I am beyond late with my posts about all of the theater I saw in 2016, and earnestly resolve to do better moving forward.
A View from the Bridge: I just missed this one in London, but it came over with the same cast, which was great. Mark Strong (as Eddie) was superb, as was Nicola Walker (as Beatrice). I found Phoebe Fox's Catherine too much - too childish in one scene, too vampy in the next - but it was a question of volume rather than direction. Russell Tovey with bottle-blond hair was an odd choice for Rodolpho. 8/10
Marjorie Prime: What a gorgeous play! They're making a movie of it now, and I've talked before about who I think the cast should be, but the strange casting of the movie does not, of course, detract from the play itself. It's the story of Marjorie, in her eighties and losing her memory, who lives with a robot/hologram version of her dead husband Walter as he was in his thirties because that's when she was happiest. Her grown daughter and son-in-law are trying to cope with Marjorie's fading memory and emotional hair-trigger while unclear how to treat Walter Prime as a father/father-in-law figure when he's half their age. Lois Smith as Marjorie and Stephen Root as her son-in-law were pitch-perfect. 9/10
The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful: Man, I remember laughing so hard my tummy ached. Deliciously droll and campy, this was a two-man performance of one of those potboiler Victorian novels (what fiendish creature lies at the heart of the story? the answer is: the creature whose name is an anagram for Irma Vep) The two actors played men, women, young, old - everything you could think of - and shared scenes with each other and themselves in a quick-change flurry that was as hilarious as it was impressive. It was SO much fun, and I only wish I could remember/find the names of the actors. 8.5/10
The Color Purple: I loved this book when I read it many many years ago, and I suspect that this adaptation was pretty faithful, but I did not remember having Christianity so strongly pitched as the answer to so many of Celie's problems. Well-acted and sung (Cynthia Erivo was a knockout as Celie) and the music was beautiful, but it felt a little too preachy to me, especially considering the issues the story raised. 7/10
Noises Off: Another funny stunner. I knew the play because my high school put it on, and I remember thinking it must be a beast to memorize because of the way things slowly go wrong, stacking up until you've got unmitigated disaster made of the tiniest changes. The cast was phenomenally strong - Jeremy Shamos, Megan Hilty, Kate Jennings Grant, David Furr, Andrea Martin, Tracee Chimo, Daniel Davis, Rob McClure, and Campbell Scott - and everything worked beautifully. I wish they'd filmed this. 9/10
She Loves Me: This was delightful, though pitched a little too fluffy, so that the moments that the darker undercurrents bubbled up felt a little unearned. I think it's also a flaw in the story - the same as The Shop Around the Corner - that the audience knows that Georg and Amalia are Dear Friends but they don't know that truth about each other. Still, it was very fun, particularly both leads (Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi) and Jane Krakowski as Ilona Ritter, who's the shop's resident sexpot. At one point, JK unbuttoned the slit in her skirt up to mid-thigh and did her big dance number, which included her being dragged across the parquet stage on her bare thighs (OMG, SPLINTERS was all I could think). Once they got their act together, the lovers were simply charming together. 7.5/10
The Robber Bridegroom: It's a peculiar story - a troublingly rape-oriented one (the hero sings about only being able to find his pleasure through sexual force and scorns pliant girls) - to build a musical around, but having said that, the music was great and the acting was too. Stephen Pasquale was clearly having a blast. 7.5/10
