Photo by Don Kellogg

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Bright Star

It's always a bright day on Broadway when brave souls pen a new musical.  These brave souls are famous in their own right - none other than Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.    This would seem to be a match made in heaven.  Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell both lay claim to the music and the story - while Mr. Martin penned the actual book, Ms. Brickell penned the lyrics.  It all makes sense so far.  What, perhaps, this duo lacks is experience in writing for a Broadway stage.

The music has Ms. Brickell's stamp all over it. No doubt she influenced the overall sound and tones.  The music was fantastically written and there were the requisite show tune type songs and love songs/ballads spread throughout the entire show.  While there were way too many banjos for my taste on the Broadway stage, (it's not a country music festival after all), the overall theme supported them.

Whether this was director Walter Bobbie's idea or simply embedded in the core book by the creators, the idea of placing the orchestra (more a band) on stage in a floating house-like structure that spun around and traversed back and forth across the stage was a brilliant tie-in to the plot and served the actors well allowing them to treat it like a house with doors at times. This major centerpiece aside, sets (Eugene Lee) seemed to get a low budget allocation which was disappointing.  I hope that building a model train and track at the top of the proscenium didn't take too much of the funds.  Cute idea for a toy store, but not for a Broadway show that only ran the train 3 times by my count.

The leads of this show - all 4 of them - Carmen Cusack (Alice), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jimmy) and A.J. Shively (Billy),  Hannah Elless (Margo) were strong, talented each in their own way, and tremendously entertaining.  Michael Mulheren (Mayor) turned in yet another remarkable performance as a strong yet tragic figure with a booming voice. And lastly, I suspect Mr. Martin had a strong hand in character Daryl Ames played to perfection by Jeff Blumenkrantz who just about stole the show!

Despite the solid casting, this show is one that has two branches that collide further down the line.  Act I is incredibly important to set this up and Mr. Martin and Ms. Brickell need to do something to better establish both story lines.  I was caught off-guard trying to figure out where the second story line came from.  After some mental calisthenics, I sorted out what I thought was going on - and as soon as I did, I figured out where it was ultimately all going to end up.  Trouble is, I think I missed a chuck of the exposition in Act I trying to figure this confusing point out.

Act II was significantly better than Act I - higher energy, musically, and story-wise.  What started out as a confusing story with two branches became crystal clear and the proverbial (and literal) train began to barrel down the tracks.  Bringing the band out of the floating house for the entre-act was a brilliant and well received move - as the music is certainly one of the bright stars of Bright Star.

Overall, the confusion generated in Act I couldn't be forgotten, but Bright Star is a solid, heartwarming story that has to be told in about 2 hours.  I'm sure the musical has been ripped apart from head to toe since it's birth, but a bit more work is needed to turn this into a Broadway hit.  Make no mistake, the cast and crew were absolutely ready for their first Broadway performance and none of the criticism here is reflective of their top notch performances. The names of the creatives will propel an audience to buy tickets and perhaps enjoy.  Ironing out the confusion will spur the Tony nominators into action turning this show into a big hit.

Thursday, February 18, 2016


Playwright, Danai Gurira, can have it any way she likes, but she will get some friendly advice here.  She's penned a terrific story, Familiar, about the emotional struggles of an African family who moved to America.  How far does assimilation go?  Does it include religion? What about traditions?  And by the tenor of the dialogue one suspects that much of the assimilation may just be superficial to some - a pathway to a better life but the strong ties to tribalism and roots may never go away - especially for those left behind who may simply scoff at the Western way of life.

The story revolves around a typical family (read dysfunctional):  A baby sister (Ito Aghayere) who is idealistic, nomadic, lost, and stumbling through an artistic life (read as - in America you need to work, sister); an older stronger sister (Roslyn Ruff) who has placed Jesus and her skinny liberal white fiancee (Joby Earle) at the center of her world; a pro-western mom (Tamara Tunie); and her quiet, hen-pecked husband (Harold Surratt).  Enter stage right, an older sister (Myra Lucretia Taylor) here from Zimbabwe for the wedding to preside over an African marriage tradition and you have a powder-keg on your hands.

Ms Tunie plays her role with impeccable skill, demeanor, and poise.  Ms. Taylor is a powerful foil to the entire family.  Mr. Joby and his brother (Joe Tippett) play a polar opposite brother-bother team that lays bare stereotypical American archetypes. Quite frankly, Mr. Tippett and Ms. Tunie take the top slots in this play among an already great cast of actors.

Ms Gurira needs to tighten this leaky ship, however.  Too long.  Far too many un-explored paths dropped on us and never quite explained.  Sons of the youngest sister (Melanie Nicholls-King)?  A dress brought in and tossed aside?  Struggles of Chris's brother never fully explored (although his pitch-perfect portrayal of the classic fuck-up son was brilliant!)?  Why did mom has such a visceral reaction to her sister arriving from Africa without fully knowing the reason?  There is certainly a twist in this plot - but it comes far too late in the action.  Remove a lot of useless chatter and exposition and bring the twist up forward.  Shorten Act I and get this ship at just under 2 hours.  Exquisite sets by Clint Ramos and superb lighting by Tyler Micoleau.

