Thursday, April 12, 2018

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Julie Jordan?

Review: Carousel

Jessie Mueller and Joshua Henry as Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow in Carousel.

It is said that of all Richard Rodger's collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein, Carousel contained the composer's favorite score. The classic musical certainly has an abundance of soaring melodies, and it greatly develops the now ubiquitous concept of the extended musical scene, something that didn't really exist prior to the famed duo's groundbreaking work. And while the show certainly has artistic and historical merit, the extremely well done revival now on Broadway also fully unmasks the inherent problems in the script, the most glaring of which is the domestic violence issue embedded in the central romance.

*Note: If you aren't familiar with Carousel - I'd never seen it prior to this production - there are spoilers coming. There's no way to discuss the show in the context of 2018 without getting into them.*

There's no way around it: Carousel as written is inherently problematic. Carnival barker Billy Bigelow falls in love with and marries a young mill worker named Julie Jordan, who abandons her job just to get the chance to know Billy better (the mill Julie works at insists their workers maintain a "good girl" image which doesn't allow for late night talks with strange men). Then, in a scene we never see, Billy hits Julie; the town characterizes it as continual abuse, although Billy insists that it was just one time. But the frequency of the abuse doesn't really matter, because either way Julie insists there's nothing wrong with it despite the protestations of literally everyone she knows.

Note Julie never *denies* being hit. She claims people don't know Billy like she does, and that she understands why he hit her. But Julie - and by extension, Rodgers and Hammerstein - never verbalizes those reasons to the other characters or to the audience. In fact, her second act solo "What's the Use of Wond'rin," the song specifically designed to address this concern, essentially boils down to Julie saying she loves him, so what else can she do but accept the situation? And late in the show, when a now dead Billy is asked by a heavenly character called The Starkeeper if he regrets hitting Julie, Billy defiantly responds, "I regret nothing."

Now, obviously Carousel was written during a different time that had different attitudes about what was and wasn't acceptable behavior in a marriage. So while it is disappointing that the fairly progressive Rodgers and Hammerstein - who wrote the anti-racism creed "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" for South Pacific and centered The King & I around a strong, capable female protagonist - created such a problematic portrayal of the abused-but-we-don't-know-how-much Julie, it isn't entirely surprising.

What is surprising is that Tony-winner Jessie Mueller, who can pack a wealth of conflicting emotions into the space between her lines, isn't able to find some way to give more insight or depth to Julie and help us better understand her actions. Given that her last Broadway outing Waitress focused on a character in a similar situation, but with much more complexity and agency, it is downright baffling that Mueller chose this as her immediate follow-up.

Perhaps this disconnect explains why Mueller, normally a firebrand who you cannot take your eyes off of, feels oddly subdued throughout. She sings the role beautifully - is there nothing her mercurial voice cannot do? - and acts it as well as anyone can be expected to, which leaves no choice but to conclude the problem is with the material and not the performer. Put bluntly, Julie just isn't a very compelling character, especially contrasted with the other women in the show.

Julie's best friend Carrie Pipperidge manages to do what society expects of her in a way that makes it clear she's making a choice and not just resigned to whatever comes her way, and she is the first to express concern about Julie's home life. Lindsey Mendez is a delight in the role, beautifully adapting her vocal pyrotechnics to the more legit stylings of Carousel's score and landing the evening's biggest laughs. And opera superstar Renee Fleming is a revelation as the matronly Nettie Fowler; her rendition of the show's big anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone" is a masterclass in dramatic song interpretation, musically impeccable while still feeling spontaneous and unforced.

And despite the problems with his character, it's undeniable that two-time Tony-nominee Joshua Henry has never been better than as carnival barker Billy Bigelow. His natural charisma makes it easy to see why Julie or anyone else would be drawn to him, and his performance makes it clear that his gruff exterior is masking a deep seated inner pain and self loathing. He also sings like a dream, making a famously taxing role seem easy and imbuing every song with a freshness that makes the show's well worn ballads sound new. His "Soliloquy," the seven minute monologue in song that ends the first act, is positively thrilling, his rendition easily among the best there's ever been. Henry's performance is the stuff Tony wins are made of, and a strong argument for the merits of color conscious casting. (The production never overtly references Henry's race, but it subtly informs his interactions.)

