Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen Creative Team...Thank You!

There is something so exciting to see a show as it takes shape either in an out-of-town run or Off-Broadway. There was great buzz around the musical Dear Evan Hansen arriving into NYC after it's run at Arena Stage in DC last summer and though nervous about listening to buzz, we grabbed up our tickets to head to Second Stage Theatre to see what the show was all about.

Wow. What an incredible evening we had. From the very first song, I knew we were witnessing something truly special. With a book by Steven Levenson (playwright and writer for Showtime's "Masters of Sex") that reads like a YA novel and an amazing score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dogfight, A Christmas Story) this story is said to be for the outsider in us all. It's about that feeling of isolation that many high schoolers can feel. Think back to the movie "The Breakfast Club" and we learned no matter who you were in school, there was still a feeling of being alone and attempting to fit in. The people in Even Hansen know that all too well. Even if you are the nerd, the goth, the brain - each has their own secrets of wondering if anyone would notice if they disappeared.

The title is made clear fairly quickly as Evan is giving an assignment by his therapist to write affirmation letters to himself daily. But what happens if those letters can get in the wrong hands and a lie can snowball? Especially in the world of social media which can play such a huge part in those feelings of loneliness (and a huge part in the wonderful scenic and projection designs by David Korins and Peter Nigrini). I don't want to give much more of the plot away because like Next to Normal (which was also directed by Michael Greif who directed Evan and which this musical will likely be compared to by some reviewers), it's best to walk in knowing little about it and taking the journey with Evan Hansen. (I also want to give a shout out to Nevin Steinberg for some of the best sound design I've heard in a show recently.)

And what a beautifully, moving journey it is. Much is said about seeing a star performance by a theater or film legend that gives a live performance of their careers. Well there is a 22 year old young man giving that kind of performance nightly on 43rd street at Second Stage Theatre. Ben Platt is absolutely incredible as he inhabits the life and world of Evan Hansen. A high school senior that has such anxiety disorder he has tics, he takes medicine to calm himself, he sweats on command (how does this actor do this?) and he breaks your heart. Sitting on the third row of the theater and being so close to the actor, there were moments I just wanted to take him in my arms and tell him it was going to get better. THAT'S how real he plays this role. It is masterful performance with amazing vocals singing the beautiful score by Pasek & Paul. (How any actor ever sings through tears on stage always baffles me - this one can sing through an ugly cry.)

The rest of the cast is also just as wonderful with huge kudos going to Rachel Bay Jones playing his mother who is simply trying to raise a son she can't connect to while working on a single parent salary. Countering her is the wealthy Murphy family (who has their own issues with a son) and Jennifer Laura Thompson and John Dossett show their own layers in this family, especially when the situation brings Evan Hansen into their lives. Laura Dreyfuss and Mike Faist play their children in this dysfunctional family. Rounding out the cast are Kristolyn Lloyd and Will Roland as other classmates who some may feel are there for comic relief in a fairly heavy show, but I see under the comedy they also have issues of fitting in they are dealing with.

I really can't wait to see what happens next with this show. It is already so powerful, but I'm sure like others before it, it will continue to morph and change until all the kinks are worked out. I do hope they release a cast recording while they continue working on the inevitable road to a small Broadway house for this show because I need to hear this music over and over.

Bravo and thank you to the creative team for tackling this story and giving us a story we often need to be reminded of: we are not alone, everyone deserves to be remembered, and #YouWillBeFound.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

American Psycho Thrilled Me!

2016 is the year of the revolution. Not just in politics, but on Broadway as well. The creative team at the Richard Rodgers Theatre are not the only ones completely changing the way we view theater. Add the folks behind the musical American Psycho to that list! One of the most stimulating, immersive,  game-changing experiences I've ever had on Broadway. Bringing a story about a murderer to Broadway (unlike Sweeney Todd this isn't about revenge) that is shallow, greedy, full of ego, Trump-loving, materialistic, non-redeemable is a hard pill for many audiences to swallow. I swallowed and want more! 

