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
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, Closing January 24th, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Fred Applegate, Jimmy Nail, and the cast of The Last Ship
Well, that was a surprise. I gotta say: I was wary going into ROCKY – and admittedly even remained so on and off throughout Act I – but man oh man, this new musical may be the shock winner of the season. I think you all need to prepare yourselves for a whole lot of “ROCKY is a Knock-Out” headlines.
Before I dive into the details, let me get this out of the way first: I have never seen the movie. I know! I know! None of them! I should get on that stat. I think it gave me a unique perspective though, since I would guess most people attending know the films quite well.
Act I is relatively solid. There is a lot of exposition to cover, and it takes a little time to find its groove, but things kick into gear with Adrian’s first big song, “Raining.” For me though, Act II is where the show totally takes off. It’s non-stop, high energy, and reaches ultimate entertainment value. And have no fear – it includes all of the iconic moments you would expect from a Rocky musical. The training montages are kick-ass. There are Rockys everywhere! Instead of multiple Phantoms crossing bridges or lots of Spidermen flying across the stage, now you get Rockys in grey sweats. Also, the projections of the streets of Philadelphia as he trains are great and manage not to go overboard – what Ghost the Musical was trying to do and failed. Ghost looked over-produced whereas this just looks cool. Cool is key if you’re going to put Rocky Balboa in musical format. Who knew they could successfully make that character sing?
The leads are very strong. There’s the always-reliable Andy Karl in the title role. You may have seen Andy in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Jersey Boys, or perhaps as the UPS guy in Legally Blonde, to name a few. But this is his first “carrying-the-show” role. He plays a reserved, tough Rocky and doesn’t make a parody out of the iconic Sly impression. He makes it his own yet still honors certain aspects of Stallone’s performance. And then you have Margo Seibert making her exciting Broadway debut as Adrian. And damn, this girl can sing. Here’s an inside look at both the stars and the show itself.
The book was co-written by Stallone and Thomas Meehan (whose award-winning work includes Annie, The Producers, and Hairspray). The new score is written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the Tony-winning writing team of Ragtime, A Man of No Importance, and Once on This Island. Or perhaps you’re a fan of the animated film, Anastasia (I sure am). The ROCKY score is full of power ballads, sweet duets, and everyone’s favorite pump-up song, “Eye of the Tiger.” And of course there’s the man of the hour, director Alex Timbers, who returns to Broadway with yet another innovative experiment in new theatricality.
I so want to tell you about what they do for the big fight in the end, but I don’t think it would be fair of me to spoil it. Just know this: it’s awesome. I’ve never seen anything like this in a theatre. It’s excellently choreographed and packed with fantastic lighting and super cool effects. The last 20 minutes were so exhilarating that Matt and I ran out of the theatre with the beat thumping in our heads and our hearts racing. The audience was so worked up by the 15th round that we were all cheering together on the literal edges of our seats. I was practically on my feet shouting “Adrian” too.
This production may just be the punch Broadway doesn’t see coming. Go see it!
Music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Book by Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, Directed by Alex Timbers
Winter Garden Theatre, Opening March 13th
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy
Pictured: Andy Karl and Terence Archie
Amidst my Christmas holiday week of movie watching (American Hustle, Casablanca, City Island, and Frozen a second time), I managed to find the time to finally sit down and view The Sound of Music Live! I have since been debating whether or not to post about it. I feel like everyone and their mother have already put their two cents in, particularly in the theatre community, and it was quite the mix of feelings. It seemed like this musical broadcast became either a personal affront to viewers or a personal accomplishment. There was a lot of hate and a lot of preaching back to that hate. My Facebook news feed blew up the way it does when there’s a big football game on, and I end up having no idea what anyone’s status means. But I figure things have died down a bit, and I suppose it can’t hurt to throw a couple more pennies into the mix, right?
Let’s start with the good, shall we? There was some lovely singing, smooth camera work, and solid nun talent. Vampire Bill – I mean, Stephen Moyer? He did a pretty decent job! That kid playing Kurt? Great. He was in it. Audra? Clearly. Do we even need to talk about her? Everyone already knows she’s a goddess. It was a pleasure to have real theatre folks involved like Christian Borle as Max. There’s an extra comfort level in watching stage actors do what they do best, especially those who already have TV experience.
But let’s be serious, I’m mostly writing this review so I can brag about Laura Benanti. I love her, love her, love her, and I’m so glad people are finally starting to take notice of her abilities. I was never drawn to Elsa growing up. I didn’t understand the character, but now she’s clear to me. Laura brings a naturalism to the role, to live filming, to song, to everything. And thank god we had her for some laughs.
