So, the combination of yet another busy semester at The Boston Conservatory and my contract with About.com to supply them with two posts a week has meant that I haven't had any time to post here on EIKILFM. (The Conservatory and About.com both pay me for my services. This blog, alas, does not.)
But I have been keeping up with reviews of the major musicals, and many of the plays, that have opened in New York City this fall. It's just that I've been posting them on About.com. Here are the links to those reviews:
Most jukebox shows rely on the name-recognition factor to lure in the crowds. Well, here's a musical that has sort of the opposite goal: to bring our attention to a name that many of us have never heard of.
A worthy goal. But here's the thing: after seeing Piece of My Heart, I don't really know any more about Berns than I did before.
As is often the case with songbook musicals, Piece of My Heart is at its best when it's singing. The production features a top-notch cast of New York professionals, including Leslie Kritzer, Linda Hart, Derrick Baskin, and Zak Resnick in the title role, all of whom bring intensity and kick-ass vocals to their performances. Also, director/choreographer Denis Jones provides slick and efficient staging, filling the stage with plenty to keep the eye occupied and interested.
The main problem with Piece of My Heart is Daniel Goldfarb's leaden and thin book. The interesting thing here is that the songs, unlike those of many other jukebox shows, actually feel like they fit the story, albeit with a few rather glaring exceptions. But the book is hampered by some rather hoary dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, and a sort of rush to the finish line.
Perhaps the biggest liability here is Goldfarb's dialogue, which alternates between didacticism and cliché. Characters spout such ham-fisted chronological cues as "These past two years have been wonderful..." Another interchange has Berns pleading with a Cuban revolutionary, "Teach me the music of your people," to which the Cuban responds, "You have a sadness at one with my country's sadness." Yeesh. At other times, Goldfarb includes lines of implied portent without payoff. One of the characters says, of Berns, "To get to his music, he had to go to some dark places," which is fine, except that what follows isn't particularly dark.
The most risible dialogue of all comes during Berns's death scene. Berns died at 38 from a heart attack that stemmed from a bout of rheumatic fever when he was young. In Piece of My Heart, as Berns clutches his heart, he manages to write down on a piece of paper, "My children will know me through my music." I suppose it's possible that Berns actually did this as he died, but that doesn't make it any less treacly.
Goldfarb's book is full of events, but devoid of explanatory depth. Berns has an interracial romance that doesn't work out; a stint in Cuba complete with revolutionaries and whores; a fight over control of his record-label. Only the last of these really seems relevant to the task at hand. The show also features a framing device involving a posthumous battle between Berns's widow and a fictional daughter (although Berns did in fact have children of his own), who vie for control over Berns's work. Piece of My Heart seems to be in such a rush to cram all of the events of Berns's short life into the show that it doesn't take enough time to develop the events themselves.
The bar has never been very high for jukebox musicals, at least in terms of whether the public will attend. In that respect, Piece of My Heart is certainly more worthy than such theatrical dreck as Mamma Mia, Baby It's You or A Night With Janis Joplin. If it doesn't quite rank with the gold standards of the genre (Jersey Boy, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical), there's at least enough here in terms of the music, the staging, and the cast to warrant a trip to 42nd Street.
Here's my final roundup of reviews from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). I saw 19 shows over the course of three weekends. It was a bit grueling at times, but overall I found it exhilarating. There's so much passion out there for musicals, both in writing them and in attending them. Even if most of these shows never make to Broadway, or even Off-Broadway, the sheer number of shows in development is an encouraging sign.
Watch for future posts from me on the winners of the NYMF Awards for Excellence (for which I served as a juror), as well as for my take on lessons learned. Essentially, I'll be compiling a list of questions that would-be writers and composers for musical theater can ask themselves as they work on their shows, questions that, I hope, will help them avoid some of the pitfalls that I've seen over and over in developing musicals. (Just call me a dramaturg in absentia.)
Mr. Confidential - Anyone looking for an object lesson in the term "dramaturgy problems" need look no further than Mr. Confidential. I can't recall another show during which I had to continually ask "Um...what?" as frequently. It's not the plot that's befuddling: it's basically about a guy and his family starting a gossip magazine and pissing the wrong people off. What's confusing is understanding what people are singing about, why this particular person needs to be singing, and why the events are unfolding the way they are. Mr. Confidential has book and lyrics by Samuel Bernstein, music by David Snyder, and while Snyder's music is often quite good, often exciting, Bernstein's book and lyrics are a mess. I continually found myself asking: What's this song about? Why is this person making this choice? What the hell is going on? And so on. Bernstein needs to decide what he really wants each song to be about and then craft lyrics that more explicitly meet those intentions. Bernstein's book raises even more questions than the lyrics. For example, the magazine publisher, Bob Harrison, attempts to hire a recently unseated anti-communist politician to help find stories for the magazine, and because for some reason this guy would give Harrison access to famed columnist Walter Winchell. But why would Winchell help a rival publication with story ideas? He's got his own media empire to feed. The biggest WTF moment comes at the end. Apparently there's a car crash, which takes the lives of two of the characters, but the headline accompanying the scene says it was the publisher who killed himself and his wife. But Harrison is shown announcing the accident to the press, despite the fact that he's the publisher. It was a fittingly opaque end to a bewildering show.
The Travels - The Travels was perhaps the most thematically ambitious show I saw at NYMF this year. The book and lyrics are by Aaron Ricciardi, the music by Kelly Hoppenjans. The story involves a comic dystopian tale of a future America, including a daily TV show to encourage conformity, discourage travel, and foster devotion to a Big-Brother-like authority figure. Not so much a musical as a play with music, The Travels features diegetic, commentative numbers, not unlike half of the score to Cabaret, or most of the score to Chicago. For the most part, this approach works: the song interludes take us out of the story and remind us of the show's Brechtian ambitions. Ricciardi also makes the interesting choice to start each scene with a show card announcing the impending fate of the characters, a clear nod to Brecht's alienation techniques. Ricciardi displays a keen intelligence and sharp comic instincts with his imaginative language and precepts for his fictional world, even if the whole affair seems just a tad too dependent on 1984 and Brave New World in its fundaments. There are some clear flaws in the show's logic: when two foreigners enter the country and are forced to become "domestic domicile disinfectors," they seem to have no prior knowledge of the country's shift toward totalitarianism. But the show tells us that the current regime has been in place for 25 years. It's hard to imagine that word wouldn't have somehow gotten out over a quarter of a century. Still, The Travels works rather well, at least until it starts taking itself too seriously. If Ricciardi could find ways to sustain the satire and edge throughout the show, he and Hoppenjans might have a winner on their hands. (A final note: As I said last year, apropos of her star turn in Julian Po, the fabulous Luba Mason, featured prominently in The Travels, should always be in a Broadway show. Will someone please rectify this, stat?)
Madame Infamy - As I've mentioned, I hadn't been all that impressed by the quality of the music is this year's NYMF shows. That is, until my final NYMF weekend, when I started to hear some really strong music. Madame Infamy has a book by JP Vigliotti, and music and lyrics by Cardozie Jones and Sean Willis. The book and lyrics need quite a bit of work, but Jones' and Willis' score is pretty darned fabulous, despite a preponderance of what I call "beltando" and "riffando" on the part of some of the singers. Jones and Willis have quite a touch with memorable and stirring music, including some ambitious contrapuntal pieces. Madame Infamy tells the parallel stories of Marie Antoinette and Sally Hemmings, the latter a slave owned by Thomas Jefferson who also allegedly became the mother of a number of children by Jefferson. I kept expecting the two stories to come together, but they never really did. Apart from seeing each other from afar at a ball at Versailles (Jefferson is in France to garner support for the American Revolution), the women never come in direct contact. The authors would be wise to create more of a link between the two characters, historically justified or no. As a whole, the show feels like a combination of Les Miserables, Wicked, and The Princess Diaries, as produced by The Disney Channel -- sort of a schoolgirl's take on history. The lyrics need quite a bit of work: I frequently had no idea what characters were singing about, and somtimes didn't even know who the characters were. Much of the dialogue feels artificial, even creaky. Plot turns and character motivations are frequently difficult to discern. People in support positions act in ways inconsistent with their station. Members of court act condescendingly and imperiously toward Louis XVI and Marie. One of Jefferson's slaves tracks him down to punch him in the face. Um, who's in charge here? This isn't a high school dance in 2014. It's the court at frickin' Versailles. (Final note: the authors should re-familiarize themselves with the rules of pronoun-case usage. The show is littered with such erroneous phrases as "...between you and I...," "It's rare for we women to be taken seriously," and "You shall accompany Martha and I..." I'm sorry, but we're talking Thomas Jefferson here, one of the greatest writers this country has ever seen. This is one guy who would know the difference between the nominative and the objective case.)
Propaganda! - Here's another trend I noticed at NYMF this year: opening numbers that don't fully set the scene. I'm sure it's easy, when you're writing a show, to lose track of what the audience knows and when, and what they need to know from the beginning so that the rest of the show makes sense. All the more reason to make the Who, What, Where, and When as clear as possible, and as soon as possible. Propaganda! - The Musical is a case in point. The opening lyric keeps repeating "This just in, on the radio," as if that's supposed to be enough to tell us where we are and what's going on. But it isn't. I kept trying to guess: Is this a TV station? A newspaper? A PR firm? The republican national headquarters? In turns out that we're witnessing the goings-on at a secret government agency that specializes in covering up scandals. Three numbers into the show, this still wasn't clear. Once clarity sets in, Propaganda! is actually quite enjoyable, often hilarious. The book, music, and lyrics are by Taylor Ferrera and Matt Webster, and the pair show great promise as comedy writers. Propaganda! gets a bit messy at times, but overall it's a hoot. There's a tongue-in-cheek meta quality to much of the dialogue, which works in fits and starts. There's some inconsistent logic regarding character traits and plot ramifications. But there are also some terrific insider musical-theater jokes that had me roaring. The songs are hit or miss, but there are some really strong showstopper-type numbers, particularly the show's chief evildoer, Agent X, played with great relish here by the wondrous Kenita Miller. Conversely, there's an 11 o'clock number that stops the show in a bad way, called "Sing Me to Sleep," which unfortunately lives up to its name. Much of the fun in the show comes from the shameless showboating from the ensemble, which was jarring at first, but eventually built to a comic crescendo that contributed greatly to the show's overall fun index. Also notable was the outstanding choreography from Jason Sparks, which gave the mincing queens (and I mean that with love) in the ensemble a chance to shine. (Also, I would strongly suggest a change of the show's title. Propaganda! doesn't really capture the spirit of the show. Might I suggest changing it to Cover Up!, while retaining the classic musical-theater exclamation point.)
Fable - My final NYMF musical of the year was Fable, a show with a bit of an identity crises. The book is by Harrison Kaufman, the music and lyrics by Christopher Anselmo. I feel I must preface my remarks by pointing out that both Anselmo and Kaufman are still in college: Anselmo at Northwestern, Kaufman at NYU. Judged from that vantage point, the work here is outstanding, if uneven. But from an audience perspective, it doesn't really matter how old the creators are. What matters is what's on stage. Well, Anselmo shows tremendous promise as a composer and lyricist. Anselmo's music is by turns soaring, jaunty, and hard-rocking, even if it does reflect just a touch too much RLNS (Really-Long-Note Syndrome). His lyrics are among the cleanest I've ever heard at NYMF: I don't recall hearing any significant slant rhyme, faulty scansion, or reversed syntax. The main liability of the show in its current form is that the high stakes evident in the score don't match the rather mundane events depicted in the book. We're basically at a graduation party in which six high-school friends reveal -- and wring their hands over -- a series of rather quotidian revelations: someone's parents are getting divorced, someone makes out with another girl's boyfriend, some says "I Love You" too soon, someone reveals that she lied about getting into Princeton, and a brother tells his sister that he didn't go to college so the family could afford to send her. Which is all fine and good, except the momentous, weighty ballads that emerge toward the end of the show don't feel justified based on such prosaic concerns. For instance, one character sings a "Get Out, and Stay Out" type number to his friends. but it's not entirely clear why he's so upset. The cast features a decidedly strong sextet of young performers, including star-to-be Dan Rosales, making his NYMF debut. (Full disclosure: Dan is one of my recent BoCo students. But trust me, you're going to hear from this amazingly talented young man very soon, of this I have no doubt.)
Here's my third round of reviews, out of four, of shows from the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Seeing so many shows in such a short time has been a really rewarding process, one that I recommend to anyone who aspires to write for or about musical theater. Nothing puts the finished product into perspective like a glimpse at the development process. It's also very heartening to see so many people who are passionate about musical theater, on both sides of the footlights.
One somewhat disheartening trend this year has been the rather colorless music evident in many NYMF shows. It's not always clear whether this is a product of the actual composition, the sound design, the orchestrations, or some combination thereof, but I haven't heard much music that I found interesting, intriguing, or pleasant. In fact, on my NYMF juror ballot, I only cited two shows for Best Music, although the ballot allows jurors to list as many as three shows. Otherwise, the music at NYMF this year has lacked flare, tonality, a predictable downbeat, consonant intervals, plus whatever indefinable something goes into making a score memorable and effective.
No, not every score needs to sound like Richard Rodgers composed it, and there is certainly plenty of room for growth in the type of music that musical theater has historically embraced. But style and quality are not synonymous: scores that reflect rock, rap, R&B, emo, country, afro-beat, or any other style of music don't get a pass because they're atypical Broadway. They also need to be good. (Whatever that means, right?)
Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade - As I mentioned in my most recent round of reviews, I had been noticing fewer NYMF shows with significant dramaturgical issues than in previous years. Then, for some reason, I suddenly started seeing a spate of shows that were raising who, what, where, when and why questions. One show that could benefit from more dramaturgical effort is Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade. (Full disclosure: Mother Jones is being produced by one of my recent students, but my students know that, once they graduate, I will approach their efforts with the same tough-but-fair approach I would apply to any other show.) The book, music, and lyrics for Mother Jones are by Cheryl E. Kemeny, and Kemeny might be wise to bring on a collaborator or two: while her music is strong, tuneful, and often rousing, the lyrics here are uninspired and peppered with cliché. The main area needing attention is the book, which is full of holes. The story concerns Mary Harris Jones, known as "Mother Jones," a firebrand labor activist and community organizer, and her efforts to call attention to the horrors of child labor in the very early 1900s. The show isn't always clear about where a scene or song is taking place. Are we in a West Virginia coal mine? Or a Pennsylvania textile mill? Or a convent? I was, at various times, confused. This is indicative of a larger problem with Mother Jones: the rationale behind the scenes and songs isn't always clear. Characters make choices that aren't fully justified in the narrative. One character spends most of act one as a cartoonish musical-comedy stereotype, only to undergo an abrupt change of heart in act two. Mother Jones sings a song that's meant to explain her involvement in the Children's Crusade, but the song is about losing her husband and children to yellow fever. It's a powerful song, rendered triumphantly here by the always marvelous Lynne Wintersteller, but it's not really clear what this admittedly horrific experience has to do with organizing unions and abolishing child labor. Mother Jones itself is going to need a bit more organizing if it's going to have any chance of bringing its message to the masses.
Clinton - the Musical - You might think a musical about Bill Clinton would be one long dick joke. And you'd be right. (Get it? Long? Dick? Tee-hee...) That's pretty much what Clinton - the Musical amounts to right now: a two-hour parade of sniggering schoolboy innuendo and vulgarity. There's even a song called "I'm Fucking the Fucking President." And it gets a reprise. The show has a book by Paul Hodge and Michael Hodge, with music and lyrics by Paul Hodge, and just about the only inspired choice the Hodges make is to have Clinton played by two different actors, one representing his presidential side, and the other his horn-dog side, although this isn't fully exploited at this point in the show's development. The rest of the show pretty much amounts to a rather flabby attempt at topical humor. The well-known cast of characters here become broad characterizations of the most obvious sort. Al Gore is played by a cardboard cutout. Monica Lewinsky becomes a shallow ditz who sports a stylized cum stain on her dress for more than half the show. Newt Gingrich is a cackling demon: the fight over the big government shutdown of 1995 is represented by a boxing match. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr is introduced with a number called - I kid you not - "A Starr Is Born." When the show isn't trafficking in the obvious, it utlizes such past-its-sell-date humor as having the cast sing and dance about the legal definition of "sexual relations" to the tune of the "Macarena." Toward the end of the show, there were a few effective sequences, including one in which the two Bills and Hillary practice together for the State of the Union address in order to remove any possible double entendres. Yeah, we're still talking dick jokes, but there was at least some craft behind it. The Hillary character also gets a fairly effective, even moving, 11 o'clock number in which she finally confronts Bill about all the lying and infidelity. But, on the whole, Clinton is rather flaccid. (Which, BTW Messrs. Hodge, is traditionally pronounced "flack-sid," not "flassid.")
The Snow Queen - Most of the shows at NYMF are on a pretty tight budget, so the physical production values tend to be modest. The show with the best design this year was The Snow Queen, which is based on the tale by Hans Christian Anderson. The costumes, projections, even the show's logo represent a top-notch sense of overall design. Now, all that sharp stagecraft needs is a better show to support. The book here is by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo, the music by Haddon Kime and Rick Lombardo, the lyrics by Brandt, Kime, and Lombardo. The show seems to have Peter and the Starcatcher ambitions, with a sort of objet trouvé feel, a stage full of actor/musicians, and various attempts at suggested versus literal stagecraft. Right now, though, The Snow Queen lacks the spark and sense of riotous fun that Peter and the Starcatcher so vividly reflected. The story concerns two chIldhood friends, Kai and Gerde. Kai falls under the spell of the Snow Queen and follows her to her icy lair, and Gerde sets off the find him. Along the way, she meets a succession of would-be vivid comic characters, but only a few of these characterizations were fully successful. The ensemble cast is mostly quite strong, although there was some scenery chewing going on. The show has significant dramaturgy problems at present: when the show starts, it's unclear whether the Snow Queen or another character, the Troll, would eventually become the antagonist. Are these two characters in cahoots, or are they separate malevolent forces? Later, when Kai first encounters the Snow Queen, he suddenly becomes obsessed with counting. Eventually we learn that this has a purpose, but it was quizzical at the time. But the main liability here is the score, which is thoroughly unappealing, a wall of undifferentiated sound that makes it difficult to understand most of the lyrics. This may be partly due to poor sound design and muddy orchestrations, but whatever the cause, the music comes off as an amorphous emo drone. I'm sure the composer is going for something modern and outré, but this is a kids show, and children haven't yet developed the parts of their brains that can appreciate dissonance. That's why most children's music features perfect intervals. I think there's a solid show in the making here, but the music is going to need a significant overhaul.
Zombie Strippers - With a show named Zombie Strippers, it can go one of two ways: brilliant camp or forced, self-conscious muddle. Zombie Strippers is much closer to the latter, and even at only 65 minutes, significantly overstays its welcome. As the title implies, Zombie Strippers is about a trio of strippers who...well...become zombies. A mourning coworker visits the graveyard with her douchebag boyfriend, which sets the plot in motion. The book, music, and lyrics by Mark LaPierre, and really the only thing here that's promising are LaPierre's lyrics, which show some talent for word play and occasional flashes of genuine wit. But there are some lyrics that just don't make any sense, for instance, "Life is like a play. It's depressing and unfair." Um, is that really what plays are? More likely this is simply due to faulty modification, but clarity is part of the craft, folks. At times, it's not entirely clear that the characters are aware of what they're saying. In one song, the two key females are supposed to be revealing something significant about themselves, but one character actually says nothing new, meanwhile seemingly ignoring a major reveal on the part of the other character. The music here, canned and live electronic synth, is far too languid for a purportedly comic show. LaPierre frequently undercuts the comedy of his lyrics by crafting extended vocal lines that kill that joke. Like many of this year's NYMF composers, La Pierre seems to be deliberately avoiding tonality, which makes for an unpleasant aural experience. Just because the show is about zombies doesn't mean the audience should be in pain. As for the book, it's not clear that the show even understands, let alone reflects, its internal rules about what creates these zombies or how to kill them. Even a show with a ridiculous premise needs to have an internal logic; any sci-fi fan will tell you that. I get the feeling that ZombieStrippers, unlike its titillating titular characters, isn't looking at much of an afterlife.
You gotta admire the cojones on anyone who writes a musical called Atomic. I mean, theater critics and their editors can be mean enough with headlines even without such low-hanging fruit.
OK, I'll bite: Atomic is a bomb. Well, that may be a tad too strong, but Atomic is certainly a dud.
Atomic is a new musical currently playing Off-Broadway at New York's Theatre Row, and features a book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore, and music and lyrics by Philip Foxman. Apparently, the show started off in Australia, where it received rather mixed reviews. Why the authors thought the next step was to bring the show to New York City for commercial run is beyond me.
I mean, who's paying for this? The cast features top-notch New York performers, including Jeremy Kushnier, Euan Morton, Sara Gettelfinger, Jonathan Hammond, Randy Harrison, and David Abeles. The producers have enlisted a high-profile marketing and press team. And the set, by Neil Patel, is a gleaming network of metallic cubes and sliding screens that would not be out of place on Broadway. All this while far more worthy musicals languish in obscurity due to lack of production funds.
Atomic attempts to wring dramatic weight from the Manhattan Project, the American race against the Germans to build the atomic bomb. The authors have chosen to focus on these momentous events from the point-of-view of Leó Szilárd, the Hungarian physicist who first formulated the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, which in turn became the basis for the atomic bomb. It's an intriguing premise, but it receives a decidedly clumsy treatment here. Atomic wants to be both searing drama and goofy satire, and is ultimately unsuccessful at both.
The book to Atomic does reflect a certain intelligence, but the dialogue is overly expository, reflecting that "But, of course!" factor prevalent in cheesy '50s horror films. The characters have dramatic realizations without our fully comprehending the significance, complete with sudden jolts of mumbo-jumbo physics talk to establish some science cred. Despite the extremely high stakes of the historical events, Atomic winds up being about the banal concerns of the brilliant. Most of act one seems concerned with the negative effects all this work is having on Szilárd's relationship with his wife, complete with manufactured tension over observing the Jewish sabbath.
I was on the fence about Atomic for the first ten minutes, until we got to "America Amore," a crass would-be comic number that's meant to introduce us to Enrico Fermi, in which poor Jonathan Hammond is forced to slither and slather over a couple of buxom science babes. You know, because that's what Fermi was famous for. But more to the point, it really has nothing to do with Fermi's function in the rest of the narrative; it's just a cheap attempt at injecting some unnecessary comic relief into the show.
There's another howler of a number at the top of act two in which we meet three Rosie the Riveter types (complete with laughably literal "We Can Do It!" costumes) who are assembling the pieces of the atomic bomb, although they don't know that's what they're doing. So, they shrug and relate quite gleefully, in tight Andrews-Sisters-style harmony, that all they're told is that they "make the holes in the donuts."
It's not really clear why this material needed to be a musical in the first place. At numerous times throughout Atomic, I found myself asking, "Why are these people singing?" Or, more accurately, "Why are these people screaming?" For some reason, the authors thought the story was best served by having some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th Century wail in the style of arena-rock hair bands of the 1980s.
The lyrics here range from laughably general (as with the repeated refrain, "We gotta hit the bottom 'fore we reach the top") to the ridiculously specific ("Let them have my patents..."). The ballads are of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" variety, including such blather-filled references as to "the blinding brilliant headlights of this love."
Atomic does have some effective moments, particularly in a sober epilogue in which all the major players who built the A-bomb meet up years later and talk about answering the "Why Did You Do It?" query they repeatedly find themselves receiving. It's a question the authors of Atomic might well ask themselves. (Hey, open with a cheap shot, close with a cheap shot.)
Here's my second installment of reviews from this year's New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF). I continue to be impressed at the overall higher caliber of shows at this year's festival. In particular, there seem to be far fewer shows with major dramaturgical problems.
Yeah, I know. Let's break it down. Dramaturgy basically refers to act of shaping a show into a performable piece, as distinct from actually writing the play. A dramaturg is sort of like an editor for playwrights. Examples of dramaturgical problems would include songs that don't have sufficient justification in the story, characters who make choices that we don't fully understand, events that occur without clear causes or antecedents, etc. If a show has you asking, "Wait, what? Who? Where? Why?," then that show has problems with its dramaturgy.
As we'll see in my next installment of reviews, there have been a few NYMF musicals that had me scratching my head at various times throughout the show, but again that number is significantly smaller than in previous years.
