Saturday, December 30, 2017

OFF BROADWAY - Top Ten Shows of 2017

Another year, another 111 Off Broadway shows. That's how many I saw in 2017, from the 50th anniversary revival  of SWEET CHARITY early in January to HUNDRED DAYS two days ago.  

From these, I have selected the best of the best, my Top Ten list, in alphabetical order:

CHARM:  It has been fascinating watching how playwrights and theater companies have been striving to tell the stories of transgender individuals. Not surprisingly, the earliest efforts in recent years were clumsy and overly pedantic, and even efforts at casting transgender actors to play
transgender characters have been hit-and-miss. This play, written by Philip Dawkins, marked a leap forward. It told an engaging story about a 67-year-old transgender woman who
volunteers at an LGBTQ center, teaching a mix of etiquette and self-esteem to a group of disorderly street teens. It incorporated the kinds of still-necessary explanations for the audience, but within the context of the play rather than making us feel we are sitting at a lecture. (Great line: "Have pity on the straight people; they get confused so easily.") And it starred a transgender actress, Sandra Caldwell, in the lead role.  

DOLPHINS AND SHARKS:  Stellar writing, directing, and acting combined to tell the gripping story of a group of African American and Latino workers at a copy shop in Harlem, dealing with low pay, constant demands by an absentee
boss, and "what you gotta do" in order to survive. This fiercely comic, provocative, and at times harrowing play marked the professional debut of writer James Anthony Tyler, whose voice is just the kind we need to hear more of off and on Broadway.     

IN THE BLOOD: Suzan-Lori Parks' play grabbed you by throat and never let go as it related the story of Hester, a single mother of five children between the ages of 5 and 13, all of them living together under a bridge in an unnamed and indifferent urban environment. Some of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's works are densely abstract and difficult to stage convincingly, but this one was nothing short of breathtaking in capturing the lives of people who cannot win for losing.  

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:  A joyful night under the stars at the Public Theater's Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Lear deBessonet directed, and Annaleigh Ashford
headed a cast that brought pure magic and a touch of Mardi Gras to Shakespeare's enduring comedy. In every way, it was a a treat for the eyes and ears.   

OF HUMAN BONDAGE:  A presentation by the Canadian company Soulpepper during its summer sojourn at the Pershing Square Signature Center. This production of W. Somerset Maugham's sprawling coming-of-age novel
(adapted by Vern Thiessen) was a perfect piece of ensemble acting, reminiscent of the kinds of plays the Royal Shakespeare Company used to bring to New York back in the day.  Hope they'll come back with more like this!

PIPELINE: Dominique Morisseau's brilliant play about an African American family all but torn asunder following an altercation between a high school student and a teacher at a private boarding school that was supposed to provide a safe and nurturing haven for a teenage boy. Namir Smallwood
gave a superb performance as the boy's mother, a teacher herself, but at the kind of urban high school she wants to keep him away from. The playwright showed a real determination to avoid painting anyone purely as either villain or victim. This was a stunner from the start to its intentionally uncertain ending. 

SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY: Jocyln Bioh's funny, viciously biting comedy takes the familiar story of snotty high school cliques and plunks it down into a private girls' school in Ghana, where it takes on a life of its own. The writing and the performances were as sharp as tacks as the girls participated in the well-established pecking order that
controlled their lives together. Things took a turn when a new student showed up, rivalries exploded, and the girls got ready to participate in a beauty pageant they all hope will lead one of them to being named Miss Ghana. A glorious production by all concerned.    

TOO HEAVY FOR YOUR POCKET: Another rising playwright, Jiréh Breon Holder, gave us a play that dive-bombed onto the stage of the Roundabout's Black Box Theatre, an incubator for exciting new works like this one.  The play recounted the experiences of two young black
couples in the early days of the Freedom Riders, the busing protest from the early 1960s.  It centered on the character of Bowzie (a mesmerizing performance by Brandon Gill), who has been offered the rare opportunity of a scholarship to attend the prestigious Fisk University but who is uncertain where his future lay as he gets caught up in the emerging Civil Rights movement.  The playwright managed in the course of the evening to explore issues of race, gender, power, faith, and politics in the black community without once losing sight of his characters.  A masterful achievement!