Of course there were weak links, but I honestly don’t want to dig into them too much. I don’t know what was up with the costumes. Some of the kids were hard to watch. The mountain set was awkward, although the scene changes were smooth and well done.
Listen, I know you’re all waiting for me to rip into Carrie, but I don’t really want to do that. The critics have been cruel enough. I’ll just say this: I feel bad that she and the people who represent her thought this was a good idea. She’s talented and clearly can sing, but she is simply not an actress. This doesn’t make her untalented; it just makes her not an actress. There isn’t an acting instinct in her bones. I was frankly very uncomfortable watching her speak any dialogue. I also feel bad that they yanked all of the “Southerness” out of her. This at least gives her character and flavor. True, Maria shouldn’t be a Southern belle, but without it, she came across as vanilla and bland. I understand that Carrie was cast to draw in viewers. Hopefully next time they’ll find a name that can better carry a show.
All that said I’m thrilled they took on this endeavor. It’s a wonderful chance for people who don’t live in a big theatre city to get to see a musical on screen. To this day, musicals still don’t get a lot of respect. People consider them merely fluffy or lame; they’re all flash and spectacle and couldn’t possibly affect audiences the way plays can. The fact that NBC is going to do another live musical due to the ratings The Sound of Music got is fantastic as far as I’m concerned. Folks associating musical theatre with high ratings? I don’t know about you, but as a musical theatre fan through and through, I’ll take that any day.
The Sound of Music Live!
Directed by Rob Ashford and Beth McCarthy-Miller
Aired live on NBC on December 5, 2013
Photo Credit: Will Hart
Pictured: Stephen Moyer and Laura Benanti
I had hoped I wouldn’t come out of this show echoing all of the other critics, but unfortunately there’s not much new to share. We have a musical here packed with one-dimensional characters. Everyone is the ultimate stereotype: the bad boy, nagging sister, player best friend, super gay bff, the list goes on. No character ever digs below the surface, and when the writers try to do so with the leads, it only comes off as lame and ineffective.
What my companions and I were left wondering was: does the actual idea work? Can you make an entire show based on the premise of a first date? Yes, it’s funny. People easily relate; they can look at the characters up on stage and think, “Ohh yes, I’ve been there.” With the classic highlights of the introduction, small talk banter, no-no’s of first dates, awkward pauses, picking up the check, etc., there is a lot to poke fun at, but is there enough meat to make a full musical? Perhaps if there were more vignettes of multiple couples, rather than just one date, you could find more to work with. I’m not sure, but as it stands, First Date is 90-minutes of mostly filler.
The banter is light, packed with easy jokes. My theatre pal, Matt Franzetti, called it sitcom writing, and I couldn’t agree more. Now, let me stress that I love me some quality sitcoms, but I don’t go to the theatre for that. This musical could be a 22-minute sitcom with the main storyline being the horrors of a first date, but since these characters are so over-the-top and archetypal, there’s no way to connect to them as an audience. They seem fake, so when the topics try to steer their way to real connection, I didn’t go along for the ride.
I tried. I did! There are a handful of genuinely funny moments, but the rest are forced and uncomfortable. For example, there’s the gay BFF bail-out call. It’s a somewhat funny gag; yes, girls often have a friend call just in case they want to get out of a date. But then he sings the same song THREE times. They take a gag that’s not all that great to begin with and then beat it into the ground.
As for the stars, First Date features Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez. We first heard Levi’s pipes in Tangled, and he is a king of landing awkward humor (see: Chuck). He’s just the right combination of awkward and charming to make even the lamest dialogue endearing. But it gets old quick. True, he keeps landing the jokes, but let’s give the guy some variety please. Also, I’m so over the standard stereotypes of guy meets girl: the uptight, tripping-over-his-words guy and the punk-rock, hard-shell girl who deep down is vulnerable and looking for love. And Rodriguez, whom I usually like, is just reciting her lines. It doesn’t feel organic, but can you blame her with some of the stuff she has to say?
It’s hard to be so harsh, but between that book, the primarily forgettable score, and the marketing, I just can’t get on board with this show. First Date will definitely be my last.
Written by Austin Winsberg, Alan Zachary, and Michael Weiner, Directed by Bill Berry
Longacre Theatre through January 5th
Photo Credit: Chris Owyoung
Pictured: Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez