Saturday, September 29, 2012

My First Flea or How I Bought an Oleanna Mug

Oh everyone remembers their first time...and I will mostly remember my first Broadway Flea market as where I met the dapper Jeremy Shamos as he strolled through the crowd (he even gave me an electronic shout-out), bought an Oleanna mug, and somehow missed the sale of trash can covers signed by the cast of One Man Two Guvnors.

Apparently you can't have a Flea without regret.  And now I have my trash can regret.  I was wandering back and forth throughout the market like a haunted woman whispering, "But where are the trash can covers.  Where?  I didn't see them.  They were only $5. I waaaaaaaaaant one."

Seriously, where were they?! I was there starting at 11am and until 7pm.  I never saw them on any of the tables.  If you got one let me know. I will buy it from you....maybe.

No matter the time of day the frenzy at the flea market tables was intense. Combing through piles and piles of playbills I remembered shows I saw and loved and then I was filled with massive regret for all the shows I missed.

It was a strange walk down memory lane.  I was reminded of my Claudia Shear obsession. Blown Sideways Through Life was my life bible in American Playhouse form from 1995-2000--I'm pretty sure I wore out my VHS watching it over and over again.  There was the time my mother and I actually agreed on something and decided we both really wanted to see Bea Arthur on Broadway.  Who knew that good old Bea was our common ground?  Of course I came across a playbill from my favorite show Arcadia.  I still have my Arcadia playbill from 1995...but now I've got a back up one!  I did not think I would interested in playbills from shows I never saw but I purchased a 1974 playbill from a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore show called "Good Evening."  They wrote bios for each other that were quite amusing and since I've had comedy on the brain lately it seemed like a reasonable purchase and a nice bit of British comedy paraphernalia.

You can pretty much convince yourself that anything at the Broadway Flea Market is a reasonable purchase which is the danger.  Thankfully the items were all pretty cheap and it all goes to charity.

I bought a Rock 'n' Roll poster because I really loved that Stoppard show too.  I saw it in London first, then Prague (in Czech!!!!) and then on Broadway.  Even Rufus Sewell thought I was weird for seeing it in Czech so you'll have to get into a pretty special line to judge me on that point.   But I wanted to see how the Czech audience would react to it.  Would it be funny to them?  Too close to the bone?  Well I won't tell you how they reacted because you got all judgy-pants on me.

We saw a lot of Shrek the Musical and The Last Night of Ballyhoo merchandise for sale.  Ballyhoo was particularly strange.  That was last on Broadway in 1997.  I guess maybe those folks who were hoping to capitalize on Paul Rudd being back on Broadway thought this was an opportune time to break out that box of Ballyhoo goodness from their basements.  But who in 1997 said, "You know what will be a good investment...this box of mugs from an Alfred Urhy play.  Kids.  This will pay for your college."  No one.  No one said that.  And yet...a massive amount of mugs were for sale.  I'm sorry if you missed one but I have high hopes they will be back next year.

Now let's talk about the Oleanna mug.  My recollection of Oleanna was reading it back when it was first published, underlining a lot of it, and mostly wanting to set it on fire.  So buying the mug was not really an act of celebrating the play but more about the complete outrage I felt that anyone would go to that play and then think, "Dear, let's take home a little reminder of that play so that when we drink our morning coffee we can think about misogyny."  "Absolutely honey.  Make sure to get more than one so we can have a set when guests come over."  "Nothing tastes as good as misogyny feels, but a cup of coffee in this mug might come close." 

Ok let's all remember I read it as a teenager and not since then.  Maybe it is a wonderful play, though I doubt it.

Anyway, I bought it for $1.  I'm contemplating a performance art piece where I smash it into pieces.  Or use it to drink my tea and laugh at myself for being totally ridiculous about Mamet, mugs and misogyny.  Same difference. 

The Oleanna mug did make me think about the generally boring merchandise most shows sell.  I'm not sure who buys this stuff.  I'm an avid theater-goer but I rarely buy any merchandise.  Maybe I'll buy an emergency beverage sippy cup but rarely do I actually see something even from shows that I love that I want to own. Either I love the show but the merchandise or design work is kind of lame or I don't love the show and don't need a souvenir.  I guess owning the play and playbill are usually enough for me.  I'm a terrible capitalist.

