Category Archives: Broadway’s Greatest (Carole’s judgment)
‘Into the Woods’ Review: Glorious Revival Highlights Sondheim’s Masterwork as Uproariously Funny, Sonorously Poignant
With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, Into the Woods is in its brilliant fourth revival on Broadway at the St. James Theatre. This iteration magnifies the greatness of Sondheim’s iconic work with affecting power. Thanks to the cast and creative team, the production is a towering achievement.
Intricately making the complex crystal clear, the creatives have woven fantasy and magic into stylized perfection. The company conveys Sondheim’s sharply, ironic lyrics and Lapine’s clever, comedic book with campy authenticity that befits the tone of the production. All the while the cast twits their characters and performances with sheer abandon and fun.
If fairy tales embody archetypes that float in and out of our unconscious, this Into the Woods reveals how and why. Ancient folklore transfixes us because ultimately, it is immutable and intensely personal. Lapine and Sondheim have given us Into the Woods as a gift of wonder and wisdom and the amazing director (Lear deBessonet), has channeled their vision with grace and beauty that touches our souls.
Transferring from New York City Center Encores!, deBessonet’s metaphoric, symbolic, slimmed down production continues to thrill enthusiastic audiences as it takes them on the familiar roller coaster ride of highs and lows with humor, pathos, and sterling performances by an exquisite cast. The multitalented actors with comic flair portray the indelible Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Witch, two Prince Charmings and more. They romp with delight in Act I and with the searing edginess of moment and bitterness, they shed their “happy” in Act II. The two acts encompass the whole of our life’s experience; it is satisfying yet bittersweet as illumination becomes the true prize of living.
This production is bar none fabulous and appropriate thematic fare for young and old who have encountered their share of giants, witches and adventures into dark, foreboding places. The characters’ journey quest is the linchpin to the fulfillment of their dreams, not only returning wisdom and enlightenment, but moving them from innocence to experience. And the music, Sondheim’s soaring melodies are sensational. Presented by the golden-voiced cast and accompanied by The Encores! Orchestra under Rob Berman’s fine direction, the score has staying power that remains with one long after the audience’s raucous standing ovations end at the last curtain call.
Indeed, de Bessonet’s vision of minimalist staging, pared-down scenic design (David Rockwell), spare lighting design (Tyler Micoleau), and Andrea Hood’s unpretentious costume design work beautifully. Without costly extravagances and unencumbered by visual distractions, we are totally focused on the music, lyrics, and acutely spun characterizations portrayed by the actors’ dynamic performances.
For example the settings of the three families (Cinderella’s, the Baker and his wife, Jack and his mother), are suggested with old-fashioned cut-outs of their homes, suspended above their playing area as their family interactions and conflicts unravel. Rockwell’s suspended birch tree trunks suggest the sinister forest of shadowy fears all must confront. Combined with Micoleau’s atmospheric lighting and large evocative moon that rises and falls to “light the way,” the elements summon the surreal and illusive.
Additionally, Andrea Hood’s apt color-coded costumes define each character with particularity and interest. For example she employs primary hues (bright yellow and red jackets), for the comedic, over-the-top Prince Charmings. For the earthy folk heroes with whom we identify, she fashions rosey browns for the Baker and his wife. Their grounded dream to have a baby is one couples might most identify with.
Splendid, spot-on performances by Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife and Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker showcase the common folk and the experiences of marriage. As a beautifully blended husband and wife team who must confront and satisfy Patina Miller’s scary-funny witch to fulfill their baby dream, the actors are in lockstep. Their duet “It Takes Two,” knocks it out of the park. Bareilles’ interpretation of a wife who controls her husband by surreptitiously winding her way around his machismo is brilliant. The audience catches her every nuance, every shrug of the shoulders. For his part D’arcy James’ pretend bravery masking fear is so aptly humorous. And in Act II d’Arcy James “No More,” sung with David Patrick Kelly’s Mysterious Man is heartrending. Our emotions are swept up as we agree there must be an end to the seasons of pain between fathers and sons, parents and children.
The two Prince Charmings, Gavin Creel and Joshua Henry, have choreographed their movements to represent the ineluctable adornments of seduction with verve and just enough hyperbole to make them deliciously palatable and hysterical (“Agony”). The wonderful Phillipa Soo’s dreaming Cinderella who sings her feelings with Bareilles’ Baker’s Wife resonates with beauty and humor (“A Very Nice Prince”). Soo’s awkward, klutzy Cinderella who falls every time she joins the Baker’s wife “lands.” Soo always gets a laugh as the audience appreciates the dreamy, ditzy humanity of this princess-to-be who humiliates herself. Indeed, we also appreciate that Cinderella is much more astute in Act II when the realities of her marriage to the Prince confront her full force.
Julia Lester’s Little Red Riding Hood plays to the audience, breaking the fourth wall with success as one of the most beloved of fairy-tale characters. As Little Red, Lester scarfs down all the treats before she makes it to grandma’s house. Thus, Gavin Creel’s Wolf is all the more satisfied after he scarfs her down. Their scene together is uproarious (“Hello, Little Girl”). Creel’s seducer Wolf is appropriately smarmy which Lester tweaks as the less-than-innocent Little Red, who enjoys tempting him.
Creel does double duty as seducer of the Baker’s Wife. Bareilles’ formerly faithful wife in Act I submits to the wolf Prince Charming in Act II (“Any Moment”), seeking something more. Creel pulls out all stops recalling to our remembrance the wolf metaphor in Act I. Princes and wolves are two sides of the same coin, Sondheim and Lapine intelligently note. And Bareilles’ “Moments in the Woods” is poignant and foreboding. Do Lapine and Sondheim punish the Baker’s wife’s behavior as an adulteress? Interestingly, the Prince’s wanderings receive no such comeuppance. Double standards are ever-present and especially when unlike fairy tales, Act II extends into the consequences beyond the artificial, “happily ever after.”
Jack (the superb Cole Thompson), his mother (Aymee Garcia), and the cow Milky White (the sensational puppeteer Kennedy Kanagawa), form the third household. Thompson’s heartfelt “I Guess This Is Goodbye,” and rousing “Giants in the Sky,” are beautifully rendered. The vibrant “Giants in the Sky” Jack sings to inspire himself with courage to save his family, kill the giant and attain the wealth his mother needs. As Jack, Thompson’s stirring faith and hope resound with triumph.
The Witch is the central figure that eventually brings the company together. Patina Miller lives up to the task with her extraordinary performance before and after her transformation when the curse that holds her from her true nature is broken. We understand her love for Rapunzel (Alysia Velez), in the soulful “Stay With Me,” and the tragedy of her daughter’s loss in Act II in “Witch’s Lament.” Perhaps my favorite is Sondheim’s incredible “Last Midnight,” that she sings with power and all the dynamism she can muster. Miller’s performance of the song is memorable as the claws of the giant’s wife (voiced by Annie Golden), enfold her in destruction. Indeed, also with the last song “Children Will Listen” that Miller sings with the Company, she is just stunning.
In Act II the consequences of apparently naive actions performed without thought converge on the main characters who seek to avoid blame in the wonderful “Your Fault.” However, after the death of the Witch and the Baker decrying “No More,” a bittersweet hope returns in the remaining song, “No One Is Alone,” sung by Cinderella, Little Red, the Baker and Jack, who struggle to encourage each other after their losses. Was the journey worth what it taught the seekers? “Children Will Listen,” sung by the Witch and the entire company brings back to life the spirit of those taken by the Giant’s Wife as they relate the lessons learned. We are uplifted and restored by the illumination.
Kudos and praise go to additional creatives not mentioned before. These include Lorin Latarro (choreography), Scott Lehrer and Alex Neumann (sound designers), James Ortiz (puppet designer), Cookie Jordan (hair, wigs & makeup designer), Seymour Redd Press/Kimberlee Wertz (music coordinators).
I have said enough. Go see this marvelous theatrical event which you will not be able to see again with this cast after September 4th. For tickets and times go to their website: https://intothewoodsbway.com/
‘Paradise Square,’ a Breathtaking, Exquisite, Mindblowing, American Musical
First there was Lin Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire’s Hamilton which codified our founding fathers through a current lens and brought them into living reality with a new understanding of the birth of our nation. Now, there is the musical Paradise Square which brings to vivid life the embodiment of the American Dream during the Civil War, 1863, after President Lincoln instituted the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
The phenomenal, complex musical is nothing short of a heart-rending emotional shakedown for feeling Americans at this precarious time in our history. Currently, it runs at the Barrymore Theater creating buzz and furor through word of mouth. With Book by Christina Anderson, Craig Lucas and Larry Kirwan (conceived by Kirwan with additional music inspired by the songs of Stephen Foster), music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Nalthan Tysen & Masi Asare, the production’s success is a collaborative effort, and that is a testament to the individuals whose creativity and flexibility brought the spectacular, dramatic elements together coherently with symbolic, thematic power.
