Welcome to the Rock: Thoughts on Come From Away – October 31, 2018

Historical events have always been source material for stage plays and musicals – it’s another way of “telling their story” (to paraphrase a lyric from Hamilton, arguably the most famous history-based musical in recent years, if of all time) – whether the show contains historical figures and events (like the aforementioned Hamilton, or are fictional stories with historical context (like Memphis).  Come From Away is the third (of four) pair of tickets obtained at the Broadway Cares Flea Market, and is again, a show I was interested in seeing, though I knew it’d be an emotional roller coaster, given its source material.  The show is in one act, telescoping those five days into 90 minutes.

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The events depicted onstage are based on recent history – set in the week after the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, when 38 planes were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, and how the town of Gander (and neighboring towns) took in the nearly 7,000 stranded passengers and gave them food and shelter, as well as much needed comfort and compassion in the wake of tragedy.

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The overall scenic design is sparse and cozy, with minimal set pieces. The show is structured as a true ensemble piece, with the cast of 12 playing several roles – both of the Gander citizens and of the various people who were on those planes, switching characters with quick and subtle costume changes. There are moments of levity amid the shock and confusion, as the stranded passengers struggle to hear from their loved ones (in the days before cell phones were widely used) and deal with the stress of being stranded “in the middle of nowhere”, and the Gander citizens struggle to accommodate and comfort the stranded passengers.

The stage door scene was low-key, with some audience members dressed up in costume (after all, it was Halloween night) with many of the cast coming out to sign playbills and pose for photos. I enjoyed Come From Away, though I find it odd to write that, considering the show exists because of the events on 9/11. As a New York City resident, I lived through it, and it physically hurts when I think back to that time (I had visited the World Trade Center the day before in the morning for a job interview). I can’t bear to watch any news footage or documentary about it without weeping. Come From Away is different in that it provides an outside perspective of that time, and ultimately depicts and reminds me of the unity and basic human kindness for others during that time – a beacon of hope in America’s darkest hour.

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We can use some of that unity and basic human kindness nowadays.

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Just Be: Thoughts on Kinky Boots – October 29, 2018

A person’s sense of identity and freedom to (or at least attempt to) express their true self is often tied to their upbringing. The expectations a parent has for their children and its impact on their sense of identity and perception of those around them is at the heart of Kinky Boots, based on the film of the same name, which in turn is based on true events of a struggling shoe factory in Northern England changing its product from men’s formal shoes to flashy men’s high heel boots. This is the second (of four) pair of tickets obtained at the Broadway Cares Flea Market, and I had an interest in seeing the show, thankfully before its closing date in April 2019. I wasn’t familiar with the source material, though I was familiar with some of its songs, originally written for the show by pop singer / songwriter Cyndi Lauper.

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The story follows Charlie Price, whose father owns and runs Price & Sons, manufacturing men’s shoes. While Charlie was raised in the family business, it’s one in which he had little interest; his inheritance of the family business after his father’s death leaves him at odds with himself. A chance encounter with a drag queen named Lola (and her woes in finding appropriate footwear for her act) gives him the inspiration to save the family business. The interactions between the working-class factory workers and the flamboyant Lola and her “angels” is a source of friction at first, but are resolved in the end, with acceptance from both sides.

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As the second consecutive show to feature a score written by a pop artist and featuring a premise with a clashing between tradition and modernity (not to mention sparkly costumes), I enjoyed Kinky Boots and its message of being true to oneself in the face of prejudice, and overcoming the (oftentimes) overwhelming expectations placed upon them from a parental figure, in this case, Charlie’s and Simon’s (Lola’s real name) fathers. The set design was fantastic, with traditional moving set pieces, and plenty of glitzy strobe lights. The cast was fantastic – J. Harrison Ghee was phenomenal as Lola / Simon, displaying the gamut of emotional range – flamboyant and confident in “The Sex is in the Heel” and “Land of Lola” to vulnerable in “Not My Father’s Son” an “Hold Me in Your Heart”. Mark Ballas (of Dancing with the Stars fame) was surprisingly good – I had seen him on TV as a dancer, and was unaware that he was a singer as well. There was a short speech after the curtain call for the bi-annual fundraising effort for Broadway Cares.

