Hindle Wakes (Mint Theater Company)

A young woman from the mill-town Hindle returns home to her parents after a weekend getaway.  Wakes Weeks began as religious festivals but then became secular (bank) holidays where factories would close down up to ten days.  Those who could afford it might spend their time at Blackpool, a local English seaside resort akin to New York’s Coney Island.  Written by Stanley Houghton, Hindle Wakes essentially is the aftermath of “spring break” circa 1912.

One hundred years ago, this play was an enormous hit in England, subsequently made into four films, two in the silent era.  A Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University banned its students from all theaters performing the play.  The Guardian wrote that Hindle Wakes “not only scandalized playgoers, but persons who had never been inside a theater and who were never likely to visit one joined in the general outcry.”  When the play landed on Broadway that same year, it failed largely due to a negative New York Times review.  During a 1922 revival, the paper changed its mind and said “it is now, as it was then … a shrewd, and nourishing and artful comedy.”  Ninety five years later, the Mint Theater has mounted Hindle Wakes for the first time in New York since then.

What was going on in the minds of young men and women, and also their parents, back in the day?  Our playwright, Stanley Houghton, wrote over a dozen plays, many of which called for women’s sexual and economic freedom.  One hundred years later, this play remains topical.  Directed by Gus Kaikkonen, a frequent Mint collaborator, the production values (set, costumes) are top notch and the cast is excellent.  Even the maid, in a bit part, is perfect.  This play takes place over two days following a spring break dalliance in 1912.  What was on the playwright’s mind back then?  What do these characters think and why?  Simple and straight forward, a serious comedy with big ideas, Hindle Wakes is a rediscovered classic.  My advice: run to see this one.


The Homecoming Queen (Atlantic Theater Company)

Set in the Imo State of present day Nigeria, Ngozi Anyanwu’s play The Homecoming Queen has been given its world premiere in the smaller, more  intimate Stage 2 space of the Atlantic Theater Company.  The result is equally a feeling of community and of eavesdropping on one house whose daughter, the bestselling author Kelechi, has returned home from New York after fifteen years away.  Her father is still alive, proud but obviously much older.  There is a lot to talk about and also not talk about, as in many families.  Kelechi anxieties are front and center; she’s taking pills to help herself cope.

The play itself is excellent with a structure that goes back and forth in time as the story unfolds.  We see these characters peel back their histories.  The best friend from childhood.  The new house girl.  The “chorus” represented by four women who are the townsfolk, neighbors, gossips, historians and singers, namely, the community.  Directed by Awoye Timpo (Associate Director of last year’s great Broadway revival of Jitney), the effect of surrounding the audience with these ladies ingeniously centers the listener to a place.  You never completely lose sight of them which nicely conveys the density of this area’s population (thanks, Google).

No plot spoilers here.  Kelechi, our Homecoming Queen is played by Mfoniso Udofia, a playwright (last season’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau) who confidently returns to acting in this emotionally fulfilling role.  Excellent work throughout this cast, notably by Segun Akande as Obina, the childhood friend who has found success in his homeland.  In a week where the President of the United States was quoted as having referred to African nations as “shitholes,” the need for theater to continue to shine spotlights on all peoples and their stories remains vitally important.  A beautifully realized piece, The Homecoming Queen is most welcome in my worldview.


Ballyturk (St. Ann’s Warehouse)

I rarely hate something so completely as to want to run out of the theater to save my mortal soul.  In this 90 minute exercise of pretentious drivel, I had to (had to!) peek at my phone to see how much more boredom there was left to endure.  I was about 65 minutes into Ballyturk.  65 minutes more than needed and a full 25 minutes to escape.  Do I leave now?  That was the tension created by this play.  If you are a fan of Beckett and Waiting for Godot, perhaps you may find some sort of diverting forgettable thrill.  For everyone else, save your cash.

