Hamilton continues to dazzle in new #AndPeggy tour

Hamilton
The cast of the #AndPeggy tour of Hamilton, at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through Sept. 8, includes, from left, Rubén J. Carbajal as John Laurens, Julius Thomson III as Alexander Hamilton, Simon Longnight as Marquis de Lafayette and Brandon Louis Armstrong as Hercules Mulligan. Photo by Joan Marcus

If anything, the current company – known as the #AndPeggy company – of Hamilton now at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through Sept. 8, is even better than the one we saw at the same theater in 2017. Maybe it’s because this company got to perform for three weeks in Puerto Rico with the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, reprising the lead role. Or maybe the Hamilton machine, with productions in New York, Chicago and London and with two other tours (currently in Tampa and Cincinnati), has just become so incredibly efficient that it has collected all the best performers in all the land(s).

You might expect that a property that burns as hot and bright as Hamilton does in our pop culture would crest and fade at some point. That may happen, but not yet. The custodians of this extraordinary musical are taking awfully good care of it and are not only preserving but also expanding on the work of Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and orchestrator/arranger Alex Lacamoire. What that team created and what continues to unfold on stage is absolutely remarkable.

This is the third time I’ve seen Hamilton (original cast on Broadway, the first national tour launch in San Francisco in 2017 and now #AndPeggy company), and I feel like I could see 50 more times and still not absorb everything happening on that stage. It’s so easy to get caught up in the story of Hamilton and Burr weaving their narratives through the birth of a nation and tangling in their final dual that you don’t always notice what’s happening on the periphery in Blankenbuehler’s incredibly rich work for the ensemble or how Kail’s staging makes such effective use of the two turntables that you fall into the seamless flow of scene after compelling scene. [Just how intricate is the staging? Read this fascinating piece on the dancer who is known as #TheBullet.]

Miranda and company revolutionized musical theater by a) making the racial diversity of the cast so important that it seems there’s no other possible way to make good theater, b) merging history with the present in such a way as to make both more alive and more intricately connected that many of us realized and c) fusing hip-hop, rap, pop, R&B and musical theater in ways that are so vibrant and rich that other contemporary scores seem bland by comparison. All of that becomes even clearer on repeated viewings (and listenings, though the cast album only tells half the story because the visuals are so powerful).

Happily, Hamilton seems far from becoming a museum piece or something that can only be in the mold of the original production. In the performances especially, actors are given enough space to put their own spin on the characters. That’s where the #AndPeggy company really shines. Starting with Julius Thompson III as Hamilton, the performances are fresh and focused, and the chemistry among all the major players is electric.

Thompson brings all kinds of youthful enthusiasm to young Alexander, newly arrived in New York from the West Indies, one more immigrant who will get the job done (that lyric still gets a round of applause). He’s brash and confident and terrified and insecure – a sure recipe for success. As Hamilton makes friends and moves up through the ranks in the Revolutionary War, Thompson expands in the role, and by the time Hamilton is a battered politician, philandering husband and grieving father, there is a depth and ache that comes from maturity and harsh experience. Through it all, Thompson’s voice is glorious (all love to Miranda, but his distinctive voice is not his strongest suit).

Donald Webber Jr. as Aaron Burr is sly and quiet at first. He embodies Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy, but when it comes to Burr’s ambition, which seems constantly thwarted by Hamilton, the actor releases a powerful fury. His “Wait for It” is the best I’ve heard, and his “The Room Where It Happens” dazzles in its show-stopping desperation.

We saw Isaiah Johnson as George Washington last time around, and he’s even better now. When Washington decides to step down from the presidency and enlists Hamilton’s help in writing his farewell address, it’s a moving moment. But Johnson lifts the number – “One Last Time” – higher and digs deeper, making it a show highlight.

This is basically a whole show of highlights, so there are too many to mention here. Just know that “The Schuyler Sisters” (played by Julia K. Harriman as Eliza, Sabrina Sloan as Angelica and Darilyn Castillo as Peggy) is as snazzy as it needs to be; King George III (Rick Negron) is as diabolically funny as he needs to be; and the boys – Brandon Louis Armstrong as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, Rubén J. Carbajal as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton and Simon Longnight as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson – are a boisterous, funny, obstreperous and loyal.