Coming of Age - Songs cycles are tricky to pull off. There needs to be a certain cohesion to the material, a clear sensibility to the writing. Oh, and they need to be short. At two and a half hours with a 15-minute intermission, Coming of Age is anything but short. Not only does the entire show go on too long -- about an hour too long -- but each of the numbers tends to overstay its welcome as well. The music and lyrics for Coming of Age are by Jon Provan, and his music is not without merit; some of it is quite pleasant, actually. Provan's lyrics are passable when the tone of the song is upbeat, as is the case with a charming song early in the show in which a Jewish girl complains that "nobody gives a shit about a bat mitzvah." However, the lyrics here are replete with enough slant rhyme, faulty scansion, and forced extra syllables to outfit a season of developing shows. When the songs get serious, out come the New Age platitudes and ponderously anthemic vocal lines. The entire show gives off an air of self-consciousness, a security in its own importance. As the title implies, Coming of Age is about rights of passage. However, Provan seems to have mistaken breadth for depth, and includes numbers from a risibly broad range of epochs, including numbers about Norse warriors heading out to sea, a child king about to be crowned, a young Spartan who's reluctant to be trained, and an adolescent Cro-Magnon hunting the wooly mammoth. I kid you not.
Bayonets of Angst - I almost wasn't going to see this one, but I'm so glad I did. Bayonets of Angst, despite the awkward title,is a hoot and a holler. The hilarious book is by Rick Kunzi and Justin Zeppa, and basically amounts to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson without all that annoying emo music. The story is essentially The Civil War filtered through the authors' wonderfully twisted sensibility. If only the rest of American history had been this howlingly funny, I might have paid closer attention in high school. The show begins with the last surviving veterans of the War Between the States, who have gathered for their 149th reunion -- although, clearly, none of them are moving very fast -- and they resolve to tell the "truth" about the war while they still have time. We then flash back to the time of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman, but these are very likely not to be the people you're familiar with from history books. Much of the fun here comes from the sure-handed comic direction of Michael Lluberes, who keeps the proceedings going at a fevered pitch for most of the show's 90 minutes. The score is slightly less effective than the book and direction, but that was pretty much the case with Bloody Bloody as well. Another major source of joy here is the supremely gifted cast, flawless to a man (which might seem like a sexist phrase, except that the entire cast is male). The protean ensemble includes J. Robert Spencer (Lincoln), Paul Whitty (Grant), Michael Abbot Jr. (Sherman), Ryan Andes (Robert E. Lee), and Brian Charles Rooney as Gen. George B. McLellan. Rooney is a man with an almost frightening vocal range and character intensity. Someone find this show, preferably with this cast, an Off-Broadway berth. It's just about ready for prime time.
Rescue Rue - Here's another one I wasn't planning to see, but I'm a NYMF juror, and they needed someone else to cover this show. I haven't had very good experiences with musicals aimed at children; people seem to think that a kids' show doesn't need to be well-written. Yeah, well, talk to the guys at Pixar about that. The book for Rescue Rue is by Stacey Weingarten, the music and lyrics by Kate Steinberg, Joshua Zecher-Ross, and Weingarten. A show that could have been twee and cutesy winds up being warm and sweet, even moving. Think Avenue Q without the sex and profanity. Oh, and the irony. Actually, just about the only things Rescue Rue shares with Avenue Q are the puppets and the ingratiating way of telling the story. The story starts with an unnamed dog (who eventually acquires the name "Rue") being kicked out into the world by an uncaring family. She meets up with her Fairy Dog Mother, who grants Rue a wish. When Rue asks for a "Happily Ever After," the Fairy Dog Mother reluctantly agrees (knowing that Happily-Ever-Afters only arrive after many trials and setbacks) and what follows is Rue's bumpy journey to her own happy end. Unlike, say, Freckleface Strawberry, Rescue Rue treats its audience with respect, offering the linear narrative and character consistencies that Freckleface sorely lacked. The resolution for Rescue Rue is so darned cute, not to mention dramatically apt, that by the end I was sniffling happily along with the rest of the audience. There's just the right touch of agitprop here in showcasing the plight of rescue dogs. Well, message received: when I get a new dog this fall, I'm defintely planning on going the rescue route.
WikiMusical - There's always at least one musical at NYMF that thinks it's a whole lot more clever and funny than it actually is. This year, that show is WikiMusical, a deceptive title, in that the users don't actually get to log in and edit the show. (If only...) The book and lyrics are by Frank Ceruzzi and Blake J. Harris, the music by Trent Jeffords. The writing here is sort of on the level of a high-school skit: sophomoric humor, awkward dialogue, and pedestrian lyrics, complete with poor scansion and slant rhyme aplenty. The story concerns two brothers who somehow get sucked inside the Internet, and need to find a way back home. What follows is an aimlessly episodic series of would-be comic set pieces that, despite fleeting moments of wit, tend to fall flat. It's the sort of show that thinks topical references (a scheming Nigerian prince, a cemetery of unsent emails, a climactic game of Mario Brothers) will automatically make it funny. Eventually we get the obligatory expository dialogue from the evildoers, attempting to bring all this muddle to a conclusion, but the denouement is thoroughly inexplicable, rivalling that of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (the first version, before Taymor was fired). The songs feature lots of screaming and reeeeeeealllllly loooooooong noooooootes at the end. As I sat enduring the show, I couldn't help thinking of the actors in these NYMF shows, and the challenge they face of fully committing to material that is not always worthy of their talents. (I happen to know one of the performers in WikiMusical. Pumpkin, I feel your pain.)
The Gig - I was surprised to see The Gig listed among the NYMF offerings this year, mostly because I've seen the show before, some 12 years ago at the Lyric Stage in Boston. The performance rights for the show are available from Samuel French and a cast recording came out in 2008. So, what's it doing at NYMF? I can only assume that composer/lyricist/librettist Douglas J. Cohen (No Way to Treat a Lady, Children's Letters to God) thinks the show deserves another chance at the limelight, whatever that might entail. The fact that The Gig has been in development for years is quite evident: the show has a polish that few NYMF shows can boast. It's the story of an amateur jazz sextet, a bunch of middle-aged guys who get together once a week to jam. Along comes a chance at an actual paid gig, and the men take time from their careers (dentist, used-car salesman, real-estate agent, etc.) to spend two weeks in the Catskills. The show starts with an infectious opening sequence that efficiently establishes the main characters and sets the plot in motion. Cohen's score is complex and satisfying, continually taking the music in interesting directions, and reflecting a deft hand with complex group numbers. What's more, Cohen makes these people real and distinct, with easy character-based humor and an infectious sense of camaraderie. Along the way, Cohen crafts charming moments of joy and loss, while successfully avoiding schmaltz. He effectively develops the characters of all six men, while making the supporting characters real as well. That's quite a feat. I don't know what sort of future might lie ahead for The Gig, but I can say it's a terrific show, and that I hope Cohen keeps on writing.
Ah, summer. Looks like it's time for a little NYMF-ing. Well, maybe more than a little. I mean, faced with the prospect of 24 new musicals, 9 concerts, 10 development readings, and numerous workshops, I'm basically a kid in a candy store here. This will be my third year at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, my second as a juror. I just spent my first of three weekends bingeing on musicals in development, and I must say that overall I've noticed a higher quality caliber of shows than in previous years.
The good folks at NYMF seem to be doing a better job of selecting more artistically promising shows. Sure, there are still quite a few shows that will need considerable work to get anything close to produceable form, but on the whole, there's better storytelling, stronger lyrics and more mature music than I've noticed in previous years. Now, I have yet to see anything to rival the overall excellence of last year's Crossing Swords or Julian Po, but I do still have two weekends and 12 shows to go. As I have in the past, I'll be publishing three to four collections of capsule reviews. Here's my first batch, in the order in which I saw the shows:
Academia Nuts - My first NYMF show this year was Academia Nuts, a sort of would-be Spelling Bee with book and lyrics by Becca Anderson and Dan Marshall, and music by Julian Blackmore. Academia Nuts centers around a national quiz-show competition, with two teams vying for the championship, one comprising a family of home-schooled Christians, the other a more conventional-yet-still-geeky crew from a public high school. The show is certainly as funny as Spelling Bee, but as yet it's not quite as tuneful or moving. Anderson and Marshall show great promise as librettists: the scenario here is compelling and the book is at times uproarious. (One Evita-inspired pun had me rolling.) However, their lyric writing needs some work. According to their bios, the authors met at NYU in its graduate musical-theater writing workshop. Apparently NYU never covered prosody, as the lyrics to Academia Nuts are a bit too replete with faulty emphasis for my taste ("Play-TOH" for "Plato" and "high SCHOOL" being two notable examples). Blackmore's score is rather tuneless at times, although my reaction may also be the result of the colorless orchestrations and ear-splitting sound in evidence at the performance I attended. Still, in the asset column we have the extremely humorous book, plus some strong characterizations: Jennifer Simard gives the single funniest performance I've ever seen at a NYMF show, bringing a hilarious deadpan to the role of the home-schooling mother and coach of the rival team.
ValueVille - One of the biggest challenges in writing a musical is developing a consistent tone. I've seen many a developing show struggle with finding a unified voice: comedy? tragedy? black comedy? satire? ValueVille is a musical that has yet to fully establish its ideal tone. The book, lyrics, and music for ValueVille are by Rowan Casey, and in future efforts Casey might be wise to take on some collaborators. Almost all of the show's songs are generic, with blandly unspecific lyrics. If you were to just listen to the score, you would have no idea what was going on in the show. But the main problem here is the book, which tries unsuccessfully to shift back and forth between knockabout comedy and grave contemplation. At first, ValueVille appears to be a light-hearted satire of big-box discount stores, but eventually it turns into a sort of tragicomic take on Sartre's No Exit. Casey never really makes it clear as to exactly what's going on. I mean, there's mystery and there's muddle. You're allowed to challenge the audience, but not to baffle them. ValueVille left me baffled. The internal logic of the show is inconsistent; characters react with shock to events that they should already be used to. Casey's book does reflect some intelligence and humor, but by the end the show becomes irritatingly ponderous, with ham-fisted attempts at deeper meaning and bland proclamations about the true meaning of life and love.
Searching for Romeo - Unlike ValueVille, Searching for Romeo has a triple-threat author who seems more than up to all three tasks. This charming show is by Brian Sutton, and it's one of the most promising shows I've seen at NYMF this year. Searching for Romeo is a modern, comic riff on Romeo and Juliet, except from the perspective of two relatively minor characters: Rosaline and Paris. It's sort of like Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, but far more light-hearted in tone, and without the philosophical wordplay. Sutton's music is extremely pleasant, retro pop, tuneful and infectious. Sutton seems to have strong instincts about which moments to musicalize, and is especially adept at creating opportunities for multiple characters to sing about the same subject, thus creating engaging duets, trios, even sextets. The lyrics reflect a fair amount of slant rhyme, but in this case it seems defensible in light of Shakespeare's frequent use of eye rhyme. The story is told in a sort of daydream, as a young women drifts off in English class while the class is reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. This presents Sutton with the opportunity of mixing modern lingo with Shakesperean meter and phrasing to deft comic effect. The dialogue features Shakespeare puns and allusions aplenty, which might have been more groan-worthy in less capable hands. The show has some transition issues to work out, but on the whole seems in terrific shape already. The NYMF production featured a particularly strong ensemble of players, including a valiant director's assistant by the name of Dan Drew, who at the eleventh hour stepped into the male lead role, script in hand, when the original actor fell ill. Bravo, dude.
Cloned - Each year, NYMF seems to feature at least one campy mad-scientist musical, usually with mixed results. This year, there's Cloned, and the results are on the whole better than with previous entries in this NYMF subgenre. The book is by Jacey Powers and Dan Wolpow, lyrics by Dan Wolpow, and music by Adam Spiegel. Cloned features a very promising scenario, clever comic dialogue, and strong storytelling. A young scientist is trying to invent a teleportation machine, but accidentally winds up closing himself and others. The show takes a while to warm up, but eventually features some wonderfully humorous sequences. One problem might be the borderline racist landlord character, a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but that could easily be toned down. Overall the story works; would that I could say the same about the score. When the music in Cloned isn't bland, it's rather unappealing, sometimes painful. Spiegel demonstrates little gift for tonality here, although the uptempo songs fair slightly better than the ballads. The NYMF production features a very solid cast overall, with three particularly strong performances from John Alban Coughlan as Dr. Marshall, the mad professor; Matthew Knowland as Fizz, the stoner roommate; and Crystal Kellogg as Sharon Stone. Yes, that Sharon Stone. With some work, Cloned could be a winner. Well, if about half of the songs were replaced, or at least got some more euphonious music.
