2017 Theater Year From My Seat

I started my blog in May, committed to recording my thoughts and opinions on the pieces I have seen but without giving away too much information should you decide to invest your time and money.  In the process, I have found that this exercise has greatly improved my recall of those theatergoing experiences.  So why not summarize and highlight my favorites for my year (not necessarily aligned with actual opening dates for the sticklers out there)….

In 2017, I attended 134 productions, 29 of which were on Broadway and the rest were largely in New York.  I did see 7 productions in other cities including Berkeley (CA), Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

Best of the “Not Broadway Category

Company of the Year – Mint Theater

Three exceptionally good productions from this troupe that specialize in reviving lost plays.  This year, we were treated to Yours Unfaithfully (Miles Malleson), The Lucky Ones (A.A. Milne) and The Suitcase Under the Bed (Teresa Deevy).  Very few misfires from this company and I have been a loyal follower for about ten years.  A great opportunity to see what issues and ideas playwrights brought to the table often nearly a century ago.



The Top Ten Best of 2017

In the arbitrary group of off, off-off and out-of-town plays and musicals, these were my favorites this year.  They are listed in the order in which I saw them.  Comments are included only for those whose viewing predates this blog (the rest are linked to the original post).

Picnic (Transport Group)

William Inge’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1953 potboiler of a young, virile drifter who happens onto a small Kansas town.  Exceptional staging and superb acting adding to the immediacy of 85 audience members sitting right in front of the action at the Judson Gym.

The Skin of Our Teeth (Theater for a New Audience)

A revival of another Pulitzer Prize winning play from 1942 by Thornton Wilder (Our Town).  Over three acts we meet a New Jersey family faced with an impending Ice Age, a trip to the Atlantic City boardwalk and the aftermath of war.  Mesmerizing production of a crazy, entertaining play which must have blown audiences away back in the day.

Sundown, Yellow Moon (Ars Nova, WP Theater)

In a small southern college town, the kids come to visit their cranky father in this evocative study of family communication and the lack thereof by Rachel Bonds.  With original songs by the Bengsons (Hundred Days), this was easily one of the best stage designs of the year.


Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Stephen Sondheim’s macabre musical masterpiece, still running downtown.  I saw this three times, including taking lucky out-of-town visitors.  My comments on the third visit:


The View Upstairs (Culture Project)

Based on a true, but largely forgotten event, this musical was about a gay bar in  1973 New Orleans.  32 people were killed by an arsonist.  A celebration of love and a meditation on hate, this one was oddly funny and irredeemably sad.  And still relevant, even more sadly.

Oh My Sweet Land (The Play Company)


Tiny Beautiful Things (Public Theater)


People, Places & Things (St. Ann’s Warehouse)


The Wolves (Lincoln Center)


The Royale (Aurora Theater Company, Berkeley, CA)


Honorable Mentions

Rachael Lily Rosenbloom … and don’t you ever forget it!  (54 Below)

54 Below staged a one night mini-concert of this famed 1973 Broadway musical flop which closed before it opened.  In a nutshell:  this was written for Bette Midler who passed on it.  Plot:  Rachael’s  journey from a Brooklyn fishmonger to fame as a Hollywood gossip columnist to an Oscar nomination followed by a nervous breakdown.  A mixture of disco and Broadway show tunes, this was a fantastically hilarious and entertaining evening.  Trivia buffs:  book, music and lyrics by Paul Jabara (later famous for Donna Summer’s Last Dance, Barbra Streisand’s The Main Event and The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men.  And in the Bette Midler part:  Ellen Greene who later landed the role of a lifetime in Little Shop of Horrors.

Georama:  An American Panorama Told on Three Miles of Canvas (New York Musical Festival)


Worst of the Year

Winner(?) – Peter Pan (Bedlam)


Runners Up:

Joan of Arc:  Into the Fire (Public Theater)

After seeing Talking Heads front man David Byrne’s awesome musical Here Lies Love about Imelda Marcos, I made sure I had tickets to his next effort.  A colossal fail, both idiotic and boring.

Her Portmanteau (New York Theater Workshop)

A double bill with the play Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia, this was an exploration of Nigerian traditions clashing with American life.  Two chapters of a nine part saga that I will never see.

Refugia (Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis)


Measure for Measure (Elevator Repair Service, Public Theater)


Best of the Broadway Category

Broadway Plays

Winner – Indecent 


Runners Up:


Pulitzer Prize winning play by Lynn Nottage about the collapse of industry jobs in Reading, PA and its effects on the citizens of the town.


