form of questioning that drives to the truth. But the underlying folkways that have been seething for millennia and are global in scope must be dealt with. If not, men will continue to conquer, divide and co-opt to undermine women. They are incredibly practiced at it. This is especially so with regard to institutional misogyny that is subverted/invisible because it is inherent in the structures men have created to maintain privilege and power.
Kudos to Miriam Buether (set & costume designer), Natasha Chivers (lighting designer), Ben & Max Ringham (sound designers), Rebecca Lucy Taylor (composer), Willie Williams (video). Prima Facie is not to be underestimated and labeled as a “feminist” treatise that is against men, so those who wish to ignore what Miller’s themes are conveying can easily dismiss them. The production is complex in a time when #metoo often has been misunderstood, politically abused and misapplied. The insert with the program is a reminder of the catastrophic consequences of rape as a crime of gender annihilation. One statistic stands out. Approximately 70 women commit suicide every day in the US, following an act of sexual violence.
The point is not that sexual violence is sexual. It is that gender/sex is used to annihilate psychically, and render the “other” silent. Prima Facie investigates this on a more profound level than one expects. For that reason, it is a must see. And Jodie Comer is just terrific. For tickets and times to this play with no intermission, go to their website https://primafacieplay.com/
‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’ With Neil Patrick Harris is LMAO Genius
The Mischief production of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, directed by Adam Meggido, is a a whopper of a farce with some of the finest schtick that can be conceived of in the minds of men and beasts. Threading non-stop chortles and belly laughs, the production runs at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through the 9th of July. This is one to see if you enjoy slapstick, farce, irony, Monty Pythonesque humor which is sardonic, and dead-pan, and simply gorgeous in the hands of the British. Also, the farce is an absolute send up of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong it will.” The Mischief productions have made “a thing” of this law in theater, assuring us how amazing and wonderful it is, when professional casts and creative teams collaborate to present a show without a glitch, hitch or switch. In Peter Pan Goes Wrong, nothing goes right, and for that we are utterly grateful for such an evening of joy.
Delighting a world-wide audience (forty countries) the hilarious Mischief Peter Pan uses as its source material, the iconic play Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. This clever farce of foolishness and mayhem is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. The writers also take on key roles of the members of the Cornley Youth Theatre, the amateur theatrical company whose faux pas production has made it to the Ethel Barrymore. In effect, the Mischief production is a play within a play and the cast portrays two roles, the Cornley members and the Peter Pan characters they portray.
Thus, we experience the amateurs’ attempt to elevate their status to professional theater-makers with their Peter Pan which becomes Peter Pan Gone Wrong. This ingenious conceit keeps the jokes and pratfalls coming. Indeed, for future versions and tours of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, one can see how such a premise promises an ever evolving fountain of hilarity.
As Cornley members, Lewis’ Robert, Sayer’s Dennis and Shields’ Chris take on the roles of Nana the Dog, John Darling and George Darling. They are counted among the pirates (Starkey, Captain Hook, Mr. Smee), and Cornley Youth Theatre’s competing creatives. These actors are the backbone of the production and are simply superb as they interact with each other and the audience. Shield’s Captain Hook, who the Cornely cast members encourage the audience to “boo,” goes “whole hog.” He attempts to shut up the booing and commands the audience loudly and humorously to, “Shut up.” For a moment, I worried that the audience would be too “over-the-top” and get out of hand. However, Shields was incredible, conducting the audience like a maestro, evoking their boos, then ending them. His technique, practiced comfort and obvious enjoyment at playing interactively with the audience in great good fun was tremendous.
The same may be said of he entire cast’s versatility and expertise in slipping between the roles of the Cornley Theatre members and Barrie’s Peter Pan characters with energetic zaniness. The ensemble works in concert seamlessly to make each moment a wondrous laugh riot. These include Matthew Cavendish who portrays Cornely’s Max, the show’s money man, child Michael Darling, and the athletic crocodile. Nancy Zamit, Cornely’s Annie plays Mrs. Darling, Lisa the maid, Curly and Tinkerbell. The fairy outfit is perfection thanks to Robert Surace’s costume design. Zamit switches roles and costumes from Mrs. Darling to Lisa the maid with deadpan insouciance, as she cues the audience in to the ironic jokes with a glance.
Rounding out the fine ensemble are Charlie Russell who plays Cornely’s Sandra, who is Wendy Darling. In the Cornely Theatre world backstory she is having an affair with Greg Tannahill’s Jonathan. As the “high flyer” Peter Pan, he has grown “close” to Wendy and in front of the audience, they shamelessly steal kisses and hugs. Ellie Morris’ ungainly Lucy Grove is Robert’s daughter, who portrays Tootles in the Neverland segment. At the beginning, she runs around with father Robert and Cornely’s Assistant Stage Manager, Gill (Bianca Horn), as they try to correct the lighting issue.
