Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Talk about the opposite end of the spectrum from this year’s blockbuster movie “Into the Woods.” The film, with its starry cast, lush sets, and special effects, may leave you thinking that this is the production value required of such an epic piece. But what you can witness at the Roundabout Theatre Company right now makes a strong argument for simplicity. By returning to its core – cutting the expensive costumes and even a full orchestra – we see these characters, raw and available, for all their faults, dreams, and wishes.

This is Into the Woods stripped bare. Fiasco Theater has gone back to basics with a much beloved show, throwing away the many interpretations we’ve seen over the years and starting from scratch. What do these characters want? What are they really saying/singing? The company takes the book scene by scene, lyric by lyric, and re-approaches them as if it were new material. And the hard work shows (highlights here). As someone who knows ITW very well, I heard lines in new ways, saw things I’d never noticed before, and to top it off, didn’t find myself missing the old ways. With a minimal set and only a few instruments, this small ensemble creates an entire world for us to behold, and like a fairy tale, many things are left up to the imagination. Take all the prop stand-ins: the hen is a feather duster, the cow a man (an absolute stroke of genius), the horses toy sticks, Rapunzel’s hair a yellow yarn hat, and so forth. Most of the accompaniment relies on Musical Director Matt Castle on piano, but the cast also doubles as the pit, stepping in to play cello, xylophone, bassoon. A few also play multiple roles: Rapunzel is Little Red, Jack’s Mother is Cinderella’s Stepmother, etc.

The orchestrations are unique and beautiful. In an odd way, losing the full orchestra highlighted the music even more. Who knew I’d been craving Sondheim music played only on guitar? The staging is also full of surprises. You never know what’s going to be transformed next. The set is stunning, the stage basically the inside of a piano. Up the proscenium sides are keys, along the wings are the insides of actual pianos, and the back wall is filled with strings that turn into the woods (no pun intended) themselves.

The cast is not that strong vocally (except for a few stand-outs), but it’s actually a testament to the innovation behind the production itself that this doesn’t take away from the show. Of course I missed having a certain power behind a few voices, but they make up for it. There is heart behind each and every performance. Nothing feels glib or mocked; it’s genuine and full of love for the story.

[SPOILER ALERT in this paragraph] This production also serves as a defense of what I wrote about in my movie review. Rapunzel’s death is so, so, so key to the plot, not just for the Witch’s arc, but the arc of the show in general. When that scene is done correctly, it changes the air in the room. Her death, and Jack’s Mother’s, sit in the space, the weight heavy on us, as the two actresses leave those costume pieces behind and move back into roles that live on. These deaths drive the characters, they drive the remainder of the second act, and they drive the message of the show.

It’s likely you’re not interested in seeing a show you’ve already seen or one that you can go see for $15 at a movie theatre (or on DVD soon enough), but I assure you, despite being an old favorite, this Into the Woods is brand new.

Fiasco Theater’s Into the Woods
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by James Lapine, Co-Directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld
Laura Pels Theatre, Closing April 12th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: The cast of Into the Woods


Japan Calls!

Old Montreal

Friends! I have many a show to share with you, but sadly they (you?) must wait a little longer as I am leaving for Japan this afternoon. Yup, you heard right. I’m off to explore the country for two weeks. Cross your fingers for good weather today as Diana and I depart at 5pm.

I’ve managed to pack my life into a backpack and a tiny wheelie. I’m actually quite impressed with my abilities to condense. And my extra impressive ability to pack at the last minute.

Where are we going on our adventures, you wonder? Spending mucho time in Tokyo and also swinging by Nagano (snow monkeys!!), Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima. Music videos  to come!

And don’t you fear, I plan on working on a few blogposts during the 14 hour flight. In the meantime, I’ll throw a couple recs your way. If you haven’t had your fill of Into the Woods yet, you should stop by Roundabout Theatre Company to see Fiasco Theater’s bare bones production. It’s a treat. And for something totally different, swing by Signature Theatre to see Charles Mee’s Big Love (a play very close to my heart) for only $25! More thoughts to come on those.

I shall return from the other side of the world in March! Stay warm, Broadway fans. Let me know what you see while I’m gone. Sayonara!

Photo Credit: Diana Chan
P
ictured: Bee and Dee in Old Montreal


Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

I’ve never been one to seek out a jukebox musical. Story is too important to me, and more often than not, that little detail falls to the wayside in this style of show. Not familiar with what a jukebox musical is? I guarantee you know one. It’s when a musical’s score is populated by songs that are already written. Typically a show will stick to one artist or band (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Movin’ Out, American Idiot), or it’ll be an entire genre (Motown, Rock of Ages, The Marvelous Wonderettes). Most of the time a plot is “applied” to the music, while others are turned into a biopic, the story of how a band came to be. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, if you haven’t guessed from the title, is one of the latter. It’s not a story based on Carole King’s music; it is Carole King’s story – how she got started in the music business, her path to fame, her hit songs with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, her heartbreaks, friendships, and everlasting kindness.