I see something new and hear something new every time I see the show, and one thing that must be said about this company (and perhaps the sound system at the Orpheum) is that their diction is superb. Approximately 10 bazillion words fly by in this 2 1/2-hour show, and I heard more of them than I ever had before, which was thrilling. Miranda has become so famous for so many things at this point it’s nice to be reminded just what an inventive, intelligent and emotional composer he is.

Hamilton succeeds in abundant ways, but the thing that really got me this time was how our smart, squabbling founding fathers were really just winging it. Doing the best they could, relying on their educations, brandishing their egos, but never possessing absolute answers. The nation was a work in progress then and remains so today. That’s comforting…and terrifying. In Hamilton it would seem there is room enough for us all to figure it out. If only reality reflected one of our great works of art.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hamilton: An American Musical continues through Sept. 8 at the SHN Orphem Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $111-$686, subject to change. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Daily #HAM4HAM ticket lottery
At each performance of Hamilton 44 tickets are made available at $10 each. Use the Hamilton app or visit hamiltonmusical.com/lottery to enter and to read all the details.

2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Hamilton in SF: Re-creating America

Hamilton SF 1
They are not throwing away their shot: (from left) Ruben J. Carbajal is John Laurens, Michael Luwoye is Alexander Hamilton, Jordan Donica is the Marquis de Lafayette and Mathenee Treco is Hercules Mulligan in the San Francisco production of Hamilton at the Orpheum Theatre, part of the SHN season. Below center: The company of Hamilton. Below bottom: Luwoye’s Hamilton is in the eye of a hurricane. Photos by Joan Marcus

When a Broadway musical becomes a phenomenon, like Hamilton, it’s sometimes hard to see the show amid all the fireworks of fan adulation, critical hosannas, glittering awards, staggering dollar signs and the inevitable whines of “Overrated!” The Hamilton fireworks show has been especially colorful with a beloved creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has conquered social media (try to keep up with @Lin_Manuel on Twitter), a PBS documentary, a best-selling book about the musical (not to mention the inspiration for the musical, Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which has also been further buoyed by the success of the musical), a Grammy-award-winning original cast album that has (as of last month) gone triple platinum and a thematically linked pop album called The Hamilton Mixtape.

Whew. That’s a lot.

If you love Hamilton, and let me say for the record that I love Hamilton, there’s a whole lot to love, including, now, a new company in my hometown. After the Chicago company, which began performances last fall, this new one is what would be considered the national touring company. It’s here until August as part of the SHN season before heading to Los Angeles. The full Broadway creative team is represented here, and at Thursday’s opening-night production, the show shone through the hype with clarity, excitement and emotional heft.

Musicals have turned into landmark events before (Hair, A Chorus Line, Rent), but Hamilton invented a new level of wattage. There are so many reasons for that, but it starts with Miranda, the whirling dervish of an impresario who conceived the show, wrote the words and the music and the libretto and starred in the first production at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 and again when the show moved to Broadway in 2016. Like Jonathan Larsen before him, he cracked open the Broadway musical and reminded us that shows can sound like now and then and succeed on their own terms. With director Thomas Kail he assembled a creative team of artists working at their peak to craft something that, in the end, feels inevitable – of course this exists in this form, how could it not have existed previously?

Hamilton SF 2

From the colonial solidity of the wood and brick walls and fluidity of the two turntables on David Korins’ unit set to the sharp and defining shapes of Howell Binkley’s lighting design; from the period detail and high-fashion elegance of Paul Tazewell’s costumes to the nearly nonstop emotional physicality of Andy Blankenbuehler’s expressive choreography – everything comes together here to tell a powerful story about an incredible man – an immigrant, it should be noted – during an incredible time. The beautiful duality of Hamilton is not just in its score with its contemporary sound to tell the story of American revolution and its aftermath. It’s also a story of then that informs who we are now. That comes from the historical details themselves involving the messy birth of our nation, the squabbling, the political maneuvering, the fundamental disagreements and the dream of creating a truly independent nation from the ground up. It also comes from the casting: people of color playing white colonials. This is not an empty effort to make good on promises of diversity. It’s a profound statement about the history of this nation belonging to and serving all its citizens, and it’s a staggering thing to watch these actors working with such verve and integrity playing people who, in the Colonial era, would likely have repressed people of color.