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The stage door scene was not too crazy, though it was a fairly brisk evening; most of the cast came out to sign playbills and pose for photos. I had a fantastic time at Kinky Boots and was glad to have seen it before its final performance. Its message of being your true self (despite what adversity you may face) is a powerful message in this day and age. Amid the glitz and glamor (and the accompanying up-tempo songs) there are moments of quiet introspection that are just as valid and valuable.

As the final songs says:

Just be.

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Love Comes First: Musings on Head Over Heels – October 16, 2018

Love stories are an integral part of any Broadway musical – some are comic, some are tragic, and they always invoke strong emotions and (sometimes) life lessons. Head Over Heels, currently playing at the Hudson Theater, has an abundance of heart at its core, with love of all kinds on display without judgement. While the show is a loose adaptation of The Arcadia, an Elizabethan prose poem by Sir Philip Sidney, with its score comprised of songs of the 1980’s pop band The Go-Go’s, its message is timely and relevant for 2018. I obtained tickets the usual way I obtain tickets in the autumn (via the TDF table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction). I will admit I have some preconceptions about the show (as it’s yet another “jukebox” musical), so my expectations were not that high. Nevertheless, I went into the show with an open mind, as there were a number of Broadway actors I liked in the show, I liked many of the Go-Go’s songs and I was intrigued by the Elizabethan tone (though I was not familiar with its source material).

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The story is set in the land of Arcadia, ruled by a mythical “Beat” that falls under threat proclaimed by a new oracle Pythio, who deems the kingdom too traditional. The King of Arcadia takes the royal family on a journey to prevent the prophesies (involving his wife’s fidelity and his daughters becoming entangled with questionable suitors) from being fulfilled. Mistaken identities, miscommunication and misconceptions lead to self-discovery, acceptance and a new “Beat” for Arcadia to follow.

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The overall design (set, costumes and lighting) was amazing – bright, colorful and fun, befitting the energy of its score. The cast was astounding, exuding joy while blurring the gender lines – Peppermint, (a runner-up on the reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race), is the first transgender actor to originate a character that identified as non-binary, and played Pythio with equal parts sass and wisdom. Another standout was Bonnie Milligan, also making her Broadway debut, as Pamela, the eldest princess proclaimed “the most beautiful woman in the land” whose body shape matches her big, brassy voice – her self-assurance of her beauty, and the fact that it is accepted as such (and not the butt of any jokes) is revolutionary. The overall tone is a bit tongue-in-cheek, as there are moments of poking (not necessarily breaking) the fourth wall, and its (somewhat) self-awareness of the dialogue spoken (mostly) in verse. Unbeknownst to me, the performance I attended was a benefit for the Actor’s Fund, and there was a brief speech after the curtain call.

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The stage door was surprisingly low-key, though I’m not sure if that was due to the fact that not many people know where the stage door was located. The Hudson is a relatively new theater, and one I had not yet visited, so I (naturally) asked where it was before the show – it’s on the W. 45th street, accessible by going through the Millennium Hotel next door. I managed to meet many of the cast (including getting photos with the entire principal cast – a first).

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Needless to say, my preconceptions about the show were shattered, and the show exceeded my expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed Head Over Heels – it’s equally entertaining and enlightening, with a powerful message of inclusivity and acceptance of all gender identities. It’s almost as if the premise of Head Over Heels is a metaphor of sorts of the state of things in America in 2018.

Perhaps a new Beat is needed to create a better society.

