Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: March, 2014

If/Then (take three: Broadway)

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

The musical with the biggest heart you can imagine is now back home in the Big Apple, and just like its main character, Elizabeth (the incomparable Idina Menzel), it is starting over in Manhattan, right where it  belongs.

I admit to having first met and fallen in love with If/Then during its out-of-town fling with Washington, D.C. I was a devoted and faithful admirer.  I did not stint in my praise. I did not falter in my passion. And I was so smitten I followed the show to Broadway to kindle that romance.

But, you know, there are always niggling questions hovering over every reunion with a long-lost adored one. (Okay, we had been apart only a few months, but infatuation’s  impatience made it feel forever.) I heard there had been some changes—dramatic self-improvement I was told. Oh dear, I worried. Would I recognize my beloved?  Would I again be moved by the enormous emotional intelligence and lyrical beauty that first attracted me?  Would the heartfelt songs and storylines still ring true? Would the performances still pulse with the same purity and power? Would my soul leap once more in the presence of relational honesty, authentic complexity, and affectional diversity such as I had never thought possible in life much less in a musical?

Or would I come to find out my beloved had had work done—and it was one of those face-lifts that numbs expressivity and strips away character?

I need not have worried. The If/Then on the boards now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on West 46th Street is a glorious celebration of life and love and human longing to become who we are—and it’s even better than before.  Anyone who leaves If/Then uninspired to live more fully, love more openly, and aspire more tenaciously—well, you might want to check your pulse.

The first scene is in Madison Square Park where—on a set designed sleekly by Mark Wendland, on an afternoon lit lucidly by Kenneth Posner, as a lively assortment of New Yorkers lustily choreographed by Larry Keigwin sing of how life starts over each day (“What If”)—Elizabeth fatefully sets foot on two different paths. Until recently she lived in Phoenix, in an unhappy marriage. On the cusp of turning forty, she has left her husband and returned to Manhattan, with a hurt heart, guarded hope, and a graduate degree in urban planning.  On one of the plot’s two paths, she becomes Liz, gets a job teaching, falls in love with a  sweet guy who’s a physician Army reservist, and has children…  On the other path she becomes Beth, embarks on a high-powered city-government career in urban planning, has an almost-affair with her married boss, has a fleeting tryst with her bisexual boyfriend from college, and ends up childless….

As that  dual storyline unfolds—through Brian Yorkey’s astoundingly truthful book and lyrics  and Tom Kitt’s resoundingly heartfelt music—If/Then captures the catches in every modern woman’s conflicting choices. In doing so this production—briskly directed by Michael Greif—sets the bar for insight, integrity, and intelligence on the musical stage higher than ever before.

The innovative yet tricky part of the script where the two diverging paths are set forth has been smartly sharpened since last I saw the show. Elizabeth’s college chum Lucas (the affably self-conscious Anthony Rapp) and her brand-new best friend Kate (the vocal life-force LaChanze) each clearly take Elizabeth in the two different directions. To Lucas, she’s now Beth. To Kate, she’s now Liz—who by chance happens to meet a soldier named Josh just back from deployment (James Snyder, whose voice is as outstanding as his character is upstanding).

Kate, herself enamored of  Anne (the enjoyably ardent Jenn Colella), wastes no time urging Liz to make tracks and nab a man: “It’s a Sign,” she sings to that effect, in a subway car full of unlikely prospects. Kate also makes Liz don a pair of glasses, ostensibly to attract a guy who likes smart women, but beneficially to give a visual cue to who’s who (glasses = Liz; no glasses = Beth—another clarifying touch since D.C.).

Meanwhile Beth the urban planner gets hired by a former grad school classmate named Stephen (Jerry Dixon, a hunk in a suit with a huge voice to boot), who shares with her his dream of upbuilding the city (“A Map of New York”). He’s married, not happily, and there’s a spark of attraction between them.

Back in Liz’s world, Josh touchingly tries to overcome her reluctance to fall in love again (“You Never Know”). She doesn’t quite do so.

Back in the world of urban affairs, Lucas, who’s a housing activist, sings a rousing song of class-conscious connectedness (“No Man Manhattan”). It’s a wonderful scene in which the show’s populist perspective gets set stirringly to music and its progressive politics are not toned down.

Meanwhile in an apartment that is by turns Liz’s then Beth’s,  Josh and Liz consummate their love. Later Stephen comes by on business, Beth abruptly kisses him, and he flees. Awkward! Menzel sings a song to herself into a bathroom mirror reflecting on these surprising/compromising turns in her two characters’ love lives. It’s show-stoppingly hilarious, and its frank title (“What the Fuck?”) may be why the Playbill has no song list.

