Editor's Note: Catherine Ritchie, a Broadway fan and librarian at the Dallas Public Library Central Branch, recently took a trip to New York and caught several shows. Below are her thoughts on the plays Hand to God (written by Texas native Robert Askins, whose work was seen in Dallas when Rite of Passage Theatre Co. produced his play Love Song of the Albanian Sous Chef in 2011 at the Festival of Independent Theatres) and The Audience; the musicals The Visit and Fun Home; and in its fourth Broadway revival, The King and I.
Hand To God
By Robert Askins
Those easily offended by violence, vulgarity, constant use of the f-word, and consensual sex between puppets will find Texan Robert Askins’ play Hand to God, at New York City’s Booth Theatre, rough going. But if patience and persistence prevail, stalwart audience members will be rewarded by an ultimately moving work, reinforced by consummate performances.
The action takes place in fundamentalist small-town Texas (though the setting could probably be anywhere rural and redneck-y), where Marjorie, a recently widowed churchgoer (Geneva Carr) organizes the “Christketeers,” a Sunday school puppet ministry group, which includes her emotionally estranged son Jason (Steven Boyer) and his literal left-hand man/puppet, alter ego Tyrone, who, while expressing all the thoughts Jason cannot, is clearly the meanest, most profane critter anywhere.
The puppet delight all takes place under the watchful eyes of Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), who subtly lusts after Marjorie. Things get complicated when Marjorie succumbs to sex with a teenage boy, Jason falls into a crush with a fellow “Christketeer,” and Tyrone begins to take over his handler’s entire personality, becoming violent along the way. By the conclusion of the audience’s tumultuous ride through dark, explicit, often cringe-worthy humor and action (among humans and puppets alike), mother and son do find ways back to each other in some genuinely powerful moments, anchored by two (and a half?) outstanding performances.
As Marjorie, torn among the strictures of Southern widowhood, love for her largely inscrutable son, and desire to embrace a freer way of looking at life, Carr is revelatory and her absence from the stage in any given scene is keenly felt. Boyer as Jason/Tyrone is phenomenal; his remarkable puppetry skills, combined with almost eerie vocal abilities (e.g., while Jason can barely be heard, Tyrone snarls and spews loudly) makes his left-hand partner seem virtually alive and ready to spring into mayhem at any moment. His is a breakthrough achievement in a play likely to raise eyebrows and inspire thoughtfulness in equal measure.
A la Avenue Q from a few years back, Hand to God may yet again re-invigorate the art of puppetry (albeit, perhaps, of a kinder, gentler variety). In the meantime, audiences can cringe, guffaw, and revel in a unique family tale, remarkably told.
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by John Doyle
The phrase “long and winding road” can lead to memories of Lennon and McCartney, or it could also describe the seemingly never-to-end journey John Kander and the late Fred Ebb took in bringing their final musical The Visit to fruition. Although Ebb would not live to see its current incarnation, directed by John Doyle and starring the legendary Chita Rivera, at New York’s Lyceum Theatre, this team can take great pride in its parting collaboration.
The Visit first saw life as a 1956 satirical play by Friedrich Durrenmatt. Its current script comes from Terrence McNally, yet another living legend and frequent Kander/Ebb associate (he’s also writing the libretto for Great Scott, a Jake Heggie opera that will premiere in Dallas in October). The show has had several permutations over the years, though none fully successful, and perhaps most significantly, none deemed worthy of a cast album recording. This 2015 one-act version runs just 90 minutes, but audiences will be treated to non-stop visual, auditory, and performing riches, along with an imminent cast CD.
One of the world’s richest women, Claire Zachanassian (Rivera) has returned to her economically depressed European hometown for the first time in decades. An influx of her money could literally save the city from certain financial doom, and she is indeed willing to make that happen, with one proviso—the current citizens must murder Anton Schell, the former lover who deserted her as a young girl. What to do, what to do?
As the citizens debate and anguish, Kander’s score and Ebb’s lyrics are aesthetically challenging and intellectually satisfying, with the romantic “You, You, You” and the more-than-slightly bizarre “Yellow Shoes” possible breakout hits. The forebodingly shadowy set, with hints of industrial iron grates, à la Sweeney Todd, adds to the somber air of decision facing the town. The color yellow does in fact become a notable visual motif later in the production, in glaring contrast to the darkness all around.
The supporting cast includes veteran musical theatre performers David Garrison, Mary Beth Peil, and Jason Daniely. Tom Nelis, recently understudying Roger Rees as Anton, has brought an imposing voice and commanding presence to the part, yet tinged with melancholy, and a passion for Claire fondly remembered but long ago discarded.
