Category Archives: Broadway

‘A Beautiful Noise’ Review: The Neil Diamond Musical is a Triumph

Will Swenson and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How does one take the measure of a man toward the end of his life? Does one examine his relationships with others or does one examine the relationship he has with himself? In The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise, directed by Michael Mayer, currently at the Broadhurst Theatre, book writer Anthony McCarten (The Collaboration, Two Popes) approaches the question using the conceit of a therapeutic doctor/patient relationship.

To McCarten’s credit this complex bio-musical is unlike typical jukebox theater in its positioning of two protagonists: the older Neil of the present with the younger Neil in the past. Driven by this patient/therapist conceit, the musical incorporates Diamond’s songs with flashbacks centered around Diamond’s inspiration for their writing with the added heft of a hero quest. As Diamond unfolds himself to his doctor, certain topics can’t be discussed. He is keeping a part of himself in the shadows. Only through this complex journey into the past will his true identity emerge and be reconciled with his torments. Importantly, we learn through the melding of storytelling and songs why Neil Diamond was inducted in the Songwriters Hall of Fame (1984) and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2011). We also learn the sacrifice that it took for him to be who he is.

Will Swenson and the cast in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson and the cast in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

The doctor/patient motif that provides a thrilling excavation into Diamond’s life and career is cleverly crafted. For weeks a psychologist (Linda Powell) has sessions with a reluctant present-day, older Neil Diamond (the superb Mark Jacoby) who goes to her so that he might examine his inability to interact with his third wife Katie and his children. They have told him that “he’s hard to live with.” Is he? Diamond doesn’t know and on some level, he doesn’t care and prefers to brood (perhaps about his Parkinson’s diagnosis). After a number of sessions (three brief scenes) during which Diamond the elder says little, the psychologist produces his songbook, The Complete Lyrics of Neil Diamond. She does this in the hope of engaging him to discuss songs which he has said reflect his life. In this way maybe a door will be opened into Diamond’s psyche to clear up the issues he is having with his family relationships and most importantly, in his relationship with himself.

Jacoby’s Diamond begins to engage with the psychologist as she reads from the book’s cover that he has 40 of the Top Forty Hits and 129 million of his albums have been sold. When she suggests that they discuss what some of the songs mean to him, he rejects her idea and humorously is piqued that she only is familiar with one of his songs out of his 39 albums. However, when she mentions that title, it strikes a sensitive nerve and he doesn’t want to discuss what it means to him. Unable to leave this “therapy” to please his wife, we understand that he chafes at being controlled, but out of love for Katie and the kids, puts up with the doctor and therapy sessions which have, thus far, proven fruitless.

(L to R): Michael McCormick, Tom Alan Robbins, Linda Powell, Mark Jacoby, Will Swenson in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Michael McCormick, Tom Alan Robbins, Linda Powell, Mark Jacoby, Will Swenson in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

When the doctor gives him the songbook and suggests that he pick out a song and talk about it, as he rifles through the pages, he notes his proud accomplishments. We hear the “Opening Montage” of a few of his hits. It is as if a genie has been released from his memory as he peruses the book, then shuts it, perhaps because the memories of what was are too painfully overwhelming. But ambivalently, he opens the book again commenting, “what a beautiful noise.” As he remembers, a back up group sings “Beautiful Noise,” and the young Neil Diamond (Will Swenson in an exhilarating performance) appears and sings with them to a backdrop full of glorious light and sound. The song includes an overlapping combination of riffs from some of his classic hits, signature songs which Swenson’s Diamond sings with lustrous power and energy.

The singers who symbolize Diamond’s concept of “The Beautiful Noise” with this song and throughout various numbers are Paige Faure, Kalonjee Gallimore, Alex Hairston, Jess LeProtto, Tatiana Lofton, AAron James McKenzie, Mary Page Nance, Max Sangerman, MiMi Scardulla and Deandre Sevon. They sing backup and dance the journey of Neil’s life and career as the songs explore and reveal his flaws in his relationships, most importantly the one he has with himself. The “Noise” who accompany him are as diverse as the street people who Diamond writes for. It is they and their ancestors who have “Come to America” to seek the American Dream that Neil Diamond himself represents. The play is a revelation of this which we learn at the conclusion of the production, when Jacoby’s Neil discusses the loneliness and fears of his childhood. Only then is he able to reconcile his identities past and present.

 The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

After the opening musical reverie, the older Neil then returns to reality in the doctor’s office. These positive remembrances have made Jacoby’s Neil comfortable enough to answer the doctor’s questions about writing his first song in Flatbush, Brooklyn for his high school girlfriend Jaye (Jessie Fisher) who he marries. During this exchange he refers to his escape into music and how he was obsessed with writing and performing songs to “get out of Flabtush.” Ironically, we learn throughout the musical that Flatbush is the place he seems to be forever escaping, before and after he becomes famous. His reasons for running are revealed by the older Neil at the conclusion. McCarten has fashioned the reason as his quest to acknowledge his true worth which will help him achieve peace with himself, Katie and the children

McCarten’s book sets up the paradigm and structure of older Neil digging deeper into his past. As he flashes back and forth in time with younger Neil, who manifests the songs inspired by his life, The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise takes off. Act I showcases Diamond’s rise to fame in the 1960s. Act II follows with his touring and concert glories as his career achieves stunning heights in producing 39 albums, while his personal life after two divorces and an empty bank account are in the abyss. We are delighted to travel back and forth from present to past to present as Jacoby’s Neil frames the journey to Powell’s therapist through flashbacks, as the vibrant, Swenson’s Neil enacts the “dream” and makes it reality.

(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell in A Beautiful Noise (Julieta Cervantes)

Guided by the doctor’s questions, Jacoby’s Neil relates his experiences beginning at Aldon Music where he meets Ellie Greenwich (Bri Sudia) in a humorous few scenes, getting his feet wet under her guidance. In one scene he pitches a slower version of “I’m a Believer.” She hears its possibility and voila she sells it to The Monkeys for a hit. Neil’s career is growing as he receives his first gold record. He is a success writing for the Monkeys, but it’s not enough. The older Neil illustrates the part of Neil that is never satisfied. The song is “silly,” he says. However, the doctor points out the depth in the song’s lyrics, a depth which indicates no part of Neil was ever occluded by commercialism. His own poetic voice always showed through in his songs.

Jacoby’s Neil softens with Powell’s therapist. He shares how he moved from writing songs for others to performing them. In a flashback, we note that Ellie believes he is “that good,” when he sings how “Kentucky Woman” should be performed during a “Demo Medley.” Because he needs to develop his performance skills, Sudia’s Ellie has him gain experience at the Bitter End in New York City. After singing a set (“Solitary Man,” Cracklin’ Rose”) Paul Colby (Michael McCormick) gives him $9.00 and asks the shy Neil to return. It is here that young Neil opens up to attractive fellow singer Marcia (Robyn Hurder). He tells her that he enjoys performing live for this, his first time. The uplifting experience strengthens and changes him. It allows him to express a vibrant, alive part of himself he has not acknowledged or thought himself capable of.

Robyn Hurder and the cast of 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Robyn Hurder and the cast of A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

We understand how this turning point shapes Diamond into the dynamic performer he eventually becomes with Marcia’s encouragement. Hurder’s Marcia suggests he write more upbeat songs that everyone can identify with. In this flashback segment, she and Neil sing “Song Sung Blue” which intimates how their growing romantic relationship is forged by his need to establish himself in a fruitful career and release his poetic and musical talents to become a success.

McCarten then shifts the flashback to the present in the doctor’s office. Jacoby’s Neil doesn’t want to discuss how his involvement with Marcia while Jaye is pregnant with their second child upends his marriage. Neil fights with the doctor not to remember what is painful that is revealed in songs he wrote at that time. These include songs about being torn between his wife and his mistress. Clearly, he is overwhelmed with guilt having grown close to Marcia who assists him with his career. It is a sore point and he isn’t ready to do the emotional work looking at why he took a self-destructive turn by reviewing how this angst came out in his songs.

Will Swenson, Jessie Fisher and The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Will Swenson, Jessie Fisher and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

So when the doctor settles upon a classic hit created around that time, (which Robyn Hurder dances to in a bright red sexy costume when “Cherry Cherry” is performed) the older Neil jumps at the chance to talk about the creation of his song for “the mob.” These flashback scenes become the humorous high point of Act I. We are intrigued as the older Neil characterizes working with Bang Records as “the biggest mistake of my life.”

Ellie introduces Neil to Bert Berns (Tom Allan Robbins) who runs Bang Records, while Mob Boss Tommy O’Rourke (Michael McCormick) funds the company. In a flashback Swenson’s Neil makes a deal with them to produce hits, if they then produce more artistic songs like “Shilo,” which may not be hits. Though O’Rourke agrees, McCormick’s O’Rourke humorously indicates he has no intention of keeping his promise. In a scene where time stops, the older Neil tries to prevent younger Neil signing on with Bang Records by trying to take the pen away. Older Neil fails and younger Neil signs and is controlled by them. He must produce three hits or end up in peril of his or his family’s lives.

Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

In revealing how younger Neil is torn between Jaye and Marcia, the musical number with the Noise “Cherry Cherry” rocks it as the number physicalizes Neil’s quandary first with Jaye and then moving toward Marcia until he is with her. As Fisher’s Jaye sings “Love on the Rocks,” with Swenson’s Neil begging her to stay, she asks if he loves Marcia. At this point the question is moot.

Neil’s exciting foray into success as he fulfills his contract to mob controlled Bang Records reaches its dramatic high point played out in a dingy Memphis motel, where he retreats to write and get away from the gun happy O’Rourke. Jacoby’s Neil reveals how he was under tremendous pressure to create or suffer the dire consequences. O’Rourke has the Bitter End bombed to send Neil “a message.” Older Neil shares how in Memphis after days of rain, the symbolic sun comes out. He credits the inspiration to “God” coming into the motel room, sealing his children’s future and his own. In thirty minutes the metaphoric dark clouds clear (dark clouds are used as a symbol throughout) and Neil writes one of his signature songs. Act I ends with the rousing “Sweet Caroline.” During their song performance the audience went wild the night I was there. The audience, and Swenson and the Noise “reach out, touching me, touching you.” Theirs is an electric connection that younger Neil is not able to muster with his wife Jaye and their children.

Robyn Hurder in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Act II begins with the persona Neil Diamond, who is now famous. Director Mayer has Swenson’s Diamond rise on a platform surrounded by lights and glory with a “Hollywood Squares” type layered set with the band in various “squares.” Clearly, Neil is becoming the award winning legend, singing “Brother Love.” Subsequently, through the older Neil’s retelling, we note that Swenson’s Diamond, with dazzling, sparkling sequins runs from concert to concert, fulfilling the destiny that he dreamed of in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the place that controls his psyche, the place he still runs from. This is especially so even though his concerts sell out with greater fandom than the Rock & Roll King Elvis. In the next decades with Marcia in twenty-five years of marriage, he has it all, friends with the Redfords, a Malibu home and money raining down. Where his first marriage to Jayne dissipated with “love on the rocks,” his marriage to Marcia quietly implodes during phone calls, separate lives and acknowledged disinterest. This is manifest with Hurder’s Marcia and Swenson’s Neil with “You Don’t Send Me Flowers,” in a lovely rendition.

At their divorce, Diamond gives Marcia everything and continues to work. Jacoby’s Neil tells us a few years pass and he meets third time lucky Katie and establishes a family. But the diagnosis has brought him to a place of reckoning at the therapist’s office. And we are back in the present when Powell’s therapist asks the question about Neil’s feelings of being alone, an emotion which permeates many of his songs. During this segment Mark Jacoby’s quiet resolve and recalcitrance breaks open in expansive revelation.

(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Will Swenson, Mark Jacoby, Linda Powell (background) in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

For the first time we hear him sing filled with the depth of years of repression to claim his self-affirmation in “I Am I Said.” Jacoby hits it out of the ball park and brings the entire journey into completion as Swenson’s Neil joins him and the two identities are conjoined. It is an astounding, brilliant piece of writing coupling the elements and characters bringing them into sharp focus. The power of the moment hinges on Jacoby’s portrayal of Neil which is heartfelt, touching and human. The conclusion memorably coalesces the dream coming to its full humanity in Neil Diamond. Merging his identity as a performer and as a cultural prophet he gains a new understanding of his emotions from the past viewing them with the comfort in the present reality of who he is and what he has accomplished.

Directed by Michael Mayer with Steven Hoggett’s choreography and Sonny Paladino’s music supervision and arrangements and the near-perfect performances, this astounding and prodigious effort is bar none. Above all it is a tribute to Neil Diamond the performer and Neil Diamond, the man, like all of us, broken by his own inner fears and isolation which is an integral part of his creative spirit and artistic genius. The breadth of the songs included in the show which reveal that Diamond mastered pop, rock, country and blues indicates why in addition to his awards is also an honoree at the Kennedy Center Honors and a recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2018).

(L to R): Robyn Hurder, Will Swenson, Michael McCormick in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(L to R): Robyn Hurder, Will Swenson, Michael McCormick in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Importantly, The Neil Diamond Musical, A Beautiful Noise probes themes that reveal how driving ambition and talent shadow an artist’s personal life. In chasing the dream it is sometimes difficult to fully enjoy one’s success. In his resolution at the conclusion, Jacoby’s Neil understands the importance of this and expresses gratefulness at all the directions, all the roads his life has gone down.

There are a few critical junctures that don’t quite work and sometimes the staging and sound were problematic for those not seated direct center. But these details are overshadowed by the ingenuity of the book, the resonance and gorgeousness of Diamond’s music, the energetic, believable performances and the organic, modern and retro dances. Jacoby’s Neil who is listening and participating as he watches Neil’s own reflections manifest before him, never flags in his portrayal in a difficult, complex role. Neither does Swenson who’s evocation of Diamond is an intimation of his attitude and spirit and not an imitation. Hurder, Powell, Fisher and Sudia are excellent and Sudia is flexible doing double time as younger Neil’s mom. Robbins and McCormick fulfill their portrayals with humor and kudos to them for taking on additional roles.

