Gentlemen, be seated!

The last time I attended the final matinee of a show was back in January 2009, when Spring Awakening closed, but attending the second-to-last performance of The Scottsboro Boys, a show that I knew nothing beforehand, was quite a different experience. In the midst of a slew of mid-winter closing notices, I managed to steal away from the cheer of finals week and melting my brain over accounting and theories of mass communication (note: sarcasm) to catch a show that I'd only heard excellent things about before it closed prematurely.

It had been raining all day, so I got to the Lyceum in time to enter the theater at half-hour, and while I wouldn't call the scene outside chaotic, it was kind of unsettling. A group of protesters, all representing the "Freedom Party," lined the sidewalk, handing out fliers and yelling, "Scottsboro Boys ain't no minstrel show! Scottsboro Boys has got to go!" (Which, if you think about it, was kind of a moot point on the day the show was closing...) There was a cop or two watching the scene as ushers directed ticket-holding patrons inside. I've never really experienced anything like that, and it definitely made me consciously consider during the show whether the material and its presentation seemed offensive or not.

First, for some background. The show tells the true story of nine African American boys, all under the age of 20, who hopped a freight train in the spring of 1931, traveling from Chattanooga to Memphis with the intent of finding work. When two white women falsely accused them of rape, the unjust treatment of the Scottsboro Boys, as they came to be known, brought America's emerging civil rights movement into the spotlight.

The musical, one of the last collaborations between John Kander (who was in the audience at the same show I saw - WHAT?!) and the now-deceased Fred Ebb, uses the style of the minstrel show, a popular form of entertainment at the time, as the framework to tell the boys' story. (The minstrel tradition in the United States "began in the 1830s, with working class white men dressing up as plantation slaves. These men imitated black musical and dance forms, combining savage parody of black Americans with genuine fondness for African American cultural forms.") I can honestly see how the show would be viewed as offensive by some, but at the same time, I think people who hold that opinion either haven't seen the show at all, didn't stay for the end of the show, or truly don't understand the juxtaposition that Kander and Ebb used so effectively to critique the treatment of the Scottsboro Boys. When the boys are singing and tap-dancing to a song about their potential fate with the electric chair, for example, or about how most of the boys led troubled lives after finally regaining their freedom (because what could a black man with a criminal record do in the 1940s?) - the contrast is just so stark and so humbling. I was particularly moved by a scene at the very end in which the nine boys sing and dance a rousing final number, dressed in blackface. The Interlocutor, the "ringmaster" of the minstrel show (played by the only white actor in the show, John Cullum) repeatedly instructs the boys to sit down, in the minstrel tradition that the title of this blog takes its name from, only to be ignored for the first time in the show while each of the boys slowly walks to the front of the stage, disgustedly wiping off their makeup. And in a troubling twist, the audience learns at the end of the 90-minute show that, although four of the boys were released initially as a plea bargain, they were put into the vaudeville circuit by their New York lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, in a (failed and humiliating) attempt to keep the five boys who remained in jail in the mind of the public.

The aforementioned fact that John Cullum was the only white member of the cast is another interesting and controversial aspect of the show. As the Interlocutor, Cullum did interact with the rest of the characters, but mostly served as a narrator. The rest of the white characters - Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, the two white Alabama women who accused the boys of rape; the sheriff, lawyers, judge, and governor of Alabama - were all played in a very exaggerated fashion by black actors. But again, in my mind, setting up the show in this way only served to enhance the ridiculous nature of the story's proceedings - nine honest teenagers, who happen to be black, are telling the truth, and nothing they can possibly say will get anyone to believe their innocence. Colman Domingo as a collection of these characters really stood out as a presence on the Lyceum stage, although each seemed to run in the same vein as Mister Franklin, his character in Passing Strange. Jeremy Gumbs, who played Eugene Williams, the youngest of the Boys at only 13, was wonderful as well with his earnest, innocent nature (shown early on in the boys' arrest with the line, "Is that what rape means?") and his incredible dancing during the "Electric Chair" number. There really was not a weak link in the entire ensemble, and it was obvious that every single member of the cast was soaking up the last few moments of a show they loved dearly. The audience also showed their appreciation with thunderous applause after nearly every number.

