You Should Be Listening To: Serial

Serial

Looking for your next show to binge-watch? How about a binge-listen?

We’re venturing into new territory here on Becca on Broadway: the land of podcasts. I’m pretty new to the experience, having only been introduced in September, but now I cannot get enough. Today we focus on one in particular.

If you’re a regular podcast listener, then you likely already know alllll about Serial, which is currently the top station. It’s a spinoff of This American Life, the popular public radio show hosted by Ira Glass. Each episode of TAL has a theme and is typically split into three acts as we hear different peoples’ stories (it was also a television series on Showtime back in 2006). Serial began in September, coincidentally right after I started subscribing to the podcast world. Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer of TAL, is the host and executive producer. The primary difference between the two podcasts is that Serial focuses on one nonfiction story over the course of the whole season, each episode diving deeper and deeper into the details. There have been nine so far, ranging from 30-45 minutes each (it’s still TBD how many episodes there will be).

This first season is about a murder case from 1999. A Baltimore high schooler named Hae Min Lee was strangled, and her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison not long after her body was found. Fifteen years later, Adnan is an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility. But when we start to look into the case against him, it’s not the most clear-cut. Between the conflicting testimonies, confusing phone records, and lack of follow-through on examining the evidence, how sure are we that Adnan was rightfully convicted of this crime?

Not to say that’s all the podcast is about. Sarah Koenig isn’t just trying to prove Adnan’s innocence. He very well may be guilty (many listeners firmly believe he is), but either way, Sarah ultimately wants to get to the bottom of it. So she starts from scratch and is now reviewing the case piece by piece all these years later. This leads to many new mysteries as she interviews friends, family, and witnesses from the winter of 1999 – kids who are now grown adults. We also get to know Adnan, as Sarah has weekly phone conversations with him in prison.

Honestly, no matter what I say it won’t begin to cover how compelling this story is. I don’t know how they do it, but every episode is better than the last. Listeners are incredibly invested in this case, and it’s actually easy to forget sometimes that it’s real life. These are not characters in a movie. This isn’t a mystery novel. This is a tragedy that really happened which took one girl’s life and forever shaped her classmates’ futures. Episodes cover all kinds of emotions. I’ve had friends text me about crying on the subway as they listen. I’m pretty sure I often look stunned, with my mouth hanging open, as I listen on my commute.

Along with the captivating evidence reveals, testimonies, and recordings from the trials, Sarah is also a fantastic host. She’s riveting and relatable. We are going along on this journey with her, and she is just as stumped as we are. Her delivery is calming and smart, and she asks all the right questions (although the parody that’s going around right now is hilarious and a pretty spot-on impression of her intonation). While we’re on the topic actually, for you fans out there, I also suggest checking out these great charts (thanks for sharing, Dina!).

Want more reasons to listen? The theme music. The editing. The pacing. And the MailChimp ad at the beginning which somehow we’ve all grown to love and look forward to every Thursday morning.

So here is your assignment:
1) Install the Podcast app on your phone.
2) Subscribe to Serial.
3) Download the episodes.
4) Start with Episode 1: The Alibi (note: you definitely want to start at the beginning.).

They’re off this week due to Thanksgiving so it’s the perfect time to start catching up. Go with my blessing, friends. Give thanks, and binge!


On the Town

On the Town

Fantastic dancing and a bright, talented cast make this one helluva revival.

For those of you out there who say you don’t know On the Town at all, I guarantee that you know at least one song. Originally produced on Broadway in 1944, it was also made into a film starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra later that decade. The story doesn’t go far below the surface. It’s about three sailors trying to get laid during their 24-hour shore leave in New York City. Yup. That’s the Leonard Bernstein musical in a nutshell. But for an old-timey classic, it’s dirtier than you might expect, packed with innuendos and euphemisms.

It’s a funny thing about revivals. When a new show comes out, most of the reviews are about the content – the quality of the book and music. With something this old-school, no one is commenting on the quality of the show itself; instead it’s about the production. How the material is approached this time around. And when you’ve got John Rando at the helm (Tony winner for Urinetown), you know you’re in good hands. The production value is fantastic, the choreography stunning, plus a funky design, and an awesomely talented cast.

