Harry Potter and the Broadway Musical (aka How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)

There's a lot of good, old-fashioned Broadway fun happening at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying has been running since March. The show, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, is based on the book by Shepherd Mead. Starring Daniel Radcliffe (for those of us who live under a rock or have been in a coma for the past ten years, that's Harry potter, y'all) as J. Pierrepont Finch and Tony winner John Larroquette as J.B. Biggley, How to Succeed... is an immensely entertaining show that leaves you tapping your toes and humming the incredibly infectious "Brotherhood of Men" (seriously, we were humming it under our breath for at least a solid week after we saw the show).

The success of the revival is due mainly to the cast, with the obvious draws for the casual theater-goer being Mr. Radcliffe and Mr. Larroquette. After all, who doesn't want to see if Harry Potter can sing and dance? Neither gentlemen disappoints. Mr. Larroquette was fine in his Broadway debut, bringing great humor and stage-presence to the role of Mr. Biggley, the president of World Wide Wickets. His J.B. was a big goof, knitting in his spare time and just generally being ridiculous. Mr. Radcliffe was incredible. I admit that walking into the theater, I wasn't sure what to expect. Sure, he earned rave reviews for his performance in Equus, but that had been straight acting. Singing and dancing were whole other arenas. I walked out of the show completely blown away. While he doesn't have the strongest voice in terms of pure power, it was more than serviceable for the role, and his dancing was very strong. It was obvious that Mr. Radcliffe was completely committed to the role and he looked like he was having the time of his life performing on that stage. He brought such energy to the stage (feeding off the very receptive and appreciative audience, to be sure), and although it was a strong year for male performers on Broadway, I was surprised that he didn't earn a Tony nomination for his role. Mr. Radcliffe and Mr. Larroquette had great comedic chemistry together, especially because Mr. Larroquette is so tall and Mr. Radcliffe is so... not. (That's the only short joke I'll make, but seriously - DanRad is wee.) The two numbers where they get to show off their comedy - "Grand Old Ivy" and "Brotherhood of Men" - are my favorite numbers in the show.

The supporting cast was also superb. Christopher J. Hanke, as J.B. Biggley's slacker nephew Bud Frump, was the perfect "villain" for the light-hearted nature of this show. He could have gone completely over-the-top with the role, but he showed restraint and turned in a delightful performance. In her Broadway debut, Rose Hemingway turned in a stellar performance as Rosemary Pilkington. Her pure voice and general sweetness worked perfectly for the innocent, naive Rosemary. In contrast, Tammy Blanchard was seductive and brash as Hedy La Rue, J.B.'s kind-hearted yet dim-witted mistress. Ms. Blanchard earned a Tony nomination for her role, and while she was certainly hilarious, I would have been equally pleased to see Ms. Hemingway nominated. Her vocals were simply phenomenal. The ensemble nailed the flashy, superb choreography by Rob Ashford, making the whole show immensely enjoyable to watch.

A special shout-out must be given to Michael Park, who was great as Mr. Bratt. My grandmother and mother both watched As the World Turns for years before it went off the air last year, and while it was a bit disconcerting at first to see Jack Snyder singing and dancing (not because it was his first foray onto Broadway, mind you - my mother saw Mr. Park in Smokey Joe's Cafe many years ago), he was wonderful. It's always a treat when actors you know from something other than theater give such fantastic performances- Mr. Radcliffe is further proof of that.

Last, but certainly not least, Michelle and I want to take a moment to fangirl over MARY FUCKING FABER - where the hell did that performance come from?! I was expecting pregnant Heather who hella hearts Oakland, and I got someone completely different. Ms. Faber's Smitty was wry and sarcastic, and she brought a completely different energy to her work than she did in American Idiot. Her performance in How to Succeed... is a testament to her diversity as an actress.

While the show was enjoyable and entertaining, it was not without its short-comings. The show itself felt a little long, with a lot of time spent in Act I introducing characters, such as all the executives, that were hard to keep straight when they were all dressed up in suits (then again, that may have been the point - poking fun at the mentality of big corporations). Additionally, "I Believe in You" was definitely the weakest number in the show because you never really saw Finch be anything other than confident; you never really saw him doubt himself because his crazy schemes or sheer luck was enough to get him through. The portrayal of women was obviously dated and sexist - it is no longer so commonplace for women to be merely secretaries who are "happy to keep his dinner warm" for the men they love and marry. While this conceit was generally played as a nudge to the audience, a "look at how silly this thinking is!" type of thing, there were moments where that conceit seemed to slip, where the joke didn't land, leaving a feeling that something was missing.

There was also no real character development to speak of, but then again it wasn't really needed for a show like this. The characters were all more or less caricatures - the successful businessman, the up-and-coming new guy, the disgruntled employee, the love-struck girl who just wants the object of her affection to love her. Did Finch actually learn his lesson by the end of the show? Not really, but Mr. Radcliffe made his character so likable that it didn't even matter - you rooted for him no matter what. The show was supposed to be light, funny, entertaining, and a bit silly - and it succeeded wildly on all counts.

