As You Like It at Tulane’s Lupin Theater through June 25
If you’ve never seen As You Like It before, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival’s current production (running thru June 25 at Tulane’s Lupin Theater) will serve as a good introduction to this pastoral comedy by the Bard. Directors Jon Greene & Torey Hayward have served up a straightforward rendering of it that gets all its major plot points across.
KC Simms, whom I had admired earlier this year in UNO’s Stupid F*cking Bird, finds dry, reserved humor in Orlando’s lines. Dignified throughout, Simms’ baritone voice gives Orlando a gravitas allowing you to overlook his being a bit of a dimwit as he goes about the Forest of Arden posting love notes to Rosalind on its trees while not recognizing that his “true love” is right before his eyes disguised as a man.
In this updated (evidenced by a cell phone or two) take on it, many of the male roles are filled by actresses (Natalie Boyd, Elizabeth Frenchie Faith, Annie Gaia, Monica R. Harris, Chrissy Jacobs, Pamela D. Roberts). This is not a gender-switched version, however; while Roberts wears a stylish outfit befitting a noblewoman, she’s addressed as “Duke Frederick”. Likewise, Harris, in a lucha libre-style get-up, remains as the wrestler “Charles”.
While potentially confusing, this works quite well with all these actresses giving accomplished performances. Roberts, especially, stands out for nicely contrasting her sibling Dukes, the subtly devious Frederick and the good-hearted Duke Senior who’s been banished to the Forest. Boyd makes the most of her various cameo turns.
Now, while I wish I could go on praising As You Like It, one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, its appeal escapes me. It’s talky, a play more of the mind than the heart. It’s not filled with memorable quotes; when we arrived at “All the world’s a stage”, its one famed monolog, nicely underplayed by Lynx Murphy as the melancholy Jaques, the audience noticeably stirred as if to acknowledge “Finally, something we recognize.” Perhaps I’ve just never yet seen a great production of AYLI.
For despite this production’s clarity and Greene & Hayward’s unfussy staging that smartly takes into account the audience on three sides of the playing area, the exposition-filled first act falls flat. Trey Ming’s beautiful music, seemingly inspired by Philip Glass or Steve Reich, provides a propulsive force to the show that the play itself lacks. While I suspect Greene & Hayward trimmed the script, still more could’ve been cut, particularly some of Shakespeare’s songs that add some atmosphere but don’t advance the plot.
Part of the problem here is that while this is a modern dress variant of AYLI, Greene & Hayward have not anchored it to any specific time or place. Frederick’s usurpation of the dukedom has echoes of January 6, but there’s no direct acknowledgment of that. The exiled court of Duke Senior in the Forest of Arden has a vague hippie/Radical Faerie air about it but nothing grounds the characters or their goings-on. As for the country folk that compromise the play’s secondary characters, they hint of characters from the Li’l Abner or Pogo comic strips, but only in a generic way. And the usually reliable Joan Long errs by using the same abstract metal structures for both the early court scenes and the trees of the Forest of Arden; generally, the transformation from one to the other is a highlight of AYLI.
Certainly, with its emphasis on character and plot, As You Like It is an improvement over last year’s unfunny Comedy of Errors, also directed by Greene & Hayward. I don’t understand, though, why their Shakespeare productions aren’t better as their Barbecue in 2019 and last year’s Apostles of Everest (which Greene helmed solo) were topnotch, mining every nugget of these scripts. Could it be something about the N.O. Shakespeare Festival itself, where productions rarely rise above the quotidian?
You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned the Rosalind of Kendra Unique nor the Celia, Rosalind’s cousin and bestie, of Leyla Beydoun, two of Shakespeare’s most memorable parts. I was thinking of going into detail, but with all the rancor and division in the world today, let’s just say that with Unique and, especially, Beydoun, it was a case of “as I didn’t like it” and leave it at that. ‘Nuff said.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://neworleansshakespeare.org/products/as-you-like-it-1]
We’ll Meet Again: A Tribute to the Blonde Bombshells of World War II at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen, June 17 – 26
[We’ll Meet Again: A Tribute to the Blonde Bombshells of World War II returns to the Stage Door Canteen after playing just before Covid shut everything down. Here is my March 2020 review.]