On the Town was the first production I was cast in at Muhlenberg; my sophomore year I played…wait for it…the Little Old Lady. She’s literally a running gag, randomly running across the stage throughout the show. The always-funny Jackie Hoffman doubles as the Old Lady and Madame Dilly (actually she pops up as other random characters, too). The focus, though, is on the six stars (the main sailors and their respective matches), and they all get a chance in the spotlight. Tony Yazbeck as Gabey is such a beautiful dancer to watch. His Tulsa really struck me in the Gypsy revival as well. Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Chip is goofy and lovable, and Clyde Alves as Ozzie never runs out of energy. Megan Fairchild plays Ivy with simple grace, and her big dance sequence with Yazbeck in the second act is wonderful. I love Elizabeth Stanley in everything, and she doesn’t disappoint as Claire de Loone. And this was my first introduction to Alysha Umphress as Hildy; that girl’s got pipes (here she is singing I Can Cook, Too).

So why see On the Town now? In the current decade? Matt and I debated this on the ride home. It’s a return to a simpler time for sure. Escapism at heart, right? Musicals today tend to make you think more (or at the very least, Sondheim intellectualized some of them). While escapism, fluff, bubblegum (whatever you want to call it) still come and go on the Broadway stage, there certainly aren’t contemporary shows with dancing like this anymore. We were trying to think of a modern musical that has full-on dance (maybe Thoroughly Modern Millie comes close?). Sure, there are dance numbers/breaks, but songs fully dedicated to dance are few and far between. You’ll typically only see that in revivals like Anything Goes, The Music Man, 42nd Street, etc. On the Town provides the eight-minute long dance sequences we’ve been missing, and this revival doesn’t flounder in that department. It features beautiful pas de deux and ensemble work (highlights here). The choreography and execution are gorgeous in this production and one of the best reasons to go see it. And it’s not just the ensemble – this is a show in which the principles have to be real dancers as well. You know it’s a legit dance show when the lead woman is New York City Ballet’s #1 ballerina.

So yes, it may be a random, at times senseless plot (with some objectifying of both genders thrown into the mix for good measure), but for a great Greene/Comden/Bernstein throwback, classic show tunes, and beautiful dancing, I say it’s worth a trip to go get Carried Away.

On the Town
Music and Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein, Book and Lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Directed by John Rando
Lyric Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The Cast of On the Town


Video Friday: Glitter and Be Gay

Why not celebrate this Friday with some classic Kristin Chenoweth?

From the Leonard Bernstein operetta Candide, this is the character Cunegonde’s coloratura aria (a role originated by Barbara Cook). During the 2004 concert performed with the New York Philharmonic, Kristin got to show off her comedy chops on top of her ridiculous range.

Here she is singing “Glitter and Be Gay.” The song starts at 1:00, but the intro, featuring none other than Patti LuPone as the Old Woman, is worth it.


It’s Only a Play

It's Only a Play

This Terrence McNally revival packs a lot of star power but no punch.

Listen folks, I’m sorry to report that I was disappointed by It’s Only a Play. Matt and I were very much looking forward to it, and being that it’s one of the hottest tickets, this was one of our splurges money-wise this season. With its starry cast, stellar creative team, and modernized script, we figured we couldn’t go wrong.

The loose plot centers around a group of theatre people at an opening night party awaiting the reviews, primarily the Times. You’ve got the producer (Megan Mullally), the playwright (Matthew Broderick), the director (Rupert Grint), the star (Stockard Channing), a critic (F. Murray Abraham), the playwright’s friend who passed on the project (Nathan Lane), and the coat check boy (“introducing Micah Stock”). All in one room told in real time (click here for highlights).

Things start out amusingly enough. I mean, I’ll watch Nathan Lane live anytime with a perfectly content smile on my face. There’s a section early on with just him on stage, and I would have been happy if the whole play had been that. Maybe I’ll go watch The Nance on PBS instead and revisit that production.

It’s Only a Play is overflowing with inside jokes about the theatre world, many of which would completely go over the average theatre-goer’s head. McNally has updated all of the now-dated references to today’s celebrities and to more recent theatre tiffs (e.g. Shia LaBeouf, Alec Baldwin). Practically every show currently running on Broadway is thrown into the mix, and it gets old fast. There is more name-dropping in this show than…um…just trust me. Hilary Clinton, Denzel Washington, Frank Langella, Lady Gaga, a whole lotta names – most of which are mentioned alongside jokes at their expense. There are so many punchlines that are equivalent to a celebrity shout-out that it started to get on my nerves. Those are cheap shots in my book (although the malicious jokes didn’t seem as malicious coming out of Lane’s mouth).