With the actors, Alex Sanchez’s Musical Staging, Bill T. Jones genius choreography and the enlightened and anointed direction of Moises Kaufman, the demonstrated will and determination to make this production leap into the firmament cannot be easily dismissed or inconveniently dispatched for whatever reason. (reference Jesse Green of the New York Times)
The setting of this thematically current musical takes place in a slum of cast offs and immigrants who are making the American experiment their own and bringing equanimity to New York City like never before. On a patch of ground in the Five Points that is home to saloon Paradise Square, proprietor Nelly O’Brien (the incredible Joaquina Kalukango who champions the character and all she symbolizes), has created her own version of Eden with her Irish American husband Willie O’Brien (the superb Matt Bogart). There, all are worthy and respected.
Nelly exemplifies the goodness and hope of our American glory and opportunity through hard work, faith and community. Born in the saloon from the oppressed, her father a slave who escaped to the North via the underground railroad, her mixed race marriage is uniquely blessed. It is just like that of her sister-in-law Annie O’Brien Lewis (the superb Chilina Kennedy), married to Reverend Samuel Jacob Lewis (the equally superb Nathaniel Stampley), a Quaker and underground railroad stationmaster. Both couples have prospered, are decent and shed truly Christian light and love on all they meet.
Nelly, the principals and company present life in “Paradise Square,” in the opening song. This is the seminal moment; book writers establish the overarching theme, the hope of America, an Edenic place where all races and creeds get along without division or rancor.
“We are free we love who we want to love with no apology. If you landed in this square then you dared to risk it all, at the bottom of the ladder, there’s nowhere left to fall,” Nelly sings as the patrons echo her and dance. The opening moments clarify what is at stake for Nelly and all who pass through the doors of the saloon. It is a safe haven, where in other areas of the city, the wealthy uptown, for example, these “low class” immigrant whites, and blacks are unwanted and unwelcome. It’s a clear economic divide which grows more stringent as the war’s ferocity intensifies and money becomes the way in to safety and the wall that directs the Irish and other immigrants to the Civil War’s front lines; one more hurdle to overcome after surviving cataclysms and impoverishment in their home countries.
Of course, the symbolic reference is not lost and we anticipate that Eden achieved is not Eden sustained, though Nelly has managed to effect her safe place during the first three years of the war. What keeps her energized is her spirit of hope and her dream which she intends to promote throughout the war until her husband, Captain O’Brien of the 69th regiment of fighting Irish, returns once the Union army has won its righteous cause. Nelly and Willie’s touching song and flashback to their first meeting reveals that they are color blind (“You Have Had My Heart”), and move beyond race and ethnicity to the loving, Edenic ideal which uplifts spirit over flesh and lives by faith rather than sight.
At the top of the production Nelly shows a black and white projection of the modern Five Points and the place where her saloon used to be, as she merges the present with the past and suggests she is relating her story, a story that won’t be found in history books. It is a “story on our own terms,” that exemplifies unity in a community of races and religions bounded by love, concern and financial equality as all struggle to make ends meet, and with each other’s help, get through the tribulations of the Civil War’s impact on their lives.
The exceptional opening song and dance number resolves in a send off of Willie O’Brien and ‘Lucky Mike Quinlan’ (Kevin Dennis) to the battlefield. Both rely on an inner reservoir of faith and Irish pluck, knowing the prayers of the Reverend and all in Paradise Square go before them. The vibrant titular number is uplifting and beautiful as it highlights the American experiment which British royals doomed to failure and Benjamin Franklin ironically stated-our government is “a republic if you can keep it.”
Though the republic has been divided in a Civil War, folks like those who come to Nelly’s saloon believe in nation’s sanctity and are keeping the dream alive, if the South has abandoned it. Indeed, as the book writers suggest, the immigrants and those of passion and heart will hold the dream in their hearts and attempt to manifest its reality because freedom, respect and equanimity is worth dying for. With irony the book’s writers reveal this is something the wealthy do not believe because they don’t have to. Their world rejects the values and ideals of those who people Paradise Square. Without principles worth dying for, the hearts of the Uptowners are filled with greed for power and money. These are the passions that drive the rich, symbolized in the scenes with Party Boss and political strategist Frederic Tiggens (the excellent and talented John Dossett).
Complications develop when Annie’s nephew Owen (the wonderfully talented A.J. Shively), travels from Ireland at the same time that Washington Henry (the wonderfully talented Sidney DuPont), escapes with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton). Traveling on the underground railroad from Tennessee, Henry arrives in New York City without his love, whom he waits for, braving the dangers of capture. Owen and Henry joined by Annie and the Reverend, a stationmaster on the underground railroad who receives Henry, all sing (“I’m Coming”). The young men, like hundreds before them, seek freedom and prosperity believing in the opportunities afforded by the shining city.
Reverend Samuel alerts Annie that Henry escaped from border state Tennessee which is not covered in the Emancipation Proclamation. Thus, when Henry says he can’t go to Canada, but must wait for Angelina Baker, the Reverend fears for all of them. Nevertheless, guided by faith and Nelly’s extension of grace to Washington Henry, their community stands together and Owen and Henry bunk congenially in a tiny room above Paradise Square saloon.
Additionally, stranger Milton Moore (Jacob Fishel), arrives in their society to beg Nelly for a job. Moore, an excellent piano player with a drinking problem, appears legitimate, so Nelly makes a bargain with him and arranges for Owen, Henry and Moore to create dance and song entertainments to earn their keep. The dancing and singing to a cool multi-ethnic version of “Camptown Races” effected by Henry and Owen who are friendly competitors at this juncture, show the prodigious singing and dancing talents of Shively and Dupont. Guided by Bill T. Jones’ brilliant, energetic and enlightened choreography, the dancing in this production is thematic and symbolic, with unique stylized flourishes that shine a light on the exceptional talents of the principals and the ensemble.
Jones showcases the dances with ethnic cultural elements: for Shively and his group-Irish step dancing; for DuPont-Juba African American dancing that evolved from plantation life. Jones’ wondrous evocations are present throughout. When Henry sings “Angelina Baker” we revert to the plantation where both met. Profoundly rendered through Jones choreography and musical staging (Alex Sanchez), the ensembles’ stylized movements evoke the field slaves soul burdened and bowed, as two plantation overseers tap dance the repetitive torment and the beats of slavery’s oppression and pain. Just incredible!
Uptown Party Boss Frederic Tiggens (the excellent John Dossett) is the villainous snake, whose intent is to divide voters, secure political power and keep wages low by targeting the haven of equanimity, Paradise Square. As a disrupter, he focuses on a “divide and conquer” strategy. Stoking division when the opportunity arises, he is hell bent on destroying Nelly’s prosperous Eden which threatens his political power block. Thus, he foments resentment between the Irish and the blacks when he discovers that the Reverend doesn’t fire a worker to give a job to ‘Lucky Mike,’ a war amputee abandoned by the government he fought for. (“Bright Lookout,” “Tomorrow’s Never Guaranteed.”).
Enraged at the injustice of not being hired by Reverend Samuel who can’t do what he wants or he will be fired himself, ‘Lucky Mike’ becomes the pawn of Tiggens, who exploits his anger instead of helping him. Expressing the plight of many returning vets then and now, Mike’s anger grows into a raging fire with no outlet until it finally explodes in violence. Tiggens’ trouble-making continues with his connections serving financial writs on Nelly and Paradise Square that must be paid off. When she confers with family about raising money, Owen contributes his cultural grace, suggesting a dance festival competition like they had in Ireland. With the festival Nelly will raise enough to pay off the fines. Once again, Nelly and family resilience and hope shine through the darkness of Tiggens’ political machinations to overwhelm them.
Meanwhile, the Reverend is informed by his Quaker friends that Henry has killed his plantation master in Tennessee and is wanted for murder. The Reverend tells Annie who insists she will accompany him and Henry to the next station on the railroad. The song “Gentle Annie” is a humorous revelation of their marriage: Annie’s feisty character tempered by Samuel’s peaceful nature, their shared values and the closeness of their relationship. Kennedy and Stampley give authentic, spot-on performances that solidify one more link in the ineffable chain of love that helps make Paradise Square (the saloon and the production) a place of unity and grace.
A strength of this musical is that the dramatic tension increases and doesn’t let up for a minute. The arc of development in conflicts and intricate, complex themes shows Nelly’s Paradise Square, like Lincoln’s Union strained and stressed. As Tiggens tightens the financial noose on Nelly’s Eden, the announcement of the War Draft threatens the immigrants. Men between the ages of 25-45 must serve, unless they pay $300 dollars to exempt themselves. Lincoln’s conscription is a desperate attempt to revitalize the fight; the Union is on the verge of collapse and the American experiment is in grave jeopardy. Nelly’s dream and Lincoln’s hope of a democratic union run on parallel tracks along with the underground railroad.
For the blacks, the idea that people had inalienable rights and could live together with respect, dignity .and equanimity as a community, the idea that people themselves had the power to sustain such a republic, was keenly felt. Blacks wanted desperately to fight against the Southern oppressors, but were forbidden. (“I’d Be a Soldier”). The Irish, like Owen and the other immigrants, were looking for a better life not war (“Why Should I Die in Springtime?”), but they are ground down by their poverty and question the efficacy of dying for a cause they didn’t create and can’t afford to get out of.
When Owen and the ensemble of Irishmen/immigrants and Henry and the ensemble of blacks sing these numbers, the power of the lyrical music drives home the differences. Both groups embrace the American ideal but are being denied achieving it in reality. As the anger of ‘Lucky Mike’ gains advocacy, it fuels fear in Owen because, for him, the Draft is unjust; he doesn’t have the money. Nelly, for the first time tells ‘Lucky Mike’ to leave her bar as he tries to rally protestors for his (Tiggens propagandized) cause.
As Nelly inspires and encourages her patrons telling them they must not “let the draft break us, that’s what those Uptown bastards want,” an Irishman comes with news that does bow her, Captain Willie O’Brien’s death. But for the Reverend and Annie (“Prayer”), and Nelly’s moral imperative to maintain the saloon’s mission, Nelly would break. As she attempts to gain comfort and inner resolve, the Reverend and Annie confront Henry about murdering his master. In the incredible “Angelina Baker” sung by DuPont with the dancers evoking the Tennessee plantation terrors, we understand his justification for killing.
By the end of Act I, Nelly, Annie, the Reverend, Owen, Henry and the patrons stand on a precipice as the war and malevolent forces threaten to overcome them. Nelly sings, “I keep holding on to hope for a world just out of view, but that hope I have comes at a cost and the cost comes due.” But it is in the song’s refrain that Joaquina Kalukango sings for the ages. Nelly prays with grace and dignity: “Heaven Save Our Home.” Kalukango’s Nelly becomes the intercessor who has made the ultimate sacrifice. All those she loves in Paradise Square are in jeopardy. Her Eden hangs by a spider’s web. As we identify with her prayer, Kalukango’s Nelly stands in the gap for all who are threatened by war and oppression, or unseen forces that would trammel down the sanctity of life. In her portrayal, as she attempts to touch the heart of God, she enthralls our humanity. It is what live theater is all about.
In the transition to Act II, book writers take us to wealthy Uptown New York City. The set changes from the dark saloon, three level platforms, box cages and hard scrabble lines and angles to light, airy, plush furniture in a luxurious drawing room where the wealthy Mr. Tiggens, Amelia Tiggens and Uptown women are being entertained by Milton Moore. Moore presents new versions of songs he culturally appropriated from those he’s heard sung by immigrants and blacks in the Five Points. The scene brings heartbreak at the revelation that “Milton Moore” has been the cover for Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel).
In a fascinating and ingenious twist in the arc of development, Foster, revitalized by his time in Paradise Square, exploits its greatness, democracy and vibrancy. He brags to Tiggens about his inspired time and unwittingly reveals what Nelly and the others plan. The scene is another dynamo that spills over into chaos when Foster returns to Paradise Square and confronts Nelly, who is arranging to financially save her saloon, Owen and Henry with the dance festival. Foster’s betrayal is a stinging blow. Though he apologizes and attempts to salve the wound by telling Nelly she encouraged his reformation, the danger he reigns down on them is unforgivable. Too late, she ejects him; but the damage has been done. All that is left is to hope that the dance festival brings in enough money to save her saloon and Owen and Henry.
The dance comes off in, another incredible scene with Jones’ amazing choreography front and center as Shively’s Owens and DuPont’s Henry compete, this time not so congenially. There is a winner. You’ll just have to see the show to find out. But the competition doesn’t have the desired effect. Subsequently, New York City undergoes its own class war as the immigrants go uptown in a rage to protest. The NYC Draft Riots, a well documented catastrophic debacle (50 buildings burned, 119 people dead) with destruction, death looting and burning lasts for three days until the US army quells the rioting. As the rioters set fire to Paradise Square, Kalukango’s Nelly confronts them and delivers a message (“Let it Burn”) that defies description in power and spiritual glory.
“Inside this little building is a rare and special lot; we somehow found each other and look what that has wrought; a place you are afraid of, a world you’ll never know; you can take it in a flash; you can burn it down to ash and then out of ash we’ll grow; if you think we’ll run away, you’ve got a lot to learn we are stronger than your fire, and I say let it burn.”
Nelly realizes her Edenic dream continues in greater power without a building to house it. Thus, she gives up the one thing she worked incredibly hard to keep with the knowledge that Paradise Square and all it symbolizes to her is within her soul forever. It is for future generations to manifest and make her Edenic dream a reality.
How the creative team and Kalukango deliver this moment is miraculous. What the show kindles in those receptive to its messages and themes heals, strengthens and affirms. It is the glory of what our country can be in the resilience of the human spirit that uplifts freedom from the boot of financial, moral, ethical oppression and evil in all its forms.
As I watched this production, I couldn’t help but align its “dangerous” democratic themes to events around the world and in our own country. Nelly’s message is the Ukrainians’s message to Vladamir Putin in his unjust war and attempt to destroy Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities with his Stalinist communist terror which cannot succeed. Similarly, I thought of the ultra extremist right wing politicos in the U.S., who would make women heel to their oppression by criminalizing abortion to the point of making it tantamount to homicide, while sanctifying, legitimizing rape. (The rapist becomes a father, bonded to the child and mother.)
The Supreme Court in attempting to overturn settled law, effects a second insurrection more damaging than that of the coup conspiracy by Donald Trump and QAnon Republicans on 6th January. When Kalukango’s Nelly sings her cries for safety and freedom, affirming both by the conclusion, she intercedes for all Americans who still believe with Lincoln in government of, by and for the people. The lrich minority are incapable of hearing such cries from the spirit. They only want to rule like despots.
The values and themes heightened in Paradise Square are truly Christian, American and democratic. The production is a vital happening during a time when political terrorist forces inside our country conspire with foreign adversaries to nullify our constitution and foundations of government based on self-evident truths in our Declaration of Independence; that all are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. There is no musical on Broadway today which best represents the American spirit and ideals.
If this does not sound like something you might like, then especially go see it. For tickets and times see their website: https://www.paradisesquaremusical.com/
‘MJ’ is One of the Greatest Broadway Productions Ever
For much of Michael Jackson’s life, there was controversy. Extraordinary genius is not often reverenced by those who attempt to control it, exploit it or covet it as theirs. Sometimes it is least understood by the person who possesses such talent, until it is too late, and there are only a few years left to try to get it all down.
One-of-a-kind greatness is as ineffable and mighty as what we imagine divinity is. But divinity streams in a multitude of directions. In spirit and light it is incapable of being contained. A bit of that was Michael Jackson’s talent, genius, divinity that he emblazoned on our planet for too brief a time. It is a bit of that Michael Jackson which Myles Frost so lovingly portrays with precision, excellence and prodigious beauty in MJ, with the book by the sterling Lynn Nottage that currently runs on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre. This production is an unforgettable, blinding amazement, full of wonder.
Unlike other shows that have been dubbed jukebox musicals, MJ cannot be categorized as such and defies pat, convenient labels. First, though Michael Jackson’s music is featured throughout, the music threads who he is albeit “through a glass darkly,” if we can ever know another individual. The production soars because, as Myles’ MJ tells MTV documentarian Rachel (Whitney Bashor), if we “listen” to his music, it “answers questions” we might have. Thus, if we really intend to know who Michael Jackson is, we must examine his music. MJ does this by presenting riffs of his treasured, award-winning songs in two acts, though not in completeness because the breadth of his work would require days to display in full.
Wisely, Nottage focuses on a period in Michael’s life which manifests a turning point right before he travels globally on his Dangerous tour. It is 1992 in a L.A. rehearsal studio. Through flashback and flashing forward, framed by the present in the studio, Nottage provides richness and depth, crystallizing vital themes and conflicts MJ confronted externally and internally. These include: 1) the media’s rapacious hunger to exploit scandal and create MJ’s twisted identity that it hypocritically blamed him for; 2)his struggles with his father in going solo and breaking from his family to obtain his own autonomy as a person and artist; 3)his struggles to evolve his music beyond his industry producers and labels represented by his father Joseph (Antoine L. Smith), Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson), and Quincy Jones (Apollo Levine).
Additionally, Nottage examines his work ethic and quest to be perfect, a recurrent theme in MJ. For example after rehearsing various numbers for the Dangerous tour to the breaking point, MJ asks, “But is it perfect?” It is a refrain he’s internalized from his childhood when his father pushed the Jackson 5 to the brink and didn’t allow them to “be children.” Finally, MJ is representational as a black every man striving against the color bar everywhere. Thus, we see his father, his family and his life struggles against institutional racism in the music industry and culture.
