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A whirlwind visit to New York

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Back from Broadway: I was only in New York City for four nights (after arriving on a red-eye), but I managed to pack in a lot: five shows, four museums and my Columbia grad school reunion. Hey, it’s the city that never sleeps, right? I kept my Beehive Facebook readers up to date on my cultural activities, but here’s a little more detail on the shows I saw plus several museum exhibitions:

“GHOST: THE MUSICAL,” Lunt-Fontanne Theatre: I like to see shows in previews because 1) it’s easier to get tickets; and 2) it’s fun to be ahead of the curve. So I snapped up a last-minute discount mezzanine seat to the musical adaptation of the 1990 movie. The show is slavishly faithful to the musical, right down to the iconic pottery scene, but what stands out isn’t the storyline, which teeters between cheesy and affecting, but the over-the-top scenic design. Basically the whole stage is smothered in massive video screens — including the back and side walls — with many on moveable panels that slide, swoop and fold out. (The audience is bombarded with graphics, rapidly changing colors, big blocks of text and even video of the dancers complementing the live ones on stage.) Pretty impressive stuff, but there’s a price to pay for all that complexity: With half an hour to go in the show, I watched as two of the big movable panels crashed into each other, bringing the production to a grinding halt. (It started about 20 minutes later.) As bad luck would have it for the show, I was there the same night as the New York Times and Daily News critics. They were harsh on the music and the chemistry between leads Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy, and made a few cracks about the scenic mishap, of course. Dazzled as I was by the visuals, I felt a little more kindly toward the experience. Even though I knew exactly what was going to happen, I really wanted the show to start again after the scenery mishap. (Which I guess is a much better sign than wanting to bolt for the door.)

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CLYBOURNE PARK, Walter Kerr Theatre: Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play is an unauthorized riff on the classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” The first act, set with a precise, caustic precision in the 1950s, gives us the “Raisin” story from the point of view of the family in an all-white neighborhood aiming to sell its home to a black family. It turns out that the owners — whose troubled veteran son committed suicide in the home — don’t even realize that the buyers are black until the fussy head of the neighborhood homeowners association (whom we actually meet in “Raisin”) confronts them. What ensues is a charged conversation about race. Then, in the second act, we’re at the same house, only 50 years later, and a white family wants to move in after knocking it down. (Ah, the irony.) Norris uses the same cast members from one act to another — the black maid in the first act becomes an outspoken neighbor in the second who wants to retain the historical integrity of the neighborhood — and there is a bevy of intricate parallels between the two storylines. (In the first act, for example, a black man tries to restrain a white man from fighting; the roles are reversed in the second.) This isn’t a trite or easy play: Here we are, half a century later, and the way that the second act slips into an explosive confrontation over race seethes with authenticity. The play is a beautifully constructed, grimly textured commentary on how issues of race still shape so much of what we are as a country.

LEAP OF FAITH, St. James Theatre: My goal was to see Broadway star Raul Esparza live, and I achieved it: Esparza offers a full-throttled performance in this adaptation of the 1992 film. He plays preacher Jonas Nightingale, a full-fledged scammer who travels the country with his calculating sister (Kendra Kassebaum of “Wicked” fame) and a bus full of gospel singers. The storyline isn’t exactly groundbreaking: the preacher is nearly shut down by the local sheriff (played by Jessica Phillips), whose son just happens to be in a wheelchair. Will the cynical Jonas actually facilitate an actual miracle? The production is an odd combination of glitz and hard-scrabble destitution, and in what I think is the weakest conceit, it’s presented as a traveling show that’s made it all the way to godless Manhattan. Still, I was a lot more taken with Esparza’s bounteous performance, Alan Mencken’s music and the stunning rainstorm finale than most of the critics, who absolutely loathed the show.