From a theatrical point of view, it’s thrilling to see incredibly talented performers get a chance to prove what stars they are. That’s what happened on Broadway, and it’s sure to happen with every subsequent production. Thanks to Miranda and his team, this exceptionally well-crafted material allows actors, borrowing a song lyric here, to rise up and meet the challenges it presents, both historic and artistic. Actors have to summon the personae of Alexander Hamilton and King George III and Eliza Hamilton and do right by show-stopping songs like “The Schuyler Sisters,” “You’ll Be Back” and “What Did I Miss?”

Hamilton SF 2.5

The San Francisco company bursts with stars, starting with Michael Luwoye in the title role. He has the distinction of being, so far, the only actor to have played Burr and Hamilton in the same day (last fall on Broadway). His Hamilton here is more serious and less vulnerable than Miranda’s was on Broadway. With Miranda it was tricky: with his Hamilton, you were also seeing him. When Hamilton talks about writing like he’s running out of time, he’s also describing the incredibly busy and prolific Miranda. These two big-brained achievers have a lot in common. With Luwoye, it’s easier to see the orphan Hamilton who forcefully and through the combined power of his brain and ambition, made his way from hardship in the West Indies to the peak of American politics, creating our financial system as our first Secretary of the Treasury. Luwoye has a powerful voice and the kind of charisma he can ratchet up as the show progresses and Hamilton’s power and stature grows.

As Hamilton’s friend turned arch-rival Aaron Burr, Joshua Henry pretty much owns the stage. Whether he’s being tender on “Dear Theodosia” (a duet he and Hamilton sing to their infant children) or stopping the show with the dazzling “The Room Where It Happens,” Henry is a first-rate actor and singer, and his realization after that fateful duel with Hamilton, that the world was wide enough for both of them, lands with absolutely heartbreaking resonance.

The leading women in this company are remarkable – every bit as good as their Broadway counterparts. Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica, the eldest of the Schuyler Sisters and the one who meets Hamilton first, is ferocious. She’s a powerful woman in a time that did not appreciate powerful women, so she simmers and she channels her intelligence and wisdom as best she can. Solea Pfeiffer as Eliza Schuyler Hamilton has two wonderful musical moments: “Satisfied,” in which she positions herself as Hamilton’s partner in life and “Burn,” where, after his scandalous affair, she attempts to remove herself from his narrative. She has a gorgeous voice, but even better than that, the emotional acuity of her delivery is staggering. As Peggy, the youngest Schuyler Sister, Amber Iman gets the laugh line in the feel-good number “The Schuyler Sisters,” but she comes on strong as Maria Reynolds, the woman who nearly undoes the Hamilton marriage. She and Luwoye sizzle through “Say No to This.”

The entire ensemble dazzles in its beauty and power with stand-out work coming from Rory O’Malley as a very funny King George III, Mathenee Treco as Hercules Mulligan and James Madison and Ruben J. Carbajal as John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.

The abundance of musical riches here is almost too good to be true. In Act II, to have “What’d I Miss” followed a few songs later by “The Room Where It Happens” followed by Washington’s farewell in “One Last Time” followed by the extraordinary “It’s Quiet Uptown” (one of the saddest, most exquisitely constructed cascades of music about grief and forgiveness ever written for musical theater) – it’s more than most musicals can even dare to hope for.

Miranda and his crew have re-set the bar with Hamilton. A new generation will consider this their defining musical, and still more will have to look twice at a portrait of the actual Alexander Hamilton or George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and feel a twinge of disappointment that he’s actually just another dead white guy. There’s a recurring line in Hamilton that is true for a lot of reasons, one of which is the opportunity to appreciate this show in this moment: “Look around, look around. How lucky we are to be alive right now.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton continues through Aug. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100-$868. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.hamilton.shnsf.com

Ticket Lottery!
Hamilton tickets are hard to come by and, when they are, tend to be expensive. Happily, the San Francisco production, like Chicago and New York, offers an online lottery for 44 tickets at $10 each (#Ham4Ham) for every performance. To enter the lottery visit www.luckyseat.com/hamilton.html. Good luck!

