Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: November, 2013

If/Then (Revisited)

The first time I saw If/Then, I knew I would be seeing it again. The show’s beauty, originality, and heart won me over, and that experience increased all the way through. I wrote a review for DCMetroTheaterArts in which I called If/Then “an inspiration to fall back in love with one’s own life.” Days after, the extraordinary experience stayed with me.

I happen not to be a huge fan of Broadway musicals per se. I mean no disrespect to those who are. But big musicals can leave me cold unless they engage me in content and characters that are worth caring about and connect to life in a meaningful way. Over the past decade I’ve seen some Broadway musicals that were box-office bonanzas but I thought were an empty snooze (The Drowsy Chaperone and Phantom of the Opera being two). On the other hand I have really loved some (Urinetown and Book of Mormon come to mind). And there are some I not only loved but could not wait to get the cast recording (Les Misérables, Spring Awakening).

But never before If/Then have I wanted to see a musical again asap. I just had to. And so I did.

On my second viewing of If/Then—which had not dimmed one iota in luster—I found myself appreciating even more the emotional honesty of the music and lyrics, the crystal-pure singing voices, the script’s wit, the abundance of up-to-the-minute relevance and all-out authenticity. If/Then could never have existed before social-change movements for black, women’s, and same-gender-loving human rights. And it never could have touched so deeply the pulse of such a wondrous variety of affectional relationships had its creators and performers not been committed in every detail to its characters’ full potential. On top of all that, the show’s savvy character-illuminating references to economic justice, reproductive choice, electoral politics, the Iraq war, and more make If/Then a dazzling kaleidoscope of the very character of our times.

By the time I revisited If/Then, I had read what some other local reviewers had written about it. I confess I was flabbergasted that so many seemed not to “get” the show they were picking apart. I am certain there’s an audience that will absolutely love this show too (I spoke with a young man in the lobby who had already seen it four times). But even savvy theatergoers would not have a clue from some of these other reviews what If/Then actually is.

On just about feature that got critical barbs, I had a different take. The choreography, for instance. What I really admired about it was that the movements seemed intentionally natural, not artificially or superficially dancerly. The chorus felt like an integral part of the whole cast of individuated characters, not generic adjuncts. They seemed to represent a range of body shapes and sizes and colors and sexual orientations, which to me evoked what it was like to walk around in Manhattan when I lived there. In other words the esthetic of the choreography seemed of a piece with the show’s human authenticity.

The length of Act One was also carped about. Some said Act Two was much better, more focused. My experience was completely different. On first viewing the whole show seemed to go by so fast I was shocked when I looked at my watch at the end. (I had not known the runtime beforehand.) On second viewing, I figured out why the show had seemed swift. I had been swept up in the pleasures of learning more and more about how the same supporting characters (each utterly fascinating in his or her own right) figured into each other’s lives and into the main character’s two lifelines, as “Liz” and “Beth.”

That twofold storytelling device seemed to be a critical sticking point. I was aware going in the first time that there would be two divergent story lines for the same main character. Honestly, though, I soon relaxed about being certain whether I was in Liz’s world or Beth’s. It did help when another character addressed her by her nom du plotline within the first line or two of a scene or beat, but in moments when I wasn’t positive, I really wasn’t bothered. Because something else overwhelming was going on. Before I get to that “something else”—which I did not at first know how to describe—I want to report my experience of watching the two story lines unfold having seen the whole show already.

First of all: Once the diverging plots are set up during the opening number in Madison Park, I never did not know whether I was watching “Liz” or “Beth”—and I picked up on the distinct ways Idina Menzel expresses each persona in her body language and speaking voice, an aspect of her awesome performance that escaped me before.

Second: Some critics have discussed some red/blue color-coded lighting scheme that ostensibly distinguishes between the two story lines. On both viewings I found the lighting design beautiful and dramatic—but irrelevant to my understanding whose story I was in. Sorry, I don’t watch the cyclorama change color in order to engage with a character’s story; that for me would be self-induced attention-deficit disorder. Occasionally on second viewing, when Liz or Beth was not in a scene, I wasn’t exactly certain whose story the supporting characters were now in, but it never mattered—because of that overriding “something else.”

Third: My only suggestion to the creators is to maybe take another look at that very first scene when the fork in Elizabeth’s life path is set up as she double-books a meetup with her new friend Kate (LaChanze) and her college chum Lucas (Anthony Rapp) and meets (or doesn’t meet) Josh (James Snyder). I couldn’t follow that one even on second viewing—though again it ultimately didn’t matter to my experience of…the “something else.”

So what’s with this “something else”?

I did a little research to find the right words to describe it. And I realized this “something else” is a direct consequence of the If/Then creators’ original genre-bending. There are two kinds of musical, I learned: a “book musical” and a “concept musical.” There didn’t used to be a distinction until 1971, when the critic Martin Gottfried wrote an influential essay about the musical Follies in which he defined a concept musical as “a show whose music, lyrics, dance, stage movement and dialogue are woven through each other in the creation of a tapestry-like theme (rather than in support of a plot).” His essay, “Flipping Over ‘Follies,'” is well worth a read, because it points precisely to what is going on today with If/Then: Critics are expecting merely a book musical and not getting what they’re looking for; meanwhile If/Then is offering a concept musical that can give audiences much better and much more.

I tried in my review to express the “tapestry-like theme” I found in If/Then. (It’s one that happened to speak to me personally. I kept being reminded of how much chance had to do with what I had thought were my romantic choices. In that sense If/Then is definitely a show to see with someone you love.)

But If/Then’s thematic tapestry is as sweeping as it is variegated. It runs through every song. It runs through every scene. Anyone open to finding where and how that tapestry hooks them will find reverberations of their own life in the resounding theme of this unprecedented musical marvel.

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If/Then

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

The fresh new musical If/Then—now in a tryout run at the National Theatre on its way to Broadway (where it is destined to be embraced by theatergoers who will want to see it again and again)—is more than a “feel good” show. It’s a full-on, full-hearted “feel alive” experience. It’s more than entertaining, tuneful, smart. It’s more than engrossing, intriguing, touching. It’s an inspiration to fall back in love with one’s own life.

Big Broadway musicals  don’t generally generate such self-reflection—but If/Then sure does, and not just because Mark Wendland’s ingenious set features a huge mirror tilting overhead. If/Then, directed with deft honesty by Michael Greif,  invites a rare kind of participatory audience response. It can make one feel—at a lilt in a song, or a line in a scene—that somehow the authors have been eavesdropping on one’s mind and monitoring one’s heart.

If/Then‘s structure is unusual and takes a little getting used to, because it follows the same main character, Elizabeth, through two divergent story lines. The show is built upon the simple yet profound notion that life is full of random encounters and events, and we necessarily make our choices and take our chances without knowing where they will lead. But, the show reminds us, that’s no excuse for resignation to one’s “fate.” On the contrary, when we take bold swings at the curves life throws us, we become more who we were meant to be. Book writer Brian Yorkey’s lyrics sparkle with gems of emotional resonance, and the show’s richly expressive songs, composed by Tom Kitt, sustain the “what if?” theme with uncanny authenticity. Their genius is to capture the contingencies of life as it is lived right now.

Elizabeth is played powerfully and poignantly by Idina Menzel, who seems to sing effortlessly, with a voice that can sear and soar. From the opening big number, “If I Told You/If,” all the way through her show-stopping solo “Always Starting Over” near the end, Menzel’s star-quality performance lights up the stage with a luminosity magnitude of the first order. At the same time Menzel invites us into Elizabeth’s world with affectionate humility—never seeming other than someone real, someone we might know and care about in everyday life.

In their brilliant breakout musical, Next to Normal, Kitt and Yorkey gave us as their main character a mentally unstable suburban wife and mother whose life is falling apart. In If/Then they give us another wholly original female lead, a modern metropolitan professional woman trying to put the pieces of her life back together. Their compassion and audacity combine with their astronomic talent to become a breakthrough in musical theater—one that reverberates with astonishing aftershocks from  seismic relational shifts.

