Hockadoos, Fireworks and Letterbombs!

So, I've been busy. Busy with work, but also busy Megabus-ing myself to New York as many times as possible! Having just returned from my fourth and final trip of Summer 2010, I thought I'd do a post that encompasses three of the shows I've seen recently that I'd like to discuss.
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1. Hockadoo! Several weekends ago I bought a rush ticket for Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award Winner for Best Musical. Having seen my first ever Broadway show at the Shubert Theater back in 2005 (the original cast of Spamalot, including the dynamite David Hyde Pierce and Tim Curry), it was a little nostalgic to return to the theater! (And also a tiny bit strange to be in Shubert Alley and not pay a visit the Booth, but that's beside the point.)

I really had no expectations going into Memphis, which was refreshing. I had talked to a few people beforehand who compared it to Hairspray or Dreamgirls, and Memphis is truly a hybrid of those two shows. It sounds harsh to say that it exceeded my expectations in terms of plot, but my only exposure to the show had been through their performance on the Tony Awards, which consisted of an ensemble of energetic dancers singing a rousing chorus of "Nah, nah-nah, nah, nah-nah nah-nah, nah." Fun? Yes. Substantive? No way to tell. In reality, the story surrounds an interracial relationship in the 1950s, which blossoms from a white man who wants to put an African American girl's music on the radio. As the tension builds between various characters - the white man's old-fashioned mother and the African American girl's protective brother, to name a few - I couldn't help but think that there will someday be musicals about the fight for gender equality, marriage equality, and other similar struggles throughout history.

But at its core, the show leaves audiences humming along to its final song ("Steal Your Rock and Roll," performed on the Tonys as mentioned above) and grinning ear-to-ear from its uplifting message. Memphis is such an easy show to root for, and it's easy to see why it won so many awards, especially in comparison to the other nominees this year. Even though the plot is somewhat predictable, and the songs have more or less been done before, the strength of the cast really turns the piece into something special. Montego Glover (who, contrary to popular belief, is in fact a woman! *end inside joke between Hillary and Michelle*) has an incredible voice. A friend who also saw the show thought that Ms. Glover overacted a bit at times (too *musical theater*), but similar to Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, I think that the character calls for a little bit of caricature, and didn't have any issues with her performance. Chad Kimball was a wonderful surprise-I have nothing to reference his Tennessee accent against, but I thought it, along with his acting, showed a great submersion into his character. Other standouts in the supporting cast included Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, James Monroe Inglehart and Cass Morgan. And Sergio Trujillo's choreography is done justice by an enthusiastic cast of ensemble members who are riveting to watch, especially from the front row.
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2. After several failed attempts to see In The Heights over the past year (things kept getting in the way, okay? Like Hair deciding that it had to close...or important understudy action at Next to Normal....or the Lottery Gods frowning on us), a friend won the lottery for us, and we found ourselves in the center of the front row at the Richard Rodgers Theater. The first and only time I had seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's brilliant work prior to yesterday was back in December of 2008, when my roommate and I bought standing room tickets to see Mr. Miranda himself perform. Two years later, however, I've listened to the cast recording enough times to be able to perform very pathetic versions of "Benny's Dispatch," "96,000" or "Blackout," minus the Spanish. So, it was rather exciting to go back to a show that felt brand-new to me - and to get to sit down this time.

After seeing his performance just a few weeks before he leaves the show, I'm honestly ashamed to remind myself that I seriously doubted Corbin Bleu when he was first cast as Usnavi. (And promptly became known as "Bleusnavi.") In fact, I don't think that Disney-ifying the main character of the show sat well with most fans of In The Heights, at least at first. But after yesterday, I can't wait to see what projects the young and talented Mr. Bleu tackles next, and hope that he'll return to the New York stage soon. The main difference I saw between his performance and Mr. Miranda's was that Usnavi no longer seemed like such an immensely pivotal character through much of the show, which gave other characters the chance to really shine. But by the time "Alabanza" came around, I was reminded of Usnavi's significant place within the world that Mr. Miranda created. He brought me to tears when he stepped out to begin the scene where he explains how Abuela Claudia passed away, as his own eyes welled with tears. And although his Usnavi was characterized as less wacky and more focused than Mr. Miranda's, the change in the way he carried himself after Abuela's death was very evident, and subsequently heartbreaking.