Somewhere With You - Sometimes, when I'm watching a show, I have to remind myself that there's no such thing as a bad idea, only poor execution. Somewhere With You was a major challenge in this respect. The show has a book by Peter Zinn, music and lyrics by JT Harding. On paper here, there's absolutely nothing that I would normally respond to. The score is wall-to-wall country music, a genre to which I have no connection. The characters are essentially white-trash crystal-meth addicts and their ilk, one of whom volunteers for the National Guard and is deployed to Iraq. Not my music, not my people, not my world. So you need to make me care. And I didn't. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the show, other than these were unsympathetic people involved in an increasingly unpleasant series of events. Yes, musicals can feature bad people and tragic circumstances, but you need to have the artistic chops to make it work. The score for Somewhere With You apparently includes songs that have already been hits on the country charts, which is probably why a number of them felt generic. Other songs felt in questionable taste, including one for the resident psychopathic drug dealer about the phone sex he has every Friday night while in prison, complete with scantily clad maidens writhing in the foreground. The book has some significant dramaturgical issues regarding who knows what and when, and features a number of scenes that are of questionable relevance, including a bizarre one-off song about a character who has shot a bunch of Iraqi children. We've never seen the character before and never see him again. I think part of my negative reaction to the show came in response to the exaggerated friends-and-family applause from the audience at the performance I caught. Never a good idea, folks.
I was in the Berkshires over the July Fourth weekend, and had no intention of seeing any theater. Honestly. But I wound up taking in two shows, one of which was The Servant of Two Masters at Shakespeare & Company, a delightful production of one of my favorite pieces. Catching a show amid the hills and greenery wasn't my idea, I swear, but rather the suggestion of my best friend, whom I was visiting. (I say this just in case you might be thinking that I'm somehow single-mindedly focused on theater at the expense of all other things.)
Well, on Sunday, I was giving a ride to another friend to the train station so that he could go back home to New York City, and as we were approaching the station, I suddenly started thinking that Manhattan was a short train ride away, and that I could park my car, take the train to Grand Central, see a quick Sunday afternoon show, and make it back home to Boston before 9 PM. Now, I ask you...
Plus, a friend on Facebook highly recommended the new one-man musical The Lion, written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer, and this was literally the only time I would have to see the show before it closes this coming weekend. Turns out, I was very glad I caught the show: Scheuer is not only a terrific songwriter, but also a fantastic guitar player and a very appealing performer as well. (It doesn't hurt that he's absolutely adorable, but, sorry boys, he's straight.) Plus, Scheuer has quite a powerful story to tell in the course of his 70-minute show.
The Lion starts with Scheuer coming on stage, grinning like a Cheshire cat, seemingly amazed that anybody has bothered to show up. He then uses his rather expertly crafted songs and kick-ass guitar skills to relate the story of his complicated relationship with his father, his father's sudden death, his growing love for music, and his own harrowing health struggles. What starts as a simple daddy-gave-me-music story gets more and more layered and moving as events unfold. (Check out this video of the title song and this one of Scheuer in performance)
On paper, the story of The Lion might seem trite, but there's something about Scheuer's songwriting and performance skills that allow the potentially maudlin subject matter to ring fresh. Scheuer wisely takes a self-deprecating tone in his songs and his singing, and within a few minutes of his performance, I was drawn happily into his world. How would he resolve his troubled relationship with his family? Faced with a potentially deadly diagnosis, how would he fare? Of course, we know he survived, since -- duh -- he's telling his own story, but it's a credit to Scheuer's storytelling skills that we somehow doubt the outcome that we know full well to be true.
The Lion plays through Sunday, July 13th at the Manhattan Theatre Club's Studio at Stage II, which is located beneath the New York City Center. That gives you less than a week to catch the show, but I have the feeling we're going to be seeing The Lion in a future incarnation. It's really too good for just a five-week run.
I just got back from a three-show day in NYC. I hadn't planned on blogging about any of the shows -- I wanted to just sit back and enjoy on this trip -- but as I sat watching one of them, I grew increasingly irritated, furious even, and left frustrated that I didn't have an avenue through which to vent my anger.
Well, pardon me if I vent, but Savion Glover's OM may just be most infuriating 90 minutes I've ever endured. End-to-end annoyance, from stem to stern. The show started with the house lights going to half, followed by seven-plus minutes of recorded free-form jazz, with the house lights still at half. (Wasn't the act of subjecting unwitting victims to free-form jazz outlawed at the Geneva Convention?) We all sat wondering whether there was something wrong backstage. It was sort of like waiting for the second shoe to drop, or the next drop to come from an irregularly dripping faucet. Profoundly annoying.
Finally the curtain rose, revealing a set with a series of platforms, hundreds of battery-powered candles, and pictures of famous tappers and religious figures, including Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. (Cuz Savion's deep, you see.) Now, what Jimmy Slyde and Gregory Hines have to do with Tibet or passive resistance I can only guess at. Savion entered, followed by a troupe of acolytes who sat down and proceeded to actively pray onstage throughout the entire piece. Yes, pray.
What followed was 80 minutes of mind-numbingly repetitious tapping, mostly from Savion, accompanied by eastern chant music with no discernible downbeat. Frequently throughout the piece, the tapping built to an ear-splitting crescendo of machine-gun-like intensity. It was as though Glover had just discovered Phillip Glass and Buddhism, and decided that an entire show of him doing the same thing over and over might make him look avant-garde and super spiritual.
There were four other dancers on stage, but only one of them got any chance to dance in between Savion's self-aggrandizing ministrations. They were all on platforms that seemed to be designed to make their taps as loud as possible. Savion fell in love with a particular spot on his platform, which produced taps as loud as a rifle shot, and spent what seemed like ten minutes working it, like a child who has just discovered that the spoon makes a loud sound against the bowl. This auditory assault might have been bearable had there been any discernible larger meaning to the show. I counted 11 people who left before the end. If I handn't been in the middle of a long row, I would have left, too.
Yes, Savion is an amazing tapper. But his virtuosity only carries a piece so far. How about some actual movement? Some genuine meaning? Some discernible point of view? A chance to see somebody else get a tap in edgewise? I suppose it's possible that he was trying to achieve some kind of Zen-inspired irony, or trying to strip away everything but the beat as part of some effort to live in the moment, or whatever. It would appear that Mr. Glover could use someone like George C. Wolfe, who conceived and directed both Jelly's and Noize, to help in shape his ideas and place his admitted talents into a meaningful context. Very little of the dance seemed planned in advance, but was rather improvisational. Which means I spent good money (no press tix this time) to watch Savion Glover play around.
After 80 minutes of non-stop irritation, the show finally ended, but the curtain call seemed awkwardly timed. The curtain didn't come back up for bows until most people in the audience had already stopped clapping. Then, darkness and silence. The house lights never came up. I talked to the house manager, who said that this was a directorial choice on Glover's part. I mean, is that even legal? To force an audience to fumble awkwardly for the exit in the dark? Was Glover deliberately trying to alienate as much of his fan base as possible? Or was he merely being pretentious?
So, self-indulgent pseudo-spirituality, mind-numbing repetition, painfully loud sound, and a chance to break my neck on the way out. Thanks, Savion.
I can't recall the last time I was so genuinely enchanted by the first act of a show, only to be so disenchanted by the final curtain. The new musical Fly By Night at Playwrights Horizons feels a little like a bait and switch. What begins as a sweet, refreshing little show with imaginative staging and deft handling of a non-linear plot eventually careens into annoyingly vague metaphysical speculation.
Fly By Night starts off charming, whimsical, with a number of quirky but endearing characters. The story features a 1965 love triangle involving a young man (Adam Chanler-Berat) who works in a sandwich shop and two sisters (Patti Murin and Allison Case) who move to New York City from South Dakota.
The music, lyrics and book are by Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly, and Michael Mitnick, three names I don't recall encountering before Fly By Night. There's a tremendous amount of promise on display here. The score is pleasant, the lyrics clever, and the story handles the use of shifting times frames far more adeptly than does that of If/Then, another musicals that tries, but fails, to create a non-linear story. Despite the occasional anachronism (I'm not sure "in the zone" was a current phrase in 1965) and a few instances of bad scansion, the score shows great craft, and leaves me eager to see what the creators might produce in the future.
Director Carolyn Cantor shapes a sharp and fluid production, with an appealingly brisk pace, at least for the first half of the show. The second half becomes attenuated, partly due to a grating shift in tone, but also due to the fact that the show is about an hour longer than the premise would seem to justify. It's hard to sustain whimsy for 155 minutes. The moment the show started to lose me was when the young man and his boss sing a rather unpleasant duet while making a bunch of sandwiches. Prior to that, the Fly By Night had me grinning ear to ear.
Later in the show, things get dark, both literally and figuratively, as the story is set before and during the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. A number of uncharacteristically grim things occur in the plot, and the book never really comes to any resolution, apart from some mystical speculation about how we're all made literally from stardust. (Scientifically true, but metaphysically pretentious.)
Fly By Night also has a major plot device that never really meshes with the rest of the story, regarding the young man's father and how the young man ignores the father's numerous attempts to reach out to him after the death of the young man's mother. We never really learn why the son has been so callous, we only hear him apologize.
But, again, the first act of Fly By Night is a real charmer, and the cast includes some of the most reliable and appealing performers working in New York today, including the above-listed trio, as well as Bryce Ryness, Peter Friedman, and Henry Stram. I'd love to see Fly By Night get some significant revisions, because there's so much here already that's just delightful. And, again, I look forward to seeing what else Rosenstock, Connoly and Mitnick come up with the the future.
So I can totally understand why the producers of Heathers: The Musical would think they had a slam dunk on their hands. Unfortunately, Heathers, currentlyplaying an open-ended run at Off-Broadway's New World Stages, while sporadically amusing, is wildly uneven as both a piece and a production, despite a decidedly talented cast, led by Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica and Ryan McCartan as J.D.
Heathers begins with an extended opening number that's meant to set the sardonic tone of the show, and the number is certainly rhythmic, but it is also tuneless. As the show progresses, the music gets downright ugly at times, which I suppose could be a choice on the creators' part, but it didn't make for a pleasant listening experience. The score for Heathers does feature one fairly decent song, called "Seventeen," which is a plea from the female lead to go back to being just another teenager.
Heathers could have worked as a musical based on a strong, funny libretto and sharp, comedic direction. But the night I saw the show, only about half of the intended humor was landing, despite an audience comprising a large number of diehard fans of the movie and a passel of incipient groupies for the stage version. I haven't seen the movie since it came out in 1989, and it appeared that some of the humor depended on one's memory of the movie. (For instance, the would-be humorous references to Corn Nuts.)
The first act of the show, despite the failed comedic bits, was certainly never dull. However, the second act became rather attenuated. (Should any entry into the genre of the campy Off-Broadway bloodbath ever be more than one act? Or longer than ninety minutes?) Act two also features a rather jarring shift in tone. Characters start singing extremely serious songs, devoid of irony, and the songs don't mesh with the rest of the score. The show then bumbles and sputters until the memorably dark finish, which partially redeems the show with its swift pacing and comparatively effective balance of drollery and pathos.
Perhaps a firmer hand at the helm might have made the difference. The director here is Andy Fickman, who also directed Reefer Madness, a production that had similar problems with consitency and pacing. Fickman's work on Heathers features some rather static staging and awkward comic business, amid fleeting moments of effectiveness. I have to wonder how well the show would have worked with, say, Scott Schwartz as director. Schwartz did such a masterful job with Bat Boy, and is currently represented at the New World Stages by Murder for Two, the charm and humor of which owes a great deal to Mr. Schwartz.
So, what's your damage, Heathers? A tuneless score, a middling book, and slack direction. (Well, f*** me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?)
The show is a two-hander in which the performers not only play a large variety of characters, they also accompany each other, and sometimes themselves, on the piano. The two actors in question help make the show a delight, namely Brett Ryback as the "detective," and until recently the formidable Jeff Blumenkrantz playing all of the suspects. Author Joe Kinosian has stepped into the role, one which he played for an extended period during the show's extended Chicago run. Blumenkrantz was so iconic, so I'll be very interested to see Kinosian put his personal twist on the role.
If you haven't seen Murder for Two already, here's your chance. I have two tickets to see the show, and they can be yours if you answer the following five questions correctly. In the very likely event that there's more than one person who gets all of the questions right, I will randomly select a winner from all the correct responses. Please answer the questions via the comment function below. (Don't worry: I won't publish anyone's answers until after I select the winner.)
[The contest is now closed. The winner has been selected and notified. Thanks to all who entered. --C.C.]
1. Murder for Two features one performer who plays all of the murder suspects. Which currently running show contains a role in which a performer plays all of the murder victims?
2. In Murder for Two, when we discover who the real killer is, it's a pretty significant surprise. (In other words, I very much doubt that you'll see it coming.) Which other very recent, small-cast, Off-Broadway musical featured a murder for which the actual killer was kind of a shock?
3. Jeff Blumenkrantz has been a working performer in New York for many years, but he's also a successful composer and lyricist. In which short-lived musical did Blumenkrantz make his Broadway debut as a composer?
