Wednesday, February 22, 2017

If I Forget

For centuries, people have been imploring one another to remember this or that historic event, tragic or otherwise. They don't, however, always say exactly what you should remember or why. So what happens when we learn the wrong lessons about our history?

In If I Forget, Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) explores this question through the lens of what it means to be a modern American Jew. (Though the play is set in mid-2000 and early 2001, the conversations and debates feel fresh, and like they could be taking place in 2017.) Michael Fischer (Jeremy Shamos, terrific and restrained as Michael tries not to be the agitator) and his wife, Ellen (Tasha Lawrence), have traveled from their Brooklyn home to Tenleytown, a Washington, DC, suburb. Michael's father, Lou (Larry Bryggman) still lives there, in the Fischer family home, though he's not doing too well. Michael's sisters, Holly (Kate Walsh) and Sharon (a compelling Maria Dizzia) live in town, and share (unevenly) caretaking duties.

The big conversations and family debates (directed by Daniel Sullivan) ultimately boil down to what history means to each person. (Holly's husband, Howard (Gary Wilmes), and son, Joey (Seth Steinberg) are also around from some of the conversations.) As Michael is a Jewish Studies professor, there are debates about modern Jewish history, including and especially the Holocaust, and because patriarch Lou is ailing, there are debates about how to care for him, and where to get the money to do it. The siblings argue over what to do with the family store, which, for a long time, has been the family store only in so much as the family still owns the space; they've been renting it out for years.

It's easy to see the parallels between each person's view of history and modern Jewry and their feelings about the store. Sharon, the most actively Jewish of the Fischer siblings, is absolutist in her stance on Israel, informed, of course, by the Holocaust; she also can't bear the thought of selling the store, regardless of the financial windfall. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael, the academic, understands the Holocaust's place in history, but does not treat Israel differently because of it; his politics are more liberal, supporting or criticizing Israel as he would any other country. (Holly is somewhere in the middle; she's one of those non-practicing yet self-righteous Jews.) It's no surprise, then, when Michael is easily convinced that selling the store is the right thing to do. In a moving conversation with his father, the different points of view are crystallized: Michael says, "I don't believe in ghosts." His father later says, "For you, history is an abstraction."

Who's right? How should we approach history? Levenson forces audiences to confront what are, for many, long- and strongly-held beliefs, stances that have cemented as a matter of fact without critical thinking or questioning. Chiefly (as this was his impetus for writing the play), he asks what it means to be a modern American Jew.

Must there be group think? Must everything be steeped in death and guilt, must everything be penance for surviving the Holocaust? We've said never again, yet there have been other holocausts and gruesome genocides since. So did we really learn anything? If not, what’s the virtue in remembering? Perhaps, as one of the Fischers says, "we've learned the wrong lessons."

Indeed, it seems like, even now, we can't have a conversation about being Jewish without talking about the Holocaust, and we can't have a conversation about politics and Israel without talking about religion (and the Holocaust). So if we forget, would it be such a terrible thing? This is the thesis of Michael's controversial book, and Levenson raises the question to help us look at our history. Ultimately, the question driving If I Forget is one Joey, the teenager, poignantly asks: "What's my inheritance?" He's asking a literal question, but, of course, we can infer the broader question, what is my history, and where do I fit in?

Interesting side note: The themes of If I Forget couldn't be more relevant. As Americans (and the world) learn how to handle and fight the new administration, we're thinking back to lessons learned. Writer, political operative, and activist Beau Willimon pointed out, "Knowing our history and keeping it alive is one of the most important forms of resistance."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Week in Review 2.17.17

Casting News

  • Okieriete Onaodowan, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan/James Madison in Hamilton, will take on the role of Pierre in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 beginning July 3. Josh Groban, who originated the role on Broadway, will, as previously reported, play his final performance on July 2. Onaodowan will remain with the production through September 4. has more.

  • Tony- and Grammy-nominated song writer Sara Bareilles will step into the lead role of Jenna in Waitress, for which she wrote the score. Jessie Mueller, who originated the role, will play her final performance March 26; Bareilles begins performances March 31, and will remain with the show through June 11. Playbill has more.

