Review: The Kite Runner

I am one of the few people who hasn’t read Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, so I came to Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation with fresh eyes. And to me, it is a profoundly moving story, deftly told. Many have said the novel is better – but isn’t it always? Novels have time to linger on an image or a thought, and in the compressed world of theatre, you can’t do as much of that. You tell me the novel is better, and I tell you the adaptation, taken by itself, is one of the most powerful plays I have seen in recent memory. The story remains lucidly expessed, the emotional undertow, deeply poingant.

For one thing, director Giles Croft staging is satisfyingly fluid and compelling. For another, Amir Arison (The Blacklist) gives a profoundly emotional performance as narrator and central character Amir, so good that I hope he is remembered when Tony nominations come around. Amir grew up in Kabul, back when it was peaceful and prosperous, the son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant. He becomes close to Hassan (a very expressive Eric Sirakian), the son of his father’s servant, who is Hazara, an ethnic group much discriminated against by Pashtuns.

At a vital moment, Amir betrays Hassan, and the remainder of the tale follows his guilt and eventual redemption. It also tells of the travails of the Afghan nation since Amir’s 1970s youth. He and his father Baba (Faran Tahir) become refugees when the Soviets invade, and settle into a working class life in Northern California. Events compel Amir to go to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where he is horrified by the deterioration and violence visited on his homeland.

I can’t say it enough, this is powerful, cathartic theatre, truly a must-see. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: Mr. Saturday Night

This tribute to Catskills comedy – as told through the life story of Buddy Young Jr. who goes from Borscht Belt headliner to TV star to obscurity – is equal parts classic comic shtick (delivered by one of our greatest living comedians) and schmaltz (leavened with flashes of genuine emotion). Billy Crystal plays Young with his usual verve, adding a little soft shoe and expessive singing to his performing repetoire. It’s a real shame that Mr. Saturday Night closes on September 4, it’s a genuinely pleasurable and charming musical – whose main aim is to (in the words of Crystal’s first song) provide “A Little Joy” – and how often do we get one of those?

While much of the plot takes place in 1994, we get generous servings of Buddy’s Catskills act and TV sketches, taking place in the late ’40s and early ’50s, in which Crystal shines the brightest, being on his home ground of stand-up. As Buddy watches the 1994 Emmy Awards, he sees his own face in the “In Memoriam” section. The fact that he actually isn’t dead gets him a new flash of celebrity, including an appearance on Today, which catches the eye of a major talent agency.

This is the kind of relatively light-hearted musical where you root for the main character to earn redemption and win out. The way he gets there may be a touch contrived, but is satifying nonetheless. The score, lyrics by Amanda Green and music by Jason Robert Brown, is brisk, tuneful and jazzy. Recommended, get it while you can!

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: A Strange Loop

The frankest description of gay sex I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, that’s for sure – especially in song called “Inwood Daddy” (you can see where that’s going) ! And a refreshingly frank look at the problems gay black men face. I mean right off the bat the lead character Usher describes himself as “a young overweight-to-obese homosexual and/or gay and/or queer, cisgender male, able-bodied university-and-graduate-school educated, musical-theater writing, Disney-ushering, broke-ass middle-class far-Left-leaning Black-identified-and-classified American descendant of slaves full of self-conscious femme energy…thinks he’s probably a vers bottom.”

A Strange Loop is in many ways an autobiographical show. Jaquel Spivey is so terrific as Usher that at least one audience member I taked to thought he actually was the author-composer of the show, one Michael R. Jackson, who won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for this. It is very black and deeply queer, is artistically successful and tuneful and funny into the equation – so exciting.

His thoughts (and other people) are represented by a (excellent) six-person chorus. Usher is plauged by self-doubt. Primarily that he wants to authenticly represent himself in the musical he is writing, but worries that white audiences wont get his black experience, and black audiences won’t get his queer experience. He is also conflicted that he has an “Inner White Girl” which he cherishs but also disturbs him. He loves his parents and seeks their love – they do love him, but don’t really accept him. They are deeply religious, so they don’t tolerate his gay identity. Instead of the autobiographical show he is working on, they want him to create a “a nice, clean Tyler-Perry-like gospel play,” which drives Usher crazy.

Jackson is that rarest of musical theatre creatures, a composer-lyricist-bookwriter who is superb at all three. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Highly reccomended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive

Any show that opens with Julie White screaming the c-word promises to be a wild ride, and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive does not dissapoint. Those seven magnificent women are: First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the president’s criminally-minded sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), chief of staff Harriet (White), press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), starchy personal secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), “bimbo eruption” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist / mother Chris (Lilli Cooper).

Every single woman is hugely accomplished – even the supposedly ditzy Dusty has surprising hidden talents. While there are side slights at the present political climate, POTUS is mostly about the larger patriarchal idiocy of having charismatic but incompetent men in power, while these goddesses do the grunt work. This is the biggest laugh out loud comedy we’ve had in a very long time, so continuously hilarious it hurts.

