The Band’s Visit

The Band’s Visit / book by Itamar Moses, music and lyrics by David Yazbek

The Ethel Barrymore Theatre / directed by David Cromer

Seen on August 15, 2018

Thumbs-up: At once subdued and sublime, this was a transcendent musical experience. It packed so much emotion, thought, and beauty into a brief 90 minutes, becoming a compelling meditation on the power of imagination, art, and love. The music was simply brilliant and opened itself up in perfect harmony with the tonal and thematic arc of the narrative. It was also incredibly refreshing and emotional to hear these Middle Eastern tunes rising from a Broadway stage. All the performances were terrific, but Katrina Lenk (as Dina) and Sasson Gabay (as Tewfiq) were, of course, something else. Scott Pask’s thoughtful and smart set design, Tyler Micoleau’s poetically charged lighting, and Maya Ciarrocchi’s elegant projections were integral to the cumulative effect of this silently explosive feast. On the level of the plot, the Telephone Guy’s presence and function in the piece, with all his visual presence, attested to the lyrical sensibility of Itamar Moses’ book.

Thumbs-down: “Haled’s Song About Love” and “Answer Me” were not nearly as strong and enchanting as the rest of the score. It was somewhat of a bummer to see that the show’s final song was “Answer Me.” That said, this is by no means the kind of musical that would end with a showstopper.

Score:  5/5

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Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen / book by Steven Levenson, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

The Music Box Theatre /  directed by Michael Greif

Seen on August 14, 2018

Thumbs-up: Phenomenal: it truly lives up to the hype. A heart-wrenching, heartfelt story (so much so that it could very easily have led to a gripping play), made even more moving by utterly beautiful music. And, of course, Taylor Trensch’s enchanting performance, which far surpassed that of anyone else on the stage (even though the whole cast was overall very strong): not only was his voice very impressive, but he breathed so much life into his character, creating an Evan Hansen of his own. “For Forever,” “You Will Be Found,” and “So Big/So Small” were probably my favorite numbers. The amazing projection design by Peter Nigrini must also receive its due credit!

Thumbs-down: Perhaps some of the performances, particularly the two understudies who played the Murphys. But even their weakest moments did not detract much from the show’s continual power. Also, some of the songs could have been slightly cropped, making the whole run around 10-15 minutes shorter.

Notes: A compelling, thought-provoking, and highly relevant story about loneliness, mental health, and community, Dear Evan Hansen asks us hard questions that outlive the duration of the show, even as it delights us with its finely crafted, beautiful music.

Score:  5/5

Skintight

Skintight by Joshua Harmon

Roundabout Theatre Company /  directed by Daniel Aukin

Seen on August 11, 2018

Thumbs-up: Though it began on a particularly weak footing, the play gradually, and subtly, soared to impressive heights. Harmon’s script is clearly well-written, and he has a knack especially for dialogue. Perhaps the most prominent feature of the work is its successful blending of a laugh-out-loud comic texture with an ambiguous meditation on the story’s central themes. Two scenes that really stand out are those of Trey and Benjamin’s late-night conversation at the end of Act One, and of Jodi and her father’s subdued confrontation near the end of Act Two. What I loved about the play’s conclusion is that it is anything but a conclusion: thematically open-ended and narratively simple, it adds much to the play as a whole, especially in retrospect. Finally, all the performances were mainly high-caliber. Special shout-out to Will Brittain as Trey and Eli Gelb as Benjamin, both of whom were at once entertainingly caricaturish and compellingly nuanced. Idina Menzel, as Jodi, grew into her character not immediately, but once she did so halfway through Act One, she was a delight to watch. Lauren Helpern’s simple but evocative set and Eric Shimelonis’ ambient sound design were also noteworthy.

Thumbs-down: Perhaps the weakest part of this play was its first scene, in terms of both writing and performances. Not only did the characters’ language feel artificial, but their lines were desperately (and all too clearly) trying to give as much background story as possible. Further, Idina Menzel’s acting throughout that scene was really sloppy and seemed to have received no direction at all. Once Will Brittain’s Trey appeared, however, the play took off the ground.

Also, I wish the play had ultimately explained to us what was actually written in the Hungarian postcard, which Orsolya read out loud, and whose true meaning only she and Eli seemed to understand. There’s a chance that Orsolya’s translation was accurate, but I’d like to believe, based on Eli’s reaction, that something else was going on.

Score:  4.5/5

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare / Public Works musical adaptation conceived by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub / music and lyrics by Shaina Taub

The Public Theater /  directed by Oskar Eustis and Kwame Kwei-Armah

Seen on August 9, 2018

Thumbs-up: The songs were beautiful—despite the various liberties they took with the original text, but also because of their ability to pack so much into so few words. Shaina Taub’s vocal power, and character, was a most welcome surprise. The only character that had some life breathed into him was Andrew Kober’s Malvolio: he did a seriously impressive job of going along with the production’s lighthearted tone but also of exploring the complexities of his character. Seeing him unleash his sweetly anarchic energy near the end was perhaps the high point of my experience. Also: the choral involvement of nonprofessional actors, vocally and visually, was a nice touch, though the initial opening up of the stage to the audience was a bit excessive.

