Category Archives: Broadway
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.
‘The Inheritance,’ Inspired by E.M. Forester’s ‘Howard’s End’ a Chronicle of Gay Life, Poignant, Humorously Ironic, Triumphant
How does one tell one’s story digging out the mired treasure amidst the refuse of time, personalities, relationships squandered, brilliant aphorisms and droplets of wisdom tossed away unheeded? Indeed! As most people end up doing, you don’t tell it; you live it and consign it to memory fragments which may become obliterated by dementia or Alzheimer’s. Or you move it into imagination realized, accessing a work of fiction as your inspiration and using a parallel plot platform to guide you.
Additionally, if you elicit the help of the spiritual consciousness of E. M. Forester as your literary muse employing Howard’s End as the fulcrum of evolving social mores in turn-of-the-century England (to mimic late 20th-century America) you will do as the ingenious Matthew Lopez (The Whipping Man, The Legend of Georgia McBride) did. You will write a masterwork. For Lopez is it The Inheritance. And if you are fortunate to premiere your play at London’s Young Vic with an exciting, prodigiously talented cast, it just may transfer successfully to Broadway a year later because of its sterling, award-winning particularity and emotional poignancy; this despite a few expositional plot convolutions and character snags.
The intriguing convention of materializing E.M. Forester as a professor who surfs the crest of wisdom’s waves into the shoreline consciousness of a cadre of gay writers (clever opening scene) is one of the high-points of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance, proudly unleashing its almost seven hours, four acts and large cast at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
In Lopez’s work Forester, is known by his middle name Morgan. Brilliantly portrayed by Paul Hilton, as the sensitive, focused and refined gentleman gay writer who hung in the shadows of respectability and didn’t “indulge” ’til his thirties, Hilton balances just enough loving instruction in shepherding the writers, and specifically Leo (Samuel L. Levine) in how to write their stories with sage advice exemplified in his novel. As he steers them in dramatic directions, they configure plot elements and “act” the characters in Leo’s story. Additionally, Hilton’s performance of Forester doubling as Henry Wilcox’ thirty-five year love interest Walter Poole is, bar none, glorious. John Benjamin Hickey as Wilcox is his fine counterpart.
Actually, the role of Forester could have been extended. Some of the business representing the cadre’s snide, material, mimed psycho-sexual behaviors and gay bitchiness in their choral presentments could have been shaved to fine points of crystal clarity without losing context or meaning. These changes may have enhanced thematic textures. Left as is, the cadre’s force is diluted and the staged movements of mimed sex which might have been acutely rendered as a dance are merely a humorous contrast to the deeper relationships in the play as well as a privileged indulgence since sexual hedonism isn’t a problem in 2018 with drugs like Truvada, PrEP and DESCOVY®. However, this superficializes the characters who are unnecessarily demeaned in what appears to be their gratuitous behavior, when they are far better than narcissistic overlords of themselves and each other.
As Forester guides his charges into how to extract the seminal moments of the story of their lives, we meet the key players who portray the protagonists and antagonists. Ironically, with authorial deification these players also get to comment on their character’s choices and the direction of their lives. Thus, in a wonderful twist, Lopez has the characters live and have their being while choosing their actions as they help Leo realize the most dramatic elements of the story.
The most humorous and finely realized manifestation of this occurs with the character of Toby Darling (the gobsmacking Andrew Burnap) whose seven year relationship with Eric crashes and burns mostly because he undoes it with careless abandon. Burnap adroitly, prodigiously walks the Toby tightrope. Representatively, Burnap’s supercharged Toby is the gay everyman of the previous generation before the AIDS epidemic: a cavalier, “full-of-himself,” gorgeous, sizzling, sexual powder-keg who masks the bleeding, soul raw, emotional victim of his own despairing gayness that writhes within.
Also, Lopez’s characterization of Toby as the successful novelist-cum Broadway playwright whose work will be made into a film, shines in a quaint “theater of the absurd” trope. Toby is the epitome of the actor searching for a character, massaging and sometimes insistently demanding the writing cadre, Forester and lead author-Leo do what he wishes. The outraged humor Burnap engenders as he attempts to write himself into a finer presentation and less painful destiny is wonderful. That he fails to influence Leo and the others to give him what he wants by the conclusion of the production is poignant, stark and even more wonderful.
His is an end which has no spiritual return because he optimizes his final choice and upends our expectations that he will die of AIDS. Lopez’s irony of and about Toby Darling is acute. As he declines, Leo ascends to a greater success, topping Toby’s spurious, specious novel (which Toby accuses himself of writing) with a powerful, truthful authenticity.
This is one of the many twists upon twists that Lopez effects that eventually is swallowed up by the themes and curiosity of paralleling Howard’s End and revealing how the cadre helps Leo tell the story of his complicated and amazing Horatio Alger-like rise. It is an evolution whose possibilities Leo inherited from the sacrifice of others who had gone before him in a long succession of gays shamed and ostracized. Lopez has his writers discuss Forester’s internalization of shame as they allude to gays of previous generations, who like Forester, had to hide in the shadows of oppression because of the social opprobrium and stench of perversion that branded gay men with the red letter F for faggot, a word that is still used to bludgeon gays today in various areas of our nation.
Homosexuality was an anathema that spawned abuse, brutalization and murder until it was answered for all time by the 1969 riots at Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Forester who never “came out” publicly to stand for the cause as he could have, died a year after Stonewall. He never submitted his one novel about same-sex love for publication because such love was verboten. Forester deemed Maurice not “worth” publishing for the hell it would bring him, though clearly, it would have helped thousands come to grip with their own traumatized feelings.
Interestingly, as the writer cadre discusses this, they accuse Forester of cowardice. He avers, but he, too, is a part of the inheritance that burgeons today. The Stonewallers who fomented that iconic, historic event symbolically stood for gays globally; all benefited as the gay rights movement began its march into the future light of social acceptance. And Forester’s Maurice was published in 1971, within a mere year and one-half after Stonewall.
Gradually, Lopez’s characters unravel their storied relationships and relate how the previous generation’s sacrifice paved the way for their current oblivion enjoying their Lotus-Land sense of privilege and freedom from the ponderous, fearful irrevocable death-filled virus which Lopez’s characters quaintly refer to in the past tense as “the plague” and the “war.” Their nonchalant twitting jokes and discussion about “Camp” rise to high-turned humor. Is that all there is to discuss?
