White at NOMA’s Lapis Center for the Arts through March 31
I had seen Fat Ham, James Ijames’ Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of Hamlet, off-Broadway in New York last year and loved it. So I had been looking forward to seeing The NOLA Project’s production of Ijames’ White from 2018.
In a nutshell, and as per The NOLA Project’s (TNP) press release, “White is a contemporary Frankenstein story set in the fiercely competitive art world in which Gus, an ambitious artist, doesn’t quite fulfill a museum’s desire for ‘different voices’ for a major exhibition. With the aid of actress Vanessa, Gus then creates the brash Balkonaé Townsend persona and all goes according to plan until Balkonaé takes control and Gus has to face his creation head-on.”
I’m intentionally quoting what TNP has already put out as, towards the very end of White, there’s one little twist and one big twist neither of which I saw coming (tho I rarely do sense such unexpected detours) and don’t want to spoil things for anyone else who’ll be seeing the show. So–spoiler alert–there’ll be no spoilers here.
That said, given the preceding blurb, it should come as no surprise that White deals with aesthetics, race, privilege and other such hot-button topics. On paper, it’s the kind of play I tend to enjoy, but, alas, I had some reservations about the script.
Ijames gives us lots of exposition. We sit through 90 of the play’s 100 or so minutes (with the first 60 or more being mere set-up) before the playwright truly jolts us. At which point it all makes sense, but, nope, can’t say any more.
One can excuse Ijames for structuring White this way; it seems like he was still finding his voice and mastering structural techniques when he wrote it. Still, another acclaimed dramedy by another Black playwright had its big reveal at intermission allowing for a deeper probing of its subject in Act Two. Not gonna say which play, tho, cause that would give too much away.
What I can say is that while Ijames having Gus create all-white canvases may be thematically understandable and does satirize the contemporary art world, it also seems like a retread of some of the tropes from Yasmina Reza’s Art from 1994. Perhaps more importantly, having a curator gush over abstract art nowadays seems from another era as figurative art has come back in vogue. That said, the ending, which my lips remain shut about, almost makes me overlook this.
Speaking of dates, an initial projection properly gives the creation of White as 2018. Then, however, other projections seem to set the play in 2022-2023. This seems odd as the script has a distinct pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd vibe to it; nowadays, a whiff of the jejune hangs over it. This applies regardless of the ending.
No matter the time frame, mysteriously missing from the script is virtually any talk of money as Gus employs Vanessa for his scheme. Narratively and thematically this lessens White.
While there’s a certain aptness to Gus being gay (I’m not sure if the scenes with his boyfriend Tanner, especially the intimate ones, would quite work if it were a straight relationship), in the bigger picture, a liberal kindasorta racist mega-ego shmuck like him would be straight. And given the ending, this might be even more true. I’m not saying there are no gays like Gus, but I’ve had conversations with two prominent straight white male artists (one pre- and one post-George Floyd) that somewhat echoed Gus’ query “Why is a white guy asking for equal rights in America racist?” Unlike Gus, both of these distinguished artists had an understanding and, to some degree, an acceptance of the situation he found himself in. One wonders if Gus may be a closet Republican.
As for Beau Bratcher’s production, it seemed to me to be solid, one that, for the most part, fully realized the script. That is, until I read reviews of other productions of White, both pre- and post-pandemic, that called it “hilarious” and “full of laughs”. I laughed a handful of times and, if I thought things were a bit flat, blamed the script. (NB: I laughed as much as, if not more so, than the rest of the audience. There are times when everyone else is laughing except me; this was not one of them.)
As the inaugural theatrical production in NOMA’s new Lapis Center for the Arts, White encountered some problems with the auditorium’s acoustics; if actors are speaking softly or turned away from you, they can be a bit difficult to hear. Still, I don’t think that can be blamed for the lack of laughs. (Of course, not being familiar with those other critics, I can’t tell if they’re the kind that always praise things or if they wanted to be especially supportive of this work.)
One can imagine a flashier Gus, but Matt Armato, an appealing actor, allows you to understand why Tanner would stay with him while blunting the edges of Gus’ cringier aspects. And maybe Gus doesn’t have to be that flashy; I recently went to an art opening that featured two gay artists, both of whom have fairly laid-back personalties (which is not to say that they aren’t passionate about their art).