However, most notable for his hysterical performance is Neil Patrick Harris, who portrays Cornely’s Francis, the Narrator of the amateur production, and Cecco, an older pirate who has been with Captain Hook (Shields) on his many adventures. Harris astounds with his presence, making each moment of stage time real with organic humor. He’s athletic, authentic and hysterical, presenting impeccable timing. His amateurishness is believable given the professionalism and talent it takes to pull it off. He’s just smashing and throughout conveys he enjoys the sheer fun of this farce.
Given the production’s foibles and blunders, we note that it would have been easier to put on an unadorned, straight Peter Pan. Indeed it is ferociously hard to make precision technical errors that could harm if their “going wrong goes wrong.” One can’t help but appreciate the ensemble and technical crews’ incredible pacing and dead-on timing of the fiascos that populate the comedy and keep audience rolling in the aisles. For example, early on when Mrs. Darling opens a door, after that exact moment a light falls from the electrics. A few seconds off dead reckoning, Mrs. Darling alias Annie (Nancy Zamit) would be flattened. Part of the enjoyment of the production is the surprise that none of the endangered actors injure themselves. However, there is no bloodshed in the service of the incredible displays of scenic design “gone wrong.”
The fun begins when audience members are handed the Playbill. Smack in the center of the glossy program, where one would expect to see theater advertisements, one finds Cornley Youth Theatre’s black and white program of their Peter Pan. Written by Robert Graves (Henry Lewis) the four-page program is filled with tidbits and stories of the Youth Theatre’s events and various and sundry. The program’s ironic, humorous tone massages the audience to expect what the Cornley Youth Theatre isn’t capable of. For example the “flying operator” responsible for Peter Pan’s “flying” is “not known.” In other words, Peter Pan will “fly” on a wing and a prayer, with no tech crew to guide him gracefully across the stage and to Neverland. Greg Tannahill, who plays Cornley member Jonathan, who portrays Peter Pan, is the most ungraceful, wonky, upside-down Peter Pan ever to hit Broadway and/or Off Broadway. Tannahill is brilliant and frightening in his flight plans.
Additionally, the program notes that directors Chris Bean (Henry Shields) and Robert Grove (Henry Lewis) are fighting for preeminence. Their competitiveness spills over into the Cornley production of Peter Pan, where they take jabs at one another as they portray Barrie’s characters. Robert Grove (Lewis) who pegs himself as the “Head” of Cornley Youth Theatre, has written most of the program which includes an “In Memoriam” to Nadia, their ten-foot Nile crocodile that passed away. How she passed is LOL ironic. The Cornley program lists upcoming production descriptions and events which include Wind in the Willows, Wind in the Widows, Wind in the Pillows, and a “Peter Pan Backstage Tour,” which has been given a safety assessment rating, “Hazardous to All,” and which strongly advises tourists not to participate.
From start to finish, Cornely Youth Theatre’s amateurs, not only don’t get it right, they do so in the most galacticaly nutty and unexpectedly surprising ways as they give Barrie’s script a try. Lewis’ Robert Grove appears onstage as the audience is being seated. There is a problem with the electrical current and outlets. So Grove and Horn’s Gill arrange for a long, orange extension chord to be floated over the heads of audience members to plug it into an outlet at the back of the Barrymore. These hi jinks occur and the play hasn’t even begun yet? Correct. And when the Cornely players finally manage to get the lighting situation straightened out and the set revolves to its proper Darling household (the revolving platform with three sets is exceptional in a later stunt) Peter Pan Goes Wrong takes off, and bumpily flies down and up and around, and lands with unforgettably riotous brilliance.
The creative team were called out for their bows and rightly so, for without their expertise, there is no Peter Pan Goes Wrong hysteria. Kudos goes to Simon Scullion (scenic design), Roberto Surace (costume design), Matthew Haskins (lighting design), Ella Wahlstrom (sound design) Richard Baker & Rob Falconer (original music), Tommy Kurzman (wig & make up design), Hudson Theatrical Associates (technical supervision.
Enough praise for this superior farce that will split your sides with its sensational humor and gags. For tickets to this premiere, go to their box office on 243 West 47th St. or go to their website at https://pangoeswrongbway.com/. You’ll be thrilled that you did.
‘Fat Ham’ is Smokin’ Sumptuous in its Broadway Transfer
What I enjoy most about seeing Fat Ham in its transfer from The Public Theatre (my review of the Public Theater production) to Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, are the sardonic tropes which send up William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a Jacobean revenge tragedy, where privileged white royals end up slaughtering each other for power with a particular lack of grace, wisdom and spirituality. Fat Ham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, James Ijames, writes with a joyous, “diabolical” and a steel-sharpened keyboard, with which he extracts the choicest cuts of the Bard’s meatiest speeches, to reveal the enlightened soul of the would-be avenger of his father’s killer, Juicy (the sublime Marcel Spears). Directed by Saheem Ali Fat Ham’s transfer is a delectable winner.
