kunju (innie_darling) wrote,

so here's that great big theater post I've been promising

Hi, everybody!

I see a lot of theater - my new job gives me a schedule flexible enough for me to go see shows a few times a week if I wish, and I take full advantage of the discounts I get. So, below the cuts are my reviews (with ratings, as I'm following in the footsteps of the awesome oxoniensis). I give brief overviews of the shows, but all spoilers are whited out so there should be no inadvertent spoiling happening.

Memphis: No. Just no. While the female lead (Montego Glover) was fantastically talented, the story - black girl with a powerhouse voice and the songwriting skills to match is promoted by a white boy who DJs and then hosts an American Bandstand-type show in Memphis in the 1950s - was simplistic and gratingly dull. The lines were too clear and the victories were too easy. Plus, the male lead was charmless and childish; it was hard to imagine why the female lead was willing to go through so much to be with him. Race was an aspect of the show, of course, but I kept thinking that they were asking the wrong questions about race. The songs were belted out with no subtlety, but the cast seemed talented. I felt that the show would have worked better with a less fraught and reductive narrative, and simply featured the songs. 3 out of 10.

Venus in Fur: This was phenomenal. If you are in New York, GO SEE IT. 90 minutes, 2 actors - while the shifts in power and narrative (which were nearly constant) felt natural and organic to the script, I've also rarely been as aware of how much hard work performing in a show must be. Because these two actors - Hugh Dancy and the sublime Nina Arianda - looked like they were thinking as well as doing, and that they needed to rely on each other as well as themselves to get through it. I'd like to read the play - come on, NYPL, get cracking on my request! - and then see it again just so I can keep up. It starts out very plainly. He's a playwright, tired after a long and unsatisfying day of auditioning actresses for his latest show, an adaptation of a famous fin-de-siecle S&M novel, and she walks in, wet and bedraggled, hours late for her audition. She cajoles him into letting her audition and slips so easily into the domme role that he can't figure out how much of it is auditioning for a part in his play and how much is auditioning for a part in his life. I don't want to get into how everything escalates, but it does, inexorably and perfectly, and there's a real sense of revelation as epiphanies start going off like firecrackers. If you do go see it, spend the extra money to be in the orchestra, as there's so much going on on their faces - you don't want to miss out. I knew Nina Arianda was great from seeing her in Born Yesterday, but Hugh Dancy, who's always struck me as kind of a little weenie (possibly from playing the eponymous role in Daniel Deronda), was fantastic as well. (And I think I just talked my co-worker into going to see this one with me! All I had to say was "Hugh Dancy"!) 10 out of 10.

Don't Dress for Dinner: Possibly unfair, because I tend not to like farces. It just aggravates me when characters have to be stupid (or non-communicative) for the plot of a play to work. Most of the cast was either off their game or miscast - Jennifer Tilly, who I assume was the "name" draw, was shrill and irritating, and the married couple (Adam James & Patricia Kalember) was terrible. Ben Daniels was better as the friend (and secret lover) who's made to bear the brunt of his friend's and his lover's machinations, but the show belonged to Spencer Kayden, who played the cook who got enmeshed in the whole sticky situation, had a rip-roaring time with it, and turned it to her advantage. She was hilarious, particularly her slinky "seductive" walk. I hope she goes on to better things. 3 out of 10.

Ghost: Every program had a postcard insert, and mine read Molly, you in danger girl! So you know what you're getting when you see this show, which is an overly faithful adaptation of the movie. The two female leads - Caissie Levy as Molly, Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Oda Mae - were very talented, and the two male leads - Richard Fleeshman as Sam, Bryce Pinkham as Carl - were less so but well able to keep up. It's a story that takes (as many do) whiteness as the norm, with the ethnicities of the killer and the sham psychic being made to act as characterization - the show did this just as much as the movie did. However, it was overall better than it should have been. Though the music - co-written by Dave Stewart - was pretty forgettable, there was a cutely dorky dance that Sam did when he played the inevitable "Unchained Melody" for Molly on his guitar. The staging was very slick - there were three on-stage "deaths" that required body doubles to appear as ghosts, and there was also a moment when Sam sees his hand disappear because it's insubstantial; all of these technical feats were handled really well and unobtrusively. 5 out of 10.