"Finale" remains one of the most significant moments I've had the opportunity to witness on a stage, and the former High School Musical star capped a wonderful show by delivering the poignant lines with style and a renewed confidence in himself, his heritage, and his purpose within his community. Well done, Mr. Bleu - for giving a truly heartfelt performance, as well as fending off fangirl mothers with grace at the stage door.
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3. Back in June, I had promised myself that I wouldn't return to American Idiot until the school year began. Two weeks ago, however, we were wandering down 44th Street and happened to run into and chat with John Gallagher Jr., a personal hero of mine who was more humble and kind than I had ever imagined...and my plan of staying away from the St. James was thrown out the window. And although the Lottery Gods did not smile on us this weekend, the Understudy Gods did:



Yup. Understudies for three of the main characters, and five members of the ensemble in different tracks than they usually fill. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with the amount of new performances to take in.

- Van Hughes as Johnny - Since Mr. Gallagher has had a nearly spotless record of never calling out in any of the shows he's done, I knew this was a once-in-a-Broadway-lifetime opportunity to see a different take on the role of Johnny. The thing that I've come to realize about American Idiot is that each of the characters depend SO MUCH on the actors who are portraying them - thus, seeing a different actor play the main character has helped me to create a more focused vision of what I enjoy and what I don't particularly like in the character of Johnny. First off, I enjoyed Mr. Hughes' voice immensely. To my ear, it sounds very similar to Mr. Gallagher's, but a bit cleaner and more rounded. (Which is not to put down Mr. Gallagher's unique sound, however, because I do adore it.) His acting choices, however, did not seem to grab me as deeply. With Mr. Gallagher, Johnny is an obnoxious, whiny, overgrown teenager; with Mr. Hughes, Johnny came off as a bit more level-headed and subdued. While I truly admire Hughes for making the character his own, I just didn't think that his portrayal fit as well within the context of the show, or connect as well with the other characters. At its core, American Idiot is all about stereotypical teenage angst, played out in a larger-than-life manner, and I felt that Mr. Hughes's Johnny was just the slightest bit resigned to his situation, which didn't make sense in my mind. Granted, this was only Mr. Hughes's third performance as Johnny, and I would love to see him again once he's had more time to settle into the character. Based on my initial impressions of him, I also feel that I would enjoy his portrayal of Tunny very much. But for now, I much prefer a more outwardly-angry Johnny.

- Joshua Kobak as St. Jimmy - Terrifies me. Whereas Tony Vincent is startlingly skinny and spider-like, which works well with the drug use aspect of the show, Mr. Kobak is more of a muscular, physical presence, which results in a more crudely sexually manifestation of St. Jimmy. It was almost easier to understand why Johnny would fall under the influence of St. Jimmy, and aspire to take up his lifestyle, because Mr. Kobak's appearance alone suggests both sexual prowess and the image of a rock star. (Nipple rings, anyone?) He also resembles Mr. Hughes in stature more than he resembles Mr. Gallagher, which was a nice correlation. Vocally, I was impressed; at times he seemed to be trying to sound like Mr. Vincent, and while I would have liked to have heard a variation of that, he did sound good. Although I missed each of his entrances due to the partial view from my seat in the right orchestra, the intensity he brought felt like a punch in the face. I would love to see him go on again, once again after he has more time to settle into the role and his relationship with Mr. Hughes's Johnny, because there were times that the twisted connection between the two seemed to be lacking.

- Leslie McDonel as Heather - Although I love Ms. McDonel's energy and vocals in her ensemble track, I was not particularly blown away by her tonight. She seemed to have trouble reaching some of her higher notes, and I did not really pick up on how she chose to characterize Heather, even during "Too Much Too Soon."

