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11/4/16

Tick, Tick...and BOOM Go All My Feels

A fantastic production of Tick, Tick…Boom is always welcome anytime or anywhere (within a reasonable travel distance to me, my one request), but there is something about Keen Company’s FLAWLESS revival playing at Theatre Row that…transcends. That’s what it does, it just. Transcends. Everything.

It could be that the timing of this revival couldn’t have been more perfect, fostering such a hyperbolic reaction (yes, even for me). Maybe it has to do with the current political/sociological climate, which has become so tumultuous, people can’t look at their televisions or computer/smartphone screens without throwing their hands up in disgust while stating aloud, “…the fuckkk??”

Or possibly because adulting has become so difficult as to be unrecognizable, between the mounting cost of living, career woes, health, relationship and/or other life-related stresses. Or perhaps one has a creative outlet - whether it be for a living or for pleasure - that has plateaued, doesn’t generate much enjoyment and excitement or has become so inconveniencing financially or time-wise, one questions his/her entire relationship with what once provided so much purpose and passion.

Not to be sanctimonious or anything, but the crushing reality of adult life is…well, it is prone to sucking. Except, when it doesn’t. And everything feels harmonious for however long - a day, a week, a month or even just one fucking moment that stands out as better then the rest, providing optimism in a world that seems hellbent on self-destruction, sabotage and spreading toxicity. That same world where it seems like most of its inhabitants have given up because fuck it and fuck everything, you know...

If there is anyone that understood alllllll of that, it was probably Jonathan Larson. Because Tick, Tick…Boom! was written over 25 years ago and, with a little help from David Auburn, I can’t recall the last show that spoke so profoundly to life working in the theatre scene of Manhattan, the late-20’s, early 30’s experience or even just adults having to make difficult choices when confronted with a fork in the road. And if there is something to learn from this revival, it can be summed up as a simple encouraging mantra of “no matter what, don’t give up and move forward with everything you have."

That is what blew my mind and soul the most. There may be no forthright villain in this story (essentially, the cutthroat theatre industry and Manhattan itself is just about it), but under Jonathan Silverstein’s astute direction, I really felt that Jon, Susan and Michael were, at the least, trying their hardest in the face of natural conflict to carve out the best lives for themselves. No, really, think about it...

Michael may have traded in his acting career for one in corporate America, but not once did I detect a hint of regret in the sacrifice he made. He mentions to Jon that he doesn’t miss starving and that he can endure the travel demands of his job, hence, he reaps and enjoys the rewards of his elevated income (the BMW he drives, his new apartment, owning more then three belts) before…y’know, shit takes a dark turn.

And while Susan starts entertaining the thought of moving elsewhere, putting her relationship with Jon in a difficult spot as he insists in staying put in Manhattan, she remained strong in her conviction that the change would be for the best. To paraphrase her words, “I’ll still be a dancer, just not in New York.”

And then there is Jon, whom for whatever angst he feels while prepping for his workshop or powering through his writer's block (or composer’s block, as it were), just watch as he lights up walking through the Theatre District, or watching Karessa sing SLAY “Come to Your Senses” during his workshop and, of course, his euphoric moment in Central Park and he commandeers the piano and performs the absolute fuck out of “Why.” He may hit a creative wall or three or six, but as he gains more perspective and thinks it over, he comes to the conclusion that there is nothing else he would rather be doing. Some encouraging words from St------ So------ don’t hurt, but I digress.

All three characters make strong cases for themselves, but the audience is spared taking any sides or judging the choices any of them have made. Yes, even Michael for “selling out” or Susan for, what it looks like, checking out. In other words, we have three well-intentioned, occasionally flawed, but very likable characters veering back-and-forth from stumbling through life and excelling in it, contemplating the present and wondering/being scared of the future…doesn’t that sound like all of us? If you are thinking that this show feels real - almost TOO REAL at times - it’s because it is.

There is so much more that this revival of Tick, Tick…Boom got exactly right, starting with Silverstein’s energetic direction, capturing the frenetic, adrenaline-pumping life in Manhattan. The cast of three whirl around the sets and props - the piano, a couch, some chairs, etc. - and HAUL ASS with Christine O’Grady’s well-done choreography, never letting up and having a blast while doing so.