With gay marriage made legal, there are very few hurdles that remain left for the gay community who are free, in most cities globally, to be whom they please. The problem is, they must reconcile themselves with the past which always looms its insanity into the present. Toby is a prime example of how, regardless of the external strides the culture makes, freedom also originates from within; we must conquer ourselves conjointly as we battle the prejudices, discrimination and hatred of individuals we may meet in society.
In keeping with this truism/theme of the play, we note Toby’s mismatched relationship with Eric Glass (Kyle Soller) a social activist who understands the full doom of Trump’s win and how it will impact every current policy from health care to the Paris Climate Accord to gay rights. While Toby basks in the fame of his novel’s success then prepares for the opening of his play on Broadway, he slowly disintegrates eaten inside out from trying to keep his lies suppressed. Meanwhile, Eric Glass befriends upstairs neighbor, frail Walter Poole, whose partner the robust titan of industry, Henry Wilcox has little time for.
From this foursome Lopez strikes loose parallels with Howard’s End: the Schleigel sisters (Eric and Toby) and Mr. and Mrs. Wilcox (Walter Poole and Henry Wilcox). Lopez furthers the complications with these relationships to eventually cue in Leo’s metamorphosis and Toby’s disintegration.
Henry was married with two sons; when his wife died he became enamored with Walter. They coupled and Walter lovingly raised the boys, maintaining the family dynamic while Henry often was away on business. Toby grows apart from Eric as he bathes in his success and becomes attracted to actor Adam (Samuel H. Levine) the wealthy counterpart of the homeless, uneducated, look alike hustler Leo who eventually writes the story of their lives. Toby and Eric split and Eric is devastated. Walter dies; Henry is devastated. Walter leaves a house upstate to Eric. Walter intuits that Eric spiritually can be the caretaker of the house because of his generous, charitable nature. However, Walter’s death bed wishes are not honored when Henry, motivated by his grasping sons, denies Walter’s request and burns the paper on which he wrote his “last will and testament.”
From then and there the conflict augments and we become intrigued as to how the upstate house will eventually land in Eric’s lap, for surely he is more deserving than Henry’s crass sons.
The mystery why Walter bequeaths the house to Eric (it is staged as a miniature replica colonial, back lit, opening up to reveal rooms and furniture in an adroit, beautiful, sleight-of-hand design by Bob Crowley) becomes revealed by the end of Part I. It is a stunning revelation tied in to the inheritance the previous gay generation left our writer cadre of the present. That generation was a community of which Walter was one of the last to die.
This greatest generation of the “war” from the last two decades of the 20th century experienced the scourge and crucible of fatal autoimmune deficiencies. These were the lost generation. They never came out from under the torments and tribulations of the AIDS epidemic that struck thousands of the most gifted and talented in the artistic world who often died alone, unloved, invisible, without hope, the spurned contagious lepers of their time, their blood toxic to the touch. It was only until after the gay community, celebrities, politicians and other notables joined together to pressure scientific researchers to conquer the disease with the right cocktail of medications that the AIDS war ended. Theirs was an amazing endeavor that took twenty years. But for this war generation who died, one after the other expending their blood, sweat and tears, the current writers would not be able to luxuriate in indulgent sex without concerns about contracting dreaded kaposi’s sarcoma.
Walter’s loving nature inspired him to take in many of the AIDS generation who were dying. He took care of them in the upstate house, much to Henry’s great chagrin. But the moral imperative was great and he nursed the dying victims of “the war” at this serene refuge assisted by Margaret (the wonderful Lois Smith who shows up in Part II) who also lost a son to “the plague.” Thus, the dying don’t have to face the fear and darkness alone, but endure it knowing they are loved. As Eric is told the story others appear to verify the beauty and sacrifice of this war generation so that current members of the gay community might live in a greater peace, free from the noxious, soul-draining, heartbreaking physical wasting of AIDS.
As the end of Part I spools into eternity, we recognize that this is not only a play about the gay community (the tableau of them sitting around Bob Crowley’s white platform leaning on each other is fabulously akin to a famous Renaissance painting). Others were impacted by “the plague.” And they are no less important; the disease didn’t discriminate; toxic blood contamination was passed to others, male, female, straight, gay, transgender, children, elders, those of every ethnic culture. The difference is the cruel ostracism of being gay was further heightened by having AIDS. Stonewall could not answer a scourge, only medical science can, racing against death. And it did!
Finally, as Part I concludes, Lopez reminds us that while we live, we prepare a place for the next generation through our struggles, our trials and our difficulties. And it is this journey that must be told, even shouted from the rooftops to the younger generation who are our inheritors.
If Part II is not as haunting and dense, it is dramatic with incredible monologues of truth delivered. Among others, Lois Smith’s Margaret shares her story and Toby revels his past as an entrance to what he will choose for his future. Both are amazing.
The cadre of friends matures, but into the scene Leo emerges picking up where wealthy Adam (Samuel L Levine) left off in Part I. In Part I before the stunning end, Lopez sets us up, as Adam and Toby confront each other, competitive wills. Adam as the star of Toby’s play is getting more acclaim than playwright Toby. Toby accuses Adam of having an easy life absent fear. In an exceptional monologue (end of Act I, Part I) Levine’s Adam describes an incident in a bath house in Europe whose impact is at first heady and divine in its allurement. But when it is over Adam’s realization converts the event to what it is, frightening and sinister in its sadomasochism and shocking realism. The sex was unprotected and there is blood, much blood. But because Adam confides in his parents, they act quickly to get the right medications. For the second time since Adam was adopted into wealth, Adam gratefully acknowledges his parents saved his life, this time from “the plague.”
Lopez provides an striking contrast in characterization between Adam and his doppleganger Leo (also portrayed by Samuel L. Levine). Levine’s portrayal of both is superbly vital. It suggests the differences between their class, education, personality, perceptions. He plays each acutely with superlative specificity. Manifested is the vast demographic of gays and their experiences. They are not always wealthy and/or educated or elite stereotypes. Indeed, sex is a tool and hustlers who may have been bisexual were caught up in the war in the last century. However, in 2018 the drugs are a salvation and the hope for changing one’s circumstances is ever-present.