Mark Jacoby (standing) Will Swenson (sitting) and The Noise in 'A Beautiful Noise' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Mark Jacoby (standing) Will Swenson (sitting) and The Noise in A Beautiful Noise (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

David Rockwell’s scenic design, Emilio Sosa’s costume design, Kevin Adams’ fine lighting design and Jessica Paz’s sound design work to deliver an amazing production. Noted are Luc Verschueren’s hair, wig & makeup design and Annmarie Milazzo’s vocal design. Bob Gaudio, Sonny Paladino & Brian Usifer delivered the superb orchestrations and Brian Usifer is responsible for incidental music and dance music arrangements.

If Neil Diamond’s music doesn’t rock for you, see it for the performances and spectacle. If you adore Neil Diamond, what are you waiting for? Go to their website for tickets and times https://abeautifulnoisethemusical.com/

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‘The Collaboration,’ Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope are Brilliant as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

 (L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Whether you are an art aficionado, fan or critic, The Collaboration, by Anthony McCarten about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s joint effort to produce paintings together is an astonishing, dynamic production. Starring Paul Bettany (an Inspector Calls-West End) and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy) and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the two-act play currently runs at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, extended until 5 February. This production which hails from the Young Vic Theatre is not to be missed.

Warhol’s and Basquiat’s alliance was an unusual meld for both artists, who were at different points in their careers and who, according to McCarten in the first act, were a thesis/antithesis in their personal lives, perspectives and personalities. Because Warhol and Basquiat are icons who helped transform the art world as unique and indelible fixtures in their own right, The Collaboration is of seminal importance. Not only does the work identify aspects of the artists’ individual and collective graces, it also inspires further exploration into the lives of these individuals and their synergistic and productive relationship.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bettany and Pope’s prodigious acting skills and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s superb direction in helping them tease out memorable details of emotion, gesture and nuance allow the actors to live and breathe their characters onstage. Bettany and Pope are a pleasure to watch in their authenticity as their portrayals by the second act lift toward the heavens into the phenomenal. They inhabit Warhol and Basquiat with vulnerability and humanity. So comfortably do they don the artists’ ethos, one forgets the play is a stylization and evocation of two mythic figures who attained immortality in spite of themselves.

Indeed, the production takes us on a fantastic journey with intermittent elements of realism that all the more enhance the beauty and tragedy of these men, whose lives were cut short. Though Andy Warhol lived to be 58 years-old, Jean-Michel died of an overdose of heroin at twenty-seven. At the conclusion McCarten suggests that their individual and collective work and their ability to inspire and whimsically play off one another are an irrevocable, immutable and timeless gift to all of us.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The award-winning playwright (known for films The Theory of Everything {2014) Two Popes {2020} and the book writer of A Beautiful Noise) grapples with revealing their combined efforts in the short period of time they worked together. Indeed, the cultural mystique and reputation that precedes these men sometimes gets in the way. The more one knows about Warhol and Basquiat, the more frustrated one may become with McCarten’s presentation of their relationship, whose closeness is developed in filmed events of Bettany and Pope doing activities together, projected on the backstage wall and side walls during the intermission between Act I and Act II. Thus, if one leaves to get a drink or take a trip to the bathroom, the vital aspects of how Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship develops and how the men bond over time will be missed.

McCarten first introduces us to Warhol who visits the gallery of Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen’s accent at times trips over itself). There, Andy inspects Basquiat’s paintings as Bruno attempts to sell him on his idea of a collaboration. Though Bruno makes it seem that Basquiat is “dying” to work with Warhol, we discover this isn’t the case. Bruno is massaging Andy’s ego. In his exchange with Bruno, Andy views 24 of Basquiat’s paintings which unfortunately we never see. Bettany looks out into the audience to “view” Basquiat’s work, as we imagine what Andy sees and watch his expressions of shock, excitement, amazement and jealousy, all in Warhol’s inimitable stylistic phrasing and being. Bettany captures the characteristic Warhol exclamations “gee,” “oh,” and retains enough of the soft spoken and demur air that we’ve seen in films of Andy Warhol that bring us toward acceptance of his portrayal, which deepens as the play embodies their philosophical tension working together.

Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno is the catalyst for their collaboration. And it is Bruno who comes up with the concept of how to market the exhibition of their works with a poster of both in boxing shorts with Jean-Michel’s chest exposed and Andy’s chest covered in a black T-shirt, as they hold up their boxing gloves ready for their match up of paintings on Mercer Street in New York City.

To persuade a reluctant Andy, Bruno uses flattery and guilt. He chides the avid filmmaker that he hasn’t picked up a brush in years. When Andy shrugs off Bruno’s flattery with self-deprecation that his reputation “is in tatters,” and “no one loves him any more,” Bruno wisely counters Andy’s defense and makes him think. Bruno suggests that it is Andy who doesn’t return the love given to him, an idea that intrigues Andy because it divulges arcane, inner knowledge about his soul which may be accurate. Bruno has hooked Andy toward working with Jean-Michel. But he is completely drawn in when Andy realizes that this is a golden opportunity to employ his skills as a filmmaker and interviewer. He will film their collaboration and record it for posterity.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

After Andy leaves Bruno’s gallery, Basquiat keeps his appointment with Bruno and we see how the art dealer works his persuasion to lure Jean-Michel to accept Andy as an artist-partner. Like Andy, Jean-Michel is not convinced. In fact, he is nonplussed at the idea of painting with a world renowned artist and is suspicious and recalcitrant, suggesting that Andy is mechanistic and repetitive and his prints lack soul. With the same push-pull, parry and thrust that he experienced with Andy, Bruno cajoles and uses reverse psychology on Jean-Michel. He is not willing to take “no” for an answer, though Jean-Michel accuses him of exploitation when Bruno suggests the project is monumental and will have “art lovers lined up from the gallery door to JFK.”

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno stirs Jean-Michel on collaborating with Andy, using flattery and the unction that Andy really wants to work with Jean-Michael, though we have just witnessed that this is not true. Jean-Michel states he has nothing to say to Andy because they don’t “speak the same languages,” and he is not here to “bring Andy back from the dead.” Bruno, a master of human nature who pings Jean-Michel’s underlying vanity and competitiveness, finally reels him in with the discovery that Andy thinks Jean-Michel is “a threat to his entire understanding of art.”

The humor in both artist’s exchanges with the art dealer is organic, and the presentation of Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat are strikingly similar in their susceptibility to compliments, their egotism, their underlying insecurity with arrogance (Basquiat) and self-disdain (Warhol). As we watch the apparent tensions unfold, it is clear that Warhol and Basquiat may be sparring partners, but theirs is a match that is too coherent and intuitive not to work. Of course the idea that this will bring in tons of cash and, as Basquiat suggests, the bankers will be happy, emphasizes the themes of art’s pure expression versus art exploitation, and art as a business versus the pleasure and necessity to create art which drives both Andy and Basquiat. Meanwhile, as the inveterate money-minded dealer, Bruno encourages this promotional collaboration to harness their ambition and turn it into profits.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

During Andy’s and Jean-Michel’s individual exchanges with Bruno dueling for advantage, themes and details in the artists’ lives surface. Andy’s mention of Valerie Solonas’ assassination attempt in 1968 that nearly took his life and caused him to look over his shoulder, expecting to be killed again is poignant and humanizing. The humanizing details continue throughout both acts and help to inform our understanding of the similarities between Warhol and Basquiat in their childhood experiences, for both were influenced by their mothers toward art, drawing and painting.

After the prologue with Bruno, the first act predominately takes place in Andy’s studio as the artists become familiar with each other, discuss their viewpoints, the idea of branding, what Andy’s art attempts and what Jean-Michel attempts with his art. Finally, they agree about what to paint and Andy sneaks in his filming as Jean-Michel paints and answers Andy’s questions. By the second act which takes place in Jean-Michel’s loft/studio/apartment, both artists have become close revealed in the film projections during intermission. At a crucial point in the second act and at Jean-Michel’s suggestion, they challenge each other good naturedly to take off their shirts and expose their wounds.

Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

It is a profound, humbling, bonding act. The icons are human and terribly vulnerable. We see Jean-Michel’s extensive surgical scar where he was injured, run over by a car. He had to recuperate for a long time, a trial which his mother got him through when he was 7-years-old by encouraging him to look at Grey’s Anatomy and draw what he saw to inspire his healing process. And we see Andy’s corset which he must wear to hold his organs in place and above it the long, disfiguring scars criss-crossing his torso, where the surgeons had worked feverishly to save his life from Valerie’s bullet which she shot into him at point blank range.

The second act evolves into an explosion of love and rancor between the two artists. When former girlfriend Maya (Krysta Rodriguez) comes to Jean-Michel’s place to settle up a financial arrangement with Jean-Michael, Andy tells her about their mutual friend Michael Stewart who is in a coma, beaten unrecognizable by cops because he was painting graffiti. Maya returns with the news of Michael’s death and pleads with Basquiat to go to the lawyer’s office with her to give testimony proving the cops murdered Michael. Basquiat refuses. Instead, he gives her the Polaroids of Michael’s mutilated face and body.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Jeremy Pope’s Basquiat transforms into raw nerve endings of emotion in a heart wrenching explanation why he can’t go to the lawyer’s office. The jitters, the nerves, the frenetic energy that need to be displaced because of Jean-Michel’s painful identification with Michael as a fellow sufferer who has just passed is Jeremy Pope’s tour de force throughout the rest of the act.

Basquiat reminds Maya and Andy of the heartless reality of Black racism and oppression evidenced in police brutality against Michael. The spirit of hate and bigotry murdered Michael and that same spirit is ranging to murder him, as he, too, painted graffiti at one point early in his career. Pope conveys Basquiat’s tortured grief at the loss of his beautiful friend. He is torn between wanting to help the Stewart family and preserve his own life and destiny. When Basquiat accuses Andy of indirectly killing Michael, who he was trying to heal with his painting, not understanding, Andy is shocked at Basquiat’s recriminations.

Krysta Rodriguez in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

McCarten reveals what painting means to Basquiat and how he perceives art’s power in this tremendous scene that hearkens back to Basquiat’s childhood when he encouraged his own healing by drawing “healthy” organs from illustrations in Grey’s Anatomy. Painting is his way of controlling, resurrecting life, defining power constructs and capturing racism symbolically to effect its change. When Basquiat tries to evoke healing for Michael spiritually, Andy’s commercial, material filming destroys the spiritual power to heal his friend who dies. Thus, for Basquiat painting is totemic and primal, sacred and holy while Andy, tortured by Basquiat’s questions reveals that art to him is an escape from self-loathing into an austere identity which only momentarily eradicates the deformed ugliness he is.

Ironically, at the core of their art, MarCarten suggests they symbolize and do different things. Andy films/records history to understand the creative process and see humanity, while never accepting his own. Basquiat employs the creative process to heal himself and others. One process is not better than the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. As their “collaboration” proves, both are integral to each other. Combined, they establish the inherent beauty and singularity of both.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

This incredible scene extends into a dance between Andy and Jean-Michel who pushes Andy to validate and reveal himself as he pretends to film him, though Basquiat has destroyed all of Andy’s films of their collaboration. Once again Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat challenge each other in a rivalry that can never be equal because Andy is not Black. Though he suffers discrimination because he is gay, their bond has limitations. Andy leaves then comes back apologetically though Basquiat has been cruel to him. And it is in the last minutes of the play that there is a touching reconciliation. The inevitability of their lasting artistic achievement is brought to the fore.

To effect the characters, the director’s vision and the creative team’s execution of it works well. Warhol’s and Basquiat’s wigs thanks to Karicean “Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson and Anna Fleischle’s costuming are on-point. Fleischle’s minimalist scenic design of white walls serves to intimate Bischofberger’s gallery, Warhol’s Studio on Broadway and Union Square, and Basquiat’s loft apartment/studio on Great Jones Street. Props and paintings and works and furniture are added and taken away accordingly. Basquiat’s digs in the second act require the greatest set-up, as he lives in cluttered disarray, unlike Andy’s studio which is neat, clean and “almost sterile.”

Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The second act reveals magnificent writing and magnificent acting. Throughout the concept of modern arts’ evanescence, that “everyone thinks they can do it,” and discussions of art critics attempting to nail down their work then toss it aside, are fascinating and richly profound. That both men were exploited and learned to then exploit themselves to become their own business models has currency for us today. Of course they became masters at self-exploitation. Considering that Basquiat’s brilliant light shined momentarily to leave a massive body of work and Warhol’s frenetic energy blasted an even more massive collection, their painting together was genius.

Because Warhol and Basquiat have been branded with their own mythology and entrepreneurship, understanding who they were, understanding their relationship remains elusive. Such comprehension cannot be gleaned in one play, nor should one expect to. However, McCarten creates a masterwork that Bettany and Pope use as a jumping off point to portray the divine and weak in both characters. They are stunning, beautiful, transcendent. Thus, to describe The Collaboration as a “biodrama,” as some critics have done, is wholly inadequate. Rather the play is McCarten’s vision enhanced by Kwame Kwei-Armah’s sensitive and profound acknowledgement of two artistic geniuses who collided in the tension of trying to do the impossible. And as a result of this collision, they formed something new. They integrated their own styles of art in these partnership paintings that embodied resonating themes at the core of their own lives.

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

As the final sardonic irony at the play’s conclusion, while Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Jean-Michel paint into immortality, we hear the voice of an auctioneer, representative of the art world now on steroids, directional from what it was like when they were alive in the 1980s. Their work together is valued in the multi-millions, the irrevocable exploitation of both.

Kudos to Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Emma Laxton’s sound design, Duncan McLean’s projection design and Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s original music. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/the-collaboration/

‘Between Riverside and Crazy,’ in its Stunning Broadway Premiere

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

When it premiered Off Broadway at the Atlantic and then moved to 2nd Stage in 2014, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, directed by Austin Pendleton, won a passel of New York City Theater awards in 2015 (New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play, Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off Broadway Play). Also, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Starring mostly the same cast as in its 2014 outing, the 2022-2023 production appears to be topping itself with solid, incisive direction by Pendleton and sharp ensemble performances led by the mind blowing Stephen McKinley Henderson, who inhabits Pops as sure as he lives and breathes the character’s feisty attitude, edgy humor and earthy sangfroid. Henderson’s performance is a tour de force, a character portrayal of a manipulator able to dodge and parry with the “best” of them to outsmart all comers and “get over” even when he has lost the war and is trying to win his last battle, though the likelihood isn’t in his favor.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Guirgis plies old ground in Between Riverside and Crazy. He examines Black lives that are moving on in the struggle to rise up in New York City, as they attempt to negotiate middle class economics, while the discriminatory city institutions fight them at every turn. In this environment every day is a hustle and the institutions who have hustled Blacks for generations are obvious. However, how does one fight City Hall and still remain in tact? Pops is an old salt and has managed to learn the ropes as a NYC cop. The problem is he lost his wife, his son has just been released from jail and he likes to have a drink or two or three. Can he suppress his wayward impulses, sustain himself and support his son getting back on his feet to prevent Junior’s recidivism?

