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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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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So Many Dreams to Tease the Heart: Musings on the First Preview Performance of Sunset Boulevard – February 2, 2017

Sunset Boulevard has come home at last.

As mentioned early on in this blog, Sunset Boulevard is one of my all-time favorite musicals, based on the 1950 film of the same name about the Hollywood studio system’s treatment of a faded movie star and a jaded writer. I’ve been a fan of the musical since its inception back in the early 1990’s, and followed all the off stage drama that occurred back then (reference in an early blog post here). The initial Broadway production ran a little of three years, closing in 1997, and there had been two touring productions not too long after its closure (I had seen the second touring production in 2000 in Boston). While there had been regional productions across the US and overseas in the ensuing years, the first major revival was in 2016 with a semi-staged production in London at the ENO (English National Opera) starring Glenn Close, who originated the role on Broadway. After its successful run in London, it seemed only a matter of time when that production would find its way to New York, and is now currently playing at the Palace Theatre (a few blocks away from its original home, the Minskoff) for a sixteen week run, with the four leads from London reprising their roles on Broadway.

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As mentioned earlier, I had been fortunate enough to see the original production, (though not with Glenn Close) with Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige on Broadway, and the second US National Tour with Petula Clark. Knowing beforehand that the revival would be semi-staged with a 40-piece orchestra on stage, I was curious to see how it would be done (I had not been able to fly to London last year to see that production), as the original production had opulent sets at its core, and the second US National Tour had a scaled down set design which didn’t quite match the grandeur of the original production. The overall set design for the current production had an industrial feel, with a maze of staircases and balcony landings and furniture brought on and off the set by the cast. Per the press releases and various online interviews with director Lonny Price, this semi-staged production was meant to look more like the backlot of a Hollywood set, wherein Joe Gillis would narrative the events as if it were scenes from a movie. This is emphasized with the use of black and white film clips (I’m not sure if they were from specific films or just old news reel footage) projected onto a scrim. Also, the clever use of lighting to shift from Norma’s house to Paramount Studios, gave the illusion of a multitude of different sets.

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This is the third first preview performance I’ve seen thus far in my theater-going experience, and the third time seeing the revival of a show of which I saw the original production as well (I hope that made sense). The cast was amazing and hearing this Andrew Lloyd Webber score (with new orchestrations) performed by a 40-piece orchestra was thrilling – I sincerely hope a new cast recording is made. Glenn Close received a thunderous entrance ovation and a standing ovation after “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (with another rousing ovation after singing the line “I’ve come home at last”). As this production aimed to be a stripped down version of itself, it worth noting that Ms. Close’s portrayal of Norma Desmond has also been toned down – this Norma Desmond is not as overly melodramatic (through there are moments of melodrama) as before, making her less of a monstrous figure and more of a real person clinging on to her illusions of grandeur. Michael Xavier was brilliant as Joe Gillis narrating his story with equal amounts of charm and cynicism – in this production he also serves as the director of the story, cueing scene transitions and observing almost abstractly at the events of which he experienced as they were unfolding. The story of Sunset Boulevard is more about Joe, and it’s taken me this long to realize that Joe is on stage throughout the entire show up until (spoiler alert) he’s shot dead and falls into the swimming pool (also inventively staged).

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The stage door was packed, and I didn’t stay too long – the crowds were overwhelming and it was a chilly night – but I did manage to see some of the ensemble cast, who were elated by the audience response. Needless to say I’ll be seeing Sunset many, many times in the next sixteen weeks, so there’ll be plenty of opportunities to meet the cast. I really hope a new cast recording is made, and perhaps a film adaptation (preferably with this cast). While the ticket prices are steep (but then again, it’s s limited run, so I guess its justified) there are $42 rush tickets available (though not specified in the ads, the rush seats are for the rear mezzanine and balcony), and they won’t be at the TKTS booth (per the box office person with whom I spoke).

Opening night is February 9th.

For more information, visit: http://sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/

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Principles of Uncertainty: Thoughts on Heisenberg – October 8, 2016

Like death and taxes, there is a level of certainty in the existence of uncertainty in all aspects of life. No one really knows how situations will turn out until they unfold, and random encounters can lead to unexpected relationships. The theme of uncertainty is explored in Heisenberg, written by Simon Stephens, currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from now until December 11, 2016.  I obtained tickets via my usual source (the TDF Pik-a-Tkt table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Grand Auction), and were actually the only “real” tickets I won that day (the rest were vouchers); it was also my first time seeing a show at the Friedman, a theater associated with the Manhattan Theatre Club.

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Heisenberg explores the interactions between two people – Georgie and Alex – and how an impetuous, random act binds them together, with unexpected results and unintended revelations. The premise is based upon (and indirectly refers to) the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa” (description pulled from Wikipedia, which had the most straightforward, not-too-technical definition I could find). The notion that there is an inverse relationship of knowing about different aspects of someone (as it is in this play) is interesting in that the honing in on one facet of a person obscures the ability to see the “big picture”. Truth becomes subjective upon the perspective and perception of what is revealed, bringing forth doubts on the validity of the revelations and the motivations behind them. The prospect of the unknown looms throughout, as the interactions between Georgie and Alex play out as expected, until it doesn’t. There are levels of ambiguity about what actually happens throughout the play and how it ends, but in light of the Uncertainty Principle, that’s probably the intention of the play – to spotlight the nature of uncertainty that is life.

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The overall scenic design of the play is inventive and fitting, given the subject of the play – while the theater has a traditional proscenium configuration, there is onstage seating – about ten rows seating 200 people on stage. The actual space from which the actors perform becomes a narrow strip, with minimal set pieces and occasional props; there are no real costume changes per se, aside from the addition of jackets worn at several points during the play. With the onstage seating and small theatre space available for the actors to tell their story, it makes the play all the more intimate, with the ability for the audience to view the story from different perspectives. Mary Louise Parker and Denis Arndt were phenomenal as Georgie and Alex, respectively; their interactions, mostly through quasi-rambling monologues were revelatory as their relationship grew from mild annoyance to a kind of co-dependency. Aside from a brief snippet of music about which the pair conversed, there was silence – awkward pauses in between the verbal exchange which enhanced the scenes between the unlikely pair.

The show is currently in previews (it open on October 13th) and after the matinee performance there was a talk back with the associate director about the themes proposed in the one act, hour and twenty-minute play. During the talk back, the audience members who remained had contrasting opinions about the characters and their motivations, based on their individual perspectives and (probably preconceived notions), which further enhances the impact of the play. With the talk back (which I didn’t know they had until it was announced before the show’s start), I didn’t have an opportunity to stage door (though the security person at the stage door did inform those who did try that the two actors would not be coming out to sign playbills and such – also, it was a rainy afternoon, so I can’ really blame them for not wanting to “brave the elements”, as they had another performance that evening).

In conclusion, Heisenberg is an interesting play that makes you wonder about the essence of uncertainty and examine the consequences to even the most random of actions. Uncertainty will always exist, and the more attention you focus on one aspect of a situation, you might get blind-sighted by something else, which could (and just might) change your perceptions about the situation as a whole. Or at least that’s my own perception of it all. It’s a worthwhile play to see, and the very notion of uncertainty is highly relevant in these uncertain times.

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