Gerard Canonico in Theo Stockman's track was the highlight of the scrambled ensemble for me. Where Mr. Stockman comes off as the creepy guy (and I mean that in the most endearing, adoring way possible), Mr. Canonico in the track was obnoxious, hyper and constantly looking for attention (also said in terms of admiration). As much as I love Mr. Stockman, Mr. Canonico's fiery performance in the "Holiday" solo and "Too Much Too Soon" really wowed me.
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Although summer in the city (shout-out to The Lovin' Spoonful) has ended for me, Hillary and I are very close to resuming our trips to the city together! I have to say that I'm proud of myself for managing four trips and seven shows in the past three months, without needing to resuscitate my bank account.

Although, September should take care of that problem shortly.

How dare they try to end this beauty

Just a few short weeks ago, and much to Michelle's and my dismay, Hair ended its run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Michelle and I attended the show's third to last performance on Saturday afternoon after winning lotto seats, and so we got the privilege to experience this wonderful show one last time from the right box. Fair warning: this post is going to be filled with glowing praise for one of my favorite shows of all-time, one that has had a definite impact on both my life and the way I view theater as an art form. So, if Hair is not your cup of tea, or if you have a problem with gushing praise and adoration, then you'll probably be bumming. Sorry. (Except not really - this show's kind of the shit).

One of the reasons I love Hair so much is because it completely changed my perspective on how interactive a theatrical production can be. Before then, I had always thought that a very clear fourth wall existed between the actors and the audience, and that wall was not meant to be broken in any circumstances. A play or musical was something to be witnessed, not something to be involved in. Audiences only participated in the theater in terms of their response to it - laughing at the jokes, crying at the sad moments, and applauding for a job well done. Well, Hair took that viewpoint and chucked it out the window. The interaction between the cast members and the audience was an experience like no other, and I loved every second of it. What other show gives its audience a chance to dance on stage after every performance, much less joins in? It created a sense of connection with the cast, as if the audience and the actors were equals, both equally involved in creating an incredible theater experience.

And make no mistake, it is a fantastic experience, and a fantastic piece of theater. Sure, it may not have the strongest book ever (and by that, I mean hardly any book at all - the people who sat behind us at our last show had never seen the show before, and they were talking about how they had Wikipedia-ed the plot but still had no clue what the show was really about. Twas funny.) But what it lacks in plot or riveting drama it more than makes up for in joyous exaltation of the messages of hope, peace, and above all, love. The show's about a bunch of hippies who spend their time smoking weed and dodging the draft - of course they're all going to be about peace and love. And though Hair was a poignant and somewhat controversial show when it first arrived on Broadway back in 1968, its themes still resonate today. We're still a nation at war, and a controversial war at that; we're still a people who are quick to hate and slow to love. The score of this show, written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, acknowledges this reality with its sometimes silly, sometimes trippy, but always beautiful music and lyrics. The music is at times serious, at times upbeat, but always a joyous celebration of life, love and freedom in all its forms. I always left the theater with a smile on my face and humming any of the show's catchy melodies under my breath, ready to let the sunshine in and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. That is why I find Hair to be such an incredible show - it could return to Broadway in 20 years or 200, and it would still be just as powerful and relevant as it is today. Great theater is timeless.

While the music of Hair is evocative and incredible, it would not be as entertaining and moving were it not sung and acted by its fantastic Tribe. The original ("Aquarius") and replacement ("Starshine") tribes were both wonderful in their own rights, and it is disappointing to me that some people could not or would not accept the new Tribe once the majority of the original cast left to transfer Hair to London, and that the show suffered as a result. While I do appreciate snark more than the average person, I also generally adhere to the adage "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" (except in certain cases, such as whenever Sarah Palin is brought up in conversation or whenever I see someone wearing a denim tuxedo), and some of the comments made about the replacement cast were just downright vicious. But you know what? Haters to the left. The original cast was wonderful, yes, but I loved the second cast just as much, if not more. Not only were they immensely talented, they gave the show renewed youth and vigor, and they just generally seemed like the kind of people you'd want to be around on a regular basis.

