Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Benjamin Walker as Andrew Jackson in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson, 2010. The musical by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, brought a campy downtown sensibility in its depiction of the seventh president of the United States as a combination sexy rock star, immature populist, and killer. They build in an ambivalence towards Jackson’s legacy with the meta-theatrical device of including a character who is a historian commenting on that legacy – until Jackson kills her halfway through the musical.

In honor of Presidents Day, I resurrect my review of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” which opened on Broadway on October 13, 2010 and closed three months later, on January 2, 2011.

Watching “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” for a second time, I wasn’t sure whether it reminded me more of “Urinetown,” “American Idiot” or “Springtime For Hitler.” One thing was clear: it was no “1776.”

The cheeky musical about America’s seventh president that has now moved to Broadway has turned me into Sybil, each of  my multiple personalities reacting differently. The history buff in me is appalled. The rock fan is entranced. The politico is irked that others somehow see in this sophomoric mish-mash a useful commentary on what’s going on in the country today. The would-be hipster wants desperately to talk about “emo” rock as if he knew what that meant, make knowing references to bands like Dashboard Confessional, and in general share in the downtown aura that invests this show with much of its marketing appeal. The theater aficionado is thrilled to witness the work of some intensely talented artists near the beginning of their careers, especially the actor who plays Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Walker, and the two first-time creative collaborators, director and book writer Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, composer and lyricist.

“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” tries to set itself apart from your normal Broadway musical before the action has even begun, by turning the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater into a discotheque circa 1985 with a combination Wild West and Halloween theme, courtesy of set designer Donyale Werle—red lights are strewn across the ceiling along with the kind of chandeliers you can buy in bulk from ABC Carpet, a full-sized stuffed horse hangs upside down bound in chains, fake oil portraits of unnamed illustrious 19th century men line the walls, and placed throughout the theater are pelts, a Big Buck Hunter video game, a crow, a snarling grizzly bear.

None of this is on the stage, which is itself stuffed with beer cans, moose heads, faded landscape paintings, a disco ball, a dartboard, assorted bric-a-brac, like a T.G.I. Friday’s with an especially detail-oriented manager.

The visual busyness offers a glimpse into the approach of the musical itself, which presents scenes from the life and career of Andrew Jackson — frontiersman, military hero, controversial politician — in the sort of mash-up that might be cooked up by a group of clever, giddy college roommates during a drug-fueled all-nighter after attending an afternoon history lecture.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, original Off-Broadway production

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, original Off-Broadway production

 

“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” is part rock concert, part Fringe show, part shock jock riff, with gratuitous swipes at gay people and the disabled. It is a mock children’s story hour mixed with a Behind the Music episode of the rise and demise of a rock star. The characters speak like 21st century adolescents, and there are a range of anachronistic allusions — to modern-day political campaigns, Internet start-ups, the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq, totalitarian dictatorships.

There is even an odd kind of romance: When Jackson meets Rachel, his wife-to-be (Maria Elena Ramirez) they sing about Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor”, and bleed each other. “Sometimes when I’m out on the battlefield, and I’m covered in blood and I have terrible dysentery and diarrhea, I think of you,” Jackson says dreamily to Rachel at one point. “Here at the Hermitage, bleeding yourself.”

The musical, which lasts roughly 90 minutes without an intermission, takes us on a quick tour of some of the highlights – and low points – in this profoundly intriguing historical figure, with particular attention to his treatment of Native Americans, focusing on the forced relocation policy, which has gone down in history as the Trail of Tears. The history is unreliable, the tone teeters from silly and fey to offensive and in-your-face. The musical attempts at times also to be pointed and poignant with only intermittent success. Yet for all its flaws and wrong-headedness, the theatergoer in me found that “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” largely works, because of Michael Friedman’s 13 songs. Played by a three-member band on stage and sung by Walker and the rest of the large, capable cast, they are hard-charging, tuneful, inventive — and, unlike much of the rock on Broadway stages, theatrical. Friedman, who is most associated with the seriously engaged “investigative theater” company The Civilians, is making his Broadway debut…as a composer; he was a dramaturg for “A Raisin in the Sun.” He also reportedly has written the original music for this season’s revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at the Signature Theater. Benjamin Walker and Alex Timbers (who is also directing “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” this season) have been getting the ink for “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Michael Friedman is the member of the team I’d vote for.

