Friday, October 23, 2009

All In The Family

One of the characters in Broke-ology comes up with that word which refers, as one might guess, to the science of being broke. One doesn't need a degree in broke-ology to connect to the play, which is above all else about family and the love and sacrifices that come with it.

Broke-ology by Nathan Louis Jackson is currently playing at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through November 22. The play begins in Kansas City in 1982, where William (Wendell Pierce) and Sonia King (Crystal A. Dickinson) are expecting their first child and planning out their lives together. The majority of the play takes place in the present. Sonia has since passed away and their two sons, Ennis (Francois Battiste) and Malcolm (Alano Miller), are grown. Malcolm has recently moved back to Kansas City from Connecticut, where he went to college, to start a job at the EPA. Ennis works at Lord of the Wings (it might be a good marketing strategy to sell those T-shirts at the show) and has a baby on the way. Malcolm's return is welcome to Ennis as an extra hand in taking care of William, who is suffering from multiple sclerosis. The house in which they live might as well be another character. Donyale Werle's sets (his work for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was also a highlight of that production) are brilliantly detailed from the clutter of the kitchen to brown carpet, which I think I might have had in my house growing up (my friend also commented that the chairs looked like ones she had in her childhood home).

Though there is drama when Malcolm reveals that he is considering moving back to Connecticut, there is not much buildup in this play until the final moments. Jackson's achievements are in his believable dialogue and characters. There is beauty in small moments like a domino game between a father and his two sons.

Thomas Kail, whose direction for musicals I've enjoyed, gets fine performances from his cast, though occasionally the pace drags a bit. Battiste is the standout. Not only is he the funniest, but his frustrations are the most palpable. Malcolm is a less showy role, but Miller and Battiste have a natural rapport. Pierce has some lovely moments, including a dance with a garden gnome. And he shines in the final scene which I won't reveal here, but occasionally he seemed to step out of character, as when his MS gait would disappear.

Though Dickinson adds a warm presence as Sonia, Broke-ology would have been better as a three-hander. The 1982 introduction is not really necessary as later scenes could have easily filled us in on the background, though Sonia and William's argument about Santa Claus provides some laughs. Later on, William starts to see Sonia, and these scenes are confusing. He really believes she is there, but he has multiple sclerosis, he's not crazy.

The night before Broke-ology, I saw The Brothers Size and Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet by Tarell Alvin McCraney. I won't be reviewing it, as it was an early preview, but I recommend it as a companion piece to Broke-ology as they deal with similar issues of family and brothers with complete opposite approaches.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

OMG! Heathcliff's on Facebook! LOL!

A co-worker had this new HarperTeen print of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights on her desk. It's packaged as Bella and Edward's favorite book (though if I'm remember correctly, it was only Bella's favorite book) and the cover resembles the Twilight cover with the red and black, though in this case it's a rose instead of an apple. Even the tagline "Love never dies" suggests vampires.

This isn't Wuthering Heights and Vampires. It's the original novel, but it does feature extras in the back. These include: "Quiz: Are You Destined for Tumultuous Love," "Like Catherine and Heathcliff," "Ingredients for a Gothic Romance," "10 Things You Didn't Know About Emily Bronte," and "What If Catherine and Heathcliff Lived Now and Were on Facebook?"

The quiz is pretty amusing, but I don't think Catherine and Heathcliff would have Facebook profiles even if they were around today. Catherine might, but Heathcliff definitely would not. Also, the profiles are really disappointing. There is room for a lot of creativity here, especially if status updates and wall postings were included, but these weren't designed to look like actual Facebook profiles and just contain biographical information from the books without accurately reflecting the personality of the characters. For example, in the "about me" section for Heathcliff, it says, "Tattoos--Don't you wish you knew." Heathcliff doesn't talk in that coy manner.

It saddens me that publishers think teenagers will not read anything unless it has a modern twist or relates to Twilight. I read Wuthering Heights in high school and it remains one of my favorite books. Then again, I wasn't exactly representative of most teens. And I have to admit, this is smart packaging. It stands to reason that the romantic teenagers that love Twilight will also be drawn to Wuthering Heights. Maybe they'll even start wearing "Team Heathcliff" and "Team Edgar" shirts. My hope is that this will encourage teens to read more classics. The back of the book advertises similar packaging for Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rest of the Fest

This week I caught 4 more NYMF shows. One of them, Punk Princess (books and lyrics by Yasmine Lever, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald), was part of the developmental series. Since I don't think it would be fair to review the first reading of a musical, I will only be discussing Academy, F#@king Up Everything, and Street Lights.

All musicals at NYMF are still essentially in the developmental stages and I don't expect perfection. Of the musicals I saw (a small percentage of what was offered), all could go on to other venues in their exact incarnations and be just as good as other musicals playing around the city, but that would be stopping short of their full potential.