A very entertaining look at a not-so-familiar problem within the context of family, which is an all-too-familiar problem.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Prodigal Son

In likely his most personal work, John Patrick Shanley bring us his own coming of age tale in a touching, moving story of his years in attendance at a small private school in New Hampshire. "Do you remember 15?",  he innocently asks at the beginning of the play - only to circle back to that same line at the very end to emphasize the quality and clarity of his own memories. Indeed Mr. Shanley does remember quite well.

Sharing the stage are both veteran stage actors as well as a new, fresh face who himself might be destined for greatness.  Robert Sean Leonard (Alan Hoffman) and Chris McGarry (Carl Schmitt) deliver solid performances but it is Timothee Chalamet, a 20 year old, fresh-faced talent who has the run of the stage the entirety of the performance.  Aptly cast at his delicate age, Mr. Chalamet seems to have already mastered the art of dialogue, humor, and on-stage charm that only a young boy can.

One has to presume that most of what is told on stage indeed occurred in some form in Mr. Shanley's life.  In true form, the entire story was not laid bare.  Hints of story lines not explored only added to the mystery.  Much of the play is exposition - as it likely should be.  But for a play without much of a twist or gotcha moment, it tended to drag at points.  Regardless of whether it did occur or not, was it really necessary to include the Catholic-isms of the New Hampshire schoolmaster?  Did we need to explore the professor's attraction?  Couldn't that be left to his likely abusive family in the Bronx?  We really never did find out what was so anathema about the prospect of going back to the Bronx but one can assume.  Might a rational person assume an overlap with Doubt here?

Overall, learning about a living, breathing person is a bit awkward.  He could be sitting right next to you during the performance.  Awkwardness aside, this top notch cast turns out an excellent story which will linger with you - just like it has for the real life author.  And for the author and director to be watching his life story told back to him - that must just be mind-blowing.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


The bad ones are easy to write.  The worse they are the easier it is.  This one is simple.  Do not pay Broadway prices (the box office lists the ticket prices for REGULAR seats - $25 to $149!).  Folks this is a two person show that lasts 60 minutes!  You pay the same price for a 2.5 Hour musical with 25 cast members, an orchestra, and multiple sets!  This is a RIP OFF of grand proportions.

Forest Whitaker enters the elegantly designed set (clearly some money was spent on this) and he rambles for 60 minutes.  Then the show ends.  This is all.  I didn't have a clue why we were watching him, why he was there, and frankly was bored and disgusted at his pointless babbling.  He's supposed to be a drunk and he recounts the ups and downs of the dead guy who used to helm the front desk of the hotel, (the play's namesake), Hughie.  The new hotel clerk is "played" (i use quotes because the 14 words he uttered were such a waste) by Frank Wood. 

Dumb, Expensive, Meaningless.  This was my waste of a Wednesday night at the Theatre.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Smart People

Second Stage has chosen to present likely the most self-absorbed, un-interesting, and indulgent play by what can only be described as a bitter, angry, ivy-leaguer stuck in academia-land with no real connection to the real world where us normal folk live.

With a "smart" connection to racism that likely nobody except a few in the theater might even appreciate, we get Barak Obama's election thrown in our face even tho it has nothing to do directly with the story of the four unrelated characters.  But of course it was there because everything in this playwright's universe probably revolves around Barak Obama and his historic presidency. It is central to the quintessential millennial's storyline.

One would expect that the actors on the stage might have salvaged the material.  Unfortunately, there wasn't a stage actor anywhere to be found.  TV-land has invaded all four of the characters.  Overall the actors were too loud, too flat, and seemed to be playing to the cameras as they are used to.   It didn't help that the structure of the play was vignette-like often promoting the short burst messages.  I was ready for commercials to roll at some points.

The playwright... oh sorry... the author (she's too good to be a playwright i suppose), Lydia R. Diamond likely identifies closely with this over privileged academic bubble fantasy she portrays as real life.  The truth of the matter is that each of the characters exudes stereotype to the point I wanted to vomit.  The power-Asian academic who secretly loves to shop and screw (Anne Son), the top-of-his-class African American doctor (Mahershala Ali) who still can't get ahead due to his race and associated anger, the over-privileged white professor (Joshua Jackson) who never spent a day in the real world, and finally the broke, idealistic, young, pretty black actress (Tessa Thompson) who smokes and screws the doctor because she might just get her MRS.  And while I am now delighted to know that Mr. Jackson is well endowed, the locker room scene was totally gratuitous and completely derivative.  I suspect it may eventually get cut.

Do yourself a favor and skip Smart People.  You'll save a shoe that you otherwise would want to throw at these over-priveledged loser-characters who think they have a purpose in life you see on stage.