Hamilton: Yes, so I saw it (bought tickets earlyish but still only saw it eight months after that), and I think that if you know the cast recording, you've already gotten the best of it without having to spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket. The acting was very good, as was the singing, but the direction and choreography were decidedly unimpressive; the direction was very much like that of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies - there's so much information to get across that anything more than a stripped-down and factual approach is going to seem cluttered and confusing, but still the direction/choreography never seemed pleasing to me. I went just after Jonathan Groff had stepped down as King George, but other than him and Leslie Odom Jr. (whom I'd seen and loved in Leap of Faith), I got to see all of the original cast - I was especially pleased to see Renee Elise Goldsberry (whom I loved from The Good Wife) and of course Lin-Manuel Miranda. The understudy who played Burr was a decent actor and sang well, but tried too hard to put his own stamp on the songs, which is fine for a solo but not for a duet or trio, when other people were trying to harmonize with him. Still, overall, it was a gorgeous experience and one I'm glad I got to share with my brother the history buff. 9/10
Waitress: I had some friends come into town for a weekend and they wanted to see this show, which I wouldn't have picked on my own (I remembered vaguely liking but not loving the movie - I should rewatch and see if anything has changed). We ended up seeing it the night before it opened, and it was wonderful. While they're in a musical, where everything is heightened, the three female leads all had fairly realistic sounding lives with relatable concerns. Jessie Mueller sang beautifully as Jenna, and Keala Settle and Kimiko Glenn (with much less to do) were also very strong. 7.75/10
Eclipsed: This was the other show I saw with my friends, and we had front-row seats (which will be important later in this paragraph). It was the Broadway debut of Lupita Nyong’o, who played the fourth "wife" of an unseen warlord in Liberia. All of the wives were excellent - I especially liked Pascale Armand, but Zainab Jah and Saycon Sengbloh were also very strong - and the ways the women bonded over their shared horror (the warlord indicates which of them he will be raping that night with a gesture) while also bickering due to fundamental personality differences and/or the hierarchical order they have imposed to make sense of their situation all rang true. There are pieces of work that make sense - like brushing and braiding each other's hair, advising the younger wives on what their master likes - and it was a truly gripping experience. At least until the end, when an aid worker comes in and can't quite pull off the dea ex machina trick, and comes off as staggeringly ignorant and ineffectual. It was heartbreaking, but not quite in the way the play intended, I think. (The reason that the front-row seats were important was that there's a moment in which LN is thrown to the ground and she reaches desperately out for someone to save her, and in her agonized striving she touched my chest. Had I been better endowed, I could have said that Lupita Nyong'o felt me up.) 8.75/10
Long Day's Journey into Night: I'd heard of this O'Neill play, but never seen or read it. Jessica Lange got so much praise for her performance, but to me (a newbie) it seemed that the play was trying to make a big secret out of what made her tick, and the revelation that she was - dun dun dun! - AN ADDICT was supposed to be startling. But I've had a family situation involving an addict, and it all sounded depressingly familiar, from her tantrums to her husband's (Gabriel Byrne) patience splintered by misery, to her sons' (Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr.) attempts to distance themselves from the wreck of their family. In all honesty, I thought MS was the only one doing anything spectacular on the stage - you could see him trying to alienate them as much as he felt out of their world, and it was one of those performances that captured me and didn't let me go. 7/10
Helen Mirren at NYPL: So the regular interviewer at Live at the NYPL is an insufferable blowhard, and Dame Helen was not taking any of his shit. When he tried to explain to her what lawyers do (they were discussing a work in which she'd played a lawyer), she shut him down. And she kept doing it. She was funny, insightful, and frank. She is a treasure.
