Wednesday, April 18, 2018

205 (2017-2018): Review: WE LIVE BY THE SEA (seen April 17, 2018)

“The Big Wave”

The 2018 edition of the annual Brits Off Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters is back, starting with the touching We Live By [sic] the Sea, a well-executed work of devised theatre created by the Patch of Blue company and coproduced with the Hartshorn-Hook Foundation. It’s been seen in England, Scotland (where it was a Fringe award nominee), Australia, and China; it even played a week last fall at Off Broadway’s SoHo Playhouse.

Alexandra Brain. Photo: Kale Pardey.
We Live By the Sea exists to explore the behavior and feelings of a 15-year-old girl, Katy (Alexandra Brain), who’s on the autism spectrum (words that are never mentioned), and lives with her 18-year-old sister, Hannah (Alexandra Simonet), in an unspecified British seaside town.

For the project, the company did extensive research, assisted by the National Autistic Society, and with the consultation of a woman, Robyn Steward, whose personal story the program declares “inspired the narrative.” Director Alex Howarth himself has been working as a drama therapist with autistic people for 15 years.
Alexandra Brain. Photo: Kale Pardey.
Males have long been considered more likely to be on the spectrum than females but the gender gap is actually much narrower than that; We Live By the Sea gives voice to girls with the disorder.

Devised theatre, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to collaborative works, usually with no credited writer, typically using minimalist sets, projections, microphones, found objects that can serve multiple purposes, original music (with the musicians—when they’re not the actors themselves—part of the action), and a host of theatricalist conventions mingling realism with fourth-wall smashing. A boat sail is the most prominent scenic element, used mainly as a screen for images of the sea and of Katy on the beach. (Amelia Wall is the videographer, Will Monks the video designer.)

In We Live By the Sea the original music, just right for the material, is composed and played by the two Mason Brothers, situated up left where they create the impression of numerous instruments—listed by Katy at the top of the play. There’s also a touch of familiar pop, like Abba’s “Dancing Girl,” given a dreamy rendition as the play is about to start.

When the audience enters the enclave’s Theater B, two young women are sitting on the floor just outside the auditorium, asking if they can tap your shoes. These are the actresses who, once the play starts, will be playing Katy and her imaginary dog, Paul Williams (Lizzie Grace). Paul is named not for the American song writer but for someone whose identity is eventually revealed in the play.
Alexandra Brain, Lizzie Grace. Photo: Kale Pardey.
The shoe-tapping is part of the ritualistic behavior—similar to OCD—that Katy engages in regularly, which includes the colors she wears daily, her teeth brushing, what she eats at tea, and so on, all of it shared with the conversationally adept Paul Williams, who gives her moral support and with whom she speaks a secret language. Katy’s afraid of crowds, resists being touched, and has a host of other dislikes. Among her likes are the sea, especially a big wave she describes, and telling stories.

Katy’s a lonely girl, bullied and ridiculed at school, and dependent largely on her older sister; her father died a year ago and her mother, who’s mentioned but doesn’t appear, keeps her distance. Hannah, luckily, treats Katy with infinite love and patience; however—as on a drive to the zoo—even she can find it difficult to maintain her calm when Katy’s erratic behavior threatens to become dangerous.
Alexandra Simonet, Tom Coliandris. Photo: Kale Pardey.
A soothing influence arrives in the presence of a nice-looking, 18-year-old boy, Ryan (Tom Coliandris), who has just moved to this seaside place, with his mother, from a densely crowded urban environment. Ryan bears the burden of an only vaguely defined tragedy involving his best friend, Max, who appears to have died from drugs, a situation for which Ryan feels responsible.

This background is only sketchily alluded to as a way of giving Ryan his own cross to bear, but he otherwise appears as a deeply kind young man who finds Katy’s lack of filters refreshing. His response to Katy is nonjudgmental and open, which allows the defensive girl (and Paul Williams) to welcome him as a friend. Hannah, too, stressed as she is, finds in Ryan a possible savior although he may not be quite as ready for the possibility of romance as she.
Alexandra Brain, Tom Coliandris, Lizzie Grace. Photo: Kale Pardey.
The dramatic plotting in We Live By the Sea is arranged mainly to express Katy’s fantasies (she self-dramatizes her involvement as a princess in a tale of knights-in-shining armor battling dragons), her pleasures and her pains, and her difficulties in accommodating herself to the way the world—particularly at school—perceives her. Articulate and even poetic, despite her nonstop verbal tics, she can instantly revert to infantile rhetoric.

