Theater Digest - September 29, 2022
New thoughts on The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Mark Taper Forum
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 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!
Six on tour, on Broadway [NY], and on the West End [London]. 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.
Open-ended runs on Broadway and the West End. Coming to the Pantages in April.
NY & London Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
A Strange Loop on Broadway [NY] (reviewed in DC in December 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.
Open-ended run in NY.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
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:
**The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe at the Mark Taper Forum [LA]. Your opinion of this solo performance will likely be determined by your opinion of Cecily Strong. Personally, prior to seeing this show, I found her skilled, but not thrilling, and spending 96 minutes with her here reinforces that assessment. Strong is adept at differentiating the varied characters from this 1985 text, written by Jane Wagner for her now-wife, Lily Tomlin. But I was missing that spark, that It quality you feel in the presence of a star. Wagner’s text, half-heartedly updated for 2022, is full of bon mots, lines you might highlight in a dog-eared paperback—or write on a sticky note. The writing is reminiscent of Wendy Wasserstein, Nancy Meyers, or Nora Ephron, skillfully portraying (or lampooning) white Yuppie women born during the years following World War II. That kind of writing can feel like a security blanket, compelling you to rewatch When Harry Met Sally each fall, but here, there’s only occasional comfort in Wagner’s proficiency (despite the short runtime, the play drags). Director Leigh Silverman, Strong, and Wagner are all doing solid work here, but the show isn’t as transcendent as I’d hoped.
Closes Oct. 23 in LA.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks required at all times.
Animal Farm at A Noise Within [LA]. This show is difficult to categorize, because everything about the production is top-notch, but while I respected it, I had a strong negative reaction. The cast is good, Julia Rodriguez-Elliot’s direction is strong, the songs by Adrian Mitchell and Richard Peaslee work, but I just did not like the show. It’s 100% a matter of personal taste. I understand that those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it, but there’s something about this show, whether it’s the original text by George Orwell, or staging it in 2022, a moment where we’ve escaped the would-be authoritarian regime of Trump and his cronies, but still remain haunted by its possible resurgence, that feels fundamentally pessimistic about humankind in a way that’s deeply upsetting. It’s as if the show is saying we’re all Benjamin, the donkey from the story who’s smart enough to see what’s coming and stands by and watches it all happen. I know I’m predisposed to like stories where a hero saves the day, but this show, in this moment, offers no hope; rather, it takes the fatalistic view that this is what has happened, and what will happen, good luck, and good night.
Closes Oct. 2 in Pasadena.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks required at all times.
Everybody at Antaeus Theatre Company [LA]. This production is the definition of a mixed bag. When it’s great, it soars, but when it fumbles, it’s tough. Much of this, I suspect, comes from the text, an adaptation of a centuries-old play of unknown origin, which, in playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ retelling, obliterates the fourth wall. First we meet God (Cherish Monique Duke), then, Death (Anne Gee Byrd), who summons five people, randomly assigning one, a character named Everybody, to present their life story to God. At the performance I attended, Everybody was Harry Groener, a stalwart of the L.A. theater scene. The other four are cast, on the spot, in the roles of his friends, family, and belongings. Jacobs-Jenkins has a keen ear for dialogue, and the play is at its best during the more grounded conversations between two people. Groener in particular shines, imbuing Everybody with pathos, a grounding presence contrasted with the generalities in which the text intentionally traffics. And though Everyman, the English-language text Jacobs-Jenkins is adapting, is a morality play, Everybody is more of a mortality play. Jacobs-Jenkins is remarkably adept at slicing right through to the heart of humanity’s hang-ups about dying, in a way that is beautifully devasating, especially in a show that otherwise stumbles.
Closes October 17 in Glendale.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Proof of vaccination required. Masks required at all times.