One of the ten American century cycle plays by August Wilson and a beauty of a story which takes place in an early 1970s unlicensed cab dispatch office.  I am not finished seeing all ten yet and look forward to finishing the list.

A Doll’s House, Part 2




Honorable Mention

The Glass Menagerie

A hugely controversial Sally Field led production which frankly had more haters than admirers.  Laura was played by Madison Ferris, a visably disabled actress, which threw the play’s words into a much harsher context.  The scene with Finn Wittrock as the Gentleman Caller was riveting and perhaps my favorite pairing I’ve ever seen.  I cannot explain how both were not nominated for Tony Awards.  Yes it deconstructed a classic and yes it was a bit of a mess but we were talking about this production for months afterward.  Isn’t that vital theater?  I think so.

Broadway Musicals

Winner:  The Band’s Visit


Runners Up:

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

The Ars Nova hit I first saw in its original incarnation back in 2012 finally made it to Broadway with Josh Groban in a sumptuous, beautifully sung version.

Come From Away

Ridiculously well-directed by Christopher Ashley who won a Tony for his efforts, this tale of strangers whose planes were diverted to a tiny town in Newfoundland on 9/11 is a master class in storytelling.  Twelve people playing multitudes of characters on a grim day in American history based on original interviews.

Sunday in the Park with George

Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford as Seurat and Dot.  Both excelled in another extraordinary revival of this Sondheim musical from 1984.  In this outing, the Chromolume has finally been decoded and we get what the big deal was all about !  Following the superb Daniel Evans/Jenna Russell version from 2008, I believe Sunday is a confirmed masterpiece in which technology has finally caught up with the show.

Groundhog Day


Honorable Mention

SpongeBob SquarePants


Worst of the Year

Play:  Marvin’s Room


Musical:  A Bronx Tale


And, finally, yes I did see Hamilton in Chicago this year.  I pulled it from contention on this list because it’s my blog and the show does not need any more accolades!


Next up in 2018:  Farinelli and the King with Mark Rylance followed by the revival of Once on This Island and 54 Below’s concert staging of The Drowsy Chaperone.  Happy New Year!


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 7)

Freedom Riders:  The Civil Rights Musical

I was born in 1961, the year civil rights activists called Freedom Riders rode interstate buses to the southern United States in order to challenge the non-enforcement of a Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional.  The southern states ignored the ruling and the federal government did nothing to enforce them.  The Freedom Rides put a national spotlight on  this issue.  This was violent, risky stuff.  In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, police cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan and allowed mobs to attack the riders.  In Montgomery, ambulances refused to take the injured to hospitals.  Riders were jailed and, when some of them would not stop singing freedom songs while incarcerated, prison officials took away their mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes.  How big was this movement?  President Kennedy, his brother Robert, then Attorney General, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all figures in this history.  Rich material for a struggle that is unfortunately not over.

So why did I not completely embrace this show?  Three reasons:  the book, the lyrics and the presentation style.  There are 26 scenes in a two hour musical.  In order to move this story along, there is a surface level component at work, with so many characters drawn in two dimensional sketches, at best.  Like another NYMF entry about oppression, A Wall Apart, lyrics are repeated over and over again, but even more so in Freedom Riders.  There are some fine songs throughout although not necessarily grounded in this particular history.  Relentless anthems continually sung directly at the audience gives the entire piece a civics lesson feel.  Furthermore, the cast (including the ensemble)performs far too often as if it were auditioning for The Voice.  One can admire the talent but I felt disconnected to the people and the deep, troubling story being brought to life.

Georama:  An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas

Opening with the song, “Nobody Knows,” Georama tells the now obscure story of John Banvard, a 19th century painter known for his giant panoramas of the Mississippi River.  He sketched the river while on a boat, eventually painting a canvas that grew to twelve feet high and one half mile long, although it was advertised as a “three mile canvas.”  In 1948, the magazine Scientific America published a piece under “New Inventions” describing and illustrating Banvard’s mechanism for displaying a moving panorama.  Georama uses its own screen projected panorama as the backdrop for this story, moving us from the river to larger towns and cities.