Complexly encapsulated throughout, Nottage reveals his personal struggles to manifest love, and overthrow the cruel abuse he received as a child, teen and adult (in the media and entertainment industry). He must do this to spread the love in his music and not transfer the culture’s hatred which is so easy to internalize. This is most probably the most difficult ask of himself that Michael pushes himself toward. This is the thing which is impossible, not the incredible nature of his tours or finding the money his financial manager Dave (Joey Sorge), requires, using his Neverland Ranch as collateral to fund the Dangerous tour. Importantly, Nottage notes his personal struggle to understand and forgive himself reflected in the incredible performance of “Man in the Mirror.” However, does he achieve self-love finally, the bane of all human existence? Ah, well…
Interwoven to spotlight these themes and conflicts is Michael Jackson’s fabulous music featured with the dancers in later songs during the rehearsal period for the Dangerous tour and in memory vignettes. Also, we enjoy featured songs in MJ’s discussion of his work with Rachel which includes numbers from his albums Off the Wall and Thriller.
From his childhood Little Michael’s ( the superbly talented Walter Russell and Christian Wilson alternate) incredible voice shines with his brothers portrayed by performers who also take on different roles. In the segments when Myles’ MJ in the present reflects about correlating events in his childhood, we note his father’s gruff, abusive prodding as a taskmaster (portrayed by Antoine L. Smith the night I saw the production). And we appreciate his loving mother’s comfort as a counterbalance who MJ relies on. Katherine Jackson’s incredible voice is poignant and lovely as she sings with Little Michael, i.e. “I’ll Be There.” When MJ comes back from his thoughts about the past, answering questions from the documentarian at times and other times just letting memories emerge, Myles as the adult MJ sings with Little Michael and they encapsulate the convergence of the past with the present. Perhaps this is a healing, self-revelatory moment.
Likewise, the same occurs with teenage Michael, portrayed by Tavon Olds-Sample as Nottage explores the height of the Jackson’s fame with their appearance on Soul Train performing “Dancing Machine.” Especially when MJ steps back into the past, songs in the vignettes explore his emotions at the time. Then MJ comes back to the present into the rehearsal studio where the dancers are singing the same number. The past turmoil is concurrent with the turmoil he goes through in the present with his managers and directors telling him what he wants isn’t possible. It is a refrain he received his entire life and must overcome continually. The transitions from flashback to forward present are beautifully effective as rendered in songs.
Wisely, the structure and organization of MJ is complexly framed by the present and is driven by a confluence of emotional and personal issues which erupt throughout the production. These issues, Nottage intimates were the ones to spiral out of control later in Jackson’s life. The issues explored in flashbacks reveal that MJ is a fluid memory piece and musical. It is as if Jackson, given over to his own talent and unconscious, becomes haunted by the past which intrudes upon the present to generate the direction of his art and personal life. It is that past from which “he runs” (a superficial assessment by the media). Regardless, it is that chaos and emotional angst from the past which infuses and creates the greatness of his being and work, Nottage suggests throughout. It is even reflected in the words of Barry Gordy who claims that Little Michael sings with the pain of an adult’s experience.
Though I wasn’t a Michael Jackson fan, after seeing MJ, I have become one, learning of some the facets of his talent and genius which he attempted to perfect and which anyone who looks deeper into his life with understanding recognizes what he accomplished as one of the most significant global cultural icons of the twentieth century. Importantly, MJ is a celebration of Michael Jackson’s goodness, graciousness, gentleness and love, revealed in his spectacular ability to compose, sing, dance, produce and innovate new music styles and initiate forward trends in all these listed, including fashion.
MJ is also a memorial to Michael Jackson’s work given that through great pain comes art which is timeless. Though some would quibble that “his” type of music isn’t art, Nottage’s book and this production rises above that inanity in its affirmation that what Michael Jackson accomplished must be reviewed seriously apart from scurrilous tabloid journalism or even an attempt at documentary. Though he was Known as the “King of Pop,” the Broadway production reveals that “handle” was a superficial, limiting meme.
He was a phenomenon that we will not see again, a sensitive maverick “music man” who morphed into mythic beings and as easily shapeshifted out of them into new personas. As he evolved, he swiftly left history and the media in the dust, something which the media appears to refuse to understand. One has only to view his vast body of awards and global recognition, his millions of record sales the dollar amounts, the presidential awards, global awards, the breaking of 39 Guinness World records to begin to “get this.” Indeed, he is the most awarded individual music artist in history.
MJ the Musical begins in an L.A. rehearsal studio in 1992 as dancers and the soft-spoken Michael (the shining Myles Frost) suggests ways to improve “Beat It,” the number the dancers work on. Sequestered in a corner, a two-person MTV documentary film crew records until the overexcited camera man, Alejandro (Gabriel Ruiz), loses his cool in the presence of this living myth and MJ “yells” about the how and why of cameras in the studio. Rachel (Whitney Bashor) steps in and saves the day assuring Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Michael they are “unobtrusively” there to record MJ’s process of putting together his Dangerous World Tour. Frost’s Jackson quietly explains that the tour to promote his album Dangerous will travel four continents excluding the U.S. and Canada in the hope of raising $100 million for his newly established charity Heal the World Foundation to help children and the environment.
Immediately, the strains and pressures of conflict between the media’s mission to raise dirt, versus the sensitive artist and the private individual who yearn to be understood are manifest. Behind MJ’s back Rachel affirms to Alejandro that she wants to delve into his personal struggles, blowing by his art. It is the reason why they insinuated themselves into the rehearsal studios with the guise of filming his tour preparations. Once again, MJ is trusting and allows her to stay to publicize the tour.
Intriguingly, Nottage points out that the documentarian attempts cinema veritae. However, by the end of MJ we see this is a blind. Rachel gets “what she wants.” She has overheard a conversation by MJ’s close associates Rob (Antoine L. Smith) and Nick (Ramone Nelson) about his taking too many painkillers because of the accident filming a Pepsi commercial. Instead of concentrating on his music, though she says she will be fair, we understand “fair” means not necessarily giving MJ the benefit of the doubt. It is “The Price of Fame” that he learns from his father and without which he couldn’t perform. Regardless, it is a cul de sac in which “You Can’t Win,” sung by Berry Gordy (Ramone Nelson) and teenage Michael (Tavon Olds-Sample).
By the conclusion of MJ, we discover that “facts,” too can be twisted into untruths, and what is called for and never pursued by the media is understanding and empathy. Thus, as a theme media exploitation manifests three minutes into MJ, revealing what dogged him and grew to an insanity by the end of his life. The media’s rapacious commercialism to get “the exclusive” scandal to tear down the myth it grudgingly helped to create is integral to MJ. The constant struggle with the media later strengthened him to transcend every barrier institutional racism put up to thwart him in exploitative cruelty that Jackson later excoriated and exposed, using his songs as a weapon to beat back injustice, planet devastation, global child trafficking and more.
In a perfect meld of music and dance numbers, Nottage’s book is the skeleton upon which the creative team of Jason Michael Webb (music direction, orchestrations, arrangements), David Holcenberg (music supervision, orchestrations, arrangements), and Christopher Wheeldon (director, choreographer) sculpt the greatness of Michael Jackson’s artistry in his humanity. Songs represented are from all of his albums; in alphabetical order they include (ABC, Bad, Beat it, Billie Jean, Black or White, Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough, Keep the Faith, Rock With You, Smooth Criminal, The Way You Make Me Feel, Wanna Be Startin’ Something) to name only a few. With Thriller (look at how his father in costume moves off stage into the nightmare world which emerges from his imagination) how the song is incorporated with his living, awake nightmares in his own life at this point in time is just fantastic.
The set design (Derek McLane) exemplifies MJ’s inner and outer conflicts magnificently, in vibrant colors for the dynamic award winning numbers. They even get the opening propulsion up from the trap under the stage for a huge WOW! It signifies MJ successfully got his crew to do this for his Dangerous tour. See the production MJ for this rush of excitement, and explosive fun surprise. Or look it up on YouTube if you are not coming to NYC.
For the “smaller” intimate moments in the Jackson family home, the design is simpler, but functional and appropriate to the time. The retro look continued for the Soul Train vignette is heartwarming as the introductory music opens, reminding us of our youth and the time in the nation where black entertainers like Michael rarely crossed over. They had to appear on Soul Train for publicity. The lighting (Natasha Katz), complementing the set design for the maximum striking “fantastical,” especially with the “Thriller” number that just kills it are all other-worldly, as Paul Tazewell’s costumes provide the fearful/graveyard monster touch. The costumes of course are so varied, but all are MJ. Importantly, Gareth Owen’s sound design is spot on so the lyrics are clear, the music strongly wonderful.
Peter Negrini’s production design, Charles LaPointe’s wig and hair design, Joe Dulude II’s make-up design all thrust the actors and especially Myles Frost into glory and provide the unity of spectacle this production so fabulously renders. Enough cannot be said about Myles Frost’s portrayal that is emotionally devastating because he is Michael Jackson’s beating heart and so gratefully appreciated for his amazing talents and will to become MJ for each of the nights of the week. Shepherded by Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful direction and thrilling, hot choreography, they are MJ‘s lifeblood along with the cast who entertain us to their last nerve. All are nonpareil.