4. Scott Schwartz is no stranger to directing comic musicals. In which campy, Off-Broadway, bloodbath of a show did Schwartz make his New York City directorial debut?
5. Murder for Two played a previous engagement under he auspices Second Stage Theatre. Which other two-character musical recently enjoyed a revival at the venerable 2ST?
As I pointed out in my recent post of The Best Musicals of 2013, it was a darned good year for musicals, but it was also a doozy for not-so-great musicals. Try as I might, I just couldn't get the list of the bad down to 10 shows. I mean, it's an arbitrary number anyway, and in truth, there's always more bad than good when it comes to art and entertainment. Quality is always the exception.
Most of the shows I've listed here won't be all that surprising. The lion's share received mixed to negative reviews and have since closed. But there are three shows here that received strong reviews and sold or are selling extremely well as of this writing: Pippin, Here Lies Love, and Kinky Boots. I hereby acknowledge that I am in the decided minority in disliking these shows, but they're essentially the reason that this list swelled to number 13. It would have been very easy to leave them off the list and just let the whole thing slide, but I decided that I didn't want to end the year without one last jab. Am I saying that I'm right and the world is wrong? Not at all. I'm saying that, in my estimation, the shows weren't all that and a bag of chips. See below for why.
Click on the show titles below for my original reviews.
13. Pippin - Nobody can say I didn't try. I saw Pippin both at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, as well as on Broadway. And, on the whole, not so much. All over my Facebook feed, people were kvelling over this show, saying it was the Best. Thing. Ever. Sorry, I just don't see it. There are certainly individual moments in the show, particularly Andrea Martin's show-stopping rendition of "No Time at All," that made attending more than worth my time. But I found the whole circus theme distracting rather than additive, and I still, try as I may, can't quite figure out what the show wants to be about. There's a sinister undercurrent, which I know was intentional on Bob Fosse's part, but the current production feels like it's trying to cover up the menace. Apparently, the effort has been successful, because people come out of the piece with a sense of life-affirming awe, which was exactly the opposite of what Fosse had in mind. So, it's a combination of the piece itself as well as the Diane Paulus treatment of the show that really leaves me scratching my head. I just don't see any there there.
12. Here Lies Love - Here's another production that had people going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, and I just don't get it. Some folks suggested that I didn't enjoy the production because I sat in the gallery above the action rather than participating in the immersive experience down on the dance floor, but I call BS on that. A good show is going to demonstrate its inherent quality no matter where I'm sitting. There was really only one sequence in the whole of Here Lies Love that I found captivating, which was the assassination and funeral procession for Benigno Aquino. Otherwise, Here Lies Love felt like EvitaLite, but without Tim Rice's clever lyrics and deeply cynical point of view, or Andrew Lloyd Webber's apt use of leitmotif. (Yes, Lloyd Webber sometimes gets it right, in my estimation, although it's been a good 30-plus years since last he did.) Continual talk of finding another venue for Here Lies Love to give it a chance at an extended commercial run has so far not come to fuition. I can't say I'm terribly distraught.
11. Hands on a Hardbody - This show wasn't so much bad as bland. An endurance contest to win a truck may seem an unlikely subject for a musical, to be sure, but essentially the same dramatic potential as A Chorus Line: it's not so much about who wins as what we learn about these people along the way. And that's where Hands on a Hardbody failed: it didn't make me care. There were some really strong performances in the show, particularly from Hunter Foster and Kaela Settle, and director Neil Pepe found ways to keep the action from becoming static. There were quite a few stirring songs from composer Trey Anastasio and lyricist Amanda Green, including a terrific 11 o'clock number for Foster. But the success of the show really hinged on making these characters into real people, and that just didn't happen. Ghostlight Records released a cast recording, and there have been announcements of certain regional theaters including the show in their upcoming seasons, but I have a hard time imagining that the show is going to really catch on. Hands on a Hardbody shows every sign of becoming last season's High Fidelity: gone and almost entirely forgotten.
10. Annie - I like Annie. I really do. No, it's no masterpiece, but it's really good fluff. It tugs at the old heart strings and has plenty of fun and good humor along the way. But the most recent Broadway revival, which closed shortly after the new year, was a mess. Director James Lapine seemed to have no idea how to handle the humor in the piece, because most of it fell flat. What's more, the production numbers just kinda sat there. Overall, there was no lift to the production, no effervescence. The culprits here are Lapine and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, both eminently talented men when they're working on the right project. This wasn't a good fit for either. Lapine did succeed at bringing out the warmth of the piece, but left the comedy and the pacing high and dry. And Blankenbuehler only seems to work out on projects that involve a more contemporary style. As was true for 9 to 5, Blankenbuehler's decidedly street-wise choreographic style seemed woefully out of place in Annie.
9. Kinky Boots - Now, I'm not just bitter that Kinky Boots won the Best Musical over Matilda. (I am bitter, but it's not just that.) Kinky Boots is bad, folks. Really bad. The book is preachy, the characters are two-dimensional, the lyrics don't rhyme, the set is depressing. I could go on. Also, as a director/choreographer, Jerry Mitchell is in no danger of challenging the legacy of Jerome Robbins. Now, it's certainly great to see Billy Porter finally get some recognition, and Cindi Lauper still has a populist touch with her tuneful music. Also, regarding the controversy over the show's appearance on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade broadcast, I say bring on the drag queens. The higher the heels, the closer to God. So I support the intentions of the show, and of the authors. I'm glad so many people are enjoying this show, because it really does have a message that needs propagating. I just don't think the show itself is very good. As I say to my students every year when they write a paper about their choice for the Most Underrated Musical, bad shows can have good messages. It's all about execution. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm hoping to find a reasonably priced ticket to see Matilda for the third time.
8. Big Fish - A real heartbreaker. Of all the shows on this list, Big Fish is really the one that pains me the most to include. Talk about your appealing cast. Do we have any folks currently working who are more talented, likable, and reliable than Norbert Leo Butz, Kate Baldwin, and Bobby Steggart? Plus, Susan Stroman may just be the best director/choreographer we have. The original novel and movie of Big Fish would seem to lend themselves quite handily to the musical treatment. However, composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa and book writer John August weren't able to create a piece that did the solid story and compelling characters justice. I even went back to see the show a second time to see if perhaps I was just in a mood when I first attended, but the second viewing only served to solidify my view. There just wasn't enough magic, which is quite a liability in a show that's purportedly about the magic of storytelling. The second act seemed designed to lead up to a big dramatic reveal that was actually rather anticlimactic. The last ten minutes of the piece were extremely affecting, and almost made the previous two hours or so worth the journey. Almost, but not quite.
7. Love's Labour's Lost - Fogettable and forgotten. Expectations were high for Alex Timbers' new musical, based of course on the original Shakespeare play. Timbers and composer/lyricist Michael Friedman previously created Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which despite its short Broadway run has become a rather prominent feather in these gentlemen's respective caps. But whereas Bloody Bloody had a unified vision and a snarky sense of fun, LLL was a mishmosh of styles, a jumble of underdeveloped plot lines, and at the end quite the downer of a show. The problem seemed to be that Timbers retained too many of the characters from the Shakespeare, and remained too slavish to its structure. Friedman's songs were replete with lines with too many syllables for the melody, and weren't nearly as funny as they seemed to think they should be. The show had a fabulous cast, including Colin Donnell, Daniel Breaker, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Bryce Pinkham, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, and many more of New York's finest. Unfortunately, Timbers and Friedman gave these fine performers a show that was detrminetally fragmented, and characters that were too thin to really do anything with.
6. The Jungle Book - Here's my sole regional entry on this year's list. After director Mary Zimmerman's absolutely stunning production of Candide, produced a few seasons back at Boston's Huntington Theater, I had very high hopes for The Jungle Book, which ran at the Huntington last fall. What a tremendous disappointment. Whereas Candide amounted to nothing less than a theatrical tour de force, a fundamental rethinking of the piece, and a stunning reinvigoration of Bernstein's admired/maligned original, The Jungle Book was aimless, lifeless, and joyless. The show simply meandered from episode to episode without any sense of build, and the production numbers just kinda sat there on stage. My understanding is that Disney kept a very watchful eye on the production hoping to develop the piece as a commercial property. Although the production was financially successful, in fact becoming the Huntington's all-time best seller, I can't imagine the folks at Disney were all that pleased with the artistic result. Short of a complete rethinking of the piece, I'm not expecting to see a New York production any time soon. (But, hey, what do I know, right?)
5. Motown - I've been thinking about it, and it's actually rather rare for a show to come along that's absolutely critic-proof. Mamma Mia is certainly one, as no amount of reasoned analysis would seem to impede that juggernaut. And you might argue that Cats, Phantom, and Les Miserables to a certain extent fit the bill, although the last two received their share of decent reviews along with the quibbles and brickbats. Now there's Motown - the Musical, an amateurish embarrassment, at least in terms of libretto writing. But the show has defied all critical analysis and become one of the best-selling shows in recent memory. Hey, sure, the songs are great, the cast members are exceptional, and the staging is at times quite thrilling. But I will never quite be able to erase from memory the sheer pain of hearing such ham-fisted dialogue as, "Mr. Berry Gordy, you built a legacy of love." I suppose it's foolish to expect Gordy to create a show that took a hard-eyed look at his true legacy, fraught as it allegedly is with questionable business practices. I just have a hard time accepting the ticket-buying public so wholeheartedly embracing one man's love letter to himself.
4. Bare - I never saw the original version of Bare, although I have heard the cast recording. But if the recent Off-Broadway revival of the show was supposed to be an improved version, I can't imagine how bad the former must have been. Truth be told, there was a certain amount of decent writing in the first half of the new Bare, but by the time the show got around to the sturm und drang of the piece, the show really seemed to fall apart. You certainly couldn't blame the talented cast of youngsters who gave it their all. And I certainly have no intention of dancing on the grave of composer Damon Intrabartolo, who passed away last August at the age of 39. But Bare as a show doesn't begin to justify to the vociferous cult following the show has developed over the years. Here's another case of extremely good intentions without the actual craft and quality to do the message justice.
3. A Night With Janis Joplin - Oh, the pain. What an excruciatingly loud musical. I can't recall being in such agony at a Broadway show before. Now, clearly I am to blame for forgetting to bring earplugs, but should I really need to in a legitimate house? Physical discomfort aside, the show itself is no great shakes. A reader contacted me after I posted my review and urged me to reconsider the show on its own terms. True, the piece doesn't delve into Joplin's tortured soul, content to merely skate along the surface. But does every show need to be a cathartic experience? Well, no. Is there no merit in simply celebrating the woman's musical accomplishments? I think there is merit in such a goal, but I didn't feel A Night With Janis worked on this level either. For me, the show represents a tremendous missed opportunity in terms of bringing out the pain behind the music. We're not talking Perry Como or Tony Bennett here. This is Janis Joplin, the woman who died at the age of 27 from a heroin and alcohol overdose. To focus on the power of her music and ignore the torture behind the rasp, at least for me, does this amazingly talented women a disservice.
2. Soul Doctor - Oy gevalt. Yeah, I know, not the most inspired lead, but certainly an appropriate one. If good intentions were all that determined a show's success, the Soul Doctor would have run for years. As with A Night With Janis Joplin, Soul Doctor sought to celebrate the life and music of one particular person, in this case Shlomo Carlebach, the so-called rockstar rabbi. But Soul Doctor made a fairly common mistake with bio tuners: it tried to cover too much. By the time the show got around the celebrating Carlebach's music, there had been so much leaden exposition of his life that it was really hard to care. Along the way we got some fairly strong performances, particularly from Amber Iman as Nina Simo and Eric Anderson as the soul doctor himself, but there really wasn't enough good material for these fine actors to make a difference. (Oh, and after this show and The People in the Picture, there should really be some regulatory oversight on the part of the state of New York with respect to dancing rabbis and rabbinical students. I'm not saying it can never happen, but people should at the very least have to apply for a permit.)
1. Jekyll and Hyde - How do you make the worst musical to hit Broadway in 30 years even worse? You negate the one thing that the show has ever had going for it - Frank Wildhorn's not-unpleasant melodies. For the short-lived revival of Jekyll & Hyde, the admittedly generic charms of Wildhorn's music were crushed beneath the squelch of harsh steampunk orchestrations. Take that away, and what you're left with is a plodding book with more holes than wheel of Swiss cheese, and a set of puerile, non-specific lyrics. Lyricist/librettist Leslie Bricusse used to be an extremely talented man, back when he worked with Anthony Newly, but even on his own solo projects, like the movie Scrooge. Wha' happen? Director Jeff Calhoun replaced the laughable staging elements from the original Broadway production with elements that were even more risible, such as the appallingly ridiculous confrontation sequence between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Perhaps the failure of this revival, combined with the failure of every other Wildhorn show that has ever made it to Broadway, will make producers think twice about the fiduciary wisdom of funding same.
Hey, you know what? The year 2013 was a pretty good one for musicals. And I'm not even talking about the crowd-pleasers that seemed to please everyone in the crowd except me (Kinky Boots, Here Lies Love, and Pippin, all of which are conspicuously -- and deliberately -- absent from this list). Nor am I discussing the critic- and reason-proof blockbuster that is Motown - the Musical.
No, I'm talking about musical shows of genuine craft and quality. I'm sure, as always, people will take issue with some of my selections. Far From Heaven?The Last Five Years? Hey, what can I say? I like what I like, and don't like what I don't like. I look for credible drama, rich characterizations, evocative music, well-crafted lyrics, solid performances, and that certain ineffable frisson that arises when the elements merge into a moment of transcendence. The following shows each produced those synergistic moments of theatrical magic.
Now someone might look at this list and be able to find a show that violates one of my previously espoused quality indicators. For instance, well crafted-lyrics should actually rhyme, should scan well with the music, and shouldn't require extra syllables to make a lyric fit. Matilda violates each of these criteria at various points throughout its score. But the reason I was able to overlook the lazy lyrics in Matilda -- and not in, say, Kinky Boots -- was that Matilda was giving me so much of the other criteria listed above that somehow the lyrical indiscretions faded into the background.
Click on the show titles below to read my reviews. And be on the lookout for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2013. (Gee, I wonder which award-winning show will feature prominently on that list...)
10. On the Town - I like to include at least one regional entry on my Best and Worst lists, and the Barrington Stage revival of On the Town was easily the best thing I saw outside of New York last year. The folks at Barrington opted to put on the show without the original Jerome Robbins choreography (or perhaps it wasn't available), but choreographer Joshua Bergasse proved more than up to the task of creating his own, albeit based on Robbins' blueprint. Also on hand was director John Rando, who kept the pacing at a fever pitch, which is just where it needs to be for that show. There was talk of the production moving to Broadway this season, but I haven't heard anything beyond the initial announcement. I've given up trying to predict if such moves are fiscally prudent, but I wouldn't mind another chance to see this production, hopefully with a large portion of the Barrington cast intact. (Particularly Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as the three central sailors.)
9. Violet - It's not often I get a chance to see those one-night-only events in New York City, but thankfully I was able to snag a ticket to see the redoubtable Sutton Foster in the concert staging of Violet as part of the new Encores! Off-Center summer program. I never had a chance to write up reviews of the three shows that inaugurated that series. (The other two were The Cradle Will Rock, which felt disappointingly rushed and slipshod, and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which was quite a revelation. What a remarkably moving, albeit dated, show.) But Violet was by far the strongest of the three productions. It reminded me of how strong a show Violet is, in particular Jeanine Tesori's glorious score. Sutton was, of course, glorious in the title role, with more-than-capable back-up from Joshua Henry as Flick. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear that the Roundabout Theatre would be hosting a limited run of the show on Broadway as part of its spring 2014 season. If you didn't have a chance to see the concert, I would highly recommend catching it on Broadway.
8. After Midnight - What a joy. I wasn't really expecting much from After Midnight, and perhaps my lack of expectations added to my enjoyment. But I like to think I would have been bowled over anyway by the sheer energy, jubilation, and professionalism on stage at the Brooks Atkinson. After Midnight is essentially a homage to The Cotton Club, that fabled Harlem night spot in the '20s and '30s. There's no book per se to After Midnight, it being a revue and all, but what holds the show together is a unified vision from director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, as well as a more than able cast of top-notch performers. As much as I enjoyed Fantasia Barrino in the star spot, I wouldn't mind going back when Barrino leaves and K.D. Lang takes her place in March. I'm not so sure that Toni Braxton and Babyface, who follow Lang in a rotating slate of headliners, will be my cup of hooch, but then I wasn't expecting much from Fantasia, and was quite pleasantly surprised. (One never knows, do one?)
7. Far From Heaven - When I saw Far From Heaven, I sat transfixed by the quiet beauty and subtle shades of the score, the book, and the performances. Far From Heaven is the latest show from composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the gentlemen who brought us the lovely Grey Gardens, and for some reason Far From Heaven failed to enchant either the critics or the theatre cognoscenti. In fact, things got rather nasty. I'll never quite understand all the hate that developed for this show on the Interwebs. People seemed downright livid about Far From Heaven, as though it were a personal affront against their very humanity. I found the show haunting and the score exquisite, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to revisit the show continually on CD. Is the show slow? I prefer the phrase "deliberately paced." Is it to everyone's taste? Clearly not. But it's a well-crafted show, as was wonderfully performed by Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, and a passel of talented supporting cast members. I'm hoping to see Far From Heaven catch on with some of the more adventurous regional theaters.
6. Murder for Two - Another pleasant little surprise of a show. Murder for Two is a two-hander in which the two actors not only portray all of the characters (actually, one actor portrays all of the characters bar one) but also provide the piano accompaniment for each other, sometimes simultaneously. The novelty of the virtuoso character changes and self-accompaniment might be enough to make the show a winner, but the show also has a tuneful and clever score (from newcomers Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair), plus crack comic direction from Scott Schwartz. I caught the show at the Second Stage's uptown theater, as well as when it moved to a commercial run at the New World Stages. Even knowing whodunit ahead of time didn't spoil my enjoyment of the show the second time around. Actually, truth be told, the denouement is the least satisfying part of the show, but the journey more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing destination.
5. The Last Five Years - After I published my review of The Last Five Years at the Second Stage, a couple readers contacted me to say that they were disappointed that I liked the show. "I was looking forward to you tearing it apart," one said. "I usually can count on you to tell the truth," said another. Well, I was telling the truth. I genuinely like L5Y, and I particularly enjoyed this production of the show. I respectfully submit to these readers that their desire to see me trash L5Y likely says more about them than it does about me. Why would I devote so much of my life to musical theater if I didn't like at least some of it? I think Jason Robert Brown is one of the most talented composer/lyricists we currently have working, and his direction for the Second Stage production was spot-on. He kept the staging and production elements to a minimum and let the complex characterizations carry the day. Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe brought warmth, humor, and just the right amount of neurosis to their performances. Will the upcoming movie with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick do the show justice? You know I'll be among the first to weigh in.
4. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - An utter delight. As an inveterate Anglophile, I was predisposed to love this show. It's sort of a mixture of Monty Python and Gosford Park, with a little Gilbert & Sullivan thrown in for good measure. Gentleman's Guide is easily the best musical to open this season on Broadway, at least so far. Much like Murder for Two, Gentleman's Guide is the product of a fresh new writing team (librettist/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak), and has a resolution that's slightly inscrutable, and yet there's so much pleasure to be had along the journey, it hardly seems to matter. The sterling cast includes Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham, all pitch-perfect in their roles. There was some concern among cast-album aficionados that no recording had yet been announced, but earlier this week we heard that Ghostlight Records would indeed be recording the show. (And all is well with the world.)
3. Matilda - Kinky Boots? Best Musical? I think not. I'm not sure what crawled up the collective ass of the theater community during awards season, but to so honor Kinky Boots, a middling show at best, over Matilda, an admittedly flawed but nonetheless delightful show, is simply ludicrous. I mean, it's not even a close contest. Matilda more than makes up for any flaws with rich characterizations, honest emotion, and songs that a far more specific to their context than those of Kinky Boots. Thankfully, Matilda is selling extremely well, which doesn't always happen with shows that lose the Best Musical Tony. Matilda seems to be around for the long haul, which will give the ticket-buying public a chance to decide for themselves. I've already seen Matilda twice an I eagerly anticipate seeing it again and again. I can't imagine ever wanting to see Kinky Boots again. (And have to sit through that preachy second act and those painfully generic songs again? I shudder at the very thought.)
2. Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - An unusual title, an unusual show. But Natasha Pierre was one of the most captivating and moving shows to come to New York in many a season. Who would have thought that a musical based on War and Peace of all things would make for such a lively and compelling piece of musical theater? In my defense, I'm no stranger to the 19th-century Russian novel, having taken an in-depth seminar in same my junior year of college. So I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised that the tremendous passion and drama of that distinctive genre would yield such a rich theatrical result. I say it all the time: There's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution. Natasha Pierre is executed with great passion and care by its sole author, Dave Malloy. I'll be very interested to see if the show catches on regionally. It certainly lends itself to a variety of staging possibilities, beyond the immersive, cabaret-style presentation the show enjoyed Off-Broadway.
1. Fun Home - Oh. My. God. What a show. What an experience. Fun Home comes from an even more unlikely source than Natasha Pierre does: a graphic novel about a lesbian cartoonist who grows up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. It's a tribute to composer Jeanine Tesori (making her second appearance on this list) and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron that they've taken on such a challenging topic and created something genuinely sublime. Fun Home is extraordinarily powerful, bringing out the quiet dignity and desperation of its characters, while also providing strong dose of tongue-in-cheek entertainment as well. The performances were staggering, particularly those of Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn as the father and mother, respectively. Kron and Tesori also make the risky but ultimately successful choice of splitting the daughter character among three different actresses. I say "risky" because it could have been confusing, or precious, or pretentious. But it works, and splendidly so. Fun Home ends with a series of shattering solos for each of the three main characters, and the one-two-three punch is almost too much to bear, and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time. Fun Home easily ranks as one of my favorite musicals, not just of this year, but of all time. It's really that good.
OK, now I can breathe. It has been one busy semester here at The Boston Conservatory, let me tell you. Of course, amid the hullabaloo, I continually remind myself that I'm teaching what I love -- musical-theater history -- and that I no longer have to make a living writing about injection-blow-molding companies or direct-mail campaigns. (Can we get an "amen"?)
I've done a better job than usual of keeping up with my end-of-the-semester blogging backlog, but I do still have three reviews from 2013 left to write: Murder For Two, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, and A Night With Janis Joplin. In short, the first two are delightful, and the last is an excruciating scream-fest with no compensatory human drama. Watch for my full reviews to come. (Also, keep an eye out for my annual lists of the best and worst musicals of the year.)
I saw Murder for Twoin its initial New York engagement on the Upper West Side under the auspices of the Second Stage Theatre. I genuinely enjoyed the show -- with some minor qualifications, as we shall see -- but never got around to writing a review because I had seen it so late in the run there really didn't seem to be a point. But when the show announced an additional engagement at the New World Stages, I was eager to catch it again and this time actually weigh in.
Murder for Two is a fresh and funny two-hander in which a pair of actors not only portray all of the various characters -- actually one (Brett Ryback) plays the "detective," while the other (Jeff Blumenkrantz) plays all of the suspects -- but they also take turns playing piano to accompany the other, or themselves, or both. (Two performers, no additional musicians. Talk about your cheap running costs, right?) The reason for the quotes around "detective" is that this character is really just a police officer who is bucking for detective and who tries to crack the case himself before the real detective shows up.
As the title implies, Murder for Two is a comic whodunit. On a dark and stormy night, as it were, a famous author is shot dead in the course of a dinner party. The police show up and question the party guests, each of whom seems to have a motive for the killing. The respective motives are based on the now-deceased author having exposed or embarrassed each of the guests, including our would-be detective, in one of the author's various books.
The eventual reveal as to who-actually-dunit is actually rather unconvincing, but it's a tribute to the authors, the director, and the performers that the journey is so deliciously diverting that it more than makes up for the unsatisfying denouement. Murder for Two is sort of like A Chorus Line in this respect: Who gets picked at the end of A Chorus Line? Who cares? In both of these admittedly disparate shows, it's not about the destination, but rather the journey.
Murder for Two is the product of a notable new writing team, Joe Kinosian, (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics). The pair met at the BMI Musical Theatre Writing Workshop, and if Murder for Two is any indication, we can expect great things from these talented young men. Kinosian's music is lively and engaging, while Blair's lyrics are well-crafted and thankfully devoid of slant rhyme and faulty scansion. One particularly apt couplet that had me grinning both times I saw the show was "We'll be BFFs forever/That's redundant, but whatever."
Director Scott Schwartz, the man who made the Off-Broadway production of Bat Boy such a riot, brings a similar sense of ingenuity and swift pacing to Murder for Two. The uptown production of the show felt a bit sluggish and forced at times, and not all of the show's abundant humor was landing. But Schwartz seems to have tightened up the the weak spots, including a rather vague prologue and an attenuated coda.
