Friday, September 25, 2015

New York, Day Four: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

Let me count the ways I fell in love with this incredible theatrical experience:

2.  I love a story – and “Curious” has a terrific one: Christopher, a young man with intellectual gifts but social handicaps (Asperger’s? Autism? It’s never stated.), is blamed for the death of his neighbor’s dog, goes on a search for the real killer, a journey that leads to dark secrets, human weakness and, ultimately, hope for the future.

3.  The character of Christopher.  Brilliant, honest, funny (usually accidentally), but overwhelmed by society, the world and its rules.  Christopher is ruthlessly logical, approaching life with a mathematical rigor that springs from his own significant skills in maths.   But his relentless focus on literal truth means he misses most metaphors – in ways that are both comic and touching.  He is obsessed with numbers, and especially likes prime numbers.  It’s hard not to love him.

5.  The staging.  Three walls and the floor in a grid pattern that fills with projection and props – as though we are inside Christopher’s mind as he constructs a world of ever-expanding borders, allowing him to connect more completely with the rest of humanity.

7.  The physicality of the production, with actors standing in for props and set pieces (doors, beds, chairs), and creating wonderfully simply gymnastic/dance movements to drive the action.  There’s a scene where Christopher is walking through a strange new environment that frightens him – and at one point is walking along the walls, held perfectly horizontal by two other actors. 

11.  The sense of being overwhelmed by input – visual, aural, physical – the way many children on the autism spectrum are.  This is a loud, visually-dense work.  Even though the grid of the stage is bare, it can suddenly fill with graphics and imagery.  There is decoding work you must do to properly take everything in.  The sound is loud, sometimes to the point of blaring.  It feels overwhelming at times.  It’s supposed to.

13. The way Christopher trains (literally, in this instance) himself to expand his world by assembling model train track (and scale model buildings and people) across the stage in act one, prefiguring his own hero’s journey of act two.

17.  Every actor’s performance.  They were all completely committed and intensely-focused.

19.  The coda to the evening, when the actor playing Christopher (Tyler Lea, filling the big shoes), uses the full range of the production’s audiovisual resources to present an answer to a question from Britain’s A-Level mathematics exam.

Except for a couple of minor plot points (which I won’t share – spoilers), I could likely continue this list off into an infinity of prime numbers.
New York, Day Three:  "Fun Home" and "An American in Paris"


Though persecution against LGBT people is still far too common (especially for the Ts), it seems clear we have passed some manner of social/cultural tipping point where most people realize it’s as useless to try to change people’s sexual orientation as it would be to attempt to alter their handedness, and that it’s time to move on. I say this in relation to Fun Home not because this incredibly queer  musical (the story of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s upbringing in a funeral home run by her deeply-closeted father) won the Tony this year and is packing them in eight times a week at the Circle in the Square.  No, it’s because there is a moment in the show when Alison’s mother spills the details on her husband’s dalliances, remonstrating herself for never sufficiently noticing what was going on, and giving her daughter permission to be exactly who she is, singing “I didn’t raise you to give away your days like me.”

This small, genuine, heartbreaking moment does exactly what art is supposed to do: bring the tragedies and triumphs of life into scale, where we can gain some perspective from them. From it, we can infer the millions of individual, yet ultimately identical, conversations that are taking place – and will take place – around the world.

It’s this honesty that I believe converts more mainstream theatergoers into fans who spread the word and keep the sales of Fun Home at 100% of capacity week in and week out.   There will always be some walkouts, I suppose, when someone buys a ticket to the Tony winner, not realizing exactly how queer it’s going to be, but I imagine there are also quite a few people who will be shocked not just by the story and characters, but by just how genuinely human those characters are, and how universal is their story.  (Were any of us ever perfectly understood by our parents?)

The show is conducted in the round (actually, in the rectangle), so we get a 360-degree view of this Pennsylvania family:  Helen (Judy Kuhn), her husband Bruce (Michael Cerveris and their three children, Christian (Oscar Williams), John (Zell Steele Morrow) and Alison, played at three different ages by Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs and Beth Malone.  All are wonderful.

My only problem with the show is composer Jeanine Tesori’s music.  Though there are some terrific, memorable tunes (especially “Ring of Keys,” which Sydney Lucas killed at this year’s Tony Awards ceremony), there’s not a lot to hum here.  But I’m not sure hummability is the point when you are trying to tell a story like this one.  Humanity is. And that you will find during every moment of Fun Home.

If you just read the above review of Fun Home, and are seeking a significantly less queer show to take your mother or grandmother to, An American in Paris will probably fit the bill.  Sure, you – hip, young (even if only at heart), trend-seeking – will likely be bored by the very conventional choreography, the cheesy story (three guys all in love with the same girl!) and the very ordinary (though flashy) sets and costumes.  On the other hand, it’s hard not to be moved by the incredible music of George Gershwin or by the skill of the dancers.

