Futurity: A Thrilling Indie-Rock Brechtian Fever Dream

Futurity

Caption: César Alvarez and the cast of Futurity (Photo: Ben Arons)

I had difficulty connecting with Futurity at the start. I liked that it was quirky but thought it was maybe trying too hard to be “different” or “out of the box.” Then again, there were these pearls of wisdom that kept multiplying as the show progressed, and I found myself getting more and more involved. This is a show that gets you talking. Jenn and I spent the whole walk from Avenue B to Broadway discussing the issues brought up: slavery, war, fighting for change, progress, changing people’s minds, using art as a weapon, if art makes things better, if it even makes a difference. Pieces like this spark conversation and hopefully forward movement.

But let me pass you over to our guest blogger today, Jenn Haltman. Jenn is my uber-talented friend and partner in crime (well, art). I got excited by the idea of Jenn sharing her thoughts rather than I as she clicked with the show in a more significant way. I think I got there; I was just a little late to the party. Here’s Jenn and her very own doodle (note: she looks just like me but with longer hair).


Jenn Stick Figure

Soho Rep and Ars Nova have combined forces to co-produce Futurity, which makes a lot of sense. Soho Rep perennially produces bold new theatrical voices, and Ars Nova has a very heavy musical component to its programming. They were smart to look beyond their respective, intimate home theatres and present this work at the Connelly Theatre to allow for the space needed for the breadth of this story. I went in knowing nothing about the production except that it was originally produced at A.R.T. in Boston in 2012 (there is even a concept album on Spotify).

Futurity opens with The Lisps (an indie, experimental band) coming out on stage in front of a traditional velvet curtain, riffing about things they talked about backstage and setting up the characters of the show, causing us, the audience, to wonder what we are about to see. Is this a concert? A musical?

They go on to tell a fictional story about the real Ada Lovelace, a 19th century mathematician known as the first computer programmer. We follow her correspondence with fictional character Julian Munroe, a young Civil War soldier. Ada and Julian are played, respectively, by The Lisps band members Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez. Through letters, the two forge a relationship based on their shared love of math and science, and they develop the “steam brain,” a thinking machine intended to improve society and eliminate war. Together they examine the idea of collective conscience, morality, and the question of whether or not a machine would think ceasing war and slavery is in fact the ultimate moral choice.

Alvarez also wrote the book and lyrics, and he co-wrote the music with Tunis and the incredibly talented percussionist Eric Farber (also a member of The Lisps) who plays various “contraptions” in the piece. They are joined by a wonderfully diverse cast of ten actors who play the ensemble of soldiers in addition to providing the impressive live accompaniment.

Since Futurity is framed as a musical within a concert, I was able to step back and appreciate the craft of it alongside the storytelling. As I watched the advancement of Ada’s invention against the ever-growing Civil War, it forced me to think about how each person plays a role in “advancement.”  It allowed me to value the inventor with the same weight as the soldier and how we all contribute what we can to a cause. One song in particular called “How Much” movingly shows the cost of war. The inimitable Karen Kandel plays The General, and her rallying of the troops about why they need to fight shows us both how far and how little we’ve come as a country. The set design by Emily Orling and Matt Saunders is subtle yet transformative (especially the reveal in the second act!), and David Neumann’s choreography is simple yet evocative. Director Sarah Benson (a favorite of mine) expertly shapes this sprawling vision with heart and intellect.

Tunis and Alvarez periodically step out of character to remind us of the construct of the evening, and this is where the Brechtian influence is most clear. German director Bertolt Brecht believed that plays should provoke self-reflection and action by the audience to improve the world around them. If everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end of the story, then the audience is left feeling complacent and not compelled to act. In true Brechtian style, Becca and I left talking about how the play reflects the world around us and what that means. With so many plays I’ve seen of late, I’ve walked out of the theatre thinking about my laundry or to-do list than what I just witnessed. Futurity will likely not leave me for a very long time. It’s proving to be a hot ticket, so if you can get your hands on one before it closes November 22nd, do it!