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The Past is in the Past: Musings on Frozen – July 28, 2018

Throughout Broadway history, musicals have as its source material derive from other media – literature (Les Miserables), films (Sunset Boulevard) or (in recent years) the song catalog of a singer or band, of which either relates the life story of the singer (Beautiful) or band (Jersey Boys) or creates an original story using the artist’s songs (American Idiot). Another source for Broadway musicals is Disney, both live action and animated films, though the blueprint of the modern Disney animated films are structured like Broadway musicals (so much so that my first impression of Beauty and the Beast film was that it could be adapted to the stage – and it was Disney’s first sojourn on the Great White Way). The degree of success of these adaptations vary – some have a fervent fan base, while (most) critics are less than enthusiastic; some are critically acclaimed but divide the fandom, and sometimes a musical is loved by critics and fans alike (though perhaps not to the same degree). It does seem in the past decade or so, there have been too many film adaptations (of which have a built-in fandom) on Broadway (or coming to Broadway) to the point that it seems to get a show produced on Broadway, one would need to make a film first, build a fan base and (hope) there’s interest in a stage adaptation. Many of the recent film adaptations seemed odd, as they were not necessarily suited to be a stage musical; that commercial theatre has lived up to its name, with art and originality waiting in the wings (often way off-Broadway) struggling to find its way in.

But I digress.

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The focus of this entry is on the latest Disney animated film adaptation of Frozen, which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen” that tells the story of two sisters and the calamity wrought by suppressing one’s true nature. While I had enjoyed the animated film, I was wary of its stage adaptation, as the magical visual effects displayed in two-dimensional animation would seem tricky to achieve in a three-dimensional real world. Nevertheless, I obtained tickets via a fellow theatergoer whom I met a year earlier through another musical who had won the online lottery and was not able to go. One of my cardinal rules around theatergoing is to never turn down free (or discounted) tickets, and despite my initial reservations, I was still intrigued at how the stage production could capture the essence of the animated film. Disney does it fair share of adapting fairy tales for their animated films, and while the source material for Frozen was “The Snow Queen”, it seemed to me that it took some inspiration from another popular Broadway musical – Wicked.

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The film Frozen ran a little under two hours, and the stage production added about another hour to its run time (to keep with the length of a typical musical, but the new songs and scenes that were added took away from the urgency of the plot and didn’t quite fit the tone of the songs that were in the film. Nevertheless, the staging was spectacular – lighting, costumes and set design had that Disney vibe, though my vantage point was on the far right orchestra, so there were times where my viewpoint was obstructed. The cast was wonderful – Alyssa Fox (understudy for Caissie Levy) was fantastic as Elsa, capturing her conflicted nature, as was Patti Murin as the energetic and impulsive Anna. Their character dynamic did remind me of Elphaba and Glinda (the fact that both women played those roles respectively at some point in their careers, so the impression was not unfounded…).

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The stage door experience was fun, with many young girls dressed up as Elsa waiting at the stage door with their parents (a pair of tiny Elsas sat behind me, enjoying the show). Most of the ensemble came out to sign playbills, take photos and interact with those waiting.

My criticisms have little to do with the cast or production team but more with how (and where) to add to a story that was well constructed as a feature length animated film. I can understand the constructs of a stage musical and that to replicate the film on stage would be unwise (after all “Let It Go” was inevitably destined going to be the Act One closer) but for me, the stage adaptation left me a bit underwhelmed by the overall experience.

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Trending: Musings on Fat Asses: The Musical – May 20, 2018

Fat Asses: The Musical has returned to dish out a second helping of sass with a side of empathy and plenty of hilarity to satisfy any theatergoer’s hunger for an original (!) musical with a message. This production, which closed yesterday afternoon, was an updated version of the production, written by Peter Zachari, music and lyrics by Zachari and Damon Maida, which also played at the Theater for The New City in 2013 (check out my blog about that production here).

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[Usual disclaimer: Regular readers will know that I’m good friends with Peter Zachari and choreographer Joey Mirabile; I’m also credited in the Executive Producer’s Circle for this production in the playbill. I’ve been a fan and supporter of Peter and Joey for many years and believe in their works, which give those often overlooked (and oftentimes ridiculed) a voice, and present them as complex people, and not as stereotypes. The musings are my own, and will most likely not be as objective as expected.]

