If You Can’t Take It With You didn’t secure Annaleigh Ashford as one of the best physical comedians out there right now, Sylvia certainly does. I might even venture to say that she’s my generation’s Carol Burnett. It could be too soon to tell, but here’s what I know: every gesture, each sound emitted, and even the slightest tilt of her head is jam packed with comedy gold.
Fresh off her Tony win, the star is back on stage with the first Broadway production of A.R. Gurney’s Sylvia, playing the title character. For those of you who are not familiar with the play, now would be the time to mention that the title character is also a dog. Sylvia is about a love triangle but not your average one. A man named Greg (Matthew Broderick) finds a stray dog in the park (Ashford) and brings her home, much to the dismay of his wife, Kate (Julie White). Robert Sella also stars, covering several roles, each one funnier than the last. The twist of Gurney’s comedy is that Sylvia can talk. Well, not in the sense of, “Oh! A talking dog!” Rather, she has conversations with people, but they’re not necessarily communicating. She is still a dog after all. When she barks, she says, “Hey.” “Hey! Hey! Hey!” The fact that this remains laugh-out-loud funny throughout the play is impressive. It’s hard to describe why it’s so amusing to see a human behaving like a dog. As Greg finds himself going through a mid-life crisis and Kate finds her marriage falling apart before her very eyes due to the furry arrival, Sylvia is hoping to find a permanent home on the couch.
Broderick is his usual self on stage. Just like in It’s Only a Play, I was quickly bored with his flat inflection. Every line sounds the same, and he looks stiff as a board up there, especially next to Ashford who’s jumping around and running and scratching and hey-ing. (Fun fact: Sarah Jessica Parker, Broderick’s wife, played Sylvia in the Off-Broadway 1995 premiere.) Julie White, in what could be a one-note role as the aggravated wife, is delicious as usual. And Sella, whose work I was unfamiliar with, was delightful to watch transform as he fills in the edges of the small ensemble.
My opinion on the play itself keeps shifting as I work on this post. Some days I think it is paper thin with the same gimmick over and over, but fortunately in this production, Annaleigh is so skillful that it doesn’t get old. On the other hand, the play is pretty darn cute, and it made me miss my old pup, Kirby (below). It may be a simple story, but it is about something real: the love between people and their dogs.
Written by A.R. Gurney, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Cort Theatre, Closing January 24th, 2016
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Annaleigh Ashford and Matthew Broderick
Do you know this play? I had never heard of The Gin Game until it was announced for this season. Written by D.L. Coburn, the two-hander (a play with only two characters) ran on Broadway in 1977, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, and I was surprised to learn that it won the Pulitzer in 1978 for Drama. Thanks Wikipedia!
Now James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson star in the second Broadway revival, and albeit engaging and laugh-out-loud funny at times, the piece didn’t resonate with me. Perhaps I’m not the right demographic. When you boil it down, the title hits the nail on the head – The Gin Game basically consists of two elderly people playing gin for two hours. The conversation certainly wanders to other topics like their families, struggles, and lives before coming to the same nursing home, but the play lacks an event. Tensions rise as they bicker and fight over round after round of gin, but it doesn’t build to anything.
Jenn and I couldn’t help but wonder how successful this play can be, regionally let’s say, without powerhouses like Mr. Jones and Ms. Tyson in the roles of Weller and Fonsia. These two are royalty, and at 84 and 90 years old, respectively, carrying a two-person play is crazy impressive. However, if Mr. Jones weren’t up there, for example, Weller would be way less endearing of a character since, essentially, he verbally abuses Fonsia for the duration of the play, pushing and poking at her until she finally snaps back.
Here’s what I’ll say: if you’ve never had the chance to hear that voice live or see either of them perform, then go check it out. But the ticket is for them, not the play.
The Gin Game
Written by D.L. Coburn, Directed by Leonard Foglia
Golden Theatre, Closes January 10, 2016
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson
Well, it’s definitely better than the movie.