The play opens with Pops having his breakfast (pie and whiskey-spiked coffee) with Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar in a riveting performance). Oswaldo is a friend of his son Junior’s who clearly is needy and has psychological issues which Guirgis reveals later in the play. Pops’ banter with Oswaldo indicates the situation and relationship between the men. Oswaldo positions Pops as his “Dad,” because he allows him to stay and help him get on his feet without paying rent, though Oswaldo affirms that he wants to and will when he is more flush in his finances. Who Oswaldo is and how he became friends with Junior clarifies as the play progresses. Indeed, they most probably share more than a few crimes.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Rosal Colon in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

As a former New York City cop who has been retired after being shot by another cop in a questionable racial incident that Pops has been litigating against the NYPD for eight years, Pops is aware of who Oswaldo is. Interestingly, ironically, he is helping out his son’s friend as a fatherly figure. Of course that isn’t as easy as it appears at the top of the play.

Pops lives in a spacious, valuable, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive in a gentrified area. The apartment whose former structural beauty and interior cared for by Pops’ deceased wife is apparent and fading (scenic design by Walt Spangler). Pops is in your face with Junior’s friends and girlfriend Lulu (the fine Rosa Colon) who he chides for exposing her ample buttocks and breasts and comments about her lack of intelligence to Oswaldo, behind her back as an afterthought. Guirgis has given Pops the bulk of the humorous dialogue and makes sure the other characters that circle him are beholden to him, and give him the proper obeisance, so he might gently insult and dominate them.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Clearly, Pops is witty with tons of street smarts, and we are drawn in by his outgoing nature and backhanded charm. However, Guirgis leaves numerous clues that Pops is into a power dynamic and must have the last word and must have the upper hand in the relationships he has with others. As we watch him “front” and “get over,” we ask to what extent this is part of his hustle and interior nature that he developed as a way to survive? To his credit Guirgis leaves enough ambiguity in his characterizations to suggest the deeper psychology along with the cultural aspects of discrimination without belaboring the themes. We are invited to watch these characters unfold with glimpses into their lives in a light-handed approach that is heavy with meaning, if one wishes to acknowledge it.

Thus, on the one hand Pops’ demeanor is entertaining and hysterical. On the other hand, it is so because Pops is driven to keep others “at bay” and “in their place.” This is the situation that abides until the conclusion, though Guirgis throws twists and divergences in the plot, redirects our attention and makes Pops appear to be the weak one who can’t get out from under his own foibles and issues. Guirgis constructs episodic humorous moments that are surprising and lead to an equally surprising resolution which is totally in character with Pops, whose every nuance, gesture and line delivery are mined brilliantly by Henderson, guided by Pendleton’s deft direction.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Michael Rispoli in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Thus, it would appear that Pops has created an environment where secrets are kept and Lulu, Junior and Oswaldo are allowed to take advantage of Pops’ largesse. This is especially true of Junior, who possibly is using his Dad’s apartment to store items that fell off a truck, something Pops turns a blind eye to. As Junior, Common is making his stage debut and he manages to negotiate the complex character’s love/hate relationship with Pops as they spar and “get along” as best they are able because both are dangerously similar in pride, ego and charm. This is so even though they are on the opposite sides of the law and Junior has recently been released from prison.

The principal conflict in Guirgis’ character study occurs after the playwright spins out the expositional dynamics. Pops’ former partner Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiance Lieutenant Caro (J. Anthony Crane in the Tuesday night performance I saw) have a scrumptious dinner that Pops cooks for them. After a lovely repast, Caro delivers a proposition to Pops. Only then do we understand the precarious situation Pops has put himself in. The dire circumstances have been encouraged by Pops’ own negligence and lack of due diligence. He has not kept up with his rent. He has not taken the offer the NYPD has put forth to pay for his pain and suffering (his sexual function has been debilitated) in the litigation. Additionally, Pops faces an eviction spurred on by the building’s tenant complaints, some of which seem sound, but also reveal discrimination.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Liza Colon-Zayas, Rosal Colon, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

How has Pops managed to back himself into this corner, though he doesn’t appear to belong in his wife’s wheelchair which he enjoys sitting in and can just as easily get out of? Importantly, Gurgis suggests sub rosa explanations for Pops deteriorated emotional state and his reliance on drinking. Nothing is clear at the outset, but after the visit by O’Connor and Caro, the extent to which Pops has allowed his potential enemies to leverage his present circumstances against him emerges. Will Pops be able to finesse the situation? By the end of Act One when Pops is injured and burglarized, we are convinced that Pops’ weaknesses have overcome him and he is doomed to go the way of his wife.

Guirgis’ Act II heads off in a zany direction which further validates the playwrights’ admiration for the prodigious character he has created in Pops, foibles and all. There is no spoiler alert, here. You’ll just have to see this superb production. A good part of the enjoyment of this premiere is watching Henderson hit every note of Pops’ subtle genius in redirecting those around him to eventually achieve what he wishes. He even bests Church Lady (the funny Maria-Christina Oliveras). Her machinations to “get over” on him which results in a reversal of fortune that is redemptive for both Pops and her are LOL smashing.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

The ensemble is top notch and Pendleton’s direction leaves little on the table and is equally stunning. Kudos to the creative team with Alexis Forte’s costume design, Keith Parham’s lighting design, Ryan Rumery’s original music & sound design which are excellent. Gigi Buffington as vocal coach does a great job in assisting the actors in the parlance of the culture of Pops and his satellites so that they are seamlessly authentic and spot-on in their portrayals.

I did have a minor issue with Walt Spangler’s beautiful scenic design. Pops’ apartment revolves on a turntable which limits staging options. Granted that Pops is central to every scene. However, at times the actors’ conversations are directed toward Pops with their backs to the audience. These requires they project or “cheat” in their stance to be seen which at times they did not. This is an instance when the scenic design as lovely as it is didn’t enhance the overall production, but hampered it, a minor point.

(L to R): Stephen McKinley Henderson, Common in Between Riverside and Crazy (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Between Riverside and Crazy is a must-see for its performances, ensemble work and fine shepherding by Austin Pendleton. It is in a limited engagement until February 12th unless it is extended. For tickets and times go to their website: https://2st.com/shows/between-riverside-and-crazy#calendar

‘Some Like it Hot’ Fires up the Laughter, Dazzling at the Schubert

 (L to R): Christian Borle, J. Harrison Ghee in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
(L to R): Christian Borle, J. Harrison Ghee in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

One of the more intricately updated movie adaptations on Broadway that sparks a flame that will surely last, Some Like it Hot is perfect for the holiday season and year-round. From start to finish the sensational cast keeps the audience laughing, thanks to enlightened direction, (Casey Nicholaw), seamlessly wrought staging, superb pacing, on-point timing and smashing songs sung by spot-on principals and company.

Performances by standouts J. Harrison Ghee (Jerry/Daphne), Christian Borle (Joe/Josephine), Sugar (Adrianna Hicks), Natasha Yvette Williams (Sweet Sue) and Kevin Del Aguila (Osgood) hurtle the comedy at breakneck speed around the roller coaster turns of plot, mostly familiar to those who have seen the original titular film upon which this two-act musical comedy is based. Currently, Some Like it Hot is at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre without an end-date.

With book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, with additional material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Some Like it Hot, mostly through songs unspools the story of two Chicago musicians. Witnesses to a murder by a crime boss and his henchmen, Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) and Joe (Christian Borle) must leave town to avoid being killed. As they flee for their lives moving from the streets of Chicago to a train journey across country to California, to their hotel destination, the cast joyously sings 10 songs in Act I and 8 songs in Act II.

The Company of 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)
The Company of Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

The strongest numbers meld superlatively with the jazz/blues club and rehearsal scenes and display the wacky characterizations, i.e. Osgood (the marvelous K.J. Hippensteel) and his relationship with Daphne, for maximum humor. The club and rehearsal songs are rollicking, streams of musical electricity that include “I’m California Bound,” “Take It up a Step,” “Zee Bap” and “Some Like it Hot,” and in Act II “Let’s Be Bad,” and “Baby, Let’s Get Good.” The music can’t be beat if you love jazz, blues and a compendium of styles from that era.

The opening speakeasy scene “What Are You Thirsty For,” prepares us for the rousing up-tempo and hot jazz style that characterizes the music of Sweet Sue’s all-girl band. The song, like all of those in the club scenes maintains the high-paced energy which never lets up, thanks in part to Natasha Yvette Williams, whose band conductor Sue rules with a firm hand, is humorous and twits Josephine (Joe) about her age because she looks dowdy and frumpy, in a joke that is milked throughout. In assuming their new roles as women, both Joe and Jerry take pride in their beauty and femininity and are insulted if men “step out of line” and take liberties, or as in the instance of Sweet Sue with Josephine/Joe, feel hurt pride that they do not look pretty and young. Of course the irony that these men are becoming enlightened to what it is really like to be women, pestered and objectified by men is just priceless.

Adrianna Hicks in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Adrianna Hicks in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

The first number establishes the setting of the Great Depression and Prohibition and introduces three leads two of which by the skin of their teeth avoid a police raid and being locked up by Mulligan (Adam Heller), who hauls in Sweet Sue and her band closing them down. That Jerry and Joe escape, establishes their characters’ MO throughout. They shuck and jive, deep man dive to survive, staying one step ahead of police or gangsters. But I am getting ahead of myself. Out on the street and down on their luck, jobs for a bass player and sax player are hard to come by.

Joe and Jerry try the Cheetah Club, owned by Spats Columbo. Mark Lotito’s convincing no nonsense gangster with a humorous touch is perfect for the role which requires some fleet footedness, during the wild chases and shoot-out scenes acutely conceived, staged and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.

At the Cheetah Club, Spats’ man Mack (Casey Garvin) hires Joe but rejects Jerry because he’s Black. The musical is savvy about revealing the extreme Jim Crow racism of the 1930s through Mack’s obvious prejudice. The production also beautifully answers the racism and bigotry with the idea of family, love and unity with the cleverly written “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him).” Joe insists he and Jerry are a duo, and family (the Tip Tap Twins) who must stick together. As an act “We’re two of a kind, if you’re colorblind, separate mothers …but we’re brothers under the skin.” The singing is accompanied by Joe and Jerry’s excellent tap dancing which wins the day when Spats himself appears and reveals his approval of their talents.

The irony is not lost on us that Spats is tolerant of Jerry’s Black heritage and in this light is more humane than your average lynching bigot from the South, bullying Blacks to bow and scrape. Of course Spats is a murderer of another type (he kills competitor thugs and rats); he’s just not a racist or lynching bigot murderer. This is a fantastic send-up of “honorable” criminals vs. low-down, scurrilous, hate-filled murderers which is intimated but never stated. Thus, Spats we can laugh at, the the bigot in the Southern shadows we prefer not to think about though they exist and are the reason why Sweet Sue goes to California and not Alabama.

Kevin Del Aguila in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Kevin Del Aguila in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

The clever lyrics and humor related to the bigotry toward Black performers during a time of extreme Jim Crow racism in the nation is a subject for jokes delivered by Sweet Sue and Jerry sparingly with irony. The references to racism are understated, and actually highlight the difference between past and present. Yet it is enough as a sad reminder and subtle warning about the uptick in white nationalism and bigotry in our time, hyped up on steroids during the former president Donald Trump’s administration because he gave permission to the KKK and other groups to express their racial hatreds openly as “very fine people.” In this production, the lightheartedness countering the prejudice and racism of the time sends a powerful message about acceptance that is not preachy or overdone.

For example Sue ironically determines the destination of her all-girl band to a place where they won’t be lynched or ostracized since Sue, bass player Jerry/Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee), lead singer Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) and others are Black artists. However, Sue never uses racially charged words. She only refers to how she looks and the audience breaks out in hysteria. After all, it’s the 1930s. Yet residual bigotry is in tragically in the 2022s. Importantly, the beauty of this update reveals the vitality of music and the arts which have always been in the forefront of accepting people, not for their skin color, elitist pedigree or class, but for their artistry and talent. Thus, the theme that art, music and entertainment as a noble calling is underscored as it brings us together in unity and harmony and encourages the best of our humanity.

The complications thicken when Jerry and Joe are at the Cheetah Club and prove themselves to be successful. Excited, Joe wants to discuss their order in the program with Spats at the precise moment when the musicians witness Spats murdering Toothpick Charlie for giving information to Mulligan. The frenzy of Joe and Jerry witnessing the murder and then running away in a marvelous chase scene into the women’s dressing room where they get the idea to go out in drag to save their lives is logically wrought and hysterical. Dressed as Daphne and Josephine, Joe and Jerry are able to walk by Spats and his henchmen without a “hitch.” Now, the only thing left for them to do is follow a tip they receive about joining Sweet Sue’s band.

Natasha Yvette Williams and the Company of 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)
Natasha Yvette Williams and the Company of Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Marc J. Franklin)

In a one line quip, we learn they pay two ruffians to steal the instruments of a female bass player and sax player who had jobs in Sue’s band but lost them when they were unable to get instruments at the last minute. Thus, Daphne and Josephine conveniently step up for the positions as the clever Sweet Sue notices their unusual coincidence and timing. This tweak is one of many that works in Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s well thought out book that is filled with new quips and one-liners that land every time, thanks to Williams, Borle and Ghee’s exceptional timing and delivery.

With the conceit of Daphne/Jerry and Josephine/Joe going cross country as women using the all-girl band as their sanctuary and milked to max, the rest of the action follows a steady route until they arrive at their destination. On the journey the men get to bunk with women and learn temperance and self- restraint as they are reduced to looking but not touching. Also, Josephine discovers the inner workings of the lovely Sugar who he is falling in love with (“A Darker Shade of Blue,” “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee”) as she sings the blues ballads about her life and dreams.

