Clueless, The Musical is a “blast from the past.” The opening projections flash photographs of people we associate with the 1990s (Bill Clinton, the Baldwins, etc.). A voice-over and vocals by Cher (Dove Cameron), her maid and others sing the song (Beautiful Life) from Ace of Base’s The Sign. The sweet, gorgeous teenage Cher, sums up her privilege, happiness and the fun of her “Beautiful Life,” with enthusiasm and hopefulness. Heckerling wrote and directed the beloved film Clueless, the basis for this Off-Broadway musical presented by The New Group and directed by Kristin Hanggi. Heckerling also contributed with lyrics.
The production in its world premiere is splendid! Especially if you love the film Clueless, you must see Clueless, The Musical. Truly, the music, dancing and spot-on singing by the principals adds to the exuberance, excitement and energy of the original story and characters.
The film Clueless was a smash comedy hit which still stands today because of the superb acting, tight screenplay and Heckerling’s clever, tongue-in-cheek direction. At the time of the film we enjoyed ranking on the Beverly Hills lifestyles of the rich and not so famous kids. Gritty New Yorkers riffed about their asinine assumptions, expectations and privileged boorishness. Clueless’s protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone was wonderful in the part), is an airhead, but her saving grace is her loving, generous nature and her ability to admit fault and reform.
Sounds familiar? The plot is an update of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. Heckerling performed a yeowoman’s effort in morphing times and settings and nailing with humor and irony Austin’s characters and their romances. In her adaptation, the modern events she selects to illuminate the growth of the characters are grand. The same applies for the musical.
Taking her successful film Clueless and transposing it into a musical, using 1990s music hits and adapting the lyrics to sync with the characters and situations, may seem a risky venture. Why? Many of us are up to our eyeballs in presumptuous rich folks, whose sense of privilege is nauseating. However, those who know Clueless appreciate the arc of Cher’s development, her foibles, her ridiculousness and her sparkling intelligence. As a character ripe for development and shaping, Heckerling has crafted a modern teen with whom women can identify and like, and men can find appealing.
Furthermore, Cher’s goodness is the antithesis of the privileged, ungenerous social set currently in political power in this nation, you know, those who would put children in cages at the border. Cher probably would be working with Miss Geist to do fund raisers to collect donations for the ACLU to help asylum seekers. Indeed, in seeing the safer, purer time of the 1990s, Clueless, The Musical is a relief, especially since our eyes have been opened and we are reeling from Trumpism in a divided country. This production is just what we need to ESCAPE from the present turmoil and chaos, sit back and have some much deserved fun being entertained without thinking about anything politically earth-shattering.
The production jets us back in time when the culture was carefree, the economy was hopping and Bill Clinton was the light-hearted, saxophone-playing president on The Late Show. Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinsky are nowhere in sight. The setting is a time before Y2K, the Dot.com meltdown and horrors of 9/11. A funny joke from the 1990s? “What is Forrest Gump’s password?” Answer: 1Forrest1.
From the outset Cher assures us in song that her situation is beautiful. We understand that though she is from the upper class, she has suffered the loss of her mom. Well, to liposuction. (This gets a laugh.) Continually, Cher tries to get her Dad (Chris Hoch portrays all the adult males in her life, including her DMV Instructor, and speech teacher Mr. Hall) to eat right so she won’t lose another parent. Also, part of the family is her X-step brother Josh (David Thomas Brown). During Cher’s song, we become acquainted with the important people in her life, her schoolmates, best friend Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), her Dad and Josh. We also meet the various school cliques and learn that Cher is a member of the cool, happening crowd.
If you love the film Clueless, you will enjoy Clueless, The Musical. Essentially, the scenes and conflicts are similar with the same funny characters: the vacant Tai (Ephie Aardema), the snooty Amber (Danielle Marie Gonzalez) who we despise because she is like THOSE folks who are arrogant, privileged and presumptuous. Travis (Will Connolly), Miss Geist (Megan Sikora), Elton (Brett Thiele) Mr. Hall (Chris Hoch), Christian (Justin Mortelliti) round out the cast. A word about the ensemble. They are fantastic. Dove Cameron’s voice, movement and portrayal of Cher shines with adorableness and ingenuousness.
Cher’s friends Dionne and Tai are deftly rendered by Zurin Villanueva and Ephie Aardema, both of whom have fine voices. Tai is the new girl who Cher and Dionne take under their wing. They give her pointers like keeping away from the “grassy knoll” where the stoners like Travis (whom Tai likes), hang out.
The situations rock on. And the events follow in sequence humorously like in the film. Some of these include Cher negotiating an upswing in her grades, the party scene when Tai becomes interested in Elton, Cher’s mugging in the parking lot, the school dance when Josh watches over Cher and Christian, and the hysterical scene when Dionne mistakenly ends up on the Freeway. There is even Cher’s Driving Test.