THE WOLVES: Sarah DeLappe's thrilling "girl power" play about a high school girls' soccer team. Wonderfully acted by a tight-knit ensemble, it is about the things we miss when we fail to pay attention to the seemingly random conversations
among girls. The playwright and the production perfectly captured the voices of these young women as they talk during their pre-game warmups in the course of a season.   

20th CENTURY BLUES: At the other end of the age spectrum, this play by Susan Miller captures the story of a group of women in their mid-60s as they gather at the home
of one of their number, a professional photographer named Danny (Polly Draper) who has taken portraits of the other three each year without fail ever since they met in the 1970s. The dialog and the splendid acting perfectly embodied the spirit of the women of the baby boomer cohort,  with all of their shared memories, trials, and successes. 


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Broadway plays: (Top Ten Broadway Plays - 2017) 


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.

Friday, December 29, 2017


Culled from the list of the 34 plays and musicals I saw on Broadway in 2017,  the following stood out as representing the top ten - the best of the best.  

Strictly by coincidence, my list includes five straight plays and five musicals. Here they are, in alphabetical order, and with my rationale for their inclusion.  

Straight Plays

1984.  Big Brother is watching you! This was a smart, literary, and disturbingly-staged version of George Orwell's dystopian novel with unfortunate parallels to the state of the world today. Not for the squeamish, but powerfully acted by a cast that included Tony winner and New York theater stalwart Reed Birney as the sympathetic-seeming O'Brien. I'll confess that I had to see this twice in order to get past the all-too-realistic torture scenes, yet nothing seemed gratuitous or inappropriate.       

THE CHILDREN. OK.  Another dystopian tale. It relocates the 2011 nuclear power plant meltdown from Fukushima,
Japan to the English coast. More significantly, it serves as a sly indictment of the baby boomer generation for the messes the aging population is leaving behind. The production benefits greatly from maintaining the original London cast and director, and from Lucy Kirkwood's smart and gallows humor-infused script.  Note:  This is still running until February 4 in case you want to catch it.  

INDECENT. Paula Vogel's examination of Sholem Asch's 1907 Yiddish-language melodrama GOD OF VENGEANCE, which featured prostitutes and a lesbian kiss. Asch's play was widely produced and well-received in Europe but ran afoul of censorship and the law when it journeyed to New
York. Ms. Vogel considered the play's themes and its history, and told the story through the eyes of the company of actors who toured with it. This was one of the best all-around productions of any play I've seen in a very long time, with brilliant and Tony-garnering directing by Rebecca Taichman and an exceptional cast that included Katrina Lenk, now wowing everyone in the Broadway musical THE BAND'S VISIT. 

JITNEY. August Wilson's 1982 play, a rich examination of a group of drivers for a pre-Uber car service, has been produced Off Broadway before, but this full-scale Broadway production more than made the case for recognizing it as a top-drawer entry in
Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. This was another stellar ensemble production, one that picked up a Best Revival Tony along with well-deserved nominations for its director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and actor John Douglas Thompson.  

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. In a word: hilarious. If you like old-fashioned slapstick comedy, this play about a third-rate acting company that runs into every problem imaginable will leave you richly satisfied. I may be splitting hairs, but this
kind of romp is a far cry from classical farce where everything seems, at least to my taste, to be too obviously clever. Here, it all seems to gloriously fall apart of its own accord.  Note: This is still running, with tickets available into March, in case you want to catch it.  