But I did spend lots of dough at the Flea Market.  Best buy for me was this Superior Donuts mug.  I recently re-read the play after having seen it during its closing week in 2010.  It's beautiful play that still makes me cry.  I'm often moved by plays about lost promise, dreams deferred, opportunities squelched--because I am all about joy people. The specificity of the characters, the understanding of American class issues, and the heartbreaking stories within that play make it a must read.  Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill were utterly perfect.

So I bought a mug to remind me of that.  And it's kinda cute too.

Friday, September 28, 2012

An Enemy of the People: Stay Out of the Water

"Bureaucrats and lackeys" are readily on display in this play by Henrik Ibsen.   In a time where issues of the evil and selfishness of corporations or the greed of the elite are at the forefront of our political discourse, it makes sense why MTC would stage An Enemy of the People now.  This new adaptation of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and directed by Doug Hughes has a core story that would be resonant to modern audiences, but the play ends up too blunt, too heavy-handed in its messaging.  I had no idea it was the inspiration for Jaws but now knowing this I see the strong connections throughout.  But this production a toothless shark I'm afraid.  Gumming but no bite. 

When a spa town doctor, Thomas Stockmann (Boyd Gaines) discovers that the waters supplying the spa are more dangerous than helpful, he brings his discovery to the radical newspaper publisher in town, Hovstad (John Procaccino) who'd like to see the current town administration brought to their knees with the news of this epic folly.  But the doctor has faith that his brother, Peter Stockmann (Richard Thomas) the mayor of the town, will address this health risk accordingly and no scandal need come from it.  But when Thomas raises the issue with the mayor, money, allegiances, and personal risk end up taking the front seat, and personal principles the back seat.  Allies he thought he had abandon him and everyone's concerns over their own personal pocketbook becomes the driving reason for the actions they take. 

I've never seen or read this play before.  I read an interview in Exeunt Magazine with the writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz about her process for adapting this particular work.  From that interview I was struck by the fact that her adaptation is supposed to be laced with ambiguity.  The political process is a morass of compromise and short-term game playing.  There is ambiguity in that but the play did not really dwell on that.  None of the characters seemed to embody that point of view.  Instead our players took very strong stances in one camp or another and that rigidity and fixed perspective failed to engage me.  Everything felt like it was painted a little too black and white so that the drama of the grays--emotional, philosophical, political--was absent.  I got a bit bored with these extreme camps.

There was some interesting debate when the doctor brings his research to the town radicals.  But the radicals shift their allegiance too quickly to be believed.  At the drop of a dime (and giving the audience a severe case of whiplash) they go from ally to enemy.  The reason is clearly given but then they become simply like everyone else in town: driven by self-interest.  Not that that is not a possible outcome but the journey there is too abrupt.  It is left to the doctor to fight everyone but he's not so noble or pure.  The battle was not David versus Goliath, or even man versus shark.  SPOILER ALERT--It was a little like watching a mosquito and a bug zapper.  The outcome felt just a little too inevitable. 

I was excited to see Boyd Gaines again after his terrific turn in The Columnist.  There was much to like in his performance as the highly emotional doctor with his manic child-like energy.   Dr. Thomas Stockmann is flighty and overwrought: possibly manic-depressive, definitely given to emotional oscillation.  But as presented I thought his science was sound, even if he was not all of the time.  He might think of himself as a man of principles but he's certainly not a thinker.  His inability to reason around the issues or appreciate another point of view was key to his character.  Gaines plays the doctor as a smart man who makes poor choices.  His intelligence as an actor helps make the doctor's situation more tragic.  He cannot see how his own impetuousness interferes with his professional, social and financial progress.  Even when he does, he cannot stop it.  But his fine, nuanced performance was not enough for me to fully engage in the play.

The supporting cast was strong.  I enjoyed the vacillating newspaper type-setter Aslaksen played with great comic flourish by Gerry Bamman.  I liked John Procaccino even if his character's choices did not add up for me.  Kathleen McNenny (Boyd Gaines's wife in life and in the play) was lovely as the put-upon wife of the doctor, desperate for a stable place in the world for her family.  Richard Thomas plays the mayor in such a smarmy way that I just kept waiting for him to twirl his evil mustache. It was pomposity of the highest order but it came on too thick.

