Posted by caroleditosti
Broadway Bounty Hunter starring the inimitable Annie Golden (Orange is the New Black for six seasons) is a musical comedy that gyrates into the stratosphere with hijinks galore. and a plot that careens to an apotheosis of self-fulfillment for the atypical, underdog, heroic bounty hunter characters. The just comeuppance for the white, privileged, male villain with a greedy, malevolent and double dealing heart (the excellent Brad Oscar) feels right by the conclusion of the production, though he has Broadway connections and was once a sensitive, artistic type until he turned to the “dark side.”
With Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis (Be More Chill) and Book by Joe Iconis and long time collaborators Lance Rubin (Bloodsong of Love) and Jason Sweettooth Williams (Be More Chill) the production is a hard one to “categorize!” That is its hybrid grace, for it defies description and is a meld of farce, satire, comedy and musical that keeps one riveted by divergences into adventurous, road-trip sequences and action that hypes up the humor and suspense, all the while having a blast and twitting itself. If that “description” appears over-the-top,” the show is just that, and its entertainment and production values are larger-than-life with the excitement and exuberance of a musical that is off-beat wild.
Yet, it begins on a dark, depressing note. Annie, an out of work actress and apparent “has-been,” as “A Woman of a Certain Age,” goes to an audition and is insulted and demeaned by the audition monitor, director and another actress she meets there. The opening number is choreographed and staged by the exceptional Jennifer Werner to encompass the entire theater. The ensemble takes on the roles of various New York City street folks. It is they who take up the cry that Annie later refrains, “they’re not giving no free rides,” to “kick you off the stage,” when you’re a “woman of a certain age.”
This unhealthy dose of reality is a slap in the face to every women in the audience over forty and that is the point of revealing where Annie is in her life: in the pits, at rock bottom, in the valley of the shadow of death. Can it get any worse? It does, happy female campers!
After swallowing this bitter dose of time and place in her life, Annie goes back to her seedy apartment and her answering machine of dire messages and the coming blackout of her lights being shut off for non payment of bills. It is then she realizes it’s over for her in the song “Spin Those Records.” Her only solace is talking and singing to the resplendent Charlie, the picture of her Broadway producer husband, who died over ten years ago. As she attempts to persevere to get to the next refrain of the song “I won’t spin those records anymore,” the ensemble echoes her lament that her success has long faded and the songs she once sang in glory have now “forgotten her.”
That the real Annie Golden who has turned the trope of “woman of a certain age” on its head with her success in Orange is the New Black, is not lost on her fans in the audience who cheer her on. And that is the point of the first two songs; the successful Annie Golden can sing these (and she can belt with roaring power) with a hint of mournful acknowledgement that “it is done,” because it isn’t! This is the salvation and humor and hope, which is a major theme of this production. It is never done! It is never over! And surprises do come right around the corner and improve one’s circumstances. But you must persevere for their “coming.”
Annie’s “apparent” nemesis is that “the matrix” of privilege in the institutions of the patriarchical system (whether it be in the entertainment industry, politics or global corporate control) would dictate and select who and what can be successful, mostly white men; in the entertainment industry, young, white and thin. Nevertheless, the labels and definitions the institutions place can be overcome and twerked by redefinition and a revolution that embraces multiculturalism and defies ageism, which this production does! Though the setting is the past, the production speaks with its whole heart to the present! BRAVO!
With fervor, inspiration and a little “help” from your friends and colleagues who face the same conditions, you can prosper and thrive with effort, drive and enthusiasm. Considering that only the few “fit” the “success” labels, the great majority who don’t are allies. It is only a matter of perceiving this to be true and working to bring it into reality. Iconis, Rubin’s and Sweettooth Williams’ message is especially uplifting and forward thinking in this wannabe retrograde time of Trumpism.
The creators and director are masters of reversals. They turn inside out “the matrix” that would keep us inside “the box,” and keep audiences lulled into the traditional expectations of musical plot, spectacle and character so they don’t necessarily have to look for the profound. Iconis, Rubin and Sweettooth Williams are grand at going upside down and striking deep notes about our culture and society. This production from its funky, stylized music of the 70s and 80s found in Blaxploitation films like Shaft, Super Fly, Foxy Brown, Coffy, etc., to its kung fu, martial arts choreography (by Jennifer Werner) replete with nunchucks (chuka sticks) staffs and surround-action movement and staging with the ensemble abundantly using the audience aisles, soars with energy and excitement. And if you look for vital themes, they are everywhere from #metoo, to image fascism and silent oppression that doesn’t “exist,” until it slams you in the face.