As a homeless man, Leo has left a dire situation and his means of support is hustling. Of course he flirts with danger and the threat of disease hangs over him with every trick. That Toby uses Leo as a trick, then boyfriend to satisfy his lust for Adam because Leo looks exactly like Adam, becomes one of the linchpins of Part II. There is even a duplication of the scene Adam described to Toby in Part I, cruelly revived because Leo does not choose this for himself, Toby chooses it for him. In other words, Toby would have sadomasochism forced on Leo in a cruel remembrance of what Adam told him. Toby’s descent is made clear in this scene. And soon he will have no where to go but the abyss of darkness reflected in his soul.
A second linchpin is Eric’s and Henry’s relationship. Despite all of Eric’s friends’ counsel after Henry discusses why he is a Republican and supports Trump, Eric decides he will accept Henry’s proposal, though their ethics, morals and emotional impulses are antithetical. Ironically, we note that Eric is blinded by Henry’s wealth and charm and intuit Eric is headed for another disastrous relationship.
How Lopez resolves these problems using parallel elements from Howard’s End is intricate but inevitably logical. He fleshes out the characters of Toby, Eric, Henry and Leo with lustrous precision bringing each to their own resolution toward redemption, damnation or apotheosis as in the case of Leo. In Part II, Lopez emphasizes the aspect of joining past and present to build on the inheritance of what others have forged out from their earthly trials. Ultimately, because the protagonists (Eric, Margaret, Leo, Henry) have reconciled and recognized the contributions, love and sacrifice of those who have gone before them, they are able to create renewal and rejuvenation in their own lives and the lives of others. Leo’s recovery in Eric’s house (which Henry finally gives Eric) allows Leo to receive the eventual grace, education, scholarship that Henry Wilcox initiates in remembrance of his love for Walter. And thus, finally, Leo is able to tell this story of all of them of what they inherited-the love, the sacrifice so that they can bridge the present to inspire and bring hope to future generations.
Yes, the plot of The Inheritance is labyrinthine, some parts bloated. But the adroit shepherding of performances and staging by director Stephen Daldry help to tease out the actors’ performances so that overall the effort is spectacular.
This is a phenomenal work. It especially resonates in our current climate which looks to be a vast leap backward, but which in another realm of consciousness may bring out the best in those of us who prize love above hate, unity above division, truth above falsehood, a nurturing spirit above cold-heartedness. All of these contrasts Lopez’s work clarifies with a bit of redemption and remorse sprinkled along the way. Powerful, prescient, preeminent!
A special mention goes to the creative team who magnificently with minimalism and seamless charm brought Daldry’s vision into being. These include Jon Clark (lighting design) Paul Arditti & Christopher Reid, Paul Englishby (original music) Bob Crowley (design).
This is going to be an award winner as it was in the U.K. See it to be uplifted and moved. You won’t regret it. The Inheritance is currently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘A Christmas Carol’ a Gorgeous Re-birthing of the Dickens Treasure, on Broadway, Starring Campbell Scott, Andrea Martin, LaChanze
If you go to the Lyceum Theatre this holiday season, you will experience a haven of love filled with joy, good will and lots of treats (clementines and Tate’s chocolate chip miniatures passed out to the hungry audience right before the performance). What an exceptional re-vitalization of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol this production is.
The uplifting classic about the human ability to change one’s character from grasping restriction to one of generosity and love is one we need to revisit as often as possible in this time of political divisiveness and “un-newsworthy” acts of cruelty, malice and social ill will. The production is a subtle call to arms, a reminder of our choices. If we must reveal traits, why not manifest the spiritual attributes of goodness and kindness to energize our minds and hearts toward the positive. Bah Humbug with negativity! The glass should and must be half-full and eventually, it just might be overflowing. All things are possible to those who believe.
Mind you this idea is never “preached” in this fabulous, sonorous production. But these themes are so infused by the characters, the story-line, the lyrically rendered traditional Christmas carols that waft in and out between bits and pieces of choral story telling, we are ever-so-gently wrapped in their meanings like a glorious present which we are encouraged to “pass on to others.” For those who see the production, and you must to fully appreciate this novel conception of a seasonal delight, you will understand how “pass it on to others, pass it forward,” becomes a prominent and sage aphorism, especially in Act II.
The production which was first presented in London at The Old Vic is currently in its third season there. It is understandable why it is a smash favorite. Will it return next year in New York City as it most likely will in London? Please! Adapted by Jack Thorne with an intriguing design, tenor and texture by a laudatory creative team, the craggy penurious, scoundrel Scrooge portrayed with power and emotional range by Campbell Scott has rarely been given such a send-off.
From costumes to staging to lighting and sound, this is a spiritual manifestation of dreams and possibilities which spark one’s imagination and send chills down our spines. From the first appearance of Jacob Marley dragging chains and bondages up from infernal regions and recriminations, to the subsequent howling of the winds and fog mists swirling diabolically to the deep tonal registers of darkness, this is indeed, first and last “A Ghost Story of Christmas,” Dickens very own handle characterizing his most famous work.
Before we meet the protagonist, hear/see his story, the cast shares the cookie and fruit favors and sings in black long coats and top hats with bells ringing a melodic symphony of cheer, whose message clearly, beautifully resounds with grace and humor. Then Scrooge, the gruff, malcontent stomps into the scene in the appropriate Victorian dress of the counting house with white, disarrayed whiskers and shocked out hair. Campbell Scott steps into the soul of this misanthropist who despises Christmas and all it means until ghosts haunt him and he transforms into an innocent child as the light of wonder fills his spirit.
Scott takes a version of a caricature we’ve all come to appreciate and authenticates him as a live individual. I couldn’t help but equate him with some political caricatures of our nation with the hope that they, too, may change, come to life and fill out as generous recondite human beings. But Scott’s Scrooge has the chief driver of transformation propelling him along: guilt, shame and remorse and the inclination to apologize and want to be a better person. Others do love him despite himself and most probably have prayed and blessed him along his darkened way. Thus, he comes to the end of himself on a ghostly evening “the night before Christmas.”
When the Ghost of Christmas Past visits him (the illustrious, quaintly humorous and festively dressed Andrea Martin) we understand the reasons why Scrooge’s present is what it is and un-examined lump of coal which the ghosts put under intense heat and guilty pressure.
