Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Letter from New York - February 2018

TKTS. 78 degrees on February 21.
After an absence of WAY too long (although we did some great theater last time--Hamil-something springs to mind), we returned to NYC to see as much theater as we could in five days.

Let's GO!

We arrived on Wednesday and lugged our baggage to the TKTS booth in search of cheap(er) tickets. We settled on partial view for The Band's Visit, a new musical at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Based on an acclaimed film, the story is about "a mix-up that sends a group of Egyptian musicians to a remote Israeli town. When the locals take them in for the night, their lives intertwine in the most unexpected ways."

Starring Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, The Band's Visit features music and lyrics by David Yazbek. You know, the guy who did The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels? You would never guess. The music feels so authentic and is beautifully performed by the on-stage band/cast and features instruments like an Oud, Darbouka, Riq and Arabic Percussion. OMG, the drumming alone is worth the price of admission.

It's an odd little story, and super refreshing to have no idea where the plot will go. The music is organic and beautiful, and the performances are universally wonderful, including a mesmerizing Katrina Lenk. I leave you with this Playbill bio from actor George Abud:
"I hope young Arabic kids, like I was, see this show, or hear it, or read about it, and know that there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces. The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theatre."

Hey, did you know there's now a Hamilton store in the theater district now? True.

So much Hamil-merch!
The back side of their Hours sign.

That evening's show was Hello Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre, where we have vowed, as God is our witness, never to sit in the Siberia-like balcony again. We had lovely seats on the main floor. Previously starring Bette Midler and Donna Murphy, Dolly now features a charming newcomer named Bernadette Peters.

Victor Garber played Horace Vandergelder, and although Gavin Creel was out as Cornelius Hackl, we were not remotely disappointed since his understudy was Christian Dante White, whose career we've followed since he was in Minneapolis in The Scottsboro Boys. And he was marvelous, as was the new Barnaby Tucker--Charlie Stemp. Jennifer Simard had a small role, in which she was hilarious.

The whole cast was amazing, the costumes were beyond gorgeous, and the dancing was so freaking precise. Before the "Hello Dolly" number in the second act, the house managers rushed down the side aisles. Although they were probably there to keep people from taking pictures, it seems a very real possibility that their intention was to keep people from rushing the stage. It was an amazing, old-school, completely gorgeous production. Sigh!

Non-theater sidebar:

Went to Astoria to the Museum of the Moving Image to see the Jim Henson exhibit. V. cool. Highly recommend, particularly if you are a fan of any of the following: Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. The Museum itself has a ton of cool memorabilia including set models, masks of actors, costumes, special effects info (the exhibits on ADR and editing live sports were fun and informative), old-time movie equipment, and even movie tie-in merchandise through the years.

Self-portrait, Carly and Jules (l-r).
LOVE Rowlf.
LOVE. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

There was also a fascinating installation by artist Angela Washko called The Game: The Game. From the museum's website: 
The Game: The Game takes the form of a dating simulator, pitting you against six men who are aggressively vying for your attention at a bar. These characters are based on real-life “seduction coaches” who offer tips and techniques—ranging from confidence building to psychological manipulation—that teach men how to interact with women for the primary purpose of quickly engaging in sexual encounters.
LOVE. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.
The Game: The Game installation. 
The slightly otherworldly cafe.
Crazy fascinating.

Thursday's show was Come From Away at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. A new musical, Come From Away is about what happened when the American air space is closed on 9/11 and planes were diverted to a small town in Newfoundland. 38 planes with 7,000 passengers landed in Gander, almost doubling the size of the town. The townspeople welcomed the passengers and it's just a beautiful, hopeful story, with gorgeous music. A cast of 12 plays the townspeople and the passengers, slipping from character to character seamlessly. We were lucky to see most of the original cast including Jenn Colella as the pilot (and a librarian who is loving the influx of men in her town--hee), Chad Kimball (who has such star quality without stealing focus), Q. Smith, Astrid Van Wieren and Sharon Wheatley.

It's a beautiful show, and has a great cast recording that tells the story perfectly, even if you haven't yet seen the show. It's moving and heart-rending. And I've NEVER seen an audience rise to their feet so quickly and so as one at the end of the show. (Did I mention I saw Hamilton? Pre-Tonys?) NEVER. The audience was clapping vociferously and wiping tears, and the band (who were wonderful) came out and did a final song, with the entire audience still standing and clapping, even as the lights were turned up. Just gorgeous. Then we met Horton Foote's daughter-in-law outside the theater and had a lovely conversation with her and her friends. It's the kind of show that just brings people together. LOVED.

