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5/5/16

Tony Nominations 2016 - The Substandard and the Overlooked

The Substandard

The Not-So-Bright Star - I thought this year’s crop of nominees were well-selected, but it wouldn’t be the Tony Award nominations if there wasn’t one crack-induced decision(s). Case in-point...their out-of-left-field love for Bright Star, a musical where (minor spoiler-alert, but it’s extremely relevant, I promise) a baby in a bag gets thrown out of a moving train’s window like a Chinese Throwing Star. In slow motion. That actually happens. Because the plot said so. And I’d have to see it again to be sure, but it wasn’t even the book’s worst portion despite being UNINTENTIONALLY HILARIOUS. For the most part, I found Bright Star pretty boring as we tread back-and-forth between both stories and I couldn’t get over the fact that the ensemble kept swaying and weaving in-and-out of several scenes, almost crashing into the set/other actors 10,457 times. Sure, the bluegrass orchestrations were nice and unconventional for Broadway, but five whole Tony nominations makes me think that the nominators were so overly-excited for an original musical and legendary Steve Martin taking a shot at Broadway, that they were willing to forgive the 75% of the show that was problematic.

School of Rock’s Actual Quality - Oh please. I love Alex Brightman and his rockin’ ragamuffin cohorts a lot. And they do, in fact, make School of Rock a fun, entertaining show. But the rest of it? Yeah, no. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score doesn’t churn out enough great songs and the best ones are (1) composed for the film (2) from Stevie Nicks or (3) more of a credit to the talented cast. Julian Fellowes book has little variation from the original film, story, jokes and character-wise, and what few changes there were didn’t add much (i.e Principal Mullin’s character arc, her LAME love-connection with Dewey). I applaud the noble intentions from all parties involved, especially for what could have been a total cash-grab of a production, but had School of Rock not been nominated for Best Musical, would anyone have called bullshit? Does it really stack up when compared to Hamilton, Shuffle Along or Waitress? Me thinks not.

The Overlooked

And Godra Gets her 10th Nominati-…Wait, WHAT? - In what bizarro, alternate universe does Audra “Queen Meryl Streep of Theatre” McDonald not get nominated for a Tony? Because, y’know, that almost never happens (no really, this is the second time out of ten Broadway shows she was NOT nominated). I really don’t like this and I am uncomfortable. Especially because it seems like a lot of factors beyond her control played a part in the decision to pass over her - Shuffle Along’s 10 other nominations and high Box Office grosses (meaning, monetary incentives are out), to defy the obvious expectation that she gets nominated for everything and most importantly, the fact that she is departing in June to do Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill on the West End (usually, Tony nominees in currently-running shows are around for a longer period of time). Let’s just mop up our shock (and tears, if you are the crying type) knowing that our resident Fabulady will get her 9th nomination one day in the future because that is what she has done 90% 80% of her Broadway career.

Waitress Needs More Love - "Best Musical! Jessie Mueller! Christopher Fitzgerald! Sara Bareilles! Okay, we’re out,” said the Tony nominators. It’s cute how they thought Waitress is worthy of only four nods when not-crazy people everywhere were expecting something in the high-single or double-digit zone. It sickens me that Jessie Nelson’s book, filled with humor, charm and the most complex women since Fun Home, was side-stepped for lazy faire like Bright Star and School of Rock. What about Diane Paulus’ direction? Keala Settle or Kimiko Glenn’s great performances? Everything else? I guess after bestowing Fun Home with so many honors last year, the Tonys took a breather and opted to reward strides in diversity instead of gender this year. Um, yeah, they do know you can reward both of them, right? Whatevs…at the end of the day, this show features a lot of pies and performs in a theatre that smells like it; I think we all know who the real winners are.

Hottie with a (Bloody) Body - American Psycho, for all of its flaws, is built and tailored around its lead performance and Benjamin Walker was extremely convincing as a financial bro-dousche, OCD, possible serial killer with a Ken Doll-like physique. And after the reviews jizzed all over him, it looked like the stars would align in his favor. Alas, it didn’t happen. I can’t say I would trade any one of the nominee’s spots for him, but I do feel bad that he was snubbed yet again (the first time was for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). If I were Benjamin Walker, as I often pretend I am, I would say “FUCK THIS SHIT” and eat carbs. By the looks of his body, it appears he hasn’t had them in months.