Okay readers, I’m warning you now – there will be plot spoilers in this review. So if for some reason you don’t know the plot of Les Misérables and wish to remain in the dark, you may have to skip this blog post. Don’t know Les Miz and want to? Watch the 10th Anniversary Concert; that’s the best way to get introduced. Not the Russell Crowe movie, not the Claire Danes movie, not the 25th Anniversary Concert – the 10th Anniversary Concert featuring the best of the best which aired on TV in 1996 (and which I then watched religiously for the next ten years).
Anyway, if it’s not clear from the above, I grew up with this musical. I saw the original three times on Broadway and twice in London and was honestly nervous to see this new production. The last revival I skipped because I heard it was a mess (despite Lea Salonga’s return). This one is far from a mess. I enjoyed quite a lot of it, but of course, I can’t help but have mixed feelings. Admittedly, this may be one of those cases of how can something ever beat the original. Regardless, here’s a look at where I stand on the newest Broadway revival of Les Misérables (click here for clips).
Things I Liked:
Caissie Levy can sang. Yes, she has more of a pop voice than we might be used to for Fantine, but it’s still nice to sit back and not have to worry that notes won’t be hit. Caissie can do those notes in her sleep.
Ramin Karimloo. Damn. I’d heard wonderful things but remained on edge for the first 20 minutes or so. Early on he had the tendency to be a little bit sharp, but that soon faded. This guy has a very powerful voice from his strong belt to his gorgeous falsetto (and apparently he’s never trained which is just crazy given his sound). Plus it doesn’t hurt that he’s a mighty fine specimen to look at.
Cosette. Now there’s a surprise. I have never liked Cosette. She’s underwritten and basically only there to serve the plot of the characters around her. Growing up however, my reasons weren’t as advanced (I just wanted to hate the pretty blonde who got the guy). But Samantha Hill’s voice floats up in those higher octaves in such a way that I actually didn’t mind the character as much. How I wish she had been in the movie instead of Amanda Seyfried.
Gavroche. Albeit I don’t know if I’ve ever not liked Gavroche. He’s always played by such a charming little kid. For his final scene, I am partial to the staging of the original production; the new one feels a little self-indulgent.
“Bring Him Home.” As I mentioned above, Ramin has a beautiful falsetto, and he does not disappoint on arguably one of the best songs/moments in the show. Everything in this epically enormous show gets dialed down for these few minutes, and you’re left with this one man singing his heartbreaking plea.
Things I Didn’t Like:
Marius. Sorry. I wasn’t into him. Andy Mientus is talented, but no one will ever top Michael Ball for me. Both the 12-year-old and 30-year-old in me will forever think his voice is the dreamiest.
Wow, my attention span is not what it used to be. No matter what other shows come along, Les Miz will have a place in my heart, but man, is that a long first act. It takes so long to get to the meat of the story. It’s possible I was super conscious of the pacing because I was there with Matt who was seeing it for the first time, and I was nervous that it might be too slow for his taste. I think he enjoyed it though!
The Thenardiers. I knowwww. I like both those actors, but the approach/direction didn’t feel right to me. They were dark, scary characters, and that’s fine! Still though, we crave that comic relief in this beast of a musical. We need laughs desperately, but “Master of the House” was just another tune passing by.
Things I’m Mixed About:
Projections are a big part of the set design, but I can’t comment on their use because I was sitting very far house right and could only see pieces of them. I wish I could have seen if they were effective or not.
I like Nikki M. James (Eponine) a lot. She was the heart of The Book of Mormon (for which she won a Tony), and I also got to see her at NYTW last year in Fetch Clay, Make Man. And her big note in “On My Own” was indeed chill-worthy, but I fear she might be miscast. I don’t think her singing voice matches the style of this music. It’s not a good fit to my ear.
