Fiddler in the Ground: “Fiddler on the Roof” by Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein

I’m going to be hard on the Playhouse Theater production of Harnick, Stein, and Bock’s miraculous 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof — and I’ve got to be. My classmate, who loved the show seemingly unequivocally, spoke to me on the train home from the theater of her assessments of other bowlers as a competitive bowler herself: “Sure, I could say ‘Your technique was wrong here,’ or ‘You did that wrong there,’ but I’ve got to remind myself that to someone else, if they get a strike, they’ve done a really good job. I’ve just got to sort of wipe my mind of what I know so that I can see the way they’re seen by everyone else and appreciate them for what they’re doing.” I said nothing in the moment, not wanting to once again emerge as the comic book supervillain amidst post-show joy. But the line popped into my head and rankled there the rest of the night: “Ignorance does not a good bowler make.”

 

I’m going to be hard on this production of Fiddler on the Roof because its source material is already nearly perfect. The book by Joseph Stein is hilarious, packed to the brim with laugh after laugh, and Harnick and Bock’s music is fun, sweet, moving, and everything in between, landing it on the playlists of millions of people even in 2019. If you’re going to do something as classic as this — choosing this for the season over a new show — you damn well better do it well. Each and everything that is changed must be changed with purpose; each and everything that is unchanged must be executed with the passion it originally retained. If these criteria are not satisfied, the evening becomes an exercise in either nostalgia or laziness, and often both. If these criteria are not satisfied, it is an insult to every living, breathing playwright and composer of today, who, while maybe not offering at first a show as technically refined as Fiddler, would certainly give you a show with heart and with excitement.

 

Fiddler on the Roof at the Playhouse Theater failed to meet either of these criteria — painfully so. There are multiple reasons for this being the case, but above all, as the show does, they revolve around Tevye. Andy Nyman is bad: he has neither the singing chops of a man cast for his vocal abilities, the acting chops of a man cast for his ability to evoke emotion, nor the charisma of a man cast for the indelible effect he might have on an audience. He has nothing, really — nothing except youth. He is 53 in real life, but onstage, behind old-age makeup and a terribly fake-looking greying beard, he seems like a 30-year-old playing in Daddy’s closet. He lands hardly any of his comedic lines in act one, and though more successful in act two, he still has a laughably low batting average. The central conceit of the show — the weathering away of the age-old patriarchy — is lost on him intrinsically, and lines such as “Sunrise, Sunset’”s “When did they grow to be so tall?” are baffling to an audience who sees a 30-year-old lamenting the ageing of his 20-year-old offspring. His accent is also all over the place, flailing wildly from flat American to Yiddish to British to a muddy cocktail of the three. He cares not, it would seem, about any other actor on the stage, confined to a bubble for the duration of the show; in this bubble, he also nudge-nudges the comedy more than any other cast member, striking a far different tone in whichever corner of the stage he might find himself. Now, normally in a great production, one actor cannot spoil the other apples, no matter how rotten they are. However, the direction of this production constantly has us and the whole of Anatevka focusing on Tevye, rubbing in our faces again and again just how pathetic he is in a role given such gravitas by Tevyes like Zero Mostel and Topol. Certainly, it might be a choice to cast a young man in this role — but it’s a bad one, as the text simply does not support it. David Mamet once said “A director who feels the need to reinterpret a classic work doesn’t understand the work.” He’s right: director Trevor Nunn, as Dr. Essin posited after the show, must’ve been asleep at the wheel.

 

There are other causes of this production’s mediocrity, however. To start with the obvious, the Fiddler scratches and squeaks a few of his notes in the most iconic fiddle tune of American musical theatre, the introduction to “Tradition.” On top of this stunning breach in skill, he is dressed like a literal clown — a bright green jacket, a yellow shirt, and disgustingly purple trousers — for no discernible reason. There is the environmental staging of the show, which, for someone like me seated in the upper circle of the Playhouse Theater, prohibits 40% of the stage from being seen at all times. (Let’s keep the environmental theatre to environments where everyone can be included, huh?) There’s confusion in the set about what constitutes “inside” and what “outside,” with character variously referring to the immobile doors as pathways to both. There’s general sloppiness when it comes to props, with one loaf of bread falling from the cupboard shelves and Tevye dropping a pillow before his supposed-to-be-heart-wrenching final conversation with Hodel. There’s no attempt at accent consistency among any of the daughters, who sound better situated in The Sound of Music than a shtetl in Anatevka. There’s the utterly bizarre reinterpretation of one of musical theatre’s greatest songs, “If I Were a Rich Man,” through attempting to explain the “yidididididibums” by having Tevye say them as verbalizations amid stretching his limbs (probably the worst choice of the whole production). There’s the fact that the young Russian soldier cracks on his high note in “L’Chaim”, and that the Constable is acted with all of the cartoonishness of a man who missed the memo that what makes the Holocaust and Jewish persecution so scary is that it was (and is) “good” guys who carry out its orders. There’s the laughable — in a terrible way — staging of Fruma Sara in “Tevye’s Dream”, which features Fruma-Sarah levitating in a two-to-four foot height off the ground and screaming as obnoxiously as a wild banshee while limited to this one spot on the stage. And finally, there’s the delivery of one of the most bone-chilling lines in musical theatre — Tevye’s final reflection, “Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats” — as if it were the Yuk-Yuk Hour at the Grand Ole Opry.