BANDSTAND.  An original musical with a heart and a brain, a great score, amazing dancing, and a super cast. It's about a group of talented jazz/swing musicians who are psychologically lost after their experiences of serving in World War II. They all suffer from varying degrees of PTSD and are thwarted by the fact
that life at home passed them by while they were away; their only support is one another. Corey Cott and Laura Osnes sublimely led the cast, and Andy Blankenbueller, who choreographed HAMILTON, served in that capacity here, and also directed. The show has unfortunately closed, but the original cast recording does a good job of capturing the score (Richard Oberacker wrote the music and he and Robert Taylor are responsible for the lyrics). This was far and above the best musical I saw in 2017.  

THE BAND'S VISIT.  An adaption by playwright Itamar Moses of the movie of the same title. It tells the story of the members of a small group of Egyptian musicians who have been invited to participate in a performance in Israel but wind up in the wrong town, where they are obliged to spend the night. If you are expecting ethnic conflict, you'd be wrong.  
Instead, it is a quietly sweet and touching tale, brought lovingly to life by a perfect cast, including the aforementioned Katrina Lenk and Tony Shahoub, a skillful actor who has become a regular on the New York theater scene. What holds it all together is the lovely, lovely score by David Yazbek, and David Cromer's gentle direction.  Currently running.

HELLO, DOLLY!  Actually, it wasn't the presence of Bette Midler that sold me on this production of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical, a show that I had never before seen on 
stage. Yes, the Divine Miss M, has the audience eating out of her hand, but the surprise to me was the show itself.  There is so much joy emanating from the stage, I defy you to resist. Kudos to all involved in this sublime revival! Ms. Midler leaves the show in a couple of weeks, but her replacement will be Bernadette Peters. Not so shabby.   

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. This delightfully staged and performed revival of the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical has the feel of a Caribbean folk tale that has been passed down and reshaped from generation to generation. It boasts joyful singing, clever staging, and charm by the bucketful as it relates the story of Ti Moune (an auspicious Broadway debut by 18-year-old Hailey Kilgore) who enlists the aid of the gods as she dares to defy the social strictures of her community. There is a dark side to the story, along the lines of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," but that does not diminish the many pleasures to be found here. Currently running.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS. It is probably best to be familiar with Nickelodeon's popular cartoon character, who
lives in a pineapple under the sea. For fans, this is a super-duper treat, brilliantly staged and performed and filled with music that was written for the show by 14 songwriters and teams, including Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, and They Might Be Giants. Nautical nonsense abounds, and it is more fun than a day of jelly fishing and a platter of Krabby Patties.  Currently running.


Link here for my list of the best of the year's Off Broadway plays: (Top Ten Off Broadway Shows - 2017)


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.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

JACK GOES BOATING: Sweet and Quirky Romantic Comedy Accentuated with Reggae and Ganja

A continuous waft of marijuana smoke and the sounds of reggae suffuse The Seeing Place Theater's production of Bob Glaudini's 2007 offbeat romantic comedy Jack Goes Boating at the Paradise Factory. But what at first appears to be a tale of a couple of stoner dudes and the women who put up with them proves to be much more, a quirky and affectionate play about two couples trying to fumble their way through - as one of the women puts it - “a lot of good things, and a lot of things you wouldn't wish on your enemy." 

Jack Goes Boating was first produced by the Labyrinth Theater Company ten years ago with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, but it has not been widely performed since then. It's a treat, then, to see the fine job The Seeing Place has done with capturing both the play's neurotic humor and its heartfelt tenderness, in an intimate setting that leaves you feeling as though you were eavesdropping on the lives of the characters.  

This production marks a departure for The Seeing Place, a company best known for its often visceral presentations of tough and challenging works by playwrights ranging from Shakespeare to Marsha Norman, Rebecca Gilman, and Sam Shepard. Their forays into comedy have been few, and have mostly focused on the dark (Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman) or the absurd (Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros). So, yes, Jack Goes Boating is not their usual fare. Nevertheless, it is one they have embraced with the same "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach that has marked all of their work over the past eight years, and the cast of four more than meets the demands of this gentler piece.