BloodyBloody

Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson

Bernard Jacobs Theater (242 West 45th Street) Written and directed by Alex Timbers Music and lyrics by Michael Friedman Choreography by Danny Mefford; sets by Donyale Werle; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Bart Fasbender; musical director, Justin Levine; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; fight director, Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum Cast: Benjamin Walker (Andrew Jackson), James Barry (Male Soloist/Citizen/Phil), Darren Goldstein (Andrew Sr./Calhoun), Greg Hildreth (Red Eagle/University President), Jeff Hiller (Cobbler/Messenger/John Quincy Adams/Tour Guide/Florida Man), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Keokuk/Van Buren), Cameron Ocasio (Lyncoya), Bryce Pinkham (Black Fox/Clay), Nadia Quinn (Toula/Female Ensemble), Maria-Elena Ramirez (Rachel/Florida Woman), Kate Cullen Roberts (Elizabeth/Erica), Ben Steinfeld (Monroe), Emily Young (Female Soloist/Announcer/Naomi), Kristine Neilsen (the Storyteller) and Justin Levine, Charlie Rosen and Kevin Garcia (Musicians) Running time: 90 minutes without intermission Ticket prices: $61.50 to $131.50. Premium tickets as high as $251.50. Lottery for first two rows of orchestra, $20

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Sunset Boulevard Review: Ready for Glenn Close Up

hillaryatsunsetThere was thunderous applause the night I saw “Sunset Boulevard” for Hillary Clinton as she took her seat right before the musical began. It would be snarky to observe it was the greatest ovation of the night, but I was struck by how much was packed into that greeting – admiration, defiance, a shared history, shared emotion, a shared loss.

There was certainly admiration for the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, especially for the dazzling encore performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, 22 years after she won a Tony Award for the same role. But this show about a once-famous film star trying for a comeback, and the screenwriter who becomes her boy toy and her victim, carried relatively little emotional weight or complexity.

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

There was one moment in the show that actually moved me. That was when Norma is visiting her old movie studio, ignored by everybody bustling about except for one old member of the crew, who shines a spotlight on her. The actors dressed in Samson and Delilah outfits and the camera operators one by one stop what they’re doing to look at her. She basks in the light, glows in it, but her expression is tinged with something deeper, something close to fear and sorrow. She stands there like that, soaking it in, letting us soak it in, before she starts singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” — the most effective lead-in to a song I think I’ve ever seen on a stage.

But then the song itself, as melodic and touching as it is, ends with: “We taught the world new ways to dream.”

That is one of the lyrics that drive home what I consider a fatal flaw in much of the remaining 150 minutes of “Sunset Boulevard,” a musical adaptation of the 1950 movie that was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Gloria Swanson. In the movie, Norma Desmond is delusional. But the Lloyd Webber musical shares much of her delusion. Rather than the film’s grim and ironic satire of Hollywood, the stage “Sunset Boulevard” is really an homage to (and embodiment of) big, empty commercial entertainment.

Yes, I know, this production – directed by Lonny Price and originally presented by the English National Opera in London — is being touted as a pared down concert version. This is a, well, semi-delusional claim. There is indeed a 40-piece orchestra placed Encores-like on stage. There is also

a cast of more than two dozen

a new gorgeous costume for Glenn Close in each and every scene

a working antique car (a “Isotta-Fraschini”)

a life-sized dummy suspended above the stage (the murder victim we see at the outset of the show, that is supposed to make it a stage noir, which it isn’t)

and the pool of water where the orchestra pit is normally located, from which emerges Joe Gillis (Norma’s kept man, portrayed by Michael Xavier) in wet bathing suit and glistening pectorals.

Yes, yes, the set is surely less elaborate than the original Broadway production: In that version, Norma is alone on New Year’s Eve in her exquisite palazzo, appointed with a working pipe organ and a majestic staircase, when it is literally lifted up into the air, revealing a crowded party in a cramped Hollywood apartment in the bottom half – a living split screen, one of the most memorable stage effects ever. (I’ll confess that’s one of the few things I remember from the 1994 show, winner of seven Tonys, including best musical.) But James Noone’s set for the revival can be considered bare bones only if the bones belonged to Tyrannosaurus rex. It is an elaborate multi-tiered maze of staircases and catwalks, with the “HOLLYWOOD” sign behind it, and interspersed with the odd gold-and-crystal chandelier.

The large orchestra certainly makes Lloyd Webber’s score sound better than it would have if played by 40 kazoos, but, as tuneful as some of it is, all the violins in the world can’t turn it into Puccini.

“Sunset Boulevard” is ersatz opera of the outsized and mostly overwrought kind that Broadway audiences have been eating up, on and off, since the 1980s. It’s noteworthy, then, that this production (and the one in 1994) cast Glenn Close, whose voice is, to put it politely, far from operatic. Her power resides in her acting; her Norma manages, at its best, to be both steely and vulnerable, sinking into herself and dominating everything and everyone. Most of the other cast members hardly register by comparison. (One exception is Fred Johanson as the odd Max von Mayerling, her driver and protector, who makes the most of his one song.)

Glenn Close gets seriously into her character. But at the same time, when Joe says on meeting her “Aren’t you Norma Desmond?….You use to be big,” there’s something of an implied wink in her delivery of the most famous line in the musical (and in the movie): “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”  That’s a moment when the audience can say: I’m with her.

Sunset Boulevard

Book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton; Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton; Based on the film by Billy Wilder.