If you’re looking for a way to forget about the craziness going on right now, head to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen for We’ll Meet Again which pays tribute to the blonde bombshell singers who healed soldiers’ hearts and, through their songs, instilled patriotism throughout the nation.
It’s a delight to hear this large bouquet of great songs, some well-known (That Old Black Magic, Blues in the Night, The Sunny Side of the Street, Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey and, my favorite, Marlene Dietrich’s Lili Marleen); others, tho chart-toppers 65 years ago, not quite as well remembered.
Similarly, if some of the bombshells remain as household names (Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, Betty Hutton, Betty Grable) others have faded (Helen Forest, Martha Tilton, Frances Langford, Jo Stafford) and it’s terrific that Sean Patterson’s well-researched and amiable script acknowledges them with such deserving admiration.
This show seems to be a personal project for Hannah Rachal who stars in it, directs, choreographs (with Kelly Fouchi) and even did the scenic design (with Erica Jensen). Thru 70 absolutely lovely minutes, she takes the lead on a variety of the songs, performing each with charm and a beautiful voice. In this two-person show, Bryce Slocumb shines in all his numbers and, together, he and Rachal share a true comradely chemistry in all their duets.
Tom Hook leads the Victory Trio (Pete Roze on bass, Charlie Kohlmeyer on drums) with his usual swinging panache.
Just as America and the world made it thru WWII, I’m sure we’ll make it thru the current challenge. Any doubts just ask Vera (We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover) Lynn who’ll be 103 next Friday! [NB: Dame Vera passed away on June 18, 2020; her funeral cortege was accompanied by members of the Royal Air Force, the British Army, the Royal Navy, and the Royal British Legion.]
[For more information and tickets, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/well-meet-again-tribute-blonde-bombshells-world-war-ii]
New in New York
If you’ll be in New York City before July 17, get thee to Fat Ham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy at The Public’s Anspacher Theater (425 Lafayette St.). Playwright James Ijames has reconfigured Hamlet so that its marvelously dysfunctional family is no longer fighting over Denmark but, rather, a BBQ restaurant in the South.
You don’t need to be familiar with Shakespeare’s melancholy Prince but it will add to your enjoyment as Fat Ham sticks to the basic outlines of the Bard’s most famous play (guy murders his brother, marries his wife, dead guy’s ghost asks son to revenge the deed). In Fat Ham, however, the protagonist becomes Juicy, a sensitive queer Black 20something who occasionally breaks into the original iambic pentameter.
For reasons not worth going into, I wasn’t planning to review Fat Ham so didn’t really take notes except to scrawl “Brilliant” in my program. Which it is as Ijames examines toxic masculinity, sexuality, family loyalty and much more, but “examines” is too dry a word ; Fat Ham is also fun and witty and surprising (especially Skylar Fox’s crackerjack illusions) and wildly imaginative as, to pick just one example, the play within the play turns into a game of charades.
Saheem Ali deftly directs a most excellent cast, all of whom speak their speeches trippingly on their tongues, with Nikki Crawford as Juicy’s Mom (the Gertrude equivalent), Billy Eugene Jones, seamlessly switching back and forth in the dual roles of Rev and Pap (Claudius and Hamlet’s father), and Marcel Spears as Juicy, first among equals.
Might Fat Ham be further extended at The Public? Perchance. Might it move elsewhere for a commercial run? Perchance, again. But whether in NYC or when it is eventually (hopefully) done in NOLA, to see or not to see it? To see it, indeed.
(NOTE: Fat Ham has now been extended through July 31. Tickets and more info https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/fat-ham/)
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about another Pulitzer Prize winner featuring a gay African American protagonist, but A Strange Loop at the Lyceum Theatre (149 W. 45 St.) ultimately left me rather cold.
