theatre review

The Most Memorable Part of ‘Tuck Everlasting’

Sarah Charles Lewis (center) as Winnie. Photo: Greg Mooney

“I could live like this forever!” is the refrain sung nearly all the major characters in Tuck Everlasting, a musical adaptation of the beloved children’s novel. Unfortunately, since last week’s announcement that the show would close on Sunday, this line comes with its share of irony. Tuck’s lifetime was sadly cut short.

The musical tells the story of the Tuck family who become immortal after drinking from a magical brook. They mostly live their lives independently to avoid suspicion, but reunite every decade in their hometown near the brook. A local 11-year old girl named Winnie befriends the youngest Tuck, Jesse, who then brings her home to meet the family.

Fast forward to the end of the show because, frankly, there’s not much worth discussing in between. The Tucks are forced out of town by a conflict with a carnival man who learns their secret. Before leaving, the Tucks tell Winnie to drink the magical brook water and become immortal when she turns 17 (when she is adult enough to possibly have an appropriate relationship with Jesse). At first Winnie seems intent on joining the Tucks forever, but suddenly her resolve disappears.

What follows is a ballet representing the rest of Winnie’s life. Different actresses playing Winnie at different ages come from behind the set and dance out key moments in Winnie’s life: her first love, her marriage, starting a family, and her tranquil old age. But every blessing in Winnie’s life seems to also bring  sadness; with each transition into adulthood, one of Winnie’s relatives pass away. Their deaths are indicated by the characters all holding hands, a somber change in music, and the dead relative releasing Winnie’s hand, with Winnie showing a slight struggle to let them go. The ballet is by far the most rewarding moment of the musical, juxtaposing the joys of life and the struggles of grief with far more nuance and emotion than the rest of the show’s narrative.

The ballet is also so starkly different from the rest of the musical’s more traditional structure. It marks a sudden shift in the priorities of the story. For most of the musical, we were dazzled by the adventures immortality could bring (vis a vis the Tucks) and seeing the central plot through the wondrous eyes of an 11 year old girl. But this story isn’t really about the Tucks. This is about Winnie and what effect this experience will have on her and her family. This is about the duality of life and death in our lives, and how our fears of one can either make us appreciate the other more, or paralyze us from enjoying anything.  If I had the magical brook steps away from my door, as Winnie does, I don’t think there’d be a day I wouldn’t debate going to it.

Perhaps this is precisely why Winnie doesn’t drink from the brook. As she grows up,  we see her so joyfully invested in the life around her, in her family and her town. Death is an inevitability for her, but it doesn’t have to control her. Immortality is only desired by those who fear that their life will not be enough to look back on. But Winnie is not like that. She too much in the throes of life to second-guess her decision at the brook.


Mobile Shakespeare Unit Presents “The Comedy of Errors” with Substance and Style

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is an odd gem of a play. As one of his earlier comedies, it’s rife with MacGuffins, mistaken identities, and slapstick comedy. It also has far too many rhyming couplets and a set up so complex and over-the-top that it resulted in the longest monologue Shakespeare had ever written. Still, The Comedy of Errors is one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve seen more productions of it than any other play.

… And I may have done it in college. Sue me.

The Comedy of Errors is the latest of Shakespeare’s offerings that is now playing at the Public Theater, courtesy of its Mobile Unit program. After spending three weeks touring correctional facilities, shelters, and community organizations all over the five boroughs, the Mobile Unit finishes its run with a residency at the Public. It’s important to keep in mind the Mobile Unit’s mission, as it’s inherent in every part of the production. A cast of seven actors change hatsliterallyto play more than double the amount of characters. Props and costumes are vibrant and detailed, but still minimal and portable enough to change from scene to scene… and performance to performance. (In some cases, certain items, like wigs or a tube of lipstick, don’t even make it past prison security for those stops on the Mobile Unit’s tour.) The cast itself is diverse, with performers of different sizes and shades, resembling a typical New York City street more than, say, that all-white Wars of the Roses revival that just finished playing in London. Though all of these elements are tweaked and trimmed to fit the nature of Mobile Unit’s production, Shakespeare’s narrative still shines through.

Twinning. ( ◀ ▶ X Lucas Caleb Rooney and Bernardo Cubría Photo Credit: Joan Marcus. Matthew Citron, Bernardo Cubria, Flor De Liz Perez, Christina Pumariega, Lucas Caleb Rooney, David Ryan Smith and Zuzanna Szadkowski. - See more at:
Twinning. (Lucas Caleb Rooney as Dromio of Syracuse and Bernardo Cubría as Antipholus of Syracuse. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.)

