Category Archives: Broadway
Even if you never went to your own high school prom and can’t imagine wanting to, The Prom directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, currently at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre is a celebration of joy and life that you would be comfortable with. In fact just for its sheer hilarity, exuberance, and wisdom, you would eagerly sign up for the high school prom decorations committee. From its timing-perfect acting, to the evolution of characterization, and ingenious “true-to-life” story-line delivered in dialogue with dollops of zazzzzz, this musical comedy is thematically trenchant and expansive. Thanks to its talented creatives who know how to please and bring in the jokes at two hours and change with one intermission. The Prom is saavy, poignant and politically current with immutable themes that resonate for all time.
The notion of a “prom” unifying a senior class for the last time before they take off to “parts unknonwn” beyond the cliff of their community, is antiquated. But it is a tradition that the “in” crowd and “cool” kids in various schools in the US of course exploit to champion their supremacy over the rest of the school’s social groups. Naturally, for girls it is the height of achievement to be able to go with a date and buy a gorgeous dress with all the trimmings including matching color co-ordinated cumberbund for the guy’s tux and baseball cap. For those outcasts and isolates who have had to endure the humiliation and often sub rosa bullying and excoriation of their classmates precisely because they are “EWWWWW,” and would never be able to either ask someone or be asked, “the prom” is synonymous with pain, torment, Nazi-style fascist sadism which ultimately reverts to self-flagellation for the isolate’s not measuring up and having one’s place on the sunny side of high school superiority and popularity.
The high school structure of placing students in same-age-related grades causes such emotional debacles and crucibles of misery, not only with regard to “the prom,” but with regard to stratification of achievement levels and every aspect of the daily life of the high school student. But what happens if you are not only a social outcast, but one with a gender proclivity that is UBER “EWWWW” in a setting where religious folks in a Red state culture believe your very nature, identity and being is a sin? Such is the conundrum and very real stakes for Emma (sensitively and realistically portrayed by the golden-voiced Caitlin Kinnunen) As a high school senior of a small high school in Indiana, Emma must suppress her year and one-half relationship with Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla is superb as Emma’s waffling sub rosa girlfriend) which they both intend to make manifest when they go to their prom together. But when the PTA led by Alyssa’s mom (the heartfelt and many-sided Courtenay Collins) discovers that Emma intends to bring a same sex girlfriend (she does not know it is her daughter-surprise, surprise), she protests and creates a ban. And Emma protests creating a stir.
This real-life situation of gay teens being barred from attending their proms with same sex partners has occurred all over the US and as recently as in 2017, Buffalo, New York. Most specifically when it happened to Constance McMillen of Itawamba Agricultural High School, in Mississippi, McMillen sued because her rights were violated. And when the ban was lifted and she attended her scheduled prom, the district had a surprise waiting for her right out of Mitch McConnell’s and the Republican Party’s playbook. (Check this article on McMillen.)
With Trumpism, gender discrimination, misogyny, racism and nativism have gained a legitimacy as certain social groups glance back fondly to the days of Jim Crow and attempt to enforce their fascist agenda on the rest of US citizenry who are patriots and believe in upholding the constitution. That Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar have allowed the prom banning of LGBTQ groups to inspire them to write a musical comedy which explores the heights and depths of Trumpist-type discriminatory acts with grace, style, laugh-riot humor and profound wisdom (without making reference to Trump, or the new Trump party) is prestidigitation on a grand scale. For they inspire unity, hope and love with the same tools that adversarial groups use to promote hate and division.
And what is the vehicle they use to initiate a way into the LGBTQ hair-raising problems of a small Indiana high school and Emma’s fight? Theatricals! Thespians who represent some of the finest, award-winning celebrity narcissists on Broadway. And these even bring their Tonys and Drama Desks to impress the motel manager to give them a better room. Of course, not only are they not recognized, the crushing humiliation they experience in a town that could care less about them is enough to make even a narcissist more lovable and heart-warming.
Martin, Beguelin and Sklar begin in New York City with the Broadway stars backstage after a performance which closes immediately when they receive a horrific New York Times review. The critic was particularly humiliating when they referred to the headliners as “unlovable narcissists.” The joke is priceless for it recalls another celebrity narcissist who also cannot be insulted and refuses to change.
The narcissists are the fabulous Beth Leavel as Didi Allen the Diva Queen extraordinaire with a gorgeous belt (We hear it in the song “The Lady’s Improving), and her co-star in infamy the “bring-down-the-house” high flier, Brooks Ashmanskas as Barry Glickman whose vibrant and hysterical “Barry is Going to the Prom,” hints at the 30-years-ago miseries of high school and the affirmation of love wiping tears away years later.
The attention starved thespians are accompanied by Angie (the excellent Angie Schworer whose dance/voice number “Zazz” is just wonderful) and Trent Oliver (Christopher Sieber’s fantastic “Love Thy Neighbor” with the ensemble is the gobsmacking point of the show). Along with producer Sheldon Saperstein (Josh Lamon’s timing is spot-on) this motley crew goes on the road to resurrect their brand, recover from the criticisms in the Times article by battering down the unjust doors of the discriminatory high school to join Emma’s cause. They determine that this “self-less act” of “making a difference,” “doing good for the world” will lift their reputations and give them some positive publicity.
Of course they exacerbate the horror of the initial situation for Emma and create a chaotic shambles riling up the parents of the PTA who demand the interlopers be removed and leave. When Emma succeeds in her lawsuit proving her civil rights cannot be violated, the PTA and student body contrive a solution, represented by the song “Tonight Belongs to You/Us” sung by the ensemble at the end of Act One. The number is mesmerizing, wildly frenetic (the dance moves are spectacular) and enthralling. And then the chill comes to us in a terrifying realization of the song’s true message sung by a predatory, vampirish-sounding refrain “the night belongs to us.” Clue, the cool crowd, the money, the power players who attempt to devour and suck the blood of the little people who suffer their callous and unconstitutional injustices. Emma’s Broadway “helpers” prove anything but and Emma is worse off than before the show crowd showed up!
This is a superior high point to end Act One, for there must be change; such injustice cannot continue. Enter the answer which turns the religious institutional crowd on its ear and enter artistic empathy. The result is a beautiful cathartic Greek style elevated comedy of triumph in Act Two which provides a more than satisfying and very adult addendum to proms everywhere in the US.
Yes, some of the problems are not resolved, just like in life. And the townspeople still must grapple with their prejudices. These have taken years to simmer and boil and do not retreat overnight. Alyssa’s mom Mrs. Green must confront the pain of a truth she doesn’t want to see with her daughter. The hatreds and bullying will continue, but this hiatus of joy has begun to ameliorate it. Ironically, the ones who have benefited greatly (the celebrity narcissists) have stepped up and contributed their grist to making the prom one that everyone will remember. Interestingly, they have evolved and developed into less self-absorbed individuals who perhaps have begun to understand another level of success beyond the wins they’ve received in their careers.
I loved this show for its incredibly energetic performances by all of the cast and the ensemble. There is not one who isn’t superb or who isn’t “on point” and “moment-to-moment.” I loved the book and the accompanying musical numbers which remain insightful and carry the themes and story-line forward to the powerful message of the show. Indeed, some of the songs are stand alones with lovely melodies and rising lyrics: “Dance With You,” and “Unruly Heart,” are especially meaningful.
The Prom presents the realms of hope and faith in people’s goodness. It encourages us to take a stand for what is right regarding human dignity, respect and decency. Without politicizing or rankling, it cleverly portrays elements of our nation’s weaknesses from the self-absorbed celebrity elite, to the equally self-absorbed and self-righteous conservatives. Both must modify and one way this will occur is for each social group of the nation to come together, get out of their comfortable locations and visit the hinterlands or “sin city.” The production makes a case for laughing at oneself and not taking one’s beliefs too seriously to forget the dignity of others, regardless of their beliefs. And perhaps especially because of their beliefs, they must be given a hearing. How many times must we say this to begin to do it? We need to stop cannibalizing ourselves.
The final song “It’s Time to Dance,” argues for each and every one of us to be our own creations, to define ourselves to be as truthful as possible on journeys of grace and openness, and without arrogance that masks fear or belligerence to “prove” a point.
The production is superb in its thematic encouragement/reinforcement for young and old: 1)to be the best of who one can be; 2)to take charge of one’s own life and not wait for others to act for us; 3) to bravely do one’s part to establish a world of tolerance and inclusion through communication and empathy.
The creators are not presenting ideas that are puerile and simplistic. If one just stops for two minutes and considers the rise of white terrorist incidents in the last two years that go against the fabric of our nation’s tenets, then one realizes how much our culture needs to witness these themes again and again. On the surface The Prom is a fun ride and you leave the theater humming the songs. But underneath the laughter and fun is the poignant message expressed with ebullience by the ensemble and Christopher Sieber’s Trent Oliver with rousing spirits in the song, “Love Thy Neighbor.” If only…but for the shining last quarter of the show, the cast convinces us of the truth and possibility of putting aside behaviors that divide. What a crazy great message that all of us imperfect, flawed individuals need to remember to dance at our own “prom” (our own way of walking) every day and invite a host of other smiling individuals to promenade with us!
Kudos go to the artistic team which makes this production a resounding you want to come back to see a few times: Jack Viertel (Original Concept) Scott Pask (Scenic Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Matthew Pachtman (Costume Design) Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) Brian Ronan (Sound Design) Josh Marquette (Hair Design) Milagros Medina-Cerdeira Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Music Supervisor, Vocal Arrangements) Larry Hochman (Orchestrations) Meg Zervoulis (Music Director) and John Clancy, Glenn Kelly and Howard Joines for their musical coordination, additional orchestrations and arrangements.
The Prom (Longacre Theatre on West 48th between 7th and 8th) has one 15 minute intermission. You can purchase tickets by CLICKING HERE.
Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill a Mockingbird. If there had been a Pulitzer during the time of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been awarded it by the North for her incredibly heartfelt and powerful Uncle Tom’s Cabin. President Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe greeted her with this famous quote, “So this is the little lady that started this great war.” At the time To Kill a Mockingbird slammed onto US bookshelves in 1960, its effect has been no less dynamic 100 years after the Civil War. As a full frontal expose of egregious Southern racism, the novel justified white support of the Civil Rights Movement.
Both Lee and Stowe impacted the culture of their time indelibly and irrevocably. And there is no going back regardless of how much certain groups long for the “nobility” of being at the top of a social structure ratified by “that peculiar institution” whose remnants live on today in the Trumpist era of right-wing white supremacy, the KKK and Neo Nazism hiding billionaire fascism.
It is to these modernized remnants that Aaron Sorkin gives obeisance to, in his “new” To Kill a Mockingbird which tweaks elements of Lee’s novel more than a little. However, the purpose of the production is grand and our political and social currents scream out for such a tweaking. The script’s divergence does so in the spirit and dynamism of the novel to serve theatrical spectacle, enthrall the audience and align the themes to emphasize our society and its once hidden hypocrisies now brought into the fore by the White House. Whether or not this is a positive or a negative for understanding the novel’s role as a vital imprimatur against racism for its place and time is moot.
The changes are Sorkin’s decision and codified within the heading of “A New Play.” And though as a former teacher and Adjunct professor who is a Mockingbird purist, I “get it” and understand the primal necessity of the how and why Sorkin made certain adjustments. I will save the discussion of Sorkin’s changes and how they slide away from Lee’s intentions in another article.
This review focuses on Sorkin’s new To Kill a Mockingbird at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre which serves us beautifully in its revelation of the story of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, the quintessential mockingbirds of the play. Sorkin’s script is bar none in its delineation of the wisdom of seeing through a child’s lens, in its superb rendering of representative characters (Link Dees, Judge Taylor, the Ewells and others) and above all in how it configures and integrates many of the important events in the novel in a crystal clear weave that is magnificent, earth-shattering and poignant drama.
Sorkin’s wrangling with the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird to integrate it into a riveting and spellbinding play becomes exceptional in the adroit and genius apparatus of Bartlett Sher’s renowned expertise and direction. The staging which resettles from courtroom, to the porch and interiors of the Finch House, and to the outside of the county jail works seamlessly in transitions: the fly-away sets all smoothly functioning at maximum speed and pace without distractions. His dialogue brilliantly enacted by the cast (special kudos go to the children played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, Will Pullen, Gideon Glick) maintains the novel’s humor, the balanced irony, the essential linchpin themes, the dynamic action, the flavor of the Maycomb, Alabama townspeople. No part of the production should be underestimated from acting to lighting, for all cohere around the script and Sher’s interpretation of it: in short absolutely spectacular.
Having taught the novel for years, I am familiar with much of it the beloved story’s high and low points. The production manifests the crucial thematic threads and dramatizes Lee’s ironic, subtle description by having the children speak to the audience as confidantes. Though the play comes in at around two and one-half hours with one intermission, the pacing is measured and at no part did the action drag or wither with dry spots. The dramatic unities of spectacle fuse with high-powered vigor and flow from the characters’ organic feelings. Credit this to Sorkin’s ability to carve away the meat from a scene and spice it with sometimes hysterical moments and emotional tenor (fear, joy, suspense, foreboding) to create a delectable feast that inspires and engages. Also credit this movement with the gobsmacking performances by Celia Keenan-Bolger as Scout, Will Pullen as Jem and Gideon Glick as Dill.
Celia Keenan-Bolger credibly inhabits the spirit of Scout in her ebullience, her enthusiasm, her curiosity, her innocence. I loved the novel Scout, though not the film Scout. I do love Keenan-Bolger’s Scout with the subtle passion and care and am amazed at how Keenan-Bolger allows Scout’s quiet, moment-to-moment, emotional entrenchment to overtake her. In every scene she is present consciousness. She so convincingly wears Scout’s mantle that I couldn’t even guess her chronological age. We have all seen teenagers or adults portray caricatures of kids which are funny or laughable but not always credible. She is no caricature of Scout. She IS Scout. It is through Keenan-Bolger’s sheer energy, liveliness and truthful genius that the production has found its success which balances on her elucidation of innocence and child-like grace.
Likewise, Will Pullen’s Jem as her foil, older sibling and loving brother is equally spectacular. All the modulations and evolutions of Jem, Pullen has embraced authentically, especially in his growing enlightenment about Boo Radley, and in his excoriation and disbelief in Atticus’ naivete about the swirling dark undercurrents of Maycomb’s residents. His relationship with Dill (the very lovable Gideon Glick) is forged with humor and energy and as the “oldest” and protector of Scout he is the real deal.
Glick who has some of the best lines and gets the biggest laughs in the production is the sensitive, funny and tragic child that Lee has captured in her novel. Glick, Pullen and Keenan-Bolger are shining examples of characters living onstage; you want to adopt them and take them home convinced their advice and love may serve you in rough times. They and others in the ensemble are why we go to live theater, to empathize, to be thrilled, to cry.
As the modernized house manager/mother/sister Calpurnia (the wonderful LaTanya Richardson Jackson) and the brave and dutiful, loving father Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels in a fine turn) we understand a relationship we have not seen in the novel, but one which cannot be any other way in our current socio-political milieu. Daniels’ Atticus at times appears to be able to put himself in the place of other individuals, but has an incredibly difficult time of settling in his own shoes. An interesting rendering and amazing uncomfortable irony. Daniels is strongest in the final courtroom scene and with his visits with Judge Taylor, and scolding and being scolded by Jem. Richardson Jackson’s Calpurnia is a favorite; we do enjoy hearing her call down Atticus, though in the time and place the Cal of the novel would not have done so.
A word about some terrific performances. Dakin Matthews is just great. It is a comfort to see a Southern Judge who appears to be decent, kind and human, though it is Southern justice’s purview that Robinson will get the electric chair if found guilty. Robinson is being sacrificed on the altar of justice and if he doesn’t bring in the goods, Atticus will emotionally “die” with him, like a number of characters in the novel caught between Scylla and Charybdis, though Atticus forestalls this thought clinging on to the notion of an appeal.