Ciara Renee’s excellent portrayal as Susan and co. won’t make me forget Karen Olivo’s perfect showing from the Encore’s production a few years back, but Miss Lady is a beautiful, talented star and we all should be ready for her to be a household theatre name. Her rendition of “Comes to Your Senses” - basically, Jonathan Larsen’s best ballad that is not “One Song Glory” (and one of my all time favorites) - is every bit enthralling and powerful as it should be. 

While it may sound like a back-handed compliment, George Salazar really has “the best friend” role (typically, named Michael!) down to a science. He’s well-sung (as always) and the rapport he develops with Blaemire felt sincere, like there really is a decades-long friendship between the two of them (co-starring in the last revival of Godspell probably helped!). “No More” - Jon and Michael’s overjoyed reaction to the latter’s brand-spanking new apartment - is a good song in itself and a feat of direction/choreography, but Salazar and Blaemire’s killer dance moves, enthusiasm and perspiration (literally) leveled the entire building and then some. It was hard not to watch and laugh along as Jon and Michael play make-believe and be total dorks. Like all good buddies do!

Renee and Salazar also occupy a dozen or so supporting characters between the two of them and its worth pointing out that they shift back and forth between them all - with only a few adjustments of costuming to help - without a moment of hesitation, it would seem. Just one look at either of them, with a different posture, facial reaction and/or vocal affectation, was sufficient enough for me to buy into a new character.

And then there is our homeboy, Nick Blaemire. Nick Fucking Blaemire. We’re all ready for him to be a mega-watt star, performing and composing and taking Broadway (even more) by storm, right?! How it hasn’t happened already is a crime to all people with eyes, ears and a functioning nervous system. As wonderful as he was performing in Godspell, Dogfight or Found: The Musical, his performance as Jon is a cannonball to the soul.

Casting a perfomer/composer for the role of Jon was only going to yield positive results, but Nick's casting is next-level genius given his, um, track record (although, Glory Days was just ahead of its time and if you were to ask the younger theatre-going generation, most will tell you the show is quite good). He is clearly enjoying himself walking the audience through the narrative aspects and hitting all of Jon's quirks. But when Jon is hardcore angsting and emoting like there is no tomorrow, that is where Nick is laid bare on the stage. "30/90" lands all of its punches as he quarrels with his almost-30 years of age and what little his has to show for it, projecting self-doubt and uncertainty amidst that wonderful, charismatic gem of a song. "Johnny Can't Decide" is a vocal explosion on all ends, with Nick hitting the high notes in his range to melt your ears. To top it all off, he makes "Why" the moment you didn't realize you were holding out for, as he proceeds to OWN EVERYTHING, working his pipes and every one of his emotions for all their worth as Jon rediscovers his resolve for song-writing.

And remember, this guy was wearing an eyepatch and playing Plankton in the SpongeBob Musical not too long ago. Classic Nick.

This old chestnut of a show is a theatrical treasure that I would put at the top of my favorite musicals list instantly every time. The fact that I can find further nuance in Tick Tick…Boom! isn’t a surprise as my age gets closer and closer to 30, but all-too relatable, reassuring/inspiring theatre is…well, it speaks for itself. I know this show's Off-Broadway run was just extended (YASSSS!), but, like, I believe I speak for everyone when I say it is time for this mostly unknown gem to be on a Broadway marquee and start delighting larger crowds. C'MON already...Tick, Tick...Boom! has never been on Broadway before, we're so many years removed from Rent's regime that it is time a spotlight was lent to Jonathan Larson's other show, even just for a little while, and we have a director/cast that knows what they are doing once the light hits the central piano on stage. If I had the money to make this happen (LOLZ), consider my check written out yesterday.


Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

10/20/16

A Tale of Writing, Simon Stephens and Heisenberg

I don’t think I could ever write a play.

