Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Pizza Theater

Carter Gill as Pulcinella in Commedia dell'Artichoke. Photo credit: Jacob J Goldberg Photo.
Commedia dell'Artichoke is based on commedia dell'arte, a form of theater from 16th century Italy characterized by masks and improvisation, but it may also have invented a new genre--pizza theater. At the Gene Frankel Theatre, where the show is playing through February 6, every audience member is given a slice of pizza from Artichoke Basille's Pizza. If Artichoke decides to sponsor more theater in the future, I don't think anyone would complain.

Shannon Marie Sullivan as Smeraldina.
Photo credit: Jacob J Goldberg Photo. 
The pizza isn't just incentive to see the show. There's a theatrical reason too. The play takes place in Pulcinella's pizza shop and he must find a way to pay his increase in rent or face eviction. Before the start of the performance, we were told to just have fun and not think too much, but it seemed at times like the creators did want us to think about issues like capitalism and misogyny. Due to the nature of commedia dell'arte, most of these are tangents and not explored in depth enough to be thought provoking.

The play was conceived by Frances Black, Carter Gill, Tommy Russell, directed by Devin Brain, and created/performed by Gill, Russell, Alexandra Henrikson, and Shannon Marie Sullivan. They've really committed to the authenticity--bringing on Christopher Bayes as commedia consultant and wearing appropriately grotesque and expressive masks by Emilia Buescher, Den, Jordan Allen-Dutton, and Mister Face. It's hard to know who contributed what, especially because the cast is so skilled at improvising that it all seems like part of the script. I didn't look closely at my program before the show, so I was sure there were six to eight actors performing. It was only during the curtain call that I realized there were only four. Well, five if you count Robert Cowie, the composer who spends the evening at the piano, providing almost a second show.

Monday, January 25, 2016

A Few Thoughts On Why BroadwayCon Was A Success, At Least From This Fan/Journalist's Perspective

Here are three words I never expected to type when I arrived at the New York Hilton Midtown on Friday afternoon: I loved BroadwayCon. At the first Broadway fan convention, I got to hear Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyle about an unfortunate captioning incident. I got to see cut footage from my beloved Smash while showrunner Joshua Safran provided commentary. I got to hear from company managers about how they dealt with Winter Storm Jonas when all matinee shows were cancelled less than an hour before curtain. But all that was after my first few minutes at the con, during which I wanted to turn around and leave.

After an easy check in, I made my way up the escalator and was met with what was either a line or a mob. The doors to the MainStage, where the opening performance was going to take place, hadn't opened yet. People were waiting to get in and it was chaotic because nobody knew where they were supposed to go, including, it seemed, the volunteers. I don't deal well with crowds, so I escaped to the marketplace area and found space to breathe. That's when a Twitter friend who I had never met in person recognized me and introduced herself. I later went back with her and we were able to find seats for the opening performance--near the back, but close to a screen.

I feel like this post needs a picture, but I was so preoccupied that the only picture I ended up taking was this terrible one of the Hamilton cast. Oops.
In between the opening and the Hamilton panel, some cosplayers were invited onto the stage. One of them said her dream role is the Leading Player in Pippin. Ben Vereen happened to be in the audience and he went up to meet her. Another said she knew all the lyrics to "Guns and Ships" and rapped it as the audience joined in. Moments like these were the highlights for me--getting to watch the fans. I am lucky enough to live in New York and see shows all the time. I interview actors and see them walking around the theater district, so it's not that big a deal to me to see a Broadway star up close. But I remember what it was like growing up in California, where I could only hear Broadway actors on cast recordings. A lot of the attendees were from out of town and probably hadn't had a chance to see Hamilton, but you can bet they listen to the cast recording on repeat and have watched all the Ham4Ham shows. And here were those actors, right in front of them. All weekend, I kept thinking about Neil Patrick Harris singing in the 2013 Tony Awards opening number (penned by Miranda): "There's a kid in the middle of nowhere sitting there, living for Tony performances singin' and flippin' along with the Pippins and Wickeds and Kinkys, Matildas and Mormonses. So we might reassure that kid and do something to spur that kid. Cause I promise you all of us up here tonight. We were that kid." At the end of the Hamilton panel, as the recording of "The Schuyler Sisters" played and everyone in the audience sang along as the actors filmed on their phones, we were all that kid.

I joked that they should have called it HamilCon, but it wasn't only about that musical. The programming was impressive. You didn't just hear from actors, but stage managers, company managers, and others who do crucial work we rarely hear about. Also, as much as the weekend was a celebration of Broadway, many panels offered discussions about the problems in the industry. At "Your Fave is Problematic," panelists addressed presenting classic work that is offensive today and how to get more diverse voices on Broadway. They didn't come up with all the answers in 50 minutes, but at least they got a dialogue going. At a panel on making theater accessible, the panelists admitted that they still had a long way to go in terms of making captioned, ASL-interpreted, audio-described, and other accessible performances more readily available.

