Tony Sunday in the Park Without George

As a relative youngin’, there are still so many classics that I have yet to see, and this season, I got to cross Sunday in the Park with George off that list. A beautiful production, directed by Sarna Lapine, the show was everything I wanted and more. The show is a masterpiece, so I won’t spend my time lauding Stephen Sondheim or James Lapine, because everyone else has already done that. Ms. Lapine manages to capture the beauty and pain that goes into creating art. The show itself was visually stunning, with a simple, yet effective scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, which was enhanced by Tal Yarden’s projections. Clint Ramos’ costume were absolutely gorgeous. Ken Billington’s lighting design, particularly the chromolumes, was excellent.

While it’s lovely to see a piece about the creation of art want to stand on its own, and bask in starry reviews, I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t mentioned at all during the Tony telecast last night. I know the producers decided to remove the show from contention for awards, but the show was an absolute highlight of the season for me, so it was a shame that the show wasn’t part of the telecast at all. While I understand that closing the show in April meant that award nominations wouldn’t factor in to their run at all, I guess I’m used to ranking art and the weird competitive nature we as a society feel we must place on art, one of the most subjective areas there are. The producers stood on the moral highground that seems crazy in this industry, and I have to respect them for wanting their piece to stand on its own. Despite that, I have to say that the show surely would have been nominated for for Best Revival. And I would imagine that Jake Gyllenhaal would finally get nominated for Best Actor (I’m still mad that he wasn’t nominated for Constellations), and I could have seen Annaleigh Ashford sneak in as a Best Actress nominee.

The whole cast is stellar, and it was so heartwarming to see Ruthie Anne Miles and Ashley Park back on stage together again. It’s always nice to see two amazing Asian American actors on stage, especially cast in roles that aren’t traditionally Asian. And to stay on brand, it was also lovely to see (and hear) Philip Boykin, a much darker man than the real boatman in the painting. It sounds so simple, but it truly is remarkable to cast talented actors of colors in roles that are traditional white. So thank you, Ms. Lapine, for recognizing the importance of casting decisions in 2017!

A compelling story on the passion and sacrifices it takes to make art, Sunday in the Park with George was a brilliant production that lived up to the heaps of praise given to this show. I am anxiously awaiting the release of the the cast album to relive the best moments, and inevitably cry in the comfort of my own home. Yay for casting Asians just because! Yay for creating beautiful, moving pieces of theater! And yay for everyone’s sacrifices to create this wonderfully complex thing called art!

Come From Away and Stay Awhile

A musical centered on 9/11 doesn’t sound like it will be a hit, but neither did a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers, so go figure. Come From Away, written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, is an absolutely beautiful show that is a reminder of the best of humanity. While every original musical takes years to develop, it somehow came to Broadway at the perfect time, when the current political screams for a heartwarming musical that reminds you that our country can get through anything.

I was apprehensive on what the show would be like, but Come From Away is a stunning piece of theater, that deftly works in the emotions without ever laying it on too thick. Taking place in Gander, Newfoundland, the musical centers around the displaced passengers when American airspace was shut down following the terrorist attacks. It’s a story I knew nothing about, and it’s not painful to relive this part 9/11. So much about that day is on the tragedy, but this show manages to focus on the sense of community and humanity that came about as a result.

With only 12 actors portraying dozens of roles, it’s a shame that everyone is considered a featured player, as I’m sure many of them cancelled each other out in during the nomination process. The one nominee is Jenn Colella, whose voice absolutely soars in the show’s only solo number, “Me and the Sky,” which is one of my favorite songs to come out of this season. But each actor fully forms multiple characters, each its own person, and deftly moves between characters throughout the show. If the Tony Awards gave out an award for Best Ensemble, Come From Away would surely come out as the winner. Everyone is fantastic, but I have to single out Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren, and Caesar Samayoa as particularly memorable, and people I thought had a shot at a nomination.