Alexandra Brain, a gifted young actress wearing white, overall-style shorts whose shoulder straps are constantly hanging loose, plays Katy like an overgrown six-year-old, wearing large, headphone-like ear protectors to avoid loud noises. She squeals, fidgets, shakes her hands tremulously, holds them to her head as if to prevent it from exploding, and in many similar ways captures a girl on a perpetual emotional tightrope. She can be sad, she can be funny; with Katy, you never know what’s coming.

Grace’s Paul Williams, wearing a white T-shirt saying “Paul Williams,” is like a smiling, friendly puppy of a teenage girl, only her occasional scratching of her neck revealing her canine proclivities. Both Coliandris and Simonet are wonderfully authentic and appealing; we can’t but help hoping they’ll eventually get together.

The play’s message of the importance of accepting those who may be different from us is old-hat but nonetheless important. We Live By the Sea has some lovely visual moments, like the one with fairy lights (Rachel Sampley is the lighting designer) in Katy’s room, and, overall, does a nice job of expressing it without overkill.

On the other hand, the piece seems overlong at 90 minutes. Brain offers a tour de force portrayal of Katy’s mannerisms but, like me, you may grow tired of them, no matter how well acted. But maybe that’s the point.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through May 6

Sunday, April 15, 2018

204 (2017-2018): Review: ONE THOUSAND NIGHTS AND ONE DAY (seen April 13, 2018)

"Baubles, Bangles, and Bombs"

The Prospect Theater Company, whose annual productions of new musicals often push the envelope, has done so again with One Thousand Nights and One, a hour and a half adaptation by Jason Grote of his 2011 play 1001, with music by Marisa Michelson.

Sepideh Moafi, Ben Steinfeld. Photo: Richard Termine.
As the title reveals, the material is based on the Middle East folk stories gathered in one of the various compilations often called The Arabian Nights. Reader: Rimsky-Korsakov’s ballet, “Scheherazade” or such recent shows as Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights have little to fear.
Sepideh Moafi, Ben Steinfeld. Photo: Richard Termine.
To be fair, Grote’s “postmodern musical fantasia” is not intended as a traditional dramatization of the original, which first appeared in English in 1708; the program notes declare, it’s “a deconstruction of the Arabian Nights through the lens of scholar Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism.” In other words, it intends to convey a subtextual message about “the long traditions of false cultural representations and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East.” Assuming that’s the case, I’m not convinced it actually achieves that goal, nor that the result somehow makes better theatre.
Ben Steinfeld, Ashkon Davaran.
Staged by Erin Ortman in minimalist fashion, the scenery is confined mainly to Jason Ardizzone-West’s rather funereal arrangement of dark, lace-like curtains, hung like those in hospitals and moved around by the actors to change locations. Carolyn Wong’s expert lighting goes a long way to enliven this dull environment. A “One-Eyed Arab” (Graham Stevens), whose two eyes are perfectly visible, serves as a comical emcee-narrator, dressed in an Arab robe and poking fun at his own stereotypical character, making what are perhaps the show's most salient cultural points.
Ben Steinfeld, Sepideh Moafi. Photo: Richard Termine.
He proceeds to narrate the story of Persian King Shahriyer (Ben Steinfeld), who, having discovered his wife in flagrante delicto, seeks to end adultery by marrying a virgin a day, having sex with them, and then beheading them with his scimitar. Only his Wazir’s (Ashkon Davaron) beautiful daughter, Scheherazade (Sepideh Moafi), is able to stop him by getting him so interested in a story she tells that she’s able prevent her own demise by stringing it out over 1,001 nights.
Sepideh Moafi. Photo: Richard Termine. 
Shahriyar, something of a confused schlemiel, struggles to find the right words and uses contemporary colloquialisms and profanity. That’s because (SPOILER) he’s actually a 21st century Jew named Alan, in a coma after a massive bombing (or so it seems) of Man Hat, as it’s called in Scheherazade’s story. His trauma, you see, is causing him to imagine himself the king in the story being read at his hospital bedside by his Palestinian girlfriend, Dhana, played by the same actress who portrays Scheherazade. It takes a long time for the connection between the parallel situations to come into focus and it’s easy to get lost and lose interest along the way.
Ben Steinfeld, Graham Stevens. Photo: Richard Termine.
Much of the first half is a series of comic scenes about the king’s dilemma. A great deal of the second shifts to present times to show how Alan met Dhana at Columbia University when she tried to pose a pro-Palestinian question to Alan Dershowitz (yes, that one, voiced by Ashkon Davaran) about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was rudely rebuffed.

