Hamlet; A Message For Our Time

A.N.O.N. Productions has done it again. They have brought another piece of theatre to life in a way that makes audiences think, feel and even learn. After their beautiful production of SNOW, a new work by Ashley Griffin, they have switched back to what I understand is their normal MO, revitalizing and rethinking Shakespeare. Many companies try to bring new life to the bard’s work and it often feels contrived and unfortunate (i.e. King Lear in space). However this production of HAMLET (which Griffin is directing) keeps true to the language and heightened state that is the Elizabethan era while bringing modern relevance to it.xerk1904

Hamlet is widely considered to be the greatest play in the English language. It is the pride of Shakespeare repertory companies, and the bane of many a high school student. By far Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (if not his most famous play,) Hamlet follows the trials of young Danish Prince Hamlet who, after his father dies, watches his uncle take the crown and marry his mother. When the ghost of Hamlet’s father comes back and tells Hamlet that he was murdered by that same uncle, Hamlet is called to avenge his father’s death, plunging him into despair, madness (?), and a desperate introspection of what it means to be human.

What A.N.O.N. Productions has done is nothing short of giving us a HAMLET that is more immediate, and vital for our times than any I have seen. In the wake of the recent election, and stories from across the country of horrifying misogyny (especially from those in power,) violence against the LGBTQ community and political corruption, I never thought that HAMLET could, in so powerful a way, speak to me personally, or to exactly what I’m feeling at this moment in our country. This show was apparently originally done last fall, where it did so well that it was brought back this year. I did not see the original, but it seems to be something of a prophetic production as the issues it raises have only become more potent in the last few months.

Inspired by Emma Watson’s He For She campaign, this production takes place in modern times (or at least some slightly dystopian future,) where Hamlet is a woman who has been raised as a man for succession purposes. Hamlet’s love, Ophelia, traditionally the paragon of wilting damsel-in-distress femininity, here is a sensitive man who, not living up to the highly militaristic and stereotypical ideals of masculinity so highly valued in this world, is constantly bullied for his vulnerability and kind heart. Hamlet’s best friend Horatio is the only woman in the military (in a timely, Katniss Everdeen esque guise,) and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s toady friends from school, are here played as diabolical mean girls of the Regina George, or Heathers variety. All other characters are traditionally gendered.xerk1618

What you have as a result is a production that not only makes certain elements in the show clearer than I have yet seen but remarkably makes us relate to all the characters onstage – especially Hamlet and Ophelia – whose relationship is clearly the center of this production. I do not want to give away all the wonderfully surprising, and incredibly intelligent decisions Griffin has made, but suffice it to say that lines of text take on new meaning, the nunnery scene, far from the traditional “abuse of Ophelia,” is now a heart wrenchingly painful break up. Hamlet is no longer a vacillating, inactive, slightly woman hating young man, and Ophelia a romantic ideal of femininity respectively, but both take on the quality of everymen.XERK1542.jpg

Returning from A.N.O.N.’s production of SNOW, Ryan Clardy is once again fantastic here, in a completely different role as Ophelia. Physically, Mr. Clardy is everything this world would expect from a young man – he is tall, strong, and very handsome. Yet Clardy has found an extraordinary vulnerability and sensitivity that is never saccharine or annoying, but makes completely believable that this man has been pushed around by just about everyone his whole life. However Clardy has not simply appropriated more feminine (in the stereotypical definition) qualities. This is a man with deep anger and frustration bubbling below the surface – anger that he clearly loathes and fears. He is strong in a way this world does not value or understand, and when it all comes bursting forth it makes for, honestly, the most stunning and potent mad scene I’ve yet seen. It’s an incredibly brave performance, not to be missed.xerk1980

Griffin not only directs this piece but also does a remarkable job leading it as Hamlet. She has done two things with the role that seem contradictory – she is the most vulnerable Hamlet I have yet seen, and also the most active. HAMLET has historically been said to be the “tragedy of a man who could not act.” Though Griffin’s Hamlet is in deep turmoil about whether or not, or even how to take revenge against her uncle, she most certainly takes action both around, and within her internal debate. Indeed, Griffin’s HAMLET is instead the tragedy of a man who is too human. Her Hamlet cuts to the heart of the character – this is a young man in abject grief who, try as he might, cannot stop feeling. And because of the concept of this production, the “limbo” Hamlet finds himself in (he should be King, but is not, is and is no longer a son, is grief stricken but can not speak his heart,) is physically manifest. She is neither a woman, nor a man. I saw Griffin in SNOW as well, and did not recognize her for a significant portion of the first act of HAMLET. She adopts her masculine guise (and the feminine qualities that, try as he might, this Hamlet can’t quite eliminate) excellently. My favorite part of her performance was the infamous “To be or not to be” speech – traditionally the most difficult to pull off, yet here simple and heartbreaking. And I very much enjoyed her organic facility with the language.xerk1661

Clardy and Griffin are an excellent pair, and their chemistry is again on beautiful display. A.N.O.N. has made a smart choice in continuing to pair these two together.