After those first two events on Friday, as far as I could tell, you could wander into the MainStage without waiting in line and always find a seat. Part of that could be the blizzard kept people away, but I think there was also more going on to space out the crowds. I was worried that it would be hard to attend panels in each time slot because they would get out at 10 til with a new one starting on the hour. This summer, I went to D23, the Disney fan convention, where you would have to pick and choose a few things to do each day because of all the time required to wait in line to get into things. But at BroadwayCon, it seemed that everyone would go from one panel to another, which prevented having to line up early. My biggest problem ended up being that there were usually multiple panels I wanted to attend at the same time.

BroadwayCon wasn't perfect. There's always room to improve. Obviously, the weather was unfortunate. A lot of scheduled guests had to cancel. I left early on Saturday after finding out that my evening show was canceled and that certain areas of my subway route were being shut down. From what I read on Twitter, it seemed that the rest of Saturday was a lot of impromptu panels, but I think they tried their best to make sure to keep the attendees entertained and if you had to be stranded somewhere, that was probably a good place to be. There should have been more volunteers, especially on the first day. There could have been more booths in the marketplace. But I'm sure they'll implement changes next year. And maybe hold it in July.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Harry Potter, This Time With More Hufflepuffs!

If you love Harry Potter, but think the secondary characters are way more interesting than the whiny Boy Who Lived, get yourself to the P.I.T. for Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic. Even if you like the character of Harry, you'll still enjoy all seven books told from the perspective of Hufflepuffs (with enough details changed so writer Matt Cox doesn't get sued).
Cox parodied anime with the three-part epic Kapow-i GoGo and again he sets himself apart from other parody writers by writing funny jokes for the fans while creating three-dimensional characters that you can care about despite your level of fandom. This time, his protagonist is Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon), a boy from New Mexico who finds out he's a wizard and goes off to wizarding school in England where he gets sorted into Puffs. Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin have hilariously and accurately been changed to Brave, Smart, and of course, Snakes. Wayne becomes friends with fellow Puffs Oliver (Langston Belton), who is good at math and terrible at magic, and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), whose attempts to be a badass can't hide her greatest desire--to have friends, and their adventures parallel a certain other trio. The few Hufflepuffs that J.K. Rowling mentions by name are also here, including the most famous, dreamy Cedric Diggory (Evan Maltby).

There's a lot packed into these "80-ish minutes"--after all, it took eight movies to cover the same events--and director Kristin McCarthy Parker keeps the action from becoming too chaotic. Like the Harry Potter series, this play has plenty of magic, snogging, fighting, and friends bonding. Those who have read the books and seen the movies will find the most to laugh at, such as when they get to year five and Wayne says, "Apparently we don't have to wear uniforms anymore. You can just wear regular clothes now," but anyone can relate to these characters who don't get any breaks and aren't worshipped as heroes.

Tickets for January are sold out online (you can try to get in at the door). The show has been extended until the end of February, so I suggest you get on booking those $10 tickets now. That's less than what you'll pay to see Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Theater Roundup, Yearbook Style

A yearbook-style update on some of my recent theatergoing.

Best Discovery: MasterVoices
Photo credit: Erin Baiano
I'm kind of late to the party on this one. The Collegiate Chorale was founded in 1941, but I was introduced to the performing arts organization this season when it changed its name to MasterVoices and started a new partnership with New York City Center to present concert versions of operas and operettas in English. In October, it kicked off this new initiative with Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance; or, the Slave of Duty featuring Deborah Voigt as Ruth, Douglas Hodge as Major-General Stanley, Hunter Parrish as Frederic, and Phillip Boykin as the Pirate King. All these stars didn't take away from the pleasures of listening to the chorus and orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling. Next up is Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate with a world premiere companion piece by Michael John LaChiusa. Dates for these works, featuring Kelli O'Hara and Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza reunion!), are April 28 and 29.

Biggest Surprise: Songbird
Left to Right: Eric William Morris, Adam Cochran, and Kate Baldwin in Songbird. Photo credit: Jenny Anderson Photography.
I don't consider myself a country music fan, but I loved Lauren Pritchard's score for the new musical Songbird, currently at 59E59, so much that I'm hoping for a cast recording. Bookwriter Michael Kimmel captures the essence of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull while believably updating the story to take place in present-day Nashville. It's fun to watch Kate Baldwin play a character with a mean streak as Tammy Trip (Irina Arkadina as a country star instead of famous actress). Everyone in the cast is terrific, but Kacie Sheik as Missy, the stand-in for Masha, is a standout. Her voice and Pritchard's music are a perfect match. Every morning at 10 a.m., tickets to that day's performance are sold for just $10 online at Ticket Central, so there's no excuse not to see it.