In the five times Michelle and I saw the show, we had the privilege of seeing four Sheilas (Jackie Burns, Caissie Levy, Brianna Carlson-Goodman, and Diana DeGarmo), four Woofs (Ryan Link, Bryce Ryness, Jay A. Johnson, and Jason Wooten), three Claudes (Gavin Creel, Jay A. Johnson, and Kyle Riabko), two Bergers (Will Swenson and Ace Young), two Jeannies (Kacie Sheik and Annaleigh Ashford), and a whole host of other Tribe members in various tracks. Michelle and I each had our favorites from amongst these performances, but what didn't change were the consistently high-quality performances delivered every time. These actors brought such joy and life to the show, fully embodying the hippie spirit as they sang and danced across the stage and through the aisles, bringing with them their contagious enthusiasm for the show and for life in general. Perhaps Michelle and I are not discerning enough in our tastes, or perhaps we are too easily impressed by those who possess talents we can only dream of. Perhaps it was the other fans of the show, the one's who decried certain casting decisions as all wrong and ruining the show, who are mistaken. Whatever the case may be, I have nothing but praise for the actors who embodied this show and its characters eight times a week. They were engaging, energetic, and every single one of them are, in my mind, incredibly talented. I wish them all the best in their future endeavors, and I will forever be appreciative for the magic they created with this show.

Although I believe this show closed far sooner than it should have, given the immense talent of its cast and the relevance of its messages in today's volatile social climate, Hair ultimately had a successful run of over 500 performances on Broadway, won a bunch of Tonys, and was the most purely joyous theater experience I have ever had the privilege of experiencing. It is deeply loved and will be sorely missed.

I've been here for the show, every high, every low.

Now that we're more than halfway through the summer, change is in the air for many of the Broadway shows that were honored at last year's Tony Awards. As our dear readers probably know by now, Hillary and I have followed Next to Normal since it opened in previews on Broadway last March. When this picture was taken in Tompkins Square Park shortly after our initial viewing of the show, little did we know that Next to Normal would shape the next year of our lives.



So, when Mr. J. Robert Spencer announced that his final performance as Dan would take place on May 16, we knew we had to see him one last time. Unfortunately, commuting to New York is not as easy from our respective homes as it is from Philadelphia, but what's an eight-hour bus ride when it comes to something as important as an original cast member departing his show after a truly phenomenal run. (Another explanation may be that Hillary and I are apparently incapable of staying away from New York City for more than two weeks.)

By the time we dropped off our bags at a friend's apartment, revisited the good ol' Westway Diner, and splurged on the delicious Pinkberry that we thought we'd have to survive the summer without, it was time to head to Schubert Alley, where Mr. Spencer came out to draw names from the lottery bucket, obviously soaking up every last moment of his time with the show. In the midst of enjoying our Pinkberry (dear company representatives: please, PLEASE expand to western Pennsylvania and Connecticut!), it occurred to us to check the cast board for any understudies. The following is a recreation of what happened when I walked calmly into the box office and glanced at the board, which happened to read AT THIS PERFORMANCE THE ROLE OF DIANA WILL BE PLAYED BY JESSICA PHILLIPS.

Me: *jumps up in the air, spins around, and speed-walks back outside* JESSICA'SONJESSICA'SONJESSICA'SONJESSICA'SON.

Hillary: OMIGODOMIGODOMIGOD.

*We proceed to freak out for approximately 45 seconds, during which I left the world's most jumbled and enthusiastic voice mail*