Juicy is the “fat ham,” shortened for Hamlet. The title references Juicy’s necessary acting “chops” in his pursuit of the truth. The title also refers to the succulent pork roast plumping his middle. Ham is also one of the items being served at the barbecue wedding celebration “honoring” mom Tedra (Nikki Crawford) and Juicy’s Uncle Rev (Billy Eugene Jones). Ironically, the meaty feast is a postmortem contribution by the late, great, pit master, Juicy’s father, who owned and managed the family butcher shop and restaurant, which now is owned by Uncle Rev (Claudius-like), who has “supplanted his brother’s place in Tedra’s bed and affections.
Juicy, like the other characters, elements and themes, represents the antithesis of dramatic particulars in Shakespeare’s complex tragedy. Ijames has a blast flipping Hamlet on its head, layering additional profound complexity to a similar plot, as he highlights Black experience in a racist North Carolina. But the beauty of this production is it riotous humor spread “thicc” everywhere you turn, so one can carefully divine the irony, puns, quips and punchy lines that send up the tragedy it twits.
For example white, colonial, Danish heir to a royal dynasty urged to seek revenge by his impeccable, kind and kingly Dad’s ghost? Nope! However, Juicy is a son, disinherited by his murdering uncle and saddled by the wicked, violent ghost of his father to wreck revenge. The method? The ghostly, white-sequined, flashily suited Pap (Billy Eugene Jones plays both brothers), demands that Juicy slaughter Rev, gutting him like they do with the hogs they butcher. After he is slit open, then Pap wants Juicy, who knows butchering, to slice Rev up into roasts, chops, hams and grind his testicles into a powder. Then, Juicy must invite over friends and family to feast on him. Pap’s description is revoltingly humorous, and Juicy questions every word, and rightfully accuses Pap of being unloving, cruel and demeaning to him and his mom.
Antithesis reigns in this brilliant LOL comedy. From Juicy’s race and gender to Pap’s obnoxious, ignoble character, to mom Tedra’s wild, sexy, lap-dancing antics, to porn-loving, hyperbolic cousin Tio, to Larry and Opal’s gay reveal, and relative Rabby’s evangelical praise Jesus, preach-it hypocrisy, Gertrude, Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius are partly recognizable. More’s the fun realizing the ironic, deadpan reversals of character to their counterparts.
Tio’s characterization is especially noteworthy. In Hamlet Horatio is the balanced, unemotional, wise, educated courtier, worthy and emblematic of all the traits one would look for in a trusted scholar and friend. Instead, a reserved, watchful Juicy provides the acute, wise commentary to Tio and those his age, while Tio is plainly off the wall and not sure of his identity, as he seek avenues of expression that are unbalanced and addictive. He is seeing a therapist who does give him good advice about how trauma travels through the history of families, as Tio identifies that Juicy’s family has trauma packed into the male genes from slavery onward.
In these roles the actors shine effortlessly. An incredible ensemble, they work seamlessly with not one particulate of comedic pacing or rhythmic, emotional bit out of place. Along with the smooth Marcel Spears, the marvelous players include the crazy wild patriarch and sneaky, underhanded brother Billy Eugene Jones, uber fit, riotous Nikki Crawford as Tedra, the humorously “out-of-hand” Chris Herbie Holland as Tio, the funny, bored, seemingly dim-witted Adrianna Mitchell as Opal, the turn-on-a-dime hysterical Calvin Leon Smith (love his dance) as Larry, and the wonderfully buoyant, hallelujah-loving Benja Kay Thomas as Rabby, Larry’s and Opal’s mom.
Leading this cast, Spear’s Juicy appears content in himself and settled in his identity as a sensitive gay man, in the face of ridicule about his online college education at Phoenix, and his gay sensibility. He eschews his father and uncle for branding themselves with power exemplified by their criminal behavior. He knows the difference between inner strength, fear and inferiority. With equanimity, he receives the information that Tedra prompted by Rev used up his college money for a refurbished bathroom. His non-violent response when Rev and Larry hit him, deemed “soft” by Pap and Rev, is wisdom. Juicy’s inner spirit and soul are cast in the threads of nobility, historically woven by great Black Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis. There is brilliant understatement in the characterizations, if one has the eyes to see Ijames resonant themes.
The beauty of Fat Ham‘s comedic rendering is its lack of preachiness and political rhetoric. With contemplation, sensibility and humor, Juicy, unlike Hamlet, has found his voice and is comfortable in his skin. Thus, he is able to counsel Opal not to be pushed around to fit other’s labels, so she can be herself. Peaceful, calm, he calculates that the blood-thirsty act of revenge is a reprehensible manifestation of generational exploitation and institutional racism. Murder is a curse begun in slavery and perpetrated in Black impoverishment, whose answer has been drug crimes, thefts, Black on Black killings and profitable incarceration by white racist oppressors. The “buck” stops with Juicy’s delicious ham (actor, truth seeker, truth teller).