Magic/Bird: Hahaha. My brother was in town and I offered to get us tickets to this show, which was his first Broadway experience. When we were growing up, basketball and tennis were the only sports the whole family would watch, and my dad and I rooted for the Celtics while my mom and brother were for the Lakers. I quit watching basketball once I hit high school and the starting lineup of the Celtics retired (my favorite player was DJ, in whose honor I still always eat 3 green M&Ms first when I open a pack), but I remembered the Bird/Magic rivalry well. This play was clearly an effort to get non-theatergoers to Broadway, and while it did that, there's no denying that the show would have worked better as a TV special. It's talky, with an opening scene of Magic learning he's HIV-positive and reaching out to Bird, and there's not much action. There was one fantastic scene in which the two of them are filming a Converse commercial in Bird's hometown and Larry's mom makes him invite Magic over for lunch - the mom is hilarious, adding Magic and Isaiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer (!) to the grace she says over the food, and Larry turns into a little boy and Magic is touched and therefore even more charming. The show was well-cast but really wasn't a great idea for a live show. 3 out of 10.

Other Desert Cities: This one was touted as "the best play on Broadway" by a number of critics and it was a very strong show, mostly because of Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach. Judith Light, while fantastic, had a much smaller role. I didn't see the original actors playing the children of the married couple (Channing & Keach), which might have been why I thought their roles were less well-realized. The story is that Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a staunchly Republican political couple living in California, are joined by her sister Silda (Light) and their kids, Brooke and Trip, for Christmas. Before they can go to the country club for Christmas dinner, Brooke drops the bombshell that her new book is not a novel but a memoir of her time with her "best friend," her older brother, Henry, who committed suicide; he was a liberal and a hippie and couldn't deal with his parents' support for the Vietnam War, and he planted a bomb in a military recruiting station that ended up killing a janitor. Brooke wants her family's blessing to publish the book, an excerpt of which will be appearing in The New Yorker in a few weeks. The play explores the ways in which families can tear each other apart with their expectations and rituals and silences, which I enjoyed. The big twist - that Henry is alive and that his parents, going against everything they've been espousing for decades (including everything they've said in the first act of the play), smuggled him to safety in Canada - came out of nowhere and made a mess of the first half of the narrative. Stockard Channing was excellent, but not even she could overcome that logical flaw. 7 out of 10.

Rated P for Parenthood: This was a little Off-Broadway musical with four actors in sketches that went from childbirth to dropping children off at college. No real revelations or surprises, but the cast elevated the material and made some of the sketches charming, funny, or touching. All four of the actors should move on to better things. 5 out of 10.

The Total Bent: A work in progress, seen at Public Lab. This is the follow-up to Passing Strange. It's still far too long and confused - it needs to become far more coherent if it's going to take on any of its themes adequately. Another show about white production of black music, which is better understood here than in Memphis as a fraught and problematic endeavor. I'll be interested to see how this one turns out. 4 out of 10.

Anything Goes: So nice I saw it twice! Part of the charm is the book, co-written by P. G. Wodehouse, but Sutton Foster should get the lion's share of the credit for the success of the show. She is phenomenal. Seeing it for a second time was interesting mostly for the cast changes - Joel Grey was the better Moonface Martin (2nd), Adam Godley was the better Lord Evelyn (1st), and Bill English (2nd) outclassed Colin Donnell as Billy Crocker. I only wish I'd seen this when Jessica Walter was still in it, though Kelly Bishop was of course very good in the role of Evangeline Harcourt. The young lovers were adorable, the music was wonderful, and the energy of the whole show was infectious. I wonder how the show is faring now that Foster has bowed out. 8.5 out of 10.