We see that in the songs in his later life, MJ attempts to overthrow the forces that exemplify the worst manifestations of greed, pernicious exploitation, hypocrisy, falsehood and hatred in the culture and in his personal life. What he went through first with the media which built him up to destroy him, we have witnessed these past years in the propaganda used to destroy in the service of furthering others’ hidden agendas, regardless of the facts in this heightened time of political power plays.
As the last individual walks away from the Neil Simon Theatre, after seeing MJ, they should leave with the knowledge that what Michael Jackson represented to fans, foes, colleagues and those nearest and dearest to him is incalculable. Whether one scorned, predatorized, idolized, exploited, manipulated, in short any action word you might use to exemplify how people related to him, Michael Jackson impacted all of us through his music, his humanity and his tragedy. Lynn Nottage, the actors and the creative team have done a sensational and dazzling job of assisting Myles Frost in bringing the legend to life.
Finally, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. With regard to Michael Jackson and the production’s greatness, this scripture seems appropriate to leave you with.
For tickets and times go to the MJ website: https://mjthemusical.com/
Hugh Jackman’s Indelible, Winning Con in ‘The Music Man,’ Just Unbeatable!’
Historically, America is the land of con artists and showmen. Do you know the difference? As a relatable example there is David Hannum who in the 1850s bought the “Cardiff Giant,” a stone statue he unwittingly believed to be real (the giant fake was made in Iowa). As did its previous owner, Hannum charged admission for viewings. When P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman portrayed Barnum in The Greatest Showman) couldn’t purchase the Cardiff Giant for $50,000, he made his own plaster statue, called Hannum’s statue the fake, and charged more money, advertising his as the “real” one. Hannum sued Barnum and referring to Barnum’s patrons said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” not realizing he, too, had been duped. The suit failed when the originator of the hoax “came clean.” Interestingly, all three entrepreneurs probably kept the money “they earned” providing a thrilling show. In keeping with the great cons of America, history is silent about whether patrons got their money back.
This exploration of that type of con is at the core of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, which I’ve come to appreciate on another level with this revival at the Wintergarden Theatre, starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. Along with these romantic leads are Shuler Hensley, Jefferson Mays, Jayne Houdyshell and Marie Mullen. All are Tony Award winners. All give humorous, memorable performances in this fanciful, exuberant, profoundly conceived production (directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Warren Carlyle), about small town America, its bucolic, “nothing is happening here” townsfolk, and the burgeoning love between two needy, flawed individuals, who grasp at hope in each other.
With book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson and story by Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey, the great con is spun by a magic-making, uber-talented, artiste extraordinaire that all fall in love with by the conclusion (including the audience). That is all except non-believer, malcontent salesman Charlie Cowell (the excellent, hyper-caustic Remy Auberjonois who was in Death of a Salesman). He’s the “villain” who seeks vengeance to expose Hill as a wicked, flim-flam man.
Hugh Jackman is spot-on in his modern interpretation of the Professor Henry Hill “brand” of “music man.” He and Zaks really get this character, so that Jackman makes it his own, as he exudes the energy-packed, brilliant, larger-than-life, loving individual that you want to stay with, wherever he takes you. After seeing his performance, I believe in pied pipers, who don’t need music to make you theirs.
The criticism that he is not edgy is questionable. If Jackman’s Hill were sinister, few would believe his sincerity in a small town that prides itself on suspicion and being “Iowa Stubborn.” Would the women be so taken with his graceful, smooth, charmingly flirtatious manner? He is a swan among the ungainly, quacking mallards and especially his nemesis, the punchy, exasperated, malaproping Mayor Shinn (the always hysterical and exceptional Jefferson Mays), who gaslights the town with his own con. That this genius craftsman of BS has an irresistible delivery reveals Jackman enjoying expanding the graceful Professor in pure entertainment, with every precious breath and every savvy movement he expends, as he inhabits his refreshing version of Professor Harold Hill for the ages.
Hill’s seductive, adorable, spirited demeanor is dangerously addictive. The happy-go-lucky showman is all about getting others to believe in and enjoy themselves. From that elixir, there is no safe return and the crash, if there is one, is emotionally devastating. How Zaks, Jackman, the cast and creative team spin this rendering is solid and logical throughout, giving this extraordinary revival a different feel, understanding and vision, that should not be underestimated or ignored.
Throughout the dance numbers, which are beautifully conceived with wit and substance, Jackman’s lead is ebullient, light, lithe. This is especially so during his convincing, playful seduction in the number “Marian the Librarian” (Warrent Carlyle’s ballet in soft shoe tempo is just great). Jackman’s sensual, boyish suppleness contrasted with Sutton Foster’s stiff reticence in Marian counterpoint are superb together.
For the song identifying the Iowan’s walled stronghold against strangers (“Iowa Stubborn”), Hill’s great challenge, Zaks stages River City citizens huddled together in a circular clump with stern looks and unsmiling determination. Initially, with Hill they pride themselves on being cold steel like Marian, who is even more icy remote than they are. However, because of Charlie Cowell’s challenge, that Iowa territory is impossible for salesmen, Hill takes the bait and rises to the occasion. He plies his delightful winsomeness with enough sincerity and great good will to surreptitiously penetrate their pride.
Not only are the townsfolk splintered from their stubborn resolve because of his contagious enthusiasm, his youthfulness retains a sociability that is able to connect with young and old. Indeed, Hill offers them something that no one else who has come to their town has ever offered: happiness, hope, fantasy, the power to believe; to think something is so and it becomes so (the “Think System” re-framed from “the power of positive thinking”). Jackman’s Hill is a practiced master at human nature-buffeted by life’s heart-breaks, that create the foundation in the soul, that hungers to believe in something or someone. Of course, he is a master at this, because he, first and foremost, is starving, a clue to this Hill portrayal, upon which turns the arc of development and all the character interactions. It is also the theme of “Sadder But Wiser Girl,” that he sings in knowing “wisdom” with buddy Marcellus Washburn (the excellent Shuler Hensley).
The brilliance of this production is that Hill’s charismatic delivery of the dangerous idea is palpable, adorable and expansive. As apparently unrealistic as Hill’s disarming positivity is, it is like manna from heaven for these homely folks, who cannot resist just a taste. And Jackman’s Hill enjoys spoon feeding it to them like sugar, until they are hooked. Interestingly, he also is hooked…on their joyous response to him.
In his backdoor discussions with his comrade in arms, the affable and in love Marcellus, the winning Professor Hill has no disdain or ridicule for those he mesmerizes. He enjoys the challenge (more in the style of 110 in the Shade’s rainmaker Bill Starbuck), of instilling confidence in others and, in return, receiving what he needs, enjoyment, fun, affirmation. He is the antithesis of the bombastic, arrogant traveling salesman loudmouths like Charlie Cowell and the others in the rhythmically pounding opening train number “Rock Island.” (another superb staging by Zaks, et. al.)
Willson reveals the vital difference between them and Hill, as they ride the rails and complain about how hard their job is because of encroaching progress. What an incredible opening scene that gives the set up (costumes, staging, sets, music, sound, tone, tenor). Challenged by their comments that Iowa is an impossible territory, Hill shows himself up to the task, gets off the train, turns to the audience and presents Professor Harold Hill. Just looking at Jackman’s unabashed, open smile and shining spirit, we believe as Mrs. Paroo does, that he can do nearly anything, even if it is getting her very shy son Winthrop to speak, which he does, as Winthrop flows forth in a burst of excitement and emotion that never stops afterward in “Wells Fargo Wagon.”
His product, unlike Charley Cowell’s and the others, is intangible. Thus, taking folks’ money is done quickly, painlessly for much more is being given, including a loving manner and wish to spread joy. In this version of Hill it is his endearing vulnerability to love that Jackman makes believable in his deepening interactions with Marian, whose loving support he has, before the two of them realize it. Jackman and Foster construct this surprising discovery beautifully in the Footbridge scene (“Till There Was You,” and the melding of the relationship as they conjoin their singing of the double reprise “Goodnight My Someone” and “Seventy-Six Trombones”).
The town’s seduction is inevitable after “Ya Got Trouble” and “Seventy-Six Trombones,” an incredible dance number (and pantomimed instrumentation), that Jackman and the cast just kill. River City has “swallowed his line” (the fishing metaphor is used throughout), as does young Winthrop (Benjamin Pajak in a show stealing performance), who is thrilled when his mother, like the other townspeople, signs on for instruments, uniforms and instruction books to form the showy band Hill promises for the absolute thrill of it. That they must learn to play is subtly whisked off until “later,” the “will-o-the-wisp” magic Jackman’s Hill seamlessly performs.
Hill is gloriously, attractively spell-binding. He draws the town to him bringing togetherness and good will, that goes a long way to diffuse the backbiting of the women against Marian’s standoffishness (“Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little”). He helps to mend the ladies’ divisiveness, which further draws Marian to them and himself. Humorously, he unifies feuding officials in the exquisite harmony of a barbershop quartet, that they can’t seem to get enough of, once he starts them off on the right chords (“Sincere,” “Goodnight Ladies,” “Lida Rose”). One by one each potentially thorny group falls under Hill’s flirtatious, delectable, gentle power and inspirational artistic encouragement. Talk about soft power flying under the radar, he hits folks’ hearts for a bullseye every time.