The Comedy of Errors follows two sets of twins as they are separated at sea. Each Antipholus (Bernardo Cubría), accompanied by his servant Dromio (Lucas Caleb Rooney) end up in different citites; one in Ephesus, and one in Syracuse. When Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse enter Ephesus, they are mistaken for their Ephesian counterparts, causing all kinds of confusion for Adriana (Christina Pumariega), Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, and Luciana (Flor De Liz Perez), Adriana’s sister. The Antiphol-i and Dromio’s are not exempt from the resulting chaos, encountering a scheming courtesan (Zuzanna Swadkowski), a strange abbess (also Zuzanna Swadkowski), and a debt-collecting goldsmith (David Ryan Smith) before they finally discover their brothersand a happy ending, of course.

(Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)
But first: mistaken husbands. (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Like I mentioned earlier, The Comedy of Errors isn’t a perfect play. But it’s a delightful one, and director Kwame Kwei-Armah taps into that fun in this production. Ephesus and Syracuse are now border towns not unlike the southwestern cities along the United States/Mexican border. Leather belts and denim work shirts are staples for the Antiphol-i and Dromio’s, while Adriana and Luciana are visions in turquoise. I was especially amused by Adriana’s Real Housewife-esque styling, complete with a bright orange dress, a bouffant wig, and a bedazzled wine glass. The border town placement is not just a fun design element, though. As the Duchess of Ephesus delivers her ruling on an errant border-crosser, she does so wearing a baseball cap that coyly reads, “Make Ephesus Great Again” and waving a fan that has Donald Trump’s face on it. I don’t think the intent was to make a huge statement on a political issue, but I found it to be a clever way to contextualize the Ephesus/Syracuse conflict with a knowing wink to the audience.

Comedy of Errors Public Mobile Unit Matthew Citron, Bernardo Cubria, Flor De Liz Perez, Christina Pumariega, Lucas Caleb Rooney, David Ryan Smith and Zuzanna Szadkowski. - See more at:
Border Patrol. (David Ryan Smith, Christina Pumariega, Zuzanna Swadkowski, and Flor De Liz Perez. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

The performances are also top-notch. Bernardo Cubría as the Antiphol-i has a constant charisma coursing through his characters, along with a constant state of wide-eyed befuddlement. Christina Pumariega’s Adriana is one of the best I’ve ever seen, combining the reality-show worthy hysterics we typically see in her character with a grounded sense of self that was refreshing to see. Zuzanna Swadkowski is the MVP of playing more than one character, giving every role an amusing specificity.

If these aren’t enough reasons for you to check out The Comedy of Errors (though they should), it’s worth a visit just to hear Shakespearean verse done in a Southern accent. Now that’s an odd gem in of itself.

The Comedy of Errors is now playing through November 22nd. For more information, click here.

PTP/NYC Presents “Scenes from an Execution” @ Atlantic Stage 2

In Scenes from an Execution, now playing as part of Potomac Theatre Project’s summer residency at Atlantic Stage 2, the idea of an artist “selling out” is not a new one. Playwright Howard Barker eschews contemporary artists and their struggle with commodification, focusing his dramatic lens on a Renaissance-era painter–and a middle-aged female one, at that.

Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.
The Artist. (Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

Scenes from an Execution follows Galactia (Jan Maxwell) as she receives a commission from Urgentino, The Doge of Venice (Alex Draper), to depict a recent battle that Venice has won. Urgentino recognizes Galactia’s great talent, but he is concerned that she will be unable to defer to the requirements of the Admiral (Bill Army) or the Cardinal (Steven Dykes). While her lover, fellow painter Carpeta (David Barlow), and her daughter Supporta (Lana Meyer) warn Galactia to adhere to the Doge’s wishes, Galactia remains adamant. She wants to convey the violence and horror of war in her painting, and not even the threat of execution will stop her from realizing her vision.

Lovers. Painters. (L-R: David Barlow as Carpeta, Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh)
Lovers. Painters. (L-R: David Barlow as Carpeta, Jan Maxwell as Galactia. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

Out of all of Barker’s plays that I have seen so far, Scenes from an Execution has been the most approachable. While there are no clear winners, there is an unexpected transfer of sympathies in the play. At first, Galactia’s relentless defense of her artistic integrity appears to be noble, while Venice and the Church seem to be unimaginative tyrants. As the play progresses, however, we see that Galactia’s stubbornness would make Ayn Rand proud… and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Galactia, no matter how noble her ideals are, has been hired to create something that edifies Venice. Moreover, when her loved ones, fellow colleagues, and employers inform Galactia of this repeatedly, she ignores them all for her sole mission. While Galactia’s creative desires should be expressed, they can be shown in another painting–a painting not made on the state’s dime.

Church and State. (L-R: Bill Army as The Admiral, Alex Draper as the Doge. Photo by Stan Barouh)
Church and State. (L-R: Bill Army as The Admiral, Alex Draper as the Doge. Photo by Stan Barouh.)