Directed by Lonny Price; Choreographed by Stephen Mear; Associate Director: Matt Cowart

Scenic Design by James Noone; Costume Design by Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Mick Potter; Original Glenn Close Costume Designs: Anthony Powell; Glenn Close Wig Design: Andrew Simonin; Glenn Close’s Makeup Design: Charlotte Hayward; Hair and Wig Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas; Makeup Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas; Associate Costume Design: Abby Hahn; Associate Lighting Design: Travis McHale; Associate Sound Design: Adam Fisher; Associate Wig Design: Brittany Hartman

Cast: Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaeffer, Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Nancy Anderson, Mackenzie Bell,Preston Truman Boyd, Artie Green, Barry Busby, Britney Coleman, Julian R. Decker, Anissa Felix, Drew Foster, David Hess, Brittney Johnson, Katie Ladner, Stephanie Martignetti, Lauralyn McClelland, T. Oliver Reid, Lance Roberts, Stephanie Rothenberg, Graham Rowat, Paul Schoeffler as Cecil B. DeMille, Andy Taylor as Sheldrake, Sean Thompson, Matt Wall, Jim Walton as Manfred

Musical Director: Kristen Blodgette; Music orchestrated by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber; Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements: David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Musical Supervisor: Kristen Blodgette; Musical Coordinator: David Lai; Conducted by Kristen Blodgette; Keyboard 1: Michael Patrick Walker; Keyboard 2: Dale Rieling; Concert Master: Kelly Hall-Tompkins; First Violin: Katherine Livolsi-Landau, Karl Kawahara, Victoria Paterson, Sebu Sirinian and Svetlana Tsoneva; Second Violin: Mineko Yajima, Elizabeth Nielsen, Louise Owen, Rena Isbin and Patricia Davis; Viola: David Creswell, Mark Holloway, Richard Brice and Jennifer Herman; Cello: Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, Robert Burkhart and Emily Brausa; Bass/Electric Bass Peter Donovan; Bass: Lisa Stokes; Flute/Alto Flute: Liz Mann; Flute/Piccolo: Kathleen Nester; Oboe/Cor Anglais: Julia DeRosa; Clarinet: Todd Palmer; Clarinet 2/Tenor Saxophone: Rob Jacoby; Bass Clarinet/Alto Saxophone 1: Andrew Sterman; Bassoon 1: Damian Primis; Bassoon 2: Cynde Iverson; Horn 1: Mike Atkinson; Horn 2: Will de Vos; Trumpet/Piccolo: John Chudoba; Trumpet 2: Alex Holton; Trombone: Mark Patterson; Bass Trombone: Jeremy Morrow; Harp: Grace Paradise; Guitar: Nate Brown; Drums: Michael Croiter; Percussion: Daniel Haskins; Synthesizer Programmer: Stuart Andrews; Music Copying: Emily Grishman Music Preparation and Adriana Grace

Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $79-$250

“Sunset Boulevard” is scheduled to run through June 25, 2017 (which is an extension of its original run.)

Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House: Review and Pics

“The theatre is gone, but there are new things now,” says Matthew Broderick in Wallace Shawn’s chilling comedy, which imagines a dystopian but familiar society where former theatre people have gone on to television, or to a day job, such as murderer. “My paycheck arrives with complete regularity,” says an ex wardrobe supervisor turned assassin.

…The wit and the horror of Shawn’s play is how, amid the kind of gossip, backbiting and nostalgic reminiscences standard from old troupers everywhere, the characters casually segue into conversations about “targeting” – killing people deemed undesirable.

Full review at DC Theatre Scene

Click on any photograph by Monique Carboni to see it enlarged

Man From Nebraska: Reviews, Pics

There are three great reasons to see the New York stage debut of Man From Nebraska, without even knowing what it’s about: Its author Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), its director David Cromer (Our Town), a cast that features Reed Birney (The Humans.) These remain even when you learn it’s about a man’s mid-life crisis….We never get details explaining Ken’s spiritual crisis; there are no stimulating intellectual or theological debates. Nor do we get a resolution so much as just an ending…..If little is explained, this winds up not mattering as much as it might in the hands of lesser theater artists. These artists feel in full control.

Full review on DC Theatre Scene

Beardo Review: Russia’s Rasputin via Great Comet’s Dave Malloy

In “Beardo,” we are back in Russia with Dave Malloy, the composer of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.” Instead of a Broadway theater, the Pipeline Theater Company’s new production of Malloy’s musical has opened at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. And instead of dramatizing a novel by Tolstoy, “Beardo” tells a fictional version of an actual figure in Russian history, the enigmatic Grigori Rasputin.

Some of the elements familiar from “Great Comet” are present in “Beardo,” most notably Malloy’s classically tinged, eclectic score offering everything from rock ballads to hearty drinking songs, as well as a game and talented cast. But “Beardo,” which premiered in Berkeley in 2011, a year before the premiere of “Great Comet” at Ars Nova, feels in comparison like a work in progress. The book and lyrics by Jason Craig are playful, sometimes clever, silly, ribald, deliberately anachronistic, joyfully shocking and in-your-face weird. They are too accomplished to be labeled juvenile….but “adolescent” might fit.