It starts the moment you walk in and see the set design by Es Devlin. It continues once the musical opens with a bang and we are pulled in by the video design by Finn Ross, lighting design by Justin Townsend, and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. The most exciting use of technical elements I've seen in a long time. And it all works perfectly for this piece.

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis and the film of the same name, the musical (with a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) pays homage to both of those yet takes a journey of it's own. I was with people that saw the film as well as some that hadn't and we all enjoyed it just the same. 

I need to stop and praise Duncan Sheik for his unique score that sounds like nothing else on Broadway. Where some reviewers complain it's not a score worthy of the Broadway stage - they are simply wrong. Every song, sound, lyrics takes you back to the 80s where the musical is set and makes perfect sense for this show. I can't imagine anyone else haven set this to music. (Yes, count me as one of the cool kids, Mr. Sheik as I get you even if NYT doesn't.)

Rupert Gould wowed me with his direction of King Charles III and now I have to see he's one of the most inventive directors working today. His direction is clean, crisp, and nails the people of this time and place perfectly. Lynne Page uses choreography in a way that shows us the 80s without poking too much fun at it, creating an entirely new 'voice' of movement. 

I can usually gage a show by how long I stay up at night after seeing a show. I couldn't get to sleep last night. I even downloaded some of the songs from the UK Recording of the show that just came out last month. The show sticks with you and doesn't let go.

Honestly, I think I would give the Tony award to Benjamin Walker right now. Playing an 
anti-hero is not an easy thing to do, especially when the character of Patrick Bateman hardly ever leaves the stage. Yet he plays the callous Wall-Streeter with humor and yes...the writers have given him somewhat of an arc that wasn't present in the film that you can't help but like him. You shouldn't. He's evil. He's a jerk. (They even left much of the language from the book intact such as using the F-word for gay men which is necessary for this character.) But Walker is brilliant in the role. Forget the fact that he is stunning running around in his tighty-whities on stage. His singing voice, his delivery - everything is an award-winning performance...yes, even in 'this' season.

The entire cast is wonderful, but a few others stand out to me because of how they capture the essence of the late 80s when I moved to NYC. HelĂ©ne York as the girlfriend Evelyn has the vapidness of the rich girl down pat. Theo Stockman is channeling James Spader as the man in the office you love to hate...and I couldn't get enough of him. Drew Moerlein plays the nemesis of Bateman and captures that Corporate America (where I spent 13 years) mentality perfectly.

A shout out to the small pit who took me to my club days, the vocal arranger for some sweet arrangements, and the sound mixer as I was in the front row of the mezz and NEVER heard the drummer sitting in the box to my left except via the sound system.

I get this musical will not be for everyone, but if you want something completely different from anything else running on Broadway (and you can't get a ticket to that other earth-shattering musical) - do yourself a favor and get to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. 
  
  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

End of April Politics

Another super Tuesday down and this presidential race in America continues to get crazier and crazier everyday. We woke Monday to two republicans creating a Survivor-type alliance to vote Trump off the Republican Island. It doesn't seem to be working since he swept 5 states.

But then Trump goes on TV and says Bernie Sanders should run as an independent. Trump is not a stupid man. He wants votes to be split because his main objective is to win - no matter the cost.

I think the real interesting part in all of this is that the two candidates that wanted to start a revolution really don't fall into the party in which they are running. Both complain about their parties, feel the party is against them, think the elections are rigged, and yet have gotten more publicity by running IN those parties than had they stayed independent right out of the gate. Neither would have gotten the media attention they did had they stayed true to their political roots. Yet it will be a true sham if either decides to run independently (if they do not get the nomination in their party). And honestly - I wouldn't put it past either one of them to do just that. They will have used their party as a jumpstart and then jump ship. I can feel it coming. 

