Fairykind at The AllWays Lounge’s Twilight Room through May 2
As New Orleans’ theatrical landscape comes back to life, for those of us who love musicals in particular, it is heartening that we’ve had not only such regional premieres as Head Over Heels (at Loyola) and Shaina Taub’s Twelfth Night (Hahnville High School), but the world premiere of a new “Musical Fantasy”.
Trey Ming’s Fairykind was supposed to have debuted in the spring of 2020 but, like so many other productions, had to be postponed due to Covid. It has finally opened in The Twilight Room at the AllWays Lounge where it continues until May 2.
I was certainly looking forward to Fairykind. About Ming’s last show, The Night Fiona Flawless Went Mad, a one-act psychological musical murder mystery seen in 2019, I wrote “if it started off as mere camp, by the end, the show had deepened into an acute portrait of a troubled soul.”
Fairykind is a different creature altogether, however. Set in a fantasy world where a life-affirming Magic has been banned, it follows a young woman who hopes to restore the Magic. There’s also a Queen and her two children who are fighting the evil enchantress Bellalora. And a nasty warrior who has a change of heart. And a lady who is the only person who can still sing an ancient tune.
At least that’s what I think is going on. For Fairykind is stuffed with too many narrative threads. Or rather, while we get the overall shape of the piece–good vs. evil–its libretto lacks certain necessary details that would allow an audience to become fully invested in it. Ming somewhat acknowledges this by starting each act with voice-over narration to set the scene, like scrolling words at the start of some otherworldly movie.
What we do get is storytelling, lots of it, as the plot twists and turns. What Ming fails to provide, however, is dramatic tension, a sense of causing an audience to want to know “what happens next.” In its sung-through two hours, including intermission, Fairykind too often resorts to having characters tell us how they feel rather than showing us through genuinely engrossing actions.
It’s a shame because Ming’s music is gorgeous, a cross between Emo and New Age. Ming’s choral writing of duets, quartets and other combinations offers beautiful harmonies performed flawlessly by the cast of nine. It’s a pleasure to listen to.
What’s missing, though, is a sense of variation, of different tempi, of a variety of tones that would give each individual character his or her own “sound”. Without this, too often, one section of Fairykind is interchangeable, musically, with any other.
The cast (including Angie Z, Rebekah, Sailem from Hell, Malakani Severson, Jada Williams, Reby Rae and Charlii) cannot be faulted. If they generally seemed to be better singers than actors, I’d chalk that up to the material which gives them generic hero or villain types to work with rather than fully rounded characters. With her operatic voice, Dawn DrapeHer stood out as Bellalora recalling some villainesses from Handel’s operas.
I don’t want to be too hard on Fairykind. It’s vastly ambitious and clearly a labor of love. Ming should consider, however, having someone else direct rather than himself (he also performs in it). While staged smoothly–the swordplay alone is admirable–the musical would benefit from another perspective, someone who could, hopefully, steer the show, with its overly sincere script & lyrics, away from occasionally being a parody of a bad musical (first thing to go should be the Renaissance Fair-like dance at the start of Act Two which reminded me of Men Without Hats’ Safety Dance) and toward being a wholly compelling work.
It might take a little Magic, but I’d like to think that it’s possible.
For tickets and more info, go to www.SlottedSpoonProductions.com
Tribes at Le Petit Theatre through May 1
Two things to state before starting my review of Tribes at Le Petit–
1. Right before I went back to college one year, I saw Children of a Lesser God on Broadway and loved it. So when I saw a course entitled “Language from the Standpoint of the Deaf” within my psychology concentration, I eagerly signed up for it. Twice a week we had lectures from eminent psycholinguist Prof. Roger Brown about American Sign Language (ASL), its structure, how children acquire it, etc., and once a week a graduate student taught the class sign language. It was fascinating to learn about the complex nature of ASL and such seeming contradictions in it as, since you make a sign faster to intensify it, the sign for “slower” is, counterintuitively, a speeded up version of “slow”. Since then, I have sought out sign language-interpreted performances of shows, and have always admired those who sign (as I do anyone who speaks a language other than English).
2. While I had seen Tribes about ten years ago in New York, I only remembered the scene (spoiler alert) in which the deaf son tells his family that, going forward, he would only communicate with them via sign language after a lifetime of reading lips and speaking to them.
So I hope you’ll understand my reaction upon seeing the production here. I was mad. I was angry. I hated it. Okay, maybe that’s too strong a reaction. Let’s save “Hate” for Putin and Trump. But you get the idea.
I hasten to add, that my fury was not at all directed at anything or anyone onstage at Le Petit. Far from it. In fact, Director Giovanna Sardelli has rendered a clearer, perhaps more understandable version of Nina Raine’s drama than off-Broadway where audience members sat on either side of the playing area and translations of those passages in ASL were projected all over the set, occasionally taking your concentration off the action; Sardelli integrates the surtitles much more smoothly into her staging.
Le Petit’s cast admirably embodies the members of an intellectual, yet dysfunctional family, one of whose members happens to be deaf. If I can imagine other interpretations for academic father Christopher, novelist mother Beth, needy writer son Daniel, and needy singer daughter Ruth, John Neisler, Liann Pattison, Danny Yoerges and Allison Blaize, respectively, give performances that come off as right on the mark; Yoerges’ seemingly innate niceness especially helps to leaven Daniel’s obnoxiousness.
As Billy, the deaf son, and his girlfriend Sylvia, Brian Andrew Cheslik and Kati Schwartz bring abundant charm to their roles, easily making an audience empathize with them.
So why my vitriol? Because I just didn’t buy large chunks of the script.