Chief among the show's charms are its two protean and assiduous performers. Brett Ryback is fresh-faced, energetic, and extremely appealing in the role of the detective manqué. And Jeff Blumenkrantz is nothing less than a force of nature as...well...everybody else. Both times I saw the show, I sat in awe of Blumenkratz's ability to shift ably among a dozen characters or so, sometimes for less than a second, and convey all of them with utter believability. That he was able to do so at times without any words at all, embodying each character through posture, facial expression, and mannerism, is all the more remarkable.
Although the show is currently scheduled to run through March 16th, Blumenkrantz will play his final performance on January 19th, after which composer Joe Kinosian will take up the role of "The Suspects," a part he played during the show's regional run at Chicago Shakespeare. With all due respect to Kinosian, I can't imagine anyone topping Blumenkrantz, who is simply masterful here. If you're planning to see the show, which I highly suggest, you might want to take it in before Blumenkrantz departs.
The end-of-the-semester crush is upon me, and I find myself scrambling to grade papers, plan finals, meet with students, and yet still keep up with my blogging backlog.
As Tevye said, "It isn't easy."
One rather interesting byproduct of the crush is that I find myself writing reviews of shows that I saw about a month ago. (I still have Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder in the pipeline. Both are absolutely delightful, and I'm going back to see Gentleman's Guide again next week. Watch for my reviews.)
The interesting part is that, as I return to consider these pieces critically, I find that some of them have really stuck with me, creating a lasting impression of the grand old time that I had while attending, for instance, both Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide.
Despite the show's poorly received tryout, and some pretty dismissive word-of-mouth, I went into Little Miss Sunshine with a hopeful sense of expectation. This is, after all, the team that gave us Falsettos, A New Brain, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. And while I was watching the show, I remember thinking that it was a whole lot more engaging and enjoyable than the advanced word had me expecting.
But unlike both Murder for Two and A Gentleman's Guide, Little Miss Sunshine just hasn't stuck with me. The tone of the show is clear, if not quite as sharp as that of the movie. And the characterizations are vivid and endearing: you're genuinely pulling for these people as they race to make it to California so that little Olive Hooper can participate in the beauty pageant.
Finn is at his best here when crafting quirky uptempo sequences, of which there are thankfully quite a few. But the edges seem a lot softer, the neurosis a bit more tame. Which is unfortunate, because the source material really cries out for edge. His ballads for this show reflect a tad more simple sentiment and earnest cliche than he has exhibited before. Also, Finn would seem to have no ear at all for how young girls speak to each other. His songs for a passel of mean girls who taunt Olive sound like what a sixty-something man might imagine nine-year-old girls sound like, but without having any direct experience in same. In other words, fake and forced.
Director James Lapine keeps the action moving at a fast clip, providing a number of inspired sequences along the way, particularly those involving the family VW microbus, getting it started, and then getting all the folks on board. There are clear Lapine touches in the set design, particularly in the chairs on wheels used here to suggest the family van (greatly reminiscent of the wheeled set pieces he used in Falsettos), which allow for great efficiency in traveling from sequence to sequence. These modular pieces are set amid a genuinely striking unit set, designed by Beowulf Boritt, that comprises a serpentine road map climbing up the back wall, and then snaking onto the ceiling over the audience's head. It's stunning.
The cast for Little Miss Sunshine features a number of usual suspects in the New York City theater world, including Will Swenson as the father, Stephanie J. Block as his wife, and Rory O’Malley as the suicidal Uncle Frank. All extremely professional performers, but, getting back to my point about a lasting impression, I find that none of the performances has really stuck with me, except perhaps for little nine-year-old Hannah Nordberg as Olive.
So, I'm glad Little Miss Sunshine made it to New York, and that I got a chance to see it. But the show, while possessing admitted charms, will very likely not have the staying power of a Falsettos or a Spelling Bee. Even so, I'll take second-rate Finn-Lapine over first-rate work from many of the other teams currently working any day of the week.
Every once in a while, a musical comes along that restores my faith in the art form. Fun Home, the shattering new musical now playing an extended engagement at The Public Theater, is one of those musicals. I'll elaborate as to why below, but suffice to say, if you haven't already seen Fun Home, you should. And if you have seen Fun Home, you should go again, which is exactly what I did.
OK, so you've got your tickets, and now you're back. Cool. Now, here's the thing about Fun Home. It shouldn't be nearly as enjoyable as it is, at least based on the subject matter. It's about a young lesbian who grows up in a funeral home, and whose father, a closeted gay man, commits suicide by stepping in front of a Mack truck. (We learn this at the very top of the show, so it's not really a spoiler.) I mean, talk about your "bad ideas for a musical," right?
Thankfully, librettist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori have found just the right balance of humor and pathos to bring vivid life to Alison Bechdel's intensely moving graphic novel, also called Fun Home. (The title represents the family's jocular twist on "funeral home.") Kron's book features some slight changes from the graphic novel: while the musical is unequivocal that the father committed suicide, the novel ruminates on this point and never really comes to a resolution.
The production is directed with both subtlety and bite by Sam Gold, and features an outstanding cast of newcomers and New York regulars alike. (More on these folks later.) The show starts with a slow burn, then builds into a shattering climax, culminating in a series of solos at the end for the three main characters: the father, the mother, and Alison (played at three different ages by three separate actresses). Gold includes some marvelously apt touches, including a final graphic taken directly from Bechdel's book that provides the heartfelt piece of punctuation to bring the production to a close.
Fun Home, the book and the musical, is all about character study, and Tesori and Kron provide an abundant assortment of character numbers, which just seem to get richer and deeper as the story progresses. The show begins with a number in which the mother, Helen, played with quiet intensity by the always remarkable Judy Kuhn, feverishly exhorts her three children to get the family's museum-like house in shape for a visit from a woman from a preservation society. Here, we not only learn about Helen's frantic desire to please, we also get a strong sense of the father's sharp, exacting nature. And he's not even on stage. That's dramatic efficiency.
What follows are many rich and flavorful character numbers: the youngest version of Alison sings touchingly about a butch delivery woman - and her fascinating ring of keys - who has just entered the diner where Alison and her father are eating. The middle Alison has a wonderfully funny solo about having sex for the first time while she's away at college, proclaiming, "I'm changing my major to 'Sex with Joan.'" And the score, as well as the show, just keeps getting better.
In fact the show ends with a trio of numbers that almost seem like an embarrassment of riches. The oldest Alison gets her own thrilling set piece during a car ride with her reticent father. The father, played with an almost nerve-wracking sense of palpable conflict by Michael Cerveris, ends the show with nervous breakdown of a song in which the new house that he's restoring becomes a heartrending metaphor for his shattered life. Tesori includes some achingly deft uses of leitmotif here, in which the father picks up some of the very same observations that the middle Alison employs during her sex-with-Joan song, but turns her empowering sense of discovery into a nightmare of fragmented regrets.
But my favorite moment of the show, the one that knocked the wind out of me both times I saw it, came when Helen, the mother, is sitting at the kitchen table talking to her daughter (middle Alison), telling Alison that she's known about the father's affairs with men all along. "I don't know how you did it," Alison says. At which point the mother starts into a number that is so raw, so emotionally honest, and ultimately so moving that I can quite easily rank it among my favorite moments in a lifetime of theater. Seriously. Tesori again employs leitmotif to stunning effect, this time quoting the opening number -- "Welcome to our house on Maple Avenue." The phrase becomes here an ironic rumination, and at the end of the song a discordant crash of loss and resignation.
OK, now, one final note, on a personal level. I have a special connection to the subject matter here, partly because I grew up in the 1970s, as Bechdel did, and many of her cultural signposts -- The Partridge Family, The Jackson Five, "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" -- brought smiles of wistful nostalgia to my face. Also, I grew up in a funeral home. No, really, I did. Like Bechdel, I grew up playing around the caskets, helping my father arrange the flowers, even occasionally helping him with "removals," a euphemistic term for picking up and transporting a body to a funeral home. Fun Home features a scene in which young Alison is called into the embalming room by her father so that she can hand him a pair of scissors from a tray that he is unable to reach. Her sense of both fascination and revulsion brought back a flood of memories that added to the already rich tapestry Fun Home represents.
Clearly, you don't have to have grown up in a funeral home to derive intense pleasure from Fun Home. (But, hey, all the better if you did.) You just need an open mind and a desire to experience what, in my humble opinion, is the best damn musical to hit New York City in 2013. Hands down.
One thing I've noticed lately is that my tolerance for flaws in a musical depends on the overall feeling that I'm developing as I'm watching a performance. When a musical, overall, is well-crafted, I'm willing to make allowances for flaws here and there. But when a show isn't taking me along for the ride, I'm more likely to wince at things like slant rhyme, insufficiently developed characters, poor scansion, forced comedy, and the like.
So, for instance, the same flaws that I found forgivable in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson I found increasingly irksome in Love's Labour's Lost, the new musical by the same creative team: composer/lyricist Michael Friedman and librettist/director Alex Timbers. Whereas Bloody Bloody reflected a unity of vision, and a ripe sense of college-boy snark, Love's Labour's Lost, while occasionally diverting, overall feels laboured and just a bit lost.
Of course, Love's Labour's Lost is based on the original Shakespeare play of the same name. The plot is essentially this: The King of Navarre and three college friends make an oath to devote the next three years of their lives to their studies. Enter a local princess and her three ladies in attendance to cock the whole thing up. There's also a subplot involving a random Spaniard, Don Armado, and his amorous attentions towards the local bar wench, and a bunch of subsidiary characters who come in and out to keep the action moving. Or not, as the case is with Timbers' adaptation. There's too much going on, and not enough development of any one particular element.
Timbers' adaptation includes almost all of the original Shakespeare characters, which creates significant problems in character development. To make room for songs, Timbers would have been wise to excise a subplot or two. Indeed, the only character who felt even close to fully fledged was Lord Berowne, played here by the always engaging Colin Donnell. It's really a shame, because the cast of Love's Labour's Lost represents a who's who of current and future Broadway stars, including Daniel Breaker as the King, and Lucas Near-Verbrugge and Bryce Pinkham as his other two Lords. In the female cast we have Rebecca Naomi Jones and Patti Murin, among many other fine performers. It's a shame to see all this talent underused in thinly developed roles. Even worse, we also have the wonderfully gifted Rachel Dratch and Jeff Hiller somewhat wasted here as two supposedly comic academics.
As for the score, I must confess that I've never been a fan of Mr. Friedman's work, despite my admiration for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as a whole. His songs for Bloody Bloody were poorly wrought but for the most part dramatically effective. His score for Saved was unmemorable at best, clumsy at worst. Here, Friedman's songs are intermittently engaging, but not exactly indelible. (I have friends well-versed in musical theater, however, who disagree with me on this point.)
There are some fairly decent solos and chorus numbers, including "Are You a Man" for Berowne and "Not a Good Idea" for the female cast. There's a somewhat effective song about subtext, in which one character speaks out loud the internal thoughts of two other characters, although How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying handles this device far more adroitly. Too many of the numbers feel thrown in without context or purpose, including a rather quizzical song about a guy who loves cats.
My biggest peeve with Friedman is that he seems incapable of writing, or unwilling to write, a song in which he doesn't force extra syllables into every other line. He seems downright contemptuous of metric convention. One of the most enjoyable moments of the show was when the four central men perform the boy-band number "To Be With You," interpolated here for comic effect. As enjoyable as this number was, it emphasized what many of the other songs in the show were missing: appealing tunes and regular structure.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the end of the show as well as a significant staging surprise in the paragraphs below.]
As director, Timbers does provide some moments of comedic inspiration in between Friedman's often cloddish songs. However, much of the fun feels grafted on through anachronistic quips and asides rather than crafted through sharp characterization or deft wordplay. One number ends with a kick line in the style of "One" from A Chorus Line, a knowing nod to the Public Theater's venerable cash cow. Cute, but hardly organic.
Late in the show, apropos of nothing I could discern, a high-school marching band descends upon the stage. I would imagine it's supposed to be this delightful surprise, but it only served to remind me that the production team didn't have many staging ideas that actually connected to what was going on in the show. At another point, one of the supporting cast members comes out dressed in a costume from Cats, possibly as a callback to the random number earlier in the show about a feline fetish. But it felt tossed in as an ineffective attempt at zany, madcap unpredictability.
By the end of the show, everything appears to be working out happily among the various pairs of lovers, until a messenger arrives to inform the princess that her father has passed away and that she must return to her kingdom at once to assume the throne. The princess and her ladies ask the boys to wait one year and come calling upon them again. It's a rather glum ending, staged rather solemnly, and it brings the momentum of the production to a grinding halt.
