Category Archives: Broadway
When you see Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy at the Nederlander Theatre, and you must because it is a majestic triumph which will win many awards and perhaps a Pulitzer, view it with an expansive perspective. Acutely directed by Sam Mendes, with a superb adaptation by Ben Power, the production’s themes highlight the best and worst of human attributes and American values. We see prescience and blindness, preternatural dreams and uncanny business acumen, along with unethical, unfettered capitalism and greed. If we are honest, we identify with this humanly drawn family, that hungers to be something in a new world that offers opportunity where the old world does not.
Humorously, poetically chronicling the Lehmans from their humble German immigrant beginnings, the brilliant Simon Russell Beale, (Henry Lehman) Adam Godley (Meyer Lehman) and Adrian Lester (Emanuel Lehman) channel the brothers, their wives, sons, grandsons, great grandsons, business partners and others with an incredible flare for irony and imagined similitude. Prodigiously, they unfold the Lehman brothers’ odyssey from “rags to riches” with a dynamism as fervent and ebullient as the brothers’ driving ambition which rose them to their Olympian glory in America.
The production is an amazing hybrid of dramatic intensity. It is an epic tone poem and heartbreaking American fairy-tale. It is a tragicomedy, a veritable operatic opus under Mendes’ guidance, Es Devlin’s fantastic, profound scenic design and Luke Halls’ directed, vital video design. Intriguingly, it remains engaging and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful through two intermissions and three hours. By the conclusion, you are exhausted with the joy, sorrow and profoundness of what you have witnessed. Just incredible! Three actors delivered the story of four generational lifetimes with resonance, care and extraordinary vibrancy. They are so anointed.
At certain moments the audience was silent, hushed, enthralled; no seals barked or coughed out of fear of disturbance. Perhaps this occurred because The Lehman Trilogy threads the history of antebellum America and the story of the most culturally complex, diverse and extreme (i.e. poverty and wealth) city on the globe, New York. Indeed, the audience watches transfixed by the magic of what “made in America” means, threading the poisoned soil of slavery to what “made in America” means today in an incredibly complicated and even more slavery poisoned institutionalization of economic corruption etherealized.
One of the subtle arcs of Massini’s and Powers’ Trilogy follows the growth of this corruption in one family as they expand their business. The brothers’ ambitious fervor morphs in each generation (the actors of the succeeding generation play the sons and grandchildren) until by the end, when Lehman Brothers is sold and divided up and sold again, when there are no more Lehmans involved in running an empire that still carries its name, we understand that outside forces and individuals have caused the interior dissolution via excess, greed and spiritual debauchery.
Especially powerful is the last segment of the Trilogy, “The Immortal.” After the second segment, “Fathers and Sons” concludes with the first and second suicide of the 1929 crash, the third segment continues with more suicides on that cataclysmic day as the debacle of selling goes on. And the segment ends in September 2008 a minute before the fateful phone call that no one is bailing out Lehman Brothers which becomes the sacrificial lamb that fails, while other firms are “too big to fail.” How American!
It is a keen irony that Lehman Brothers survives the 1929 crash. Indeed, they make it through the Civil War, WW I, the stock market crash and the great depression and WW II. Lehman Brothers is successful after the internet bubble burst and it moves steadily into the mortgage market mess in the 21st century until…it collapses. During the last Lehman generation, we watch how Bobby’s takeover and presidency shifts the perspective with regard to personal life and business; all is reform, even his religious observance. No longer do the Lehmans set shiva for the passing of a Lehman according to Talmudic Law; only three minutes of silence are allowed to recognize the passing of Bobby’s Dad, Phillip, before the business of Wall Street resumes in their offices.
Thus, by degrees, Lehman Brothers meets the future; the sun never sets on the huge investment bank with global centers everywhere which Bobby and his partners govern. The name becomes “immortalized,” even as Bobby symbolically dances into the future decades after his death. Adam Godley’s nimble movements are phenomenal in this dancing scene with the actors symbolically twisting Lehman Brothers into the success of the Water Street Trading Division and beyond. It’s hysterical and profound, a dance of ironic immortality which can’t last. No one thought Lehman Brothers could go bankrupt, but it is fated to. According to the brilliant themes and symbols (golden calf, golden goddess, tight rope walker) and ironies of Massini and Power, Lehman Brothers reaches its own apotheosis in the last moments of the production. Then the phone call comes and it’s over.
It is clear that after the last Lehman dies, others who take over (Peterson, Glucksman, Fuld) apply their own meretricious agenda on Lehman Brothers, defying good will and sound sense. Indeed, the entity that falls to its destruction is nothing like what Henry, Mayer and Emanuel and their progeny imagined or would have supported. Is this disingenuous? Massini, Powers, Mendes and the actors make an incredibly convincing case. Without the guiding influence of Judaic values and the mission that only the original family understood, Lehman Brothers is “Lehman” in name only. All of the meaning, value and venerable history have been sucked out of it.
Thus, the import of the conclusion. The once sound mission of Lehmans, undergirded by values of the Talmud and Judaism is no more on the material plane; it exists in an infernal infamy, a cautionary tale of the ages. So it is fitting that in the last scene in the afterlife, one minute before that fateful phone call on September 15, 2008, the Henry, Meyer and Emmanuel say Kaddish, a prayer for Lehman Brother’s demise. The dead bury the dead. Pure genius.
Massini’s/Power’s metaphors, Mendes and the actors understand and realize beautifully. They toss them off as so many luscious grains to feed off intellectually, if you like. Es Devlin’s revolving through history glass house structure (just begging to have stones thrown at it) which the actors write on graffitizing the importance of Lehmans’ historical name-changing success, adds a profound conceptional component to the themes of money, power, finance and the energy of entrepreneurship. Luke Halls’ impactful video projections (the terrifying dream sequences, the burning Alabama cotton fields, the digital signals of the derivatives markets, etc.) enhance the actors’ storytelling with power; so does Jon Clark’s lighting design and Nick Powell’s sound design. Not to be overlooked Katrina Lindsay’s (costume design) and other creatives must be proud to have helped to effect this production’s greatness. They are Dominic Bilkey (co-sound design) Candida Caldicot (music director) Poly Bennett (movement).
There is more, but let peace be still and award The Lehman Trilogy sumptuously, all voting members of various organizations, including the Tonys. It is just spectacular. For tickets and times go to their website: https://thelehmantrilogy.com/
In this current time of COVID when our country faces daily crises of social disunity, dangerous political extremism, economic injustice and abdication of sound public health practices by craven Republican governors, Chicken & Biscuits written by Douglas Lyons, directed by Zhailon Levingston appears to lack currency on superficial inspection. Benign family squabbles, sibling rivalry, death and succession, a same-sex relationship, such subject matter at the heart of the play is quaint fare for a comedic entertainment that offends no one.
Except Chicken & Biscuits neither lacks currency nor is a quaint, “sitcom,” family comedy. Its levity and humor smacks of farce and satire with dead-on threads of truthfulness. However, if one is dreaming, much will slip past in the twinkling of an eye in this play about black culture, family and the foundations of faith that undergird the best hope for the black American experience in a racist culture that hovers invisibly and surfaces surreptitiously in Lyons’ one-liners.
The occasion is the funeral for the father of the Mabry family. He was the pastor of a Connecticut Pentecostal-type (there is a bit of dancing in the spirit) black church. Succeeding him in the position is Pastor Reginald (played with humor and oratorical fervor by Norm Lewis). The imposing, ambitious, dominant matriarch Baneatta (the funny Cleo King) whose resume would make any ignorant racist’s head spin, stands by his side in the church family.
Gathering with their parents are daughter and son: the accomplished Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) and actor Kenny (Devere Rogers). Rounding out the family “going home” celebration are Baneatta’s hyper vivacious sister Beverly (the gloriously out there Ebony Marshall-Oliver) and Beverly’s enlightened, wise-cracking DJ daughter La ‘Trice Franklin (the buoyant Aigner Mizzelle). To spice up the explosive, sometimes irreverent proceedings are Kenny’s Jewish lover, Logan Leibowitz (the LOL Michael Urie) and mystery guest Brianna (sweet NaTasha Yvette Williams).
Before the guests arrive Reginald counsels Baneatta to relax and not become embroiled by family machinations. We note Baneatta’s stresses when she prays to God for patience in a humorous riff about her sister. During this preamble to the funeral service, others step in and out of the vestibule. They share their hysterical misgivings and woes about the family interactions to come.
The staging at the Circle in the Square is finely employed; the flexible set design by Lawrence E. Moten III and clever rearrangement of furniture and props serve as a church basement, sanctuary, nave and more. The modern stained glass windows and wood paneling upstage center, flanked by paintings of a black Jesus and crosses on both sides, serve to create the atmosphere of a thriving church. The underlying symbolism is superb as is the assertion of freedom from the typical forms of bondage Christianity.
Each family member, an ironic stereotype of themselves, identifies the complications that will arise as emotional storm clouds threaten on the horizon of the funeral and aftermath. Kenny attempts to soothe Logan who has been disrespected and largely ignored by Baneatta and Simone who cannot brook Kenny’s being gay, nor his attraction to a Jewish white man. When we see them in action with Logan, we note their austerity of warmth with mincing words and behaviors. As they watch him founder in blackland Christendom with two strikes against him, his whiteness and his gay Jewishness, he crumples instead of standing to and giving it back for fear of offense. These scenes are just hysterical and we see beyond to the strength and character of the individuals and their weaknesses.
As Logan, Urie’s ironic, humorous complaints to Kenny when they are alone, set up the tropes and jokes which follow as we watch how Baneatta and Simone treat him like a rare breed of exotic who must give obeisance. Hysterically, Kenny breezily abandons Logan to their clutches: it’s sink or swim time for Logan. Urie plays this to the hilt authentically, riotously with partners, King and Alana Raquel Bowers as the straight women who “bring it.” Watching this is both funny and upsetting. The women are intentionally clever. Their response is anything but Christian, loving and warm, but who is playing whom? We are reminded of the hypocrisy of evangelical churches to the LGBT community who engage in political Republican actions. Though this is a church in Connecticut and its members are most probably Democrats, the similar odor is clear. We wonder, can the situation evolve for the better? Can they achieve common ground?
The only one who accepts Logan with Christ’s unconditional love and hugs is Pastor Reginald. And Logan longingly remembers that Reginald’s Dad (who we discover to be a waggish, wild pastor) showed the same love. For Logan it is no small comfort, but apparently this open behavior was typical of the deceased pastor’s liberalism and Christian equanimity.
Obvious is the clash between lifestyles and personalities of the sisters: the educated achievement-oriented Baneatta, and the wild, flashily dressed, divorced and “out-there” Beverly and her DJ, hip, savvy, “ready for her social media celebrity” La ‘Trice. Mother and daughter counsel each other to “shut it,” projecting widely but not seeing their own faults and outrageousness to care to change. They do it because they are funny and they laugh at themselves. Do they have anything better to do being who they are? Marshall-Oliver and Mizzelle make for a great mother-daughter team.
Truly, the women dominate this world as the service, the sermon and eulogies get underway. Their behaviors and actions are at various proportions of farcical and funny as are all these typical, atypically drawn individuals.
Nevertheless, underlying the laughter and stealthy ridicule of each character being themselves, we get the importance of family and faith community. Despite the miry clay conflicts that emerge as part of the whirlwind of events that race through the play to the end revelation, these individuals have each other’s backs. And entry into the family, as Logan discovers, is not easily won. However, when it’s won, it’s forever.
The service is down-home (different from evangelical) with the hope of less hypocrisy via a more spiritual relationship with God. Thus, when the Pastor preaches in the spirit and dances a bit in the spirit, the audience even takes up the “Amens” in concordance. Indeed, the hope of a better way flows from Pastor Reginald’s fountain of faith. And by the conclusion of Chicken & Biscuits, a better way has been found in the dynamic of each of the family relationships, catalyzed by a mystery guest that Baneatta feared and kept secret for most of their lives.
Chicken & Biscuits serves on many levels. For those who enjoy a riotous comedy/farce with characters that tickle one’s funny bone continually, this is the perfect play. For those who enjoy being entertained, yet also enjoy the illumination that comes when thematic truths about life and people are cleverly revealed without preachy presentments, then this play surely delivers. For those who value the unity of family that never devolves to hatred, division, anger and bitter insult and rancor, the play is a portrait of a black family which resonates through the medium of satire and good will.
Kudos to Nikiya Mathis for her hair/wig and makeup designs: I loved her cool hair design for La ‘Trice, and Baneatta’s sober, contrasting hair and hat, to Beverly’s unsanctimonious hair and feathery headpiece. Simone’s hair design was just luscious. And additional kudos to Dede Ayite’s great, character revealing costume designs, Adam Honoré’s beautiful lighting design and Twi McCallum’s sound design. Their assistance was superb in making this a wonderful romp with circumspection if you divine it.
You need to see Chicken & Biscuits for the cast’s excellent ensemble work, Levingston’s direction and Lyons’ uproarious writing. In all its satiric humor about family “types,” the production took me away from divisive political rancor and stereotypes that follow. Chicken & Biscuits is a welcome joy. For tickets and times go to their website. https://chickenandbiscuitsbway.com/
It took over 500 years for the six wives of Henry VIII to finally remix history and set the record straight nightly on Broadway in SIX the Musical at the Brooks Atkinson. What a phenomenal fun time to join these Ex-Wives in their exclusive club as they dish up the failed monarch, driven to upend the Catholic Church, lie, steal and kill in the name of gaining a male heir. We’ve had enough mansplaining about Henry’s actions. It’s time for the ladies!
Gloriously, these Exs take back their queenly power, rudely wrenched from them by Henry’s cruel hands in divorce, decapitation and expulsion. And in sisterly collaboration they raise their voices in a chorus of jubilation and foot stomping exuberance to vacate the patriarchal, historical perspective and lift up their identities, apart from the monarch who never got the best of them. With their audience fandom singing along, whooping and applauding rhythmically during the songs and especially in the final song “Six,” it is enough to rock Henry VIII in his moldering grave in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Can you hear them, Henry?
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in an inspirational fit of glory have come up with one of the most joyous and meaningful concepts that wraps history in a modern, insightful, revealing perspective, as told by women who are great in their own right. And in the retelling of their stories, we realize because of who these women were/are, Henry VIII is one of the most written about monarchs in British history and media (TV, plays, movies). The women are the central focus in SIX the Musical as they should be. This marvelous production is mind-blowing, refreshing, profound.
Why do Marlow and Moss, and Moss and Jamie Armitage who both directed, succeed in this show first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017? They enjoin historical facts with hot rhymes and rhythms and rock/pop concert fever topped off with a dynamic, explosive, vibrant, “It’s showtime” cast and creatives.
The design, look and feel of this Renaissance of light and sound knocks the audience’s enjoyment into the heavens. All design elements cohere with the theme, showcasing these women as stars. The women’s story deserves this futuristic retelling. Hence the sparkles and spangles and beads and sci-fi metallic-looking brilliance, thanks to Gabriella Slade’s out-of-this-world costume design which makes sense. Indeed, with Emma Bailey’s sensational set design and Tim Deiling’s equally eye-popping lighting design, the exuberant grandeur is fanciful, magical and funny. It has all the smattering of the Renaissance royal court in a mash up of pop/rock elegance.
Importantly, we’ve come to hear each of the women relate their story, especially the ones we are least familiar with. Initially, they tell us this is a competition of songs and virtuoso singing. Who is the most miserably treated by the cruel Henry? And we get to vote our favorable, miserable Queen to aggrandize her fame above the others, perhaps to make up for Henry’s malevolence.
They sing in order of their marriages after they introduce the funny and rousing fact that they are “Ex-Wives.” However, the tone is all about being “out there!” And we realize from their sassiness and boldness, being an Ex of a monarch is something to take pride in.
Catherine of Aragon, the dynamic Adrianna Hicks dishes on Henry in “No Way” in the Queenspiration style of Beyoncé and Shakira. The feisty Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn insists she lost her head in the hysterical “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” Thus, no one can “top” Boleyn she quips; she feels she’s already won the prize as the most miserable of the Ex-wife sufferers. Many jokes follow her separation from her head as the running-joke that never tires. Her Queenspiration style follows Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, but she is all Andrea Macasaet, a spit-fire, not really standing in anyone else’s shoes.
At this juncture, Marlow and Moss create a pause in the rollicking, pop/rock song and hip-hop movement ballyhoo. It is an appropriate change up. After all, history wrapped in music and shining light is never hackneyed or the same. Thus, Jane Seymour (the soulful Abby Mueller) appears not to be disabused by Henry like the others. She’s the one “he truly loved.” Obviously, she can’t parade herself as the most victimized. So she sings a beautiful ballad “Heart of Stone” of Henry’s love and her loyalty to him, but so soon lost in childbirth. Abby Mueller’s song style is Adele and Sia.
One of the most LOL and Social Media twitting of the queens is Brittney Mack’s Anna of Cleves, who must take back her power after all the queens mock her in the song “Haus of Holbein.” Henry famously went to Germany for this wife, fell in love with her portrait in oil and proposed via his officials. When she showed up in person, Henry rejected her outright as unattractive.
In “Get Down” are some of the funniest lyrics as Anna of Cleves reveals her great good fortune sitting on the throne in her castle living in luxury without having to deal with the bruiser Henry. “You said I tricked ya, cause I didn’t look like my profile picture,” hearkens to all the dating sites and social media sites where folks don’t put up their most recent pictures. In the style of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, the sensational Brittney Mack has a blast stomping Henry.
Perhaps the most memorable song and the most true to life is what the beheaded Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack was terrific when I saw it October 6th) sings, “All You Wanna Do.” Kathrine Howard had many affairs and sings of the men who importune her sexually, then leave her “high and dry.” Of course, Henry, finding out about her former promiscuity, creates an act to punish her for her sexual experience and knowledge. “It’s off with her head, too!” The double standard here goes beyond the pale with Henry sewing his wild oats in every village and town in his kingdom. The song meaning in the style of Ariana Grande and Brittney Spears sung by Mack is powerful and beautiful.
Catherine Parr (the brassy Anna Uzele) brings on the 4th Wave feminist revelation. Why should there be a contest, a male construct of oppression to divide and conquer? Catherine Parr singing “I don’t Need Your Love,’ is the modern woman who can make it on her own. Indeed, the first woman in England to publish books in her own name, Catherine Parr rocks. Also, she outlived Henry and his penchant to divorce and behead. Anna Uzele sings in the style of Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé.
By the concluding song, “Six,” even men stand up, applaud and clap to the finale. The cast and the wonderful Ladies in Waiting all girl band (Julia Schade, Michelle Osbourne, Kimi Hayes, Elena Bonomo) help to explode male presumptions and make sure the message is clear: patriarchy has no place in a kinder, gentler, decent society and culture where equanimity is a key goal.
This production and its creatives can’t be praised enough. See it twice. For tickets and times go to https://sixonbroadway.com/
Photos by Joan Marcus
Two men standing on a desolate street corner with a lamppost shining on a blasted, deserted, space save for a garbage can, a patch of weeds, a tire, a wire milk carton. Such is the material/empirical setting reminiscent in its isolation and abstract loneliness of Samuel Beckett’s setting in ‘Waiting For Godot.’ Likewise the comedic and clown-like Moses (the brilliant Jon Michael Hill) and his Homie, clowning sidekick Kitch (the brilliant Namir Smallwood) appear similar to Vladimir and Estragon. However, they are not. They are black. And where Vladimir and Estragon “wait,” unafraid, bored, wiling away the hours, Moses and Kitch exist in a hellish landscape afraid of death at the hands of the “PoPos,” shorthand for police.
Whether one has seen Beckett’s Godot or not, doesn’t matter. The isolation of these two individuals and their express desires to leave this heartless existence that holds the terror of black men dying by a simulated “justice” which is tantamount to the injustice of lynching is conveyed with empathy and poignancy by the creative team of actors and director Danya Taymor. With acute care, emotional grist, comedic genius and dynamic drama, they bring to stark, felt life, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s haunting, memorable dialogue in Pass Over, currently running at the August Wilson Theatre in a cool, streamlined no intermission production.