IF the GOP goes against Trump at the convention even though he has the most votes, he'll put himself on the ticket as an indie. Sanders said today that he will do whatever it takes to make sure Trump isn't the president - but never said he'd back the democratic nominee. Instead, that sounded a little like "I'll cause my own revolution and go rogue." I guess we have to wait until summer to see how it all plays out, but this has been the wildest election season I can recall. Less politics, more American Idol. Less about credentials, more about popularity.

I'd be lying if I didn't say I'm a little frightened by it all.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Will Tuck Last Forever on Broadway?

Seeing a musical about facing one's mortality during the week that I'm getting another year older seemed like one that would certainly tug at my emotions...at least that's what I thought after attending Tuck Everlasting on Broadway. However, I didn't know that was what the show was about. I had never read the novel by Natalie Babbitt. But there were plenty of people in the audience who had. It was full of a fan club for either the book or the film that would scream out after every song. Having no experience with the story prior, I could only assume the lyrics must have come right from the book. When I walked out of the theater, I heard 20-somethings saying they cried the entire final 20 minutes. I was happy for them as I know that has been my experience with many shows and I know that exhilarating feeling.

This wasn't that show for me. 

The musical has a beautiful look thanks to Walt Spangler, costumes by Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, and sound design by Brian Ronan. Yes, I'm discussing those elements first because for this audience member, they were the most exciting things on that stage.

Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw (who I love his Something Rotten) has taken what should be an intimate story and turned it into an overblown musical. I think what many critics complained about Big Fish when it ran on Broadway will happen with critics of this show. The producers picked the right theater with the Broadhurst (which usually houses plays) to tell the intimate story. The set designer has pulled everything in to add to that feeling of a smaller show (which would be greatly told in the round even). However, the decision to add a large ensemble instantly removes us from the story at hand due to the way they are used. Dancers appear all throughout the show for no reason whatsoever. Are they townspeople? Are they woodland fairies? We don't know. They are just there to distract from what the leads are singing about. 

Speaking of lead, this show is lead by 11 year old Sarah Charles Lewis and what an amazing job she does in her Broadway debut as young Winnie who discovers the Tuck family and their secret of living forever.  There are other performers that I've absolutely loved on stage in other shows (Carolee Carmello, Michael Park, Terrence Mann, Andrew Keenan-Bolger), yet something is missing in this show for me. None of the music by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen takes me anywhere. All the songs blend into each other sounding too similar. (My theater partner pointed out a few they liked that stood out to them.) The book feels like there are huge holes in it that never let us really get to know the Tuck family (hello, title of the show), which in turn means I don't end up feeling anything for them. There are also setups that I think are going to lead in one direction and then dropped. (Miles Tuck gets a song all about his son and I really believed there was going to be a huge revelation about him that didn't pan out.)

I walk into every Broadway show wanting to love it, yet I knew after the opening number it hadn't grabbed me. I was actually pretty lost by the time that ended. (I blame the useless dance number.) I don't know if it's because the musical felt it needed to pad the original novel, but I would have preferred getting to know the characters better and a stronger conflict, some dramatic tension in the story. Even the villain (The man in the Yellow Suit) while played wonderfully by Mann feels underdeveloped and the stakes are not high enough. Winnie quickly comes into the lives of the Tucks, but somehow I miss the journey and only felt I was watching a different take on the Peter Pan story.

There is another original show that opened on Broadway this year (Bright Star) that also has issues in the book and the score, but there is a fire in that show that allows it to transcend. Even though Tuck Everlasting has been worked out of town before coming to NYC, it feels very flat to me as if it doesn't quite achieve the wonder and magic it's wanting to convey. 

I will say there is a moment towards the end where a choreographed ballet is very effective (especially if you love the first five minutes of the movie UP), but even that would have been better had the ensemble not been overused prior.