At one point during the play, Galactia says, “I haven’t time to listen to your motives, and who cares about them anyway? If we all had to understand one another’s motives!” Still, I wish there was a point in the play where the audience could listen to her motivations. It is clear that Galactia thrives on creating works containing anger and violence, but there is little else that explains her connection to her art and why she wants to convey these dark messages. As a result, her willingness to become a martyr for her art devolves into shallow petulance. While Barker appears to understand the appeal of selling out, he leaves the artist’s quest for true expression a mystery.

For more information on Scenes from an Execution, click here.

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.

F.I.T.R. Productions Presents “Gruesome Playground Injuries”

My childhood scrapes and stitches have nothing on Gruesome Playground Injuries, a play by Rajiv Joseph that inflicts physical and emotional wounds on its characters. F.I.T.R. Productions presents a new mounting of the play, which has not been in New York since last year’s production at Second Stage Theatre. Gruesome Playground Injuries follows childhood friends Kayleen (Jaz Zepatos) and Doug (Priyank Rastogi) from their first meeting at the school nurse’s office to their troubled adolescence and adulthood, which often takes place in hospital rooms. Doug physically falls apart after a series of violent incidents, but he never gives up on his friendship with Kayleen, even when Kayleen is determined to break away from it.

At first, it seems that Gruesome Playground Injuries has much to say with its gory concept. The graphic nature of Doug’s wounds, though not fully depicted on stage, are still shocking to hear described. Even more shocking is Kayleen’s reactions to his injuries. She is fascinated by them, even going so far as wanting to touch them. (My inner germaphobe winces at the idea.) But underneath the bloody trappings is just another relationship play where things never quite work out. Kayleen spends the majority of the play pushing Doug away, and it is never explained why that is the case. (A “she’s just not that into you” would have sufficed.) Neither is Doug’s constant need to thrust himself into dangerous situations that nearly cost him his life. While the morbid metaphor is present, more can be said in Gruesome Playground Injuries about relationships and the pain they can cause.

Photo by Chananun Chotrungroj.
Doug (Priyank Rastogi) and Kayleen (Jaz Zepatos). Photo by Chananun Chotrungroj.

Though the source material could use more development, F.I.T.R. makes a capable go of it. Priyank Rastogi plays Doug with so much charm that I wanted to hug him (and offer him a life-time supply of bandages). As Kayleen, Jaz Zepatos takes on the challenge of playing someone who has difficulty connecting to others while imbuing the character with vulnerability. Set design by Laura Moss provides an ominous complexity to the production, as hanging wire forms, wearing the characters’ costumes, line the stage walls. We never quite see the inner workings of Rajiv Joseph’s characters, but we can appreciate how dark and dysfunctional they can be.

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.

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!

Spring 2015 Openings – “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Iowa”

After last year’s Tony controversy involving an even greater lack of representation of women in theatre than usual, New York City has really stepped up this season with plays written by, directed by, or starring women in major roles. Both The Heidi Chronicles, playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, and Iowa, a new work that premiered this week at Playwrights Horizons, follow women’s narratives and their personal and societal connections.

The Heidi Chronicles, written by the late and great Wendy Wasserstein, follows Heidi (a stunning Elisabeth Moss) from her adolescence through adulthood as she grapples with her feminist ideals, pursues a career in studying women artists, and maintains relationships with her friends Susan (Ali Ahn) and Peter (Bryce Pinkham), and her ex-boyfriend Scoop (Jason Biggs). Filled with pop culture references, from Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” to John Lennon’s death, The Heidi Chronicles does not shy away from the cultural milestones experienced by the boomer generation–nor does it demure from honest discussions about feminism (which is now often thought of as a dirty word), an how it has affected Heidi’s life. Still, the play’s content remains as poignant and fresh as it was when it premiered twenty-six years ago. I credit that to Wasserstein’s emotionally rich characters, which have been brilliantly brought to life by the cast and Pam MacKinnon’s direction. Elisabeth Moss brings a constant inner life with Heidi, while Bryce Pinkham wins over the audience with his disarming charm (begin the Tony watch now). And though Heidi’s conflicts still resonate today, I almost wish they didn’t.

How to show your old play’s still got it: cast selfies. (Source:

The Heidi Chronicles originally had its off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, which is now presenting Iowa, a new musical play written by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond. Iowa follows Becca (Jill Shackner), a teenage girl who’s dealing with her crush on her math teacher (Lee Sellars), her not-so-great poetry, and the fact that her mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) is marrying her online boyfriend and moving the two of them to Iowa. That’s about as much plot as I can give you, as Iowa is an absurdist romp that includes Becca’s best friend Amanda’s (Carolina Sanchez) issues with body images and popularity, Sandy’s fixation with the internet and ponies, and a pony actually coming on stage with a musical number of his own.