When we first meet the likable Moses and Kitch, we understand their camaraderie and support for one another, as well as the similarity of their desires, fantasizing about the finer things of a luxurious, material, elite lifestyle. Though Moses is the leader and Kitch is his follower and admirer, their synchronicity and dependency is clear, for they wish to “pass over,” to get to the “promised land,” the “land of milk and honey” represented by the “American Dream.”
And whether we have eaten lobster or drank Crystal, like they wish to, we, too, have craved the finer things of life and may even feel a sense of superiority that we have experienced them, where these impoverished of the ghetto block can only entertain themselves and each other by dreaming about such extravagances in a humorous and ironic game which has become a way of bonding between them.
Fifteen minutes in to the thrust and parry of humor, the gaming is interrupted by a Pavlovian signal that has brainwashed them to fear: the stage floods momentarily with a steely light and a dull, blaring warning sound. (It reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film War of the Worlds, when there sounds a far-reaching alarm announcing the aliens’ presence.) We learn later that Moses and Kitch recognize this alarm as the sound of death; that another black friend or acquaintance in their neighborhood has been killed by police. They cower and crouch in fear until the light and sound normalizes to the stasis of desolation, and once again they return to humor and the grace of planning to escape and go somewhere where they can live free from fear in a greater abundance of prosperity than their current existence.
However, there are two caveats. They must elude the PoPos, as Moses led the Israelites to elude the angel of death which “passed over” the the First Born if the blood of the lamb was on the doorposts of the Israelites’ homes. Secondly, the PoPos expect them to remain on the block to never escape their oppression and misery. Thus, they are free only in their games, humor and imagination, while their physical bodies are subject to the reality of their dire existence with the threat of death hanging over their lives. Will they be able to “pass over” and escape death? The symbolism is spiritual with possibilities for escaping all of what the playwright infers elements of the death state is in this life.
Into their ghetto corner (which the playwright suggests symbolizes as historical oppression and redemption-a river’s edge, a plantation, a desert city built by slaves and a new world on the horizon) comes Mister who slips up and calls himself Master (the wonderful Gabriel Ebert). Taymor has him ironically dressed in a white suit and vest, such as gentlemen of the Old South used to wear on or off the plantation. Mister, intending to visit his ill mother with a picnic basket of food, inexplicably gets lost and arrives with his bounty to the ghetto block.
At first Moses, whom his religion teacher encouraged to live up to his namesake, the Biblical Moses, proudly eschews Mister’s offer of food charity, though both he and Kitch are hungry. However, sociable, “good-natured” Mister cajoles and tempts them. And after he massages their egos with charm and humility, he shares some of the delicious food in his basket with Moses and Kitch in a wonderfully humorous staged scene.
We note the roles between the individuals and hints of seduction and exploitation, expecting some catastrophe, however, Nwandu has tricks up her sleeve and the situation with Mister is as it appears. Mister worms his way into their hearts and they become friendly. And for a fascinating moment they forget about “getting off the block,” and being all they can be, lulled by the food. Intriguingly, Mister chides them for abusing their use of the “N” word which he cannot use, because as Moses suggests, he doesn’t own that word.
It is an ironic gesture since it is perhaps the only “thing” Mister doesn’t “own,” as a representative of the dominant oppressor race. Though Mister doesn’t “own” their black identity which they have accepted as their own, is it something which is good for them or is it another trick of oppression? After Mister leaves, Moses and Kitch realize that adopting that identity is a trick of the white culture and the PoPos, for by inference, the “N” label associates with low-down and/or slovenly criminal behavior, regardless of whether they are deserving of such labels or not. Ironically, they have proudly accepted that term as their identity, but it has resulted in black male deaths at the hands of the police.
Deciding to cover for themselves, using Mister’s gentile manners, they avoid trouble, when Ossifer (a police officer played by Gabriel Ebert who is the different side of the same coin as Mister) shows up. Moses and Kitch become “gentlemen” in word and action, imitating Mister. It works. Ossifer leaves them alone and protects them as culturally “white” until Kitch slips up and uses the “N” word triggering the brutality of the police officer who confronts them as their oppressor to control, belittle and demean. Under these circumstances we feel the depressive desolation of the historical and current inferior “slave.” And Ossifer terrorizes them reminding them that their lives are only useful for living in fear and misery as “the controlled.” The only respite Moses and Kitch have is the humor and hope Kitch and Moses stir up within themselves and share with each other to make existence bearable until they can “pass over.”
In an amazing turning point, Nwandu clarifies a new meaning for the term Moses references from the Bible, “pass over.” It is a spiritual one that Moses convinces Kitch they must now seek, no longer wanting to deal with the despair and long trial of a desolate existence.
Taymor, shepherding Hill, Smallwood and Ebert creates extreme tension throughout. Especially when Ebert as Mister and Ossifer shows up. The atmosphere is that of a pressure cooker sizzling until it seethes into an explosion which does occur. We, like Moses and Kitch, expect the blast after every joke, around every game they play, especially when the alarm sounds and lights flare up that the PoPos have killed another black man. Nwandu cleverly distorts the thrust of the heat and danger providing extraordinary twists in the turn of evolving events. These become revelatory, magical and lead to the unexpected and heartfelt.
The beauty of the conclusion is in its realization of a return to an ideal which isn’t actually some pie in the sky fantasy, but is present and real. In the production it occurs with the help of and extraordinary supernatural intervention as happened to the Biblical Moses. Taking one step forward after another, Moses, Kitch and Ossifer (a reborn Christopher) are released and the imagined consciousness comes into being. However, the lure of what’s past beckons. One must not turn around to be enticed, or everything will be lost in the material plane where the human race has crashed and burned for millennia.
Pass Over is a must see for its fantastic performances, its uniqueness, its joy, despair, thematic truths and its wonderful faith and hope in human nature. I could not help but be gratified that there were no female characters. Their absence is lyrically pointed. The production is mesmerizing and I have nothing but praise for how the playwright, director and actors connected with the truth of what we face as a multifaceted and diverse society that is desperately crying out for healing and redemption. But as Nwandu suggests, the promised land is already here. We must look to our own inner strengths and step out to cross that “river”and never turn back.
Kudos to the creative team that made this production fly and whose effects helped to send chills down my spine and tears down my face. They include Wilson Chin (scenic design) Sarafina Bush (costume design) Marcus Doshi (lighting design) and Justin Ellington (sound design). Pass Over runs until the 10th of October. This is one you cannot miss. For tickets and times go to the Pass Over website by clicking HERE.
Life is a whistle stop away from dissolution and death in the soulful, atmospheric, other-worldly Girl From The North Country by Conor McPherson (Shining City, The Seafarer) with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. The production had an extended run off Broadway at The Public Theatre. With a few cast changes and a bit of slimming down, the McPherson/Dylan collaboration is an enlightened one as Dylan’s songs have found an amazing home threaded from decade to decade with McPherson’s canny naturalistic and spiritual characterizations
Dr. Walker (the fine Robert Joy) provides the frame of reference (like the narrator in Thorton Wilder’s Our Town) revealing the depression-era setting and introducing the lead characters. Interestingly, all of the characters by the end of the production must confront the state of their lives during the dire times during 1934 in Duluth, Minnesota. McPherson’s expert sense of story-telling and familiarity with the Depression-era literature of the time has enabled him to cobble together the John Steinbeck-like (Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath) characters and storylines. These have been reinforced and inspired by Bob Dylan’s music from various decades. Together, theirs is a marvelous depiction of unity in desperation, longing in torment and hope in uncertainty. Finally, the musical’s theme of timelessness wafts like a beaming streak of gold throughout this must-see production.
A number of the actors double as musicians and Dylan’s song selection ranges in a combination of pop, country, folk and blues. All the songs are recognizable and illustrative of the mood and tone of this stirring piece about characters who yearn for a brighter tomorrow but know that the result will be a more challenging ever-presence of sorrows. Nevertheless, the characters snatch from the mouth of woe bits of humor, song and dance which create shining moments that move them to give solace to one another to help get them to the next day.
Chief among these every-day-heroes is boarding house owner, the stalwart, self-immolating Nick Laine (the fine Jay O. Sanders) who keeps a brood of homeless, down-and-outers together for a time, until they must all move on because Nick is broke and losing his home to the banks. The reference to Steinbeck’s Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath after they lose their house and prepare to leave for the “promised-land” of California is unmistakable.
Nick must negotiate his wife Elizabeth (the incredible Mare Winningham in a sterling performance). Elizabeth has dementia and ironically serves as Nick’s conscience, seamlessly moving in and out of sentience selecting a time when she can most effectively jab at Nick’s soul about his sister whose death he negligently caused and his mistress Mrs. Neilsen (the excellent Jeannette Bay Ardelle).
Mrs. Neilsen and Nick receive a respite from misery in each other’s arms as she rents a room and helps out with Elizabeth during the time she stays in Nick’s boarding house. Mrs. Neilsen lures Nick with her deceased husband’s scheduled inheritance which she dangles in front of him as bait to fulfill their dream of running away together. Ardelle easily slides into Dylan’s songs with full-throated abandon that is rich and lustrous.
Winningham’s Elizabeth is willful, prescient and edgily funny. She brings down the house with her rendition of “How Does It Feel,” as a foreboding reminder that fate comes for all of us and especially Nick and the various borders who are skulking away from life and the law in this temporary haven from both. She nails Mr. Perry for his sexually predatory abuse of her when she was a child. And she questions Nick why he would pimp off their adopted daughter Marianne Laine ( the wonderful Kimber Elayne Sprawl) to old Mr. Perry in a quid pro quo exchange of Marianne for the payments on their mortgage. Elizabeth to a large extent discourages the deal to Nick, Mr. Perry and her daughter, and though she will miss her, she doesn’t discourage Marianne from running off with boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) who blows in one desolate night looking for shelter at Nick’s place with his companion Reverend Marlowe (Matt McGrath).