It's a bold choice to stage this lesser known Ibsen play and it is a respectable production of it.  I just found it a bit dull overall and wished for a more nuanced exploration of the interesting issues presented.  


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Detroit: Neighbors in the Modern World

"We deserve it."  Giving yourself what you want in adulthood often feels selfish, irresponsible, or reckless.  In Detroit, a new play by Lisa D'Amour, she explores how two suburban couples toy with friendship, freedom, exploration, and personal fulfillment.  The two couples become uncoupled by the consequences of meeting their neighbors.  This play asks the question why we don't open our lives up to our neighbors anymore.  Suburban life never felt so isolating or detached as it does in this production directed by Anne Kauffman (Maple and Vine) and starring Amy Ryan, David Schwimmer, Darren Pettie, and Sarah Sokolovic.  Every character is searching for a salve for their life, but like the characters I did not find the relief I was looking for here. 

Vintage backyard.
A laid off loan officer, Ben (Schwimmer), and his paralegal wife, Mary (Ryan), spy new neighbors who have moved in next door and convince them to come over for a backyard barbecue.  Awkwardness and tension carry the day in their first few meetings.  Sharon (Sokolovic) is a little too emotionally accessible and her husband Kenny (Pettie) is a little too easy-going when he takes a blow to the head by an unpredictable patio umbrella.  Mary is a little too worried about making everything perfect and Mary's husband Ben is pretty oblivious to most things around him.  These friendships grow with unexpected confessions and a craving for understanding.  What starts out stilted ends with euphoric release but this dance around neighborly closeness is a messy one.

I found the play and production to be interesting intellectually but it did not engage me emotionally.  The writing captures crisp images of the plastic world of the suburbs: a jogger in a pink jogging suit, a pet dog that does not exist, fake plants, and the time spent over the "hearth" of the patio barbecue.  These everyday and commonplace items are imbued with deeper, darker meaning.  I was curious to see where this exploration of the idealized suburb versus reality would go.  But something about this production felt off-kilter.  I'm not sure if it was the intentional awkwardness of the script or simply that the cast had not come together at the point at which I saw the play but everything felt very disjointed and the emotional punch never came for me.  The characters might be broken in a variety of ways but I never quite felt their pain.  Much of the production is played for comedy.  Although comedy can often heighten tragedy (Sydney Theatre Co's. Uncle Vanya comes to mind), here it did not seem to enrich the character development or emotional stakes for me.  I did not feel the bite of the satire. 

The play makes much of people saying they want to change their situation in grand ways but the punchline of life is that if change comes it is often in very small measures--or Godot-like waiting for something that is never to come.  Practically imperceptible change is happening to the characters in this play but without feeling the dramatic pull forward (there is a yank forward at the end), this lack of momentum left me unsatisfied. 

Pettie and Sokolovic were believable as a couple sharing their troubles openly. I liked the rawness of their characters and how Sokolovic's Sharon was overspilling with emotion.  Ryan and Schwimmer had the harder job of portraying a couple whose identities were lost even from themselves.  Much of their emotional lives lay buried beneath a thick plastic veneer of bonhomie.  But they did not have a lot of space in the play to reveal what was under there.  Later as the relationships deepen between the couples there was something gripping to Ryan and Sokolovic's friendship and their strange connection.  But it felt fleeting and not sustained.  I thought the performers handled the material well, I just found the production more awkward than affecting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival Wrap-Up

So...I bought tickets to every night of the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival just in case Daniel Kitson made an appearance.  Not the most fiscally-sound approach, nor the most efficient but you're not my mother so....  Honestly it worked out quite well.  I saw a lot of excellent comedy, saw some stage performers I enjoy, and even got to see some Kitson antics as he performed at two different shows in the festival (one announced and one unannounced).  Having previously flown to London and Edinburgh to see the Kitson-magic (I know.  Judge away...I have no regrets), it was nice that this was all taking place in my backyard.* 