A Raisin in the Sun: An Off-Broadway production of a seminal play I'd never even read before, let alone seen on stage. The main cast was very strong, particularly Sameerah Luqmann-Harris as Ruth, the pregnant wife of a man who can't hold on to his money for long enough to give his family a boost. The supporting cast was less convincing, though there were no stinkers, just actors with poorer instincts. It was fascinating to see this and then a few weeks later, see the "sequel," Clybourne Park. CP picks up where ARitS left off, with the black family about to move into the all-white neighborhood, playing out the white characters' fears and dramas; it then jumps to fifty years later, when the neighborhood is mostly black, and a white couple moves in and wants to make "improvements" to their house, which has history they're not part of. The cast here was very assured and uniformly strong, as they've been performing the show for a few years now, in various venues. Crystal A. Dickinson, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, and Frank Wood were especially good - they all had great comedic timing and found the pathos in their characters too. The show was a lot funnier than I'd expected, but it was hard to take for just the reason. At the talkback after the show, the actors discussed learning each audience through its reactions to certain lines, which was a fascinating insight. This is worth seeing. ARitS: 7 out of 10 / CP: 8 out of 10.

Hurt Village: An Off-Broadway production that left me battered. It's hard to explain how much bad stuff happens to Cookie (Joaquina Kalukango - awesome) and her shifting family without making this sound like an unrelenting downer, which it kind of was, but I was also really glad I saw it. I won't say that I felt for every character, but Cookie and her parents (Marsha Stephanie Blake & Corey Hawkins) were amazing. Playwright Katori Hall was in the audience at the performance I saw, which was extra cool. 8.5 out of 10.

Porgy and Bess: I used to have season tickets to the opera (when I lived in Philadelphia), and my two favorite operas from my years as a subscriber were Porgy & Bess and La Traviata. This Broadway production didn't "dumb down" the opera; the performances were operatic and convincing, and Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis were standouts among a rock-solid ensemble that had been perfectly cast. Not a weak link in the bunch. It was lovely to have soaring voices all around, and the show relied on the performances rather than a lot of sets. Worth it, frankly, for any one performance, including Crown's curtsey during his curtain call. 8.5 out of 10.

Seminar: I reviewed this one briefly before, but for the sake of completeness - great performances in a reductive and unsatisfying play. Alan Rickman was fantastic (surprise!) and well-matched by the rest of the cast, but there were all sorts of dodgy sexual politics happening, and the show had nothing interesting to say about the creative process, storytelling, education, or criticism. I wanted this one to stay with me, but there wasn't enough substance. 6 out of 10.

War Horse: Another repeat review - a dud. The puppetry was amazing and beautiful, but the play itself was maybe ten minutes of narrative stretched out over two and a half bloated hours. And in all that time they couldn't even get to the heart of the most important relationship - Joey (the horse) and Albert (the boy). There's a YouTube video that shows some of the puppetry - watch that quick vid and save the money and time. 3 out of 10.

Once: Just wonderful. I'd seen the movie and remembered not liking it as much as I'd thought I would. Still, I saw the play getting great reviews and thought I'd give it a whirl. I'm very glad I did. The music grows out of the story, making the show feel more realistic than a lot of musicals, and the story is compelling on its own. Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti were excellent as the leads, and the whole show has a wistfulness tempered with infectious energy. It's a delicate balance, but they pulled it off perfectly. There's a loneliness to being an immigrant, which they also got right, and then they contrasted it with the loneliness of someone who's a stranger to his own desires - very effective. The staging was nicely done, with audience members free to wander around the stage before the show began and again at intermission, when the stage operated as a bar (if I drank, I would have bought a drink just to get into the spirit of things). I'm going to see this one again, next week hopefully. 9 out of 10.

One Man, Two Guvnors I booked this ticket at the strong urging of oxoniensis, who did not steer me wrong. Though, as noted above, I'm not in general a fan of farces, this one flew by because of how rampantly, unrepentantly silly it was and how fresh and improvised some of it felt [I don't know how much of it actually was improvised]. James Corden (who I don't remember at all from The History Boys, when all I wanted to watch was Jamie Parker's Scripps) and Oliver Chris (who I remember from The Office) were excellent, though I wasn't impressed by any of the other cast members. There was one set piece where Corden's Francis Henshall recruits two audience members to help him lift a heavy trunk - his volunteers were Oliver and Tally ("as in, 'Tally Ho!'?"); Tally kept trying to pull the trunk up between his legs, and Oliver (who was, quite frankly, a cutie patootie) kept giggling, which made Corden spank him and say, "Oh, you like that! 'Please, sir, may I have some more?'" At another point in the play, Francis - whose one objective is to eat something, as he's gone without food for about twelve hours - asks for a sandwich. Someone in the audience called out that he had one, which prompted Corden to start wheezing with giggles and say that this was what happened when people were at the theater at 7 pm rather than at dinner. "Also," he said, "you know you're ruining the play right now, right?" There was some other stuff with a young woman who was, I believe, playing an audience member. Anyway, it was all very funny and the interstitial music (some of which featured the cast on some very odd instruments) had the same zany spirit. Oh, and the night I went, the theater next door was having its big premiere of Nice Work If You Can Get It, which was attended by a number of celebrities and socialites, so I've now been two feet from Jon Hamm, who looks very good in a tux. 7 out of 10.

