musical theatre

New ‘Amazing Grace’ Podcast

Sara welcomes playwright Karl O’Brian Williams to discuss the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace. We talk about how the show’s portrayal of race and slavery fits into a broader history of race on stage, and whether its ‘conversion’ story is worth watching.

For more information on Karl O’Brian Williams, check out Braata Productions (Artistic Director) and a staged reading of his play The Boys on the Hill at Culture Project July 31. Also, read his review of Amazing Grace on Hi! Drama.

‘Manuel Versus The Statue of Liberty’ Gets Tough on Immigration

You know you’re in for something special when you see Lady Liberty, dressed in mint leggings, jersey shorts, and high-tops, duke it out over immigration rights and citizenship status. Here, her opponent is a bright-eyed high school senior with a propensity for ancient languages and philosophy. He just happens to be an illegal immigrant from Santo Domingo, born just two years before his mother moved to the United States.

Manuel Versus The Statue of Liberty, written by Noemi de la Puente and David Davila, is an entertaining musical with pedagogical purpose. Most Americans know very little about the incredibly lengthy and complicated citizenship process, and many immigrants never hear about their personal rights, even as non-citizens. We are blissfully unaware of the plight of millions of people living on blocks or in our apartment buildings, and the writers of this new musical make sure that we start paying attention. There’s even a song called “Immigration 101,” in which Immigration service agents rap battle about visas, green cards, and regulations.   Unfortunately, some of the plot’s most important information gets buried under fast-moving rap lyrics (some of the ensemble couldn’t keep up with the pace) or substituted by more sentimental songs.How would Manuel’s college education attract the attention of immigration police? How can he afford Princeton without financial aid? Likewise, I found myself feeling disappointed by the vagueness and cliches (“The American dream is the American nightmare”) built into a large portion of the lyrics.

Gil Perez-Abraham (left), Shakina Nayfack (center), and the cast of Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. Photo by Shira Friedman
Gil Perez-Abraham (left), Shakina Nayfack (center), and the cast of Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty. Photo by Shira Friedman

De la Puente and Davila’s songs blend genres and styles in thrilling and unique ways. With each song’s introduction, I never knew what to expect, but always felt pleasantly surprised. There’s Manuel’s dream ballad, “Sueno,” sung with deep authenticity by Gil Perez-Abraham, a youthful sparkle in his eye.  Manuel’s mother, which Tami Dahbura plays with a loving conviction that reminds me of my own Hispanic grandmother, undoubtedly performs the best numbers, including the flavorful “No Se Puede” and the stirring “Ave Maria.” Shakina Nayfack nails Lady Liberty’s comedic timing, but struggles slightly with the musical numbers.

An appealing musical with a great heart and an important message, Manuel Versus the Statue of Liberty has great things in store for it. With a little more precision in writing and production, it is sure to win over audiences.

NYMF 2015: “Acapella” Removes the Instruments but Keeps the Heart

The New York Musical Theatre Festival has taken over the city once more with its program of full productions, workshops, and concerts of new and up-and-coming musicals. Acapella, which is now playing at PTC Performance Space, is one of the shows that kicked off the festival on Wednesday. Acappella NYMF logo

Like its namesake, Acapella is a musical with no instruments, as the singers use their voices to provide the instrumentation. Using the music of Christian vocal group The Acappella Company, Acapella follows Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick) from his start as a gospel singer to superstardom in a boy band. When he returns home to his southern small town, Jeremiah remembers his love for gospel music and a more normal life. But the people Jeremiah left behind, best friend Simon (Anthony Chatmon II) and former sweetheart Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) aren’t ready to welcome Jeremiah with open arms.

Top: Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) and Jeremiah (). Bottom: Simon () and Jeremiah (). Photo by John Keon.
Top: Sarah (Darilyn Castillo) and Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick). Bottom: Simon (Anthony Chatmon II) and Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick). Photo by John Keon.

Acapella bills itself as a musical about “finding your own voice,” and in some ways, it already has. The musical’s winning features are its rich catalog of music and insanely talented cast. The Acapella Company’s songs have both complexity and spirit as they course through the production. And the ensemble creates an acapella team so dynamic that it will impress Pitch Perfect fans. Some highlights include Katrina Rose Dideriksen’s insanely powerful belt, Rachel Gavaletz’s smoky alto, Garett Turner’s smooth bass, and Janelle McDermoth’s sickeningly good beat-boxing. The result is so good I had to stop myself from dancing in my seat.

Photo by John Keon.
Photo by John Keon.

Like many jukebox musicals though, Acapella‘s book could use more development. While the love triangle between Jeremiah, Sarah, and Simon is clear to see, I wish there was more to the characters’ relationships. I am also curious to know how acapella gospel music has become such a staple to their small town that multiple groups (including a hilarious subplot with Jeremiah’s aunt and her old singing quartet) are participating in the local concert. If Acapella dug a little more deeper into its setting and characters, then it could have a story that matches its music.

Acapella runs through July 14th. For more information, click here.

The Perplexing Plots and Performances of “It Shoulda Been You”

It Shoulda Been You, now playing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, has all the ingredients to make a Broadway hit for the Discerning Theatergoer™:

  • An original new musical not based on a preexisting film/novel/group of pop songs? Check!
  • A Broadway directorial debut by distinguished actor and Discerning Theatergoer™ fave David Hyde Pierce. Check!
  • A glorious ensemble cast filled with Tony Award winners (Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris), Tony nominees (Montego Glover), and future Tony nominees (Lisa Howard and Sierra Boggess)? Check times a million!
Lisa Howard and Sierra Boggess - Photo by Joan Marcus
Future Tony Award nominees Lisa Howard and Sierra Boggess. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

But sometimes, even the finest ingredients don’t add up to an appetizing dish. Despite its talented creative team, It Shoulda Been You has some issues that makes the production difficult to swallow.

First, the set-up: It Shoulda Been You spans the wedding day of Rebecca (Sierra Boggess) and Brian (David Burtka). Sierra’s older sister Jenny (Lisa Howard) is happy for Rebecca, but she isn’t so happy with her mother’s (Tyne Daly) constant comments on her weight and lack of a boyfriend. When Marty, Rebecca’s ex-boyfriend, finds out about the wedding, he’s determined to stop it at any cost. He’s not the only one, as both the mother-of-the-bride and the mother-of-the-groom (Harriet Harris) disapprove of the marriage–and each other. Meanwhile, Rebecca and Brian are hiding a secret that would shock the entire wedding party if it came out.

This all sounds like the plot of a fun musical… if it were the only plot. But there are several other narrative threads in It Shoulda Been You that are begun but never fully developed. Why does Brian’s austere father have random impulses to break out into dance? How does the wedding planner magically anticipate every character’s needs? (And no, his response of having years of experiences working weddings does not cut it.) If all of these story-lines weren’t enough, It Shoulda Been You also hinges on a plot twist that, while certainly jaw-dropping, doesn’t have complexity and specificity.

Sadly, the same can be said for the rest of the musical. The music and lyrics are not particularly memorable and at times sound dated. The set also does not look modern, resembling a hotel that hasn’t updated its decor since 1996. The production’s few references also seem like they were taken from the pop culture archives: Marty admits that one of his weaknesses is watching infomercials, while one of the wedding planning issues centers on including paninis at the reception. Yes, you read that right. Paninis.

Dueling In-Laws. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Dueling In-Laws. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The one aspect of the show that doesn’t falter is its cast. Tyne Daly and Harriet Harris are both scene-stealers as monsters-in-law, while Sierra Boggess and David Burtka make an adorable bride and groom. Montego Glover shines in her only number. And with strong acting and a voice to match, Lisa Howard shows how amazing she is at leading a musical. (I hope we get to see her do it again, and soon.)

It Shoulda Been You definitely should have been better. Still, even with all of its weak elements, it provided an entertaining night at the theatre. But the Discerning Theatergoer may be less than pleased–and they’d be right.