Our Alan, a Palestinian sympathizer, becomes Dhana’s lover, visits Gaza with her, is responsible—he thinks he’s acting like a heroic martyr—for their guide being shot in the eye (guess who plays the guide), and plays second fiddle when Dhana becomes attracted to a handsome, wealthy Arab guy (Chad Goodridge) on social media. It’s nice to see Alan and Dhana’s Jew-Arab cross-cultural affair blossom but the socio-political vibes it seeks to produce are little more than clichéd window dressing on a universal romantic situation.
Ashkon Davaran, Ben Steinfeld, Sepideh Moafi, Yassi Noubahar. Photo: Richard Termine.
Much as Michelson’s music—which often sounds like bland dialogue sung in operatic tones when it’s not displaying melismatic overkill to suggest Arabic melodies—comes in the Arabian nights material that begins the show. When the Dhana-Alan situations arrive, singing becomes minimal and dialogue dominates; given the songs’ bland similarities this isn’t such a bad thing. None of this is the fault of the fine five-piece band in an upstage nook,
Ben Steinfeld, Chad Goodridge, Gabriella Perez. Photo: Richard Termine.
Karla Puno Garcia has provided a lot of choreographic movement to accompany the Middle Eastern-inflected music; arms wave sinuously, bodies twist and turn, and robotic gestures abound. Much of this resembles an elaborate martial arts routine. The players wear designer Becky Bodurtha’s eclectic blend of simplified Arabian nights’ costumes, modern dress (hajibs included), and neutral black for when they serve as a chorus.

Moafi, a dark-haired beauty, sings with a lovely soprano and acts with simple honesty and a wry sense of humor, Steinfeld has a firm baritone and moves well enough, and Stevens brings enthusiastic energy to his Arab caricature. Everyone else is generally sincere and focused.
Ben Steinfeld, Ashkon Davaran. Photo: Richard Termine.
This is the kind of show in which anything can happen, even an appearance by Jorge Luis Borges (Davaran) to talk about storytelling, or a djinn (also Davaran) who materializes when Alan rubs a magic lamp. Alan asks the djinn to get his lover back. I suggest he ask for a better show.


A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 52nd St., NYC
Through April 29

203 (2017-2018): Review: CAROUSEL (seen April 14, 2018)

“That Elusive Brass Ring”

Although carousels that allow passengers to try grabbing a brass ring as they ride around on their sculpted animals are now rather rare, we still refer to grabbing that ring as a sign of success. The current Broadway revival at the Imperial Theatre of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1945 musical Carousel sometimes comes close to that prize but when the ride stops turning the ring has escaped its grasp.

Company of Carousel. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Many will, of course, disagree, but at least two who were there when I was will not immediately be able to register their opinions. In the first instance, the show was only minutes into the substantial “Carousel Waltz” ballet that opens the program, prettily choreographed by Justin Peck of the New York City Ballet, when a commotion in the orchestra forced the show to stop. The stage manager made an announcement over the sound system about a sick theatregoer and we waited patiently for the stricken person to be carried out before the dancing could resume.

This being a first for me in over 70 years of Broadway theatergoing, I leaned over to ask a friend, a well-known theatre critic and scholar, if he’d ever seen something like it. He said he had, only once, and could still recall his amazement that an EMS team was able to remove the person in just three minutes. It took a little longer than three minutes, however, before Carousel began spinning again. Then, as the audience applauded, the ballet picked up from a few moments before it had halted.

The show turned smoothly until the second act but, at the moment when the hero, Billy Bigelow, has slit his throat and his wife, Julie, rushes to his side, yet another ruckus arose in the orchestra. Once again, a patron had collapsed. The stage manager’s amplified apology for the disturbance was heard, a group of men once more lifted and carried someone—who appeared to be unconscious—out, and the valiant cast, which had left the stage, returned. Then, as if the show were a video being rewound, Billy lay down to die, Julie knelt at his side, the action moved backward a few moments, and, as Billy passed away, Carousel came back to life.