The Lyons: Pretty much a showcase for Linda Lavin, who made some dark and disturbing material screamingly funny just by her affect and attitude. Her husband - whom she never liked much anyway - is dying, and her two grown children have been falling apart for years, and Rita (Lavin) seizes this moment to make a change. She takes a younger lover, fully aware that he could be playing her for a fool, and jets off somewhere wonderful with him. She also tells her kids she can't keep supporting them in all the ways they've been taking for granted, as it was her time to do something just for herself. It was a real change of pace to see a female character of that age making a choice like that without the wool being pulled over her eyes, and it made me want to cheer her even louder. As my friend E noted, it would have been so easy for Rita to come across as a monster, but Lavin's portrayal was sharper and better than that. The play suffered when she wasn't onstage. 6.5 out of 10.

An Early History of Fire: Only the second time I've walked out of a show (the other was this production of Closer [if only I'd seen the production with Anna Friel, Natasha Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, and Rupert Graves!]). This was disappointingly amateurish - by intermission, I still had no idea who these characters were, and it seemed like the actors were in the dark as well. There was a lot of hamminess - Danny was SO bitter, his father was SO drunk, his friends were SO childish. I'm tempted to say there was nothing good about this one, except that the female lead wore a gorgeous blue dress - which she pulled up to her waist at one point to bare her underwear in a move not even the character could explain ("What are you doing?" "I don't know!" "Why?" "I don't know!") 0 out of 10.

A Streetcar Named Desire: This was so good. The three main actors - Blair Underwood as Stanley, Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella, and Nicole Ari Parker as Blanche - were completely convincing. Underwood's Stanley was less a big dumb brute and more someone who reveled in what his physicality could get him, particularly the devotion of a very pretty wife; watching him lose his vitality as he aged would be fascinating. But of course Blanche comes along and speeds up all of the realizations and awakenings in that sticky New Orleans heat. Parker and Rubin-Vega were totally credible as sisters with a lapsed sibling shorthand. And all three of them were able to speak those famous lines in ways that felt totally natural (yes, even "STELLA!"). And while I may have gone into the theater with this beloved episode of The Simpsons in my head, I walked out totally under the spell of this production. 8.5 out of 10.

Wonderful Town: An intermittently good production of a Leonard Bernstein musical I'd never heard of before. Two sisters from Ohio - one an actress, one a writer - move in 1935 to New York City to find scope for their talents and get caught up in all sorts of romantic tangles. The cast was pretty game, though the actress playing the "pretty sister" (Laurie Sutton) was not a great singer or actress and overall the show felt a little fusty. But Ruth (Molly Pope) and Robert Baker (Adam Kemmerer, who could be Jonny Lee Miller's poor American cousin) were totally convincing in their roles as the literary sister and the editor she falls for. There was a sequence in which he reads her stories and imagines them playing out - which we, the audience, get to see, with her in the lead; it was hilarious. 6 out of 10.

The Best Man: This play, about two candidates trying to lock up their party's nomination as its candidate for President, has an all-star cast including James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury, Candice Bergen, Michael McKean, and Eric McCormack, but it was John Larroquette's show from beginning to end. His character, Secretary William Russell, is the more liberal and cerebral candidate, while McCormack's Senator Joseph Cantwell is a conservative master politician. Jones is the former president whose endorsement would give either man a ticket right into the White House, and he gets to deliver some fire-breathing speeches. Lansbury shows up for about ten minutes and while she's fine, the role didn't need her. Bergen is very good as Russell's wife, who loves him despite his infidelities and believes in him as the right person to lead the country, and Kerry Butler is strong as Cantwell's wife, who's determined to get to the manor to which she wasn't born. McCormack is very good as the smarmy Cantwell, but his character doesn't grow or change throughout the play - I got the sense that he'd been playing politics for so long that he'd started believing his own lies and genuinely could no longer tell when he was stretching the truth. It's Russell who undergoes some dramatic changes that make him re-evaluate what kind of man he is and what kind of man he wants to be. Gripping and smart stuff. 9 out of 10.

