Photo by Don Kellogg

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen

I've never felt so torn about the review of a show as I have after attending an evening at Second Stage to watch Dear Evan Hansen.  The title represents a key document in the teen-angst musical's plot - an alleged suicide note to be specific.  The trouble here - it wasn't s suicide note and just about everything that Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) told Colton's (Mike Faist) family after they mistook it for their son's suicide note is a complete lie.  The lie explodes beyond friends, family, school and ultimately and predictably overtakes social media into the entire community and larger social network.  The social commentary here has something to do with "fitting in".  It is complicated by the fact that the chief liar is a messed up kid himself - so one might ask "Is it OK to lie and promote those lies about a dead kid as long as it actually helps heal and help the messed up one who is still alive?"  I really think that the fact that this show made it this far means that people just look at the premise and say "That's just how it is."

I understand that one of the writers of this musical (Benj Pasek or Justin Paul I am not sure which) wrote it as a response to a suicide they experienced in their own young school life.  The trouble I found here is that although there is a mild "you get what you deserve" ending, it basically promotes this behavior or if you can't take that  strong a position, you must admit it does virtually nothing to reject the premise.   To make my life harder - the music and songs were astonishingly beautiful.  It really is possible to pair superb music with sub-standard material.

As for the acting - overall despite the youth and inexperience of the cast - it was indeed superlative, and in Ben Platt's (Evan Hansen's) case - (once this show makes it to Broadway) Tony Award Winning stuff.  Seriously, it was that good.  Mr. Platt takes the mannerisms, verbal ticks, quirks, and eye movements of a shy, anxious, socially awkward boy and makes you believe he really is.  His staccato verbal style, pregnant pauses, and nervous laughter is real.  His emotion and actual tears on the stage are quite literally present and true.  His vocals are angelic and the songs/lyrics by Messers Pasek and Paul are quite literally haunting.  Although I will make note that way too many songs had wild swings in octave which forced Mr. Platt into and out of his falsetto voice way too many times.  His cast mates Mike Faist (Connor Murphy) and Will Roland (Jared Kleinman) support Mr. Platt well.  It's a  fine young ensemble cast, the look of the stage, digital and the sound, electronic.

Indeed, I cried at multiple points at the show.  I was upset, I was disturbed, I was sad for Evan Hansen.  But those tears were often tears for the sad and tragic situation he created.  I was crying for his predicament.  Some would argue that is the achievement of theatrical empathy.  I would agree with that theatrical analysis, except I was more upset at what he did rather than for him.

At over 2h:35m (at my performance) the show, which is known to be heading to Broadway after this run, is also way too long.  There is much to be cut and if asked I could readily suggest at least 3 different scenes that could be scrapped.  This show should probably come in at 2 solid hours including the intermission.

Much like Evan, I too am tortured and torn.  This show was so good, yet so disappointing all at the same time to me.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Fully Committed

I thought I'd be rolling in the aisle.  I thought my sides would hurt from laughing too much. How could it not be good?  A cute, funny, gay-boy playing the part of a haggered high-end restaurant reservation desk clerk playing his own part and the parts of ever crazy person who calls into the restaurant.  This really seemed like a guaranteed recipe for hysteria for the masses.  Unfortunately, as cute, and gay, and adorably cuddly as Jesse Tyler Ferguson is, he's just not an over-the-top character actor - and that is what 110% of this role requires.  (Think, for example, Mario Cantone!).

At Broadway prices ($$) and a stage about 8x larger than what the show should be presented on, I found little to enjoy and many-a-glance at my watch to check when 90 minutes would finally be up.  Not to mention, the seats in the dumpiest Broadway theater around, The Lyceum, were busted and uncomfortable.  Not a great match for the purported restaurant in the show.

And for the record, I've never heard an American use the titular expression to say "We're full tonite".

Sorry Jesse.  I really wanted to fill your reservation book up!

Call me.

Death for Five Voices

Peter Mills, a multi award-winning composer, is responsible for this magnificent, sweeping, and lush musical along with the artistic director of Prospect Theater Company herself, Cara Reichel who worked with Mr. Mills on the book.

The subject matter of the musical is perhaps an awkward choice, but one, when properly imagined on the stage, as Ms. Reichel and her more than capable company has done, is a majestic and breathtaking journey into the past.

Set back hundreds of years in Italy during the tumultuous years when Popes and the Church were in power struggles all across Europe, the play examines the early life of Carlo Gesualdo, himself a groundbreaking composer of the late Renaissance.  The score incorporates the musical style of the period with a contemporary Broadway feel and the result is nothing short of musical delight with a murderous twist.

The production is set in what I understand to be a new space, the Black Box Theatre at the Sheen Center.  The quality and comfort of this space rivals some of it's distant uptown higher end venues. Heck it was even more comfortable than the dump of the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway where I had the displeasure of spending the remainder of my evening.  The lighting, sound, and seating were all top notch. I hope to see many more productions in this space.

The entire superlative cast could not have been more pitch-perfect from start to finish.  Vocal prowess was no issue for these masterful young artists - who I hope to see on another stage soon. Nathan Gardner, who I cannot believe is only making his off-Broadway debut, sounded like a well rehearsed Broadway veteran and his youthful demeanor tells me we will see him again on a larger stage very soon. Manna Nichols (Maria D'Avalos) was an angelic soprano and a force to be reckoned with.  The insanely gorgeous AND vocally talented Nicholas Rodriguez (Fabrizio Carafa) did not fail to impress on either front - shirt on AND off. Rounding out the impressive cast were Jeff Wiliams (Alfonso Gesualdo), Ryan Bauer-Walsh (Pietro), and L.R. Davidson (Sylvia) - all of whom despite their secondary character status turned in outstanding, first-rate performances.