  • Complete casting for MTC's revival of The Little Foxes has been announced. Joining the previously announced headliners, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, will be Darren Goldstein (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Affair), Michael McKean (All the Way) and others. Previews begin March 29, and opening night is set for April 19. The limited engagement is scheduled to conclude June 18. has more.
It's an Honor

Grammys—The Grammy Awards were handed out on Sunday, February 12. Some winners of note: The Color Purple, Best Musical Theater Album; "Blackstar," by David Bowie, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance, the album, Blackstar, won Best Alternative Music Album, Best Recording Package, and Best Engineered Album (non-calssical); Sing Me Home, Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, Best World Music Album; In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, Carol Burnett, Best Spoken Work Album; Sissle and Blake Sing Shuffle Along, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, Best Album Notes; and Tom Petty was named the MusiCares Person of the Year. Rolling Stone has the full list of winners.

BAFTAs—Winners of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards were announced and honored on Sunday, February 12. La La Land earned multiple awards, including Best Film; Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for Fences; and Kenneth Lonergan won Original Screenplay for Manchester by the Sea. Playbill has the full list of winners.

Coming Up

  • Second Stage will mount a revival of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, now retitled, simple, Torch Song. Performances begin September 28. Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) will direct, and Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) will lead the cast. Theater Mania has more.

  • The Pubic's Mobile Unit, which brings free Shakespeare to underserved areas throughout all five boroughs on NYC, will present Twelfth Night. The production, directed by Saheem Ali, will tour March 30-April 22, and have a free sit-down run at the Public April 24-May 14. Playbill has more, including the full cast list.

  • Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Man from Nebraska) will return to Broadway in 2018 with his play, The Minutes. The play will have its debut at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, and then begin previews on Broadway February 6, 2018. Opening night is set for March 8, and the limited engagement is scheduled to conclude December 31. Theater Mania has more.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Man From Nebraska

We begin by spending a day in the life of Ken (Reed Birney) and Nancy (Annette O'Toole), a man and woman from Nebraska. They drive, in silence, to church. They sit, in silence, in church. They have dinner, in silence. They visit Ken's ailing mother, Cammie (Kathleen Peirce), and they only speak to her, not to each other. At home, they watch TV in silence. The silences aren't awkward; they are just what (sometimes) happens after decades of marriage. But something is stirring in Ken's soul.

Ken and Nancy break the silence in the middle of the night when Ken rushes to the bathroom, puts a towel over this face and begins to cry. Nancy enters the bathroom and tries to help, but Ken won't let her. (O'Toole is achingly effective in this scene; Nancy is Ken's wife, and it's her job to help. Why won't he let her help?) He finally relents, declaring he doesn't believe in God.

Talking about the genesis of his 2003 play in a post-show discussion, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) asked, can you go your whole life without asking the big questions? Man from Nebraska, directed with great attention to detail by David Cromer, posits what happens to the titular Everyman when, after years of just going along to get along, he finally asks.

In a telling exchange, Ken's reverend (William Ragsdale) asks, "You've been feeling low?" Ken replies, "I haven't been feeling anything. And so, with his crisis of faith named, Ken sets off to figure out who he is and what life means. He jets off to London, leaving his wife at home (much to the chagrin of their oldest daughter, Ashley (Annika Boras)). Across the pond his meets a black woman, Tamyra (Nana Mensah) and her flatmate, Harry (Max Gordon Moore), who help Ken see life differently.

Tony winner Birney (The Humans, Casa Valentina) gives a layered exploration of the complexities of being a regular guy who's just not sure what happened to his life, how he got here. You can see all the questions racing through Ken's mind, but let's not forget the wife he abandoned so that he might go on his journey.

O'Toole (A Mighty Wind, Welcome Home Dean Charbonneau) gives a quiet, understated performance as the tossed-aside wife. Though not fully drawn on the page, O'Toole shows that Nancy is just as complicated as Ken. She's his wife. They've made this life, predicated on certain things, things they thought they figured out years ago. She is just as plagued by this crisis as her husband. With no offense meant to Letts (or Birney), in this day and age, the more interesting story might be the one about the woman from Nebraska.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Sleeping Beauty

I tend not to like narrative ballets (especially full-length narratives) because I find there's not enough dancing. Sure, there's usually a nice pas de deux, but usually it's just a lot of graceful gesturing. So I was pleasantly surprised that Peter Martins's take on The Sleeping Beauty includes quite a bit of dancing, much more than I expected. I guess that when the main plot points of a story revolve around parties and dreamy visions, there's plenty of opportunities for divertissements and fantasy dances.