In California the intensity increases. Joe and Jerry have to decide whether to leave and go to Mexico. However, there are dangerous reasons that stand in the way of their making the best decision of their lives. Joe has fallen for Sugar and Jerry has fallen for being a woman, a condition which emerges when the wealthy Osgood in “Poor Little Millionaire” shows he is interested in Daphne. As Osgood appeals to the feminine in Jerry, Jerry/Daphne has a new knowledge of himself as an evolved individual whom he actually likes better than when he was Jerry. This is not only LOL and J. Harrison Ghee makes the most of this new knowledge, it is refreshingly current and an excellent update of the original material in the film by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Spats and his men are making their way toward Jerry and Joe. It is only a matter of time before they will meet face to face. When they do in “Tip Tap Trouble,” the chase is an incredible tap dance with precisely timed, synchronized movement that is choreographed using doors. Nicholaw’s staging is a marvel. The number is paced by the ensemble to perfection with such apt choreography, it is absolutely breathtaking. The number brings down the house.

Adrianna Hicks in 'Some Like it Hot' (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)
Adrianna Hicks in Some Like it Hot (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

In this musical comedy as in the film, “all’s well that ends well.” Spats is arrested just in time by Mulligan and the couples reveal themselves and there are no hard feelings. In fact Osgood is pleased. The notion that you love despite gender and race, if you have the openness to allow yourself that joy, is the most satisfying of the musical comedy’s themes. And it is the most welcome and truthful. For, as Some Like it Hot posits, if one looks and truly sees individuals for who they are, no one should be rejected or belittled. It is a fantastic notion for this LOL musical comedy whose profound underlying meaning shouldn’t be underestimated.

From cast, principals, music and every element referred to in this review, the production has been fine tuned as a celebration of one of the greatest comedy films which was a stylistic throwback to the thirties. Likewise with this production there are numbers which reflect the black and white musicals of the past, whether it be their elegance or brassy, jazz tunes and rigorous tap numbers. The ensemble and swings are perfection and add to the enthusiasm and excitement of a show that is beyond sizzling fun. Some Like it Hot is a love letter to Hollywood Studio films that we will never see again, and a love letter to the present that we hope for with unity, tolerance and love.

Kudos go to Natasha Katz (lighting design) Brian Ronan (sound design) Gregg Barnes (costume design) Scott Pask (scenic design) Josh Marquette (hair design) Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (make-up design). The train is amazing thanks to Scott Pask who manages a streamlined, futuristic look that is full bodied and rich. The full bodied richness is especially so with the hotel interiors and various spaces that Nicholaw transitions into and out of in the twinkling of an eye to keep up the pacing. It is as if the entire production is on a metronome and moves to the ethereal beats of hilarity, somewhere out there in comedy heaven.

All praise goes to Mary-Mitchell Campbell for her music supervision, Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter for their orchestrations. Final kudos goes to all involved with dance, vocal and musical arrangements and the creative team who helped to make this production shimmering glory every night.

What a smashing, important production that is as light as a feather going down but stays with you for its vital themes, music, rhythms (I just adored “Tip Tap Trouble” for its multiple layers) LOL book and great delivery by actors, who managed to be funny and not cartoonish.

See it! Go to their website for tickets and times https://somelikeithotmusical.com/

‘The Piano Lesson’ is a Striking Revival That Delivers Exceptional Acting, Acute Direction and Prodigious Mastery

Danielle Brooks in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

How do we reconcile a past of misery, torment and devastation? Do we bury it or embrace the goodness our ancestors brought to bear as they raised us? Do we take the next steps to rise up to the inner glory they encouraged, or mourn in resentment never exorcising the anguish that seeped into our psyches? In August Wilson’s richly crafted Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the character Berniece (superbly portrayed by Danielle Brooks) must reconcile herself to her past and become the conduit that translates legacy into new beginnings for her family and her daughter.

The Piano Lesson symbolizes how African Americans must approach their painful history of slavery as a planting field which may give birth to strong generations that carry new hope and opportunity for a positive future. Additionally, in this production directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, Wilson suggests what that future might be with an uplifting conclusion where family understanding and unity are restored after nefarious forces steeped in colonial, paternalistic folkways and institutional racism, sought to keep the family divided and conquered.

John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

August Wilson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1990, not only winning the Pulitzer Prize but also winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, as well as the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Piano Lesson which takes place in Pittsburgh, 1936 is one in a collection of 10 plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Each of the plays, set in a different decade, chronicles African American struggles and triumphs as various families move away from the remnants of slavery and its impact from 1900 through the 1990s. The work has enjoyed three revivals, one Off Broadway in 2013 and the two Broadway outings (1990, 2022).

This outstanding revival features seminal performances by a superb ensemble and a clarifying vision about the play by the director. Each actor brings vitality and authentically to manifest the roiling fear and oppression that still hangs over the lives of characters Berniece (Danielle Brooks) Boy Willie (John David Washington) and family uncles Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) and Wining Boy (Michael Potts) as they attempt to move beyond their traumatic past. It is a slavery past where ancestors saw toil and heartache and a recent past where Berniece and her family saw violence, bloodshed and anything but a peaceful passing to ancestral graves.

(L to R): Michael Potts, Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Events come to a head when Boy Willie visits the family for the first time in three years since Berniece lost her husband Crawley. Boy Willie comes with a vital personal mission so he braves his sister Berniece’s ire because he is at a turning point in his life. Berniece and Boy Willie have been estranged because she blames him for Crawley’s death. Tired of sharecropping for others, Boy Willie leaps when he is offered an opportunity where he, too, can embrace the “American Dream.” In an ironic twist he would be purchasing land his ancestors worked as slaves made available after the slave master’s descendant, the head of the Sutter family, fell down a well and died. Boy Willie’s purchase would allow him to end being exploited by others so he might work to lift himself to a better life.

However, he needs to raise more cash to complete the land deal, so he intends to sell their family heirloom, a beautifully carved upright piano which is housed in Uncle Doaker’s Pittsburgh home where Berniece and her 11-year-old daughter live. As is often the case with inheritances, there are family squabbles about how to dispose of various items. The piano not only is valuable materially, it symbolizes the family’s history and legacy, which is both beautiful and terrible. An ancestor carved the faces of family members on it to soothe the slave master’s wife who was missing her slaves that were traded for the piano. Over the years, the piano has become the family totem that conveys a spiritual weight and emblematic preciousness. Wilson signifies this when Boy Willie and friend Lymon find it nearly impossible to lift by themselves.

Berniece understands the piano’s significance to the depths of her soul and refuses to allow Boy Willie to remove it. For seven years after their mother died, Berniece stopped playing it to honor her mother’s remembrance. Though only Maretha (played by Jurnee Swan at the performance I saw) and Uncle Wining Boy play it, Berniece justifies keeping it because of Mama Ola Charles. Mama Ola daily polished it “til her hands bled, then rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it” and mourned over the tragic loss of her husband, Boy Charles who was murdered after he stole it and hid it to retain its ownership. He believed if the Sutter family kept the piano, they symbolically “lorded” it over the Charles family, who they would oppress as their ersatz slaves, if not physically, then psychically and emotionally.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Gradually, Samuel L. Jackson’s Doaker reveals the story of the piano’s history since slavery days. With understated reverence as an explanation why Berniece will never let it go, he discusses how the carvings of each ancestor and their stories reside there as a remembrance of their identity and the sacrificial death of his brother Boy Charles, who first imbued the piano with the symbolic and spiritual significance of their family’s legacy of forward momentum.

Jackson’s Doaker and Danielle Brooks’ Berniece superbly translate the importance of this magical object with nuance and power that gives rise to our understanding why the ancestral spirits are hovering in the piano’s majesty in a battle that becomes otherworldly between the Sutter and the Charles family. It is a battle which has been continuing revealed at the top of the play with Boy Willie’s excited, impassioned entrance and reflected in Beowulf Boritt’s incredible set of Doaker’s simple four room house whose spare roof timbers exposed to the sky appear to be split and separating.

Indeed, the Charles family is a house divided by disagreement, disharmony and mourning tied in and caused by the racial discrimination, and inequitable economic opportunities intended to keep African Americans entrenched in poverty and peonage. To be free of Sutter oppression the Charles family must move away from the Sutters’ (symbolic of white racists) murderous, thieving behaviors, exploitive folkways and lack of empathy for others. They must free themselves from materialism, selfishness and criminality that has destroyed their humanity, as Brook’s Berniece expresses in her indictment of the men in her immediate family, including her dead husband Crawley.

 The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
The cast of The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Boy Willie’s presence at this point in time after Sutter is found at the bottom of a well is intriguing. Has Sutter’s wicked ghost driven him up to trouble Berniece about the piano despite its legacy? Or does he just want to make a better life for himself as he suggests? Berniece believes he pushed Sutter to his death, knowing the Sutter land would be put up for sale. Though Washington’s Boy Willie makes a convincing argument that he is not a murderer and Pott’s colorful Wining Boy suggests it’s the vengeful “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” that caused Sutter’s fall to his death, Berniece is not convinced. Boy Willie’s presence has brought confusion and turmoil, exceptionally rendered by Washington’s Boy Willie, who appears so impassioned about selling the piano, he acts like a man possessed.

Additionally, Boy Willie’s obviation of the importance of the piano as their family legacy is answered with his apology to Berniece as if that is enough because he will sell it regardless. That answer isn’t enough for her. However, Boy Willie insists forcefully almost manically that he will use the land and make something with it, even though the deal is by word of mouth and could be another bamboozle by the Sutter family as Uncle Wining Boy suggests.

Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
Danielle Brooks in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

That the ghost of Sutter appears to members of the family around the same time that Boy Willie appears is more than a coincidence. That Boy Willie is the only one who doesn’t see the ghost is also more than a coincidence. Berniece, Doaker, Maretha and Wining Boy see the ghost who has been manifesting on the second floor above where Boritt’s roof timbers separate, threatening with well-paced grinding sounds (Scott Lehrer) to split the house up and fragment it completely.

Why doesn’t Boy Willie see Sutter’s ghost? Has Boy Willie become an instrument of the Sutter family, influenced/possessed by Sutter’s ghost to continue the tradition of theft, exploitation and bloodshed (the chains of slavery days) luring Boy Willie with the dream of being “his own boss?” The longer Boy Willie stays to sell a truck load of watermelons, the more the arguing and airing of grievances continues, intermingled with wonderful songs they sing, the first led by Jackson’s Doaker and the last by Potts’ Wining Boy who made a profitable living which he couldn’t sustain playing piano and cutting a few records.

However, nothing will ameliorate Boy Willie’s lust for the money the piano will bring. Finally, when push comes to shove, Berniece and Doaker do take out their guns ready to shoot Boy Willie if he and his friend Lymon (Doron JePaul Mitchell when I saw the show) remove the piano.

Samuel L. Jackson in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Brooks’ Berniece is so fervent that we believe she will shoot her brother to protect her ancestors’ legacy whose symbolism and spiritual strength she has embraced during Boy Willie’s importuning her to give it up. Washington’s Boy Willie is every inch her equal, stoked by the Sutter relative with the lure of land and his own ambition, like the Biblical Esau, willing to sell his birthright without any guarantees. Brooks and Washington are perfect foils and deliver amazing performances. Jackson’s Doaker and Pott’s Uncle Wining Boy present the stabilizing, humorous counterbalance to the frenzied brother and sister. If not for Wining Boy’s playing the piano at that heightened moment when Berniece has the gun, she would shoot Boy Willie, and Sutter’s ghost would have triumphed, completely destroying the family. Jackson’s direction and the timing of Potts and Samuel L. Jackson’s interference and distractions round out the incredible drama that moves toward the last scene of the play.

It is then that all the characters acknowledge the ghost of Sutter’s presence in the grinding sound of the house being pulled asunder by the warring spirits which also represent the values which the families prize. These are the values which Boy Willie must decide on. Should he be like the Sutters or raise up his own family’s legacy as Doaker has learned to do as a trainman and as Berniece has done steadfastly living one day at a time? Does Boy Willie have the resolve to shake off destructive forces and slowly carve out a life for himself with a lasting peace? At the top of the play Washington’s Boy Willie is so possessed by the Sutter’s offer and righting the past exploitation of his family, he can’t wait to follow them down the same pathways. However, Washington’s Boy Willie does change and is redirected.

(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in 'The Piano Lesson' (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)
(Forefront): Samuel L. Jackson, (Background) John David Washington in The Piano Lesson (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

Encouraged by everyone who feels the presence of Sutter’s ghost, preacher Avery (Trai Byers-another superb performance) who Berniece has been seeing, attempts to cast out the pernicious Sutter. He fails. Only Berniece calling on the help of her ancestors’ spirits who assist in the spiritual battle overcomes the ghost of Sutter’s presence and hold over their family. As she sings and plays the piano, on the second floor we watch the impact of her prayers and the Charles family’s spirits on Boy Willie as Washington manifests the struggle with Sutter’s ghost. As his body arches over then releases, we note that Sutter’s ghost, its tormenting lures that possessed Boy Willie leave. The two siblings are finally in agreement with Doaker and Wining Boy that what Sutter represents has no place in their family. As it leaves Boy Willie, miraculously, the house is made whole. With a grinding sound and the final sighting and restitution of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (you have to see the play to understand what happens) the separated timbers rejoin. It’s an incredible effect and magnificent, symbolic realization of Wilson’s immutable themes, about family unity in reconciliation with the past to move forward, thanks to the creative team, wonderful actors and Jackson’s direction.

Jackson’s staging and use of special effects (Jeff’s Sugg’s projection design, Lehrer’s sound design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Boritt’s fabulous set) convey Boy Willie’s struggle, exorcism and redemption from the tradition of oppression, bloodshed and materialistic selfishness that have corrupted the Sutters and work to corrupt him and completely divide his family. He is only able to gain strength to be released when Brooks’ Berniece accepts how the legacy of past can be turned into a positive future by becoming the conduit of the ancestral spirits. It is their beauty, sanctity and strength that rise up to lead her, Maretha and the others forward, if they allow themselves to be led.

Boy Willie and Berniece join hands in unity. His demeanor transforms into calmness. He no longer wants to sell the piano, understanding that his family history and his identity are in unity. With the house returned to wholeness, the wicked impulses will no more occlude the lives of Berniece, Boy Willie and the others. Now they can move forward and carve their own history in the reality of their lives.

Throughout Wilson raises questions whether Boy Willie got revenge on Sutter for having his father burned alive and the question of whether he killed him to get the land in an ironic triumph. Another question is whether the Sutters are serious about selling the land to Boy Willie given the history between the two families. In the production these questions are emphasized by director Jackson’s vision of the themes and characterizations of this complicated work brought to a phenomenal apotheosis at the conclusion. However, as in life, ambuity is the spice that keeps us enthralled along with the chilling presence of the supernatural hovering.