Director Christopher Ashley managed to keep this show compact and tight. His ability to weave together dozens of stories in just 90 minutes is a true feat, although I wouldn’t have minded the show running longer! The mark of a truly great show is when it seems to end too soon and you want more! The show is so uplifting and is just a stunning show. Given today’s political climate, Come From Away is a great reminder of what people will do to rise above even the worst of circumstances. What a great work to remind us of the best of humanity, and how art can help heal us all!

#StayWoke, Pierre

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is absolutely insane in the best way possible. Director Rachel Chavkin manages to take a Broadway show and make it something unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and yet, it’s so theatrical that of course it’s a Broadway show. Dave Malloy’s concept turns a sliver of War and Peace into a raucous party, complete with catchy songs and a great score.

One of Chavkin’s greatest gifts is her ability to cast diverse actors in a way that feels completely organic. There are certain show that appear to throw in a person of color for the sake of “adding diversity.” But Chavkin manages to put people of color front and center in the same way that they appear in the world, and while that shouldn’t be an earth-shattering thing, it somehow is. In an industry that is all about casting big names and turning a profit, it’s heartwarming that Chavkin demands a show to have a rainbow cast. Denée Benton is so sweet and wonderful as Natasha, and I don’t know if other directors would choose a black actress to portray a 19th century Russian aristocrat. I cannot wait until Okieriete Onaodowan joins the cast in July so the show has two black “Russian” leads. Dreams do come true!

I’ve often marveled at actor-musicians, and their ability to play while in character. But this show takes that to a whole new level! With violins and accordions, these actors play, sing, and run around the Imperial Theater like it’s playtime. Lucas Steele is great as Anatole, and then he whips out his violin and I was even more in awe of his performance. I was thrilled to see Amber Gray back on stage after discovering her in Hadestown, and she once again is brilliant! And of course, much focus is put on Josh Groban, making his Broadway debut as Pierre. For being in the title, Pierre doesn’t seem like a leading role to me, but Groban is great nonetheless.

The show is a spectacle and I doubt we’ll ever see something quite like it. All of the design elements are superb. Mimi Lien completely transforms a normal Broadway house into a space that is a weaving maze, bringing the actors up close and personal no matter where you’re sitting. The lighting design by Bradley King is great, particularly the titular comet, and I wanted to steal each and every chandelier for my house.

The show is definitely worth multiple viewings, and I’m sure I can see it a dozen times and still find something new every time. As a piece of theater, as a piece of art, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is a singular sensation.

I Can Go On For Forever

I LOVE a show that is emotionally devastating and makes me weep. I know that sounds weird, but I find there’s something so beautiful and wonderful about watching something that you know has taken so much work, where every word is manipulated and twisted until the perfect combination comes along, where every scene has been written and rewritten, and yet it still shatters you to your core. It’s pure magic. Dear Evan Hansen is one of those shows. I’ve waited a long time to see the show, and was worried that the hype surrounding the show would somehow lessen the experience, but I saw the show a month ago and I’m still cocooning myself in this Dear Evan Hansen bubble. I don’t want to see another musical. I just want to listen to the gorgeous Pasek and Paul score every second of every day. I have so much to say about it, and yet I still don’t have the proper vocabulary to do the show justice, but I want to talk about the show for forever.

Needless to say, Ben Platt is an absolute revelation and is so deserving of all the recognition he is getting this awards season. He takes a socially anxious, shy kid into a flawed, fully-realized human being just searching for a connection and purpose. Platt obviously has a beautiful voice, and it’s insane how well he can project whilst hunched over and crying. His vocal range is impressive, and I love the guttural noises in his lower register when he’s being self-deprecating. Every tick, every twitch, every movement gives so much insight into his character. It’s a true master class in performing. And those fluids! He can give Viola Davis a run for her money in a snot-off! He takes a fragile human being and turns it into one of the most powerful performances on Broadway, one we will continue to talk about for years to come. He absolutely breaks your heart and leaves you shattered, and somehow manages to do that performance eight times a week. While I cannot imagine another actor as Evan Hansen, and want Platt to stay with the show forever, I am also so excited to see what the future holds for this superstar.

