Tuesday, January 8, 2019

CHOIR BOY: Insightful Play Suffused with Adolescent Angst and Glorious Singing Kicks Off the New Year on Broadway


Jeremy Pope Stars in CHOIR BOY
Photo by Matthew Murphy


Who am I?  What is my place in the pecking order? What are the non-codified rules that define what I can or cannot do without being ostracized by my peers? 

These are some of the urgent questions of adolescence that playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney tackles in Choir Boy, opening tonight at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in a richly entertaining and frequently insightful production about a group of students attending a private boarding school for young black men.   

Ambiguity and uncertainty rule the lives of the students of the Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, an institution steeped in a tradition of honor and pious faith. Its teenaged charges are far from home, with only their required weekly phone calls to their families to keep them anchored. They are often unsupervised or under-supervised, and they have little recourse but to figure things out for themselves, with results that are sometimes character-building and sometimes damaging. 

At front and center is Pharus (a charismatic Jeremy Pope), who is not only young, gifted, and black, but also gay. Pharus’s gift is his voice, which we learn as the play opens with his performance of the school song, the hymn “Trust and Obey.” It is a true honor to be the designated soloist for this piece, which is performed each year for the traditional ceremony before graduating seniors, their families, and the school’s board of directors. 

It must be as perfect a moment as possible. So when Pharus suddenly pauses in the middle of a line, it makes for a mortifying scene for the headmaster (Chuck Cooper), who threatens to pull Pharus’s scholarship.  

We in the audience are privy to the distraction that has caused Pharus to momentarily halt and look around. Standing behind him is another member of the gospel choir,  Bobby (J. Quinton Johnson), a troubled teen who is a “legacy” student and the headmaster’s nephew.  

We don’t know a lot about Bobby's background, but it’s not hard to imagine that he has been sent to the school to learn some self-discipline. What Bobby has been whispering behind Pharus’s back are homophobic slurs. As the play progresses, this won’t be the last time. 

While McCraney cannot avoid revisiting coming-of-age themes about youthful angst we’ve seen before in plays like Alan Bennett’s The History Boys and John Patrick Shanley’s Prodigal Son or the film Dead Poets Society, Choir Boy offers a fresh take by making race an essential component of the play. The playwright also provides us with more nuanced characterizations than we generally are accustomed to seeing.  

Pharus comes off not merely as a sympathetic victim of bullying, but also as ambitious, clever, and manipulative when it serves his purposes. He is, for example, not above raising Machiavelli’s famous question as to whether it’s better to be respected or feared as he contemplates his role as leader of the gospel choir. 

And even though he is openly “swishy,” as he says of himself, he is far more circumspect when approaching any discussion about his sexuality. When his straight roommate and good friend AJ (John Clay III), someone who has proven himself to be trustworthy, asks him who he’s interested in, Pharus feints and goes for the evasive joke by responding, “Jesus.” There are, he knows, lines that must not be crossed, even in the best of circumstances. 

For his part, the belligerent Bobby is painted in more sympathetic tones than you might expect, while others like the kind-hearted AJ and the conflicted David (Caleb Eberhardt) are revealed to be far more complex characters as we learn more about them. 

The adults, as well, are delineated beyond any easy clichés that might define them. Chuck Cooper portrays the headmaster as a bit of a stuffed shirt, but you can see how
Jeremy Pope and Chuck Cooper
Photo by Matthew Murphy
committed he is to the school and to the boys.  He wants very much to be open to creative and talented and, yes, gay students like Pharus, but he squirms at Pharus’ flamboyant behavior.  “You gotta tighten up so that people don’t assume too much. All men hold some things in,” is how he awkwardly tries to explain it. “See, your private life is, well, private.  Don’t let it all out.  Keep them guessing.” 

For a play that takes place in a school, there is only one teacher who puts in an appearance. He is also the only white person we see, a former colleague and friend of the headmaster who has agreed to help out for a short time by offering a course in creative thinking to the boys in the choir. 

As played by Austin Pendleton, the teacher manages to bring some discipline into their thinking. More dramatically, he steps in and puts a halt to the casual use of the word “Nigga” by the students. His handling of the matter, the fury he
Cast Members with Austin Pendleton (right)
Photo by Matthew Murphy
expresses, is one of the emotional high points of the play, especially as he knows from direct experience as an active participant in the civil rights movement, of the long history of pain and suffering behind such words. 

Yet, intriguingly, he does not address, except possibly obliquely, the homophobic language as well. It’s a smart and subtle touch the playwright has put in here, one that underscores the general “don’t ask, don’t tell” environment in which the students live. 