Click on any photo by Suzi Sadler to see it enlarged.

 

A snippet of dialogue:

BEARDO: Dude, what’s your deal?

YUSAPOOF My deal? Dude? Don’t slang this place up with your bumpkin parlance And your weird twaddle!

BEARDO Oh ya? You wanna see my twaddle waddle?

YUSAPOOF I don’t need to listen to you, ok? I am a fucking count

 

“Beardo” makes no pretense of presenting a faithful biography of Rasputin, the peasant mystic who became an influential adviser to the last Tsar of Russia — which didn’t end well for him or the Tsar. “Beardo” doesn’t even mention the name Rasputin (although the program does include an advertisement for a new biography by Douglas Smith entitled: “Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs.”) Instead, the musical plays with the myth that has built up around the bearded faith healer.

We first see a dirty, ragged Beardo (Damon Daunno) outside a peasant’s shack with his hand stuck in a hole, and a voice in his head. The shack man (Rolls Andre) takes him into his home, where Beardo eventually empowers the man’s sister-in-law to speak for the first time in 15 years – and to kill her abusive sister. He also yanks out the man’s tooth, and demands that the man whip him 24 times. Beardo considers his cruelty sinful, but he starts to believe, as he tells this family, that sinning is good for you – “You get loose” which “causes you to get a bit fun” – as long as you apologize for you sins afterward.

Armed with this insight, he barges his way into the castle of the Tsar (Willy Appelman) and his wife the Tsarista (Alex Highsmith), and, in the words of the play, he grabs her ass – “because,” he explains to her, “this will help us both.”

Beardo soon beds her, calms her sickly son, and gains the confidence of the shy Tsar; he also becomes a prolific womanizer. All of this wins him the ire of all of Russia, aristocrats and peasantry alike.

Director Ellie Heyman keeps the eight-member cast in motion, climbing up and down the scaffolding inside the church (I wondered whether this was set up specifically for the show, or whether St. John’s is undergoing extensive renovations. It’s the former.) The band, with Sam Kulik as the conductor and guitarist, is a lovely string quartet that does great justice to Malloy’s music. But one of the two most memorable moments of “Beardo” occurs without the band’s accompaniment, when, right before the intermission, a huge choir in peasant attire suddenly appears in the church’s rafters, to sign Malloy’s song called “Russia’

Inside palace gates

sits a Tsarista and her mate

This strange Beardo
puts a hood over our heads bamboozling blinded state …

God Help Us

Give Us Courage…

 

It is melodic, with beautiful harmonizing, and (however one may quibble with the lyrics), deeply stirring .

The second moment begins ludicrously — two hefty men appear in tutus (Andre and Ben Langhorst). But they turn out to be two of the three assassins (the third is that count, Yusapoof, portrayed with appropriate villainy by Brian Bock.) Incredily, the three non-dancers in silly costumes turn a mock Russian ballet into both beautiful and chilling. How they accomplish this is almost as mystical as the sway that the infamous Mad Monk had on the last of the Romanovs.

 

Beardo

Pipeline Theatre Company at St. John’s Lutheran Church

 

Book & Lyrics by Jason Craig
Music by Dave Malloy
Directed by Ellie Heyman, choreographer by the Kuperman Brothers, scenic design by Carolyn Miraz, costume design by Katja Andreiev, lighting design by Mary Ellen Stebbens, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier and Joshua Reid
Cast:Damon Daunno as Beardo, Rolls Andre as Shack Man/Murderer, Shaye Troha as Shack Woman/Woman, Liz Leimkuhler as Shack Sister/Woman, Alex Highsmith as Tsarista, Willy Appelman as Tsar, Brian Bock as Yusapoof, Ben Langhorst as person of the court/murderer.

Band: Blake Allen (viola), Ezra Gale (bass), Sarah Elizabeth Haines (violin), Sam Kulik (conductor/guitar), Susan Mandel (cello), Hajnal K. Pivnick (violin), and Charlotte Munn-Wood (violin alternate).
Tickets: $25-$40.

“Beardo” is set to run through March 5, 2017

Big River Review: Huckleberry Finn in The Era of #BlackLivesMatter

The Encores! production of “Big River” is a pleasant enough confection but with a bitter aftertaste. To understand why, it helps to know that, when he was 11 years old, Samuel Clemens discovered the mutilated corpse of a man named Noriam Todd – an escaped slave who had been hunted down and killed.