The festival, in its 5th year, is programmed at two locations, The Bell House and Union Hall in Brooklyn.  Opening night at The Bell House included the work of John Mulaney, Todd Barry, Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan.  Friday, I checked out the smaller venue at Union Hall for some up-and-coming performers including the great Phoebe Robinson and Damien Lemon (both who have appeared at Ben Walker's Find the Funny).  I attended Saturday's Talent Show: Speech and Debate show hosted by Kevin Townley (Goodbar) and Elna Baker where the comedians and performers did traditional forensic competition style events (duo scene interpretation, debate, extemporaneous speaking).  Sunday's Closing Night was a grab bag of unannounced performers, but they included some of my favorites including David O'Doherty, John Oliver, and Kitson. Also on hand were Demetri Martin,** Jon Benjamin, Jena Friedman, and Bobby Tisdale,

The Speech and Debate show was wacky pandemonium from start to finish (see photos here).  Brendon Small and Stuckey & Murray had to choose from several political topics and then craft a song around one.  We ended up with songs about the creation of the swastika and Kate Middleton's royal breasts.  Eugene Mirman, Hari Kondabolu, and Kamau Bell had to make powerpoint presentations based on real presentations found on the internet.  Topics included Anal Canal, Animal Husbandry and Emotional Eating.  Kitson (wearing a tie) and Mirman debated. They had the choice of three topics including "bros vs hos" and the merits of Tom's of Maine.  They went with Tom's of Maine.***  Sarah Vowell and Todd Barry debated the pros and cons of killing Canadian geese in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport.  The duo scene interpretations included Meg Griffiths and Tony nominee Arian Moayed doing a comedic take on Marsha Norman's 'night Mother and Kevin Townley and Ashlie Atkinson doing a mash-up of Joseph Campbell and Showgirls.  Kitson did some extemporaneous speaking on the topic of Solitude and Todd Barry did extemporaneous speaking on Tom's of Maine (for all the references you'd think they were a sponsor--one who everyone in the room hated).  Blue ribbons were given for each winning performer.

Kitson won the debate against Mirman, but lost in extemporaneous speaking to Todd Barry.  Arguably, Kitson was at a slight disadvantage since Barry already has a routine about Tom's of Maine, but since Kitson's work is largely about Solitude he had some material to suit this.  In mock-outrage to losing, he stormed off the stage but before doing so he knocked over the entire set and Kevin Townley (who does an excellent comic pratfall). 

A Mirman crafted bio of Kitson.  Some comedians require a warning label.  It's too late for some of us.  Save yourselves!
The closing night show on Sunday (NSFW photos here) may have been more structured but Kitson managed to do some damage to the stage then as well.  He mostly stayed off book, though he continued to try out some bits he'd done at Whiplash earlier in the week.  He spent a good deal of time making fun of his BFF John Oliver (who was watching from the sidelines and had done a fantastic set earlier in the show), and yet relying on Oliver to translate things from British-isms to American-isms for him.  He pondered whether his new trousers were too tight and asked the audience for feedback and then rejected it.  During his attempts at crowd work he managed to accidentally unplug all the mics and after knocking down everything on stage he quietly walked off.

I had brought some friends to the final show.  They had seen It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later.  When my friend compared the Kitson stand-up to his story show, she said, "There were a lot more penises" in the stand-up.  I'm assuming my friend meant references to penises as the only actual visible penis on stage was presented by another performer (I think it was Gary Wilmes of Chinglish and Gatz.  His penis made two separate appearances in sort of an interpretative dance routine. One of these was done to the Mad Men theme song).  Kitson kept it all in his trousers, which by the way looked good.  He needn't have worried about that.

Anyway, a week of Kitson comedy in September was a delightful surprise.  The festival is a lot of fun and offers up some of the best comedians in town (and the best comedians stopping by on holiday).  Highly recommend you check it out next year.  You never know who you might see or what comedians you might discover.  Or what unexpected Off-Broadway and Broadway star's penis might show up.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Kitson brings As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th, 2012, This Show Has No Title to St. Ann's Warehouse this season.  It's a push in a new direction for him and I'm curious how those who have not seen a lot of his work before might react to it as well as how his fans might take to the new material. 

*So to speak.  Brooklyn is huge.  I live at one end.  This was at the other.  But still a one train journey for me and I did not need my passport.  Woohoo.  I'm not sure who I should thank for getting Daniel Kitson to come to town for a week after his busy month in Edinburgh--Eugene Mirman, Ben Folds who was performing in NYC the same week, or John Oliver.  Anyway I thank you all for making this happen. 
**I could see Kitson peering out from the curtain watching Demetri Martin's set.  It's hard to be stealthy with shiny glasses on. I guess he had been doing this throughout much of the show.  Some comics came out to watch the other performers on stage so it was fun to watch them react to their pals and compatriots.
***For the International readers of this blog (hello, bonjour, hola, dzien dobry, merhaba, salam aleikum etc...), it's a natural toiletries brand that makes sort of famously hippie products which a lot of people feel don't work as well as regular chemical products. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Daniel Kitson: New York Comedy Update

Daniel Kitson made an appearance at last night's Whiplash show (photos) in New York.  Sarah Silverman was an unannounced performer on the same bill.  Kitson, with mock-outrage, complained as he came on stage that in the past he had had to follow Louis CK on stage and here had to follow Silverman after she'd told rape jokes where she'd gotten three women to laugh (I had never seen her perform before and I loved the set).

As previously discussed I cannot really review comedy.  I find I have so little distance to judge things critically.  And I get distracted by the comedy itself!  I'm working on that.  But I thought it was worth a quick report/update for the blog and for anyone who cares on what might be in store for future shows--or not.  When I saw Kitson do some work-in-progress shows earlier this year there was a lot of material that did not make the cut into his Where Once Was Wonder show so it is hard to say where this might go.

Kitson seemed to be working on new material wholly unrelated to Where Once Was Wonder.*  He had his little moleskine notebook which he referred to from time to time.  I really enjoy watching him work.  Since even his notebook ramblings tend to be very strong material, I recommend seeing him when he is trying out new material.  It's instructive to see him working out how material feels.  There were a few moments he acknowledged the material was not where he wanted it...other points where he performed the shell of the idea and judged himself on whether that was enough.

I'm just geeky enough to enjoy the process of the comedy--maybe just as much as the comedy. 

He told some New York anecdotes which sounded like they were fresh observations from this week--"I was at the park in DUMBO eating a taco...See I'm just like you."

He did some crowd work.  He noticed a couple who were getting validation for their laughter from each other.  He complained he had no one in his life so he had to just have those conversations in his own head (he later acknowledged that the couple was lovely together).  He was talking about his significant weight loss in "stone" and there was some chattering in the audience which distracted him.  He investigated.  Turns out the audience members were trying to convert stone to pounds.  There was an awkward moment when a woman in front of me was texting.  He called her out on it and it turned out her grandmother was in the hospital and she was getting an update from her mother on her grandmother's condition.  Kitson was not going to be swayed by the old "sick grandmother" routine pressed further for the diagnosis (pneumonia in case you were wondering). 

I could see a few themes he was batting around in the material:  text/subtext, how we communicate, how we engage in the world and view it from our own perspective, how we are not adaptable and when surprisingly we are,whether we are knowable, how people see us and how that changes depending on who they are.  And no Kitson show is complete without his ever perky perspective on life ("Everything is pointless") and his observations about himself (noting when he looks at his own notebook and sees what he has written sometimes he thinks "I am a tool."). 

Looking forward to see his other performance this week at the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival.  Tickets are selling quickly for Saturday's show...don't miss out!

*I really hope he plans on touring Where Once Was Wonder to New York.  But I think it would be ideal to see it tandem with the new theater show, As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title.  In case anyone was asking my opinion.  No one was.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Daniel Kitson: Bringing the Laughs to New York

Stop everything you are doing and go buy some tickets for the Saturday Night Talent Show: Speech & Debate show at the Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival because Daniel Kitson is going to be appearing.

I loved Kevin Townley so much in Goodbar and I have been meaning to check out one of his Talent Show nights in Brooklyn, now I have the perfect excuse.

It's a very good line-up including Mark Oppenheimer, Todd Barry, Dave Hill, Eugene Mirman, Hari Kondabolu, Brendon Small, Stuckey and Murray.

