Home » Uncategorized » Robert Viagas looks back on some powerhouse productions of the end of 22

Robert Viagas looks back on some powerhouse productions of the end of 22

Proudly displaying his latest book, “Good Morning, Olive: Haunted Theatres of Broadway and Beyond,” at the Theatre Circle shop on West 44th Street in Times Square, theatre icon Robert Viagas penned the followqing list of notables that wowed the holiday tourist throngs last month.

& Juliet

How amazing that after more than 400 years, William Shakespeare’s plays continue to intrigue and inspire, not just audiences but writers of all kinds. The latest manifestation of this phenomenon is & Juliet—not a typo. Librettist David West Read worked with widely-heard but little-known songwriter Max Martin to use his hit pop songs to continue the story of Romeo and Juliet, but with a clever twist. We meet Shakespeare (Stark Sands) and his wife, Anne (Betsy Wolfe), who are at odds about the ending of what is perhaps his most famous play. Anne insists that Juliet (Lorna Courtney) should not die at the end. So, Mr. and Mrs. Shakespeare set to collaborate on a full sequel to chronicle Juliet’s rollicking and romantic post-Romeo adventures. The result is pure musical fun, full of sparkling and  newly-“woke” escapades, told with familiar (and some not-so-familiar) songs including “I Kissed a Girl,” “Love Me Like You Do,” “I Want It That Way,” “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” and “Oops!… I Did it Again.” An import from London, the show was directed by Luke Sherman, with joyous choreography by Jennifer Weber and lively orchestrations by Bill Sherman.

Some Like it Hot

The only new show with more pure energy than K-POP is one that is likely to stay around a lot longer: Casey Nicholaw’s blazing staging of the new musical Some Like It Hot. It’s based on the 1959 film comedy of the same title, but with a diverse cast and a timely rewrite of the central story. Nicholaw and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Mary Poppins Returns) bring old-fashioned Broadway razzmatazz to the story of two Prohibition-era musicians on the run from the mob. The pair (Christian Borle as Joe/Josephine and J. Harrison Ghee as Jerry/Daphne) hide in plain sight, disguising themselves as women in an “all-girl” band. Yes, this is another stage adaptation of a movie with drag characters. But unlike Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Some Like It Hot brings the story’s sensibilities up to date. Thanks to the dynamic new book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, the story is not just played for cis-gendered laughs. Ghee finds that he likes being a girl, and on a trip to Mexico with his suitor, the millionaire Osgood (the unquenchable Kevin Del Aguila), comes to realize that he may have crossed more than one border. Nearly every song in the score lands solidly, and the title number offers a classic showtune that takes its place proudly with the classics. It’s old-fashioned in the best possible sense. PS: Other than its source material, the new Some Like It Hot bears no connection with the 1972 musical Sugar adapted from the same film, which has a score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.

Ohio State Murders

Audra McDonald returns to Broadway in this quietly stunning murder mystery with powerful racial overtones. The play marks the long overdue Broadway debut of 91-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, who has been poleaxing audiences with her daring dramas since the 1960s. In this 90-minute one-act, the main character, a stand-in for Kennedy herself, answers an interviewer’s question about the source of the violent imagery that pervades her oeuvre. Ohio State Murders is a narration of her early life as a black student in a nearly all-white campus in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She has an affair with a white professor who spurns her when she becomes pregnant. Their tiny twin daughters suffer horrific murders. Though the story unfolds slowly—at times very slowly—McDonald keeps the narrative thread taut by bearing witness with a barely-controlled fury throughout, leading to the spectacularly violent climax. The supporting cast, including Bryce Pinkham and Abigail Stephenson, speak rarely and sparely. They move in and out of the action like ghosts. McDonald plays the living, breathing central character as if she has a scream of pain perpetually stuck in her throat.

The Old Man and the Pool

Comedian Mike Birbiglia is a master of all media, having had success in movies, sitcoms, TV dramas, talk shows, clubs, music videos, podcasts, and as the author of books. But he is perhaps most completely at home on the stage. His latest monologue shows why this standup comedian gets a full evening at Lincoln Center and not 15 minutes at the local comedy club. He has used previous solo shows to explore sleepwalking and other weaknesses of the flesh, and to share his adventures in the world of romance. This latest solo show takes what might seem to be an unpromising subject—diabetes, a weak heart and the approach of middle age—and spins it into comic gold, using his familiar bemused old-buddy narrative approach. The backbone of the piece is the story of how his doctor is pressing him to take up swimming despite the fact that he had several comically traumatic pool experiences as a child. It may sound low-key, but, trust me, he’s hilarious. He makes you laugh, then touches your heart.

Kimberly Akimbo

This sweet little black-comedy musical tells the story of the eponymous Kimberly (Victoria Clark), a high school student who struggles to have as normal a life as possible despite three colossal millstones around her neck. Millstone number one: her family is utterly dysfunctional, with two battling parents (Allie Mauzey and Steven Boyer) who don’t love her, and a crazy aunt (the showstopping Bonnie Milligan) who is incapable of staying within the law. Millstone number two is even worse: Kimberly suffers from progeria, a genetic disease that causes her to age prematurely. She looks 50 but is actually only 16. Which bring us to millstone number three: Life expectancy for the disease: 16. Despite all this, Kimberly Akimbo is, as I said, a generally sweet musical comedy. But, as adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, the musical nonetheless has a serious problem. Although we cheer for Kimberly’s desire to escape her miserable home and hit the road for one last great adventure with her boyfriend (Justin Cooley), it’s hard to get fully on board with the way she chooses to pursue it. The cheerfully amoral aunt enlists Kimberly and her friends to perform a scam: fishing retirees’ checks out of the mailbox, changing the name, and cashing them. What would you call that? A crime? Yes, a crime. Kimberly then runs off with the proceeds to finance her grand farewell fling. Despite the charming songs (music by Tony winner Jeanine Tesori) and dances (by Danny Medford), the audience is left with a sour taste in its mouth.