Four decades later in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain gave a happy ending for an escaped slave named Jim, who stays alive and is even legally set free, after he and Huck ride a raft through one adventure after another down the Mississippi. But there is arguably an undercurrent in the novel of outrage, albeit cloaked in irony, which makes it far more than a boys adventure story. Mark Twain is sly about this depth, posting a “Notice” in the frontispiece of the novel, which is also a sign over the stage before “Big River” begins at New York City Center: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Under Lear deBessonet’s direction, the revival of “Big River” focuses on the humor and rowdy fun of the only musical ever written by Roger Miller, best known for his country hit King of the Road, but a surprisingly eclectic songwriter. As rendered by a large, talented cast and a ten-piece orchestra of the usual Encores! caliber (including a twangy harmonica), Miller’s score holds up, a mix of honky tonk, bluegrass, rousing gospel and Miller’s signature novelty songs, such as Hand for the Hog, sung by Tom Sawyer. Sample verse:

Well, I always heard but ain’t too sure

That a man’s best friend is a mangy cur

I kinda favor the hog myself

How ‘bout a hand for the hog

 

But “Big River” also uses a racial slur more than half a dozen times. This is not unusual these days in New York theater, as I wrote this week in an essay for HowlRound, The N-word on Stage. But, as actor and playwright Jordan Cooper points out in that essay, “you shouldn’t use it without understanding its weight.”

This did not strike me as a weighty enough production, even though there are plenty of lines in “Big River” (many of which librettist William Hauptman took directly from the novel) that use irony to point to the pervasive racial bigotry of the times. Addressing the audience directly, Huck talks of a troubled conscience for helping Jim, saying he knows the right thing would be to turn him in, but he just can’t help himself. When Jim talks about his children, whom he hopes to buy back from slavery, Huck observes as an aside to the audience: “It don’t sound natural, but Jim cared for his people just as much as white folks do for their’n.”

These lines should land harder than they do. Part of the problem may be Nicholas Barasch’s portrayal of Huck. Barasch, a red-headed 18-year-old, was terrific last year as the naïve and eager bike messenger in She Loves Me.  He has a good voice, and is destined to be a go-to juvenile for a few years, until he becomes a go-to leading man. But his Huck is too bland, with little of the mischievous schemer in his eye, and rambunctious misfit in his manner. He’s as charming, cheerful and appealing as the musical.

Kyle Scatliffe (Les Miserables, The Color Purple) is a fine and powerful Jim.

Katherine A. Guy has a show-stopping number in “How Blest We Are,” all the more impressive because this is her professional stage debut. But she hardly exists other than that song.

The black characters are largely the extras in this story, pushed aside even by the comic relief. Rocco Landesman, credited for “concert adaptation” (and the producer of the original Broadway show) has altered the text to place an inordinate focus on the two clownish con men and scoundrels, The King and The Duke performed by the admittedly adept performers David Pittu and Christopher Sieber.

When Encores! began in 1994, the point of the concert series was reportedly to give a second chance to rarely heard, commercially unsuccessful Broadway musicals – whose books maybe made them sink, but whose scores were worth a listen. The criteria must have changed, because “Big River” was successful when it debuted in 1985, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and running for three years. And it is far from rarely heard. There was a Deaf West revival on Broadway in 2003, which went on national tour starting the next year. The City Center production is just one of 14 within the next few months alone planned throughout the country, from the Slow Burn Theatre Company of Fort Lauderdale, Florida to the Old Lyric Repertory Company of Logan, Utah.

Clearly, the show remains popular, although the world has changed since 1885, when “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was first published in the United States, and New York seems to have changed almost as much just since 1985, when “Big River” debuted on Broadway; there’s less tolerance for a show that serves its  indictment of racism as a side dish.

It’s also worth pointing out that the “Encores! concert series” has also changed. It no longer seems like a concert series.  “Big River” was  performed in full costume, ample if simple set (albeit shared with the orchestra), choreography,  and with everyone having fully memorized their lines: Performers used to carry their scripts during the show, which was a kind of Encores! signature.

Big River

New York City Center

Music and lyrics by Roger Miller; Book by William Hauptman, adapted from the novel by Mark Twain; Choreography by Josh Rhodes; Directed by Lear DeBessonet. Musical director: Rob Berman. Scenic designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein. Lighting designer: Paul Miller. Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert adaptation: Rocco Landesman Orchestrations: Steven Margoshes, Danny Troob

Cast: Stephen Lee Anderson, Nicholas Barasch, Patrice Covington, Andrew Cristi, Wayne Duvall, Mike Evariste, Charlie Franklin, Annie Golden, Katherine A. Guy, Megan Masako Haley, Adrianna Hicks, Zachary Infante, Gizel Jimenez, Andrew Kruep, John-Michael Lyles, Cass Morgan, Tom Nelis, Horace V. Rogers, Kyle Scatliffe, David Pittu, Christopher Sieber and Lauren Worsham

Big River runs just through Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Object Lesson Review: If Proust Were A Packrat

the-object-lesson-by-me

Geoff Sobelle, self-declared “maker of absurdist performance art,” is credited as the creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” but it at least co-stars thousands of boxes. These are boxes that fill up the floor of the New York Theatre Workshop, and are stacked up to the ceiling. Some of the boxes are empty, with scrawled instructions: A fellow playgoer handed me one such box, which said: “Give this box to someone who looks nice.”