Director Jack O'Brien's thoughtful staging and direction is exactly what you hope for when one of these Golden Age musicals is revived. The show feels fresh and alive, almost like new, honoring the material without ever holding it so sacred that it feels like a museum piece. O'Brien wisely avoids any impulse to dress the material up with modern bells and whistles, letting the actors and musicians carry the day. The producers have also wisely employed NY City Ballet choreographer-in-residence Justin Peck to handle the musical's abundant dance numbers, including the patented Rodgers and Hammerstein dream ballet in the second act. Peck's choreography has a complexity and artistic maturity rarely seen on the Broadway stage, and is danced to perfection by the nimble men and women of the ensemble (who also sound fantastic during the group choral numbers).

From a physical standpoint, this Carousel is often breathtaking thanks to the lavish yet unfussy design work. Ann Roth's costumes have an attention to detail and carefully considered color palette that make them look like a million bucks, even though they are largely everyday casual wear. Santo Loquasto's stunning set wonderfully evokes a sleepy seaside town, with his stellar backdrops and multilayered sets giving the production an astonishing amount of visual depth. His take on the titular carousel is particularly striking, an image that will stay with you long after the final curtain falls. Both sets and costumes are gorgeously lit by Brian MacDevitt, whose sophisticated work greatly helps in the evocation of the story's many different moods.

All of the talent and care that has gone into this Carousel makes the show's dubious worldview that much more upsetting. These are clearly smart artists who are doing their absolute best to do justice to this show, but they have not been able to solve the central conundrum of getting us to understand and empathize with such a problematic relationship. The lead female role is basically a doormat, accepting and excusing any negative behavior that comes her way in the name of love, and putting that kind of message into the world in 2018 seems questionable at best. Rather than "fixing" Carousel for future generations, this production may have killed it once and for all by exposing it as inexorably linked to a bygone and now unacceptable social attitude. If O'Brien and company aren't able to satisfactorily address Carousel's problems, then who can?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Here He Is Boys, Here He Is World

Hello hello hello! As you may have noticed, I've been on a bit of a hiatus lately. This was not a conscious choice, something that just happened as life got busier (I'm engaged now!). Also, if I'm being 100% honest, the current Broadway season hasn't been particularly inspiring to me. It's not that the shows have been bad - some were lovely - but for whatever reason I haven't felt compelled to write about them.

Anyway, for the time being at least, I'm back. I don't promise new posts with anything resembling regularity, and it's highly possible that I fall behind again. But a couple of people have expressed interest in hearing my thoughts on the current Broadway season, which is both encouraging and humbling, and if interest continues then I will do my best to keep things somewhat current.

Since I haven't been posting about this current season, I am obviously behind when it comes to reviews. There's no way I'll have the time to go back and write reviews for productions I saw months ago, so below I've compiled my brief thoughts about the Broadway shows I've seen since my last blog post.

The Play That Goes Wrong

This hysterically funny farce by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields has understandably been compared to the pinnacle of the genre, Noises Off. And while it isn't quite as airtight as that masterwork, this tale of the Cornley University Drama Society trying and failing to perform a murder mystery is comedy gold. Anything that can go wrong does, including missed cues, actor injuries, and a set that is literally falling apart at the seams (for which designer Nigel Hook rightly took home a 2017 Tony Award). I saw the show's now departed original cast, who all nailed the specific mix of desperation and naivety which would allow a group of amateur actors to keep going in the face of missed cues, concussions, and multiple mid-show cast replacements. And I have rarely seen slapstick executed with such effortless precision, recalling the screwball comedy of a Three Stooges short. I'm sure the current cast is just as delightful, and I'd highly recommend The Play That Goes Wrong for anyone in search of a laugh.

Once On This Island

Full confession: Once On This Island was the first show I ever performed in, and I would not have my love of theatre if not for that experience, so I am partial to this show. Thankfully director Michael Arden's stellar revival of Ahrens and Flaherty's very first Broadway show does not disappoint. It thrillingly embraces everything that makes live theatre magical, retelling a gorgeously realized island fairy tale told through found objects and consistently excellent staging. (Arden is given a major assist by set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.) The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Hailey Kilgore in her Broadway debut as leading lady Ti Moune, and Alex Newell's roof-raising performance as Asaka the culminates in a showstopping rendition of "Mama Will Provide." And a special shout out to the entire creative team for their willingness to think outside the box when it comes to casting the show's four gods, breaking racial and gender norms to find truly the best collection of actors for those roles. The best thing I've seen so far this season.

The Band's Visit

The highbrow hit of the fall, I have to admit The Band's Visit left me cold. It is a slice of life drama following an Egyptian band who winds up stranded in a small Israeli town for one evening due to a scheduling error, and despite knowing it would be more of a character study going in I just couldn't bring myself to care. The performances are all fine, including Katrina Lenk's much heralded performance as the female lead (although I would rate her as solidly "good" rather than "great"). And at 90 intermissionless minutes, it certainly doesn't have the bloat of some Broadway shows. But beyond David Yazbeck's beautifully ethereal score, I think people are mistaking novelty for quality with this one. It's really more of a play with music than a musical, and not a particularly groundbreaking play at that.

