Posts Tagged ‘fun home’

Performance Diary: LIVING HERE and FUN HOME

April 19, 2015

4-16 living here set
I’ve gone to see many Foundry Theatre productions over the years — great shows from David Hancock’s Deviant Craft to David Greenspan’s The Myopia, from Rinde Eckert’s And God Created Great Whales to Claudia Rankine’s The Provenance of Beauty, season-long colloquia on topics like money, values, and hope — but the other night the Foundry Theatre came to me. The current production, Gideon Irving’s solo Living Here, happens in a different New York City apartment every night, and the performance I volunteered to host in my living room took place last Thursday.

4-16 living here audience
It was a trip to have 32 people (half of them my friends as guests, half paying customers unknown to me) cozily jammed into my midtown abode watching an extraordinary show. Gideon has been doing home shows for several years now. He used to play in a band and got tired of playing crappy venues to semi-attentive audiences. (You can read an interview about the evolution of the show online here.) He did his first home shows in New Zealand, pedaling his instruments from gig to gig in a wagon behind his bicycle. Living Here combines songs and stories. The songs displayed his magnificent eccentric roar of a voice and his exquisite restless musicianship (he played banjo, guitar, Irish bouzouki, mbira, kazoo, harmonium, and electronic keyboard with special effects, including a looper he used to sample a classic ringtone from an audience member’s iPhone). And his stories reported from the front lines of his peripatetic survey of humanity, full of juicy details from his encounters with a potato warehouse manager to the son of a kazillionaire (who hosted a show in a multimillion dollar apartment with a staff of nannies, caterers, and assistant nanny caterers), an audience with a goat, what little kids yell out in the middle of his show, and tidbits culled from the casual conversation he’d had with me about my apartment during the sound check (below). It was an amazing show. I don’t think anyone who came will ever forget it.

4-16 don gideon

I admire Melanie Joseph, who started the Foundry, as much as anyone I’ve ever met in the theater. Her commitment to high-quality artists, radically unconventional theater, and social awareness inspire and amaze me. It’s borderline crazy what she does. There’s very little money to be made doing this. It’s a constant high-wire act, and the stress must be overwhelming. And yet she and her artists keep going, making magic against all reasonable expectations. Living Here plays through May 2 — catch one of the remaining shows if you can.

Adventures like Living Here spoil you for regular theater. Almost any other conventional play or musical looks stodgy and staid by comparison. And then there’s Fun Home, another show so original, so deep, so beautifully made, so unusual that it lives in a category all its own. This is the musical based on the graphic memoir by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel about her complicated relationship with her father, a funeral director and high school English teacher who was himself a closeted gay guy who committed suicide when she was in college. NOT standard material for musical theater, but as adapted by fantastic playwright Lisa Kron with a score by the great Jeanine Tesori guided by the fine director Sam Gold, it is nothing less than great theater.

FUN HOME PLAYBILLIt was a huge hit last season at the Public Theater, where Andy and I saw it twice. Now it’s been remounted on Broadway, extensively revised and radically restaged in the round at Circle in the Square. The work that the creators have done on the show had nothing to do with making it more palatable to an uptown audience or commercially viable but everything to do with making it a truer, deeper work of art. So much about the show is unprecedented — there’s never been a lesbian protagonist in a Broadway musical, a character played by three actresses representing the real Alison Bechdel (or T-Rab, as the cast apparently likes to call her) as a child, a college student, and an adult (Sydney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Beth Malone). Stories about fathers and daughters are relatively rare, but when do we ever hear lesbians talk about their relationships with their fathers? And this father (played by the excellent Michael Cerveris) is so complicated — brilliant, high-strung, overbearing, creepy, and increasingly crazy. The score is full of great songs, at least one major aria for each central character. We all know Jeanine Tesori is a wonderful composer, but the secret star of this show is Lisa Kron, whose book and lyrics excel. The strong cast give impeccable performances (I haven’t yet mentioned Judy Kuhn, Roberta Colindrez, and Joel Perez). The staging in the round sometimes diffuses focus (there are definitely moments I miss from the Public Theater production) but just as often it opens up new pockets of theatricality in telling the story and revealing the relationships, thanks to David Zinn’s protean set design and Ben Stanton’s essential lighting. This is clearly not a show for everyone — two small groups of women (a pair and then a foursome) walked out of the intermissionless show, apparently unable to tolerate the sight of two gals making out in a college dorm-room bed — but for me (and surely most of the otherwise sold-out house that leapt to its feet as soon as the show was over) it’s right up there in the pantheon of great unorthodox original musicals, a la Spring Awakening and Fela! We walked out emotionally shaken, thought-provoked, and ecstatic.