Because we follow Annie to the outer depths of the Mariana Trench of emotional devastation, we are ready to soar with her to the heights of a new career as a “bad ass” bounty hunter hired by Shiro Jin (the classic, cool, deadly Emily Borromeo). We empathize readily with Annie as she accepts “Shiro’s Proposition” without completely understanding the how and the why of it. We cheer her on as Annie becomes accomplished in martial arts skills with the other bounty hunters. And when she gains confidence and bravery learning her “killer moves” and employing acting techniques to sharpen her inner “rage,” we thrill for her.
Ironically, by this point we realize this Bounty Hunter business is no joke. Annie automatically accepts her “mission impossible” to locate, confront and “take out” the despicable, drug pusher, pimp daddy killer with the hot name Mac Roundtree (the funny Brad Oscar). But what is a sweet “woman of a certain age” doing? Well, she does have the help of a strong, uber powerful, yet soft-hearted, sensitive partner Lazarus (the winning, gorgeous-voiced Alan H. Green).
In the song “Mac Roundtree Theme Song,” Brad Oscar is the dirty, rotten scoundrel who will front them and “not go easily” against Annie and Lazarus, especially on his home turf in Ecuador. With this shades of the film Scarface, in the foreground, we understand the stakes have been raised and Roundtree is worse than Shiro Jin has let on to Annie and Lazarus. Indeed, their boss may be sacrificing Annie for her own agenda to kill Roundtree. Furthermore, Lazarus and Annie are counter intuitive partners; Lazarus finds her hard to accept and she is dismissive of him. Just before they end up at Roundtree’s mansion in the jungle, Lazarus does confront his demons with the ensemble’s help in”Feelings.” Alan H. Green is just plain out hysterical as he sings Lazarus’ inner angst.
As they confront Roundtree’s allurements/prostitutes who gain information about the man and woman are who have come to Roundtree’s empire, the ensemble pulls out all the stops and performs the smashing “The Song of Janessa.” And it is then that the creators, once more, interject two twists in characterization and plot as the arc of development spins into an unexpected direction. Lazarus and Annie discover with a brief touch of the hand, they are attracted to one another (“Aint No Thing”). The second dynamic twist I will not reveal because it is a delicious reversal of a reversal and this is no spoiler alert. Suffice to say that Annie and Lazarus make a fascinating discovery which brings the production to an insightful and intensifying end of Act I. When Act II lifts into the heavens you are ready to hold beats and join Annie and Lazarus for the more surprises.
The production flies high with the performances that are campy, yet heartfelt. Standouts are the principals, Green, Golden and Oscar. The ensemble in movement, dance with powerful voices is exceptional. Thanks to Werner’s direction and choreography the show leaps from scene to energetic scene to the jazzy, funky, pop score beautifully rendered by Geoffrey KO, with Charlie Rosen’s Music Supervision & Orchestrations. Just great!
I also enjoyed the fine use of projection and video by Brad Peterson whose designs were the best I’ve seen Off Broadway. They melded with the Lighting Design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and both sparked up and enhanced the tone and style of this musical, especially in the fight scenes, and Lazarus’ driving his sweet truck sequence. Kudos to Michael Schwelkardt for functional, clever scenic design, Sarafina Bush’s costume design (especially for the ensemble during “The Song of Janessa”) and Cody Spencer’s excellent sound design.
Broadway Bounty Hunter is at the Greenwich House Theater on 27 Barrow Street until 15 September. Reimagined, it moved from Barrington Stage Company where it had a critically acclaimed, sold-out run, to land in the city where the story of Annie Golden begins and ends triumphantly after she goes to South America to deal with a hardened drug pusher criminal. The production will probably have legs and continue to move. Regardless, if it goes uptown, it is a must see that is a unique, enjoyable ride into the past future. Female Bounty Hunters need to do more bad ass kicking the patriarchy before the election cycle is done. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
Posted by caroleditosti
From its clever sets, to its powerful performances to its high-energy music and interesting development of the “coming of age” nano-technology enhanced “hero” journey, the Broadway musical Be More Chill is unforgettable entertainment. The show trends deeper than what some critics have posited and throws a number of curve balls, morphing away from the prototypical “teen angst” genre plot-lines, that have been around since forever.
The production, based on the titular novel by Ned Vizzini (2004) with music and lyrics by Joe Iconis and book by Joe Tracz is a frenetic, suspenseful, thrill-ride, propelled by the powerful, gorgeous voices of the ensemble. Tiffany Mann, who portrays Jenna Rolan, and George Salazar who portrays the “hero’s” friend Michael Mell are anointed knockouts, Will Roland the “hero-anti-hero” who takes us on his mental journey to Be More Chill, convinces roundly as he morphs from plaintive, outsider, loser, underdog to the suave, perfection-laced, enviable top cat of his New Jersey high school social hierarchy. Stephanie Hsu is Christine his conscience, his authentic “other half” his love interest. This glorious, well choreographed (by Chase Brock), vibrant production is cleverly shepherded by Stephen Brackett.