At opening, we meet Clyde (Juan Cardenas) and Jack (Brandon Walker), friends and co-workers in a limousine service run by Jack's uncle. Jack lives in his uncle's basement, and his biggest ambition is to land a job with New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. For his part, Clyde has been unable to get past a long-ago period of infidelity by his partner Lucy (Candice Oden). Much of what we learn about the two men comes about during episodes of vaping and drinking and even some snorting, all set to a reggae beat; Jack is especially fond of "By the Rivers of Babylon" a recording of which often soothes his troubled soul in times of stress.  
Brandon Walker and Juan Cardenas
Photo by Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia

It's easy enough to mark these guys as clichéd models of arrested development, until we see them interact with the women in their lives. Lucy and Connie (Erin Cronican, who also directs) work together for an outfit that markets grief seminars for the newly bereaved. The pairing of Jack and Connie is, basically, a set-up by the other two, who think they might hit it off.

Candice Oden and Erin Cronican
Photo by Russ Roland

The heart of the play lies in the slowly warming relationship between Connie and Jack. This is challenging for both characters, each of them vulnerable for different reasons. Their slow dance toward each other requires a great deal of care. Connie, whose experiences with men have been difficult, is especially fragile in all this. 

For Jack, the possibility of a serious relationship is marked by deep-set insecurity, giving Mr. Walker the opportunity to tackle a different sort of role from the boldly assertive characters he has played in the past. Here he does an outstanding job of capturing Jack’s fear of doing the wrong thing with Connie. His scenes with Ms. Cronican are as gentle and tender as any I’ve seen on stage, emanating from a great well of trust. Hard to fake when your audience is seated no more than a couple of feet away.  

One of the pleasures of serial theatergoing (I see some 200 productions a year and review most of them for Upstage-Downstage or for another theater website) is the chance to poke around into some off-the-main-drag theaters of New York City, into the domain of some truly wondrous and adventuresome independent theater companies, collectively referred to as Off Off Broadway. 

Unfortunately, for reasons usually having to do with finances, many such companies come and go. Not so with The Seeing Place, which seems to find the way to keep things going year after year and production after production, while maintaining a ridiculously low ticket price. Going through my past reviews, I was surprised to see I've covered 16 of their productions, each of them showing a commitment to bringing something new to the table (otherwise, why bother?) Color me impressed, and let me urge you to check them out for yourself.  


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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

THE TREASURER: Narcissistic Mom and Enabling Son Lock Horns in Intriguing New Play

The Treasurer

Even before the lights go down at the beginning of The TreasurerMax Posner's modern parable of a play at Playwright's Horizons, the unnamed man (Peter Friedman) standing before us lets us know that "sometime in the future, I will be in hell." Take him at his word. He means this literally. And, indeed, by the end of the evening he will be on his way there. Literally.   

And what is his crime, you might ask.  What has he done, or what is he planning to do that will lead to eternal damnation? It's not hard to conjure up any manner of heinous deeds that would qualify, but the thing that the man is beating himself up for harkens all the way back to the Ten Commandments, specifically Commandment #5.

You don't need to look it up. That would be the one that tells us to "honor your father and your mother." But this man, referred to in the play only as "The Son," just can't bring himself to do it, even if it is a matter of saving his immortal soul. Not when it comes to his aging mother, that charmer (and she can be very charming), Ida Armstrong, deliciously portrayed by Deanna Dunagan, who will forever be remembered for her breathtaking (and Tony-winning) portrayal of the monstrous mother in August: Osage County.  

Production photos by Joan Marcus. 

Here she is a different sort of monster. She's not a domineering and controlling gorgon, although the impact on her middle-aged son is the same as if she were. Instead, she is, as he says of her, "the definition of delusional."

Make that narcissistic, manipulative, and delusional. 