Non-theater Sidebar:

We didn't see a show the next night because we went to the American Museum of Natural History for HOURS. A few things:

1) The gift shop(s)? AMAZING. I wanted to buy all the things.

2) That building is crazy confusing and huge.

3) Dinosaur bones are boring.

4) Dioramas are EVERYTHING.

5) The food court is INSANE. I've never been anywhere so incredibly sensorily overloading. Plus, they weirdly didn't have enough chairs for the tables in the seating area. It's like a social experiment.

Saturday was a two-show day which started with the reason why we went to NYC in the first place: Mark Rylance starring in Farinelli and the King at the Belasco Theatre. This is a Shakespeare's Globe production about "the true story of Philippe V (Rylance), a Spanish monarch on the brink of madness. He finds unexpected solace in the voice of world-renowned castrato Farinelli."

The theater was gorgeously done up, with red velvet cloths draping the balconies, lighting almost purely from candlelight on stage, including old-fashioned candle footlights, and a rich, warmly decorated stage, which featured a ceiling and ornate on-stage boxes. They'd also removed the first few rows of seating and replaced them with banquettes, pew-like seating with small cushions. Of course we bought seats there and loved them. SO close to the stage we could touch it.

It's a lovely play, and Rylance, as usual, was wonderful. Farinelli was played by Sam Crane, in a touching performance, but sung by James Hall, which was cleverly staged. The music was beautiful, and the performances marvelous. I will always see Rylance, no matter what he does and where.

Ah, now we come to Angels in America at the Neil Simon Theatre. Oh boy. Since it was in previews, we were only able to see Part One: Millenium Approaches during our trip. It turns out that was enough. We've seen the two plays, a few years ago at the State Theatre in Minneapolis and loved them. Love Kushner. Etc. This? Left us cold.
Angels in America transferred from The National Theatre in London to Broadway. It features an impressive cast: Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, Lee Pace (who replaced Russell Tovey) and is directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time). All very promising, yes? And yet.

The American accents by the mostly British cast had a flat affect, which was probably not noticeable to London audiences, but grated to us, particularly Denise Gough. The performances were sadly lacking, especially Andrew Garfield who had all of the camp of Prior, but none of the sweetness that makes him so endearing.

The set was so excruciatingly ugly that it was actually distracting as we tried to figure out what on earth was being represented and why are the three turntables turning again? The lighting was dim and muddy, and the sound was weak. Even gorgeous twelve-foot tall Lee Pace, so good in The Normal Heart a few years ago, was a disappointment. And the ending had a false blackout that had the audience thinking it was over, so when the lights went up and a sad angel unfurled her wings, it felt anti-climactic.

More than anything, though, this production left us wondering if this play is still relevant and if it doesn't need a serious trimming. Four hours, y'all. And that's just part one. Oy.

Sunday, we headed uptown where we discovered you can only get into the amazing MOMA Store by paying admission. BOO. Our matinee was Subways Are For Sleeping at the York Theater Company in the Musicals in Mufti series. As we learned, mufti (MUFF' tee) means in street clothes; without the trappings of a full production. From the York website:
Subways Are for Sleeping tells the tale of Angie, a reporter sent to get the scoop on a segment of NYC society -- a group of well-dressed homeless people sleeping in the New York subway system -- that lives by their own rules. Going undercover, Angie learns how the carefree other half lives and begins to see there might be another way to experience the world. 
It's a lovely little show, with some amazing belty numbers, performed in an intimate theater by a fabulous cast including David Josefsberg, Eric William Morris and Alyse Alan Louis. Subways was on Broadway in 1961 and is best known for producer David Merrick's publicity stunt where he published raves from members of the public with the same names as the major drama critics of the time.

There was a talkback after the show, with questions and comments from the incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated audience members including a ton of theater folk like William Hauptmann, the author of Big River.

Talkback, y'all!
After the show, finding ourselves on the same corner as David Josefsberg and David Engel, I fanned out a bit and we chatted with David Josefsberg--one of my new favorite performers--about how amazing he was in the sadly short-term Honeymoon in Vegas. Shockingly, it all went well and I didn't say anything insulting, as I inadvertently do to most actors and theater artists. SO charming, so adorable.

