In the summer of 2012 there was a musical called Dogfight at Second Stage. Based on the movie starring Lili Taylor and River Phoenix, the show didn’t completely work as a whole, but there was plenty to be positive about. With great performances by Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena (now co-starring as Elphaba and Fiyero in Wicked), Dogfight also featured a new and delightful score by Pasek and Paul. Haven’t heard of them? You will soon.
This young composing team out of University of Michigan has already been making quite a mark. I unfortunately missed their Broadway debut last year with A Christmas Story, for which they received a Tony nomination for Best Score, but luckily, it is back for the holiday season at Madison Square Garden (review coming soon!). Their songs were also featured on Smash (albeit I never made it past episode 3, wah wah). Or perhaps I once forced you to listen to the gorgeousness that is this song. Did you click? You’d best click.
Although Dogfight didn’t make the biggest splash Off-Broadway, the album, released last May, definitely got some well-deserved buzz. Do yourself a favor, look up the show on Spotify, and enjoy the beautiful melodies and tight harmonies. The song on repeat for me? First Date/Last Night. I also love Mendez’s pipes on Before It’s Over. Other catchy tunes include Some Kinda Time, Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade, Pretty Funny, and Dogfight featuring Tony nominee Annaleigh Ashford who is currently bringing in the laughs at Kinky Boots.
I look forward to hearing what Pasek and Paul write next.
Written by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan, Directed by Joe Mantello
Second Stage Theatre
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena
Well, what a charming little show Little Miss Sunshine is. The evening was such a pleasant surprise. I’d heard mixed things (mostly negative), but it was a treat, plain and simple.
True, the show already has a lot going for it since it’s based on the excellent movie hit of 2006. I only saw it once in theatres, but it’s remained one of my favorites. The movie made an impression because it had a new, touching, funny screenplay with a talented cast, and now you can encounter that same great combination on stage.
You’ve got Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, and Rory O’Malley to name a few of the performers. Then there is music by William Finn whose work you might have heard if you’re a fan of Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, or A New Brain, and the book and direction is by James Lapine. You know you’re in good hands if you have Lapine taking care of you (Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George). I don’t remember the last time I saw a musical with this strong of a book. Again, this may simply be because they’re working with gold. I’m not sure how many lines are taken directly from the screenplay (I think another movie viewing is in order), but the musical definitely sticks to the plot.
Why turn this particular movie into a stage show? Because it’s just so damn fun to watch them figure out the van. If you recall, the bright yellow VW bus is a key character in the movie, as the family spends many an hour riding, driving, and pushing it from New Mexico to California. In this production the bus is six chairs on wheels and boy, do they make it work. The bus transforms throughout the piece. It’s incredibly clever, and the choreography is sharp and clean. In fact, the whole show is. It’s well put together with an extremely talented cast playing well-developed characters. The supporting characters are also hilarious (I wish Wesley Taylor had more to do!).
Now it’s not perfect. The score isn’t to die for; I didn’t fall in love with it the way I did when I saw Spelling Bee on Broadway. I didn’t leave humming the songs, and a few could pack a little more punch. I wanted more from the son’s big number, and the bathroom encounter between Frank (O’Malley) and his ex left much to be desired. The opening moments of the show were also odd. It just kind of…started. It was as if it picked up in the middle of a song, and I thought I had missed something. Nonetheless, the harmonies are beautiful, and the music certainly fits the style of the piece.
Overall, it’s quirky, fun, and adorable, just like the film. It was nice to see the story again with a new twist. And you have to go simply to see that pageant at the end. After being disappointed by the musicals thus far this season, Little Miss Sunshine is a breath of a fresh air.
Little Miss Sunshine
Written by James Lapine and William Finn, Directed by James Lapine
Second Stage Theatre through December 15th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Stephanie J. Block, Will Swenson, and the Cast of Little Miss Sunshine
If you had asked me how I felt about this show during the first scene or two, man oh man, was I ready to walk out. I sat there thinking, “Oh god, what have I gotten myself into?” Luckily, the show began to redeem itself with its clever one-liners and quirky self-awareness. I gotta say, that’s hard to do – reversing a first impression and bringing me back from the brink is impressive.
Here’s the basic premise: Jeff, a philosophy graduate student, auditions for a reality show dating competition called “Nobody Loves You” to try to get his ex-girlfriend back. Don’t worry, his reasoning makes sense: it’s a musical! He is also ready to prove to his ex (who’s a big fan of the show) and the world how reality TV is manufactured and fake, and no one makes any real connections. You can probably guess how things pan out, but it’s definitely entertaining along the way. If you’re looking for bubblegum fun, this is the place to be.
The tight-knit ensemble cast stays super busy for 90 minutes singing pop tunes and jumping around playing multiple roles. My personal favorite is Heath Calvert as Byron, the charming-as-he-is-dumb host of the competition. Stand-outs also include Leslie Kritzer as Nina, the hilarious, ball-busting Executive Producer, and Rory O’Malley (The Book of Mormon’s Turn It Off star) as super fan Evan, who provides an excellent way to watch the show within a show from the outside in.
Another nice surprise was Aleque Reid as Jenny, the equally-annoyed-as-Jeff backstage assistant to the show. Amidst all of the heightened “reality,” Jenny’s character keeps things grounded. Not to mention she reminded me so much of Elizabeth Mitchell that I went home and fell into a YouTube wormhole watching LOST Juliet clips (spoiler alert in that link, if you still want to watch the series one day).
I did think, however, that the main character was problematic. Jeff just wasn’t likable in my book. I’m stumped as to whether this was due to the actor, the writing, the directing, or a combination. Granted it’s a tough sell to get you on his side; he has to be a Negative Nancy for most of the show, and it opens with him being kind of a jackass. But he could be a lovable jackass, right? Nonetheless, I didn’t care about him, which leads me to my main issue with the show.
Since these characters are all archetypes and spoofs of themselves, not to mention that the show is one major mockery of reality television, it’s hard to care for them on a deeper level. The show is definitely fun and the campiness hilarious, but when it tries to get “real,” the script falters. I don’t watch reality TV; I dislike it almost as much as Jeff does. I prefer the spoofs like Burning Love or Baby Bachelor. In that vein, Nobody Loves You is actually quite a smart commentary on reality shows, and musicalizing it works. But in the end, it is about reality television, so it never really gets beneath the surface. Leaving me to ask: is that the underlying flaw of the show or the point?
Nobody Loves You
Written by Itamar Moses and Gaby Alter, Directed by Michelle Tattenbaum
Second Stage Theatre
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Heath Calvert (right) and the cast of Nobody Loves You