Michael R. Jackson’s Tony-winning musical starts off promisingly as Usher (a play on the author’s sharing a name with a famous performer), an usher at The Lion King, and his six Thoughts, a kind of inner Greek chorus, lay out what the show is going to be about–the challenges Usher faces as an aspiring musical theater writer who “travels the world in a fat, black, queer body.”
In the course of its 100 minutes, however, A Strange Loop never evolves much beyond what goes on in Usher’s mind. Of course, it’s a reflection of his life experience (homophobic parents, bad hook-ups, career challenges, a mother who wishes he would write a “Tyler Perry-style gospel play”, etc.) but it’s all a somewhat navel-gazing self-portrait, a watercolor compared to Fat Ham’s rich oil painting.
Sure, Usher doesn’t have an easy life and he, in Jackson’s self-lacerating lyrics, gives it to himself (and others, particularly Mr. Perry) and gets it from all angles, but as he goes on about being “too black, too femme, too fat”, I couldn’t help thinking of other successful gay Black men (Don Lemon, Jonathan Capehart, and RuPaul Charles & Billy Porter, two of Loop’s producers) as well as “black, femme, fat” guys I know who are in successful relationships.
Usher may have more than the ususal share of challenges (tho, at 26, he does have youth on his side) but, other than his writing, we don’t really see him trying to improve his lot. Nor do we see him (other than in his own mind) interacting with others; I wondered “What’s he really like?” Could it be that perhaps, to paraphrase the Bard, “The fault, dear Usher, is not in your stars, but in yourself?”
I might’ve felt differently if Jackson’s score lodged more firmly in my mind but, while pleasant, the music, including a not-unexpected big gospel number, didn’t. And lest you think I might’ve felt differently about the show were I not white, my companion for the evening, a gay black friend who I’ve known since junior high school, expressed the exact same opinion of Loop as I did.
Stephen Brackett directed efficiently. The entire cast, including understudy Kyle Ramar Freeman who went on as Usher at the performance I saw, brought the utmost professional flair to the proceedings; John-Andrew Morrison (“Thought 4″), however, embodied Usher’s Mom with a stupendous complexity, humanizing her despite her flaws, that I wish had been more in evidence throughout the rest of the musical. (I also wish Morrison had won the Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, but as Usher well knows, life’s not always fair.) (https://strangeloopmusical.com/)
At least Morrison was nominated for a Tony. Katrina Lenk, the lead in the gender-reversed revival of Company at the Bernard Jacobs Theatre (242 W. 45 St.), was mind-bogglingly overlooked despite a touching, terrific portrayal.
As for the storied musical itself, I’ll never be a complete fan of it for two reasons: (a) its anti-single attitude (why do you need another person to “be alive”?) and (b) its characterization of Bobby, now Bobbie (Lenk) or, rather, the lack thereof; s/he’ll always be the equivalent of the hole in the center of a doughnut.
The good news, however, is that Director Marianne Elliott (deservedly winning her third Tony for this production) has reimagined the show with such piercing insight, staging it with such bounteous creativity, that it felt like a new work, one, finally, worthy of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious score.
Because in this version, while 35 remains young, with Bobbie being a woman it makes more sense for it to be a more fraught milestone, ticking biological clock and all. Because in this version, with Jennifer Simard’s fabulous comic characterization, the jiujitsu scene doesn’t seem to last forever (the pot/vaping scene likewise). Because in this version, the misogynistic sting of Barcelona, turned on its head with “Andy” as the flight attendant, is replaced by the freshness of a new perspective (not to mention Claybourne Elder and his awesome abs).
And because in this version, while the entire cast is fully invested in finding the humor and human emotions in George Furth’s script, Patti LuPone, as Bobbie’s older friend Joanne, not only delivers a fierce Ladies Who Lunch, but, throughout the rest of the show, with impeccable diction (surprise!), gives us a supremely calibrated performance; if The Little Things You Do Together,which LuPone has parsed and put back together with the skill Sir Ian McKellen brings to a Shakespeare monolog, stood out in a way it never had for me previously, when not in the spotlight, LuPone blended in with her fellow castmates without any hint of diva-ness at all.