Shuffle Along: This is the show that got shut down when Audra McDonald discovered she was pregnant, and that is a damn shame, because the first half of this show was gorgeous and buoyant and everything wonderful. That whole cast was tap-dancing like nobody's business, which is really rousing to witness in person, and the story is true or at least true-ish. The first act is the story of how an all-black team put together an all-black musical on Broadway in the 1920s, and the second act is how everything fell apart after that triumph. Obviously, one part is much nicer to watch, but the whole cast was game and talented, with Audra as one of a team of stars. I wish this one had lasted, or been filmed, or something; I was really hoping that it would take the choreography Tony that went, unfortunately, to Hamilton. 8.75/10
Evening 1910: A Musical: I honestly don't remember much about this show, except that it was set in the new world of New York, with immigrants coming over and finding all the ways that this new home was unfamiliar and even unfriendly. It was quite a short musical and while most of the actors had beautiful voices, there wasn't a lot of narrative coherence. 5/10
The Father: Ah, this was more like it! Frank Langella was at the top of his game, and I had a front-row seat. He played Andre, who's 80 and struggling with dementia, and the audience doesn't know how far in it he is. The audience also doesn't know which actress who claims to be his only daughter really is his daughter, or what her story actually is. It's sharply disorienting, and it really catapults you into Andre's fractured mind; that it all happens while Andre is so physically dominant and even seductive just makes everything sadder. The rest of the cast was good, but so clearly all competing for the silver that it seemed silly to watch them when I could watch Langella earning the gold with tears in his eyes and his voice (that VOICE!) modulated perfectly for each emotional nuance. Some of the scenes, it has to be said, made very little sense if they weren't meant to be Andre's experience, but overall this was really effective. 8.5/10
Peer Gynt: A retelling - not exactly modernized, but changed somehow - of the Peer Gynt story. The actor playing Peer Gynt was very good but the story lurched from point to point without much connecting them (the stage was very stripped down and provided no help); I think I had to be more familiar with the story (all I knew was the famous bit of Edvard Grieg's music) than I was in order to enjoy this version. But I did get to see Becky Ann Baker and Dylan Baker (adorable talented marrieds!) playing on the stage three feet in front of me! 6/10
Blackbird: Once again, my bewilderment about how Michelle Williams keeps getting cast in quality work seems justified. I simply do not understand how the lispy, breathy baby voice she puts on is her only stab at finding the heart of all of the characters I have seen her play on stage. Here she's Una, 27, who had a sexual relationship with Ray (played by Jeff Daniels), nearly thirty years older than her, when she was 12. She's come to his office to confront him now, finally, over what is undeniably statutory rape, only to hear him - once he gets her away from his colleagues and into an empty break room - tell her his version of their story, which is a romance that startled him into behavior he's never repeated. JD was mostly very good - aside from the grimace he plastered on his face when she went on a ten-minute rant that looked, confusingly, like he was grinning at her retelling of their affair, its discovery, and their punishments for it. Apparently, JD played Ray ten years ago opposite Alison Pill, and I wish I'd seen that version. (This is the show at which my friend A and I saw Michael Shannon in the audience, and then got to speak to him outside the theater!) 6/10
The Crucible: Another super famous play I'd never read or seen, and here I got a chance to see it with Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan! They were both very good - he was strikingly gaunt, which made him all the more haunting - but I think Tavi Gevinson's Mary Warren was the real star. I was excited to see Sophie Okonedo, but found her far too mannered for the show. I get that there are a lot of readings of the play, but this one seemed fairly clearly weighted to show that John Proctor had no business sleeping with and then abandoning Abigail Williams, and her vengeance, though far too sweeping and horrifyingly damaging, at least had a reasonable seed. 8.5/10
The Effect: An unusual and unusually thought-provoking and affecting play. Connie and Tristan are two volunteers for a test of a new drug, a high-powered anti-depressant. They seem to be the only two in their phase of the trial, and is it for real or is it just the drug that they seem to be falling in love? Finding them sneaking off together (and also hearing them discuss each other), the doctor leading the trial and the pharmaceutical company's representative have to discuss what needs to happen next - do they separate them, allow them to feel everything, reveal who (if anyone) is on a placebo, or celebrate that they've come up with "Viagra for the heart"? The cast was excellent, particularly Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson as the possible lovers. 9/10
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: This was one of those three-performances-only, cast-might-have-scripts-in-hand shows that they do as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. I went, despite not knowing anything about the book or music, because of the cast - specifically Santino Fontana (Greg from my wonderful Crazy Ex-Girlfriend!) playing Eliot Rosewater and Skylar Astin as scheming Norman Mushari - and the musical team - Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. (I later read the Vonnegut novel and it's weird and inconsistent, but also at times a hoot.) I ended up being stupidly surprised not by the beauty of the music or the beauty of the voices (though both were undeniably there) but by how wonderfully expressive SF's voice was when he was just speaking, how tenderly he treated the wife that made no sense to him. He's really a magnificent actor, and this role of a sweet-hearted, possibly mushy-headed, bajillionaire seemed to fit him like a glove. 8.5/10
Something Rotten: A repeat viewing - the show was great the second time around too, though Will Chase was a distant second to Christian Borle as Shakespeare. The big numbers were just as funny on a second viewing.