Many of the boxes are filled with all sorts of items: On one table, I picked through boxes containing:

An old cassette recorder and old cassettes, but mostly those Styrofoam packing peanuts
Votive candles
A pile of old trophies, with plaques such as “Mayfair Shamrock Tournament Champion” and “Holy Terror 1999 Hoiday Classic Under-10 1st Place”object-lesson-2-by-me
A sculpture of a horse either laughing or screaming
Day-glo wigs fit for drag queens
several diaries, which seemed too extensive to have been filled out just for this show. One began: January 22, ‘97. So two weeks and a broken tibia later, I start this journal.”

There were also boxes that indicated they were suitable for seats, and that’s what most of the playgoers eventually did, when a man (which we learned only after the show was Sobelle) started taking objects out of boxes – a lamp, a chair, and end table, a beautiful Persian rug, an old-fashioned record player – to create a cozy little room for himself amid the sea of literal box seats.

Thus began the performance part of this performance art installation. This can be divided into about a dozen scenes (more like unrelated sketches) and involved lots of audience participation, and imaginative weirdness, some of it clearly improvised.

At one point, a barefoot Sobelle scaled a mountainous pile of boxes in almost complete darkness, using only a flashlight, then found a box with a lamp, and a box with a working microphone, and then, atop this lamp-lit mountain of cardboard, began to tell a story about his experiences as a teenager on a trip to France. He told us about a goat herd, and then found a box with some goat cheese, which he passed down to the audience, complete with a baguette. He said on his last night in a little village called Carbused, he saw a strange red light in the darkness, and then a green one, and then a yellow one. He eventually realized, he told us, that it was a traffic light, which got a laugh, and then he rummaged through a box, and took out a huge, working traffic light, which bathed us first in red, then green, then yellow.

At another point, Sobelle invited a woman to dine with him, presumably just a random member of the audience. He sat her at a table from which he had cleared off the boxes, and put a plate before her; then he rummaged through various boxes to take out a head of lettuce, sticks of carrots, etc. He climbed atop the table, and, having donned a pair of ice skates, did a fairly accomplished tap dance, serving as a human Veg-o-matic, delivering the chopped ingredients expertly on her plate. He asks another audience member to hold up a chandelier so that they can dine in style.

An extraordinary effort went into creating “The Object Lesson,” most of it, I imagine by Steven Dufala, who is credited with the scenic installation design. There are moments, jerry-rigged with makeshift lighting and some surprise stagecraft, that are both funny and, quite improbably, beautiful. It feels like the kind of show designed to give bragging rights to aficionados of way-out theater such as myself. But it also inspires a contemplation of the meaning of objects in our lives, how an evocative old box of memorabilia – even if not your own – can provoke a swift stream of memories.

If Proust were a packrat, if Felix the Cat were a dramatist, they might have created something like “The Object Lesson.”

The Object Lesson
New York Theatre Workshop
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle
Directed by David Neumann
Scenic Installation Design by Steven Dufala
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission (but get there early to go through the boxes)
Tickets: $69
“The Object Lesson” is scheduled to run through March 5, 2017.

Fade Play Review: Latina TV Writer On How Horrible TV is

tanya-saracho

Writer Tanya Saracho

“Fade” is a play about the bond that develops between a Mexican-born TV writer and a Mexican-American janitor at the TV studio. Its author, Tanya Saracho, is a Mexican-born TV writer/producer who has worked on the TV series “Devious Maids,” “Looking,” and “Girls” and is now co-producer of “How To Get Away with Murder” — as we learn in the full page bio of her, complete with photograph, that’s in the program from Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane, where the two-character play runs through March 5.
In “Fade,” Lucia (Annie Dow), who wrote a first novel that was critically acclaimed, has moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to start a job on a TV series centered around a Latina woman. Lucia knows nobody in town, and she spends all day sitting silently at writers meetings, her white male co-workers treating her with condescension. One of them tells her “you do know you’re the diversity hire, right? [Y]ou’re only here because you’re a Hispanic.” So when Abel (Eddie Martinez) comes into her office to empty her trash, she automatically sees him as an ally, someone with whom to feel solidarity and from whom to seek solace. But she also unintentionally treats him with condescension as well. When they first meet, she speaks to him in Spanish, and is surprised when she learns that he knows English. That doesn’t stop her from exclaiming at one point: “We’re in Trump’s America. We have to be militant about speaking our mother tongue whenever the hell we want.” Abel, who is worried he could lose his job from such a gesture, is skeptical of this fresa (Mexican slang for a superficial youngster from a rich family), but she eventually wins him over – to his ultimate regret.

