Unstoppable: Thoughts on Tootsie – November 8, 2019

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Gender equality has always been an important issue in all aspects of society – from equal rights to equal pay, with women striving to have their voices heard and abilities (and achievements) acknowledged, both in the real world and the fictional world of film, television and theatre. Tootsie is among the many in the latter category, based on the 80’s film of the same name, currently playing at the Marquis theatre. I remember the film being a great comedy at the time, though some of its humor has not aged well in this “Me Too” Era, and I was curious to see how the musical adaptation would handle the transition from film to stage. Tickets were acquired the usual way for this time of year (thanks to the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market).

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The plot of the show revolves around Michael Dorsey, an actor with a reputation of being difficult, despite his actual talent – his dedication to his craft has led him to be unemployable. He hatches a scheme to audition as a woman (though the impetus to this decision isn’t clearly stated), and as Dorothy Michaels, he lands a supporting role in a new Broadway musical. Complications arise when he falls for the leading lady and also finds himself (herself?) the object of a male co-star’s affection, coupled with a condescending director and a clingy ex-girlfriend.

The musical adaptation is different from the film in many ways, as the musical within a musical was not the job Michael (as Dorothy) gets – in the film it’s a soap opera – but many of the film’s elements are present, with the dated references / subplots more suitable for the present social climate. The show as a whole is an homage to a traditional musical comedy, with a fantastic score by David Yazbek. The overall scenic design has hints of the 80s in this look and set design. The cast is great, with Santino Fontana doing an amazing job toggling between his two personas, with his vocal inflections and overall mannerisms in a Tony Award worthy performance. Other standouts were Sarah Stiles as Sandy, Michael’s ex-girlfriend, whose comic timing was impeccable, and also understudy Brittany Coleman as Julie, the co-star he falls for, whose vulnerability shone through without it looking like weakness.

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The stage door was not too crowded (as it was an unusually chilly evening for November) but some of the cast came out to sign playbills/posters and pose for photos. I had my doubts about Tootsie when it was first announced as a musical, as it seems to me that in the last decade or so, almost every well-known film from the 80s and 90s were being adapted to the stage, which made me anxious about the state of “new” musicals. Granted, I’m aware that it’s a business and that the familiar brings in a potential built-in fan base, but it made me wonder about the state of original musicals. The show was enjoyable, a throwback to the classic American musical, with a message about gender equality that is mostly harmless and fun.

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A Show About Death: Musings on Beetlejuice – October 31, 2019

Halloween is a holiday that celebrates the macabre, with children (and adults) of all ages out and about in costumes in search of candy and to cause all sorts of mischief. Beetlejuice is the ideal musical (based on the film of the same name) that encapsulates the core aspects surrounding that holiday, and is also the most logical musical to see on Halloween night. Over the years an inadvertent tradition arose of going to see a Broadway show (usually a musical) on Halloween night – it’s always fun to see theatergoers in costumes in the audience and the atmosphere is oftentimes more animated than usual. This is my second time seeing Beetlejuice currently playing at the Winter Garden Theatre (I had seen it early in its preview period) but writing about its Halloween performance seemed appropriate. The fun started before show, as Alex Brightman came out to hand theatergoers candy, and chatted with those who arrived early (the lesson here is to arrive at the theatre a bit earlier than show time – you never know who you might see…)

The musical is largely based on the film, which revolves around the titular character causing overall mischief for the recently deceased Adam and Barbara Maitland and the Deetz family, who move into the Maitland home. The musical mostly follows the film’s plot with some additional exposition for Lydia, still mourning her dead mother. The stage adaptation takes advantage of poking at the fourth wall, setting up the context that it’s “a show about death” and has a balance of approaching the subject of death and the aftermath (both for the living and the recently deceased) with humor and pathos.

The overall scenic design is astounding to the point that the entire theatre is immersed in misty, spooky lights adding to the ambiance of the show, with the set design showing the Maitland house as almost an oversized model (perhaps a nod to an aspect of the film wherein Adam has a scale model of the town in which he lives). The score is fantastic, a collection of songs that have an 80s vibe, with subtle nods to the film score (by Danny Elfman) and also includes the iconic songs “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line” which also featured in the film. The cast is astounding, especially Alex Brightman as the titular “ghost with the most” (who in my opinion should have won the Tony) playing the role with such elastic glee that you’d almost think he was an animated character; another standout was understudy Presley Ryan as Lydia Deetz, who expertly balanced the emotions of an angst-ridden teenager and a lost child who just wants to be seen and to be able to openly mourn the loss of her mother.

 

As it was Halloween night, the stage door was a (lovely) swarm of costumed theatergoers so I skipped that circus and just enjoyed the rest of the evening, seeing theatergoers and passersby in costume. Also, there was a special edition of the playbill just for the month of October. All in all, Beetlejuice is a fun musical with a great cast, memorable music and stays true to the essence of that iconic film.

It’s Complicated: Thoughts on Betrayal – September 28, 2019

Betrayal is a complex play about relationships written by Harold Pinter, currently playing at the Jacobs Theatre for a limited run through December 8, 2019. I had heard positive reviews about this play and was intrigued by its premise, so I trotted down to the TKTS booth to obtain my ticket. Of course, another draw is its stellar (British) cast – Charlie Cox, Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston, the latter making his Broadway debut.

The play revolves around married couple Robert and Emma, and Jerry, Robert’s best friend – Jerry (who is also married) and Emma embark on an affair over the course of seven years without either spouse the wiser (though it turns out not to be the case for one of the spouses). The play unfolds in reverse, which makes the tenuous interactions between the three all the more intriguing, as the audience is aware of certain truths as time rewinds.

The set design is sparse to the point that it’s almost nonexistent aside from some chairs, a table and other relevant props, which works brilliantly as to not to distract the audience of the equally sparse yet highly effective dialogue. Brief exchanges with considerable pauses in between are characteristic of Pinter plays, which ratchets up the tension to the point where a flurry of volatile emotion is expected to explode at any moment. Yet it doesn’t – the anger, resentment and disappointment smolders, and that makes it all the more painful. Before the play began the ushers advised the audience to silence their phones and other electrical devices (as they usually do) and explained that the play was very quiet. And so it was – aside from sprinkling of incidental music and a soulful (mournful?) rendition of the Depeche Mode song “Enjoy the Silence”, its lyrics commentating on the situation between the three. All three actors were phenomenal in their respective roles – all three were onstage for the entirety of the 90-minute play, even when the scene involved two of the three characters, a ghostly specter (and inadvertent spectator) as the topic of conversation involved the absent (but not really) character.

The stage door scene was relatively sparse, which was surprising given the caliber (and overall fame) of actors on stage; while I did attend a matinee, there are more times than not a crowd of audience members wanting to meet the actors. Perhaps one note of confusion was the fact some theatregoers (a handful I had come across at least) did not know the location of the stage door. The stage door for the Jacobs Theatre was not (as for most theaters) next door to the entrance; it shares its stage door with two other theatres – the Golden, which is next door to the Jacobs and the Majestic, which is on the other side of the block on W 44th Street. As this was my first (of perhaps many) trips to see Betrayal, I was not aware of whether or not the cast would emerge to sign playbills; though I was fortunate to meet Charlie Cox at the stage door, as Zawe Ashton and Tom Hiddleston were not able to stop to greet the few people waiting (for reasons unknown).

While it’s a short play with brevity as its benchmark, Betrayal has a lot to say in the silences between the words spoken aloud – that the events unfold (for the most part) in reverse makes the audience pay attention to every word said and every gesture taken (as well as the things not said or done). It’s one of those plays that one would need to see several times before truly understanding the entire picture.

Hello!: Thoughts on The Book of Mormon – March 31, 2019

Religion has always been a sensitive (sometimes controversial) topic of discussion throughout history – everyone has their own personal perspective about it, which has (in my opinion) been a contributing factor to nearly all the conflicts in the world at any given point in time and space from an interpersonal to a global scale. Everyone has the right to believe in any of the multitude of religious teachings (organized or not) and should be able to do so without fear. There is a solemnity to each religion’s rituals and scripture, which makes it all the more interesting when its tales are adapted for musical theatre. There are several musicals that handle the topic of religion well, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (to name but a few). Then there’s The Book of Mormon, which takes a more comedic (almost borderline vulgar yet not overtly offensive) route. I obtained this ticket through a mutual friend who had gotten the ticket but had been unable to go. While the show was not too high on my “must see” shows, despite the rave critical and audience reviews over the past 8 years, I was interested to see if the show lived up to all its hype.

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The Book of Mormon tells the tale of a pair of Mormon missionaries sent to spread their teachings to a remote village in Uganda and is met with apathy from the locals, who are dealing with disease, famine and oppression. The pair, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham, eventually find a way to get through to the villagers, while at the same time, test (and renew) their own faith in their mission.

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Given that the show was created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, best known for creating the animated series South Park, there’s an expectation of vulgarity and borderline offensive stereotypes sprinkled throughout the narrative – and the show has it in spades. While their type of humor is not the kind I gravitate towards, I liked the narrative structure; the songs were catchy and the overall scenic design was great; though my only criticism is that the body mics and overall sound (at least from the mezzanine) was turned up too loud, muffling much of the dialogue to the point that I couldn’t make out some of what was said – maybe this was a quirk of being in the mezzanine, or it might have been unique to the performance I attended. The cast was hilarious – many of whom were making their Broadway debut.

The stage door scene was surprisingly almost nonexistent, thought that might have been due to the (slightly) inclement weather – it had been raining most of the day, and there was a gentle rain after the show ended (and there was no marquee overhang above the stage door). A few of the cast came out to sign playbills and pose for photos for the handful of audience members who stayed.

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Overall The Book of Mormon was a fun show and not as offensive as I would have thought it would be (given the reputation of its primary creative team), but it’s not a show I’d see again, even thought I’d recommend it to others.

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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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