The Cherry Orchard: I went because it's Diane Lane doing Chekhov, but wow, this was boring and muddled - the cast was stranded on a weirdly-appointed stage that was supposed to be a number of distinct locales despite not changing an iota, and the cast itself felt like each person was playing in a different show. The cast also seemed drowned out by the sheer volume of the space - it was difficult to hear them and impossible to guess what the relationships were supposed to be. Really disappointing. 4/10
Small Mouth Sounds: An interesting show that was let down by the space in which it was staged. Six characters show up for a multi-day retreat in the woods in which there's no junk food, no smoking, and no talking. That the actors were all able to get across the various crises that drove them to this retreat while staying (mostly) silent is really impressive, and the fact that they had to do it in that space made it even more so. There was a long, narrow strip of space between two sets of bleachers, and the audience was seated on those bleachers, so we were alternately very close to and very far from the action. In a show like this, where every raised eyebrow speaks volumes, that meant that a great deal was lost on every member of the audience (it would probably work really well as a film, because close-ups would be necessary). Zoe Winters and Max Baker were the standouts here. 8/10
Les Liaisons Dangereuses: I saw this with a friend with whom I've seen the movie a thousand times. We both, obviously, love the movie, and I have a thing for Liev Schreiber (kindled by watching Walking and Talking umpteen times), and this play was really a let-down. We'd actually seen it in Philadelphia about fifteen years earlier, and loved it, so I think the issues were with this production specifically, though all I could identify were issues with the play itself. For instance, it comes across VERY talky and stilted (not mannered but stilted), with lines like, "I feel sure you're about to tell me what you thought of next." And while there was a little action with humorous blocking, it was mostly watching beautifully dressed people lounging around exchanging a lot of words. Janet McTeer and LS were as good as they could be as Merteuil and Valmont but the rest of the cast made very little impression. 7/10
The Front Page: Another classic I'd neither seen nor read. I've heard a lot of arguments about how perfectly structured the play is, but honestly the first act felt interminable. It was kind of neat to see so many character actors sharing the stage, but there was a point at which I stopped caring about any of them. But the second and third acts sizzled, because there was Nathan Lane for John Slattery to play against, and those two had sparks from the word go. NL got to be outrageously hammy in character (this, not the Nance, is the role that he was evidently born to play), and Slattery was excellent as the quick-talking, sharp-witted guy who's really, I swear, just about to leave all of this (this being journalism in grimy 1920s Chicago) for domestic bliss (his fiancee and her mother, played by Sherie Rene Scott and Holland Taylor, were both excellent but with very limited parts). John Goodman was surprisingly disappointing in the role of the sheriff, but the rest of the cast was crackling. It's very funny despite the purported subject matter (an anarchist who unwittingly killed a cop is scheduled to hang but escapes - now THERE's a STORY, boys!), and the last line is a real humdinger. See it if you can. 8.75/10
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: What a weird show. I booked it before I knew anything about it (except that Josh Groban was in it, playing Pierre), and my sense of disorientation lasted throughout the show. First, we were seated in a really sumptuous theater that looked like a Russian palace, though there were small cafe tables in certain rows (the better for the dancers to dance upon and be right in your face, shaking egg-shaped maracas), and the first song is very wink-winky at the audience but not nearly as clever as it thought it was. There was an attitude of "let's get you up to speed on the first several hundred pages of War and Peace