Matthew Thompson is spot-on as Tanner, even if he mostly functions as a plot device; we learn he’s a school teacher and he seems very cool, but other than that he “loves” Gus, we never discover why he hasn’t fled his entirely self-centered boyfriend. (It’s never quite clear how long they’ve been together, though the ending obviates the need for such specificity.)
Grace Blakeman does well by Jane, the museum’s curator and Gus’ college pal; in her wardrobe and style she reminded me a bit of NOMA’s Director Susan Taylor. It’s a tricky role; she clearly must be smart and sharp to have gotten to where she is, but sometimes comes off as clueless. For example, in an otherwise cogent passage about white people’s difficulties pronouncing Black people’s names, to have Jane stumble repeatedly over a fairly straightforward, French-sounding moniker like Balkonaé seems as though Ijames is trivializing a woman’s intelligence. Of course, the ending upends all that, but, as said, no spoilers here.
In the play’s best written part, Tenaj Wallace has fun with both aspects of her character, the dedicated actress Vanessa and outré artist persona Balkonaé Townsend, nicely delineating between the two and making clear how one could arise from the other. (That Ijames could’ve provided more of a battle of wills between her and Gus is another story.) Topped by a humongous cotton candy-esque black wig, Wallace also well-inhabits Diana Ross, though as the “Black woman” in Gus’ (and, supposedly, every gay man’s) head, an even closer approximation of Ms. Ross could’ve been asked for.
Grace Smith’s casual (except for Ms. Ross’ luscious ensemble) costumes nicely define the characters. One quibble though–in Gus and Tanner’s bedroom scene, while it makes sense thematically that Tanner would be wearing tightie whities, I would tend to think a guy like him would have on Andrew Christian or some other chic designer undies. It’s possible, though, that the script calls for this as such a choice would make sense once you take into account the ending. And, yes, my lips are still sealed about it.
[For tickets and further info, go to https://www.nolaproject.com/white]
Ready to Blow at Café Istanbul
Would Varla Jean Merman let a little Tic Tac keep her down? As her recent show at Café Istanbul proved, no way!
In Ready to Blow, the redoubtable Miss Merman dealt with her fears and anxieties, including her arachnophobia. Only the way she pronounces it, it becomes fear of spiders from Iraq. (Get it?)
From her opening number, Thick Girl Energy (“I didn’t get monkey, I got gorilla pox”), Varla, who claims such other one-named entertainers (Adele, Lizzo) as “colleagues”, was in peak form despite it being one of her first performances without a leg brace (except for one brief dance break). After all, as she observed, “I’m so happy to be back at work…drinking.”
Interspersing witty commentary on our crazy world with sharp song parodies (I’m Gonna Blow to the tune of Anything Goes, Go Ask Google/Go Ask Alice, I’m a Worrier/I’m a Wanderer), Varla discoursed on everything from the challenges of transkids using bathrooms to what happens upstairs at the Phoenix.
Not only does she build a joke beautifully (“I woke up in my bed…in a car…in a stranger’s car”), but she does so with perfect diction so you can understand every word or gurgle or whatever you call those bizarrely wonderful sounds that emerge from her mouth.
Whether Varla (aka Jeff Roberson) really does hate balloons, clowns and fireworks or if The Amityville Horror terrified her as a child, I have no idea, but such claims have the ring of truth thus making all that follows very, very funny.
Varla doesn’t give you just musical spoofs and hysterical societal pronouncements, however. Like a late night ad for Ginsu knives, she gives you more, much more.
She brilliantly works the names of audiences members, whom she just met 5 minutes ago, into songs.
She accompanies herself on the clarinet.
She features a cameo of Bianca Del Rio in a video.
She shamelessly (her word, not mine) does a duet with her adorable dog, Baby Jasper.
And how does one describe Miss Merman playing a harmonica with her pudenda?
About the only critique I have of Ready to Blow is that there’s no need to ask, as Varla did a few times in the course of the evening, “Is the show making sense?” It does, eminently so, and if anyone doesn’t get it (which I doubt), that’s their problem not Miss Merman’s.
Otherwise, with pianist Gerald Goode taking care of, superbly, the musical end of things, Ready to Blow is an absolute treat, cabaret at its best. It’s hard to keep a good woman, even a plus-size one like Varla, down, eh?