Neal Huff’s Link Deas, likewise, is poignant and revelatory. Both Matthews’ Judge Taylor and Huff’s Deas reveal so much about Maycomb residents and the Southern culture’s subtle, slippery folks who cleverly negotiate the noxious climate of hate. Erin Wilhelmi is beyond superb as Mayella Ewell in her self-righteousness, her fear fueled arrogance and pride. Frederick Weller’s Bob Ewell as the underappreciated villain of Maycomb is sinister and arrogant and bullying. Both manage to reveal the characters as sonorously evil individuals with such humanity, we understand or at least think we understand why they are apparently hateful. However, as Cal suggests, it is horrifying to simulate “walking around in their shoes.”
And then there’s Tom Robinson. All I have to say about Gbenga Akinnagbe’s performance is bravo with tears in my eyes. At the curtain call I was happy to see he has full movement of both arms. As for Boo Radley portrayed by Danny Wolohan who also portrays Mr. Cunningham, he is the appropriate quiet, peaceful, and sensitive mockingbird as Boo, and the misled, “down-and-out” farmer Mr. Cunningham we feel sad for. Through the actors fine portrayals we understand how cultural mores and economics impact the society for ill and keep everyone behind, especially soulfully.
Not enough can be said about Sher’s direction and craft in assembling the skillful and award-wining creative designers to manifest his and Sorkin’s vision for the new play To Kill a Mockingbird. These are Miriam Buether (Scenic Design) Ann Roth (Costume Design) Jennifer Tipton (Lighting Design) Scott Lehrer (Sound Design) Adam Guettel (Original Score) Luc Vershueren for Campbell Young Associates (Hair/Wig Design) Kimberly Grigsby (Music Director) and Kate Wilson (Dialect Coach). All are perfect in my book. I thought the costumes of the children were well thought out; the music is both thrilling and poignant.
Can you get tickets to this award garnering (in a few months) production? Of course and you should. It is a monumental and historical event which happens every night and it comes at a heart-breaking time in US History. Be watchful, be aware, the themes are prescient and prevalent in our everyday lives. The production runs over two hours which fly by and it has one intermission. You can get tickets by CLICKING HERE.
Did you ever think you “knew” all you wanted to know about someone only to find out wonderous inspirations about them? No, I am not referring to our current president in the White House. I am referring to a feminine icon who has established herself as a tour de force for women through six decades, blowing past generational limitations and showing the way to “become” before Becoming (Michelle Obama’s glorious best-seller) was fashionable. Well, Cher, the Pop Goddess Warrior I never quite “got” is a superlative example of how no woman should allow anyone to tell her “it can’t be done!” It can be done! Regardless of how much the words are repeated, it is felt experience which sparks these words to life.. And it is the essence of this felt experience of overcoming that makes The Cher Show a celebration of women’s ability to thrive despite men telling them they cannot!
The musical hybrid (partial rock/pop concert, theatrical bio, cultural chronicle) sports a comprehensive book by Rick Elice and superb Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Arrangements by Daryl Waters. The must-see production is a mind blowing, entertainment ride down memory lane for the older crowd, and an earth shattering, eye-popping celebration of feminism (3rd and fourth wave) for the younger crowd.
Predominately, the production evidences how women (yes, there is only one Cher, but jump on the inspiration train, “bitches”) can rock it, take their power and express it with individuality, beauty and sometimes “foul-mouthed” grace. Especially now with the government shutdown standoff, the production is what we need to strengthen our comprehension of how women climb mountains though others attempt to pull them away from the top echelons of power (go Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Speaker of the House in 2019).
The Cher Show slam-bangs cultural fashions through the decades with spectacular Costume Design by Bob Mackie (portrayed by Michael Berresse). And it also pings the most meaningful signature songs of Cher’s life starting relevantly with “If I Could Turn Back Time” with the mature Cher (Stephanie J. Block) singing us back into the past to reveal her story through song.
Some songs are effected with striking dance numbers (“Dark Lady” is exceptional with Choreography by Christopher Gattelli) and staging. Actually, all of the songs really pop thanks to Daryl Waters, Jason Moore and the ensemble. There is the thrum and whirl of shimmering beauty as Bob Mackie’s gorgeous costumes, Lighting Design (Kevin Adams), Set Design (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) and the song and dance numbers uplift and rouse. Guaranteed, the staging, light show, musical arrangements, legendary Cher characterizations will rock you to the point that you will be keeping the beat with your feet, though your body’s in your seat, just barely! By the end you will be standing.
The show re-imagines the essence of Cher’s career highlighting critical moments in her life. The approach to understanding Cher’s development arc, is well fashioned by Rick Elice’s book. And it is reinforced by Billboard scoring the songs Cher hit recorded through six decades of Billboard charts. Aptly shepherded by director Jason Moore, The Cher Show relates Cher’s story in Cher’s grand, elliptical style through flashback and emotional flash-forward. The action is fast paced, not only covering an equivalent of three lifetimes but probing richly into what makes Cher “Cher,” if one is prepared to see it. Women will most probably note the emotional resonances more strongly than men.
Through brief, coherent snippets, Star unifies the show and directs the action. The excellent Stephanie J. Block portrays the mature Cher who speaks from a perspective of wisdom as she gives sage advice. Block whose voice is perhaps most like Cher’s, sings many of the sensitive, powerful songs in the Cher repertoire (i.e. “Believe”). Star introduces her younger selves Lady (the wise-cracking divorcee) and Babe (the sweet child and teenage songstress who meets Sonny) portrayed by Teal Wicks and Micaela Diamond. Each derivative of Cher is one element of a dynamic triumvirate that ushers in the whole portrait we need to understand the musical life and background of the legendary Diva. Together they establish the ethos of the performer as person and vice-versa. All three are vocal powerhouses. They reflect mannerisms, voice timber, comedic delivery, singing expressions and more as an echo of Cher, and not an impersonation.
In her discussions with her mom Georgia Holt (a beautiful job by Emily Skinner) we learn of her early suffering and how music helped her overcome. By degrees, we discover she had dyslexia which made her shy and isolated her at school as bullies teased her about her being stupid and her “weirdness” being an Armenian. Interchanges which occur throughout various turning points in each decade reveal how her mother was her pillar of strength to guide her until Cher stood on her own in her career. Skinner’s mom poignantly and humorously encourages her daughter to overcome through her singing. Cher affirms her mother’s importance in her life especially after her step-father leaves. Apparently, she never knew her father.
Interestingly, Sonny Bono is perhaps a father figure, at first, who helps her grow up until she realizes her complete dependence on him must change. Thus, the production moves to the when and where of the duo who became Sonny and Cher and the evolution of some of Sonny and Cher’s greatest hits (for example “Baby Don’t Go,” “I Got You Babe,”). Sonny’s friendly, vibrant personality (gorgeously voiced Jarrod Spector gives a nuanced, charismatic portrayal) devolves under the pressure of ambition and fear. When Sonny caves to greed and Napoleonic impulses which hamper their relationship, Cher discovers Sonny completely controls their financial arrangements. A victim of the male chauvinism of the time, Cher conquers her fears of being on her own and goes solo, a first step in her confrontation with the male dominated recording industry and glass ceiling barring her own vision of herself as an entrepreneur.
As a central point of Cher’s “becoming,” this segment of the production delves into the honesty and authenticity of the peaks and valleys of her relationship with Sonny, their money woes and excesses, and their emotional, psychological and personality differences that manifested during the making of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and after their divorce when they got back together, with the Sonny and Cher Show. The latter featured Cher’s new lover and eventual husband for a time, Greg Allman (Matthew Hydzik). Cher always remained friendly with Sonny because of their daughter Chastity. And indeed, though the reference is humorous, the production covers Sonny’s passing. Stephanie Block’s Cher intimates her love for him has a measure of forever in it, as she delivers her memorial speech at his funneral which is poignant.
After Cher determines to continue her solo career, she in effect jettisons relationships with famous singers and focuses on herself (“men are a luxury, like dessert.”) However, as this musical highlights the turning points in her life, we note her new iterations of her image and show business persona. She moves upward expanding her levels of success. Some of these activities include her accomplishments on Broadway, in film and on concert tours. Throughout, we understand how her love relationships fueled her artistic and creative powers. And this is so even after the love appears to be gone. For life goes on.