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Spirit but no soul in loud Bring It On musical

Bring It On 1
CHEER UP AND SING OUT! The company of Bring It On, a mediocre new musical based on the movie of the same name. Photo by Michael Lamont. Below: Adrienne Warren as Danielle is the best thing about Bring It On: The Musical. Photo by Craig Schwartz


Like a weak episode of “Glee” shot up with steriods and stuffed full of anti-depressants, Bring It On: The Musical sends up a rousing cheer for the robotic vapidity of the new Broadway. The real shame about this overblown movie-to-stage adaptation is that it’s chock full of appealing, talented and boundlessly energetic young performers, but their sparkling humanity is mostly lost in the non-stop machine of this depressingly mechanical, surprisingly shrill effort (a part of the SHN season).

Targeted to an age range of teens to twentysomethings who slavishly recite lines from the 2000 movie starring Kirsten Dunst as a beleaguered cheerleading squad captain, this musical has a startling pedigree: direction and choreography by Tony-winner Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights), book by Tony Award-winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q and the lamentable Tales of the City) and music by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), who also co-wrote the lyrics with Amanda Green (High Fidelity). You’d think among this heavily lauded crowd of artists that someone could have located a little heart or a moment of actual human connection. But no. This is musical by committee, and a strenuous effort it seems to have been.

It’s all as highly programmed as the four giant video screens floating around the stage and pretending to be a set and only slightly more interesting.

Whitty’s book diverges almost completely from the movie, settling instead for a watered down All About Eve re-tread that sends cute, blond Campbell (Taylor Louderman) from the comfort of her cheer-happy suburban high school into an inner-city school where there are metal detectors, hip kids of color and – gasp – no cheerleaders. Everybody learns to respect and love everybody even amid the tension of a national cheer competition. It all ends, quite literally, in a multicultural group hug.

Bring It On 2

Nothing rises above the cartoon level here, which would be fine if the cartoon were fun. But there’s a pall of sameness over the whole enterprise. The stage, loaded with lighting grids and those annoying floating screens, looks more pop concert than musical theater, and it is cold, cold, cold. There’s absolutely no texture to this show at all, and that’s part of the overriding problem. The machine spins with super efficiency but never gains any traction – there’s no feeling other than brash cheerfulness and occasional flashes of bitchiness.

The Kitt-Miranda score is blandly funky, if that’s even possible. It’s pleasant enough in the theater (and certainly LOUD enough) but immediately forgettable. Miranda previously took us to hip musical theater heights, but here it’s mostly lows. There aren’t any song titles in the program (other than for the pre-recorded songs played during the actual cheer routines), and that seems fitting because they all blur together anyway. The voices all blare effectively but with no discernible emotion.

Same is true for the choreography, all very proficiently performed but just empty movement. The cheer routines are spectacular, especially at first. This could easily be called Back Flip: The Musical because that’s the go-to make-’em-squeal move. The first few times women are thrown into the air, spinning madly, it’s thrilling. But soon, as the old song says, the thrill is gone. The moves are just performed over and over with no attempt to let us into the process, see the routines being built or getting a sense of the danger involved. Are the people being flipped ever scared? Are the people who catch them ever afraid of missing?

Whatever, the moves were executed flawlessly at Wednesday’s opening-night performance at the Orpheum Theatre, and it got old. Fast.

Say this for the actors: they’re in extraordinary shape and they work their butts off trying to make this material work. The best thing about the show is Adrienne Warren’s appealing, vocally assured performance as Danielle, the de facto queen of Jackson High and leader of a hip-hop crew. Louderman’s Campbell is appealing as well but overwhelmed by the mechanics of the show. Ryann Redmond has the unenviable job of playing Bridget, the fat girl relegated to school mascot until she changes schools and becomes the object of much affection. Redmond is sweet and funny, but her character’s empowerment lesson feels like an unsuccessful attempt to break out of stereotype. Gregory Haney shows real flash as teen drag queen La Cienega but has precious little do other than strike sassy poses and look fabulous.

Forget about back stories or context or remotely real-life high school issues like homework, parents, sex or actually cheering for athletic events. This is all slick surfaces where nothing sticks. It’s definitely a problem when you leave a new musical humming video screens and back flips.