F#@king Up Everything had the strongest book, written by Sam Forman and David Eric Davis, who also wrote the music and lyrics. It's a fairly simple story--dorky guy falls in love with beautiful girl and a series of misunderstandings take place leading up to the inevitable happy ending--but it has enough quirks to make it a fresh take on the romantic comedy. Christian Mohammed Schwartzelberg (a very funny Noah Weisberg) is a puppeteer who performs for children, but his puppets (designed by David Valentine) are modeled on figures such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Smith (lead singer of The Cure). Not since Avenue Q have puppets been this amusing. A highlight of the indie rock score, befitting the Williamsburg setting, is "Something I Just Like About You," sung by Christian and his love interest Juliana (Kate Rockwell), where they adorably list the things they like, including each other. Adding to the fun of the evening is Danny Mefford's highly inventive choreography. Though the title implies an adult musical, overall it's tamer than you might expect. Not that this is a musical for children--one of the songs is called "Arielle's Areolas" (the weakest song in the show)--but it is inoffensive enough to reach a wide audience.

Academy and Street Lights (and The Cure, which I reviewed here), had very strong scores that were slightly brought down by their books. It's interesting that in all of these cases, the books, music, and lyrics were written by the same person. It seems in musical theater in general that an especially good book is hard to come by. Maybe that's because it's easy to overlook book problems with a strong score, but nobody really wants to see a musical if the music sucks. This may be a topic worth exploring in greater detail and I'd be curious to hear other thoughts on this, but for now, back to NYMF.

In Academy
(conceived by Andrew Cato, written by John Mercurio), two seniors, Amory (Corey Boardman) and Michael (Wilson Bridges) make a bet about whether or not Benji (a very over-the-top and jittery Steven Kane) will break the rules to survive his freshmen year at St. Edward's Academy. It is inspired by Goethe's Faust, which we know by the constant references to it (Benji is actually playing Faust in the school play). Also beaten over our heads is the fact that all the boys have issues with their father. There are several elements in the plot that just seem unbelievable, such as a student plagiarizing Ralph Waldo Emerson for a college admissions essay and not getting caught. There are nine students in total and most of the play reveals around the main three, but we get glimpses into the others in the songs--one of them has a nightlight, one of them likes to wear mascara--and I'd love to see more of them, especially when played by such a talented cast. Getting rid of some of the repetitive elements could allow for this. Any problems with the story end up seeming minor because the score so effective. The music is full of beautiful harmonies and the lyrics are often clever and reveal a lot about the boys' insecurities.

I already wrote about the score of Street Lights in the post below. Overall, this show is in great shape, but it could benefit from a few rewrites before heading to San Diego. Monique (Carla Duren) and her brother Rocky (Kevin Curtis) want to get out of their neighborhood in Harlem where shootings are commonplace. She wants to be a singer and he wants to get into a good college and eventually become a lawyer. Their school's music program is about to be cut and their friend X-Ray (Chad Carstarphen) leads them and the other students in a fight to save it. It's not that I didn't care about the story, but the musical numbers have so much energy, that it's no wonder the pace drags a bit in between. Most of the focus ends up falling on Monique and her love interest Damon (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland) in a believable courtship (except when her grandmother catches him shirtless in her room and barely bats an eyelash), so the rest of the other characters fall to the wayside. Rocky is an appealing character, especially as played by Curtis, but after his number "Georgetown," he is offstage for far too long. The character of Mr. Kinney (Jim Stanek) the music teacher never quite works. He is conflicted in that he wants to help his students, but doesn't want to jeopardize future jobs, but his mood swings were too intense and confusing. The biggest mystery is X-Ray (Chad Carstarphen), who we don't know much about except that he can find music in anything, including the sounds of the doors closing on the subway. The same could be said of composer Joe Drymala, who I expect to see more of in the future, along with Carla Duren, a star in the making.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Don't Judge a NYMF Show By Its Logo

Street Lights opens at NYMF on Tuesday, October 13, at American Theatre of Actors (Chernuchin). Truth be told, this wasn't on my radar when I first looked through the NYMF selections. The logo didn't grab me and the plot description, about a group of inner city teenagers trying to save their high school music program, could be inspirational, but that kind of story can be very easy to get wrong if it becomes a cliche. After listening to the concept recording, I have high hopes for the musical and expect it to be one of the highlights of the festival. I'll find out for sure when I see it on Sunday.

Joe Drymala's score mixes rap, hip hop, pop, and gospel. I can't help but be reminded of In The Heights in the way it captures the sound of a culture with a modern sensibility that appeals across generations. Particular highlights are the gripping "Someday," which incorporates the civil rights song "We Shall Overcome," the catchy "Georgetown," and "Don't Wanna Be Tied Up," a sexy number which could be on the hip hop charts, but is also in the musical theater tradition of two people who deny their attraction for each other.