He is the only one who understands how his family has been incredibly victimized, while Pap and Rev with a modicum of financial security don’t realize how murdering one another is the internalization of racism and weakness born out of a violent past. Juicy affirms after his wonderful delivery of Hamlet’s speech about “catching the conscience of ‘the king'” and noting Rev’s reaction, that revenge is not the suit he wishes to wear. Why should he carry on the family tradition of blood-letting as a generational birthright so he can live down to Pap and Rev’s image of a macho power player? He will set himself free of such chains, and with inner security and knowledge, reject Pap and Rev’s labels and destructive, racially ensnared behaviors.
Nevertheless, as the hysterical events at the barbecue unfold, Juicy turns the “beat” around. In his multiple asides to the “listeners out there in the dark,” Spears creates great humor by winking, gesturing, flipping his hand in coded messages to the audience. This is questioned by the other characters i.e. Tedra who wants to know what he has said about her to us.
The barbecue whose lush set design of a North Carolina one-story middle class home surrounded by trees, sky, a modest deck and backyard, realistically sports set designer Maruti Evans’ astro turf lawn and smoker, where Rev grills the meat. As the large table is laid out and family gathers to eat the biscuits, corn, potato salad and grilled pork, the party takes off into hilarity. Rev delivers a hypocritical prayer with Rabby’s loud, Holy Spirit anointed yells. After they eat, the family and friends tramp around with wild karaoke and charades, during which Juicy catches Rev’s guilty response. However, unlike the tragic end of Hamlet, this is a marvelous comedy and there is no more Black on Black crime. Juicy has ended the family curse of bondage to institution racism’s impact on his family. And Rev does perish. You’ll just have to see Fat Ham to find out how, and to also enjoy the celebratory finish that Calvin Leon Smith’s Larry provides with pizzazz and glam.
Dominique Fawn Hill’s costume design is funny and ironic. Bradley King’s lighting design during the karaoke sequence is atmospheric and mood-filled. Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound design, and Earon Chew Healey’s hair and wig design reflect Saheem Ali’s vision for this superior Broadway transfer which improves upon itself and deepens the Public’s original presentation.
Importantly, the daylight ghost sequence and the illusion designs by Skylar Fox indicate that side by side, the supernatural/spiritual reside with the realities that the characters acknowledge. There is no need to deliver spookiness on a dimly lit stage. The characterization that Ijames draws of Pap’s inner anger, fear and outrage which is karmic (he has killed and he is killed) is frightening enough in all of its humanity. Likewise, how Rev is dispatched by karma is not spooky, it is real and horrifying. This is especially so in a time after COVID when there’s enough fear in unexplained, sudden deaths to last another 100 years. Lastly, the institutional generational historical racism which ghosts in the culture and traditions of this family and binds them to uncontrollable actions they’ve been brainwashed to accept holds enough horror for a lifetime. Juicy’s snapping those chains with his love, peace and irony is a welcome experience for our time.
The production is not to be missed for its superb ensemble, exceptional technical creatives and design teams, and the masterful direction of Saheem Ali, who create his vision to elucidate Ijames’ vital themes. For tickets at the American Airlines Theatre, go to the box office at 42nd street or online at their website: https://www.fathambroadway.com/book-tickets/ But do so now because the show has a limited run and ends in June.
‘Shucked’! “Shucks Ma’am, It’s a Helluva Show!”
If you love corn and even if you hate it, you will laugh at the jokes about or related to the sunny fruit (official classification), in Shucked, the funny, bright, clever, homespun musical fable/farce about love, corn and deeper things. Shucked is a throwback to delightful Broadway productions that are easily relatable and pack a thematic lunch that is palatable and digestible. The cast twits itself throughout and clues the audience in to the one-liners, puns and spicy double entendres, as they judiciously pause for the raucous audience laughter to subside, then deliver the next quip with a twinkle and no wrinkle.
Shucked has something for everyone with innuendos aplenty. Directed by the seasoned Jack O’Brien (Tony Award® winner for Hairspray), who shepherds his cast toward drop-dead pacing and finely honed delivery to produce maximum laughs, the production currently runs at the Nederlander Theatre around two hours and fifteen minutes, including intermission.
With the book by Tony Award® winner Robert Horn (also Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, NY Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Tootsie), and music and lyrics by the Grammy® Award-winning songwriting team of Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, the show is finding its way to hit status, having received its jet-pack from these talented creatives. Featuring an exceptional cast, whose vocals hit the mark every time, Shucked is a musical that leaves one with a smile on one’s face, and songs thrumming through one’s mind. It’s a delectable corn dog that takes you from “farm to fable.”