[bonus video]
To give you a sense of what the show looks and sounds like. Loud and flashy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bring It On: The Musical continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31 to $100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Just play it cool, boy! The enduring sound of West Side Story

West Side Story 1

The Jets take flight to Leonard Bernstein’s score in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below, Leonard Bernstein, further below from Life magazine in 1956: Collaborators Bernstein (left), Jerome Robbins and Stephen Sondheim discuss the imminent opening of West Side Story. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt © Time, Inc.

What makes West Side Story so incredibly intoxicating, even 53 years after its premiere? There’s no denying the power of Jerome Robbins’ athletic and gorgeous choreography or the simplicity and (occasional) corniness of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (his first for a Broadway show). And Arthur Laurents’ book, which puts a 1950s spin on Romeo and Juliet, is about as solid as Broadway books come.

But it’s the music, Leonard Bernstein’s astonishing music, that elevates West Side Story to legendary status. Combining classical with jazz with show tune, Bernstein concocted a highly original sound that has yet to be bested on the Broadway stage. This is a score for the ages, one as equally at home in the symphony hall as in the high school auditorium. How many scores can fit as comfortably in both spaces? Aside from Bernstein’s own Candide (which he was working on in tandem with West Side Story), not many.

Lenny Bernstein

We’ll have the chance to revisit the score this week as the most recent Broadway revival comes to town as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway series.

Patrick Vaccariello is the music supervisor and musical director for the revival, which opened on Broadway in March of 2009 and is still running at the Palace Theatre. He helped get the tour in shape and comes to West Side Story – his first Bernstein show – having worked on musicals ranging from Jesus Christ Superstar to The Boy from Oz as well as the most recent revivals of A Chorus Line and Gypsy.

Having been immersed in the world of Bernstein’s music for nearly two years now, Vaccariello says one secret of the Bernstein score’s power is the way it supports the emotions of the characters.

“It’s my job as the musical director to convey the emotion to the musicians so they’re fully supporting the actors,” Vaccariello explains on the phone from his New York home. “The characters on stage are passionate people. From the fanfare and the prologue to the finale, we all take an incredible musical journey each night, and that journey is fully supportive of the action on stage. We use the original orchestrations – by Bernstein, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal – which are thrilling.”

West Side Story 3

When the revival opened, the orchestra included 29 pieces. That has since been reduced by four. And for the tour, the pit will hold 19 musicians plus the conductor, which is still pretty large for a traveling show. “A lot of Broadway shows have synthesizers,” Vaccariello says. “We have violins and cellos, so you get the emotion. When violinists play a melody, it’s thrilling.”

The musical director, being the arbiter of the musical emotion, is able to react directly to what the actors are putting out there on stage.

“We can shape the show differently every night,” Vaccariello explains. “For instance, in the balcony scene, when Tony and Maria are singing ‘Tonight,’ they play it slightly different every night with different dynamics. I can try and match that by bringing out the woodwinds or shaping a phrase slightly differently. Everything in this show is heightened, and the beauty of the Bernstein score is that it energizes the performances.”

In addition to grand symphonic pieces like “Somewhere” or “Maria,” the orchestra also gets to cook with numbers like “The Dance at the Gym” and “America.”

Vaccariello calls the “Tonight” quintet one of the “most amazing pieces of musical theatre ever” because, as he says, “it’s purely about the acting and the singing and gorgeous lyrics.”

And in this production, directed by Laurents (who was 91 when the revival opened), the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, sings in Spanish. “That adds a whole other layer of emotion,” Vaccariello says.

Broadway audiences unfamiliar with the show were somewhat baffled by the Spanish lyrics (translated by In the Heights’ Lin-Manuel Miranda), and as the production went on, some of the Spanish was turned back into English.

“We didn’t want audiences new to the show confused by the story,” Vaccariello says, “so we put a few bits of English back in. But there’s still plenty of Spanish.”

Bernsteins’ score for West Side Story raised the bar for Broadway musicals. The show integrated book scenes with songs and dancing in a seamless way that was groundbreaking and still sets the musical theater standard.

“Many new composers would love to write like Bernstein,” Vaccariello says, “and many try. His work is a great learning tool. And it never gets old or dated.”