The storyline is an ironic spin-out and twitting/send-up of recent techno-films and social media hype fueled by Instagram and Twitter. It gyrates with ancillary references to computer geeks and dweebs, Incels and dorks and the power domination of digital dictator wannabes, A.I. and computers that animate with a H.A.L. complex (reference to the super computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey).
The story is futuristic modern, and almost believable as we consider scientific advancements in nano-technology and chip implantation. The MO of seeing people and events through one fascist perspective is also given a spin. This stance that reflects the most unenlightened of our cultural folkways, demeaning humanity and cauterizing empathy by categorizing individuals as “winners or losers,” is ridiculed. Be More Chill shreds the superficiality and unreality of success values mirrored in our cultural institutions, for example, the fashion industry, the advertising industry, the financial industry, etc. which dictate what it means to be “with it” or “beautiful” or “chill.” These values are impossible but for their added purpose to insure profitability and competition between and among genders and ethnic groups. Such success values have been employed as a tool of fascism to decry human beings’ souls and spirits and perpetuate divisions among people instead of emphasizing our shared humanity. This theme is emphasized and the protagonist learns about this by the conclusion.
The thematic threads initiate in a seemingly simplistic plot of “loser kid wants to fit in.” Not! In “More Than Survive” Jeremy Heere (the sensitive Will Roland) identifies how he defines himself as a loser; he has internalized the greater cultural values and applied them to his own individual situation. Though the milieu is high school, “the loser” metaphor Jeremy uses to abuse and torment himself is everywhere in the larger culture, the macrocosm, which the high school reflects as a microcosm. It has even been expressed with vehemence in the culture of the current White House, and especially to denigrate individuals “viewed” as enemies.
This irony enhances the production’s currency and amplifies the theme that this designation of identity (winners vs. losers) should be anathema. Looking deeper, we note in the production that the winner/loser construct is employed by the miserable protagonist Jeremy, who internalizes the cultural success mores then tortures himself with them because he continually falls short in his own perception. And the construct is employed by the unscrupulous SQUIP (the wicked, manipulative Jason Tam) to manipulate, con and gain power. Unfortunately, whether for young or old, rich or poor, the construct promulgates noxious values that destroy inner peace and force individuals to further harm themselves to stop that destruction in a tragic cycle. This is one of many vital truths that by the conclusion Jeremy begins to understand as he moves on his journey deeper into his own psyche and soul and attempts to heal.
We “get” the hell and misery Jeremy experiences as an “invisible nothing” who is tormented by bully Rich Goranski (the excellent Gerard Canonico) in the high school bathroom. Jeremy just wants to make it to the next day without pain. And he wants to be with Christine (the quirky, adorable and versatile Stephanie Hsu) who adores being in plays. We catch the humor and irony as she sings with fervor “I Love Play Rehearsal.” Jeremy follows her to audition for the school play but is overawed by her presence.
When Rich offers him an opportunity to become “visible” to himself and others, Jeremy is intrigued. He must do something to annihilate that loser part of himself which he interprets as ugly to others and himself. He gets “assistance,” but not through alcohol, opioids, drugs, joining white supremacist groups, cults, etc., or other means that individuals use to nullify their pain and seek comfort and/or acceptance. The “assistance” he gets is appealing for a “geek,” “nerd,” potential “Incel” like Jeremy, but as it turns out, it appeals to anyone who is not in touch with their own being.
The assistance comes in the form of a SQUIP (Super Quantum Unit Intel Processor) that Rich tells him about in “The Squip Song.” Though Jeremy has a close friend Michael with whom he discusses swallowing this illegal, pill-like processor from Japan, he ignores Michael’s counsel and encouragement in “Two-Player Game.” This rousing song with projections, lighting and multicolored staging frames, places the two friends within the “Apocalypse of the Damned,” Level 9 video game during which they pledge friendship to “catch each other’s backs.” Such pledges turn upside-down; Michael has greater inner strength. Jeremy succumbs to his weaknesses and seeks the change he believes the SQUIP can bring him in the song “Be More Chill.”
The SQUIP (Jason Tam in a superbly nuanced and mesmerizing performance) animates and becomes the guide through Jeremy’s own self-made virtual reality game in his mind. Only Jeremy visualizes, syncs with and “processes” the SQUIP who mentors him in how to negotiate the high school social strata and knock out “adversaries” with such aplomb they become his friends. To converse with him in Jeremy’s mind the SQUIP conforms to whatever celebrity or anime Jeremy chooses, if he doesn’t like the default mode which is Keanu Reeves (a send-up of the film franchise The Matrix-1999, The Matrix Reloaded-2003, etc.).
