Hello to all out there who may be reading this - friends, relatives, well-wishers, not-so-well-wishers, and people who may have just stumbled upon this website. Welcome! With the Tony eligibility cut-off just past, and the announcement of the nominations still a few days away, this seemed like an ideal time to discuss a few of my favorite theatrical goodies of this past season. I usually don't talk at length about things I've seen on public forums (I have no stomach for hatchet jobs), but I thought it would be fitting to take a moment and recognize the shows and artists that really resonated with me over the past year.
Now to be fair, I've seen a lot of shows this season, but I haven't seen EVERYTHING, so this shouldn't be read as a comprehensive survey. For example, I've heard only wonderful things about Falsettos, Oslo, and Hello, Dolly!, but considering I haven't seen them I didn't feel like it would be fair to include them here simply based on hearsay (sadly, Falsettos closed before I got the chance to see it, but I still hope to catch Oslo and Dolly at some point). These are "My Favorites", not necessarily "The Best". So here they are - My Favorites!
If you walked into the Golden Theatre on 45th Street at any point last fall, you'd probably notice something very unusual: A pair of headphones resting on the back of every seat in the house. No, the producers didn't think that every single person going to a Broadway play required an assisted listening device. This was an indication that the audience was in for an entirely new kind of theatrical experience. The Encounter - the brainchild of writer/actor/director Simon McBurney - recounts the real-life story of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre and his encounter with an un-contacted native tribe after becoming stranded in the jungles of Brazil in 1969. So why the headphones, then? McBurney tells the story as much aurally as he does visually, using looping pedals, voice modulation, and a number of other fascinating auditory magic tricks to get inside the audience's head (literally). It's hard to describe in words, but it was one of the most unexpected and viscerally thrilling nights of theater I've ever had. I heard one person refer to this production as "a stealth campaign to bring back the Tony Award for Best Sound Design." If that was the intent, well then bravo - it worked!
"At this evening's performance, the roles of Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland will, unfortunately, be played by Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland."
The pre-show announcement alone gives you some idea of what you're in for with Oh, Hello. It is somewhat of an anomaly: A show written by and starring young people, playing old people, for an audience of mostly young people, in a genre that caters mostly to old people. And it doesn't exactly boast much in the way of plot, but you didn’t come for the plot, you came to laugh, right? And between the spot-on performances by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney and nimble direction by Alex Timbers, there are nearly as many laughs to be had as grapefruit-sized dollops of tuna fish. Which is, to say, a lot. At its funniest, Oh, Hello recalls the manic vaudevillian energy of a bygone era as we watch two world-class comedians cut loose with wild abandon. It happens to be two of my most favorite things that I believe we could use more of on Broadway: Very, very funny, and very, very weird.
The designers of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812
The very first production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 - Composer/Lyricist Dave Malloy's wildly ambitious adaption of a chunk of Tolstoy's War and Peace - was staged in NYC at Ars Nova, an intimate space that seats just shy of 100 people. The entire space was utilized for performance, with actors singing and dancing on tables, playing instruments, and even feeding pierogis to audience members while doing shots of vodka. So how exactly could an immersive production like this translate to Broadway? The Imperial Theatre, a traditional proscenium house, has been completely transformed into an operatic Russian wonderland, in a feat that I'm sure drove the fire marshall crazy but is absolutely thrilling to be part of as an audience member. Beyond just the visuals, everyone involved with the design elements of this show - Mimi Lien (Scenic Design), Paloma Young (Costumes), Bradley King (Lighting), Nicholas Pope (Sound Design), Leah J. Loukas (Hair & Wigs), Amy Jean Wright (Makeup) - along with Director Rachel Chavkin, Choreographer Sam Pinkleton, Music Director Or Matias, and Malloy as Orchestrator, deserves a special shout-out for creating a theatrical experience that I can only think to describe as "An Opera went to a Rave and took a hit of acid." It's not to be missed.
Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen
Prior to Dear Evan Hansen, actor Ben Platt was best known to most people for his role as Benji in the "Pitch Perfect" films, and theater aficionados knew him as a replacement Elder Cunningham in Broadway's The Book of Mormon. Both charming and entertaining roles that require a great actor, to be sure, but not roles that exactly call for serious dramatic heft. Taking on the role of Evan Hansen, a socially awkward high schooler who finds himself thrust into the spotlight after a tragedy involving a classmate, Platt turns in a dazzlingly virtuosic performance that's become one of the most talked about highlights of this season. It's an extremely demanding role vocally/physically/emotionally, and in the hands of a less capable performer Evan could come off as simply annoying or even borderline unbearable. Like all great characters in drama, Evan is messy and complicated and problematic and makes a lot of bad decisions, but Platt forces us to reckon with the character's raw humanity even when we can't approve of of his actions. For an actor still in his early 20's, it's a stunning feat.
When Jitney opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on January 19th, 2017, it became it the final piece from playwright August Wilson's Century Cycle to open on Broadway. Considering the cycle also contains such preeminent works as Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, it might be hard to argue that old adage "they saved the best for the last", but Jitney certainly proves itself to be at least equally worthy of recognition. Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1970's, the play examines a community of African-American men working at a jitney (a type of unlicensed cab) station and how they're adapting to increasingly uncertain times and an uncertain future. Every member of the ensemble is perfectly cast, most notably John Douglas Thompson, who gives a spectacular performance as the aging owner of the jitney station, Becker. August Wilson is one of those playwrights who left us far too soon, and while we can theorize about what else he might have given us if he had lived longer, we should be thankful that he was able to give us what he did.