Yes, I'm aware that that's how the Shakespeare play ends. But My Fair Lady changes the end of Pygmalion. West Side Story has Juliet alive at the end. In musicals, faithfulness is neither necessary nor desirable. Indeed, slavish fidelity is the refuge of the artistically bereft.
This past month, I saw 25 musicals in 17 days. Even for me, that's a lot. Eighteen of those shows were at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). As one might expect, many of those shows were either in need of serious revision or were probably beyond repair. It would have been easy to become discouraged about the musical form.
But, I actually had a much higher NYMF hit rate this year than last year. Out of those 18 shows, three were outstanding, albeit in need of some tweaks: Julian Po, Legacy Falls, and Crossing Swords. That's about 16%, which is quite remarkable when you think that all these shows are still under development, plus the fact that I'm pretty darned difficult to please.
We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the good folks at NYMF, and NAMT, and The O'Neill, and the Goodspeed, and all the other wonderful programs out there that give new artists and works a chance to grow. If I took anything away from NYMF this year, it's that there are tons of people interested in creating and seeing new musicals. Thanks to NYMF, these two sets of people have the opportunity to come together and celebrate the art form they love.
I was one of the NYMF jurors this year, so I had to chance to weigh in on the Awards for Excellence that some of these shows received. In this, my final roundup of NYMF reviews, I make note below of where I and my distinguished fellow jurors concur, and also where we disagree.
Crossing Swords - Hands-down, the most promising show I saw at NYMF this year, Crossing Swords is a charming modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac. The book, music and lyrics are all by Joe Slabe, a fact that makes the show all the more remarkable. Crossing Swords concerns a student production of Cyrano, which Slabe uses as the backdrop of a more present-day love triangle: boy loves girl, girl loves other boy, second boy loves first boy. We also have the male and female teachers who act as chaperon and director, respectively. Slabe's characters are rich and fully realized in a way that the authors of some other NYMF shows -- Volleygirls and Gary Goldfarb in particular -- could learn from. Slabe has also crafted an accomplished score, full of charming tunes, touching moments, and ambitious counterpoint. What's more, he deftly interweaves song and dialogue, particularly effective in a song at the end of act one that brings all five characters together for a dramatically compelling finaletto.The show has a few problems: the male teacher has a back story about a fallen WWII comrade that doesn't reach fruition. The show seems to imply that the relationship was romantic, but then toward the end of the show, the male teacher responds amorously to the female teacher's kiss. There's also the continued reference to an off-stage character, Hopkins, that isn't quite satisfying. In fact, the resolution of this plot line felt a little trans-phobic, or at least trans-insensitive. Crossing Swords won NYMF awards in direction and music direction. It also won an award for its book, plus a well-deserved outstanding performance award for Steven Hauck as the male teacher. I would also have given the show best music and best ensemble, although the show did receive honorable mentions in both categories. I eagerly await the next incarnation of Crossing Swords, as well as the future work of the talented Mr. Slabe.
Volleygirls - This big winner at the NYMF awards this year was Volleygirls, picking up Best Ensemble, Most Promising New Musical, the "Best of Fest" audience favorite award, among others. The show is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but I didn't find it particularly well crafted. (Book by Rob Ackerman, music by Eli Bolin, lyrics by Sam Fromin.) The scenario is promising: an English teacher at local high school was also once an Olympic volleyball competitor. The principal calls upon her to coach the school's girls' volleyball team, which forces her to confront her embarrassing gaffe at the Olympics. The production featured the rather distracting element of having the entire cast on-stage most of the time, with cast members visibly reacting in ways that seemed inconsistent with their characters. Even more damning were two irredeemably irritating characters -- one, the mother of one of the players, and another, the daughter of the principal -- who are each painted as gross caricatures. The mom is cartoonishly evil, and the teen is insufferably belligerent. (The painfully abrasive song "I'm in Hell" had me audibly agreeing with the character.) Sure, characters can have negative traits, or even be evil, but you have to develop them in a way that's believable. And then, at the end of the show, each of the characters pulls a convenient 180 that's totally out of step with her previous development. One of the main attractions for this production was the always delightful Susan Blackwell, who, despite some evident vocal fry, does not disappoint. But then Blackwell probably just fell victim to the chief mode of communication between all of these characters: screaming, both during songs and during scenes. Clearly, I'm in a minority here, but I can't imagine enjoying any future incarnation of Volleygirls unless it undergoes some significant rewrites.
Gary Goldfarb: Master Escapist - This show picked up two NYMF awards: Best Lyrics and a distinguished performance award for lead actor, Jared Loftin. Loftin was certainly a worthy performer, but the show surrounding that performance was a gawd-awful mess. I have no idea what my fellow NYMF jurors saw in these lyrics, replete as they are with reversed syntax, poor scansion, and clumsy attempts at rhyming. (The book and lyrics are by Omri Schein, music by James Olmstead.) Gary Goldfarb concerns the plight of the eponymous Gary and his desire to do his magic act in his high-school talent show. The show clearly thinks it ought to be a laugh riot, but it isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The staging featured tons of awkward comic business that simply didn't land. What's worse, Gary is encircled by an extremely unappealing cast of characters, from his harridan mother, to his rival magician, to the school pretty boy and pretty girl, all of whom actively conspire to make Gary's life miserable. Everyone tortures Gary for being fat, except the girl in the wheelchair, who has a thing for Gary. But the other characters also taunt the handicapped girl relentlessly. Yeah, shows have a right to showcase unpleasant activities, but it wasn't entirely clear to me that the authors weren't enjoying the taunting, particularly during a painfully unfunny song that Gary sings to the crippled girl, called "You'll Never Walk Over Me." (Get it? Oh, I tell you, that's a knee-slapper.) What's more, like Volleygirls, Gary Goldfarb features two characters that change on a dime at the end of the show without the slightest hint of development. Gary's mom, who has unrelentingly derided Gary for his interest in magic, is suddenly the proud Jewish mother when the talent show comes around. And the school bully has a similarly out-of-the-blue...change of team, shall we say? I can't say that I saw much in Gary Goldfarb worth salvaging.
Marry Harry - One of the benefits that NYMF affords to the writers and composers who participate is the opportunity to see their shows performed by Broadway-caliber performers. Ironically, that can also be a liability: It can be hard to determine whether material is working because it's good or whether the pros are giving it more polish than it deserves. Such was, I think, part of the problem with Marry Harry, an amiable but awkward show with book by Jennifer Robbins, music by Dan Martin, and lyrics by Michael Biello. The cast of Marry Harry featured some really strong established performers, including Philip Hoffman, Jane Summerhays, and Annie Golden, plus two really strong newer faces, Jillian Louis and Robb Sapp. Perhaps with a less accomplished cast, the authors might have had more of an opportunity to see what's wrong with the show. Marry Harry centers around a struggling family restaurant and the son who wants to leave to become a chef, not just a cook. We also have the female landlord whose daughter is about to get married, but whose fiance dumps her right before the wedding. The young man and young woman go out on a date and impulsively agree to be married. The rest of the drama hinges on the repercussions of this hasty decision. For a good portion of the show, the story works, aided by some lovely character songs. But right now, the charming aspects of the show are overshadowed by some rather unbelievable plot developments, the worst of which involves the young woman becoming jealous when a female performance artist captures herself kissing the young man on film and uses it in her act. First, the two numbers for the performance artist were woefully out of sync with the style of the rest of the show. But, more to the point, the young women now calls off the wedding, but in a way that feels completely out of character. It felt manufactured, as though act two needed a lift and this was the best the authors could come up with. Even worse was an incredibly offensive song in which a Caucasian actor plays an Asian waiter, singing about the couple in sing-song-y pidgin English. Overall, Marry Harry shows some merit, but it will likely need more prep before it's ready for public consumption.
Castle Walk - Just before my final NYMF weekend, I taught the last lesson in my summer course on the history of musical-theater dance. During the course, we not only discussed the big-name dance greats, like Jerome Robbins and Agnes de Mille, we also discuss the significant precursors and influences, such as minstrelsy and social dance. Two prominent figures in the social dance discussion were Irene and Vernon Castle, largely forgotten today, but who in their time had an enormous impact on popularizing ballroom dance, in particular their signature Castle Walk. When I heard that one of this year's NYMF shows would tell the story of the Castles, I knew I had to take it in. The show Castle Walk takes place mostly during the filming of the Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Vernon has died, and Irene is serving as technical consultant for the film, but it quickly becomes clear that the studio doesn't really want her input. The drama in the show comes from the increasing tension between Irene and the film director, as she continues to object to the various liberties that the movie is taking with her story. The frustrating thing about Castle Walk is that is feels so professionally crafted, but it doesn't yet add up to a satisfying show. The book, music and lyrics, all by Milton Granger, never feel less than polished. It's just that he show isn't very exciting. Oh, it's wistful, and heartfelt, but it's also just a wee bit dull. When Irene starts schooling a group of dancers on how to do the Castle Walk, Granger gives a a mini dance-history lesson: prior to the Castles, dance was either stuffy or lewd. The Castles made it elegant and fun. Suddenly I was in, but only momentarily. The production reflected great skill in both the performances and the presentation. Lynne Wintersteller as Irene was superb, with a glorious voice and the ability to convey a great deal of character in even the slightest glance. Both Wintersteller's performance and the show's copious dance were recognized by the NYMF jurors, and rightly so. By the end of the show, I found myself wishing that Granger could find a way to breathe a little more life into his show. The subject matter is certainly compelling. What it needs is a little inspiration.
I had the opportunity to see the new musical Nobody Loves You a few years ago while it was still under development.
Some backstory: For the past three years, a handful of students from the Boston Conservatory have participated in the Festival of New Artists at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House. While attending the Festival, I've had the pleasure of watching my students perform in staged readings of a number of promising new musicals, but Nobody Loves You marks the first time that of these shows has made it to a major stage in New York City.
When I saw the reading of Nobody Loves You in 2011, I was moderately entertained, but not really blown away. I remember thinking authors Itamar Moses (book and lyrics) and Gaby Alter (music) would need to do a good deal of work before the show might have any chance of a commercial future.
Well, cut to 2013, and it appears that Moses and Alter have indeed done a considerable amount of work on Nobody Loves You, at least as evidenced by the delightful new production at the Second Stage Theatre. Their efforts, combined with the taut comic direction by Michelle Tattenbaum, and a dynamite cast of some of New York's best working actors (but, alas, none of my students from that initial reading) have made Nobody Loves You an infectious comic confection that also just might have something to say as well.
Nobody Loves You is also the title of a fictional reality TV show within the show. The lead male, Jeff, is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy doing his dissertation on ontology. (A.K.A. The nature of
reality. Get it?) Jeff's girlfriend breaks up with him because he's so cynical about
her enthusiasm for reality TV. Jeff auditions for her favorite show in an effort to get her back.
Now, admittedly, reality TV is a pretty easy target for ridicule. But Moses has the chops to actually hit this blight where it lives, smartly dissecting the sociological aspects of the genre without ever making it seem didactic. In fact, the show is a buoyant delight, thanks in part to Moses's sharp characterizations and facile feel for comedy.
Moses is aided immeasurably in this regard by the superb cast. As the two leads, the philosophy student and the TV production
assistant who fall for each other over the course of the show, we have Bryan Fenkart and Aleque Reid, both remarkably appealing and nuanced as the reluctant participants in this crass phenomenon.
In the supporting cast are three of the most reliable performers now working: Leslie Kritzer, Rory O'Malley, and Lauren Molina. Kritzer is a pro, and handles her multiple roles with equal comic dexterity. Rory O'Malley was virtually unrecognizable at first. His countenance for his character at the top of the show was just so at-odds with that of his Tony-nominated role in The Book of Mormon, it wasn't until later in the show when he was playing a gay blogger that I even realized it was him. That's range. Lauren Molina likewise demonstrates her great versatility in a delightfully trashy role that is markedly different from her roles in both Sweeney Todd and Rock of Ages. And Heath Calvert is endearingly vapid as the reality show's host.
The only sour notes, pun intended, in the show came from the music department. Gaby Alter's uptempo tunes often seem like they're on a fruitless search for a melody, and the sound level often bordered on deafening. (Admittedly, not
necessarily the composer's fault, but a liability nonetheless.) Plus, some of his ballads feature rather odd-sounding intervals. But Nobody Loves You isn't really a show that's about pretty tunes and hummable melodies. It's feel-good satire, if that makes any sense, and one that introduces the musical-theater world to a promising new writing team.