but still make it clear this show is a BLAST!" that really did not work for me. For those of you who have read the book (or seen the recent miniseries with James Norton [!]), the show's storyline is the bit in W&P when Natasha, waiting for her fiance Andrey to return from his travels, is seduced by the scoundrel Anatole who is aided and abetted by his just as devilish sister [and lover] Helene. That's not a bad plot for a musical, and no one wants to sit through a full musical version of W&P (which would take hours if not days) but it is very strange for it to be so obviously excerpted and so unconcerned with the rest of it. Another piece of weirdness? That the actors sang their stage directions about half the time, like, "Natasha looked at him and without smiling he turned away." Why are you singing that to me, Natasha? I can see very well that you looked at him and he turned away without smiling back. Whatever they were trying to pull off, it didn't work for me, and the music was fairly unsatisfying too. 6/10
The Servant of Two Masters: My mom and I saw this two weeks after the election, and the show was loaded with references to both candidates and the political process and, ugh, the show was funny (funnier when I saw it as One Man, Two Guvnors) on its own - particularly Eugene Ma as Silvio - and did not need all of that dressing up. I seemed to be the only one who didn't appreciate the political overlay, as the rest of the Thanksgiving audience just howled. 6/10
Plenty: Rachel Weisz and Corey Stoll on stage! And yet, not as electric as that pairing promises - Stoll was fantastic, but Weisz needed to be basically omnipotent to pull off this very tricky role (Susan) and couldn't quite manage it. She's beautiful and sharp and intense but not at all warm or engaging or pleasant, and she has to be all of those things for the play to work, for us to understand why other people are even bothering with Susan when she's, years after WWII, still harping on about what she did and what still needs to be done. I gasped a lot, at what happened on stage and what was said, but never felt fully engaged with the characters. 7.5/10
A Life: This was much more engaging. I thought, from the setup, that this would be a one-man show - I typically do not enjoy those, but in this case, the one man was David Hyde Pierce, who is ridiculously good - but the show kept changing on me, in very satisfying ways. Nate (DHP) is a middle-aged, gay proofreader who is newly single (he's had an on-again, off-again relationship with one man for years now) and he discusses his relationships and family and work in a monologue pitched directly to the audience. Then he gets up and starts living his life again, running errands and doing work, and about forty-five minutes into the show, he dies. His dead body is treated by women at a facility while his friends gather for his funeral. It was funny and startling and felt achingly real, the emotional and the mundane. 9/10
"Master Harold" and the boys: Set in 1950s South Africa (where apartheid was the law of the land), this is the story of a white teenage boy - Harold (Hally), played by Noah Robbins (who also showed up on Younger year) - whose unstable parents own a cafe where two black men in their forties work. The men - Leon Addison Brown as Sam, Sahr Ngaujah as Willie - have basically raised Hally, since they have been his babysitters for as long as any of them can remember. Sam particularly has tried to learn alongside Hally, reading the books Hally's assigned for class, and discussing ideas with him. There's tension from the word go, because the white child is "Master Harold" and the black men are "the boys," but things seem fairly even-keeled until Hally grossly and shockingly asserts his white privilege in an unforgivable way. An intense ride, with three excellent performances. 8.75/10
Michael Chabon interviewed by Richard Price at NYPL: These two men were fantastic together, kvetching about the limits of their own memories and talking about growing up Jewish in America. I got to read Chabon's latest, Moonglow (a family memoir), soon after the interview, and found that it held up to all of the wonderful things Price said about it.
