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.
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
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
Picture a fight you have with someone and how it can go ten different ways. If you had only said something different or used a different tone of voice, you may have ended up with an entirely different outcome…or not.
This is exactly what Nick Payne’s Constellations explores. Not just the concept, though; the 70-minute play examines the actual possibilities, the numerous pathways two characters can take in their relationship – all the potential ways a conversation can go when they first meet at a BBQ, when they consider spending the night together, when they’re faced with life-altering events.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Roland and (Golden Globe Winner!) Ruth Wilson as Marianne give wonderfully warm, generous, and connected performances. Watching this play is like being in an acting class with them because they’re playing these scenes over and over with a new interpretation each time. It’s all about tactics. When an actor approaches a scene, he or she has to figure out a) what do I want? and b) how am I going to get it? That’s what these two are doing in real time. They do eventually shift out of a certain scene and into another as they move forward in time (or do they?), but even when they’re saying the exact same words as the time before, it’s still fresh. And I believed them each time. The audience adapts to the new circumstances just as quickly as the characters do, and that is a testament to the writing.
When I go down the rabbit hole of thinking about other universes and how many lives I might be leading elsewhere, I start to get dizzy. The play asks questions like: do we have control over our fate? Does free will exist if we are just one version of ourselves and all the other “choices” we could make are simply playing out in another universe? And what about time itself? Are the past and future merely fabrications, only kept alive in our own minds?
There is an element of the play building on itself – the sound and lighting designs (both enticing) growing more intense and cutting – as things develop and the story(ies) become more clear. I did think, however, that it was building to something, and I don’t know if that something ever arrived. Should there be a catharsis of some kind? Is there an ending? How can there be an ending when there are over 50 stories potentially being told? Because of this, the play as a whole feels somewhat incomplete. Unfinished even.
But maybe that’s exactly the point.
Written by Nick Payne, Directed by Michael Longhurst
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Closing March 15th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson
If you’re into outrageous musical comedies, then Honeymoon in Vegas is the show for you. If not? I’d honeymoon elsewhere.
I can’t remember the last time I was at such a loss for what to say about a show. I honestly don’t know if you should run toward or away from Honeymoon in Vegas. It’s one of the more absurdist musical comedies I’ve ever seen. It is one huge compilation of random, campy moments, and yet all of that happens amidst a very clear (albeit insane) storyline (check out the clips here).
I suppose if you’ve seen the 1992 film then you’re likely better prepared for the plot than Matt and I were. The movie stars Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, and James Caan, and from what I’ve read of the synopsis, the musical seems to stay pretty loyal. But I mean, what?? This plot! Although, Matt did point out that it was similar to how he felt watching On the Town, which also has a relatively absurd play-by-play. So you gotta be prepared to just sit back for a wild and crazy ride. That’s kind of all you can do with a show like this. You can’t sit there with your critical hat on, or try to find the logic within the madness, or have a life-changing experience as it realigns your outlook on life. Nope. Instead, tap your foot, laugh with it (and at it at times), and sit there with the goofiest smile on your face. Because when you have Vegas showgirls, a dead mother’s curse, a song called Friki-Friki, Tony Danza tap dancing, and skydiving Elvises, what else can you do?
So the plot. A guy named Jack Singer loves his girlfriend Betsy (as he makes very clear in the opening number “I Love Betsy”), but he’s afraid to pop the question. Why? Because his mother’s dying wish (ahem, curse) was that he never get married. Every time he comes close, something goes terribly wrong. But when Betsy finally puts her foot down, they fly to Vegas to tie the knot. There we meet an older gentleman, conman Tommy Korman, who tricks clueless tourists into rigged poker games and walks out with thousands of dollars. He spots Betsy at the pool and falls immediately in love because she’s a dead ringer for his dead wife. He draws Jack into a game of the aforementioned poker, and when Jack finds himself out $10,000, Tommy says they can call it even if he can have one weekend with Jack’s girlfriend. Then they all go to Hawaii.
And that’s just Act 1.
I haven’t even mentioned the Garden of Disappointed Mothers in Act 2. Can we talk about this for a second? I don’t believe this scene is in the movie, but let me paint this picture for you now. It’s one of the few heart-to-heart moments in the show as we find ourselves surrounded by a bunch of women dressed as trees. Fog is pouring off the stage so that the first three rows can barely even see. I look to my left and see Matt crying in his lap he’s laughing so hard as we notice an old man in the front row stand up in the middle of the scene to attempt to see over the fog and then give up altogether and abandon his seat. It’s a ballad between mother and son, and you’ve got the amazingly talented Nancy Opel stuck in a tiki tree costume. The juxtaposition of these things has to be intentional, but I think we were the only ones laughing, sooo your guess is as good as mine.
Rob McClure, Tony nominee for the short-lived Chaplin, is great and well cast as nebbish Jack. Betsy is played by the charming and funny Brynn O’Malley. And as the sly con artist, Mr. Tony Danza holds his own, and boy, are folks excited to see him. Opel as Jack’s mother is sadly underused, not to mention Matthew Salvidar as Tommy’s sidekick. What a waste of his talent! I wonder if he had a song that was cut somewhere along the line.
I do, though, want to say, “Good on you, Jason Robert Brown.” First, for writing an Overture and Entr’acte (what happened to those, friends?) and highlighting the fabulous orchestra. But also, for writing this fun, jazzy, over-the-top music immediately following last season’s The Bridges of Madison County for its lush, romantic, Tony-winning score. It’s hard to believe they’re written by the same composer.
Honeymoon in Vegas starts off so strong. It’s campy and knows it. But when the characters head to Vegas, I found myself less on board. It was like a game of tug-of-war; I kept giving up, and then the most insane thing would happen, and I’d find myself smiling. And then I’d get fed up all over again. I try to avoid quoting other critics, but I think Ben Brantley hits it on the head in his (note: incredibly positive) review from the Papermill Playhouse run: “It’s a swinging hymn to laid-back outrageousness.”
And as my pal Matt put it, “I had fun!! Do I think it’s a good musical?…No.”
Honeymoon in Vegas
Book by Andrew Bergman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, and Directed by Gary Griffin
Nederlander Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Tony Danza and Rob McClure and the Cast of Honeymoon in Vegas