Ida's delusion is not all that uncommon. She lives well beyond her means, and she intends to keep on doing so, long after she has gone through her first husband's money, her second husband's money, and her own money. She fully expects her sons (there are three of them) to keep her in the manner of spoiled royalty that she has been accustomed to.

It falls on the youngest son, the one played by Mr. Friedman,  to be the designated "treasurer," the one who is supposed to pay the bills and monitor Mom's spending; the others (nicely portrayed by Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu, who also tackle several other roles) are too intimidated to deal with her. 

On the face of it,  what we have here is that well-known combination of user and enabler. Throughout the play, we observe Mr. Friedman's character talking to Ida - almost exclusively by phone, since, as he says, his tolerance for being around her extends for no more than "two to three minutes." Mostly he is short and snarly, throwing fits about the way she runs up bills, and then - feeling guilty (and Ida is expert at guilt-inducing martyrdom) - grudgingly capitulating to her every whim.  

Yet the playwright, the performers, and director David Cromer manage to take this familiar situation into intriguing directions that leave us uncertain as to where our sympathies lie. Surprisingly, Ida herself seems reasonably gracious as she accepts that she needs to go into a retirement home (insisting, of course, that it be the nicest one, requiring an upfront payment of $250,000, plus $2,500 a month that she does not have). We also see her interacting pleasantly with store clerks, including one who wants to sell her a pair of $700 pillows, and chatting on the phone with a caller seeking a donation for the local orchestra.  

You can't help but think to yourself that this is an easily conned older woman who needs someone to watch out for her interests. She doesn't seem to be able to say no, and neither can her son, as she blithely drains her bank accounts and his.  

We never really know the source of the son's resentment, what it was like growing up with Ida as a mother. You can only take him at his word when he tells us, "I will be in hell because I don't love my mother. I want her to die."  

It all sounds rather bleak, but thanks to these master actors and a director with an eye for detail, The Treasurer is a fascinating study of how apron strings can become a choking garrote. The son can only show his bitterness in little ways, by badmouthing his mother to others, replacing an expensive mirror with a cheap one from Amazon, or glaring at her over the one lunch we see them having together at an Asian restaurant, where he blithely uses chopsticks while Ida, who is slowly sinking into dementia, is compelled to eat with her fingers. 

In the end, an epilogue that has the son riding in a descending elevator to that long-anticipated hell, we are left to consider who has been responsible for all the little murders we have been witness to: the narcissistic user or the resentful enabler?      

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, August 30, 2017

PRINCE OF BROADWAY: Channel Surfing for Musical Theater Buffs

There is a deep engulfing sinkhole at the heart of Prince of Broadway, an evening of excerpts from 16 musicals that have been produced or directed by Hal Prince - recipient of 21 Tony Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor, and a National Medal of the Arts - in the course of a stellar career that is now in its seventh decade. 

Unfortunately, and rather significantly, the chasm at the core of the proceedings bears the name of the great Mr. Prince himself, who, despite the fact that he has co-directed this production, appears to be missing in action.  

For all its good intentions, the lumpish Prince of Broadway that opened last week at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is the equivalent of channel surfing for Broadway musical theater buffs. It is all randomness and disconnect as it caroms from one brief encounter to the next, touching down lightly on far too many of the shows in which Mr. Prince had a hand between 1954 (The Pajama Game) and 1998 (Parade).  

Let's begin where most musicals start, with the overture. Composer Jason Robert Brown, whose own show, Parade, has its brief moment in the spotlight, serves as the production's arranger, orchestrator, and music supervisor. Talk about channel surfing, this overture spews forth bits and pieces of 17 different songs within a couple of minutes. That's fine if you're up to the challenge of a rapid-fire round of Name That Tune; otherwise, not so much. Conveniently, in the program, there is a cheat sheet identifying all of the numbers that are spat out in the overture, which even references a couple from shows that are never again referred to in the production itself (Flora the Red Menace, On the Twentieth Century, and Zorba).  