Playwright Selina Fellinger spins chaos with pitch perfect precision, combining dialogue that’s both foul-mouthed and witty (often at the same time) with frenetic farcical door-slamming. Beowulf Barrit’s rotating set accelerates with the action until it’s turning like a carousel at the height of the second act’s high-speed pandemonium.

Director Susan Stroman keeps a zippy, even dizzy pace for the whole evening, with an exactitude of movement worthy of her legendary musical theatre work. The entire ensemble is flawless, but there are two definite standouts. Julie White is among the most gifted comic actors of our day, and she’s in her finest fettle here. But Rachel Dratch truly outdoes herself! When her nerdy character accidentally ingests a very powerful psychotropic drug, she reels into some of the most insane (and skilled) slapstick I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: Hangmen

Strange. Macabre. Very funny. Martin McDonagh. These six words fit perfectly together, in the most natural way (or is it “unnatural”?). The playwright has made his career creating the very best dark comedies of the contemporary stage and screen. His newest play, Hangmen mostly happens in Lancashire in November 1965, just as capital punishment was being abolished in Britain, putting hangmen, whose numbers were already dwindling, completely out of work.

In the play, we follow fictional hangman Harry Wade (David Threlfall), a typical McDonagh comic bastard, who is in many ways awful (he killed people for a living, for goodness sake), but also has redeeming qualities. He now owns a pub, as did the historical “last hangman” Albert Pierrepoint, who has a presence is the play, and the mention of whose name makes Harry bristle.

Harry is joined behind the bar by his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett in full Brit broad mode) and his socially awkard daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Harry is the closest thing the small city of Oldham has to a celebrity, and local newspaper reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) come’s to Harry’s pub to cover how this executioner feels about being abruptly retired. While initially refusing to talk, Harry eventually sings like a bird, trashing his nemesis Pierrepoint, who executed many more people than Harry, but those dead included Nazis and women, whom Harry chooses not to count. A menacing Londoner named Mooney (Alfie Allen) throws this day even more out of whack.

This being a McDonagh play this is only the first of many twists, mostly of the sinister variety. While he has made some terrific films, McDonagh is without a doubt a creature of the theatre, and I’m thrilled we have him back. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

There is a lot of joy in for colored girls…, most of it connected to music and dancing, especially the salsa dura of artists like Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. Playwright Ntozake Shange did call the play a “choreopoem” after all. But there is also a lot of terror and sadness at the way black women are treated by men. Unfortunately, this is still as timely as ever.

for colored girls is a series of vignettes of life as a black woman that crisscrosses the United States and all kinds of experiences, from the ecstatic to the devestating. We meet, for example, a teenage girl in St. Louis who falls in love with a historical personage she read about in a book: Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic leader of the 1790s Haitian Revolution. On her search for him she meets a real St. Louis boy also named Toussaint – and suddenly is less interested in finding M. L’Overture. This sort of fabulist poeticism provides stark contrast to the play’s darkest moments, which include evocations of rape and murder.

The power of this choreopoem can be found in Shange’s truly pungent writing, with lines as powerful as these: “I found God in myself and I loved Her – fearlessly,” “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself,” “I couldn’t stand being colored and sorry at the same time – it seems redundant in the modern world” “I survive on intimacy and tomorrow,” “I was missing something promised,” – truly an endless flow of pithy, evocative language.

Director and choreographer Camille A. Brown – the first black woman in many decades to execute both roles on Broadway – conveys a propulsive rhythm even in the stillest scenes, which really revs up when paired with composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s updated take on salsa dura. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: Plaza Suite

Playwright Neil Simon has never been my cup of tea, especially his early plays. From 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs onwards, I can appreciate his fully matured skill. And he had a gift for one-liners from his beginning in the TV comedy writing rooms of the 1950s, which makes even his most lackluster plays passably amusing. But on a thematic level, meh – too mild and old-fashioned. Plaza Suite (which originally opened in 1968) is on the high end of the “passably amusing” stack, moving from moody quippiness to increasingly entertaining farce.

The play is in three acts, but the only character that appears in all three is Suite 917 of the Plaza Hotel – so beautiful recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty that it got its own entrance applause as the curtain went up. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play a different couple in each act.

The first one finds a businessman and his suspicious wife on their anniversary (during which the marriage essentially unravels). In the second, a successful Hollywood producer attempts to seduce a girlfriend from long ago in their smallish hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey. The final act is a raucous farce about a middle-aged couple whose daughter, in an attack of wedding day jitters, has locked herself in the bathroom.

Broderick and (especially) Parker are in fine form, especially since director John Benjamin Hickey has both doing the damn best phyisical comedy I have ever seen either do, which considerably elevates the production’s funny quotient. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as handsome and well-considered as Beatty’s set, and are perfect for SJP. Yes, I know she can make anything look good, but these fit as well as the chic leather gloves Greenwood gives her in the second act. The best outfits conjure the Pucci / Gucci side of 60s “mod” with great élan.