Matthew Broderick’s stiff performance falls flat with his consistently understated and monotone delivery. Any energy that is built up by the other characters collapses around them when he arrives onstage. He has a huge speech in the first act (which ends with the line: “Speech done”) when he gets up on a soap box and talks about the theatre today and how its integrity is basically falling apart at the seams. What have we done to it? Remember the good old days? And so on and so forth. People applauded like crazy afterward, yet I sat there feeling insulted. I understand the self-awareness aspect of referencing the trend of movie stars taking over Broadway and names above the title, and that’s what this play is doing too (get it??), but it didn’t come across as witty to me. [title of show] did the self-aware comedy much more effectively and humorously. Nathan Lane’s character referring to the actor Nathan Lane for an easy laugh? Come on. There was so much applause after lines, big speeches, entrances, and exits, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Were the people around us clapping for the play? The production? Or just the stars they love? Does Stockard Channing leaving the stage after saying something triumphantly warrant exit applause? If it had been any other actor, would the audience have cared?

Wow, I’m starting to sound bitter. Let me dial it back, and get back on topic. Take a breath, Becca.

Perhaps I’m not the target audience. I know that the most of the reviews tell me I’m in the minority, but neither Matt nor I laughed much. Grint was a caricature, as was Mullally. This approach could maybe work if everyone was giving the same stylized performance, but with Broderick, for example, playing everything down, you’re left with a bunch of people in different plays. One of the things that makes You Can’t Take It With You such a hit in my book is that it has a cast of fully-realized individual characters who all could be the star of the show with their crazy antics, but simultaneously, they’re in sync with one another. That family is under the same roof and in the same play, whereas It’s Only a Play’s characters all seem to be attending different opening night parties.

It’s Only a Play
Written by Terrence McNally, Directed by Jack O’Brien
Schoenfeld Theatre, Closing January 4, 2015
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane and Stockard Channing


The Last Ship

The Last Ship

I think you’ll find that everything about Sting’s new musical The Last Ship feels very epic (click here for highlights). They certainly spared no expense with their advertising. The stakes are quite high for this small, English seafaring town, but unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with me. I think this may be because the book is trying to cover too much ground. It’s like an odd mix of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots (or any other musical that takes places in the United Kingdom) – take out the miners and replace them with ship builders, trade out a son running away from his pop’s shoe business, and this time around, make it about, ya know, ships.

Let me see if I can describe the plot briefly (loosely based on Sting’s childhood). Gideon Fletcher is a young boy who is expected to build ships with the rest of the men in town, but he sees a different future for himself. He ditches his injured, abusive father and his ship-building roots to explore the world instead. He also leaves behind his girlfriend Meg. Fifteen years later he returns, and due to the economic depression, the shipyards have closed down, and his ex is engaged. Will Gideon return to his roots? Will he embrace the shipbuilders’ cause? Will he win back his girl?

Even though it seems like the show is pulling from all of the plots we’ve seen before, it is a new score. I think Sting has become one of the more successful pop/rock stars to shift into the musical theatre genre. Like Cyndi Lauper (Tony-winning composer of Kinky Boots), he’s got his own thing going on and has written a lush, dark score with an actual arc (something Spiderman could have used). Several melodies were very catchy, although the songs that were stuck in my head afterward may have been due to the fact that they were reprised approximately 13 million times.

Alongside the solid score is a very cool set design and a strong cast. Rachel Tucker as Meg has a great voice and presence. Fred Applegate (her father and the town preacher) is reliable as always; he brings some of the much-needed humor to the piece. I like Michael Esper (Gideon), but it also took me till about halfway through the first act to start understanding whatever he was singing about. I could not get my ears to wrap around his accent. Collin Kelly-Sordelet brings a tough innocence to his performance as Tom Dawson, Meg’s 15-year-old son (hmmm, I WONDER who the father could be?).

Here are some of the reasons I had trouble with the story. One of the biggest plot points is that these men aren’t going to be allowed to build ships anymore. So they start a revolution and resolve to build one anyway – one last, this-is-gonna-be-the-best-ship-ever – but for what purpose I don’t know; it’s never made clear. Then, the protagonist’s big shift in the end of Act I which ultimately builds to the finale, didn’t do anything for me. His decision to all of a sudden go from completely indifferent to caring passionately about a cause came out of nowhere. Dramatically you need more of a believable transition to go along for that ride. There simply wasn’t time to spend on his character shift, much less the supporting characters. Most came across as one-dimensional, there only to serve one purpose. The love triangle also drove me crazy. It’s like it only exists because it’s expected in a musical. This guy returns after 15 years and starts making moves on the woman he left behind, leaving her conflicted as to whether she should stay with her long-term, kind, committed, hot (thank you, Aaron Lazar) boyfriend. Are we really supposed to be rooting for Gideon to win her back?