Nevertheless, Martin’s ghost reveals Scrooge’s younger days as he looks on poignantly amazed. The exuberance of his childhood, the longing not to be alone and the love are present. He loves Belle (the fine Sarah Hunt) but this love becomes bottled up in dreams of ambition to create a grand lifestyle for her. Of course these fade and became lost as Scrooge allows money to erect itself into an all-consuming devouring monstrosity; there is never enough; Scrooge is never rich enough for himself, though Belle would have married a man of her father’s station because she loves him and as he later finds out, still does love him.
The Ghost of Christmas Present enters in the same clouded mist and the foreboding is heightened as LaChanze with ironic tone and admonition ringing throughout her carriage comes to visit. Her outfit is the same as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a festive floral pattern. But her distinguishing feature remains the sunglasses; interpret them as you will. LaChanze manages to be cool and witty in the part; the sunglasses are a nice touch.
With her visit Scott’s Scrooge has begun his subtle transformation. If you blink, you will miss the bends in the turning points of his change. Gradually, he loses his anger, sullenness, recalcitrance, emotional unkemptness and judgmental superiority. Not only does he go with her willingly, he shows his aptitude to learn about himself. After all, didn’t Marley warn him of three visitations for the sole reason of forestalling his friend and kindred mammonish spirit the horrors of Marley’s eternal damnation?
The mood shifts of the ghostly hauntings are like whispers, acute and filled with mystery. The choral numbers of various carols enhance the ghostly visits. The lamps deck the ballustrade, festoon the stage and theater ceiling suspended by long and short chains. The design is just spectacularly suggestive of the time and place, themes of light and dark, redemption and damnation. Rob Howell (set and costume design) Hugh Vanstone (lighting design) Simon Baker (sound design) and Christopher Nightingale (composer/orchestrator/arranger) especially have secured Matthew Warchus’ vision of A Christmas Carol as floating through the realms between the material and ethereal worlds. It is this symbolic vision that gives credence to otherworldly consciousness as one of the unspoken ghosts that visits Scrooge and promotes his final transformation having come back from a deadened heart, mind and soul.
Without giving too much away, the Second Act shines figuratively and manifestly as the light embraces Scrooge when the Ghost of Christmas Future, in a surprising twist, his sister Jess (Hannah Elless) notes what could be his future. Not exactly in keeping with the tenor and atmosphere of the Act One, nevertheless, Act Two emphasizes not the horrors and fear of a possibly doomed soul, but the joy, happiness and innocence of a reclaimed one.
If this is what it means to be “Born Again,” I’ll embrace it! Campbell Scott rebirths a nightmarish man into a lovely individual whose child-like wonder effuses love and generosity. His performance is moment to moment and the transformation is made complete in “the twinkling of an eye,” and “at the last trump!” This is his redemption through resurrection. And we adore Scrooge’s happiness and good will and find ourselves laughing and crying at his exuberance. Somewhere tucked in the background did I hear “O Holy Night” at these bright, shining moments? Perhaps.
Matthew Warchus’ staging making use of the entire theater even up to the second balcony. This is captivating. And his involvement of the audience making this experience wholly interactive is just grand. I adored the themes: the reigning/snowing down of blessings on the audience, the abundance and prosperity offered by Scrooge’s resurrected spirit that the audience gets to pass along as part of the festivities and much, much more.
I daresay, perhaps agnostics and atheists will approve of this version because it is heartfelt, human and doesn’t have a whiff of sanctimonious clap trap or religious institutionalism anywhere near it. And as for the commercialism of Christmas? The production explodes it at the first appearance of the cast in top hats and Victorian long coats. Thank goodness. Indeed, Thorne, Warchus and the creative team reveal their profound understanding of Dickens’ themes elevating this “haunting” story to the classic it is. The production in breathtaking array exemplifies why A Christmas Carol will resonate always.
See this for the spectacular interactive staging, lighting design, director’s vision, spiritual beauty, acting, Campbell Scott’s Scrooge-transformation, fabulously interwoven-in-the-narrative Christmas carols sung and played like you’ve never experienced before. And see it for the mysterious, otherworldly enchantments and too much to repeat here, not the least of which are the clementines. With special kudos to those not mentioned before: Lizzi Gee (movement) Howard Joines (music coordinator) Campbel Young Assoiates (wigs, hair, make-up design) Michael Gacetta.
A Christmas Carol runs at the Lyceum Theatre (149 West 45th Street) with one intermission. For tickets and times to this must see LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, CLICK HERE. You will be happy you did.
‘Tina-The Tina Turner Musical,’ The Astounding Power of Soul Transformation Gloriously Alive on Broadway
Tina-The Tina Turner Musical with equal parts magnificent entertainment, profound lessons on life, survivor’s tale, series of club performances and recording studio sets recalling the wonders of our musical past is breathtaking. And that is before the final triumphant concert where Tina (the unparalleled Adrienne Warren) emerges in her glorious manifest destiny as the icon we’ve come to celebrate and adore.
The concert IS Tina! Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, with musical supervision, arrangements, additional music by conductor Nicholas Skilbeck, Tina currently runs at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The musical sends a heroic message that the impossible is possible. And it reveals how Tina Turner broke through the limitations of race, class, gender and the white male-dominated music industry with grit, determination and panache. Above all Tina is a measured, profound reveal at how connecting with one’s inner spiritual being can bring peace and love to uplift others to heal.
Writers Katori Hall with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins have written a stunning book of memory, beauty and emotional chronology, interlacing songs to illustrate the resonance of spiritual evolution in a human life. They’ve chosen to open Tina with Adrienne Warren as Tina chanting, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” before a concert in Brazil, 1988. Chanting with her in consciousness (we discover later) is one who influenced her from her past, Gran Georgeanna (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who is part Cherokee Native. Emerging to bring her back to the past is a different spiritual influence, her father Richard (David Jennings) pastor of a small congregation in Tennessee.
These forces from her childhood which thread the spiritual elements throughout her life are included in the production. They symbolize the foundation of Anna Mae Bullock’s soul and ethos. Her transfiguration from Anna Mae to iconic solo performer Tina Turner is forged by the creative team of Tina with keys that open the doors to that revelation: Tina’s and Ike’s songs, Tina’s songs, and the design teams’ elucidation with historical musical references, symbols and themes reflected in the lighting, sets, screen projections, costumes, hair/wig/make-up designs, which are magnificent reflectors of her process crafting a new identity.