Promised as “gut-wrenchingly funny,” this Irish import was written and directed by Enda Walsh, the Tony winning book writer for the exquisite musical Once and the co-creator (with David Bowie) of the stylized mess called Lazarus.  Third time for me is not a charm.  For those readers still on the fence:  two men in a Ballyturk flat go about their lives seemingly playacting.  Dancing around to records, flouring themselves, getting dressed, being silly, having conversations which may or may not be real, imagined or past events.  None of it is funny, really.  Antic, yes.  Gut-wrenchingly hilarious, no, without any question whatsoever.

Unfortunately for Ballyturk, a visitor of sorts arrives who has one of the longest and singularly most boring monologues in the history of theater.  While that is an exaggeration for sure, the comment is much funnier than anything in Ballyturk.  The surprise last minute ending was at least interesting; inviting an opportunity to consider what this crap was all about – even if by this point, you could care less.


Miss Saigon

I am not sure it will ever be possible to stage a production of Miss Saigon that is better than the revival closing on Broadway this week.  Extraordinarily well-directed by Laurence Connor (School of Rock, Les Miserables), this musical was riveting from start to finish.  I remember the original production which I saw in 1993 and liked.  The show still suffers (slightly) from the singing every line overkill typical of Broadway during this period.  But it soars so high from the glorious voices of its cast to the dramatic staging, scenery, lighting and focused commitment to storytelling.

What does extraordinarily well directed even mean?  The musical opens in Dreamland, a Saigon whorehouse in 1975 frequented by American soldiers during the Vietnam War and run by The Engineer (a superb Jon Jon Briones whose 11:00 number, The American Dream, surpassed my memory of the original). With a huge ensemble cast, every Marine and Bar Girl on stage has a reason to be there.  You can see and follow lots of individualized stories going on amidst the seedy action and tensions.  This is not a chorus standing around to fill space, these are all actors embodying the scene.  Greatness is usually in the details and this Miss Saigon has them all covered.

Eva Noblezada plays Kim, forced into The Engineer’s service after her family was murdered and meets Chris (Alistair Brammer, excellent), a soldier stationed in Saigon.  An updated version of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, what follows is a doomed romance of an Asian woman abandoned by her American lover.  Ms. Noblezada was simply astonishing.  The beauty and clarity of her voice in combination with an exceptionally dramatic face fully conveyed the anquish, hope, fear and dreams of Kim.  I loved this production.  Yes, Miss Saigon is melodrama combined with its famous helicopter scene.  But when the blades are rotating and the breezes are literally blowing, it’s Broadway magic.


The Drowsy Chaperone (54 Below)

Quite clearly the Best Musical of 2006 (the Tony went to Jersey Boys) and one of my all-time favorites, The Drowsy Chaperone celebrated its tenth anniversary with a two show reunion at 54 Below.  The evening was narrated by the original Man In Chair and book author Bob Martin.  Many of the original cast members were present including Tony winner Beth Leavel who, as the title character, keeps her “eyeball on the highball” in her hand.  For fans of this show, this concert version was great fun.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical parody of 1920s Broadway which began life as a stag party skit created for the real life marriage of Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf in 1997.   As Man in Chair, the character of Bob Martin plays his record album of the (imaginary) 1928 hit The Drowsy Chaperone, described as “mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding.”  As Man in Chair wryly observes, “of course gay wedding has a different meaning nowadays… back then it just meant FUN!”  From the Toronto Fringe Festival, the show evolved and hit the big time in 2006.  Nominated for thirteen Tonys, it won six of them.  As a bonus during this concert, Lisa Lambert, the show’s co-composer and original Drowsy Chaperone, performed that character’s long since abandoned song about being “drowsy” which was later replaced by the show’s anthem, “As We Stumble Along.”

From a 2015 Broadwayworld.com review of a production in Massachusetts:  “The Drowsy Chaperone is one of those shows that is inherently comical in its nature: it is literally laugh-out-loud funny, portraying the lives and actions of each of its characters as almost too absurd to be believed.The Drowsy Chaperone is really a beautiful show that is saturated with singing, dancing, some very odd characters and an almost too-simple plot that makes this show awesome.”  To be honest, it’s even better than that.  Bucket list this one next time it comes to town.  In the meantime, check out the vast array of talent that performs at 54 Below, Broadway’s Supper Club in New York. 

