Sweat on Broadway: A Timely Look at American Desperation

Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” opens tonight at Studio 54, marking the Pulitzer-winning playwright’s Broadway debut, as well as that  of five of its nine cast members.  It is opening less than five months after its debut Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in November. The creative team and the production are largely the same, as are eight of the nine cast members; the newcomer is Alison Wright, who is best-known as Martha in the FX TV series, The Americans. She portrays Jessie (pictured at far left in the photograph above). The photographs on this page are of the Broadway production. Below is my review of “Sweat” when it opened at the Public Theater:

 Like Grapes of Wrath, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation.  The characters in Sweat live in Reading, Pennsylvania, which 2010 U.S. Census data identified as the poorest city in America.

They are current, former and (they fully expect) future employees of a local factory, and they hang out together in a neighborhood bar, where most  of the play takes place.

But Sweat begins in what looks like a dark prison, with a parole officer talking to a young sullen white man, Jason, whose face is covered with white supremacist tattoos.  Then, separately, the parole officer talks to a young black man, Chris, also recently released from prison. It is 2008,  Jason and Chris are connected in some way, and we are left with a question: What happened?

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

The scene shifts to the bar in 2000, and we see that Chris and a boyish, clean-faced Jason (with no tattoos) are fast friends, as are their mothers, Tracey and Cynthia. The question becomes: How did this change?  It’s a crafty set-up, because the question doesn’t just pique our curiosity and create suspense; it’s the heart of the play thematically as well. As Jason puts it later, “How the f… did this happen?”  How did this solid town – and by extension, a significant swath of the working population in America — implode?   If, as Nottage has said in interviews, they were victims of the “de-industrial revolution,” Sweat isn’t as concerned with answering as in bringing us into the world of her credible, engaging characters, embodied by a terrific cast.

The play is the product of Nottage’s extensive field research (as was her Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, and as was John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.) But it never feels like research.

Unlike the Joads, the group of people in Sweat are not all related by blood; they have formed a sort of family of friends, across divides of race and ethnicity.  Cynthia, Tracey and a third woman, Jessie, are long-time workers at the Olstead’s factory, and friends for almost as long; they have created a tradition of celebrating their birthdays at the bar. Stan, the bartender, worked for 28 years at Olstead’s, until a workplace injury forced him out of his job. He knows and likes everybody, and the feeling is mutual.

There are hints of tension from the get-go. For one, Cynthia is estranged from her husband (and Chris’s father) Brucie; he is part of a long and fruitless union-organized fight against a different factory, and has turned to drugs for relief.  And then everybody is treated amiably except the other employee of the bar, Oscar, who might as well be invisible.  In a nice example of director Kate Whoriskey’s attention to telling details, while the others chat away and ignore him, Oscar silently crawls under the tables in order to scrape gum off the bottom.

But the strains between some of the characters are the exceptions; there is a feeling of general comity – until it is shattered when the company starts making clear its ominous plans for cost reductions.

What might have been under the surface all along, explodes into envy, resentment and prejudice, fanned by the plant’s divisive actions. Oscar, of Latino descent, shows Tracey a flyer from the company, written in Spanish, advertising job openings (at lower pay.)

“I’m not prejudice…I’m cool with everyone” Tracey says. “But, I mean… C’mon… you guys coming over here, you can get a job faster than…”

“I was born here,” Oscar interrupts.

“Still,” Tracey says, “you wasn’t born here, Berks” – the county where Reading is located.

“Yeah, I was.”

The exchange lands perfectly, thanks to the in-your-face performance  by Broadway veteran Johanna Day (Proof, August: Osage County, You Can’t Take It With You) as Tracey, and the winning mix of diffidence and determination by Carlo Alban as Oscar.

Michelle Wilson is equally effective as Cynthia, who is given a suspiciously-timed promotion that makes her the enemy in the eyes of her friends, and tears her apart.