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NOW. HERE. THIS, Vineyard Theatre. The gang from “[title of show]” is back, this time with a cheeky, endearing musical that is part autobiographical and part existential musing about our all too brief time on this planet of ours. The draw in this show for me is Fresno’s Heidi Blickenstaff, who along with collaborators Susan Blackwell, Jeff Bowen and Hunter took the scrappy “[title of show]” all the way to Broadway. This newest installment in the franchise isn’t really a sequel — it’s more like a checking-in on the four friends while allowing them to expand on their personal histories. The narrative is loosely structured as a trip to the Museum of Natural History, which allows the four characters the chance to contemplate birds, bees and the idea that life itself is a pretty amazing circumstance — all the while taking little side trips into childhood. Blickenstaff shares touching tales from her own Fresno upbringing, from ravaging her babysitter’s kitchen floor to a poignant account of the death of her beloved grandmother. Her most prominent theme: the high expectations of her perfectionist lawyer father and his inability to tell her “I love you.” The songs are fun and the tone light, but while keeping it casual, the show is flecked with some pretty intense philosophical musings: Just why are we here? The suggestion offered by our merry quartet: Live in the moment. (Hence the title.) I have to admit: More than a few times in the days since I’ve seen the show, I’ve whispered to myself “Now. Here. This.” And it’s made a difference. (I got to catch up with Heidi after the show, and I’ll be writing an upcoming column about her next exciting project, the musical revue “First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb,” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.)

SILENCE! THE MUSICAL, P.S. 122 Theatre. On each trip to New York, I reserve one of my show slots for a truly offbeat small musical. (Last time it was “Toxic Avenger.”) “Silence” is a satire of “The Silence of the Lambs,” and if you think that’s a weird choice for source material, that was the intention of the creators. Rambunctious from start to finish, this wicked romp brings us none other than a singing and dancing Hannibal Lechter. (It’s also amazingly profane; it makes “The Book of Mormon” seem downright tame.) After seeing the glitz of Broadway with “Ghost” and “Leap of Faith,” it was refreshing to see a lower-budget production that relies on cleverness instead of million-dollar sets. And it’s hard to resist a musical with lyrics like “Put the f—ing poodle in the basket; I’d kill you but there’s someone at the door.”

MUSEUM VISITS:

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. A compelling special exhibition, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” (through June 3), has a premise you don’t often find in a museum show: Focus on the collectors. Gertrude Stein and her brothers Leo and Michael were important patrons of modern art in Paris in the first part of the 20th Century. They championed Matisse and Picasso in those struggling artists’ early days, turning their Parisian apartments into temporary salons to which movers and shakers in the art world flocked. In a sense, they helped make Picasso but later couldn’t afford him. One thing that struck me from the exhibition is how brittle the egos were of the personalities involved: Leo and Gertrude had a terrible falling out when he criticized her writing and her taste in Picasso’s later art; then she and Picasso had a falling out when she sniffed that his poetry wasn’t up to snuff.

WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART: I’d never had the chance to attend a Whitney Biennial before, and the 2012 installment (through May 27) is an invigorating whirl of sculpture, painting, installations, and photography. One of the most talked about installations is by Dawn Kasper, a performance artist who has moved her entire studio into the museum and is there every hour the exhibition is open. (She even moved all her books and music into the space.) She’s very accessible; I walked right up to her and chatted with her. It’s an intriguing idea: an artist “performing” as an artist but also using the space as a legitimate work area.

FRICK COLLECTION: It’d been more than a decade since I dropped in this little gem of a museum, housed in the former Frick Mansion on 5th Avenue. (The museum is particularly aimed for its extensive collection of Renoirs.) I took a charming docent tour (limited to just five people), and we ended up focusing on the museum’s three Vermeer paintings (quite a coup considering the artist only did 34 paintings that everyone agrees are by him). Ah, to be Mr. Frick and make a fortune in industry, then build a fancy house and buy some of the world’s great paintings.

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART: The show to see is the powerhouse retrospective “Cindy Sherman,” (through June 11) which brings together more than 170 photographs from the mid-1970s to the present. Sherman has worked as her own model for more than 30 years, and she works by herself without an assistant, over the years creating a flurry of character portraits that serve as a feminist critique on the nature of representation in art. Whether it’s her pointed but somehow empathetic portrayals of slightly blowsy Park Avenue matrons or her cutting critiques on the fashion industry, the images somehow seem both tacky and High Art, riveting in their fierce point of view. This show travels to San Francisco in July, at which point I plan to write about it more — a must-see show at SFMOMA. I also recommend another great MOMA exhibition: “Print/Out,” which offers a survey of modern printmaking techniques. It runs through May 14.

Responses to "A whirlwind visit to New York"

BJ says:

I saw “Clybourne Park” during its San Francisco run. For a show that deals with race in a harsh, unapologetically honest way, it was unexpectedly funny to the point of almost nervous laughter at times. One of the best plays I have ever seen.