As luck would have it, Georama was my last musical from this festival and clearly one of my favorites.  What’s to love?  24 songs in 90 minutes which add layers to the strong book and help develop its characters, performed by two musicians who only play piano, cello, violin and guitar.  The music feels authentic to the period and yet contains a fine example where inserting a whimsical musical comedy number out of nowhere completely works.   The four person cast, led by P.J. Griffith and Jillian Louis, is simply excellent.  One of Georama’s big themes revolves around art and the truth, or whether the line between truth and lies has become increasingly blurred, reflected in “Art is a Lie.”  This musical is even timely.  What’s not to love?

Theater Reviews From My Seat  – BEST of FEST

At the closing celebration, awards will be presented to the best of the festival.  Now that I’ve started this blog, I am looking forward to how the reviews from my seat will stack up against the panel of judges.  Should be fun.  My full production favorites are listed below.  For the record, I did not see Errol and Fidel, My Dear Watson or The Time Machine.  Let’s hope they have a future life so I will have the opportunity to check them out.

My votes for Best of Fest, in alphabetical order:


Georama:  An American Panorama Told On Three Miles of Canvas

Matthew McConaughey vs the Devil

The Goree All Girl String Band

The breath of material in this year’s NYMF was outstanding.  1961 Berlin Wall.  1940s Las Vegas.  1961 the segregated southern U.S.  1800s Mississippi River.  1969 New Orleans.  897 Rome.  1940s Texas women’s prison.  16th century Puerto Rico.  1961 B-movie.  Contemporary offerings including mommies, kids and the answer to the question on everyone’s mind:  how did Matthew McConaughey win an Oscar?  And very hairy, very smelly pirates.  All at $27.50 per show.  Alright, alright, alright.


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 6)


Based upon his children’s picture book series, Matthew McElligott co-authored the book and lyrics to this musical about pirates of the most silly kind.  While Backbeard himself is very, very hairy and very, very smelly, the pirate danger can be summed up in the song lyric, “he’ll give you a pirate wedgie.”  After a raucous birthday party finds Backbeard’s clothes ruined, he turns to two tailors who give him a colorful, non-piratey makeover, complete with a pig rather than a bird perched on his shoulder.  Winning acceptance for standing up for who you are, told through song, dance, comedy and swordplay, is the big theme.  This is definitely kid’s stuff but I laughed out loud and the children in the audience seemed to be having a great time.  The songs fit the story and riffed somewhat on the typical pirate songs forever stuck in your head.  Lyrics were clever and not dumbed down for the young folks.

I imagine Backbeard must be a fun book to read with your child and that is exactly what was put onstage.  Kudos to the director, Michael Musial, who also wrote the score and co-wrote the lyrics.  Everyone in the cast seemed 100% committed to the show in terms of tone and style, which made the material truly come to life.  Jimmy Kieffer (Backbeard) was hilarious and the whole largely non-equity cast nailed the comedic storybook effect like seasoned pros.  Disney could take this piece and run with it.  Well executed and a nice surprise.


From the author’s note:  Whether you are a tiger mom, helicopter mom or free-range mom, we’ve all said things like “Leave the cigarette butt on the ground” and “the Tooth Fairy must have been too busy to come last night.”  If that sentence made you nod in appreciation, this show may be for you.  Packed with 22 songs over 90 minutes, Motherfreakinghood! is the musical revue of three women from pregnancy test through high school graduation.  A kitchen sink of song titles such as:  “Ballad of the Post Partum,”  “Poo-Wop Playground,”  “Hormones on Parade” and, when I needed it, “Last Freaking Song.”  The musical style is sort of doo-wop, girl group but occasionally musical theater inspired, like  “Friends to the End,”  clearly indebted to “Friendship” from Anything Goes.

Does this show work?  As an off-Broadway revue, perhaps yes.  Target audience:  moms who need a girl’s night out, some Chardonnay, or two Cosmopolitans, or both.

Ben, Virginia and Me:  The Liberace Musical

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Liberace was one of the highest paid entertainers in the world, having conquered Las Vegas during its meteoric rise in the desert.  Liberace’s three brand symbols were the piano, a candelabra and flamboyant costumes.  Underneath the glitter was a closeted gay man who was so effeminate it is hard to imagine anyone was fooled.  Ben, Virginia and Me is a musical combining the stories of Liberace’s career and personal life trajectory with the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his girlfriend, Virginia, who built the Flamingo Hotel for the mob.  As musicals can do, this story is very loosely based on facts: all three of them were in Las Vegas, there was an encounter where Bugsy offered Liberace a job at his hotel and Liberace’s public humiliation in London by the Daily Mail resulting in a libel suit.