In this funny scene, the SQUIP offers to change to other personas, i.e. Beyonce, Batman or a sexy anime cat girl with a tail. Jeremy identifies with the default mode Reeves. Tam is hysterical as he replicates Reeves and dresses in outfits suggested by The Matrix (thanks to the hot, clever costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II). Tam’s SQUIP speaks and moves like Reeves, but with sinister tinges of evil, dark insinuation. He is charming and Tam mines just enough enough of the SQUIP’s likability to make him adorable fun. Tam’s performance is “over-the-top” fabulous in its nuanced development and march toward nefariousness.
By degrees, the SQUIP helps Jeremy transform into another being; his optic nerve changes and Jeremy jettisons his dweeby glasses. He uncannily behaves with such perfection, he masters the right conversation for every social interaction, thus he manipulates every person, regardless of circumstance to get what he wants. No girl is too “Stacy” for him as they perceive him as a Chad (Incel-speak for master-race male and female physical types). Brooke (Lauren Marcus) and Chloe (Katyln Carlson), who are both “Stacys” find him attractive and attempt to be with him in the song “Do You Wanna Ride?” which Marcus and Carlson sing with humorous, ripe suggestion.
However, Jeremy doesn’t feel comfortable in this new persona until the SQUIP gradually brainwashes him to release his personality including his ethics, kindness and sensitivity to achieve “success.” We see how the SQUIP in “Be More Chill Part 2,” Sync Up” and “Upgrade” gets off on the power-trip of dominating Jeremy’s every thought. Using the SQUIP’s advice to overcome his fears and suppress his true self, Jeremy lacks the understanding and confidence to accept his own individuality.
Though Jeremy learns to obey all the SQUIP’s commands (he reminds us of a well-tuned robotic psychopath…especially in the latter part of ACT II) Jeremy still can’t manipulate Christine to like him (“A Guy That I’d Kinda Be Into.”) Her authenticity, perceptiveness and rejection of superficial values give her the power to rise above and sit in her own confidence. By the end of Act I Jeremy is convinced that he must “give it his all,” ignore his friend Michael and eliminate all elements of Jeremy 1.0 (“the old school analog”) and upgrade himself to give “popularity” a try (“Loser Geek Whatever”). Accepting the SQUIP completely, in his virtual reality game, he is “ready player 1” (a reference to the titular film by Spielberg). The lyrics to the song reference acceptance of a noxious narcissistic attitude when Jeremy sings, “I’ve earned the right to selfishly, be all for one and one for me.” Of course, it is this attitude the other students desire. Like Jeremy, they are unhappy and miserable feeling like they are their own definition of “losers.”
By Act II the SQUIP goes full throttle in uber control mode. This develops in an explosion that reveals the hidden conflicts and the dangers of “the SQUIP UNIVERSE” which entraps, then metastasizes so the other students (who are “tired of being the person that everyone thinks they are”) are synced together. Tam’s SQUIP effectively sings how this can occur in “The Pitiful Children.” Meanwhile, the SQUIP has become the full blown psychopathic dictator who will “not be shut down” or kicked out of Jeremy’s or others’ psyches easily. This metaphoric symbolism is iconic. How does one remove internalized fascist values that have been growing in cultural social consciousness since before we were born?
In a worsening irony, it appears that Jeremy has moved over toward becoming a robotic anti-human manipulator. He even refers to his father as a loser from his exalted, narcissistic height of success. Mr. Heere, the excellent Jason Sweettooth Williams who plays multiple roles, brings down the house with George Salazar’s Michael in “The Pants Song” as they join forces to restore Jeremy to “his right mind.” Another “bring down the house number” Salazar sings by himself is “Michael in the Bathroom.” Salazar’s fury, hurt, shock, manifests palpably so that we completely empathize with Michael. All of us have been where he has been emotionally. Salazar rocks the song with dignity and power.
The production was workshopped regionally, shaped, with prodigious effort and its music shared cleverly on Social Media before it landed Off Broadway in a limited run and sold-out crowds at the Pershing Square Signature Center. It has been adroitly enhanced for its open-ended run on Broadway. The stylized sets remind one of a video game that we enter with the cast. And the production is highly metaphoric. Like Jeremy, we are the protagonists of our own video games/films/plays. This metaphor is realized and extended throughout this production’s artistic design.
Kudos to Beowulf Boritt (Scenic Design) Bobby Frederick Tilley II (Costume Design) Tyler Micoleau (Lighting Design) Ryan Rumery (Sound Design) Alex Basco Koch (Projection Design) Dave Bova (Wig and Make Up Design) J. David Brimmer (Fight Diretor) Michael Aarons (Music Coordinator) Emily Marshall (Music Direction and Vocal Arrangements) Charlie Rosen (Music Supervision and Orchestrations) Chase Brock (Choreography).
Special praise for Alex Basco Koch’s projections which suggested brain synapse patterns, processing chips, electrical pulsations, video games and more.