Introduced by bubbly, enthusiastic Storytellers # 1 and # 2 (Ashley D. Kelley, Grey Henson), who note many funny, lovely facts about and uses of corn (“Corn”), we learn about Cobb County, the place that time forgot because folks had all they needed and walled themselves off from the outside world, using the “high as an elephant’s eye” corn plants. There, Maizy (Caroline Innerbichler) and Beau (Andrew Durand) are standing at the altar ready to receive their wedding vows when the cataclysm happens. Patches of corn plants decorating various sections of the stage begin to die. How Scott Pask (scenic design) manages this and the corn’s restoration is neatly effective.
Believing that Cobb County’s xenophobia is destructive and their worst enemy in face of this corn dying disaster that threatens their way of life, heroine Maizy identifies the county’s chief problem (“Walls”). It has a fixed and irrational paranoia about strangers, and thus, they avoid the outside world. Maizy decides that she must leave the isolation of their existence and find answers to the corn die off. Not only does this upset her cousin Lulu (Alex Newell), and the riotous Peanut (Kevin Cahoon’s deadpan delivery and twanging accent are sincerely hysterical), her fiance Beau (Durand’s macho know-it-all is humorously harmless), puts his annoyed foot down. He tries to exert his will over her when she expresses her desire to leave. However, she has a point when she tells him Cobb County is too limited to provide any answers. Despite Beau’s directives, Maizy leaves, affirming they will be married after she finds the solution to their corn apocalypse.
On her journey from Cobb County, Maizy ends up in Tampa, which the Storytellers conclude is a “humid wonderland of welcoming Tamponians and one douchebag” (“Travelin’ Song”). The number is a clever, humorous build up to the large, bright, neon letters that spell out the city’s name. It is only topped by the city slicker, scam artist Gordy (John Behlmann), a scheming, horse gambling, poseur podiatrist who “removes corns.” Naive Maizy seeks out this scientist and professed expert on corns, not realizing where his “expertise” lies. To make matters worse for Maizy, Gordy is a failed gambler and con (“Bad”). Nevertheless,, the sweet, simple Maizy shows him the rot-ridden ear of corn from home and he promises he might be able to do something.
Sensing an easy way to get out of his $200,000 gambling debt from leg-breaking gangsters, Gordy shows interest in Maizy, after he takes her broken bracelet to jewelers to have it fixed. In a brief, stylized, mini-aside by the all-purpose storytellers, who double this time as disreputable jewelers showing their “range,” (Kelly’s Storyteller #1 quips this), they move the story ahead. They assure Gordy they will buy the unique, valuable stones which can easily be found, “it gathers in clusters like single women in their thirties.” After a seductive dinner and drinks, Gordy produces a perfect ear of corn for Maizy that he tells her he has “fixed.” Of course, she invites him back to Cobb County “to fix” all the corn. Behlmann’s Gordy persists in his romantic seduction to get into Maizy’s rocks underneath the house where she lives.
Thrilled at her own bravery and ability to rectify Cobb County’s corn apocalypse, Innerbichler’s Maizy effectively shows her vocal chops in “Woman of the World.” After the proud, self-satisfied Maizy toots her own horn for bringing back stranger Gordy to meet and save the town, at Beau’s farm Peanut voices his opinion about Beau and Maizy’s love. He quips, “Ever since Maizy came back with this Corn Doctor, you’ve been pissier than a public pool.” In her meet up with Beau to share her “new-found wisdom,” Maizy affirms her sophisticated personality change. In her “pissing-contest” competitiveness with Beau, she lets information slip that devastates Durand’s Beau. He kicks her off his land, then belts out “Somebody Will,” a number that guys can identify with, if they have ever broken up with a long-term partner.
In another women centered number, Lulu (the superb Alex Newell),, belts out a syncopated country tune, “Independently Owned” promoting her whiskey business. As she advertises her autonomy from a man, she warns Gordy to “watch out,” despite her business spiraling downward on an absence of corn supply. Regardless of what happens, Lulu knows who butters her corn. The exchanges among Maizy, Gordy and Lulu, like most of the dialogue in Shucked, are crafted for Henny Youngman/Mae West styled one-liners, with ironic punchlines shot out like rhythmically paced cannon fire. How the actors convey their characters without “pushing it” is authentic and a testament to their comedic brilliance, O’Brien’s direction and Horn’s fine book.
In a winding up toward the end of Act I, Gordy’s situation has a monkey wrench thrown into it. Due to poor cellular connections on two phones, he gets the wrong information which spurs him on in desperation. Over-hearing Gordy’s phone conversations (misinformation), Peanut, Beau and Lulu assess that Gordy is up to no good (“Holy Shit”). How they settle at that conclusion speaks more to their upset that Maizy bravely left and came back with a solution, than hearing the truth. Maizy is forced to defend Gordy’s presence in Cobb County and affirms her faith in him. Alone, she admits she is torn between her feelings for Beau and the possibility of love with Gordy (“Maybe Love”).
