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
We interrupt our normally scheduled programming (aka the chronological order of the shows I’ve seen) to first talk about Fun Home because it’s too important. I’ve been waiting for this show all season. I know this might sound a little over-the-top, but I can’t help myself: it’s flawless. End of story. A musical like this only comes around once in a while (you can see highlights here). Consider me officially obsessed.
Some backstory: Fun Home is based on the graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted father. The name Bechdel might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the Bechdel test or the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Nevertheless, you’re about to get to know Alison and her family very well as she looks back on her childhood and teenage years, building a timeline and attempting to unlock (and draw) the mystery of her father. We meet her at three different stages: Young Alison is nine or so, Medium Alison a freshman in college, and current-day 43-year-old Alison.
Present-day Alison doesn’t quite narrate; rather she excavates her past with the audience in tow. As she sifts through her dad’s old things, she pieces together memories to literally draw from them and make a cartoon. And then she captions the different moments, casting a new light or interpretation on them whenever possible. “Caption: Dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay.” Through her eyes, we quickly fall into this world of memories. It’s additionally effective because the production is performed in the round; company and audience, we’re all in this together. The set pieces spin and shift and disappear through the floor as we move through time. Like the recent production of The Glass Menagerie, the design does an excellent job of creating a memory piece (shout-out to Associate Scenic Designer Tim McMath who designed our gorgeous Summertime set).
And within the in-the-round theatre, we meet fully developed, three-dimensional characters, and the fact that they’re based on a real family makes the experience all the more visceral. Each performance is more fantastic than the last. The chillingly good Tony-nominated Michael Cerveris loses himself in Bruce, Alison’s father – his inner pain radiating from every move, every smile or outburst, every awkward attempt to connect or push people away. The same goes for Tony-nominated Judy Kuhn’s poignant, understated performance as Alison’s mother, Helen. And the three Tony-nominated women who play Alison each bring something unique and beautiful to the role. Eleven-year-old Sydney Lucas plays Young Alison, and all I want to know is where did this girl come from?! She’s stellar and changes everything when she sings THIS (it will also be the Tony performance on Sunday). Emily Skeggs brings an infectious, wide-eyed joy to Medium Alison as she discovers her sexuality. And Beth Malone as adult Alison is the center of this show, keeping everyone and everything grounded. From the moment she starts speaking, you know you’re in good hands.
Here is one of my theories about musicals. If it has a bad score, it dies, it’s forgotten. If it has a great score and not the strongest book, it’s forgiven. As long as it’s got that score, people let the bad, typically contrived, book slide. So when a musical comes along with a book that’s just as strong as the score, if not stronger, it leaves a mark. Shows that meet this criteria stand out (think Sweeney Todd, Next to Normal). So bless you Lisa Kron for this book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori – whose music doesn’t always click with me – for writing a beautiful score that I’ve been listening to nonstop since Monday evening. The story weaves seamlessly in and out of song and spoken word (hear the nominee hopefuls discuss the music and lyrics here).
And just a quick word about the subject matter and gay characters. I won’t delve into this too much because I fear I’m not eloquent enough to discuss how important and enormous it is to have a lesbian character be the lead of a musical. It’s unheard of. So instead I’m going to quote an LA Times interview I just read with Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director at the Public Theater where Fun Home began Off-Broadway:
Fun Home, Eustis believes, has the potential to do for lesbians what Angels in America did for gay men: “Take a marginalized group and say, ‘No, you are actually center stage.’ The art form…depends on empathy. It has been magical watching Broadway audiences at Fun Home. No one is thinking, ‘Oh, I know a lesbian.’ They are identifying themselves with the story, and that changes you. Once you’ve identified with someone, you can’t think of them as the other anymore.”
As for Sunday’s awards, there are legit races this year with no clear frontrunner in multiple categories. And as far as Best Musical goes, Fun Home wins in my book, hands-down, but An American in Paris (truly gorgeous, review to come) may have the edge. We’ll have to tune in to find out how the chips fall. Regardless of who wins, this is an intimate, heart-wrenching, funny, true-to-life story of love, self-denial, self-discovery, and above all, family.
Caption: Get your tickets, and come on home.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron, Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel, Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus and Jenny Anderson
Pictured: Sydney Lucas, Beth Malone, Emily Skeggs, and the Cast of Fun Home
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but It Shoulda Been You is not the way to go this season. The premise is promising – an old fashioned wedding story of families colliding with a modern twist – but this brand new musical comedy misses the mark.
It’s Rebecca’s wedding day, and nothing is going well. Her mother and the groom’s mother aren’t getting along, her ex-boyfriend has gotten wind of the nuptials and is on his way to crash the ceremony, and her sister Jenny, always the bridesmaid, is expected to keep everything together (click here for highlights).
The book is weak and offensive. I suppose I might be more forgiving if the score were likeable, but the songs, after an hour and a half, were like nails on a chalkboard to my ears. The lyrics also include gems like, “How you pulled that out of your hat is making me smile like a Cheshire cat.” The music is made up of random notes following one another, trying to force a melody. I was looking forward to Lisa Howard’s 11 o’clock number because that woman has pipes, but I sat there thinking, this is what she has to sing every night?
Speaking of my excitement for Lisa Howard, I was so psyched for her to finally have a lead role on Broadway, but there’s a terrible subplot about her weight and her mother’s rude comments. The book is packed with fat jokes, Jewish jokes, black jokes, gay jokes, and alcoholic jokes, but none are smart. Mostly they made me cringe, and I’m not easily offended. I’m typically fine with that style of humor (The Book of Mormon, anyone?), but when written poorly, it just comes off as mean.
What a waste of talent. It’s a fantastic cast full of big names (Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka), and the brilliant David Hyde Pierce at the helm directing, so I can’t help but wonder what went wrong here. I’ll give it this much: there’s a surprise in the show that neither Matt nor I saw coming, and I don’t know the last time I was that genuinely surprised by a plot shift. But it doesn’t save the show by any means. For a brief moment I did think, “Oh, this will help the story,” but it only made it more convoluted.
But really, the show’s tagline is, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be home by 10.” I mean, what? Their best foot forward is how short the show is?! That’s not gonna cut it for me. It shoulda been better.
It Shoulda Been You
Book & Lyrics by Brian Hargrove, Music by Barbara Anselni, Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Lisa Howard
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
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