After returning to work Tuesday from my recent trip to New York and Washington, I got right back into the busy Fresno culture season. But I promised to fill you in on my various adventures. My final tally in New York: seven plays and two museums. Here’s my theater recap:
MATILDA THE MUSICAL, Shubert Theatre: My favorite show of the trip. I predict that when the Tony nominations are announced Tuesday morning, this import from London will score more nominations than any other show. (I’m not exactly going out on a limb here; last year the musical won more Olivier awards, the British equivalent of the Tonys, than any show in history.) In terms of Broadway depicting children, the tone of this smart and crisp adaptation of the famed Roald Dahl book about a genius little girl with pathetic parents is different than anything I’ve seen. It makes “Annie,” the other big currently running musical about a fictional little girl, look like little more than an extended sentimental sugar high. Sentimentality does exist in in “Matilda,” but it is doled out with the severity of a nutrition-minded mom offering a small dollop of whipped cream to top off a piece of pie; the small bit that is there seems to taste even better because of its scarcity.
The show is a marvel to behold, from the beautifully crafted tiled letters that fill every square inch of the front of the theater to the percussive lighting effects. (At one point, a giant “burp” becomes tangible, thanks to the lighting design, as we watch it travel to the front of the schoolroom and right up to the nostrils of the evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, played by the splendid Bertie Carvel.) The staging is a wonder. And Tim Minchin’s music and especially lyrics are so smart they almost hurt.
In this dark tale, the hyper-intelligent Matilda (played by four different girls on Broadway; I saw Milly Shapiro in the role) might be reading Dostoevsky at age 6, but her bumbling, anti-intellectual parents and a totalitarian school seem to thwart her every move. Young Milly impressed me with her deadpan wit and beautiful vocals in the title role, but even more astonishing is the presence of the eight other children who share so many minutes on stage with her. They’re kids, yes, but under the insightful direction of Matthew Warchus, each one seems to connect with a sliver of the adult stoicism that they themselves will no doubt experience in years to come, giving their portrayals a sort of spooky, timeless prescience. “Matilda” doesn’t parade the ten-levels-of-irony cynicism or whip out the deprecating, congratulatory self-awareness that fills so much of our popular entertainments today; it exists in that shadowy world between childhood and adulthood that I suspect has always pretty much remained the same regardless of how clever we try to be about it. I loved this show: I loved how it made me think, feel and remember.
KINKY BOOTS, Hirschfeld Theatre. (Open-ended run.) Light-hearted and clever, this amiable musical knows when to pour on the schmaltz, when to get crisp and restrained, and when to push its message of empowerment. The premise is delightful: A small English shoe manufacturer falls on hard times, and when the disinterested son, Charlie Price (played by Stark Sands), inherits the company from his father, odds seem pretty high the place will have to close. Fortuitously, Charlie bumps into a gravelly drag queen named Lola (a stellar Billy Porter), who off-handedly remarks that the drag community could really use well-built boots. And thus a niche market is born — once Charlie can convince his factory workers to shift gears. The first act of the show is terrific, with Harvey Fierstein’s book landing laugh after laugh, and Cyndi Lauper’s music and lyrics adding a fresh, tuneful charm. The second act dips a bit as Charlie turns into a bit of a pill. (This part of the storyline is a little overwrought.) And, let’s face it, the idea of the brittle, aging drag queen dispensing wisdom about inclusion is getting a little worn as a trope. But Jerry Mitchell’s choreography and direction is snappy-sweet, the comedy is bright and the boots are fabulous, of course. Annaleigh Ashford has a niftyscene-stealing number as the potential love interest, and I loved one boxing scene in particular in which one of the drag queens gets on her back, sticks a booted leg high in the air and becomes one of the four “corners” of the ring. “Kinky Boots” has a light touch and a glossy tenderness, and Lauper’s closing song “Raise You Up” ends on a rousing high note.
HANDS ON A HARDBODY, Brooks Atkinson Theatre. (Closed.) I’ve been following the progress of this unlikely musical since its San Diego tryout, thanks to theater friends Kristin Goehring and Marc Gonzales. It was the first ticket I bought when I knew my Broadway dates. So I was dismayed when I learned the show would be closing just two days before I was scheduled to see it. Scrambling, I changed my schedule, and I was privileged to see the second to the last Broadway performance. Based on a little-seen documentary film, the musical tells the story of 10 down-on-their-luck residents of a small Texas town hoping to win a Nissan pickup truck from a local car dealer. The winner is the one who can keep one hand on it for the longest period of time, with 15-minute breaks every six hours. As the contest wears on, we get to know each character, “A Chorus Line”-style, with Hunter Foster and Keith Carradine leading a first-rate cast.