The reason this show is the success that it is? In my mind, aside from the music obviously being so damn good, it’s Jessie Mueller. Hands down. She won the Tony last year, and I was psyched to see her on stage again. I missed her Broadway debut in the Harry Connick Jr. flop, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, but I did see her as Cinderella in Into the Woods at Shakespeare in the Park and in the revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Despite Clear Day’s lack of success, Mueller made a splash and thankfully hasn’t left us since. That voice! I don’t know anyone else who makes a sound like that. And it seems she can do anything with it, shifting from style to style effortlessly (check out her pipes on Seth Rudetsky’s “Obsessed”). I suggest you catch her before her last performance on March 6th, and check out show clips here and here. And while you’re at it, watch this to see when Carole herself came to see the show, surprising the cast, after very publicly announcing that she would not be coming to see it.

Anyway, back to the show. The book is so-so. There are definitely enough songs to fill a two-and-a-half-hour musical, but there might not be enough story. Actually, that might not be the issue; I was never bored. I was frustrated with the writing itself, the actual dialogue. It’s a little cheesy for my taste, and a few scenes are written so poorly that I was actually in shock that they made it this far without being revised. But who knows, maybe it’s just me. The book is formulaic, but it’s what we’ve come to expect with biographical jukebox musicals. For example, once Carole and Gerry are on a roll writing hit after hit, the convention is set up in which they write a new song, talk about who should sing it, and then…enter The Drifters! Or The Shirelles! This happened time and time again, but I liked that each time a group sang one of the songs, a different ensemble member was featured with the solo. “The Locomotion” in particular was GREAT.

Aside from its weaker points, Beautiful comes with a chic set, Tony Award-winning sound design, fun costume changes, and King’s canon is smartly used. It’s a hoot to hear how music changes from the ’60s into the ’70s. And no matter how cliché the script can feel, it’s still lovely to watch Carole grow and gain confidence as a performer and as a human being.

Ya know, since I don’t attend many jukebox musicals, I’m not used to being in a house with an audience that has a vocal reaction every time a new tune begins. I could tell how hard the woman next to me was trying not to sing out loud. There were ladies a few rows down from us full out dancing in their seats. It was distracting at first, but once I leaned into it and accepted that it’s simply part of the drill with such classic tunes, I found myself bopping right along with ‘em.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath, Words and Music by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Man, and Cynthia Weil, Directed by Marc Bruni
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jessie Mueller


Holy Birdman, Batman!

Birdman

Wait, but have you seen Birdman yet?

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I finally saw it two weekends ago. You guys. I’m still freaking out. I don’t know the last time I came out of a movie that wired.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up movie star famous for playing Birdman in the superhero franchise. Three movies were made, and he hasn’t been able to catch much of a break since the last one was released in 1992 (“Batman Returns,” anyone?). Now he’s attempting to make a comeback by writing, directing, and starring in a Broadway play at the St. James Theatre, all while losing his grip on reality (or is he?).

I could spend this entire blog post raving about the cinematography alone. And on top of that, you’ve got those performances and that script and everything else. I knew going in that many of the takes were going to be long, continuous shots, but I had NO idea just how long we were talking. It’s filmed to look like one uninterrupted shot, and as far as my eye could catch, the whole thing might only be six or seven total. There are likely more tricks of the trade that I missed, but no matter, it’s impressive to say the least. They’re complicated shots, too – through gates, through the depths of the theatre, through the middle of freaking Times Square. During one scene, already a long way into it, we spend a few minutes in the rehearsal of the play on stage with an empty house. After Riggan walks away from that rehearsal and Sorkins his way back to his dressing room with Zach Galifianakis, we eventually make our way back to the theatre (mind you, it’s the same shot), and it’s now the first preview of the play and an entire audience has filled the house. It’s brilliantly set up to let your mind spin about what’s going on “behind the scenes” as they prep what’s coming next.

Then you have the unfathomable cast. Golden Globe winner Michael Keaton, in a lovely life-mirroring-art twist, is himself making a fantastic comeback. Add in Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Amy Ryan, Zach Galifianakis, and my girl, Emma Stone. All the performances are so charged, and between the intensity of that, the script, and the style of filming, my senses were turned up all the way; the movie made me feel heightened right alongside it. I think everyone can appreciate the filmmaking taking place here, although I imagine it particularly speaks to artists and those in the theatre. It’s quite the feat, and I highly recommend a viewing. I certainly will be partaking a second time.

I had an enlightening conversation about “Birdman” with my bestie Dina. We both spent the duration of the movie thinking about Riggan’s mental state (when not thinking about the insane cinematography). Both Dina and I couldn’t help but follow along with a psychological perspective. It’s our go-to; I majored in Psych in college, and she is studying it in grad school as we speak, er…blog. So, early on we learn that Riggan has the ability to move things with his mind, Carrie-style. He has these powers, gifts, whatever you want to call them, which meant one of two things to us: either he’s having a mental breakdown and has lost his sense of reality (à la Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”) or we’re breaching into fantasy territory. But what we began to propose in our convo is that maybe there’s something else going on here, something not so black and white, however much we want to fit it into a category. Perhaps it’s not so simple as these two possible explanations. Maybe this is less about the psychological and more about the philosophical. Maybe…there’s a third option. By the end of the film, I don’t know if we’re even supposed to know what’s real and what’s not. It certainly left me wondering.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., and Armando Bo, Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Pictured: Edward Norton and Michael Keaton


Wilkommen to Cabaret, Emma Stone!