Have you bought your tickets.  Good.  I will see you there.  And just to be clear if you see me hyperventilating that's totally normal. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: NT Live

"A good day" according to Christopher Boone, a 15 year-old on the autism spectrum, involves "projects."  His project is to investigate the mysterious death of a neighbor's dog by a pitchfork.  However, his journey is complicated by his difficulties in interpreting the behavior of those around him.  He uncovers more than he bargains for and it propels him further from his home than he has ever gone before.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time* is adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon by Simon Stephens (Morning, Harper Regan).  Marianne Elliott (War Horse) directs this inventive and immersive production which beautifully and creatively illustrates the distance between the world Christopher lives in full of numbers, facts, star-gazing, and absolute truths ("I never lie," he says and he means it) and the rest of the adult world where we never quite say what we mean, where lies are told, where metaphors abound and where honesty is not always rewarded or understood.  The distance between these two worlds is immense and Christopher attempts to cross that distance gingerly, one foot in front of the other. 

There is much to celebrate in this production.  Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett bring their talents to direct the movement here.  Building space, objects, and furniture out of people, expressing Christopher's emotional experience as he becomes overwhelmed with sights and sounds, and creating the sensation of life on the London Underground it is a rich feast of strong narrative movement.

The set designer Bunny Christie has created a Tron-like space that manages to act as both a digital and analog surface.  Chalk outlines are drawn on the black floor, but points of light also project from the floor to define spaces, show star maps or track Christopher's journey.  Digital text projections are also used.  The show is staged in the round with illuminated benches around the illuminated floor where the actors and props wait to be called upon.  Sound designer Ian Dickinson builds a cacophony of sound layers to represent the oppressive experience that Christopher has when he is confronted by the noise of the world.

I enjoyed the way in which language gets foregrounded in this play.  Because of Christopher's literal understanding of the world people are constantly forced to reexamine how they express themselves to him.  He acts as fascinating mirror reflecting the difference between what we say and what we mean. 

But despite a creative and empathic staging to render the experience of an autistic boy, the story for me fell short in the end.  Act One was moving along fine.  I found Christopher to be compelling character and I enjoyed watching him work to unfold the mystery before him.  Act One gave us a lot of magical thinking--seeing how Christopher thought and felt.  But in Act Two a sentimentalism crept in that for me made the material too local and literal. The show got too manipulative for my liking.  Maybe that old War Horse resistance of mine got kicked up. Things started to drag, the momentum for me faltered in Act Two.

I would like to read the play because there was a meta-layer to the show where Christopher begins to perform his life as a play and I found that to be a curious but not a cohesive element of this production.  It was explicit in the second Act but it cropped up in such a way that made me wonder if I had missed references to it in the first Act.  I found it jarring and as much as I love a bit of meta or a lot of meta (As of 1.52pm GMT), I thought as it was staged here it actually played into this sentimentalism in a way that was unwelcome for me. 

Luke Treadaway, as Christopher, does a great job of creating a character who struggles to express himself emotionally.  When the sea of emotion becomes too much for Christopher, Treadaway managed to communicate that turmoil.  I struggled more with his tutor Siobhan performed by Niamh Cusack.  Cusack's narrator role came across really irritating.  Una Stubbs was delightful as Christopher's neighbor and the ensemble handled a variety of roles along with the dynamic movement very well. 

I think those less resistant to sentimentality would find it moving.   Overall I was impressed with the dynamic production even if I lost interest as it dragged on. 

*It must be said that I am reviewing the filmed version of a play and not a live performance.  It's the first NT Live show I have been to.  I am not sure how this has impacted my viewing and my impressions of the piece.  Filming changes the pacing, the focus and the way in which the material is presented.  I am keenly aware of the shot structure, off-screen versus on-screen choices being made and the use of a overhead camera to capture the full effect of the floor projections etc.  It is not the same experience as seeing live theater.  You have a lot less power as an audience member in the filmed version.  A lot more control belongs to someone else.  That said, as filmed theater goes I thought the direction of the filmed version was quite good.  The cameras were deployed strategically for a show staged in the round and to capture much of the movement.  There were a lot of medium shots of the cast getting you a lot closer to the performance than might be possible from a regular theater seat. I could have done without some of the fades but it gave me the opportunity to see this show I otherwise would have missed when I had to cancel my London trip. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bring It On: Really Don't

As fun as you imagine a cheerleading All About Eve musical could be, Bring It On turns out to be real gag-me-with-a-spoon, fuck-me-gently-with-a-chainsaw bummer.  An eclectic creative team of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Co-Composer, Co-Lyricist), Tom Kitt (Co, Composer, Co-Arranger/Orchestrator), Jeff Whitty, (Librettist), Amanda Green (Co-Lyricist) and Andy Blankenbuehler (Director, Choreographer) tried to put pep and vigor into this show, but the Jekyll and Hyde story and a dull leading character prevent it from ever getting the high-flying lift it needs. 