In beautifully staged moments by Zaks, we see Hill’s influence on the Mayor’s wife, Eulalie Shinn and her friends, who create dance numbers and other entertainments. Jayne Houdyshell as Shinn is marvelous and LOL in her dancing and primping poses, after Hill’s maximum attentions. The costuming for these scenes is exceptional. Throughout, the costumes are a take-off of 1912 fashion but with the variety of patterns, in some scenes earthen tones, other scenes fun hats, shoes and accoutrements, thanks to Santo Loquasto, who also did the scenic design.
Marian’s costumes are straight-laced without frills by comparison; her hair (Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young Associates), like the other ladies is in fashion, an up-sweep like her mother’s, Mrs. Paroo (the wonderful Maureen Mullen). Attention in this detailed crafting reveals Marian’s restraint, her career and character, providing the subtext and interesting contrast to the other open-handed, more extravagantly dressed woman. Eulalie and her hens are encouraged to believe in themselves in Hill’s sincere admiration as they ooze his charm back at him and titter. In the case of Marian’s response to Hill’s starlight, she moves from grimace to smile to grin.
Importantly, the women are drawn into Hill’s net, however, it’s mutual. Jackman’s Hill is having a rollicking time becoming enamored of them. This portrayal makes complete sense. Because he is lured by their, acceptance and trust in mutual feeling, he is unable to escape when the love net closes around him. Jackman and Zaks have broadened that net to include the townspeople’s acceptance and love as well as Marian’s, her mother’s and Winthrop’s. Zaks shepherds the actors to forge that budding love and trust with specificity and feeling each time they share a scene (i.e. the fishing scene with Hill and Winthrop).
Fear has no place in Hill’s magical world. So when it attempts to enter in the form of Mayor Shinn’s grave doubts about Hill (though Shinn’s motives are financially suspect), he is misled by Marian and his officials, who by this point in time, understand Hill is bringing new life to the community. Thus, they allow themselves to be distracted away from Shinn’s mission to verify Hill’s identity. It’s apparent that with the exception of Mayor Shinn, whose agenda Hill upends by dunning his new pool table, the town’s spirited happiness is heartfelt. One wonders what their lives were like before his enchantments blinded them? Or did he give them a new way of seeing? And what was Hill’s life like traveling one step ahead of the sheriff before he hit River City, an unintentional stop on his route to anywhere U.S.A.?
Clues are revealed in the large set backdrops of the Grant Wood style paintings (Regionalism, note the painting “American Gothic”), that are at once simplistic and complicated in their being two-dimensional, brimming with sub-text. These brilliantly reveal the time, place and characters with details of tone, tenor and color. This is especially so against the green rolling hills Grant Wood backdrop, where the tiny, animated, red, Wells Fargo Wagon races down a hill in the distance as it approaches River City. The audience gasped in awe at the ingenious contrivance. Then, they gasped even louder as the “larger-than-life” Wells Fargo Wagon materialized on stage. Pulled by a well-groomed, shiny-coated, smallish-looking “Clydesdale,” Hill beamed atop the wagon as it stopped, the cast sang “The Wells Fargo Wagon” exuberantly, and Jackman rhythmically tossed out the brown, paper wrapped “instruments.” Poignantly, Pajak’s Winthrop sings, lisp and all, completing the effect. Pure dynamite!
This is the show’s “Singing in the Rain,” moment. It is the still point in time that clarifies and represents the whole; action, event, music, symbolism, lighting and spectacle reveal the theme and its significance to the characters and audience. It is here that we understand the treasure that Hill brings, the heightened glory he coalesces in a happening that the townspeople and a now confident Winthrop, (whom we fall in love with along with Hill), will never forget. And for that reason, Marian destroys the evidence that can sink Hill. It’s a stirring, fabulous end to Act I.
By the beginning of Act II, Hill’s invested emotional interest in Marian is revealed in “Shipoopi,” the silly-grand singing and dance number with the entire cast, and colorful, striking costumes, led by Marcellus, who reveals his contentment with his wife. As friend and confidante Marcellus is also Hill’s foil. Living a fulfilled life in a small town, his life contrasts with the emptiness of Hill’s tired wanderings. This is underscored through Hill’s previous interactions with Marcellus, in their fine duet “The Sadder But Wiser Girl,” and brief discussion of his former inability to settle down which Marcellus encourages him to do in River City because he can introduce him to a lovely girl. However, Hill has already met a lovely girl, who rejects him, but as we note at the top of the musical, Hill enjoys a challenge. Jackman nails Hill’s bravado with class, nuance and balance, never over-doing it. He will have Marian and she will have him.
Sutton Foster’s Marian is the challenge Hill finds stimulating. She falls in love, her hard-heart melting in attenuating stages: after Mother Paroo’s pressure in “If You don’t Mind My Saying So,” her own internal pressure in “Goodnight, My Someone” and “My White Knight,” in Hill’s sweetly, gorgeous “bad-boy” pestering in, “Marian the Librarian,” and most importantly, after she sees Hill’s beloved influence on Winthrop (“Wells Fargo Wagon,” the fishing scene, “Gary Indiana”). As Marian, Foster’s change of heart toward Hill is superbly wrought by degrees; her stance and body gradually relaxing as they dance in “Shipoopi.” And the relationship Foster and Jackman forge in its progressive development toward love is believable and touching. By the time the scene with the kiss arrives, their bond is manifest; the long kiss, wistfully enjoyed by Jackman fans, brought faint and not so faint audience gasps; the longing and hunger in the characters dangerously apparent.
For love’s reality is an obstacle to his “safety” that Hill acknowledges (“Till There Was You” reprise). Charlie Cowell intends to provoke the town to scourge Hill with a “tar and feathering.” It is at this point that Marcellus’ injunction that Marian is doing the conning and Hill has to leave or be damned, resonates. But he can’t leave; he must face the music or rather, lack of it.
Foster shines as she attempts to gaslight sexual predator Auberjonois’ Cowell with flirting and a kiss. And in the realistic fight scene (one punch is always sufficient), between Cowell and Hill, the professor vindicates Marian’s reputation that Cowell besmirches. I love how Foster sexually presents herself to Cowell, breaking the third wall and eliciting the audience’s encouragement; she twits the scene for all its worth.
But the con is over. Humorously and ironically, Hill is a victim of Mother Paroo’s use of his “Think System.” And of course, his own need to be loved traps him. Thus, he admits the truth to an upset Winthrop, who forgives him as does Marian. Brother and sister encourage Hill to quickly escape, not realizing the music man wants to stay despite the jeopardy. The sacrifice of the three for each other is perfection. When Hill is arrested, Jackman’s emotional response in the scene is smashing, as is the drama created by Pajak, Auberjonois, Foster and the other cast members. The question remains. Will the town forgive Hill, as Marian and Winthrop have? Will they acknowledge that he has given them something more priceless than a boy’s band? Perception is everything.
In this revival the intentionally “un-dangerous,” genius, entrepreneur professor, like those entrepreneurs of the Cardiff Giant, created a daily thrill. Specifically, Hill’s music man encourages the town to launch out on a new road. It turns into their own growth and ultimate benefit in merging community, good will and love. In exchange for instruments and uniforms, he has bestowed the citizens with an ineffable gift (that Marian and Eulalie Shinn encourage the others to stand for). As Mayor Shin sees their unity and hears his son play, Hill’s “Think System” catches communal fire. The joy and warmth that Hill gave is returned; he is loved and forgiven. And Charlie Cowen leaves a sadder and unrepentant man.
In the end scene as the perception of the townsfolk moves from what is to what each parent thinks/imagines Hill’s orchestral direction to be with love, the miraculous occurs. Hill is redeemed as the band emerges in sound and sensory vision. Announcing the Finale, Winthrop/Pajak blows a vibrant, bold horn. The cast emerges in full band regalia, sings, plays and dances, with Foster and Jackman front and center, leading the charge. Dazzling fun, profoundly realized.
The Music Man is a spectacle that is incredibly rich with visual movement and vibrancy, striking hues and emotional musical grist brought together with sterling performances that are divine brush strokes. The story is a faceted jewel, the characters inhabited by these multi-talented acting greats are uniquely American. The sound/music delivery-technical and vocal is as fine as can be. I heard every word, the glorious harmonies, spun out rhythms and witty lyrics in the compelling choral numbers (“Rock Island,” “Ya Got Trouble,” Shipoopi,” “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little,” “Marian the Librarian,” Seventy-Six Trombones”). What a pleasure, especially in the large musical numbers; this has not always been the case on Broadway (post-pandemic and certainly not pre-pandemic).
The Smithsonian Institution ranks The Music Man as one of the “great glories of American popular culture.” When it premiered on December 19, 1957, it was a smash hit that ran 1375 performances. It won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. The original cast album held the number one position on the
Billboard charts and stayed on the album charts for 245 weeks. The recording won the first-ever Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album.