The book is trying to cover so many different things that it leaves us with majorly underdeveloped characters. They remain archetypes: the rebel, the scorned woman, the adamant ship-building guys, the wide-eyed boy, the sarcastic preacher who drinks, the dedicated boyfriend who is also apparently the guy in charge of keeping the shipyards closed down…I didn’t really understand that part.

Despite a talented cast, haunting score, and exciting design, The Last Ship’s story will unfortunately leave you out to sea.

The Last Ship
Music by Sting, Book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, Directed by Joe Mantello
Neil Simon Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, and the cast of The Last Ship


Video Friday: The Writing on the Wall

Happy Halloween, Broadway fans! Let’s dedicate this Friday’s post to the crazy belting pipes of Betty Buckley. Cats’ original Grizabella also originated the title role in The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985 and got to sing the big number, “The Writing on the Wall.” It’s a damn good song with a great build to the closing moments of the show, especially since the first quarter of the number is mostly spoken.

I, for one, during the revival of Drood, was eager for the finale, knowing we would finally get to hear the belting chops of Stephanie J. Block. I imagine the same went for those watching Betty back in the day (in a higher key at that!!).

Here is Betty’s performance. Disclaimer: the video/audio quality is poor (yay old bootlegs); skip ahead to 1:04 to get to the singing part of the number.

And in the 2012 revival, here is Stephanie!

Do you have a favorite?


Found

Found

I cannot get over the new musical down at the Atlantic Theater Company. If it doesn’t get extended or picked up somewhere else, what a crime that would be. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw something this original and simultaneously this good. Sadly, the two things rarely go hand in hand anymore.

So. Some background. Found: A New Musical is based on FOUND magazine and how it got started (ahem, founded), from its humble beginnings to later successes. The magazine is a collection of found items: notes, love letters, lists, anything you might find on the ground somewhere. Davy Rothbart started gathering said stuff and building a portfolio if you will. And now, Tony nominee Hunter Bell ([title of show]) and Lee Overtree have turned Davy’s story (and these real found notes) into a musical.

How does one do this, I hear you ask? The story itself is familiar; we’ve seen this trope before, but not told in this way. Found notes are interspersed within FOUND’s origin story – imagine that the notes serve as the subtext. An ensemble member will jump out and share a little blurb or sing a quick one-liner (which will also be projected on the walls) commenting on the scenes at hand. For example, if two characters are speaking and you can tell there is a spark between them, someone is going to interrupt with a love note written by a 7th grader. These moments are seamlessly weaved into the plot and vice versa (the plot going where it needs to at times in order to share top-quality finds). The letters also serve as the lyrics to the majority of the songs. How amazing is that? Except for a few original numbers (all wonderfully written by Eli Bolin), the remaining songs consist of new music but words from these found items (click here to hear a ballad from the show). The notes are for the most part hilarious, some tender, others heartbreaking. And they’re all so relatable. Much of the joy from the show comes from the fact that these items were written by real people. It’s also refreshing to see the notes themselves in the set/projection design. Who writes things down anymore? Here we can remember a time of passed notes in class instead of texts, to-do lists instead of a phone app, a break-up letter instead of an email. The musical has miraculously found a way to match the varying tones of these letters, lists, and scraps of trash – turning the mood on a dime.

Found features a fantastic talented ensemble, led charmingly by Nick Blaemire as Davy. Barrett Wilbert Weed plays Denise, Davy’s roommate, and damn, girl can sing. I would list the standouts among the cast, but they all get a chance to shine so I’ll list them all instead: Christina Anthony, Andrew Call, Daniel Everidge, Orville Mendoza, Betsy Morgan, Molly Pope, Danny Pudi (Community fans out there?), and Sandy Rustin.

Wrapped up in this extremely funny, modern, fresh musical is also a touching, honest message – one that is not pushed. It’s there for us to pick up on throughout the piece and is only directly addressed briefly in the second act. One of Bell’s strengths has always been sharing an idea that’s simple and true but often forgotten in our day-to-day-life craziness, without hitting you over the head with it. On the chance this production doesn’t have a future here in the city, I suggest you become one of the lucky few to catch it before November 9th.

Found: A New Musical
Book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree, Music and Original Lyrics by Eli Bolin, Directed by Lee Overtree
Atlantic Theater Company, Closing November 9, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Christina Anthony, Danny Pudi, Nick Blaemire, Molly Pope, and Sandy Rustin


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