A Christmas Carol

Actor Jefferson Mayes can do pretty much anything. He proves this by tackling projects where he plays multiple roles, including both men and women of all ages. He embodied all eight murder victims in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, created no fewer than 50 roles in I Am My Own Wife, and now, in a holiday season production of A Christmas Carol, enacts virtually every single character as he recites, from memory, most of the original text of Dickens’ well-known novella. Though illustrated with sets and costumes by Dane Laffrey, lighting effects by Ben Stanton, sound by Joshua D. Reid and hair by makeup by Cookie Jordan, the central strength of this production is Mayes’ power as a pure storyteller. At a moment’s notice he can switch from a truly horrifying embodiment of Jacob Marley’s damned ghost to a quivering, terrified Scrooge. His tour-de-force moments come when he is jumping back and forth among members of a crowd, such as Fezziwig’s Christmas party, the Cratchit family dinner, and the gathering at his nephew’s home. Mayes contains multitudes, and they all get their moment to shine in this “spirited” production.

A Sherlock Carol

On the other hand, for those who have seen A Christmas Carol so many times they are ready to say “humbug” to yet another retelling of the story, A Sherlock Carol offers a thoroughly charming, witty, new take on this classic. Two classics actually. Mark Shanahan’s fast-paced script offers a mashup of Dickens’ classic with the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes. They have more in common than you might think. The story opens on a world-weary Holmes (Drew McVety) whose life has lost its purpose since the death of his nemesis, the “Napoleon of crime,” Moriarty. At this moment—on Christmas Eve, of course—comes the thump of a cane. It’s Dr. Timothy Cratchit (Dan Domingues), yes the onetime Tiny Tim who has survived and grown into a successful adult doctor, helping others like himself. It seems that his old friend and benefactor Ebenezer Scrooge (Allen Gilmore) was found dead in his study that very morning. Natural causes are assumed by most people, but no-longer-tiny Tim suspects it was murder. This sets off a chain of events, including visits from supernatural Spirits, and various live subjects, touching on all the best-known tropes, characters and catchphrases from both classics, cunningly intertwined. The protean five-person cast manages to play the dozens of characters with fast-changes and fresh accents. McVety sometimes rattles through his lines too quickly, but Shanahan’s direction helps keep the audience oriented through the story’s many delightful plot turns and surprises. Here’s hoping it becomes a perennial on the New York stage.

Leopoldstadt

The Holocaust has inspired its own rich and sorrowful literature. Its horrors have been retold again and again in the nearly 80 years since it ended, on the theory that they must be retold lest they be forgotten and repeated. Well, looking at the news about antisemitic violence from around the world and even here in the U.S., it appears that their terrible lessons are indeed being forgotten. Into this breach comes much-laureled playwright Tom Stoppard, who tells the semi-autobiographical story of his own family, successful and seemingly fully-integrated Austrian Jews, who once enjoyed a comfortable middle-class life in the largely Jewish Viennese suburb of Leopoldstadt. The play covers a sweep of their lives from 1899 to 1955, suffering crushing dehumanization and violence at the hands of the very people whose culture they had so trustingly embraced. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking drama, performed by a dedicated 38-actor ensemble who are determined to tell the tragic story one more time, in defiance of the threatening headwinds of history.

K-POP

K-POP came and went on Broadway all too quickly, though it sometimes suffered from being  its own worst enemy. Wildly popular in South Korea, the aptly-named K-pop music has drawn an international following, especially among young people. The musical, which originated Off-Broadway before COVID-19, attempted to give the music a dramatic context, in the form of a backstage story of several K-pop groups and stars, RTMIS, F8, MwE and RBY, as they nervously prepare for a big concert. The bright, young attractive cast (including 18 Broadway debuts, primarily of Asian and Asian-America artists) radiated energy as they performed songs by Helen Park, billed as the first Asian composer on Broadway. But most of the talented singers/dancers were weak in the acting department, and were not helped by Max Vernon’s lyrics, which were sometimes unintelligible, nor by Jason Kim’s book, which was filled with painfully stiff dialog. Despite these issues, the show seemed to inspire wild enthusiasm from younger audience members. It had the ingredients of a smash, but somehow the positive word-of-mouth didn’t get out in time.

Ain’t No Mo’

With this savage new comedy, 27-year-old Jordan E. Cooper has established himself as one of the most interesting and daring young playwrights. The overall premise is that the American government has offered all black residents one-way tickets “back” to Africa. In a series of mad, bitingly satirical vignettes, we see the resulting chaos—and relief. In one, an outspoken airline boarding agent tries to get black passengers to board a jet piloted by former president Barack Obama. The agent is performed by the author in drag. Like Hamilton author/star Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is the best interpreter of his own material. In another, a black preacher (Marchánt Davis) offers a lively eulogy in front of a coffin containing the remains of “Brother Righttocomplain.” Another vignette offer the imaginary reality show, “Real Baby Mamas of the Southside,” which savages people like Rachel Dolezal who claim to be black but aren’t. Some of the scenes run on too long, but all stick long daggers into the heart of American racism. Too bad the wickedly fun Ain’t No Mo’ didn’t find a commercial audience. Never mind. The play already won an Obie Award for its 2019 Off-Broadway premiere and will get lots of productions around the country. Cooper has already created a daring TV sitcom, “The Ms. Pat Show,” and will likely return to the stage with something new that will dazzle us again.

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