If/Then – National Theater

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I saw If/Then less than a week before it’s official opening date here in Washington, DC and while there seems to be the basis of an interesting musical there still needs some work to be done to make it more than just another somewhat enjoyable show.  The story centers around Idina Menzel’s character, Elizabeth, returning to New York in her late 30’s after getting a divorce in Phoenix.  She sets up a meeting with her long time bisexual college friend/boyfriend Lucas, played by Anthony Rapp, and her new lesbian next door neighbor Kate, played by LaChanze, in Madison Square Park in New York.  When she arrives she makes a fateful decision on whether to go with Kate to check out the guy playing guitar in the park, or with Lucas to his housing activitist friends.  Here the show splits and we go on a nearly 3 hour ride through both storylines and see how things play out for Elizabeth and company.  In one scenario she ends up with an okay job, but meets the great guy.  In the other scenario she gets the great job and has a struggling personal life.  The show adeptly handles the different time lines causing only small moments of confusion as to what storyline you are following, with some of those moments being on purpose.  Although I will admit my wife did overhear the elderly people next to us during intermission confused because they had not grasped that there were two distinct storylines playing out before our eyes.  I blame that on the theatergoers and not the actors or story though, because it was fairly evident that was what was going on. 

One of my biggest complaints of the first act of the show, which really seemed to be putting together a nice story and set up for the second act, was the decision to not have one full on song be performed in the entire act.  Each song was interspersed with acting plot points and a return to the song several times over.  While I understand and can appreciate songs like this as plot devices in this instance it just repeatedly cut off the momentum of the song for an unnecessary reset and really did no justice to the talents of the cast and their voices.  Just as momentum was building for the actor or actress to really soar within the song it would abruptly stop, only to reset and continue with a new build-up after the acting portion was complete. 

I’d also note, as the show was still in previews there was no song list in the playbill, so the song titles aren’t easily accessible via memory a couple of days later.  The first act was fairly lighthearted, with numerous laugh out loud moments, including Idina Menzel’s song “What the fuck” as she is lamenting the relationship she is in, in both timelines.  The final song of the first act takes place on the same day, Elizabeth’s (Beth or Liz, depending on the timeline you are in) 40th birthday and the parallel events that are going at her party in both timelines.  As the final song of the first act it was a bit underwhelming from a song perspective, but definitely not from a story perspective.  While it may be tough to equal the closing moments of Wicked or any number of other Broadway musicals, it just didn’t have that same large moment as one would expect.

As for the second act, while you definitely got some songs that were just performed from start to finish, including a crowd pleasing solo from Menzel late in the show.  Where not unexpectedly she shone and took the show to places it had not reached before with respect to the songs.  Unfortunately, the show falls apart a bit in the second act.  For a show that was pretty light hearted in the first act, it turned to pretty dark storylines in the second act.  It took Liz/Beth back on her life rollercoaster before the end of the show, before it all comes together at the end for the conclusion.  Part of the problem was that the storyline of Beth, the version that gets the career early on, was not explored very well.  I am intentionally remaining vague as to what the catastrophe is, but the aftermath and the  2 plus year time jump until we see Beth again is somewhat jarring.   Especially as the show was fairly lighthearted during the first act.  Conversely, the Liz storyline tragedy plays out fairly predictably, over the course of one song, which I  guess I will call “I love you, I hate you”.  But the core of this show is light hearted and uplifting and has an ending that is pretty predictable for both Liz and Beth.

I found If/Then to be a pleasant experience and enjoyable.  Some catchy songs, but none that necessarily stick with you for days on end.  Of course, that could change if a cast recording ever gets released.  But there did seem to be something lacking in the second act of the show story-wise and the time you put in during the first act for the big payoff seemed lost and soured the whole production a bit.  I walked out thinking that the show would have almost played better as a drama than a musical, or at least it felt that way as the story so overwhelmed the songs.  Including the performance of those songs throughout the show, because the songs generally took second fiddle to the story except for a few songs during the second act where the actors truly shined in using their vocals to tell the story.  They clearly had the ability to do it, but the script just didn’t permit them to reach the heights they were truly capable of.  