The libretto (by Marius Petipa and A. Vsevolozhsky)for this version hews pretty closely to what most people know (likely from the Disney animated film). We begin at the palace where the king (Andrew Scordato) and queen (Gretchen Smith) are celebrating the arrival of their daughter, Princess Aurora. The Catalabutte (Sean Suozzi) and his lackey (Giovanni Villalobos) provide a welcome amount of humor. Soon, various fairies are bestowing blessings upon the princess. This is where the pageantry and opportunities for dance begins, though some fairies are better than others. The Fairy of Vivacity (Mary Elizabeth Sell) for example, seemed to be a beat behind, like the pace of the dancing was too much for her, and she was continually playing catch up. By comparison, the Fairy of Eloquence (Claire Von Enck) expertly executed her quick, precise movements, a delightful sprite flitting about the stage.

Everything’s going swimmingly, but just as the leader of the pack, the Lilac Fairy (a warm and maternal Savannah Lowery) is about to bless Aurora, the fairy Carabosse (Marika Anderson), aka Maleficent, arrives. Stung that she was left off the guest list, she curses Aurora, saying that when the princess turns 16, she'll prick her finger on a spindle and die. The Lilac Fairy is having none of that, and uses her blessing to counteract the curse: instead of dying, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by a prince. (Check out this New York Times interview with Sara Mearns, who plays Carabosse at some performances, to find out what it’s like for a dancer to perform without dancing.)

Flash forward 16 years later, and Aurora (Sterling Hyltin) is celebrating her birthday. (It’s here that Martins interpolates George Balanchine’s Garland Dance, a brief section Mr. B choreographed for the 1981 Tschaikovsky Festival. Tschaikovsky’s entire score is beautiful.) Hyltin, of course, is resplendent as Aurora. She has a light and airy way of dancing; she articulates each movement, each minute detail, with purpose and unparalleled grace. I thrilled over the young-and-in-love look on her face as the four suitors (Jared Angle, Ask la Cour, Zachary Catazaro, and Taylor Stanley) wooed her during the full rose adagio sequence. And what a feat that is! It requires such concentration, skill, and control, yet Hyltin managed to make it look soft, effortless, and beautiful. She brings such bliss to the role, and is a joy to watch.

Of course, it’s all fun and games until someone pricks her finger on a spindle. Said spindle was snuck into the festivities by Carabosse in disguise, but instead of dying, as Carabosse had intended, Aurora only falls into a deep sleep, fulfilling the Lilac Fairy’s blessing. The Lilac Fairy then places the entire kingdom in a deep sleep, as well, while awaiting the prince. 100 years pass as brambles grow, obscuring the palace.

One day, Prince Desire (Chase Finlay) is out hunting and has a vision of Princess Aurora. (They dance a fantasy pas de deux.) The Lilac Fairy brings him to the palace, where he kisses Aurora, awakens the kingdom, and marries his princess.

The wedding celebration (almost the entirety of act two) is one for the ages. Bringing in characters from other familiar fairy tales, the celebration is an abundance of divertissements. First up are the jewels, Gold (Russell Janzen), Diamond (Teresa Reichlen), Ruby (Alexa Maxwell), and Emerald (Emilie Gerrity). Each jewel has a solo, and, notably, the music for Reichlen’s Diamond dance sounds like an 80s power ballad. Not exactly what I expect from Tschaikovsky, but entertaining nonetheless. There’s a playful sequence featuring Little Red Riding Hood (a youngster from the School of American Ballet) and the Big Bad Wolf (Daniel Applebaum); the White Cat
(Indiana Woodward) and Puss in Boots (Cameron Dieck); and buoyant court jesters (Daniel Ulbricht, Spartak Hoxha, and Harrison Coll). And Princess Florine (Ashly Isaacs) and the Bluebird (Harrison Ball) partake in the fun. Their turn includes a pas de deux, solo sections, and a brief closing pas de deux, with much of the dancing reminiscent of the Liberty Bell-El Capitan portion of Stars and Stripes. I typically like Isaacs; I’m always taken by her flair and exuberance. She didn’t disappoint here, though I was pleasantly surprised to see her in a more classic style dance, something that truly showed off her skill and technique.

