I decided to take a wee break from gorging on Yuletide fics (so gorgeous! so many!) to post about all the live performances I saw in the second half of 2015. (You can find all my posts in this vein by clicking the "theater" tag, if you're curious.)
The Audience: I've definitely seen Helen Mirren being more impressive – I don't think it was a Tony-deserving performance, though it was assured and more than competent – and the show itself was fairly uninspiring (neither complete enough to be satisfying nor emotionally insightful enough to be transcendent). I didn't like that the Queen was given some very liberal attitudes that seemed more fictionalized for the stage (and the stage's audience) than strictly adhering to historical record. But Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson was incredible – his storyline was truly affecting and he and Helen Mirren played off each other phenomenally. 6/10
Skylight: I really liked this one, though I did think some of Bill Nighy's tics verged on the affected – tricks for an audience rather than natural outcroppings of his own entitlement and arrogance. Carey Mulligan was excellent as Kyra, who seemed credibly exhausted and irritated and guilty, though I wasn't quite sure I bought their previous relationship and the course it ran. Matthew Beard as Tom's son seemed superfluous at first, until the grace note of the final scene. 7.5/10
On the Town: I think the cast and choreographers deserved better than this show, which employs some worn-out stereotypes and uninteresting ideas. It seemed like more of a dancer's show than a singer's or an actor's, and it suffered from having to divide its attention among three couples when none of the male characters was particularly interesting; the women had much more depth, and I'd watch a show centered on them. 4.5/10
The Qualms: This was written by Bruce Norris, who wrote Clybourne Park, and also featured Jeremy Shamos, one of my favorite Broadway actors. He plays Chris, newly married to Kristy, who's coaxed by his bride to attend a party for swingers. Chris immediately has his back up – the swingers they find at the monthly meeting/party are older and less attractive than he'd secretly fantasized - and he's relieved to be so clearly "superior" (better educated, wealthier, and less "desperate"). JS was fantastic, as were Donna Lynne Champlin (now killing it on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which I highly recommend) and Kate Arrington. It was a very funny show more about how we police each other than sex (in any configuration). 7.5/10
Little Shop of Horrors: I was lucky enough to see a sing-along version of the movie with Rick Moranis hosting (and asking us to drown out his singing), but seeing Ellen Greene as Audrey, live on stage, was on another level entirely (I saw the last of the three shows). She was incandescent and Jake Gyllenhaal matched her as Seymour – he sang in a very true (but not Broadway) voice and of course acted very well. Yes, he's far too good-looking for the role, but he had the round-shouldered shy stoop and mannerisms of a nebbish (even if he looked like his muscles were going to burst out of his plaid shirt). I thought the Greek Chorus could have been tighter and Mr. Mushnik made very little impression, and the show's quick turnaround meant that Audrey II was not really shown, but Taran Killam was great as Orin Scrivello, DDS. But of course the night belonged to Ellen Greene reprising her signature role. She was glorious. 9.25/10
Everyman: I don't like the play, particularly, but I let the fact that Chiwetel Ejiofor was playing the lead seduce me into seeing this National Theatre Live production. I shouldn't have. Though he was beautiful as usual, he seemed fairly ineffective in this role, which was too generic (by design) to be interesting. There was a lot of flash and zazz in the production, but it all added up to very little. 4/10
The Wild Party: I had no idea, but apparently there were two musicals based on Joseph Moncure March's 1928 poem that both debuted in 2000. This version was by Andrew Lippa, and it was fantastic. The main quartet – Sutton Foster as Queenie, Steven Pasquale as Burrs, Brandon Victor Dixon as Mr. Black, and Joaquina Kalukango [who was phenomenal in Cleopatra] as Kate – was amazingly strong (as was Miriam Shor) and made me care about characters who are all behaving in pretty appalling ways (and with whom I'd normally have very little sympathy). I really would like this one to transfer to Broadway – the music and performances deserve it, and the whole thing was flat-out exhilarating. 9/10
Whorl Inside a Loop: This show was an amazing surprise. Sherie Rene Scott (one of the co-authors) played the white female actor who goes to maximum-security prison to teach six inmates (all convicted of homicides, not coincidentally all African-American males) to tell their stories. It sounds like it will be unbearably earnest, but it wasn't – the performances were all remarkable, really nuanced and layered, and in any case the woman starts co-opting some of the inmates' stories first as cocktail-party fodder and then for a play she wants to write. So questions of who owns these stories are raised, as well as the culpability of "society" (and what we mean by that word). Highly recommended if it transfers/tours. 9/10