In this amazing revival all of the main actors are Tony Award winners. Sutton Foster is a two-time Tony Award winner. Hugh Jackman is a two-time Tony Award, Grammy Award, and Emmy Award-winning star. Director Jerry Zaks is a four-time Tony Award winner and Choreographer Warren Carlyle is a Tony Award winner. The creative team is equally sterling and award studded. It includes four-time Tony Award winner Santo Loquasto (Scenic & Costume Design), five-time Tony Award winner Brian MacDevitt (Lighting Design), Tony Award winner Scott Lehrer (Sound Design), Luc Verschueren for Campbell Young and Associates (Hair, Wigs, & Makeup Design), Tony Award winner Jonathan Tunick (Orchestrations), David Chase (Vocal and Dance Arrangements), and Patrick Vaccariello (Musical Director).
This production with this cast, director, choreographer and technical team will never happen again in your lifetime. Considering what the cast, crew and production team went through to present The Music Man opening night this February 10th, 2022, it has been a labor of love that underscores every dance step, every note played, every trill, every laugh by the actors, the musicians, everyone. It is a one-of-a-kind revival that is breathtaking. Do what you can to see it. I will go again if I can get tickets. Here is their website for arrangements. https://musicmanonbroadway.com/
‘SIX the Musical’ is Glorious Fun!
It took over 500 years for the six wives of Henry VIII to finally remix history and set the record straight, which they do nightly on Broadway in SIX the Musical at the Brooks Atkinson. What a phenomenal fun time to join these ex-wives in their exclusive club as they dish up the failed monarch, who is driven to upend the Catholic Church, lie, steal and kill in the name of gaining a male heir. We’ve had enough mansplaining about Henry’s actions. It’s time for the ladies!
Gloriously, these ex-wives take back their queenly power, rudely wrenched from them by Henry’s cruel machinations: divorce, decapitation, expulsion. And in sisterly collaboration they raise their voices which becomes a chorus of jubilation and foot stomping exuberance to vacate the patriarchal, historical perspective and lift up their identities, apart from the monarch, who never got the best of them. With their audience fandom singing along, whooping and applauding rhythmically during the songs and especially in the final song “Six,” it is enough to rock Henry VIII in his moldering grave in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. Can you hear them, Henry?
Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss in an inspirational fit of glory have come up with one of the most joyous and meaningful concepts that wraps history in a modern, insightful, revealing perspective, as told by women who are great in their own right. And in the retelling of their stories, we realize because of who these women were/are, Henry VIII is one of the most written about monarchs in British history and media (TV, plays, movies). The women are the central focus in SIX the Musical as they should be. This marvelous production is mind-blowing, refreshing, profound.
Why do Marlow and Moss, and Moss and Jamie Armitage, who both directed succeed in this show first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017? They enjoin historical facts with hot rhymes and rhythms and rock/pop concert fever topped off with a dynamic, explosive, vibrant, “It’s showtime” cast and creatives.
The design, look and feel of this Renaissance of light and sound knocks the audience’s enjoyment into the heavens. All design elements cohere with the theme, showcasing these women as stars. The women’s story deserves this futuristic retelling. Hence the sparkles and spangles and beads and sci-fi metallic-looking brilliance, thanks to Gabriella Slade’s out-of-this-world costume design which makes sense. Indeed, with Emma Bailey’s sensational set design and Tim Deiling’s equally eye-popping lighting design, the exuberant grandeur is fanciful, magical and funny. It has all the smattering of the Renaissance royal court in a mash up of pop/rock elegance.
Importantly, we’ve come to hear each of the women relate their story, especially the ones we are least familiar with. Initially, they tell us this is a competition of songs and virtuoso singing. Who is the most miserably treated by the cruel Henry? And we get to vote our favorable, miserable Queen to aggrandize her fame above the others, perhaps to make up for Henry’s malevolence.
They sing in order of their marriages after they introduce the funny and rousing fact that they are “Ex-Wives.” However, the tone is all about being “out there!” And we realize from their sassiness and boldness, being an ex-wife of a monarch is something to take pride in.
Catherine of Aragon, the dynamic Adrianna Hicks dishes on Henry in “No Way” in the Queenspiration style of Beyoncé and Shakira. The feisty Andrea Macasaet as Anne Boleyn insists she lost her head in the hysterical “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” Thus, no one can “top” Boleyn she quips; she feels she’s already won the prize as the most miserable of the ex-wife sufferers. Many jokes follow her separation from her head as the running-joke that never tires. Her Queenspiration style follows Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne, but she is all Andrea Macasaet, a spit-fire, not really standing in anyone else’s shoes.
At this juncture, Marlow and Moss create a pause in the rollicking, pop/rock song and hip-hop movement ballyhoo. It is an appropriate change up. After all, history wrapped in music and shining light is never hackneyed or the same. Thus, Jane Seymour (the soulful Abby Mueller), appears not to be disabused by Henry like the others. She’s the one “he truly loved.” Obviously, she can’t parade herself as the most victimized. So she sings a beautiful ballad “Heart of Stone” of Henry’s love and her loyalty to him, but so soon lost in childbirth. Abby Mueller’s song style is Adele and Sia.
One of the most LOL and Social Media twitting of the queens is Brittney Mack’s Anna of Cleves, who must take back her power after all the queens mock her in the song “Haus of Holbein.” Henry famously went to Germany for this wife, fell in love with her portrait in oil and proposed via his officials. When she showed up in person, Henry rejected her outright as unattractive.
In “Get Down” are some of the funniest lyrics as Anna of Cleves reveals her great good fortune sitting on the throne in her castle living in luxury without having to deal with the bruiser Henry. “You said I tricked ya, cause I didn’t look like my profile picture,” hearkens to all the dating sites and social media sites where folks don’t put up their most recent pictures. In the style of Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, the sensational Brittney Mack has a blast stomping Henry.
Perhaps the most memorable song and the most true to life is what the beheaded Katherine Howard (Courtney Mack was terrific when I saw it October 6th), sings, “All You Wanna Do.” Kathrine Howard had many affairs and sings of the men who importune her sexually, then leave her “high and dry.” Of course, Henry, finding out about her former promiscuity, creates an act to punish her for her sexual experience and knowledge. “It’s off with her head, too!” The double standard here goes beyond the pale with Henry sewing his wild oats in every village and town in his kingdom. The song meaning in the style of Ariana Grande and Brittney Spears sung by Mack is powerful and beautiful.
Catherine Parr (the brassy Anna Uzele), brings on the 4th Wave feminist revelation. Why should there be a contest, a male construct of oppression to divide and conquer? Catherine Parr singing “I don’t Need Your Love,’ is the modern woman who can make it on her own. Indeed, the first woman in England to publish books in her own name, Catherine Parr rocks. Also, she outlived Henry and his penchant to divorce and behead. Anna Uzele sings in the style of Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé.
By the concluding song, “Six,” even men stand up, applaud and clap to the finale. The cast and the wonderful Ladies in Waiting all girl band (Julia Schade, Michelle Osbourne, Kimi Hayes, Elena Bonomo), help to explode male presumptions and make sure the message is clear: patriarchy has no place in a kinder, gentler, decent society and culture where equanimity is a key goal.
This production and its creatives can’t be praised enough. See it twice. For tickets and times go to https://sixonbroadway.com/
‘West Side Story,’ The Brilliant Revival Stokes Profoundly Moving Revelations For Our Time
West Side Story based on a conception by Jerome Robbins with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein (orchestrations by Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal) and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is a groundbreaking classic that garnered awards when it opened on Broadway in 1957 to a flurry of praise and glory. Its overwhelming success continued when it was made into the 1961 titular film winning 10 Academy Awards. Since then it has seen numerous global productions and has been revived on Broadway twice in 1980, and in 2009 with Spanish lyrics and dialogue weaved into the English Libretto.
Once again in revival directed by the maverick sensation Ivo Van Hove (Network, The Crucible) and choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, West Side Story has proven its timelessness with Van Hove highlighting its immutable themes. Van Hove’s direction sounds these thematic notes with his stylistic tuning fork to ping the deepest chords of human nature with which we must identify, as he explores the mortal boundaries of love, tribalism, power, bigotry, alienation, fear, self-loathing and hatred.
Van Hove’s modernization of West Side Story should not be underestimated. He unravels the underlying perils of “the outsider” theme that resonate with currency for us today. He gives this principal conceptualization a novel rendering by employing video projection (video design by Luke Halls) and the “close-up” to elicit an intimacy and connection with the characters not readily available before. The intimate portrayals of the Sharks and Jets (delivered by close-up) as well as their objectified view that encompasses their using the entire stage, reflects the insider and outsider viewpoint. In the intimate view these individuals are young men, hurting, afraid, alone. In the outsider view they are non-human, throw-away people who have embraced the world of criminality and violence because that gives them a rush of comfort in power and identity that the culture denies to them.