The rest of the cast is wonderful. Jennifer-Elizabeth Cooper is a stalwart Horatio, and the only person in the show who seems truly comfortable in their own skin. Her journey from friend to protector is beautifully done, even with the lack of lines Shakespeare wrote for the character. Her final moments in the show are some of the most honest acting I have seen.xerk2381

Brian McCormack makes for both a charming, yet conniving Claudius, and a truly terrifying Ghost. In this production Hamlet’s father is the exemplar of the kind of dad who will beat you if you don’t man up and stop crying. When paired with his otherworldliness (here far more Walking Dead than angelic messenger,) it is a truly horrifying situation Hamlet finds himself in when called upon to murder his uncle.

Elise Gainer is a kind Gertrude, whose need to live in denial helps justify her character’s actions and treatment of those around her. Gainer is a smart actress, finding great moments throughout the show. However there are moments when she slightly falls out of character from what seem to be a dropped line or forgetting what comes next that appear, to me, to be more from nerves than anything. Once she trusts herself she will rival many of the divas we all know and love.xerk1896

Ashley Farley and Abby Hart lend much needed comedy to the proceedings as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all while keeping a level of dangerous menace just below the surface. They remind you that mean girls can be just as capable of murder as a makeover. And, representing the kind of femininity that this world values, their beauty and charm serve as a stark reminder of everything Hamlet will never be allowed to have.

Farley shines as the Player Queen and the main Gravedigger. The players are normally forgettable plot devices but Farley brings the Queen to life making her not only memorable but lovely. As the Gravedigger her quick wit and charm make her a great comedian and straight man for Hamlet’s jokes.xerk1761

Hart is quite possibly one of the best finds of this production. As the foolish Rosencrantz she rides the line between a “dumb blonde” caricature, and conniving woman. We laugh at her when she speaks, but if you watch her in her stiller moments you can see the inner wheels turning – calculating her next move. As Osric, traditionally one of the most forgettable characters in the play, the audience cannot help but laugh. Coming in after the emotional grave scene Osric truly is an idiot, and much needed comedic relief. Hart has found a way to make us happy this character survives the end of the show.xerk1513

James Luse is a delightfully bumbling Polonius who, along with his golden-boy son Laertes (Michael Bauer) would rather take on the whole of the Norwegian army than let themselves express vulnerability. Luse, while lovable, needs to pick up his pace. In scenes where he is the main character speaking the audience starts to fade. Polonius also has one of the most iconic speeches in the show (that doesn’t belong to Hamlet) and several times Luse paraphrased his lines.

Bauer seems to be a bit of an odd man out here. Though certainly attractive, he does not look like the paragon of masculinity that the world defines him as – especially in this company. He has found great comedy in the early parts of the show, and his return at the end opens him up, but also doesn’t always make sense. His shift between emotions is not always organic and is somewhat jarring at times.  And he didn’t seem quite as facile with the sword fighting as Griffin.xerk2283

Anthony Michael Martinez does an excellent job of playing multiple characters, most notably Bernardo and Prince Fortinbras, though he often stumbles a bit into overacting in some of the more dramatic moments. Martinez also has a problem upstaging his fellow actors and needs to learn to share the stage.

Though I admired the simplicity of the design concept, I can’t help wondering what might be done with this production given more resources. The costuming could have been more unified, and the set and lighting plot were limited at best. Dialects were a bit inconsistent amongst some of the cast members, and there were many times that the air should have been taken out of scenes.

This is a Hamlet that is truly intelligent and unique. It reminds us of the tragedy that can occur when corruption, manipulation and oppression trump love, empathy and equality. When human beings are not equal, when violence equates with respect and sensitivity is mocked, it leads to the destruction of everyone. This Hamlet cuts through gender, and even, to a degree, sexual orientation. What we have is an everyman Hamlet who is all of us, and, as in Emma Watson’s words at her UN He For She speech, calls for all of us to be both sensitive, and strong. Griffin has directed a remarkable, and deeply moving production. I applaud her, and A.N.O.N. for bringing it to the stage. This is the HAMLET to bring your teenage children to. If this is the kind of art that develops in response to the current state of America, maybe there will be something good that comes out of it after all.XERK1439.jpg(All pictures by Micah Joel)

 

tickets available at:

https://apps.vendini.com/ticket-software.html?e=3b5046e14f3b06448188ae189121d3e1&t=tix&vqitq=aeca8e66-44a4-46a2-8dcd-4e5c5decd5d8&vqitp=d8a9ce29-9898-4a72-a92e-c5973e9a0cb9&vqitts=1480366757&vqitc=vendini&vqite=itl&vqitrt=Safetynet&vqith=abb5c7fedc90b668c421f93f005580cb

 

Funny Face; So Much Talent

Musicals Tonight has been known for doing stage readings (mostly staged with the script in hand, cut the dance breaks in song) of under-produced musicals for many years. However their production of the Gershwin’s Funny Face was not only completely off book but also fully choreographed. I’ve seen a few Musicals Tonight Productions over the years (mostly to support friends) and while they have been cute excursions they haven’t been anything more than that. However if this is any sign of what’s to come they need to start looking at a bigger stage, a bigger house and a higher ticket price.