This is a one of a kind production that exceptionally realizes August Wilson’s intent with every fiber of the artists’ prodigious efforts. I have nothing but praise for what they have done and will do for the run of the play.

For tickets and times to see this living masterpiece go to their website: https://pianolessonplay.com/

‘Ohio State Murders,’ Audra McDonald’s Performance is Stunning in This Exceptional Production

Audra McDonald, Bryce Pinkham in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

For her first Broadway outing Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders has been launched by six-time Tony award winner Audra McDonald into the heavens, and into history with a magnificent, complexly wrought and richly emotional performance. The taut, concise drama about racism, sexism, emotional devastation and the ability to triumph with quiet resolution is directed by Kenny Leon and currently runs at the James Earl Jones Theatre until 12 February. It is a must-see for McDonald’s measured, brilliantly nuanced portrayal of Suzanne Alexander, who tells the story of budding writer Suzanne, in a surreally configured narrative that blends time frames and requires astute listening and thinking, as it enthralls and surprises.

This type of work is typical of Kennedy whose 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro won an Obie Award. That was the first of many accolades for a woman who writes in multiple genres and whose dramas evoke avant garde presentations and lyrically poetic narratives that are haunting and stylistically striking. As one who explores race in America and has contributed to literature, poetry and drama expressing the Black woman’s experience without rhetoric, but with illuminating, symbolic, word crafting power, Kennedy has been included in the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2022 she received the Gold Medal for Drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Gold Medal for Drama is awarded every six years and is not bestowed lightly; only 16 individuals including Eugene O’Neill have been so honored.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

This production of Ohio State Murders remains true to Kennedy’s wistful, understated approach to the dramatic, moving along an arc of alternating emotional revelation and suppression in the expose of her characters and their traumatic experiences. Leon and McDonald have teased out a 75 minute production with no intermission, intricate and profound, as Kennedy references and parallels other works of literature to carry glimpses of her characters’ complexity without clearly delineating the specifics of their behaviors. In the play much is suggested, little is clarified. Toward the unwired conclusion we find out a brief description of how the murders occurred and by whom. The details and the motivations are distilled in a few sentences with a crashing blow.

Much is opaque, laden with sub rosa emotion, depression, heartbreak and quiet reflection couched in remembrances. The most crucial matters are obviated. The intimacy between the two principals which may or may not be glorious or tragic is invisible. That is Kennedy’s astounding feat. Much is left to our imaginations. We can only surmise how, when and where Suzanne and Robert Hampshire (Bryce Pinkham in a rich, understated and austere portrayal) who becomes “Bobby” got together and coupled when Suzanne supposedly visited his house. Their relationship mirrors that of the characters in Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. It is this novel which first brings the professor and student together in mutual admiration over a brilliant paper Suzanne writes and he praises.

Audra McDonald in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

What is mesmerizing and phenomenal about Kennedy’s work is how and why McDonald’s Suzanne follows a process of revelation not with a linear, chronological storytelling structure, but with an uncertain, in the moment remembering. McDonald moves “through a glass darkly,” unraveling recollections, as her character carefully unspools what happened, sees it anew as it unfolds in her memory, then responds to the old and new emotions the recalled memories create.

Audra McDonald is extraordinary as Suzanne Alexander, who has returned to her alma mater to discuss her own writing which has been published and about which there are questions concerning the choice of her violent images. The frame of Suzanne’s lecture is in the present and begins and ends the play. By the conclusion Suzanne has answered the questions. Kennedy’s circuitous narrative winds through flashback as Suzanne relates her experiences at Ohio State when she was a freshman and her movements were dictated by the bigotry that impacted her life there.

In the flashback McDonald’s Suzanne leaps into the difficult task of familiarizing us with the campus and environs, the discrimination, her dorm, roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson) and others (portrayed by Lizan Mitchell and Mister Fitzgerald), all vital to understanding Suzanne’s story about the violence in her writing. Importantly, McDonald’s Suzanne begins with what is most personal to her, the new world she discovers in her English classes. These are taught by Robert Hampshire, (the astonishing Bryce Pinkham) a professor new to the college. Reading in wonder and listening to his lectures, Suzanne’s fascination with literature, writing and criticism blossoms under his tutelage.

Within the main flashback Kennedy moves forward and backward, not allowing time to delineate what happened, but rather allowing Suzanne’s emotional memories to lead her storytelling. After authorities expel her from Ohio State, she lives with her Aunt and then returns with her babies to work and live with a family friend in the hope of finishing her education. During this recollection she refers to the time when she lived in the dorm and was disdained by the other girls.

Mister Fitzgerald, Audra McDonald, in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Kennedy anchors the sequence of events in time by using the names of individuals Suzanne meets. For example when she returns after she has been expelled, she meets David (Mister Fitzgerald) who she dates and eventually marries after the Ohio State murders. What keeps us engrossed is how Suzanne fluidly merges time fragments within the years she was at the college. She digresses and jumps in memory as she retells the story, as if escaping from emotion in a repressive flash forward, until she can resume her composure. At the conclusion, Suzanne references the murders of her babies.

Thus, with acute, truncated description that is both poetic and imagistic, McDonald’s Suzanne slowly breaks our hearts. McDonald elucidates every word, every phrase, imbuing it with Suzanne’s particular, rich meaning. Though the character is psychologically blinded and perhaps refuses to initially accept who the killer of her babies might be, there is the uncertainty that she may know all along, but is loathe to admit it to her self, because it is incredibly painful. At the conclusion when she reveals the murderer’s identity and events surrounding both murders, she is remote and cold, as is the snow falling behind outside the crevasse. At that segment McDonald’s unemotional rendering triggers our imaginations. In a flash we understand the what and why. We receive the knowledge as a gut-wrenching blow. Fear has encouraged the murderer in a culture whose violence and racism bathes its citizens in hatred.

When McDonald’s Suzanne Alexander brings us back to the present as she pulls us up with her from the recesses of her memory, we are shocked again. We have been gripped and enthralled, swept up in the events of tragedy and sorrow, senseless violence and loss. The question of why bloody imagery is in Suzanne’s writing has been answered. But many more questions have been raised. For example, in an environment of learning and erudition, how is the murder of innocents possible? Isn’t education supposed to help individuals transcend impulses that are hateful and violent? Kennedy’s themes are horrifically current, underscored by mass shootings in Ulvade, Texas and other schools and colleges across the nation since this play was written (1992). At the heart of such murdering is racism, white domestic terrorism, bigotry, hatred, inhumanity.

The other players appear briefly to enhance Suzanne’s remembrances. Pinkham’s precisely carved professor Hampshire reveals all the clues to his nature and future actions in the passages he reads to his classes from the Hardy novel, then Beowuf and in references to King Arthur and the symbol of the “abyss” he discusses in two lectures Suzanne attends. All, he delivers tellingly with increasing foreboding. Indeed, the passages are revelatory of what he is experiencing symbolically in his soul and psyche. When Suzanne describes his physical presence during the last lecture, when she states he is looking weaker than he did when he taught his English classes, it is a clue. Pinkham’s Hampshire is superbly portrayed with intimations of the quiet, profound and troubled depths of the character’s inner state of mind.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Lizan Mitchell, Mister Fitzgerald in Ohio State Murders, by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

Importantly, Kennedy, through Suzanne’s revelations about the university when she was a freshman, indicates the racism of the student body as well as the bigotry of the officials and faculty, which Black students like Suzanne and Iris must overcome. There is nothing overt. There are no insults and epithets. All is equivocal, but Suzanne feels the hatred and the injustice regarding unequal opportunities.

For example it is assumed that she cannot “handle” the literature classes and must go through trial classes to judge whether she is capable of advanced work as an English major. When she tells professor Hampshire, he insists that this shouldn’t be happening. Nevertheless, he has no power to change her circumstances, though he has supported and encouraged her writing. The college’s bigotry is entrenched, as she and other Black women are discouraged in their studies and forced out surreptitiously so that they cannot complain or protest.

Kenny Leon’s vision complements Kennedy’s play. It is imagistic, minimalistic and surreal, thanks to Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, Jeff Sugg’s projection design, Allen Lee Hughes lighting design and Justin Ellington’s sound design. At the top of the play there are two worlds. We see black and white projections of of WWII and the aftermath through a v-shaped crevasse that divides the outside culture and the interior of the college in the library symbolized by faux book cases. These are suspended in the air and move around symbolically following what Suzanne discusses and describes.

(L to R): Audra McDonald, Abigail Stephenson in Ohio State Murders by Adrienne Kennedy, directed by Kenny Leon. © 2022 Richard Termine, photo credit.

The books are a persistent irony and heavy with meaning. They sometimes serve as a backdrop for projections, for example to label areas of the campus. On the one hand they represent a lure to Suzanne who venerates literature. They suggest the amalgam of learning that is supposed to educate and improve the culture and society. However, the bigoted keepers of knowledge in their “ivory” towers use them as weapons of exclusion and inhumanity, psychologically and emotionally, harming Blacks and others who are not white or who are considered inferior. Leon’s vision and the artistic team’s infusion of this symbolism throughout the play are superb.

In the instance of the one individual who appreciates Suzanne’s writing, the situation becomes twisted and that too, becomes weaponized against her. However, that she has been invited back to her alma mater all those years later to discuss her writing indicates the strength of her character to overcome the incredible suffering she endured. At the conclusion of her talk in the present she reveals her inner power to leap over the obstacles the bigoted college officials put before her. Her return so many years later is indeed a triumph.

Leon and the creative team take the symbolism of rejection, isolation, emotional coldness and inhumanity and bring it from the outdoors to the indoors. Beyond the crevasse in the wintertime environment, the snow falls during Suzanne’s description of events. Eventually, by the end of the play, the exterior and interior merge. The violence we saw at the top of the play in pictures of the War and its aftermath has spread to Ohio State. The snow falls indoors. Finally, Suzanne Alexander is able to publicly speak of it openly and honestly after discovering there was a cover-up of the truth that even her father agreed to out of shame and humiliation.

Ohio State Murders is a historic event that should not be missed. When you see it, listen for the interview of Adrienne Kennedy before the play begins as the audience is seated. She discusses her education at Ohio State and the attitudes of the faculty and college staff. Life informs art as is the case with Adrienne Kennedy’s wonderful avant garde play and this magnificent production.

For tickets and times to to their website: https://ohiostatemurdersbroadway.com/

‘Ain’t No Mo,’ the Uproarious Satire Explodes With Brilliance on Broadway

Jordan E. Cooper in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

Ain’t No Mo which premiered at The Public Theater in 2019 brings its scathing, sardonic wit and wisdom to Broadway in a broader, handsomer, electrically paced production with incredible performances and extraordinary, complex dynamism. Presented by a host of producing partners with Lee Daniels topping the list and The Public Theater end-stopping it, Jordan E. Cooper’s brilliance now can be appreciated by a wider audience. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the production shines brightly with the creative team of Scott Pask (scenic design) Emilio Sosa (costume design) Adam Honore, who also was responsible for lighting design in the Public Theater production, Jonathan Deans and Taylor Williams (sound design) and Mia M. Neal (hair & wig design).

The tenor, structure and characterizations which send up Black cultural attitudes and systemic white institutional racism and fascism in Cooper’s excoriating farce and brash, in-your face cataclysm of vignettes, remain essentially the same as the Public’s production which I adored and thought incredibly trenchant (https://wordpress.com/posts/caroleditosti.com?s=ain%27t+no+mo). Based on the premise of the political collapse of the country with Putin installing Donald Trump as president (my opinion as per the Mueller Report) as the main conceit of the play, the government offers a one-way flight back to Africa for all Blacks.

This was a perfect trope in 2019 and still is. Though we have a different administration in the presidency, the same pernicious elements that uplift oppression and inequity refuse to submit to the constitution which safeguards Black citizens and all citizens’ rights. Indeed, since 2019 the villians are hell bent to vitiate as many of our rights as they can. So Cooper’s play is tremendously vital as a clarion call against white supremacist tyranny and despotism at the heart of Trumpism and Republicans’ silent agreement with it.

Cooper attempts a few updates in this production since 2019. He references Black Lives Matter and Vice President Kamala Harris. However, he omits references to the horrific changes in the political climate which has worsened. Nor does he reference the Biden presidency which has sought to reverse every perverse corruption the Trump presidency and Republican party in silent complicity wrought on the country. Trump’s blasphemy of democracy, the January 6th insurrection and COVID botch job (read Bob Woodward’s book Rage) where Trump wittingly exacerbated the proliferation of the virus, killing the most vulnerable communities (persons of color, the elderly) are not mentioned in this production. The updates are unnecessary because Cooper’s themes are more current than ever. In fact they are prescient and hilariously frightening.

The Trump Republicans have continued their fascism and racism with a new vengeance against the Democratic Party which appears to stand for democracy and accountability. At this writing the entire Republican Party has not raised the hue and cry necessary to condemn Trump’s association with two individuals who support white supremacy, Nazis and in particular one individual’s praise of Hitler as a Holocaust denier.

Such white supremacist oppression and outright tyranny are the key points of Ain’t No Mo which suggests truth in ridicule and doesn’t posit simplistic solutions. Cooper’s genius with Stevie Walker-Webb’s superb director’s illumination REPRESENT metaphorically. Within the high-anxiety, farcical elements of the play are the roiling currents of fear and anxiety that reveal what it is to be black in the United States today, regardless of whichever black socioeconomic class one fits into.

Marchant Davis and the cast of Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

This is especially so after the January 6th insurrection, 1,100,000 pandemic deaths and the screaming lies of white supremacist terrorist QAnon politicos like Louis Gomer, Marjorie Taylor Green and fist pumping Josh Hawley. It is especially so as Trump acolytes whitewash violent behaviors as patriotic expressions of freedom, in a cover-up of what they actually are, crimes against humanity and an attempt to destroy the constitution and the rule of law which holds white supremacist terrorist criminals like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys and their encouragers (Trump’s allies) accountable.