SpongeBob Squarepants

The surprise of the season. Despite its very corporate origins, SpongeBob Squarepants is one of the more inventive, whimsical, and just plain fun shows to arrive on Broadway in the past few years. As someone with only a peripheral knowledge of the TV show, I was still thoroughly amused by the denizens of Bikini Bottom and their zany antics. Book writer Kyle Jarrow capitalizes on the cartoon's particular charms, which are built around just going along with whatever surreal flight of fancy the creators throw at you, like a megalomaniac plankton married to a literal computer, or a Texan squirrel who lives underwater. David Zinn's costume and scenic design references the cartoon without literally recreating it, using found objects and simple stylistic choices to create the show's world. And director Tina Landua has coached her first rate cast to delightfully realized, lived in performances that honor their cartoon counterparts without feeling like slavish impersonations. Ethan Slater is perfectly cast as the titular sea sponge, and there are especially delightful scene stealing turns from Gavin Lee as a tap-dancing Squidward J. Tentacles and Wesley Taylor as the diabolical Sheldon Plankton. Mark my words, this will be a "surprise" Best Musical nominee come Tony time.


Anna, Elsa, and the denizens of Arendelle have arrived on Broadway in Disney's big budget stage adaptation of their record setting animated smash hit. And while money clearly prompted the show's creation, I'm happy to report it's a fairly solid adaptation. The stage version adds plenty of new material without the disjointed feeling that sometimes plagues Disney musicals, probably due to Broadway's Frozen having the exact same creative team as the movie. The costumes and sets by Christopher Oram are gorgeous, with all of it beautifully lit by Natasha Katz. The performances are uniformly solid, with particularly standout work from Patti Murin as Anna; she manages to be at turns quirky, endearing, earnest, and even genuinely moving, all while singing like a dream and displaying excellent chemistry with her various costars. Cassie Levy nails all of Elsa's big numbers (she's gotten several more Wicked-esque solos), although she doesn't pop as much as Murin due to spending a good chunk of the show alone in her ice palace with no one to talk to. I will say Michael Grandage's staging is not particularly inspired, and the show could stand a few more "wow" moments when it comes to the special effects, which sometimes cross the line from "simple" into "cheap looking." But there are far worse ways to spend a night in the theatre, and the core audience of young girls will eat it up.

Mean Girls (DC Tryout)

I have not seen the Broadway production of Mean Girls, but I *did* make my way down to Washington DC for the show's out of town tryout last fall and found it to be sooo fetch. Tina Fey has adapted her now-classic teen comedy for the stage in a way that honors everything you love about the endlessly quotable film while also adding enough new material and modern updates to keep things fresh (the Plastics have cell phones and social media now). Fey's book is laugh out loud funny, both the lines you know  by heart and the abundance of new jokes and references. The high energy cast is a uniform treat, particularly Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park, and Kate Rockwell as the titular mean girls Regina, Gretchen, and Karen (Rockwell deserves a Tony nod for her particularly riotous work). Casey Nicholaw has staged the show with his usual sleek production value, and if the songs by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin aren't the most memorable they definitely keep things moving. My biggest criticism out of town was that the show sometimes felt a bit manic, but I had a similar reaction upon first seeing Legally Blonde, a show I now find quite delightful. My current pick for Best Musical of the year.

If you have more specific questions about any of the above, let me know in the comments! And please share this blog with friends or family you think would enjoy it!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Casting Controversy of 2017

Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan as Pierre in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

What a mess. That's about the only way to describe the brouhaha that has arisen over what initially seemed like a fairly innocuous piece of replacement casting for the Tony-nominated production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. For those who may have missed it, on Wednesday the producers of Dave Malloy's musical fantasia announced that Mandy Patinkin would step into the role of Pierre for a limited 3 week engagement starting August 15th. It was quite a get for the production, as the beloved Tony-winner hasn't been seen on Broadway since his concert evening with Patti LuPone in 2011, and hasn't tackled a role in a musical since originating Burrs in Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party all the way back in 2000.