Elizabeth now has two wooers. Liz has Josh, with whom in one scene they sing of falling in love  (“Here I Go”). Beth meanwhile has Lucas, who in a subsequent scene sings tenderly of carrying a torch for her (“You Don’t Need to Love Me”).

Cut to Kate, who’s a kindergarten teacher and who, in a lesson about great women in history, tells her class about Elizabeth’s courageous taking charge of her life. In the D.C. production Kate did so metaphorically in a song I appreciated a lot called “The Story of Jane.” That song is gone, but in its place is an even more moving and eloquent one, “No More Wasted Time,” which beautifully amplifies the show’s seize-the-day theme.

By the end of Act One, Elizabeth’s two parallel story lines are in motion and a well of emotion has begun to overflow. Still ahead in Act Two are more surprising turns in the road—including Lucas’s new  boyfriend David (the adorably ebullient Jason Tam), a pediatrician colleague of Josh, who introduced them. There’s a marvelous moment when three pairs of lovers—one female-male (Liz and Josh), one male-male (Lucas and David), and one female-female (Kate and Anne) are all singing onstage at once, and it’s like a rainbow of romance somewhere over the moon.

Not all is happiness. Even hearts so full are sometimes broken. But that’s the chance one takes to love. And no one loves deeply without taking that chance.

By the time near the end when Idina Menzel belts out her big number “Always Starting Over,” we experience one of those great musical high points of which legends are made, and we are enthralled by theatrical greatness.

My fears have been allayed that If/Then would get to Broadway with stuff fixed that was never broken. Kudos to the producers for keeping the entire cast and creative team intact. There’s genuine collective genius going on here, and they wisely did not mess with it.  The changes all enhance the inspiring storytelling. The improvements all serve the heart and soul that were already there.

I was not wrong to risk opening my heart to this show. It has faithfully kept its promise and then some. If/Then is an uplifting gift that keeps on giving.

Might you fall in love with it too? This much I can promise you: The chances are very, very good.

______

The original Broadway cast recording of If/Then will be released by Sony Masterworks Broadway on June 3, 2014.

 

 

 

The Admission

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

As many who follow local theater news know, Theater J’s production of The Admission has been preceded by an offstage drama—a who’s-right/who’s-wrong argument, a what-really-happened/what-really-didn’t-happen controversy that has provoked passions and incited a considerable clash of intellection.  Turns out, the onstage drama of the play itself—the extraordinarily artful disputation playwright Motti Lerner has crafted for his seven indelibly articulate characters—far surpasses that spat in power and insight, and in force and importance.  The Admission is a towering achievement in the tradition of Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and other masters of moral inquiry.

Directed astutely by Sinai Peter, the play is set in Haifa forty years after a battle that took place in a small town named Tantura. The engrossing story pivots on what really happened there in 1948 when Israeli soldiers killed Arab villagers. The central question of the ensuing disquisition is, ostensibly, Exactly how many were killed? enough to qualify as a “massacre”? The characters in The Admission belong to a neighboring Israeli family and Arab family who are complicatedly connected to one another and to that event. They talk of casualties with the casual precision of statistics-absorbed sportsfans—as if  the ethics of war can be calibrated in corpse counts. Was it only 20? Well, okay then. Or was it 170 as the Red Cross said? That crosses the line. Or was it actually upwards of 200, as the young Israeli history professor named Giora (Danny Gavigan) is alarmed to discover while reading an unpublished dissertation. The question matters personally to Giora—impelling the quest to dig for truth that drives the play—because his father, Avigdor (Michael Tolaydo), led the brigade in that military encounter.

Giora’s mother, Yona (Kimberly Schraf), refuses to believe her husband is other than a war hero and insists that Giora stop scraping at scabs on old wounds. The truth-seeker Giora is undeterred. “Only when we find out what happened there will be able to live here,” he says.

Giora is all the more compelled by the emotionally wrenching eyewitness account he hears from Ibrahim (Hanna Eady), head of the neighboring Arab household: Unarmed civilians, says Ibraham, shot like dogs.

In a father-son confrontation filled with gut-punching pain, Avigdor defends himself saying, “All my life I’ve struggled to atone.”

Gioro thrusts back: “You’ve struggled to deny.”