After the show, I asked the guy at the assisted listening device booth what had happened and he smilingly dismissed the events, saying vaguely there was nothing to worry about. At which point I wish to apologize for this disturbance as we return to my report.

As I sometimes do when writing about the revival of a major work covered in my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage, I’d like to provide some background on Carousel edited and abbreviated from its entry in the 1940-1950 volume. I’m putting it in red so you can skip it, if you wish, and jump right to my brief reactions to the current production. The plot summary gives both the original actors and those in the revival.

As before, Rodgers and Hammerstein based their work on a play, in this case the Hungarian drama Liliom, which had had its American premiere in 1921, had been revived as recently as 1940, and previously had been considered for musicalization by both Puccini and Gershwin. Author Ferenc Molnàr, however, was not interested in seeing it transformed, and only a view of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was able to convince him to allow the Theatre Guild to do the job with R&H. The composer and lyricist had their doubts about the Hungarian background, though, and were not convinced that they could do the show until Rodgers came up with the idea of moving the story to a New England fishing village in 1873. The original character names were suitably revised. When Molnàr viewed a dress rehearsal, he, like many of the staff members watching, cried copiously; this led the Guild’s Lawrence Langner (see his The Magic Curtain) to worry for the $180,000 invested, as he thought that a Broadway audience might not relish so sad a show.

More worries were piled on during the out-of-town tryout when the show ran into second-act problems and had to undergo numerous revisions and repositioning of the numbers. With suggestions from Molnàr and the director, the show was greatly strengthened…. One major change occurred when the Boston audiences would not accept a heaven—to which Billy on his death—depicted too literally as an austere New England parlor, with a stern Yankee character called He playing the harmonium, while his wife, called She, sat primly by. Rodgers, aware of the audience’s unrest, told Hammerstein, “We’ve got to get God out of that parlor!” Asked where to put him, the composer said, “Put him on a ladder, for all I care! Just get him out of that parlor!” The librettist did just that, scrapping the parlor and rewriting the entire scene, with the deity presented as the Starkeeper, standing on a backyard ladder and polishing the stars hanging on lines. When the show finally opened in New York, Rodgers had to watch it from the wings propped up on a stretcher because of an accident to his back.

The amusement park carousel of the title is the one at which the loutish braggart Billy Bigelow (John Raitt, in his Broadway debut; Joshua Henry in the revival) works as a barker. In an opening ballet sequence Billy meets Julie Jordan (Jan Clayton, in her Broadway bow; Jessie Mueller in the revival) and tries to date her, although the jealous Mrs. Mullin (Jean Casto; Margaret Colin in the revival), who loves Billy, looks on disapprovingly. Julie overcomes her hesitation, accepts, and soon after tells the news to her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Jean Darling; Lindsay Mendez in the revival), who is herself enamored of Mr. Snow (Eric Mattson; Alexander Gemignani).

Billy turns out to be awkward and inarticulate when alone with Julie, whom he eventually marries (in Liliom they are lovers, not husband and wife). Julie becomes pregnant, to which Billy takes some getting accustomed. Having been fired by Mr. Mullin and needing money for his coming baby, the indigent Billy carries out a holdup with the rascally sailor Jigger Craigin (Murvyn Vye; Amar Ramasar); when capture is imminent, he commits suicide.

Billy spends fifteen years in purgatory, where the Starkeeper (Russell Collins; John Douglas Thompson in the revival) finally allows him to visit earth to perform a good deed and to visit his teenage daughter Louise (Bambi Linn; Brittany Pollack in the revival). He discovers her to be unhappy because of the shadow of his reputation. He offers her a star stolen from heaven, but when she refuses it, his rage erupts and he slaps her, although she feels no pain (a mirror of what happened in life between him and Julie).

He must then return to purgatory, although he does watch Louise graduate from school. She cannot hear or see him but he somehow inspires her to join in the singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” earlier introduced by Julie’s cousin, Nettie Fowler (Christine Johnson; Renée Fleming in the revival).

Elevating the show into the musical stratosphere was the enormously rich and varied score, of which many songs became standards. Among them were “Carousel Waltz,” “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “If I Loved You,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “When the Children Are Asleep,” “Soliloquy,” “What’s the Use of Wond’rin,” “Blow High, Blow Low,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “This Was a Real Nice Clambake” (a reject from Oklahoma!, where it was “This Was a Real Nice Hayride”), and “The Highest Judge of All.”