Babe at the Echo Theater Company [LA]. This is a strange play, because I feel like it has a lot of potential, but this world premiere staging feels unfinished. The performances felt more like rehearsal than opening night, the transitions were sluggish, and the script clocked in at a slow 70 minutes, ending in a way that could be interpreted as intermission if the cast hadn’t come out for bows. But there’s a lot of interesting, exciting groundwork laid out in the interplay between an old-school record exec (played by Sal Viscuso), who’s pretty much a walking microaggression (you know the type), his colleague Abigail (Julie Dretzin), who’s done more work than she’ll ever get credit for, and Kaitlyn (Wylie Anderson), a millennial who thinks her workplace should be less toxic. It’s easy for a text like this to become a chance for Gen X and Baby Boomer characters (often a stand-in for the writer) to complain about Millennials and Gen Zers, and playwright Jessica Goldberg doesn’t do that, at least not at first. Kaitlyn does feel underdeveloped, especially since she would likely understand the importance of making compromises and how to navigate office politics by the age of 29. There’s also a subplot with Abigail and an artist she developed (also played by Anderson) which feels under-serviced. But there’s enough already in the show to get you excited about what the next iteration could be.
Closes Oct. 24 in Atwater Village.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Proof of vaccination required. Masks required.
The Merry Wives of Windsor at Theatricum Botanicum [LA]. Shakespeare in a park is a summer tradition for a reason, and this is an adequate production of Merry Wives, one of the Bard’s marriage comedies that revives the character of Falstaff from Henry IV parts I & II as the villain. Most of the jokes at Falstaff’s expense are fatphobic, which is uncomfortable. Willow Geer and Earnestine Phillips shine as one of the titular wives and a bar owner, respectively, in this production, set in Windsor, CT in the 1950s. Pack bug spray!
Closes Oct. 2 in Topanga.
My full review for Stage Raw here.
Covid protocol: Outdoor venue. Proof of vaccination, including booster, required. Masks encouraged.
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.
Come From Away on the West End & Broadway [London/NY]. My expectations going into this were pretty low, and the show exceeded them, but it didn’t win me over. The story is good, but because 9/11 plays such an important role in it, it’s at odds with the musical form. Also, the songs weren’t that good. The music was passable, but the lyrics were poor, over-relying on rhyming couplets, and, failing that, leaving lone lines to land with a thud. The book (the scenes between songs) was charming enough, and the whole thing was well-directed and -acted, but I couldn’t get into it. The book, music, and lyrics are all credited to the same two writers, so it’s hard to separate out individual elements.
This is set up at eOne, and a filmed version is available to stream on Apple TV+.
Closes Oct. 2 in NY. Closes Jan. 7 in London.
London & NY Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
& Juliet on the West End [London]. 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 in London; coming to Broadway fall 2022.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Unclear if proof of vaccination or negative test is required. Masks not required.
The Play That Goes Wrong off-Broadway and on the West End [NY/London]. 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.
Dear Evan Hansen on tour and on the West End [London]. I originally saw this right after it opened on Broadway, and loved it then, loved it much less the second time, but I think it’s still worth seeing once, if you can afford the ticket price. If you can’t, don’t fret too much.
Feature adaptation released by Universal.
Closes Oct. 22 in London.
My original review of the Broadway production for Paste here.
My full review of the production at the Ahmanson for Stage Raw here.
Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks encouraged.
Not worth it:
Oklahoma! at the Ahmanson [LA]. 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.
Closes Oct. 16 in LA. A British production will transfer to the West End in February.
LA Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks required.
Jagged Little Pill at the Pantages [LA]. This is one of those shows that made me wish that rather than being at the show, I was watching other, better things by this creative team, because they’ve all done much stronger work than this. Director Diane Paulus’ Waitress remains one of my favorite musicals of the past decade. Book writer Diablo Cody also wrote Juno, and her examination of Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman’s characters was a more incisive look at ex-yuppies than this show provides. And, of course, Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill is a gem and a time capsule of a disaffected young woman in the 90s. The show, however, is dreary and predictable, forcing those songs to carry the dramatic weight of topics they weren’t intended to address, like the opioid crisis. Heidi Blickenstaff never disappoints, and is as wonderful as ever here in the thankless role of Mary Jane, and Jade McLeod’s “You Oughta Know” is a genuine showstopper, but neither is enough to redeem the show as a whole. It’s also worth noting that the sound design is quite muddy, at least towards the back of the orchestra, where I was sitting; I could barely understand what the performers were singing during any of the musical numbers.
Closes Oct. 2 in LA.
LA Covid protocol: Indoor venue. Masks recommended.
On my radar:
The Music Man on Broadway
Into the Woods on Broadway
Funny Girl on Broadway
Back to the Future on the West End
Heroes of the Fourth Turning in DC
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