Death for Five Voices is currently running through April 17th at The Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center on 18 Bleecker Street.  Show Website

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Tuck Everlasting

The producers (and there are many) of this show have assembled perhaps the finest creatives available on Broadway and have made the best casting decisions possible.  Book writers Claudia Shear and Tim Federle brought their "A" game on this effort after many years of work on the story.  The music and lyrics by Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen are a perfect blend of Broadway and Folk with rousing ensemble production numbers, tender ballads, and entertaining character solos.  Although he is the last one mentioned on the marquis page, Casey Nicholaw is at the top of his game with the show's inventive and dynamic choreography with hints of ballet and not a single kick line.  His directorial choices aren't obvious, and that's what makes the show sail along as smoothly and easily as it did.

The story is adapted from the novel of the same name by Natalie Babbitt - and for the record I've neither seen the movie nor read the book.  The charming and heart-warming story goes something like this - young girl whose father died last year wanders into the forest, meets young boy from a family that has discovered a fountain of youth in the wood and has lived forever for generations without aging.  They take her home overnight and eventually return her home the next day where she has to make a decision  - drink some of the water (in 6 years when she's old enough) or live her life in the here and now as intended.

The young girl, Winnie, is played by newcomer Sarah Charles Lewis.  In what will for sure be considered her star-making debut on Broadway, this young girl will most assuredly be on the short list for a Tony nom.  Surrounding her is a cast like no other and might be the most perfect casting for this show.  Of the Tucks, Broadway veteran and vocal powerhouse Carolee Carmello (Mae Tuck) plays the Mother, Broadway veteran and great stage actor Michael Park (Angus Tuck) plays the father, Handsome and talented Robert Lenzi (Miles Tuck) plays the older brother, and last, but not least, the undeniably adorable and supremely talented singing, dancing, and acting star Andrew Keenan-Bolger plays the title character Jesse Tuck.  But the casting bulls-eyes don't end here.  Broadway stalwart Terrence Mann plays with aplomb the Man in the Yellow Suit.  He's got a devilishly devious part and perhaps leads one of the best numbers (there are many) of the show - Everything's Golden.  And in case you didn't think that was enough - the Indomitable Fred Applegate perfectly plays older Constable Joe along with his young sidekick (and son) Michael Wartella (Hugo) to the delight of the entire audience - especially since the creatives smartly gave them a number at the end of the show that almost got a standing ovation -Story of the Man in the Yellow Suit.  The reprise of Join the Parade in Act I brought the entire company on stage with Mr. Keenan-Bolger joining the male dance ensemble to bring the crowd to its feet in a rousing company number.  It deserved an encore (as cheesy as those are).

To be critical, Act II was better than Act I in terms of story and pace but I suppose a bit more exposition (the drag) is needed in Act I.  What I think the creative team did brilliantly was to engage the audience throughout.  All those Broadway numbers for the secondary characters, the talented Tuck family casting, ensemble dance routines, the introduction of young star and finally the epilogue - which for some will evoke potent emotional memories of the ending of Six Feet Under - it was perfectly choreographed with ballet inspired dance and staged and without a single word the audience understood exactly what was transpiring.

Tuck Everlasting will tug at your heartstrings and bring you to your feet at the end.  Live for now and run over to the Broadhurst Theatre and catch a performance of a show that aims to live forever!

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Battle of Central Park

Playwright Andrew Massey stumbled onto Robert Moses in a car ride in the Bronx.  He stumbled on Joseph Papp in his college drama class.  I bet he never thought he would write a play about these two powerful men, each in their own worlds - which collided in a grand battle for the Arts smack in the middle of Central Park.

This bio-play is really a story told and re-told through letters, newspaper articles, and memories.  The very clever point which could have been made even more dramatic in the play is that these two gentleman, despite their massive battles never actually met.  Mr. Massey opens the play with a scene that once repeated at the finale, hits that point home.  Through the use of projections, slides, and historical photos, the ensemble, who are part narrators and part choreographed movement, weave a tale of two powerful men - often at odds with each other.  Kudos Jamie Watkins and Michael Monacan (Projections) and Annalisa Ledson (Choreographer).

Jon Huggins (Robert Moses) has an impressive stage presence and is a commanding actor.  (He's also incredibly tall).  His booming voice and larger than life attitude brought the needed arrogance and power to life in Mr. Moses.  

Nick Trotta (Joseph Papp) made you feel the conviction of his beliefs, the frustration with the government inquiries to his private life, as well as his life long commitment to and love of the arts.  Both actors held court in this 60+ minute historically relevant and culturally interesting piece.

Both deserved their own bow after the initial company at the curtain call.  That's just how good they were.

I could really see this play being expanded slightly (maybe 90 minutes) and brought onto an off-Broadway stage for a slightly more robust performance with more projections/slides and a moderately expanded story filling in some of the gaps.  Not having given much thought until this moment, I could even imagine two stars teaming up to bring the show to a Broadway stage.  Danny DeVito as Papp?  Tony Goldwyn or Jeff Daniels or Kevin Spacey as Moses?   Stranger things have happened.