Carousel also benefitted from exceptionally lovely sets and costumes, brilliant choreography, direction that individualized the chorus members and wove them into the action, and memorable performances from a cast with first-rate singing and acting abilities. None of the performers was a star, most of them being completely unknown. None became as popular as the handsome, powerfully built Raitt, former University of Southern California athlete. Raitt was back as Billy when the show enjoyed a lauded revival in 1965, 20 years after the original.

Herewith, a few notes on the current production:

The most recent prior New York revival of Carousel was the highly lauded one at Lincoln Center in 1994, with Michael Hayden as Billy, Sally Murphy as Julie, and Audra McDonald as Carrie. The current one, directed by Jack O’Brien, elevates the role of Nettie to top billing because it’s played by popular opera star Renée Fleming, who uses her famous soprano in only a handful of songs, notably “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Justin Peck, has choreographed an abundance of balletic dancing (Agnes DeMille was responsible for the original), some of his own ABT dancers—like Ramasar and Pollack—being involved.
Amar Ramasar (second from right) and company. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
It’s a postcard-pretty production, with designs by Broadway greats Santo Loquasto (sets) and Ann Roth (costumes), supplemented by lovely lighting by Brian MacDevitt, that sticks close to conventional expectations. (The Rodgers and Hammerstein estates likely deplore any radical interpretations in the design, staging, or music.) Audiences will ooh and ahh early on at the descending carousel’s crown, which opens like an antique toy, and at the fairytale-like depiction of the afterlife. There are few other surprises in store.
Lindsay Mendez, Alexander Gemignani. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
As mentioned in my background notes, Carousel’s original out-of-town version created a bit of controversy because of its depiction of heaven. That vision’s replacement brings to mind Marc Connelly’s 1930 play Green Pastures, a resemblance made even more resonant by casting African-American actor John Douglas Thompson, one of our foremost classical actors, as the God-like Starmaker, and by dressing him in white like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. Thompson brings his distinguished bearing and presence to the role but one wishes the part were meatier to take advantage of his rhetorical skills.
Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
One might argue that casting baritone Joshua Henry, who is black, as Billy is also controversial, since it jars with historical probability. And then there’s the small matter about Billy hitting women. I’ve heard a number of theatregoer acquaintances raise the connection between these issues but very few critics have connected the problematic dots. There’s no question that Henry is the most impressive thing in this production, his explosive rendition of “Soliloquy” alone justifying his presence. The issue is fraught, and can be argued pro and con, but I’d like to quote Michael Bracken’s review on the “Theater Pizzazz” website, where, before praising Henry's potentially Tony-winning performance, he wonders about:

the questionable wisdom of putting on a show in 2018 which involves a man who hits his wife and daughter. Furthermore, that issue—perhaps the ultimate hot-button topic in the #metoo age—is made infinitely more complicated by the fact that Henry . . . is African-American. Indeed, one wonders throughout the show if O’Brien thinks that Henry’s race (and possible mistreatment by the surrounding white community) is meant to be a mitigating factor for this behavior, since it’s hard to tell from the production if this is merely color-blind casting or a social statement.
Joshua Henry. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
And, in this context, is one permitted to wonder why Billy and Julie’s daughter, Louise, though exquisitely danced by Brittany Pollack, looks neither biracial nor anywhere near 15?

In the 1945 production, there were two young children, Bessie (Mimi Strongin), and Jessie (Jimsey Somers), who ran around at the carnival. Since Mimi is a close friend, I was hoping to see those characters depicted so I could imagine her as she might have been 68 years ago. Thus was I disappointed to discover that there were no kids in this production. Eliminating them is probably common practice.
Renee Fleming, Jessie Mueller. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
I realize I haven’t gone into critical detail but there are dozens of other commentaries available (see below) and I’ve already overstayed my welcome. I’ll say simply that this Carousel grabs a few brass rings but not the big one. It often drags as drama (which isn’t helped by the long ballets) and frequently seems dated; its leading female character (though well performed) lacks luster and its hero’s violence and her weak response are troubling; and its sentimental fantasy about the dead returning now seems not only precious but childishly naïve; it’s also easier to accept in Our Town.

That all sounds rough, I guess but there are those other rings: its score remains one of the best in Broadway history, its singing is glorious, it’s pleasant to look at, Joshua Henry is sensational, and it still has the power to moisten your eyes. Enough, I admit, to take a ride on this Broadway carousel.


