Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway

Eclipsed

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s seering play about 4 women living in captivity during Liberia’s second civil war, is ultimately about power: those who have it, those who don’t, and those who will do anything to get it. It’s a brilliantly written and acted ensemble production that shines a light on important international human rights issues—well worth checking out before it ends its Broadway run on June 19 at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. The 5-woman cast, performing together in productions both Off-and on Broadway, are a seamless unit of talent, power, and grace.

When the play begins we find 2 women living in squalor in a barely furnished, bullet-riddled hut. We learn they have been kept in captivity, as sexual and domestic slaves, for so long that the maternal older woman known simply as “Wife #1” (Saycon Sengbloh), has no idea how long she’s been there or exactly how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), heavily pregnant, is clearly the second banana in this circumscribed world—the less powerful among the powerless. Then, a surprise: a third woman (understudy Ayesha Jordan, at the performance I saw, in for the Tony-nominated, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o) appears from under a large wash tub. She is a gangly 15-year-old girl, kept hidden by the other women to prevent her from falling victim to their fate of sexual servitude to the (offstage) man they refer to as the “C.O.” However, their efforts prove futile: once the girl steps outside the safety of the hut to urinate, she is immediately grabbed and raped by the C.O., becoming Wife #4. The Girl, who grew up in the city, is different from the other women. She has had the benefit of an education and knows how to read and write. Having been forced from her home only recently, she is still able to dream of a life as a constitutional lawyer.

Anyone paying attention will wonder what became of Wife #2. Where is she? Wife #1 speaks of her scornfully. Wife #3 defends her as much as she dares. Our questions are answered when Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) shows up at the hut with an offering: a huge bag of rice for the women. Despite Wife #3’s entreaties, Wife #1 wants no part of either Wife #2 or the rice. We learn that Wife #2 has chosen the only available route out of her sexual enslavement: she has become a fighter in the rebel army. Taut, jittery, and wiry, dressed in fashionable jeans, a machine gun slung across her body, she is all swagger and tough-girl posturing.

As the action unfolds, we see that each character has her own definition of power. For Wife #1, power means being top dog in the small compound, where she rules the roost (or at least Wife #3). Wife #3 gains power by being the C.O.’s favorite sexual plaything and by carrying his unborn child. Wife #2, who now uses the fighter name “Disgruntled,” finds her power by acting like the brutal men who captured and abused her. She convinces The Girl to reclaim her own power by joining her in battle. The Girl realizes too late that to avoid being a victim, she must now become the victimizer, capturing other young girls for the rebel men to use and abuse. Wife #2 rationalizes the brutality, telling her: “The men are beasts and beasts demand to be fed. It’s either you or them.” At the play’s end, The Girl stands frozen, bearing two radically different symbols of power: a gun in one hand, a book in the other. Which will she choose?

A fifth woman, Rita (Akosua Busia), makes occasional visits to the rebel compound. She is a cultured, educated women dressed all in white who is part of a group of women peace activists dedicated to ending the violence. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Rita tries to convince Wife #1 that a better life awaits her. She asks Wife #1 about her past, but the memories of her previous life are too painful for Wife #1 to contemplate; she cannot bear even to speak her real name aloud. After much prodding, she finally whispers it to Rita, who shows the illiterate Wife #1 how to spell it out using a stick in the dirt. “Think about what you can be,” she urges. Wife #1 responds despairingly: “I don’t know who I am.” The contrast between the 2 women is striking: Rita’s power lies in her ability to envision a better future through her peacekeeping work, while Wife #1 believes her only power lies in her place within the compound hierarchy.

During her time as a soldier, The Girl takes the name “Mother’s Blessing,” in memory of her own mother—ironic since she is now responsible for wrenching daughters away from their mothers, condemning them to live under unspeakable tyranny. The significance and importance of one’s name is a recurring theme in Eclipsed. As Rita tells Wife #1: “You must never lose your name.” To illustrate the power of names, the cast dedicates each performance to the abducted schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria and to all abducted girls around the world (#knowhername). At the end of the show cast members (and sometimes guests, who have included Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem) announce the names of 2 missing girls and ask the audience to repeat the names out loud. It is a powerful and chilling moment that brings home the reality that the events depicted in Eclipsed continue today, even as the audience sits comfortably in their seats at the Golden Theatre. It is a prime example of how theatre can not only entertain, but be a call to action.