4-18 fun home


November 19, 2013

11-2 sh alvaro 2 boys
November 2 –
I went with Stephen and Alvaro (above) to see Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera. For me, the artistic merit in the production had less to do with Nico Muhly’s passable, unmemorable score than with Craig Lucas’s libretto. Based on a true story, the opera depicts the tragic consequences of an online friendship between a 13-year old, Jake, and a 16-year-old, Brian. Much of their interaction takes place in a chat room (the year is 2001 – nowadays chat rooms are passé but it’s interesting to have this technology captured in art). Lucas is a prolific playwright, I’m a big fan of his work, and I could immediately see that Lucas was returning to territory he’s mined before in his play (and film) The Dying Gaul, in which cyberspace becomes an eerie version of Orpheus’s underworld – a man finds his dead lover cruising him online. The chatroom dialogue between Jake and Brian (and other characters who get pulled into the action), misspellings and shorthand intact, shows up in the sung text but also on video screens in Bartlett Sher’s production and, at the Met, in titles on the back of the chair in front of you.

two boys
I loved how Lucas made theatrical poetry out of this language. It made me think of Gertrude Stein’s operas. I wish Nico Muhly’s score was as tuneful as Virgil Thomson’s. His vocal writing is lyrical, and his choral passages have a pleasant wash, but there’s nothing especially distinctive about his compositional voice. He’s getting a lot of attention and opportunity because of his youth (he’s 32) but he’s yet to create music that grabs me. Still, at the curtain call, I found myself unexpectedly moved to see a young living composer taking bows at the end of a piece that the Metropolitan Opera commissioned – must be quite a thrill for him.

11.16.13 – A weekend full of musicals, beginning with A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, a lavish and stylish exercise in pure fun. The Broadway debut of the journeyman team Robert L. Freeman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics), the show adapts to the stage the novel that inspired the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets. Handsome but penniless striver Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) discovers belatedly that he is descended from the rich and famous D’Ysquith clan. Determined to ascend to the family’s aristocratic title (Earl of Highhurst), he sets out to dispatch the eight individuals who stand in his way. All eight victims are played by the excellent Jefferson Mays (Tony Award winner for I Am My Own Wife), in the show-off role(s) legendarily played in the movie by Alec Guinness.

From the acclaim it received when it previously played in Hartford, I’d gotten the impression that the show revolved around Mays’ tour de force performance, but I was wrong. The show has a large cast full of excellent performers, and while Mays (above far right) gets to do all sorts of dazzling and daffy quick-changes, he is equally matched as leading man by Pinkham (above center, a crucial member of Alex Timbers’ teams for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the musical of Love’s Labour’s Lost last summer in Central Park). Lisa O’Hare (above in pink) and Lauren Worsham (above in white) are terrific as the women Monty courts; Joanne Glushak (above far left) is a riot as the current earl’s squabbling spouse. Beautifully designed from top to bottom, cleverly staged by Darko Tresnjak, superbly orchestrated by the great Jonathan Tunick, and entertaining as hell. Still, I left the theater with my heart untouched and my intellect unfed.

The same evening, I went back to the Public Theater to see Fun Home for the second time and liked it even better than I did the first time. In the interim I’d sat down and re-read Alison Bechdel’s original graphic memoir, which both deepened my understanding of the characters (especially the author and her father) and increased my appreciation for how creatively and ruthlessly the creators of the musical worked to turn it into a musical. I was much more aware this time of the understated importance to the story of the father’s mental illness. And where it bothered me the first time that the adult cartoonist Alison (Beth Malone) spends a lot of stage time standing around watching the younger versions of herself, it didn’t bother me at all this time. Every single performance has gotten sharper and stronger.

fun home diner
Each of the three Alisons gets a major aria. “Ring of Keys,” a song about a nine-year-old nascent lesbian (sung by Small Alison, the adorable Sydney Lucas, above left) spotting her first bull-dyke, is one for the ages, a moment that instantly enters gay-theater history.

             With your swagger and your bearing

            And the just-right clothes you’re wearing

            Your short hair and your dungarees

            And your lace-up boots and your keys

            Your ring of keys…

Of all the people in this luncheonette

            Why am I the only one who sees you’re beautiful…

            I mean, handsome?

Medium Alison’s big number, sung with brave awkwardness by Alexandra Socha, is “Changing My Major” (from English to Joan — sex with Joan, minor in kissing Joan). And once again, I wept helplessly during “Telephone Wire,” the climactic song in which adult Alison pours out her desperate and unsuccessful clamoring for her father (a seriously impressive performance by Michael Cerveris, above right) to see her as a complete person, including her sexuality. I loved tracking the T-shirts that designer David Zinn gives to the three ages of Alison, and I appreciated how director Sam Gold let many awkward dramatic moments stay awkward. Kudos once more to Lisa Kron (book and intensely smart, characterful lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (composer extraordinaire) – also choreographer Danny Mefford and lighting designer Ben Stanton.