Click on any photograph by James Leynse to see it enlarged


“Fade” is well acted, and Saracho’s script touches on several worthwhile issues that seem based on her own experience — the distortion in popular culture depictions of the Latino population (and by extension any ethnic minority); the divisions by class and culture within the Latino community; the pressures on an individual toward compromise and corruption in order to make it in mainstream American society.
But by the end of  the play, which takes place entirely in Lucia’s bland office, “Fade” feels slighter and more obvious than it could have been.  Saracho is quite harsh toward Lucia – she makes her clear stand-in annoying, self-involved and insensitive  – and toward the industry in which Lucia works, Saracho’s own industry. But her observations offer little that we haven’t heard before, and, given what’s going on in the country now, it’s frankly hard to muster much outrage about the behind-the-scenes machinations of television. If the TV industry is meant as a metaphor for the country as a whole, it feels an inadequate one.  By most accounts, we are living in a second golden age of TV in terms of wider and deeper  content, something to which Saracho herself has contributed. At their best, the subjects on TV nowadays  hold greater dramatic interest than the subject of TV in this stage play.

Fade
Primary Stages at Cherry Lane
Written by Tanya Saracho
Directed by Jerry Ruiz. Set design by Mariana Sanchez, costume design by Carisa Kelly, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by M.L. Dogg
Tickets: $72
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
“Fade” is set to run through March 5, 2017

Superior Donuts Review: A Play Like a Sitcom

Below is my 2009 review of Superior Donuts, the play by Tracy Letts, which opened on Broadway on October 1, 2009, and closed on January 3, 2010. A new TV series of the same name, starring Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler that is based on the play, is offering a “special preview” tonight before it takes up its regular sitcom slot Mondays at 9 p.m. on CBS — which, if you read my old review below, counts as irony.

 

What is most shocking about “Superior Donuts,” the new Broadway play by Tracy Letts about an aging hippie who hires a young African-American go-getter to help him run his rundown donut shop, is that it is not shocking at all. It resembles a TV show; “sitcom” has been used almost as frequently to describe it as “sweet.” The sweet has been meant as a pun; the sitcom has not been intended as a put-down. (That’s a shock too.)

Those who saw “August: Osage County” by the same playwright can understand some of the surprise– that much-praised winner of the 2008 Best Play Tony and Pulitzer Prize in Drama, while full of humor and pathos, offered one jolt after another as its tale unfolded of a family afflicted by suicide, addiction, child molestation, incest, adultery, betrayal, deep regrets and deeper unhappiness.

But you would have to go back further to get a fuller appreciation of how different “Superior Donuts” is from any Tracy Letts play previously produced in New York.

In “Killer Joe,” which was last produced in New York in 1998, a drug dealer in debt gives his virgin sister over to a police detective/hired hit man as payment to kill their mother for the insurance money. It does not go as planned. “Nothing’s worse than regrets, not cancer, not being eaten by a shark, nothing,” the brother says in the cheap trailer outside Dallas that is his father’s and his sister’s home. The play is such an over-the-top horror show about stereotypical trailer trash, extremely violent and intentionally ugly, that it comes off as a vicious parody of family life. By contrast, “August: Osage County” seems almost like a comedy of manners.

“Bug,” which I saw at the Barrow Street Theater in 2004, was an even more explicit horror show. Agnes is a drug abusing motel-dweller with an abusive ex-con for an ex-husband and a child who vanished years ago – “I just get sick of it, my lousy life. Laundromats and grocery stores, dumb marriages and lost kids.” She takes in an oddly hypnotic stranger named Peter, who was either a veteran of the Gulf War and the victim of a government conspiracy to implant him with insect eggs, or a delusional paranoid. In either case, Peter infects Agnes – either with his bugs, or with his paranoia. “Bug” later became a horror movie directed by William Friedkin, best known for “The Exorcist.”

As Tracy Letts’ own mother, a novelist named Billie Letts, reportedly once said of his work: “Everybody in Tracy’s stories gets naked or dead.”

A clue to the Letts approach may be in a scene from his far milder play, “Man from Nebraska,” which has not been done in New York*. It debuted in 2003 at the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, the company of which Letts is a member as an actor and director as well as a playwright. Ken Carpenter, a middle-aged God-fearing family man from Lincoln, Nebraska wakes up one day and breaks down, realizing that he has lost his faith; he no longer believes in God. Acting on advice from his pastor, he takes a break from his life, leaving his wife while he goes on vacation in London, where he eventually befriends a black woman bartender named Tamyra and her flat-mate Harry, a sculptor. He begins to take lessons from the sculptor, using the woman as his model.

Harry the sculptor looks at Ken’s work and tells him to “exaggerate” it. “There’s no point in producing Tamyra again: she already exists. I mean, yes, you want to have the ability to do that: that’s craft. But your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art.”

And so we come to his latest play, getting laughs at the Music Box Theater.