IMG_7176-edit.jpg

While the script of Funny Face isn’t anything to get excited about, director/choreographer Casey Colgan created a show that should be running in one of the major regional theaters or on a Broadway stage. The costumes are stunning and compliment not only the characters but the dance moves as well. The scene work holds true to the style when the show was written but is easy to follow and understand. The dances, while utilizing similar moves, all felt different and exciting, fun and romantic, goofy and wonderful.

As the script isn’t the reason to go see Funny Face, I won’t go into a plot synopsis. I will mention that the score by the Gershwin brothers is phenomenal. Well know classics such as “’S Wonderful”, and “My One and Only” are beautifully arranged by Music Director James Stenborg. Unknown gems and cuts songs Musicals Tonight added back for this production should be well known when they sound like this.

IMG_7053-edit.jpg

Jessica Ernest and Patrick Graver star as Frankie and her Guardian Jimmy (originally played by Fred and Adele Astaire). Ernest is delightful as the little liar. She walks the line of damsel in distress and puppet master with ease. Her voice is clear and sits perfectly in all her songs. Her dancing is spot on and perfectly executed. Graver seemed a little young for the role at the beginning but proved why he was cast again and again. His taps are simple and he has the feel of Fred Astaire. His straight man comedy plays wonderfully against all the over the top characters around him but he never gets lost in the crowd.

IMG_7124-edit.jpg

Frankie’s love interest, the handsome heroic aviator Peter Thurston, is played by Seth Danner has a lush baritone that carries throughout a house with not the best acoustics. We hear our first major recognizable tune from him. He does not disappoint. Suave, romantic, drop dead gorgeous. Women want him, men want to be him, some men want him too. Danner surprises us in the second act with his dance skills singing “My One and Only.” He Charlestons around the stage, lifts Ernest and comes right back in singing.

img_7115-editJimmy’s love interest is one of his other Wards, June, played by Whitney Winfield. Both her songs were added by Musicals Tonight and for good reason. This character seems to fade into the background and not be important for anything plot related. Thank goodness Winfield was given more to do. Standing in a pool of light singing the heart breaking “How Long Has This Been Going On” the audience holds their collective breath as to not have any chance of interrupting her. She is captivating. Her second song “Shall We Dance” sees a totally different side of her. She shows that she is not just a simple ingénue but smart and fun girl who Jimmy is lucky to end up with.

img_7051-edit

There are two comedic pairs. Dugsie, the ladies man and our third ward, Dora, played by Blake Spellacy and Caitlin Wilayto respectively, have some great numbers and fun scene work. The first duet in the show, “Once” sets the mood for the rest of the show. Dora is beyond quirky and closer to insane but Wilayto makes her lovable. Wilayto also has some terrific pointe work within one of the vaudeville numbers. Spellacy delivers again and again. His comedic timing is off the charts and his dancing puts the rest of this beyond talented cast to shame. One of the added songs, “The World Is Mine” seem to have been added just so that he could show off his impressive tapping with Herbert played by Edward Tolve.

img_7112-edit

Herbert and Chester, played by Bill Bateman are our lovable crooks. Bateman plays the wise and intimidating crook while Tolve is the younger more impressionable with a heart of gold. Tolve is also an excellent tapper and give Spellacy a run for his money. Bateman keep the show grounded and moving. A quick and understandable talker, his experience shines through and guides us through the story.

IMG_7136-edit.jpg

The Police Sergeant, played by Doug Jabara, helps with creating some drama to this otherwise light musical. Jabara has a rich baritone obviously suited for roles like Javert. However his brand of comedy in the show is amusing and the choices he made to justify a poorly constructed character let us know there is so much more to this man. With the last of the added songs “Dance Alone With You” Jabara shows a softer side to the gruff and sometimes sleezy man we come to know. By the end of his short number we all want a bear hug from this man.

img_7132-edit

The ensemble for this show are stellar. Kyle white is seen doing gymnastics across a very small stage. Parker Krug and Christian Brown are brilliant as their dumb cop characters. Caleb Dicke is the stand out of the men as the nerdy clerk. When he has his scenes he owns the stage as if he was the lead of the show. All four men are excellent dancers seemlessly matching each other and standing out with individual tricks. Briana Fallon is a firecracker keeping the boys in line. Kacie Burns has the best pout on stage. Andrea Weinzierl is a man-eater and she will have them all. Giulia Dunes has legs for days and some of the best extension. All four ladies are terrific dancer as well but Dunes definitely stands out. Dicke and Gunes have a dance solo at the top of the last scene which while very short is nothing short of flawless.

img_7047-edit

Run; don’t walk; to see this show. There is only one week left in its run. Bring your producer friends. This show needs to extend.