Best Use of Abs: Trip of Love
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Trip of Love is a dance musical featuring music of the '60s. There is a story shoehorned in that doesn't make a lot of sense, so it's best to ignore that and soak in the psychedelic costumes and sets, powerhouse vocals, and the abs on constant display (both male and female).

Most Dedicated: Annaleigh Ashford
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
At a blogger Q&A for A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, now on Broadway at the Cort Theatre, Annaleigh Ashford spoke about going to obedience and agility training with her dog, Gracie. Ashford, who plays a dog in the show about the relationship between a man and his pet, embodies canine behavior without crawling on all fours and imitating an animal. She tends to rely on the same schtick for every role I've seen her in, but it works here. I can't say the same for Matthew Broderick, who is as stiff and lifeless as he's been for years.

Best All-Around: On Your Feet
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Bio-musicals are tricky, but On Your Feet!, the musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan, has charismatic leading performances (remember the names Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra) and music that makes you want to get up and dance (and you might be asked to do that--I had to join a conga line and even my fear of audience participation did not stop me from enjoying the show). The book by Alexander Dinelaris does not completely avoid the clichés of a music industry story (there's of course a moment when a record studio executive tells the Estefans that they will never cross over into non-Latin markets), but it also has a lot of genuine laughs. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Checking In With Fringe Encores: Part 2

As you enter the SoHo Playhouse for Wasted, an Edinburgh Fringe transfer, there is a fun, club-like energy. Loud music plays, lights flash, and the actors, Serena Jennings and Will Merrick, act like bouncers, directing audience members to their seats and asking for IDs. As the hour goes on, the fun starts to fade into questions of what constitutes consent when drinking.

This is a topic that's been explored before on television (especially well-done last season on Switched at Birth), film, and theater, but as long as these things continue to happen, these stories need to be told. And Kat Woods manages to find a fresh take in her format--brief scenes, which sometimes place the audience in a similar disorientated state of mind as the characters. Oli (Merrick) and Emma (Jennings) meet at a club through their friends and end up spending the night together, but the exact events are a puzzle for both the audience and characters to figure out. Merrick and Jennings play all the characters and without resorting to exaggeration, they make it easy to distinguish between them all.

Woods writes believable dialogue that feels very true to the culture of nightlife in the UK. It was a smart move not to change the language for an American audience. The slang might be different, but the events could just as easily happen here.

Remaining performances are October 21 at 8 and October 22 at 7 pm.

Q&A with Jenn Kent, currently starring in Rocking Dead: Bedlam

If you dream of zombie apocalypses, you can soon live out that fantasy in the new interactive show, Rocking Dead: Bedlam. It runs from October 22 through October 31 at the Medicine Show Theatre (549 West 52nd Street). I spoke to Jenn Kent, one of the actors, to find out more about what you can expect.

Q: Who do you play?
A: I play TayTaythe hostess with the mostest! TayTay'll tell you your future right before she pulls you on the dance floor and introduces you to the joys of dust.

Q: What do you want audiences to know about your show?
A: It's the most fun you can have in the post-apocalypse! Really, we have a zombie cage match, an organ toss, sexy people, and awesome dance music. If you like to party, you need to come join us and party like you never have before!

Q: Why do you think zombies are big right now in popular culture?
A: I got sucked into the zombie phenomenon when I did my first zombie show three years ago. I think different people find different aspects of the phenomenon alluring. Some like to shoot zombies, others plan their survival, others like the make-up, and yet others allow themselves perspectiveas shitty as things get, at least they're not zombies. I personally like exploring the interconnectedness of all the survivors and how they come together and rely upon each other for survival.

Q: What would you do in the case of an actual zombie apocalypse?
A: I'd surround myself with people I trust and can rely upon, find a yacht, and sail to the Caribbean.

Q: And finally, since it's almost Halloween, what was your best Halloween costume ever?
A: I'm pretty much a sexy kitty every year. This year, I'm gonna switch it up... sexy zombie kitty!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Checking in with Fringe Encores

This year, I was out of town for most of the New York International Fringe Festival (for those interested, you can read about some of my summer travels here and here), but I'm checking out some of the shows I missed at SoHo Playhouse during the Fringe Encores Series, which also features shows from the Edinburgh Fringe. Last week, I caught Daniel Cainer's 21st Century Jew and Schooled.