The Black Book: A very intense show that kept doubling back in ways that were first interesting and then unsatisfying. The cast did well to keep up with the material, particularly Sean Borderes and David Siciliano; the story centers on a college student who has committed suicide, with the other characters trying to figure out why. 7/10
Hand to God: Steven Boyer gave a powerhouse performance as Jason and his puppet (or maybe it's the other way around) Tyrone, and the two leading women (his mother and his crush) were very good as well, but none of that changes that there's not much of a play there, or at least no real ending. The show was very clever in setting up Jason's particular situation but then didn't know how to resolve or at least consider the issues it raised – there were a lot of laughs but what was missing was that click when everything gets illuminated. 6.5/10
Old Times: Surprisingly, given the cast, a real bore. This should have felt vital, pulsing, but instead it was a lot of inert speechifying and pouting being mistaken for inner depth. What a shame. 3/10
Spring Awakening: I didn't know the show – I had heard of it, but that's all – and delayed on seeing this production because I couldn't imagine how a musical with deaf actors would work. It worked beautifully. The deaf actors had hearing counterparts who shadowed them and sang/spoke for them, and the show made interesting use of sign language and supertitles. All of the actors playing the young characters were excellent, and the adult actors were very competent. A really illuminating and beautiful production, with some amazing images. Highly recommended. 9/10
Seven Guitars: A really interesting play that to its detriment felt very much like a play, like a problem that needs to be worked out in the theater. The cast was very strong, but the show was long and didn't quite do right by all of the characters. 7.5/10
Fool for Love: Like hell was I going to turn down the chance to see Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell on stage together. They were truly electrifying together, each sympathetic and villainous by turns, and their bond – which I won't spoil for you the way the person behind me did for me – seemed like a living thing, twisting to accommodate each new terrible circumstance. The other two cast members were very good, but it's hard to compete with Sam Rockwell competently lassoing furniture and Nina Arianda. 8.5/10
The Flick: I liked it very much, but I can see why a lot of people walked out. The show runs over three hours, but there's only about ninety minutes of dialogue – the rest is silent, or littered with a lot of ums and uhs and time-filling mumblings. There are three employees of a movie theater – one is the new guy – who interact with each other and relate to movies. It’s not "about" anything in particular, but it does the slice-of-life thing really well, with great particularity. 8.5/10
The King and I: I unfortunately missed Ken Watanabe's turn as the King of Siam, but Hoon Lee was excellent, and I did get to see Kelli O'Hara, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, and Conrad Ricamora. Literally all I remembered from the movie was the big dance scene (with that dress!) and Yul Brynner saying "et cetera, et cetera, et cetera," so I was surprised how sharp and funny some of the dialogue was, and equally surprised how little the songs stuck with me. I was a little miffed that there was so little sexual tension between Anna and the King (he's very much the other) until there was one really shivery moment – when he puts his hand on her waist, draws her close to dance, and says (in a voice about an octave lower than it'd been the rest of the evening), "Come." Yowza. The kids were cute but far too much time was spent on their antics, and the young lovers subplot got really dark, which was good but tonally confusing. 8/10
Henry IV: I saw this all-female version with my friend A, and we were blown away by most of the cast, particularly Harriet Walter as King Henry, Clare Dunne as Hal, and Sophie Stanton as Falstaff. It was a production set in a prison, and there was some meta about making a production, which for the most part worked. All of the actors crackled with energy and intelligence, and it was a treat to watch them work. 9/10
Hell's Belles: This was fairly terrible. The writing was poor and nonsensical, and the cast – one man and three women – was wildly uneven (Michael Kirk Lane was atrocious, Laura Daniel seemed okay, Rachel Erin O'Malley couldn't seem to pick a direction, and Liz Shivener seemed like a star in the making). Neither the story nor the songs were anything to write home about, but I was probably due a dud, given how lucky I've been with small musicals before. 3/10
The Pillowman: I'd read this play but never seen it performed – yikes. It's an exercise in brutality and ugliness – interesting ideas wrapped in a terrible cover. The only one in the cast who really impressed me was Daniel Michael Perez, as Michal; it's a hard show to watch without closing your eyes. 6/10
Russia's Jewish Composers: I was exhausted and only made it to intermission, so I missed the pieces by Mikhail Gnesin and Maximilian Steinberg, but the first piece ("The Rose and the Cross" by Aleksandr Krein) was kind of a dud. The second (Anton Rubinstein's Cello Concerto No. 2), however, was splendid. István Várdai was magnificent as the soloist.