Thus, Cooper’s prologue set in a local black church in 2008 at a metaphoric funeral service of Brother Righttocomplain is beyond perfect. Pastor Freeman, the wonderful Marchant Davis, proclaims that the election of black president Barack Obama will save the black community and remove their need to protest injustice, inequity, police brutality and lynchings, and racial hatreds. Parishioners (Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Crystal Lucas-Perry) dressed in tight white dresses, thanks to Emilio Sosa’s outrageously funny costume design, scream and shout the glory. These congregants affirm with Pastor Freeman that the “light-skinned” (an irony) Black president will solve all their problems as their very own messiah whose freeing power they “own.”

Cooper’s memes and jokes are acutely ironic and a veritable laugh riot. For example he affirms that Obama is their “ni&&er” and as such there “ain’t no mo discrimination, ain’t no mo holleration, ain’t gone be NO more haterration…” The good reverend lists an end to every conceivable example of racist terror visited upon Blacks since the Civil War because with a Black president, abuse of the Black race by an unjust government will now stop. Of course, this is an irony because learned behavior and systemic institutional racism is so complex and entrenched, everyone in the nation must work very hard to overcome it. Given the pockets of prejudice and discrimination even in blue states, this is easier said than done. Cooper illustrates this beautifully by the conclusion of the opening scene.

(L to R): Shannon Matesky, Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

With the burial of Brother Righttocomplain, “Freeman” preaches “ain’t no mo strife, no more marches to be led, no more tears to be shed…” in celebration of a real “going home party.” Of course, when Pastor Freeman hears gunfire as the parishioners praise, sing and dance, reality makes its ugly appearance. With sirens, cop cars’ flashing lights and gun shots, the future descends during the Obama presidency and afterward to the annihilating Trump presidency.

Above the shouts of praise Marchand’s Freeman hears the overwhelming news reports of the Flint water crisis, deaths of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, Alton Sterling, The Charleston Nine and countless others. The reports reveal Freeman’s overestimation of Obama’s power as a Black president to mitigate racial hatreds and alleviate the social oppression Blacks experience every day. The same discrimination and violence raises its ugly head, despite President Obama’s best efforts to stop it. So the foreboding harbinger of the Trump presidency’s return to Jim Crow 2.0 terrors hover, unless blacks hop on those flights to Africa on African American Airlines. If they evacuate, they will save their lives. If they stay, they lose everything including their black identity and will end up dead or in prison.

Of course Cooper’s Africa evacuation is what President Abraham Lincoln suggested as a way to solve the “negro question” after the Civil War was over. However, Frederick Douglass stood up to Lincoln and vociferously opposed leaving because the United States was their country since 1619, and their association would never be African because their tribal history had been taken from them.

(L to R): Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

As a solution to the hell of Black America’s unequal treatment under the law, evacuation to Africa is Cooper’s over-the-top response. It is a double irony considering that once again, Blacks are introduced to a new form of dispossession, alienation, abandonment and diaspora, while the oppressive white culture “owns” all of the historical contributions Blacks have made in the arts, sciences, government, technology, industry and every field imaginable. In the play African Americans’ contributions reside metaphorically in a lovely bag which flight attendant Peaches (the inimitable Jordan E. Cooper) tries to take with her as she attempts to board the flight. But symbolically, the bag cannot be removed to Africa. And trying to leave with it, Peaches misses the flight and loses her identity and everything she’s fought for as an American. She is reduced to the state of those who survived the Middle Passage and were set up to be auctioned off as slaves. But she is “keeper” of the bag and recognizes that she is left to represent Black culture and identity.

Another key point Cooper makes with the symbolism of the “bag” is that the greatest Black contributions have been forged in the crucible of slavery and subsequent decades of oppression as Blacks and the culture have changed laws to be more equitable. Black contributions are as indelible to who Americans are as a culture and society as the Native Indian lands are the foundation upon which this nation has been built and has prospered. Though white oppression and white supremacist tyranny vaults its own greatness in lies, ignoring such contributions, it is a dangerous oversight and underestimation of Black energy, vitality and creativity. American greatness is in its diversity, and the culture and society will thrive if no one is left behind or evacuated. We must work together and seek equity for all to be great (an underlying theme of Cooper’s play).

After the opening prologue the play’s structure alternates between vignettes of various Black Americans’ response to escape to Africa and Peaches’ growing frustration boarding passengers under a deadline as an exit strategy from the hell of the coming white oppression. Cooper’s Peaches is wonderful as the wired, loud, candid, funny flight attendant who prods her passengers with the consequences of staying: prison and confiscation of everything they own or death (transmogrification). With each vignette we are apprised of the oppression Blacks have been conditioned to which is the foremost reason why Blacks should leave.

Crystal Lucas-Perry in Ain’t No mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the “Circle of Life” sequence which takes place at a clinic (since Roe vs. Wade was overturned with Dobbs, this is a particularly poignant scene) we watch the digital counter enumerate that are millions in line to terminate their pregnancies rather than give birth to a child whose days are numbered. Surely odds are they will end up as a statistic of police brutality, gang violence or other casualty of an oppressive culture which has come to kill those who drive or walk “while black.” Damien (Marchant Davis) tries to convince the pregnant Trisha (Fedna Jacquet) to keep his child rather than abort it. However, he is a spirit, shot to death, so Trisha who waits with another woman for almost two months finally goes into the room for the procedure as the plane arrives to begin boarding passengers in a humorous end of the scene as one pregnant woman thinks the plane is filled with the “9/11 bit*&es,” coming for their heads.

In a revelation of how Black identity is twisted and nullified by the culture, “The Real Baby Momas of the Southside” is a hysterical parody of any of the puerile reality series which reduce women to silly, gossipy, back-biting, angry, fools, whether black or white, as “benign” entertainment value. God forbid if this were a political show which demonstrated their intelligence and erudition. Instead, memes of what Black identity means come to the fore in this humorous and drop-dead serious send-up of shows which exploit the idea of “being Black.” Some of the funniest lines come when the women are off camera (the cameramen are white) and we discover that they don’t have children and speak without accents and epithets. We see the show is a blind to please and brainwash the audience, who enjoys seeing how “low-class” Black women are. Meanwhile, there are other ways of being, but this isn’t a show about how strong, forthright, powerful and intelligent Black women are.

“The lighter the skin, the better” is a reality Blacks have had to deal with because of white fascist physical mores. The trend has morphed over the decades into a perverse reverse. Other ethnic groups including whites have embraced the “Black ethos” in a perverse acceptance of only the superficiality of “being black” without accepting or recognizing any of the horrific sacrifices Blacks have made over their 400-year history in this nation. Cooper’s beautiful example of this appears on steroids with the character Rachonda, whose real name is Rachel (Shannon Matesky). She is a baby mama the others reject because she is white and is going through transracial treatments to become Black. When she is called out on it in a LOL moment by Tracy (Ebony Marshall-Oliver), Kendra (Fedna Jacquet) and Karen (Crystal Lucas-Perry), she reveals that she has no clue about Black American sacrifices and and just wants to ride the current wave of Black female “cool,” generated by Michelle Obama. She never receives the email inviting her to escape to Africa, caught between her memes and unconverted to her “full Blackness,” an irony.

(L to R): Fedna Jacquet, Shannon Matesky, Marchant Davis, Crystal Lucas-Perry, Ebony Marshall-Oliver in Ain’t No Mo (courtesy of Joan Marcus)

In the last two vignettes before Cooper’s exceptional, heartfelt conclusion, the first reveals a wealthy Black family who embrace white upper class mores, genociding their own identity to convince themselves they belong to the superior, fascist, master race (like a celebrity who recently praised Hitler). By internalizing white supremacist values, they don’t even realize they have destroyed their identity, their souls and their uniqueness. Furthermore, by adopting the”white” ethos as the proud bourgeois class, they have trampled all those who have shed blood to advance the hope of achieving civil rights, equal opportunity and justice by overcoming institutional racism. The bourgeois family don’t believe they are oppressed because they live by the “green.” The supremacists would never come for them because they have money.

We don’t realize how brainwashed they are until Black (the amazing Crystal Lucas-Perry) emerges from her prison underneath the mansion where their wealthy father has chained her for forty years. Finally free, Black confronts them in one of the most wild, convulsively humorous and hyperbolic rants about their blackness and the imperative to leave for Africa. They are so “white-fascist-think,” the truth she speaks is anathema. They kill her (typical Black on Black crime). The neighbors hearing “Black” screaming non bourgeois are infuriated about it. They call the police right at the precise moment Black has been genocided.

The scene is a powder keg of dynamite performances which are memorable and tragic because the family believes that they are a different identity via the “green” (money). It doesn’t matter if they stay or go. They have already lost everything valuable about what their culture means. Staying, they lose their lives. Cooper’s theme is clear. An oppressive fascist culture has as its most horrific tactic, get blacks to destroy the finest traits about them, their Blackness, by rejecting it and internalizing white tropes. Without that Blackness, they embody the worst of the fascist “master race.” They genocide their own and themselves.

Cooper also identifies the Black, female prison population in a very powerful scene. When freedom is posited, one of the prisoners, Blue (Crystal Lucas Perry transitions to a completely different mien and aura) hesitates to leave. In great fear and rage from all the abuse of her past, she creates a situation where she almost destroys her chances for freedom and is killed (or never makes the plane and is transmogrified). How Cooper ends this vignette and the last one when Peaches doesn’t make the flight to join those evacuating the US, are memorable scenes. They leave the audience in awe. The majesty of the actors’ performances and the stark language laden with substance and richness are stunning.

It is a supreme irony that though there is not one Caucasian in his play, Cooper’s themes and messages are particularly for those who have been blinded to believe that their skin color exempts them from white supremacy’s tyranny. It is only a matter of degree. Despotism impacts everyone in the culture as Cooper indicates in the last scene of the play.

In the end scene, the jet pulls away as the Blacks leave for Africa renouncing everything to go to a safe haven, while Peaches is left “holding the bag,” though it cannot be pulled up from the very place on which it rests, having become rooted to America. Cooper’s hyperbole may seem a farcical extreme. However, what they escape in the play we all faced because of the tyranny of the former president, who weaponized of a pandemic which killed a larger proportionate number of blacks and people of color. The blasphemous white supremacist tyranny the Blacks escape via his play’s metaphor, in reality, incited an undeclared war against U.S. democracy in a violent insurrection to thwart the peaceful transfer of power when Trump lost the election. Cooper’s understanding of the murderous intent of white supremacy is divinely inspired. He is a veritable Cassandra in his ability to read the ominous signs and incorporate them in this play. So the point that the only safe haven from such white tyranny is a return to Africa has been made palpable in the Ain’t No Mo, 2022.

The work is breathtaking in its themes, performances, writing and artistry. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times go to their website https://aintnomobway.com/ You will belly laugh and be moved at the same time.

T

In ‘A Christmas Carol,’ Jefferson Mays is The Masterpiece

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Someone once said, “It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” Increased with golden toilets, their own airplanes and wanting for nothing, the rich don’t need to believe in God nor be accountable to anyone. Indeed in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol adapted by Jefferson Mays, Susan Lyons and Michael Arden, currently at the Nederlander Theatre, we recognize what it takes for a stingy, greedy, penurious rich man like Scrooge to transform into a generous, kind soul who demonstrates God’s love. Scrooge must be kidnapped by ghosts and taken on a spiritual journey toward a horrific ending. He must face the black night of the soul as death comes for him. If you’re familiar with Dickens’ story, you know the outcome. “Bah! Humbug!”

With Jefferson Mays in the driver’s seat of this truly heavenly Christmas Carol, directed by Michael Arden, running until 1st of January, we glory over Mays’ Scroogey ending. Employing magnificent performance skills honed to perfection, Mays brings to life Dickens’ popular story in a viscerally charged solo performance for the ages. The man of many faces, voices, gestures and personalities, Mays (Tony Award for I am my Own Wife) inhabits 50 or more characters to proclaim the message of goodness, love, joy and redemption in the true spirit of Christmas for audience members fortunate to catch him live this holiday season. He even portrays a cooking potato and enlivens the mist and fog that enters Scrooge’s chambers. Shriek!

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Conceived by Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey, the production is an acutely tailored phantasmagoria of delight, fear, fun, strangeness and the macabre on steroids. It flies on ghostly wings at the speed of light and sound without an intermission, then it ends in Mays’ virtuoso curtain call to a standing ovation. Though you swear there are heavenly hosts that accompany him during his bows, look again. Yes, during the production there were many individuals onstage taking part in this amazing interactive storytelling. But no. Only he stands grinning in the spotlight pleased that the audience was hushed and enthralled, and suspended in time, caught up with him in the ethereal web of make believe, that is too real to accept for all of its mortality in immortality.

With the streamlined Mays, Lyons, Arden adaptation, Dickens’ prose is steadfast, ironic, cryptic, paired down to an acute sensibility so that Mays vibrates his instrument to produce Scrooge, Marley, all the Cratchits, his nephew Fred, Scrooge’s sister, Fezziwig, the Christmas spirits, Londoners and other souls and beings with pointed, sonorous, gravelly, delicate, squeaky, smooth, guttural vocal modulations. In other instances with a mere look, smile, shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders or flip of the hand, we see each member of the Cratchit family sitting around the dinner table. The scene is the centerpiece of Mays’ wit and whimsy assisted by no special effects because he IS the master of the “stuff” of kinetic presentation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

All these lovely and frightening individuals are authentically realized, as Mays fuses various genders, ages, mortals and immortals seamlessly with heartfelt, poignant and unmistakable generosity, a veritable melting pot of democracy. To say that Mays pours out every cell of his being to clarify Dickens’ message to update it for our time, is an understatement. With humanity he filters through his own soul the two most mortal of sins (a denial of God’s commands to love Him and love thy neighbors). Effecting this, Mays materializes and elucidates the stark, craven distinctions between the haves and have nots. Even Dickens, who railed at the predation of the owner class upon the worker class, shoved into debtors prisons and workhouses, would be proud to see what his words have wrought in Mays’ prophetic and brilliant enactments.

Clearly, this Carol slams the shameful indecency flying about the heads of grasping, rich owners like Scrooge and Marley whose greedy, hardened hearts perpetuate the impoverishment of workers in order to squeeze obscene profits for themselves because “they can,” for no one in the complicit government stops them.

But I have gotten ahead of myself. This production is without sentimentality, chiefly because with bounteous affection, Mays adheres to Dickens’ renderings. He allows the richness of Dickens’ words to organically inspire his every emotion, bringing a new understanding to what Dickens has achieved and revealing why this work is timeless.