I was a huge fan of Dogfight (and am still hoping for that Broadway transfer!), and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s score does not disappoint. Alex Lacamoire’s orchestrations, particularly in the strings, are absolutely gorgeous and really elevate the emotions, even on the cast album. And Steven Levenson’s book so expertly crafts this world where you completely feel for Evan and his plight, understand his choices even though they make you cringe, wish he makes another decision, and yet are on board with him throughout the show. With tonal shades of Next to Normal (one of my personal all-time favorites), I absolutely love that Michael Greif managed to direct another beautiful, emotional, heartbreaking show with a teenage ghost boy. Praise!

Isolation is everywhere in this show. Even down to the set, every room is its own island, floating alone in space against a black backdrop, surrounded by screens. And yet the show manages to connect every single person in the Music Box Theater. So thank you, Ben Platt, Rachel Bay Jones, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, Michael Greif, and the entire cast and crew for providing such a beautiful and somehow enjoyable day of crying in the theater. I hope that everyone who needs to find solace finds this show. #YouWillBeFound

Last Dance

When I first heard that Gideon Glick was going to star in an Off-Broadway play about the twenty-something single experience, I was pumped. A horrific knee injury that left me unable to walk and housebound for weeks put in a crimp in my plan to actually see Significant Other, so I was so excited when it was announced long after that run had finished that the show would transfer to Broadway. Sadly, that run ended today, and it’s a shame.

For those who think theater skews to a older crowd, particularly straight plays, Significant Other was the answer about how to engage millennials in theater. A funny, heartbreaking, and at time, painful, look into the single life, Significant Other perfectly encapsulated so many of my feelings about the dating life today. I truly connected to Jordan Berman, minus being a Jewish, gay, male. It’s hard being single, and it’s hard when you feel like you’re behind all your friends. Jordan’s fantasy sequences, as well as his freak out over whether or not to send an email seemed to be scenes taken out of my own life. And that feeling of being alone, exacerbated when your friends are all partnered of were so searing, yet beautiful.

Gideon Glick was fantastic, and I think he deserves tons of awards recognition for deftlessly carrying the show. He made me laugh, he made me cringe, and he brought me to tears. Whether or not he always is that emotional, or if the end of the run brought out something extra, I do not know, but I do know that my heart continued to break for him, and in a way, for myself. Two of my other favorites, Lindsey Mendez brought great humanity and warmth to the schoolmarm, another character I sadly related to.

Joshua Harmon is a great new voice in the theater, and has written a piece that speaks to every young person that’s seen Significant Other. The haunting ending gave me chills and led me to tears, and I know it’s a lasting image that I’ll be sure to remember as I continue on my single struggle. I need to befriend a real-life Jordan to find my person so I too can dance the night away.

What Devotion Costs

I’ve often joked that my idea of a perfect Friday night is staying at home and watching PBS. This past Friday proved my point when Theater Close-Up played The Woodsman, an absolutely stunning off-Broadway show depicting the Tin Man’s origin story. In the midst of a busy spring season, I never got around to seeing The Woodsman live, and perhaps it was even better seeing the filmed version. In a show that’s so heavily movement-based, it was great to be able to have close-up on the brilliant performers and to get a better look at the gorgeous puppets. The puppetry and movement is dazzling, and there were quite a few moments when I was thankful to be able to rewind and rewatch the powerful images on my screen.