The Real Star of On Your Feet! - I know people inexplicably loved this show a lot more then I tolerated it (yes, the music’s great, but its not exactly reimagined or incorporated into the story with any finesse), so I was surprised the Tony nominators didn’t give On Your Feet! more of the “crowd-pleasing, crowd-favorite” votes. At the very least, a new category should have debuted called “Best Performance by a Pair of White Short Shorts - Josh Segarra’s Superb Thighs and Ass.” It goes without saying, but they’d have that award on LOCK. DOWN. Fiyero pants, who?

All 40 of Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Note to Broadway: one-man shows mean nothing, apparently. Fully Committed’s story was pretty limited, but the same cannot be said for Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s efforts. You could ding some of his character portrayals for being repetitive, but his performance is a whirling dervish of hilarity as he cycles through so many characters, back-and-forth, with no help elsewhere. It’s a shame he couldn’t be included in the Best Actor race, especially with all of the DRAMATIC, way-too-serious characters/performances that were recognized instead. Comedy requires talent too, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Yes, one-man and one-woman shows are Tony-bait as fuck, but they’re not off-the-table. They couldn’t be more on the table, for that matter.


Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

5/4/16

Tony Nominations 2016 - The Suitable

Spring Awakening is RECOGNIZED - It’s revival may have endured some heavy-scrutiny since it was less than seven years since the original, mega-hit closed on Broadway, but Spring Awakening - featuring a deaf cast and the use of American Sign Language - received its rightful nod for "Best Revival of a Musical." It was a stunning, and dare I say, flawless production, resulting in one of my all-time favorite theatre-going experiences. And major congratulations are in order to Michael Arden for earning his way into the highly-contested “Best Direction of a Musical” category. Had Spring Awakening opened in the spring, he would have been a contender for the statue a solid second place to the Hamilton juggernaut. Which, by this year’s standards, is pretty much as good as winning.


Alex Brightman Takes Us to School - The first time I saw Alex Brightman perform live was at a Ryan Scott Oliver concert over three years ago - where his mini-bio read "Alex Brightman will be drinking bourbon during and after this performance.” I love anyone who doesn’t take him or herself so seriously and I loved Alex ever since (he also performed his heart out that night, but that goes without saying). And after several years of ensemble and understudy roles, someone in casting had the good sense to give him a crack at a lead role on Broadway - and in School of Rock, Alex is SHUTTING. IT. DOWN. and giving a season’s best performance as the charismatic rocker, Dewey Finn. As far as I’m concerned, he earned his slot on my Tony ballot a few minutes into the show, after he CRUSHED “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock," and then proceeded to be his typically awesome self for the rest of the show. Cheers to Alex and kudos to the Tony Nominators for recognizing the offbeat and unconventional - but no-less-talented - leading man.

How about them Best Play Front-Runners? - How fantastic are The Humans and Eclipsed? Send them to Broadway mere months after they played Off-Broadway in the Fall! And both shows are astonishing pieces of writing, directing and performing. Stephen Karam's The Humans takes the tried-and-true "family reunion during the holidays" set-up and makes it feel personal and modern. Danai Gurira's Eclipsed, about sex-wives in Liberia, is unlike any show I have ever seen before. And the performances from all five women were stellar - with Lupita Nyong'o going from meek, 'new wife' to GUN-TOTING BADASS, Pascale Armand providing much-needed comedic relief and Saycon Sengbloh's nurturing care-taker all staking their claims to the ballot. I'm curious to see how this will shake out.

Jennifer Simard RISES UPPP - Disaster’s existence on Broadway made no sense to begin with and after seeing the show (and LOATHING it), my confusion remains to this day. One thing is certain though…Jennifer Simard stole the show and never gave it back. As the guitar-playing nun, who may or may not be a reformed gambling addict, Simard took every line and rung them for laughs with her droll disposition. Her performance may have been too good for such a throwaway of a show, but here’s hoping people took notice of her comedic chops and she’s cast in more roles in the future. Sonia in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike immediately comes to mind.

Yay Blackbird! (Ewww) - Until I saw Waitress this past weekend, Blackbird was my favorite show I’ve seen all spring. Oh sure; it’s dirty and uncomfortable as fuck - the story revolves around a woman confronting her statutory rapist almost 15 years after their affair - but I sat on the edge of my seat and got completely enraptured by the story (THE. ENDING. WOAH). The show’s nomination for Best Revival, plus a nod each for Jeff Daniels and Michelle Williams' first-rate acting, is all well-deserved. I’d recommend you go see this show, but you may want to take a shower or seven afterwards to cleanse thyself.