The musical works on a number of levels. One can merely sit back and enjoy the dazzling spectacle and resplendent sensory stimulation. One can also appreciate the more profound and clarifying moments which reveal how this woman dealt with problems, love, sadness, heart-break, financial valleys (Cher sold hair products on TV at one point) show business/celebrity horrors and her sickness (her Adrenal Glands weren’t working). In short the emotionalism of life’s torques and jarring shatterings that we all must confront, work through, learn from to enrich our souls, Cher experiences and uses for her evolving artistry. The musical numbers especially, reflect the highs and the lows, the career successes and comebacks. And floating off in the narrative slips Star, Lady and Babe. Together they reveal the loneliness, fear and upsets, they must confront with each other as pals. It works for me. How can an autonomous woman not give good counsel to herself after a few marriages, divorces, children, career upsets, etc.?
The songs represent Cher’s inner and outer life. Indeed, The Cher Show reflects that her singing helped to sustain her and take her to the next level in her career. And it is that which has made her legendary. She has topped Billboard Charts for six decades and garnered over 200 awards. The only one that has escaped her thus far is the Tony which she may win as one of the producers of The Cher Show. That would mean she has won an Emmy, a Grammy a Tony and an Oscar (EGOT), the grand slam of show business awards.
The irony is that as she evolves, as the production intimates, she must confront herself as a fantastical maverick icon of celebrity, who enforces her own kind of elusive magical realism. This makes for great copy, but it also moderates the chance for love and relationships. Block’s Star best establishes the emotionalism of this realization as she thrillingly sings “Believe.”
To its credit the production uncovers what lies underneath the fun, glamor, fashionable trend-setting songstress who became an actress, producer, author and philanthropist. Thus, in its strongest moments we see the peeling back of the layers to the raw core of Cher’s angst, depression and fear that happens whenever she comes to a crossroads. In the musical are the seeds of why Cher is alone but not lonely. She has discovered that she must be her own person away from Sonny and Greg Allman and Rob Camilletti (Michael Campayno). It is in the moments of misery, financial distress, heart break that we most empathize with Cher. And it is after these moments that she lifts herself up from the abyss and soars to inspire us once more and take us with her to another level.
The mythic humanity and pathos reflected in the music especially is what makes this a rich, nuanced show. But be careful. You may be caught up experiencing all the glittering excess, that you will miss the layers. How is it possible that we are seeing an older woman defy Hollywood age barriers, gender strictures and male domination issues? This show stomps down these overarching mores. It reveals Cher’s “belief,” and sheer force of will that she demonstrates in spades. This is especially so in the number “The Beat Goes On” which Micaela Diamond sings. The song symbolizes the beats of will, synchronized to destiny that brought Cher to accomplish the unthinkable in film. As as an “older” woman she won an Oscar and Golden Globes variously for Moonstruck, Mask and Silkwood. Ultimately, Cher learns autonomy is best and moves to her own beat which she drums out for herself again, and again, despite whichever love relationship she is in.
The Cher Show is breaking records of human happiness for both men and women at the Neil Simon Theatre on 52nd Street. It captures the essence of who Cher is, and who she always was and will be, a magical, one-of-a kind, self-defining woman.
Kudos (I loved the Hair & Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe) to all who have made this a must-see production which runs with one intermission. For tickets you can go to the website, CLICK HERE.
Choir Boy written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, superbly directed by Trip Cullman is a tour de force that thrills with its beauty and grace and grieves with its recognition that a fine education may advance one in the world, but it doesn’t answer the longing in one’s heart for individual love and acceptance. And so it goes for Pharus Jonathan Young a super achiever who places all his investment in his golden voice and ambitious pride to excel and be someone despite the abuse he receives at the hands of the adult male black community in his hometown and the teenage black students at The Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys. Drew, as it’s affectionately known, is an elite, religious, black, male prep school which shapes black men to be accepted into Ivy League Schools and shepherds them toward sterling behavior to succeed in their careers and in life. The question is, as always in Prep Schools. Are the sub rosa mores being transmitted a benefit or a nullification?
Choir Boy opens with the 49th Commencement for Charles R. Drew Prep’s graduating seniors. The gorgeous voice of Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope in a vibrant, nuanced and fierce portrayal) rings out into the auditorium as he leads the choir in a song about “Trusting and Obeying Jesus” as the only way to happiness. The irony of the song and what occurs during the singing is reflective of the play’s underlying themes. It also is the linchpin upon which rests much of the action to follow.
What the staff, family and friends of the graduating seniors do not hear are the whispered insults and defamations by Bobby Marrow one of the choir members who clearly disdains and despises Pharus. Upset, distracted, Pharus stops singing and turns around to confront Bobby in a stare down. Bobby who achieves what he wants, to upset and deflect Pharus from his concentration, silences his whisperings. These opening salvos of raw animosity and tension between Bobby (J Quinton Johnson’s aggressions and rage are sustained throughout) and Pharus reveal the conflict which McCraney intensifies and escalates in this thrilling production that is currently at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
After the ceremony, Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper employs his adroit acting skills with moment-to-moment precision) reprimands Pharus for stopping in mid-song, however, Pharus cleverly responds and we understand that he will not be cowed and will maintain his dignity and honor. Though Marrow presses him to explain, Pharus who has been voted as Choir Lead because of his hard work and golden voice evokes the “behavior of a “Drew man.” He tells Headmaster Marrow (the name is more than ironic), “A Drew man doesn’t tell on his brother. He allows him the honor of confessing himself.” The conflict is clearly expressed, and we understand Pharus is proud of being elected to head the choir which school-wide is considered an honor. However, we wonder why Bobby has chosen to slur Pharus’ sexuality and use the “N” word to demean him. Is this mere jealousy? Or has Pharus provoked him?
Thus, from the outset, McCraney and the fine direction and staging of the opening scenes by Trip Cullman have engaged us. From this point on we are intrigued to learn about these two individuals and discover whether they will resolve their differences by themselves or with the help of the Headmaster and their friends in the choir.
McCraney’s play is a hybrid (musical, comedy, drama). It is not easily defined or pigeonholed and this is just one of its astounding brilliances. For at crucial junctures in the arc of the plot development, the boys’ chorus breaks into shimmering songs during various practice sessions. And there are dance and rhythmic numbers that relate to the themes. Additionally, humor abides throughout. Yet, there is pathos. In short all the emotional peaks and valleys in life are pinged and resonate with truthfulness.
McCraney’s characterizations are right-on. The leads are distinct individuals; they are finely drawn and by the conclusion of the play we note their development. In an irony reminiscent of our current divisive culture, the young men align either with Pharus or Bobby and the behind-the-scenes dynamic of support and friendship escalates the conflict between the two adversaries throughout. the action.
Additionally, McCraney reveals how the characters negotiate the mores of Drew with lip service and sometime sincerity. Intrigue and surreptitiousness are necessary to get along. And it is the intrigue that crashes into the barricade of Drew “do’s and don’ts” that the characters cannot help but contravene. Thus, they bloody themselves. As a result the explosive scenes bring this incredible social and cultural expose of a black young men’s prep school into the same territory as any white male prep school. Though Drew has a religious fundamental base, the rages, the conflicts, the loves defy class, color, economics. The human heart and human nature unfortunately run true to form. Overcoming evil intent is hard won everywhere. How the protagonist Pharus manages to triumph despite his own self-destructive impulses and need to “be Pharus” is the crux of the play.
The themes relating to division, separation, isolation and, remaining proud and courageous when others attempt to destroy you, McCraney explores with these individuals using humor, song, dance. The plot twists startle. The play’s dynamic is well constructed. From the initial conflict, Bobby, Pharus and their friends and foes are sent spinning until they reach their destinations.