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A Few Good Men – Keegan Theatre

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While “A Few Good Men” originally was a stage play, it reached most of its fame through the 1992 movie version that starred Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.  For the current production at Keegan Theatre that was the biggest hurdle it faced.  How does the show hold up with such a famous and recognizable version readily available.  This isn’t just a revival of a famous play that the audience may not have seen in years.  Rather, this is movie that is somewhere on the television on a monthly basis and has people imitating Jack Nicholson’s now legendary lines from the movie.  At the beginning of the evening, it was a bit jarring to hear lines being delivered by someone other than those famous movie stars.  As such, it took me time to warm up to this production.  That wasn’t Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson on stage.  That isn’t a slight to the performers, just an acknowledgement that there is a preconceived knowledge of who the characters are and what your ear thinks they sound like.   The biggest compliment I can give the show is that those preconceived attitudes about the characters melted away as the evening progressed and the show stood on its own by the end of the evening. 

It feels a bit redundant to give a synopsis of this play, because it tracks along the movie fairly consistently with only a few minor tweaks here and there.  There is the murder of William Santiago by Dawson and Downey at Guantanamo Bay and their attorneys trying to prove that Dawson and Downey were following the orders of their commanders and that there was a cover-up of the events that lead to Santiago’s death?  One difference between the stage version and the movie version is that the stage version does not make the same attempt to hide whether there was a “code red”.  While the movie doesn’t play out as a full-blown courtroom drama, there was the culminating scene that not only solved the crime, but also was the dramatic showdown between Lieutenant Kaffee and Colonel Jessup.  In the stage version, the moments and events that led to Santiago’s death are interspersed throughout the production, which leaves the audience one-step ahead of the attorneys in their investigation and leaves that final confrontation between Kaffee and Jessup as being the only aspect of drama in that confrontation. 

Another interesting aspect of seeing this story play out on stage was the creativity of the set and how the actors used it to seemlessly transfer you from Washington, DC to Guantanamo Bay to a courtroom to Kaffee’s home with subtle changes to the interesting, yet largely minimalist set.  The set was built on two levels with two on stage sets of stairs providing access to the upper level, as well as a ramp that connected the two levels that spanned across the middle of the stage and also acted as a pole for an oversized American flag that was drapped over the right side of the stage.  The only other set pieces were tables and chairs. Yet, with subtle changes you were transfered to these different places in the blink of an eye.  Another interesting feature was the change of perspective that was used halfway through the courtroom scene.  For the first half of the courtroom scenes the audience is watching the proceedings as if the were sitting on the judges bench.  The second half of the courtroom scenes has the audience sitting in the audience of the courtroom.  It was a clever move that was creative and unexpected.

Ultimately, where this show succeeded best is that the actors owned the script and characters and the evening wasn’t just an exercise in performing a stage version of the movie.

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Les Miserables – Toby’s Columbia

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As “Les Miserables” is one of my personal favorites when it comes to musical theatre, so I was particularly interested in attending the current production at Toby’s of Columbia.  One of the more interesting aspects for me was going to be how they were going to handle the fact that the venue is in the round. When they are at the barricade for the second act of the show, what happens to half the audience that is on the wrong side of the barricade.  This is where this production was probably most clever.  Much of the set was made of movable metal scaffolding that was arranged and configured as a stand-in for the barricade, the sewers and the bridge where Javert’s suicide.  While there were some recurrent instances from my seat where the movable scaffolding obscured your view of parts of the stage during the first act, it wasn’t so problematic to ruin the experience.  Although I might recommend requesting seats that are not directly next to any of the four stage entrances to avoid any problems, especially the one opposite the main entrance for the audience.  Anyway, back to the barricade.  My seats happened to be located on the wrong side of the barricade, which I particularly enjoyed, because I’d never seen the fight at the barricade from that perspective.  And seeing the students train their guns in your direction was quite the different experience (all gun firing was sound effects and the guns were pointed down the theatre entrance and not at any audience members).  Then to watch through the metal scaffolding as if spying on the events with x-ray vision as Eponine and Marius sing “Little Hall of Rain”, the students sing “Drink with Me” and Valjean sings “Bring Him Home”.  It brought a different feel to the experience than I had ever experienced before.

To be overly critical, I would note that there were several decisions made with respect to the production, some of which were more successful than others.  One of the more successful ones was the decision to have the Thenardier’s performance be more of loving jabs than spiteful insults.  In “Master of the House” it is often performed with Madame Thenardier having contempt for her husband and her plight when she sings about her husband’s intelligence and manhood.  The decision to have this song, the relationship and those lines be performed as more loving mockery than angry was refreshing, because I’ve always viewed those characters as two peas in a pod.  And to see it performed in that manner was delightful. 

Where the decisions were not as strong came with the deaths of Fantine and Eponine.  Thankfully, neither decision ultimately distracted from the performance to any great degree.  In both songs it is the dying moments of a character and the decision of how to stage those scenes lessened the impact of those deaths.  For instance, in Fantine’s Death she begins by sitting in a chair and gets up and carries a pillow around the stage as a stand in for Cosette.  Only in the final moments of the song to find her way to the bed and die.  For someone so close to death I found it somewhat off-putting that she was wondering around the stage cradling a pillow in her final moments. The real impact of that decision was felt when they made a similar decision with Eponine’s death.  Where in her dying moments she is caressing Marius’ hair and didn’t appear to be in her final moments.  Both moments together just felt miss placed.

On the positive side, the staging of the Valjean’s sewer scene and Javert’s suicide on the bridge were creative and highly successful.  Specifically, I would note Javert’s death and the clear homage to both the original broadway portrayal of the scene and the more recent National Tour’s re-staging of that moment.  The performances by the leading casts were all quite good, with Valjean and Javert being particular stand-outs.  The weakness of the cast came from some of the supporting characters, but the fact that they were just the supporting characters in this extremely large cast was again a bit persnickety on my part. 

But overall this was a really nice production of the show that lets you get so much closer to the production than you are likely to on a Broadway stage and allows you to get a unique perspective on the events based on the staging, which all together makes it a worthwhile trip back to the barricade.

 

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The Rocky Horror Show – Studio Theatre

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It isn’t quite Halloween, but “The Rocky Horror Show” has made its way to a summer stop at Studio Theatre, at least for a few more days.  The atmosphere of the evening is set early when you arrive and many of the supporting cast members are making their way through the audience in there barely there leather S&M like costumes engaging the audience in conversation.  Whether finding out whether it was the audience members first experience with Rocky Horror and shouting “virgin!” and eliciting applause from the rest of the audience.  Or another actor wearing a barely there leather thong getting a slightly embarrassed audience member to yell “cock!” as practice in case the actor had a wardrobe malfunction during the show.  Of course, this is all before the show has even started.

As for the show, think of a slightly more S&M quality to this late night campy classic, which is opened with an up-close shot of the lips of the blue lipsticked Frank N. Furter inviting the audience to sing along with the chorus, but to leave the verses to him.  In other words, this isn’t going to be an audience participation show like the late night movies, which was fine with me since I am not well versed in the Rocky Horror participation that diehard fans are and I’m not one who enjoys audience participation at the theatre generally.  During intermission my theatre companion noted that certain characters weren’t as they were expected based on the movie, but such things passed me by having not seen a production of this show since 1995.  But it did have all the campiness fun that you would expect from the show. My biggest complaint for the show is that there were some uneven singing performances by some of the cast members, but where it counted most they were spot on.  I will add that I saw the replacement cast, so some of the original cast members were gone and may account for some of the unevenness.  However, the star, Mitchell Jarvis as Frank N. Furter, was suberb as he was equally depraved, engaging and rather nimble in the high heels as he made his way around stage.  All-in-all a fun summer event. 

 

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Avenue Q – Little Theatre of Alexandria

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It’s always fun to revisit a show you haven’t seen in a while and it’s even nicer when that production lives up to the memories you have of the Broadway production of that show.  That was the case with The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s production of “Avenue Q”.  What made this production even more fun for me was that it is coinciding with another Tony Award winning show by composer and lyricist Robert Lopez, “The Book of Mormon”.  Being able to see these two shows within weeks of each other in such vastly different venues of The Kennedy Center and the Little Theatre gave me even greater appreciation of Robert Lopez of how his two shows were able to handle and succeed in such differing venues.  On top of that, it gave me great appreciation of the production that the Little Theatre put on, from the professional sets to the outstanding performers.  The performers/puppeteers did a wonderful job of capturing the emotions of their characters through both the posture (for lack of a better expression) of their puppet and combining it with their own posture as well.  As an audience member the most difficult decision you had to make was whether to watch the puppets or the performers of those puppets, because both were so emotive and enhanced the performance.  What made it even more enjoyable is that the entire cast seemed to be having as much fun as the audience and for a show like Avenue Q that is essential. 