The Driving Test is a turning point. After Cher fails she is insulted by Tai. But then she has a moment of realization. She must stop being “clueless,” must work toward the social good and turn herself around to be less narcissistic. At the bottom of her attempting to be match maker for Tai, she eventually acknowledges she yearns to make her own match. Finally, her match-making “prowess” pays off. By the time the students celebrate the wedding of Mr. Hall and Ms Geist she’s caught someone. Thankfully, happy endings do occur.
Each of these events are heightened with the music the energetic dance numbers and Heckerling’s dialogue interspersed with the songs to elucidate the action and feelings of the characters. Many 1990s music groups are featured as well as solo artists: Jill Souble (“Supermodel”), Acqua (“Valley Girls”), Deee’Lite (“Groove is in The Heart”), Natalie Imbruglia (“Torn”), En Vogue (“My Lovin'”), Spin Doctors (“Little Miss Cant’ Be Wrong”), Joan Osbourne (“One of Us”), N’SYNC (“Bye, Bye, Bye”) and more. The dialogue overlaps with the songs as some are reprised.
One noted change which clearly is an update occurs as Heckerling deepens the character of Christian. Indeed, Christian confides in Cher about being gay. He intimates it in one song and then confirms it in another song and they become friends. Justin Mortelliti does a fine job with his acting, singing and dancing in these scenes. Likewise, the songs which infer Cher’s and Josh’s growing feelings for each other engage us. The music heightens the ebullient atmosphere. The dancing, vibrant costumes and complementary scenic design cohere to make Clueless, The Musical a delight.
Mention must be made to the following musicians in the orchestra: Matthew Smedal, Charles Santoro, Marc Malsegna, David Lina-Burg, Amanda Ruzza, Adam Wolfe. And Kudos to Kelly Devine for choreography, Beowulf Boritt for scenic design, Amy Clark for costume design, Jason Lyons for lighting design, Gareth Owen for sound design, Darrel Maloney for projection design and Matthew Smedal for music direction. Music supervision, arrangement and orchestration is by Ethan Popp.
Clueless, The Musical presented by The New Group runs with one intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The production closes on 12 January 2019. You may pick up tickets at their website.
Edie Falco and Michael McKean as Rumored Lovers in ‘The True’ by Sharr White, Directed by Scott Elliott
During my undergraduate and graduate college days and afterward (1970s), I lived in Albany, New York, the setting of The True. Familiarizing myself with the city during those years, I learned about Albany’s political and social structure. Friends who were aides to state congressmen used to discuss the corruption problems in Albany’s Democratic machine. Other friends, some of them Black Panthers, discussed the white communities’ racial discrimination and local government injustices. In those years, the Irish controlled Albany city and county. And Dan O’Connell as Party Chairman helped Mayor Erastus Corning II govern the city for decades.
On one level I knew about the background of Sharr White’s subject matter and characters in The True. There were no surprises. He based the characters on research about real personalities. On the other hand, the playwright’s perspective on the characters held many surprises. Indeed, his exploration of how power and the ties that solidify power bathe in loyalty appear fascinating in the backdrop of today’s leaking political climate. As a result, The True, ably directed by Scott Elliott and impeccably acted by Edie Falco, Michael McKean, and the ensemble, ignites with humor and intrigue.
White mostly depicts Albany’s machine politics with a positive twist. Ostensibly, hooked-in communities backed the Democrats for good old-fashioned patronage. Their loyalty was rewarded with various types of assistance and employment. The Democratic Party took care of widows and orphans. They got jobs for those who needed help. In exchange the voters listened to their committeemen. And they formed a solid community. Furthermore, they remained loyal to the party until death. As for those who wanted a political career, they worked their way up the ladder, moved from position to position until they achieved glory. Of course they had to live in Albany for all of their lives. Erastus Corning II was such an individual.
But Republicans struggled. They received higher tax bills and other infelicities. Meanwhile, the outsider black community feared Corning’s police. Though injustices raged, they kept their heads down except for a few attempts at protest (by The Brothers). From my outsiders’ perspective a negative mythology about O’Connell’s machine and Mayor Corning II swirled around the capital of New York State. White’s The True rounded out my perspective and brought additional considerations into view.
Interestingly, no clouds of malfeasance penetrate Sharr White’s world of Albany politics, though characters discuss or deny rumors. Instead, White provides a human portrait of individuals. He particularly focuses on the relationship between Corning II (Michael McKean) and secretary and close friend Peggy Noonan (Edie Falco). Though Albany social circles intimated they had a love relationship, White’s play concentrates on their bonds surrounding politics. The ferocious loyalty Noonan has to Corning II as the do-gooding Mayor of Albany is the centerpiece of the play. Yet, questions about their relationship serve as the conflict. When a wedge develops between Corning II and Noonan, their reactions drive the action and stir the characterizations.