 

There are a few things, to be sure.

 

But, I’d be remiss if I did not commend a few people for their hard work in this show. Golde is great, understated in her acting and doing a phenomenal job of showcasing the quiet struggle undertaken by all women of this time against the tyranny of the patriarchy and the horrors of their husbands’ horrendous acting abilities. Perchik and Hodel sing terrifically, with Perchik emerging as a solid actor in his highlight number, as well. Yente (God bless Yente!) lands more of her lines than any other actor. And the pit orchestra kills it.

 

That’s about it for positives.

 

I wondered on the train ride home whether the problem might expose itself even in the marketing campaign for this production, which boldly proclaims, “#WelcometoAnatevka.” This, to me, announces a fundamental misunderstanding of this show, and I wonder further whether non-Jew Trevor Nunn really grasped the breadth and depth of this show’s exploration into the Jewish experience as director. Each change just baffled me as an audience member, and each keep — mainly the preservation of tired choreography and basic circle-around-Tevye blocking — acted upon me similarly. It saddens me to stay seated during the curtain call for a 150-minute evening of theatre. But, having seen beauty marred, a diamond smashed, with neither rhyme nor reason as justification, I simply had no other recourse.

 
For the love of Hashem, stay away from this production of Fiddler on the Roof.

The Capitalism Chronicles: “The Lehman Trilogy” by Stefano Massini

The National Theatre production of Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy is perhaps as best an execution of a writer’s script as I have yet seen. The acting from its cast of three — Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley each giving their all — is phenomenal, incredibly dynamic throughout (if not always “virtuosic” as so deemed by the critics). The direction from Sam Mendes is ceaselessly thoughtful, interesting, and entertaining — the three years “without a destination” that he spent crafting the show alongside the writers and actors show their value in every scene. And the set design, too, deserves to be singled out for providing a playground for three actors to undertake an odyssey over three and a half hours without ever feeling trapped by the space around them. Miraculously, this lengthy run time never feels nearly as boring as some of the far shorter productions we’ve seen, and the pacing clicks along rapidly to the benefit of all involved. The reviews are correct to call this “Theatre at its best” — I just have one glaring issue.

 

In 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was largely responsible for the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression, leaving millions of people all but penniless. Lehman Brothers, as all good capitalists do, had gotten greedy — in spite of the obvious cracks in the United States housing market, Lehman Brothers in 2007 “underwrote more mortgage-backed securities than any other firm, accumulating an $85 billion portfolio, or four times its shareholders’ equity” (https://www.investopedia.com/articles/economics/09/lehman-brothers-collapse.asp). It promised far, far more money to its shareholders than existed, and when the shareholders began to suspect this was the case, Lehman Brothers stock plunged dramatically over the course of several weeks. This set off a series of chain reactions which temporarily ruined the global stock market at the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, and it would take a long time and grueling work for the affected millions to build back what they had lost.

 

But you wouldn’t learn that from watching The Lehman Trilogy.

 

And that is precisely my contention with this show: with the exception of Bobby Lehman, who transforms suddenly into a cartoonish supervillain in the middle of Act Three, every Lehman brother is presented almost entirely sympathetically. Though my classmate Alex argues that works from the perspective of the “bad guys” often present them in a more understanding light than they might otherwise be given, The Lehman Trilogy never indicts the bad guys in the end like, say, Breaking Bad or Double Indemnity do. Here, we are supposed to mourn Henry Lehman (who is “always right,” we are sincerely assured time and again), and when a character such as Phillip Lehman is not properly mourned by the other characters, we are supposed to mourn that, the failure to mourn such a man. To watch The Lehman Trilogy is to be presented with the position that the Lehman Brothers are fundamentally good — that capitalism is fundamentally good — that it is only when an exception like Bobby Lehman comes along that the system begins to crack. Bobby Lehman, of course, is presented with sunglasses resembling those of Major Arnold Ernst Toht (the melting Nazi guy) in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and out of nowhere, he proclaims that he wants “Lehman to live… FOREVER!”, as dramatic lighting singles him out from the rest of the world around him. His death scene (which, though theatrically mesmerizing, is intentionally far from reality) makes a twitching insect out of Bobby Lehman, as well. In such a presentation, the audience is assured that capitalists like us in the audience (or better yet, like the New York elite in the Broadway audience) are not in the problem — only Bobby Lehman is the problem. Well, Bobby Lehman and the Hungarian, who is so called for the duration of the third act, and who is also reminiscent of the cartoonish oil tycoon baddie from 2011’s The Muppets.