Will Pullen, who was frighteningly believable as the bully in Punk Rock,  is spectacular once again as Jason, switching back and forth between the eager innocent of 2000 and the deflated loser of 2008.

Khris Davis, who made an impressive New York stage debut in an intense performance as the first black boxing champ in The Royale, here appropriately scales it back as Chris, a bright young man saving up money to go to college, trying to escape what everybody else accepts as predestined.

James Colby as Stan gives a performance that grows in power, and winds up central to Sweat’s ending. It’s an ending that may or may not stand as a metaphor for what’s happening in America, but is guaranteed to make you cry.

Sweat
Studio 54

Production Staff
Theatre Owned / Operated by Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes: Artistic Director/CEO; Julia C. Levy: Executive Director; Sydney Beers: General Manager; Steve Dow: Chief Administrative Officer)
Produced by Stuart Thompson and Louise Gund
Co-commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage (Molly Smith, Artistic Director; Edgar Dobie, Executive Director); Produced off-Broadway by The Public Theater (Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director; Patrick Willingham, Executive Director)
Written by Lynn Nottage; Original Music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Scenic Design by John Lee Beatty; Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg
General Manager: Thompson Turner Productions; Company Manager: Daniel Hoyos
Production Manager: Aurora Productions; Production Stage Manager: Donald Fried
Press Representative: Boneau / Bryan-Brown; Advertising: SPOTCo, Inc.
Cast
Carlo Albán Broadway debut as Oscar; James Colby as Stan; Khris Davis Broadway debut as Chris; Johanna Day  as Tracey; John Earl Jelks as Brucie. Will Pullen Broadway debut as Jason; Lance Coadie Williams Broadway debut as Evan; Michelle Wilson as Cynthia; Alison Wright Broadway debut as Jessie
Understudies: Benton Greene (Brucie, Chris, Evan), Hunter Hoffman (Jason), Steve Key (Stan), Deirdre Madigan (Jessie, Tracey), Lisa Renee Pitts (Cynthia) and Reza Salazar (Oscar)

Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Tickets: $59 to $149

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Poll: Best Broadway Show Adapted From A Movie?

What is the best Broadway show adapted from a movie? Choose from the two dozen below, listed alphabetically, or add one that’s not on the list.

It wasn’t until 1970 that a Broadway show based on a movie won the Tony for best musical. Fittingly, the musical was Applause, inspired by All About Eve, a movie about the theater. Now every major Hollywood studio has a theatrical division, looking to create shows for Broadway, and every Broadway season includes a number of musicals that are based on movies. Next month alone, four new shows will open on Broadway based on original  movies (whose movie posters are picured above.) Add  to these the seven screen-to-stage adaptations already currently on Broadway.

Miss Saigon: Review, pics

The first Broadway revival of Miss Saigon is being marketed as the return of a classic. But, if the show has become an undeniable fan favorite, the production’s impressive visual spectacle, lively staging and crowd-pleasing vocal calisthenics cannot completely mask a script that leans heavily on emotional manipulation and one-dimensional storytelling.

Full review in DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy or Michael Le Poer Trench to see it enlarged.

Broadway Originals of This Season’s Revivals

Below are scenes from the original productions of the 11 Broadway plays and musicals that are being revived, for the second, fifth, or 16th time, this season on Broadway.

Click on any photograph below to learn details of each show, organized more or less chronologically by the opening date of the original production.

For details on the revivals, check out Broadway 2016-2017 Preview Guide

The Price on Broadway With Danny DeVito: Pics, Review

Danny DeVito, making his Broadway debut, gets the best deal out of The Price. Arthur Miller is not a playwright known for comically colorful characters, yet here’s DeVito as Gregory Solomon, a Jewish acrobat turned 89-year-old used furniture dealer who “smoked all my life, I drinked, and I loved every woman who would let me.”