Importantly, from the outset, we understand that the stakes for Pharus and a few other non-legacy young men are very high. Non-legacy men have advanced to Drew by merit based upon their efforts and skills. Pharus has worked very hard to receive a scholarship which he must maintain to take the shot he’s been given or fall by the wayside like other young black men. Thus, in his discussion with Headmaster Marrow, we learn that for Pharus, his newly appointed position as Choir Lead means everything to him. But would he risk that for something even more important?
On the other hand, legacy men like Bobby don’t have Pharus’ worries. Additionally, Bobby enjoys the favor of his uncle’s being the Headmaster. As the arc of development moves toward its climax, we note that Bobby is hell-bent on unseating Pharus and taking the honor for himself. Who will win, who will lose? Clarity of conflict and the high stakes are the genius of this production along with the sensational choral work, the dancing, sensitive acting and the extraordinary meld of the ensemble, all of which makes Choir Boy a uniquely enthralling work..
During the course of the production, we discover the dynamic interplay of the young men who are part of the chorus that Pharus has been chosen to lead because of his academic excellence and golden voice. All who have lead roles are just terrific. Junior Davis, foil of Johnson’s Bobby, nearly stops the show with his hysterical dancing to impress Mr. Pendleton (Austin Pendleton, is humorously grand. Yet he’s expressively and authentically emotional when he reacts to Bobby’s use of the “N” word. It’s a hallowed, stirring moment.) Caleb Eberhardt’s David Heard is sensitive and solid in his portrayal. The sadness he evokes as he walks away from the school is an injustice we take to heart. As Pharus’ roommate and friend Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James, John Clay III is superb. His comedic timing is spot on and his poignance and humanity is what is needed to help Pharus deal with the acute pain of life-long devastation he is trying to work through.
The production would not be as superb as it is without the following creative artists’ efforts. Special and heartfelt kudos to Jason Michael Webb (Music Direction, Arrangements & Original Music) David Zinn (Scenic & Costume Design), Peter Kaczorowski (Lighting Design) Fitz Patton (Original Music & Sound Design) Cookie Jordan (Hair & Makeup Design) Thomas Schall (Fight Direction) Camille A. Brown (Choreography).
Don’t walk, run to see Choir Boy at The Samuel Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. The production has no intermission and runs one hour forty-five minutes until 24 February. You can call for tickets at 212-239-6200, go in person to the Friedman or get tickets online at their website.
What are facts? What is truth? Can you state truth without a factual basis? These questions debated for centuries have been redefined in every age. Playwrights Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell refine the debate in an intriguing and humorous go-around between a fact-checker and his essayist in The Lifespan of a Fact. The play incisively directed by Leigh Silverman is comically paced for its light side. And its darker side leads to questions about how information, “facts” may be misused in the wrong hands. The production suits in our time of “alternative facts,” and truths skewed to make a larger point about the human condition.
Based on the titular book/essay written by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, the “true” story tells what happened when Jim Fingal fact-checked John D’Agata’s poignant essay about a teen’s suicide at a Las Vegas resort. The play explores their individual perspectives about the importance of writing for impact despite the inaccuracy of ancillary background details. But more importantly, it explores personality types and the very funny heightened alerts that sound when an obsessive compulsive, detail-driven nerdy researcher clashes with a loosey-goosey, poetic, symbolic, “going meta” writer with panache.
The conflict generates when Emily Penrose accomplished, saavy editor of a magazine chooses John D’Agata’s piece because of its social import. In hoping to get the article turned around for publication in less than five days, Emily appoints Jim Fingal. As the fact-checker he will ground the details of D’Agata’s piece for consonance and coherence to reality.
Cherry Jones portrays editor Emily Penrose with humor, good will, yet stern determination. Strong-willed and no nonsense, yet measured, she selects her new hire, Jim, quickly assessing him and asking all the right questions. Happy with his reasonable answers, she sets him spinning off on his journey. Indeed, her expectation rides on Jim’s assurances that he will make the deadline. Ironically, the opposite occurs. Not because the fact-checker is incompetent. But because his magnificent competence strains the credulity of time and patience.
As Jim, Daniel Radliffe reveals his gifts for timing. He employs the right amount of deadpan edginess. And his ironic delivery isn’t quite over the top, but appears organic with his researcher ethos. Though he exasperates Emily, he does so out of ego pride of meticulousness. Indeed, she does not fault him for doing a fine job. And despite Radcliffe’s history with owls and wands, we appreciate his portrayal of Jim’s excellence, however a tad outrageous. When you see this too good to miss production, consider the traffic map which Jim uses to prove John’s inaccuracy on the day of the teen’s suicide.
Bobby Cannavale stands on the opposite continuum of Radcliffe’s Jim and pushes back with parries, jibes and wordy counter punches. Cannavale’s portrayal has John D’Agata’s indignation finely tuned. And we respond with riotous laughter. His initial attitude toward the fact-checking assaulter of his exquisite prose reveals a huge ego. Despite all the word talk, these male egos can barely be in the room together. What a pleasure to watch Radcliffe and Cannavale go head to head.
Indeed, after the two meet, we note their reactions pair beautifully with their physical types. Jim, fits the researcher twerp type, diminutive in stature and voice but a giant in intellect and research skills. By comparison John D’Agata’s muscular presence and bruising confident carriage signals macho. The irony that he is a romantic and goes for the meta sources the humor between them. However, the fact-checker holds sway. And D’Agata becomes affronted by the miscalculations Jim tells Emily that John has made. How dare this guy attempt to restrain and retrain his ineffable, high-minded prose?
Of course the humor explodes every time Jim attempts to toggle John. And the exceptional Bobby Cannavale’s bite challenges worse than his roar. Indeed, only Emily can straighten out the warfare between the two. How this evolves and resolves remains as the meat of the play. Indeed, she exquisitely maneuvers the two male egos, forces them to recede and calls upon “their better angels” to emerge.
This ensemble piece moves quickly. It arrives at its non resolution resolution with delectable, sometimes rolling in the aisles comedy. The philosophical arguments hold worthwhile import. Emily as the arbiter explains why responsibility for accuracy must be taken with extreme seriousness for publications. And yet, the vitality of striking the readers’ emotions with well-written prose that sings also must be taken seriously. Thus, the two perspectives must combine with equanimity. One must not submerge the other. Indeed, John’s intimation at truth is not enough. Facts secure it and make our feelings about an essay indelible and irrevocable.
Silverman’s direction and staging works well. The emails written among Emily, John and Jim provide the opening salvos of humor. Through screen projections we get to read and appreciate the writing styles of both the researcher and the essayist. Of course, the humor and explosions escalate during their live interactions as the notorious Jim investigates the scene of the suicide and visits the uber frustrated John. How Emily arrives at the scene to stem these two embattled paces with LMAO humor.
You will enjoy the superb cast who Silverman has brimming with fast-paced quips that slide down easily. Their finest scenes take place in John’s Las Vegas home when each faces off against the other. How they negotiate their own ire, frustration, and need to harangue mentors us with the silence of their inner thoughts and the power of their words. With intellect, logic and rationality they persuade. How refreshing!
Kudos go to Mimi Lien for Scenic Design, Linda Cho for Costume Design and Jen Schriever for Lighting Design. For Original Music and Sound Design we have Palmer Hefferan and for Projection Design, Lucy MacKinnon. For Hair and Wig Design, kudos to Charles G. Lapointe.
Paddy Chayefsky’s gobsmacking 1976 film satire Network (directed by Sidney Lumet), provides a searing example of the noxious morphing of Broadcast News toward lurid entertainment. Also, its timeless themes about the ubiquity of corruption even in the banal news delivery business cauterize with laser-like precision. In transferring this amazing work to Broadway, only a devilishly adroit director could improve upon an already ingenious rendering of the nullification of the free press by corporate greed. It takes genius to tackle the already fantastic. Unsurprisingly, Ivo Van Hove has applied his brilliance to bring Network to Broadway after its London run last year.