 

Again, the execution of the script is masterful — everyone involved, including Stefano Massini for his work in the larger part of the show, ought to be praised highly. But, when you present as the final scene the Lehman Brothers singing the Mourner’s fucking Kaddish over the Lehman Brothers, when you ask the audience to pity the Lehman Brothers for the 2008 financial crisis, you are missing too great a point to be forgiven. If perhaps the intro and outro of the 2008 financial crisis had been eliminated, if we were simply given another side of the family between their coming to America and the Great Depression, that might work as a presentation of another side of things. But when you put the 2008 financial crisis right in front of us and, instead of condemning the actions of our characters for their part in it, ask us to empathize with them for being hurt by it, you’re lying to us. And you’re perpetuating a system which has hurt so, so many innocent people and will only continue to do so with every sympathetic portrayal of the monsters which pull its strings.

 

Am I saying “You’re a bad person if you like The Lehman Trilogy?” No; there are many things to like in this production, many things to love. But I am cautioning all viewers of this show to do research into the 2008 financial crisis and to interrogate the history of the Lehman Brothers corporation more than this play makes time to do, so as to not take away a false truth from this ultimately false play.

BEST OF MAYMESTER 2019: “The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil” by John McGrath

The National Theatre of Scotland production of John McGrath’s 1973 work, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, was the best live show I have ever seen. Here’s why:

 

When we entered into the Eden Court theatre, the entire cast was onstage, playing various folk instruments ranging from a guitar to an upright bass to an accordion to a cello to a harmonica to the clapping of hands. Immediately, one gets the feeling that this is a community show — one put on by friends, for friends. Every actor is engaged fully in the music they’re playing, smiling, laughing, singing and dancing along. There is no pretense, no capital-T theatre about the pre-show: we are set up extraordinarily well for the direct socialist messaging to come.

 

As if this were not enough, as soon as I finished jotting down the above, an actress came from the stage right up to my seat. She asked me my name, said hers was Jo. She told me that in the second musical number, they’d be singing about mountains, and could she bring me up onstage to be a mountain. I, of course, said yes. She must’ve said my name about a hundred times over the course of the brief interaction, either to ensure it was pronounced like she thought it was pronounced or simply to hammer home on the amiability of the whole experience. Regardless, it’s the best I’ve ever been treated by an actor in any production I’ve attended, and I was sold from the get-go.

 

The set is cheap-looking on purpose, the costumes made up of clothes that you’d see everyday plus items as simple as top hats or stick-on mustaches. As Dr. Essin said: “More Brechtian than Brecht.” There’s a sign-language interpreter onstage, as well; not off to the side in darkness like past interpreters I’ve seen, but prominently featured in every beat of the show. There’s also an actor in a 7:84 t-shirt, a callback to the original production company which put on McGrath’s show. As this actor explained during intermission (yes, the actors were just walking around like normal folks during intermission), “Seven percent of the population owned eighty-four percent of the wealth. And it’s worse today.” The first number they perform, they invite all members of the audience to dance with them onstage. Dr. Essin was pulled in by none other than the director of this production himself. This is what theatre should do — this is how theatre should be done. Not in English classes with magnifying glasses, but with real, live, kind, talented people.

 

Next was the song “For These Are My Mountains” — or rather, the first iteration of this song, which would become a motif throughout the show. After three verses or so, as though it were planned, Jo and I made a split second of eye contact, and she rushed up to Row F to grab me. I walked with her onto the stage, and then onto a higher stage. She had me crouch down and put my head on the ground, and then she threw a green blanket over me. I’m told that while I was in this compromising position, the cast placed houses on my back and smoke billowed up from around me. After the song concluded, the blanket was whisked off, and Jo and the other actors asked for a round of applause for me as I bowed. It was the least awkward incorporation of audience members on-stage I’ve ever encountered. (Y’all, this was good.)

 

The first line of the show that sounds like a line in a show is this: “This story has a beginning, a middle, but as yet, no end.” And isn’t it the truth. I wonder whether I perhaps enjoyed the show so much because I agree wholeheartedly with the pro-worker, anti-capitalist philosophy proffered by the show. Certainly, I would have enjoyed it less if I fundamentally disagreed. But in spite of that, the way they tell their story is so filled with conviction, so sincere, that I believe you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that had a net poor time at the show. Every actor is so talented, playing multiple instruments and seemingly endless roles, and singing the whole time, too. And the audience is constantly engaged; one of the most awe-some (in the truest sense) such moments comes in the first act, when all women in the audience are asked to stand. In addition to the impressive portion of the audience which is female (I’d wager 80%), the moment is twisted and wrenched and made unforgettable by the simultaneous reading of all the atrocities committed upon the women of the Cheviot chapter of the history of the Highlands. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s show-stopping. It’s sheer brilliance, a perfect cocktail of McGrath’s original and the present company involved in this production.

 

There are moments when I cried. The first of these is a man wearing a shawl facing away from the audience while seated in a wooden chair. A man in a top hat lights a match as the lights darken and the “woman” in the chair’s children begin screaming. The man touches the match to the chair, smoke begins to rise, and the woman begins writhing and screaming, as well. A younger woman moves to a microphone stage-left and begins singing some soft soprano tune. And the man in the top hat moves stage-right, and, holding up a paper house, crumples it, destroys it, demolishes it, for all to see. It is one of, if not the best, moment of theatricality I’ve ever witnessed. Can’t do that on a screen!

 

There are also individual lines which, in a worse show, could each earn the title of “Best Line of the Show.” In no particular order, these include: “The worth of a culture is counted in gold.” “They didn’t do that in the ‘73 version!” “The troubles which are being visited upon YOU are a judgment from God.” The whole of the “God Save the Queen” performed as a mouth-trumpet solo. “Humpty Dumpty was pushed!” “Oh come on, it’s sadder than that.” “We’re more Scottish than the Scotch!” At Leth-Uine (interval in Gaelic), I’d already determined this was the best show I’ve ever seen. Among the mixed-age, nearly all-white crowd, people seemed mostly to agree.

 

As act two begins, the cast stands with their backs turned to the audience playing kazoos as bagpipes. It’s all so wonderfully absurd, and so horribly ironic, and so masterfully performed. The next beat sees a man playing an English recruiter invite the audience to enlist in the Army. This was probably the worst-executed segment of the show, but, when you have to rely on an audience understanding a show as they experience it for the first time, you’re bound to get that, I guess. The goal is, it would seem, for only one member of the audience to successfully enlist in the Army — the awkwardness, then, came from the additional audience members who, having such a good time at the show, thought also to enlist after the first one did so. I’m not quite sure how to fix the issues here, but then again, just like the few messed-up lines delivered on the stage, it didn’t really detract that much from anything. Act two also contains a far greater emphasis on Gaelic as a cultural foundation than act one, with the cast admitting, “To be honest, aside from Calum, none of us in the cast even speak it.” And then, to my amazement and joy, Calum, in Gaelic, asks who in the audience speaks it, too. And then, for two or three minutes, he has a conversation with two audience members entirely in Gaelic. We are forced outside in the middle of a show in the most impactful and interesting way possible. Phenomenal moments like these weave together a phenomenal show.

 

The American comes out for the Oil chapter of the Highlands history. He says “Howdy, y’all,” walks with a swagger, and brings with him the first iteration of electric guitar into the show. It’s a somewhat hackneyed yet nevertheless spot-on capture of American ego overseas, and the she-bop song where the backup girls sing “Petrole-yum-yum-yum-yum-yum” is the best I’ve ever seen the American Way lampooned. The political energy of the show threatens to burst through the second act, as this American runs through the audience throwing dollars wherever he goes and a small Englishman runs behind him trying to scrape them up. It’s unmissable: “We must organize and fight… for the benefit of everybody!” “Then it was the great sheep — now, it’s the black, black oil.” “Have we learned anything from the clearances?”

 

The cast raises their fists, the lights cut, and I’m immediately up on my feet. The audience gives them a partial standing ovation — far less than deserved, but still a partial standing ovation. On the way out, I hear a woman say “That was my favorite thing I’ve ever seen.” Another man says “That was very good, but it’s never going to be as good as the original.” Dr. Essin says “That’s the best piece of political theatre I’ve ever seen.” David Mamet said not to use theatre to try to teach anything, because if you do, you’re missing the point. I say: David Mamet is wrong. I learned about a tragedy I would’ve never had a clue about and had an amazingly entertaining time and felt community build between me and a bunch of Scottish strangers and was sober and awake for the whole thing. This show was the best theatrical experience I’ve ever had, and it made our entire journey to Inverness worth it.

 

P.S. During interval, the director of the show came up to Dr. Essin to tell us he and the cast would be at Hootananny (a local Scottish bar) after the show if we would like to join them to talk about theatre. I was so excited I almost forgot there was a whole other act to go. I rushed to the bar after the show ended, and I sat in Hootananny for 75 minutes, till 11:15 PM. They never came. What does this say about political theatre? I’m not sure. But for now, I forgive them: they’ve already given me a greater theatrical gift than I’ve ever before received. That ought to be enough.

 

Rise Up! (but Not the Hamilton Lyric!): “Emilia” by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia is teeming with flaws: it is heavier than heavy-handed, pandering to a fault, and performed with a great deal of sloppiness on behalf of all involved. But in addition to all of these, it is also a show that is brimming with life; it is one made for now and one that needs to be seen now.

 

“Good evening,” opens the show, a response expected from the audience. Our narrator (the eldest Emilia) shows us that this is a show which demands participation — one which would be meaningless without it. This Emilia reads an introduction from an old, misogynistic text, rolling her eyes and scoffing throughout, then throws the book on the ground of the stage. In this we see the central metaphor for this production: the venerated words of yesteryear being rightly discarded for the harmful ideas which they perpetuate. When she tells us “We are only as powerful as the stories we tell,” it is as if we are picking up at the final number of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” This is to be a show in which women who have been suppressed throughout history are given a full-length musical and a stage to themselves in order to at last take ownership of their own stories.

 

To the ends of inclusivity and feminism, everything about the show is as basic as it can be. Subtlety has no place in the world of Emilia, nor does distinctive characterization for the titular character. This is a show which aims to say to all women in the audience “We are you” (as further detectable in the buttons handed out post-show, which proclaim “#IAmEmilia”). Inarguably the youngest audience in which we have sat, I suppose the writers didn’t want a thought in the production to be missed based on age or lack of familiarity with musical theatre tropes. So, the whole thing is a rehash of stories we have heard in more complex and more emotionally impactful and more thoughtfully written versions before. But again, that’s not quite integral to the point Emilia is trying to make. What point is Emilia trying to make? Well, all of them: mansplaining is bad. Appropriation of others’ stories is bad. Spousal abuse is bad. And at the end of the day, men are bad.

 

I have truly tried to wipe clean my biases as a male reviewer of this show, but there is a moment when the eldest Emilia shouts the word “MEN!” at the audience to kick off an oration about how bad men are — an oration which ends the show. In this speech, she rhetorically ponders why men mistreat women so, “as if we have not nurtured them. As if we rape them.” As a male victim of rape, this, needless to say, pisses me off. It’s oversimplification to the degree of absurdity, and it saddens me that so many young women will walk away from this show (in which there is not a single crimeless male character) thinking that men rape women and that is that.

 

But, at the same time, it cannot be ignored that this is a show which is doing something absolutely crucial to society and to the arts: letting women speak unbounded by a single person of the male sex onstage. The show thus accomplishes an admirable goal while marring a lot in its wake.

 

There are some other things to commend about this show. First, there is an actor who is missing an arm onstage, as well as an actor with a profound speech impediment. Neither of these actors’ handicaps were relevant to their characters or even mentioned in the script — they were just actors like the rest of the cast. This was quite a breath of fresh air in an industry which tends to shun actors with anything less than perfect bodies and voices unless it is exploiting them to exhibitionist ends. Second, this show references abuse of power without gruesomely displaying it in the line of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Provok’d Wife, a needed favor to all in the audience. Third, this production does not shy away from telling Shakespeare to go f*** himself, which, though not necessarily a moral issue, is at least something which the theatre industry is not often wont to do. Finally, the acting in this production — specifically from the youngest Emilia, from her 60-year-old lover, and from Will Shakespeare — is just phenomenal. I wanted to get a drink with all of them, and when the cast is dancing on the stage after the final scene, everyone in the audience wants to dance with them, too.

 

But there is more to lament about the show, too. The whole second act, for example, feels unnecessary. Nothing new is discovered in this second hour; it’s just an opportunity to do more of what was done in act one, harder. When the first act ends in disaster as the male characters go wild about the presence of women on the stage, the audience is roused with ebullient joy — we got it. It was a fantastic one-act, and we could’ve gone home. But in the second act, they essentially just tell us explicitly what we could’ve gotten from the first act, though this time it’s in invective form and this time there’s more chewing of the scenery. Certainly the audience stayed with them, but I wish something else had justified the presence of act two beyond getting more laughs and hammering the message home harder. There is also the shortcomings in acting by certain cast members; I’ll pick on the second Emilia, who broke onstage at something that was funny, but not funny enough to justify breaking onstage in the middle of a professional production. And finally, there is that “tell-don’t-show” diatribe which concludes the show, written like a high schooler’s last-minute paper for women’s and gender studies class. Not only is it inaccurate and hurtful regarding the male sex (which admittedly is guilty of a lot, but which is not without redemptive capacity, as this show would have you believe), it is also just lazy writing. The audience stands up immediately afterward — though it didn’t cheer for the seconds in between the final word and the start of curtain call music, leading to some grave awkwardness — and gives the show the warmest reception we’ve seen. But it’s only because they agree with the ideas. As theatre, it is not as well-executed as its response might suggest. As a speech for class president elections, however, it certainly is.
You should still see Emilia — if you’re a woman, because it’s empowering and fun. If you’re a man, because it’s eye-opening and fun. It’s messy as all hell and deeply misguided at points; but then again, it is fueled by a passion which demands stage-time and demands the attention of the community. If you look past a lot of the elements which make a good show good, you’ll have a really, really good time.

Revived and Reinspired: “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim

I’ve given the National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies a 10 out of 10 — not necessarily because it’s perfect. I’ve given it this score because, if this doesn’t earn the 10, what does?

 

When the crowd enters into the impressive, ampitheatrical Olivier, the facade of the old Follies theatre is set at a perpendicular angle to us. There is detritus from another demolished building upstage-left of this, and a nondescript wall upstage-right. Lights illuminate the scene, as well as the air, permeated by dust. The nondescript wall is never really clarified, but the rest of this set will push, pull, and revolve in an extraordinary display of both artistic enterprise and the technology possessed by the Olivier. As I said after curtain call, the designers ought to have come out onstage and shared the warmth of the audience’s applause for the phenomenal work and clear dedication they put into this show.

 

At 7:34 PM, the 7:30 PM show began — I suppose with an audience of 1,600, this is more than understandable. There is one woman in a feather headdress standing at a balcony, and she dances with the music. Well, she tries to dance with the music; she is indeed noticeably out of time with the pit orchestra’s opening instrumentation. But the choreography immediately improves in quality as the revolve begins to spin, and the whole overture is accompanied by a visual spectacle to remember. Mr. Weismann asks the first words of the show, “Young man, are we ready for the party?”, and is answered by a waiter’s “Yes sir, Mr. Weismann.” Or, to put it as the actor playing this waiter so grotesquely delivered it last night, “Yes, sir! Mr. Weismann!”

 

It is in the opening number that the central theatrical gesture of the show can first be seen: the simultaneous action of the Follies players in the present day and of their younger selves from the past. Typically, the present players are downstage, with the past players hanging around at different points around the circumference of the stage, but occasionally, the past players dance through and even interact with their present selves. This is a beautiful manifestation of the power of time and all of the joys and tragedies present therein, and it is executed masterfully. My only question asks what the younger selves are supposed to do when they’re watching their present selves and not interacting. Often, they seem to stare blankly: at these moments, I wished they were just offstage. But aside from a few awkward motivationless moves, this conceit proved formidable throughout.

 

The first real singing we hear in the show is from the basso MC, and his voice rings as heartily and beautifully as any I have ever heard. His is the first demonstration of the unbelievable talent of the actors involved in this production — any of these cast members could dominate any talent show in America and easily carry a one-man show. I write this after having seen the second act (or, without an intermission, second half) version of Phyllis, not after seeing only her first-act version, in which she was delivering her lines as though she were a literal robot. (They are incredibly well-written lines by James Goldman, and the actress saying them seemed to know that too well.) But as the show continued, the audience support prodded her into taking ownership of the words leaving her mouth. (In fact, she’d become what amounted to the audience favorite by the conclusion. So go figure.)

 

Every musical number between the opening and “Who’s That Woman?” could use some work. In my opinion, this is classic Sondheim-smelling-his-own-rear-end, with the music unnecessarily complex and therefore boring to the point of slumber. But, when tap dancing explodes the auditorium in “Who’s That Woman?”, suddenly the show springs to life. Quite literally everything from this point to the final curtain works at a level of 95% and higher — it just begs the question of what happened in the first segment. Certainly, those first numbers are necessary for exposition and narrative construction; it just seems that they could have been handled with some more creative staging and some more speed. Every number in the latter two thirds of the show moves with such celerity, is lit so interestingly, and is performed so vivaciously, that it outdoes even itself.

 

(One note before we move on: after “Who’s That Woman?”, the lead singer of the number shouted “I love life!” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an actor say a truer line after a showstopper.)

 

(Wait, one more note: after “I’m Here,” the actress who has just brought down the house turns her back to the audience, jumps up and down, and reaches with all the height in her body to the spotlight hanging from the rafters. This is the second truest thing I’ve seen an actor do after a showstopper.)