Elizabeth, educated in New York City as an urban planner, moved to Phoenix with her husband. But, as Elizabeth learned to her dismay, he expected her to be solely a wife. Now in her late thirties, she wants more, so she has left behind her loveless marriage and moved  back to New York City to start her life over.  That’s when, at a figurative fork in the road, two versions of her life unfold—one as “Liz” and one as “Beth”—and the show cross-cuts between them, at times within the same musical numbers.

Liz becomes a schoolteacher; Beth reenters the field of urban planning. Liz gets married and has children; Beth remains single and pursues a high-level career. Adding complexity to this narrative device, the same supporting characters appear in both Liz’s and Beth’s story. Their stories interweave, and each gets at least one great true-to-their-character song, which they deliver with uniformly gorgeous voices. In “It’s a Sign” her friend Kate (LaChanze) urges her to take another chance on love. Her friend  Lucas (Anthony Rapp) celebrates the human interconnection in which hearts intersect with “Ain’t No Man Manhattan.” Josh (James Snyder), an Army surgeon whom Liz marries, courts her with kindness in “You Never Know”—even as Beth’s married boss Stephen (Jerry Dixon), catches her eye. Liz/Beth’s alternate romantic biographies are enhanced by the stories of Kate and her lover Anne (Jenn Colella), who share a tender reconciliation in “No More Wasted Time,” and Lucas and his lover David (Jason Tam), whose “The Best Worst Mistake” is both cheeky and touching.

All these multiple narratives with multiple implications render life’s ambiguities and uncertainties in a way that is far from being unnerving or unsettling. Instead they serve to reassure us we are not alone in wondering whether we’ve picked the best path. Nor are we alone in realizing—as does Liz/Beth in the haunting “You Learn to Live Without”—that no path is perfect.

Another dimension of If/Then that makes it such a revelation and a pleasure is the ease with which it reflects so many issues and social changes that have swept through contemporary life. From the economics of affordable housing to same-sex marriage and parenting to the Iraq war to women’s equality, the references in Yorkey’s startlingly truthful lyrics remind us of not only who we are but what times we live in. The cumulative effect is like a bright warm glow that helps us see more clearly, feel more deeply, and want to live more bravely.

There’s a lovely scene in the first act that for anyone who has ever been a New Yorker is like a fond letter from a dear friend. It’s called “A Map of New York,” and in Kenneth Posner’s delightful lighting design, a map of the subway system lights up on the stage floor and is reflected above in the mirror. When this show moves on to Broadway, it will have gone back to that dear friend, back home where it belongs. And I expect it to stay there a long, long while.

Mies Julie

On the evidence of Mies Julie, Yael Farber, who wrote and directed it, must be counted among the most important theater artists on the world stage today. Beyond brilliant: important. Rarely have I walked out onto the street after a show as wrapped in awe as I did from this one. Now in a too-brief run at the Lansburgh Theatre—hot off a world tour on which it has gathered critical adoration the way sex pheromones attract paramours—Mies Julie raises the heat index for combustible theatrical consummation.

On one level, the throbbing surface, this production merges shocking storytelling, indelible imagery, mesmerizing mise-en-scène, and transfixing performances by two gorgeous leads (Bongile Mantsai as John and Hilda Cronje as Mies Julie) whose pas de deux of desire becomes a horrifying danse macabre. Their acting and  dancing are of a piece. By astonishing turns they move gracefully then powerfully, and as they do, they elicit an extraordinary visceral response.

On another level, the play’s solid core, Mies Julie exposes—through the eyes of an author whose political field of vision is nearly peerless in contemporary theater—the nexus of sex and possession, the landscape of passion and property, the place where body and soil become one. I have heard and read about this play for some time. I knew I needed to see it. I had no idea it would be so affecting.