Sunday night brought us the enchanting Once On This Island at Circle in the Square. We were running a bit late, so we missed a lot of the pre-show excitement involving the storytellers, goats and chickens. The Circle in the Square looked amazing--truly looked like a hurricane had come through the theater. The show begins with the cast on stage, which is covered with sand, cleaning up after the storm. The cast gradually transform into storytellers who tell the tale of Ti Moune, a little girl stranded by the storm, adopted by a loving couple, who longs for a light-skinned man from the other side of the island. With an amazing cast including Lea Salonga, Norm Lewis, Alex Newell and Tamyra Gray as the gods, and Hailey Kilgore as a lovely Ti Moune, this is a beautiful, heartfelt, gorgeously sung and performed production of a beautiful show.

They had a lake!
After the show, there was a post-show discussion with Lea Salonga (and briefly, Norm Lewis) for the Broadway Barkata group, which "aims to nurture and support Filipino artists who believe in the importance of cultural awareness. Through art and education we aim to bring the Filipino experience to a diverse audience and to give them a deeper understanding of our culture and our artists." (We got snuck in, thanks to a friend.) It was a great discussion, but the fact that CitS didn't clear the theater for the discussion was really frustrating. They even vacuumed during the event! Really, CitS?

Who would have ever thought we could see two shows on Monday? And yet, the magic of NYC came through for us. We headed up to the 92nd Street Y, where I've been longing to go for years, for a fantastic program called Lenny's Lyricists in the Lyrics and Lyricists series. You have to love a Monday matinee. Usually we bring the audience age curve down a few years--this time it was decades! I heard some old dears behind me at intermission discussing whether one of them could move from behind me. Yo, I am 5' 7". Adorable.

Lenny's Lyricists was hosted by Amanda Green, who is Adolph Green's daughter and a lyricist/composer in her own right (Bring It On, Hands on a Hardbody). Green provided narration, featured some film clips and introduced the performances by Mikaela Bennett, Andréa Burns, Darius de Haas, Howard McGillin, and Tony Yazbeck, who were all amazing. Poor Andréa Burns was ill, although she still sounded good--just a bit deeper than usual--and music director Rob Fisher explained that they had sent her home at intermission. This meant that Amanda Green stepped in on a few songs, and they added Bennett and Yazbeck singing "Tonight" from West Side Story, with literally no rehearsal. The show provided insight and appreciation of Bernstein's amazing talent, and that of his collaborators, through the top-notch performances. Green even convinced Sondheim to share the lyrics from the prologue to West Side Story. Yazbeck, de Haas, and McGillan sang the beginning of the song, which was all about going to the moon and inspired by Sputnik. The lyrics were really dumb, and the creators made the right decision in dropping them from the show.

The last show of our trip was a disappointment, but you can't win them all. We bought tickets to Broadway By The Year 1930 & 1964 via TDF. (If you don't live in NYC, you should check out Theater Development Fund (TDF) membership. It's available for government employees and a bunch of other people, and is only $12.00 a year and you can buy cheap, cheap tickets in advance. Pro tip.) We were interested because it was 1) cheap, 2) on a Monday night, and 3) starred Emily Skinner, and 4) is one of those one-night-only shows that looks so appealing from MN.

Alas, Emily Skinner, Kerry O'Malley and Chuck Cooper were all out due to conflicts and illness, so we had Christine Andreas and Christiane Noll, in addition to Tonya Pinkins (yay), as well as some cheesy loungey/cabaret singers (boo). We didn't find this out until the show started, which is AFTER we were wanded with metal detectors down at the entrance and had to engage the poor overworked ushers to get people out of our seats.

Town Hall is kind of a dump. It's shabby, it's the only theater that actually wanded its clientele, who were literally in their 80s for this show, the seats are super uncomfortable and it is way understaffed  with ushers. The poor ushers that were there did great--there just weren't enough of them.

Image from This is New York by Miroslav Sasek
Anyhoo, the show was cheesier (lots of slow rolls on the drums) than we had expected, and we bailed at intermission to walk around Times Square for a while before we packed up to go home.

Another note: At all of the Broadway theaters we went to, the security process was a smooth operation. At the door, everyone opens their bags, the guards shine a flashlight in, and you're through. The only theater that used metal detector wands was Town Hall (which just confused the octogenarian attendees). Take note, Hennepin Theatre Trust. The whole thing was more streamlined and far less annoying than the extensive searches at the Minneapolis theaters.

But to sum it all up: We heart you, NYC.