Shocked into accepting her belief in him, Gordy persuades the townspeople of his ideas about “fixing” the corn (“Corn”). As the song concludes Act I, Maizy accepts Gordy’s proposal of marriage, and we are left for one intermission to guess whether Gordy’s plan to resurrect the corn has efficacy or his inner shyster is getting over to hightail it outta Cobb with some valuable gem stones.
Horn’s book is tightly spun with the songs which slip in messages of love, acceptance, risk taking, hospitality and compromise, with large portions of savory humor in the lyrics. Jason Howland, who is responsible for music supervision, music direction, orchestrations and arrangements, keeps the score country vibrant, so it sounds like a mix of other music genres in its country beats and rhythms. Japhy Weideman lights the barn for appropriate atmosphere, and John Shivers’ sound design is on target. This is tricky in a show like Shucked, which is dependent on a balance of sound throughout the theater for maximum contagious laughter at the quips, puns and double entendres. Mia Neal’s wig design has a modern flavor with a “Hee-Haw” touch to meld with Tilly Grimes patchwork, homespun costume design of plaids, paisleys and “patches,” that appear to be cut out of various “past-their-prime” clothing items.
Scott Pask’s barn staging has every item and tool one would imagine on a working farm. The intricate, wooden barn structure remains stationary while Lulu’s whiskey still and paraphernalia are brought out when appropriate for some songs in Act II (the hysterical, ironic “We Love Jesus”). And the playing area is large enough to roll out whiskey barrels for the fantastic “Best Man Wins,” as Beau, Peanut, Storyteller #2 and the ensemble jump on the barrels and stand Beau on a long board and move him around. This is an ingenious and visually exciting dance number configured by choreographer Sarah O’Gleby.
There is no spoiler alert. You’ll just have to see Shucked to laugh until your sides ache and pay attention to what happens to bring the corn back from the edge of doom to bless Cobb County with joy, love and a bit of growth toward letting down their walls to accept strangers (“Maybe Love” reprise). Gee! The corn may be a metaphor for something.
This is one you will enjoy in the moment. And afterward, you may try to remember the songs and the wonderful quips, puns and one-liners that had you chortling in the corn row aisles of the audience. For the deeper meanings and references to our time, perhaps you should see it twice. They are cleverly woven into the themes amd strike fire for their currency.
Shucked runs with an end date in September at the Nederlander Theatre (208 West 41st St.). For tickets go to their website: https://shuckedmusical.com/
‘Sweeney Todd,’ His Vengeful Spirit Ranges in Thomas Kail and Alex Lacamoire’s Magnificent Revival
With a nod to the original 1979 Hal Prince directed Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Broadway (1989, 2005), and off Broadway revivals (2017), Thomas Kail (director) and Alex Lacamoire (music supervision) achieve breathtaking majesty in this 2023 revival. Emphasizing immutable themes and character archetypes inhabited by the brilliant, sonorous Josh Groban and comically conniving, mischievous Annaleigh Ashford, Sweeney Todd’s thrilling, operatic music spins out a Jacobean revenge tragedy for our time. With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, from an adaptation by Christopher Bond, audiences at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre are having a rollicking time, gauging from their cheers and whoops, as the cast takes their bows.
The artistic team’s well-thought out choices restore the musical (more like an opera), to its epic, grand stature. The suspenseful Sweeney story is arrayed through ingeniously integrated spectacle, delivered by Nevin Steinberg’s sound design, Mimi Lien’s scenic design, Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Natasha Katz’s lighting design and Steven Hoggett’s choreography. All cohere, enhancing Kail’s acute vision of Sweeney’s obsessive need to pursue vengeance, with an assist by an avid, affectionate partner, Mrs. Lovett, who manipulates him into her embrace, using keen practicality and amoral, surreptitious duplicity.
Stephen Sondheim’s exceptional music, delivered by the twenty-six piece orchestra’s soaring sounds, is superlatively arranged by Jonathan Tunick. And under the musical supervision of Alex Lacamoire, the immensely variable score evokes the piercing macabre, the lyrical romance and the chaos of despair. Indeed, every phrase, every note resonates tonal moods of light and dark, that swirl like fateful winds directing the emotions of the lead characters. All of this creative gorgeousness unfolds in the service of displaying humanity in its full-bodied fallibility, as it plunges from grace, victimized by circumstance and the Satanic designs of others. And, as the culprits free-fall, wallowing in a surfeit of pride and sardonic delight by killing the wicked with impunity, we are drawn into lurid expectation, aroused to anticipate which corrupt victims will be sliced by Sweeney’s razor, next.