Cynthia Erivo is Not Fucking Around - Amidst John Doyle’s understated, nicely-done revival of The Color Purple is this season’s most-buzzed about performance - Cynthia Erivo’s Celie. As if the pain and heartbreak she projects wasn’t enough to endure throughout the show, she performs her empowering anthem “I’m Here” and levels all of Manhattan with a YASSS KWEENNN moment for the ages. Cynthia may be the front-runner to win come Tonys night, but what I really want to do is be her bestie and have a knitting circle with her because obvi. Call me, Ms. Lady!

Tony Loves Her! - "OMG, SO PRETTY" is as cliché a hyperbole you could find out in the Interwebs, but it couldn't describe Scott Ellis' revival of She Loves Me any better. The Tony Nominators seemed to agree, awarding the show with 8 nominations, the most of any musical revival. From the get-go, David Rockwell's set and Jeff Mahshie's costumes created a 1930's Budapest I'd live in myself. And performance-wise, while I'm happy for Laura Benanti and Jane Krakowski securing nominations after being away from Broadway for so long, Zachary Levi's turn-up in the Lead Actor category was nice to see because it wasn't a sure-bet and he almost didn't essay the part in the first place (he filled in for Josh Radnor after the latter withdrew a few weeks or months before previews started). Considering he is notorious for being a sweet and charming guy, it's nice that good karma did right by him.

Long Days of Masterclass Acting - Clocking in at close to three hours and 45 minutes, Long Day's Journey Into Night needs fine performances to sustain an audience's interest throughout the doom-and-gloom that is the Tyrone family. Well...mission accomplished, for the most part (side-glance to John Gallagher Jr.). Hand the show seven Tony nominations because that is how harrowing it was to witness, but its three acting nominations is what made this production top-tier. Jessica Lange's performance as Mary was EVERYTHING, as she looked like a vintage stage siren dramatically emoting all over the place. Michael Shannon was, of course, intense in the role of Jamie - his second act boozing and antics grew more horrifying to watch as he became more and more unhinged. But the biggest surprise of all is how Gabriel Byrne - earning his second nomination for an Eugene O'Neill character - made James and his 1st world, middle-aged white guy problems actually matter, earning my sympathy that I don't dole out often.

Hats Off to Noises Off - Several months after closing, I appreciate this HILARIOUS revival of Noises Off a lot more then I did at the time, it's five Tony nominations feeling perfectly appropriate. You could chalk that up to a high-quality, but somewhat somber season (Amiright? I feel like most offerings were epically depressing). Not this show, though...Noises Off only knows classic, physical comedy and with an ensemble of heavy-hitters - including a perfect Megan Hilty - this show was the real deal. I'd never thought I say this, but I can't wait for the next revival in 10 years!


Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

5/2/16

Dear Evan Hansen…I’m So Glad You Exist

As creative teams for shows are usually staffed with people far removed from their teens and twenty-something years of age, depictions of such characters and stories mostly read as inauthentic. Take it from this writer - who is a twenty-something last year, today and will be for the next few years.

Almost a year ago, I paid a visit to New Jersey to see Be More Chill’s regional debut - which blew my mind in its accuracy in developing full-fledged characters with real world traits and problems in a high school setting (and bonus points for moments that I related to on a deep, too-personal level). I made veiled threats to the theatre powers that be kindly requested more shows of the sort and felt my demand wish was not an unreasonable one given how rarely shows revolve around a younger character set.


Like it spawned from my own brain, Second Stage Theatre is playing host to the now-open Dear Evan Hansen after it completed its run at Arena Stage in Washington D.C last summer. And lovely readers? I have not stopped thinking about this show since the final fade-to-black; it’s one to cherish...

From the get-go, Dear Evan Hansen provides a story and thorough characterization of outcast 17-year-olds in high school and their lifestyles (and by extension, their families) without framing Generations Y/Z as the awful, embarrassing young adults the Internet would make one believe. Nor does the creative team come off as an entitled authority on what life is like for high-schoolers. Everything looks as the world truly is, as noted by the monitors strewn across the stage featuring the clutter of social media feeds, chats, audio and video content. All of it is prevalent - essentially, the Internet universe serves as its own character - but more importantly, it is all presented without pretense or judgement.

