Theater Digest - June 20, 2023
New thoughts on Back to the Future on the West End, and old thoughts on A Strange Loop, now in London.
Hello theater lovers! I’m Katie, and I see a lot of theater! Currently, I’m seeing 0-2 shows a week, depending on my schedule.
I know it’s been a little while since I last checked in; I took a nice trip to Europe. I’m only reviewing one of the shows I saw here, but I wanted to give a brief appreciation to some of the actors I saw in London, who are incredible singers and musical theater performers: Alexia Khadime, who is currently playing Elphaba in Wicked; Gabrielle Brooks, who played Ti Moune in Regent’s Park; and Mazz Murray, who plays Donna in Mamma Mia.
I do my best to include the Covid protocol for in-person shows, but things change rapidly, so if you decide to see something, please double check what the protocol are before you arrive at the theater!
As a rule, I won't be talking about any Disney/Fox/Hulu shows. Since this newsletter is geared towards people in the entertainment industry, there's a good chance I won't like a show that you or someone you know was involved in. I'm sure that you/your friend put a lot of effort into your/their work! I've been in a few shows, I know how much work goes into putting on a show. But just as you're entitled to dislike TV shows your friends worked on, I'm allowed to dislike theater you/your friends may have worked on. I try not to be vindictive, but I also do make it clear when I don't think a show is worth the price of a ticket or the time spent watching it.
I won't be writing much/any synopsis in these blurbs, but feel free to check out other reviews for synopses! Or just check out other reviews in general! Keep theater journalism alive & well!
Each week, I'll remove everything that’s closed, and put ** next to anything that’s new!
Thanks for reading Theater Digest! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
A Strange Loop on the West End [London]. (Reviewed in DC in 2021). As a general rule, I try not to listen to a cast recording of a show before I see it, but when seemingly everyone I follow on Twitter was raving about this cast recording when it came out last summer, I gave it a listen, and then I gave it a dozen more listens, and I’m so glad I did. This is a revelatory new work from composer & writer Michael R. Jackson that illustrates how a young, fat, Black, queer composer & writer navigates the world. It’s introspective and self-aware, which is not a combination that I typically love (I am, for example, decidedly not a fan of [title of show]), but Jackson really is a voice demanding to be heard. His tunes are undeniably catchy, and his lyrics have a specificity that is laugh-out-loud funny, provocative, and heartbreaking. In all honesty, I will admit that I did not care for the second half of the show, but I am fairly certain that that is Jackson’s intention, which underscores his brilliance as a writer. It takes boldness to push away an audience, knowing that you’ll pull them right back in before the finale. One thing to note: the sound design was shockingly bad at the performance I saw, with the band drowning out the singers, making it tough to hear the words they’re singing a mile a minute. In this case, or at least at this theater, it might not be the worst course of action to listen to the cast recording ahead of time.
Closes September 9 in London.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
Six in Orange County [CA], on Broadway [NY], and on the West End [London]. (Reviewed in DC in 2022.) I’ve been wanting to see Six for a few years now, and contented myself with listening to the West End cast recording many, many times (the show recently won Best Score at the 2022 Tony Awards). The show is an 80 minute pop concert by King Henry VIII’s wives, singing for your empathy. Each woman has a different perspective on her marriage and why it ended (only half of them survived their marriages). The songs are so catchy and fun and clever, and you can tell the cast are having a blast singing them. For most of the show, I had the widest grin on my face—it’s a joy to watch something fun, performed at a really high level. The show also packs an emotional punch in the back half, which lands. I brought my history nerd dad with me to the show, and he liked it a lot too; it’s the rare pop musical that works just as well for a Beyonce or Ariana Grande fan as it does for the types of people who sought out and enjoyed The Lehman Trilogy. Which isn’t to say that that’s a Venn diagram of two distinct circles—people contain multitudes! But you know what I’m saying. To stereotype, it’s a show both teen girls and their erudite fathers will enjoy. Six is a delight of a show, the perfect pick for when you want a fun night out at the theater.
2023 update: This remains as fun as ever! Khaila Wilcoxon, who plays Catherine of Aragon, and Gabriela Carrillo, who plays Catherine Parr, are really incredible performers, and while I’m not a “Heart of Stone” girlie, it’s a treat to see Natalie Paris, who originated the role in London, play Jane Seymour. This is a show that is always fun, no matter how many times you’ve seen or listened to it.