For example in the Prologue we meet in close-ups the key players: Riff (the fabulous Dharon E. Jones) of the Sharks, Bernardo (his marvelous equivalent Amar Ramasar) of the Jets, and their gang members. We note their proud and stalwart personas; they could be CEOs of a company in another time and place. We see their branding, the combat gear of their identities: their piercings, their haircuts, the intricacy of their tattoos. And beyond that as the camera pans the two tribes, we note their sneering bravado, their violence and something else behind their staring eyes-perhaps fear.
These Prologue close-ups in real time, before the tremendous opening number of the stylized, vigorous fight sequence in which a Jet is injured, humanize the erstwhile stereotyped ethnicity of the “Puerto Rican” Sharks and their urban, mixed race counterpart, the Jets. They appear interchangeable. Van Hove’s enlightened casting suggests they are not bonded by ethnicity since there are black, white, Latino members in both gangs, but by inner necessity. They cling to their tribe out of fear, isolation, alienation and the trauma of cultural self-loathing, of being outside, of being the “other.”
We especially note the need to belong in the “Jet Song” which answers the call to be a part of something “bigger” than oneself, even if it is bloodthirsty and destructive. By extension, the Sharks are mixed race and indistinguishable from the Jets except that they “came” from Puerto Rico.
With the exception of a few scenes and songs where the backdrop is black and a rainy mist falls down to perhaps symbolize the eternal/immutable/spiritual, the video design-both live and pre-recorded prevails throughout. The events are streamlined and strengthened. The arc of development moves over a two-day period and falls into the resolution we all know is coming, but still remains surprising and poignant. The song “I Feel Pretty” has been excised and the cut gives the musical an edgier, less digressive, less whimsical feel, which the song conveyed almost as an afterthought. That song in particular is off tenor with Van Hove’s dark vision of this lurid, scary world the gangs occupy, a vision which messages the nihilism of impoverished youth/citizens in this time of Trumpism, I.C.E., Black Lives Matter, The Wall, all of whose memes appear at various and pointed junctures in the production.
Thus, we note how the Sharks and Jets attempt to gain a position of power through violence to carve out a place where they can feel safe walking and being. Certainly, in the video projection of dark, lonely streets, a stylized version of the threatening landscape in each of the gang member’s minds, it is revealed that fear surrounds them and they must posture and swagger and image themselves into courage while inside they are cowering children.
For the Sharks, carving out a plot of land is acceptance in the country that views them as trash. As the cast sings “America” and the exceptional Yesenia Ayala as Anita and Amar Ramasar as Bernardo vocally duel out their positions for or against the US, Van Hove’s projections are pointed and riveting. These encompass haunting images of a damaged Puerto Rico left ripped and forgotten after the negligent response of the US to Hurricane Maria. The projections represent the truth; the dance number and song reveals the courage of Anita to hope and the realism of Bernardo to highlight the discrimination and bigotry of third and fourth generation citizens against them. Throughout, Van Hove uses the projections in juxtaposition with the staging to encourage a novel understanding of how the inner person and their outer image operates. We see the two perspectives- the truth and a presentation of the image that is hoped will help one survive in a forbidding city.
The clips of devastation of Puerto Rico are inter cut with various related video clips, one of the final ones referencing miles and miles of the wall at the southern border. The wall is the everpresent reminder that outsiders/illegals are potential thugs and criminals, regardless of their status as asylum seekers, regardless of their status as US citizens. Of course the irony, as Van Hove’s striking version indicates, through the attitudes of Lt. Shrank (Thomas Jay Ryan) and Officer Krupke (Danny Wolohan) that both Sharks and Jets are the unwanted trash, not just the Sharks. That is why they struggle against each other to maintain “face,” and identity in their gang until they are dead and the soil they have struggled over that has rejected them is forced to accept their corpses.
The one group that is missing from this production which I never realized before is missing for a great reason: the dominant social class of conservative “haves.” It is this notably absent elitist tribe that has made the country a pressure cooker of rejection, a blight and a hard climb to the top of the lower middle class for both wandering tribes. It is this group that indirectly encourages tribalism as an answer for those who have little hope for the future and are made to feel as outcasts and criminals who belong in jail (“Gee, Officer Krupke”-the projections during this number are just spot-on).
The song sung terrifically by Action (Elijah A. Carter) and the Jets reveal they cannot escape from the dominant white culture’s prophecy about them as criminals. As they internalize the perspective of the dominant culture and law enforcement, their self-annihilation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though Action and the Jets tell the Officer to “Krup” himself, it isn’t enough. Their trajectory is fated and doomed, especially without mentors to guide them away from their self-loathing. That Tony and Maria become swept up in their misery unable to break completely free from their own posse and families is the tragedy we have come to hope against.
The director’s use of “larger-than-life” video shakes, stimulates, references and enhances the symbolism and profound human depth of the star-crossed lovers and their “posses.” The projections against the entire back wall of the stage sometimes in split screens of twenty portraits of gang members, sometimes in engaging medium shots of Doc’s drugstore (“Something’s Coming”) and the sweatshop (renamed from the bridal shop) where Maria and her friends work reveal the homely mores which Tony and Maria accept apart from the gang members’ identity and lifestyle.
I particularly enjoyed how the close-ups of Maria and Tony in the intimacy of their alone time after he discovers her name worked. First, both Shereen Pimentel and Isaac Powell are vibrant, passionate and in-the-moment, practically every moment. Van Hove’s staging and Powell’s rendition of “Something’s Coming,” and “Maria” particularly shine. Powell’s voice, interpretation and movement are uplifting. In “Tonight” he appears as light as a feather; it is, a full expression of the exhilaration of his love for Maria. I have not seen anything like his performance; he is mesmerizing reaching the highs, lows and devastation of believing that Maria has been killed. He is so there, he brings us there with him. Superlative! Magnificent!
Maria is bubbling over warmth, passionate in her love scene with Powell which was a videoed close-up which made total sense and was an expression of their intimacy as they become “one” and exclude the world they were born into and have decided to leave. Pimentel’s fury after Tony is killed is so convincing, she makes you believe she will shoot all of the guilty, conferring upon herself the roles of judge, jury and executioner, thereby convicting them of his death.
The projections carry the metaphoric journey of the outsider, the trash, the unwanted in a through-line of our time, of all time in the import of tribalism’s necessity in a culture that kicks these kids to the bottom and stands in the way of allowing others to find peace, love and happiness. This isn’t just about warring tribes; it’s about seeking power and domination, the easier, faster way out cultural hell than using intellect, logic and wisdom, the qualities amassed through experience, overcoming obstacles and time-worn trial and error.
The Sharks and the Jets, indistinguishable ethnically, are yet distinguishable through costume designer An D’Huys fine designs and color coordination. However, notable is that the Sharks and Jets are brothers of the same ethos who should be helping each other climb upward, instead of fulfilling the white culture’s perceptions of them as violent criminals. By the time we meet them in the video close-ups of the Prologue, we know it is too late. As young men and women, they have few tools at their disposal (wisdom-gained through experience) to thrive as they seek to establish who they are. After all, it is an alien society of adults who eschew them or culturally disavow what they are as tattooed, pierced, hoodlum criminals.
Sadly, their choices to achieve are few. They can either “die young in a blaze of self-annihilating triumph and leave a good-looking corpse” or live the defeatist life of a self-quarantined, cowardly wussy to avoid the gangs. In Ivo Van Hove’s production, sociocultural economic inequality encourages these tribes toward the genocidal thing to do. That Tony and Maria find each other and love is miraculous. The scene where Van Hove and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker stage the couples moving off together revealing love as an answer to the culturally encouraged nihilism and self-destruction is particularly touching and hopeful.
This version of West Side Story is a shining example of how structure, form, substance and profound understanding merges to make elevated art. Van Hove cleverly uses the projections and the live staging of the actors/characters in tandem; one informs the other, whether it is to enhance the symbols and themes, to emphasize the characterizations or to detail intimacy. What is communicated is remarkable and unforgettable. Coupled with the acting, singing, movement and the dance numbers by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker are filled with athleticism that is so appropriate to the characters. All of this contributes to making the production indescribable- breathtaking, stunning, gobsmacking are an understatement. And the music is luscious, gorgeous, fabulous, thanks to Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and Alexander Gemignani (music supervisor & director).
There is so much more. I’ll just finish with… I also loved the staging/choreography where Maria and Tony are striving to move toward each other pulling against the need of their tribes. The piled-on movement is gripping, sinewy, a tug of war that they will defy for they love each other. Wonderful. And at the end they are pulled apart heaven and earth dividing them until…
The creative team are exceptional artists: Luke Halls (video design) Tom Gibbons (sound design) An D’Huys (costume design). Also superlative are Quinn Matthews as video director, Eric K. Yue as director of photography, Taylor Shung as video producer, Jan Versweyveld for his scenic design and lighting design.
There is nothing else to state except you must see this production. It is an event that does more than entertain. It grabs your heart and makes you understand your humanity and compassion. West Side Story is at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway) running with no intermission until 6th September. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.