Special note to our friends in St. Louis:  Beth Leavel is coming to the Muni this summer as Mama Rose in Gypsy.


Once On This Island

Staged in the near perfectly suited Circle in the Square Theater, Once On This Island is back on Broadway.  Fair disclosures:  I saw the original world premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon in 1990 and then attended its Opening Night on Broadway later that year.  My great childhood friend, Gerry McIntyre, was in the cast.  I know the show, love the show and was looking forward to its new incarnation.

This revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s first Broadway musical (Ragtime, Seussical) was widely praised.  I attended the show with David and Sara who both LOVED it.  To be honest, I am firmly in the LIKED it category.  The setting was fantastic.  A sandy beach, ocean water and the Islanders greet us on arrival.  A thunderstorm rolls in and “One Small Girl” is frightened.  As a distraction, the storytellers tell her about Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore, excellent).  She is a dark skinned Islander who falls for Daniel (Isaac Powell), a lighter skinned boy from the wealthier class.  With exceptional music and lyrics, the whole fable is magical.  Special kudos to Kenita R. Miller (Mama Euralie) and Alex Newell (Asaka) who were both terrific and fun to watch.

So why the LIKED it category?  I found the direction and pacing here slightly frenetic, especially in the beginning.  The staging in the round forces the cast to occasionally have their back to you and, as a result, I found the lyrics to get lost (or swallowed by the sound design which was odd given I was centrally seated in the third row).  I was reminded of the 2012 Godspell revival in the same theater in which songs also seemed aggressively “amped up” and lyrics sadly sacrificed.  Once On This Island is a beautiful show and this is a very good version.  I wished I loved it as much as my fellow theatergoers.  Perhaps I am overly familiar with the material?  In this case, I really don’t think so.


Farinelli and the King

When Mark Rylance comes to town, I get tickets.  I’ve seen most of his performances in New York, starting with his Tony winning turn in the farce Boeing Boeing as a bumbling deadpan clueless best friend from Wisconsin.  He was screamingly hilarious.  Then came another Tony for Jerusalem as a drunken-party-man living in a trailer in the woods and taking on the world in a colossus of a performance, one of my favorites ever.  Add in Broadway turns in La Bete, Twelfth Night (as Olivia) and the title role in Richard III plus Nice Fish at St. Ann’s Warehouse – so yes, I’m a huge fan.

Understandable then to be excited that he is back on stage here in Farinelli and the King playing the Spanish mad King Philippe V.  The play was written by his wife, Claire Van Kampen.  The stage is set as a grand presentation of a courtly theater with some audience members seated onstage and lit by candlelight as in “back in the day.”  So disappointing then to sit through a play in which nothing really happens other than some musings from a mad king, an underdeveloped story about his wife and a countertenor who sings arias beautifully (and arguably too often).  The singing and the jarringly odd contemporary language occasionally scattered throughout did not hide the lack of substance.

Despite the rousing standing ovation from the audience in the performance I attended, the entire evening is frankly dull and unfortunately pointless.  Was this about music as a healing force?  Art and fame?  Being a King is a bummer?  Castrated singers are hot?  Some combination of all that?  As there was no story arc to latch onto perhaps due to thin relationships between the characters, it was hard to tell.  This seems to me, therefore, to be an exercise in watching Mr. Rylance act.  He opens the play with a fishing pole in one hand and a goldfish bowl in the other.  Mad, I tell you, mad.  Farinelli and the King was a waste of time, sad to say.


The Dead, 1904 (Irish Repertory Theater)

Heaps of praise have been lavished on this short story by James Joyce written as the final piece in his 1914 collection, Dubliners.  Last year, Irish Rep adapted The Dead into an immersive theater piece.  The play is performed at the American Irish Historical Society in their sumptuous Fifth Avenue digs across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Audience members arrive at once was a private mansion to join the partygoers for a bit of music, conversation and then dinner in the dining room.  Seemed like a fun idea to join an Irish clan in the early 1900s for a home holiday reception the week before Christmas.