Does it matter than the core of the show, the relationship between the three titular characters, is best classified as historical fiction?  Not really.  The show opens with “The Fabulous Flamingo,” complete with showgirls and glitz.  Not only do we get a healthy dose of classic Las Vegas spectacle but also a little slice of history of two of its early famous icons:  the Flamingo Hotel and “Mr. Showmanship.”  As Liberace, Samuel Floyd delivers a fully rounded performance of a complicated individual, never slipping into caricature.  The best moment in the show came near the end with “Beautiful Man,” a elegantly staged memory song where Liberace reminisces about his early relationship with Rock Hudson.

Although Ben, Virginia and Me is always watchable, it is overstuffed to the point that Virginia’s death is just a throwaway line to wrap up a main character’s story arc.  The real fun here was the vast parade of costumes designed by Kurt Alger:  showgirls with headresses, 1940s mob suits, and increasingly ruffled, feathered frocks for our flashy, garish pianist.   The cast even had curtain call costumes where everyone donned their finest sparkle.  Within a NYMF budget, very impressive indeed.  There’s a big show concept inside Ben, Virginia and Me, perhaps leaning more towards Me.


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 5)

A Wall Apart

Graham Russell is the singer-songwriter of the Australian soft rock duo, Air Supply, a very successful band here in the 1980s with songs like All Out of Love and The One That You Love.  A Wall Apart transports us to Berlin in 1961 right before the wall is erected.  Families, careers and relationships are about to be turned upside down with the erection of the wall, eliminating all travel between East and West Berlin.

Esther, the American/German love interest, is a professed fan of West Side Story and unsurprisingly A Wall Apart mirrors the “opposite side of the tracks doomed love affair.”  The book nicely develops a family history of three brothers who are split on their east/west loyalties.  Unfortunately, we have to endure song after song of repetitive lyrics.  Lines are underlined so often that you cannot get them out of your head.  During intermission, the people in front of me starting singing “We’re Having A Baby,” the Act I closing number.  Actually, they only sang those four exact words, having just heard them repeated over and over.  Given the interesting premise here, I was underwhelmed by songs titled:  “Do You Mind If I Adore You,” and “I Want To Be In Love With You.”  To be fair, a sappy and romantic Air Supply fan I am not.

The principals in the cast were game and did everything in their power to put this material over, even the jarring transition midway through Act II to a dead narrator.  The set design and screen projections of Berlin were very effective, elucidating the harshness of the wall.  I’ll avoid discussing the odd choreography which was inserted far too often.  You can have a good story and talented performers, but a good musical must have good tunes.  Underneath the lyrics, however, there were some nice melodies.  The verdict:  a bit of a slog overall but a promising idea.

Peace, Love and Cupcakes:  The Musical

Is it possible to fairly review a show that sells cupcakes in the lobby for No Bullying charities?  Let’s try.  Based on a mother/daughter written book, Peace, Love and Cupcakes addresses eighth grade angst with songs like “Different,” “Kylie Carson Doesn’t Belong Here,” and “How Do You Deal With a Monster?”  Kylie is a new student trying to fit into a new school, dreading every “Monday Morning.”  To make matters worse, the popular (and very mean) young ladies, ingeniously named the BLAH girls, are in full torment mode.  Kylie forms a cupcake club and, as a result, there are lessons learned through songs sung on the way to peace and love.

In the performance I caught, Kylie was played by soon-to-be high school sophomore Carrie Beck, the co-author of the original book and also this musical.  Ms. Beck was simply excellent in the role and the rest of the large cast were fun to watch.  It was especially nice to see all the performers putting a spin on their different character’s personalities, enriching the viewing experience.  I would recommend tightening this to one act as the intermission drained the momentum somewhat and Act II is short with not enough new songs.  This is a kid’s show for sure but it is easy to imagine this musical performed in middle schools everywhere.  I think it was possible to fairly review a show that sells cupcakes in the lobby.  Whew.

Generation Me

Following the middle school scenario in Peace, Love and Cupcakes, Generation Me is a significantly darker offering.  Although this show also opens with a Monday number, “Monday Morning/Revelation,” by song’s end Milo Reynolds (Milo Manheim) hangs himself.  The rest of the show is told in a series of flashbacks, unraveling the mystery of why he decided to end his life.  In the program, the book and lyrics writer, Julie Soto, noted that she was trying to create age appropriate and challenging material for teen actors.  Clearly she accomplished that but at least my journey to that conclusion was decidedly mixed.