Yes, the subject matter is peculiar, and I think the title was an especially hard sell, but this tuneful, vibrant show really came alive for me. Director Neil Pepe figured out ingenious ways to keep the static situation — 10 people just standing around with their hands on a truck — into a fluid, graceful tableau of nearly constant motion. (Sergio Trujillo’s musical staging, which involves the truck being spun by the contestants at various speeds, was wonderful, even exhilarating at times.) What struck me most about the show was how powerfully it voices the concerns and dismay of Americans left behind in the most recent economic crisis. (There’s even a great song about how chains such as Wal-Mart and Applebee’s are swiftly corroding the distinctiveness of our retail landscape.) These characters in rough financial times cope in different ways: through religion, joining the military, working harder but saving less, taking out student loans, sitting out in dismay. Ugly feelings arise, including racism. But through it all, the show admires — but doesn’t glamorize — an underlying American spirit of survival. In the show’s most beautiful moment, the most religious of the characters, played by the amazing Keala Settle, starts the song “Joy of the Lord” with a giggle so tiny I thought it was coming from a woman sitting in front of me. That giggle builds, gathering into a laugh of hurricane strength, and suddenly we’re on our way to syncopated, raucous, hood-pounding finale. Just simply gorgeous. It makes me sad to think that such an original and moving musical couldn’t last longer on Broadway, but I’m glad I was one of the few to get to see it.
PIPPIN, The Music Box Theatre. (Open-ended run.) Director Diane Paulus melds the choreographic style of Bob Fosse with the thrill of the circus in this compelling 40th anniversary revival of the classic musical. The Roger O. Hirson/Stephen Schwartz show, about a mysterious traveling troupe of actors reenacting a (very loose) account of the life of the son on King Charlemagne, retains its ’70s hippie vibe with its self-enlightenment theme, but this rigorously executed and visually thrilling update somehow adds a layer of distance, almost a cold and modern ache, to the experience. The Leading Player — the instigator role originated by Ben Vereen — is played by Patina Miller, who guides the young Pippin (Matthew James Thomas, playing fresh and naive) through his youthful extravagances, including war, love and rebellion. Miller plays the role all sharp angles, flashing her beaming smile and ruthless glare at the same bright, robotic wattage, and it’s effectively creepy. The constant temptations she offers to Pippin — and, later, her disdain for his softness — creates the spine of conflict that grounds the play’s airy excesses. I loved the way Paulus incorporates the “suspense” of the circus into the storyline. (Her visual interpretation of combat, for example, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.) She gives theater veteran Andrea Martin, as the grandmother, a show-stopping number involving a trapeze and the song “No Time At All” that turns into a moment of pure theater joy, and she gets Pippin himself up in the air, flirting with danger. There is laughter and frivolity, of course, but what surprised me most about this “Pippin” is how unsettled it left me. I found myself musing the next day not about high-flying trapezes but about the never-ending cycle of younger generations subsuming those who came before them. Heavy stuff, and more than memorable.
MACBETH, Ethel Barrymore Theatre. (Through July 14) Short description: Alan Cumming plays just about all the roles in Shakespeare’s play. Set in a mental institution, we meet Cumming after a suicide attempt. A doctor and orderly put him under observation. Within the bare, tiled green walls of the ward, Cumming performs “Macbeth,” switching voices and body language as the dialogue bounces back and forth. Some of his interpretations are odd: King Duncan is a giddy, swishy boor, for example. And for those who haven’t freshly read “Macbeth,” the volleying between male characters can be hard to track. Some reviewers have faulted this audacious interpretation for not adding anything to the understanding of the play, terming it little more than a vanity project. Well, of course it’s a vanity project. That’s the whole point. I wasn’t looking for a definitive production of a show I’ve seen many times before; I wanted to know if Cumming is brassy enough to pull it off — and he does. I found the entire restructuring of the play as unfolding within the mind of a disturbed individual to be wildly compelling. And downright scary. (I actually jumped in my seat not once but twice — and that’s saying something.) If we’re all but poor players on a stage, very few of us have the presence and talent to convince a thousand people at a time to shell out big bucks for the privilege of watching us singlehandedly tackle Shakespeare’s famed work.
PETER AND THE STARCATCHER, New World Stages. (Open-ended run.) I didn’t get a chance to see this lauded production — a clever prequel to “Peter Pan” — last year when it was on Broadway. Now that it’s shifted to an Off-Broadway run in a much smaller theater, I suspect I missed some of the beautiful stagecraft for which the play was noted. But there’s still enough of it on display to get a taste for the innovation of the staging.
HIT THE WALL, Barrow Street Theatre. (Closed.) Ike Holter’s new play about the night of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village — a seminal moment in gay-rights history — exploded with a vibrant, you-are-there mentality in this rattling production. (It was directed by Bullard High School graduate Eric Hoff, son of Bullard High School drama teacher Craig Hoff.) The 199-seat Barrow Street Theatre offered an intimate, in-the-round setting as tensions on a hot New York summer day percolate into the riots themselves. (The sprawling ensemble cast introduces us to a wide array of characters and complexities, from a drag queen of color and a young gay woman shunned by her family to a snarling cop and uptight busybody woman hoping to keep the neighborhood “pure.”) The culmination of the play is the riot itself, and with the pounding rock band, strobe lights, sirens and proximity of the actors barreling through the small space, it was like being an eyewitness. A sturdy, thoughtful and compelling show.