After missing her by a single performance (as it seems we often do) a few weeks ago, it was a joy not only to see Ms. Phillips perform for the second time, but to go on opposite Mr. Spencer for the final time. It also meant that I have seen four different Dan/Diana pairings. My only complaint was that it was difficult to try and split my attention equally between Ms. Phillips and Mr. Spencer! Both actors have consistently delivered performances that make me contemplate aspects of the show that I'd never thought about before. It's the little nuances of Mr. Spencer's performance, therefore, that I'll really miss the most. From his entrance on "Who's up at this hour?" to the entirety of "I've Been" (especially the way he delivers the line "I know I have to help her/but hell if I know how"), to the way his Dan remains "steadfast and solid" for so long but eventually breaks down, Mr. Spencer will be sorely missed in his role. And unless a miracle happens, May 15th also served as the final time we will see Ms. Phillips before she departs the show to join the cast of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. We've already analyzed her brilliant portrayal of Diana in a previous post, and seeing Ms. Phillips' performance twice absolutely changed our perspectives on the character dramatically. And from "So Anyway" onward, both actors were struggling to contain their all-too-real emotions, adding to the dynamic between their characters.

The image from my seat of Mr. Spencer, silhouetted in the spotlight and a single tear dripping onto the floor, remains in my mind as the essence of that performance. I have never been so torn up about a cast member leaving as I was on the day the announcement came that he would be leaving the show, and both Hillary and I are so thankful to have been able to witness his performance one more time, and so close to the end of his run.

This past weekend, we journeyed to the Booth again to see another close-to-last performance, this time for Alice Ripley, Jennifer Damiano, and Brian D'Arcy James, who had reprised the role of Dan from the show's run at Second Stage. While Mr. Spencer's closing weekend felt very final to me, this performance seemed more of a celebration of the show's long journey since it opened on Broadway, and each cast member gave their all as the majority of the original cast prepared to take the stage together for the last time.

We found Mr. D'Arcy James to be a suitable (re)addition to the cast. I personally missed the tenacity and fortitude of Mr. Spencer's Dan at many points; Mr. D'Arcy James seemed to play the character as much, much more worn down from dealing with Diana's illness for so long, but the way he dealt with "How Could I Ever Forget" onward was very moving. I never felt that he gave the audience a glimpse of what Dan's relationship with Diana had once been, but I suppose that's simply a stark reality of their situation, one that may be more difficult for me to accept. Ms. Ripley's performance was a challenge and a joy to watch, as always; the way she invests herself in the character is truly incredible. (After watching her in the show many times, we've come to expect the occasional technical mishap or interesting line delivery from Ms. Ripley - this time, she nearly ended up on the floor of the stage, thanks to a slight mishandling of a chair by Louis Hobson at the end of "Who's Crazy / My Psychopharmacologist and I.") Ms. Damiano has perhaps impressed me the most over the past year, both due to her age (younger than us, which makes us feel somewhat like we haven't done anything with our lives) and her ability to adapt her characterization of Natalie to her vocal capabilities on any given day. Her chemistry with Adam Chanler-Berat's Henry will especially be missed.

Every show has "those" lines, the ones that hold a double meaning when a cast member's time with the show is dwindling. But with Next to Normal already being the emotional roller coaster that it is, "last" shows are difficult. I mean, every frickin' line in the show is about memories, or moving on, or holding on to the people you love. Yikes. So when Ms. Ripley sang, "So anyway, I'm leaving...I thought you'd like to know," or when Mr. Spencer sang, "When our long night is done," or when Ms. Damiano and Mr. Chanler-Berat sang "Hey #3/Perfect for You" for one of the last times...our hearts were breaking. For someone who's never bonded with a show and its cast, this post might seem a bit out of whack and over-dramatic. It's not as if the show itself is closing, after all; a new actor is hired, and the lights at the Booth Theater still go up eight times a week, right on schedule. But that first trip to the Booth in March 2009 was the beginning of quite a journey, both for us as friends and for the show itself. Change is exciting, that's for sure, and both Hillary and I are looking forward to catching real-life husband-and-wife pair Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie as Dan and Diana. But the fact remains that, when I look at the New York Times review that is taped to my wall, only two original actors still with the show. So we look forward to see what each of the four actors who has left moves on to, and what the new dynamic of the show becomes, while fondly remembering the original performances of the characters we connected with so deeply, and wishing the actors who played them all the best.

Coming soon: Thoughts on the 2010 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Memphis, which I enjoyed from student rush seats this weekend!