The Vanity, A Perfect Title

I am just going to start this off by saying that this “show” was one of the worst, most painful experiences that I have ever sat through. The writing was so bad in fact that the only way it could have been produced is as a self-production, which it was. I generally hate self-productions, as they tend to be awful. This is because in those cases there is often no one to tell the writer when there is an issue or the writer just doesn’t listen. In this case the same person was the producer, book writer, lyricist and composer.

the-vanity

The show claims to be inspired by The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’m not entirely sure the writer read the source material. If he did he certainly didn’t understand the point. For those who don’t know, The Picture of Dorian Gray is perhaps the most well executed and best literary commentary of a culture obsessed with youth, beauty and pleasure to the exclusion of morality and goodness. It tells the story of a young man who is heralded as being the most beautiful young man to ever walk the face of the earth. When his portrait is painted by one of the most famous artists of the day he wishes that it were possible for his portrait to age instead of him so that he could stay eternally young and beautiful. He is drawn into a world of hedonistic pleasure, destroying the lives of many around him and ultimately his own soul. As he wished would happen all of his sins show up in the portrait and he remains eternally beautiful until, realizing he has destroyed his own soul, he stabs his portrait, killing himself in the process.

The Vanity on the other hand, set in 1947 Hollywood – a seemingly perfect setting to update this tale (the only good decision the writer made,) follows the story of Julian Gray, who we come to learn is a distant relative of Dorian’s. He receives a vanity from Dorian, which holds the spirit of Dorian Gray in the mirror. From as much of the story as I could follow, it appears Dorian has become a demon who can escape his prison in the mirror by convincing Julian to sell his soul for eternal youth. It is later revealed that Julian has to commit sins in order for the curse to take full effect and allow Dorian to escape. But whereas the original was a brilliant commentary on the dangers of hedonism and the worship of youth, The Vanity seemed to be expanding on magical true love verses pleasure. The deal that is struck makes Julian give up his one true love, Stella, (a pathetic stand in for the heart breaking plot line in the original surrounding Dorian’s first love Sibyl Vane,) for his youth and beauty. By the end of the story they end up together AND Julian gets to keep his youth and beauty. There is no consequence for any of the main characters.

I feel the need to list some of the particularly terrible moments and production decisions in the show. Let’s start with one of the big ones; Julian Gray is supposed to be the most attractive man alive. The actor they hired, while very handsome and talented, was not the most attractive man on the stage, making it almost comic anytime someone commented on his looks. On the flip side the person who was the most attractive man on stage was kept in a cloak, and a fright wig and forced to act like a lunatic for the first half of the show. Once he revealed himself as the demon Dorian Gray he was both the most attractive and the best actor on stage. During the first act he was used too much and I wanted him to go away, but in the second act he was underutilized and I kept waiting for him to come back.

vanity-3

The dream ballet at the top of act 2 was not only poorly executed but also very confusing. We see a character get electrocuted but have no context for why. Does he die? Is he getting shock therapy? Is he being executed by the state? Why is he being executed by the state? We just don’t know. And we didn’t find out for another 20 minutes and even then it was unclear and confusing.

The character that introduces Dorian to the hedonistic life seemed to be split into two characters in this show, one being a Hollywood director in his prime and the other his aging wife. She was portrayed as someone who seemed in their late 60s, where as he was in his 30s. While he is supposed to be married to an older woman who is playing ingénues way past her prime, it would have made far more sense if she had been in her late 40s. This decision made no sense and was one of many things that was indicative of the main problem of the show. Was this a farce or a serious drama?

vanity-1

On the farce side, we had over acting such as English panto-esque characters and every male character being portrayed with a flavor of homosexuality, (not including the character that actually was gay); many comments that winked at the audience such as references to other shows, borderline-offensive feminist jokes, all around bad puns; and one character dying by falling into a chair. On the serious drama side, we had a deadly serious score (there was nothing funny in that music, except how bad it was,) the earnest attitude within all the scenes (they may have had farcical moments but always treated them very earnestly,) and they length of time between farcical moments.

Speaking of music, the accompaniment sounded like bad 1980s prerecorded tracks. I was shocked to learn that it was being played live. This was quite impressive, as I didn’t know it was possible for live music to sound like that. I am also very impressed that a band could play this music at all.

vanity4

The one shining light that got me through the evening was the actress that played Stella, Rosalie Burke. Burke managed to humanize not only her character, but everyone she had scene work with. In her songs she made notes, which would normally be prerecorded in The Phantom of the Opera, sound warm and full. Her acting choices were always intelligent and natural.

The two ensemble tracks, played by Remy Germinario and Kate Hoover were also saving graces. Intentionally comic relief, they actually made us laugh in between the terrible puns the rest of the cast had to say.

vanity-2

I feel I can’t really comment about the direction of the show as it felt that most of the problems were with the material.

