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.