Arcadia: This is one of my favorite plays, and this was the third production I've seen of it since moving to New York more than ten years ago. The first had a magnificent Septimus and Thomasina, but the modern actors were unmemorable at best. Then there was the Broadway version, with a terrible Thomasina and a dull Septimus but Raúl Esparza as Valentine and Billy Crudup as Bernard. And, finally, this version at Juilliard, which struck the right balance and made both settings equally compelling. Madeleine Rogers was instantly winning as Thomasina; she was precocious without being precious, and seemed genuinely more intellectual than everyone around her while still being very young. David Corenswet was a little too smirky in the opening scenes, but his superiority took a needed fall when his Septimus gradually awoke to the wonders of his pupil. In the modern section, Gwendolyn Ellis and John Kroft did very well as Hannah and Valentine, but my heart belongs to Thomasina and Septimus, who were rapturous and romantic and real. 9/10
These Paper Bullets!: I can't find fault with Billie Joe Armstrong's songs, but the show itself – not quite a musical, more like a play with some songs worked in – was a mess. It's Much Ado about Nothing set in 1960s mod London, and the men who come back from war are now a Beatles-esque quartet known as the Quartos. Hero is a coked-up model and Bea is her cousin, the designer who makes the line she wears. The transposition makes no sense, and there's no real effort to make it make sense; everyone involved seems satisfied to be smug about the few really clever gags. And the dialogue – all of Beatrice's and Benedick's amazing lines – is cut and adapted in ways that does not mark an improvement. There were faint hints at feminism – what does it matter if she's slept with men other than her future husband? his accusations will always be the first thing anyone remembers about her – but the characters were all basically moptops and smirks, so these modern questions didn't seem to mean much. 4/10
Fiddler on the Roof: I took my family to see this on Christmas night and despite a lot of worrying over how much I'd spent on the tickets, everyone seemed to enjoy the show. The choreography was wonderfully updated (the dancing was really impressively athletic and/or charming) and Jessica Hecht was great as Golde and Danny Burstein was superb as Tevye. The younger cast was definitely at least one step behind, but the story was told well and affectingly, with Tevye as our guide. 8/10
The Humans: This got rave reviews, and boy did it earn them. It's a story about a family – a very specific family, with individual concerns – getting together at the younger daughter's new Manhattan apartment (the place is cheap and spacious but not particularly nice) for Thanksgiving dinner. The cast behaved like a real family, with jokes turning to insults and heartfelt laughs following moments of candor, and the litany of problems they're struggling with, individually and as a group, is extensive but not implausible. It was finely written, beautifully acted, and wonderfully directed (like Airline Highway, there were a lot of things happening at once, but in a realistic and not overwhelming way). This one's transferring to Broadway with (I believe) the same cast, so catch it if you can. 9/10
The Changeling: What a weird play. The two halves of the show seemed to have next to nothing to do with each other, which meant that shifting between the plots was very jarring. I haven't read the play, so I can't tell if it was just that Sara Topham (who looked like Molly Shannon and Alicia Silverstone had a baby who could make Joan Cusack faces) wasn't able to handle the role of Beatrice-Joanna, or if no actress could take on such an oddball role (though I would have liked to see what Amelia Pedlow, who was so brilliant in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, would have made of it). Michelle Beck was very good as Isabella, and Manoel Felciano was excellent as De Flores. Sam Tsoutsouvas was memorable as Vermandero. 6.75/10
And that's it for 2015! I have a ticket for A View from the Bridge and I'd like to see The Color Purple and Marjorie Prime and In the Heights and The Robber Bridegroom. I'm not sure about Noises Off!, though the cast is excellent. I might see A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson as Blanche (which I already saw in London) when it comes to Brooklyn. I'll look for reviews before booking tickets for Romeo and Juliet, The Royale, and The School for Scandal. I'll be seeing Hamilton with my brother in April and She Loves Me with a friend, most likely in March.
What are you guys up to? Let me know if I'm missing something I should absolutely see.
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/456200.html.