The hype about Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, one of the boys who take the lead in defending the group's innocence, was certainly justified with his breathtaking performance. Mr. Henry made the correct decision to leave American Idiot to take on this role, however short-lived the show's run, because it gave him the chance to show off acting chops that I'd never have guessed he possessed. The monologue in which he reveals the reason he adamantly refuses to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit (*SPOILER - as a boy, he witnessed his own mother being raped by a white man*) brought me and many of the patrons seated around me to tears. And he sang and danced the role with ease; it's truly a travesty that his rendition of the gorgeous "Go Back Home," a clip of which can be seen here, won't be recorded on a Broadway cast recording. (An off-Broadway recording made during the show's run at the Vineyard Theatre, when the role of Patterson was played by Brandon Victor Dixon, is definitely still worth a listen.)

Because many of our readers may not have had the opportunity to catch one of The Scottsboro Boys' mere 49 performances on Broadway, I'd like to reveal the show's concluding scene, and perhaps its most breathtaking moment. The single woman in the cast, Sharon Washington, plays an ambiguous character credited as "The Lady"; she seems to be ever-present during the show, and at one point represents Haywood's mother, sending a care package of sorts to her son in prison in case they never see each other again. But in the show's final scene, The Lady is confronted by an anonymous white man as she sits on a chair in the center of the stage:
"Lady, you can't sit there - move to the back of the bus. Coloreds in the back of the bus!"

"No. Not no more. I'm going to sit here and rest my feet."
As the lighting faded to a blackout, the audience's collective revelation that a young Rosa Parks grew up in the midst of the Scottsboro Boys trial, and was in fact motivated to refuse to move to the back of the bus, just as Haywood Patterson refused to admit to a crime he didn't commit, left the theater completely breathless.

The show's producers have begun a campaign on their website to gauge audience interest in bringing The Scottsboro Boys back to Broadway in the spring, enabling it to be fresh in the minds of Tony committee voters for the 2011 Awards, and I would highly encourage our readers to show support for one of the most innovative and challenging shows on Broadway in years. While the subject matter of the show certainly has no commercialized, Disney-ified happy ending, I have only the highest recommendation for The Scottsboro Boys. Nearly two weeks later, I can say with certainty that the themes presented and critiqued in the show have been on my mind and will be for some time as I continue to wrestle with the mistreatment of the Scottsboro Boys, the relentless moral compass of Haywood Patterson, and the controversy surrounding the presentation of these historical events. The Scottsboro Boys is unarguably an excellent piece of art because it made me THINK. In the end, isn't that the purpose of good theater?

The massive catch-up post

So... we suck. Michelle and I apologize for not updating in for-freaking-ever. College was being totally crazy-cakes. Who knew being a nursing major was so much work? I did. Who thought adding a business minor to a communications major would be a good idea? Michelle did. Who spent the last week and a half studying until our eyes were threatening to fall out of our heads? We both did.

But yeah... the semester is over, we are home for break, and it's time to get crackin' on this blogging business again. Things we've seen since our last post that we haven't covered yet: The Addams FamilyWomen on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Avenue Q, [Title of Show], Next to Normal (shocking, we know), and The Scottsboro Boys. Phew. [Title of Show] and The Scottsboro Boys need their own blog posts to adequately talk about their awesomeness, and we've been blogging about Next to Normal so much, people probably think we get paid every time we do (unfortunately, we don't, but it would be totally awesome if we did.) This post is going to cover The Addams Family, Avenue Q, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in that order. Get ready.
Okay, so, The Addams Family. Michelle and I were lucky enough to get free tickets after a friend of ours won a contest on Twitter. Sweet! We were super excited to see this production because, well... let's take a look at the cast, shall we? Nathan Lane, Bebe Neuwirth, Carolee Carmello, Terrence Mann, Jackie Hoffman, Wesley Taylor, and Krysta Rodriguez. It's like a smorgasbord of awesomeness and talent. And the cast did not disappoint. It was definitely the strongest part of the show. Nathan Lane is the consummate song and dance man, and he and Bebe Neuwirth both got huge applause at their entrances. Mr. Lane's Gomez was charming and fun, even if Mr. Lane did at times struggle with his suave, Latin accent. Ms. Neuwirth, who is perhaps best known for her role as Lilith on the hit sitcom Cheers but is best known to me for her hysterical Musical Madlibs rendition of "All That Jazz" (which can be found here), was fantastic. Her comedic timing and dry delivery made her Morticia a sarcastic delight. Jackie Hoffman was hysterical as the senile Grandma (her ad-lib about Charlie Sheen during the "Full Disclosure" number was amazing). Kevin Chamberlin was wonderful as the crazy Uncle Fester. His asides to the audience, playing with the fourth wall, were some of the funniest moments in the show. Carolee Carmello and Terrence Mann were EPIC in their roles as Alice and Mal Beineke, respectively. Both of their voices are so distinct and classic that hearing them sing together was just incredible. It gave me chills. Wesley Taylor was great as Lucas Beineke in what I thought was an underused role.

But for me, the best part of the show was Krysta Rodriguez as Wednesday Addams. That girl is a star. Of all the songs in the show, "Pulled" and "Crazier Than You" were the most memorable for me, and I think a large part of that was due to Ms. Rodriguez's performance. Her vocals are fantastic. She belts without sounding like she's straining, and her physical performance complements her voice perfectly. Her performance was youthful, teen-angsty without being over-the-top, and fun. And overall, I think that's what The Addams Family was - fun. It wasn't perfect - the scenes and plot were choppy, almost like a series of loosely linked sketches rather than a coherent piece, there wasn't a lot of character development to speak of, and some of it was downright cheesy. Above all that, though, it was just a fun two and a half hours of theater. Coming from a girl who loves crying her eyes out over a piece of theater, it was a nice change of pace to be able to walk out of a show humming a tune and feeling entertained. In that respect, The Addams Family was very successful.
Avenue Q has been on our must-see list for a while. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 2004 and enjoyed a lengthy Broadway run before relocating to New World Stages and continuing Off-Broadway. New World Stages is composed of a couple of small theaters that are underground, and so it runs a few shows simultaneously. The rush seats for Avenue Q were in the front row of an already intimately small theater, so we were practically three feet from the stage for the entire performance, which allowed us to see the puppetry work from up-close. It was incredible. The actors are incredibly talented. Not only do they perform puppetry, often playing the roles of multiple puppets at the same time and throughout the show, but they also sing and act and have the best facial expressions to accompany their puppets. The entire cast was fantastic, but Howie Michael Smith, Sarah Stiles, and Cullen R. Titmas were particularly amazing in both their puppetry skills and singing abilities. The score is raunchy, to be sure (really, is there any other show out there that's so blatantly about sex and porn?), but it's also hysterical and catchy. Its "immaturity" works because it's a show about raunchy puppets. It's meant to be fun and a little outrageous, and it definitely delivered.
Last but not least, we saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Much like The Addams Family, Michelle and I were incredibly excited to see the show because of its star-studded cast. Months before the show even opened, when it's cast was first announced, we decided that we just had to see it. I mean, when would we next be able to see a show with Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Beth Piel, Danny Burstein, Laura Benanti, and that diva of all Divas, Patti LuPone? By the time it began previews, we'd read that the show was still working out some kinks. Then the Internet message boards were flooded with what a mess the show was, how it didn't make sense, how there was so much going on you didn't know where to look. Still, for every negative review, there was also a positive one, and so Michelle and I went into the theater with open minds, not knowing what to expect but hoping to be entertained nonetheless.

The show was... a bit chaotic, to say the least. There was certainly a lot going on, and for the first few minutes  of the show, I'll freely admit that I didn't know where to look or what to pay attention to. Having not seen the Pedro Almodovar film on which the show is based, I honestly had no idea what the show was about or what to expect. The show was frenetic, with constant action and multiple plots and subplots being juggled simultaneously. It seemed almost to have a stream-of-consciousness feel about it, as if someone is telling you a story and keeps jumping from point to point and you're left trying to form a coherent picture of events. So, in that spirit, I present my very own stream-of-consciousness review of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown:

Oh look a taxi cab! Danny Burstein! You were so awesome in South Pacific, but I don't know how I feel about you as a blonde. There are so many people on stage... oh look, there's Sherie Rene Scott! I miss Everyday Rapture, but she's fabulous. Oh my goodness, is that Laura Benanti dancing in the wings? It is! But why can I see the wings so easily? Oh, it's because all these massive set pieces have to be able to get on and off stage. Hi, stage crew. Why can I see you? Why are you nonchalantly walking around on stage? Okay, Sherie's singing and her voice is so pretty. So is Brian Stokes Mitchell's disembodied voice. Oh wait, there he is. Wow, his character's kind of a douche. Sing Sherie, sing! Holy shit that's Patti LuPone! On stage. Like twenty feet away. Dear Lord, she's intimidating. Now she's looking over here, like right at me! Am I doing something inappropriate? I don't want to get LuPwned. Phew, she's looking somewhere else now. Tee-hee, it's Justin Guarini. God, that movie he was in was such a catastrophe, but it sounds like he can actually sing. Hahaha Laura Benanti looks hilarious running around in those ridiculous shoes.  She is so awesome. I can't even hear all the words to the song she's singing so fast... how does she not mess up? And so Candela is dating a terrorist, but what does that have to do with Pepa's relationship problems? Whatever, she's a goddess. Love her. Wait... why is Sherie singing next to a bed that's ON FIRE?! Surely that cannot be good for the vocal cords. And why is the damn thing on fire in the first place? I'm so confused. And now Brian Stokes Mitchell and Justin Guarini are singing about microphones. Such pretty voices, but this song is annoying. Not all women are fooled by a pretty voice speaking into a microphone. I'm kind of offended. But wait... what was the point of this song again? Whatever. Laura Benanti is awesome. Why are these women hanging from ropes? Laura Benanti is awesome. Isn't this dangerous? Who lets Patti LuPone swing from this rubber thing over the stage? Laura Benanti is --- INTERMISSION.

Okay, process what just happened. So...much...going on. I have no idea. Pepa is heartbroken and destroyed her answering machine, and is also pregnant. Candela is dating a terrorist. Lucia is suing Ivan, but for what I'm not sure. And Carlos is marrying some bitchy girl that he doesn't even seem to love. And the Taxi Driver is just kind of observing it all and Greek-chorusing the show. Okay, Act II, GO. Damn, Sherie Rene Scott can sing. You know who else can sing? Laura Benanti. Can she just come back and entertain us with her awesomeness for another hour? Brian Stokes Mitchell, you have a pretty voice, but your character is a tool. Why are there so many people on stage? Who are this girl and this guy on the motorcycle and why are they important? Are they important? Oh look, Laura Benanti! She's fierce. Haha, Danny Burstein just sang a line about "feeling like you missed something in the plot." He's got that right... what is going on? Whatever, Laura Benanti is still fantastic. Damn, Patti LuPone is freaking intimidating. Insanely talented, but intimidating as shit. So she's suing Ivan to get years of her life back? Metaphorical, but whatevs. I really like this song, but why did it just end without a big finish. It just kind of trailed off... bummer. Laura Benanti. At least the plot is making more sense this act. Laura Benanti. The farce aspect is actually pretty entertaining. Laura Benanti. Gazpacho can be dangerous. Laura Benanti. Laura Benanti. Laura Benanti taking her clothes off and doing a "sexy dance" is hysterical. Guns? Laura Benanti. Mary Beth Piel is awesome, but her character is pretty superfluous and unnecessary. Laura Benanti. Sherie Rene Scott. Laura Benanti.

And that, dear readers, is the hot mess that is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It had potential and a freaking amazing cast, but there was just too much going on, and it resulted in an often incoherent story. There were too many set pieces and too many characters, which resulted in some serious talent (like Mary Beth Piel and de'Adre Aziza) to be wasted. There also wasn't all that much character development - I didn't feel all that invested in the outcome. The songs were good if not forgettable, with "Model Behavior" being the highlight for me. Basically, Laura Benanti stole the damn show with her incredible voice and great comedic timing, and her awesomeness was almost enough to redeem a whole lot of "WTF?" moments. Almost, but not enough, though it wasn't for a lack of trying. She gave 130% to her performance and made any time Candela was on stage the best part of the show. Incidentally, she's also a total sweetheart at the stage door, thanking us for coming and saying how "great it is to see young people at the theater. It makes me think it's not dying out." Between that, her performance, and her incredible "It Gets Better" video for The Trevor Project, it may be safe to say that I have a new Broadway idol. Despite the show's many problems, it was entertaining, and you could tell the cast was having a blast performing the material and is proud of the product they're producing, which I guess makes critical reception a moot point. If these people are having fun doing what they love, I'm not going to stop them.

P.S. - Patti LuPone? A one-of-a-kind stage door experience. She just sweeps down the line, signing randomly on your Playbill before getting in her chauffeured car and being driven away. Hilarious.