The innovative Van Hove and the inestimably formidable Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale, the uncanny, knight-errant, news anchor of fictional UBS make Network a mind-blaster. Cranston’s performance leaves one speechless. With humanity and ferocity, Cranston believably renders Beale’s epiphany about his own life. As a result he elicits our compassion and captivates us into astonishment. We watch open-mouthed as he steps into Beale’s cavernous soul-depth. And we feel the emotional pull of Cranston’s Everyman and journey with him to the Beale abyss. Cranston achieves an immediacy and truth that coheres with our own empathetic understanding. We’ve been there! Truly, even if we remain complacent with every privilege in the world, we feel “mad as hell and refuse to take it anymore!”
Exhilarated with wonder after seeing the production, I recall the profound themes Van Hove’s exalted direction and Lee Hall’s succinctly adapted script present. Indeed, these resound for us today in the fake news Trumposphere. Increasingly, the news spills out “shock and awe” entertainment. For the sake of profits, facts, information and sourced material shift to the back burner. Judgment and reason become sacrificed to the audience lust for titillation. The difficulties of divining the differences between truth, reality, lies, obfuscations increase. Content appears subject to media company editors who must carefully negotiate around the mission of profit and not upset advertisers. The confounded viewer eventually stops seeking to be informed as a civil obligation. Notably, viewers have been overwhelmed by the cacophony of lies from the media nexus which depends on advertising dollars.
Sadly, as Network illustrates, if truth and a truth deliverer do somehow break through the confusion of white noise and find a following as Howard Beale seemingly does, he and his opinions, “the truth” are commoditized. Finally, when the truth is hijacked for its profitability, the service of one whose opinions authoritatively voice society’s zeitgeist will be undermined. Truth can never be commoditized, regardless of how much its seekers long to hear it. The once noble concepts of a free press and information sharing to keep the public informed and knowledgeable disintegrate in CEOs bank accounts.
Van Hove and Hall have reconfigured the already brilliant Paddy Chayefsky script to another level of currency with a few modifications. Though the time period and characters appear similar, in the case of Max Schumacher (the fine Tony Goldwyn), and Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany distills all we dislike about the rapacious female executive), their self-destruction appears to be more trenchant.
The ironies of Network’s plot development are still precious. The fired Howard Beale whose ratings slump cannot be overcome states on the air that he intends to kill himself on next week’s program. His unauthorized announcement creates a furor and a ratings spike. Indeed, competitor news media make Howard Beale front page headlines. From this point on Beale’s inner unraveling moves to center stage. Beale becomes the stuff of media legend. As the journey of his personal enlightenment grows with power and truth, he and it are commoditized. Enabled by his friend Max Schumacher (Tony Goldwyn), and ambitious up-and-comer Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), who usurps Max Schumacher’s job with seductive abandon, Beale ends up becoming the superlative ratings darling of UBS.
Essentially the dynamic twists of Hall’s adaptation follow Chayefsky’s sardonic overload brought to an absurdist conclusion. Beale’s breakdown drives him to the edge of sanity and a fool’s genius. Notably, as Cranston negotiates Beale’s travels from the hackneyed to sublime revelation, he leaves us spellbound. His “mad as hell” rant arises from Cranston’s core of understanding the human condition. As he explodes with humanity and inner beauty, we align ourselves with his emotion. We marvel at what he has made us feel.
Despite Max’s plea for decency to take Howard off the air and stop exploiting his breakdown, Diana Christensen promotes Beale as the angry “prophet” of the airwaves. As spokesperson for millions of individuals, Beale enamors his fans with unscripted “truths.” On “The Howard Beale Show,” converted into something akin to a game show with us as the live audience, Beale’s ravings resound with passion.
Meanwhile, confounded by his own immorality and dissipation, Max leaves his wife Louise. I love what Alyssa Bresnahan does with Louise’s aria. Going against his own best interests, Max has an affair with the obscenely ambitious Christensen. As their relationship begins to crumble, the climax of the cacophony of chaos peaks. Cannily, Beale crosses a line that must never be crossed. He mucks with the corporate restructuring of debt. And Arthur Jensen, the CEO of CCA, the parent company, gets mightily pissed. Nick Wyman’s subtle, grinning malevolence as Jensen is just great.
Largely due to Bryan Cranston’s fantastic performance as Howard Beale, Network echos in our remembrance. As Howard Beale communicates truth to his television audience, Cranston brings our consciousness into the greater understanding of who we are as human beings. In Beale’s realization of who he can be, he reminds us of our value and our spirit and soul worth. When Cranston’s Beale expresses the anger which is more than anger and rage that is more than rage, it is as if he grasps our being, and we tie in with him forming a collective consciousness.
Indeed, Beale takes us to a level of human sanctity that was unimaginable at the top of the production. When at one point Cranston’s Beale joins the audience and sits next to two individuals for a confidential moment (he’s incredible in delivering the irrevocable ineffability of live theater), Van Hove turns the cameras on us. We see ourselves projected on television. It is impossible to ignore the truths of what we experience in the shadow of Beale’s soul light. Irrevocably, we awake and feel intensely because Cranston trusts Beale’s heart and conjoins himself and us with it.
For his part Van Hove has rendered the dynamism, artificiality and hyperbolic humming chaos of the TV production newsroom with seamless facility. We watch the recreated TV Studio live! Thus, we see the news projected on the big screen as camera operators live-capture Cranston’s Beale. And we note his various pilot fish (make-up, hair and clothing assistants, etc.), fussing over him. The immediacy of their actions powers up to build suspense about watching the “TV show.” Of course it is a show within a show. And we all become players!
Interestingly, the authenticity and the boardroom scenes reinforce the theme that “profit-motives propel television content” (we think of social media), to addict and brainwash. Media folks need us to appreciate sensationalism over rationality. And their obsession with the bottom line strips and devours the decency of all who work for the CCA company. Most importantly, we note the downward trend away from kindness, generosity and concern for others in Christensen, Frank Hackett (Joshua Boone), Harry Hunter (Julian Elijah Martinez) and others. In fact all who create such entertainment news reflect a craven amorality.
Additionally, Van Hove’s striking re-imagining of a TV studio and news room as a live play by play brings the action into our laps. We serve a dual function. With sardonic humor, Van Hove makes us a live and interactive, participatory audience as we applaud to “Applause” signs. Yet simultaneously, we watch the action on smaller screens featuring various channels which morph to the large screen for Beale’s news program. We participate, yet we distance ourselves as the voyeurs of TV’s “non-participatory experience.”
Interestingly, this meld of the two roles we play as audience members during “The Howard Beale Show” creates dissonance. For ultimately, we “get” that as the media audience (especially social media), we choose/control the content which is as good as our viewing tastes.
This production and all who create its fever, furor and fabulousness from actors to scene and technical designers impart a momentum that runs like an electric wave which ignites all it touches. The encounter provokes. It is as if by watching the downfall of Howard Beale, UBS, CCA and everything that was once moral and decent in the news business, we watch our own participation/contribution to it.
Chayefsky’s and Hall’s Network is the harbinger of the current social media devolution. “The news” has been atomized to fit every opinion or position based on skewed information and ear tickling “facts.” And it is these statements “of fact” that force us to a site like Snopes for fact-checking. Ironically, the site speaks more credibly of its being relied upon by non-readers and non-researchers than for its accuracy.
The greatness of this production is in its expression as an immersive consciousness-raising satire/comedy/drama. For it compels us to interact with cognition and emotion in a weird connect/disconnect. On one level, Network, especially in its addendum video clips (no spoiler alert-you’ll just have to see it), becomes an intriguing call to action. We can be better if we demand better and do not settle for less. On the other hand, Van Hove shepherds Cranston, the excellent ensemble and the artistic designers to provide an incredible one-of-a-kind entertainment that makes us think long after we’ve left the Belasco Theatre.
Special kudos to Jan Versweyveld (Scenic & Lighting Design), Tal Yarden (Video Design), An D’Huys (Costume Design), Eric Sleichim (Sound & Music).
Don’t miss this one. You will regret not seeing Bryan Cranston and this fiery re-imagining of Network at the Belasco Theatre. The production runs with no intermission at the Belasco Theatre (111 44th Street), through 17 March. You can pick up tickets at their website.
