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: 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.

Review: Dana H

While actress Deirdre O’Connell expertly lip-syncs this entire show, this is galaxies away from, say, Lypsinka. O’Connell lip-syncs to recorded interviews of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother Dana, regarding her harrowing experience being kidnapped by a murderously insane white supremacist in 1997 (Hnath edited the interviews into a cohesive hour-long piece). O’Connell is amazingly precise, down to every jangle of Dana’s bracelets, yet also brings a layer of expert acting to it that elevates the whole affair. Steve Cuiffo, the Lip Sync Consultant, must have a lock on that area of expertise – he has indeed been known to Lypsinka. He has certainly coached O’Connell well, she never misses a second.

Dana has long been a hospice chaplain in Florida, and in ’97 a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member came under her care and became attached to her. Eventually he took her captive and tormented her for five months. Dana is quick witted and hardy, so her description of these events rarely descends into self pity. She is, if anything, oddly detached, which makes hearing about this horrible experience somewhat more bearable. But it becomes clear that she was truly powerless in a way she could not have understood before these events.

Director Les Waters stages the evening very minimally, with Dana mostly narrating events from a chair in a motel room (her captor essentially moved them from motel to motel). The moments that depart from that format are all the more effective because of the contrast with that simplicity. Mikhail Fiksel’s audio editing and sound design is truly a marvel. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lehman Trilogy

Surprisingly brisk, this 3 plus hour drama follows the history of Lehman Brothers for as long an actual Lehman was involved, from 1844 (when Henry Lehman opened a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama), to around 1969 (when the last Lehman family member to run the bank, Bobby, passed away). There is a brief coda about its decline and fall, but this is mostly the history of the Lehman family. It is a above all a portrait of “The American Dream.” It doesn’t shy away from that dream’s darker side: the brothers make their first fortune on the cotton trade, which at the time was driven by the historical crime of slave labor.

In a clever conceit, director Sam Mendes stages this saga in the offices of Lehman on the day before its 2008 collapse, projecting black and white imagery behind its glass walls to evoke the needed 19th and early 20th locales. Further, the three actors who play the founding brothers Henry (Simon Russel Beale), Emmanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley) also play a host of other people as well. This causes some comedy when the stout, gray-bearded Beale plays a series of Lehman brides, who run the gamut from demure to deeply cynical.

The script, by Stephano Massimi (playwright) and Ben Powers (adapter), is comprised primarily of narration. These dexterous actors rather miraculously find ways to express action and emotion in the driest recitation of numbers and facts, which does a great deal to bring this story to vibrant life. Massimi has skillfully woven throughout the play thematic threads about bad dreams and ever-shortening periods of mourning for family members who pass away. The storytelling is uniformly crisp and exciting.

This so easily could have been tedious, but The Lehman Trilogy is tautly executed from beginning to end. This is the work of expert craftspeople and artists in every field of theatrical endeavor. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Beth Leavel

Despite this cabaret act being named “It’s Not About Me,” throughout Beth Leavel greatly relishes telling stories of her own long Broadway career. She barrels through it all with the ferocious commitment and incisive comic energy for which she’s most known.

She’s currently in between her much-loved turn playing Broadway diva Dee Dee in The Prom and creating the role of Miranda Priestly in Elton John’s musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She opens with the song from The Prom which gives the act its title, blowing the roof off of Feinstein’s / 54 Below from the very beginning. Then she marries belting with a warm sense of welcoming in her take on Cole Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” the “you” in this case very clearly being the audience. In a typical pairing of sincerity with wisecracking, she notes she wants the show to feel like we’re all sitting around drinking in her living room – and then says that since everybody’s drinking we’re halfway there.

There are only about nine songs in the show, much of which she gives over to backstage stories told with much hilarity. Not only Broadway stories, but stories from regional theatre, where she has done such great roles as Dolly Levi and Mama Rose. And does she sing songs from those great roles? Oh yes she does, oh boy does she ever! I’m not going to tell you which ones; I’d rather you go “oh no she isn’t!” just like I did. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Inheritance

This is an exciting, thought-provoking show. I’ve seen it compared to Angels in America – they both involve gay American history and are split into two long parts – but they are quite different animals. Angels’ author Tony Kushner, tends toward broad scope and metaphysical philosophizing. The Inheritance‘s playwright Matthew Lopez, however, focuses on more human-scale stories. Yes, there is much in the play that underlines how much “the personal is the political,” but running time to one side, The Inheritance concentrates on relatively ordinary people navigating complicated lives.

Does it, then, justify that running time? Thankfully, yes. Lopez has a real gift for crafting believable and engaging characters. Because of this, over its many hours The Inheritance never lapses into tedium, no small accomplishment. Lopez loosely adapts E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End to 21st Century gay New York, following the interlinking lives of three generations of gay men searching for love and a place to call home. Like Forster’s book, the play interrogates social conventions and codes of conduct in relationships, but since the milieu is very different, Lopez reaches intriguingly different conclusions.

Lopez centers his story on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, in a marvelously nuanced, even elegant portrayal), a a compassionate but conflicted native New Yorker. Also, Forster is not only the source of the plot’s outline, he also appears as a character, played with delicate dignity by Paul Hilton. He advises and inspires a young gay writer played by the remarkably talented (and toned!) Samuel H. Levine. Not for the only time, Lopez teases you with suspense – which of the characters that Levine plays is telling this story? Director Stephen Daldrey gives the narrative lots of air and makes weaving this complex tapestry seem breathtakingly easy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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