Thankfully, Nick’s boarding house provides “a welcome for lost souls.” There, Nick feeds them, they celebrate Thanksgiving, they dance. However, Mrs. Burke (the fine Luba Mason), Mr. Burke ( the superb Marc Kudisch), and Elias Burke (the wonderful Todd Almond) hide secrets. So do the slippery Reverend Marlowe and accomplished boxer Joe Scott. Each of the characters is “on the run!” They carry the baggage of their fears, failures and hidden torments to Nick’s guesthouse where eventually their inner hell is exposed to the light and we feel and understand their suffering with empathy in a kind of redemptive soul evolution and hope.
Perhaps the most poignant of fears concerns the Burkes, whose strong, powerfully built son Elias manifests the mind of a three-year-old. Like the character Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, he understands little of his world around him and stumbles into heartbreaking trouble.
The poignance of his demise is uplifted when Todd Almond as Elias magnificently sings “Duquesne Whistle.” As a spirit he has gone to the afterlife. No more materialistic pain and suffering shackles his mind and heart in darkness. Dressed in a white suit, free of his mental challenges, he and the chorus celebrate that other dimension McPherson beautifully presents (a theme in many of his works). It is a full-on, gospel “coming home” ceremony. Elias (like his name-variant prophet Elijah), “makes it to the other side” of the Light in a wonderful capstone to Almond’s complex and nuanced portrayal.
Thanksgiving as an ironic celebration of a country that has not stood by any of them, initially is filled with song that follows fast with grim realities. At this juncture after the toasts come the tragic truths that explode all of their yearnings that are pipe dreams (in a reference to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh). Though Marianne escapes with Joe Scott who airily convinces her he will protect her and her child in Chicago, it is one more grabbing at a brass ring on the merry-go-round of life that has stopped spinning and has lost its glory in a break down that will never be repaired.
Nick’s hopes shatter as his daughter Marianne runs off, leaving Mr. Perry without a wife and Nick without house payments. And the final blow is delivered by son Gene (Colton Ryan) whose alcoholism allows him to tell his father at the celebration that he lost the railroad job his father moved heaven and earth for him to get. Gene’s girlfriend Kate (Caitlin Houlahan) leaves him and he is left relying on his father when Nick has nothing more to give him and feels an abject failure at his inability to raise his children to help support the family which is now bereft. No wonder Nick considers suicide (Dr. Walker implies this) but is too dependent on Elizabeth needing him to take it beyond contemplation.
Only Elizabeth, after her marvelous speech about love and her marriage to Nick, afterward singing “Forever Young,” remains serene in her sentience and canny distraction. Indeed, with Nick’s help she has mastered the art of balance even in her dementia.
With finality, we look in the background at their last Thanksgiving together in tableau, as Dr. Walker narrates what he knows of the characters’ futures, again reminiscent of the narrator in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. And as McPherson is wont to do and does believably, Dr. Walker (Robert Joy) shares his passing to “the other side” in Christmas of 1934. We realize then that he has been speaking to us as a spirit, sharing with us his fond memories of the Laines, the guests, and that time.
What more can be said about this marvelous must-see Broadway premiere that has been directed by Conor McPherson and shepherded with care and love from The Old Vic, to The Public Theater, to the Belasco Theatre? The chorus/ensemble (Matthew Frederick Harris, Jennifer Blood, LawTerrell Dunford, Ben Mayne, Tom Nelis, Chiara Trentalange, Bob Walton, John Schiappa, Rachel Stern, Chelsea Lee Williams), are exceptional in voice and movement. Kudos to Rae Smith (scenic & costume design), Mark Henderson (lighting design), and Simon Baker (sound design). Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements of Dylan’s music are exceptional. Additionally, without Dean Sharenow (music coordinator) Marco Paguia (music director) Lucy Hind (movement director) the actors who played in the band (Todd Almond, Marc Kudisch, Luba Mason), and musicians Martha McDonnell, Mary Ann McSweeney, and others, the full impact of the production would be lessened.
West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (orchestrations by Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a groundbreaking classic that garnered awards when it opened on Broadway in 1957 to a flurry of praise and glory. Its overwhelming success continued when it was made into the 1961 titular film winning 10 Academy Awards. Since then it has seen numerous global productions and has been revived on Broadway twice in 1980, and in 2009 with Spanish lyrics and dialogue weaved into the English Libretto.
Once again in revival directed by the maverick sensation Ivo Van Hove (Network, The Crucible) and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, West Side Story has proven its timelessness with Van Hove highlighting its immutable themes. Van Hove’s direction sounds these thematic notes with his stylistic tuning fork to ping the deepest chords of human nature with which we must identify, as he explores the mortal boundaries of love, tribalism, power, bigotry, alienation, fear, self-loathing and hatred.
Van Hove’s modernization of West Side Story should not be underestimated. He unravels the underlying perils of “the outsider” theme that resonate with currency for us today. He gives this principal conceptualization a novel rendering by employing video projection (video design by Luke Halls) and the “close-up” to elicit an intimacy and connection with the characters not readily available before. The intimate portrayals of the Sharks and Jets (delivered by close-up) as well as their objectified view that encompasses their using the entire stage, reflects the insider and outsider viewpoint. In the intimate view these individuals are young men, hurting, afraid, alone. In the outsider view they are non-human, throw-away people who have embraced the world of criminality and violence because that gives them a rush of comfort in power and identity that the culture denies to them.
For example in the Prologue we meet in close-ups the key players: Riff (the fabulous Dharon E. Jones) of the Sharks, Bernardo (his marvelous equivalent Amar Ramasar) of the Jets, and their gang members. We note their proud and stalwart personas; they could be CEOs of a company in another time and place. We see their branding, the combat gear of their identities: their piercings, their haircuts, the intricacy of their tattoos. And beyond that as the camera pans the two tribes, we note their sneering bravado, their violence and something else behind their staring eyes-perhaps fear.
These Prologue close-ups in real time, before the tremendous opening number of the stylized, vigorous fight sequence in which a Jet is injured, humanize the erstwhile stereotyped ethnicity of the “Puerto Rican” Sharks and their urban, mixed race counterpart, the Jets. They appear interchangeable. Van Hove’s enlightened casting suggests they are not bonded by ethnicity since there are black, white, Latino members in both gangs, but by inner necessity. They cling to their tribe out of fear, isolation, alienation and the trauma of cultural self-loathing, of being outside, of being the “other.”
We especially note the need to belong in the “Jet Song” which answers the call to be a part of something “bigger” than oneself, even if it is bloodthirsty and destructive. By extension, the Sharks are mixed race and indistinguishable from the Jets except that they “came” from Puerto Rico.
With the exception of a few scenes and songs where the backdrop is black and a rainy mist falls down to perhaps symbolize the eternal/immutable/spiritual, the video design-both live and pre-recorded prevails throughout. The events are streamlined and strengthened. The arc of development moves over a two-day period and falls into the resolution we all know is coming, but still remains surprising and poignant. The song “I Feel Pretty” has been excised and the cut gives the musical an edgier, less digressive, less whimsical feel, which the song conveyed almost as an afterthought. That song in particular is off tenor with Van Hove’s dark vision of this lurid, scary world the gangs occupy, a vision which messages the nihilism of impoverished youth/citizens in this time of Trumpism, I.C.E., Black Lives Matter, The Wall, all of whose memes appear at various and pointed junctures in the production.
Thus, we note how the Sharks and Jets attempt to gain a position of power through violence to carve out a place where they can feel safe walking and being. Certainly, in the video projection of dark, lonely streets, a stylized version of the threatening landscape in each of the gang member’s minds, it is revealed that fear surrounds them and they must posture and swagger and image themselves into courage while inside they are cowering children.
For the Sharks, carving out a plot of land is acceptance in the country that views them as trash. As the cast sings “America” and the exceptional Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo vocally duel out their positions for or against the US, Van Hove’s projections are pointed and riveting. These encompass haunting images of a damaged Puerto Rico left ripped and forgotten after the negligent response of the US to Hurricane Maria. The projections represent the truth; the dance number and song reveals the courage of Anita to hope and the realism of Bernardo to highlight the discrimination and bigotry of third and fourth generation citizens against them. Throughout, Van Hove uses the projections in juxtaposition with the staging to encourage a novel understanding of how the inner person and their outer image operates. We see the two perspectives- the truth and a presentation of the image that is hoped will help one survive in a forbidding city.
The clips of devastation of Puerto Rico are inter cut with various related video clips, one of the final ones referencing miles and miles of the wall at the southern border. The wall is the everpresent reminder that outsiders/illegals are potential thugs and criminals, regardless of their status as asylum seekers, regardless of their status as US citizens. Of course the irony, as Van Hove’s striking version indicates, through the attitudes of Lt. Shrank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) that both Sharks and Jets are the unwanted trash, not just the Sharks. That is why they struggle against each other to maintain “face,” and identity in their gang until they are dead and the soil they have struggled over that has rejected them is forced to accept their corpses.
The one group that is missing from this production which I never realized before is missing for a great reason: the dominant social class of conservative “haves.” It is this notably absent elitist tribe that has made the country a pressure cooker of rejection, a blight and a hard climb to the top of the lower middle class for both wandering tribes. It is this group that indirectly encourages tribalism as an answer for those who have little hope for the future and are made to feel as outcasts and criminals who belong in jail (“Gee, Officer Krupke”-the projections during this number are just spot-on).
The song sung terrifically by Action (Elijah A. Carter) and the Jets reveal they cannot escape from the dominant white culture’s prophecy about them as criminals. As they internalize the perspective of the dominant culture and law enforcement, their self-annihilation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though Action and the Jets tell the Officer to “Krup” himself, it isn’t enough. Their trajectory is fated and doomed, especially without mentors to guide them away from their self-loathing. That Tony and Maria become swept up in their misery unable to break completely free from their own posse and families is the tragedy we have come to hope against.
The director’s use of “larger-than-life” video shakes, stimulates, references and enhances the symbolism and profound human depth of the star-crossed lovers and their “posses.” The projections against the entire back wall of the stage sometimes in split screens of twenty portraits of gang members, sometimes in engaging medium shots of Doc’s drugstore (“Something’s Coming”) and the sweatshop (renamed from the bridal shop) where Maria and her friends work reveal the homely mores which Tony and Maria accept apart from the gang members’ identity and lifestyle.