DeVito’s character is the most enjoyable but not a central one in Miller’s sober family drama, now getting its fifth production on Broadway, in a cast that also includes Mark Ruffalo, Jessica Hecht and Tony Shalhoub. If none are at their absolute best here, that only means that all of them at one time or another have given performances that have left me in awe.In the play — which is also not Miller’s absolute best — Shalhoub and Mark Ruffalo are estranged brothers who meet in their childhood home years after their parents’ death in order to sell off their old possessions before the building is torn down. The meeting turns into a confrontation, with secrets revealed, the past unearthed. The price is not just what Solomon will give them for the furniture but what the characters have paid for past choices and lost chances.

Full review at D.C. Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

 

Come From Away on Broadway: Review, Video and Pics

“Come From Away” tells the story of the 9,000 residents of Gander, Newfoundland who took care of some 7,000 passengers and crew of 38 airplanes that were forced to land at the local airport because of the September 11, 2001 attacks. The production has gained fans for its foot-stomping Celtic-flavored music, the tight ensemble work of its 12-member cast, and its heartwarming view of humanity, as it’s traveled from La Jolla to Seattle to D.C. to Toronto. But now that it’s in New York, it has to deal with people like me.

As I wrote on the 15th anniversary of September 11th,I was across the street from the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001 when they were attacked. When an out-of-town friend visiting New York recently bought me a ticket to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, I couldn’t bring myself to go.

So I was worried that Come from Away would, in contemporary parlance, be triggering. But the exact opposite occurred. The Canadian song writing team of Irene Sankoff and David Hein are so eager to please that Come From Away keeps a safe distance from the horror of 9/11.

Come From Away focuses on the kindness of strangers, and how they ease the fear and inconvenience of the “plane people,” some 1,500 miles away from any real danger.

This is not really a “9/11 musical,” then, but it will certainly be seen that way. The question thus arises: Are we so battered by the trauma of actual events that the only stage depictions we welcome about them are feel-good entertainment?

The answer seems to be yes,  judging by the enthusiastic embrace of this musical

Full review at D.C. Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.

The Glass Menagerie with Sally Field: Review and Pics

Sam Gold, the innovative director who won a Tony for Fun Home, has cast Sally Field in a new Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie that doesn’t include a glass menagerie! And that’s among the least intrusive of Gold’s directorial choices, which theatergoers weaned on Williams must struggle to reconcile with the playwright’s beloved text….

The absence of a display on stage of the glass animal figurines that give the play its title reflects the minimalist set at the elegant Belasco Theater…The play unfolds on a bare stage, with just a table and a few chairs…

Sally Field… is angry, bitter and no-nonsense. When she recalls the 17 gentleman callers of her youth, she is not immersing herself in the fantasy world of her genteel Southern upbringing, she is full of resentment for having chosen the wrong beau to marry, the long-absent father of her children

Full review at DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Julieta Cervantes to see it enlarged.

The Great Comet: The Journey of A New Musical To Broadway. Book

Comet 3D Cover Image

As Lin-Manuel Miranda did with “Hamilton,” so Dave Malloy came up with the idea for his innovative hit Broadway musical, “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” while reading a book under the tropical sun. But Malloy wasn’t on vacation; he was working as a piano player on a cruise ship, which gave him enough spare time to plow through Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Both musicals, then, began with a book. Each is now also the subject of a similar elaborate coffee table book, oversized and authorized. (Hamilton’s was “Hamilton the Revolution.”)

The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway“(Sterling Publishing, 2016) traces the improbable evolution of a musical that began with an unknown cast in tiny, experimental Ars Nova, an 87-seat Off-Off Broadway house, and wound up at Broadway’s 1,200-seat Imperial Theater, starring Josh Groban (He leaves July, 2017)

The book’s 212 pages includes the full libretto of the musical, annotated by Malloy; some full-page, full-color photographic spreads; and 18 chapters, each written by a different key player in the show – author, director, producers, designers, stars. As an extra treat and inducement, a CD with five of the songs is placed snugly in a pocket in the inside back cover.