Though a bully and a snob, the father is portrayed as being highly intelligent (he’s teaching himself Mandarin). Why then would he know so little about Sign Language, regarding it as a mere gestural way of communicating rather than the highly developed language it has been shown to be (the play takes place in the late 1990s or early ’00s)? After all, other than the French, deaf people are the only group who refer to their language as a “beautiful” one.
There’s a distorted, or rather, absent sense of time in the script. Billy begins barely knowing how to sign. After meeting Sylvia–presto–he’s signing fluently in what’s maybe a few weeks or a couple of months at most. Anyone who’s tried to learn a language as an adult knows it doesn’t happen that easily.
Every time a character says to another “Don’t say something” (about a plot point), they do. Really?
Billy has been virtually ignored by his crazy family for years and comes off as rather mousy or, certainly, laid-back. Not long after Sylvia, the daughter of deaf parents who is going deaf herself, introduces him to the deaf community, he rebels. Dramatically, the confrontation zings. But would someone really change that much so fast?
The characters never talk to each other when they can yell (the same held true in the NYC production). With everything going on in the world (the situation in Ukraine was especially dire the day I saw the play), never have I so wanted to stand up in the middle of a show and yell at the characters/actors onstage “Shut up and grow up!” Such utterly childish behavior, which we see repeatedly, made it difficult to care about these people.
After getting his first ever job (really?), Billy does something illegal and immoral with terrible consequences. It simply doesn’t make sense, given his decent nature, and seems inserted just to add some drama. Raine similarly throws mental illness into her overbaked script.
And after succumbing to soap opera-itis, Raine wraps things up with the entire family miraculously all turning over a new leaf and getting lovey-dovey with each other. Puh-lease. I would have found it far more interesting had Billy rebelled at the end of Act One and we spent the second act observing how the family adapts to its new situation, and its joys & frustrations at shedding old ways and learning new ones.
What makes Tribes especially disappointing is that Raine does have a talent for creating authentic, interesting moments. The scenes between Billy and Sylvia reveal their personalities through piquant dialog while moving the action along naturally. I just wish Tribes had been filled with more such passages. Then I would’ve given it two thumbs up.
I still give Le Petit one thumb up for presenting a play about a too often underrepresented community. Coincidentally, the week before Tribes commenced its run here, CODA won the Academy Award for Best Movie. A musical version of it is now in the works. Fingers crossed that someday we might see it on Le Petit’s stage.
More information and tickets at https://www.lepetittheatre.com/listings/events/tribes-by-nina-raine.html
Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella at Jefferson Performing Arts Center through April 24
In these trying times, I can appreciate JPAS wanting to present something with a “Happily ever after” ending. And what better than the classic fairy tale Cinderella? Give it a modern slant–even better!
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s beloved televison version of Cinderella as adapted by Douglas Carter (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar) Beane would seem to fit the bill. Bowing on Broadway in 2013, Beane’s take on it updated Hammerstein’s original book, added contemporary references, revamped one of the stepsisters into a dorky but nice gal, and made Cinderella a more conscious shaper of her own destiny.
With the approval of the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates, in addition to the seven memorable songs from the original (Impossible, Ten Minutes Ago, In My Own Little Corner, etc.), the score has been filled out with some numbers that had been dropped from other R&H productions (South Pacific, Me and Juliet, etc.).
Alas, Beane’s script is kinda plodding as it makes its points; it lacks both the lightness of the original and the wit that Beane is capable of (his definition of gay Boy Scouts–“the merit badge that dare not speak its name”) that would make us laugh out loud or, at least, grin mightily.
And those other R&H tunes? Well, there’s a reason they had been cut long ago.
Director/choreographer Kenneth Beck keeps things moving along, perhaps even better than the touring incarnation that played the Saenger in 2015, but even he cannot overcome musical passages, like a chase in the forest, that simply go on too long. I suspect if Richard Rodgers had still been around, he would’ve trimmed them.
This production is not helped by costumes that transform from rags to riches piecemeal, with effort (unlike William Ivey Long’s Tony winners that ingeniously metamorphosed in a split second); clunky sets (at the Saenger, grand staircases magically appeared and disappeared); and a sound design that, on the night I saw the show, too often erupted in loud, distracting feedback.
Still, any show that offers such treats as Stepsisters’ Lament, When You’re Driving Through the Moonlight, and Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful? puts it way ahead of most other musicals these days. In particular, A Lovely Night epitomized how a song can simultaneously sound gorgeous to the ears and be a comic delight.
Leading the cast, Rachel Looney glows as an ideal Cinderella; her crystal clear voice, endearing disposition, and decency of spirit made it easy to root for her. As her Stepmother, Rachel Abbate embodies comic haughtiness. Bailey Gabrish crafts a winsome portrayal as Gabrielle, the “good” stepsister who takes up with a revolutionary while Bree Hollis finds the humor in the spoiled Charlotte, enabling this “nasty” stepsister to be someone you love to hate.
And Jake Wynne-Wilson personifies the perfect prince. Dictionary definition handsome, strong of voice, wanting to do the right thing by his people (and concerned that he may not), searching for his true love (and settling for nothing less), Wynne-Wilson’s moniker might as well have been Prince Dreamy. Why can’t he rule all our lands?
Of course, sadly, such is not the case. And in his pre-show speech, JPAS’ Artistic Director Dennis G. Assaf (who conducts the orchestra with his usual flair) acknowledged as such when he introduced Ukrainian violinist Iullia Akers who sang her native country’s national anthem with a firm and golden-toned voice.
One can only hope that, despite the tragic daily headlines, eventually there might be a “Happily ever after” ending for Ukraine.
For tickets and more info, go to https://www.jpas.org/performance/cinderella/