But given the many other amazing shows currently on the board both on Broadway and off, even Grandma will forgive you for passing on this.
New York, Day Two:  “Hamilton” 
I think it’s fairly safe to say there has never been a musical quite like Hamilton, now (and for the foreseeable future) playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street.  Yes, In The Heights first exposed us to creator/star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical and lyrical talents, and showed audiences were willing to pay Broadway prices for hip-hop musical style. Many shows have experimented with non-traditional casting (Patina Miller as the Leading Player in Pippin, Norm Lewis as the first African-American Phantom of the Opera).  But Hamilton, the story of founding father (and duel victim) Alexander Hamilton brings the passionate street sensibility of hip-hop to a historically-accurate portrayal of Hamilton’s life and contributions to this country with such verve that you care nothing about the skin color of George Washington and Aaron Burr and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson – but care very, very deeply about the men they were.If you want a taste of what Hamilton is about, have a peek at this video of Miranda performing what, six years later, would become the opening number, an amazing rap anthem that establishes Hamilton’s character in just over three minutes.

The show is marvelously entertaining, especially in act two, once the young republic has gained its freedom and the political battles begin.  The rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson over the establishment of the Federal Reserve bank is epic – and epically-unexpected.  It’s Schoolhouse Rock meets 8 Mile, complete with Jefferson dropping the mic.  “Don’t modulate the key to not debate with me.”

Though the story is a little muddy in parts of act one, I’m willing to forgive it, given it was a chaotic time in history, and it’s a complex story being told.  Revolutions are rarely clean.

I’m especially prone to forgive, given that the rest of the production is flawless.  The set by David Korins is massive: huge beams framing a giant space, with a second level walkway, moveable stairs, and a large turntable stage.  The lighting grid created by Howell Binkley comprises more instruments that I believe I’ve seen – and that includes more than one U2 stadium concert.  He uses them all to create gorgeous, energetic, intimate tableau – whatever the story requires.

The choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler (who also did Miranda’s In The Heights) is contemporary without being experimental. Whether you are focused on a single performer or the ensemble as a whole, there’s always something compelling and beautiful to look at.  

The performers are pretty much equally brilliant, but if anyone steals the show, it’s Jonathan Groff as King George III, whose pouting and foot-stomping gets most of the loudest laughs.  Though the line that got the biggest applause of the night was when one of the characters says “Immigrants – we get the job done.”  (Hamilton himself being an immigrant, born and raised in the Caribbean.)

I suppose if you absolutely hate hip-hop rhythms and lyrical patterns, you could find a reason not to love Hamilton.  (But if you love hip-hop, you’ll hear references to famed rap and hip-hop performers from Grandmaster Flash to Eminem.)

My only other caveat – other than to say “Go!” – is that I wished I had read Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton (upon which the musical is based) before I entered the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night.  I believe it could only have enhanced my experience of a brilliant theatrical event.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

New York, Day One: "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey"

As one might expect from the title, the primary character in this 70-minute play is Leonard Pelkey.  Don’t expect, however, to see Leonard onstage.  For even though this is his story and every other character spends most of their time talking about him, he never appears.  For as we learn in the first few minutes, Leonard Pelkey disappeared, ten years before the action – such as it is – begins.

Leonard’s story is told in flashbacks, primarily by the small-town police officer who investigated the missing persons case, but also by Leonard’s adoptive mother and sister, and an array of other townsfolk whose lives were changed forever by knowing a little boy who knew just how different he was, and that his small town would never really accept him, but never shied from being exactly who he was.

The script sometimes veers into cliché and the story it lays out is relatively simple: the mystery being that there is really no mystery here.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the mundane nature of what ultimately happened to Leonard is a powerful reminder of how casual cruelty can be.  But in the opening moments, the story is set up as being a cold case that we expect will be reopened in the present.  Spoiler alert: this doesn’t happen, we simply get the story of what happened in an investigation that opened and closed over the course of several weeks a decade in the past.

Still, Leonard – though we never meet him – is a compelling character: a 14-year old boy who refuses to be anything less than what he is, even though it means daily teasing and abuse.  He’s the boy who insists that the women who frequent his mother’s beauty shop that they “simply must, must, must have” a little black dress in their closets.  “He said it was de rigeur,” one of the shop’s clients says.  “I think that’s French for ‘must have.’”

Perhaps the best reason to see The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is the performance by James Lecesne, who plays every one of the dozen or so characters. Lecesne physically inhabits a wide range of people – a sharp but somewhat jaded 16-year old girl, a fey British theater school owner, a video game obsessed teenage boy, a snoopy older woman – imbuing all with physical and emotional characteristics and distinctive voices that let us know exactly who we’re listening to in every moment.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is playing at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd Street (between 9th and 10th), New York. Tickets are on sale for shows through November 1.