Whether Lerner fictionalized the particular historical event loosely referenced in this play doesn’t really matter once the characters’ stories take off, because what steadily emerges in this brilliant script is a theme that resounds with humbling universality: If we do not put the past to rest and move on, how can we bear to live with ourselves in the present? Yet if we bury the past, pave over our culpability without owning it and atoning for it, how can we  live lives of moral integrity?

We may claim to, we may hope and long to, but we must first dig up the dirt. Metaphorically Gioro begins doing that in the very first scene. Downstage left on the sleek, simple set designed by Frida Shoham are tiny houses surrounded by sand, which Gioro sifts through his fingers. This miniature, we learn, signifies the land in Tantura where Arab bones lie buried. Avigdor, a wealthy real-estate developer, plans to bulldoze and build houses there. This anguishes Ibrahim, for whom digging up those bones is a callous cultural affront, and it prompts him to disclose Avigdor’s wartime crimes.

A provocative subplot involves Gioro’s knotty love life. Under pressure from his mother and father, Gioro is engaged to marry Neta (Elizabeth Anne Jernigan)—but he is in love with Ibrahim’s daughter, Samya (Leila Buck). That Lerner integrates this romance plot line with the historical-honesty through line is among the play’s smart surprises.

Samya’s brother, Azmi (Pomme Koch), runs a restaurant where Gioro’s family are very welcome guests—not least because Avigdor has been the family’s generous benefactor, including paying for Samya’s education. In Avigdor’s mind, this largesse is his atonement. Conveniently it has has also bought Ibrahim’s acquiescent silence, until now.

As Lerner lets us in on the intriguing interconnections between his characters, he gives each distinctive voice a version of moral authority. The Admission is admittedly an issue play.  But in fact and execution, it is richly textured with a multiplicity of  issues that each of the characters have with one another. The play’s overarching theme is not delivered as a polemic or tract; it is instead  embedded in arresting scenes and embodied in believable, playable people. In this respect The Admission ranks among dramatic-literature classics—and the exceptional ensemble of actors play each perspective and each point pitch perfectly.

Because of the aforementioned offstage drama, The Admission, originally announced as a full production, was repositioned as a lower-budget workshop. Accordingly the various specific settings in the playscript are not rendered realistically; everything happens Our Town–like on a bare stage with a few chairs and a table; meanwhile actors not in a scene can be seen waiting in the wings. There are a few evocative projections designed by Klyph Stanford, who also designed utilitarian yet effective lighting. Frida Shoham has designed straightforward costumes that are simultaneously appropriate to the characters and the rehearsal-in-progress feel. And in between scenes are simple yet effective music cues composed by Habib Shehedeh Hanna. (My only quibble: Sometimes these cues come in on top of dialogue, which in the barebones, stripped-down aesthetic of the show feels excessive and cinematic.)

Fortuitously, this workshop-style staging absolutely suits the play. It needs no more. This is a work that rewards focused engagement and needs no distracting display. In fact this script might well suffer if loaded down with more scenery and effects. The interplay of ideas is the thing wherein consciences are caught.

For anyone who attends theater accompanied by a moral sensorium, The Admission is essential viewing. In substance and significance, The Admission is a theatergoing peak experience.

 

 

 

Hair

When I saw the original Broadway production of Hair in the late sixties, my hair was shoulder length, and the slogan “Make love not war!” referred to pacifism pre-9/11 and fluid exchange pre-AIDs. Times have changed a lot (and I’m more shorn), yet this  legendary “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” rocks on, its spirit and heartbeat as alive and well as ever.  But why? Why is watching the show now with a cast not yet born then such a trip? I think the answer is simple: It’s because the radiant and thrilling production of Hair now on stage at the Keegan Theatre is an exuberant love fest as timeless as human hope.

When Hair began life on stage, many were shocked by (among other things) its radical candor about race, sex, drugs, and the nation’s wrongest war (till then). U.S. history since has arguably outstripped the show in shockingness. In those days young men who dissented from militarism demonstrated their opposition to the Vietnam War by burning their draft cards, at personal risk of arrest instead of induction—a scene touchingly evoked in the Keegan production. There is no equivalent symbolic action today. (How, for instance, does one protest the NSA’s unconstitutional electronic surveillance? Disconnect one’s phone? Nah, doesn’t have the same ring to it.) So much has transpired and altered in the U.S. socio-political landscape that Hair’s in-your-face critique might be assumed passé, a fondly remembered museum piece, a been-there-smoked-that hit of tuneful but irrelevant nostalgia. But it’s not. It feels fresh and of the moment. That Hair still inspires and stirs emotions, despite dramatic political climate change, is a wonder—an extraordinary testament to what live theater can do and be, and an experience not to be missed.