Hearing the score 50 years later, Vaccariello says, “feels like hearing it for the first time.”

PODCAST: Listen to an interview with West Side Story Music Supervisor/Musical Director Patrick Vaccariello here.

Here’s a peek at Bernstein conducting “Dance at the Gym” for the 1985 studio recording of West Side Story.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

West Side Story opens Wednesday, Oct. 27 and continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call 888 746 1799 or visit www.shnsf.com for information.

New side of `West Side Story’

The new Broadway cast recording of West Side Story is out today in all the usual outlets (in three dimensions on CD, digitally via iTunes, etc.).

To celebrate the classic work of Leonard Berstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents and Jerome Robbins, let’s take a peek at the music video for “Tonight” from the new recording as sung by Karen Olivo as Anita, Matt Cavenaugh as Tony and Josefina Scaglione as Maria.

You’ll notice the Sharks singing in Spanish — the lyric translations are by Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights fame.

Watch it: `In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams’

Everything wonderful about the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights is captured in the new PBS documentary “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams.” (The show airs at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 on KQED Channel 9)

In the Heights on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

The program, part of the “Great Performances” showcase, is only an hour, but in exploring why the musical is so special, it manages to capture the fire, passion and youthful spirit of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s still-running hit.

Credit director Paul Bozymowski and his crew for having the foresight to see that In the Heights, about an immigrant neighborhood in Upper Manhattan, had the potential to be a game-changing musical. As the show transitioned from being the toast of off-Broadway to its opening on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Bozymowski and his camera crew were there, following cast members and building tension and a host of expectations as opening night loomed.

Because the program begins with that exuberant night at last year’s Tony Awards, when, after winning four trophies, the cast hoisted Miranda (the show’s composer, lyricist and star), onto their shoulders, it’s a given that everything works out in the end. But exposing the emotion, the stakes, the work that goes into that happy ending is what this rewarding documentary is all about.

In deep close-up, Bozymowski interviews Miranda, director Thomas Kail and other members of the cast and crew – and it’s a testament to these artists that even with a camera all up in their faces, they can be candid and warm and insightful (especially Miranda, whose giant brown eyes were made for such cinematic close-ups).

In the Heights on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre

Then the cameras follows certain cast members into their lives outside the theater. We meet Christopher Jackson (he plays Benny in the show) and his wife and autistic son, CJ. We’re there with dancer Seth Stewart (Graffiti Pete) when, after downing the joint-bolstering dose of glucosamine for the day, he sees a seven-story-tall poster of the show – and of him – being unfurled in Times Square. Other cast members we spend time with include Mandy Gonzalez (Nina), achieving her Broadway dreams and bonding with her character, and Priscilla Lopez (Camila), a Tony-winning Broadway veteran getting her portrait unveiled at Sardis.

The very American experience of In the Heights, which is to say its exploration of “home” and how where we come from helps make us who we are, comes through powerfully in both the interview segments and the lengthy clips from the show itself.

Miranda is the hero, of course, running around like an excited kid on Christmas morning as he shows everyone in the theater a Time magazine article about the show. We get glimpses into his past (“I wanted to be Chuck Jones and Steven Spielberg when I grew up.”) and into his sense of humor. Surrounding all the fuss of opening night, he quips: “It’s like prom night with career ramifications.”

He also makes me wish I could work on a show with him. Sure, he’s talented and charismatic and all that but here’s the real reason: his gift for fellow cast mates on opening night was homemade CD mixes.

“In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams” is at 8 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 on KQED Channel 9 and again at 2 a.m., Thursday, May 28. On digital cable’s KQED Life, the show is at 7 p.m. May 28, 1 a.m. May 29 and 5 p.m. May 31.

Visit http://www.pbs.org/ for information about the documentary. For information about In the Heights on Broadway, visit the official Web site here.

LOOKING AHEAD

Next month offers another “Great Performances” Broadway treat: Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal and Josh Groban star in a concert version of the musical Chess, with a score by Benny Anderson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice. “Chess in Concert” is at 8 p.m. June 18, 2 a.m. June 19 on KQED Channel 9 (repeates on KQED Life at 7 p.m. June 22 and 1 a.m. June 23). Visit http://www.kqed.org/ for information.