Perhaps this will be this year's Finding Neverland, meant to fill that family-friendly void in a Broadway show. I will admit I saw that film and maybe that's why seeing it on Broadway
tugged at my heartstrings more than this did. (The same can be said about Big Fish which I wrote a love letter about for Huffington Post.) We DO bring our prior knowledge of source material into the theater with us and it's quite obvious lovers of this story are fawning all over this musical. However, a show needs to be able to stand on it's own as well and not rely on our memory to fill in the blanks. For me, there is too much NOT working in this for me to wholeheartedly recommend. (And now I can feel the students that have read this book of immortality suddenly wanting to run me out of town like the man in the Yellow Suit.)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Some Things Happen for A Reason

Do you ever think that stars align and things fall into place for a certain reason? Perhaps it's fate, luck, or prayers - we all have different reason for why things seem to go right at just the right time.
I saw it first hand this past weekend.
My sister was celebrating her 50th birthday in NYC with her daughters and I luckily got to be a part of the trip. One of my nieces recently became engaged and has started down that long road that many women dream of; planning a wedding. She has been to several bridal appointments around her home town in Texas and while in New York City, had a scheduled appointment at a well-known NY bridal place made very famous by a reality show. (I'm sure many readers know right away what spot that is.) They had an amazing afternoon, but never had that moment of saying yes to the dress.
Sitting around a hotel and hearing the story of the afternoon, my sister thought it would be fun for us to go to another place so I could see her baby girl trying on dresses. There happened to be one right on the street as their hotel. Even though it said online it closed at 7 pm, we showed up around 5:50 and was told by a very nice woman that we could look through the aisles and take note of the dresses she liked. However she wouldn't be able to have a consultant helping her as all were busy so she would have to return the next morning and wait in line to be seen.
My niece and sister are a pro by this point, knowing their budget, the style she wants and went to work looking at her favorites. She passed over one which they both stopped at, but my niece was sticking to the budget and said NO as much as she loved it. The nice woman from the front desk approached, said a consultant was available and we had 45 minutes to try dresses on. We jumped. Suddenly I became a part of what I've seen on TV when a loved one you've watched grow up is standing in front of you in a gown and I could feel my eyes holding back water. They treated her like a queen. What an experience. They walked her out into a main room where two cameras show her front and back on a monitor so she can see what it looks like coming and going. Still, she wasn't falling for any of them.
Time was running out and it looked like it was going to be another normal bridal appointment for her, but her mom and I went back to the 'over budget one' because I just really wanted to see it on her. (Okay, in hindsight - not the nicest thing to have a bride try on a dress out of her budget, but I really wanted to see if it's about the dress or the price that keeps a bride from falling in love.) Even though she fought us on it, she went in to try it on. She walked out and we all knew...THAT was the dress. It fit her like a glove. Suddenly we were informed that while they knew this dress was over the budget, it was actually 1/2 price off. WHAT? Then she saw a veil that matched perfectly and that was placed on her head. The store was about to close and all the workers had gathered around my niece and everyone saw she was beaming in that gown. It was truly a magical moment. (Add to it they had the exact same veil in stock.)
How does one pull the trigger and make that huge decision, but after a moment which my niece calls 'the ugly cry', the decision was made with her mother, she said YES, and her NYC trip was made even more memorable because of the people at RK Bridal on West 54th Street.
So yes, I can honestly believe that some things happen for a reason. No appointment and everything from the moment we walked in fell perfectly into place. Even getting a bride into a dress over her budget only to find it ended up being cheaper than ones she was previously looking at. Wow...thank you RK for an incredible night! I can't wait to see her walk down the aisle next year.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Frank Langella: A Masterclass in Acting

Wow. I'm still stunned, shaken, emotionally spent from Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Father written by French playwright Florian Zeller and translated by Christopher Hampton. As someone who has reviewed for several theater sites, I usually follow the rules of not reviewing a preview even for my own blog. The Father just started previews this week, but I MUST share this experience with others as it's a limited run and people must RUN to the theater to see this production.

Sometimes it is best to go into a show knowing little to nothing about it. Others want to be told what a show is about. If you want the full surprise, stop reading now and buy a ticket. For others, one should know that the father is dealing with dementia and Florian Zeller has created an immersive evening of theater that takes us as close to inside the man's brain as possible. Yes, there are comic moments, but the laughing stops when we watch how difficult it is for a person attempting to hang on to normalcy as everything shifts and changes around them. Forgetting people, places, and time: this production plays with ALL of those in a most brilliant way. You think you are missing something as you sit in the audience and that is completely the point.