Director Phyllida Lloyd’s staging of the opening, her choices and vision for this musical remain acute and profound. For example, not only does the first scene ground us in the importance of Tina’s life approach (Buddhist meditation), her face, symbolizing “self” and “being” is shielded from us. This brief scene sets up the overarching flashback which will answer the question: who is this woman sitting in a humble position as if at the bottom of a well, with lighted stairs leading upward to the distant audience waiting to see her perform?
As Tina connects to oneness in her meditation (Nichiren Buddhism) the chronicle of her past opens. The musical unspools an exploration of her persona that metamorphosed with wheel and woe to make its glorious impact on us today.
During her chanting, the character evokes the past from which she attempts to redeem herself (“Etherland-Song of Mystic Law”). We empathize with her journey toward ego manumission. A condition of the musical is that the writers of the book and Adrienne Warren’s performance as Anna Mae/Tina strike human truths with emotional authenticity and power.
Vital events in this process are structured as turning points. These are intensely heartfelt to reveal Tina’s physical, mental and emotional abuse. However, the pain informs the artistically rich through line of creation and that spurs her transfiguration toward wholeness. Thus, as we go back in time with her, we become fellow seekers receiving the wisdom of how this particular sojourner traveled into soul darkness, came to the end of herself, survived and emerged to embrace light, love and life.
From the outset Lloyd cleverly, carefully structures the musical’s chronological arc of Tina/Anna Mae’s spiritual development rendered painstakingly by Hall, Ketelaar and Prins. The musical is without narration eschewing what has come to typify some other “bio-theater musicals” that have been reduced, stereotyped and dismissed as “juke box theater.” It would be folly to buzz-saw through Tina with such an opaque understanding. The musical is layered, the empathetic themes are instructive and the creative team’s efforts from ensemble acting to spectacle design manifest their greatness with prodigious ingenuity.
In the Act I flashback the scene shifts to a spare setting, symbolic, ancient-looking, gnarled tree of meagerness in Nutbush, Tennessee 1950, which reflects Anna Mae’s roots. We are at an unadorned church service that Young Anna Mae attends with her family as father Richard (David Jennings) preaches. The choir/congregation sing (“Nutbush City Limits”). Then, it happens, a defining moment from which all the other events flow. Anna Mae, like Thespis (the first actor of Ancient Greek Choral Theater) emerges from the choir. Anointed by “The Holy Spirit,”with unrestrained passion she sings, dances and gloriously ignites all in the church to worship and lift themselves out of the misery of their lives.
From the moment Young Anna Mae (the phenomenal Skye Dakota Turner whose golden singing can charm dragons) sings and dances, sparks of joy electrify us. Nevertheless, her judgmental mother Zelma (Dawnn Lewis gives a steely, spot-on performance) sits annoyed. Obviously, Young Anna Mae has a voice with destiny in its timber. Zelma’s selective hearing deigns that it’s “too loud,” and in the next scene at the dinner table she cruelly upbraids Anna Mae for her lying pretense, “acting” like she has a relationship with God! As Zelma raises her hand to slap Anna Mae, Richard physically intervenes.
We understand why the ongoing physical and verbal abuse from Richard drive off Zelma. But we empathize with Anna Mae especially when her mother, without explanation, takes only Alline (Mars Rucker) with her to St. Louis, and Richard abandons her to Gran Georgeanna. It is her grandmother who encourages her singing and spirituality with great love.
The scene shifts again and it is another turning point years later where Adrienne Warren as the teenage Anna Mae and Gran sing the poignant (“Don’t Turn Around”). Gran affirms Anna Mae must leave her hard scrabble life in Nutbush (she has three jobs one of which was picking cotton) to take advantage of God’s vocal gift. Regardless of Anna Mae’s protest, Gran sends her to live with Zelma and Alline, but the explanation we discover later is that dying Gran spares Anna Mae her loss. Yet, writers clarify throughout the production that in Anna Mae/Tina’s consciousness during crisis-filled moments, Gran is ever-present in spirit to strengthen her.
Anna Mae embarks on her journey to greatness as Gran’s vision for her comes true. Despite her positive relationship with band member Raymond, (the attentive, sensitive Gerald Caesar) who tries to protect her from Ike and with whom she has a child, (“Let’s Stay Together”) she marries Ike Turner. By then Ike has “christened” her his “Queen,” the “Tina Turner” of the Ike and Tina Turner Review.
The Ike and Tina segments meld the songs from Tina’s career with thoughtfulness. These enlighten us to their meet-up and growing bondages in their relationship: (“Shake a Tailfeather,” “She Made My Blood Run Cold,” “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” A Fool in Love,” “Better Be Good To Me”). By then Ike is doing backup with his band The Kings of Rhythm. The Ikettes (the superb Holli Conway, Kayla Davion, Destinee Rea, Mars Rucker, one of whom introduces her to Buddhism) are the movers and shakers with Tina in the lead. Additionally, Ike hires a sometime mistress Rhonda (Jessica Rush) to manage the group. As a duo Tina and Ike R and B it to Rolling Stones Magazine’s #2 out of “Twenty Greatest Duos of All Time.”
The musical’s set design projections, lighting design, costumes, wig and hair design, orchestrations, musical supervision, arrangements, etc. are historically appropriate and inform the appearance and the sound of the Ike and Tina Review. The performances of the songs are signatures of the time and bring a superb reckoning of our American musical past when the culture and society was burgeoning and roiling, and black artists were looking for breaks into the music industry.
However, the cost that Anna Mae/Tina pays to manifest Gran’s vision is almost too great to bear during the years she and Ike are married, have one child together and raise her child with Raymond. Tina is the doll Ike fashions her to be. He controls every aspect of her life and intimidates her to put up with his adultery and drug use. To subordinate her and keep her close he pays her no salary and micromanages what she does, even to deciding after she has Craig (their child together) she cannot rest but must work in the studio to cut a record and stay up all hours, eroding her well being.
Adrienne Warren’s Tina is emotionally riveting. Not only does she hit every nuanced feeling that we imagine Tina felt when she ended the relationship with Raymond (“Let’s Stay Together”). She also beautifully intuits Tina’s growing soul destruction through self-recrimination and despair. We note each time Tina allows Ike to abuse her mentally and emotionally and bullies her to subvert her personal choices into his “Tina Turner” wind-up puppet, she loses dignity, confidence and self-worth. Even the “Tina” identity is wholly owned by Ike. Warren’s vocal resonance as Tina singing through the pain is bar none.