Company might still “drive a person crazy”, but if you’ve never seen it before, or even if you have, you’ll be in good company with Lenk, LuPone and all the others in this revivifying new interpretation of it. (https://companymusical.com/)
Alas, Harmony: A New Musical about the Comedian Harmonists, presented recently by the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, brought the members of this comic musical act that headlined between the world wars back to life, but only up to a point.
Bruce Sussman’s book engaged the audience but rarely rose above wikipedia-esque depth until midway through the second act when the dramatic tension ramped up with the arrival of the Nazis who objected to a popular group with Jewish members. After several powerful scenes, Sussman then went for the schmaltz whereas the reality was more complicated. While I could hear sniffles in the audience as the show came to its sad conclusion, I wanted to be deeply moved, but never was.
As there’ve been a number of films and theater pieces about the Comedian Harmonists already, Harmony’s raison d’etre is the involvement of Barry Manilow who composed the show’s music. His songs in the style of the Harmonists’ numbers are great; I had to check my program to make sure that they actually were original, so period (1928-34) perfect are they. His others–love songs and anthemic ballads–are mostly generic sounding as though they came from B-level musicals of the 1950s and ‘60s. I kept waiting for another I Made It Through the Rain or It’s a Miracle to no avail.
Director/choreographer Warren Carlyle’s production, however, could hardly have been better, bringing cinematic sweep to the small stage of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The entire cast, led by Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey as the Comedian Harmonists, were utterly engaging; veteran actor Chip Zien stood out as he played a variety of roles, from Marlene Dietrich to Albert Einstein, but most notably as the older version of one of the Harmonists.
There’s talk of a Broadway transfer for Harmony. If that should come to pass, I hope Sussman refines his book and Manilow comes up with a catchy tune or two. For, as Manilow notes, this is “a story from 90 years ago that needs to be told today.” (More info at https://nytf.org/harmony/)
The following three shows I saw in March 2020, just before the shutdown. Though that was obviously a while ago, as I was provided press tickets, I think it’s only fair that I mention them here. Better late than never, eh?
Vivian Neuwirth’s Mr. Toole, presented off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, was about John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces, and his relationship with his mother Thelma Toole. Though not perfect, it was certainly interesting. The dysfunctional Toole family provided some bizarre fun before the play erupted into sincere heart stopping drama.
Neuwirth was actually a student of Toole’s when he taught at St. Mary’s Dominican High School and a character in the play seems to be based on her younger self. With its echoes of The Glass Menagerie, Mr. Toole hints at how that man’s life seemed to parallel that of Tennessee Williams though in a 1960s setting. With its unique look at the troubled writer’s life, Mr. Toole deserves to be done in New Orleans, perhaps at the Tennessee Williams Festival.
The Minutes by Tracy Letts, which I had seen at the Cort Theatre, finally opened this April at Studio 54 (where it continues until July 24). Pity. This parody of small town government was absolutely preposterous; for satire to work, it has to be grounded in some sort of reality and that simply wasn’t the case here. Seemingly inspired by Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, Letts makes points and kills them as they go on and on. Alternately silly and boring, peppered with ageist jokes, and incompetently directed by Anna D. Shapiro, The Minutes is not worth wasting your time at.
On the other hand, Bartschland Follies, which seems to have finally returned to The McKittrick Hotel (530 W. 27 St.), dished up deliciously surreal madness. Comedian Murray Hill hosted this cabaret that serves up Weimar Berlin crossed with Mardi Gras crossed with an ‘80s downtown club scene.
Amanda Lepore did amazing things with a muscle stud on a leash. Joey Arias channeled Billie Holiday. Sexy pole dancer Làszlò Major entertained with aplomb. Marcy Richardson, another pole dancer, sang opera arias as she performed. And another young lady made peanut butter sandwiches which she folded in her pudenda before serving to select audience members, causing Murray Hill to wryly observe “I’m the normal person in this f*cking show!” Yup.
Bartschland Follies is the type of experience you hope to have in NYC but might not know about. To get on its mailing list for future performances go to https://mckittrickhotel.com/events/bartschland-follies-teaser/ Enjoy!