Throughout the play, as the boys are sorting out their relationships and learning to become honorable “Drew men,” we are treated to several a cappella performances of gospel tunes and spirituals, skillfully and movingly sung by the ensemble. 

While most of the music does not speak directly to the action, the singing captures the depths of the students’ passion, and sometimes even their despair. Most compelling is a heart-piercing rendition of “Motherless Child,” performed by a character who recently lost his own mother. 

Choreographer Camille A. Brown (Once On This Island) adds tremendously to these performances by providing the students with powerfully-arranged movements that perfectly express their pent-up feelings.

Cast Members Singing and Performing to Camille A. Brown's choreography
Photo by Matthew Murphy 

Despite some flaws, as when the playwright slips into easy (if genuinely funny) jokey punch lines instead of dealing directly with some of the issues, Choir Boy is splendidly performed by the company and beautifully directed by Trip Cullman. It is a wonderful way to welcome in the new year on Broadway. 








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Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

OFF BROADWAY 2018: Best of the Year




Among the 95 plays and musicals I saw Off Broadway in 2018, I have identified the ones listed below as representing the top ten - the best of the best.  


To see my list of the Best of Broadway, link HERE 

For my more detailed reviews, go to Show-Score.com  and do a search under my name or by title.  

This list includes four remarkable productions by the Public Theater and two each from The New Group, Lincoln Center, and Encores! Off-Center. In alphabetical order, here they are:


Plays

Cyprus Avenue

Stephen Rea in CYPRUS AVENUE
Photo by Ros Kavanaugh

Stephen Rae gave an absolutely devastating performance in David Ireland's play at the Public Theater that starts out in the world of dark-as-pitch humor and rapidly slides into full-blown psychosis. Rae's central character was a Protestant loyalist living in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. But if you think that political rapprochement makes the hatred and rage go away, you'd best reconsider.  A stunner from start to end.  Hard to watch, but absolutely brilliant under Vicky Featherstone's no-holds-barred direction.     

Eve's Song



De'Adre Aziz in EVE'S SONG
Photo by Joan Marcus


This sizzling new play, also presented at the Public Theater, was written by Tow Foundation Playwright-In-Residence Patricia Ione Lloyd. It is a grand and glorious mix of satire, metaphor, surrealism, history, poetic language, and images from the art world that combine seamlessly to tell the story of black women who have been and continue to be condescended to, verbally and physically abused, and even killed.  It's a lot to take in, but boy is it one powerful theatrical event from a voice to be reckoned with! 




Good for Otto






Playwright David Rabe has had a long and successful career.   He is probably best known for writing with excruciating insight about the lives of soldiers during the Vietnam War era. This play explores the world of the "walking wounded," those with psychiatric disorders who are striving to keep things together by joining the sad and endless procession to a mental health center for sessions with one of the two overworked therapists. Marvelously acted by a cast that included such fine performers as Ed Harris, F. Murray Abraham, and Rhea Perlman and beautifully directed by Scott Elliott for The New Group, this was a real highlight of 2018.  



The Hard Problem




Another prolific playwright, Tom Stoppard, is still going strong with this latest addition to a long career dating back to the 1950s when he began writing radio plays. With this intriguing work, a Lincoln Center production, he tackles "the hard problem" of understanding the seemingly unmeasurable essence of human consciousness. With wit, intelligence, and heart, he examines whether we are merely the product of genetic programming and evolution, or if there might be something more profound going on? As Hamlet would say, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." 



Pass Over


John Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in PASS OVER
Photo by Jeremy Daniel



Also from Lincoln Center, this was a very original urban "mean streets" riff on Waiting for Godot. Though it was not anchored in the Theater of the Absurd so much as the sobering absurdity of reality. It told the tale of two young black me trapped in a plain of existence that lies somewhere between hope and despair.  Danya Taymor directed an exceptionally strong cast.  


The True


Edie Falco in THE TRUE


Thanks to a stellar cast, headed up by pitch-perfect performance by Edie Falco, this potboiler about 1970s Albany, NY politics emerged as one of the best of the 2018. The play, written by Sharr White, linked the private and political life of Polly Noonan, the outspoken "woman behind the throne" of that city's longtime mayor, played by Michael McKean. A great year for director Scott Elliott and The New Group, whose production of Good For Otto also made the Best of 2018 list. 




Musicals


Songs for a New World


Cast of SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
Photo by Joan Marcus



This was a year that saw the blossoming of Encores! Off-Center, the younger sibling of the long-established Encores! productions of seldom-revived Broadway shows at City Center. This show, a plotless but nevertheless riveting song cycle by composer Jason Robert Brown, could not have been given a better production.  A wonderful cast splendidly directed by Kate Whoriskey. The very good news is the production has been recorded. I look forward to picking up a copy of the CD very soon.  







Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope





Another winner for Encores! Off-Center was this revival of Micki Grant's sung-through show, multifaceted in content and musical styles as it explores the African American experience. Sad to say, it has not lost any of its relevance or punch since it was first produced in 1971. Savion Glover brought a great sense of style with his choreography and direction of this first-class production.  


Girl from the North Country


Cast members GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
Photo By Joan Marcus

The third winner from the Public Theater is this remarkable coming-together of Irish playwright Conor McPherson's storytelling skill and Bob Dylan's extraordinary song-writing talent. The show deals with life among the denizens of a Minnesota boarding house during the Great Depression.  Mare Winningham's performance alone was worth the price of admission.  A stunning work that, fingers crossed, will play on Broadway in 2019.  




Twelfth Night


Cast members TWELFTH NIGHT
Public Theater Shakespeare in the Park Production

The Public Theater's fourth contribution to the Best of 2018 list was this remounting in Central Park's Delacorte Theater  of a rollicking musicalization of Shakespeare's comedy, conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and composer/lyricist/performer Shaina Taub. Non-stop fun and joy from start to finish!  

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And there you have it, the best of the best of Off Broadway for 2018. 


Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.




Sunday, December 16, 2018

BROADWAY 2018: Best of the Year




Culled from the list of the 30 plays and musicals I saw on Broadway in 2018, the following stood out as representing the top ten - the best of the best.  

This year, the list includes seven plays and three musicals. Here they are, in alphabetical order, and with my rationale for their inclusion.

For my list of the best of Off Broadway, link HERE 

For my more detailed reviews, go to Show-Score.com  and do a search under my name or by title.  


Best Plays


Angels in America













Tony Kushner's magnum opus, operatic in scope and in length, saw a grand and glorious production in its return to Broadway, 25 years after it initially opened to near universal acclaim. First-rate performances, impeccably overseen by director Marianne Elliott, earned it 11 Tony nominations and three wins:  Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a lead actor for Andrew Garfield, and Best Performance by a featured actor for Nathan Lane. 



Bernhardt/Hamlet





A luminous performance by Janet McTeer elevated to the rafters Theresa Rebeck's play about Sarah Bernhardt, the reigning queen of 19th Century French theater. The play, about Bernhard's tackling Shakespeare's most famous male role, was filled with humor, heart, and snappy dialog. I'd peg McTeer as a sure bet for a Tony nomination, if not a win.  Intriguingly, her greatest competition might come from Glenda Jackson as another of Shakespeare's male giants, King Lear.  


The Boys in the Band











The 50th anniversary production of Mart Crowley's groundbreaking play about a gathering of gay men at a birthday party for one of them was a first-class revival all the way.  Funny, awkward, and yes, admittedly cliché-ridden, it was also honest and compelling, with wonderful performances all around, especially by Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, and Robin de Jesus. Joe Mantello did a beautiful job directing. Arriving too late for last year's Tonys and way too early to remain in the memory of voters for this year, The Boys will likely be overlooked come awards time.  Nevertheless, the production, performed and directed by a team of openly proud and gay men, was an early-on triumph of the season.  


The Ferryman



The glowing production of Jez Butterworth's Olivier-Award winning play (and easily the front-runner for the 2019 Best Play Tony) is saturated with magic and music, domesticity and revolution, comedy, drama, and melodrama. It is richly imagined, smartly directed by Sam Mendes, and smashingly performed by a cast of 22 adults, teenagers, children, and one infant -- plus a live rabbit and a goose. It is marvel to behold, and, since it's still playing, I highly recommend a visit to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.  



Harry Potter and the Cursed Child












There is theater magic galore in this extension of J. K. Rowling's mega-popular tale of "the boy who lived." Fans are definitely fed lots of insider references. But the real magic for any theatergoer shows up, as it does in the original Harry Potter books, through the complex and heart-felt stories of the relationships among the characters. I recently returned to see Part II again (the stronger, more plot-driven part) and found myself deeply moved by the love and friendship that makes the show soar without the need for a "wingardium leviosa" spell. Patience will reward you with very affordable tickets, if you are interested.  





The Lifespan of a Fact













OK.  I get the coincidence here, but it's only a matter of falling into place alphabetically that the portrayer of filmdom's Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, shows up next. Radcliffe and his co-stars Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale make for a splendid team in this true-ish play based on an encounter between a young and obsessive fact checker and a magazine writer who is "creative" in his use of facts in order to make a point in the pursuit of TRUTH.  Any of the three, and the play itself and director Leigh Silverman, may very well capture a Tony nomination for this highly entertaining and intriguing play.