As for the show itself, think Sesame Street for the recently graduated from college set.  Finding their way in the world with a Bachelor’s degree, but no discernible skill set.  It follows the lives of a group of puppets and humans that live in an apartment building in New York as they enter the work force and our faced with the ups and downs of employment, relationships, and life in general.  Of course it is done in an irreverent and humorous manner that may offend the most sensitive of audience members with songs like “The Internet Is For Porn”, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”, “You can be as loud as the hell you want (when you’re makin’ love”, and “My girlfriend, who lives in Canada”.  But pull away the full on “graphic” puppet sex scene, some foul language, and some pseudo-taboo topics and you have a group of characters who really care about each other and are just trying their best.  Whether it is a character trying to start a school, another trying to find his purpose, or another accepting his sexuality the acceptance and support they receive along the way from their friends shows that the heart of this show is truly sappy.  And that sensibility is clearly seen in “The Book of Mormon”.  While the media gives a lot of the credit to the more high profile guys from South Park, I truly see Robert Lopez’s fingers all over that show after taking in Avenue Q again.

While it has only a short time left before it’s run ends, if you have any inclination to check it out make it your business because this production is well worth it.

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The Politician – Capital Fringe 2013

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It has become my annual rite of July to attend the latest John Feffer show at the Capital Fringe Festival.  This is the third year in a row for me and this year’s show “The Politician” is an expansion and extension of last year’s excellent “The Pundit”.  The first act of the “Politician” re-visits a tightened up version of “The Pundit”.  The show centers around a foreign policy pundit named Peter Peters who is set to do some television and radio interviews about North Korea when he ends up on air and they ask him to talk about a terrorist attack in the country of Khazaria that has just happened and about their leader Ruslan X.  On the spot Peters starts spouting generic sound bites that could be about any country, anywhere, any time and starts making up information about Ruslan X.  Between interviews Peters is on the phone juggling his home life, such as who is going to pick up his son from school, trying to advance his career by getting in touch with Henry Kissinger about being on the short list for Assistant Undersecretary of State, and trying to figure out where in the world Khazaria actually is.  Thrust into this mix was a phone call from Ruslan X, who got his phone number from his inept assistant who thought the accented man on the other end of the phone was Henry Kissinger.  Peters and Ruslan X play a game of cat and mouse over the first act of the play with promises of no terrorist attacks if Peters just goes on the air supporting Ruslan X’s cause.  All the while Peters is taking calls from his wife and child, still trying to get in touch with Henry Kissinger, and actually learning about Khazaria.  As the first act progresses Ruslan X’s threats begin to hit closer and closer to home for Peters.  The first act of “The Politician” ends where “The Pundit” last year ended, with a cliffhanger as to what actually happened in the final moment as the lights went down.  The second act of “The Politician” answers that cliffhanger and fast forward’s four years later where Peters is now entrenched at the State Department, but still looking to advance his career and left juggling his turbulent home life.  Only Ruslan X has re-entered his life and once again put Peters emotional and physical state at stake.  Yes, this all may seem rather vague, but any greater detail will ruin that final moments of the first act and the play, both of which are well worth experiencing on your own.

Feffer has constructed an immensely interesting character in Peters, who we rarely see anywhere but sitting in a chair and talking on a phone at the center of the stage.  Just through his interactions with his wife, child, Ruslan X, a colleague, his assistant and various interviewers you get a character who is highly driven that is prone to stepping all over those around him for his personal drive.  Much like “The Pundit”, “The Politician” ends with an abrupt fade to black, but this time without quite the mystery as to what happened.  Although, I must admit, I wouldn’t mind if there had been a third act, or at least an epilogue, to see where Peters goes from that closing moment of “The Politician”.  Was that final moment going to make Peters re-evaluate who he was and what he wanted out of life, or was this a person whose ambitions were going to keep driving him forward no matter the consequences.

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The Book of Mormon – Kennedy Center

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I thought of just doing a one phrase review of The Book of Mormon: go and see it yesterday.  That’s all I would really need to write about this multi-Tony award winning giant that is making its summer home at the Kennedy Center.  There are enough reviews and praise for this show that I don’t really need to belabor my feelings about the show.  The show centers around two young Mormon missionaries, one an overachiever and the other with an over active imagination.  They are sent to Africa and are faced with challenges they weren’t expecting in the form of a crisis of faith and becoming more than an underachiever.  The show hits you with crude and shocking language and topics that have probably never made their way to a Broadway stage…at least in the form of a major musical.  But pull back the F words and C words, and the shocking societal issues being dealt with by the Ugandans, like warlords, female circumcision and raping of babies as a cure for AIDS, and you get a show that has a very sweet heart.  I know you can’t just slide past the shocking language and content, but when you do get past them you get a show about two characters put together in unfamiliar surroundings and how they respond to those circumstances and come through it at the end.  And that is the real heart of the show, two friends struggling to find themselves.  It is also what makes this show more than some of the shock moments and will keep it around Broadway for a very long time.  If it were really just the language and shocking content that attracted the audience it would just fizzle away once the audience was no longer shocked by the material. 
 