But shortly thereafter, a vocal segment of Twitter cried foul, as Patinkin's surprise Broadway return meant that the production's current Pierre, Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan, would be cutting his run in the role short barely a month after taking over for original leading man Josh Groban. Many questioned if there was a racial motivation behind asking a black actor to step aside for a white performer, and Onaodowan for his part made it clear that he was turning down the producers' invitation to return to the show after Patinkin finished his run. Although nothing was explicitly said, one gets the impression there's some bad blood between Onaodowan and the producers over the way this was handled, and that Onaodowan's departure wasn't the mutual agreement it was made out to be in the initial press release. The famously principled Patinkin subsequently withdrew from the production on Friday, stating that he would never knowingly take a job that would harm another actor.

Now, a couple of clarifications. I don't think Onaodowan is out of line to be a bit perturbed by the way this was handled, and I admire Patinkin's integrity in withdrawing from the show as a public rebuke to the producers. But the cries of this casting being in any way racially motivated strike me as bullshit, and I think those arguing otherwise are doing a huge disservice to the important and necessary conversation around diversity in the theatre. 

Let's not forget that the producers of The Great Comet have gone out of their way to cast ethnically diverse actors from day one (they've even won awards for it). The lead role of Natasha has been very pointedly *not* white from the start, being originated by Chinese-American actress Phillipa Soo Off-Broadway before the beautifully dark-skinned Denee Benton took over for the show's Broadway transfer. The producers also had no problem casting Amber Grey to play the sister of the very Aryan Lucas Steele, and the ensemble is full wonderfully diverse performers that many casting directors would argue have no business being in a show set in 17th century Russia. These are all conscious choices that show the producers obviously care about representation; it makes no sense for them to suddenly decide ethnic performers can't lead their show.

What happened here is simply a case of needing a name to drive ticket sales. As composer Dave Malloy admitted on Twitter Friday, the show's advance sales have taken a nosedive since multiplatinum recording star Groban departed the show earlier this month. Well known singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson was brought in to play the key supporting role of Sonya the day after Groban left to help boost ticket sales, a move that seems to have worked in the short term. (It should be noted that Michaelson's casting resulting in another performer taking a leave of absence from the show and no one batted an eyelash.) Patinkin's scheduled start date the day after Michaelson's departure was an obvious attempt to keep the show running with ticket sales high.

It is a classic example of the problem with star casting, as shows built around a particular performer have difficulty sustaining interest once said performer leaves. (For an extreme example, the smash hit revival of Hello, Dolly! lost over $1 million in ticket sales when Bette Midler went on vacation earlier this month.) Great Comet was sold from day one as a Josh Groban vehicle, perhaps understandably so. Can anyone imagine the oddball, immersive show securing a prime theatre like the Imperial and running for months at near capacity without a big name to put butts in seats? The producers' gamble clearly worked. 

What they realized too late was that they had no idea how to sell the daring, somewhat divisive show without a star who has a huge, devoted fanbase willing to spend big bucks to see him or her. Patinkin's wide exposure thanks to roles on high profile television shows like Homeland and Criminal Minds - not to mention a beloved supporting turn in the movie The Princess Bride - gives him significantly box office draw than a talented but little known performer like Onaodowan. (Yes, Onaodowan was in Hamilton, but he didn't star in Hamilton, and the Pultizer Prize-winning musical's continued sold out status proves that for that production the show is the draw more than any individual actor.) A white actor with a similar resume would have found himself in the exact same position of being "asked" to step aside the moment Patinkin's schedule opened up.

And that is the reason why this mess still feels icky, despite the lack of racial motivation. Onaodowan was only scheduled to be with the show for 2 months to begin with, and he was unceremoniously dumped the second a bigger star came along. Further, the producers clearly fudged the truth when presenting the idea to Patinkin, making it appear as if Onaodowan had agreed to take a leave of absence rather than being forced out. What they didn't count on was the true story making its way to Patinkin, and the Tony winner changing his mind when he found out his new gig was forcibly taking a job from another actor who had already been promised a set number of performances.

So feel free to condemn the producers of Great Comet for this situation, but leave the accusations of racism out of it. It is dangerous to raise the specter of racism in a case where that clearly wasn't the intent. Crying wolf on a matter as important as the treatment of black performers will make it that much more difficult to get people to pay attention when true injustices occur. It will be easier to discount complaints about mistreatment as fabrications, and it could well discourage other productions from going after diverse casts if they feel it is a "no win" situation. We need to encourage and educate our allies, not dismiss them after one unintentional misstep. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Period Costumes, Contemporary Issues, and Timeless Theatricality

Review: A Doll's House, Part 2

Jayne Houdyshell and Laurie Metcalf in A Doll's House, Part 2.

