Monday, March 31, 2014

A Farewell to How I Met Your Mother

Tonight, How I Met Your Mother ends after nine seasons. A sitcom's ending hasn't been this significant to me since Friends, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what this show has meant to me.

I watched every episode of Friends from the pilot, which aired when I was in middle school. It ended the year I graduated college. It was fitting, like I grew up while watching the show, and now I was entering the real world (ha). I also grew up while watching How I Met Your Mother, in a different way.
Photo credit: Ron P. Jaffe/Fox © 2014 Fox Television
I was 22 when the first episode of How I Met Your Mother aired. I started watching mostly as a Neil Patrick Harris fan, but from the end of the first episode, when Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) said, "That, kids, is the true story of how I met your Aunt Robin," I was hooked. At first I wanted to know who the mother was, but that started to matter less and less and I grew attached to the characters and the method of storytelling. I loved the way the show played with time and brought back recurring jokes. But setting aside the conceit of the show, it was really about being in your '20s in New York City. When I was watching Friends, I got older watching the show, but it's not like I could relate to the characters. I wasn't experiencing what they were. With How I Met Your Mother, I was growing up with them. I related and continue to relate to so much about the show--Ted's struggle to meet someone, making bad decisions, staying out too late with friends, feeling nostalgic for the past. I still use the parameters established in "Subway Wars" to determine if I'm a real New Yorker. (I'm happy to say I'm not--I've never stolen a cab from someone, seen Woody Allen, or killed a cockroach with my bare hands.)

Now that I've transitioned from my 20s to my 30s, I'm ready to say goodbye, and thanks to Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, I have a lot of quotes to bring with me into the next phase of my life.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Theatre For A New Audience Keeps Things Simple, In A Good Way

If you think Shakespeare is hard to understand, it could be because you haven't seen a Theatre For A New Audience production. The company's simple new production of King Lear, directed by Arin Arbus, is easy to follow. The minimalist set (by Ricardo Hernandez) means there are few distractions, and you can really focus on the language.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg
Michael Pennington plays Lear, the aging king who foolishly divides his estate between his two oldest daughters, casting out his youngest and truest daughter Cordelia (Lilly Englert). If the performances aren't revelatory, they do bring a humanity to the play. Even the villains--Goneril (Rachel Pickup), Regan (Bianca Amato), and Edmund (Chandler Williams)--are more sympathetic than in any production I've seen. If you listen to what these characters have to say, you'll see that they are just people like us--who want to get by, who worry about getting older, and who want to be loved.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jasper in Deadland is a Blend of Mythologies

First thing's first: Allison Scagliotti, best known as Mindy, Josh's girlfriend from Drake & Josh, is co-starring in Jasper in Deadland. I say this because I had no idea before the show (and it took me the first act to figure out why she looked so familiar). Now I know she probably wants to make a name for herself in theater apart from that and she definitely proves she has the chops with her work in this show, but I think there are a lot of Drake and Josh fans out there, and the marketing team should be playing her up more. Anyway, back to Jasper in Deadland, the Orpheus and Eurydice-inspired musical, which opened last night at the West End Theatre in the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
In this modern version of the Greek legend, high school student and swimmer Jasper (Matt Doyle) loves his best friend Agnes, but not in the way she wants him to. He prefers to just stay friends because he doesn't want to end up like his separated parents. Agnes, angry at him and wanting to prove herself, dives off a cliff. He jumps in after her to save her, but it's too late--she's already dead. So he goes to the underworld to bring her back. The show isn't just based on Greek mythology, but also picks and chooses from Roman, Egyptian, and Norse mythology. There is something fun about combining different stories and giving them a modern twist, but sometimes the choices don't make much sense. (Why was Persephone with Pluto and not Hades?) The book by Hunter Foster and Ryan Scott Oliver could cut some characters and modern references (it's cool to set it in the modern day, but there are too many unnecessary mentions of cell phones and the Internet). But the bigger problem is that although the stakes are high, none of the obstacles, like the three-headed dog Cerberus, Jasper faces end up seeming that scary as he goes from one to the next with relative ease.

Though the book is overstuffed, Brandon Ivie's staging and Patrick Rizzotti's set work simply and beautifully together. The use of blue fabric for water is especially effective (see photo). But the main reason to see the show is Oliver's memorable score. I still have "Stroke by Stroke" in my head, which Doyle delivers effortlessly. Doyle and Scagliotti are appealing performers and it's hard to take your eyes off them, so it's a credit to the rest of the cast that they also leave an impression, especially Ben Crawford (as Mr. Lethe) and his powerful baritone.

I've been going to concerts of Oliver's music for years, and Jasper in Deadland leaves me hopeful for what's to come from him in terms of book musicals.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Jukebox Musicals Work

Theater fans often look down on jukebox musicals, but as grateful as I am for musicals that are ambitious and original, I also don't care what the source material is if the show is entertaining. In the case of Beautiful, the music and the cast are good enough to mostly overcome the book problems that plague most jukebox musicals. But you don't go to see jukebox musicals for the book (in this case written by Douglas McGrath).