Franco Wicks, 21 (Jon Michael Hill) walks into Superior Donuts in response to a Help Wanted sign. But the owner, Arthur Przybyszewksi (Michael McKean), whose shop has just been vandalized, and whose ex-wife recently died of cancer, doesn’t want to open for the day, much less hire anybody. Franco talks his way into the shop and into the job. Just after they shake hands on it, Arthur asks Franco where he’s from, and he tells him he has lived his whole life in the area, the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago.

Arthur: How come I’ve never seen you in here?

Franco: I don’t eat no nasty-ass donuts.

This got a big laugh in the performance I attended. I am assuming that some of this is based on the titillation that Broadway audiences consistently get from the utterance of even mildly naughty words; part of it is the surprising sassiness of this response.

But the young man, who we find out later is desperately in debt, had just barely managed through cleverness and persistence to get a job from this stranger. Would he then immediately tell his new boss how much he hated the product that the man sells?

It is hard to discern a realistic characterization here. It is an exaggeration. But unlike the Sam Shepard/Martin McDonagh-like violent exaggerations of Letts’ earlier works, this one has the rhythms of a television comedy.

There are moments in “Superior Donuts” where he does himself a disservice by establishing these rhythms. Among the nine characters in the play is one of the few regular customers of the donut shop, an alcoholic and probable street person whom everybody calls Lady (played by Jane Alderman). At one point Arthur, who has not seen his own daughter for five years, asks Lady whether she has any kids.

“Oh, sure. Two boys, two girls,” she answers. “One of em’s still alive.”

This too got a big laugh, as if it were a one-liner — a reaction that, judging by the dialogue that follows, in which she explains how her children died, was not what Letts was trying for.

The plot also follows a familiar and overly contrived television formula, the two men from very different worlds overcoming obstacles both external and internal, and changing one another for the better. And, to complete the TV picture, there is the rest of the cast of characters, who, if this were in fact on television, would be called wacky: The police officer (James Vincent Meredith) who likes to dress up like Captain Kirk and attend Star Trek conventions, and his lady cop partner (Kate Buddeke); the heavily-accented Russian Max (Yasen Peyankov)* who owns the DVD store next to the donut shop and wants to buy Arthur out so that he can expand, and Max’s recently-immigrated nephew Kiril (Michael Garvey) who is as big as a truck and as shy as a little girl; and two thugs who provide the catalyzing tension in the play, Luther (Robert Maffia) who drinks milk for his ulcer, and his henchman Kevin (Cliff Chamberlain.)

What saves “Superior Donuts” from standard small-screen mediocrity are the down-to-earth performances, especially by McKean (who, ironically or not, is probably best known for his role as Lenny in “Laverne & Shirley,” but who has been a regular in Christopher Guest’s satirical films, such as “A Mighty Wind” and “Best in Show”, and has a list of Broadway credits, including last year’s “The Homecoming” by Harold Pinter); credible details of character that TV writers don’t have time for; and, beneath the jokes and the heartfelt hopefulness, an undercurrent of sorrow, regret, isolation and even ugliness that would probably keep ratings too low for prime-time.

The bio for Tracy Letts in the play’s program includes the information that he has appeared as an actor in half a dozen television series. But it also mentions that he authored an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” Given the presence in “Superior Donuts” of Max the Russian, who bears a resemblance to the ambitious ex-peasant Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” I suspect that the effect that Letts hoped for was less Norman Lear and more Chekhov, who strove to find both the humor and the tragedy in the dreary lives of people forced to find their way through cataclysmic changes in the world around them. Or maybe Letts just wanted a break.

*”Man from Nebraska” directed by David Cromer and starring Reed Birney, will open at Second Stage on February 15.

In the sitcom, the business owner next door is now named Fawz (Maz Jobrani) and is Iraqi.

I’m not sure if this is a further irony, but Jon Michael Hill, who made his Broadway debut as Franco, was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance, but has not been on stage since,  becoming instead a regular on television, first in the police drama, Detroit 1-8-7,  and now as Detective Marcus Bell in the CBS series Elementary.  (Michael McKean, who’s been on Broadway twice more, is a series regular on Better Call Saul.)

The play:

The sitcom:

Yen with Lucas Hedges, Justice Smith: Pics, Review

Yen, a bleak British play that opens tonight Off-Broadway, stars Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated last week for his role in Manchester by the Sea, and Justice Smith, of the Netflix hip-hop drama The Get Down, as two teenage brothers living alone, with no school, no friends, little food and one t-shirt to share between them….Playwright Anna Jordan leaves little doubt that her play is meant to explore the damage caused by a lack of love….Particularly absorbing is the interaction between Justice Smith and Lucas Hedges, with their contrasting characterizations. …

Director Trip Cullman can take credit for a production that is always watchable, but he also must take the hit for saddling his extraordinary (American) cast with thick British working class accents, which some (American) audience members will find at times nearly impenetrable.

 

Full review at DC Theatre Scene,

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