I particularly enjoyed how the close-ups of Maria and Tony in the intimacy of their alone time after he discovers her name worked. First, both Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell are vibrant, passionate and in-the-moment, practically every moment. Van Hove’s staging and Powell’s rendition of “Something’s Coming,” and “Maria” particularly shine. Powell’s voice, interpretation and movement are uplifting. In “Tonight” he appears as light as a feather; it is, a full expression of the exhilaration of his love for Maria. I have not seen anything like his performance; he is mesmerizing reaching the highs, lows and devastation of believing that Maria has been killed. He is so there, he brings us there with him. Superlative! Magnificent!
Maria is bubbling over warmth, passionate in her love scene with Powell which was a videoed close-up which made total sense and was an expression of their intimacy as they become “one” and exclude the world they were born into and have decided to leave. Pimentel’s fury after Tony is killed is so convincing, she makes you believe she will shoot all of the guilty, conferring upon herself the roles of judge, jury and executioner, thereby convicting them of his death.
The projections carry the metaphoric journey of the outsider, the trash, the unwanted in a through-line of our time, of all time in the import of tribalism’s necessity in a culture that kicks these kids to the bottom and stands in the way of allowing others to find peace, love and happiness. This isn’t just about warring tribes; it’s about seeking power and domination, the easier, faster way out cultural hell than using intellect, logic and wisdom, the qualities amassed through experience, overcoming obstacles and time-worn trial and error.
The Sharks and the Jets, indistinguishable ethnically, are yet distinguishable through costume designer An D’Huys fine designs and color coordination. However, notable is that the Sharks and Jets are brothers of the same ethos who should be helping each other climb upward, instead of fulfilling the white culture’s perceptions of them as violent criminals. By the time we meet them in the video close-ups of the Prologue, we know it is too late. As young men and women, they have few tools at their disposal (wisdom-gained through experience) to thrive as they seek to establish who they are. After all, it is an alien society of adults who eschew them or culturally disavow what they are as tattooed, pierced, hoodlum criminals.
Sadly, their choices to achieve are few. They can either “die young in a blaze of self-annihilating triumph and leave a good-looking corpse” or live the defeatist life of a self-quarantined, cowardly wussy to avoid the gangs. In Ivo Van Hove’s production, sociocultural economic inequality encourages these tribes toward the genocidal thing to do. That Tony and Maria find each other and love is miraculous. The scene where Van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stage the couples moving off together revealing love as an answer to the culturally encouraged nihilism and self-destruction is particularly touching and hopeful.
This version of West Side Story is a shining example of how structure, form, substance and profound understanding merges to make elevated art. Van Hove cleverly uses the projections and the live staging of the actors/characters in tandem; one informs the other, whether it is to enhance the symbols and themes, to emphasize the characterizations or to detail intimacy. What is communicated is remarkable and unforgettable. Coupled with the acting, singing, movement and the dance numbers by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are filled with athleticism that is so appropriate to the characters. All of this contributes to making the production indescribable- breathtaking, stunning, gobsmacking are an understatement. And the music is luscious, gorgeous, fabulous, thanks to Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Alexander Gemignani (music supervisor & director).
There is so much more. I’ll just finish with… I also loved the staging/choreography where Maria and Tony are striving to move toward each other pulling against the need of their tribes. The piled-on movement is gripping, sinewy, a tug of war that they will defy for they love each other. Wonderful. And at the end they are pulled apart heaven and earth dividing them until…
The creative team are exceptional artists: Luke Halls (video design) Tom Gibbons (sound design) An D’Huys (costume design). Also superlative are Quinn Matthews as video director, Eric K. Yue as director of photography, Taylor Shung as video producer, Jan Versweyveld for his scenic design and lighting design.
There is nothing else to state except you must see this production. It is an event that does more than entertain. It grabs your heart and makes you understand your humanity and compassion. West Side Story is at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway) running with no intermission until 6th September. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘Grand Horizons,’ a Ferociously Funny Vision of Senior Redefinition, Starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell
At last! There’s a new and improved perspective of “seniorhood” that doesn’t include steps up the ladder of infirmity and dementia: from independent living to the “Rose Court,” from memory care to the palliative slip-away into Hospice. Indeed, as we appreciate and glory over the vibrant humor and comedic power of situation and characters in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, we learn a thing or two about “old folks” and “the younger generation” in this rollicking yet profound play.
First, age is attitude. Second, the older one becomes, the more one must think outside of the box, especially out of the type found in replicated, independent living housing. Third, the closer one gets to the “end,” the more one should “rage against the dying of the light.” Fourth, one can experience in one’s later years a vision of life that is freeing, one that destroys the cages we created our entire lives: for they are a mere facsimile of living. Indeed, contrary to seniors who settle for the cardboard, cookie-cutter artificiality of existence in vegetative, pre-fabricated places like Grand Horizons, Wohl reveals that it is possible to make life-affirming changes even at the age of 80 years-old as does her protagonist, Nancy, the amazing Jane Alexander.
The playwright’s brilliant script is cleverly paced by Leigh Silverman’s precise direction of the superb ensemble. Masters of the comedy of real, of humor springing from grounded, soulful authenticity, the actors led by Jane Alexander and James Crowmwell pop the quips, jokes, one-liners, twists and turns of phrase and mood to keep the audience laughter rolling in waves of joy. Wohl’s well-crafted writing absolutely sings with comedic grace and profound themes, sharply channeled by Silverman. These include the importance of breaking through the stereotypical concepts of aging, family, parenting, marriage, love, intimacy, individuality and autonomy.
The play’s situation is common enough. Nancy and Bill, a “typical,” retired, fifty-year married couple have taken the next steps toward their journey’s end by moving into an independent senior living community. Is it the replication of row after row of modestly, flimsily built homes in a vast similitude (Bryce Cutler’s projection design) that sets off Nancy? Or perhaps what triggers her is the whitewashed, pleasant kitchen/dining nook/living room interior of “peaceful” uniformity (Clint Ramos’ set design) though it is festooned by artificial greenery.
We learn later in a profound and symbolic irony, that the lovely plants don’t even have the opportunity to die bio-dynamically as a result of Nancy’s over or under watering. They just go on and on and on in lifeless “eternity.” Nancy’s eyes open to their fake permanence later in the play, after she has confronted herself, her children and Bill with the truth. Her ironic comment about their artificiality has to do with the realizations of her own growth.
The vast sterility of this community is only heightened by the play’s opening of Nancy’s and Bill’s dinner that is choreographed to reveal a mutually synchronized preparation that they execute silently with near robotic precision. Well, enough is enough in this perfect haven of deadness. I could hear Nancy’s thoughts as she looked at Bill as they, with synced movements in unison, took out their napkins, then began to drink and eat. What more could anyone their age wish want? They appear to have it all. But is this the exuberance of life we wish for?
At this point Alexander’s Nancy lets the desires of her heart explode from her lips and the train moves onto the express track and doesn’t stop until she achieves what she wants, sort of, by the play’s end. Jane Alexander’s delivery of the opening lines of conflict are spot-on humorous and ominous: “I think I want a divorce.”
The excitement of what Nancy envisions to be on her grand horizon for the future is in imagining its open-ended possibilities, even if it is merely sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal by herself. Clearly, she wants no more imprisonment by the chains of coupling. She wants to know her own power, strength and autonomy apart from defining herself as Bill’s wife. As the play progresses, we discover she has already established her autonomy away from her family, though she has kept it secret. Interestingly, perhaps as a long awaited response, Bill is striking out on his own in this senior community by taking stand up comedy classes and enjoying a relationship with Carla (Priscilla Lopez). We learn later that this may be his response to what he has known all along of Nancy’s secrets.
As these details are gradually revealed we enjoy watching the incredulous sons, Brian (the wonderfully funny Michael Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie is the harried lawyer control freak who can’t relax). Both are shattered by the announcement of the divorce. Ironically, they don’t want their parents to leave their comfortable “mom” and “dad” roles to be individuals, redefining who they want to be. They want stasis, not for their parents’ happiness but for their own comfort and assurance. Brian’s and Ben’s perceptions of their parents living apart from each other are at odds with their parents’ expectations. For Nancy and Bill divorce will be a positive experience. The sons cannot wrap their heads around this, especially that Nancy is planning to live in an Air Bnb. Their mom in an Air BnB: a horror!
Wohl takes advantage of this set-up in a refreshing way. In an ironic reversal, with the help of Jess (Ashley Park) Ben’s wife, Brian and Ben don the parental roles. They attempt to gauge what has recently happened, as they try to square away what mom and dad must do to resurrect the bloom on their long-dead marriage. Their failed attempts are humorous. Adroitly, the actors bounce off each of their characters’ stress-filled emotions with peppery dynamism and wit.
Brian’s neediness is easily identifiable throughout and is integral to his character as a theater teacher who creates 200 characters in The Crucible so “no kid will be left behind to feel left out.” It is Brian who is so dislocated by his parents’ future divorce, he worries about where he will spend Thanksgiving which is six months away. His sensitivity exceeds his parents’ emotionalism. The dichotomy is hysterical, yet heartfelt.
Ben’s eczema flares as he attempts to take control of where each of his parents will live. And then there is Jess providing the counseling so Nancy and Bill can return to their once affectionate times with each other. With Ben and Brian looking on with hope at Jess’ powers, the results that follow are riotous. As their visit with Bill and Nancy to persuade them not to divorce lengthens, Jess begins to look at her relationship with Ben differently as he reverts to Bill and Nancy’s son. Where has her husband gone or is this just hormones because she is pregnant?
The resistance of the younger generation to the divorce is a powerful obstacle which the parents find impossible to answer to their children’s’ satisfaction. It provides conflicts among the characters from which Wohl tweaks and teases thematic tropes. What are the phases and stages of our lives? How do we define them apart from cultural stereotypes and familiar roles that appear to offer comfort, but are actually binding and nullifying? What price do we pay to create our families and sacrifice for children with expectations that are unreasonable, or worse, false? From parenting to aging, no one can provide a guideline for what to do that will resonate completely with our individual lives. Every family, every person in that family is different. We fail, but perhaps it is worth it because we learn and if we are open to it, we heal.