As for Chita Rivera: at age 82, her face is virtually unlined and her energy seemingly undiminished. Her gracefulness on stage clearly holds clues to the idolized dancer/singing actress known to generations from the classic Kander/Ebb shows Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, not to mention her breakthrough portrayal of Anita in the original West Side Story. At one point, she performs a scaled-down dancing duet with her “Young Claire” incarnation, the lovely Michelle Veintimilla, including a few mild hip swivels and leg kicks. The nostalgia is palpable.
Whether this version of The Visit will be the one graven in stone for all musical theatre eternity remains to be seen. In the meantime, audiences may feast on this monument to persistence, longevity, and a partnership—Kander, Ebb, McNally, Rivera—for which the theatre world can be deeply grateful.
UPDATE: The day after not winning any Tony Awards, producers announced The Visit will close on June 14.
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and lyrics by Lisa Kron
Directed by Sam Gold
Circle in the Square Theatre
It’s a safe bet that award-winning cartoonist Alison Bechdel never imagined 10 years ago that one of her print creations would inspire the first Broadway musical featuring a lesbian main character. Thanks to Bechdel’s autobiographical 2006 graphic memoir Fun Home, that very production of the same name—directed by Sam Gold, with music by Jeanine Tesori plus book and lyrics by Lisa Kron—is selling out at New York City’s Circle in the Square Theatre, in an innovative, exuberant and ultimately moving depiction of a tumultuous coming of age within a unique yet troubled family
The Bechdels live in small-town Pennsylvania, where father Bruce (Michael Cerveris) is a high school English teacher, proprietor of the town’s funeral home (aka “Fun Home”) and obsessive home restorer/furniture expert, while also wrestling with not-always-dormant sexual attraction to young men. Mother Helen (Judy Kuhn) aware of her husband’s predilections sublimates her marital dissatisfactions through her own work outside the home and community activities. Three gifted actresses Sidney Lucas, Emily Skeggs, and Beth Malone portray Alison as a child, a college-age student, and a 40-something adult looking back on life events, respectively. College Alison will fully embrace her lesbianism while on campus, though audiences will learn the inklings were apparently within her psyche much earlier. When she comes out to her family in a letter, Father Bruce, dealing with his own angst in this area, is never able to discuss with his daughter their mutual reality, and, in fact, kills himself when Alison is 20. A sad but now wiser Adult Alison joins her younger selves in the finale “Flying Away,” an aria of acceptance and reflection on lives lived creatively, yet darkly around the edges.
Fun Home, which transferred to its current locale after a triumphant 2014 off-Broadway run at the Public Theatre, is staged in a fluid, semi-sung-through series of scenes with quick- shifting setting changes. The fine acting is reinforced through Tesori’s varied score (somewhat reminiscent of her earlier Caroline, or Change and Violet) including comic numbers, powerful solo turns, and quirky commentaries, all rendered skillfully by the excellent cast.
As Bruce, Michael Cerveris offers an initially subtle performance but one with cumulative power; his final, anguished “Edges of the World,” performed just before his suicide, is virtuosic. As Helen, veteran musical star Judy Kuhn offers her climactic solo “Days and Days” with low-key yet devastating impact. Beth Malone and Emily Skeggs handle both their comedic and dramatic musical turns with great confidence. And 11-year-old Sidney Lucas—a name for all theatergoers to remember from this day forward—arguably offers Fun Home’s most joyous and poignant moments with her revelatory, exuberant solo “Ring of Keys,” an ode to the female mail deliverer to whom Young Alison somehow feels attracted.
Fun Home offers much: a fine score; a quirky and entertaining script; superb performances; and a landmark message of family, acceptance, and embracing maturity despite inevitable bad memories along the way. Thank you, Alison. Thank you, one and all.
By Peter Morgan
The Revolutionary War was justifiably fought way back when in order to free the American colonists from British tyranny, but Yankees should still be grateful to our brethren across the pond for many things, not the least being arguably the most glorious actors in the English-speaking world. Thanks to the recent import The Audience by Peter Morgan, playing at New York’s Schoenfeld Theatre and directed by Stephen Daldry, starring icon Helen Mirren, audiences can experience the artistic debt we owe the U.K. face to face.
Mirren once again portrays the remarkably long-lived Elizabeth II, whose reign has encompassed 12 Prime Ministers, all of whom attend/ed a weekly “audience” with Her Majesty. “Audiences” with seven of these Ministers provides the play’s dramatic “hook,” with the meeting scenes flowing in non-chronological order, intertwined with the Queen’s young adult-age memory flashbacks, illustrating her life before unexpectedly succeeding to the throne in 1952.