Heisenberg: This got excellent reviews and I think they were justified. It's just two actors - Mary-Louise Parker (Georgie) and Denis Arndt (Alex) - who have a bizarre first meeting and kind of fall into each other's lives after that. He's significantly older than she is, and it looks at first like it's going to be just a romance, a last chance for an old man to find some affection, but given how fragmented she is (ground down by life rather than broken by some specific trauma) maybe he's the one saving her by giving her an outlet for all of the love that keeps spilling over inside her. Both actors were fantastic, and it was an "I laughed! I cried!" play, with several hilarious moments and just as many touching ones. 8.75/10
Sweet Charity: Not gonna lie, being two rows back from the stage on which Sutton Foster is dancing her heart out is a great experience. The show, though, is clearly a throwback to a time when it was fine, even funny, to present a woman being disappointed by (read: brutally dumped, robbed, etc.) every man she's known and then - instead of exploring why she's ready to keep trusting, to try love again - simply mock her stupidity (and even to throw her into a lake TWICE). It's an uncomfortable musical in many ways; I was sort of hugging myself and saying, "Girl, take care of yourself," throughout the whole thing. SF was, predictably, amazing as Charity, and Joel Perez was great in a few roles, most especially Vittorio Vidal. 8/10
Dear Evan Hansen: One of the best shows I've ever seen, though I don't know yet if that would be true without the staggeringly incandescent Ben Platt (yes, the weird, magic-obsessed roommate in Pitch Perfect) in the lead (I'm booked to see the show again and hope to be a bit more objective about how the show works and whether it would all fall apart without his powerhouse performance holding everything together). It's a very modern story, of a boy (Evan Hansen) whose father has abandoned him to start a new family and whose mother, while loving, seems to have little idea of how emotionally fragile her child is. Evan is in high school and has no friends, won't even order food for dinner (when his mom is working or in class) because he can't bear having to talk to the delivery boy, and has been pining for his classmate Zoe, whose older brother Connor is dangerously unstable. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the songs for La La Land. When Connor's story tips into tragedy, Evan gets caught up in that family's emotional currents and starts, tentatively and tragically, to find himself. It's hard to overstate how hard the role of Evan must be - I was three rows back and could see BP crying even as he was singing - because he's so wrenchingly alone and so wounded, and has to act and sing and go through all sorts of emotional storms, but BP pulled it off magnificently. Absolutely go see this. 9.5/10
Falsettos: This is a show I'd heard of often but never seen, and I didn't realize until I saw it that it really is two separate shows (March of the Falsettos amd Falsettoland) with the same characters. The first half is pretty unpleasant, because the central character - Marvin, played by the marvelous Christian Borle - is so unappealing in his egotism and solipsism. Marvin leaves his wife - but not his child - when he finds himself a pretty boyfriend, and in all of this, he's convinced that he has it the toughest. But after the intermission, the second play, which is set when AIDS is just starting to ravage the gay men of New York, begins, and Marvin is older and wiser and oodles more appealing. I wanted to love this show, about which I'd heard so much, but I just didn't - much as I prefer the personal to the epic, I couldn't bring myself to care very much about these particular people. 7/10
The Present: I've seen Cate Blanchett on stage before, but she's so magnetic that I had to do it again even if this play, updated and completed from a Chekhov draft, was pretty formless and ultimately fairly meaningless. It takes three hours for Platonov, the resident rake (played wonderfully by Richard Roxburgh), to realize that the woman he wants - after professing love to several of them, including his wife - is, after all, Anna, whose fortieth birthday they've all gathered to celebrate. No kidding, dude, Anna is played by Cate Blanchett. It's done wonderfully, but I was left wondering if any of the people involved should have bothered, when it comes full circle so reductively and unsatisfyingly. (Watching Anna and Platonov negotiate a relationship between their widow on the cusp of poverty and married tutor would have made for a much more interesting night.) 7/10
L'Amour de Loin: An old friend who's been earning a living as a composer (!) came to New York for a quick Christmas visit, and talked me into seeing this opera because he finds this composer's (Kaija Saariaho) work fascinating. We were in the cheap balcony seats, and so had a good, if skewed, view of everything happening on the stage. The staging was absolutely gorgeous, but the lack of onstage action made everything feel much slower than it actually was (the fact that there's very little plot also contributed). Troubadour dude hears tell of a beautiful woman in a far-off land, he journeys to her, and he dies in her arms. The music sounded like water, but only the female lead (Susanna Phillips) matched that beauty with her voice; the male lead was strangely clunky and weird. I'm glad I went, but also will not be hurrying back to the Met, which has been more misses than hits for me, unlike Opera Philadelphia, which was a long string of hits during my grad-school years. 7/10
In movie/book news, I've seen Riz Ahmed in so many things, but it took seeing images of him on a friend's tumblr to realize why I'd "recognized" him before - he's my dream-casting for Cardenio Richey (one of my two favorite characters from Sarah Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths series). Who's with me?
How have you all been?
This same entry also appears on Dreamwidth, at http://innie-darling.dreamwidth.org/461450.html.