There are some shows that are so bad that they are fantastic and you enjoy them in their awfulness. This show was not one of them.

Snow, A Fairy Tale With Real Truths

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

That quote by G. K Chesterton, referenced in Snow, lies at the heart of Ashley Griffin’s darkly moving new play. Fairy tales have existed in some form or another for thousands of years – changing as history progressed and new authors put their stamp on them. Some might say erasing their truths in the process. The power of storytelling is the essence of just about every art form, and yet it is rarely discussed. As the character Clara says in Snow: “Storytellers take words and make order out of the chaos of life.” A well-composed narrative has the power to galvanize, horrify, or inspire hope unlike anything else. And narratives are all around us, even when we don’t realize it.

Case in point? Take that Chesterton quote. A lovely sentiment written by one of the greatest authors of fairy tales ever. Only it wasn’t written by Chesterton. It’s by Neil Gaiman who attributed it to Chesterton in his children’s book Coraline. It’s meant to create an analogy in the reader’s mind between the classic fantasy writers and stories of old, with the tale Gaiman is about to tell us. It is a fiction that tells a truth.

Panto

Snow follows three ‘fictions,’ that tell many truths. Specifically three separate storylines that all revolve around the Snow White fairy tale, with six actors playing parallel archetypes in each. The first plot is the (historically accurate) story of the real life Grimm brothers. The Grimms were the first to transcribe tales that had previously only been passed down orally in an attempt to preserve the German culture – which was being ruthlessly assaulted during the Napoleonic wars. The second follows a Victorian theatrical family whose lives begin to mirror (pun intended) the Snow White story when Isadora’s stepdaughter begins to usurp her career, personal life, and desires. The third tells the story of Astrid – a modern-day girl living with her abusive mother who is put into a coma and must decide whether or not to wake up. The stories parallel each other in ingenious ways. Griffin has done her research. The refractive lens of each plot line illuminates things in each of the others, and indeed in the Snow White story itself, that we would never have seen by telling any of the stories alone. Griffin has also masterfully used Shakespeare’s Cymbeline as well as a Snow White pantomime to further shed light. The plotlines are unified through the question: Are the deep things that we desire in our heart of hearts – a love that will last forever, someone to save us, hope in a hopeless world – the things epitomized in our stories, actually real?

The idea that “we are all stories in the end” is powerfully explored, as is the nature of goodness – what it means to be good and why goodness does not always lead to happiness. This is most prominent in the Astrid storyline, specifically in the relationship between Astrid and a rather ingenious character – Shadow.

Heroin

Shadow is one of my favorite things in the whole piece. Played with utter brilliance (there is no other word) by Ryan Clardy, Shadow is the only character who stays constant throughout all the story lines. The physical embodiment of death, he is silent for the entire first half of the play, only appearing (in a form both utterly seductive, and terribly imposing) when he is summoned to give the kiss of death to every character that dies. And a lot of characters die (this is based on the original fairy tales after all.) Shadow finds a soul mate in the all too human Astrid who, stuck in her horribly abusive existence, has, quite literally, been “half in love with death” her entire life. She desperately longs to die and be with him. He, recognizing that she has the potential to revive the heart of the stories that are being lost, is desperate for her to survive.

The cast does a wonderful job, especially with the difficult task of constantly transitioning between roles. But, however different the characters, each ‘track’ is rooted in a unifying archetype.

Maria Deasy brought a human side to the ‘villainous stepmother.’ Showing us the decay from a loving mother into a desperate woman who would do anything to keep what power she has and punishing the people whom she believes to have wronged her. Deasy is the aggressor in most of combat in the show. This seemed to be her weak point as some of the combat either looked false or over rehearsed.

Shadow Isadora

Mark Keeton was the stalwart patriarch. He had the characters with the biggest differences and found a way to show both Jakob Grimm, who always put others first, and Jack, who never put himself last. Keeton was unfortunately difficult to hear, and showed us his hand a bit too blatantly as the amoral Jack. Keeton’s choices felt a bit like two-dimensional sketches of character types.

Gracie Beardsley showed poise and intelligence beyond her years as all of the little girls in the show. Not only having the responsibility of the first death, Beardsley played the only character we got to see after see was dead. Charm, innocence, vengeance and grace (she is aptly named) pour from her as she captivates our heart.

Astrid Tate

On first glance it appears that Ian Way plays the Prince archetype, however his track is actually rooted much more in the Huntsman role – the good-hearted young man who is ultimately unable to stop the tragedy around him. Way captured the nuances of such a struggle elegantly (in the hands of a lesser actor they would have fallen by the wayside to the detriment of the story.) Way is a charming and strong actor, however there were many moments where he seemed unsure of his lines and some where he seemed lost in thought.

Clardy as mentioned earlier portrays Shadow, the ancient god of death. Shadow is a being who has no choice in his ‘life’ and yet he fought against his fate harder and with more passion than I have seen from many actors on Broadway. Clardy easily slides from sadistic and cruel to protective and vulnerable and brings the audience with him on his journey. Clardy was the heart of this show.