By structuring the show in flashbacks, we alternate sadness and despair with teen angst, clichés and a cornucopia of social issues.  An example: right after the suicide, Milo and his best friend have a number called “The Bra Song” about learning to unhook a bra before going on a date.  Not that the song wasn’t funny, it was such a dramatic swing in tone that seemed odd.  Then the first Act piled on the  gossiping and severe meanness but in a way that felt like a celebration of such behavior.  (The cutter in the class is known in social media as #SLICE.)  By intermission, frankly, I was completed put off.  The couple sitting to my left did not return after intermission and the young lady next to me probably said’ “Oh my God” a half  dozen times, often then burying her face in her hands.  Apparently I was not suffering alone.

Perseverance, however, can have its rewards.  Before the middle of Act II, the machinery that swung repeatedly from one extreme to the next calmed down and a slew of very nice, character driven ballads emerged which put emotion, grief and heft to the forefront.  To the credit of Ms. Soto, I was impressed toward the end of the show when I realized how many of these characters had meaningful parts, with performances and dialogue to match.  The flashback structure of the show may be what I struggled with here.  Letting out some of the teenage musical comedy hijinks (perhaps better termed as abuse) earlier before throwing the audience directly into the suicide might help.


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 4)

Play Like a Winner

Describing itself as a satire of girl’s soccer, this musical asks:  “How far would you go for your child?”  We are in the promising land of soccer moms, mean girls and Costco snacks.  Play Like a Winner opens with the coach lying dead on center stage impaled with a corner flag.  One of the soccer moms steps forward to tell the story.  Nice start.  What follows, however, is fairly generic songs and characterizations.  Two songs, “Sacrifice” and “Snack Mom” nearly achieve the goal of entertaining while poking fun at the absurdity of the soccer mom world.  As Coach Nick, Nicolas Dromard (Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins) delivers the best effort here:  the character is both exaggerated and believable, which makes it work.

The lyrics range from bland rhymes to overuse of the word “fuck” and even one mother singing to another that she is a “cunt.”  In another scene, the mother dons some leather to …. oh, never mind, who cares?  Shock value is not always an effective substitute for wit, satire or comedy.  I throw the flag and yell “offside.”

The Goree All Girl String Band

In the early 1940s, a group of women serving time in the Goree State Farm prison in Texas form a country and western band.  The goal is to appear on the popular radio show, “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls” and maybe, if they are lucky, get paroled.  Based on the true story, The Goree All Girl String Band is a winner with the finest orchestrations I have heard thus far in this year’s NYMF.

The music here is all original compositions and there are a pile of great songs, the first of which is the Act I closer, “Ridin’ That Train,” when we finally get to the radio show.  In the stronger Act II, we are treated with numerous well-written and sung character-driven songs which add dramatic heft to the proceedings.  An excellent cast and extremely fluid direction pull this whole show together.  The set is essentially a few ladders, stools, a radio and a microphone with some background lighting.  Simple yet perfect.

I expect a future for The Goree All Girl String Band as the show is so good already and seemingly would have major appeal to a wide audience.  My only thought would be to spend a little more time filling in the back stories of some of the band members.  The two leads are well-developed; we could use a few songs to get to know the other girls, especially in Act I.  Perhaps that is a quibble but this musical has all the elements to reach even greater heights.


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 3)

The Cadaver Synod

The Cadaver Synod is based on the bizarre and compellingly fascinating true story of Pope Stephen VII who, in 897, conducted a posthumous ecclesiastical trial of a former predecessor, Pope Formosus.  Stephen ordered the corpse be exhumed nine months after burial and brought to the papal court for judgment.  With the corpse propped up and dressed on a throne, a deacon was appointed to answer for the deceased pontiff.  Crazy shit for sure, but a musical?  At NYMF, thankfully, the answer is “yes, let’s do it.”

Act I takes us to medieval Rome and the Catholic Church.  With a rock music score, we are immersed in a world that had “25 Popes in 100 years; eight in the last nine years.”  Plotting, scheming, fake news, abuse of power … check, it’s all here.  After the trial ends, Act II attempts to explain why it happened.  No spoiler alert needed.  The authors concocted an unlikely but not impossible scenario, aided by the abundant freedoms afforded in musical theater.  Let’s just say heresy of the most overwrought kind.