Theater scholars, dramatists, and actors are familiar with the legend of French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), referred to as “The Divine Sarah.” Renowned for her indomitable theatrical greatness, she lived and breathed drama, melding her life and her art so that each informed the other. Alluding to this synergy of living artistry, Theresa Rebeck’s play Bernhardt/Hamlet explores the French actress’s acclaimed reinterpretation of the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which she imbued with her own maverick genius and courage. Examining the actress’s work, the play, thrillingly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, shows us thematic parallels to our times.
As Sarah Bernhardt circa 1897, confronting Shakespeare’s best-known character, Janet McTeer’s dynamism astounds. Her Bernhardt is a whirlwind of delight and shimmering brilliance. She propels the light and dark of human ethos with a range that bounds and swirls and captivates. In short, McTeer infuses her Bernhardt with an infinite variety of emotional hues so that we believe how and why Oscar Wilde referred to her as “the Incomparable One.” Additionally, we appreciate that Bernhardt was not only a visionary in enforcing her will to create opportunities for herself. For women who witnessed her heroism, she drove the platform of freedom, despite and because of a culture and society expressly controlled by men.
Rebeck intimates that Bernhardt accomplished what every female actress covets. The actress intrepidly portrayed the complexity and angst of Hamlet’s human spirit with the realism of the mysterious feminine gone rogue, as only an exotic like Bernhardt could do. From her affairs with some of the crowned heads of Europe, to her re-imagining herself through her relationships with authors and playwrights, Bernhardt proved her exceptionalism. Continually, as she gained power and fame, she pushed the envelope of female propriety. And amazingly, the public adored her for it.
However, when she takes on the role of Hamlet to bring it to a larger, more profitable theater, her closest allies sound warnings. Edmond Rostand is one such ally. Jason Butler Harner skillfully portrays the poetic, conflicted author of Cyrano de Bergerac, who worked with and wrote for Bernhardt. Her lover in the play (a relationship that was rumor in real life), he must choose between his career and hers. Of course this is an irony. Rarely did women have the opportunity to have choices as Bernhardt did. In this instance, the hard choice becomes Rostand’s with regard to their work on Hamlet.
We see that the two consume each other in their relationship, which is a blessing and a curse. Harner’s potent by-play with McTeer when he challenges her “demented idea” of rewriting the iambic poetry in Hamlet’s speeches is particularly striking. His forcefulness stands against McTeer’s indomitable will in Rebeck’s exceptional characterizations. Their equivalent passion reveals the high stakes for each. Thus we appreciate the inevitability of their partnership taking a turn after he becomes famous with Cyrano and she moves on with an interpretation of Hamlet sans poetic rhythm and written by others.
The other ally who opposes Bernhardt’s endeavor is critic Louis, played by the stalwart and stentorian Tony Carlin. He argues with and attempts to influence Rostand in an important scene. Here we see the dangerous, shifting ground Bernhardt must negotiate as Louis questions her Hamlet choice. Perhaps the scene could be less expositional, but it is a necessary one for advancing the stakes and presenting the seeds of themes.
For example, women’s stage roles traditionally remained weak asides to fascinating, dominant male protagonists. Male roles, complex and intelligent, provided the driving dynamic that women’s roles did not. To take on a man’s role, a woman must have the power and even greater acumen and ambition to accomplish it well. Unsurprisingly, both men question whether Bernhardt has the chops to meet the Hamlet challenge.
Through the real-life characters of Rostand and Louis, the playwright highlights the conflicts and problems McTeer’s Bernhardt faces. Additionally, Rebeck shows us how the staging, costuming, and promotion of this new, interpretative Hamlet must be conquered.
Wonderful in supporting roles are Dylan Baker, Matthew Saldivar, and the fine Brittany Bradford as actress Lysette. Baker portrays Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and friend. Notably, Baker gets to have fun playing Hamlet’s father in a hysterical rehearsal scene. Experienced in the role himself, Coquelin guides Bernhardt as a quasi acting coach. Coquelin’s wisdom and sound judgment reflect his greatness as an actor. Eventually, Coquelin took on the role of Cyrano with great success. Baker’s versatility shines in his speeches as Cyrano, Hamlet’s father, and various roles including the great Coquelin himself.
Saldivar portrays Alphonse Mucha, whose artistic skills must beautify Bernhardt’s poster productions. Humorously, he expresses his upset with the task at hand. Indeed, Bernhardt’s hair, her clothing, her stature as Hamlet must enthrall and entice paying customers, a novel feat even for one of his skill. He cannot easily produce advertising artwork that will please Bernhardt, himself, and his public. Thus, as Bernhardt navigates new ground with her incredible decision to play Hamlet, so must Mucha and the others in her circle deal with the “dire” consequences. What a delicious conundrum her “simple” need to play Hamlet creates for these men whom she frustrates yet enthralls!
The symbolism presented by Bernhardt’s desire to enforce her will upon the culture electrifies. Subtly, when she donned the pants in Hamlet, Bernhardt symbolically freed all women from fashion folkways. Her pants-wearing signals a needed change. Women’s mores were held fast by paternalism and manifested subtly in binding corsets, bustles, and long sleeved-high collared blouses. Worn even in heat waves, these sometimes smothered the wearers, who died of heat prostration. Fashion trends, as painful as they were, laid subservient female stereotypes at women’s feet. And they dared not transgress them. Do such trends abide even today? Sometimes.
In Rebeck’s characterization of Bernhardt, the more restrictive the “thou shalt not,” the more the actress embraced it, conquering fear. In her revolutionary behavior she dismantled the “double standard.” And because she did this with aplomb, sophistication, joie de vivre, and the audacity of wit and whimsy, who could censure her? As she developed her dramatic art, she empowered herself. Memorably, McTeer takes this characterization and with precision lives it in two acts. She evokes the marvelous “Divine Sarah” and makes her a heroine because she can. How McTeer creates her Bernhardt with adroit skill, subtle intelligence and determination is a Bernhardt-like feat.
What a breathtaking reminder of magnificent women in this twisted, political tide of times. Assuredly, Rebeck’s work (McTeer’s speech to this effect rings out beautifully) remains vital and insistent. With commanding power, McTeer’s Bernhardt corrects the historical record, striking forever at the literary and dramatic canon with a tight phrase. She proclaims to Rostand that she will not play the “flower.” The night I saw the production, the women in the audience applauded these words. “I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I played the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”
This moment electrifies. For though women may be compared to flowers, they are not flowers. And Bernhardt, like all women, understands. For women are power brokers, however hidden, however “passive.” Regardless of how much men nullify this truth, “woke” women grew and grow to learn and champion it. And many achieved and achieve momentous feats even from the position of “second.”
Bernhardt captured opportunity and molded destiny so it served her, not the other way around. Strengthening and illuminating her own identity, she wrote her own history, not the one the culture intended to write for her and but couldn’t. McTeer’s inspiring depiction proclaims this with every card in the deck. Indeed, when Bernhardt says about Hamlet, “I do not play him as a woman! I play him as MYSELF,” we glean the full truth of her meaning.
Rebeck wisely selects the most vital of Hamlet’s speeches. Their themes meld aptly with Bernhardt’s conundrums. Indeed, Bernhardt is “a rogue and peasant slave.” At the time she rehearses that speech, she, like Hamlet, divines how an actor uses his skills to portray a character. The double meanings are ironic. But unlike Hamlet, Bernhardt is active, assertive. As Hamlet struggles with acting crazy to hide the knowledge of the truth of his father’s murder, she struggles with a Hamlet too passive to kill. Indeed, the humor comes in watching Bernhardt’s frustration at portraying an “inactive” Hamlet who comes up with philosophical obstacles to delay killing Claudius.
Rebeck interweaves in a complex way Hamlet’s speeches to emphasize Bernhardt’s conflict in deciding how to approach and interpret the role. One must work to catch all the ironies. So revisiting the play to enjoy this profound rendering is worthwhile.
Through active dialogue, we learn of Bernhardt’s promotional savvy and ability to reinvent herself for every decade. Naturally, this excites comparisons to today’s long-lasting actresses and others who could learn a thing or two from Bernhardt. Without fear, she capitalizes on rumor, innuendo, and extraordinary behavior that’s verboten for women. Cleverly, she makes critics her friends and generously remembers those who might have turned enemies.