Shadow Astrid

Ashley Griffin pulled double duty as the playwright and actor – playing the Snow White archetypes, Astrid among them. There are times when it is to the benefit of a piece to have the author take part as a cast member, Griffin clearly has a strong connection to the material, and it served the show. It’s hard to think of many actresses who would not only put themselves through the beating this play demands of her roles – both physically and emotionally but attack everything her characters must endure with utter commitment. Griffin also has magnificent chemistry with everyone else on stage, most notably Clardy, which was utterly electric. I almost wish Astrid and Shadow could have their own play. But that is another story, for another time… (pun intended.)

The piece is beautifully, and simply directed by Devin Vogel and takes advantage of traditional storytelling techniques. The six actors tell all three plot lines seamlessly using only a trunk, two chairs, and a single added costume piece to denote each character they play. Music ranging from K-Pop to traditional folk songs are expertly used. Vogel seems to have a great eye and I am looking forward to his next project. I would love to see what he does with a more traditional piece.

Gracie

The piece is not without it’s flaws. At two hours with no intermission, it pushed the limits of the length a one act can run. And it’s heady themes, and poetic language are a double edged sword. Incredibly beautiful and moving, they require attuned listening – I doubt I got everything I should have on just one viewing, and I am a fantasy fan who was really paying attention. This is a divisive piece – I have a feeling people will either love it, or not understand it at all (I don’t see how anyone could hate it). It is also not a show to go into lightly – while we are apt to be desensitized to the darker things in fairy tales, put incest, abuse, filicide, etc. in a contemporary setting, and they take on a horrifying reality.

Snow is a beautifully ambitious play. I’m curious how it changes and evolves for it’s next incarnation – and I certainly hope it has a next incarnation. This is a play that, while not easy to see, needs to be seen. To quote Griffin it “gives us real truths, not easy morals.”

School of Rock, Teaching Us to Listen

When School of Rock the movie came out it was met with thunderous applause. Jack Black at his best in a movie that touched us all (or most of us). A movie set around the concept of what rock and roll is truly about. So when it was announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber was composing the music for a stage adaptation we were all a little worried. Our fears continued as there was no way they were going to be able to get Jack Black to do the role again and no one was going to be able to fill his shoes. There was a lot of talk in the community expecting the show to be a flop, to close quickly, to have patrons shouting out their disappointment. And then the show opened.

When Alex Brightman first appears on stage you have to take a few minutes to realize that he is not Jack Black. Brightman does such a fantastic job of not only stepping into the character but into Black’s iconic interpretation. However that doesn’t mean that he stays there. Brightman has flushed out the character in ways that only come from devoting yourself to something with your entire being. Finding moments with almost every other actor on stage, Brightman brings us on his journey from awkward rocker to relatable dreamer with energy, talent, and truth.

SCHOOLROCK

Not only does Brightman subvert our expectations but Webber proves he is more than capable of writing rock. Webber’s score is delightful and powerful with one of the best songs of the season “Stick It To The Man.” For a song that reprises itself over and over we never get tired of listening to the catchy tune or the inspirational interpretation of the classic rock message. However that may be because our hearts melted for the children singing “If Only You Would Listen.” In a song that should have been written years ago, we hear the kids need to be heard; a need that only the power of rock can give them. While that seems clichéd and campy, we never feel that way during or after the show.

Speaking of the children, they really do play their instruments. Although I’m not sure why it is said on repeat before and after the show. These kids are clearly talented but to say over and over that they are really playing almost diminishes the amount of talent and dedication they have. Four of the kids play an instrument throughout the show, the guitar, bass, piano, and drums (Other kids play more classical instruments for a quick scene early on and then never again.) The four of them clearly have put in hours and hours of training into the skill set they must have in order to not only play the songs in the show but to perform them so well.

Now for some of the aspect of the show that are not as strong. Sierra Boggess plays the strict principal Rosalie Mullins who later turns out to be a huge fan of Billy Nix. Boggess has been one of my favorite sopranos in the business for some time and I was saddened to see her in this role. While she sings it very well, the role itself is not suited for her type of humor leaving Rosalie two-dimensional and slightly false. The role itself is not fully flushed out leaving Boggess trying in vain to make the switch seem natural.

school-of-rock-curtain-call_650

Along those lines the characters of Ned Schneebly (Dewey’s roommate and ex bandmate) and Patty Di Marco (Ned’s uptight girlfriend) don’t see enough stage time to flush them out or make them into the lovable goof and antagonist (respectively) that they are intended to be. In fact Patti is so one-dimensional that we know exactly what she is going to say every time she walks out onstage until the end when her character comes back with a complete 180 that makes zero sense.