Nancy’s desire for a divorce sets the entire family roiling except for Bill, who appears to remain calm. Of course Wohl is always pushing the envelope to get the maximum surprise and intrigue from her characters, who remain interesting and intensely human.
The audience’s gales of laughter organically spring from Nancy’s revelations that she has pursued her desires and dreams despite the intrusions of raising her two sons and making a home for her husband Bill. Indeed, the mother they believed she was, is not who she presented herself to be. She had another love. And when she expresses the importance of her closeness and intimacy with this lover to Brian (Urie brings down the house with his responses to her sexual descriptions) in the hope of explaining why she is leaving Bill, he cannot cope with understanding that his mother is perhaps a woman first.
This is something many children have difficulty with unless the parents, with good will and flexibility, help them to understand love, sexuality and intimacy. Bill and Nancy never considered going into these discussions with Brian and Ben because they never went there with each other. It is a telling irony that catches up with all of them at this juncture.
Clearly, Nancy runs deep as does Bill, who is a cypher that Wohl reveals by the conclusion, when we learn that both Bill and Nancy have kept intimacies and secrets to themselves. Yet, they do love one another. The humor and pathos come when we note how difficult it is for Ben and Brian to understand their parent’s particularities when they believed the packaged family meme that “togetherness is happiness.” That meme when they admit it, satisfied none of them, least of all their parents.
All of this eventually tumbles out after Brian, Ben and Jess visit, stay and don’t leave until Bill and Nancy politely tell them to go and reassure them that they are going to be all right. By the end of the play, Wohl opens the door to hope. Even if they live apart, maybe Bill and Nancy can begin to see each other outside of the roles that threatened to box them in “til death did them part.”
Grand Horizons is a mixture of uproarious fun and thoughtful poignance. Shepherded by Leigh Silverman’s vision the actors deliver, with sterling performances by Alexander and Cromwell and with high marks for McKenzie, Urie, Park and in secondary roles as Tommy (Maulik Pancholy) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez). Additional kudos to the creative team: Clint Ramos (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) Jen Schriever (lighting design) Palmer Hefferan (sound design) Bryce Cutler (production design).
When the Negro Ensemble Company presented Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play in its Off Broadway premiere in 1981, the production garnered a number of theater awards and Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. Norman Jewison directed the film version retitled A Soldier’s Story in 1984 where it was nominated for numerous awards. It has been produced in two revivals Off Broadway in subsequent decades. At last Fuller’s searing, profound work about race prejudice internalized has received its premiere on Broadway, thirty-nine years later. It is currently running at American Airlines Theatre.
With exceptional direction by the amazing Kenny Leon (Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park 2019) and sterling ensemble work headed up with masterful performances by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play has come to Broadway with vibrant force and vigor. The dramatic arc of development revolves around solving a murder mystery. The body of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier portrays the unlikable, brutal, tragic Sergeant) is found with two bullet holes. The murder case is solved through flashbacks of scenes during the testimony of witnesses, narration and scenes unfolding in the present day 1944, Fort Neal, Louisiana.
Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell in a fine performance) and his superiors take precautions with the men of Waters’ platoon Company B, 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. They fear that Waters’ men may engage in revenge killings against red necks in the area of Fort Neal, Louisiana. It is not clear at the outset, but Waters may have been lynched by the KKK or good ole boys who intend to keep blacks bowing and scraping. Until his murder is investigated, and more is discovered about what may have happened, Waters’ men are guarded by MPs who surround their barracks so that none of them get entangled with white townspeople. Private Hensen suggests that the Klan killed Waters because lynchings have been happening since he arrived at Fort Neal. But he may have been murdered by white officers in a racial killing. As a result, commanding officers on the base have given the case a “low priority status,” and are ready to sweep all they discover under the rug.
The consideration makes sense in 1944 during WW II. At the Fort Neal and on every base in the U.S. military, black and white soldiers are segregated in their living quarters, platoons and companies. Service in the military is as discriminatory as the “separate but equal” oppressions of the Jim Crow South. In the day to day operations, the black companies are detailed with doing the scut work and menial assignments in order to confirm that they are the inferior race. Indeed, the men have not yet been sent to Europe to fight. This is another racist assumption that they cannot be trusted, but fit the stereotypic mischaracterization of blacks being lazy, shiftless, mentally slow and cowardly.
Fuller’s play focuses on the nullifying effects of racism as blacks attempt to rise in a culture that oppresses them, and counter-productively rejects or ignores their gifts and contributions. Using the lens of the past during WWII and the backdrop of segregation in the military, Fuller brilliantly emphasizes the psychological impacts of racism which creates annihilating divisions not only between blacks and whites, but especially between blacks and blacks. An inferred theme is that as the fascist Nazis did for Germany, these behaviors also, are incredibly destructive to “the master race.”
Fuller’s play reveals a richness of themes, characterizations and conflicts that timelessly reflect great currency for us today with underlying institutional racism and the increasing evidence of racism unleashed by the White House. Fuller also digs deeply into the black on black abuse and crime that evidences the internalization of white oppression and denigrating values and attitudes that blacks unconsciously accept as they seek to redefine themselves culturally apart from the mordant ethics of white culture.
Leon, highlights these themes with his superb direction and vision of Fuller’s play. His is a fascinating and nuanced iteration that includes symbolism and foreshadowing manifested by Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design and the music rendered in song by the on-point cast, elucidated by the excellent sound design of Dan Moses Schreier. At appropriate junctures in the production, beginning from the outset, Leon has the soldiers in Company B sing. We come to understand later that they are mourning one of their own. The music ties them together in a unity that cannot be breached by the racist white officers.
However, this unity must be breached by Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) a lawyer assigned to the 343 Military Police Corp Unit, if he is to discover who murdered Waters. In a devastatingly powerful, psychologically sensitive and heartfelt performance, Underwood introduces us to the racial dynamic he must confront as he analyzes the situation with objective tolerance, restraint and courage. It is an irony that in Davenport’s encounters with white officers, who would abuse his rank and his education, he stands his own ground with dignity and grace, employing the full force of his culture’s weapons (including a rumor that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is behind the investigation). No publicity is good publicity; if the case, which has been given low priority, is not handled properly, it could embarrass the military in a time of war.
Davenport, who is a maverick outlier, confounds the racist military officers who don’t know what to do with him and how to behave around him. He is a confident, self-realized, unbowed black man who is educationally superior to them, having achieved a law degree in addition to four years of college. Davenport’s talking “like a white man” and his staid nature and inner power particularly annoy Captain Taylor who dislikes that Davenport outranks him in intelligence and education, though they are on equal footing as Captains.
They disagree continually about Davenport’s mission, his competence, his confidence bucking the system and his insistence in interrogating and arresting white officers who might be charged with Waters’ murder. Underwood’s Davenport and O’Connell’s Taylor are authentic in their head-to-head arguments which intensify as Davenport incisively moves through his investigation. Both actors contribute to creating suspense and heightening the themes about why Waters was murdered, which gives rise to the underlying psychological and racial components that his murder reveals.
Fuller’s depth of characterization, his wisdom and his clear-eyed perception of what it means to be black in the military and in America then and now is only enhanced and codified in this insightful rendering shepherded by Kenny Leon to perfection. Each of the relationships between and among the enlisted soldiers of Company B, Waters and the white officers reflect explosive, vital issues. The irony of the setting is that America, which is mandated to fight and destroy fascism, of course refuses to adequately confront its racist fascism at home. The white culture forces susceptible blacks to obviate their own identity and culture to embrace white culture to “thrive.” Of course by doing this, blacks must reject their own people, their own very being as they internalize the value of being white and act white to get ahead, destroying their very valuable spirit and the soul of blackness.
This mistaken assumption is exemplified by Sergeant Waters. David Alan Grier’s perceptive understanding of Waters reveals the character’s limitations and sorrows. His cruelty toward some of the men in his company is an outgrowth of venerating white values and not defining himself as having worth apart from the white cultural “successes”. Grier’s portrayal is complex and rich with nuanced meaning. He reveals Waters’ realization of how he has destroyed himself and others as the great tragedy of the play. He is stunning and sardonic in his provocation of the white officers, and it is then we realize that he cannot get untangled from the morass he has created in abusing himself and others. He has become the epitome as the white man’s creature who perpetrates the most pernicious elements of discrimination and hatred by oppressing himself and attacking his own people.
Grier’s Waters is miserable and is looking to be put out of this hell he has created. And the execution he cannot effect for himself in a suicide, he provokes another to accomplish for him. His death is paralleled with another in the production. The other death is senseless genocide that Waters prompts, of course, because daily, Waters must cut out his black identity from his own soul. And in a twisted, passive aggressive revenge against blacks, whom he sees as not rising to the white man’s standards, he obliterates them. It is a slow, horrific process of self-destruction and fraud that the men in his company recognize, but cannot articulate. If they could they might be able to beneficially codify how to stop the genocidal practice of destroying oneself to “fit in” which Waters exemplifies.
In addition to the exceptional performances already mentioned are the performances of J. Alphonse Nicholson portraying Private C. J. Memphis and Rob Demery portraying Corporal Bernard Cobb. Nicholson’s Memphis is sensitive, loving and accepting. His speech to his close friend Corporal Cobb (who, too, is kind and elucidating) is poignant and filled with longing. We immediately understand where he is going in his life and why; his choice is symbolic and consequential; it is the cry of freedom from strictures which have so bound up Waters as to make him daily harm himself and target those like Memphis and Cobb.
Waters’ act of provocation and Memphis’ act are different sides of the same coin. That their behavior is directed against themselves and the black race in genocidal acts caused by racism and fascism, runs to the soul of American and is Leon’s and Fuller’s indictment against white supremacy. Indeed, if we look hard and deep enough in our justice system, in our economic inequality, in our educational inequality, the same threads of injustice prevail today. They are frighteningly manifest in the fascism of white supremacists who look to find their “place in the sun” which they fear they have lost. It is an incredible irony considering that they are blind, deaf and dumb to their own cultural creations and backwash reflected by institutional racism and discrimination that ultimately is destroying the white culture along with the black in a nihilistic seething inhumanity.
The conclusion delivered by Underwood’s Davenport that sums up the case findings and aftermath is emotionally riveting. It is as heartfelt and poignant as Nicholson’s speech as Private C. J. Memphis. But where Memphis has chosen his decision, Davenport is both blessed and cursed with infinite understanding. Indeed, we see that his recounting of what has transpired in Fort Neal is a memorial to these individuals. Also, it is triumphant in its prophesy for the future of civil rights achievements and the hoped for end of racism and discrimination which has yet to be realized even to this day in America. And finally it is a cry of anguish from the depths of Davenport’s soul: of frustration, of anger, of a cry to the heavens for justice. The interpretations are many as a capstone to this incredible production whose themes are paramount for us today.
Thankfully, Fuller’s play and this production put these themes front and center. It is impossible not to feel them, see them, know them, especially in recognizing current attempts to destroy our imperfectly realized democratic form of government by moving it toward fascism and dictatorship.
Once again kudos to the ensemble acting whose unity and and realism helped to create a memorable, thrilling night at the theater. And kudos also go to the creative team: Derek McLane (set design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Allen Lee Hughes (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Thomas Schall (fight choreographer).
The must-see A Soldier’s Play is running at American Airlines Theatre (42nd St. between 7th and 8th) with one intermission until 15 March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
In Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of My Name is Lucy Barton, Rona Munro’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, nothing is obvious. Indeed, a comparison to the novel may be a misdirection from what has been achieved in this sterling production, acted in a solo performance by the unparalleled Laura Linney. Linney flawlessly manifests director Richard Eyre’s vision for the titular character, and in doing so enhances Munro’s fine adaptation and Strout’s incredible, heart-felt characterization.
As the lights dim, we gaze upon the minimalistically staged hospital room whose large 3 D window spreads to almost cover the entire back wall, an indication of its importance to reflect Barton’s memories through three time lenses. Throughout the 90 minute play, projections of location scenes (NYC brownstone, corn/soybean fields, etc.) will splay, each enhancing and signifying Lucy Barton’s life (materially and symbolically).
When, Linney makes her entrance, stage left, her vital presence smashes through the sterility of the room and the possibilities of what being hospitalized portends. Her walk is confident, forthright, determined, with perhaps a hint of ruthlessness (this relates to what a friend told her about her career). And from that moment on, Linney secures our focus with her character’s articulate, well-hewn descriptions. She bewitches us by infusing Lucy Barton’s masterful story-telling with spot-on passion and seemingly open-hearted truthfulness. Our attention remains transfixed, throughout. And, at times, during her intimate, heartbreaking monologue, the audience remains hushed and still, avidly gleaning revelatory peeks into Barton’s miserable childhood of poverty, loneliness and fear while she grew, like the corn and soybean fields surrounding their ill-kempt, noisome home, into teenage-hood in Amgash, Illinois.
Barton’s story is not particularly exciting or eventful in the “average” way. It begins in the vibrant, present day. The arc of development moves in flashback to the time when Barton was married with two daughters and, after an appendectomy, is weirdly unable to systemically recover her health. Barton’s story-telling is filled with mystery in its exploration of her relationship with her mother. Linney portrays both women and seamlessly steps from present to flashback clearly designating the time intervals through Eyre’s staging, the mother’s Amgash accent and Munro’s pointed time transitions as Barton recalls or reflects on memories in the present time, then segues to the past for another dip into hope, loneliness and redemption.
Barton’s story is relatable to a cross-section of humanity, even the wealthy who suffer emotional trauma and abuse from parents. Some might argue Lucy Barton’s narrative transcends gender because it’s generalizable to relationships between parents and children, beyond stereotype and myth in the family dynamic. In other words, its sensitive, emotional and human universality appeals. What individual does not feel, if they dare to admit it, that their parents did not give them enough love, understanding, wisdom, and material and spiritual protection that they hungered for at various points in their lives? What individual does not feel remorse at not being able to have lived happily, growing up in a “Father Knows Best” loving, emotionally magnanimous family experience? Indeed, how much more duress does one feel if one’s material and emotional well-being was continually jeopardized by parents/siblings, what has been described euphemistically as being a member of a dysfunctional family?
Munro’s adaptation retains Strout’s searing, uber-subtle fervency as Lucy relates “her story,” which we discover is an attempt to expurgate devastating emotional pain to reconcile past memories of dire consequence which she has suppressed and which might have killed her, but for her mother’s 5-day visit, when Barton’s hospital stay moved past the normal recuperation period: she can’t eat, has blockages and grows thinner and weaker. Barton’s husband, who has been too traumatized by death and dying in hospitals to visit her regularly, calls her mother who shows up “out-of-the-blue” and sits in a chair, at the foot of the bed eschewing a cot to be with her, 24/7.
It is during this life changing visit, that her mother relates stories about the neighbors or relatives, all of them attached with a negative, inferred lesson critical to Lucy’s life. It is also during this time and in the retelling of “her story” that Lucy recalls memories that are so unendurable, she cannot fully relate the details clearly. Interestingly, her mother also refuses to answer some of Lucy’s questions about the time when her children grew up. Her mother closes her eyes and pretends to sleep so Lucy doesn’t persist. There are some places where both dare not go, perhaps because the emotions are so incredibly raw, they might never recover their balance and attempted “control” over their lives.
Ancillary comments quietly expose a mountain of affection between Lucy and her mother, expressed uneasily by Lucy and in repressed undercurrents by her mother. Indeed, since Lucy’s marriage, they have been estranged. Clearly, though Lucy leaves this unspoken, the home where she grew up is noxious (it smells, it is freezing, it is stinks of loneliness and alienation). She has been relentless about never seeing her parents and gaining success as a writer, until she withers psychically and needs her mother’s love, as imperfect and ill-formed as it is. Her mother puts resentments aside and brings a healing balm; it’s time.
For nine years, her mother and father have never come to Manhattan and she hasn’t been home. Her parents resent that Lucy got a scholarship, went to college to become a writer, got married and left them in the morass of hopelessness and weirdness that they had to confront after she left: another unspoken self-recrimination against her/against them. They can hardly blame her for leaving, but resent her for doing it all the same. Her rejection of what they represent and her identity in their family unit is too much for her to bear. And then, she becomes ill; it is a metaphoric illness, systemic and psychic that requires a “healing touch and kindness” which her doctor delivers assisted by her mom.
Ironically, it is a testament of her mother’s love for her that she drops in (Lucy’s husband paid the plane ticket) despite her fear of flying to be Lucy’s much needed emotional support and prophetess who proclaims that Lucy will live, “though her marriage will have troubles.” A highpoint of reconciliation for her mom is her admission and apology about having to raise her three children under the strains of severe poverty (they eat molasses on bread regularly, can’t afford a warm or clean home, and are too poor for a TV).
Linney portrays her mother, at times humorously, with an Amgash, Illinois accent. As Barton moves in “her story” from immediate present which is years after her parents have died, then flashes back as Lucy reflects upon one of the most important moments. It is when her mother nudges her to affirm her own life, despite the gnawing darkness and despair that threatens to overcome her and despite her material success which is a canard and no cover for the abyss within, unbeknownst to her.
Eyre’s use of lighting (Peter Mumford) his staging and the projections (Luke Halls created the video design) bring in the other-worldly aspect of memory and remind us that Lucy Barton, as solid and stalwart and sincere as she appears to be, is the narrator of her own story. And all solo narrators embellish, exaggerate some details and leave gaping omissions. For all their ability to explain, the emotional content is so laden with stark bleakness, it cannot be accessed easily or articulated. Perhaps it takes a lifetime to do so or maybe never. Thus, the arc of Lucy’s story development as she discusses her relationship with her mother is a shining example of her ability to codify what she can live with (reflected in the hopefulness of the Chrysler Building the hospital window peers out on).
Indeed, Lucy Barton has made the building a beacon of success in her life, up from the oppression of her past, something her mother agrees with. And she has used that and other symbols (projections of corn fields, lightening sky) to manifest her identity as a successful writer who at this juncture is able to confront herself by going public. That is who Lucy Barton wants to be and that’s who she is.
Linney makes this unreliability, this shakiness brilliantly apparent. She allows it to pop up and back. She moderates it, especially when Barton cannot articulate the most traumatic memories of abuse in her past. And it flops back into the story-telling when she heartbreakingly remembers calling for her mom, as her daughter called for her when she saw the second plane crash into the World Trade Center. It is also apparent when Linney aptly philosophizes as Barton about the statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Sculpture Garden. The statue is of a distressed, starving father and his children, seeing only him, are willing to sacrifice their own bodies and feed him to arrest his starvation. So bonded are children with their parents. So entangled will Lucy Barton always be with her mother, father and siblings. Because of them, she is Lucy Barton.
Kudos to all the creatives who worked on this production and brought it to life. In addition to those already mentioned are Bob Crowley (scenic and ccostume design) and John Leonard (sound design). My Name is Lucy Barton is running in a limited engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (47th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) with no intermission until 29 February. It is a must-see for Laura Linney’s amazing portrayal and Eyre’s and Munro’s bringing home Elizabeth Strout’s best-selling novel with grace and power. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Alanis Morissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill” reached the stratosphere as one of the best selling albums of all time almost twenty-five years ago. The reason is clear. In its contradictions, biting satire and themes it resonated with its global audience, topping the charts in 13 countries worldwide. With that appeal behind it, the notion that the music might land in a stage production was a given, especially if a superlative writer could write an exciting book so the right director would then eventually shepherd the production to Broadway.
And so it happened. Diablo Cody, multiple award winning writer of the film Juno (2007) synchronized her sardonic fresh, perspective with Morissette’s bile-dripping, alternative rock featured on the 1995 album. The meld effected the gyrating musical that premiered at American Repertory Theater, Harvard University in 2018 exquisitely and brilliantly directed by Diane Paulus. The creative team’s synergy further transformed the production into the present dynamo which opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in early December.
How is the musical Jagged Little Pill not just another teenage-angst-driven-juked-up melodramatic foray into identity, social acceptance and self-love? The glossy superficiality of the pumped up, unmemorable, alternative, post-grunge, pop rock light, the stuff that “OK” musicals are made of, is nowhere to be found in Jagged Little Pill. This is because of the grainy, raw vitality of Morissette’s and Glen Ballard’s music, supervised, orchestrated and arranged by Tom Kitt, with additional music by Michael Farrell and Guy Sigsworth.
On the contrary, the production, that some affectionately liken to a juke box musical, defies that definition. First, there is its particularity. It is hard-edged and profound; the arc of Cody’s story spirals and complicates as she lays bare the Healy family while satirizing the underlying mores of the tony community where they live. Additionally, the finely tuned characterizations penetrate with authentic details. Their development draws us into the realm of gnawing secret addictions and the currently overripe, hellish thrall of Oxycodone, brand name OxyContin.
Whether we know of the relentlessness of this drug from experiences of friends, family members, neighbors or ourselves, we empathize with the characters as they confront its lethal power in a felt irrevocability. We’ve seen countless news stories and films on the subject, like the HBO documentary This Drug Can Kill You (2017). We’ve heard of the extremities of addiction resulting in the destruction of family bonds, the tenor of which Cody examines through the characterization of mother Mary Jane Healy her protagonist.
And what of the story of the wife and mother who broke her arm and kept on breaking it to justify prescriptions of oxycodone? Typical of addicts desperate for the opioid. Prescription meds addicts even have committed robbery and murder. (See article on David Laffer) Of course the drug should be taken off the market and banned but big pharma would lose money in its profitability; addicted middle and upper class women can afford to pay. Why give up on a good thing even when doctors now curtail its use which pushes addicts to the street where they buy OxyContin laced with poisonous Fentanyl for the trip of a lifetime?
Why don’t such individuals “get help” especially when they can afford it? Indeed! Help is the last step in the journey of the addicted. It implies that the family interacts with each other because they must be the main support system of the addict. Cody’s Healy family members do not interact much. They live quiet lives of desperation seeking their own “thing” when we first meet them, though by all appearances from their home, to their lifestyles to their social connections, these folks “have it together.” Even adopted Frankie Healy (the spectacular Ceila Rose Gooding) is a mess, though you would never suspect it, because she asserts her powerful personality as a young, black woman who is assured in her gay relationship with Jo (the adorable, rockin’ Lauren Patten who sings Morissette’s signature number “You Oughta Know” to a standing ovation).
How are the posted social media photos of the Healys as the smiling, joyous family fakes? The image is more important than the reality. And if the image looks good enough, maybe the family members will believe it’s true. How can we fault them at the time of Trumpism, when the president and his family and his supporters do the same, sporting the “best” of everything, from perfect presidential behavior, to perfect relationships with his staff who are loyal to him because he is filled with grace? Such perfection has not been seen since the “savior.” Likewise, the Healy families “perfection” in the view of their friends and neighbors is bar none.
The Healys, as representatives of most suburban middle families traffic in mendacity though such cowardice destroys. As it turns out, lying is the mother of addiction. And addictions salve the soul. With pornography, sex, oxycodone, adderall, alcohol, heroin, etc., life’s miseries become doable and for a time “everything is beautiful.” Of course such duplicity can only go on for so long before the veil is ripped and the ugliness shows through. In the production the songs “All I Really Want,” Hand in My Pocket” and “Smiling” clue us into the lies. However, the family keeps their secrets from each other until there is a turning point acutely rendered at the end of Act I during the songs “Wake Up” and “Forgiven.”
The growing divide in each of the characters eventually earthquakes. The one who is the glue holding the family together, perfect mother and wife Mary Jane (the gobsmacking Elizabeth Stanley) gets shaken to her core. The precipitating factor is oxycodone, but Mary Jane’s issues run silent and deep. The drug only suppresses and numbs her from acknowledging the soul gnawing canker worm that eats away at her image of perfection while she bleeds like an open wound inside.
As the musical follows the unraveling conflicts between Mary Jane and husband Steve (Sean Allan Krill) son Nick (Derek Klena) and adopted daughter Frankie, other hot button issues come to the fore sweeping the family up in their detritus. These include but are not limited to our paternalistic rape culture, Evangelical Christianity’s homophobia, pornography addiction which deadens intimacy between couples, and black-white cultural bias to name a few.
In the well crafted book, music and thoughtful lyrics, Cody and Morissette reinforce an ancient folkway of family structure; there often is little communication beyond functional superficialities. Sadly, profound communication belies self-awareness and soul authenticity. In such a family unit where obfuscation and a general lack of will to work together as a family become routine, addiction is easy. Finding a life worth living individually and with one’s family becomes impossible. The “impossibility” impinges on the family structure and each individual family member as the situation worsens for all.
And so it goes for wife Mary Jane and Steve. Though Steve does make an attempt to reach out to her, she rebuffs him. So it goes for Nick, the “perfect”son (his rendition of “Perfect” is excellent) who lives out his parent’s dreams not his own, and for Frankie who is “all that” proud. Each self-deceives. Each is distracted by the race for perfection and by their manic avoidance of failure and the recognition of their faults which comprise their endearing humanity. In fearing the stigma of being a “loser” (each family member defines it differently and never discusses their own perceptions until the end) each launches off into their own journey of error which impacts the family as a whole. When they become aware of their self-delusions (the exceptional song “Wake Up”) it is a boon that they and other characters come to grips with by the play’s conclusion (in the song “You Learn”).
Whether rich or poor, young or old, life is learning, and of course with learning comes change, pain and reconciliation. But first as the linchpin of the family, Mary Jane experiences the long and grueling events in her relationships first, with her addicted alter-ego, then her children and husband. Through trial and error she learns to explode the self-deception, lies, defensiveness and powerlessness conveyed to her family, who become estranged from her as she embraces the drug as her panacea (this is terrifically rendered in movement during the song “Unforgiven”).
But before any of the family learn that their arrogance and attempt at perfection is delusion, they have to be awake to register they are fantastical creatures on a racetrack toward oblivion. The wonder of Cody’s book is that she has Steve and Nick on the road to awareness before Mary Jane, and Frankie who is blinded by her interest in Phoenix (Antonio Cipriano) which destroys Jo (“Your House”).
We note the disintegration of Mary Jane’s soul, whose behaviors are out of the addict’s playbook. Elizabeth Stanley crafts her characterization with nuanced sensitivity and empathy. She inhabits the ethos of the addict as the drug’s deadly chemicals subvert her being. Stanley is in the moment, from moment to moment with her lyrical voice and nuanced devolution. Our concern and identification with Mary Jane is elicited by Stanley’s prodigious talent.
The same may be said for the actors who inhabit the family members: Ceila Rose Gooding’s Frankie- activist and hypocrite blind to her own foibles; Sean Allan Krill’s loving, caring husband who stands by Mary Jane and reveals he wants to help her become well ( “Mary Jane”), though he is a “work-a-holic” and has an addiction to pornography and masturbation.
Cody has rounded out these characters and the actors thread their depth through the eye of the acting/singing needle. All have gorgeous voices. No less talented is Derek Klena. Klena’s emotional crisis (whether to jeopardize his life path and testify to a rape he saw or keep it a secret along with his unhappiness living his parents’ goals for his life) is heartfelt. Initially, it is Nick who sounds the alarm about his family; Kitt’s orchestrations manifest this twice in a long note from a brass instrument (is it an A or C?) almost like a harbinger that a turning and reckoning must happen or they all will be immeasurably harmed.
Paulus’ staging and her vision, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s movement to evoke the characters’ emotions are smashing. The characters’ inner rage and torment and Mary Jane’s double mindedness about her addiction’s seduction and her love of self-destruction (“Uninvited”) are clarified in the movement and the dance. Paulus has staged the characters in various scenes so that they are propelled in circles using the props (desks, walls). The effect reveals their confusion and inability to straighten out and to seek emotional life paths that are not dead ended in circularity. Paulus/Cherkaoui also integrate break-dance movement with the songs as a metaphor, representing the emotional inner churning and rage of the characters. Paulus makes sure that the character rage and their emotional circularity are cogently integrated with Riccardo Hernandez’s scenic design and Justin Townsend’s lighting design.
The frame of the house in lines of light in various colors abides throughout. Its symbolism recalls how the structure of family and home and what family members experience ther, is carried everywhere into relationships, into school, into work, into social activities. Justin Townsend’s lighting design is effective as it is used to reflect emotions. For example, Jo’s fury in “You Oughta Know” is aligned with Townsend bathing the stage in red. Patten’s Jo is fabulously wild; the injustice she feels about Frankie’s demeaning mistreatment is a show stopper made all the more wonderful by Townsend’s lighting and Cherkaoui’s movement.
Additionally, “Wake Up,” and “Forgiven” (as the family members’ backs to the walls of their own making spin them around) are particularly stunning. In these numbers and in “Predator,” “Uninvited” and “Mary Jane,” Paulus, the company and creative team pull out all the stops. And “No” by Kathryn Gallagher as Bella (she has been raped by Nick’s friend) singing with the support of the company, should be taped and played for every Sex Ed. class in high schools: the signs are especially noteworthy.
At its heart Jagged Little Pill is about family. It is provocative, in your face, striking, salient. If one considers how easy it is to couple and how hard it is to move toward a kind, generous, integrative family who works on their failures by loving in overdrive, Cody’s Healy family, portrayed in its jaggedness is a superb textured unit. As a key theme, there is always hope for redemption and reconciliation Cody suggests: for them, for us.
Add Alanis Morissette’s music, with Kitt’s orchestrations, Paulus’ metaphoric, symbolic staging, the amazing performers, the lighting and brilliantly minimalistic and always seamless and mobile scenic design, Jagged Little Pill is a musical worthy of the nearly twenty-five year wait for these creatives to bring this sterling production together. It is the right season for Jagged Little Pill to take flight with this cast, Cody’s sheer audacity and Paulus scaling the mountaintops of her craft.
I’ve said enough. See it with your eyes wide open and enjoy it awake. It is an experience you won’t easily forget. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.