And stay tuned. In the Heights is hitting the road and may be coming to San Francisco. You’ll find out here when it’s official.

Delighted by `Ruined,’ Nottage nabs Pulitzer

Lynn Nottage
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Photo by the LA Times

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play, about a Congolese brothel run by a woman named Mama Nadi, is about a country torn apart by civil war and about a woman who is either protecting women or profiting from them. The play began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and is now off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old Nottage told the Associated Press: “I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn’t find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself. I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It’s very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case.”

Nottage’s best known work, Intimate Apparel, had a successful run in the Bay Area with a 2005 production from Mountain View’s TheatreWorks. That same year, San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy.

Less successful was a 2002 production of Nottage’s Las Meninas at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Nottage holds degrees from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She also is an alumna of New Dramatists. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, and daughter Ruby.

The Pulitzer finalists were:
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions.
In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.

And this year’s jury comprised Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair); John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University; Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune; David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY; and Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday.

Visit www.pulitzer.org for a complete list of this year’s winners.

Here’s Nottage doing a radio show on the topic of Ruined, with Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays Mama Nadi:

A Broadway blast: `South Pacific,’ `Gypsy,’ `In the Heights’

A quick Labor Day trip to New York allowed me a little long overdue catching up on some Broadway shows.

I had three slots available, and I filled them all with musicals. Yes, I could have seen August: Osage County and any number of plays. Yes, I could have seen my dearly beloved [title of show], which apparently could use every audience member it could get.

But I went for the big ticket items, and I’m so glad I did. Here are some thoughts on my trio of musical theater delights.

SOUTH PACIFIC

Just how director Bartlett Sher turned this 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein relic into such a beautiful, vital piece of theater is somewhat miraculous. The show everyone said was dated and impossible to revive in our politically correct world is now the most moving, involving and astonishing musical on Broadway.

I’ve always loved the score of South Pacific – nearly every song is a hit – but I’ve never much liked the show (and the movie bored me from an early age). Until now. Sher made the wise decision to make the orchestra (and, consequently Rodgers’ music) a star of the show, and that puts a whole new emphasis on the evening. During the overture, when the melodies really rev up, the stage of the Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont slowly rolls back to reveal the formally dressed members of the 30-piece orchestra. It’s a thrilling moment – the first of many.

Strangely, this South Pacific doesn’t feel like a musical. It feels like a contained world that resembles our own but exists in a heightened dimension where communication is not complete without a lush orchestra to underscore the emotion. The performers, from the brilliant Kelli O’Hara as Nellie Forbush to Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque, are grounded and natural in this alternate universe, and everything they do resonates with emotional truth and power.

So when Szot ends Act 1 with a reprise of “Some Enchanted Evening,” and that amazing stage comes into play again, it’s like a rush of heartbreak that pulses right through you.

Conversely, when O’Hara gushes through “Wonderful Guy,” you believe every word, and the same is true of Matthew Morrison as Lt. Joe Cable when he sings “Younger Than Springtime” and, more importantly, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Some have chastised South Pacific for preaching on the topic of racial intolerance, but that’s exactly what gives the show its emotional heft. When Nellie discovers just how powerful her prejudice is, we’re as disappointed in her as she is in herself. She’s desperate for change and to find her place in the world, but when she faces real change and has a chance to inhabit someplace as far away from Little Rock, Arkansas, she can’t simply rely on her charm, smile and giggle as a defense. She has to discover who she truly is, and she does in the most moving way possible.

Prior to this production, I had never really felt the weight of South Pacific or so strongly felt the tension of war that underscores everything, even the most buoyant numbers such as “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”

I used to think I had a favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein show (Carousel). Then I saw The King and I and had to re-think. Now it’s all about South Pacific and probably will be for a good long time. We’re a country at war, and we’re in the midst of a presidential race involving our first African-American candidate. How extraordinary that Rodgers and Hammerstein still have something to reveal about our world.

 

GYPSY

Everything you’ve heard about the Patti LuPone Gypsy is true. And it’s even better than that.

I should correct myself. This is the Arthur Laurents
Gypsy. In his early 90s, the book writer of Gypsy, considered by many to be the pinnacle of American musical theater, has reconfigured his masterwork yet again. As the director of this production, he has balanced the weights and come up with a show that is as good a play as it is a musical.