Jumping backward a little there is a major plot hole in the show. Remember the song “If Only You Would Listen?” The kids are begging to be heard by their parents, teachers, literally anyone. And in comes Dewey to give them rock. Except Dewey doesn’t listen to them either. In fact he straight up ignores several of them and uses them for his own gain. He even says later in the show that he lied to them and some of the kids reprise the song. This makes no sense from a dramaturgical stand point because, again, the main kid to sing it is one that Dewey ignore not once but twice and only paid attention to her once she showed him something she could be useful for.

SOR Zac

The kid Zac, who seems to be the main child, has a huge conflict with his father. The father not only dismisses his son constantly but also basically tells Zac that he has to work twice as hard because he is stupid. Not once does Dewey tell Zac he is good for anything except guitar. Not once does Dewey tell any child a positive thing beyond how they can help him with his goal of being a rock star. So why do we believe that he cares when it is nowhere in the script? The only answer is Brightman. He brings such depth to yet another character that is two-dimensional.

Every with all of its dramaturgical problems School of Rock is a joy. And really a must see.

Bright Star, Fading Before Its Time

Unfortunately not enough people want to see a charming, refreshing, moving new musical on Broadway. This has been true for many years and continues with Bright Star closing before it’s time.

Blending the wonderful qualities we love in traditional musical theater with a unique Bluegrass score (has there ever been a Bluegrass musical to hit The Great White Way?), Bright Star, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, tells the tale of Alice Murphy (the incredible Carmen Cusack) – a star literary editor who has a secret and rather tragic past.

Martin and Brickell do a brilliant job at structuring Alice’s story. If the show had simply followed Alice chronologically through her journey Bright Star would have been even more predictable, possibly falling into Hallmark Original Movie territory. Instead the audience is given a surrogate –Billy Cane (the wonderful A. J. Shively), a young soldier who returns home from war to find that his mother has passed away. Billy longs to be a novelist so he takes a chance, moves to the big city, and charms his way into Alice Murphy’s office where he convinces her to read some of his work. When we first meet Alice she is the intimidating, uptight, but witty as hell gatekeeper of all of Billy’s hopes and dreams.

Bright star deskThen, in a fantastically motivated, not to mention executed transition, we flash back to Alice as a young woman (also played by Carmen Cusack.) This Alice, except for her crack sharp wit, bares no resemblance to the one we have come to know. She is flirty, fun and vivacious – and desperately in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs – the wealthy Mayor’s son played to utter perfection by Paul Alexander Nolan. It just so happens that Dobbs loves her right back, and honestly I don’t know when the last time I rooted so strongly for two people to end up together was.

The drama cuts back and forth between Alice’s past and Billy’s present, and comments on the power of stories to define, shape and redeem us.

Young Alice gets pregnant – a surprise welcome by Jimmy Ray who wants desperately to marry her, and enraging Jimmy Ray’s father who invents a heartbreaking, I would go so far as to say diabolical plot to deal with the child. Eventually past and present collide into a beautiful, redemptive, yet somewhat predictable story. However I have never seen a show handle the predictable moments with such a comedic sensibility that we all not only forgive it but are glad it was there.

And in case you were not aware, it is all based on a true story.

Martin and Brickell’s score is delightful, charming and joyous. I certainly hope this is not the last Broadway outing for either of them.

Bright Star youngThe set by Eugene Lee is stunning. It is simple, elegant, and able to transform (not to mention house the orchestra) in fantastic and surprising ways. The lighting, and wigs are phenomenal as well. The costumes for the main cast are excellent but I wish they had found dresses for the ensemble women that would showcase the period without making them look like Oompa Loompas.

Cusack lead the cast with such ease that I have no idea how this is her first time on Broadway. Her voice is beautiful and keeps me engaged in a way that reminds me of someone somewhere in between Idina Menzel, Betty Buckley and Barbra Streisand. I look forward to following her for the rest of her (hopefully) very long career.

Shively and Nolan both excel at their respective roles. Hannah Elless is flawless as the bookstore owner who loves Billy. Elless balances the unrequited love and her comic sensibilities perfectly. Emily Padgett and Jeff Blumenkrantz are hysterical as Alice’s assistants. Padgett’s sexpot is spot on. Blumenkrantz has the flat humor down.

The parents, Michael Mulheren, Stephen Bogardus, Stephen Lee Anderson, and Dee Hoty were wonderful. Mulheren brought humanity to the despicable acts of the Major. Bogardus was hysterical as the uneducated frog hunter. Anderson’s journey from only caring about appearance to truly caring about his family was fluid even with such little stage time. Hoty was everything you could ask for in a maternal figure, caring, strict and passionate.

Is the story breaking new ground? No. Does it need to? Not at all. This show encapsulates the reason most people go to the theater – it will make you feel joyful, passionate and hopeful. But most of all, it will make you FEEL. There are sadly too few shows doing that on Broadway. It’s a shame that Bright Star is closing so soon, but I have no doubt that it will soon become national tour and regional staple. Go to see it if you have the opportunity, and in the meantime make sure to download the cast album.

bright-star-21And run to the few performances it has left on Broadway. Chances are you will see Martin himself playing with the band during intermission, but more importantly you will have a wonderful night at the theater.