The show does a similar thing in dealing with the Mormon religion.  If the show was just about making fun of The Book of Mormon it would become stale with time, once those jokes were made.  However, the creators of the show have created such a layered show that they can take aim at the Mormon religion and yet at the same time create an acceptance of religion and faith.  They accomplished this by having the characters ultimately believe in something that isn’t The Book of Mormon, that the audience realizes is completely absurd and ridiculous, and yet has made the Ugandans lives better.  They have created a a show where the foul language and content gets your attention, but the underlying substance draws you to the characters and their story and will keep audiences coming back again and again.  
 
This doesn’t even get to the catchy numbers from beginning to end in this incredibly well paced two and a half hour production.  For the experienced musical goer you will hear homages to Wicked, Hairspray, The Lion King, The Sound of Music and The King and I, amongst others.  If you aren’t well versed it doesn’t matter.  The songs themselves stand on their own and the live performance of the numbers take the recorded versions to the next level.  I wish I could pick out a favorite and point to it as the number that brings down the house, but there really isn’t a dud anywhere to be found.  I particularly enjoyed watching the reactions of Elder Price in several of the numbers to the things going on during the song.  Specifically in “Hassa Digga Eebowai” when he is given the English translation of the phrase, or in “Turn it off” after the lights come back on for the second time.  Or watch Elder Cunningham in the background of “Man Up”, which contains some great little comic moments. But with each number from beginning to end you will be laughing along.
 
I was fortunate enough to see The Book of Mormon on Broadway with the orginial cast.  And one of the things you always wonder about is whether a show is going to have the same stuff when the original cast is no longer involved.  Beyond re-visiting the show I was curious to see how the new leads deal with the spotlight.  Was this show going to suffer the same slow and unexpected death The Producers suffered when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick left.  Gladly, I can say that this show was more than just the original cast.  In fact, the character of Elder Cunningham was played differently.  Josh Gad, who originated the role, was a much more slovenly character as compared to Christopher John O’Neill’s Cunningham.  There wasn’t the disheveled look, it was more an awkward nerdy guy with a bit more innocence.  It was interesting to see this different take on the character and that it still worked so well within the show.  As the character of Elder Price is the straight man in the comedic duo there probably can’t be as much variance in the performance, but Mark Evans adeptly filled the shoes of Andrew Rannels as Elder Price.  
 
My one issue has nothing to do with the show, which is an A+ event.  I even sorta I hate bringing it up, but the reviews of this show by many of the local DC online theater websites continue to show how poor they actually are in serving the theater going community of DC.  These outlets typically hand out knee jerk positive reviews to almost everything, including some of the worst productions I have seen in the DC area.  My theory has always been that they are more interested in protecting their free tickets to shows from these theatre companies than giving an honest evaluation of the show they witnessed.  Now comes “The Book of Mormon” to Washington and it appears that many of these reviewers have decided to take a stand and use this widely praised show as their moment to shine and to be the “one” reviewer to take a stand against this monolith of a show.  They’ve decided to stand up and be heard that they were the one individual who actually didn’t like this show, that they were offended by the content, or that it was just plain over-rated.  All they did is re-confirm my belief about what those online sources are about, and it isn’t about serving the theater audience community in Washington, DC.  I don’t need to reiterate those worthless reviews, but my favorite was where one reviewer asserted that the creators of the show had gone out of their way to keep the crude nature of the show secret.  All I can guess is that the reviewer is referring to the producers of the show having gone out of their way protecting their material from appearing illegally on youtube.  Because anyone who has any interest in this show has read reviews or heard the soundtrack and knows the show contains crude language and touches on topics not typically addressed in a Broadway musical.  Oh, and of course, that doesn’t even include that super secret profile of the show and its content that the reviewer must have missed and was on the little watched television show “60 Minutes”.  It is unfortunate that these reviewers continue to decide that they aren’t going to serve the community they ostensibly are intending to serve.  But when they go to the bar and proudly say they were the only “one” to write a negative review of this show they can just look over their shoulder and find some other “only ones” and clink glasses with those who took the same sad tact.  All the while thousands of people nightly walk out of the Kennedy Center experiencing a show those reviewers apparently didn’t want to see.  
 

 

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