I’ve been thinking about Found recently and how much I liked it. This was that new musical at Atlantic Theater Company last fall that had lyrics completely made up by found items (lists, love letters, notes, etc.). The story was based on how Found magazine was…founded.
My roomie and I became obsessed with this one song in particular. Why that song? Because it’s the only one available to us on the interwebs, sadly. So this thing played on repeat for a solid month last year. I like revisiting it from time to time and have been known to sing it to myself on the streets of New York.
The ballad is called “Barf Bag Breakup,” but don’t let the title scare you away. It’s a touching breakup letter that was found written on an airplane barf bag. Barrett Wilbert Weed, who played Denise in the show, sang it (with Mike Pettry on guitar) for “In Performance” with the New York Times.
Watch it here.
The last time a major production of Caryl Chuchill’s Cloud Nine was seen in New York was in 1981 so I was very pleased to catch the revival at Atlantic Theater Company. This lovely, touching performance is running through November 1st, and I do think it’s worth your time.
Cloud Nine was a popular play to study back in college, especially in my Contemporary British Feminist Playwrights class when I studied abroad in England. How does one sum up this play? It’s about family, love, and sex. Even more so, it’s about oppression and putting people in boxes, forcing them to meet certain expectations, particularly gay people and women.
The first act is set in colonial Africa during the Victorian era, and then the second act jumps forward to 1979 in London. However, the characters have only aged 25 years, something my older seatmates across the way had a little trouble grasping, but don’t worry, we talked it out during intermission. This storytelling twist provides a unique opportunity to view this set of characters in two contradicting worlds, yet ironically, the standards and expectations of society seem not to change much between the two time periods. And as we watch this in the year 2015, we find that the topics of LBGT rights and feminism are just as ripe.
Cloud Nine is point blank and subtle all at once. It’s controversial and ordinary. It’s goofy and serious. Done in the round, this production, directed by James MacDonald and featuring a smart, excellent ensemble, accomplishes just what I think the play intends. I would love for you to go and tell me what you see. Do you think it makes a point? Do you think the point has been made before and it’s becoming trite? Or is this old play still bringing something new to the table?
The older folks sitting by me asked, “Is Caryl Churchill a feminist?” “Yes,” I replied. “Ohh, did she hate men?” I hope they are able to come away from this piece recognizing that those are two different things.
Note: the seating is not very comfortable. The bleachers that were constructed to allow for a more intimate, in-the-round performance are not ideal. The Atlantic is encouraging audience members to bring a pillow or small cushion to make their seat more comfortable. Usually I’m the first to complain about bad seating (my back issues makes me an easy target), but I did okay! It’s not a reason to skip the show.
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by James MacDonald
Atlantic Theater Company, Closes November 1st
Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton
Pictured: Lucy Owen and Chris Perfetti
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
I cannot get over the new musical down at the Atlantic Theater Company. If it doesn’t get extended or picked up somewhere else, what a crime that would be. I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw something this original and simultaneously this good. Sadly, the two things rarely go hand in hand anymore.
So. Some background. Found: A New Musical is based on FOUND magazine and how it got started (ahem, founded), from its humble beginnings to later successes. The magazine is a collection of found items: notes, love letters, lists, anything you might find on the ground somewhere. Davy Rothbart started gathering said stuff and building a portfolio if you will. And now, Tony nominee Hunter Bell ([title of show]) and Lee Overtree have turned Davy’s story (and these real found notes) into a musical.
How does one do this, I hear you ask? The story itself is familiar; we’ve seen this trope before, but not told in this way. Found notes are interspersed within FOUND’s origin story – imagine that the notes serve as the subtext. An ensemble member will jump out and share a little blurb or sing a quick one-liner (which will also be projected on the walls) commenting on the scenes at hand. For example, if two characters are speaking and you can tell there is a spark between them, someone is going to interrupt with a love note written by a 7th grader. These moments are seamlessly weaved into the plot and vice versa (the plot going where it needs to at times in order to share top-quality finds). The letters also serve as the lyrics to the majority of the songs. How amazing is that? Except for a few original numbers (all wonderfully written by Eli Bolin), the remaining songs consist of new music but words from these found items (click here to hear a ballad from the show). The notes are for the most part hilarious, some tender, others heartbreaking. And they’re all so relatable. Much of the joy from the show comes from the fact that these items were written by real people. It’s also refreshing to see the notes themselves in the set/projection design. Who writes things down anymore? Here we can remember a time of passed notes in class instead of texts, to-do lists instead of a phone app, a break-up letter instead of an email. The musical has miraculously found a way to match the varying tones of these letters, lists, and scraps of trash – turning the mood on a dime.
Found features a fantastic talented ensemble, led charmingly by Nick Blaemire as Davy. Barrett Wilbert Weed plays Denise, Davy’s roommate, and damn, girl can sing. I would list the standouts among the cast, but they all get a chance to shine so I’ll list them all instead: Christina Anthony, Andrew Call, Daniel Everidge, Orville Mendoza, Betsy Morgan, Molly Pope, Danny Pudi (Community fans out there?), and Sandy Rustin.
Wrapped up in this extremely funny, modern, fresh musical is also a touching, honest message – one that is not pushed. It’s there for us to pick up on throughout the piece and is only directly addressed briefly in the second act. One of Bell’s strengths has always been sharing an idea that’s simple and true but often forgotten in our day-to-day-life craziness, without hitting you over the head with it. On the chance this production doesn’t have a future here in the city, I suggest you become one of the lucky few to catch it before November 9th.
Found: A New Musical
Book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree, Music and Original Lyrics by Eli Bolin, Directed by Lee Overtree
Atlantic Theater Company, Closing November 9, 2014
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Christina Anthony, Danny Pudi, Nick Blaemire, Molly Pope, and Sandy Rustin