Zimbabwean playwright (Familiar, In the Continuum) and actress (known for her role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) Gurira developed Eclipsed at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. The play was later staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway. The production will move to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, California for a limited engagement in Spring 2017. With powerful direction by award-winning South African Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed is the first Broadway production with an all-female cast, director, writer, and production team (except for set & costume designer Clint Ramos).

Eclipsed was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, including Best Play. On June 12, 2016, Clint Ramos won the Tony for Best Costume Design for his work on the play.

Eclipsed continues at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. through June 19.
Opening night: March 6, 2016; first preview: February 23, 2016.

For more information: http://www.eclipsedbroadway.com/

Backstage after the show!

Eclipsed & Shari

Theatre Review: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible with Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw

Crucible Playbill

It’s said that when The Crucible was first performed on Broadway, in late January 1953 at the Martin Beck Theater, Arthur Miller deemed the production “too stylized and cold.” One wonders what the playwright would make of his work’s newest incarnation, now in a limited run at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Directed by the much-lauded Dutch theatre/opera director Ivo Van Hove (who also helmed the recent hit Broadway revival of Miller’s A View from the Bridge) this stark and stripped down Crucible is certainly stylized—Jan Versweyveld’s sparse set represents no specific place or time—and perhaps a bit cold as well. But the realistic, bone-chilling performances, underscored by Philip Glass’s ominous original score, create an unforgettably powerful and disturbing theatrical experience. Miller’s cautionary tale of evildoing in the guise of piety remains as potent and relevant today as when The Crucible made its debut over 60 years ago (especially given the current presidential election cycle, where talk of “bringing America back” and fear of immigrants and religious minorities dominates the debates).

The curtain rises on a prelude of sorts: a group of schoolgirls, dressed in matching uniforms, sit in a classroom, their backs to the audience. We hear children’s voices singing. The curtain closes on this glimpse of normalcy, then quickly rises again to reveal a different scene, where young Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) lies ill and immobile. We learn that another girl, Ruth Putnam, is similarly afflicted. From this point on, the normal, rational world no longer exists. Betty’s father, the local Reverend (Jason Butler Harner) is worried. He came upon Betty and some other girls dancing (a sin) in the woods (perhaps naked, an even greater sin) and he fears witchcraft may be to blame. He has summoned another preacher, John Hale (an excellent Bill Camp), an expert in demonic possession, to help make a proper diagnosis. A voice of reason, the elderly, highly respected Rebecca Nurse (a heart-breakingly effective Brenda Wehle), tries to rein in his fears, before things get out of hand, warning Reverend Parris, “There is prodigious danger in the seeking of loose spirits. I fear it, I fear it. Let us rather blame ourselves.” But it’s too late: the game’s afoot; the witch hunt is irrevocably under way.

As the ringleader of the girls, Parriss’s niece Abigail Williams, Saoirse Ronan is a terrifying piece of work. Slender, blonde, and pretty, she is a prime example of the perils of judging a book by its cover: this outwardly sweet young thing is the embodiment of a persuasive, sinister evil. The truth is that Abigail had the girls accompany her to the woods, along with the Barbadian servant Tituba (Jenny Jules) to participate in a ceremony that she hoped would bring about the death of Elizabeth Proctor (the brilliant Sophie Okonedo, who last graced Broadway in her Tony-winning performance in the terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun). Young Abigail had a brief affair with Elizabeth’s husband John (British star Ben Whishaw, in an impressive Broadway debut) while working in their home, and in true “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Abigail is determined to take Elizabeth’s place. Lest any of the girls consider divulging the truth, Abigail bullies them into silence, threatening Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi) and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson, a terrific young actress last seen on Broadway in This Is Our Youth): “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you. And you know I can do it; I saw Indians smash my dear parents’ heads on the pillow next to mine, and I have seen some reddish work done at night, and I can make you wish you had never seen the sun go down!”

What makes this production of The Crucible so affecting is the cast—all top-notch. While the whip-thin Whishaw is not the robust physical type usually cast in the role of John Proctor, the choice seems especially apt in the final scene, when Proctor appears after having spent months in prison. He is filthy, abused, and starved. His scrawny bare back is bloody from torture. As he huddles with his beloved wife, (also filthy; also quite thin), he is a stand in for the ultimate man, Christ, headed toward his martyrdom. Whishaw is a fine, nuanced actor, best known in the UK for his West End stage appearances and in the U.S. for his roles in the James Bond film “Spectre” and TV’s “Criminal Justice.” The scenes between him and the luminous Okonedo are especially poignant. Special mention must also go to Ciarán Hinds’s frighteningly and self-righteously deluded Deputy Governor Danforth (truly chilling), Bill Camp’s evolving turn as the Reverend John Hale, who too late realizes his error in sanctioning the proceedings, and Tavi Gevinson’s wispy, mousy, ill at ease Mary Warren, a downtrodden lass who tries to stand up to the authorities and to Abigail, only to realize that she is no match for any of them.