OK.  So that's just the overture.  But the same approach pretty much defines the overall production, in which a game but decidedly overwhelmed cast is hauled out to perform number after number after number -  37 of them from shows that Mr. Prince was involved with, plus another that Mr. Brown wrote for this production. Mind you, these are not grouped chronologically nor thematically, and there is only the barest of attempts to provide any sort of context. 

As Tevye sings in "If I Were A Rich Man" from the Prince-produced Fiddler on the Roof - performed here by Chuck Cooper - this poses problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes. You might just as well put your iPod on "shuffle" mode and let 'er rip. 


So, what works?

  • Tony Yazbeck does an exceptionally fine dance routine as part of his rock-solid performance of "The Right Girl" from Follies. This is truly the highlight of the show, a breathtaking feat (literally; how on earth can he manage to sing and tear up the stage with that amazing dancing, without an oxygen tank at hand?). Choreography credit to Susan Stroman, who serves as the production's co-director.   

  • Janet Dacal and Michael Xavier exude charm by the bucketful in what is the best overall self-contained set piece, "You've Got Possibilities"  from It's A Bird...It's A Plane...It's Superman.  Here is one place where the singing, choreography (Ms. Stroman again), costumes by William Ivey Long, and the brightly colored comic book of a scenic design by Beowolf Boritt come together with just the right mix to give a sense of what the actual show itself would look like. 

  •  I also liked the segment from Company, which is suggestive of he look of the original production and includes an explosive performance of "Ladies Who Lunch" by Emily Skinner.

  • Also successful is the relatively lengthy segment from Cabaret, which includes four separate numbers. Brandon Uranowitz as the Emcee and, especially, Karen Ziemba as Freulein Schneider, do particularly well with their songs by effectively inhabiting their respective characters.



The bottom line:  

a. Prince of Broadway is ambitiously filled with an avalanche of ideas that rarely come to life. There's too much material. Pick and choose, people; pick and choose. And use your production dollars on the best costumes, scenic design, and whatever else it would take to give us a real sense of what it must have been like to be in the audience when these shows made their debuts - preferably highlighting more of those that haven't been revived over the years. It's been done successfully before with other compilation shows, most notably Jerome Robbins' Broadway from 1989. I can still recall brilliant performances from West Side Story and On The Town that brought these shows fully to life through carefully designed excerpts. That production, by the way, was directed by the man whose work was being featured.   

b.  Add some serious narration that will give us a sense of Hal Prince as a producer and/or director: "Here's what I was trying to do with Cabaret." "Here's how I collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on Follies." "Here's what a producer does." I'm not looking for a series of lengthy lectures, just some context for each of the shows that are being highlighted. Here is one case where the theatrical truism of "show, don't tell" has been overplayed.  


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.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN: This Perfect Fit For Encores! Off-Center's Mission Deserves A Longer Run

It's easy to imagine that, in the hands of the right director, Kirsten Childs' lightly satirical musical The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin might shed its own chameleon skin and embrace a sharper tone that could serve as an edgy commentary on the state of race relations in the U. S. today.  

As it stands, however, it still is a worthy model for the kind of programming well suited to the mission of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center, the summertime younger sibling to the well-established Encores! series of productions of (usually) seldom-seen older Broadway shows that takes place during the winter and spring. In a similar vein, Encores! Off Center tackles Off Broadway shows.  

Now in its fourth season, Encores! Off Center has not yet fully found its footing. Some of its productions, for instance, have been little more than straight-up concerts, while others have been done (generally more successfully) in the style of the regular Encores! series, as semi-staged versions. This is how The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin has been developed, under Robert O'Hara's surprisingly tame direction (surprising, because as a playwright, Mr. O'Hara has shown himself to be quite at home with the raw and raucous with such works as Bootycandy).   