The script is similar to the one that Dickens toured and enlivened himself with presentation foremost in his mind. The plot points are essentially the same, however, the creative team transfigures Dickens’ work, heightening it to a dimensional reality that is beyond our tangible realm. Dane Laffrey (scenic and costume design) Ben Stanton (lighting design) Joshua D. Reid (sound design) Lucy MacKinnon (production design) Cookie Jordan (hair, wig & makeup design), attend to details, carving them from Dickens’ language, lifting our felt experience to a transcendence that is breathtaking. Mays and the creative team’s efforts perfectly complement each other to reveal the characters like never before.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

First, this version of A Christmas Carol is about darkness. Ebenezer Scrooge and his kindred partner in spiritual crime Marley, are souls without light. The moment the audience members enter, the show has begun. It is a viewing of a casket on a bier, surrounded by total stygian darkness, if not for the inky-greenish, backlit glow, eerily portending the supernatural after the irrevocable end to Marley’s mortal flesh. Then with a shock and thunderous clap, darkness and fear descend, snuffing out the light everywhere.

The evening I was present in the audience, there were nervous titters of laughing fear and what seemed an interminable wait which increased our tension. Then one, lone candle flickered in the palpable darkness, lit by “The Mourner” draped in black Victorian dress with top hat. Jefferson Mays, the narrator! Loudly, Mays proclaims the immutable fact that “Jacob Marley was dead,” to a community of mortals who, like Scrooge, don’t believe death will come for them. But then neither did Marley. The joke is a blasphemy to those who believe in money and no God.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

Well, mystery solved. We know that it is Marley who is in the coffin. But what was that horrifying loud clap like a door closing on light forever? As Mays makes his way across the stage to light another candle which sends a weak glow through the caliginous room, we are rapt, mesmerized by the creative team’s ingenuity to fill us with an anticipated dread. It comes as Mays’ narrator begins the tale of the man in the coffin and the frightening events that happen to his partner Scrooge on this night, Christmas eve, a night signifying that grace is available even to a man of wicked greed like Scrooge, who believes Christmas (God’s love and gift of redemption) is a “Bah! Humbug!” fiction.

There is no end to the shocks erupting throughout this spectral and darkly fabulous presentation. The frightening effects and accompanying sounds startle and thrill. I was amazed by the amorphous, yet defined steam engine pealing out whistles and chugging puffs of smoke; in the twinkling of an eye present, then vanished as Dane Laffrey’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Joshua D. Reid’s sound design and Lucy Mackinnon’s production design evoked the setting of a Victorian London. In the drapes and accoutrements of Scrooge’s bedroom to the “horn of plenty” abundance of the the groaning table of Christmas Present, everywhere on stage and with that locomotive, the audience is there “back in the day,” 150 years before. Calling me to attention, the immediacy alerted my expectations. I barely had time to wonder what other ghostly remnants of the past like that steam engine would present the shifting atmospheres of time and place in present, past and future Christmases, when Mays was in his states of becoming. From crotchety Scrooge to cheery nephew Fred to beloved, Bob Cratchit, all three sprung into spontaneous interaction.

Throughout, I heard, maybe for the first time, Dickens’ precise word craftsmanship. For example in this script Dickens strings together acute descriptors of Scrooge’s covetousness-squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, etc., and ends with an incalculably gobsmacking simile that identifies the man’s state of being as a result of covetousness: “Scrooge was as solitary as an oyster.” I’ve always appreciated Dickens’ genius. This production vaulted him to higher heights in my writerly estimation.

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol (courtesy of A Christmas Carol Live)

The thing is Mays is hyper aware of every word and he evokes its meaning with an appreciation of Dickens’ style, humor and ironies. And he wants us to catch these gems and have fun with them as he does. His performance is so immediate and embracing it is impossible to “intellectualize.” You just have to watch and react to whatever laugh comes up or be afraid of whatever fearful demon or entity comes next. I thought that the projected, darkness-filled children, one of which was pronounced to be “doom,” were particularly galling. With the darkness as it moves into the light-filled joy, Mays in collaboration with Arden and the production designers, creates a beloved tribute to Dickens’ greatness.

The emotions and reactions conveyed by various scenes are too many to enumerate. A few include Mays’ terrible infusion of Marley’s spirit, more chilling than Hamlet’s father for there is no surcease in his torment in a purgatory. Marley’s mortal sins have brought him to his irrevocable destination and he cries to be heard and listened to. That he visits Scrooge to reveal there are consequences in an afterlife where there is a God and where damnation is of one’s own making is grace enough bestowed on his partner in crime. Thus, Scrooge is taken up short at this visitation of one as godless and unbelieving as he. Mays’ seamless segues between Scrooge and Marley are incredible.

Likewise, as mentioned, the Cratchit scene is just superbly riotous. I found the wondrous Christmas Present segment one of joy, happiness, abundance and light. It is sandwiched between the previous Christmas Past scene of lugubriousness, and the coming gloom of Christmas Future’s portentous finality.

Of course for all of us, whether young or old, it’s memento mori another theme of this spectacular production. The incarnation of Death (Danny Gardner) when the creative team pulls out all stops is terrifying. It is enough to appall the most avuncular, sweet, scientific atheist who swears god is a fiction for frightened children. No wonder the irascible incorrigible goes down on his knees against such a being.

No more need be said except this production is a shining light, at a time when all around are dark hearts waiting to devour goodness and mercy because they can’t distinguish it from the light of joy the opposite to be “Bah Humbug!” fictions. Once live captured streaming two years ago, this live performance will most probably not be seen again, unless there is a return of grace in years to come. That’s why you should see it now. Mays is amaysing! For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.achristmascarollive.com/tickets/

‘Almost Famous’ The Broadway Musical Gives a Shimmering Nod to 1970s Rock ‘n’ Roll

Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matthew Murphy)

From the response of the audience’s standing ovation and cheering, the snarky comparison by critics to the lead actors of Almost Famous and Dear Evan Hansen and other criticisms didn’t seem to matter. That is because Almost Famous delivers. This is especially so if one has seen the titular film (2000). If you appreciate a nod to what Howard Stern refers to as the best music of the past (better than the 1960s), and take that love or fandom to The Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, you will be happy you went to see this enjoyable production of Almost Famous directed by Jeremy Herrin.

Written by Cameron Crowe (book and lyrics), and Tom Kitt (music and lyrics), based on the Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures film written by Cameron Crowe, the show spreads its uplift and hope during a holiday season that is bringing crowds to Manhattan. Tourists, rockers and Broadway fans up for an entertaining night out will be pleased at the sterling voices, the humor, the energy of the performers and the music which connects the familiar story-line to the historical 70s music scene with nostalgia and poignance.

(L to R): Drew Gehling, Chris Woods in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

The classic rock covers (i.e. Deep Purple, the Allman Brothers), sustain us while Kitt’s original music is interesting with memorable songs like “Morocco,” “The Night Sky’s Got Nothing on You,” and “Everybody’s Coming Together.” The new melodies (a combination of rock and pop), convey the heart of the characters who are subtly drawn.

Fandom is the key to frequent successful film to stage transference. It may or may not apply here. The creators have taken a leap into the Broadway musical genre. They’ve created original songs for live performance and they have slipped in songs from the period (Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Lynard Skinner, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Elton John) into the musical’s action but not in the same way as in the film, whose background was replete with rock ‘n’ roll songs from start to finish. That doesn’t happen with this musical that has 18 newly-written songs. Included are four reprises from Tom Kitt (music) and Cameron Crowe (lyrics). The songs move the action as the characters express their conflicts, issues, desires and feelings and get tangled up in each others’ agendas.

(L to R): Casey Likes, Rob Colletti in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

Staged cleverly with Sarah O’Gleby’s movement, director Jeremy Herrin and the creative team eschew traditional choreography and keep the sets simple and minimalist to suit roadies on tour with the exception of William’s and Elaine’s home. This is in the service of suggesting the free form movement of the 1970s. The concept of great rock was fading into new musical trends like Rap then moved in the 1980s to MTV domination. Ultimately, the musical is a nod to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll and its ethos before commercialization and digital technology skewed it into something else.

Casey Likes and the Company of Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

Though the action is condensed with the added musical numbers, the arc of plot development, based on Crowe’s real-life journey as a teenage rock writer, follows the film. Wisely, the humorous lines in the production are lifted from Crowe’s writing, which won an Oscar for best original screenplay (2001).

One of the most important themes of the musical reveals an ambience of the 1970s, that was culturally strained between liberalism and conservatism. This is partly suggested by the opening number “1973,” when William Miller (the excellent Casey Likes), confesses to rock ‘n’ roll critic Lester Bangs (a manic, funny Rob Colletti). William sings about his conflicts with his mom. She stands in the way of his discovering “who he is.” In a state of flux, his mother Elaine (the humorous Anika Larsen), a teacher fearful of “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll,”controls William and his sister Anita to the point where Anita (Emily Schultheis), rebels and leaves home.

Casey Likes and the Company of Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

However, Elaine can’t quite figure out who she is either. She adopts a healthy vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, clearly a liberal cultural influence. Yet, conservatively, she disagrees with subversive music (the rock ‘n’ roll Anita loves), and its cultural aftereffects (sex, drugs, wild partying). The pull of conservatism and liberalism is one William faces in his conflict with Elaine, but he’s leaning toward the underground and subversive, reinforced when his sister gives him all her rock ‘n’ roll albums to be “cool.” These inspire him to write for his school newspaper with the hope of a possible career as a writer or future music critic.

One element of his confusion, unbeknownst to him. is that his mother had him skip grades and lied about his age. Meanwhile, he is embarrassed because he has no pubes, is alone, uncool and alienated by classmates who humiliate him. Naturally, when he receives a response from Lester Bangs, the finest rock critic in Christendom, who accepts and encourages him, he jumps at the chance to write for Bangs’ Creem Magazine. On the road to being a bone fide critic, he lands an assignment from Rolling Stone to profile a rising band called Stillwater.

(L to R): Emily Schultheis, Anika Larsen, Casey Likes in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

William manages to obtain Elaine’s permission by swearing he will remain pure and stay away from drugs and sex. Elaine relents because she dimly thinks it is better to connect with him and “keep him near,” (which fails), rather than lose him like she lost Anita. Ironically, she loses him in a different way. The rock band “kidnaps her son,” a funny and wonderful refrain in “Elaine’s Lecture” which is a lament that carries her angst about what is happening to William. He goes on the road with the band to get an interview, for which Ben Fong-Torres (Matthew C. Yee), will pay him handsomely. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up.

Likes’ William enjoys the excitement of “getting down” with beautiful young women who assist bands in their mission to be great. These groupies, cheering the praises of their leader Penny Lane (Solea Pfeiffer), have re-branded themselves as The Band-Aids. They are rock ‘n’ roll muses and their mission is “all about the music.” Indeed, Penny Lane has so fulfilled her role, that musicians have written 14 songs about her, and “all of them good,” affirms Estrella (Julia Cassandra).

Casey Likes, Solea Pfeiffer in Almost Famous (coutesy of Matt Murphy)

With such a build-up of excitement Likes’ William is smitten with Penny (Solea Pfeiffer), and her Band-Aides who, along with Estrella, include Sapphire (Katie Ladner) and Polexia (Jana Djenne Jackson). Solea Pfeiffer is an “all that” Penny Lane who doesn’t quite convince us that she is about the music and so “cool” and scintillating to musicians, that she is their fount of inspiration. But then she is not supposed to. The Band-Aids, Penny and Stillwater’s Russel Hammond (Chris Wood), Jeff Bebe (wild, rocking Drew Gehling), Larry Fellows (Matt Bittner), and Silent Ed (Brandon Contreras) are “hype.” The actors (the Band-Aids and Stillwater), do a superb job of managing their characters’ “cool” with enough awkwardness for us to know that they are “almost famous,” but not there yet. And as a result, they will never really achieve super stardom because they get in each other’s way and are totally “uncool.”

The Band-Aides and Stillwater must walk the tightrope of not believing their own image to avoid falling into a destructive abyss which threatens throughout. This conflict and tension abates after the moment of truth on the airplane, especially when Woods’ Hammond and Gehling’s Jeff Bebe reveal their deepest secrets because they fear the plane will crash. This scene is technically delivered to surprising effect. Humorously, the tiny jet “flying” on a chord from one side of the stage to the other was so “over-the-top,” it worked in the service of farce.

(L to R): Chris Wood, Casey Likes in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

The actors did a great job with the scene to convey just enough humor and fear to “spill the beans” and further wreck Stillwater’s “togetherness.” Believing their own hype brought them to facing this catastrophe on the plane. If they continued to take their humble tour bus, they would have been safer. The real dose of reality that Hammond says he wants is a pose only revealed when he thinks he’s going to die. Thanks to Derek McLane (scenic & video design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Peter Hylenski (sound design), and the actors’ authenticity, the scene embodies their magical thinking vs. truth, a key conflict and theme of the musical.

(L to R): Matt Bittner, Drew Gehling, Chris Wood, Brandon Contreras in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

Williams’ adventures initially captured in his journey through the songs, “Who Are You With?,” “Ramble On,” “Penny and William,” “Fever Dog,” and “Morocco,” evidence the pitfalls of being a rock ‘n’ roll critic who is always a “watcher” of the action, not a creator of it. Colletti’s Bangs humorously warns William to be “honest and unmerciful.” When William gets a taste of the band culture, its groupies and the challenge to be accepted, he tries not to be overwhelmed or lose his “objectivity.” Yet, he succumbs to their manipulations. First, there’s the rejection of him as a critic (called “The Enemy” by Stillwater’s Jeff Bebe). This wears him down and makes him want to “fit-in.” Though he resists and manipulates band members with flattery, he never adheres to Lester Bangs’s sage advice. Gradually, William is sucked in because Stillwater’s Bebe, Hammond and Penny Lane are good at “the game.” William is clever, but he’s a neophyte.

Solea Pfeiffer, Chris Wood in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

This “congenial” conflict between William, the band and Penny Lane disappears when he believes he is a friend, (“Something Real,” “No Friends,” the healing of divisions with “Tiny Dancer,” “Lost in New York City, Pt. 1” and “River/Lost in New York City Pt. 2”). But this “friendship” is a blind and his presumed love with Penny Lane eventually clarifies for him when she leaves him to the Band-Aids and joins Hammond (“It Ain’t Easy”). He is discouraged, but hangs on and writes a piece for Rolling Stone. However, it is rejected by fact-checker Allison (Emily Schultheis), and he is accused of writing a puff piece that Stillwater encouraged him to write. Only until Wood’s Hammond finally verifies William’s honest and “unmerciful” article to Rolling Stone, is the “magical fake world” of the band blown apart. However, this is beneficial for it allows the band and groupies to begin a new day.