[For information about Varla’s upcoming shows, go to https://varlajean.com/]
A Streetcar Named Desire at the Marigny Opera House
Marigny Opera Ballet (MOB) recently gave the world premiere to an original ballet based on the classic play, A Streetcar Named Desire. This is not the first time Tennessee Williams’ tale of Stanley and Blanche has been told via dance; Wikipedia notes about six previous interpretations done in Europe, Canada, and America.
There’s something apt and satisfying in attending a new version of Streetcar, however, done just six or seven blocks from where it actually takes place. Like seeing West Side Story in Manhattan or Hamlet in Helsingør, the site of Elsinore Castle, it adds an especial resonance to the production.
This Streetcar features new music by composer Tucker Fuller and it’s fantastic. While the score quotes Harold Arlen’s It’s Only a Paper Moon to establish a post-WWII setting, it avoids typical New Orleans jazz/dixieland music and properly so. Moody and churning, it has a cinematic quality to it that underscores and adds to the characters’ psychological profiles; it reminded me of the great Peer Raben’s scores for such Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s works as Veronika Voss, Querelle and Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Conductor Chelsea Gallo led a 14-piece orchestra and gave a full accounting of Fuller’s score, bringing out all its nuances, colorations, and edginess. I’d love to hear it arranged as an orchestral suite.
Diogo De Lima’s choreography combines balletic passages and more expressionistic, stylized movements (a la Steven Hoggett) that work well together. He provides a nice, sisterly pas de deux for Blanche and Stella when they first reunite; a tender pas de deux for Blanche and Mitch; and a playful one in Act Two for Stella and Stanley’s reconciliation.
Other passages, however, are not as felicitous. Blanche’s encounter with the newsboy seemed a bit overdone. There could have been more build in the scene where Stanley rapes Blanche. And after Mitch leaves Blanche, her movements on and around her bed were simply puzzling.
Regardless, the entire MOB company performed with sensitivity, bringing out their characters’ personalities with athleticism and grace, and fulfilling all the demands of De Lima’s choreography with excellence. Lauren Guynes and Andrew Stiller led the company as Blanche and Stanley, with Sara Radka as Stella and Donovan Davis as Mitch.
Where this Streetcar came up short was in Dave Hurlbert’s scenario. While it captured most of Williams’ story, running a scant 80 minutes, this was an instance where I wouldn’t have minded if the evening had been longer.
In Hurlbert’s telling, Stanley and Blanche start fighting too quickly; there’s no sense of a cat and mouse game playing out. Blanche’s relationship with Mitch deserves another scene. And I kept waiting for Hurlbert/De Lima to give a terpsichorean account of Blanche’s great “I loved someone, too…” monolog, in which she describes how she discovered her husband was gay and his subsequent suicide; this would have seemed to be a natural for a danced interpretation, but it was strangely missing.
I fully realize that such omissions may be due, not to artistic/aesthetic decisions, but to time (as in rehearsal) or budgetary considerations. That said, if this work is to have a future, and I hope it does, these shortcomings need to be addressed. Till then, despite a glorious score and vital choreography, this Streetcar arrives at its destination too soon.
[For information about upcoming performances at Marigny Opera House, go to https://marignyoperahouse.org/performance/]
Fiddler on the Roof at the Saenger Theatre
If you missed the recent production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Saenger, oy, such a shame, cause such a lovely production doesn’t come around here all the time!
Nearly 60 years after its Broadway debut, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s score remains one of the all-time greats, with song after song that have become classics. The book by Joseph Stein brilliantly alternates between comedy and drama as it tells the tale of Tevye, his wife & five daughters, and all the other inhabitants of the Ukranian shtetl of Anatevka.
This production directed by Bartlett Sher ran on Broadway in 2016, and other than a brief intro and coda that offer a contemporary perspective, is basically the traditional one we’ve come to know and love; there was a slight tendency to play things for laughs rather than to let the humor arise organically from the characters, but who am I to kvetch about a little something like that.
What made me kvell were the dances by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. As brilliant as Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is, it’s nice to see a new interpretation. Shechter provides athletic, even acrobatic, movements which you might not have found in the old country, but they express the proper feeling and look good and are well done so who could ask for anything more?
If the Israeli actor Jonathan Hashmonay as Tevye started off a little tentatively (where was his accent?), he got better as he went along and by the middle of the first act he had hit his stride and remained excellently so until the touching finale.