 

Several stunning tableaux are constructed by this director, and the presence of younger selves is treated with such care that one’s heart cannot help but break at the clinging onto youth by the elders of our own day. The direction drives home the show’s themes of love and life, hatred and death, and it makes one wonder why the marketing campaign for this production had nothing to do with any of these, instead depicting a sole blue eye crying in line with Orwell’s 1984. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose: the most incredible transition I’ve ever seen in and of itself could earn this show 7 out of the 10 points I’ve given it, as the conflicts boil into a cacophony of voices until the vaudeville section kicks off the finale numbers at 11:00 on the show clock. An awe-inspiring clashing of life and death, youth and age, hate and love, it all ends in folly — this is the show. This is the best possible version of the show, too. Each character arc’s ending is poignant and moving in a distinct way, and I’m not sure my face was dry for the rest of the production. Set against luxurious set pieces and draped in gorgeous costuming, every performer is at the top of their game, and it can be felt even this morning in the belly of the breakfast room of the London House Hotel in Notting Hill.

 

The last-scene line “For tomorrow?” Oh God… IT IS TOMORROW!” stopped my heart, and should have stopped the show finally. It doesn’t, but it’s so good, that I’ll say it does anyway. The impact of the show and of this line is not easily describable — I’ll work on my critical skills for the future. For now, all I can say is: this is theatre at its zenith. This is the standard for which all productions should strive (even those without the millions of pounds, 41 cast members, 21 pit orchestra members, and freelance professional designers of the National Theatre). I can only hope to someday be a part of a production as brilliant as this one.

Average Girls, I’d Argue: “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill

I was in the middle of journaling in my little red notebook when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls began. Without ceremony, without fanfare, and without an introduction, the curtain simply went up — onstage was a long, long table, right in front of a long, long painting. This would be the set for a long, long, long, long scene. Sitting in the audience of mainly Britons at the National Theatre, there were multiple rounds of recognition laughter as the characters assumed the stage. Clearly, these famous women were particularly famous to this hearty British audience — tragically, though, they were not at all that famous for the one from Vanderbilt. A cocktail of confusion on our part and less-than-stimulating staging on their part left me and my roommate on the verge of sleep; and when we both came to at the end of the first scene, we were sure that the play was over. It felt like an hour and a half had easily passed us by.

 

But the play was only just beginning.

 

And indeed, the theatre of the play only started after the first scene had ended. Some striking moments from the second scene included a young girl sticking her finger in her vagina and holding it up to another young girl, the second one licking that same bloody finger. In addition to this was a raised brick — just a plain, old brick — and the power it held over an audience sweating over whether this plain, old brick was about to be used to murder the mother of the young girl (why don’t we call her “Angie”). Resulting from the intensity of this scene (made only more vivid by the compact space in which it unfolded), I was hooked for the rest of the show. I also immediately made the decision that, while the first scene might work as a brief prologue or a truncated preshow, the play must cut the first scene if it wishes to pull in (let alone to keep) any young audience.

 

The third scene, wherein we meet the so-called “Top Girls,” was brightly lit and refulgent of a hopeful future. The Second Wave of feminism could be heard rushing in at full force, and the dialogue was fascinating, if heavy-handed. We were afforded the opportunity to see many different women with distinctly different worldviews, and each more or less seemed to believe in their respective worldview (for which I commend Churchill deeply). Unfortunately, it felt as though we were never given enough time with each character to do anything with the scintillating characterizations, fostering a lot of disappointment in at least this viewer. However, this cannot be said for Howard’s wife, who comes in for the latter part of the scene and implicitly demands that Marlene give up her job to her husband because… well, because. This segment felt as real as it could in 2019, and I could not help but wonder how over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek it might have been played at Vanderbilt (which, evidently, it was, six years ago. Dr. Essin says of it: “People were confused.”).

 

At intermission, everyone sitting next to me thought the play was over and began to leave. They were not happy to discover it was not. But troopers as we are, we sat through the second act — a lot less lionous of a task, given the weirdly disparate lengths of the determined acts. This act featured some extraordinary acting from Marlene and sister Joyce; never have I truly believed actors more than in this scene, I’d imagine. Much like the first scene, this act could stand as its own play, and perhaps it ought to. Here, the themes of Thatcherite politics and the costs of ambition to feminism are really given room to flourish. Here, as elsewhere, one wonders whether the play would read better and more interestingly than it looks. My inclination is yes, especially in light of the final Heart of Darkness-esque “Frightening… Frightening!” (thanks to my classmate for the comparison) appearing as utterly ridiculous to my peers. At curtain, there was rightly no standing ovation, and I announced my rating of 5 out of 10.
In our post-viewing discussion, someone reflected, “I think it’s a play I really enjoy thinking about afterwards, but not one I enjoyed so much while watching.” To that, then, I say: you watched a bad play. If you make theatre only to make people think, you ought to be a columnist or a philosopher instead. There is no need for a stage if that is your sole goal — in fact, the false promise of the theatrical frame just leaves audience members interested in theatre underwhelmed and resentful. I understand that the political gravitas of this play necessitated a lot of extra words and ham-fisted sociopolitical dialogue. But this was supposed to be a play, not a treatise. It is for this reason (and the fact that such a work can never recover from a scene which drags and drowns as much as its first) that this show cannot score above a 5 for me. However, the phenomenal performances of the actresses playing Marlene and Joyce and the stunning moments of theatricality which landmarked the show suffice to supply the 5 points which it for me has earned.

Coming from Away: “Come from Away” by David Hein and Irene Sankoff

Is it right to include an assessment of the theatre’s bathroom in the review? I must, even if not: the bathrooms sucked. Get better bathrooms, Phoenix Theatre. I had to hold the stall door closed with one hand while wiping with the other. And the toilet seat was ripped from the toilet and tossed on the floor.

And everything was wet.

 

 

I sat in the Stalls for Come from Away, which means “Orchestra,” which must mean something more, in the grand scheme of things, right? How can your seat not impact your viewing experience? On the stage were: several tree trunks with lights affixed to them, two desks, 12 chairs placed at jaunty angles, and a wooden backdrop. The pit orchestra was also visible — with some neck straining — which would prove to be important later.

 

The audience clapped when the lights went down, which told us beyond doubt into which of the Commercial-State-Independent categories this experience would fall. The first words were sung with heavy Newfoundland accents, which I mistook for mere difficult British accents at the outset. These accents would change drastically and often throughout the show, with mixed success in terms of both audience comprehension and performer accuracy. The opening song, “Welcome to the Rock,” was sung directly to the audience, immersing everyone immediately in the world of the play and of the ensemble onstage. There was a lot of jumping up and down and synchronous movement, with all cast members landing on the final musical hit of the number. This would be one of the three numbers which distinguished themselves as “songs” throughout the evening.

 

In the first book scene, every character’s name is said (with intentional comedy) roughly five times. We get to know their names, as a result. A first-day-on-the-job reporter serves as a further expositional vessel, as do several everyone-in-the-cast-plays-variations-on-the-same-archetype sequences. The writing of the book is quite stilted and on-the-nose — the major weakness of the show — but it is supplemented by an incredible use of levels and of the stage as a whole. Its major strength indeed is the synchronous movement of the actors throughout the space, bolstering the sense of community which is to be the major thrust of the piece.

 

Two weird things happened around 30 minutes in: first, there was an unnecessary stereotype of a Spanish man, complete with fast-strummed Spanish guitar and a highly-charged libido. This was odd for a show so intent on bringing people together. The second odd thing was that they started employing the stage’s turntable after 30 minutes (of the 100-minute show) had elapsed, and not at all in a climactic moment. It seems to me that in a show where the image of the globe is so central, a lot more could have been done to make that matter.

 

More than anything else, what this show did for me was answer the question “Why this show now?” better than any I have recently seen. This story of unity, of community, and of the goodness of mankind was a sound for sore ears if there ever was one, and moreover, the tragedy of 9/11 has reached an age where our elders need to pass on what happened so that we truly don’t forget. (For that matter, no kids should be allowed to perform this show. As the character Aly says of being strip-searched in the presence of a female, “You can’t understand.”)

 

There were two mini-rounds of applause during this show, and one of them was earned. The first punctuated the random introduction of eight sexy cardiologists who had arrived to clean up bathrooms filled to the brim with fecal matter. The second was the one that was earned — that following “Become a Newfoundlander,” or, as it is mistakenly titled on the soundtrack, “In the Bar/Heave Away.” In this number, the pit joins the cast of characters whom we already know, and they dance and sing together. This is a song which I had heard before and cared not for; but, at its place in the show, and at this show’s place in time, it was simply perfect.

 

To conclude with two commendations: first, the performance of the woman playing the pilot was remarkable, moving, brilliant, and all the like. Her song “Me and the Sky” moved many to tears, I’m sure, and rightly so. Second, they were damn smart not to include an intermission. This is a short show built on a short idea, with only a couple defined songs and no solid book to back them up. We got in, we got out, and a lot of us left moved all about.

I would rank this show 6.5/10. It was a pleasant evening of entertainment, with major flaws in the writing (but thankfully not one of which was an overindulgence in the words “nine eleven”). It is not a show I would see a second time (as my roommate has one), but evidently, it is a show I would see a first.