Through lines in characterization are consistently effected. The conflict between son and mother abides from start to finish and provides much of the humor. Anika Larsen deftly balances Elaine as a typical loving parent, whose concern, knowledge and control are acceptable to the audience. She is never acerbic or preachy in the songs “He Knows Too Little (And I Know Too Much),” “Elaine’s Lecture,” and “Listen to Me.” Resolutions occur by the conclusion, when Anita has found herself and the full company sings the reprise of “Everybody’s Coming Together,” a rousing standout.

Anika Larsen in Almost Famous (courtesy of Matt Murphy)

The actors, shepherded by Jeremy Herrin, do an excellent job of precluding who will end up on the floor of their own demise. This is strongest when we note the rifts between Bebe and Hammond, beginning when the T-shirts are distributed, then moving to the partial healing of their divisions on the bus with the singing of “Tiny Dancer,” another knockout scene and high-point at the conclusion of Act I. Though manager Dick Roswell (Gerard Canonico), has brought them together for a while, the conflicts among band members continue. They encompass Penny Lane and Russell’s relationship. Penny Lane is sold out in a bet that William witnesses during the Poker game scene. Pfeiffer’s Penny Lane and Likes’ William are excellent together with resonating lyricism and power when he saves her life after she overdoses on Quaaludes.

Most of the new songs work. Additional strong scenes/songs include Penny and William’s “The Real World,” Russell and Penny Lane’s “The Night-Time Sky’s Got Nothing on You” and “Something Real” when Woods’ Hammond falls apart at a fan’s house. At this point before the end of Act I, William attempts to keep Russell away from acid and fails. Woods and Likes do an excellent job revealing the negative pressure on their characters from the hype that Wood’s Hammond attempts to escape. It is an irony that he can’t because he is as needy and “uncool” as Penny Lane, Jeff Bebe and the others. However, he just hides it better.

Interestingly, in his immersion with the band, the only time they all come out of their “image” is when Likes’ blows it up with the final Rolling Stone piece about them, something that Wood’s Hammond encourages and has yearned for. Then, even Penny Lane is able to gain the strength to go to Morocco, leading to a satisfactory conclusion with “Fever Dog Bows,” which the entire company sings as a tribute to 1970s rock ‘n’ roll.

Kudos to the creative team already mentioned with special praise for Bryan Perri’s music supervision and direction, and Lorenzo Pisoni as physical movement coordinator. This is one to see for the shimmering performances, rousing music and nostalgia for a time we will never see again in its wacky innocence and silly “hedonism,” which seems quaint viewed through our current perspective. For tickets and times go to their website: https://almostfamousthemusical.com/

‘Walking With Ghosts,’ Gabriel Byrne’s Sonorous Solo Performance Resonates With Power and Intimacy

One way to reconcile being haunted by a past that is anchored to memories of people and places which have long disappeared, is to connect them to the present in the hearts and minds of those interested in their elucidation. Gabriel Byrne accomplishes this with his superb solo performance of his memoir Walking With Ghosts, adapted for the stage and directed by Lonny Price. The ghosts of Byrne’s past come to life through this humorous and poignant one-man show, currently at the Music Box Theater in a presentation that runs with one intermission.

In Walking With Ghosts Byrne captures the lyrical Irish rhythms of language as he touches upon the innocence, beauty, awkwardness, fear and grace in his childhood, growing up in Walkinstown, Dublin, Ireland before he left for the seminary in England at 11 years old to answer God’s call to be a priest. Through monologues, and evocative dialogue humorously peppered with the accents, voices and gestures of his parents, town characters, friends, a noxious teacher, even a brief encounter with writer Brendan Beehan, Byrne conveys the circumstances which contributed to forming his character and inspired him to expand his dramatic sensibilities.

These burgeoned into a globally renown career as a stage, film and TV actor as well as a film director, screenwriter and producer. Byrne has been twice nominated for a Tony award, has been nominated for Emmys and has won a Golden Globe and two Satellite Awards to name a few of the accolades he’s received for his work over the years. To understand the public, artistic Byrne, see his work and become acquainted with how he grapples with each genre, sometimes wearing a different hat than that of the actor.

To understand the private Byrne, Walking With Ghosts provides that portrait with illuminating, enjoyable glimpses into his childhood. He includes profound excavations that are personal and trenchant experiences which he relates as a forthright and raw expose coming “to know the world.” And as a coda to his successful career, which he leaps over and saves for another time (for there are no ghosts there), he recalls his parents’ humorous responses to his celebrity and ruefully admits to finally hearing their voices after they are gone.

In this third of his Broadway outings, Byrne showcases his remarkable talents. He appears onstage alone with minimal spectacle, directed lighting, spare props, and unadorned in the same clothing throughout. Indeed, Byrne is the transformative vehicle we focus upon, riveted with his immersive storytelling as both narrator and character, the elusive ghost boy, who has attempted to dodge and forget individuals in his past, but now stops and reflects about them lovingly, starkly for a few stirring hours with a ready, curious audience.

With lush, evocative descriptions and acutely crafted details, Byrne introduces his dreamscape and forages bravely into his past. He recalls his return to his vastly changed hometown overrun by development, where he feels like an intruder and claims himself “emigrant, immigrant and exile.” When he invites us in to receive his ghostly re-imaginings in haunted environs where ghost boy is running, we understand it is an incomplete and picaresque rendering. As in scripture, we see through a glass darkly without enough illumination and clarity to process everything. Yet what we see, hear and appreciate is from the depths of Byrne’s heart and private revelations bravely embodied so that we may identify and receive the gift he has humbly given to us.

Symbolically, the set design by Sinéad McKenna, features a back wall that is an artfully fractured mirror in need of repair, rather like a soul that has weathered the shocks and batterings evidenced by the damage but still holds together as one piece. McKenna’s lighting reflects a blur of colors and upturns Byrne’s shadow, so that it is an upside down pendant. It reminds one of the Tarot Card, the Hanged Man, which, in one interpretation indicates sacrifice and surrender.

Byrne’s remembrances structured in a fleeting chronology, like all memories, are vivid paintbrush images that strike then evanesce in humor and empathy. Other times his tellings sear into our minds, especially if we’ve experienced something similar. Throughout and together, Byrne’s recollections are a meditation on life that unfolds with beauty, synergy and power. To attempt to define one event or another as pivotal to his life remains an uncertain guess and requires thought. For all the memories he selects fashion who Byrne is from clearly apparent career profile and beyond to where the lines blur as son, brother, religious acolyte, amateur actor, friend and so much more. Thus, Byrne’s ghost boy leaps into characterizations and stories using themes and threads of ideas rather than a linear historical accounting.

Some recollections are unspooled in anectedotes and many of them land with humor. Enjoyable are his remembrances about his mother, i.e. her comments about his birth and his mystical naming received through an angelic visitation. Then there’s the soft, comforting recollection of his mother singing him a lullaby and his kneeling in prayer with his invisible guardian angel, who he knows stands near to protect him through the night. And there’s the memory of his father coming home from work as a cooper. Right afterward, he begs his father to ride on his knee playing “horsey, horsey,” his favorite game as father and son show affection for one another.

More acute, prickly memories move to the influence of the Catholic Church teachings and his first day of school when Byrne’s mother accompanies him and delivers him over to a formidable nun whose waxy hand he takes. Funny are his impressions of Christ on the cross, bleeding and naked except for a “nappy,” and his knowledge about heaven as he gives us his child’s take on the soul, limbo and the holy ghost as a pigeon. The latter prompts a sister to rebuke him, “It’s a dove not a common dirty pigeon off the street.”

And after recalling episodes of his days at school, the floodgates open and other aspects of the world enter. There’s his mother’s friend Mrs. Gordon, an iconic, crone-like figure, who enjoys frightening him so he wets the bed at night. And the joy of the thrilling Bicentennial Fair which is the epitome of a child’s play-land. He enjoins the exciting sights, sounds and feelings about the rides, candy, food and fireworks Irish-style, all of which Byrne relates in vivid technicolor.

The import of religion to his family is as palpable as open flame to flesh. From humorous quips about mortal sins to how Jesus could be in a wafer and where he goes when you swallow him, he discusses Holy Communion. We calculate his poignant revelation preparing for this sacred day. First his mother takes him to tea at the Shelbourne Hotel, then on to famous Clery’s for his outfit. We note the family’s struggle with finances and flinch when he is ashamed at his mother counting out the coins to pay the bills. Equally touching is Byrne’s description gorging on candy and sweets that he doesn’t have very often and that he buys from his Holy Communion donations. He becomes so sick he soils his expensive outfit and hides in the bushes for hours fearful his mother with be angry with him. When she finds him, he discovers she loves and soothes him despite ruining what costs so much, an item that means so much, but they can’t really afford.

Byrne’s humor and enthusiasm extends to a meditation on his beloved grandmother who took him to the “pictures” and inspired a love of film. His description of a brutal and abusive teacher in his elementary school is only ameliorated when students get revenge then stick together and don’t confess, despite the pressure to do so. These and other events amass the ghosts that walk with Byrne in his childhood that fade. However, there is one ghost that haunts him for much of his life.

Enchanted by the idea that God might be calling him to be a priest, he goes to England to the seminary where he is happy. Enjoying being in England and getting away from home, he believes he has found a place of refuge. He is not hit or humiliated by the other kids as he was in Ireland. Also, he plays football and he makes easy friends. However, this changes on a dime. Byrne’s description of how the priest who favors him, gives him wine to drink, and absolves him of any impure thoughts he might have uses these sly techniques to insinuate and initiate a predatory sexual attack. The dialogue is pointed as Byrne assumes the accent and soothing demeanor of the priest. The event is so clearly disclosed and so classic of sexual predators, we shouldn’t be surprised. However, we are shocked and horrified. Byrne’s expose of the Catholic Church and the priest reveals the turning point in his life. The glorious faith that his parents believed in and lovingly shared with him in hope, his naming brought by an angelic visitation, his innocence and his desire to be holy is devastated and destroyed.

Years later after he’s found himself, Byrne shares that he located the priest via the internet and calls him, perhaps searching within to forgive the priest and forgive himself. On the phone he can’t bring himself to tell the elderly retiree with a poor memory in a retirement home that he wishes hell on him. In a confused daze, the priest thanks him for calling. He hangs up; empathy overtakes him. Throughout the the rest of the play, it is clear that this event contributed to Byrne’s choices after he left the seminary. He expresses the incident so vividly, it is indelible, irrevocable. That is the keen point Byrne makes through understatement without ranting or passion.

What happened to him happened throughout the global Catholic Church then and most probably is still happening today. However, if one doesn’t understand faith, religion and the power of a culture and family that holds God dear to them and has for centuries, the ghostly impact of this priest on Byrne’s life will be completely lost or misunderstood. As a reverential dramatic moment, the scene is incredibly rendered by Byrne. We sense that this raw incident he expresses not only for himself, but for every other person who has been sexually abused by a cleric whether Catholic, protestant, New Age, Hindi, etc.

In Act II we understand how the events in the seminary emotionally jack knife and send Byrne wandering away from his association with the Catholic Church to atheism. After he returns home from the seminary (Does he tell his parents what happened?), a series of unenlightened jobs that worsen (plumber, dishwasher, toilet attendant), keep him foundering until eventually, his friend suggests he join a non professional repertory company of actors. They are so welcoming, it is then he finally feels he belongs and is at home. As he outlines how he does various parts with his actor friends, a lively take on how each of his colleagues takes their bows is smashing. It is one of the more exuberant stagings by Price that segues into Byrne’s career moving off to the Focus Theatre and sojourns into professional acting and subsequent humorous disasters until he begins to support himself.

The second act has two other significant reverential moments recalled by Byrne. His sister Marian who he was close to pursues an acting career in London. However, though no one can explain how, she ends up in a mental asylum and they call Byrne to pick her up and take her home. What he describes, we’ve seen in films and we shouldn’t be surprised. Yet, his recollections are vivid and disturbing. Again, we are shocked by his incredible rendering of the asylum and the treatments she receives to “make her well” but which don’t. Byrne’s metaphor for her, “a wildflower in a crumbling wall,” expresses the culture that has caught her, but one in which she still provides beauty. However, the stigmatized by her mental illness, that beauty is not recognized. Thus, we empathize with his emotional response when he receives a call that she has died unexpectedly. She’s in her early thirties. She is one more ghost who haunts him.

Byrne’s episode with Richard Burton is not only fascinating, it, too, is heart-breaking. Drinking is a part of the culture in Ireland as it is in Wales where Richard Burton became addicted. It also is embedded in the culture of the entertainment industry which is a destroyer of artists. Byrne shares the time in Venice when he and Burton are working together and become drinking buddies. The occasion segues to Byrne’s recognition that he’s an alcoholic and must seek help which he does relaying he’s 24 years sober. He reminds us and himself that he has made it out of that hell, whereas Burton died with alcohol crystals coating his spine at his death. Once again Byrne’s understatement and lively reminiscences are the tip of the iceberg. Below are the miserable trials, the pain of alcoholism, the hangovers, the physical and emotional devastation and looming death. But this doesn’t need to be spoken and Byrne is not preachy, just thankful. The warning to others is clear. It’s possible to come out of it, if you get help.

A quick note about Sinéad Diskin’s music and sound which floats in and out unobtrusively. Like the structure of Walking With Ghosts, it is thematic and threaded, conveying the elusive emotions that substantiate Byrne’s episodic meditations. With the prosceniums frames that sometimes are gold other times red, etc., the mirror effect is enhanced as they appear in perspective to diminish in the distance suggesting the motif of fading away and evanescence. Such is the nature of memory that erupts and disappears unless one keeps it alive in another repository which Byrne does evoking their ghostly presence each night on stage. He identifies our part in this process or reconciliation in his final statement. The ghosts he was walking with are in him. He is no longer running. He has made peace with himself and them.

This must-see production is a heartfelt encomium to Byrne’s past spoken with the lilt of poetic feeling that is never overdone, but is as light as mists that burn off in daylight. For tickets and times go to their website: https://gabrielbyrneonbroadway.com/

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