Cock: I'd originally heard about this show from the London production, which featured Andrew Scott in the role of M, and was interested by the premise: John breaks up with his long-term boyfriend M and falls into a sexual relationship with a woman, W; he's not sure which of them he wants and what his future looks like. From what I've read, this production was staged just as the London one was - completely in the round, with no props or pantomiming. (What I mean is that, there's a scene that takes place at dinner. One character says to another, "Pass the wine." The other responds, "Here." But there's no wine or table or chairs, and there's no "passing the wine" motion made by the actors.) When John confesses to M that he slept with W, M asks that John introduce him to W. So there's a dinner scene, with the three of them and M's father, who came to provide moral support, that is howlingly funny and terribly uncomfortable. It's a really interesting play, and Jason Butler Harner was fantastic as M, but I had one huge caveat: John is a complete shithead. He's shown to be incapable of making a decision - any decision, even what shirt to wear - and to not have a sense of who he is, fundamentally. When he's with M, he's swearing to break things off with W; when he's with W, he's swearing to break things off with M. He comes across as completely spineless. The playwright, Mike Bartlett, erred in having both M and W wonder aloud what it is that they love about John, what makes them fight to win him, because the sad truth is that there is no answer - John isn't a person at all, and it diminishes both M and W to have felt so much love for what is essentially a blank space. The staging was very interesting - a sex scene is depicted as the two characters facing each other and taking small steps to the right so that they made tighter and tighter circles - and confounding as well; in the dinner-party scene, W accuses F (M's father) of staring at her breasts. Because the actors are not "acting out" what's happening during dinner, the audience has no way of knowing if he was ogling her or if she trumped up the accusation. In the end, the fact that John refused to make a choice - that he let both M and W go by default - feels right, though completely unsatisfying. I think the only way I'd have been happy is if M had kicked John out, permanently and literally, and bonded with his dad, while W walked out and John, that weenie, ended up alone. 8 out of 10.

Leap of Faith: I liked this much more than I'd expected, particularly in light of the savage drubbing it got from critics. It's apparently based on a movie that I've never seen. The synopsis also undersold the show, making it sound like The Music Man, only with faith healing instead of marching bands; while I love The Music Man (particularly Robert Preston, who was also the best part of Victor/Victoria, the last scene of which I have never watched without succumbing to belly-laughs), we don't need another one. But the show was more grown-up, more complicated than that. Jonas Nightingale (Raul Esparza) and his sister Sam lead a faith-healing traveling tour that bilks small-town people out of their cash. At one farming town suffering from a lengthy drought, they meet with Marla, a widowed female sheriff (she got the job when her husband died), and her crippled son. The son is eye-rollingly predictable, but the adult characters - Jonas, Sam, Marla, and Ornella and Ida Mae (the mother-daughter leads on Jonas's team) - are all nicely and credibly complicated. They have backstories and believable motivations. The music, by Alan Menken, was a success as well - it was more akin to his work on The Little Mermaid than the dizzying heights he reached with Little Shop of Horrors - but the characters were grouped in interesting ways; there was one piece that allowed Sam, Ornella, and Ida Mae to share the spotlight, another that paired Jonas with each of the women, etc. It's a shame this one closed so early, because it was better than people gave it credit for being. Also, Raul Esparza shares the crown with Hugh Jackman for sexiest singing-and-dancing man I've seen live. Yowza. 8 out of 10.

And I saw Silence! again, and it was just as fun the second time around. Not for the wee ones, obviously. But worth seeing if you're in town - what other show would have a song called "If I Could Smell Her Cunt" as its love theme? 7.5 out of 10.

Medieval Play: The new play by Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote You Can Count on Me and Lobby Hero. I'm seeing this one at the end of the week!

So, what's up with you guys?
Tags: real_life, theater

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