Eat, Drink and be MERRILY!

merrily we roll alongIt’s always nerve-wracking to see a production that’s highly acclaimed. “Of course,” you think on the way to your seat, “the show can’t be all that” if “all that” is “extraordinary!” “revelatory!” “thrilling!” or any of the other other adjectives critics love to toss around like their so many cheap breadcrumbs. Very few evenings of theater really are extraordinary, revelatory or thrilling; better to be pleasantly surprised by something than resignedly disappointed.

So it was with an anxious heart I attended a screening of Merrily We Roll Along, the Sondheim/Furth classic recently on the West End, but available to New Yorkers in a one-night-only, video broadcast. This was the production Messers Brantley and Sondheim had crowned perfect; this was the one christened with more stars than an astrology chart. No way it could measure up, I thought.

What bliss is it to be wrong. Merrily, directed by Maria Friedman, is everything you’ve been told and more. The story of a doomed friendship—famously executed in reverse—is magnificently rendered with all the heart and intelligence a musical can muster, and the big themes of dreams, loyalty and regret shine in brilliantly dramatic fashion. This is in large part thanks to the extraordinary performances of Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley (my use “extraordinary” here is earned! Believe me!) Despite creating wholly separate, perfectly constructed portraits of their characters, these actors operate in the single, created universe of their friendship, a universe that’s entertaining and heartbreaking to peek into. Umbers strike an ideal balance between swagger and insecurity; Humbley turns the slow burn into something heartbreaking; Jenna Russell is (as in Sunday in the Park With George) incapable of doing anything dishonest. And how classy is it that they take their final bows together? That’s an “old friends” move, there.

Everything else is equally right. A story that shouldn’t add up—and, if you’re a believer of conventional wisdom, never has—comes together perfectly here in this focused production. It somehow manages to have it both ways, being equal parts hopeful and despairing… try and figure that balancing act out if you can, because I can’t!

It’s absolutely criminal this production hasn’t made its way to New York. Perhaps the Gulf Stream can take a cue from Merrily and blow in reverse, with this production safely carried on its back to our shores.

photo by Alastair Muir

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JK Rowling Loves Stephen Sondheim
24 Follies

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Best of 2012!

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Listmakers rejoice! It’s time for the annual “BEST OF” catalogue! Buckets of theater got produced this year, and below are the Official Theater-Words Favorites. (Some publications distinguish between “best” and “favorite.” Not here. Calling something a “best” but not a “favorite”—or vice versa—is like pretending you’re not, y’know, a subjective human being.)

But first, some preemptive thoughts: This list is heavily skewed towards off-Broadway—only two Broadway shows appear—and only three musicals were thrilling enough to make the cut. Sad times for Broadway, sad times for musicals.

But not sad times for theater! The following shows were united by a moment-to-moment vitality and artistry; they were distinguished by the imaginative ways that vitality was expressed.

(BTW, on-the-road employment being what it is, this list is weighted towards the first half of the season. Apologies to the fall, but I just wasn’t around.)


And now, in roughly descending order…

 

1. THE BIG MEAL (Playwrights Horizons)
Without a doubt the best play of the year. Both theatrical and humane, Dan LeFrank’s family drama elevated the commonplace to the level of profound, rather like that most perfect of plays, Our Town.

 

2. PIPPIN (American Repertory Theater, in Boston)
Coss your fingers, New York—ART’s Pippin is spectacular, and you’d be lucky to have it. Equal parts ear-to-ear smiles and musical theater chills, this show was the most fun I’ve had at a tuner in years.

 

3. UNCLE VANYA (Soho Rep)
A super cool, immersive set invited the audience inside the living room of this beautifully acted play. As much a “happening” as a production.

 

4. FEBRUARY HOUSE (Public Theater)
Director Davis McCallum and company turned down the volume in this intimate off-Broadway musical about art and the world, to beautiful effect. Gabriel Kahane’s score made you eager for more.

 

5. CLYBOURNE PARK (Broadway via Playwrights Horizons)
It’s all been said before, but really, this intelligent time-travelling race relations play was a blast, and featured some of the dirtiest jokes ever.

 

6. THE GREAT GOD PAN (Playwrights Horizons)
This was an odd, disarming play with a killer premise: a man learns he may have been molested as a child, but he remembers nothing. Did it happen? Does it matter? A seemingly slight play that stuck to your bones.

 

7. THE LYONS (Broadway via the Vineyard Theater)
Linda Lavin got lots of praise in Nicky Silver’s fantastic black comedy, but Michael Esper (and most everyone) was just as good. A great entertainment.

 

8. LOOK BACK IN ANGER (Roundabout Theater Company)
The claustrophobia and, yes, anger in this production were thrilling and eerie. A creative, uber-narrow set hit things home. Not a date show, to its credit.

 

9. MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG (City Center Encores!)
The Encores orchestra playing this Sondheim score was pretty unbeatable. And really—is there a better finale than “Our Time”? Not that I’m aware of.

 

10. AS YOU LIKE IT (The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park)
Daniel Sullivan’s production hit home the redemptive parts of this otherwise overproduced Shakespeare, making the play seem vital and generous.

 

So here’s to you, 2012! Glad to have you, here’s your coat, get home safe. Say hi to 2013 on the way out.

Cinderella of the Pacific Crest Trail


At the behest of Oprah, I recently read the new, bestselling memoir Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Wild tracks the author on an eleven-hundred-mile backpacking grunt across the Pacific Crest Trail in California, where her emotional demons are purged through the exorcism that is long-distance hiking.

Strayed’s dependent-yet-hate-filled relationship with her boots (they hurt like hell) is one of the book’s highlights, and when she loses half the crucial pair off a mountainside cliff, it’s almost too much for her (and readers!) to bear. “I let out a stunned gasp,” she writes. “My boot was gone. Actually gone.” This poor woman!, you think, reading. Hasn’t she suffered enough?

It’s a great part of the story, but not only does it make for good reading, it elevates Wild to the level of fairy tale. Indeed, watching the Public Theater’s outdoor production of Into the Woods, the Sondheim/Lapine fairy tale mashup of a musical, Wild came to me in a medium-transcending thunderclap.

Strayed, I instantly realized, is a latter day Cinderella.

Hobbling along the pathway to a better life, both she and Cinderella lead lives of despair and pain; both she and Cinderella are utterly alone; both she and Cinderella face a climactic moment of “one-shoedeness.” 

Indeed, Strayed’s description of herself might as well be a summation of Cinderella: “I was alone. I was barefoot. I was twenty-six years old and an orphan too. An actual stray, a stranger had observed a couple of weeks before, when I’d told him my name and explained how very loose I was in the world.”

Fortunately, Strayed manages to moor herself by the end of the book, as does the Cinderella of Into the Woods. Both go to the mountaintop, learn big, soulful lessons, and emerge equipped to re-enter real life. Whether it’s in the bipolar range between personal loss and shocking natural beauty (Strayed), or in that same expanse between endless housework and princess living (Cinderella), each realizes that equilibrium lives somewhere towards the middle.

As Cinderella sings to her prince, “My father’s house was a nightmare/ Your house was a dream/ Now I want something in between.” The highs and lows make for good storytelling, but living, breathing people need to split the difference.

As for me—and probably you?—I’m tempted by those extremes… tempted, just as long as I don’t have to put on those boots.

But Strayed and Cinderella shoved on their boots and slippers, no messing around.

And perhaps that’s their biggest shared trait of all:

Gumption.

photo by Joan Marcus

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, 336pp

Into the Woods, Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Lapine
at the Public Theater, Shakespeare in the Park
directed by Timothy Sheader, Co-Directed by Liam Steel

JK Rowling Loves Stephen Sondheim

"Merrily We Roll Along" = "Harry Potter"

Try this one on for size:

Merrily We Roll Along is the Harry Potter of musicals.

Stop that eyerolling!

Ok, ok, there’s no wand action in the legendary Sondheim flop (now at Encores!), but Merrily and Harry share some telling similarities, most importantly this: they both star an intrepid trio of perfectly matching personalities.

Hear me out!

Merrily’s Frank Shepard lines up perfectly with Harry Potter himself—he’s charismatic, talented—the “leading man.” Charley, then, is Ron, all funny best-friend and second fiddle. And Mary is Hermione, a bookish shot of estrogen brokering peace whenever need be.

But that’s not all! Hermione/Mary also secretly pines for Ron/Charley (though only in Harry Potter does that romance blossom). And Hogwarts, Harry‘s wizarding school, functions much like New York City in Merrily: It’s a place to make your way in the world, to escape danger and to do grand adventures with your friends.

Clearly, JK Rowling is a Merrily fanatic and thought she’d make a stab at fixing the famously flawed show on her own terms.

Clearly.

Cruisin’ Town with Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is on the media circuit, and those of us hoping for a Christmas delivery of “Look, I Made a Hat” have had to whet our appetites by following his tracks around NYC. That’s right—theater-words saw SS live and in person, twice in the past two weeks. Here’s word from the frontlines.

1.  The Colbert Report, 11/30
Although attending a TV taping is like boarding an airplane (Security! Waits! Delays!), it was worth it—briefly. In a very quick interview, SS played the straight man to Colbert’s dominant, ironic persona, and revealed that he was behind Colbert’s participation in the Philharmonic’s production of “Company.” (Before the taping, Colbert told the audience that his favorite Sondheim song is “Finishing the Hat.”)

2. Barnes & Noble, interview with Anna Quindlen, 12/7
Although there was no TV excitement, this conversation was far more satisfying and illuminating than Colbert’s. Sondheim and Quindlen are good friends—as evidenced by the number of times they collectively teared up—which made for a free-associative, infectious enthusiasm. SS gems poured and poured: He said that “movies and TV are set in aspic” compared to live theater, that a “standing ovation disturbs the exuberance” of a great performance, that “those of you who saw [the 2008 Broadway revival of “Sunday”] were lucky” because of its technological artistry. But most interesting was this: Were he stuck on an island with one of his shows performing every night, he’d want it to be “Forum.” (Because it’s funny!) And if a time machine could take him back to a single performance of his, he’d see the Roundabout revival of “Assassins,” excerpted below.

[Read more…]

Twenty-Four Follies

Ron Raines in Follies: “I would give—what have I got?—my soul’s of little value, but I’d give it to be twenty-five again.”

What about twenty-four? Hey, that’s how old I turned the night I caught Follies. It was a smash of a party, what will all those lines like, “The only thing I want from you is a divorce;” or, “There’s no one in my life; there’s nothing;” and, “I want another chance.” Happy Birthday, indeed!

But seriously—all that talk of age and regret could trick you into thinking Follies a deadly graveyard party for the geriatrics. That’s hardly the case: The show still registers as a beautifully layered “sorrowful précis” (to quote one song), even if you’re in the under-forty set.

[Read more…]

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