For the most part I didn’t miss the turntable. I did my best to go in with an open mind knowing how different the staging would be without this iconic design. Sorry though – the barricades simply aren’t as impressive as they once were without them spinning around with Enjolras hanging off the back atop the red flag. That was the image of Les Miz. Now he’s in the same position…in a wheelbarrow.
During the performance, I finally came to understand something that has been bothering me for as long as I can remember. It always dug at me that Fantine got to come back in the end in her beautiful white dress while Eponine was still stuck in her poor get-up. Why did Fantine get to be all ghostly and Eponine so dirty? But this time, for absolutely no reason at all, it clicked that the white dress is literally what Fantine dies in. It’s her hospital gown. Mystery solved! She wasn’t being favored by costume designers across the world! Is it just me? Am I the only weirdo who wondered about this?
In closing, if you’re already a fan of the musical and feel the desire to see it again, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the newest revival. If you’ve never seen the show? This is a pretty reliable way to experience it live. Again though, you’re talking to the girl who was once a toddler bouncing around the house singing what I thought were the lyrics to the opening number: “Up down, up down, up down up down up down.”
I know, I’m a natural.
Music by Claude-Michel Schöenberg, Book by Alan Boublil, Lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, Adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Imperial Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Pictured: Ramin Karimloo
So any excitement I initially had for If/Then had mostly been diminished by the time I got to the show due to the mixed reviews and word of mouth saying it was confusing and hard to follow. But what can I say? I enjoyed myself regardless (check out the highlight reel here). The new musical is certainly not perfect. It’s a little all over the place. I could have done without the choreography. Characters are underwritten. There are a few too many moving parts if you will, but it does have a lot going for it.
Idina Menzel is a powerhouse. Say what you will about her TV performances; she belongs on that stage and subsequently brings the house down. She’s famous, folks. The rest of the cast is amazing, talented, and sadly under-used. LaChanze gets her chance to shine as does Anthony Rapp (who, I must say, has never sounded better), but Jenn Colella’s character doesn’t get the chance to develop. Same with Jerry Dixon, Jason Tam, or even the male lead James Snyder. It’s Menzel’s story through and through. The rest of the characters tend to just circle around her.
So If/Then is about Elizabeth. She’s nearing 40 and having just gone through a divorce out in Arizona, is moving back to New York City to start her life over. What’s holding her back is her tendency to overanalyze all her decisions – playing out all the possible results of every possible action – therefore making her hesitate over every little thing, from huge life decisions to how to spend her afternoon. The big convention of this musical is that one of these smaller decisions ends up splitting her life in two, and we get to see how the two sides of the coin play out, prompting the question: how can one seemingly unimportant decision potentially affect the rest of our lives?
As a result of this setup, many people have said the plot is difficult to follow, or they didn’t realize that two different stories were being told. I honestly didn’t think it was that challenging. True, I went in knowing it was going to happen, but even so, I think it’s spelled out quite clearly in the first number. And then they set up blatant clues as to which “timeline” you’re in – it’s either Liz wearing glasses or Beth without. It’s “Sliding Doors” the musical, as Laura Benanti says. Side note: I’ve also been calling it “RENT 2: Mortgage.” It’s fun to see Anthony and Idina together again. There’s a scene where they talk about how the term “squatting” is dated, and that gets quite the laugh from RENT fans in the house.
The score is the thing. I’ve had the cast recording on repeat on Spotify for weeks. If you don’t know Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, they won the Tony for Next to Normal. These guys know how to write a score. Here are a few sample songs of theirs: Some Other Me, Superboy and the Invisible Girl, and the Next to Normal Tony performance of “You Don’t Know” / “I Am the One.” A couple weeks ago the If/Then cast recording debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard charts. A Broadway show hasn’t done that since 1996. You may have heard of it; it was a little show called RENT.
I won’t talk about how the storylines play out or what ends up happening. I will say that I think the show deserved a little more acknowledgement than it received. Although it’s flawed, and I honestly would recommend seeing other shows first, the fact that it’s a brand new musical should be supported and recognized.
Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey, Directed by Michael Greif
Richard Rodgers Theatre, Open-Ended
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then
A few short weeks ago I wrote a post about the upcoming production of The Bridges of Madison County. It has since arrived on Broadway and is set to open on February 20th (check out photos here). So, how did it measure up to expectations? Honestly, it’s quite the mix.
Here’s the basic premise. It’s 1965 in Madison County, Iowa. We open on a housewife named Francesca (Kelli O’Hara), who lives with her husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and their two kids. Hubbie and the kids are heading out of town for a few days for some cattle steer contest thing that makes absolutely no sense to an East Coast girl like me. Fran is still adjusting to Iowan life. She’s originally from Italy and looks pretty darn bored with her daily chores in this flat town. Enter Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale)! He’s the dreamy, traveling photographer who pulls into town right when Fran’s family hits the road. Most everyone coming to this show knows that these two are destined to fall in love from the second he asks for directions to one of the covered bridges…of Madison County. And oddly enough, it’s these two we root for despite the fact that it’s an extramarital affair. Bud isn’t a bad guy by any means, but we still want this for Francesca.
The first act is like a beautiful, slow crescendo. It’s full of folksy tunes and soaring, lush ballads. It is also funnier than I expected. It’s hard to believe Steven Pasquale has never done a Broadway musical before, but finally audiences are getting a chance to hear his pipes, which of course sound amazing alongside the glory that is Kelli O’Hara (everything she touches is gold). The story relies on a strong bond between the two leads, and there is great chemistry between O’Hara and Pasquale. Over the course of Act I, the string on the violin is pulled tighter and tighter as the sexual tension builds between them. The ensemble isn’t used as effectively. They’re either under-utilized or one-dimensional. I like the snooping yet caring neighbor (Cass Morgan) for comedy purposes and also having a real face to the husband and kids out at the cattle event, but everything else somewhat fades to the background. Even the supporting characters feel like filler, because we are really just waiting for Robert and Francesca to be together.
It starts out so strong. All through the first half I was curious, longing for the next song, eager for the upcoming moment. That eagerness slowly faded during Act II. In fact, it turned into a distant memory. To sport a 90s reference, like the Energizer bunny, the show keeps going and going and going (running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes). The second act falls off track and turns into the same idea set to music over and over again. Want to hear another song about love? Here’s one. How about one about loss? Hit it! Oooh, love AND loss? That’s new! Bring it on. I know it sounds harsh, but I was disappointed to be disappointed.
I think it’s mainly a storytelling issue. After Robert and Francesca get together, there isn’t much left to cover or to fill the time. There is the fact that Fran is left with a decision to make: does she stay with her family or run off with Rob to take lots of pictures of bridges? The thing is, her decision is made sometime in Act II and then there is still another 20 minutes of material. All of a sudden we find ourselves in a montage time leap, jumping years into the future. I wonder if this happens in the movie/book as well. The plot problem reminds me of the “Moonlighting” curse which people like to bring up for every TV show known to man with a will-they-or-won’t-they couple. You know the drill: once a couple gets together, people assume the show will fall apart and lose viewers. I personally don’t think a relationship has to kill a show. Now, if the sexual tension was all the show had going for it, then there were problems to begin with. A couple can get together, but the writing has to keep up!
Musically, the two duets between Francesca and Robert are the big highlights: Falling Into You and One Second and a Million Miles. They also each have an 11 o’clock number, but by that point it’s all so repetitive we care less and less. Granted, it might just be me (and the people who were griping around me). I’m curious to see what the reviews will be and if changes are made during the preview period. I hear there are folks coming out of this show sobbing. So who knows? I like to think I’m a romantic and I always love to root for the couple, but the story left something to be desired after these crazy kids got together.
The Bridges of Madison County
Written by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman, Directed by Barlett Sher
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, opening night February 20th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale