The Five: The Hamilton-Free Tony Wrap Up

Anthony R. Miller checks in with everything else that happened at the Tony Awards.

Hey you guys, so while watching the Tony Awards last Sunday, there were moments where I felt kinda bad for everyone in a musical that wasn’t Hamilton. I mean, yay for Hamilton, but there’s no need to expound on its brilliance any further (many have done it for me). The fact is, there was some really interesting stuff that I think got a bit overshadowed by History’s Greatest Musical. I mean seriously, when THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES introduces the show you’re competing against, you lost. So today, let’s chat about some of the overlooked gems at this year’s Tony Awards, and yeah, there are five.

James Corden Is A Big Sack Of Sugar
From the pitch-perfect tribute to the lives lost in Orlando, to his self-deprecating humor, to his just lovable demeanor, I loved Corden as host, and my daughter was very excited the Baker from Into the Woods was hosting. It was then I decided this was not the time to discuss the finer points of Chip Zien, but I really wanted to, cause like seriously, Chip Zien, people.

That Waitress Musical Tho
When a famous person writes a musical, the results can be mixed. (I’m looking at you, Bright Star.) Sometimes, the songs are fine, but the storytelling isn’t strong, sometimes the songs aren’t good. So imagine my surprise when the cast of Waitress came on and it was…pretty great actually. Sara Bareilles should be given all the credit in the world. And while I’m here, I was also totally blown away by the revival of Spring Awakening, and School of Rock was really flippin’ charming. It’s a shame that they were practically afterthoughts.

Oh Wow, Chicago Has Been Running A Long Time
Bebe Neuwirth and the cast of Chicago came out to remind us that the current revival has been going for 20 years and is now the longest-running American musical (note the qualifier) on Broadway. Which is cool until you realize you were 18 when that show opened…

Apparently Only Actors Get To Make Speeches
Am I the only one that gets bummed out when the speeches by designers and choreographers are shown in clip form as opposed to all the “Best Actor” speeches? Am I the only one that would love to hear what the lighting designer has to say?

The Fact That Long Day’s Journey Into Night Still Gets Revived Gives Me Hope For the World
I will fight anybody that doesn’t put this play in their top 3, cause it’s brilliant. My hackles go up when someone says “Four hours?! Who would sit through that?” I’ll tell you who, anybody with a soul. In this day and age it’s hard to feel empathy for white people who own a summer home and drink too much. But Eugene O’Neill makes it happen. So the very idea that somewhere a couple of Broadway producers got together and said “You know what would make a truckful of money? A revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night!” Although I’m sure there was at least one smart-ass intern who sneered and said “Ugh, this totally could have been 90 minutes, no intermission. Like, we get it, the Tyrone family is sad. You know what show doesn’t feel long at all? Hamilton, you’ve seen it, right?”

And that’s when I shot my intern, your honor.

Anthony R. Miller is a writer and producer. Keep up with his projects at www.awesometheatre.org and his smart-ass comments on Twitter @armiller78

The Five: Tony Award Snarkdown

Anthony R. Miller checks in (on a different day) with smart ass comments about this year’s Tony Award nominations.

Hey you guys, looks like I didn’t get nominated for a Tony again, although my long-term plan for a regional Tony is still rock solid. In case you didn’t hear (due to the lack of Wi-Fi in the cave you live in) the nominations for the Tony Awards came out on Tuesday. If you haven’t seen ‘em yet, go to www.tonyawards.com and get with it. It’s cool, I’ll wait…

All caught up? Great, now we can dive in to a few of my own observations. And wouldn’t you know it, there are five.

So Apparently Hamilton is Pretty Good

With a record 16 nominations, Lin-Manuel Miranda and the cast of Hamilton might as well just sit onstage all night. I mean, that’s why we’re all watching right? It’s been about 20 years since a Broadway musical has been such a cultural phenomenon, which is depressing. But I guess we’ll take what we can get. Sure, it might not be fun to be one of the other nominated musicals who will probably not have as triumphant a night, but the fact that a whole crapload of people who would have never watched the Tony Awards are gonna watch is something to celebrate.

I Can’t Hear You

It’s hard for me to be witty when I’m genuinely mad about something. But the fact that there is no longer an award for Sound Design is total garbage. You would think they would bring it back this year just for the sake of giving Hamilton another award. Seriously though, sound designers are artists, and in many cases, friggin’ miracle workers. The art of sound design evolved beyond sound effects and intermission music a long time ago. Maybe I’m spoiled because the Bay Area boasts some brilliant sound designers. So hug a sound designer today, they make your show sound good.

Every Day I’m Shufflin’

Let’s give credit to Shuffle Along. In a Best New Musical category populated by musicals about historical events (Hamilton and Bright Star) and musicals based on movies (Waitress and School of Rock),  Shuffle Along is a musical based on a musical. So there’s that.

Good for You, Arthur Miller

The Best Revival of a Play I Had To Read In College Category features Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Noises Off, Blackbird, and two, count ’em, two Arthur Miller plays (The Crucible and A View from the Bridge). So keep your eye out for that up-and-comer Arthur Miller, he’s going places.

We Love It When Our Casual Acquaintances Become Successful

So if local hero Daveed Diggs wins for Best Performance By An Actor In A Featured Role In A Musical, I will boast not one, BUT TWO Tony award winners on my Facebook friends list. In 1998, I was an ASM for a production of Children of Eden at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. This particular production featured a young fella named James Monroe Inglehart, we became dear, dear friends, OK, not really. But a few years later I served him shitty Chinese food and he totally recognized me. Then he went on to be the Genie in the Broadway production of Aladdin and took home the Tony. Now we have an actor whom I saw once in a production of Six Degrees of Separation, everybody in the Bay Area has been in a play with, someone whom I exchanged 3-4 actual emails with a few years ago about producing a one-man show that never happened. Daveed Diggs is a swell dude (based on our in-depth email correspondence) and it’s always great to see local actors go on to success right after they leave the Bay Area. So here’s to hoping the list of successful people I kinda know just gets bigger. Unless of course they’re a goddamned sound designer.

Don’t forget to watch on June 12th!!!

Anthony R. Miller is Writer, Producer and Theatre Nerd, keep with him at www.awesometheatre.org and on twitter @armiller78

Everything Is Already Something: A Meeting of Producers Who Really Want to Capitalize on the Popularity of ‘Hamilton’

Allison Page, feeding you some low-hanging fruit- just like these producers!

MAN 1: Okay, how about something with one of those other politics guys?

MAN 2: Yeah, yeah, yeah I like that.

MAN 3: The guy with the tub! The tub guy!

WOMAN: Taft? What’s the twist? We need a twist.

MAN 3: We cast someone really buff, but not overly muscular, so he’s also kind of svelte. Or a model.

MAN 1: GET ASHTON KUTCHER ON THE PHONE.

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MAN 3: A splashy musical spectacular in the traditional sense — chorus girls and everything — about HARRIET TUBMAN! Except the woman who plays her, and stay with me here, is a white male! Think of the PRESS!

MAN 1: Mmm, sounds too expensive. Can we do it without the chorus girls?

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MAN 2: Okay but what if —guys, this is gonna be great— what if we do a thing about William Henry Harrison?

MAN 3: Who?

WOMAN: The one who died 23 days into his presidency.

MAN 2: YES! The built-in drama! But instead of getting an old guy to do it-

MAN 1: Ewwwwww

MAN 2: Exactly! So instead we get a teen pop star. Is Justin Bieber still relevant?

WOMAN: Oooo, or how old is Rachel’s baby from Friends?

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WOMAN: So scratch the musical idea, because I’m thinking a historical epic like Les Mis without the singing, but there’s no set so it’ll be really cheap. The set is all in the audience’s imaginations. It’s an arty thing.

MAN 2: Who’s it about?

WOMAN: JOE BIDEN! A rags to riches story!

MAN 1: Does he actually have a rags to riches story?

WOMAN: Don’t know. Doesn’t matter! That is the power of art, my friends.

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MAN 1: GEORGE WASHINGTON!

MAN 2: But George Washington is already in ‘Hamilton’.

MAN 3: Oh shit – A SEQUEL.

WOMAN: ‘Hamilton 2: George’s Side’

MAN 1: ‘Hamilton II: A Second Serving of Ham’

MAN 2: ‘George VS Alex: There Can Be Only One’

MAN 3: ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

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WOMAN: You know what else is really popular on Broadway? ‘Phantom of the Opera’

MAN 1: Oh yeah, can we put them together?

MAN 2: Alexander Hamilton falls into a vat of ooze and when he emerges he’s all scarred up.

WOMAN: I think that’s Two Faces’ origin story.

MAN 3: Okay, when Hamilton was shot he didn’t actually die, he faked his own death! And now he walks the earth, immortal, with a mask on part of his face. And sometimes he sings opera, or maybe just R&B, I don’t think people listen to opera. And there are probably some hot chicks. Does Alessandra Ambrosia act? Doesn’t matter, we can teach her.

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MAN 2: Wait, we’re totally missing something. PEOPLE LOVE COMEDY. Take one of the lesser characters from ‘Hamilton’ like, ah…I don’t know, Hercules Mulligan, and show his story, but he’s played by America’s sweetheart: Adam Sandler. We’ll make so much money and then they’ll make a movie out of it and we’ll make so much more money and it doesn’t even have to be good. I mean that’s the nice thing about this idea is it definitely, absolutely, in no way has to be good at all even a little bit. And Hercules Mulligan is a really silly name like Happy Gilmore so it completely makes sense.

WOMAN: Just googled it. Someone’s already doing it.

MAN 2: UGHHHHH ALL THE GOOD ONES ARE TAKEN.

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WOMAN: Kerry Washington.

MAN 1: What about her?

WOMAN: Kerry Washington plays Washington in ‘Washington’.

MAN 2: More Washington?! We’ve already covered this.

WOMAN: Washington on Washington.

MAN 3: I like it.

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MAN 1: The story of Obama as told by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

MAN 2: That’s actually a really good idea.

WOMAN: Does that mean we can bring back Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Can’t we just stage that? God, I love that movie. What ever happened to Mekhi Phifer?

MAN 3: You’re right, let’s just do that instead. Can we convince the writer it somehow slipped into the public domain?

WOMAN: Probably. Writers are idiots.

EVERYONE: hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha I KNOW, RIGHT?

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MAN 1: What if we make one of the characters from Glengarry Glen Ross a congressman and add a little soft shoe in the middle?

MAN 3: I like everything about that except the congressman and the soft shoe.

MAN 2: Great, another round of GGR it is!

WOMAN: What if there’s a woman in it?

MEN: NO.

WOMAN: I was just kidding. Hahahaha…ha…ha.

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MAN 1: OH! Why don’t we just produce another run of ‘1776’?

EVERYONE: Oooooh yeah. Okay. Forgot about that. Let’s do it. Haha we’re so silly.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/artistic director of sketch comedy company Killing My Lobster in San Francisco.

Cowan Palace: Everywhere You Look And Why I Can’t Watch Fuller House

Shoo-bit-a-ba-ba-bow, Ashley’s pretty sure the Full House theme song was written just for her.

It’s no secret I’m a Full House fan.

I mean, one of my Cowan Palace blogs used Full House catchphrases to talk about Theatre Bay Area reference the Tanner family constantly, and my husband and fellow blogger, Will Leschber, and I even themed our pregnancy announcement around the show.

Do I think it’s the best show in the history of television? No, of course not. It’s cheesier than the pizza of Kevin McCallister’s dreams. The canned laugher, the studio applause, the less than desirable acting choices, the questionable writing, the production quality? Yeah, yeah, I know all about it, have mercy. I still love Full House.

For me, it’s not about the crappy stuff mentioned above. As crazy as it sounds, this silly sitcom somehow managed to turn itself into a guidepost for me and a soundtrack to my dreams of being an actor.

When Full House started, I watched every episode longing to be on the show. As an actor. I would copy the reactions the characters would display, I would try to make myself cry during all the sappy scenes with sad music, and I would practice whatever I saw in an attempt to prove that I was just as good as those Tanner gals! By the time the show went into syndication, I had acted my way through the series.

After I studied theatre in college, I moved to Brooklyn with three of my closest friends from our program. Because with four years of dominating our small black box stage in Rhode Island we were clearly ready for Broadway! While we grew hungry beginning our new roles as starving artists, we each took side jobs with random hours. As fate would have it, for about a year, we often worked in the afternoons and evenings leaving us with this sweet time spot to devote to Full House reruns. The show would play for an hour at noon every day and in between trying to memorize lines to audition sides or stapling my headshot and resume to send out to another place I’d never hear back from, the Tanner family’s lives would neatly unfold for us in a beautiful, comforting loop. It was always there in the background as we chased our theatrical dreams.

The dream and its pursuit eventually sent me to California. And behold, the chance to actually live in THE San Francisco seemed perfect. Though I had never been to the city, I had probably seen each episode of Full House like 5-10 times by that point so what else was there to know? When Comet goes missing, you check Fisherman’s Wharf. When Uncle Jesse’s graduating high school, take the underground transportation system.

Also, I’d be lying if I said my inner child wasn’t completely ecstatic to live in this place I had only seen through TV.

And so San Francisco became my home. It’s been my place or residence for over eight years now. I’ve seen it change as I changed, sometimes molding into each other, sometimes moving away from each other. I continued watching old reruns of Full House as a comfort blanket during cold, foggy times and I kept hold of the dream that had brought me here in the first place.

Fuller House Pic

When Fuller House came out, everyone knew I’d be all over it. Especially considering, this time, I live in the same city as the Tanners! We’re neighbors! I got texts from friends asking me what kind of themed snack I planned to have ready when it finally premiered. But when it launched, I found myself unable to watch it.

I know the reviews are scathing. I know it can’t possibly hold up all the expectations fans have for it. I know it’s going to be even cheesier than before and now that we’re older that cheese will probably feel stale and moldy and unappetizing.

And I hear the theme song playing over in my brain, “What ever happened to predictability? The milk man, the paper boy, the evening TV? How did I get delivered here? Somebody tell me please. This old world’s confusing me.” It makes me nostalgic and emotional! I let the pre-chorus continue, “Clouds as mean as you’ve ever seen, ain’t a bird who knows your tune, then a little voice inside you whispers, “Kid, don’t sell your dreams so soon!””

I think about my dreams. The ones since childhood and the ones that continue to mature and develop. I think about how I got here and why I love San Francisco but how lately what was once unwavering commitment to stay here and live out my dream has started to waver. I think about how many feelings I have and get overwhelmed.

Thinking about Full House and Fuller House suddenly brings out all these questions and emotions in me during a time in my life when I’m already feeling questionable and emotional. I’m not sure I’m ready to see how the Tanner gals grew up and what happened to their dreams because I’m having a hard time processing that I’m grown up now too. For me, watching DJ get through first kisses has a different weight now than watching her manage the difficulties of raising kids in the city. I’m still trying to navigate my own dreams.

DJ Pic

Obviously, I’m gonna watch it. If I could, I’d watch it with my family back in our Connecticut living room, in my 70’s wallpapered Brooklyn apartment with my college friends and my headshots all over the floor, and here in San Francisco with Will and my daughter, Scarlett all at once.

But I still need a little more time to work my way up to it. Which is so ridiculous, I know.

Until then, I let the theme song finish playing in my mind, “Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a heart (there’s a heart), a hand to hold onto, Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a face of somebody who needs you, everywhere you look. When you’re lost out there and you’re all alone, a light is waiting to carry you home. Everywhere you look, Everywhere you look. Shoo-bit-a-ba-ba-bow”.

And just like that, I’m comforted again.

Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

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Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: When Is a Play Not a Play?

In which Dave Sikula wonders what the hell is up with David Mamet?

In our last meeting, I discussed the shows I had seen on my recent trip to New York – save one, David Mamet’s China Doll.

Little did I calculate then how timely this chapter would be now, since the show has officially opened and the reviews are pretty much what I expected; in short, “What the hell were they thinking?”

There’s an old story (it might be apocryphal, since a quick Google search turned up nothing) that, sometime in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart did one of the their collaborations, but reviews were not felicitous and one read “Kaufman and Hart didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but wrote one anyway.”
My reaction to China Doll was that David Mamet didn’t have an idea for a play, so he didn’t bother to write one.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

Pam MacKinnon on her way out of town.

One could say that Mr. Mamet is controversial. When he burst in on the scene in the ‘70s, he was exhilarating. Between the swearing and the poetry of his language, he was really like no one we’d ever seen before. From 1973 to 1985, there really wasn’t anyone quite as interesting (Sam Shepard was too sloppy and the really big names like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams had shot their wads.)

In 1985, Glengarry Glen Ross came along, won the Pulitzer – and it was over. His next three plays, Boston Marriage, Bobby Gould in Hell, and Oleanna, were obscure at best, and it’s been downhill from there. (Though I suppose November and Race may have their defenders … )

Mr. Mamet’s books on acting are not without interest, but one of the stupider things he’s said (and I admit that takes in a lot of territory) is that there are no characters in a script. There are words on a page; if the actor just says those words, he’ll guarantee the results. And while, strictly speaking, he’s right, there’s more alchemy involved than that.

In The New York Times recently, there was a feature on how designer Vinny Sainato created the production’s poster. It was an interesting precis in the creative process and how a piece of art like that needs to evolve based on given circumstances. It’s a shame Mr. Mamet didn’t do the same with his own drafts.

Mamet may be the only American playwright who nowadays who can get a straight play produced on Broadway right out of the box – no regional productions, no workshopping, no previous incarnations. (Mr. Shepard might be another, but he seems not to have pursued that avenue – and seems to have, more or less, abandoned writing plays.)

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

Go on; criticize me. I dare you.

I’ll admit that, in spite of my antipathy to Mr. Mamet’s recent work, I was excited by the prospect of seeing the show – and of seeing Al Pacino in what promised to be a meaty role.

We bought our tickets well in advance – and then the early reports started drifting in: The play was incoherent. Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. Mr. Mamet had skipped town. Audience members were leaving in droves at intermission.

We regretted buying the tickets, but what could we do?

When we arrived at the theatre, one of the first things I saw was director Pam MacKinnon. That she was directing at all was a surprise to me. Mr. Mamet is, if nothing else, a wee bit phallocentric, so the idea of a woman directing one of his shows – and a new script at that – was interesting. As I saw her, though, the look on her face said it all: it was a combination of confusion, frustration, and resignation.

I honestly didn’t know what her job with the production was. The prevailing rumor – which persists even now that the show has opened – was that Mr. Pacino was having line trouble. It’s understandable. He’s 75, and I’d say that 85% of the script is him having cryptic telephone conversations – of which we hear only one side. He talks and talks and talks and talks and talks – all sound and fury signifying nothing. In my experience, anyway, there’s little one can do with an actor who is still struggling to get off-book (like I’m one to talk) in terms of characterization (and if Mr. Mamet is to be believed, he hasn’t written a character, anyway), and as far as staging goes, the blocking seemed to consist of Mr. Pacino walking or sitting anywhere he pleased at any time he wanted. He has enough training that the movement was appropriate, but an audience can watch an actor yammering away on a Bluetooth for only so long.

That Bluetooth is one of the more notorious things about the production. Because of it, the rumor mill was sure that he was being fed his lines through the earpiece. Given the choppy nature of the text and his delivery, though, who the hell knows? (As well as the earpiece, there are two Macs set prominently on the stage, the screens of which are both facing upstage, no doubt so that the scrolling script can’t be seen by the audience.)

But, after all this, what’s the play about? I have no idea. As I said, Mr. Pacino spends the vast majority of the evening (to quote Ben Brantley’s review in The Times) “talking to, variously, [his] lovely young fiancée; a Swedish plane manufacturer; a lawyer, and someone he calls Ruby, a former crony who is close to the Governor of the state, whose father (a former Governor) was [his character’s] mentor.” It has something to do with a plane he bought and will or will not pay taxes on, officials he may or may not have bribed, and arrests that may or may not be made. That’s it. There’s an old (again probably apocryphal) quip about the plot of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Nothing happens. Twice.” China Doll’s plot is that nothing happens. At all.
Mr. Brantley’s review begins – begins, mind you – like this:

No matter what his salary is, it seems safe to say that Christopher Denham is the most underpaid actor on Broadway. Mr. Denham – a young man with, I sincerely hope, a very resilient nervous system – is one of a cast of two in China Doll, the saggy new play by David Mamet that was finally opened to critics on Wednesday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, and he is onstage for almost the entire show.

So is – pause for ominous silence – Al Pacino. Now please cue sound effects of chalk scratching on countless blackboards and the ping, ping, ping of an endlessly dripping faucet, and you have some idea of what Mr. Denham must be going through night after night after night.

My wife’s takeaway was that it was almost as though Mr. Mamet were giving one of his famous “fuck yous” to the idea of conventional dramaturgy and deliberately set out to write a script that violated every “rule.” Nothing happens. Most of the play is a man spouting one-sided exposition that never really amounts to anything. There is no character development (though if there are no characters, how can they develop?). There is no real acting to speak of. It all amounts to Mr. Pacino putting himself on display as though he were in a zoo, speaking meaningless lines slowly and haltingly in a desperate attempt to make them mean something.

As we were leaving the theatre, I saw Ms MacKinnon again, a notepad in her hand. I wanted to go up to her and say, “I know what you’re feeling. We’ve all been there.” But no matter how challenged any of us have been with our own productions, I can only imagine the pressures of dealing with a Pulitzer Prize-winner writer and an Oscar-winning actor in a multimillion-dollar production of a play that’s not working. Whatever she was paid wasn’t enough.

The director in happier days.

The director in happier days.

I’ve seen theatrical disasters before (remind me to tell you about the legendary first preview of Bring Back Birdie), but this wasn’t even a trainwreck; it was more in the “Well, there’s two hours of my life I won’t get back” category.

Derek McLane’s set is nice, though.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: What’s Playing at the Roxy?*

Dave Sikula, in which the author begins to dissect his recent trip to New York.

As I start writing this, I’m sitting in my hotel room in New York, fully aware of three things:

1) I really should be in bed, since I have to pack up tomorrow morning.
2) I am going to have one hell of a time packing everything.
3) I really should be working on the work assignment I have that I hope to deal with on the plane tomorrow.

While I’m fully aware that I have what has been described as a negative approach to things, I prefer to think of it as both contrarian and snobbish (see here for my previous post on that issue). Yet, despite that rep (which could be easily proven incorrect by doing one of those stupid “here are the words I use most on Facebook” word clouds – something that just reeks to me of intrusive marketing), I found myself having a great time at eight of the ten shows (or ten of twelve, if one counts seeing Colbert and a cabaret show), and even the two misfires weren’t that bad – well, China Doll was, but that’s something to be dealt with later.

While I’m going to deal with this trip on a broader level later in the year (something I know you’ll all be waiting for … ), I wanted to do a post-mortem on what I saw.
When I plan a trip to New York, I’m lucky enough that I can usually schedule it for a long enough period that I can see pretty much everything I want to. In this case, that meant arriving on a Tuesday and leaving on the Thursday of the next week, giving me the opportunity to take advantage of three matinee/two-for-one days.

The festivities began with Stephan Karam’s The Humans. I’d seen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet a few years ago, so I was interested in seeing this follow-up. It’s a very good production of a very interesting script; that is as much about the Thanksgiving dinner that is its center as the previous play was about being Lebanese-American. The family dynamics are incisive and sharply observed, and it’ll probably get produced all over the country once designers work out how to re-invent its two-story set.

Because set designers need challenges, don't they?

Because set designers need challenges, don’t they?

Wednesday matinee: Robert Askins’s Hand to God. Another one that deserves a long shelf-life, but good luck to the actors who’ll be cast in the central role that combines puppetry with playing off one’s self with possible demonic possession and a bunch of swearing and simulated sex. Of particular interest was Bob Saget, new to the cast as a straight-laced pastor, but really quite good, but who paled – as most actors would – in comparison to Stephen Boyer’s work as the lead.

The next show was David Mamet’s China Doll, which I was starting to write about, but quickly realized that it’s going to take a whole post in itself to deal with – and that’s for next time. Suffice it to say that, when we heard about this one, we jumped at the chance to go. Granted, Mamet hasn’t written a good play since the ‘80s and Pacino isn’t what he once was, but still, the possibilities were there – especially since the notoriously phallocentric Mamet was actually allowing a woman – Pam MacKinnon – to direct. It’s a perfect example, though, of how Broadway in the 21st century isn’t what it was even 20 years ago.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

This is not a still photo. This is a live feed of the action.

Friday: Hamilton. We planned the trip around when we could get tickets. Now, unlike many folks, I wanted to go in cold. I had heard a little of the score (it’s next to impossible to avoid), and knew the basics of the conceit and approach. Now, while I kinda wish I’d exposed myself to the cast album (please note: not a soundtrack … ), I was floored. It was that rare occasion where, going in, my expectations were high, and the product not only met them, they left them in the dust. It’s an utterly phenomenal show and I can’t say enough good things about it. Everything you’ve heard? All true.

I was a little iffy about the next three shows; two because of my growing Anglothropism (that is to say, not buying into the idea that, just because a show has a London pedigree, it’s going to be good), and the third because it’s a dumb musical comedy. All three were brilliant though, starting with Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Ivo Van Hove (whose production of Hedda Gabler – a play I really dislike – was staggeringly good). This is an amazing production, played as the Greek tragedy Miller alluded to, muscular, tough, and no-holds-barred. The production offers on-stage seating, and I was no more than a couple of feet from the actors, so it was even more intense.

Yeah. It's that kind of a show

Yeah. It’s that kind of a show

The second of the three was by John O’Farrell, Karey Kirkpatrick, and Wayne Kirkpatrick’s musical Something Rotten!, which is that rarest of creatures – an original musical that opened directly on Broadway. I was leery, but had been told (by my wife, no less) that it was hysterically funny – and it is. It’s everything “a Broadway musical comedy” should be: smart, funny, and lively; full of allusions to other musicals and cast with actors who really know how to land the material.

The last of this troika was Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, a “future history” play set during the early days of the reign of the next British monarch, written (mostly) in iambic pentameter and blank verse and doing all it can to take on Shakespeare at his own game. It’s a risk, but pays off mightily, with a towering central performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, but the rest of the cast comes close to matching him. A riveting afternoon.

Next was a pair of disappointments, lacking for similar reasons. The first was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which I was looking forward to. The director, Bartlett Sher, showed an astonishing ability to wring every ounce of drama out of South Pacific, turning a war horse into a thoroughbred, and I had hopes he’d be able to repeat that magic here. While the production itself is everything one might hope – fine performances, beautiful sets and staging – the show itself just can’t match the production. I don’t expect there could be a better version of the show, but – for better or worse – its dramaturgy is locked into the early ‘50s, and musicals just aren’t written that way anymore. (Where I want numbers that delve into psychology, I got “hit tunes,” and characters who have – justifiably – been speaking in pigeon English all evening suddenly become fluently poetic when singing).

The second was Simon Stephens’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, despite its many admirable qualities and intentions, just didn’t work for me. It’s an outstanding production, but that was the problem. It’s so overwhelming and facile that it covers up that there’s not much of a play underneath. I can’t imagine how another production of it – that doesn’t have a mammoth budget – will be able to tell the story.

Finally, I like to end my trips with something that will leave me with a glow of some sort; usually – but not necessarily – something uplifting, so I decided on Craig Lucas’s adaptation of An American in Paris, with a score by George and Ira Gershwin. From almost the opening moments, the show packed a particular punch. Given the still-fresh attacks on Paris, its start – detailing the German occupation of France and its aftermath (something the show was criticized for when it opened) – set things in a context that give it an immediacy and power that was shocking. The show itself is, well, lovely. One expects a dancy musical full of tap and “Broadway” dancing, and one gets an evening of breathtaking ballet (okay; there is one tap number … ). It’s moving and human in all the best ways – and couldn’t have been a better finale to my trip.

Boy, howdy.

Boy, howdy.

Next time: the dullness that was China Doll.

(*Nothing, actually. The Roxy was a movie theatre, anyway, and was torn down in 1960.)