Open-ended runs on Broadway and the West End. Closes June 25 at Segerstrom in Orange County.
LA, NY & London Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
Mac King Comedy Magic Show at Excalibur [Vegas]. I think I first heard of Mac King when I was interviewing Derek Hughes for LA Weekly a while ago, but I never had a chance to see him until my most recent trip to Vegas. This is likely due to the show’s unusual schedule—you can only see it at 3pm, Tuesdays through Saturdays, in the same theater where the Thunder From Down Under perform in the evenings. I’m glad I finally saw him! His show is so fun, and even though I could see through some of his tricks, King is such a wonderful performer, I didn’t mind. He’s had a resident Vegas act for over 20 years, so everything is meticulously rehearsed, but his stage banter keeps the show feeling fresh.
Open-ended run in Las Vegas.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue.
Magic Mike Live in Las Vegas and London [Vegas/London]. Both of these shows are quite fun, and the show’s writers (none officially credited, but they seem to be Channing Tatum & Lyndsay Hailey) have done a great job of creating a non-sleazy environment and a relatable guide in the emcee. The choreography (by Alison Faulk, Teresa Espinosa, and Luke Broadlick) is also astounding. There are some differences between the Vegas and London stagings, with each being tailored to both the different performance spaces and the casts, and I have to admit, I didn’t love the emcee I saw in London (and the British audience was also pretty rude, talking throughout the show), but all in all, it’s an entertaining and empowering night.
Open-ended run in Vegas and London.
Vegas Covid protocol: Indoor venue with close proximity to (unmasked, vaccinated) performers. Proof of vaccination or recent (within 72 hours) negative test required. Masks required at all times.
London Covid protocol: Indoor venue with close proximity to (unmasked) performers. Unclear if proof of vaccination or negative test is required. Unclear if masks are required.
A Mixed Bag:
**Back to the Future on the West End [London]. This show works, mostly because the movie upon which it’s based is extremely solid. Back to the Future the movie holds up pretty well! So by virtue of not straying too far from the source material, it’s fun to revisit a beloved story. Unfortunately, the songs don’t add anything to the story, so the show doesn’t justify its existence as a musical, specifically. The characters also break the fourth wall frequently, in a way to doesn’t feel earned, either by the storytelling itself, or by the story being told. There’s even what seems to be a scripted moment where the actors fully break character (a tactic they may have borrowed, or vice versa, from the Sutton Foster/Hugh Jackman revival of The Music Man), which felt intended to charm, but left me a little cold. The show feels big and expensive, and the sets (by Tim Hatley) are great. Given the story’s underwhelming treatment of female characters, I couldn’t help but wish the producers had considered casting a woman in the role of Doc Brown, especially because I couldn’t think of a compelling reason as to why Doc Brown needs to be a man. Ultimately, it’s the kind of show that feels destined to be programming for a season’s subscription at your city’s touring venue, and it’s entertaining enough I’d say it’s worth seeing, rather than trying to offload your ticket (indeed, they have already announced some U.S. tour dates for next summer). It also ends with an incredible coup de théâtre that made my jaw drop in a way it hasn’t since I saw the magic carpet in the national tour of Aladdin—that alone nearly justifies the price of admission.
Open-ended run in London. Opening on Broadway in August.
Mad Apple at New York New York [Vegas]. This is Las Vegas’ newest Cirque du Soleil show, and it’s a departure from other Cirque shows you may have seen. Most notably, the people on stage use words! Not just to sing, or give the house rules, but there is a stand-up comedian, Harrison Greenbaum, who does a set, mid-show. This show, which is in a small theater (every seat is a good seat, except perhaps for the ones on stage, which are $25), is more of a variety show with lots of audience interaction, though there are still astonishing acrobatic acts. Those stereotypical Cirque moments are where the show really shines; the rest, while skillfully done, doesn’t feel as polished as I’ve come to expect from Cirque’s resident shows.
Open-ended run in Las Vegas.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks mocked by the stand-up comedian.
Hadestown on tour and on Broadway [NY]. Keen readers and/or longtime subscribers might notice I’ve moved this up from “Not Worth It” to “A Mixed Bag.” As much as it is possible for one to be objectively right or wrong about art, I am likely objectively wrong about Hadestown. Subjectively, though, I don’t love it as much as everyone else I know does. I stand by what I previously wrote about the show, but after a second viewing with a different cast, I’ll admit that when the songs are good, they soar. The touring ensemble is outstanding, and Nathan Koci’s music direction makes the good songs simultaneously lush and crisp. But I’m still troubled by the songs that are too high or too low for male voices, particularly Orpheus’ “Epic” and its reprises, and Hades’ “Hey, Little Songbird,” respectively. Acting moments that I chalked up to quirks of Reeve Carney’s performance I now realize are blocking choices, presumably from director Rachel Chavkin, that come across as affected, even on Nicholas Barasch, playing the same role. I’m also troubled in a way I’m not quite capable of articulating to see Levi Kreis play Hermes, a role that seemed expressly written for André De Shields. That’s not to say that no one else can play the role, and Kreis is a phenomenal performer, but dialogue and mannerisms in De Shields’s performance make me feel uneasy in Kreis’. Even on a second viewing, despite familiarity with the myths of Orpheus & Eurydice and Hades & Persephone, I still struggle to follow the plot, which feels piecemeal to me. But perhaps my mind is preternaturally disposed to wander during this show. Most of these quibbles are to say, feel free to disregard me, since many many people love this show and I am a lone voice of dissent! (But if you also didn’t love the show, know you’re not alone!)
Open-ended run in NY.
NY Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
& Juliet on Broadway [NY]. (Reviewed in London in 2019.) This is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet from Juliet’s perspective, set to a catalogue of songs written by Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, including “Teenage Dream,” “I Want It That Way,” and “Since U Been Gone.” If you’re the kind of person who looks at the track listing and has sung at least 75% of the songs in the show at karaoke, you’ll probably love & Juliet. It’s very fun, but, much like a Max Martin song, it falls apart the more you try and think about it (indeed, it’s cringeworthy to hear a professional actress sing, with perfect diction, “Now that I’ve become who I really are”). The cast’s accents are an incomprehensible melange, and I’m personally not a fan of the Tumblr-meets-Ed Hardy aesthetic the show has going on (it’s certainly… a choice), but it’s the kind of show that makes it easy to forget your troubles. I did feel that the way it addressed the non-binary character in the script was pretty clueless (i.e. continually using lyrics with female pronouns to describe a character who is trying to make clear that they’re neither male nor female), and overall, the creative team is regrettably not representative of the characters they’re showcasing on stage.
Open-ended run on Broadway.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
The Play That Goes Wrong off-Broadway and on the West End [NY/London]. (Reviewed on tour in 2019.) There are some really funny moments in this show, but it's too long, even at two hours, including intermission. I wish it had been 80 minutes, sans intermission.
Open-ended runs in New York and London.
My review for Stage Raw here.
London Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Unclear if proof of vaccination or negative test is required. Masks not required.
NY Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Proof of full vaccination (but not booster) required for patrons 12 and up. Masks required at all times.
Not worth it:
Oklahoma! on the West End (reviewed at the Ahmanson in 2022). I had previously had this production as “a mixed bag” when I saw it in New York in 2019, but I cared for it less at the Ahmanson. Director Daniel Fish’s staging came across this time, to me, as pseudo-intellectual and facile, landing on surface-level interpretations of subtext that were often at odds with the text itself. I genuinely wondered if Fish even likes Oklahoma!, because this staging seems ripe with disdain for the show. If he doesn’t like it, then why has he gone to such trouble to stage it multiple times over the course of many years? I appreciate that Fish is interrogating one of Broadway’s Golden Age musicals, and I wish more directors would do so, but this interpretation is confounding and unpleasant, and I can’t recommend it.
Open-ended run in London.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
On my radar:
Kimberly Akimbo on Broadway
Funny Girl on Broadway
Mamma Mia: The Party in London
Cabaret on the West End
Into the Woods on tour
Fetch Clay, Make Man at the Kirk Douglas
If you were forwarded this email and would like to receive updates as I have anything relevant to share, click the button below!