For more info on It Shoulda Been You, click here.

Listen to our podcast for more thoughts on It Shoulda Been You.

Podcast 4 on ‘Something Rotten!’

Come fangasm with us.

For more thoughts on the show, read our review!

Vanessa Hudgens Stars as “Gigi” on Broadway

When it was announced that Gigi would be returning to Broadway, I was intrigued. I had semi-fond memories of seeing the original 1958 musical film, which features beautiful Parisian scenes, but also has a troubling plot, with a girl  being molded into courtesan for a much older man. It also has one of the creepiest songs known to musical theatre:

No. Just… no. (Source: Tumblr)

When it was also announced that Vanessa Hudgens would take on the titular role, I was even more intrigued. I honestly haven’t seen her in much since her High School Musical days, other than her annual pilgrimage to Coachella, the music festival of fringe-laden clothes and hair feathers. I wondered how this production would fare, and whether Hudgens actually had the chops to pull it off.

Gigi takes place in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. While romance is alive in the city of love, marriage is not, and wealthy men and their beautiful mistresses are often the talk of the town. Gigi (Hudgens) belongs to a family of courtesans, and receives lessons from her Aunt Alicia (Dee Hoty). Gigi’s grandmother Mamita (Victoria Clarkson) wants Gigi to enjoy being a child as long as possible, insisting that she remain innocent. But when close friend of the family Gaston (Corey Cott) cuts ties with his latest mistress, Aunt Alicia sees an opportunity for Gigi that even Mamita can no longer ignore. When Gigi comes into her own, she has to decide whether becoming Gaston’s mistress is enough for her happiness.

Before/After. (Photos by Joan Marcus)

Despite my misgivings, Gigi is an entertaining night at the theatre. The performances are all nuanced and engaging, from Dee Hoty’s queenly Aunt Alicia to Victoria Clarkson’s sweet Mamita. I was also charmed by Corey Cott as Gaston, and much preferred his younger man-about-town version of the character. It helped make his pairing with young Gigi more palatable and less like a musical redux of Lolita. Vanessa Hudgens did a fine job as Gigi, capturing the character’s gamine essence with energy and charm. (Even better, she sings and dances the part as well as a regular stage actress.) My one quibble with her performance was her diction: it’s as if she was given a note to enunciate her lines, resulting in every “t” to be overemphasized. Other than her “t” issue, Vanessa Hudgens was a wonderful Gigi, and she can definitely hold her own on a Broadway stage.

photo (1)
Mamita (Victoria Clark), Gigi (Vanessa Hudgens), and Gaston (Corey Cott). (Photo by Margot Schulman)

While the revival Gigi works overall, I wonder who the intended audience is. Of course, the ideal answer for Broadway is everyone, but that doesn’t quite work for this production. General audience members and musical theatre lovers may not be wowed by Gigi, as its story-line and score tread a well-worn path made by a more beloved musical by Gigi creators Lerner and Loewe. The New York Times review of the original film said it best, when it called Gigi “a musical film that bears such a basic resemblance to My Fair Lady that the authors may want to sue themselves.” Even fans of the original Gigi film may not be pleased with a former Newsie playing Gaston, a character who is supposed to be pushing forty. Nor would they enjoy a former Disney starlet who still reads more as a contemporary American than a European girl at the turn of the 20th century. And while fans of Vanessa Hudgens will delight at seeing her take a starring turn on a Broadway stage, I wonder if they will be as entranced by the older source material. One thing is certain though: Vanessa Hudgens has much more to offer as a performer, and I look forward to seeing what other things she could do.

For more thoughts on the show, listen to our podcast!

“Seoul of Broadway” @ Joe’s Pub

“Be the change you want to see.” — It’s a phrase that often gets thrown at artists of color when they point out the obvious lack of diversity in their field. Though the sentiment is over-simplistic, there is great value in artists creating the diverse work that is so desperately needed. That value was shown in Seoul of Broadway, a benefit concert at Joe’s Pub that showcased and celebrated the work of Korean and Korean-American musical theatre writers.

Gen Parton Shin, Daniel J Edwards, Lynn Craig, and Christine Lee performing “Let It Turn Blue.”

Highlights included “In My Dress,” a sweet song performed by Ali Ewoldt about a circus sideshow performer who feels beautiful in the dress she wears. Another was “Let It Turn Blue,” a hilarious number in which actress Christine Lee plays a teenage girl awaiting the results of her pregnancy test. The night closed off with a bang, when Lynn Craig performed “Open Your Eyes.” In the song, a Yale professor encourages her student to follow his passions. If only all college professors could inspire their students by belting an F like a boss.

Lynn Craig performing “Open Your Eyes.”

I was also impressed by how different all the musicals were. Fantasy elements featured in three musicals, while the myth of Persephone and Hades was the focus of another. There were contemporary musicals dealing with young people finding their place in the world, and others where characters were contemplating their death. There was even one song that was performed entirely in Korean.

To see such a wide breadth of narratives, written and performed by artists we often don’t see represented, wasn’t just a testament to their talent. Seoul of Broadway was also an excellent preview of what’s to come in musical theatre.

Clockwise from bottom left: Daniel J Edwards and Q Lim performing “Together We Will Go” from Elementals, Catherine Cheng Jones performing “Candy Dad” from Missing Parents, and Ali Ewoldt performing “In My Dress” from Julia Pastrana: The Monkey Woman of Sinaloa.

For more information about Seoul of Broadway, click here.

“Honeymoon in Vegas” Brings Fun, Farce, and Fourth-Wall Breaking to Broadway

Sometimes, Broadway producers decide they need to turn a long forgotten movie into a musical. To do so, they usually rope in talented composers and lyricists to cobble together some songs.  And to really seal the deal, they hire someone famous (anyone famous, it seems) to entice ticket buyers and make theatergoers wonder: can so-and-so really pull it off?

Honeymoon in Vegas, now playing at the Nederlander Theatre does all of the above, and succeeds so well you almost forget all the times Broadway has gotten it wrong. Based on the 1992 film, Honeymoon in Vegas has music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (our very own 21st-century Sondheim) and stars American sweetheart Tony Danza. It’s a complex equation, but one that makes a fantastic musical. Let me count the ways:

1) The storyline is perfect for a madcap musical.

Honeymoon in Vegas begins with a silly premise: that Jack (Rob McClure) can’t marry his long-suffering girlfriend Betsy (Brynn O’Malley) because his mother (Nancy Opel) cursed him on her death bed. When Betsy confesses that she isn’t sure if she can stay in the relationship without commitment (“Anywhere But Here”), Jack decides that they’ll elope in Vegas. But when high-rolling gambler Tommy (Tony Danza) sees that Betsy looks just like his deceased wife, he’ll do anything to break up the engagement.

Yes, this is the plot of the show. It relies on weird coincidences, family curses, and some good old-fashioned sexism. (No, Tony Danza, “stealing” a woman from another man like a prize farm animal is bad, and you should feel bad.) But those ridiculous elements make up an excellent farce that would have Moliere laughing in his powdered wig. Not only does Honeymoon in Vegas (with a book by Andrew Bergman and direction by Gary Griffin) have impeccable comedic timing, but it also has well developed characters whose actions always have logical reasons. Even better, they aren’t afraid to point out how wacky things are getting. When Betsy spurns Jack to spend a weekend with Tommy, she does it out of anger for Jack’s continuing hesitance to be married. She also points out to Tommy that this is a “crazy arrangement,” aware of the unusual circumstances she’s experiencing.

A troupe of parachuting Elvises, providing more unusual circumstances and a rousing eleven o’clock number.

What makes Honeymoon in Vegas even more complex and enjoyable is its awareness of the audience. In “I Love Betsy,” Jack sings, “I like Broadway (once a year),” a fun aside for theatergoers. Later in the show, while Tommy is singing and dancing in front of a golden curtain, his henchman (Matthew Saldivar) enters and looks up confusingly at the the glitzy set piece. This doesn’t stop him from joining the number and singing in perfect harmony, though.

I mean, who could resist the allure of a musical number?

2) Jason Robert Brown can do commercial oh-so-well.

Known for writing heart-wrenching musicals like Parade, The Last Five Years, and most recently The Bridges of Madison County, Jason Robert Brown is the widely known as the musical writer who makes you cry.

This is what Jason Robert Brown does to his characters. (Source: Daily Mail UK)

I had wondered how Jason Robert Brown was going to handle the music and lyrics to Honeymoon in Vegas, a story that doesn’t resemble his usual work. As it turns out, he’s ace at it, from catchy up-tempo numbers like “I Love Betsy” and “Friki-Friki” to sweeter fare like “You Made the Wait Worthwhile.” There’s even a “classic” JRB song in the mix (and of course, it’s my favorite): “Anywhere But Here,” Betsy’s soaring solo where she needs more from her relationship with Jack. Honeymoon in Vegas has one of the best original scores Broadway has seen in a long time, and I look forward to seeing what else Jason Robert Brown has up his composer and lyricist sleeves.

3) Tony Danza and the cast are incredibly charming.

Now an amazingly written and directed musical is all well and good, but you don’t have actors who can sell it, it can still fall flat. Luckily, the cast of Honeymoon in Vegas has talent and charisma for ages. Rob McClure (my new Broadway crush), is adorable as hapless Jack, bringing boundless energy into the role. Brynn O’Malley is definitely enjoying herself as Betsy, and it shows. She tries to be calm throughout the madness, but sometimes she can’t help having fun, downing drinks and trying on wedding dresses in “Betsy’s Getting Married.”

And Tony Danza, the celebrity in our Broadway production equation, is a perfect addition to the show. He can sing. He can act. He also wows the audience in a tap number, and delights them when playing the ukelele. While he does it all, it’s with a knowing smile, the consummate showman throughout his performance.

Tony Danza, being charming as hell.

So if you haven’t seen Honeymoon in Vegas, you totally should. Broadway’s made a gamble that might just pay off.

Five Ways to Heal After The Sound of Music Live

SOML left a gaping hole in our musical theatre hearts. Here’s how to mend it so we’re all good and happy again.

1) As if watching the Mother Superior singing “My Favorite Things” with Carrie Underwood (right after she tells Carrie Underwood that she shouldn’t sing in the convent BTW) wasn’t bad enough, then NBC had to go ahead and cut “Confidence.” But then again, would we have wanted to add it to the long list of songs Carrie Underwood butchered? Watch she-should-have-been-casted Broadway singer Sierra Boggess sing “Confidence.”

2) Christopher Plummer may not be fond of his role as the original Captain Von Trapp, but we sure are. Let’s just flip through Tumblr and Google photos of young (and old, imho) Christopher Plummer.

Me? Yes? Now? Immediately? OKAY

3) In a similar vein-

Julie Andrews. That’s really all that needs to be said.

But I’ll say more, just in case that name doesn’t strike horniness adoration into your wounded hearts. EVERYTHING this queen has done is FANFRAKKINTASTIC and in case you need a reminder of it, watch the original SoM, or Victor Victoria, or Mary Poppins, or her recent Colbert Report interview, or even the Princess Diaries. Or just enjoy gifs of her throwing shade on everything and anything.

4) Laura Benanti’s and Christian Borle’s Inner Monologue Before the Show Aired: “Yes! NBC has been kind enough to resuscitate our television careers!”

Laura Benanti’s and Christian Borle’s Inner Monologue After the Show Aired: “Never again, NBC! Never again!”

Type either one of those actors names into Youtube, and just watch. There’s a 99% chance that whatever you pull up will be golden.

5) Remember that while the show ultimately stunk, it did pull in over 18.5 million viewers. And hey, NBC decided to air a live musical for three hours in their prime broadcast schedule instead of their usual repeats of The Voice, and that’s a huge plus for culture. Let’s hope the huge ratings convince television networks to take chances on shows like this more often.

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