The book was stronger for me than the score.  The trial scene was clearly a commentary on our times where facts are less relevant than our desired outcomes.  At the center of all of this macabre mayhem in the role of Pope Stephen was David Larsen (Billy Elliot, American Idiot and the best song in Hands on a Hardbody) who played the role as a psychotic Robert Plant (lead singer of Led Zeppelin).  Mr. Larsen fully committed to every inch of the role no matter what turns the show took – good, bad, or wildly off the rails, especially at the end.

If The Cadaver Synod has a next life, Act II needs more heft and, like what happened to Pope Stephen VII in the histories, a strangulation scene to end it all.

Temple of the Souls

When Columbus discovered the Americas, the Taino were the native people living in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico.  Temple of the Souls takes place after the Spanish have conquered, killed or enslaved the majority of the locals (although in reality disease was also a big factor).  The “temple” of the title refers to the caves and contained paintings where the deceased souls of the Taino people keep watch over their tribes.

Our hero and heroine are Guario, a Taino boy, and Amada, the daughter of a conquistador.  We are in Romeo and Juliet territory here, with a significant dose of Disney thrown in (the villain is a darker version of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast).  As the leads, Andres Quintero and Noellia Hernandez have the best moments in the show and their chemistry is effortless and heartfelt.

To be honest, it took me a little time to settle into this show.  But I did because the melodies of the score were strong throughout.  Kudos to the Projection Designer (Jan Hartley) whose back screen projections were excellent, from the town fiesta party to the mountains, caves and stars transporting the show into the heavens.  Overall, the most complete story arc so far for me this NYMF.

The Fourth Messenger

What if Buddha were a woman, living in our times?  That’s the tag line for The Fourth Messenger, written by two women, one of whom had the spark of an idea on a meditation retreat sixteen years ago.  Mama Sid (Nancy Anderson, ethereal and fantastic) is a modern day “awakened one” with a worldwide following and a Time magazine cover story.  A determined young journalist decides to unearth and expose Mama Sid’s secrets to make her own career.

The Fourth Messenger explores Mama Sid’s followers, her past, her present and the complexities of life that is the human experience.  With a strong score, interesting book and thoughtful lyrics combined with committed, almost mystical central performances, I was totally captivated and emotionally invested.  Nicely done.



New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 2)

The Body Politic

Presented as a Beta Musical (more than a reading, less than a full production), The Body Politic is an opera style musical about a transgender man who emigrates to the United States at the height of the Afghan War and settles in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  The show premiered in 2016, one month after North Carolina passed the “bathroom bill.”  In response, a stripped down version of the show was then presented in the North Carolina State Legislature, apparently becoming the first opera or musical in American history to do so.  Quite a backstory to consider when viewing this work.

Iphis, an Afghani girl, has been raised as a boy in the tribal tradition known as “bacha posh” that had a resurgence under Taliban rule when women were kept virtually under house arrest.  Raising a girl as a boy makes her more useful to the family as a boy can escort females in public and get a job.  The twist here is that Iphis discovers that she identifies as a boy and does not want to be a girl when she reaches puberty.  The characters are Young Iphis and his Afghan mother, the older transgendered Iphis and his North Carolina mother, and Iphis’ best friend, a drag queen.  The structure of the show takes us through both journeys simultaneously and is very effective.

The music is ambitious, complex and clearly indebted to Sondheim with a healthy dose of Middle Eastern rhythms and inflections.  All of the show is sung and there are a number of gorgeous songs including “Peace and a Picket Fence,” “Sola/Fly” and “Snow.”  I can envision many artists taking their stab at these and putting their own spin on them.  At its best, the score is lush and poetic.  But like many scores that force all dialogue into music, there is the inevitable overkill.  Or is it listening discomfort?  I would prefer a little quiet conversation between some of the songs to develop deeper emotional connections to the characters (especially Eugene, the best friend) and there are definitely scenes available for that treatment.  The performers and demanding vocals were impressive throughout.

Presented in one Act, the show clocked in at 1:45 with an ending that seemed a bit rushed to wrap things up, perhaps due to NYMF time constraints.  Adding my two cents: break The Body Politic into two Acts and reconsider singing nearly every single word.  As I left the theater, however, I needed time to process what I saw and heard, in order to discuss all the depth, emotion and details.  A solid offering and a great example of what this festival does so well. 