Imperial Theatre
249 W. 45th St., NYC
Open run

Friday, April 13, 2018

202 (2017-2018): Review: MISS YOU LIKE HELL (seen April 12, 2018)

"On the Road"

There are two Lears now commanding local stages: one is over in Brooklyn at BAM, where Sir Antony Sher’s king is learning how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child; the other is Lear deBessonet, the brilliant young director of a new musical at the Public about a thankless child who comes to see the error of her ways.  
Gizel Jimenez, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.
That musical, with book and lyrics by Quiara Alegria Hudes and music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, is Miss You Like Hell, whose decidedly shaky script deBessonet has fashioned into a physically lovely, emotionally moving theatrical experience. It’s replete with the kind of songs you want to hear again, a uniformly outstanding ensemble led by two remarkable performers, and, at least on the surface, driven by a subject of immediate public concern.

Hudes, the first Latina to win a Pulitzer Prize (Water by the Spoonful), takes on the earthquake issue of undocumented immigrants in Miss You Like Hell.  For all the political tremors dormant in the subject, however, her play is really schmaltz-porn about an estranged mother and daughter’s reconciliation.
Marinda Anderson, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The former is Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega), a flashy, firmly packed, hot tamale in close-fitting jeans and tops (costumes by Emilio Sosa), with a pageboy coif whose ends are tinted in bright red. The latter is her precocious, grungy, unwashed, 16-year-old daughter, Olivia (Gizel Jiménez), her unkempt mop of hair piled on her head like a nest in which a rat might find a comfy home and raise a family of its own.

Beatriz is an unorthodox, promiscuous, artistic type. Olivia is a budding, book-loving writer who drops all the hot-button names of modern literature, from Ginsberg to Vonnegut, in a song called “Bibliography.” Disaffected, potentially suicidal, and very hard to like, she writes a blog for other “castaways” like her, and has at least one faithful follower who relies on her advice. Oddly, for all her literary knowledge, we’re expected to believe she has no idea of what ICE is.

Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, lost custody of her out-of-wedlock daughter to the girl’s father four years earlier and then disappeared to live on the West Coast. Now, having borrowed a friend’s decrepit pickup she’s driven cross country to Philadelphia to arrive, unannounced at Olivia's digs. She tells Olivia, who resents her for failing to gain her custody, she wants her to go off with her in the middle of the night for a week of mom and daughter bonding.
Gizel Jimenez, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.
After some angry reluctance, Olivia actually agrees to go (that’s theatre for you) and the piece becomes an odyssey of their trek back to LA. When Olivia learns that her mother is being threatened with deportation and that she wants Olivia to testify on her behalf, she refuses, believing it’s another example of Beatriz's self-serving behavior.
Gizel Jimenez, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Michael Mulheren, David Patrick Kelly. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Before long the women experience the first of their offbeat on-the-road experiences when they meet a couple of gay, grizzled, Harley-riding, Vietnam vets, the hulking Mo (Michael Mulheren) and the pint-sized Higgins (David Patrick Kelly), on their own odyssey to get married in each of the 50 states.
Shawna M. Hamic, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Their other adventures include an encounter with a legal clerk (Shawna M. Hamic) in South Dakota, where Beatriz tries to expunge a marijuana infraction; being pulled over by a cop (Marcus Paul James) for a broken tail light, leading to the paperless Beatriz’s arrest; meeting Manuel (Danny Bolero) a widowed, Peruvian tamale peddler (cue a tasty song called “Tamales”), who joins them in their truck; visiting Yellowstone (which inspires a song of that name, terrifically sung by Edwards) to find Olivia’s avid follower, the junior ranger Pearl (Latoya Edwards); and, among other things, attending Beatriz’s deportation hearing, during which the cleaned-up girl, now fully on her mother’s side, delivers a touching speech (song, actually: "Miss You Like Hell").  
An epilogue concludes the intermissionless, hour and 45-minute show with a marvelous coup de théâtre when a substantial, olive green border wall slides out to divide the stage from rear to front into Tijuana and San Diego, although I won’t say why.
For all the talk about ICE (we even see someone wearing one of their jackets), the script doesn’t make a particularly strong legal case for Beatriz’s remaining in the U.S. She’s a feisty, colorful, wise, and lovable woman, but she’s far from a model citizen. The escapades she and Olivia share could as easily be those of a mother dying of cancer and determined to reconcile with her estranged child before she passes.