Directors Mark A. Rhea and Susan Marie Rhea so get this, it’s incredible. They understand that the essence of this show is the ensemble, the tribe, the company of singer-actors who play the parts and sing the songs. The love-in that is Hair can come into being only if we the audience believe there’s so much trust, cohesion, and affection among the company members that we’re a part of the happening too, that we are embraced by a communicable, vicarious sense of communal connection. In that respect, the Rheas reach perfection.

The terrific Paul Scanlan (as Claude) and the captivating Josh Sticklin (as his buddy Berger) head up an outstanding cast of tribe members that includes  Danny Bertaux (Paul), Jamie Boyle (Hiram), Ian Anthony Coleman (Hud), Darius Tyrus Epps (Walter), Paige Felix (Natalie), Chad W. Fornwalt (Marc), Katie Furtado (Susannah), Autumn Seavey Hicks (Linda), Jade Jones (Leata), Emily Levey (Marjorie), Eben K. Logan (Dionne), Thony Mena (Jason), Christian Montgomery (Woof), Ines Nassara (Ronny), Lyndsay Rini (Crissy), Ava Silva (Diane), Kedren Spencer (Emmaretta), Dani Stoller (Jeannie), Ryan Patrick Walsh (Steve), and  Caroline Wolfson (Sheila), featuring Peter Finnegan (dubbed Margaret Mead). By turns they each belt out a solo or more, and all sing gorgeous backup like the sustaining support system everyone longs for. Every moment onstage, they seem to genuinely enjoy one another, and their spirited mutual admiration is irresistible. This ensemble is not only highly skilled; it’s the kissingest cast I’ve ever seen.

It’s no mystery why Hair continues to thrive on stage and sustain its vital place in audiences’ hearts and minds. For better and for worse, the historical context in which it arose nearly a half century ago is no longer with us. But we have not lost our longing to belong. Hair reinvigorates that aspiration. Hair revives that idealism and lifts us. And as staged at Keegan Theatre, it’s the best contact high in town.

Water by the Spoonful

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize–winning Water by the Spoonful is set in 2009 and takes place mainly in Philadelphia but also travels to San Diego, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Two characters hold the emotional and dramatic center of this sprawling play. One is an extraordinary and beautifully written character named Elliot Ortiz, portrayed in Studio Theatre’s production by Arturo Soria with sun-flare brilliance.  Hilariously nimble-witted and rich in passion and pathos, Soria’s stellar performance must be seen.

Elliot served as a Marine in Iraq. Now returned home to Philadelphia, he is haunted by his recent combat experience (he sometimes sees the ghost, played appropriately apparition-like by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, of his first Iraqi kill). Elliot is also wracked in agony because the woman who raised him is dying of cancer. This woman, named Ginny Ortiz, is the other center of gravitas in the play. She never appears onstage; we come to know her through Elliot’s wellsprings of loyalty and devotion, which are wrenchingly deep. By the time of Ginny’s funeral in Act Two, when her near saintly accomplishments as a community activist are recited and Elliot breaks down eulogizing her, her absence and Elliot’s loss flood the stage with feeling.

Elliot’s and Ginny’s compelling story is intersected by multiple plotlines and diverse characters, none of which pulse with as much authenticity. (A program note by Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen quotes Hudes recalling of her process while writing the play, “I knew it was going to be big and messy.” And that it is.) The supporting performances are uniformly fine—notably Gisela Chípe as Yazmin Ortiz. But the script is hobbled by a problematic structure that the production (directed by KJ Sanchez) never successfully solves.

In Act One we are introduced to two apparently disparate worlds. One is real-life/real-time, and there we meet Elliot and Yaz, who are cousins yet seem close as brother and sister. The other world is real time but virtual, an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts where we meet four  habitués identified by avatars: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (“Haikumom”), Tim Gelman (“Fountainhead”), Vincent J. Brown (“Chutes&Ladders”), and Amy Kim Waschke (“Orangutan”). The script’s conceit is that these four characters converse in dialogue typical of online interactions but do so onstage as if they are in the same real room—like with blocking, crossing, sitting on furniture, handling props. Their avatars appear as projections on the set and chime when they enter the chat then go dark when they sign off. But the words the characters are keyboarding to one another and the screens they are presumably staring at are nowhere in evidence.