After the opening narration, a couple’s love story is shown without words. It reminded me of Up‘s opening montage of Carl and Ellie’s love story, a wordless look into the entirety of two lives, set to beautiful music. Then the show continues without dialogue and I wondered how long they could keep this up for. And the answer is the whole show. For being a series of grunts, whistles, hisses, and screams, along with a beautiful score by Edward W. Hardy, provided by a lone violin, the show is surprisingly engaging and completely captivating. The show, for all its simplicity in concept, is so full of heart (it is the Tin Man’s story, after all). It actually feels like an extended a capella piece. Each of the actors is utterly brilliant. I don’t know how many “names” would be able to give such a nuanced performance without any dialogue, but I found myself crying on the couch on a Friday night, completely transfixed by what was happening on the stage. It is rare that a collective breath taken on stage can completely enrapture an audience. It left me breathless. In turn, each word uttered is given even more power, and shout-out to Jen Loring for her beautiful lyrics. In particular, “Rusting Tin Man” kills me each and every time I listen to it.

While I’m disappointed to have missed this show live, I’m glad I can revisit it any time I want thanks to PBS. I’ve already watched it a second time, and I know it won’t be the last! I’d be remissed if I didn’t mention James Ortiz, creator extraordinaire, leading man, set and puppet designer, and co-director, who is unequivocally brilliant and masterful in all he does! The show as a whole is completely breathtaking, imaginative, innovative, and quite simply beautiful. For knowing how the story will end, the show itself completely captivating. Not a single movement is in excess, and I didn’t dare blink, afraid to miss a single moment of brilliance. This is what all theater should be. Bravo to the amazing  company and crew. I am in awe of their collective creative genius and I cannot wait to see what they do next!

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

No, this post isn’t about Hamilton, but instead Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. The number of parallels between Shuffle Along and Hamilton are crazy. It’s a shame that the two shows are in the same season, because while Shuffle Along did pretty well in terms of Tony Award nominations, the show’s message is so similar to Hamilton and really brings issues of representation and diversity at the forefront. Here is a story that focuses on a real-life team, the challenges they faced, and how they changed the country. While we complain about #OscarsSoWhite, we forget the work that F.E. Miller, Aubrey Lyles, Noble Sissle, and Eubie Blake created that allowed for black performers to make it on Broadway and beyond. It’s a story that needs to be remembered, and what better way to tell the story then a Broadway musical love letter to the creators and performers who were changing the world in 1921?

Despite all the brilliant names above the marquee, it’s the ensemble that’s the heart of the show. These tap dancing fools light up the stage and bring so much energy to the show. It is truly a stacked cast, but it’s the giant tap numbers (particularly the tap battle) that stand out to me. Savion Glover’s work is astounding and it’s so great to see so many talented black dancers take center stage. While Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon, Joshua Henry, and Audra McDonald make the most of what they’re given, they individually do not have much to do, and all five actors felt underutilized to me. Dixon, who had Blake’s own backstory in addition to a love triangle, had the most to do, and was rewarded with a Tony nomination. To have big Broadway stars sign up for a show for the sake of telling a bigger story, rather than time in the spotlight is truly a beautiful thing. Of course, they each have a number that reminds you why they’re stars, but it’s the ensemble that carries most of the heavy lifting.

Much praise must go to George C. Wolfe, who directed the show and wrote the updated book. Kudos to him for realizing the potential in a behind-the-scenes story that happened during the creation of a game-changing show and for bringing it out for today’s audiences. This is a story that should be remembered, and needs to be part of our narrative. As we continue to talk about diversity in Hollywood and Broadway, this is a show that should be seen. In a banner year for diversity on Broadway, it’s only fitting that this was the show to close out the season. I fear that diversity will take a big hit next season, but hopefully Shuffle Along will continue to play and sweep everyone’s hearts with it.

The end of the show was heartbreaking and as the lights go down, it’s a beautiful reminder of the sacrifices that people made in the name of art. It’s a shame that art often gets disrupted by money and that the team broke up after creating Shuffle Along. And it’s a bigger shame that the producers think the show cannot run without Audra McDonald and is closing prematurely. As one critic said, this show will probably never be revived, and it’s a real shame that the world will no longer have Shuffle Along around to remind them of where black Broadway started. A moving and exciting production, this story deserves to be seen and remembered. Shuffle down to the Music Box Theater while you can!