Doug Hughes has directed this fine ensemble with such precision, keeping them on track in the slightly shifting scenes where you believe they are repeating themselves. The slight difference noticed in a look, a delivery (and Kathryn Erbe is incredible as the daughter attempting to hold it all together). A huge kudos to the running crew on this show too....that will make sense to you after seeing it.

And then... there is The Father: Frank Langella. For 53 years the man has been sharing his craft on stage, film, TV and is always so brilliant in whatever choices he makes as an actor. But seeing him live on stage - especially in this role - I was blown away. He had me in the palm of his hand and could go anywhere on that stage and I'd follow. The range of a man living with dementia - repeating scenes - I couldn't help but wonder how the 78 year old actor memorized this show.  Yet you don't feel you are watching an actor...you are watching Andre as he crumbles before us and it is gut-wrenching and somehow still beautiful in its sadness. I'm in awe of the masterclass I received tonight and so grateful to my friends for taking me to see this. I DEFINITELY want to return before it ends June 12th.

Warning: this show may be hard for those who have a family member that is dealing with this...I think it may hit very close to home for those as I heard plenty of sniffles around me. But man, this is what theater is about: making you feel, live, love. Thank you, Manhattan Theatre Club.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Religion and Passion Go Hand in Hand

When I was a child, we would travel up into Oklahoma from Texas in the middle of the night to see a passion play at sunrise during Holy Week. Every time I would hear the hammering sound of nails going through the hands of Jesus, it would kill me. Was that from my Christianity or my humanity? Or was the production such a well produced show that the young theater person inside of me already understood the power of good story telling? I've grown up on the story of Christ's final days seeing it in so many different plays, musicals, church events, movies, Broadway shows...the story has been told over and over. 


Fox jumped on it this past Sunday night with The Passion Live which retold the story in modern times, set in New Orleans and using secular pop songs to tell the story. Perhaps they wanted to show that music we listen to on the radio can have many messages in it. I give huge props to music man Adam Anders for his song choices and the amazing arrangements of those songs. Plus the use of incredible musicians singing the songs. (Trisha Yearwood slayed me every time she opened her mouth.)

I watched how social media treated it like any other TV Musical - hate-tweeting, poking fun, sometimes bashing. But I also saw Christians in love with it, never complaining of no church songs being sung - they were moved by the evening and thrilled to see someone take this on during this holiest of times for Christianity. 

Then two days later, there is a terror attack on Brussels and some of those same Christians that watched the persecution of the man that has taught them to love and to forgive start attacking an entire religion because of the terrorists involved. They spew venom at our president for not discussing religion when talking about the horrible people that carried out these attacks. I for one think there is already enough finger pointing at religions. Just as we Christians have a right for Tyler Perry to produce an event like The Passion Live on Network Television, we should give other religions their rights as well. Starting hashtags that say Stop Islam is an attack and not one that the Jesus I learned about would agree with. But I guess today's Christians feel they know what is best. They feel persecuted and in turn believe they can turn and persecute others. 

So as a child was I moved by the story of the last days of Christ because of my beliefs, humanity, or the theatrics of it? I think it was a mixture of all of the above. And today - I still believe in being humane to others even if they don't share the same religious beliefs as me. It's Easter week. Christ arose - that was the point. I hope my fellow Christians stop and think about that before throwing stones at others based on religion. To claim Christianity as the reason to treat others the way they continue to do embarrasses me and makes me clam up in my beliefs - keeping them to myself. However, I don't think that's what Jesus - the man they claim to follow and believe in - would want me to do. Instead, I embrace all humanity and I'm happy that others have their beliefs to hold on to and I'm sorry that terrorists use their name to do heinous acts. Love and peace - if only there was a little more of that.