Saturday, June 28, 2014

'tick, tick...BOOM!' Gets a Loving Production at Encores Off Center!

There is so much love onstage and in the audience at the Encores Off Center! semi-staged production of Jonathan Larson’s tick, tick…BOOM! that it grieves me to have to make note of the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda—the source of a lot of that love—is not a very good singer. Unfortunately, it is kind of hard to overlook since this a musical that we’re talking about here, and—when you set aside the admittedly impossible-to-set-aside connection with its creator’s biography—it does need a first-rate presentation to show it in the best possible light.  

Before we go further, let’s take a minute to talk about Encores Off Center! It is in its second season as an Off Broadway version of the well-established Encores! series of short runs of old Broadway shows at City Center. As a new enterprise, it is still finding its way, and perhaps even its mission. The first season saw a concert version of Mark Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock; the Gretchen Cryer/Nancy Ford musical I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road (which I didn’t see, but which Charles Isherwood of The New York Times  called “loving but creaky”); and a single performance of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet, which, of course, wound up on Broadway this season. Ms. Tesori, by the way, is the artistic director of Encores Off Center! 

This year, tick, tick…BOOM! is being joined by Pump Boys and Dinettes, as well as a single performance of Randy Newman’s Faust (featuring its composer), a show which has never had an Off Broadway production. So…what exactly is the mission of Encores Off Center! remains fuzzy. 

But getting back to tick, tick…BOOM! The title alone resonates, given that it first saw light of day just five years before Mr. Larson’s sudden death from an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the powerhouse success of his breakthrough musical Rent, a phenomenon on Broadway with a 12-year run. The version of tick, tick…BOOM! at City Center is the one that playwright David Auburn (Proof) reshaped from Larson’s original “rock monologue” for an Off Broadway production in 2001, for which Raúl Esparza (a very good singer!) won an Obie Award in the lead role. The show is about a character called “Jon” (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the Encores Off Center! production), who is on the brink of turning 30 and who is trying to decide whether his career goal as the writer of musicals is worth the sacrifices he’s had to make. Jon’s roommate and close friend Michael (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jon’s girlfriend Susan (Karen Olivo) are tugging at him to hang it up and either get a “real job” or leave New York for New England, where Susan, a dancer, is planning to relocate. That is tick, tick…BOOM! in a nutshell. 

Mr. Miranda, despite his unfortunate off-key singing, does an excellent job of providing the character of Jon with a teetering balance of angst and self-deprecating humor. Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam in the 2012-2013 NBC musical drama series Smash) does nicely as Jon’s gay and HIV-positive friend Michael, who has given up his acting ambitions for a steady and well-paying job. Karen Olivo (In The Heights, West Side Story) raises the roof with a socko performance of the song “Come To Your Senses.” Add to that Larson’s running homage to his idol Stephen Sondheim, whose song “Sunday” from Sunday In The Park With George is parodied in a number about Jon’s job as a waiter serving up Sunday brunch, and there is no denying that tick, tick…BOOM! packs a truckload of charm and heart. Carrying on nicely with the Encores! tradition of always getting the music right, the onstage band is top notch, and the low-key production values are also appropriate for the small-scale musical.

It’s impossible to watch tick, tick…BOOM! without seeing what lies ahead for its composer and to think of him wrestling with his future, so out there for all of us to see. If only Mr. Miranda, who surely can find something of himself in Jon and who is not long from his own breakthrough hit In The Heights, could sing the role as well as he can act it--because it just might be time for a new Off Broadway mounting.  

Any suggestions for who might head up the cast?

Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

'The Killer': Glimpsing Heaven, Hell, and Oblivion in Rare Revival of Challenging Ionesco Play

The Theatre for a New Audience ends its inaugural season at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center as it began—with a dream. 

Just as Julie Taymor launched the season with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that was filled with dreamlike images, from floating bed sheets to pillow fights, the director of Eugène Ionesco’s 1958 absurdist play The Killer, Darko Tresnjak, sends us on a long day’s journey into a fever-dream nightmare landscape.   

The Killer (the fine new translation from the French is by Michael Feingold, the former theater critic for the Village Voice) has not been seen on a New York stage since 1960. It is not the easiest or the most accessible play in Ionesco’s oeuvre, but there is much to admire and appreciate and even enjoy in this well-conceived production, which suggests a trippy sojourn to Purgatory, with glimpses of Heaven, Hell, and Oblivion along its borders.

