All I want to do is tell you everything about this play, but I won’t. I’m actually barely going to review it. I don’t want to spoil anything about this new show. Well, not so new; Hand to God has had a long journey to Broadway. First it ran at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) in 2011 and then last year Off-Broadway at MCC Theater. I remember hearing about it both times but never made the effort to see it. Now it’s made the leap to Broadway, and I encourage you to make ALL of the efforts.
I’ll tell you a few things to whet your appetite. Hand to God takes place in the small town of Cypress, Texas. A teacher there is trying to help the kids connect to Jesus and religion through puppetry. Then we meet the soft-spoken Jason, one of the students, whose hand puppet Tyrone may or may not be possessed by the Devil. Yup.
It’s a first-rate cast: Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, and the mind-boggling Steven Boyer as Jason (and Tyrone). I hope he wins all the Tonys. The set is spot-on; the script fresh and laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s a cross (ha) between The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, but it’s not a musical. A word to the easily offended: like in Mormon, there is some outrageous humor. It can be crude, sexual, and full of cursing. But man oh man, is it funny. You won’t believe some of the stuff you’re seeing and hearing. You may just blush in your seat.
This new Broadway play will make you laugh. It’ll make you think. It might make you squirm a little bit. It’ll definitely make you appreciate good theatre. Just trust me – you’ll enjoy it. Hand to God.
Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins, Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Booth Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer
Summertime is not just the season we’re so eagerly awaiting (how’s Spring treating you so far?). It’s also a beautiful, unusual, dream-like play about love in all its forms, and it’s the second show I’m producing with my dear friend, Jenn Haltman. This probably isn’t news to you because we’ve been showering Facebook with word about the fundraiser. The play will be going up this May for two weeks! Jenn and I had such a good time with The Understudy last year that we decided to take on another beast of a play, by one of my favorite playwrights Chuck Mee. We’ve also given ourselves a company name: Between Two Boroughs Productions. Of course, many conversations need to be had as we discuss our hopes and plans for the company’s future, but for the moment, we decided to start with a name. And a website. And a Twitter account. And Instagram! And what’s that? A Facebook page, too?! Okay, okay, sorry about that. Promote I must! Apologies, back to the blog.
It’s a funny thing about producing. I never envisioned myself doing this. When I was younger, I figured that if I ended up behind-the-scenes, it would be as a stage manager. Perhaps because of my star turn as the Pippin stage manager when I was 16. But a producer? It turns out that I do have a particular set of skills that fits the job, but it honestly never crossed my mind until we decided to take it upon ourselves to make a show happen last year. And when you get to the heart of it, that’s all producing is: making a play happen, making something out of nothing. Obviously, it’s no easy task. You need a team of talented people just as game and driven as you are. When I’m surrounded by the people on our creative team, I feel like we can take on any obstacle. I’m excited for you to see what they can do.
Of course, at the end of the day, I’m putting in all this work so that I get the chance to act. In Summertime, I’ll be playing Tessa, a girl who’s completely closed herself off to love. The teaser video we made will give you a little taste of the goofy humor. I had so much fun filming it (just two days after I got back from Japan) with these talented guys. Josh, Hubert, and Will are only three members of our insanely talented cast. Plus we had the help of the always hilarious Christopher Scheer, because who else would you ask to play a game show host?
You’ve likely already seen the Indiegogo campaign all over Facebook, but indulge me while I share it here as well: http://igg.me/at/SummertimeBK. If you’re interested in donating, the fundraiser is live through April 8th. I know we went through this process together last year, but I promise this is going to be a fantastic show and an entirely new adventure for all of us. I truly cannot wait to start rehearsals with this amazing group of people on April Fool’s Day. No joke.
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
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.
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
Pictured: Bee and Dee in Old Montreal
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
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