The show itself, which was last seen at Playwright's Horizons in 2000, is a semi-autobiographical tale of one young black woman's journey to self-discovery. It is divided into two acts. The first takes place in Los Angeles during the turbulent 1960s, where we meet up with young Viveca Stanton (aka "Bubbly"), portrayed by a delightful Nikki M. James whom you might remember from her Tony Award-winning role as the naive Nabulungi who longs to journey to the promised land of Salt Lake City in The Book of Mormon.  

When we first see Bubbly, she is a young child who has already developed a sense that being black puts her on a lower rung, possibly a dangerous one. Early on, she learns of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing in which four young black girls were killed. That story finds its way into her nightmares, and she wonders if she might be in jeopardy herself.  

And so she starts to identify with her seemingly more desirable white peers. She spends a lot of time engaged in serious conversations with her favorite white doll, Chitty Chatty ("I've decided I'm going to be white, just like you!"), and only plays with her black doll when she thinks her mother is looking. She has also absorbed her father's life lesson to "Smile, Smile" at the world and to always present an upbeat positive image of herself.  

It takes a long time, and an Act II move to New York City, for Bubbly to learn that presenting herself always in this way is neither honest nor healthy. It is not until the very end of the show that the people-pleasing "Bubbly" makes way for the realistically tougher and more self-assured "Viveca."  Before that occurs, however, we will have spent a lot of time with Bubbly as she experiences the pains and tribulations of elementary, middle, and high school, where she is frequently bullied and rejected by her peers as a misfit and turncoat "Oreo"; she only briefly finds respite in her beloved dance class and during the "colorblind" hippie era with her white boyfriend Cosmic Rainbow (a very funny Josh Davis, who later takes on the role of a not-so-funny policeman).   

For a New York audience, at least, Act II is the more sharply written, and the tone is amped up with some bite. Even the costumes - all pastels in the California sequences - have become New York black. When Bubbly arrives and greets the city with enthusiasm, it is with the certitude that she will make it as a professional dancer in short order. But her " 'Scuse me, pardon me, have a nice day" is met with a chorus of "Get the fuck out of the way!"  

Production photos by Joan Marcus

Undaunted, Bubbly continues to take dance classes, and she winds up auditioning for "Director Bob" (another role well-played by Mr. Davis and presumably modeled on Bob Fosse), who is casting for a Broadway show.  In a very funny and snappy sequence, Director Bob asks Bubbly to read some lines. She does, but he wants her to try again, and this time, "don't go white on me." Taken somewhat aback, Bubbly pulls off the only thing she can think of, an excessively exaggerated Southern black reading based on the stylings of the Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn. 

This is the kind of thing the show could use more of; it is original, funny, and disturbing all at the same time (especially since it effectively lands her the role she has been trying out for). There are lots of other opportunities throughout the show to build on this kind of dark humor: a potentially explosive encounter with the police, some ugly moments in dance class, the unpleasant experience of working in the secretarial pool at "Glass Ceiling Corporation." All of these moments fly by with little regard as to their significance.  I'd love to see this show in the hands of a director like Lileana Blain-Cruz, who brilliantly helmed Suzan-Lori Parks' The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead at the Signature Theatre last year.  

The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin is, of course, a musical, and Kirsten Childs has created a nice compilation of rhythm and blues, traditional show-tunes, gospel, and even jazz-infused numbers that keep things moving forward - although there are a couple of songs in Act II that, while excellent in and of themselves, are outliers that serve mostly to highlight the raise-the-roof performances by, respectively, Julius Thomas III as Bubbly's short-lived boyfriend, and by Kenita R. Miller, as his advice-giving grandmother.  

The cast as a whole is quite excellent, as is the onstage band under Anastasia Victory's fine musical direction. And even though the show lacks the kind of bite that would ratchet up its relevance, it is well worth seeing.  Unfortunately, this production is only scheduled for two performances (regular Encores! productions generally run for five, including three on the weekends). So, if you happen to read this before, say, 5 p.m., you will have but a couple of hours to catch the second and last show at 7:30. 


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