Heaven is represented in the play’s first act. Berenger (Michael Shannon), who bears the name of the playwright’s favorite Everyman character, has wandered by chance into “the radiant city,” a place where a bureaucratic functionary known as the Architect (Robert Stanton) assures our hero that everything is as perfect as it is technologically possible to arrange. Berenger, who lives in a place “where even the fire in the fireplace is damp,” is enthralled and wants more than anything to move in. But just as he is about to do so, he learns that this Eden has a serpent among its inhabitants, someone who kills three people every single day and who has long eluded detection and capture despite the fact that his (appropriately odd) modus operandi is well known.  

In the second act, it is safe to assume we are seeing glimpses of hell, especially since Berenger’s landlady (a delightfully comic Kristine Nielsen) uses the word “hell” over and over again in her speeches. Berenger has fled back to the city, a noisy, dirty, crowded Paris. When he returns to his grubby little apartment, he finds an old acquaintance, Edward, awaiting him. The consumptive Edward (an impressively creepy Paul Sparks) throws around many clues that suggest he may be the very killer that the none-too-keenly-observant Berenger is determined to track down.

Much of Act II is comically crazy, and represents the playwright and the director at their absurdist best, before we enter into the final third of the play where the mood becomes increasingly nightmarish. Berenger finds himself walking on a path that takes him further and further from the city, until he ends up all alone along a dark and anxiety-inducing expanse. It is here that he comes face to face with the killer, who—when Berenger challenges him to explain his motive—merely shrugs his shoulders. 

That shrug would make for a good ending for the play. But Ionesco gives Berenger a lengthy (painfully so) speech in which he tries to use logic to convince the killer to cease and desist. After all the tantalizing bits that have come before—including an inexplicable but marvelous depiction of a fascist rally in which Ma Piper (Ms. Nielsen again) promises her followers that she will exchange their old delusions for new delusions—this last static section is pretty much responsible for bringing the play to a crushing halt.  

Unfortunately, I’m also not convinced that Mr. Shannon is the best actor to portray Berenger, a character who tells us early on: “I couldn’t go on the way I was living, but I didn’t have the power to die.”  The production’s star comes across as too much of a take-charge kind of guy, whereas Berenger is one of life’s unfortunate victims, someone who reacts rather than acts. I'm thinking that someone like Bill Irwin might be good in the role—but still something would need to be done about that interminably long slide that marks the final section of the play. 

My reservations notwithstanding, I found it well worth the visit to see this rarely performed work. The rest of the cast, including all of the ensemble players, are quite good. Mr. Tresnjak's direction is imaginative, as are Suttirat Larlarb's set design and Matthew Richards' eerie lighting work. There are twists and turns to the non-linear plot that can only be understood by viewing the play as a dreamscape, and enough to keep you puzzling for some time over how to interpret the experience.

Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

'The Few': A Trio of Lost Souls Longing to Connect

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter is a tenderhearted herder of souls who are lost out there somewhere in the great vast empty spaces that still mark parts of the United States. This is most evident in his latest work, The Few, about a trio of lonely folks who teeter between anxious hopelessness and a vague and undefined sense of faith—inhabitants, as one of them puts it, of a “church without God.” 

In a solidly acted production at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, The Few takes place in a trailer that serves as home to a pennysaver newspaper catering to long-distance truckers. Its income is derived from classified personal ads that truckers call in and record on an answering machine; we get to hear a number of these during the course of the evening, and they too contribute to the mixed atmosphere of isolation and wistful longing that runs through the play.   

The enterprise is barely enough to pay the bills for its editor QZ (Tasha Lawrence) and her young assistant Matthew (Gideon Glick), for whom the trailer and the work provide a sanctuary from a world that has not been kind to him. The pair are managing to keep things afloat as best they can when in walks Bryan (Michael Laurence), the newspaper’s founder and still its owner, who skipped town four years earlier.  Now he is back, though the reason for his return remains nebulous, possibly even to him.

The characters give up their secrets slowly, and even when they do there are no surprise revelations, only moments where quiet truths come to the fore. What there is of tension derives from the question of the newspaper’s future. It began as a means of trying to create a sense of community among the readership, but it has gradually lost that intent in the name of making ends meet.

Matthew (terrifically portrayed by Mr. Glick as a twitchy bundle of social awkwardness) wants nothing more than to see the paper return to its founding principles. He keeps a copy of Bryan’s initial statement-of-purpose in his wallet and periodically pulls it out and reads aloud from it.  But Bryan has long since lost any such sense of purpose, and QZ—with whom Bryan was in a longstanding relationship when he skipped out—is pretty much ready to call it quits herself.