From left: Jeb Brown as Don Kirshner, Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Jessie Mueller as Carole King, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann, and Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil; Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Beautiful, as you may know, is the Carole King musical. Jessie Mueller plays the singer-songwriter from her days as a teenager in Brooklyn, back when she was Carol Klein, through recording the 1971 album Tapestry, arguably one of the best albums of all time. The musical of course deals with her relationship with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (played by Chris Peluso, filling in for Jake Epstein, at the performance I saw), with whom she wrote songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Some Kind of Wonderful." What you may not know (at least I didn't the first time I saw it) is that the musical is also very much about Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), the songwriting couple behind songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "On Broadway." They were close friends and competitors with the Goffins.

The show covers a lot of ground, so the transitions aren't always seamless (though they are sometimes comical, like when Goffin asks their babysitter to think of someone to sing "The Locomotion" by saying, "Come on Little Eva, think," right before she goes into the song). But the cast really makes the most of the material. Mueller isn't imitating King, but creating a lovely three-dimensional portrait of the woman. Peluso manages to make Goffin sympathetic even when he's acting like kind of an asshole. Spector and Larsen have great chemistry, provide comic relief, are both in fine voice (a highlight of the show is Spector's rendition of "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place"). And every song is good. Every single one. How many new musicals can you say that about?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Contest: Win Tickets to The Cripple of Inishmaan

Update: The contest is now closed. Thanks to everyone who entered. I loved reading all your responses. The winner was picked at random from the entries here and on Twitter. Congratulations @lady_dayna!

If I had to pick one production that I'm most looking forward to this spring, it would be The Cripple of Inishmaan. I love Martin McDonagh, this play (I saw it at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2008), and having Daniel Radcliffe on Broadway. So I'm really excited to have a pair of tickets to give away. And I'm going to be really jealous of whoever wins. Radcliffe plays Cripple Billy, who lives on the remote island of Inishmaan off the west coast of Ireland and wants to be in the movies.

In order to win a pair of tickets to a Tuesday through Thursday performance, you have a choice of one of two questions to answer in the comments. You can either tell me your favorite Martin McDonagh play or tell me which actor from the Harry Potter films you want to see on Broadway next. You can also tweet about the contest or retweet one of my tweets about it (if you enter this way, you must be following on Twitter to win). You can enter once each way for a total of two entries. A winner will be chosen at random from all the entries on Friday, March 7, at 6 p.m. Please include your e-mail address or Twitter handle in the comments so I have a way to contact you if you win. Good luck!

Monday, March 03, 2014

Fill Up My Cup... Mazel Tov!: Bar Mitzvahs on Television

During a recent Shabbat dinner conversation with my friend Emily (@Stagemaven on Twitter), the topic of the best bar mitzvah episodes of television shows came up. She mentioned that someone should write a blog post about that and I kept it in the back of my mind. But then I heard about the January 18 episode of Saturday Night Live in which Drake's monologue had him talking about his bar mitzvah (he's Jewish!). And then I watched the February 11 episode of New Girl, in which Schmidt tries to pick up a Hebrew school teacher at a bar mitzvah, and the February 27 episode of The Crazy Ones about the ad agency having to throw a bar mitzvah for a client's son. So these all seemed like signs that I should go ahead and write that blog post. Thanks for the idea, Emily.
Why wasn't James Wolk the MC at my bat mitzvah?
Bar mitzvahs on television date back to the '60s. I haven't done research on this other than my own extensive television watching, but my guess is that after Chanukah (which usually gets a shout-out in Christmas episodes), bar mitzvahs are the aspect of Judaism most frequently referenced on television. This makes sense because parties are a good way to get a bunch of characters in a room together and on sitcoms, an obvious place for funny things to happen.

I won't go too much into that episode of New Girl, titled "Sister," because it wasn't a great bar mitzvah episode. Although, "Baruch Atah Ado-nice dress," is my new favorite pick-up line. But the bar mitzvah was mostly used for some easy Jewish jokes. Modern Family did this same setup better, in the episode "Mistery Date" (November 14, 2012), when Manny and Luke crash three bar mitzvahs so Manny can find his crush. Perhaps it worked better because it's sweeter when little boys crash a party than a douchey grown man. (I do still have love for Schmidt, but he's gotten pretty terrible this season, though that's a topic for another time.)

The Crazy Ones episode, "Zach Mitzvah," also falls under using a bar mitzvah party for crazy/funny situations. Unlike New Girl, it was one of the best episodes of that show and a great bar mitzvah episode. Mostly because James Wolk's charm goes a long way. Wolk's character Zach used to be bar mitzvah MC named Dr. Z. The theme of this bar mitzvah is "Noah Loves Chicago," so Simon Roberts (Robin Williams) has the idea to hold the bar mitzvah in the office building overlooking Chicago. Turns out, Noah meant the musical Chicago, but all is well when Zach and Noah lead a song and dance number. It's also the first time where we see the character of Zach hurt by a woman and there's a fun subplot between Sydney and a waiter/possible love interest. My only complaint is that Hamish Linklater, who plays Andrew, wasn't given enough to do, but that's more of a problem with the show in general.