If I Forget (Off-Broadway)
I've shared the sentiment before that if the curtain comes up on the living room of a middle class home, I'm immediately bored. Well this season I was forced was to eat my words after seeing If I Forget, a new play by Steven Levenson (whose other contribution this season was the exquisitely crafted book for the musical Dear Evan Hansen). The play deals with three Jewish siblings (of varying levels of devoutness) and their elderly father, who is falling into increasingly poor health, and touches on issues of faith, politics, and family loyalty. Set between late 2000 and early 2001, If I Forget provides a stinging reminder of how history can repeat itself (hearing a character admit that they voted for Ralph Nader because they "didn't think Al Gore would lose" is particularly jarring in 2017), and marks Levenson as one of the most exciting new playwrights to watch.
Come From Away
If you were to come up with a list of subjects which might make for an upbeat and inspiring Broadway musical, "September 11th" probably wouldn't make the cut. But Come From Away, penned by Canadian writing team (and real-life spouses) Irene Sankoff & David Hein, is much more than simply a feel-good show: It's a show that makes you feel good for the right reasons. Inspired by the true story of the town of Gander, Newfoundland, which was forced to accommodate several thousand wayward passengers after multiple flights were diverted away from US airspace during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the events portrayed in the show would seem entirely unrealistic if they were fictional. Could such unselfish goodness really exist during such a dark and uncertain time? The musical takes an unflinching look at how an unlikely group of people stranded at the edge of the world learned to move forward in the aftermath of a tragedy, giving us what one of my old college professors used to call "The OW and the WOW". With a score that takes cues from the folk music of Newfoundland, a superbly crafted book, and an absolutely stellar ensemble cast, Come From Away is, in my humble opinion, the most thrilling piece of musical theatre since Hamilton. Get thee to the Schoenfeld Theatre!
Sunday In The Park With George
I don't really believe that there is, or will ever be, such thing as a "perfect musical", but Sunday In The Park With George is damn close. And what better way to relight the historic Hudson Theatre, Broadway's newest (though technically oldest!) house, than with this timeless show, a transfer of the Encores! production that played at New York City Center in 2016. Not only was this Sunday a superb rendering of one of Sondheim's greatest scores, it also firmly established Jake Gyllenhaal as a legitimate Broadway leading man. Often times, when a famous film actor not known for singing gets a major role in a Broadway musical, we cross our fingers and just hope they're at least competent. Far beyond competent, Gyllenhaal was brilliant. Here's hoping we see him in more musicals!
Also, a special shout-out to all of the staff working at the Hudson Theatre, who were some of the most welcoming and professional and just lovely people I've ever had the pleasure of being around in a Broadway house. I was lucky enough to be invited up to the Ambassadors patrons lounge before I saw the show, and everything and everyone was absolutely delightful. Of course, it may have been the bourbon talking, but that's okay too.
The View Upstairs (Off-Broadway)
Okay, so I may be a little bit biased here, because the creator of The View Upstairs - composer/lyricist/bookwriter/celestial-rock-star Max Vernon - is a fellow alum of my graduate program at NYU. But I maintain that the people coming out of that program are producing some damn good work, and The View Upstairs is damn good work. Inspired by the events surrounding the 1973 UpStairs Lounge arson attack, which killed 28 people and was for many years the deadliest LGBT massacre in US history, it's so many of my favorite things that a musical can be: Joyous, heartbreaking, uplifting, introspective, smart, political, painful, funky as hell, all of these things and more. With a score that takes cues from 1970s glam rock and one of the best of ensemble casts I've seen in quite a while (someone please place Nathan Lee Graham in the Smithsonian because the man is a national treasure), The View Upstairs is "entertaining" in the best sense of the word: It grabs you and it doesn't let go. Anyone worried about the future of the art form (although why would you be after this killer season?) should rest easy: We're in good hands.
It's almost hard to believe that a luminary playwright like Paula Vogel is only now making her Broadway debut, so it should come as no surprise that, given Vogel's extensive theatrical experience and remarkable body of work, it's one hell of a debut. Indecent tells the story of Polish-Jewish writer and playwright Sholem Asch and his 1907 drama God Of Vengeance, which caused a scandal when it arrived in New York in 1923 as it featured (among other salacious things) the first lesbian kiss on a Broadway stage. Spanning half a century and touching on themes of censorship, artistic freedom, anti-Semitism, and queer identity, Indecent is a grippingly powerful play that feels especially timely given the current political climate. And the stunning epilogue is perhaps the biggest emotional gut-punch of the year.
The onstage musicians in Bandstand
One of my only regrets as a musical theatre person in NYC is that I didn't grow up with the piano as my primary instrument, as many of my peers did, so I don't have the serious MD chops that quite a few others in my position do. I was a band kid and choir kid through high school and college, so then how thrilling it was for me to see all of the dazzling musicianship onstage in Bandstand, the big, brassy, hugely ambitious show written by Richard Oberacker & Robert Taylor and directed/choreographed by Hamilton's Andy Blankenbuehler. The show follows piano prodigy Donny Nivitski (Corey Cott), who has just returned home from World War II and is struggling not only to find work as a musician, but also to cope with the horrors he experienced in war. He wrangles together a band comprised of other veterans (L to R in the above photograph: Joe Carroll on drums, James Nathan Hopkins on saxophone, Alex Bender on trumpet, Geoff Packard on trombone, Cott on piano, and Brandon J Ellis on bass) who are also struggling with their own personal demons in the aftermath of the war. And when I say "these guys really play!", I mean quite literally that these guys REALLY PLAY. No mimicry happening here, all of the actors really are playing these instruments live on stage every night, and between that and Blankenbuehler's virtuosic choreography, the whole production is just spectacular. I won't give away all the details of the plot (there isn't nearly enough room), but it's a gripping story about working through trauma with art and how music cultivates a community for those most desperately in need of it.
James K. Ballard
A sometimes insightful, hopefully entertaining look into my career and everyday life.