Originally taken from popular Victorian fiction known as penny dreadfuls, the name Sweeney Todd was first noted in ‘The String of Pearls.” The plot elements evolved to other genres, but the horror tale of the murderous barber slitting his victim’s throats, while Mrs. Lovett’s pies hid the ground-up fleshly bodies, was enhanced by Christopher Bond’s addition of obsessional revenge. These elements inspired Sondheim and Wheeler because of their mythic and dramatic possibilities.
The musical begins, as the ensemble of 19th century Londoners sets the scene (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”). They are the Greek chorus, who sing the ballad at key moments throughout the musical, making judgments about Sweeney Todd and his relationship to the world he lives in. As they sing, Sweeney emerges from the grave looking gruff and moody to animate the Sweeney legend and receive grand applause, as the audience acknowledges Groban’s exceptional vocal gifts and acting skills. Indeed, his well conceived, profound portrayal of the demon barber is worthy of every second of applause he receives.
Thus, unfolds the story of injustice, corruption, oppression, obsession, vengeance, mayhem and murder. The latter, Sweeney justifies in the Act I song “Epiphany,” with his “novel” definition of two kinds of “men,” who comprise the entire human race which deserves to die. These are the upper class wicked, who oppress the poor, and the miserable lower class, for whom death is a relief. When he sings this, Sweeney has gone over to “the dark side,” choosing to expiate his rage and hatred on his fellow human beings, including himself, a key theme of the tragedy. However, at least Sweeney recognizes what he is, where the hypocrites he murders (especially Judge Turpin and the Beadle), pretend perfection.
After the epilogue, the scene moves to flashback and shifts to the past, enacted by the spirits of those brought to life to evoke the tragic tale of the barber, his wife, the duplicitous paramour, a corrupt judge, his assistant and the barber’s grown-up daughter and her lover. With the exception of Johanna (Maria Bilbao) and Anthony (Jordan Fisher), all are victims of their own weakness as they succumb to a fateful destiny. Their macabre acts and the ensemble’s ballad refrain, which threads throughout, compel us to listen and learn.
Convicted of a trumped up crime by the sinister, lascivious, Judge Turpin (the fearful and excellent Jamie Jackson), the barber is shipped off in chains to Botany Bay, Australia, to intentionally separate him from his beautiful wife Lucy, and young child, Johanna. Over a decade later we meet Sweeney, who disembarks from a ship in London with Anthony (the golden voiced Jordan Fisher), a sailor who rescued him, and to whom he sings of Turpin’s injustice (“The Barber and His Wife”). Returning to his old apartment, which is owned by the impoverished Mrs. Lovett (Annaleigh Ashford), who has a pie shop no one frequents because her pies are just crust (“The Worst Pies in London”), Sweeney learns from her that Lucy was raped by Turpin and Beadle Bamford (the fine John Rapson).
As Lovett sings (“Poor Thing”), we discover that Lucy became so demoralized and degraded, she swallowed poison. Taking pity on Johanna, Turpin adopts her as his ward and raises her under his possessive, watchful eye. Under his oppression she is like a sightless bird in a cage, who is blinded so it sings beautifully. In the following scenes we understand the bird metaphor, as it relates to Johanna imprisoned in a lovely mansion, unknowing of her past and the wicked Judge’s corrupt actions and scurrilous intentions.
Grogan’s Sweeney becomes manic with rage learning of Lucy’s plight. Consumed with painful thoughts of her sexual abuse at the hands of the powerful, “moral” judge, who cravenly destroyed their family, and who now has his Johanna, he vows revenge with the help of his razors (“My Friends”), which Mrs. Lovett kept for him. Mrs. Lovett, who always fancied Sweeney, seizes the opportunity to encourage him in his revenge, suggesting he open a barber shop above her pie-making establishment. As he works, he can wait for the opportunity to kill Turpin (“Wait”). It is there that the formerly innocent Sweeney enacts his first homicide of blackmailer Pirelli (the comical and insidious Nicholas Christopher), who threatens to expose Sweeney’s true identity and turn him over to Beadle Bamford, a death sentence.
This is the first blood-letting, the ensemble assures us in “His Hands Were Quick,” a reprise of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.” But it’s not the last. The fates are spinning. Mrs. Lovett distracts Pirelli’s assistant Tobias (the wonderful Gaten Matarazzo), who eventually grows close to her and believes her lies that his boss “went away.” Ironically, he becomes the instrument of karmic discovery, which brings down the killing machinery of the Todd/Lovett enterprise.
