Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Abominables at Children's Theatre Company

"Check it—
Can I be real a second?
For just a millisecond?
Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?"
- Right Hand Man, Hamilton
About The Abominables at Children's Theatre Company ...

First of all, yay for new musicals! Hurrah for for the Children's Theatre Company for partnering with The Civilians, the fascinating NY-based "company that creates new theater from creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present" that brought us Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play and a host of other amazing sounding productions.

Secondly, but not secondarily, is the tragic passing of Michael Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics for this show. Please read this lovely tribute to him by Sarah Larson at the New Yorker
"Michael Friedman, who died Saturday, at forty-one, was a brilliant and prolific composer and lyricist, a pianist, a thinker, a mile-a-minute talker, a gesticulator, a person who dazzled and could leave you dizzied—not just by his talent and intelligence but by his kindness and humanity, which were always at the forefront of his work."
With all that said, though, I wish I could give this show some love. But I need to be real (a second). I found this show really problematic.

Let's start at the very beginning. Here's the summary from the CTC website:
"Rink rats, hockey moms, tournament weekends and the quest to play your best – It’s tryout season in the Great State of Hockey! Mitch has always played on the A team for the Prairie Lake Blizzards – these are his guys – they've played together forever, but he's worried this could be the year he gets sent down to the B team. When a new “kid” appears at Bantam tryouts, things go from bad to worse. From the land of ice and nice comes the first Minnesota hockey musical! Will you love it? You betcha!"
Hockey! Musical! Minnesota-set! Fun fun, right? Not so much.

Mitch Munson (Henry Constable) has been practicing all summer for hockey tryouts, and convinces his friends to let him go out on the ice first, which, astonishingly enough, they do. He tries out but does not make the A team. A new family has moved to town with their yeti son, adopted from the Himalayas. (It turns out yetis are really good at hockey.) Harry, the yeti (Ryan Colbert), gets a spot on the A team, and Mitch gets a spot on the B team. Cue massive amounts of pouting and privilege from young Mitch, mostly at the expense of the new kid in town. Mitch does everything he can to try and bring Harry down, including finding his lost yeti parents, so they will take him away.

I've got two major concerns with this show.

The first is that the show is remarkably inconsistent and underwritten. Although the Civilians is notable for devising and creating their work as a group, Steve Cosson is credited as the writer.

We meet Mitch's parents, Ellen and Charlie (Autumn Ness and Reed Sigmund), but we learn almost nothing about them except that she is a hockey mom (who likes to drink and be an A team parent) and he--I don't know. Does he support Mitch? Is he a toxic sport parent? Does he think Mitch is a lousy hockey player? Does he have shattered dreams from his own sporting youth? We get a hint of that near the end of the play, but not when we need it--in the beginning.

Our "hero", Mitch, is severely undercharacterized. He has practiced all summer. That is all we know about him, and yet we are expected to sympathize with him and with the journey he takes (eventually) to being less of a brat (in theory). I got to be honest: When a young, white, male character is expected to earn our interest and affection merely by existing, I can't help but feel that the playwright is considering the white male character to be the neutral default (see Steven Epp in Refugia). Apart from that, the character is just a complete whiny little creep.

Oh, and Mitch has two younger sisters: Tracy (the always delightful Natalie Tran) and Lily (an engaging Valerie Wick), neither of whom gets nearly the attention that Mitch does, despite the fact that Tracy is a great hockey player. A particularly infuriating scene has Mitch breaking Tracy's trophy (which she was sharing with another player due to their excellent teamwork) with no repercussions whatsoever. It is never referred to again, nor is Tracy's admirable sportsmanship. Certainly not by the parents. A note: Having the script acknowledge that these characters get less attention does not get you a pass on shortchanging their stories. And when Lily gets lost in the snow because her parents have again ignored their daughters, she saves herself and others with intelligence and competence that literally no one even comments on.

Let's meet Mitch's arch-enemy, shall we? Harry the yeti (a delightful and poignant Ryan Colbert) and his parents (Bradley Greenwald and Elise Benson), as well as son Freddy (adorable and winning Alejandro Vega) have just moved to town so that Harry can play hockey and make friends. Wait, what? A yeti? Explain how.

APPARENTLY, Hank and Judy, mountain-climbers/television stars/authors/etc., were climbing in the Himalayas and found a young Yeti and took him home and named him Harry. Although we are told Hank and Judy are selfish, self-centered egotists, apparently they care enough about their son to bring him to Minnesota to play hockey and make friends.

And here's where everything gets just a little bit more complicated. Having recently seen The Sneetches at CTC, I know that children's theater often has deeper and more substantial themes than one might find at face value.

Hank and Judy are human, and Harry is a yeti. He is constantly referred to as "other" and especially so when Mitch takes so strongly against him and refers to his adopted status derisively. Even his parents consider him as "other" and highlight his differences from his human teammates. Part of Mitch's plan to get back on the A Team involves him contacting Harry's yeti parents, who come to town and accuse Hank and Judy of stealing their son.

Seriously, how can you not see this as a depiction of transracial adoption? Or at the very least, an incredibly problematic portrayal of adoption in general.

The yeti parents have no names. Hank and Judy are portrayed by white actors and their adopted son is portrayed by an actor of color. Stephanie Bertumen plays a variety of anonymous characters, with far less dialogue than her counterpart Doug Nethercott. And far more ridiculous wigs.

I truly don't know what to make of this musical. If it's truly a light-hearted hockey musical, it at least needs to tell us what these characters want and need. What drives them? What is our happy ending? Why can't we resolve a few problems? Why isn't it more fun? If it's something more serious, then tackle those issues. I literally think the writer did not consider the implications of portraying adoption and certainly transracial adoption in this way. But that's no excuse, especially for the Children's Theatre, which generally does pay attention to issues like these.

One last note: CTC does have a content advisory page for the play, and it includes this statement:
Special note: This production contains potentially triggering situations surrounding adoption. If you and/or your child have adoptive experiences, please contact the ticket office...
That doesn't seem to be enough. Putting together new work is hard, but especially when creating a new play for and about children, I'd hope that the creative team would be on the lookout for problems like these.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In the Heights at the Ordway

As we may have mentioned, we love Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Broadway show, In the Heights. Why I Love In the Heights (and you should, too)

So we were excited when the show was announced as one of this season's Ordway Originals. And it's finally here!

A little background for those who may not have heard of the immensely talented Mr. Miranda. He's got a little show on Broadway (and in Chicago, and Los Angeles, soon to be touring the United States and opening on London's West End) called Hamilton. Before writing the Tony-winning, Pulitzer Prize-winning hip hop musical about the founding of the United States, Miranda penned and starred in In the Heights. If you are a Hamilfan, you really should see this show.

Debra Cardona and Justin Gregory Lopez as
Abuela Claudia and Usnavi (photo: Rich Ryan)

In the Heights is an original story, not based on a movie or a book, but on the lives of ordinary people living and working in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Washington Heights at the north end of Manhattan. As gentrification spreads north, rising rents mean changes for everyone in the neighborhood.

The Ordway's coproduction with Teatro del Pueblo, directed and choreographed by James Rocco and Alberto Justiniano, brings this community to vibrant life for an all-too-brief run (ending September 24). The cast is excellent, with Justin Gregory Lopez leading the ensemble as Usnavi, the role originated by Lin-Manuel Miranda on Broadway. Lopez, seen in last year's Ordway production of Paint Your Wagon, has the perfect blend of bravado and sweetness. Val Nuccio nails the beauty and personality of Usnavi's crush, Vanessa. The whole cast is wonderful, and it was delightful to see Lauren Villegas, recently Jesus Christ Superstar's Mary Magdalene, in a completely different role as the outspoken salon owner, Daniela. Stephen Scott Wormley as Benny and Debra Cardona as Abuela Claudia have great voices and presence.

The cast of In the Heights (photo: Rich Ryan)
The excellent nine-member orchestra keeps the music moving, and there is some terrifically energetic dancing, most impressively from Brian Bose as Graffiti Pete. With a compelling array of characters and plotlines, In the Heights is a joyous celebration of life, love, and community that makes you think about the true meaning of home.