The best bar mitzvah episode of all time has to be The Dick Van Dyke Show's "Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy," which aired on March 2, 1966. Buddy Sorrell never had a bar mitzvah as a child because he had to work, so he wanted to finally have one as a surprise for his mother. Because he is sneaking out for his lessons, Rob and Sally think he is having an affair. That creates for a hilarious episode, but also quite a moving one. According to my DVD, this episode was based on actor Morey Amsterdam's own experiences, which makes it all the more meaningful. The episode also showed the actual service of a bar mitzvah as opposed to the party, a rarity on television.

Almost five decades later, Raising Hope broke the bar mitzvah episode mold by combining it with a musical episode for the March 28, 2013 season 3 finale, Burt Mitzvah: The Musical. In the episode, Burt's mother finds out she's Jewish, therefore Burt is Jewish, so he should a bar mitzvah. Spoiler alert: turns out his parents were lying just to get gift money. Even if he turned out not to be Jewish, Burt (played winningly by Garret Dillahunt) is still a mensch and one of my favorite characters currently on television. (Yes, it's still on television, on Friday nights. Everyone watch it so it doesn't get canceled.) It's so rare to see a character who gets his girlfriend pregnant as a teenager and ends up being a sweet and attentive husband and father. So any episode that focuses on Burt and has a production number in a deli called "What Makes a Jew a Jew" gets my approval.

It's no surprise that most of the shows I could think of to depict bar mitzvahs are aimed at children, since those tend to have 13-year-old characters. And there is usually the token Jewish best friend, such as on Lizzie McGuire. In "Gordo's Bar Mitzvah" (January 18, 2002) Gordo didn't have his bar mitzvah because his psychiatrist parents left the decision up to him. But when Ethan Craft gets a dirt bike and Larry Tudgeman starts shaving, Gordo feels like everyone is growing up and leaving him behind, so he decides to he's ready to have his bar mitzvah at age 14. This episode, like "Buddy Sorrell Man and Boy" has some great bits of comedy--thanks to a video in which some of the fathers tell Gordo about the moments they became men--and shows the actual service of a bar mitzvah as opposed to the party. They don't make Disney Channel shows like that any more.

Kim Possible, another Disney Channel show, didn't have a bar mitzvah because they were already older, but in "Ron the Man" (April 25, 2003), Ron Stoppable realizes his bar mitzvah certificate was never signed by Rabbi Katz and starts questioning whether or not he is a man. Thanks to the voice talents of Will Friedle as Ron and Patrick Warburton as Mr. Barkin, it's a very entertaining episode, and like Lizzie McGuire, shows that there is no magic formula to becoming a man.

Ron's father on Kim Possible was voiced by Elliott Gould, who also voiced Rabbi Goldberg in another one of my favorites, the Hey Arnold episode "Harold's Bar Mitzvah" (December 21, 1997). Harold, the bully with a heart of gold, is only interested in presents, but Rabbi Goldberg explains to him that a bar mitzvah is about growing up and being responsible. Harold runs away and finds himself in situations where he has to be charitable and responsible, which convinces him to have his bar mitzvah. This episode also shows Harold praying in Hebrew.

It was harder to think of examples from dramas, but then I remembered in my dearly departed Smash, Karen was hired to sing at a bar mitzvah in the March 12, 2012 episode "Chemistry." Not a great bar mitzvah episode, because it came off on the unrealistic side on the reality index, but at least they had caricatures and a "mazel tov" cake.

Better drama episodes could be found on HBO. Remember when a young Kat Dennings as Jenny Brier hired Samantha to plan her bat mitzvah in the Sex and the City in the episode "Hot Child in the City" (September 24, 2000)? And of course Entourage, which also had a Yom Kippur episode (my favorite episode of the show ever), found Ari Gold's daughter getting her bat mitzvah back in season 2 (when the show was still good) in the August 7, 2005 episode appropriately titled "Bat Mitzvah." Some highlights include Drama telling Turtle not to eat before the bat mitzvah (as my mom used to tell us to do because there would plenty of food at the party and we didn't want to ruin our appetites) and Drama and Turtle discovered the kiddie buffet (which always has better food than the adult buffet).

It seems that television does a pretty good job of depicting one part of bar mitzvahs accurately (either the party or the ceremony), so maybe one day we'll get an episode that does both. I know a lot of shows I don't/didn't watch have had bar mitzvah episodes. What did I leave out? What are some of your favorites? I'd love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Ode to Joy

Craig Lucas's new play Ode to Joy should maybe come with a warning for those, like me, who are easily nauseated. If the sight of blood, vomit, or people fainting makes you queasy, you should be aware that this play has all those things.
Photo credit: Sandra Coudert
The play is narrated by Adele (Kathryn Erbe), an artist, drug addict, and alcoholic, reflecting on her relationships with Bill (Arliss Howard) and Mala (Roxanna Hope). The actors were all believable, grounding the play with their performances, but the play veered between surreal and naturalistic, and it was hard to get a grip on the tone. The problem could be Lucas directing his own work. After reading this interview with Lucas in The New York Times, I was able to appreciate where he was coming from writing the play, but perhaps he was too close to the material and could have benefited from another perspective.