Never an invisible woman, she will play men’s roles. In an affirmation about playing Hamlet and being a woman, she states to Rostand: “Where is his greatness? Where? Is it not in his mind, his soul, his essence? Where is mine? What is it about me you love? Because if in our essence we are the same, why am I otherwise less?”
Thus, Rebeck’s choice of this pivotal, “make or break” moment in Bernhardt’s career is an inspired, complicated one. The turning point reveals the grist, bravery, and revolutionary fervor Bernhardt required of herself to overturn centuries of dramatic tradition. Bernardt’s choice to conquer the greatest role written for men propels her to theatrical heaven. It is sheer artistic genius in a time when women were the “incapable,” “inferior” ones mastered by man’s sham invincibility. Bernardt/Hamlet through the seminal performances of McTeer and the ensemble informs and encourages us to realize that Shakespeare also speaks of women when Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason…”
Assuredly, kudos go to the spectacular artistic team. I particularly loved the sets (Beowulf Boritt), costumes (Toni-Leslie James), and hair (wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout). Lighting is by Bradley King and original music and sound design by Fitz Patton.
Bernhardt/Hamlet will be a multiple award winner. It is a must-see TWICE! This Roundabout Theatre Company production runs at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. The show until 11 November. Visit the Roundabout website for schedule and tickets.
Bryan Cranston, one of the most versatile actors of his generation, spoke with David Edelstein (film critic New York Magazine) in a Q and A during the 2018 Tribeca TV Festival. They discussed salient points about his high-velocity career on TV, film, and stage. Always interesting and vibrant Cranston, spoke about acting considerations and the process. Notably, he attributes his success to hard work and luck. Obviously, Cranston’s passion melded with humility drives him with the knowledge that he must continually be in learning mode. This attitude pays off. For at this point he excels at whatever task he endeavors. Cranston’s quietly forged, dogged determination shines a beacon even for established actors, producers and directors.
When Cranston made a showing in films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), he already had found a home on the small screen. Notably, his TV credits amass from appearances beginning in “One Life to Live.” As he took acting classes, he accomplished parts on various TV series. And shows like Raising Miranda (1988) and Matlock (1987, 1991) gave him longer stints. Work begets work and for longer work periods. Various films and TV series crossed his path like the TV Mini Series Macross Plus (1994) and The Louie Show (1996).
After two decades, he began to strike gold. As Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld, he made an indelible mark. And as the amiable dad, Hal on Malcolm in the Middle (2006), cultural phrases sprang from his character portrayal. Thus, his hard work cemented the bricks of experience to build a fortress of a career. This fortress enabled him to weather world wide acclaim. And it allowed him to possess the grace within to receive the numerous accolades for subsequent one-of-a-kind portrayals.
Who can imagine the character of Walter White in Breaking Bad without Cranston? White, so incredibly fleshed out by Cranston, will live in our cultural memory for decades. Morphing from a “Goodbye Mr. Chips” teacher to drug empire maker “Scarface,” Cranston pulled every range of emotions from his acting toolkit. Through the show’s seasons, he won numerous awards. Cranston’s power grid solidified. The starpower gained from his four time Emmy success, enabled him to become one of the producers during the series’ fourth and fifth seasons. And he won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series twice.
Ever since, Cranston has been on a roll swallowing up experiences to learn all aspects of “the business” he obviously loves. Reviewing the decades long arc of his career reveals that marvelous events come to those who “put in the time” and “make the most” of opportunity’s breakwaters. In 2014, Cranston won the Tony Award for his portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in Broadway’s All the Way. Subsequently, having created his production company Moonshot Entertainment, he reprised the role for the HBO adaptation of the same name.
During the conversation Cranston discussed how his teenage years and personality gave him the juice to create characters in a TV series he co-created and co-produces i.e. Sneaky Pete. The exceptional casting stars Giovanni Ribisi and currently moves through its second season. Cranston mentioned that as a teen he manifested a “sneakiness.” But his life took another turn away from “true crime,” and becoming an LAPD officer which he had been working toward in college. His direction switched when he took Acting Class as an elective. Nevertheless, he used the behaviors (lying, cover-ups), and that M.O. to create characters and story. As the positive reviews flow in Season 2, Sneaky Pete remains fresh, bold and smart. And as Cranston enjoys mixing up expectations, they’ve added conflicts and developments that do not allow the protagonist to breathe any relief from his own self-inflicted lying machinations.
Cranston clarified that success builds upon success. As a result his company developed various television series along with Sneaky Pete, in The Dangerous Book for Boys, and Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams for Amazon. Included is the Emmy-nominated animated series SuperMansion for Sony/Crackle. The foundation of incredible effort built throughout his career remains stalwart. For indeed the vicissitudes happened upon him in Cranston’s early years, a factor he referred to during the conversation. However, all events in one’s life provide acting and storytelling grist. Though painful, they can be culled and transformed into art.
This year Cranston was nominated for a 2018 Emmy for his guest-starring role as Larry’s therapist on Curb Your Enthusiasm. And after coming off a sold-out, award-winning run in London, Cranston stars on Broadway as Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky’s ever timely Network by Lee Hall, adapted from the film script. I had tried to see the production in London at the National Theatre in December when I visited the UK. The production was sold out and for good cause. Cranston’s performance was spot-on. He won the 2018 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Actor. He was nominated for the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Actor in a Play. Also, he won the 2018 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor.
Like many actors, Cranston does not read reviews of his work. He stated that the reviews if negative or positive could impact how he works the character through his own acting instrument. He took many acting classes over the years and left when he received continual praise. Interestingly, Cranston felt he needed to learn more. And if he plateaued in a class, the time had ripened to move on and pick up another tool for his acting kit. Being his own coach and critic, reviews provided nothing useful. Indeed, onstage, the interaction with the audience changes a performance nightly. He mentioned new ideas and a reliance on imagination which infuse the evocation of a character. Being in the moment is paramount.
Some interesting points that Cranston made concerned acting. He remarked that actors must give in to their impulses. Indeed, he said, “The more I do that and get off kilter from the norm, the better.” He added that if one “does make a mistake, one apologizes and if one’s life is clean, the mistakes will be minor.”
Edelson bounced back with the adage about the difference between greater and lesser actors. He suggested that “the greater actors are not afraid to appear foolish.” Cranston concurred. And he added that actors must take risks. He cited the quote, “You’re only as good as you dare to be bad.”
Taking chances Cranston credits to be a vital part of great acting. Inherent with good performers is the prerequisite that actors have to be willing to take chances. Not only does this refer to physical chances, but emotional ones. According to Cranston, actors put themselves in emotional jeopardy often. He explained, “When you go through a process like that, your body does not know the different between acting and real life. If I’m putting myself in a position where I’m weeping or heaving with upset, anger or fear, my body does not know I’m acting.”
And Cranston continued about the sacrifices of actors when expressing dense emotion. “Your body can be shaking. It takes a while to come down from that. It can be exhausting but also exhilarating.”
Edelson referenced that Cranston doesn’t show an image persona and one that remains private. Indeed, the public has seen actors who are schizoid. Sometimes they manifest the artificial “show biz” personality and the separate family or off screen persona. As a compliment, Edelson remarked that Cranston appears measured, relaxed, himself with no difference between public and private individual. He joked that Cranston didn’t appear to have schisms. Cranston used this praise to quip, “Oh, I got a lot of schisms.”
However, the conversation came back around to the work. Cranston reinforced that he is not one to stand around at parties schmoozing, drink in hand “yelling” above the music and din of people talking. He said he didn’t think the atmosphere seemed conducive to making a connection with anyone. He proclaimed, “I’m not good at that.” He also commented that while he has a tremendous amount of energy, he prefers saving it for those things that he wants to do.
In effect he must husband the enthusiasm and grist he does have for projects. Clearly, he has other irons in the fire that he will use to continue to work on that fortress of a career.
See Bryan Cranston on Broadway in Network before the tickets are sold out. Most likely the production and Cranston will be up for additional awards in the US, including a Tony.