Bongile Mantsai (as John), Hilda Cronje (as Julie), Thoko Ntshinga (as Christine), Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa (as ancestral apparition) in Mies Julie by Yael Farber. Photograph by Murdo MacLeod

Bongile Mantsai (as John), Hilda Cronje (as Julie), Thoko Ntshinga (as Christine), Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa (as ancestral apparition) in Mies Julie by Yael Farber. Photography by Murdo MacLeod

Yael Farber loosely adapted her Mies Julie, which is set in 2012 in post-apartheid South Africa, from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, his play about sex and class that in 1909 scandalized Stockholm. Race was not in the mix in those days; the homogenized gene pool skimmed off everyone’s melanin. Thus in the drama driving the action between Julie, the flirty and flighty daughter of the count who owns the estate, and Jean, the master’s lusty manservant, their male-female sexual power struggle plays out white on white.

Mies Julie tells a more profound story than that Swede could have conceived. Farber transplants it to a kitchen in an Afrikaans-owned estate on a semidesert under which lie buried ancestors of the Xhosa servants for whom this was once simply home, not the big house. For U.S. audiences, the class inequity in the pulsing male-female power play between the Afrikaans daughter Julie and the Xhosa servant John is made all the more palpable by the contrast in their pigmentation. Thus when Julie and John couple atop the kitchen table, we do not watch without recollections of the slave trade and its persistent residue race hate that until not long ago made miscegnation a crime against white supremacy.

Shortly after their graphic tryst, which comes midway through the play, Julie, sensing John’s postcoital emotional abandonment, asks him when he stopped loving her. He answers with brutal honesty: “When you gave yourself to me.” Later on Julie, now vengeful, threatens she will scream rape if he walks out on her. John’s riposte is scorching: “Of course—this is where desire ends. The white daughter crying rape on the black man. So that her father can accept her fucking him.” I doubt I was the only U.S. audience member who at that moment flashed back to To Kill a Mockingbird and Mayella Ewell’s accusation against Tom Robinson.

But Mies Julie isn’t actually about the color of the skin the protagonists live in. It’s about the land they live on. This is land that, a few generations back, squatters took from indigenous peoples such that now the occupiers’ graves have been dug into the same soil where the bones the ancestors of the occupied lie long buried.  Ownership of the land, as Farber has explained in an interview, is the really volatile issue in South Africa today. The analog of Mies Julie to U.S. experience is not opportunity discrepancies between people whose intrepid ancestors immigrated here from Europe and people whose incarcerated ancestors were coerced here from Africa (though many a fine playwright has lanced that unhealed wound). Africans in America never owned land here to be stolen; they were the stolen; they were the owned—bought and sold by slavers whose forebears stole the land. Therefore in American terms what the back story of Mies Julie most echoes is the European genocidal land grab by squatters and occupiers that annihilated indigenous cultures. Except when that all was going on, no Yael Farber put the story on stage and personalized its politics.

“You mine now,” says John to Julie, upon learning, as she washes blood from her inner thighs, that he was her first.

A moment later, Julie says to John, “You mine now. Not his [meaning her father’s].”

This is but one of several points in the play where Farber’s poetic and succinct script evokes the telling semantic fact that “to fuck” can also mean “to possess.” “Be mine” is no mere Valentine. It can come, literally come, as an imperative in intercourse. For what Farber has done in Mies Julie is to overlay all that is fraught about occupation and ownership of land in South Africa with all that is freighted with occupation and ownership in how men and women have sex. And once Farber incorporates into her story line the agricultural metaphor in a man’s planting of his seed and harvesting his child from the body of the woman he has occupied—and Julie’s shocking decision to resist, not comply—the effect is as staggering as a gut punch.

Besides Farber’s play itself, there is much to praise about Mies Julie as a production. Two strong supporting performers bring both gravitas and context:  Thoko Ntshinga as John’s mother Christine and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa as an ancestral apparition lend all that is charged with eroticism an undercurrent of loss and lamentation. The costumes  by Birrie le Roux speak unforgettable character subtexts. The set and lighting design by Patrick Curtis emanates arid heat that parches both soil and soul. The music composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer creates a soundscape that ranges from a dirge to the drone of the nearby power station (or is it flies buzzing over death?)

Even as I left the theater in awe of Farber’s play and this production, I also left feeling gratitude to Michael Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre Company for bringing it to D.C. Farber is an artist whose work must be seen more in this town.  Her latest theater project is called Nirbhaya, about violence against women in India. I cannot wait.