Hunter’s world of quirky characters may remind you of something conjured up by Sam Shepard, but where Shepard’s cache of weaponry includes serious ammo, Hunter literally offers up BBs, capable of laying down new wounds on top of old scars without destroying.  QZ, Bryan, and Matthew are richly drawn and richly acted by the cast, under the sure hand of director Davis McCallum. As they and the voices of the truckers on the answering machine seek to make connections, we can only wish them well.    

Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

2014 Tonys Broadcast: The Morning After

Audra McDonald accepts a record-breaking 6th Tony Award

Whatever one may think of the politics and commercialism of Broadway and its annual rite of selling itself to the American public (it is show business, after all!), the Tony Awards do recognize the artistic talents of the recipients—and it is the artistry that speak to an audience.  So, do let me begin by heartily congratulating all of the artists who were winners of the 2014 Tonys. Well done, you guys, well done!!!

As to the Tonys broadcast, well…let’s just say it had its moments, but generally the entire show—and I am speaking of the broadcast as a televised entertainment event—was as bland as a bowl of oatmeal without the raisins, butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, and totally mired in the past (and not in a good way).

If the show is going to provide its host with nothing but old dance routines and hoary tunes ("updated" with new and uninspired lyrics), at least these should come from classic Broadway shows rather than from old and sometimes obscure movie musicals. It was lovely that Hugh Jackman serenaded and danced with the nominees for best actress in a musical, but did he have to do it to a song (“Stepping Out With My Baby”) from a 1948 movie musical (Easter Parade)? And how many of us had to do an Internet search to come up with Bobby Van's bouncing dance number from 1953’s Small Town Girl?  Really?  That’s the best they could come up with for the opening?  (Here’s my alternative suggestion: HJ descends upside-down from the rafters dressed as Hedwig, and does some sort of bit to acknowledge the handing-off of the hosting from Neil Patrick Harris).

As to the “rap” of the “Rock Island” number from The Music Man, if any of my former 7th grade students had seen the show, they would have been able to participate—because I taught it as a poetry-in-performance piece for many years, going back to the 1980s. Perhaps a more interesting Meredith Willson story might be that he wrote the “Chicken Fat” song that is now being used in current Apple commercials, at least one of which played during the broadcast.

And maybe it's time to shelve the gay jokes??? 

If you think of the showpiece performances as marketing devices, the best of these were “I’ve Decided to Marry You” from A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the segment from Rocky. Two different styles, but both very effective for their intended audiences. The former was geared toward regular Broadway theatergoers, the latter toward those who generally do not go (i. e. men in their 20s, 30s, and 40s) unless they are dragged there.

Idina Menzel’s powerhouse singing of “Always Starting Over” was (despite the awkward tight camera closeups) a potentially great selling pitch for If/Then.  But those inappropriate closeups serve as a reminder that watching a televised performance is not the same experience as attending a live performance. Someone needs to figure out how to do a better job of presenting numbers from a Broadway show on television (and effectively using cameras) if the goal is to excite a potential audience into paying the big bucks for a seat in a theater. 

Acceptance speeches generally are not a pleasure to sit through, but kudos to Mark Rylance for his appropriately subdued speech and for his thoughtful commendation to the actor Sam Wanamaker, who was instrumental in resurrecting the Globe Theatre in England. I thought that Sophie Okonedo and Audra McDonald gave very good acceptance speeches as well. Ms. McDonald’s appreciation for her parents’ decision not to medicate her for her apparent ADD as a child could provide meaningful support for others in a similar situation. Oh, and I did like Jessie Mueller’s ending to her somewhat scattered speech:  “Everyone wants a drink…so, thank you.”

Even though the winning slate was difficult to handicap (I hit 50% this year, which leaves me with no bragging rights whatsoever), there were few surprises, other than the unexpected wins for the revival of A Raisin In The Sun.  I could have lived without the number from Wicked (like it really needs a boost to its ticket sales!), but at least we were spared yet another Lion King performance.  It’s impossible to say whether the sneak previews of upcoming shows (The Last Ship, Finding Neverland) served any purpose other than to stroke the vanities of their promoters, but I do like the idea of using television to whet the appetite for the new season.  Perhaps some forum other than the always-too-long Tonys show would be an idea for someone to explore, what with the ratings success of the live production of The Sound of Music, and with announced future productions of Peter Pan and The Music Man (with cameos by LL Cool J and T.I.?)

But enough about the Tonys.  There’s always something new to see.  Which is one of the main reasons why I Heart New York. 

Feel free to tell you friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.