***
Futurity
Music by César Alvarez with The Lisps, Lyrics and Book by César Alvarez, Directed by Sarah Benson
Connelly Theatre, Closing November 22nd
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Cast: César Alvarez, Andrew R. Butler, Fred Epstein, Eric Farber, Eamon Goodman, Karen Evans Kandel, Kristine Haruna Lee, Mia Pixley, Jessie Shelton, Kamala Sankaram, Darius Smith, Storm Thomas, and Sammy Tunis

Credits: Choreography: David Neumann; Set Design: Emily Orling and Matt Saunders; Percussion and Contraption Design: Eric Farber; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Costume Design: Emily Orling; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Props: Noah Mease; Fight Choreography: J. David Brimmer; Music Direction: César Alvarez

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Fun Home

Fun Home

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.

Fun 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

Fun Home


It Shoulda Been You

It Shoulda Been You

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


Something Rotten!

Something Rotten

I gotta say, Something Rotten has Best Musical written all over it. Admittedly, I have yet to see most of the new musicals this season as they’re all coming out right about…now (pre-Tony time is busy, friends!). So it’s true, I might change my tune after seeing Fun Home or Finding Neverland or It Shoulda Been You. Lots of new musical potential this year (update since I wrote those last two sentences: It Shoulda and Neverland did not do too well with the critics).

But Something Rotten knows what it’s doing, and it’s got Casey Nicholaw at the helm (you can view highlights here). Now Casey and I don’t always see eye to eye. I couldn’t quite get on board with his productions of Aladdin and Elf, but then there’s the hilarious The Drowsy Chaperone and underdog The Book of Mormon. And now he’s back delivering a brand new (that’s right! NEW!), yet deliciously old-school musical full of big shtick, big comedy, and big musical numbers. And Shakespeare references!

Wait, hold up – this show is about Shakespeare? Don’t run off just yet! It’s not all uppity with super insider-y jokes (although there are plenty for the big Shakespeare fans out there). Here’s the basic premise. All the Bottom brothers, Nick (Brian D’Arcy James) and Nigel (John Cariani), want is to write a hit of their own, but they can’t get a word in edgewise because William Shakespeare (Christian Borle) is all anyone can talk about, and his new play Romeo and Juliet just premiered at the Globe. Nick will do anything to top his rival, so he goes out in search of a soothsayer (Brad Oscar) to find out what the “next big thing” might be. And what does he learn about? Why, musical theatre of course! So he dives headfirst into creating the world’s very first musical. Cut to countless hit musical references. I mean, so many you won’t catch all of them in one viewing.

Now sure, there are some easy jokes that drove me a little crazy (a woman guarantees there will be gender equality in no more than five years – get it?!), but on the whole, it’s a silly ball of fun. I don’t know the last time I laughed that hard at a musical. The score is packed with catchy tunes that you will actually leave the theatre humming. And to top it off, you have the impeccably talented cast.

Led by D’Arcy James and Borle, right off the bat, you know you’re in good hands. D’Arcy James is steadfast in everything he touches. He plays a solid straight man amidst all of the craziness but still gets his chance to cut loose. As the Bard, it’s so much fun to once again see the cockiness of Black Stache mixed with the bravado of Tony winner Borle himself. Brad Oscar is insane and hilarious, and Cariani and Kate Reinders are adorably charming and funny as the young will-they-won’t-they-couple. Oh, and Heidi Blickenstaff – I could listen to her sing all day. I wish there were more to her character, but sadly it’s not her show. This is very much about the Bottom brothers and Shakespeare, and the women unfortunately are left in the sidelines. I guess that’s what happens when a show takes place in 2015 – sorry, I mean 1595.

So. A musical chockfull of Shakespeare AND musical references? It sounds like this was made for me. How can you go wrong with a musical that’s an ode to musicals? I’m eager to see what the critics will be saying after the opening tonight, but honestly? I’m not the least bit worried about this show. Nothing’s gone rotten here.

Something Rotten! A Very New Musical
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, Directed by Casey Nicholaw
St. James Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Christian Borle and the cast of Something Rotten