Such an elaborate book can be said to function – much the way the show itself does – as a counterargument to our society’s growing digital dominance. This is a book that is only available in hardcover. (at least for the moment.)

In his chapter, Malloy details his inspiration for the musical. He chose to dramatize 70 pages from Tolstoy’s novel (Volume 2, chapter 5 – or, if your edition isn’t divided up that way, Book 8.) In order not to retain Tolstoy’s “voice” – “I’ve often joked that in Tolstoy I had the best collaborator” – he put the entire novel in a Word document, “and just started whittling away…..the experiment was to put a novel onstage” – which is why there are few rhymes in the lyrics.
He was also greatly inspired by a recent visit he had made through a tangle of desolate back alleys to a raucous bar in Moscow. He wanted to recreate that feel. Set designer Mimi Lien got to work. For the interior (as she explains in her chapter), “I wanted everyone to feel like they were walking into a velvet-lined Faberge egg.” But she wanted to contrast this “lush, czarist Russia” with the feel of the back alleys through which Malloy had navigated to get to the Moscow bar. Lien saw this as stark “post-Cold War era,” which is why she transformed the hallway of the Imperial into ugly grey concrete decorated with ugly Russian posters. She saw this contrast as literally the contrast between war and peace – Tolstoy’s theme.

Lien adjusted her set design for its many venues, which included two different runs in a custom-built circus tent, one downtown in the Meat Market district, the other in the theater district. Commercial producer Howard Kagan explains how they came up with the tent — they couldn’t find a theater or any other already-built real estate in New York that could accommodate them — including a location where the local community board would approve both the performance and a fully-operating restaurant.
Not all the chapters are as intriguing. The book could have benefited from more aggressive editing to cut down on the repetition and gushing prose. (the book obviously went to press before the dispute between Arg Nova and the commercial producer over billing in the Playbill, although I somehow doubt this would have made it into the text.)

Malloy’s annotations of his script are erudite and sometimes technical. He reprints passages from Tolstoy’s novel that he adapted, or lifted outright, in the lyrics. He occasionally explains his musical influences, which range from Bjork to Les Miserables – and that’s just in one song (“Natasha Lost.”)
The annotations are occasionally more entertaining. Next to the text of the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov, he gives a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the duel in Hamilton, adding: “Who knew that Broadway would become such a duelfest.”
I enjoyed Malloy‘s comment on my favorite melody in the show, “Charming,” when Helene’s chorus is a rocking, tuneful “Charmante, Charmante.” It turns out she is mispronouncing the French word. “This very sly and subtle character touch was originally a result of my not having done very well in high school French,” Malloy writes, “and then later liking the supercool rhythm in the melody too much to change it. And Helene is a bit of a dilettante, and it’s actually pretty hilarious to me that she is so confidently butchering the French in the chorus of her big son, so….in the end, this works for me!”

In the end, The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway” will likely work for the bulk of its readers, those already fans of the musical.

Buy “The Great Comet: The Journey of a New Musical to Broadway

Significant Other Review: Dating in the Age of Bridezilla and Marriage Equality

In “Significant Other,” Jordan is a gay man who has three best friends he met in college, all women, each of whom in the course of Joshua Harmon’s play finds a mate and holds a fancy wedding, which Jordan attends like a loyal soldier going into enemy territory. Unsuccessful himself at finding his significant other, Jordan feels more and more cut off, and fearful of a life of loneliness. “Your wedding is my funeral,” Jordan says to the last and best of his friends, Laura.