11.17.13 – I tagged along as a posse of Andy’s choir-geek friends made an expedition to The Cloisters to experience Janet Cardiff’s sound installation “The Forty Part Motet” – an eleven-minute composition by 16th century composer Thomas Tallis recorded in 2000 by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir.

40 part motet
One voice comes out of each of 40 standing speakers arranged in an oval around the beautiful Fuentidueña Chapel – I thought of it as an invisible flash mob. The room was pretty crowded on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but it was one of those great New York interactive museum experiences, like lying on the floor of the Guggenheim’s rotunda looking up at the James Turrell light show.

11-17 fuentiduena chapel ceiling crop
The late twelfth-century apse of the chapel has been transported intact from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, near Segovia, Spain, on permanent loan from the Spanish Government. The art includes a striking Christ-on-the-cross and what looks for all the world like Tweedledee and Tweedledum proffering freshly baked pies (above).

11-17 unicorn in captivity
While we were at the Cloisters, we had a look at the famous room of Unicorn Tapesties and some of the other curiosities on display. I’d never seen a tableau like this one described as “Christ in Limbo.”

11-17 christ in limbo
And it’s always fascinating to encounter these images of LBJ (the little baby Jesus) with strangely adult facial expressions. This one seems to be saying, “Bitch, get these animals out of my face.”
11-17 lbj in stable
In the evening, my friend Misha Berson took me along to James Lapine and William Finn’s musical adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine, the feel-good dysfunctional family hit indie film. You can totally see why everyone would think that the guys who wrote March of the Falsettos and what everyone calls The Spelling Bee Musical would be perfect to make a musical out of this story. Yes, there are precocious children and furniture on wheels and quippy gay guys and a long-suffering wife (that would be Stephanie J. Block, very good). I wasn’t a fan of the movie – I thought all the characters were implausible cutesy stick figures. Lapine and Finn gave it their all, but they’re still stuck with mediocre source material.

little miss sunshine
The musical is superbly, unpredictably cast – in the Steve Carell role, Rory O’Malley is an appealingly pudgy Jesse Tyler Ferguson type; I find Will Swenson charmless, which isn’t bad for the self-absorbed dad; I’ve always been a big fan of David Rasche, who couldn’t be more unlike the movie’s Alan Arkin; and all the nasty little girls are great, including Hannah Nordberg’s Olive. The wittiest thing about the show is Beowulf Boritt’s set, which snakes up from the floor onto the ceiling.

Performance Diary: FUN HOME, MARIE ANTOINETTE, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, and Robert Kraft at Joe’s Pub

October 31, 2013

October 19 – The musical Fun Home at the Public Theater is a rich intense meal of a show. It’s an adaptation of the award-winning graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, the great cartoonist best-known for her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” about growing up in a funeral home, coming out as a lesbian, and her relationship with her father, who was a closeted gay man and committed suicide not long after she came out to him.
funhome panel
Jeanine Tesori wrote the score, which is quirky and deep and includes fantastic roles for young kids, not unlike “Caroline, or Change.” And the book and lyrics were written by Lisa Kron – I enjoyed seeing traces of Kron’s own family memoir, 2.5 Minute Ride, show up here. The first half of the show is a little lumpy and awkward as the story jumps around in time, portraying Alison at three different ages – the 9-year-old daddy’s girl (Sydney Lucas) who is transfixed at the fleeting sight of a butch lesbian, the college girl (Alexandra Socha) whose life is transformed by her first fling (Joan, played by Roberta Colindrez – “Tako” from Girls), and the adult cartoonist (Beth Malone), who spends a lot of time standing on the sidelines watching her earlier selves.