Because she cannot leave him and forsake her career, livelihood and her public identity, Tina stays through the intensifying physical abuse, despite warnings by Rhonda and the Ikettes who have become friends and try to “watch her back.” With every blow, every mercenary act she receives from Ike, Tina’s inner self withers battered by her own self-hatred for forgiving him and remaining silent. Warren’s uncanny performance reveals Tina’s inward progression into an abyss of despair.
Because Daniel J. Watts’ portrayal as Ike is a striking, intensely human counterpart to Warren’s, we understand the dynamic of their relationship and why Tina doesn’t leave him the moment he throws a symbol at her. Watts has a difficult role as Ike in not making him the complete devil that the Ikettes attribute him to be. But Watts is not cardboard malevolent. He reveals Ike is one hot mess who is edgy and charming and at heart obsessed with music, Tina and what he has crafted “their star power” duo to be. Watts authenticates Ike’s great fear of losing Tina that converts to jealousy for as lead, she is the better performer and should leave him. On his knees he makes her promise to stay; of course, she does.
His insecure, fear-filled behavior augments after the wonderful music studio scene with Phil Spector (Steven Booth) who gets Tina to sing to the “god” in herself (“Deep River Mountain High”). Watts infuses Ike’s ambition, his wanting to “be someone” in life with underlying anger-sorrow. Ultimately, he is shaped by the vicissitudes of Southern bigotry, a lack of personal restraint and the music business’ penchant for exploiting artists or rendering them invisible. Like Warren’s, Watts’ portrayal is acute, authentic, empathetic. He especially reveals the nuances of Ike’s character in all of his scenes with Tina keeping them dynamic and menacing (thanks to the fight direction by Sordelet Inc.).
The musical’s action heightens organically with escalating emotional rawness as Ike’s and Tina’s relationship spirals downward during the last scenes of Act I. Warren’s singing becomes more frantic as she is manipulated and seduced by Watts’ Ike in their exceptional “Be Tender With Me Baby.” In the performance of the song we note the chains of fear, desolation, self-hatred yet love of their mutual identity together. However, Tina is end stopped; there is no way for Ike to let her go and for her to leave. As a way out of self-loathing and stalemate, Tina takes 50 Valium before going onstage. Ike’s comment, “Bitch, you die on me I’ma kill you,” is hysterical if it were also not tragic. The writers have fashioned her suicide attempt as a quick break seguing into a short scene with her mother who, with sardonic encouragement, encourages her to stay with Ike and beat him (like she did former husband Richard) the next time Ike abuses her.
After her mother’s jarring, callous injunction (typical of the times) Tina’s frenzy increases to a visibly heartbreaking climax as she sings, “Proud Mary.” In Warren’s interpretation and vocal majesty the song becomes a metaphor for the overcoming power of Tina as “riverboat queen.” She is Proud Mary! She will “keep on burnin,” “keep on turnin,” and “keep on being proud,” not for Ike, but for herself. And when she keeps on “rollin’ down the river” of life, it will be as a whole person, spirit, soul, body. As Warren stops the concert and leaves the stage, to stand up to Watt’s Ike matching his blows, we know she’s come to the end of herself. Hall and the others state in the stage directions, “this is her Garden of Gethsemane.” No one but she can act for herself. Alone, she must confront her inner hell and be courageous enough to to leave it.
Like a slave seeking freedom, in a symbolic, iconic scene, Warren’s Tina runs out of the concert hall and across a highway (effected by screen projections and sounds of horns blaring and lights and music from the past) to arrive at a roadside hotel, bruised, bleeding, dark hair in disarray, dressed in just a slip. A shaking Adrienne Warren imbues Tina’s emotions of hope, fear, sadness, desperation as she reaches out to receive the room key from the night manager (hand stretched toward the audience). The key is symbolic of freedom and with it she unlocks the door which opens into a new ethos which only she can forge with the help of hovering spiritual ancestors, hope, Buddhism and more.
Poignantly, as Warren sings with the ensemble, “I don’t Wanna Fight No More,” she sings to herself, and her past (represented when the characters of Gran, Young Anna Mae and others minister to her and clean her up). With the flash-forward to the present she is in meditation back where we began in Brazil 1988 as Act I ends where it began. Just incredible.
Act II chronicles how Tina uses her freedom, extracting herself from Ike’s power litigating only for her name and at Rhonda’s suggestion establishing the new “Tina.” The second act is equally thrilling as Tina’s lotus bud rises from the mud to shine its beauty becoming the lion-maned Tina adored globally. Helping along the way are Australian Roger Davies (Charlie Franklin) who becomes her manager and shepherds her toward a new sound, Rock and Roll with crossover appeal to white audiences, which she chooses to sing, and a new look she effects for herself.
But she must continually meditate and throw off her past and Ike who haunts her in her lonely sadness (“I Can’t Stand the Rain”) which Lloyd directs as an evocative scene of the lonely London landscape replete with umbrellas and screen projections. A romantic answer to loneliness is Erwin Bach (Ross Lekites) with whom she eventually ends partners. Ever-present are Gran and even visions of the anointed Young Anna Mae who encourage her before and after Capital Records hears her London showcase and rejects her until she sings “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at the Ritz in New York City, 1983.
With Davies Tina establishes she is the boss and not a puppet. This is reinforced with Ike, a point clarified after her stunning success and before the concert when she mails back a doll he sends her in an attempt at forgiveness. In a final scene between Tina, Ike and Zelma who is in the hospital, though Ike attempts to apologize in a written letter, he cannot say it “to her face” and leaves with silence on his lips. But Zelma makes amends apologizing that she could never be the mother to Tina that she should have been. We empathize with Zelma’s explanation: Tina was like holding “fire,” and “fire illuminates your own flaws” and of course, fire burns. In saying goodbye to the pain, hurt and abuse from their past, Tina and Zelma sing (“Don’t Turn Around” reprise). Tina is finally able to move on and climb the steps to perform for the nearly 200,000 waiting fans in Brazil, 1988.
The concert in which the set revolves and Tina manifests the bright light of transformation, Warren effects relaxed confidence as she “lets go and lets God,” coming down the stairs to welcome us, her concert audience. As Warren sings/dances with the company, “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” (Simply) The Best,” and “Proud Mary,” she is the spectacular Tina Turner. She sings in dazzling array with lion mane and shimmery costume. The regal stage, her platform to shine, sparkles. The metaphor of the steps (i.e. a Jacob’s Ladder) which she ascends and descends reflects that she is the messenger of joy to emotionally uplift her fans. The lighted stairs may also symbolize how she has traveled “up from slavery,” up from the abyss and down into her settled spirituality and wholeness assured of bringing her gift of love to her audience. Realizing that every detail of her past cements her current greatness, one cannot help but divine that she spiritually has been influenced to this destiny to encourage us to “keep on burnin,” and “rollin on the river,” with verve, in celebration of our lives.
Tina will be an award winner. The book is sensational as is the stellar performance by Warren which deserves its own created category. Watts’ portrayal is outstanding and the ensemble is first-rate. Finally, kudos go to Anthony Van Laast (choreographer) Mark Thompson (set and costume designer) Nicholas Skilbek (musical supervision, arrangements, additional music and conductor) Ethan Popp (orchestrations) Bruno Poet (lighting design) Nevin Steinberg (sound design) Jeff Sugg (projection design) Campbell Young Associates (wig, hair and makeup design) John Miller (music coordinator). All serve the director’s vision and enhance the musical beyond expectation.
Tina-The Tina Turner Musical runs with one intermission at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (205 West 46th). For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
‘The Great Society,’ by Robert Schenkkan, Starring Brian Cox, Richard Thomas, A Triumphant Reminder of an Adult President
Lyndon Baines Johnson became president in a landslide vote in 1964. The wheeler dealer of the senate as Democratic Majority leader who could count votes and get bills passed, came from a hard scrabble childhood. He witnessed his father devastated by broken dreams. But President Johnson despite his crude ways, ferocious wit and uber competitiveness had the people of the nation at heart. Cramped and curtained as President Kennedy’s poor ‘ole boy, shunt ’em to the side Vice President, taking the reins of power after Kennedy’s death in 1963, President Johnson accomplished the impossible. He did what Kennedy hoped to do but couldn’t; he got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
In Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning All The Way, LBJ is a man of destiny and reckoning. Played by Bryan Cranston who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, we follow the 36th president through passage of that iconic Civil Rights Act to his election campaigning. It was an amazing journey considering the obstacles of bigotry, racism and the obstructions by the Southern Democrats. Schenkkan’s play concludes with Johnson riding high on his success of the Civil Rights Triumph and his election win as the full term 36th president of the United States.
Directed by Bill Rauch who helmed All the Way, Schenkkan’s sequel, The Great Society is equally majestic in its revelations about Johnson as one who greatly desired to bring Franklin Roosevelt’s ideas of a more prosperous nation into being. With Johnson this was an obsession which Brian Cox realizes authoritatively and sensitively. As Cox’s Johnson lays out the policies of “the great society,” Schenkkan includes quotes from Johnson’s speeches where he affirms the principles of the constitution regarding economic equality, voting rights and other essential American freedoms.
What a joy to hear Cox’s superb delivery of Johnson’s own words. This is especially so in our time when the current president has laid siege to our election freedoms, demeaned freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and abrogated checks and balances with monarchic pronouncements and behaviors that as president, he can do “anything he wants,” and lift “presidential” criminality to new heights with impunity and the assistance of William Barr head of the Department of Justice. In The Great Society, the portrayal of Cox’ Johnson is a poignant reminder that there was a time in our history, when consensus between Republicans and Democrats could be reached. The play reminds us that Johnson knew how to compromise and work toward legislation that would improve the lives of American citizens. Above all he was an adult, he cared about those who were economically disadvantaged, he loathed racism, yet understood how to get his opponents on his side.
The arc of the play’s development chronicles Johnson’s four year term during which the country roiled with upheavals and protests that represented the raging tide of times. Schenkkan unfolds events from the mountaintop of Johnson’s win to his struggles through passage and implementation of the Voting Rights Act. Schenkkan reveals Johnson’s relationships with Civil Rights leaders from Ralph Abernathy to Stokley Carmichael to Martin Luther King Jr. to conflicts with Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wallace.
The actors who portray these celebrated individuals do an excellent job. Most acute and colorful in the development of their relationships with Cox’s Johnson are Grantham Coleman as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchant Davis as Stokely Carmichael. Some of the most dynamic segments of the play are Johnson’s confrontations with Martin Luther King Jr. and the other iconic black activists to insure that blacks would be able to register and vote without being lynched or beaten. Dynamic arguments with all the important high stakes players move like a riptide as Johnson negotiates and spars with Martin Luther King Jr. (Grantham Coleman) Stokely Carmichael (Marchant Davis) Governor George Wallace (David Garrison) Robert Kennedy (Bryce Pinkham) Senator Everett Dirksen (Frank Wood) Richard J. Daley-Mayor of Chicago (Marc Kudisch )and others. Often at his side is Hubert Humphrey (the fine Richard Thomas) who serves as a counsel to him and could be looked upon loosely as his friend, a generosity not given to Johnson by the Kennedys when he was Vice President.
Identifying searing events, (via video projections and archived photos, the “Bloody Sunday” march on Selma, Alabama, “Turnaround Tuesday” march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the Chicago protests, the Watts riots, etc.) Schenkkan reveals how Johnson attempted to balance all the invested players and handle the black – white unrest. With the Watts riots, he eventually brought in the California National Guard.
Brian Cox demonstrates Johnson’s forcefulness, vigor, passion and rationality with regard to his positions on civil rights and with regard to bringing in key influencers for other programs, like Dr. James Z. Appel (Marc Kudisch) head of the American Medical Association. Under Johnson’s term, medicare and medicaid were created and passed into law.
Interesting are his exchanges with Robert Kennedy portrayed with privileged aloofness and irony by Bryce Pinkham. The tensions between them are obvious and stem back from Johnson’s Vice Presidency. When Johnson is not surprised that Kennedy is looking to run in 1968, we understand his humorous reaction to that news. Kennedy uses Johnson as his bête noire on the war to gather support for his platform and candidacy. It is an ironic moment considering his brother was the first to send troops over to Viet Nam. The irony of this and horror of the Robert Kennedy assassination is shown representational style; Johnson’s reaction is telling.