What’s a wedding with a dance from the bride and groom? Prince Desire and Princess Aurora get to put on a show. Finlay is fine. He’s tall and muscular so he makes nice lines when dancing, but he’s simply not compelling or engaging on stage. Hyltin, on the other hand, it utterly captivating. She has this moment in one of her solo sections; I don’t remember exactly what she does, but I remember the feeling—she’s taking in everything, reveling in the excitement, expressing such happiness through her dancing. And those famous fish dives? Breathtaking.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Week in Review 2.10.17

Jake Gyllenhaal Welcomes You to the Hudson Theatre

Academy Award nominee (and emerging musical theatre sensation) Jake Gyllenhaal invited viewers into Sunday in the Park with George rehearsals backstage at the Hudson Theatre. The Hudson, which began operation in 1903 but has been out of use as a legit theatre since 1968, is set to reopen with this production, becoming the 41st active Broadway theatre. (See photos from this week's ribbon-cutting ceremony.) In the video below, directed by Emmy winner Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), Gyllenhaal walks through the Hudson while singing the show's signature song, "Finishing the Hat." The City Center production of the Stephen SondheimJames Lapine musical, also starring Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford, begins previews February 11; opening night is set for February 23, and the strictly limited engagement will conclude April 23. Visit the Hudson Theatre website to purchase tickets. (A rush policy for previews was announced late in the week. Playbill has details.)

Great Recording

There will be a Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 Broadway cast recording. A two-disc recording of the off-Broadway production is already available through Sh-K-Boom, and that features Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Natasha off-Broadway. The OBCR will, of course, reflect any changes to the score since the off-Broadway production, and feature the Broadway cast, including stars Denee Benton and Josh Groban. The album will be recorded on February 13; a release date has not been announced. Playbill has more.

Shakespeare in the Park

As we slog through the winter doldrums, we can look forward to the summer tradition that is Shakespeare in the Park. This year, Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis will direct Julius Caesar, running May23-June 18, and the Public's resident director, Lear deBessonet will direct A Midsummer Night's Dream, running July 11-August 12. In a statement, Eustis said, "There is no difficulty in the world that Shakespeare can't address. In our troubled times, the majesty of Julius Caesar and the joy of A Midsummer Night's Dream are as necessary as beauty." Playbill has more, and you can visit the Public's website for ticket information.

Casting News

  • Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) will star in Harriet, a biopic about American icon, Harriet Tubman. The film features a screenplay by Gregory Allen Howard and will be directed by Seith Mann. Deadline has more.

  • Tony nominee Mare Winningham (Casa Valentina, The Affair) has joined the cast of Joan of Arc: Into the Fire. The David Byrne-Alex Timbers collaboration begins previews at the Public February 14. Opening night is set for March 15, and the limited engagement is scheduled to conclude April 16. has more.

  • Complete casting for Present Laughter has been announced. Joining the previously announced Kevin Kline are Reg Rogers (You Can't Take It With You), Bhavesh Patel, and others. Previews begin March 10, with opening night set for April 5. The limited engagement is scheduled to conclude July 2. has more.

  • Sam Rockwell (Fool for Love) is joining Lily Rabe and Chris Messina in the upcoming film, We're Just Married. Variety has more.

  • Tony nominee Brian d'Arcy James (Something Rotten, Spotlight) and Elizabeth Reaser (How I Learned to Drive) will star in the Discovery Channel scripted series, Manhunt: The Unabomer, an anthology series about Ted Kaczynski. Broadway World has more.

  • The entire off-Broadway company of Indecent will transfer with the play to Broadway this spring. Indecent, which will mark Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel's Broadway debut, begins previews April 4, with opening night set for April 18. has more about the casting.