But the musical numbers are as unpredictable and specific as Bechdel’s fantastic writing (a commercial for the funeral home, a Partridge Family tribute, a lovesong to that butch lesbian called “Ring of Keys”). And once grown-up Alison sits down for the car ride and conversation she never had with her gay dad, I was an emotional wreck. Michael Cerveris (below, with Sydney Lucas) is spectacular as mercurial Bruce – brilliant, kind, demanding, secretive. David Zinn’s elaborate set especially serves to reveal depths of Bruce’s character beyond words – his love of beauty, his attachment to surfaces and masks.

funhome production shot

Afterwards, Andy and I stumbled out into the lobby, where a whole other emotional experience unfolded. Bechdel was in the house, and we got to meet not only her (Andy could barely contain his fanboy delight) but also Edie Windsor, who’d already seen the show once before and loved it so much she went back, with her publicist, the indefatigable Cathy Renna. Chatting with two legendary lesbians topped off the evening spectacularly. 10-19 alison bechdel andy

October 20 – I’m not really sure what David Adjmi’s play Marie Antoinette is really about, other than retelling the historical tale of the French monarch’s rise and fall in 21st century language, a la Sofia Coppola’s movie. But it does provide the occasion for an amazing performance by Marin Ireland in the title role (below, with Marsha Stephanie Blake and Jennifer Ikeda). I’ve seen Ireland give any number of admirable performances, including her previous gig at Soho Rep in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, but I’ve never seen her undertake such a stylized role. It’s pretty great, beautifully directed by Rebecca Taichman. All the actors are superb – there’s a tiny Cassandra-like role for A Sheep, and the production was lucky enough to land David Greenspan to play it. The production design has been stripped down from previous incarnations at the American Repertory Theater in Boston and the Yale Rep. It’s pretty bare-bones but suitable to the intimacy of the Soho Rep space.


 October 23 – I’ve been a big fan of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along ever since I saw the original Broadway production, somewhat misbegotten, poorly reviewed, and quickly shuttered (though the cast album holds up very well even now). I’ve seen it onstage again several times, and I was happy that I had an evening free to catch the screening at the Ziegfeld of the live broadcast of the recent London production staged by Maria Friedman. Many have touted this as the best production of the show ever, including Sondheim himself. There are a few things it does extremely well – it establishes from the first scene that the entire show consists of what in 12-step circles is called “a searching moral inventory” by the central character, Franklin Shepard: how did you get to be you? How did it happen? A key image that no other production has introduced is Frank (played by Mark Umbers) clutching a red-bindered copy of his friend Charlie Kringas’s play at the end of the opening scene. As the show moves backward in time, we see this script show up again and again, symbolizing the numerous opportunities Frank had to pursue the artistic ideals he had when he was a kid and the myriad times he chose to postpone or override them in favor of commercial interests or other people’s values.

Although it’s always been subliminally obvious, this production makes unmistakeable that Mary (Jenna Russell) has been in love with Frank from the moment they met on a tenement rooftop in New York City. Russell, who played Dot in the London revival of Sunday in the Park with George (which subsequently came to Broadway), gives an excellent performance, as does Damian Humbley as Charlie. (Pre-show backstage footage reveals that, underneath his wig and glasses and shambolic Charlie attire, Humbley is one hunky Australian actor.) Otherwise, though, I found the production to be pretty mediocre – overacted, cartoonish, a few ideas pounded home relentlessly. I still think the best version of Merrily was James Lapine’s production at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 starring John Rubenstein, Chip Zien, and Heather MacRae. And the second-best was Lapine’s staging last year for the Encores! series at City Center with Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Elizabeth Stanley, who was a revelation as Gussie.

October 30 – Speaking of the Franklin Shepards of the world…the last time I had contact with singer-songwriter Robert Kraft, it was the mid-1980s, and he was excited because Harold Prince (producer and director of many Stephen Sondheim shows, including Merrily We Roll Along) had taken an interest in developing a musical by him for Broadway, a show called Metropolitan Serenade. Robert recorded three albums during this period, full of whimsical and tuneful original pop-jazz compositions. I remember he did a show at the Bottom Line with Patti LuPone singing songs nominated for Academy Awards. Then he moved to Los Angeles and vanished from my radar. I was vaguely aware that he had gotten involved with Hollywood in some capacity as music director, but I never knew the details (I’ve since looked them up on Wikipedia).

A couple of years ago we became Facebook friends, and then suddenly here he is, doing a gig at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of a boxed set of his studio albums and a never-released live album. He sat at the piano and played a bunch of his songs from 30 years ago – “Who’s Seducing Who,” “Out with My Ex,” “False Start,” “Café Society” – accompanied by a former student, Katie Theroux, on upright bass. I learned from the show that he’d collaborated with his buddy Bruce Willis (who was in the audience at Joe’s Pub) on the movie Hudson Hawk and he was nominated for an Academy Award for a song he wrote for the movie version of Oscar Hijuelos’s lovely novel The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love. (I also learned from him that Hijuelos just died recently – sad.) I will probably buy the boxed set when it comes out in December, to have CD versions of beautiful ballads such as “Bon Voyage” and “Rosette.” Robert apparently spent almost 20 years supervising movie music for Fox Filmed Entertainment…but what about that Broadway show?

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