As I am writing this, my mind lingered over to the possibility of writing for the stage at some point in the future - like, in a part-time Sharr White-esque fashion - and yes, I don’t think I have it in me to do so. Sure, I’ve seen A LOT of shows and have years of writing experience, but, of course, that doesn’t mean I can just up and write the next The Humans. Allow me to bow out and leave the playwriting to the actual professionals.


Heisenberg - playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater - is the show that prompted me to think about playwriting while also confirming that it’s probably not my calling. Like most of the great new plays, I could just never write something like this.

Having seen a few of his works, I figured Simon Stephens to be some sort of writing sorcerer. Not just his adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but Punk Rock was also a gem of layered suspense and shock that spoke about humanity on a larger, more cynical scale.

Heisenberg feels like it exists more in the former’s subverted realism-esque universe, such as, in the very station where Christopher Boone is scrambling to catch his train, he could have walked past the bench where Georgie, an American woman in her 40’s, randomly kisses Alex, an Irish man in his 70’s, on his neck from behind (Heisenberg officially commences mere moments after that). The reason why both worlds felt so (wonderfully) similar to me is that suspending disbelief came organically and it took minimal effort to convince me that all three characters exist in a reality where an exciting adventure awaits them.

That’s quite an achievement given Heisenberg's constructs lend more credence to the fact that Georgie and Alex would probably not engage in further conversation after their initial…ummm, ‘exchange', which can be described as awkward at best or bizarre and creepy at the worst. After maybe 3 minutes of apologies for the misunderstanding and miscellaneous small-talk, it is more than apparent that both individuals aren’t compatible in any regard. She is ditzy and may or may not have lied about her love life and professions (take one guess), while also having an ulterior motive as to why she pursues Alex so vociferously, going as far as visiting him at his butcher shop after their initial not-so-meet-cute. He’s reserved and set in his ways, replying with few words and exhibiting little interest in Georgie during the early-going while she haphazardly stumbles around (physically and verbally) in their interactions.

Several breaks - and set-changes - pepper the run-time, each one indicating a fast-forward in these character’s journeys together, which goes on to include dinner-dates, sex and a full-fledge romantic relationship. As unconventional as it may be, Stephens’ writing nails it over and over again as these two vastly different people build a believable rapport with each other, the age difference and unsuitable natures all aside. The dialogue is funny and pleasant, not to mention, occasionally sad as Georgie and Alex let their guards done to reveal some of the pain they harbor around. And it’s a nice, unstraining thought that two random individuals can meet and establish a bond regardless of whatever, you know...

Like Georgie and Alex’s interest in each other, the audience can’t help but observe and be intrigued as to where things may go. And once the beautiful final scene comes around and after the final fade-to-black, my thoughts began to theorize what is in-store for these characters. Ambiguous (and abrupt) endings can polarize an audience, but Stephens side-stepped a more tantalizing route for something subdued and heart-warming.

The other aspects of this production are all on-point, starting with Mark Brokaw’s primitive, but effective direction. On-stage seating is never not awesome and with a series of risers upstage and with the normal in-house audience with consideration, Brokaw directed the cast and their “tables and chairs” set-up with minimal movement and shape-shifting, with nary a bad angle (as far as I can tell) from either vantage point while also letting Stephens writing and the performers do their stuff.

Mary Louise Parker’s performance as Georgie is delightful and manages to impress in one important regard: as insufferable and occasionally dubious Georgie can be, the audience does more than just tolerate her - we play along and even cheer a little as she wears Alex down. It’s not shocking to hear someone drop the ‘F’ bomb on stage, but Parker’s no-filter, Giggles McAdorable delivery landed every time for some of Heisenberg’s best laughs. Usually, two-character plays don’t have characters like Georgie - I imagine it is out of concern of jumping the shark should the character not land right away (if at all) - but in Parker’s performance, Georgie has many shades to her, so much so, she sustains our attention throughout.

And while Denis Arndt has the more quiet, reactive role between the two, he doesn’t overshoot subtle and wind up being boring. His “quiet, but confident” schtick is perfectly calibrated to offset Georgie’s Georgie-ing, while also crescendo-ing into his final monologue, which Arndt performs with a palpable exuberance without raising his voice all that much.