That is all more important then you would probably think because Dear Evan Hansen has quite the story. You see, right before the start of senior year of high school, anxiety-striken and medicated Evan writes a letter to himself at the suggestion of his therapist. When said letter lands in the possession of Connor, another troubled individual, mere days before he commits suicide, Evan is misconstrued as being Connor’s only friend. This leads to Evan exacerbating the misunderstanding/deception in order to help Connor’s family through a difficult time (his two parents and his sister, whom Evan has a crush on) and eventually, to help himself as he achieves a newfound social status in school, acquires more confidence and eventually, becomes a viral-sensation.

Oh yeah, this ain’t no Bye Bye Birdie.

I don’t know what magic voodoo Steven Levenson conjured up, but the book isn’t just particular good by ‘normal book standards’, it’s strong overall and doesn’t shy away from the potentially off-putting subject matters. Evan dealing with anxiety and navigating the tumultuous terrain he is thrust into and Connor’s family coping with suicide and grief are the primary focus of Dear Evan Hansen. Other plot points and themes consist of a suicide's effect on a school (the freakishly spot-on notion that teens make the tragedy about themselves and engage in hashtag activism), the struggle for identity and connection in the digital age and parents trying to connect with their distant children. It is a broad scope to take in, but Levenson’s story, dialogue and character work felt like it was ripped straight from reality and it is well thought-out to boot.

And can I just say…as much as I love how an outcast teenager is the focal point of a story, I’m so glad it wasn’t at the expense of the adult characters. Connor’s parents, the wealthy, yet dysfunctional, unfulfilled couple, and Evan’s mother, Heidi, the well-meaning, but overworked single mother, came off as people you either know or are. When Evan calls bullshit on how Heidi treats his anxiety (with more medication and condescending therapy advice), I cheered him on as he stood his ground and felt bad for her that she just. doesn’t. get. it. When Heidi GOES. OFF on Connor’s family (as well-intentioned as the latter were) for pseudo-adopting Evan and offering up charity that way rich people do (a potential job offer, money for Evan’s college education), Heidi didn’t stand for any of it and rightly so. Much like Evan, the parents are all complex, flawed individuals as they try to to go on as they do, but Levinson’s writing makes you concerned for all of them anyways.

Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have done some of their best work with Dear Evan Hansen. In the spirit of full disclosure, I had no idea they were capable of such - other then a few songs from Dogfight, their music doesn’t occupy a lot of my iPod storage. But after the second number, “Waving Through a Window,” Evan’s FLAMAZING-sounding intro number that doubles as a modern pop-rock anthem for outsiders, I picked my jaw up off the floor and settled in for the long haul. They following up that FLAWLESS number (no, really, I’m listening to it right now as I type this up) with the GORGEOUS “For Forever,” as Evan ethereally recalls an afternoon (he did not spend) with Connor. The chorus hook, “all we see are skies for forever” complete with a riffling piano, kept ringing in my ear long after the song wrapped.

The score is not infallible though. Some of the songs feature too much talk-singing, like an opera without actually being one, while other songs don’t really have a start/finish delineation (odd, no?). And the second act bonding number between Evan and Connor’s dad - about tending to a baseball mitt because reasons - was a terrible idea, even if the story’s progression and emotional arc was maintained before, during and after.

But a large part of why Dear Evan Hansen is Dear Evan Hansen is because Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect’s Benji of our hearts and minds, is just that fucking incredible in the title role. Evan’s hyper-speed talking and twitchy nervous energy is a tough act to execute, but Platt falls into character without missing a beat. He’s also hilarious throughout - his self-deprication and show-opening monologues had the audience eating out of his hands and we just barely started. And as misguided as Evan’s actions are, we’re still on his side, pulling for him to wisen up and to combat his inner-demons. 

And then there is Ben’s singing - which is crazy insanity with a side of awesome. The back-to-back punch of “Waving Through a Window” and “For Forever” serve as great showcases of his range and is mined for all of the feelz. It might be hard to associate the bass in his voice with that of a teenager, but who the fuck cares - I can listen to his voice all day, every day.

Dear Evan Hansen may be an occasionally difficult watch, but with a creative team in fine form - including Michael Greif in the director’s chair - and with Platt at the helm, you’re in for a heart-breaking, beautiful and ultimately uplifting journey, one that happens to not be far off from reality. When the Broadway transfer happens - which seems like an inevitability at this point - I can't wait for the troves of students piling in and seeing themselves and their generation up on stage, so well-rendered.


Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy