Review: Leopoldstadt

The titular traditionally Jewish district of Vienna is the setting for Tom Stoppard’s latest play, also among his best in my opinion. This district was Jewish long ago, in the 1600s, when it was called Im Werd. Ironically it was renamed Leopoldstadt for Emperor Leopold I, who drove the Jews out of Austria. Later rulers allowed some Jewish families back, but it took time to rebuild. None of this is the subject of Leopoldstadt. Instead it follows a wealthy Jewish family between the years 1899 and 1955. If you know European history you can see where this is going, but Stoppard rings some very interesting changes on one’s expectations.

In 1899, Jewish Vienna – and Vienna in general – was at its most vibrant. Psychology legend Sigmund Freud lived there, the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler was in residence (he later was director of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera), both of whom are referenced in this scene, to the effect “they belong to us.” And they were just the tip of the iceberg for that era of Jewish Vienna. As years pass WW I and the Russian Revolution lead to disillusionment among the family.

Then comes the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. The family hurriedly devises escape plans, but the Nazis march into their house. This, however, is not the end of this very twisty scene. In 1955, the family members who have survived the Holocaust return to the house. The genius of Stoppard here is that he communicates not only the human cost of the Holocaust – although he does that, to devastating effect – but also the loss of a whole culture of immeasurable importance to Europe’s artistic and intellectual history.

The large cast of this epic play is uniformly excellent, especially the players in the 1955 scene: Jenna Augen, Brandon Uranowitz and Arty Froushan. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ain’t No Mo’

I was sorely disappointed at the early closing of KPOP, a tightly structured musical that offered freshness, originality and innovative spectacle. Closed before I could even finish a rave review! Perhaps the first musical that made me say “WERQ! LIVING!” Well, I uttered those very same words the following night at the equally fresh and original play Ain’t No Mo’, which, dammit, seemed to be heading for exactly the same fate. Then, luminaries from Tyler Perry to Shonda Rimes stepped in, buying out whole performances, earning the play a week’s reprieve, and dammit, I hope for more.

The premise of the comedy is stated as “What happens if the American government offered African Americans a one-way ticket back to Africa?” Part of the innovation at play here is the structure: it’s a series of comedy sketches that nonetheless are all in service of a single story arc. The tone is also innovative: while this is mostly a wickedly satirical comedy, it can turn tragic on a dime and not be shy about staying there for minutes at a time. One of the songs I was listening to while writing this review, “Drop Dat” by Willie Thee Bawdy, rhymed “books by bell hooks” with “hip hop Mel Brooks” – yep that’s Ain’t No Mo’!

The glue holding the play together is Peaches, the gate agent for the flight taking people back to Africa. When she says the flight number out loud – 1619 (the year the first African slaves were shipped to the colony of Virginia) – it sent a chill up my spine. Mind you, Peaches is played in drag by one Jordan E. Cooper, who is also the playwright, and as such, at 27, the youngest American playwright in Broadway history (there’s a “WERQ!”). We re-visit Peaches several times with increasing urgency (never losing the comic notes) and Cooper delivers whip-smart timing, alternately combining straight up laugh lines and finely graded nuance. And often enough, rage.

The remainder of the cast is very much on Cooper’s level. The costumes are fabulous (I would expect no less from Emilio Sosa), the sets subtle but expressive (I would expect no less from Scott Pask). Run, don’t walk to see this utterly unique and fantastic masterstroke. THE VERY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION!!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

There have been a lot of stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. The best I have ever seen was a very warm and spectacular version on Broadway in 2019, which had the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience before the show. This season’s Broadway version is second only to that one, but takes an opposite approach, leaning into the Gothic elements of what is essentially a ghost story.

In fact it’s so Gothic that in place of those clementines there are eerie sounds in the house, and a dimly lit ornate coffin on the stage. A sudden total blackout accompanied by a loud thud of a sound cue reconfirms the chilly, ominous tone. When the lights come back on, the brilliant Jefferson Mays begins narrating a version of the story closely adapted from an abridged version Dickens himself took on many a reading tour. Not for nothing Jefferson Mays is listed in the program simply as “The Mourner.”

But this is certainly not just a reading. The work of all the designers, especially Projection Designer Lucy Mackinnon, transmit the spectral atmosphere with great ingenuity – as spectacular as that 2019 production in an entirely different way.

Mays, long since known to be the master of playing multiple characters, plays no less than 50 here. Most effective: a Jacob Marley who truly appears to have cold dead eyes, a Bob Crachit who is genuinely warmly self-effacing, and of course Scrooge himself, whose arc of redemption Mays gives real heft. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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: 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: 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.