Do not let the somewhat intimidating title fool you. While A Doll's House, Part 2 is technically a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's groundbreaking 1879 drama, this razor sharp new play requires next to no knowledge of its predecessor. Nor is the play some stuffy period drama; this is a wholly contemporary work which combines both comedy and pathos in its blistering examination of the institution of marriage and a woman's place in a patriarchal society. They are the same themes Ibsen tackled in his original work over 100 years ago, and Broadway newcomer Lucas Hnath proves that there's still so much to say about them.

The setup is brilliantly simple. Nora Helmer returns home 15 years after she walked out on her husband Torvald, their kids, and their marriage at the end of A Doll's House, scandalizing much of 19th century society. But Torvald never actually filed for divorce after Nora left, and without his help ending their marriage she risks losing everything she's built for herself since. (The irony that the strong-willed and independently minded Nora needs a man's help to get what she wants doesn't escape anyone.)

Hnath's perfectly structured one act is divided into five scenes, sharply delineated by harsh lighting cues and yet seamlessly flowing into one another. In addition to Nora's point of view, we get major insight into how her leaving has affected Torvald, their daughter Emmy, and their housekeeper Anne Marie (who ended up raising the children in Nora's absence). A hyper-literate polemic, A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to expertly articulate each character's point of view so you find it difficult to disagree with any of them, even though they rarely agree on anything. It is also striking just how much the issues initially raised by Ibsen are still shockingly relevant today, particularly when it comes to the options that are and are not afforded to women.

What makes the play rise above mere intellectual discussion and become truly compelling drama are the carefully nuanced performances of the four person ensemble. Leading the charge is Laurie Metcalf in an absolutely sensational (now Tony-winning) performance as Nora, the fiercely independent woman at the center of everything. Matcalf's Nora barrels through the play like a bull in a china shop, a lifetime of frustration radiating off her in righteous anger. Her exasperation is palpable, as is her intelligence and determination.

Metcalf makes it abundantly clear that Nora was born in the wrong time, a strong and independent woman in a world that has little use for her. And while Nora makes no apologies for her decision to leave her family, Matcalf beautifully communicates just how much the decision cost her, especially during a heartbreaking monologue in which she describes what it's been like to be cut off from her children. The role allows Metcalf to showcase her full range as an actress, from the comedy chops that won her 3 consecutive Emmys on TV's Roseanne to the deeply felt emotion which has made her a favorite of the New York theatre scene.

Equally exciting work is provided by Metcalf's costars, Jayne Houdyshell and Condola Rashad. Houdyshell initially seems like comic relief as the somewhat bumbling, soft-spoken maid Anne Marie, but as the play progresses you discover she has been as shaken by Nora's decision as anyone. Anne Marie's geniality hides a deep seated resentment for the scandal Nora caused, and Houdyshell plays both sides of her character to the hilt. Rashad is thrilling as Nora's now grown daughter Emmy, who was so small when her mother left she barely remembers her. Her opinions on Nora's actions are perhaps the most surprising, and Rashad's shimmering intelligence and carefully measured line delivery make her consistently fascinating to watch.

If there is one weak link in the cast, it is Chris Cooper's understated portrayal of Torvald. The Oscar winner isn't so much bad as he is underwhelming, delivering a characterization that is clearly calibrated for film while the rest of the cast is giving overtly theatrical performances. One wishes director Sam Gold had been able to bring Cooper up to the level of his costars, but otherwise the evening is flawlessly directed. Gold's subdued staging, combined with the low key but well executed costumes and lights, allows the focus to remain where it should, on the excellent writing and acting.

A Doll's House, Part 2 manages to accomplish just about everything you could want during its lean, brutally effective 90 minute runtime. An intelligent drama that tackles big ideas, Hnath's script allows ample opportunity for both comedy and drama, which the gifted ensemble seizes upon and fully exploits. Who would have imagined that a play which on paper sounds like an overly pretentious writing exercise would turn out to be one of the freshest, most engaging new works of the year? Those with even the slightest interest should make it a point to see A Doll's House, Part 2; you are guaranteed to leave the Helmer household much more satisfied than Nora ever was.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Lush Historical Fairy Tale

Review: Anastasia

Derek Klena as Dimitri and Christy Altomare as Anya in Anastasia.

As someone who has never seen the 1997 animated feature film Anastasia, I bring no preexisting expectations to the musical version currently playing the Broadhurst Theatre. Which is perhaps for the best, as the songwriting team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have been very upfront about the massive amount of changes their work has undergone in the transition from screen to stage. Entire characters have been jettisoned (no villainous Rasputin and his anthropomorphic bat sidekick), many of the songs have been reordered and/or recontextualized, and the tone of the piece has been shifted towards something more complex than the typically black and white morality tale of a Disney-esque animated film.