It doesn’t help that all this faux-chatroom interactivity takes place on a set (designed by Dan Conway with lighting by Michael Giannitti) that features prominently a claw-foot porcelain bathtub and a staircase to nowhere—neither of which functions in the play till the final few moments; till then they’re dimly lit enigmatic distractions. So it’s as if these ostensibly anonymous chats not only take place disconcertingly in a naturalistic theatrical environment; they seem on the set for some other play altogether. The upshot of this twice-removed staging is a barrier to connection with the characters, whose idiosyncratic stories of addiction and recovery, though passably interesting, never catch hold emotionally.

Things pick up when the two worlds collide. One character from the chatroom, “Haikumom,” is revealed to be Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother. Odessa abandoned Elliot as a boy and a let a younger sister die of dehydration (neglecting to give the child, as a pediatrician had instructed, “water by the spoonful”). Odessa thereby earned Elliot’s lifelong enraged resentment, and her appearance in real time real life prompts him to sob that his good mother had died instead of her.

Trouble is, the migration from chatroom to living room of Odessa (the character as written, played wonderfully by Fernandez-Coffey) has emotional resonance only to the extent that it occasions deeper understanding of the uncommonly crafted character  Elliot. His pain, humor, backbone, and affection anchor the text. Soria dives into the role and rides it like a cresting wave.

Normal

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Molotov Theatre Group has an uncanny knack for converting its tiny black-box nook into an auditorium-scale operating theater for surgical dissection of the dark side of human nature. With its new production of Normal, observers in attendance at the unflinching examination get an artfully horrifying experience that is both fascinating and profound.

As dextrously directed by Jay D. Brock, this 1991 play by the Scottish writer-director Anthony Neilson—based on the real-life case of a German serial killer in the 1930s—is like a sharp instrument that cuts to the quick.

In the role of Peter Kurten (“the Düsseldorf Ripper”), Alex Zavistovich reveals the character’s monstrosity not in overheated histrionics but in the blithe aloofness with which the killer retells his crimes and the curious off-handedness with which he regards his repellant past. Zavistovich’s face flickers with a wince at a memory of abuse by his brutal and rapist father. Or grins delivering a bon mot. Or processes impassively an accusation. This devil is in the details, and Zavistovch nails them  As a result the evening’s immersion in one man’s pathology is immensely more absorbing than off-putting, and far more edifying than one might expect.

The play is structured around pretrial interviews between Kurten and his fresh-out-of-law-school attorney, Justus Wehner, who seeks to understand what makes his client tick in order to build an insanity defense. As appealingly played by Brian McDermott, this earnest naif starts out as liberalism’s interlocutor, pursuing the social-political sources of the impenitent killer’s sadism. Though appalled at the lifelong convict’s behavior—Kurten’s serial incarcerations began as a youth—Wehner probes into Kurten’s early family history and in so doing dredges up a vivid portrait of a man whose sexuality had been irrevocably locked at a young age into acts of savagery. The cycle of abuse it’s called in therapeutic circles today. The play puts the point more bluntly: Society manufactures monsters.

There is a third actor onstage whose indelible presence makes the entire proceedings eerily  powerful. Elizabeth Darby is identified in the cast list as Frau Kurten, the compulsive murderer’s unsuspecting wife. We first see her lying limply as if a corpse; suddenly she rises and sighs plaintively, “Peter, what is it that’s happened?…The police were looking for you. Is it serious?…Peter, what have you done?” As we the audience learn more and more grim answers to that question, Darby luminously becomes many more selves than Frau Kurten: Now she is a masked mannequin in a bizarre pas de deux with the perp, now she is one of the children he slew…again and again Darby becomes our personalized point of reference for all the killer’s prey, and her remarkably centered and strong performance importantly illuminates an undercurrent of the play. There is no victim blaming in it. Not a stitch. However sexually driven is the butcher, however remorselessly he flays pieces of meat, the epic moral fail is solely his.

Composer/Sound Designer Gregg Martin serves up a chilling soundscape. Choreographer Sarah Frances Williams creates some strangely apt interludes, including the dance between Darby and Zavistovich and a song-and-soft-shoe routine by McDermott and Zavistovich (who also staged the fights—one of which goes on for several shocking minutes). That such momentous theatricality has been achieved on a bare-bones budget is a credit to the evocative minimalism of Lighting Designer Pete Vargo, Set Constructor Morgan Sexton, and Costume Designer Libby Dasbach.

Molotov’s niche, it says, is horror; but Normal dispels conventional notions about the genre. By the time in the performance when the full import of the play’s title begins to hit—when the audience is confronted by the extent to which this one man’s sexual sadism, though excessive, may not be exceptional—that which is horrifying has entered a truly disturbing dimension.