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The plot remains intact, with new songs and some revisions that comment on current event issues such as gun control, the #metoo movement and the ubiquitous nature of social media. The quartet of Margaux, Candy, Lacey, and Dusty fight for their right to be heard, and to be appreciated as individuals, and while doing so, realize their place in the world. Amid the social commentary are the customary pop culture references (and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to another Zachari production). A new aspect of the production design lies in the large projection screen that doubles as a backdrop and a window into the outside world. This production’ cast was astounding, playing their role without falling into stereotypes (at least not without a purpose). Emily Jewell (Margaux), Sydney Blair (Candy), Lori Funk (Dusty) and Itanza Wooden (who reprises her role as Lacey) had great rapport with one another, and held their own against Amandina Altomare, who played Meredith with the right blend of contempt and vulnerability.

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As with the original production, I enjoyed the show’s originality and the updates addressed current event issues with the seriousness it deserves, without making it overly political. I sincerely hope this show makes it uptown (or more importantly Midtown) off-Broadway or perhaps Broadway someday.

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What a Charming Gala – Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera – January 24 & 26, 2018

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Those who follow this blog know that Phantom is one of my favorite musicals, one about which I have strong opinions, and I’ve written several entries about previous milestone performances.

Phantom of the Opera reaches another historic milestone, celebrating 30 years on Broadway. While the official anniversary date is January 26th, the celebration took place two days earlier for reasons unknown (or at least, as far as I’m aware). January 26, 2018 falls on a Friday, which is not a dark night for the show, so I would presume there were scheduling reasons for the celebration to be on the 24th instead of the 26th. Nevertheless, I was able to obtain a ticket for the celebratory performance on the 24th via a special Telecharge promotional code for seats in the rear mezzanine for $30; I had also obtained a ticket for the 26th a few months earlier, before the announcement that the celebration was to be on the 24th. Like the 25th Anniversary performance, the special celebratory performance started at 6:30pm, with the red carpet event inside the lobby, with Imogen Lloyd Webber and Sierra Boggess interviewing alumni cast members, as well as producer Cameron Mackintosh, director Hal Prince and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Of course, I was among the attendees amid the press taking photos and straining to catch a glimpse of the actors and creatives.

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Like the Gala Night, when I got to my seat, there was a complementary 30th Anniversary program, and a special playbill cover commemorating the historic night. The performance began with the usual pre-show disclaimer about silencing cell phones, prohibiting texting and photography during the show. Peter Jöback gave a great performance, which had a more rock quality than the usual lyrical tenor interpretation, Ali Ewoldt was an astounding Christine with her pitch perfect delivery, and Rodney Ingram was fantastic, and has the voice of a future Phantom. Waves of applause and cheers throughout the show, with one notable lyric change (presumably only for this particular performance) – in the Final Lair scene, in the Phantom’s final ultimatum, he sang “do you end this night with me?” (instead of “your days”).

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After the curtain call, the post show celebration began, which was also live streamed on social media. With the stage set up to resemble the Phantom’s lair, the covered set piece of the Phantom’s organ to reveal composer Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who spoke about the show’s longevity and waxed lyrical about his own “Angel of Music”, leading to the presumption that Sarah Brightman would appear… only to reveal Cameron Mackintosh.  They bantered for a while (which was highly amusing) , then segues into Lloyd Webber introducing cast members from School of Rock to perform a rock rendition of the Title Song, during which Sarah Brightman does appear to perform along with current Phantom Peter Jöback. The ovation when Brightman sauntered on stage was deafening, and the kids from School of Rock were amazing. More bantering between Mackintosh and Lloyd Webber ensued followed by Hal Prince, reading out statistics about the show’s 30-year history (as he did five years ago), after which some of the original cast members came onstage (later joined by the current cast) to sing a snippet of “Masquerade”. A rousing round of “Happy Birthday” was sung by everyone, to commemorate the anniversary as well as Hal Prince’s impending 90th birthday, ending with steamers and confetti bursting out onto the audience (and onto the chandelier).