A stand-up comedian friend of mine used to say we all had a default genre for movies.  A genre that no matter how bad the film looked we'd go see it because it was OUR genre.  For me, it's teen movies.  I'm super-snobby about a lot of things but give me a prom-related subplot in anything and I'm there.  Naturally I had seen the film Bring It On.  Conveniently my cousins' teen daughters were visiting me for the weekend and for their Broadway show of choice they selected Bring It On (no matter how many times I tried to convince them to see Newsies).  It delivered for the teens with a cute boy as the love interest, crazy cheerleading moves (which involved throwing small women up into the rafters), some great hip-hop lyrics, and a few sassy lines.  For me, I was bored by the lackluster show about a bratty teen who has some life lessons to learn.

The story revolves around Campbell (Taylor Louderman) whose life's dream is to be a cheer captain and win the National Cheerleading Championships.  She leads the team at Truman High which is made up of Über-bitch Skyler (Kate Rockwell), follower Kylar (Janet Krupin) and perennial mascot Bridget (Ryann Redmond).  Campbell decides to let her little next door neighbor Eva (Elle McLemore) join the squad even if she's not the best yet.  Campbell believes in her.  However, just as Campbell's dreams are coming true she finds out she has been redistricted.  She is sent to the other school in town, Jackson High, that does not have a cheerleading squad.  THE HORROR.  At her new school she finds a talented hip-hop dance crew led by Danielle (Adrienne Warren) and tries to convince them to become cheerleaders so they can go to Nationals.  Campbell has a sneaking suspicion that maybe someone orchestrated her ouster from Truman and becomes even more driven to get to Nationals.

I never liked Avenue Q by librettist Whitty and the book here was my biggest problem.  Man was it hard to get on board with this protagonist and her aspirations.  She was not a fully fleshed out character and no matter what she said and did I found her to be silly, frivolous and frankly quite dull.  She was not a heroine or anti-heroine I could get interested in and her redemption comes far too late for me.  My dream would have been to have had the writing staff from Awkward. write the book for this show.  The writing in that TV show, with it's ridiculous slang, knowing characters and grounded teens, is fresh, fun and smart (if you're not watching that show on MTV you are missing out).  This show needed a tone--any tone.  More snark, more sass, more substance.  Instead it was bubble gum bland.   We got far too many songs about Campbell and her stupid dream and I never got invested in her or her lame journey. 

However, Campbell is surrounded by interesting and likable (or love to hate) characters . 
Goofy mascot Bridget was a lot of fun and as performed by Redmond, she was endearing and got most of the big laugh lines.  The remainder of the big laughs went to Gregory Hainey playing La Cienega, a transgender student (thankfully her gender identity was used mostly to suggest that this was a school where someone different could still fit in with the cool kids--though I kind of wish we could move away from the bitchy queen stereotype at times).  Warren as Danielle had a lot of charisma but a lot less stage time.  Frankly I'd rather have seen a musical about her and her dance crew's aspirations.  I liked the stereotypical bitch that Kate Rockwell portrayed.  She had a lot of fun with her character.   But all these characters existed more on the fringe and were not enough to carry the show.

It took until the 6th musical number for me to start to warm up to this show.  I loved the number "Do Your Own Thing" and suddenly the languid pace was dialed up a bit.  The promise of this new setting at Jackson High was definitely a breath of fresh air.  But every time the pendulum swung back to life at Truman High I lost interest again.  Moving to a new school where individuality was celebrated and respected was really interesting.  But that was the problem, everything around Campbell was a lot more compelling to me than she was.  The hip-hop lyrics brought a lot of the energy but it was not enough to get the whole show moving.  The cheerleading stunts are crowd-pleasers.  But no matter how high you throw someone in the air, it does not necessarily mean I won't be super-bored as you do so.  

Eventually the story ends up being about friendship, dreams, and how life is not really about what you thought was important in your teen years.  It's a worthwhile message but it gets delivered in a boring bottle blond package. Do yourself a favor.  Instead, rent All About Eve and then watch the entire first season of Awkward.  You're welcome.