First, the dinner option.  Regular tickets were $150 with some wine, whiskey and port served along the way.  About a dozen of us were in this category.  While you sit a little away from the action (when you are not standing, which is a lot of the time), there was no problem seeing the play.  For $300, dinner is included and you sit around the center table facing the action.  At the $1,000 level, you are at the center table amongst the actors.  The meal looked perfectly adequate, if rushed.  Not much else happens.

A few characters are late, one may or may not be drunk when he gets there. Thankfully he arrives a little tipsy.  Many sing, some dance.  Minor flirtations.  A hint of political differences.  After dinner, the audience is escorted to one of the visiting couples bed chambers to hear about Gretta’s lost love (Melissa Gilbert, Little House on the Prairie).  What follows is a brooding meditation from Gabriel (Rufus Collins) after she falls asleep.  Interior monologues may work on the page but not here.  The scene drags an already slow evening into immersive boredom.  While there are certainly worse holiday offerings in New York right now, this is a fairly expensive and  skippable option.


BLKS (Steppenwolf Theater Company, Chicago)

Consider this improbable yet entertaining question:  what comedies would Neil Simon write if he was a new black lesbian playwright emerging today?  Written by Aziza Barnes, BLKS is about women in their twenties going about everyday life.  They are black.  Some straight, some gay.  They go to work.  They have relationships in various states of disrepair.  They go to the clubs.  They are dreaming and searching and dealing.  And one of them is undergoing a “pussy apocalypse.”  Some of this absurdity is laugh out loud funny.

The aforementioned disaster opens the play when one of our characters discovers she has a mole on her clitoris.  I do not lie.  A friend who lives with her declares, “when you find a mole on your clit, it’s definitely a day drinking day.”  The bottle appears and situation comedy via Brooklyn ensues.  Another friend soon appears to join them as she’s also having a bad day.  Turns out she discovered her boyfriend has been cheating with a woman who drinks red wine with her Popeye’s fried chicken.  We are in the land of big, broad comedy  used as therapy to laugh through life’s misadventures.

Of course the play has its more serious moments and they feel a bit contrived.  Too much happens over the course of one night and the messaging moments can feel heavy handed.   Suspending disbelief, which is what we normally do with situation comedies, is the way to go.  The cast here is excellent.  The opening scene of Act II between our smart gal June (Leea Ayers), her new suitor from the club, Justin  (Namir Smallwood) and her medically traumatized roommate (Nora Carroll) is the definition of farce.  I have never been to Steppenwolf before but I’ve seen  their work and their troupe on the New York stage.  BLKS was my pick while I was visiting Chicago.  Funny stuff from a great new voice.


Hundred Days (New York Theater Workshop)

Perhaps Hundred Days is best described as an ethereal, fragile, therapeutic, ultimately joyous musical autobiography.  Staged as a concert with intermittent dialogue, this show was created by and stars the Bengson’s with Sarah Gancher who also contributed to the book.  Shaun Bengson is a soft-spoken musician probably best described as an introvert.  Abagail Bengson is also a musician who had some major unexplained family implosion when she was a teenager.  While a much bigger personality than her husband, she is also the more fragile; a worrisome type.  The two meet in their early twenties and get married in three weeks.  Ten years later, they tell us their very intimate and quite moving story in song.

The title refers to a philosophical question: what would you do if you knew the love of your life only had one hundred days left to live?   That’s the kind of tension in Abagail’s mind.  How could she go on?  The music is sort of indie-rock meets folk pop and is performed by six talented people, including the Bengson’s.  All of them sing, play instruments and are used effectively without getting in the way of our central couple.  The staging by Anne Kauffman is beautifully austere, complementary to the story and has almost dreamlike imagery.  Movement is credited to Sonya Tayeh.

Mrs. Bengson’s singing voice is a combination of so many things that it is hard to describe – rocker, banshee, yodeler, folk singer and siren.  Given the character she plays is herself, the whole effect is somewhat unforgettable.  Very intimate reenacted conversations where the Bengson’s discuss life, dreams and fears rounds this concert to a fully satisfying piece of storytelling.  At the end, we are told that the last song of this memorable show is actually the first song they wrote together.  Based on what came before, we completely understand why it was written.