Ashford’s seduction and insinuation into Sweeney’s life, and Groban’s Sweeney, at first reluctant, then gradually swayed by her cajoling advances, are a couple made in hell, as they align in comedic malevolence. Their performances are humorously symbiotic and perfectly realized with such spontaneity and verve, we are subtly sucked into their foul deeds and initially cheer them on. Jamie Jackson’s Turpin is so goose-bump abhorrent, arrogant and hypocritical, when Sweeney finally kills him, the audience cheers.
However, it takes the appropriate time for Sweeney to avenge Turpin’s horrors. These “drive him up the wall” and push him to accept the god of vengeance and unforgiveness as his master. After Sweeney is interrupted from killing Turpin and despairs that he’s lost his chance, he appoints himself an executioner of “mankind” (two types of men), in “Epiphany.” It’s a show-stopping number and Groban is in his full, lush glory. In a profoundly clever Sondheim transition, ever the opportunist, Ashford’s Lovett soothes Sweeney’s explosive mania. She conceives of an ingenious way to dispatch the bodies of those “who deserve to die,” by baking their flesh into savory meat pies (“A Little Priest”). Forever, she elicits his gratitude and affection, which she gladly receives because she is so smitten with him and wants to supplant memories of Lucy with her love and murderous complicity. She becomes his invaluable asset for vengeance with impunity.
Sweeney’s transformation from doom and gloom to joy and laughter occurs when he “gets” how Mrs. Lovett will help rid him of the evidence of his murders. Groban’s Sweeney is absolutely mesmerizing in this scene. As the realization of her lovely idea takes over his whole being, his interior darkness shifts to light, as if a burden has been lifted. Happily, he binds himself to her in a euphoric irony of evil. Ashford’s mastery of his soul lures him and couples him to her, as they fly toward doom, too taken with their genius to be bothered by the possible consequences of their wicked amorality. Thus, together they answer the world’s corruption, emphasizing the theme of how human beings eat one another, taking the devouring from metaphor to realty.
The portrayals and performance of this clever song marries these actors in their brilliant talents and shared generosity. It is one of the most memorable moments in a production that is filled with many memorable moments. Importantly, as we are relieved to see them laugh, and laugh with them as they delightfully plot against those high born and low, who deserve to die, fate spins the tragedy of consequences and accountability in Act II.
Meanwhile, in a second feeder plot, whose action develops in conjunction with the scenes between Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, Fisher’s Anthony comes upon the grown-up Johanna (Maria Bilbao). Bilbao aptly sings about birds that are caged (“Green Finch and Linnet Bird”). Listening to her (Bilbao’s flighty performance and lyrical singing are stunning), Fisher’s Anthony inquires her identity from a Beggar Woman (the incredible Ruthie Ann Miles), who is always near Mrs. Lovett’s or the Judge’s mansion. Anthony falls in love at first sight (“Ah, Miss,” “Johanna”). Emboldened by the Beggar Woman’s admonition that he should stay away, he pursues Johanna who is receptive to running away with him to escape marriage with Judge Turpin, her future intended. When Turpin discovers her plot with Anthony, he locks her in an asylum, waiting for her to relent.
How these characters reach the end of themselves in freedom or bondage unravels in a darkening Act II. Only then, do we realize, like Sweeney, how “kindness” and “friendship” can be exploited to deceive those weakened with unstable and desperate passions. As the emotionally seductive Mrs. Lovett, whom we and Sweeney come to delight in, then are horrified by, Annaleigh Ashford’s portrayal is sumptuous and grand. Her antithetical character is Ruthie Ann Miles’ Beggar Women, with whom Mrs. Lovett secretly is in competition. Throughout, the Beggar Woman is the key upon which events turn. Also, she is the wise Cassandra that no one listens to because they look at her outer appearance (“City on Fire”), and think her mad. This important theme is one more irony the fates spin out in this fabulous revival.
With spot-on performances by the entire cast of those who “eat” and are “eaten,” of the righteous innocent who escape, and of the hapless, beautiful, trafficked Lucy-types, who are in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” and are abused by men and women alike, all the characters “get what they deserve.” The warning is that memento mori. The same will happen to us, though it may not be at the hands of the Sweeney Todd’s of the world. If vengeance is sought, let karma deliver it. Pursuing it is its own destruction.
This Sweeney Todd affirms stylized truths that remind us of the precarious balance between justice and vengeance, love and obsession, helpfulness and selfishness. In its monumental arc where duplicity, self-deceit, betrayal and cruelty play out in the characters’ lives, the messages are profound. The characters in their impulses and desires are terrifying, not in the horror genre sense, but in their reflections of human emotions, revealing what people are capable of. Kail and the actors have teased out incomparable, believable portrayals. We have only to read the news to see their conjunction with our time, indeed, all time.
This devastatingly human Sweeney Todd, whose only hope is an escape through love, is a classic. It is a fitting revival of a masterwork that must be experienced live to feel its grandeur. For tickets go to their website or visit the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th St. https://sweeneytoddbroadway.com/