I must admit I hadn't heard of Daniel Cainer before now, but judging from all the audience requests during the encore, he has a fan base, and it's not hard to see why. His easygoing approach makes it easy to listen to him for an hour. Using song, projections, and stories, he explores what it means to be Jewish today. It sometimes feels more like a concert than a cohesive show, but then again, each song is strong enough to stand on its own. Though he is often funny, he is even better when telling a moving story, such as one about going to cricket games with his grandfather. This show will especially resonate with other 21st century Jews, but you don't have to be Jewish to appreciate a skilled storyteller at work.

Remaining performances at the Huron Club (downstairs at SoHo Playhouse) are October 13 at 7, October 14 at 3, and October 18 at 3.
Lilli Stein and Quentin Maré in Schooled. Photo credit: Andrea Reese
Schooled was one of the most talked about shows at Fringe and the winner of overall excellence for playwriting. Lisa Lewis explores sexism and privilege through three characters at a college campus. Andrew (Quentin Maré), a screenwriter and professor, offers to help senior Claire (Lilli Stein) with her script. She is hoping to get a prestigious grant, which requires a nomination from a professor. Her much richer boyfriend, Jake (Stephen Friedrich), is going after the same grant. Lewis's pithy dialogue hones in on problems in our society, such as when Claire tells Jake, "I can tell a 50-year-old man, 'I like your movies,' without it meaning, 'I want to sleep with you.'" When Jake says that's what men hear, she answers, "That's not my problem." Snaps.

There is one performance left on October 17 at 7, but don't be surprised if it transfers soon.

Musical Comedy, Politics, and Free Donuts

When you enter the Actors' Temple Theatre for Who's Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the The Iraq War, you might wonder if you're in the right place. There is a table with free donuts and mimosas in the middle of the room, with chairs arranged in a circle around it. No, you didn't accidentally walk into a meeting. Well, not exactly. The musical by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo takes place at a support group for people who started the Iraq War, so the treats help set the scene. Actors take their seats in the circle and Brandon Espinoza, who plays the support group leader and various other roles, starts the meeting. Don't worry, though, despite the intimate staging (Pailet also directs), you won't be asked to participate.
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniels

As each character tells his or her role, we see flashbacks, often elaborately told through song and dance (Misha Shields's choreography impressively utilizes the minimal space). There are a lot of pieces in the true story (with dramatic license taken, of course) of how the Iraq War started and Pailet and Penedo make it easy to follow. There's Richart Becker (Brennan Caldwell), a German detective responsible for Curveball (Nehal Joshi), an Iraqi defector who claims to have intel on biological weapons. He sends information to CIA analysts Berry (Larisa Oleynik) and Jerry (Olli Hasskivi), who verify it with weapons inspector Martin Bouchard (Bob D'Haene). Though they are all convinced that Curveball is telling the truth, CIA operative Tyler Nelson (Jason Collins) is skeptical.

Although the members of the cast, which also includes Claire Neumann in multiple roles, have varying skills in the vocal department (Joshi is the standout), they all work extremely hard. Though comedy should appear effortless, for the most part, their efforts pay off, as in Caldwell's big number, "Das Man," (German words in musical numbers always seem to be funny). For fans of The Secret World of Alex Mack or 10 Things I Hate About You, it's also fun to see Oleynik rap.

But it's not all frivolity and the writers deserve credit for tackling this subject matter in such an unexpected way. The musical is based on J.T. Allen's 2005 screenplay, which couldn't get made in Hollywood. Producer Charlie Fink writes in a program note, "Musical comedy may be one of the few vehicles through which we can see and accept our responsibility for what happened, and what we will do in the future to repair the world we have so terribly broken." It's also a form which can constantly evolve and surprise as long as producers are willing to take risks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Let's Talk About Sex... And Talk... And Talk

Threesome might be the least sexy ménage a trois ever. The sex talk is theoretical, not dirty, and  foreplay involves establishing context. But at 59E59 through August 23, Yussef El Guindi offers intellectual stimulation.
Photo caption: Hunter Canning
El Guindi delves into issues of gender equality and cultural identity through an Egyptian-American couple--Leila (Alia Attallah) and Rashid (Karan Oberoi). In an attempt to work out their relationship issues, they've invited a stranger--Doug (Quinn Franzen), who they met at an office party--into their bedroom. As the characters talk their way around any actual sex, they sometimes feel more like mouthpieces than real people, but the debates not often heard on stage are worth hearing. 

Full-frontal nudity is used twice in the show, very effectively. First, Doug is introduced completely naked (bravo Franzen for being game to bare all for such a long period of time) and it's refreshing to see male nudity used as comic relief. Later, it is used as an act of empowerment. Nudity, like threesomes, doesn't always need to titillate.