Manhattan Theatre Club should become the sole proprietor of these two-character handlers (that is, if it isn’t already). The last revival of Collected Stories, Venus in Fur, Constellations, and now, Heisenberg is quite the strong pedigree of shows if you ask me.


Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

10/12/16

Oh, Hello Alex Timbers

Not-So-Spoiler Alert: I love Alex Timbers.

For those of you that know me, this is not exactly a shocking revelation given (1) he's Alex Timbers, c'mon now... and (2) even with a mis-directed scene or a not-so-good show, a common trait of his direction is it's "unapologetic, over-the-top, WTF" gusto that you can't help, but applaud his boldness and his penchant for boundary-breaking (in every intrinsic and external meaning of that superlative). Want to make a show A SHOW or THE SHOW? Call Alex, step out of the way of his magical hair flips and watch him strut his stuff.

To date, he had a hand in two of the most FUCKING HYSTERICAL shows I've ever seen - Peter and the Starcatcher and The Robber Bridegroom. Sure, both shows had a lot of other factors going for it - fantastic set-pieces, the former's stellar book and excellent performances from both ensembles - but all of that does not come together sans the director and Alex Timbers (plus the late-Roger Rees on Peter) brought his A-game on both occasions.

One would think that Timbers directing an actual comedy - not a dramedy, but a full-fledged, start-to-finish comedy - starring actual comedians/comedic actors would be easy-as-pie given his facility with the genre, but unfortunately, I did not find his newest offering, Oh, Hello on Broadway, playing at the Lyceum Theatre, to be outrageously funny. It was just, like, 'haha' funny. In parts. In-between several long eye-rolls.

You see, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll play George St. Geegland and Gil Faizon respectively, two septuagenarians tasked with conjuring up a memoir for the stage, "show-within-a-show" style. The entire affair is a one-act, no-intermission send-up of…well, everything. Amongst the targets are New York and its inhabitants, shows that have once resided at the Lyceum (Steel Magnolias, I am My Own Wife, amongst others), pop and theatre culture, theatrical devices and constructs…the list goes on and on.

Some parts land those elusive belly laughs, namely, a dozen or so one-liners out of the 15,741 scripted attempts. And Mulaney and Kroll clearly have talent to spare, delivering select lines or bits with grand relish that you can't help but play along with their character's antics. And during a segment about half-way through, where George and Gil roast interview a different special guest each night - the night I attended, the special guests were Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation and Master of None, plus his father - Mulaney and Kroll handled the improvisation with ease and generated a funny rapport with the also-game Ansaris. In fact, any moment of improvisation were highlights overall.

If I had to peg why things never come together, the biggest culprit has to be the story…or rather, the not-story as it were. For a show where thousands upon thousands of try-hard one-liners and jokes come up, it is quite disconcerting that no effort was put into crafting something more tangible on the story side. George and Gil come out, they vamp for the audience, they walk us through something something another something something Aziz Ansari and his Pop are here something something…sorry, but I actually don't remember much of what transpired. And while Mulaney's and Kroll's performances are more right then wrong, their performances slipped into monotony after a little while. George and Gil deliver nearly all of their lines with a droll, DGAF disposition - and there is no character arc or development to be found - so how could that not become tedious?

Of course, there is 1 or 2 parts of Oh, Hello on Broadway that are so outrageously Alex Timbers-esque, I was just happy to take in his vision at all, no matter how mitigated it was (especially considered he peaced out of Frozen a few weeks back, a departure that doesn't speak well for that show now). I'm all for more comedy on Broadway because, while the last year was uncommonly stellar drama-wise, the only comedic high-points off the top of my head were the aforementioned Robber Bridegroom, Noises Off and a little bit of Alex Brightman and Jennifer Simard. That, my friends, is a little too low for me - my BFFs recently called me out for only bringing them to seriously, serious dramas with life-ruining feels. Broadway - and ESPECIALLY Alex Timbers - has done and still can do comedy oh so well.


Photo Credit: Joan Marcus