Thumbs-down: Much to my surprise, this turned out to be a radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play—a self-consciously exuberant and lighthearted treatment of it, though too much diluted and somewhat hallowed out. It would be safe to generalize that for every moment that was powerfully fun, there was another that felt one-dimensional. I was also disappointed to discover that they actually did not use the songs Shakespeare himself put into the play, particularly Feste’s magnificently ponderous “For the rain it raineth every day” at the end. In fact, the shocking omission of this song emblematizes the production’s consistent exclusion of the play’s deeper and darker subtexts, as well as its central attempt to turn this work into a family-friendly feel-good show. Finally, with the exception of Andrew Kober as Malvolio (and perhaps Nanya-Akuki Goodrich as Olivia), none of the lead actors brought any sort of depth or personality to their characters, and flattened them out as much as possible.

Notes: This was, ultimately, a fun and musically impressive “show” that substantially departed from Shakespeare’s text in order to make out of it something that it originally is not. If we evaluate it on its own terms (as I think we should), then it can be said to have achieved its artistic, and civic, goals.

Score: 3.5/5

This American Wife

This American Wife / created and performed by Michael Breslin & Patrick Foley

Next Door @ New York Theatre Workshop

Seen on August 6, 2018

Thumbs-up: A high-octane, witty deconstruction of obsession, everyday performativity, and the question of fakery. I found the strongest part of the performance to be its last section, where Patrick was interviewed by Michael in the vein of a confessional and (supposedly) spoke the truth the entire time. This ending was a powerful amplification of the show’s ongoing preoccupation with that seeming divide between performance and sincerity. Overall, though, it was a lot of fun.

Thumbs-down:  The structure of the piece was not as clear as it could have been, and there were certain moments that were overly obscure/too insider-y. Even though this was my second exposure to this piece, I felt puzzled at times, so the experience of a first-timer must have been even more disorienting.

Notes: A weirdly intimate, pleasantly cringeworthy spectacle with some really resonant ideas, though the wider strokes could have benefited from further development.

Score: 4/5

In & Of Itself

In & Of Itself / written and performed by Derek Delgaudio

Daryl Roth Theatre / directed by Frank Oz

Seen on August 5, 2018

Thumbs-up: A truly mind-blowing production, especially as it nears its end. At once meditative and compelling, Delgaudio’s performance felt surprisingly real (as opposed to realistic), having established a rhythm and register of its own from the very start. The show’s preoccupation with identity, the self, and memory was powerful and resonant, and its self-aware ambiguity (read: its interest in our interpretive freedom) was a most welcome detail.

Thumbs-down: As much as everything was executed quite well, I do think the show could have been cropped to an hour. There were roughly 10 minutes of what felt like “filler” moments. In addition, the narrative and thematic arc of the piece could have been a bit more clear and cohesive, though the connection of the ending to the roulettista story was admittedly very smart.

Notes: This man literally knew what was written on 30+ people’s individual cards. WTF?! Also the visual shocker at the very end?!

Score: 5/5 (despite the few weaknesses!..)

Say Something Bunny!

Say Something Bunny! / co-authored by A. S. M. Kobayashi and Christopher Allen

directed and performed by A. S. M. Kobayashi

Seen on August 3, 2018

Thumbs-up: A spellbinding ode to history, memory, and time—both public and private. Kobayashi’s project is both a stellar achievement of historical research/obsession and an elegant demonstration of the power of performance, of embodiment, to reclaim what merely appears to be conquered by the passage of time. Kobayashi’s energy, versatility, and contagious excitement as the orchestrator of this collective exercise were central to the flow of the piece—a flow that was somehow both lighthearted and profound. There is much to be said about the relationship between collective embodiment and remembrance here, but I’ll just note that the notion of mediation seems to be running through every vein of the show. Further, the coda with Larry’s emendations adds a delightfully substantial layer to the entire piece, as Kobayashi lays bare, at the very end and very subtly, her indebtedness to performative creativity, imagination, and license.

Thumbs-down: Just a bit more of the recording could have been skipped (maybe 5-7 minutes). I desperately wanted there to be a punch-in-the-face at the end, something as powerful as (if not more so) the revelation of the father’s death, or something crucial but not yet revealed about the backstory of the recording—which technically did not come, but whose gap was filled by Larry’s frame-shifting slideshow.

Notes: A near-flawless piece that was truly singular in its scope, subject matter, and methodology.

Score: 4.75/5 (I’ll make an exception for this one!)