What happens during Olivia and Beatriz’s journey is the usual farfetched stuff of road-trip stories, each with their own versions of Scylla and Charybdis, the Cyclops, and Circe, concluding with a weepy resolution that makes everything worthwhile. We accept it here because deBessonet’s creative vision allows us to appreciate the reality of the underlying mother-daughter relationship despite their expression through implausible events.
The Public’s Newman stage has been removed by designer Riccardo Hernandez and replaced by a shiny, ground-level, blue floor, into which an automatic revolve has been inserted. It matches the upstage blue frame that, like the floor, has images of white birds painted on it. You sit either in the traditional auditorium or in one of the two rows of seats on the left and right of the acting area. Upstage is where the eight-member ensemble sits on mismatched chairs, serving as a chorus or joining the action as characters.
Marcus Paul James, David Patrick Kelly, Michael Mulheren, Latoya Edwafds, Shawna M. Hamic, Marinda Anderson, Andrew Cristi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Six musicians sit on a raised platform behind them, fronting a backdrop used as part of Tyler Micoleau’s enchanting lighting scheme. McKeown’s music covers multiple styles, some of it folksy, some of it country, some of jazzy, much of it toe-tappingly infectious, and all of it good to hear.

The script is often questionable but deBessonet, with the supportive but modest choreography of Danny Mefford, stages it with consistent grace, employing a minimalist aesthetic (stools serve a multitude of purposes) and making considerable use of the slowly revolving stage. She also inspires perfectly honed performances from her interesting-looking company, particularly the exceptional Rubin-Vega and Jiménez.
Gizel Jimenez, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Rubin-Vega, so brilliant in Empanada Loca and many other stage appearances, is every square inch the “Lioness” mom she sings about, a veritable force of nature who will let nothing stop her from achieving her goal. Even when her voice is not quite up to a song’s musical demands she puts it over with the intensity of a tropical hurricane.

Her unforgettable performance is matched by the equally memorable Jiménez, who combines impressive vocal gifts with passionate acting.

Lear deBessonet has talent sharper than a serpent’s tooth. I can’t wait to see her sink her fangs into something really worth biting.


Public Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through May 13

Thursday, April 12, 2018

201 (2017-2018): Review: MEAN GIRLS (seen April 11, 2018)

“The Plastic Jungle”

There’s a moment in Mean Girls when the heroine, Cady Heron, shows up at a Halloween party in a scary costume only to find herself uncomfortably out of place among all the girls dressed like sluts. Although it had nothing to do with what I was wearing, I felt a bit like Cady through much of this exuberant, creatively designed, but somehow hollow Broadway musical based on the popular 2004 movie of the same name. On one level, I was enjoying myself moderately, on another wondering why everyone in the August Wilson Theatre was having the time of their life.
Erika Henningsen and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Tina Fey, who wrote (and acted in) the movie, is responsible for the book, so you can expect a lot of funny zingers; you may also find, as I did, that guffaws erupt at lines as laughable as any random page in the phone book. Like when the teenage heroine’s mom tells her they’re moving back to America from Kenya and she responds: “America? Maybe I can meet an obese person.” Da-da-boom. 

Fey’s plot remains much the same as the film: pretty, super-bright, mathematically gifted, 16-year-old Cady (Erika Henningsen, terrific on many fronts, in the Lindsay Lohan role), home-schooled in Kenya, where her parents are biologists, moves to a Chicago suburb to attend North Shore High School and runs headlong into adolescent culture shock.
Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
She quickly becomes the target and tool of the school’s “mean girls” clique, the buff, expensively coiffed and dressed Plastics, led by the ultra-bitchy, blonde beauty of a queen bee, Regina George (Taylor Louderman, rocking the hot look, the big voice, the dismissive, sky-high attitude).
Erika Henningsen, Ashley  Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Regina and her minions, the dumb blonde Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell, amusingly vacant) and the insecure Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park, a multiple-threat fireball), take advantage of the innocent newcomer. At first, Cady joins the Plastics so she can spy on them for her cynical friends, the angry Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed, drily sassy) and the campily gay Damian (Grey Henson, loving his every moment). Cady shares one of the best numbers, “Apex Predator,” with Janis, while Damian’s show-stoppers include the company tap routine, “Stop.” Ultimately, before she learns her lesson, Cady begins morphing into a Regina-like queen bee herself.
Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Barret Wilbert Weed. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Meanwhile, Cady becomes involved in a girl- meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy subplot with handsome classmate Aaron Samuels (Kyle Seleg, everybody’s boy-next-door), ex-boyfriend of Regina. Naturally, Regina isn’t disposed to see the newbie staking a claim on her own discard. 