Three Tall Women












This was a near perfect revival of Edward Albee's pitch dark comedy about a cantankerous old woman facing the end of her life in the company of younger versions of herself.  Glenda Jackson's performance was out of this world, which is why I imagine her King Lear will be brilliant as well.  


Musicals

The Cher Show






Surprisingly entertaining, even for someone who is not a diehard Cher fan. Three performers play the singer at various times in her life, a concept that I thought would make this a train wreck.  The thing is, all three - Stephanie J. Block (predicting a well-deserved Tony nomination for her), Teal Wicks, and Micaela Diamond - manage to truly seem to be playing the same person, down to the mannerisms, speech patterns, and vocal quality. The biography part skims the surface, as you might expect, but the whole thing comes off as a crowd-pleasing, confident, and glitzy Broadway extravaganza.  In addition to the triad of Chers, special kudos must go to director Jason Moore for pulling this off so well, and to costume design legend Bob Mackie, who also will likely receive a Tony nomination and a possible win for his work here. 



My Fair Lady













This is one of the most familiar and iconic musicals of the Baby Boomer generation, and it's pretty hard to think of something new to say. Yet director Bartlett Sher managed to breathe new life into this musical by focusing on one woman's journey to self-determination. Even though he gave us a Henry Higgins who is much closer in age to Liza Doolittle than we've come to expect, this is no longer a romantic comedy. Everything seems fresh and new, while giving us great singing and dancing and design elements all the way through.   



The Prom





This one is pure fun, with a wonderful cast giving marvelous over-the-top performances in a show that reminds me of Hairspray. It is both a light-hearted satire that takes digs at Broadway theater types with massive egos, and a plea for understanding and acceptance.  High appeal here for older and younger audience members, with an upbeat and bouncy score.  Hats off to all involved with this.  




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And there you have it, the best of the best of Broadway for 2018. 



Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

THE CHER SHOW: New Jukebox Musical Is A Surprisingly Well-Crafted Broadway Treat









Shakespeare, it's not.  For that, you will have to wait for Glenda Jackson's star turn as King Lear in the spring.  

But if you are looking for a Broadway show that offers a full evening of pure entertainment, I would suggest that you pop for a ticket to The Cher Show that opened last night at the Neil Simon Theatre.  

If you are already a fan of the singer and actress who has picked up a truckload of awards (including Grammy, Emmy, and Oscar) over a career spanning 50+ years, skip the next several paragraphs, enjoy the photos, and head on out!  

But if, like me, you are skeptical about the often sloppy work that goes into that combo of concert and biography that has come to be known as a "jukebox musical," bear with me for a moment. 

As with any form of entertainment, some jukebox musicals are better than others. Shows like Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and Jersey Boys, while based on the songbooks of particular performers, are well-written, with engaging stories and attention to production values.  

Others, like Escape to Margaritaville and Summer:  The Donna Summer Musical are pretty much cobbled together to serve as backdrops for performances of already familiar songs. Whatever quality there is lies pretty much exclusively with the quality of the singers. 

Happily, The Cher Show falls into the former category.  Its writer, Rick Elice, wrote the script for Jersey Boys and certainly knows how to present biographical material in an interesting way. It may, as some critics will complain, lack depth, but it provides enough to frame the songs that are presented within a life story. Cher's biography is not especially unusual; what is most interesting about it is what she has made of her life. 

One day she's winning an Oscar for her memorable performance in the movie Moonstruck; then a short time later she can be found selling hair care products on TV.  But comeback after comeback, mostly through live tours and albums, she's fought to return to the upper echelon. 

The Cher Show does a fine job of telling one woman's story of struggling for self-empowerment in what has for so very long been assumed to be a man's world. So, yes, Cher's life story is worth telling, especially at a time when women are standing up in greater and greater numbers for the right to be respected and listened to.

But beyond that, The Cher Show is entertaining as all get out, thanks to a stellar cast and all the bells and whistles the creative team could come up with to support the production, under the leadership of director Jason Moore. It is a wonderful Broadway show.  


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Now here are those production photos I promised you.  




The Three Chers:
 Teal Wicks as "Lady" Cher; Stephanie J. Block as "Star" Cher
and Micaela Diamond as "Babe" Cher




Jerrod Spector as Sonny Bono and Micaela Diamond as Babe
Photo by Joan Marcus






Stephanie J. Block
Photo by Joan Marcus






"Dark Lady," danced by Ashley Blair Fitzgerald
Photo by Joan Marcus




The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus






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Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.