Although The Crucible is based on real-life characters and events that took place during the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692, Miller wrote the play as a commentary on a more recent—but no less abominable—American witch hunt (one which he personally experienced), the anti-communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Like the actors, writers, and others accused of anti-American activity under McCarthyism, the characters in The Crucible are at the mercy of their accusers. Any person may find himself suddenly accused. And anyone who refuses to “name names” is summarily condemned. Ironically, the only means of survival in the play is to admit one’s “sin” (even though innocent) and to accuse others. In both cases—Salem and the Red Scare—we see a world gone mad, driven by an irrational mob mentality and a perversion of morality as an excuse for barbarism.

In truth, the accusatory characters in The Crucible are driven by base, rather than pious, motives. Abigail lusts after John Proctor and will commit murder to have him. Ann Putnam (Tina Benko) accuses Rebecca Nurse, an upright pillar of the community, of witchcraft because she envies her many healthy children and grandchildren. And Ann’s husband, Thomas (Thomas Jay Ryan) wants Rebecca Nurse’s husband (veteran actor Jim Norton) out of the way so that he can take his land. Lust, envy, and greed—all in the name of piety!

In the final moments of The Crucible, Miller sends a powerful message via John Proctor. Just before he is to be pointlessly put to death, Proctor rails at the imperious judge who has condemned him, along with so many other innocents: “I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth!” As Miller reminds us, the Devil has always walked among us; he’s still here. And he looks a lot like us.

The Crucible plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 17.
For more information.

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

Academy Award-Winner Forest Whitaker Stars in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie

Hughie 2

It’s only fitting that Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie is set in a hotel lobby: the acclaimed playwright was born in a hotel—the Barrett House on Broadway and 43rd Street—a stone’s throw from the Booth Theatre, where his one act, two-hander now plays.

When the audience enters the theatre, an actor (Tony and Drama League Award winner Frank Wood) is already on stage. The character billed simply as “Night Clerk” sits, dreamlike and immobile, at the reception desk in the lobby of a faded New York City hotel. It is the wee hours of a morning in summer, 1928. The richly detailed set (by Tony and Olivier Award-winning designer Christopher Oram), looks like a vintage sepia print photo. A barely readable “out of order” sign hangs on the ornate, long idle, elevator. A neon “Hotel” sign is partially visible through the window. Muffled traffic sounds and subdued lighting add to the mood of quiet, otherworldly unease. In sum, as one character describes it, the place is “as homey as a morgue.”

Eventually, a man trudges through the hotel’s revolving door. He is Erie Smith (Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker) a small-time gambler and big-time drinker who has been out on a weeks-long bender mourning the death of his friend, the recently deceased former desk clerk, Hughie. Like the hotel, Erie’s best days are behind him. He tells Night Clerk that he hasn’t won a bet since Hughie first went into the hospital, lamenting, “When I lost Hughie, I lost my luck.” Erie restlessly circles the hotel lobby like a dog sniffing out a safe place to lie down. He’s stuck between two equally distasteful alternatives—creditors lurking somewhere outside waiting to rough him up, and his lonely hotel room upstairs.

Most of Hughie’s 60-minute running time comprises Erie’s monologue about his glory days, which he desperately wants to reclaim, delivered to the mostly disinterested Night Clerk. Oddly, we learn that the new clerk’s name is, like his predecessor’s, Hughes. Erie tells him, “Yeah, you’ve got that old look like Hughie had.” Or at least, that’s what Erie would like to believe, because Hughie served a vital function for Erie: he was Erie’s mirror. By repeatedly relating self-aggrandizing stories about his successes with gambling and women to Hughie, Erie created a persona that reflected his personal version of the American Dream. When Hughie died, Erie’s self-important vision died along with him. “I lost my confidence,” he tells Night Clerk. “He gave me my confidence.” Now, with Hughie gone, Erie worries that he may be washed up, or even worse, that he, like Hughie, may cease to exist. Without the gullible Hughie as a sounding board, Erie’s illusions (and his courage to go on) may simply crumble into dust.

Because of its short length, Hughie is not staged often. The current production at the Booth is well worth seeing, thanks to its extremely talented, multiple award-winning cast and creative team. It is a definite star vehicle that provides an opportunity for Whitaker to transfer his formidable cinematic talents to the New York stage. Whitaker, who won Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland, has also received acclaim for roles in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Crying Game, and other hit films. In Hughie, the actor uses his large, rangy frame to embody a man who, despite his insistent bravado, is now a shrunken version of his former self. His dandyish three-piece suit seems to hang on his body. And despite his quick smile, he is nervous, ill at ease, and terrified of the future. Whitaker has a natural warmth and charm that serve his character well. His Erie is both believable and touching; as sympathetic as he is pathetic.

Frank Wood, a wonderful New York actor who won Tony and Drama League Awards for his role in Side Man and was last seen on Broadway in Clybourne Park, makes the most of a minor role. His character exists as an audience for Erie—a would-be replacement for his old confidant. As reflected in his presence on stage before the action begins, Night Clerk is more a part of the set than a flesh and blood character.

For Hughie, director Michael Grandage reunites with his Tony-winning design team from the hit play Red. Christopher Oram’s gorgeous set is so detailed and evocative, it almost becomes a third character in the drama. Adam Cork’s brooding original music and sound design and Neil Austin’s muted and affecting lighting design also play a huge part in the play’s success, creating a pervasive, ominous sense of dread and foreboding.

Is O’Neill’s hotel lobby actually Purgatory, a layover between life (the world outside the hotel’s revolving doors) and death (Erie’s room upstairs)? The set prominently features what could easily be regarded as a “stairway to heaven.” And the lead character is named “Erie,” an apt homonym for the play’s “eerie” ambiance. One wonders if Night Clerk is even real. Played with deadpan bemusement by the always excellent Frank Wood, is he perhaps the angel of death, come for Erie? Or just an illusion Erie has created in Hughie’s image in a desperate attempt to survive? Why else would Charlie the Night Clerk share a surname with the departed Hughie of the title? And why, after nearly an hour of polite, almost somnambulant disinterest, does Charlie spring to life, suddenly wildly fascinated (à la Hughie) with Erie’s possible connection to a particular big-time gambler? Only O’Neill can answer these questions, and he passed away in 1953, several years before Hughie’s debut. (He penned Hughie in 1941).

Although Hughie is a slender O’Neill work, compared to his much-lauded epics like Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and Desire Under the Elms, its hotel setting is of particular interest. O’Neill was not only born in a hotel; he also died in one. His own final curtain fell at the Sheraton Hotel in Boston, where his last words were reportedly: “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”

Hughie continues at the Booth Theatre through March 27. For information

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Genius Keeps Hamilton’s Flame Alive

hamilton

“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

That’s the question that opens Lin-Manuel Miranda’s always passionate and often thrilling new musical, which opened August 6 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The “orphan bastard” is of course the show’s namesake, American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Miranda, who wrote Hamilton’s book, music, and lyrics and plays the title role, spends the next 2 hours and 45 minutes answering that question—sometimes brilliantly, sometimes didactically. The short answer, revealed in the show’s opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” is this: “The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder. By being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” (Much like Hamilton’s creator).

So, does Hamilton live up to the hype? Will it change your life (as some viewers have suggested)? The answer, like Hamilton himself, is complicated. As a whole, the show is brilliant—a unique artistic vision translated into a ground-breaking piece of theatre that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Hamilton has its transcendent moments, especially throughout most of Act 1, when Miranda’s narrative and his cast hit the ground running in an epic swirl of energy. The opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” followed by Hamilton’s stirring “My Shot,” and King George’s crowd-pleasing “You’ll Be Back” are a few standouts. However, Act 1 eventually overstays its welcome, unwisely continuing for two additional numbers beyond what feels like a perfect, organic ending—the emotionally stirring “Yorktown.”

Act 2, while engaging, doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, until the show’s plaintive “Finale.” In a hauntingly beautiful performance by the excellent Phillipa Soo as Hamilton’s widow Eliza, we learn that Eliza outlived her husband by 50 years. While dedicated to keeping his memory alive, she became a hero in her own right, founding New York City’s first private orphanage, speaking out against slavery, and raising funds for the Washington Monument.

Alexander Hamilton’s accomplishments are impressive. From humble beginnings as a bastard, then orphaned, child in St. Croix, he rose up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, both during the Revolutionary War and after, helping fight for and establish a new nation. He designed the young country’s financial system, served as the first Secretary of the Treasury, wrote most of the Federalist Papers, founded the Federalist Party, and lobbied for a strong national government. Yet, until Miranda became his PR man, Hamilton’s star was often eclipsed by his peers. Miranda’s opus focuses solely on Hamilton’s story. The rest of the characters, including Hamilton’s lifelong frenemy and eventual killer, Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs, in both roles), and James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) exist only as supporting players. Hamilton is the rock (or rap) star, and Miranda serves him well. He is a luminous performer, emitting a glowing life force that is both mesmerizing and completely authentic. (Javier Muñoz steps into the role at Sunday matinees).

Although Hamilton has been called a hip-hop musical, its songs cover a broad range of musical genres, from hip-hop and rap to R&B, jazz, and even traditional Broadway melodies. For audience members who lack familiarity with the oeuvres of Miranda’s muses, a diverse group that includes The Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Jason Robert Brown, the show’s Playbill provides a handy guide to the classic songs referenced in the show—from LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali” to Brown’s “Nobody Needs to Know” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Modern Major General.” And in what may be a Broadway first, one musical number, “Ten Duel Commandments,” was evidently inspired by Biggie Smalls’ “Ten Crack Commandments.”

Hamilton reunites Miranda’s award-winning In the Heights team, with Thomas Kail at the helm, choreography by Tony Award winner Andy Blankenbuehler, and music direction and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire. The staging has a stylized feel that manages to marry the show’s historical details with its modern music. And David Korins’ wooden, multi-leveled set provides a neutral, barn-like background that never overshadows the actors or the action.

While each member of the non-traditionally cast ensemble gives a fine performance, special mention must be given to Broadway favorite Jonathan Groff, who makes the most of his delightful, scenery-chewing turn as King George. Although his actual time on stage is brief, Groff milks every moment, especially during his rendition of George’s riotously campy, “You’ll Be Back,” wherein he admonishes the revolting colonists by crooning: “You’ll be back, time will tell. You’ll remember that I served you well…And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to show my love.” (Note: Andrew Rannells fills in for Groff through November 29).

Hamilton’s arrival on Broadway (in the same theatre that housed In the Heights) has created colossal buzz. According to The New York Times, the show, which had already broken box office records in its off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre earlier this year, sold $6.5 million in Broadway tickets in its first 11 days of sales, along with an additional $4 million in group sales. It’s currently the hottest ticket on Broadway and it’s a clear front-runner for every upcoming major theatrical award nomination. Preview audiences included President Obama and his daughters as well as Vice President and Mrs. Biden.

Why has Lin-Manuel Miranda, a 35-year-old New York native of Puerto Rican descent, become so fascinated (one might say, obsessed) with a man born over 250 years ago? His Hamilton-mania was first sparked when he read Ron Chernow’s award-winning Hamilton biography. He immediately recognized and related to Hamilton’s life as a classic American immigrant success story. (Miranda has said that Hamilton reminds him of his own father, Luis, who, like Hamilton, left his Caribbean home as a teenager to forge a new life in New York). In Hamilton: An American Musical, Miranda tips his hat to the immigrant’s journey. As the Frenchman Lafayette and his friend Hamilton boast: “Immigrants. We get the job done!” Miranda also clearly admires Hamilton as a prolific writer and brilliant iconoclast who is driven to succeed against all odds—again, a man who sounds a lot like Miranda himself.

The overriding theme of Miranda’s Hamilton is, “Who tells your story?” In the show’s finale, Eliza considers her husband’s legacy: “Every other Founding Father story gets told. Every other Founding Father gets to grow old. And when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?”

Fortunately for Mr. Hamilton (and Broadway audiences), a young New Yorker, also from immigrant roots, has made it his mission to keep Hamilton’s flame alive. By creating this passionate, ground-breaking, completely modern work of art, Lin-Manuel Miranda has made history in his own right.

For more information about the show: Hamilton

This review originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

Broadway Musical Recommendations Tailored Just for YOU

Broadway Musicals 2015

Wondering what show you should see tonight (or next week)? Here’s Shari on the Aisle’s guide to help you decide which Broadway musical(s) to see right now, based on your personal preferences. Read the “YOU” descriptions below, choose the one that best represents you, then go see a show!

Keep in mind: this list is far from exhaustive. With the Broadway Spring season well under way, there are abundant choices for both the occasional and frequent theatregoer. The following suggestions are culled from some of the newest shows. You should also consider productions that have been around for a while—those oldies but goodies like “Matilda,” “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Aladdin,” and “Kinky Boots.” (Also keep in mind that Shari on the Aisle hasn’t yet seen all of the new shows, including “Finding Neverland” and “An American in Paris.”