Cabaret

Now THAT is how you play Sally Bowles. I mean no offense to the very talented Michelle Williams, but this was the burst of energy that was needed last year whenever Alan Cumming departed the stage.

Yes, I went back to see Cabaret. Yes, I went because I’m a huge Emma Stone fan. When the revival was announced, she was actually originally slated to be the first Sally but had to back out due to scheduling issues. Man, am I glad they were able to work her out as a replacement.

If you recall from my review last spring, the trouble I, and others, had with Michelle’s interpretation was there was too much vulnerability and fragility too early. When we first met her, it was like Hitler had already taken over, the game already lost. Act 1 is supposed to be a party and we’re all invited, but she was playing the end at the beginning. Of course Sally is troubled and distressed and has serious issues to work through, but she, like the rest of the characters, is in total denial, and that should carry through until close to the end of the show. And arguably, even then, when facing the reality head-on, she still turns the other way. But until that point, Sally Bowles is the life of the party. Like (random reference alert!) Angelina Jolie’s character in “Girl, Interrupted,” she’s the girl you want to hang out with even though she’s going to be a terrible influence on you.

I like to jokingly take credit when I predict that someone is going to be a star. When I saw “Easy A” for the first time, I said to my roomie, “That girl is going to be the next ‘It’ girl.” Mostly because of this clip which I still watch on a regular basis. Cue Oscar nomination.

Emma Stone is absolutely infectious as Sally (here is an all-too-brief montage). How can I explain it? She makes you…lean in. She takes her time with her lines in such a way, it’s as if every word she says is going to be the one to change your life. She tells her stories and delivers her jokes slowly but surely because she knows you’re gonna wait.

And then to see all that fade as the world around her begins to crumble is all the more effective. Her emotional journey is powerful and her physical transformation also striking. By the end, once that fur coat is gone, we see a frail woman. Her petite frame revealed, she looks small and defeated but is still holding on by the grit of her teeth. Her desperation to cling to the status quo is actually pathetic and even harder to watch knowing she is also plagued with self-awareness. To all the people out there who claim that musicals don’t hold the same weight as plays, I ask them to watch the last scene between Sally and Cliff in Cabaret.

The poor thing had the flu this week (aren’t I fancy with my inside information?), but I think the sickness, if anything, gave her more drive. She struggled through her songs in the best way possible, giving it her absolute all, particularly for the 11 o’clock number.

See her if you can, performing through February 15th. Until then I will be crying out from Astoria, Emma: bleibe, reste, stay!

Cabaret
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Book by Joe Masteroff, Co-Directed by Sam Mendes, and Rob Marshall
Studio 54, Closing March 29, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Emma Stone and the Kit Kat Girls of Cabaret


Constellations

Constellations

Picture a fight you have with someone and how it can go ten different ways. If you had only said something different or used a different tone of voice, you may have ended up with an entirely different outcome…or not.

This is exactly what Nick Payne’s Constellations explores. Not just the concept, though; the 70-minute play examines the actual possibilities, the numerous pathways two characters can take in their relationship – all the potential ways a conversation can go when they first meet at a BBQ, when they consider spending the night together, when they’re faced with life-altering events.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland and (Golden Globe Winner!) Ruth Wilson as Marianne give wonderfully warm, generous, and connected performances. Watching this play is like being in an acting class with them because they’re playing these scenes over and over with a new interpretation each time. It’s all about tactics. When an actor approaches a scene, he or she has to figure out a) what do I want? and b) how am I going to get it? That’s what these two are doing in real time. They do eventually shift out of a certain scene and into another as they move forward in time (or do they?), but even when they’re saying the exact same words as the time before, it’s still fresh. And I believed them each time. The audience adapts to the new circumstances just as quickly as the characters do, and that is a testament to the writing.

When I go down the rabbit hole of thinking about other universes and how many lives I might be leading elsewhere, I start to get dizzy. The play asks questions like: do we have control over our fate? Does free will exist if we are just one version of ourselves and all the other “choices” we could make are simply playing out in another universe? And what about time itself? Are the past and future merely fabrications, only kept alive in our own minds?

There is an element of the play building on itself – the sound and lighting designs (both enticing) growing more intense and cutting – as things develop and the story(ies) become more clear. I did think, however, that it was building to something, and I don’t know if that something ever arrived. Should there be a catharsis of some kind? Is there an ending? How can there be an ending when there are over 50 stories potentially being told? Because of this, the play as a whole feels somewhat incomplete. Unfinished even.

But maybe that’s exactly the point.

Constellations
Written by Nick Payne, Directed by Michael Longhurst
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Closing March 15th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson


Honeymoon in Vegas

Honeymoon in Vegas

If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.

I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).

I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?

So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.

And that’s just Act 1.

I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.

Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.

I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.

Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”

And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”

Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas


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