Numbers Nerds

Numbers Nerds is appropriately titled.  A girl’s high school math team from Waukesha, Wisconsin participates in a Regional Math competition to try to get to Nationals.  Difficult math problems and teen drama abound, but of the relatively light-hearted, mean but not so mean that we can’t have resolution and belt out together “I’m a numbers nerd …” at the end in celebration of not only nerdiness, but healing, resolution and acceptance.  The program notes that the intended market for this show is high school, college and community theaters.  There are funny bits for sure but hard to pinpoint the target audience here given the Carson Daly-era pop cultural references (albeit very funny), the Eliza Doolittle references (less so) and the fairly standard issue teen angst (unicorns, Catholic school girl uniforms, popular girl cliques… you get the drift).  What about the score for Numbers Nerds?  Hard to say as much of the singing was so big (and dare I say pitchy – I feel mean doing so!).  Perhaps more modest voices in a high school with less amplification would solve the equation.  A fun idea but a bit too long for my tastes.


New York Musical Festival (NYMF Part 1)

For four weeks in the summer, we have NYMF, the New York Musical Festival.  During this time, new musicals in development are given full productions, usually for about five performances each.  In addition, NYMF hosts readings and concerts for other pieces.  Since 2004, there have been over 400 musicals presented, four of which eventually made it to Broadway as Chaplin, Next to Normal, <title of show> and In Transit.  More than 30 have had Off Broadway productions, including the phenomenal Bedbugs!!! (the heir apparent to The Rocky Horror Show and Little Shop of Horrors).

This year, there are 21 full productions and I’ve decided to take in as many as I can and give you a taste of NYMF.  The term “full production” means that the show is fully staged with musicians and performers but obviously sets have to be the type that can be put up and taken down quickly since the shows take place in only two Off-Broadway houses.  This post is Part 1 (since I’ve got tickets to 18 of the 21 productions).  Why not all, you ask?  We theatergoers need a vacation too…

Miss Blanche Tells It All

First up, we go to The Golden Lantern in New Orleans, late 1960s.  Miss Blanche is about to take the stage but instead a man appears not yet fully in drag.  What follows is a story of a traumatized childhood through the creation of Miss Blanche.  I was looking forward to this show as the lead actor, Brian Charles Rooney, was sensational as Dionne Salon in Bedbugs!!! a few years ago.  Here again, he delivers a terrific performance with outstanding vocals.  While watching the show, I kept thinking that a quirky personality like Jinxx Monsoon (of Ru Paul’s Drag Race fame) might shade the darkness a bit which is needed.  Also, the storytelling needed to be a bit clearer in the book; we had to discuss the Blanche character afterwards to fully flesh out the story arc.

Matthew McConaughey vs the Devil

Taking place in Hollywood, or “a hellish version of it,” this improbable musical sheds light on the question, ‘How did Matthew McConaughey go from B-list actor to Academy Award winner?”  Apparently his success was dependent on a pact with Satan.  Hilarious from start to finish with great music and lyrics.  It’s all in here: “alright, alright, alright”, the Lincoln car commercials, the bongos, bromance with Woody Harrelson and lots of marijuana.  Lesli Margherita (Matilda) as Mephistopheles gave a master class in musical comedy.  I loved Max Crumm (Grease “You’re the One That I Want” winner) as Woody and Wayne Wilcox as Matthew; both characterizations were on target as gentle yet sharply funny exaggerations of their namesakes.  Two ensemble members who are now required viewing:  Nicole Vande Zande and Cameisha Cotton.  This show kicked ass.

Night Tide

Based on a 1961 B-movie thriller starring a young Dennis Hopper, Night Tide is the story of Johnny, a sailor on leave exploring the boardwalks and beach parties in a spooky seaside town.  Johnny meets and falls for Mora, a mysterious woman who works in the sideshow as a mermaid.  There’s a fortune teller, as salty old seaman, a jilted carousel operator and a sort of Beach Blanket Bingo Greek chorus.  Plenty of good moments and songs, especially in a complete and detailed performance from Patrick Dunn as Johnny as well as effective secrecy from Tara Martinez as Mora, with big demanding vocals.  The ocean boat ride on a shoestring budget was a perfectly executed visual as were the boardwalk backdrops and scene changes.  Overall, an odd combination of styles that needs rebalancing:  perhaps a smaller dose of Frankie and Annette clowning replaced by moody B-movie tension?  But I plan on watching the movie after seeing the show, so nicely done.