(Stay tuned: I will provide personalized play recommendations in my next post).

YOU: “I want to see a show that has me whistling a happy tune when I leave the theatre.”
GO SEE: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” (Lincoln Center Theatre at the Vivian Beaumont). Nobody does musicals better than Rodgers & Hammerstein—or Lincoln Center Theatre. Under the sure direction of Bartlett Sher, LCT knows how to put on a classy, glossy, top notch show. While “The King and I” isn’t on a par with say, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” (Lincoln Center presented that show, also directed by Mr. Sher and also starring the ebullient Kelli O’Hara, a few years ago and it was sheer perfection), you’ll happily hum along with “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” This production is big and gorgeous. Sure, the book is a bit weak and Ken Watanabe’s accent renders some of the dialogue and lyrics indecipherable. But Ms. O’Hara’s glorious voice and radiant presence, along with the sumptuous costumes and stunning sets, more than make up for these shortcomings. And yes, you will leave the theatre whistling a happy tune and with a song in your heart.

King and I

YOU: I’d rather see a dark, thought-provoking show than a cute piece of fluff. (And I’d make a mad dash to see anything starring the legendary Chita Rivera).
GO SEE: “The Visit” (Lyceum Theatre). A musical that explores the darkness of men’s souls? Yes, and it’s terrific. “The Visit” is a work created by theatre royalty. It’s the last collaboration of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical geniuses behind “Cabaret,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and many other award-winning shows. The book is by Theater Hall of Famer Terrence McNally. And Chita? She’s a national treasure. The plot centers on Claire Zachanassian, the richest woman in the world, and her return to the small town where she spent a miserable childhood. The town has fallen on hard times, and the villagers who once taunted and reviled her believe she has come back to save them. Claire offers to do just that, but with a chilling twist. At 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Visit” is riveting, intelligent theatre. Some of the songs are reminiscent of “Cabaret,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. And Chita’s haunting performance of “Love and Love Alone,” sung while performing a pas de deux with her younger self (Michelle Veintimilla) is well worth the price of admission. You won’t leave this show humming a happy tune, but rather with the satisfying feeling of having experienced brilliance live on stage.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see something that will tickle my funny bone—the sillier the better.”
GO SEE: “Something Rotten” (St. James Theatre, in previews; opening April 22). Did you love “The Book of Mormon” and “Spamalot?” This original new show, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“Book of Mormon”) stars Brian d’Arcy James (“Next to Normal,” “Shrek the Musical”) and Christian Borle (Tony-award winner, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” TV’s “Smash”) as rival playwrights Nick Bottom and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the 1590’s equivalent of a rock star, and Nick and his younger brother Nigel are desperate to come up with a strategy to compete. They turn to soothsayer Nostradamus (a show-stopping Brad Oscar) who encourages them to create the very first musical: “Oohs, aahs, big applause, and a standing ovation. The future is bright, if you can just write a musical!” The first three musical numbers in the show—“Welcome to the Renaissance,” “God, I Hate Shakespeare,” and “A Musical”—are absolutely hysterical, brilliant crowd pleasers. While nothing in Act 2 equals the perfection of those first few songs—and the preview performance I saw went on a bit too long—this show is tons of fun and will be a huge hit. So go back in time around 400 years or so to the Renaissance, “Where everything is new.” You’re guaranteed to have a great time.
Watch a video from the show.

YOU: “I want to see an old-fashioned, beautiful, romantic show.” OR: “I have a tweenage daughter who geeks out over “High School Musical.’”
GO SEE: “Gigi” (Neil Simon Theatre). You’re probably familiar with the Oscar-winning1958 film version of “Gigi” starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Louis Jordan. This “re-launched” (according to the Playbill) Broadway version stars Vanessa Hudgens, the talented young star of Disney’s “High School Musical” films, along with an excellent cast of Broadway veterans (Tony-award winner Victoria Clark, Tony nominees Dee Hoty and Howard McGillin). The new “Gigi” has been sanitized to make it more “G-rated” than the film. For example, the famous song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung by the Chevalier’s aging roué character in the film, is now sung by two women, Gigi’s grandmother and her aunt. And the fact that 15-year-old Gigi (now 18 in the Broadway musical) is being groomed to be a courtesan is never discussed. So no worries, parents: you can feel at ease taking your impressionable tweens and teens to this charming show. Musical highlights include the exuberant Act 1 closing number, “The Night They Invented Champagne” and the tender title song, wistfully sung by Corey Cott, the former “Newsies” star. The costumes and sets are lovely and Hudgens, who has been a performer since the age of 8, is delightful. At the preview performance I attended, teenage girls in the audience repeatedly shrieked with joy (and not just over Hudgens). Adults who like their musicals squeaky clean and romantic will also enjoy this 2-1/2 hour escape to a somewhat mythical La Belle Epoque, where Ms. Hudgens sparkles like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