Ingeniously, White gives us the insider’s perspective “in the rooms where loyalties happened.” The play opens after Dan O’Connell’s funeral (1977), at friends Peter and Peggy Noonan’s home where Erastus Corning II frequently hangs for comfort and advice. With humorous interplay, Edie Falco portrays Peggy Noonan’s vibrance, determination, and foul-mouthed, steely brilliance. Her political acumen appears greater than that of her male counterparts. Supported by her affable, agreeable, clever, non-political husband Peter (Peter Scolari), they discuss Corning II’s options.
Because Corning II is not O’Connell’s pronounced heir apparent, he is swimming in dark waters after the party boss’s death. We divine that the entire organization (machine) and reins of power are up for grabs. Indeed, Peggy stirs the pot by reminding “Rasty” that the tough O’Connell operative Charlie Ryan (John Pankow) will kick Corning II, whom he dislikes, to the curb. When McKean’s Corning II appears to wobble, Falco clobbers him with the truth of the loss of power that will occur and why and how it will occur. The changing of the guard (few politicians will care about their constituents) will sink Corning II. The lack of loyalty will give others a wedge to undermine the Democratic party’s strength at nurturing its communities.
Falco’s Noonan cajoles with logic, wit, and sarcasm. She delivers quips with sass and spunk and verve. As we note her determination in stirring McKean’s “Rasty” we note their closeness. For his part McKean’s portrait of Corning II remains measured, thoughtful, avuncular. No stench of corruption, rapacious ambition, or ruthlessness follows this likable mayor. Indeed, the portrayal reveals an emotional, deep individual. We note he stays because he yearns for the companionship of his trusted friends. Rather than go home to his wife Betty as Polly suggests, he receives sustenance from them, especially Polly. For his part, Peter listens and participates, generously pouring drinks and good will.
Yet, we question. Why would another man’s wife curate so vehemently the political career of a friend? Why not his own wife? Noonan as Corning’s former secretary means so much more to him than his wife Betty does. Indeed, she appears to be the finest political advisor a politician could have. On closer inspection we understand that this politician is married to his party and career. By design, Polly comes with the package. Thoughtfully, White lightly suggests that their bond did or may sneak beyond the elusive depths of his political career toward intimacy.
Sharr White develops this intriguing notion throughout. Notably, he presents a complex answer by degrees underneath various personality layers and sharp Noonan retorts to Rasty’s rivals. One obvious theme concerns Noonan’s gender. Undoubtedly, at a different time and place, Peggy Noonan would have stepped from behind the scenes to make a grand committeewoman or state congresswoman herself. However, because of gender limitations, she must settle for being Rasty’s brilliant adviser, counselor, and cattle prod, which she adores being. Also, she must wear the filthy smear of the “other woman,” in infamy. For decades it remains a slander from which she receives no benefit.
White shows us the turning point when McKean’s Corning II must give up his association with Peggy “to stop people from talking.” However, that does not stop Noonan’s persistence. She remains “the true.” Loyal to Corning II, she fights for him against his adversaries. And she properly divines the polls where others fail, even Rasty. Finally with only days to spare, we follow her intrigues as she puts together a deal which saves Rasty’s career and convinces a remorseful McKean’s Rasty he should never have left her association.
What a woman! A political wheeler-dealer bar none! In fact White reveals that Erastus Corning II might have languished in the graveyard of failed politicians without her help and Peter’s friendship. By comparison, Corning II’s own family situation appears worse than bleak, isolated and friendless. No forthcoming career help there.
The True succeeds on many levels: the fascinating characters, the acting, the directing. Though the individuals are factual, White teases out the emotional tenor between and among the Noonans and Corning II. Importantly, the playwright depicts an incredible force in Noonan. And Falco portrays her with that particularity inherent in one who is wise, ferocious, logical, politically savvy, and street smart. Also, she happens to be a woman who cares about people, as she suggests that O’Connell and Corning II and the Democratic Party cared about the “have nots.” For me this refreshing inside revelation about a vital and unlikely conductor politically leading a symphony of men strikes with authenticity.
The production is a must-see for Falco’s dogged portrayal, with adroit assists by McKean, Scolari and the rest of the cast. Austin Caldwell portrays Bill McCormick, Glenn Fitzgerald depicts Howard C. Nolan, and John Pankow portrays Charlie Ryan. Kudos go to the creative team: Derek McLane (scenic design), Clint Ramos (costume design), Jeff Croiter (lighting design), Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design & music composition). The True runs at The Pershing Square Signature Center until 28 October. If you don’t purchase tickets soon, it will be sold out. For tickets Click HERE.
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.