If the basic plot were the sum total of “Significant Other,” it would be easier to dismiss as thin, repetitive and self-pitying. But what “Significant Other” has going for it is significant, especially some very funny moments and a supremely winning cast, all but one of them holdovers from the play’s Off-Broadway run last summer.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

 

Gideon Glick, who made his Broadway debut at the age of 18 as Ernst in the original “Spring Awakening,: is delightful as Jordan, as he interacts with his three friends — Kiki (a sassy Sas Goldberg), nervous Vanessa (Rebecca Naomi Jones, who acquits herself expertly in her first non-musical role on Broadway) and kind-hearted Laura (Lindsay Mendez, who is likewise fine in her first non-musical role on Broadway) – and with their significant others, as well as with the men he dates (all portrayed by two actors, John Behlmann and Luke Smith.)

Glick invests the role with just the right notes of comic awkwardness, energy, and warmth, accompanied by a consistent underscoring of melancholy. He makes his character both adorable and irritating. His plaintive arias of loneliness are so masterfully done that the audience applauds them. His accounts of his dates to his friends are as funny as the best stand-up routines, but they are also spot-on, sure to awaken in the audience some embarrassing memories. He obsesses over a new office colleague, Will ( Behlmann), recounting in eloquent detail to his friends Will’s body, based on a four-second look at it when Will emerges from the pool during an office pool party. (There are such things?) After a pleasant but inconsequential date with Will to see a documentary about the Franco-Prussian War, Jordan writes him a gushing e-mail that all three of his friends insist he not send. Jordan’s late-night struggle with himself trying not to send it is a highlight of the play.

Another are his interactions with Laura, making the most of the playwright’s gift for funny dialogue:

LAURA: You have obsessive tendencies, you know you have obse—

JORDAN I hate when you say I have obsessive tendencies.

LAURA But, you do, and I don’t like–

JORDAN No I know I do, but hearing you say I have obsessive

tendencies makes me feel like, like I need to go to the vet and be put down.

I hate being a person. I wish I was a rock, you know? Or anything. A salamander. Dental floss. Rain. ‘Whatever happened to Jordan Berman? Oh, he turned into rain.’

 

Glick has some wonderfully touching scenes with the great Barbara Barrie (who made her debut on Broadway in 1955!) as Jordan’s grandmother. These may at first seem imported from another play. But with her encouraging words to her gay grandson, and her talk of her own losses, the playwright seems subtly trying to establish a parallel between those elderly whose love life has ended because of the death of their spouse, and those gay men whose love life has just begun because marriage equality has only recently become law. Seen this way, the title of Harmon’s play can be read with a second meaning. In a society built around heterosexual pairing, Jordan is the Other.

Significant Other
Booth Theater
Written by Joshua Harmon; Directed by Trip Cullman
Choreographed by Sam Pinkleton; Scenic Design by Mark Wendland; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Daniel Kluger;
Cast: Gideon Glick, Lindsay Mendez, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Barbara Barrie, John Behlmann, Sas Goldberg and Luke Smith
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $49 – $147

Sunday in the Park with George: Sondheim and Seurat, Gyllenhaal and Ashford

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte - 1884
“Art isn’t easy,” Jake Gyllenhaal as George sings in the fourth Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday In the Park with George,” inspired by one of the most popular paintings in the world.
“Sunday” opens tonight at the newly rechristened Hudson Theater, which is both one of the oldest theaters on Broadway (built in 1903), and the newest (presenting its first Broadway show in 49 years.)

If some theatergoers were uneasy with the unusually structured musical when it premiered in 1984, audiences have come around so completely to the art of Stephen Sondheim, that when the characters in Georges Seurat’s painting bow to him in Act II, it seems nearly autobiographical.
Click on any photographs below by Matthew Murphy of the current production to see them enlarged. (Below the photographs, a plot summary by Sondheim himself.)

Stephen Sondheim’s synopsis: “Act One concerns the French painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891) and his creation of Un dimanche apres-midi a l’Ile de la Grande Jatte (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte), which took more than two years to complete…and depicts approximately fifty people in varying perspectives and proportions strolling and relaxing in a public park outside of Paris..Act Two deals with the artistic crisis experienced by his great-grandson, an American conceptual artist in his forties, named George.”e