Whether this "maturing" of the story amounts to actual and improvement is open for interpretation. There is no denying the Flaherty and Ahrens' score (which includes the Oscar-nominated "Journey to the Past," here relocated to the end of the first act) is a work of beauty, a grand collection of both old and new songs that have a sweeping melodic artistry. This beauty is occasionally betrayed by the relatively modest ensemble size, which doesn't always have the vocal heft the music seems to call for. This is no fault of the very talented performers, just a result of the economic reality that paying for dozens of chorus members is a luxury most shows cannot afford. 

And while Terrance McNally's book does a fine job of weaving the various songs together, the more adult tone invites a more critical look at the narrative than it can quite sustain. In telling the story of the lost heir to the last Russian czar, Anastasia attempts to milk a lot of drama from the question of whether the amnesiac Anya is actually the presumed dead title character. But a show called Anastasia with no Anastasia wouldn't make much sense, and the repeated flashbacks Anya has of her slain relatives leave little doubt she is in fact the missing Grand Duchess. (This narrative issue is successful solved in the second act, when the question becomes not "Is Anya Anastasia?" but "Will her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, recognize her?") It also feels odd that a show which puts so much effort into at least the semblance of historical accuracy leaves the issue of why the Russians killed Anastasia's family almost wholly unexplored.

Thankfully, the gorgeous physical production and fine collection of performances makes it easier to look past these logical issues. Alexander Dodge's physical set is perhaps a tad shallow, but it is brought to vivid life by Aaron Rhyne's stunning projections. Rhyne's work adds depth and detail to the show's many physical locations, finding stage equivalents to cinematic techniques like pans and dissolves which look like nothing else on Broadway. And Linda Cho's stunningly ornate costumes are showstoppers in and of themselves, glittering ensembles of saturated color that grant the entire affair an air of wonderfully grandiose fantasy. 

In the title role, Christy Altomare is excellent as a thoroughly modern Broadway heroine. Her utter commitment to the role brings a level of authenticity and dramatic stakes to the character that frankly isn't there in the writing, and even though it's obvious she's the missing Grand Duchess, Altomare's palpable doubt almost makes you question that assumption. And while her voice is quite lovely, the true secret to her success with Anya's many songs is her ability to convey every nuance contained within Ahrens' words and Flaherty's music. 

As Dimitri, a street hustler initially wanting to pass Anya off as Anastasia for the reward money, Derek Klena has a dashingly chiseled visage that looks as if it jumped out of an animated storybook. Dimitri begins the show as a bit of a jerk, but Klena slowly wins you over as his character becomes less interested in money and more invested in helping Anya realize her destiny. Klena also possesses a soaring tenor the score doesn't utilize right way, but really springs to the fore by the time of his rousing solo "My Petersburg" in the middle of the first act. And John Bolton is a delightfully endearing clown as Dimitri's partner in crime Vlad, whose past connections with the Russian royal family are key to helping our leads meet their goals.

As the Dowager Empress, Mary Beth Peil initially seems underused, with a brief appearance in the show's prologue her only stage time in Act I. But once the action moves to Paris, and convincing the Dowager Empress that Anya is her long lost granddaughter becomes the main plot, Peil comes alive, packing an enormous amount of emotional variety into her scenes (which happen to feature some of McNally's best writing). Watching the range of emotions that wash over Peil's face in the climatic scene, from bitter rage to stubborn disbelief to overwhelming joy, is one of the highlights of the evening.

There's a lot to like about Anastasia, especially if one can get past the fact that this stage adaptation uses the animated film as more of a jumping off point than an actual blueprint. The writing ranges from good to excellent, even if the direction by Tony winner Darko Tresnjak allows the show to drag more than it needs to. The upside of this sometimes slower pace is you have ample time to appreciate the opulence of the physical production, the lush melodies, and the winsome performances of the cast. It's refreshing to see a family show that is willing to trust in its audience's appreciation of stagecraft rather than beat them over the head with spectacle, even if a tad more flash would be appreciated.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

2017 Tony Awards Final Thoughts

Tony host Kevin Spacey in Sunday night's opening number.