To hear the music for yourself and for ticket information click here. The CD will be available for purchase beginning October 13.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oleanna Gives Them Something To Talk About

David Mamet's Oleanna is being given a strong production at Broadway's Golden Theatre. The polarizing play takes place in the office of a professor, John (Bill Pullman), over three different meetings with one of his students, Carol (Julia Stiles). She claims she does not understand anything in his class and he offers her extra attention, which later leads to accusations, some reasonable (misogyny, elitism), others not (attempted rape), which could cost him his tenure. Doug Hughes's staging is well-paced, starting off slow, allowing for the intense buildup required in the final scene. Pullman gives a wonderfully quiet and understated performance and Stiles gives Carol enough vulnerability to not come across solely as a bitch. In a discussion with the actors after, they mentioned that they try to have a conversation onstage, not just spout lines at each other, and this pays off. It's a satisfying and explosive evening at the theater, but the real highlight occurs after the performance, during the talkback.

On the night I attended (October 6), lawyer and consultant Judith Kaye moderated. The panelists were Wayne Outten, an expert in employment law, and Susan Sangillo Bellifemine, who works in mediation and arbitration. First, the moderator posed questions to the panel, but then the audience was given the chance to weigh in. It became a passionate discussion, with opinions running the spectrum. More people seemed to come out in favor of John, though few thought he was blameless. There were the two older women near me who staunchly defended John as a nice man only trying to help Carol. There was a teenage girl explaining why Carol could be viewed as a sympathetic character. Some interesting theories came out of the discussion, including the fact that the "group" Carol constantly refers to might be in her head, which I had never even considered. Sadly, the conversation was restricted to 20 minutes, but I'm sure it could have gone on for another couple of hours as people were still anxiously waving their hands at the end. I'm probably one of the few people who love the play itself, and it is because of the ambiguity that allows for such different interpretations. This is what theater should do--spark discussion.

For discount tickets to the show through November 15, visit and enter code OLMKT93.

If you see the show, be sure to watch other reactions online after or weigh in on Twitter, though I hardly think that 140 characters is sufficient room.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

NYMF: The Cure

With the current vampire trend in films, books, and television, now is an opportune time to bring a vampire rock musical to the New York Musical Festival (NYMF). The Cure (nothing to do with the band of the same name), written by Mark Weiser and directed by Elizabeth Lucas, is a new take on the vampire fable, playing through October 11 at the American Theatre of Actors (Chernuchin).

The vampires of The Cure are not the chaste Edward Cullen types, as apparent from the chains that make up the set. The story centers around Gray (Zac Resnick), a dying young man who writes a party column. He and his friend Alex (Michael Buchanan) find their way to a vampire coven after receiving a mysterious invitation. There they find love (or at least lust)--Gray with Unique (Jen Sese) and Alex with Sasha (Kyle Harris, familiar to those who have seen the viral video Web Site Story). Though the story seems simple enough, it was often hard to follow. Part of this could be that the band occasionally drowned out the words (on the night I attended, there were several sound problems).

There are interesting themes presented--the idea of eternal life as a disease as well as a cure--and Weiser does a good job of setting the scene--the homeless drug addicts are the most affected by the presence of vampires--but none of the stories are given ample time to develop. The ending leaves plenty of loose ends, which would have been more frustrating had I cared about the characters.

The able cast do the best they can with the material, especially in song. Luckily, the story is secondary to the music, and the rock/pop score is enough to have a good time, even if you are not emotionally invested in the story. In particular, Buchanan and Harris allow you to fill in the blanks of their pasts in their duet, "Til Now." They are two to watch. Another highlight is Buchanan's power ballad "Who I Am" (which he sings with another strong performer, Manu Narayan). Each song stands on its own, and each member of the cast delivers.

If the show is to have a life after NYMF, it would benefit from going one of two ways--the stories could be fleshed out more or it could become a song cycle with the dialogue cut out completely. Vampire aficionados have three more chances to catch the musical at NYMF (October 6, 10, and 11). Click here for tickets and more information.

For more on NYMF, read this article I wrote for TDF.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Anyone Want to Buy Me A Plane Ticket to Berkeley?

For those who can't get to Berkeley before November 15 (I seriously considered making a trip while I'm in Los Angeles at the end of the month, but I won't have time), enjoy this taste of the American Idiot musical.

Now I'm not going to judge a musical based on a minute long clip, but I am surprised that it looks more cheesy than edgy. Visually, it reminds me a lot of We Will Rock You. But I'm still exited that this exists and I hope it finds its way to New York.