Sure LuPone is great – truly great – but she doesn’t overwhelm. Her Rose is spry, sexy and endearing. She’s not a steamroller, nor is she a nightmare. We like this quick-thinking woman for her spirit if not for her borderline abusive parenting methods. She’s fame damaged not because she’s famous but because she’s not and that’s what she most wants in the world. She uses her daughters and the men in her life to scramble for fame, but to no effect.

Her frustration, anger and utter self-involvement kills every relationship, and that pain infuses every confrontation she has, especially with Boyd Gaines as Herbie, her love interest and the manager of her terrible kiddie act, and with Laura Benanti as the grown-up Louise (aka Gypsy Rose Lee). These scenes are every bit as powerful as the musical numbers, and it’s easy to see why all three leads won Tony Awards this year.

I’d also like to make a case for Leigh Ann Larkin as June, a young woman trapped in the guise of the 10-year-old star of Rose’s act. During her duet with Benanti on “If Momma Was Married,” Larkin exudes a combination of bitterness and cynicism beyond her years along with a snottiness borne of Rose’s constant exhortations that June is a STAR.

One of the reasons Gypsy is held in such high estimation is “Rose’s Turn,” the most incredible number for an actress in musical theater. With her daughter now a world-famous stripper, Rose is left to wonder what her life has amounted to, and she has a nervous breakdown in the form of a musical fantasy. She sings her song, and at the end, the audience I saw it with (a lively Friday night bunch), flew into a boisterous ovation, standing and stomping, whistling and shouting. LuPone’s Rose curtsied and bowed, blew kisses and drank in the hosannas. It’s a perfect dramatic moment in which the audience becomes a character in the show: the adoring throng Rose has always dreamed of but will never know.

As the ovation quiets down, LuPone’s Rose keeps bowing and waving, and the effect is heartbreaking.

Gypsy is a juicy musical play, the kind that wouldn’t have been possible without Rodgers and Hammerstein tackling serious issues in their popular musicals. This is a musical that gets it all right, and we’ve had a hard time matching it, which is probably why it has returned to Broadway so many times.

 

IN THE HEIGHTS

There’s a direct line from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award winner for best musical. You’d be hard pressed to find someone more sentimental (in the good way) or someone more convinced of the inherent goodness of humankind than Oscar Hammerstein, and Miranda is definitely of the Hammerstein school.

In the Heights is exuberant, passionate and big hearted. It’s a show about rough, tough lives told in sweet, colorful ways.

Miranda’s music and lyrics bring the sounds of the barrio into a pop-Broadway fusion that is highly appealing. He gives us throaty ballads and lively group numbers (further enlivened by Andy Blankenbuehler’s dynamic choreography) that effectively connect show tune romance and longing with contemporary sounds. There’s a little bit of Rent in there, but Miranda’s score makes its own distinctive mark.

Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book is slightly less successful if only because it seems familiar and more romantic than realistic. We’ve got three primary stories: a young woman (Mandy Gonzalez as Nina) drops out of Stanford and returns to Washington Heights because working two jobs interfered with her studies and she lost her scholarship; another young woman (Karen Olivo as Vanessa) can’t find a place to live because she doesn’t make enough money working at the local hair salon; and a bright young man (Miranda as Usnavi) inherited his parents’ bodega and, in addition to taking care of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), he keeps his eye on the neighborhood and tells everybody’s stories.

There’s life, death and a blackout, some sizzling salsa moves, a little rap, a winning lottery ticket and a whole lot of good folks struggling, banding together and achieving triumph in big and little ways.

Love stories abound as Nina falls for local boy Benny (Christopher Jackson), Usnavi works up the nerve to ask out Vanessa and longtime married couple Kevin (Eliseo Roman) and Camila (Priscilla Lopez of A Chorus Line fame) find themselves at a crossroads when their daughter’s troubles force a major business decision.

Under the direction of Thomas Kail, In the Heights is a highly enjoyable multi-pronged story told with flair and affection. There’s nothing terribly innovative about this musical, but the culture it chooses to explore and the people on whom it trains its focus aren’t all that common on Broadway, so it’s all the more welcome.