And that's a wrap! With Sunday night's Tony telecast, the curtain has officially fallen on the 2016-2017 Broadway season, bringing with it a freshly minted crop of Tony winners. And while I have plenty of thoughts on the ceremony as a whole, let's start by looking at how well I did during my annual predictions. Here are this year's actual winners, with the asterisk denoting races I correctly predicted:

Best Musical: Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Play: Oslo*
Best Revival of a Musical: Hello, Dolly!*
Best Revival of a Play: Jitney*
Best Actress in a Musical: Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly!*
Best Actress in a Play: Laurie Metcalf, A Doll’s House, Part 2
Best Actor in a Musical: Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Actor in a Play: Kevin Kline, Present Laughter*
Best Featured Actress in a Musical: Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen*
Best Featured Actress in a Play: Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes
Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!*
Best Featured Actor in a Play: Michael Aronov, Oslo
Best Direction of a Musical: Christopher Ashley, Come From Away
Best Direction of a Play: Rebecca Taichman, Indecent
Best Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand
Best Book of a Musical: Steven Levenson, Dear Evan Hansen
Best Score: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Dear Evan Hansen*

For those who aren't great at math, that's 10 out of 17 correct, or a fairly unimpressive 59% success rate. The creative categories are where I struggled the most, as they were the source of the night's biggest surprises. I don't think anyone, including Christopher Ashley and Rebecca Taichman, expected their wins in the direction categories, which made for two of the most entertaining speeches of the night thanks to their genuine shock and happiness.

By contrast, the acting races all went down pretty much as expected, and as a result we didn't see anyone truly lose it the way some of the most memorable Tony winners do (no Nikki M. James style "butterfly" moments here). Don't get me wrong, I liked all of the speeches, and I truly don't have a problem with any of the winners; no one was robbed of their Tony this year, although there are a couple of races I was hoping might go a different way. (We love you, Stephanie J. Block, and you will get your Tony someday!)

The most memorable speech of the night was hands down Bette Midler's. In what may be a Tony record, Midler spoke for nearly 5 minutes as she thanked everyone from her cast, producers, and designers on down to her teachers. The orchestra eventually gave up trying to play her off and just let her speak, and while some people might have a problem with Midler taking so much more than her allotted time it's clear the audience was eating it up. It also helps that Midler was genuinely thrilled to win, and had nothing but effusive praise for her cast and crew. Thanks to a ridiculous behind the scenes feud between Hello, Dolly's lead producer and the Tony telecast, we did not get to see any of Midler's already legendary performance as Dolly Levi, so I'm fine with giving the star as much stage time as possible.

Speaking of the performances, I have to say the individual show producers by and large bungled their song selections. Almost all were poor representations of the show that were incredibly difficult to process out of contest, and I don't think the majority of shows were shown to their full advantage. Miss Saigon made the incredibly off-putting decision to open with an onstage murder and crying mother, although thankfully Tony nominee Eva Noblezada's incredible voice and performance salvaged things (they should have just started with her singing). Groundhog Day picked the sappiest song in its repertoire, and the Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 was just plain chaotic.

And God bless David Hyde Pierce, but nobody was interested in seeing a cut song from Hello, Dolly! when that score is literally brimming with standards. It's not Pierce's fault that producer Scott Rudin decreed Bette Midler wouldn't perform unless they could do the performance from the Shubert Theatre, and he did an admirable job with a number that in the context of the show is actually quite charming. But there are three *obvious* choices in that score for Tony performances ("Put On Your Sunday Clothes," "Before the Parade Passes By," and the title song, which would have been my preference), and Rudin should have sucked it up, paid for the duplicate set, and given the people what they wanted, which was Midler front and center.

As host, I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Spacey's easygoing vibe, which provided a nice contrast from James Corden's overly labored hosting gig last year (I know I'm in the minority, but I thought the late night host and Tony winner was trying way too hard). I think the opening number was a bit too "inside baseball" for the telecast, as you can only really appreciate it by having seen all of the parodied shows, which the majority of people watching have not. But Spacey sold it, and his repeated impersonations of other celebrities throughout the telecast were some of the evening's highlights. They also reminded anyone who may have forgotten that Spacey is an actor's actor, and he will hopefully be back on Broadway sooner rather than later. Finally, Spacey's repeated references to the fact that he was nobody's first choice for this gig were genius, as making fun of himself allowed him to make fun of others without seeming mean spirited ("Let's go before Bette Midler thanks anyone else").

Overall, I thought this year's Tonys were fine, although disappointing considering the strength of this Broadway season. The one area the Tonys usually excel at, the musical numbers, was marred by poor song choices that didn't do a good job of introducing the shows to people who didn't already know them. And oddly enough, the announcement of winners this year was somehow less interesting than last year even though last year we all knew Hamilton would dominate. But the most important aspect of the Tonys is celebrating the year's best and brightest, and this year I thought voters did an excellent job of rewarding those who truly deserved it.