If Johnson’s greatness as a president was in the passage of forward legislation to improve all of the citizens’ lives, Schennkan reveals the greatness is undone by his “Waterloo,” the Viet Nam War. Based on reports from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Matthew Rauch) and head of U.S. forces in Viet Nam General William Westmoreland (Bryan Dykstra) Cox as Johnson shows the president’s mettle as he wrangles with the notion that the war will stop the spread of communism. Listening to them, he escalates troop deployments and engages in the bombing of North Viet Nam. These are steps on the road to the nation’s infamy.
On a backdrop projection periodically listed are the ever increasing numbers of American dead and wounded. Indeed, as Johnson battles the two main issues of the day, civil rights and the war, we note that he, himself, is fighting his own war with himself whether more bloodshed will be useful or a travesty. We hear the rationale for escalation as we note the figures expand and rise up as protestors march and individual protestors represented by Quaker minister Norman Morrison (David Garrison) immolate themselves. (Buddhist monks also set themselves on fire to protest the war).
For those unfamiliar with this time in history, Schenkkan relays events with meticulous and accurate detail. Clearly, he identifies the seminal themes and concepts from which we still feel the impact today evidenced by the numbers of homeless Vets and suicides from that generation. We shudder as we witness Cox as Johnson be persuaded by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and General William Westmoreland knowing the numbers will continue to rise and behind each number is a family in mourning. Letters Johnson writes to families in condolence become a devastating scene. Schenkkan evidences Johnson’s turmoil which ironically reflects the growing divisiveness in the country. Money spent on the war and defense contractors could have been spent on his social programs which must be curtailed to make the budget. Johnson is stuck between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go but the abyss, Schenkkan reveals.
An important feature of this production is in how the playwright and the director and ensemble coalesce our history with salient, acute representational actions that become a mentorship in what an adult president can be like. This reminds us of what we do not have today. Cox’s Johnson reveals a president who had the temerity not to seek re-election but wanted to extract himself from the rat wheel of the killing fields of Southeast Asia during a horror that fomented protests, divided his country and party. And it was particularly grating for him to hear college students’ chants, “Hey, Johnson what do ya say, how many kids did you kill today?”The words hit home because he knew they were true. He bore up under it badly remembering a time when he was popular and not despised.
Rather that to be elected for four more years, which he would have won, he stops and hands the opportunity to Hubert Humphrey. We laugh at his humor and the irony of what happened next: Richard Nixon (played by David Garrison). A key point in this production, look for it, reveals Nixon’s hunger for the presidency so that he put himself before the country and our soldiers. Treasonously, deceitfully Nixon upended the ongoing negotiations for peace with North Viet Nam by making an arrangement that peace would be accomplished after he got in office. Cox’s Johnson ironically nails him for this when Nixon comes in to assert himself in the Oval Office, even before he is inaugurated. The parallel to today in how the Trumpists were making quid pro quo deals even before they took the reins of power is clear.
When Johnson stated he would not run again and posed the reasons, what many believed would be better for the country, actually was worse, especially since Nixon stalled the peace negotiations with North Viet Nam, something that Johnson had believed in throughout his bombing policy. But a worse than Johnson took office and the implication in the play is that Johnson knew this as Cox portrays ironically when Nixon comes to visit before the transfer of power. In one of the most dramatic scenes Cox pulls out all stops to deliver Johnson’s ringing words: “I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes. . . . Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” The ramifications of this in Nixon getting in, the country has paid for ever since.
Interestingly, Schekkan, Rauch, Cox and the ensemble reinforce American values, exemplified by what Johnson attempted in his plan for “the great society.” These values which Johnson fought hard to uphold against those like Governor George Wallace, Southern Democrats and Southern law enforcement whose bigotry Johnson understood, countermanded, and decried, become reinforced as the gold standard of the nation. Johnson was capable of dialogue with those who disagreed with him. And he was capable of bringing them to his side to realize and bring us closer to the tenets of the constitution and a “more perfect union,” if even for a time until the war upended the fullness of his efforts. The production uplifts these characteristics of Johnson as a patriotic American. And it indelibly reinforces this greatness as that which we must embrace if we are to define ourselves as a nation of equal opportunity for all.
Finally, The Great Society has special import for us because what Johnson attempted was actually supported in a bi-partisan effort. Johnson not only looked out for the well being of the poor and the uneducated regardless of race or creed, he had the negotiating power and skill to bring his dreams into reality. He understood congress, and with his landslide victory, was able to bring many liberal Democrats with him to establish a foundation by which his social programs could be instituted and funded. He declared a “war on poverty” and attempted to eliminate institutional racial injustice. If not for the vicissitudes of the Viet Nam War, who knows what else may have been accomplished?
With passion, ingeniousness determination and sociability, Johnson attempted the impossible and managed to push through the most sweeping civil rights legislation and other legislation that benefited whole swaths of the nation which are still in practice today though Republican white supremacists continue to erode the Voting Rights Act with gerrymandering and strictures at polling places.
Cox authentically portrays Johnson with grace, humor, vitality and power. His masterful performance is an illumination which we need especially now.
The sum total of the benefits the 36th president brought to this nation (including the 25th Amendment) is laudatory. He also was driven into a war from which it has been impossible to recover. For that and other reasons he did not want to continue as president. Again, admirable. Importantly, the play reminds us that presidents and politicians do have the ability to stand for all of the people and to push for equal opportunity for the betterment of the general good. That used to be a value of this nation, a sign of patriotism, Americanism, something to strive for. How this current administration has strayed from those values with the help of the Trumpists and big money is earth-shattering. Schenkkan’s The Great Society is a warning we must not allow this erosion of democracy to continue.
The theme of this production is an imperative, and uplifting for us in these times. For this reason, the portrayals, the historical details and the crafting of events, Schenkkan’s portrayal of Johnson, beautifully delivered by Cox as a president of cultural hope and justice is a must see.
Special kudos to the design team. The projections, the archived photos and videos were well done. the scenic design melded well with the lighting. As for the costume design, yes, that is really how folks dressed! Notice, no red ties. Calling out: David Korins (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) David Weiner (lighting design) Victoria Sagady (projection design) Paul James Prendergast and Marc Salzbert (sound design) Paul James Prendergast (music).