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As the after party was invitation only, I ended up taking a few selfies with the chandelier before heading home. There was also a special light show on the Empire State Building, which was also streamed online. I didn’t see it ‘live’ (as I was en route home – after all, it was a work night) and even if I had managed to find a good spot, it’d be a light show. I did watch back the live streamed video, and it was spectacular.

As milestones go, it was fantastic to see former cast members on stage and at the red carpet event, as well as the adorable banter between the Producer and the Composer.

Onward to the official 30th anniversary performance for which I sat second row orchestra, right beneath the chandelier – a first for me; it was equally thrilling and slightly unnerving to watch the chandelier move towards you before ascending above. The cast was as fantastic as they were on the 24th, and after the curtain call the three leads gave a short speech about the monumental anniversary.

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Needless to say Phantom of the Opera has secured its place in Broadway history – congratulations on 30 years, and here’s to the next 30!

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Art Matters: Thoughts on Indecent – July 28, 2017

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Despite the play’s title, Indecent, written by Paula Vogel, is about the purity of the Arts, and the struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of intolerance. Issues of antisemitism, homophobia and censorship in the midst of political and social uncertainty resonate throughout the play, and are as relevant in 2017 as they were in 1923, when much of the play takes place. I’m not as frequent a playgoer as I probably should be, as I tend to gravitate towards musicals (in fact, this is the first Broadway play I’ve seen this year thus far, as my fixation on Sunset Blvd. commandeered my theater going attention for the entirety of its limited run), the word of mouth about Indecent piqued my interest, along with my ongoing endeavor to expand my theatrical experiences.

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This experience far exceeded that objective.

The play recounts the controversy surrounding God of Vengeance written by Sholem Asch in 1907, set in a brothel which included a love scene between two women. While popular and accepted across Europe, its Broadway run in 1923 had been deemed obscene, with all those involved with the production arrested and convicted of obscenity. The play runs under two hours (with no intermission), yet the events within span over several decades across Europe and America, telling the impact one play had within world history.

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The overall set design is sparse, with the cast initially seated on the stage, with a trio of musicians – violin, clarinet and accordion – among the actors. Music is interwoven into the play, as underscoring and as commentary to the events unfolding, which enhance the tension. There are projected stage directions that impart to the audience the passage of time to give context to the scenes, both in English and Yiddish, the original language in which God of Vengeance was written. The framework of Indecent starts off as a play within a play, with Lemml, the stage manager, introducing the cast and setting the scene; the projected narration takes over, and the cast inhabit the role of the actors playing the play within the play. There is a raised platform in the middle of the stage on which the actors depict the play, with the surrounding area of the stage acting as the backstage area. The cast is astounding as a whole, imparting humor and anger with equal passion, as conflict over art and acceptance is debated. Language plays an important role as well – while the bulk of the play is spoken in English, the narrative projections tell in which language the characters are speaking, and the cast adjusted accordingly.

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The stage door experience was low key, as not too many people gathered to meet the actors, which was a blessing, as those who waited were able to chat with the actors (or in my case babble quasi-inarticulately, as the conclusion of the play boggled my mind – in a good way) while signing playbills.

The impact of this play will haunt me for days (and weeks) to come, as a gamut of emotions played within me like a symphony: there were moments of levity, outrage and ultimately sadness, as tears fell uncontrollably as the “blinks in time” passed. I was not the only one – several people around me were equally moved. That oft-used saying that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (I think that’s how the quote goes) rings true, as current events show that there are some who don’t (or refuse to) learn from history.

Change can only happen if people learn to embrace differences, to unlearn the stereotypes imparted by generations that came before them and to accept the fact that there is infinite complexity in the human race.

Indecent had announced its closing date of June 25, 2017, but word of mouth about the play allowed its run to extend to August 6, 2017. I highly recommend seeing this play, as it is a worthwhile examination of why Art Matters more than ever.

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