Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Shows We Saw In New York City

I went to NYC last week on my honeymoon, and given that Jacob and I are theater nerds, of course we tried to get in to a bunch of shows. We went out with tickets for Phantom and Macbeth, but managed to get into two others - one that we didn't know about until we got there, and one that we'd determined we'd try to get into.

Here's a brief review of all that we saw!

The Phantom of the Opera

This was my favorite musical in high school. This was the third time I'd seen it on Broadway and the fourth time I'd seen it professionally, and it may actually have been my favorite performance, thanks to the incredible performance from the Phantom himself, Swedish vocalist Peter Jöback.

The last time I saw the show live, it was in 2006 with long-time veteran of the show Howard McGillin. I truly hated McGillin's portrayal of the Phantom. I have a deep love for this character, who is ideally a combination of menacing and pathetic, and sometimes flips back and forth between the two in just a matter of moments. McGillin's Phantom was all-menacing, all-angry, and garnered no sympathy from me whatsoever. This carried over into his singing, which sounded harsh and menacing even when singing love songs.

Now let's compare to Jöback.

First of all, his voice is quite lovely. Every so often a tiny trace of his Swedish accent came through, but overall, it was just gorgeous to listen to. But beyond just having a nice voice to listen to, he plays the part perfectly. I could see the Phantom's thought process as he moved and sang. I, like Christine, was drawn in by the beautiful tenderness of "Music of the Night" and then terrified by his sudden outbursts of anger. Like the first time I saw it, I found myself in tears during the final scene, as he resigns himself to his fate of being alone forever.

Samantha Hill as Christine was also truly excellent. She had apparently just taken over the role from Sierra Boggess, and she brought a beautiful level of... mental fragility to Christine that I hadn't seen from many others in the role. Not so much in the sense of a fragile, swooning porcelain doll, but she really made me think about what it would be like to be stalked by the Phantom the way she was. She brought the character to life so vividly for me that I got incredibly angry during the scene Raoul insisted she be the bait for their plan to catch the Phantom. (I remember thinking, "How dare you? Do you not see how terrified she is?")

These two Broadway newbies brought a beautifully fresh, new perspective to the role and made it possibly the most emotionally rewarding version of the show I've ever seen. Kudos to them!


We won the lottery rush to see this show, and I'm so glad we did! The over-the-top campiness, while totally Roald Dahl-esque, occasionally was distracting to me, but overall it was thoroughly entertaining. The lyrics were incredibly smart - I was especially impressed by "School Song," where after the full rendition was sung through once, it was repeated to reveal that every single letter of the alphabet was hidden within the song. So clever!

The choreography is also worth mentioning. At times it was jerky and awkward, but the standouts are "Loud," a delightfully flashy Latin dance number, and "When I Grow Up," a beautiful, simple song where the children perform a choreographed number on playground swings, which has them swinging out over the audience's heads. Gorgeously done.

And can we talk about those kid performers? Normally I am not at all a fan of child actors, but the group of kids we saw the day we went was an incredible one. We saw Bailey Ryon as Matilda, and she did a great job of being an easy-to-relate-to child without being too precocious, and her co-stars were just fantastic. Every dance number was perfect, every song sounded great.

Bertie Carvel (Miss Trunchbull) and Lauren Ward (Miss Honey) were the only actors to transfer from the London production to the Broadway one, and they are both great. Carvel's deliciously campy portrayal of the athletic and vindictive school principal is hilarious, while Ward's young teacher is extremely relatable and the most emotionally moving part of the show ("My House" brought tears to my eyes).

Matilda is a silly, but thoroughly entertaining show, even if it does lack a good finale song - something I always love in a musical. Definitely glad I got to see this one.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

I'm much more familiar with Christopher Durang's short plays than I am his longer ones, but I liked this one a lot. While there are a lot of references to Chekhov, the play is thoroughly enjoyable even without knowing much of Chekhov's work, thanks to its actors. The original cast was all still there when we left, and they were all very, very good.

Durang's short plays (and, from what I understand, many of his longer plays as well, although I have yet to see them) are much more absurd and much less grounded in realism than this one. Here the absurdity comes from the characters and their quirks more than from the circumstances, although there is a plotline involving a cleaning lady who has a prophetic gift.

There are a couple of truly superb monologues - one from David Hyde Pierce, as he rants about the way modern technology has left his character confused, frightened, and disconnected, and one from Kristine Nielsen, where she receives a phone call from a gentleman at a party who is interested in dating her. Each of these yielded the same emotional response in me, a perfect blend of comedy and genuine emotional dramatic investment.

In Pierce's case, as his rant continued and it became clear that he was not only angry but also very frightened and vulnerable, I began to find it extremely sad. For Nielsen, her character was so lonely and sad throughout the whole play that I found myself tearing up as she realized that, yes, this person on the other end of the line was interested in her, and she might just have a chance for a decently happy ending after all. (Her monologue also gave me my favorite line in the play - it went something like this: "I hope you're not an alcoholic. Ah, you only drink socially? Well, that's a gentleman's failing. I'm a crack addict." Followed by the most perfect "Why did I make such a stupid joke, he's going to think I'm insane" facial expression in the world.)

Although the character progression was a little sudden, the little moments and many great jokes and performances made this play well worth the watch.


A friend asked me which of the four shows I saw that week was my favorite, and I think I'd have to go with this one. I can still feel this one on almost a visceral level. I can still hear the dark, sad music and see the grungy hospital-green set and I still get the same sense of terrible, terrible loss and tragedy and madness that I did watching it.

It's virtually a one-man show, with only a handful of lines being spoken by any other actors. Alan Cumming begins the show as a man being locked up in some sort of mental institution, who then begins cycling through the play, playing each of the characters himself. Occasionally a doctor will watch him from an observation window or rush in to prevent him from harming himself, but 95% of the time, it's just him, alone on stage, playing every single part.

There are many little tricks used to make this work. A baby doll plays the puppeted role of Duncan's son Malcolm, a series of surveillance cameras projected onto monitors above the set help coordinate the three witches, and an apple is used to signify when Banquo is talking (after ordering Banquo's death, Cumming as Macbeth quietly pulls the apple out of his pocket, takes a bite, and tosses it to the side). There's also a wonderfully creepy moment where Banquo's ghost is visible in the surveillance monitors but not on stage.

Alan Cumming is, frankly, completely brilliant in this. He jumps back and forth between characters effortlessly and smoothly and makes me want to know more about each one. I think his most incredible moments, however, are his silent portrayals of this mysterious Macbeth narrator in the mental institution. Every so often the Shakespearean narrative would break and we'd see a glimpse into this character and what was going on with him. Some of the reviews I read saw this character as essentially Macbeth himself, while I preferred to think of him as a modern-day human with his own back story that was similar but not identical to Macbeth's - and I loved those moments when I felt like the play showed us a little bit of who this person was.

While the one-man tricks and stunts were impressive, I was the most moved by the framing and his portrayal of the story within that framing. That is what stayed with me long after the curtain closed, and what made me want to instantly jump up for a standing ovation when Cumming came out to take his bow.

So. Those are the shows I saw this past week. As you can see, it was a pretty good week... although now I'm going into theater withdrawal, so, ya know, that's not so good. :-)

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