Madonna and Child. (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Iowa was disappointing for a number of reasons. The first was its billing as a “musical play.” While that was an accurate description of the show’s format, it allows for a confusing mishmash of songs. In some ways it’s a proper musical, primarily with, “I Don’t Know,” song by Becca and her mother. Their duet clearly delineated the characters’ conflicts and provided insight into their thoughts and dysfunctionally functional relationship. Sandy’s solo “Fun!” especially delved deep into her neuroses, which was both a terror and a delight. Meanwhile, other numbers, like the Amanda’s observations about cheerleaders and the pony’s thoughts about women (simply titled “Cheerleaders” and “Ponies,” respectively), were entertaining, but seemed to exist more in the realm of surreal sketch comedy. (The surreal nature of the show definitely disconnected with some theatergoers, as a few audience members walked out during the performance I attended.) The final blow for me was the show’s closing number, a song so earnest and hopeful that it completely underwrote everything that had preceded it. While I could see how Iowa actually wanted to disconnect from its audience through its subversive content, the results still left me a little too cold. Tickets and more information for The Heidi Chronicles and Iowa can be found here and here.

“39 Steps” Is Theater Doing What Theater Does Best

First, a confession: I had a 39 Steps phase. Aside from the annoying necessities of everyday life, it was all I thought about for a solid month or two. Now, my 39 Steps phase did not last as long as my Phantom phase in sophomore year of high school (sooo many message boards. so many.) or my Hairspray phase soon after (don’t worry–I matured into Ragtime, Too Much Light, and Good Person of Szechwan phases in due time), but it was still one of those defining theater experiences that completely change the way I viewed the art form, even if I didn’t quite understand how.

I first saw 39 Steps at New World Stages five years ago. Parodying the popular Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, it begins when Englishman Richard Hannay is embroiled in an international espionage scheme after meeting a mysterious woman at the theater. The show pays homage to the film’s canonical status in the spy genre, as well as to its director’s famous silhouette, and remains faithful to its basic plot. But the film’s fame is only a handy accessory to the show’s success. The show turns the dark, winding, and erotic world of espionage into comedic gold.

In this production, which opened at the Union Square Theatre last week, Robert Petkoff plays the ennui-filled hero Hannay, though his heroism is more passive survival than actual heroics. The other actors in the four-person ensemble all play multiple parts. Brittany Vicars plays all the women Hannay meets along his journey, all viable love interests for our dashing protagonist and all much more worthy of heroic status than Hanney. Billy Carter and Arnie Burton, returning to the role he originated in the 2008 Broadway production, tackle the other 100+ characters as Clown #1 and Clown #2.

Arnie Burton, Brittany Vicars, and Robert Petkoff in “39 Steps”

Except for the change in cast and location, this new production is exactly the same as the one performed at New World Stages, and most likely the one currently running on the West End, all directed by Maria Aitken. Frankly, I can’t imagine it any other way– partly because the production is so fantastic, but also because the show needs such a well-tuned vehicle to keep up with its complexities and I don’t think any variations would help get it to its destination. At last week’s performance, the show’s gags still had audiences in hysterics and admiring the production’s brilliant comedic timing and witty self-consciousness.

My thoughts on theater and the theatrical form have evolved a lot over the past few years, thanks in large part to this here blog. One of the topics I love to explore is what makes theater different from other storytelling mediums. How does the experience of watching The Producers on stage, for example, compare to seeing the film, even when all the components of the show remain the same? A comprehensive answer would require a dissertation-length blog post but I think that the experience of watching 39 Steps might hold part of the answer.

To embrace theatricality (or the theater experience) is to embrace the theater’s limitations. It’s knowing that, unlike the lens of a camera, you cannot take the viewer to the real-life Scottish highlands. It’s accepting that obviously stuffed animal as a squawking chicken . It’s knowing that a company of four actors are playing about 150 roles, and appreciating the quick costume changes and the meticulous wit such a performance requires. It’s laughing when a chase scene on top of a moving train is ably replicated with just a few trunks and sound effects instead of bemoaning the show’s cheap, unbelievable special effects.

Billy Carter and Robert Petkoff in “39 Steps”

Looking back, I realize that I fell in love with 39 Steps because it was one of the first shows that required me to be conscious of theatricality. A show like this forces you to be complicit with the players. You are in silent agreement with them that everything you’re watching is constructed into reality by bridging your willingness and the actors’ skill. And in case you weren’t conscious of it before, just go see 39 Steps. Did you feel like you were on your tip-toes the whole time even though you were sitting comfortably in your seat? Did your laughter and amusement in some way double as a sense of pride in yourself and in the folks on stage? You just saw theater doing what theater does best.

39 Steps is playing at the Union Square Theatre. Tickets Here.

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