  • Casting for the world premiere of The Profane has been announced. The Playwrights Horizons production of Zayd Dohrn's play will feature Tala Ashe, Francis Benhamou, Ramsey Faragallah, Ali Reza Farahnakian, Lanna Joffrey, Heather Raffo, and Babak Tafti. Previews begin March 17. Opening night is set for April 9, and the limited engagement is scheduled to conclude April 30. Theater Mania has more.
It's an Honor

PEN Literary Award—National treasure and P-EGOT winner Stephen Sondheim will receive the PEN Literary Award, becoming the first songwriter to win the award. The PEN Award, which will be presented on April 25, is bestowed upon a "critically acclaimed writer whose body of work helps us understand and interpret the human condition," making Sondheim a natural choice. Sondheim won a Pulitzer for Sunday in the Park with George, which is coming back to Broadway beginning February 11; the production stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford. The New York Times has more about the PEN Award.

Dramatists Guild—The Dramatists Guild of America will honor Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph (Guards at the Taj) with the 2017 Horton Foote Playwriting Award, which comes with a $25,000 prize. The award recognizes playwrights whose work "plumbs the ineffable nature of being human." Broadway World has more.

Director's Guild Awards—The DGA Awards were handed out, with Damien Chazelle taking home the top honor for La La Land. Honoring achievements in both film and television, other winners include Miguel Sapochnik, for the Game of Thrones episode, "The Battle of the Bastards"; Becky Martin for the Veep episode, "Inauguration"; Steven Zaillian for an installment of The Night Of; and Glenn Weiss for the 2016 Tony Awards. Visit Deadline for the full list of winners.

Academy Awards—All five songs nominated for Best Original Song will be performed. The two songs from La La Land, "City of Stars" and "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)," will be performed by John Legend. While Legend appears in the movie, he does not sing the songs, which feature lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. (Oscar nominees Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone sing the nominated songs, respectively.) Lin-Manuel Miranda and Auli'i Cravalho will perform "How Far I'll Go," from Moana; Justin Timberlake will perform "Can't Stop the Feeling," from Trolls; and Sting will perform "The Empty Chair," from Jim: The James Foley Story." The Wrap has more. In other Oscars news, last year's winners, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson, will present at this year's ceremony. The Wrap has more about that, as well. And People has photos from the nominee luncheon, held earlier this week.

BAFTA—Living legend Mel Brooks will receive the BAFTA Fellowship Award, a lifetime achievement award presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Brooks joins previous honorees like Judi Dench, Sidney Poitier, Charlie Chaplin, and Martin Scorsese. Of the honor, Brooks said, "I am not overwhelmed, but I am definitely whelmed by this singular honor. To be included among such iconic talents is absolutely humbling. In choosing me for the 2017 Fellowship I think that BAFTA has made a strangely surprising yet ultimately wise decision." Broadway World has more.

Grammy AwardsTony winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple) and Academy Award and Grammy winner John Legend will perform together on the Grammys this Sunday, February 12. The duo will perform during the in memoriam segment. Playbill has more.

In Other News

  • Academy Award winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Ides of March) talks to Entertainment Tonight about returning to off-Broadway in Stage Kiss scribe Sarah Ruhl's How to Transcend a Happy Marriage. Directed Rebecca Taichman (Indecent), the LCT production begins previews February 23, and opens March 20.

  • Billboard spoke to Grammy and Tony winner Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton) about collaborating with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on Dear Evan Hansen, and recording that show's cast album, which is now available digitally.

  • The Los Angeles Times talks to Tony, Emmy, Grammy, and Pulitzer Prize winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton), who is in London filming the Mary Poppins sequel. Miranda talks about rehearsing Mary Poppins, and looking forward to the Oscars. (Miranda is nominated for Best Original Song, "How Far I'll Go," from Moana.)

  • Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) will return to Broadway this fall with his new play, Junk. The play will run at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre beginning September 14. Opening night is set for October 12. Playbill has more.

  • A national tour of On Your Feet, which tells Gloria and Emilio Estefan's story, will launch this fall in October. Naturally, the tour will begin in Miami, the Estefans' home. Playbill has more.

  • Julie's Greenroom, in which Julie Andrews teaches (puppet) children about theatre and creativity, will debut on Netflix March 17. Andrews is joined by some talented friends, including Josh Groban and the unparalleled Carol Burnett. Watch the trailer below.