As the adult Queen, Mirren skillfully morphs from young married mother to 80-something dowager, thanks to logistically remarkable costume changes (often rendered onstage, behind a row of “ladies in waiting”), various wigs, and shifts in vocal timbre and body language. While the script seems to include an excessive amount of one-liner quips from Elizabeth, Mirren admirably copes with the role’s physical challenges.
A deeper joy of this production, however, lay in the parade of superb British character actors portraying the members of Elizabeth’s household and four of her Prime Ministers. While American veteran actors Dylan Baker, Dakin Matthews, and Judith Ivey do solid work as John Majors, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher, respectively, the British performers Geoffrey Beevers, Michael Elwyn, Rod McLachlan, Rufus Wright and particularly Richard McCabe as a humorously self-conscious and yet poignant Harold Wilson, offer audiences a master class in character embodiment, including crisp, non-amplified diction, a feast for audience ears. From a performance standpoint alone, The Audience can be considered British acting’s gift to its former colonists.
While the play itself may be less than substantive in parts, thanks to Helen Mirren and her remarkable colleagues, it also stands as a tribute to the longevity and dedication of a remarkable woman: initially a reluctant monarch, perhaps, but a formidable symbol of duty and love for people and country. All hail…
Note: You can catch a rebroadcast of the filmmed production of The Audience, from the National Theatre of London, at area movie theaters at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 25, courtesy of Fathom Events. Find out more about theaters near you here.
The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
Years ago, a fur coat magazine ad asked us, “What Becomes a Legend Most?” In the case of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the current Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center revival of the team’s beloved The King & I, directed by Bartlett Sher, may well be the final answer. Lavish and inspiring production values, impeccable casting, and the ravishing presence of Broadway’s arguably finest singing actress coalesce into a joyous spectacle for eye and ear, offering heartfelt proof of why “classics” should never disappear into the theatrical mist.
From top to bottom—from the red and gold stage curtain, to the talented “cast of thousands” (including adorable children), eye-diverting costumes and inventive choreography—this The King & I satisfies in both musicality and dramatic impact.
The story of a 19th-century widowed British schoolteacher becoming the live-in instructor to the (many) children of the King of Siam has been told numerous times by talented people, but this production will likely become the gold standard benchmark for any future attempts.
Possibly its most impressive element is its attention to on-the-money casting of even the smallest, potentially overlooked roles in the huge canvas that is The King and I. When was the last time you actually paid close attention to Prince Chulalongkorn , the King’s No. 1 son, or to Mrs. Anna’s own child Louis? Thanks to vivid characterizations by Jon Victor Corpuz and Jake Lucas, respectively, their presences are entertainingly felt. The King’s myriad, largely nameless children are also charmingly rendered by a spirited, verging-on-adorable flash mob of beautiful moppets.
But of course, King’s central roles are key to any production’s success, and are superbly rendered here. As the young lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora bring glorious voices and keen acting skills to parts that could easily lapse into melodrama or parody.
Ruthie Ann Miles virtually reinvents from scratch the role of Lady Thiang, the King’s “head wife,” bringing her persona a depth, strength and poignancy likely not to be matched any time soon. While her spotlight aria “Something Wonderful” momentarily stops the proceedings cold, her character-illustrating subtleties along the way are a revelation as well. For example, when the King unexpectedly touches her, the mixed surprise and delight on her face tells audiences much about the woman’s largely unexpressed love and longing for her husband. A watershed performance.
And what of “the King” and “I”? Advance rumor had it that Japanese film actor Ken Watanabe was experiencing diction difficulties with his role. This proves true to some extent, though the vast majority of his dialogue is intelligible to the keenly attuned ear. However, he excels, in the more comic aspects of the part, using vocal inflection, constantly-shifting facial expression and kinetic body language to say what his muddier syllables may not. His energy throughout (as evidenced by his curtain call ebullience) is a plus in his column as well.
As for Kelli O’Hara as Anna—what can’t this glorious performer do? While her song renditions are exquisite (particularly “Hello, Young Lovers,” eliciting smiles from the conductor himself at one performance), in this production, she also proves herself a superb actress, capable of keen emotional power without singing a note—similar to Audra McDonald, who triumphed in 2014 with her drama-mixed-with-song portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. O’Hara has become one of Broadway’s all-purpose supreme artists. Long may she sing, act, and simply be.