It also helps a great deal that well-executed featherweight comedy is what the doctor ordered when the news is as grim as it tends to be these days. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.wordpress.com.

Review: Company

Easily the best thing I’ve seen since live performance returned to New York, it’s no surprise that this is that good. First, it’s one of Stephen Sondheim’s very best musicals. Then it’s Marianne Elliott in the director’s chair, and she’s is probably the only stage director whose work manages to surprise me every 10 minutes. And then this cast! A troupe headlined by talents Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone that includes exceptionally talented actors such as Claybourne Elder and Christopher Fitzgerald in ensemble roles? You just can’t go wrong.

It is so satisfying that this production of Company is as good in fact as it looks on paper. Elliott had the brilliant idea or changing the bachelor Bobby of the original production into bachelorette Bobbie. As well, she has set the production in the present day, not 1970. Both choices illuminate the musical in ways that are truly fresh.

The male Bobby was always a bit opaque, perhaps a little dull even. Bobbie on the other hand, has more interesting issues: does she want to give up her hard-fought freedom? How much does she really want to be a mother? (There’s even a whole “baby” dream ballet, truly haunting, almost a nightmare). The stakes are significantly higher, and Lenk brilliantly plays every moment.

Elliott’s staging is her usual neon-tinged phantasmagoria which suits this show to a T, giving the whole matter a “Bobbie in Wonderland” feel – as non-linear as the musical itself. As the gimlet-eyed alcoholic matron Joanne, Patti LuPone delivers her trademark razor-sharp timing to fantastic effect. Another brilliant change finds “Amy” changed to “Jamie” a gay man about to marry his long-time boyfriend. Matt Doyle is neurotic perfection in the role, delivering one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs “I’m Not Getting Married Today” with dazzling precision and virtuosity.

I don’t think I could recommend a show more highly than I recommend this one. Truly a must-see.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Trouble in Mind

It’s no accident that the cast of Trouble in Mind, a play, features musical theatre powerhouses like LaChanze and Chuck Cooper – music features prominently in the play, in both positive and negative ways. Alice Childress wrote this backstage drama in the mid-1950s; it follows rehearsalsfor Chaos in Belleville, a patronizing anti-lynching play written by a white author (never seen), and directed by a white man Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who fancies himself a genius, but turns out to be a talentless tyrannical hack.

The positive musical moments are singing for just the joy of it. The negative moments are stereotypical spirituals written into Chaos which Manners thinks he can coach his black cast members to do better. LaChanze plays leading actress Wiletta Mayer, the person who ends up locking horns with Manners the most, in spite of advising a young actor to keep his head down when dealing with “the man.”

Childress uses the intrigues of the rehearsal process to deeply delve into the psychology of race relations as they stood in the 1950s. While it’s clear that Trouble deals with serious themes, I should be clear that it is a very lively play, brimming over with humor and spirit. Cooper supplies a lot of the comic relief as Sheldon, an older actor for whom humor is a defense mechanism. All of the characters are three-dimensional, however, and as such Sheldon also gets a very emotional monologue about witnessing a lynching.

Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway success when it first appeared in 1955, and producers were interested in taking it to Broadway. They asked Childress to soften it, very ironic since major themes of the play include learning to stand up for yourself and ask the important questions. Childress predictably refused, and it has taken 66 years for it to finally arrive. It’s a very engaging play, emotionally and intellectually, and I’m so glad it’s here. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Thoughts of a Colored Man

This is a “slice of life in a neighborhood” play, let’s settle that first. And a pretty damn good one. Much was made in the marketing of elements of slam poetry, but there’s only a sprinkling of that here, like a splash of hot sauce. The neighborhood in question is a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, where gentrification is encroaching, barbershops being replaced by Whole Foods and Paris Baguette.

At basis it is a love letter to the camaraderie of black men, symbolized by such barbershops. But Thoughts of a Colored Man is also rigorously critical of not only the daunting challenges created by systemic racism, but also the failings, individually and collectively, of black men. While the characters all have allegorical names like Love and Anger, they are actually finely etched characters who all have their good points and flaws – which is one the play’s great virtues.

While there are whiffs of toxic masculinity here and there, there is also an extraordinary moment when, in the key barbershop scene (one of the longest in the show), Lust (Da’Vinchi) tells a “fag joke” and is immediately rebuked by the shop’s long-time owner Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), allowing gay man Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark), who is new to the neighborhood, to come out by the end of the scene.

Happiness gets a couple more scenes, one a monologue detailing the difficulties faced by a middle-class black man married to a white man, including “being too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends.” He also has a scene with Depression (Forrest McClendon), a man who studied to be a engineer but was forced by circumstance to take a low-paying job at Whole Foods.

All the actors are seriously impressive performers and director Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging is understated while still being very dynamic. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.