Numerous other plot threads (such as a math competition) and characters pull their way through the action; one concerns a Burn Book comment about drug dealing involving math teacher Mrs. Norbury, a role that allows the versatile Kerry Butler to practically incarnate Tina Fey, who played the part in the movie. (Butler is deliciously unrecognizable in her two other roles, Cady’s mom and, especially, Regina’s cluelessly cool mother, carrying a tiny dog with a lascivious licking habit.)
Kerry Butler, Erika Hennigsen. Photo: Joan Marcus. 
The material, inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, about the behavior of girls like those in the show, has lost whatever comic realism it had in the movie in favor of broad, caricaturish, musical comedy strokes. Swallowing all the contrivances thus becomes increasingly difficult, as it makes Cady’s naïve choices, like dumbing herself down so she’ll be more appealing to Aaron, so strained, but that’s the story so love it or leave it.
Aaron Selig, Erika Hennigsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Social media gets thoroughly skewered, but while Instagram and Twitter are mentioned, Facebook somehow gets a pass. Serious issues like guns, opioids, and the like provide throwaway lines that aim mainly for laughs, and nary is a word said about the current epidemic of vaping among high school students. 

There’s a thematic emphasis on not striving so hard to fit in but instead to be yourself, as in Janis’s song, “I’d Rather Be Me”; for the most part, though, the fun’s focus on frivolities fizzles long before the production’s two and a half hours—a full hour longer than the movie!—have run their overstuffed course. 
Grey Henson, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The music, by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, is mostly in Broadway’s familiar loud and peppy pop style favoring powerful huge vocal chops (which are provided in abundance), with a dose of rock here, a bit of hip-hop there, but not too heavy on the ballads. It isn’t especially thrilling but Nell Benjamin’s often shrewd lyrics make the songs bounce. 

One that caught my ear comes when Cady expresses her attraction to Aaron during her calculus class: “I’m astounded and nonplussed/I am filled with calculust.” The score offers a stream of rhythmic, sufficiently melodic tunes for director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) to turn into flashy production numbers.
Taylor Louderman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mean Girls is a dance-heavy show allowing the students (successfully embodied by performers in their 20s and 30s) to do things like whirl around in desk-chairs on wheels in perfectly synchronized fashion, leap about holding red cafeteria trays like semaphores, or tap their hearts out with impressive energy, limberness, and pizazz.
Company of Mean Girls. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The show’s most awesome contribution is its combination of Scott Pask’s set of a curved upstage wall, with multiple openings through which numerous scenic units can roll on and off, and its function as a screen for a stunning visual feast of imaginative video projections designed by Finn Ross and Adam Young.
Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These images, which allow for instantaneous scene changes, range from realistic pictures of the African savannah, North Shore’s brick exterior, or various interiors to more abstract images expressing emotional effects. They even show, with comical gusto, what happens during Regina’s fateful encounter with a school bus. In Mean Girls, Ross and Young illustrate how radically technology is altering traditional stage design.
Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gregg Barnes’s costumes follow the movie’s approach of dressing the kids in every variety of teen geekiness, rebelliousness, and fashionista fabulousness; he probably goes a bit far in his creation of the Plastics’ body-hugging tops and jeans, miniskirts, and stiletto heels, but it’s all of a piece with the show’s comic book picture of American high school tribalism, rampant adolescent sexuality, and focus on female body image. One of Mean Girl’s most provocative moments, in fact, arrives in a social media montage showing close-ups of Regina’s overgrown, lace thong-adorned butt. 
Ben Cook, Nikhul Saboo, Cheech Manohar, Erika Henningsen, Kerry Butler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mean Girls will undoubtedly please many crowds. Much as I found the show lacking—especially with this season’s revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel around to remind us of what the books and scores of great musical theatre can be—I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring either of my adult granddaughters to see it. I think they would have wondered why this old kvetch didn’t think it quite as fetch as so many others do.


August Wilson Theatre
245 W. 52nd St., NYC
Open run