Gigi

For ticket information, see the shows’ websites as listed above, or visit:
Playbill.com

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Broadway Helper

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES: You’ve Come a Long Way…Maybe

Heidi Chronicles

Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St.

Note: This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Center on the Aisle.

Lead Cast: Elisabeth Moss (Heidi Holland), Jason Biggs (Scoop Rosenbaum), Bryce Pinkham (Peter Patrone), Ali Ahn (Susan Johnston). With: Leighton Bryan, Tracee Chimo, and Elise Kibler

Playwright: Wendy Wasserstein

Director: Pam MacKinnon

Why Heidi Matters

Freud famously asked: “What does a woman want?” The answer hasn’t changed since we first met Heidi Holland back in 1988. Women want to have it all: love, career, and children. Sadly, that quest hasn’t gotten much easier in the 27 years since the play debuted at Playwrights Horizons and then on Broadway. That’s why Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize/Tony winner resonates not just with those old enough to remember the original production, but with a new generation of theatre-goers as well.

Simply put, The Heidi Chronicles is an important play. It tackles complex, macro issues by following one woman’s life over a 20-year span, from her awkward teenage years in the radical 1960s through the rise of feminism and other significant socio/political changes of the 70s, to the older—but perhaps no wiser—80s. What makes The Heidi Chronicles so enjoyable, rather than didactic, is the quality of Wasserstein’s writing. Her heartfelt, light touch creates a play that is serious, yes, but also often funny and always engaging. (An example: when a talk show host asks Heidi if she’s a superwoman, Heidi replies, “Oh, gosh, no. You have to keep too many lists to be a superwoman.”).

The Plot

Feminist art historian Heidi Holland is passionate about her work. The play begins in 1989 at Columbia University, where a self-assured Heidi presents a lecture about the plight of women artists throughout history. She laments one nearly forgotten 16th century painter: “Although Sofonisba was praised in the 17th century as being a portraitist equal to Titian, and at least 30 of her paintings are known to us, there is no trace of her, or any other woman artist prior to the 20th century, in your current art history textbook.” That sets the tone: women must work hard to be heard—and they must also work to amplify other women’s voices.

The next two scenes flash back to 1965 and 1968, when Heidi encounters the two men who will become the great loves of her life. She meets and immediately bonds with Peter Patrone at a high school dance. While her best friend Susan swoons over a boy because he “looks like Bobby Kennedy” and “can twist and smoke at the same time,” Heidi—even at a young age—knows that for her, that’s not enough. Three years later, she meets arrogant magazine editor Scoop Rosenbaum at a McCarthy for President event. Scoop is charming, handsome, and intelligent. So is Peter. Too bad for Heidi: she can’t build a life with either one. Peter is gay and Scoop makes it clear that he needs a wife who will always put his career first. Give him credit: he knows what he wants, and although Scoop loves Heidi in his way, he knows she is not what he needs in a wife.

By play’s end, Heidi doesn’t have it all, but she does have two out of three—a satisfying career and a child. Scoop, about to announce his run for Congress, asks her, “Are you happy?” Her reply: “I’ve never been what I’d call a happy girl. Too prissy. Too caustic.” But there is hope. Perhaps her daughter will find a man (maybe Scoop’s son?) in a world where, “She’ll never think she’s worthless unless he lets her have it all. And maybe, just maybe, things will be a little better. And yes, that does make me happy.”

The Performances

Hopefully, the talented young cast in this excellent new production—led by 32-year-old Elisabeth Moss—will attract a new generation to Wasserstein’s ground-breaking play. Moss, a fine actress best known for her portrayal of Peggy Olson on the hit show Mad Men, is onstage nearly every moment. It’s a challenge to believably portray a character over a 24-year arc, yet Moss delivers the goods, finding the behavioral nuances of a tentative 16-year-old school girl, an accomplished 40-year-old woman, and everything in between.