Tuck Everlasting, A Book Made Flop

The new musical Tuck Everlasting based on the classic children’s book (later turned into a Disney film,) tells the story of young Winnie Foster – a preteen girl living in the early 1900’s who wants nothing more than to rebel against her overly sheltered existence. When she finally runs away into the woods behind her house she meets the Tucks – a mysterious family who she eventually learns are immortal, thanks to accidentally drinking from a magical spring hundreds of years ago. The story climaxes with Winnie being given the chance to drink from the spring and become immortal herself, but not before a warning from the Tucks that immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. The famous line from the book (and show) is: “You don’t need to live forever, you just need to live.”

The musical adaptation is a beautiful production with lush lighting, beautiful costumes and sets and, wonderfully, beautiful dancing (especially by the fantastic Neil Haskell – runner up on So You Think You Can Dance a few seasons ago.)

However the musical suffers from some problems most of which (I think) have nothing to do with the musical at all.

Tuck Everlasting is a book that most students are required to read at some point in the later years of elementary school. I was. But truth be told, and I will probably get some flack for saying so, it’s more the kind of book that adults think children really ought to enjoy, but no child I’ve ever known actually really enjoyed it. And that’s mainly because there are some inherent flaws in the storytelling.

tuck

See, no eleven-year-old cares all that much about the issues surrounding immortality – mainly because all eleven year olds partially believe that they’re going to live forever anyway. But the biggest problem is that, at least according to the rules of immortality set up in Tuck Everlasting, there really aren’t any consequences to living forever, despite the protestations of the Tucks. A problem which is far from rectified in the musical.

I can’t believe I’m about to actually reference Twilight as a positive example, but hear me out.

In the Twilight universe there are serious issues Bella has to contend with when deciding whether to become a Vampire or not (at least until the last book where she somehow magically gets a pass on every consequence that she had been facing.) The biggest of which are: if she becomes a Vampire, she can never have children, there is the possibility that she, or her love could die, in which case she’s facing all of eternity either without her soul mate or in some sort of (implied) hell fire afterlife because, as is stated over and over again, Vampires most likely do not have souls. She’ll never see her family again, oh yeah, and she’ll be come a horrific, murderous monster.

In Tuck Everlasting, none of those things exist. And it negates the central thesis of the story. In the Tuck universe you may stop aging when you drink the magical water, but you can most certainly have children and a family. You can’t die, so, assuming your love is also immortal (as is implied will be the case if Winnie waits to drink the water till she’s 17 – the same age as Jesse Tuck) you’ll never lose each other, and you can give your kids and family the option of drinking from the spring too. You may have to keep your immortality a secret, but you don’t have any tell tale signs like in Twilight that would make it difficult (i.e. sparkly skin, superhuman abilities, etc.) So you’re fine as long as you didn’t stay in one place TOO long. Your soul’s in no danger, and you don’t turn into a monster.

Honestly, other than the fact that your children might not want to drink the water, and you would have to watch them grow old and die, what is the downside in the Tuck universe to becoming immortal? The Tucks imply that you become stagnant – the world changes around you, but you don’t. But there’s nothing to back that up. We watch the Tucks learn, grow and change. They certainly didn’t seem stagnant.

And so, there never really feels like there’s anything at stake. We’re told there are things at stake – but we never see them, or feel them.

Regarding the musical specifically, many of the songs are charming, especially “Everlasting” – Winnie’s eleven o’clock number, and the terribly smart opening number “Forever” – in which various characters either celebrate that they could “live like this forever” or bemoan that they “can’t live like this forever.” Many however are quickly forgettable. Andrew Keenan-Bolger steals the show with his effervescent joy and ability to bring depth to an on the page not completely fleshed out character. Terrance Mann is always a delight, and overall the cast acquits itself nicely with material that doesn’t terribly challenge them. Carolee Carmello is in top form, and having a joyful time, and Sarah Charles Lewis is a real find as Winnie. Michael Park is a glorious patriarch of the Tuck family, and Robert Lenzi is a lovely brooding heartthrob as Miles Tuck.

tuck_everlasting

The ensemble is absolutely stellar. Each has a unique character, and it’s fantastic to see an ensemble of such strong triple threats. The dance numbers are delightful, and it’s nice to see a new Broadway musical that really incorporates dance as a narrative device.

The production is beautiful, and I mean that literally. The set is dominated by a gorgeous moving tree, and the costumes and lights are a confectionary dream – in the best sense.

The writers have made some minor tweaks to the story that help – but I wish they had gone farther. In the Disney film Winnie is aged up from eleven/twelve to sixteen/seventeen – making her romance with Jesse, and the decision to drink the water IMMEDIATE, and far more visceral. This choice doesn’t fix the story, but it’s an attempt.

Overall Tuck Everlasting just never really finds its footing. It’s an ambitious show that just misses the mark – largely because the inherent story it’s beholden too has intrinsic flaws.