Maite Uzal (Golde), Randa Meierhenry (Tzeitel), Graceann Kontak (Hodel) and Yarden Barr (Chava) were all good but didn’t always sound as though they were from the shtetl; I suspect they may have been cast more for their beautiful voices than their acting though it could just be that their dialog is not as authentically idiosyncratic as I’ve kinda felt that way about the women when seeing previous iterations of the show.
Austin J. Gresham (properly pompous as Perchik), Carson Robinette (Fyedka), and understudy Elliot Lazar, who went on as Motel the Tailor, were all very good as was Mary Beth Webber as Yente the Matchmaker, a role that’s always a scene-stealer. Andrew Hendrick was fine as the butcher Lazar Wolf, but with his looks and voice, if they ever do a musical version of Goodfellas, they’d be crazy not to cast him.
From the magnificent opening of Tradition through the thrilling Bottle Dance that’s part of the Act One wedding finale on to the ending as the villagers are forced to move away (which, when you think about it, for those who wound up in America, was likely a much better fate than had they stayed in Anatevka till the Nazis would arrive), this was a most worthy Fiddler. Its most powerful moment, however, might have been its curtain speech, delivered by Hashmonay who offered a message of support to Ukraine and all those Ukrainians who have been driven from their homes and also inveighed against the mounting antisemitism in the world. L’Chaim!
[Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! The Musical plays at the Saenger April 5-16. For tickets and more information about it, go to https://www.saengernola.com/shows/moulin-rouge-the-musical]
One Night with Billie & Ella at the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen Wednesday matinees thru June 21
[One Night with Billie & Ella returns to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen after playing there last year. Here are excerpts from my March 2022 review.]
If you want to enjoy 75 minutes of music from the Great American Songbook performed by a pair of local songstresses channeling two of America’s musical icons, then head to the WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen for One Night with Billie & Ella.
Written and directed by Brittany Williams, One Night features sixteen songs associated with either Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald. And what songs they are! Duke Ellington’s bouncy Don’t Get Around Much Anymore. Cole Porter’s suggestive My Heart Belongs to Daddy, considered “racy” in its day. And the still devastating Strange Fruit.
Though Holiday and Fitzgerald never actually performed together, Williams’ streamlined book imagines such a joint concert. Dialog is kept to a minimum with no intrusive biographical bits (other than that Holiday was two years older than Fitzgerald, a fact deftly layered in), just some small talk and a bit of friendly rivalry between them, clearly manufactured but funny in an old-fashioned way.
As director, Williams takes a very straightforward, stand-and-sing approach for the most part, keeping the focus on the music. There are no directorial flourishes, just pure entertainment done simply and smoothly. And why would you want anything else when the music and singers are so good?
Kathleen Moore and Chloé Marie Johnson as, respectively, Holiday and Fitzgerald do not attempt photostatic impressions of these legends but convey their essences, Fitzgerald a little more demure, Holiday a smidge edgier.
With her silky vocalizations, Moore offers us an assured Holiday, long before her addictions got the better of her as might be seen in such works as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
Johnson captures Fitzgerald’s sound with a timbre to her voice similar to the “Queen of Jazz”. And as demonstrated in Cheek to Cheek, Johnson possesses a talent for scat singing that does full justice to Fitzgerald’s inimitable technique.
Together, Moore and Johnson combine their creamy voices beautifully and playfully in such duets as Give Me the Simple Life, Willow Weep for Me, and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. When two such gorgeously talented songbirds are on stage, I could listen to them all night.
Leading a topnotch jazzy trio from his piano, Musical Director Harry Mayronne keeps the tempos swinging and the rhythms grooving from start to finish as would be expected from a pro like him.
That’s about all that needs be said about One Night with Billie & Ella. Except for one thing.
About halfway through the show, when Holiday and Fitzgerald have temporarily retired to their simple dressing room (on the side of the stage), Williams drops in a line about their wariness performing in front of an integrated audience in the South, presumably in the late 1940s or early ‘50s.
While unquestionably valid, this revelation comes out of nowhere and is never referenced again; it almost suggests that Williams may have wanted to create a show with a more penetrating focus but then, for one reason or another, it morphed into the presentation at hand.
I’d be very interested in seeing a show about the combustible situations that could have caused such trepidation and fears in these trailblazing entertainers. Perhaps Another Night with Billie & Ella?
[For tickets and more information, including the accompanying buffet menu, go to https://www.nationalww2museum.org/programs/billie-ella]