Friday, June 9, 2017

2017 Tony Award Predictions: Best Play and Musical

The 2017 Tony Awards are this Sunday, and so we end my annual Tony predictions by tackling the two most important and prestigious races of the night, Best Play and Best Musical. A win in either of these categories has the most demonstrable and immediate effect on a show's box office, and virtually guarantees a nice, multi-year run on Broadway (especially for musicals). Which also increases the show's chances of turning a profit, going on tour, and being produced regionally, all of which allow the talented writers behind these shows to continue doing what they do best: make theatre.

As always, I will use a combination of personal opinion, critical consensus, and industry buzz to determine the most *likely* winner. This is not necessarily the most deserving winner, and should I disagree with the way Tony voters are leaning I will be certain to point it out in my analysis. Now let's get started!

Best Play

The Broadway cast of Oslo at Lincoln Center.

Nominees: A Doll's House, Part 2; Indecent; Oslo; Sweat

The Best Play Tony is a tricky one, as it functions as both a writing award and an acknowledgement of the production as a whole. Which raises the question of what Tony voters should be considering when casting their ballot; is the quality of the script the most important factor, or do they allow exceedingly well executed staging and performances lift a script that maybe isn't as strong into the top position?

This year sees two Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights make their Broadway debuts after decades of writing for the theatre. Both Lynn Nottage's Sweat and Paula Vogel's Indecent have been universally praised, with Sweat having the added benefit of winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (making Nottage the only woman to ever win the award multiple times). But the Pulitzer doesn't guarantee a Tony win, as shown by the Broadway production of Disgraced losing to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in 2015. I don't expect either show to win, but Sweat could possibly score an upset.

Considering Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 is the most nominated play of the season, it seems likely that the Ibsen inspired work will ultimately be crowned the winner. But J.T. Roger's historical thriller Oslo just scored the Drama Desk Award for Best Play, while Doll's House wasn't even nominated. Given Oslo's strong performance in the guild awards, I will hesitantly select it as my official pick to win, but I won't be surprised to see a different name called Sunday night.

Will Win: Oslo

Best Musical

Tony nominee Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen.

At the risk of sounding snarky, I cannot understand how Groundhog Day found itself included in this year's Best Musical race. This season saw 13 new musicals open on Broadway, and while I have not seen them all I can definitively say that Groundhog Day wouldn't place in my Top 4 (I vastly preferred the underrepresented War Paint). Perhaps Tony voters took West End critics at their word, since the London production was recently awarded the Olivier for Best Musical despite the show's many structural issues and overall lack of focus. On the bright side, I don't know anyone who expects Groundhog Day to win big on Tony night.

Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 has the most nominations of any show this season with 12, but despite strong work in so many areas the show doesn't quite gel the way it did Off-Broadway. Something was lost in the transfer from an intimate Off-Broadway venue to the cavernous Imperial Theatre, and while many Tony voters appreciate Great Comet's bold invention and pushing of theatrical boundaries, I don't foresee it winning Best Musical on Sunday. I applaud the producers for taking the chance to bring such a risky show to a wider audience, and I'm genuinely glad for all of it's success, even if it wasn't my favorite show of the season.

The question of whether Dear Evan Hansen or Come From Away is more deserving of the Best Musical trophy is difficult. Evan Hansen is a fascinating examination of how social media has complicated the primal human need for connection and belonging, at once timely and timeless as many of the emotional stakes stem from issues that existed long before Facebook and Twitter. It has also obviously struck a chord with audiences, as evidenced by its extremely vocal fan base. But the less showy Come From Away is an equally accomplished work, an inspirational example of the boundless possibilities of human kindness in the wake of extreme tragedy. Come From Away has been honed to perfection, to the point where I'm not sure I would change a single word of the book or lyrics.

Both shows are deserving, and I would honestly support either one as this year's Best Musical winner. Ultimately, I suspect Tony voters will go with Dear Evan Hansen, which is what I would vote for if forced to choose. Both the writing and the performances stay with you long after the show ends, and despite seeing Evan Hansen back in January I find myself thinking back on that show more often than Come From Away. The mark of truly great theatre is that it affects you, however incidentally, and stays with you long after the final curtain, and while both Evan Hansen and Come From Away fulfill these requirements, Evan Hansen does so a bit more.

Will and Should Win: Dear Evan Hansen

And that brings us to the end of our 2017 Tony Award predictions! We'll know the victors by the end of Sunday night, and be sure to check back early next week for my final thoughts on this year's winners and the Tony telecast in general. In the meantime, share your thoughts in the comments and catch up on the rest of my coverage below.