Jason Biggs, of the popular American Pie movies (who made his Broadway debut at age 12), seems born to play the swaggering journalist/entrepreneur Scoop Rosenbaum, described in Wasserstein’s play notes as “intense but charismatic.” From his first line (to Heidi), “Are you guarding the chips?” to the final scene with his “Heidella,” Biggs is simply perfect. Broadway favorite Bryce Pinkham completes the unconventional love triangle as Heidi’s other life-long love, gay pediatrician Peter Patrone. Pinkham, who left his Tony-nominated role in The Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder to join the Heidi cast, nails his character’s combination of insouciant wit, cynicism, and frustration.

Of particular note is the multi-talented young actress Tracee Chimo, who, always the theatrical chameleon, shines in four supporting roles: Susan’s friend Molly, Betsy, a pregnant woman, 80s talk show host April, and most memorably, Fran, a lesbian in a 1970’s woman’s consciousness-raising group. (Best line: “You either shave or legs or you don’t.”).

Final Thoughts

Before seeing the show (in an early preview) I worried that after all these years, Heidi might feel as dated as a pair of Weejuns and a plaid Villager skirt. Alas, the show remains all too relevant. Today’s women face the same problems as Heidi Holland; they still struggle with the challenge of “having it all.”

Wasserstein’s message is articulated by Fran, speaking to the members of the Huron Street Ann Arbor Consciousness-raising Rap Group: “Every woman in this room has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son, or her boss are much more important than her own. And the only way to turn that around is for us, right here, to try to make what we want, what we desire to be, as vital as it would undoubtedly be to any man. And then we can go out there and really make a difference!”

Wasserstein (the first woman playwright to win a Tony) did just that, in The Heidi Chronicles and her other work. And for that we are gratefully in her debt.

The playwright, whose other plays include The Sisters Rosensweig, Isn’t It Romantic, and An American Daughter, passed away in 2006 of lymphoma, at the age of 55. Like Heidi, she became a single mother late in life, giving birth to daughter Lucy Jane at the age of 48.

Trivia

  • Wasserstein’s brother Bruce (now deceased) has a son named Scoop.
  • Sex in the City connection: Sarah Jessica Parker played three small roles in the original Off-Broadway production of The Heidi Chronicles. Cynthia Nixon played the same roles in the Broadway run, and Kim Cattrall played Susan in the made-for-TV film starring Jamie Lee Curtis.
  • Tracee Chimo and Jason Biggs both have recurring roles on the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black.

Ticket Info: Discounted tickets are currently available at www.playbill.com , TKTS, and TDF (if you are a member).

Thank you, Tracee!

Show WebsiteShari & Tracee

BROADWAY’S MARY-MITCHELL CAMPBELL LEADS “HAPPINESS” PANEL AT THE UN

Happiness

C’mon, everybody, get happy! After such a long, cold, and snowy winter, who couldn’t use a bit more happiness? In celebration of the third annual International Day of Happiness, a group of experts will gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Thursday, March 19 to explore the latest data on happiness.

Sponsored by the NGO Relations and Advocacy Section of the UN’s Department of Public Information, the panel will explore scientifically proven data that demonstrates the inverse relationship that wealth (both national and personal) can have on happiness.

Mary-Mitchell Campbell, the musical director of the new show Finding Neverland and founder of Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP), will moderate the international panel.

Speakers include:

Dr. Kai Ping Peng: Berkeley Professor and founding member of International Positive Education Network (IPEN) will talk about the effect positive education has on children in China.

Dr. Hector Escamilla: President of Tecmilenio University, México, will focus on his work in the Jalisco province that is proving the impact of positive education in one of Mexico’s poorest regions.

Deborah Heisz, COO, Co-Founder, Live Happy, the voice of the Happiness Movement, will discuss the proven impact happiness has in all areas of life—and how it can actually drive personal economic growth.

Alejandro Adler: A member of the International Expert Well-being Group comprising leading experts from distinct disciplines working with the United Nations to create a new development paradigm based on well-being and happiness set to go into effect in 2015.

Ami Dar: Founder of Idealist.org, the #1 resource helping people searching for careers in nonprofits.

Jeffrey Brez: Chief of the NGO Relations and Advocacy Section. He will announce the United Nations MixRadio  #HappySoundsLike campaign that marks the International Day of Happiness 2015.

In addition, Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute (via video) will present a sneak peak at the upcoming World Happiness Report 3, which examines the relationship of happiness to gender through the lens of culture.

The event runs from 11:00 a.m. through 12:30 p.m. and can be live streamed at webtv.un.org

For more information, contact Gabriella DeLuca: gdeluca@kruppnyc.com