The People in the Picture

Alright, readers, we try to be brutally honest with you, and in turn hope that you won't judge our show-going decisions too harshly, so here goes: Roundabout Theatre Company's The People in the Picture was on our summer show list simply because we enjoy keeping up with projects that formal Next to Normal cast members become involved in. In this case, we decided to take a trip to Studio 54 the second we learned that, not only had Louis Hobson been cast, but he would be playing another doctor. Win.

The People in the Picture was not quite one of this season's big hits; it only garnered a single (but well-deserved) Tony nod for Donna Murphy, and didn't sell well enough to extend its run past the originally announced closing date. In fact, Hillary and I saw the show the night before it closed. An announcement prior to curtain informed us that videographers were there to film the show's third-to-last performance for the Lincoln Center archives, which was cool and something that we'd never experienced before. (The things we'd do to get into those archives...) In the month that's gone by since that night, very few people that I've talked to saw this production, and even fewer admitted to enjoying it. But after Hillary and I cried our way through the second act, we were so glad to have been drawn to see the show, even by something as insignificant as the involvement of an ensemble member, because the only word that came to mind to describe what we had just seen was beautiful.

As the title suggests, The People in the Picture opens with a young girl, Jenny (played by the amazingly talented Rachel Resheff), examining an old picture and asking her grandmother, Bubbie (Donna Murphy), an enchanting story teller, about the people posed in it. The stage was framed by a giant, elaborate picture frame, and "the people in the picture" came to life to tell their stories to Jenny. As Jenny gradually learns how Bubbie's own story intertwines with the people in the picture (a cast of characters played by, among others, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Hal Robinson, and Chip Zien, who all belonged with Bubbie to an acting troup in pre-World-War-II Poland), Jenny also comes to know of the fractured past between her mother, Red (played by Nicole Parker) and Bubbie. (So Bubbie is Red's mother, and Red is Jenny's mother. Got it? Good.) All the while, the story transitioned scene-by-scene from past to present, flowing from Bubbie's current struggles to pass on her family heritage to Jenny, and back to Bubbie's younger days, when she was known to her friends as Raisel and struggled to survive against the impending Nazi regime. In act two, the large frame still encompassed the stage, but it was broken into pieces to represent the fractured family history of the characters. The floor of the stage was covered with some sort of reflective material that created a mirror effect with the frame, and combined with gentle lighting, the whole effect was just - wait for it - beautiful.

Donna Murphy, a legend in her own right, was absolutely brilliant. Her transition from Bubbie, her character as an old woman, to Raisel, her character as a young woman, was perfect. Although our seats from the last row of the mezzanine afforded a wonderful overall view of the staging, and in no way affected our ability to connect with Murphy's character, there were points where I wished we could have sat closer, just to see even more of the detail she put into differentiating the physicality between young and old. Another thoughtful detail that we appreciated: Murphy played Bubbie with a Yiddish accent, but Raisel without one. (As a young woman in Poland, Raisel would have been surrounded with people who spoke like herself; as an older woman living in America, her accent would have stood out.)

The young Resheff's credits prior to The People in the Picture include Shrek, Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins (so, like, every major recent show on Broadway that involves kids). While we've always felt hopelessly behind when comparing our lives to the accomplishments of, say, Jennifer Damiano or other young Broadway stars, we've now found a 10-year-old to make us feel even more pathetic! Seriously, though, we were so impressed by Ms. Resheff and fully expect to see her career continue to outpace her young age. Her chemistry with Nicole Parker was very believable and extremely touching, especially as the story approached an inevitable ending and the grandmother-mother-daughter relationships were woven to a beautiful and heartbreaking conclusion.

The show's score was not particularly memorable (read: we didn't come out of the show humming any tunes), but nonetheless quite wondrous. Its rhythm and sound were very clearly based in the tradition of Jewish music, alternating between delicate interludes and celebratory dances. (We felt that one slightly superflous song, late in act two, was included purely to give Donna Murphy another opportunity to make us cry - but who's complaining about that?) Shortly after the production closed, unofficial rumors of a cast recording were swirling around, and we truly hope that the score, with music by Mike Stoller and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart, has been preserved for future listening purposes.


As it turns out, Mr. Hobson's part wasn't all that large (mostly ensemble, until his character, Dr. Goldblum, came out in act two and entertained us with many ironic Next to Normal references, including a line about how the main character "couldn't just walk out on her doctor," which had us in stitches at a very touching moment in the show). But our interest in a single actor resulted in an introduction to a show that, although not appreciated by many, was truly one of the most moving original stories we've seen in a while. While The People in the Picture perhaps never reached its potential, we reveled in the universal story it told of mothers and daughters; of forgiveness; and of the importance of memories, the past, and family.

Would you like to change religions? I have a free book written by JESUS!

What if we told you that we woke up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, to sit on a sparkling clean New York sidewalk for six hours, to pay $27 to stand for another two-and-a-half hours, just to see a show? You, dear readers, might admire us for our dedication...or you might deem us certifiably insane. Either way, we had a grand time doing what was necessary to finally see The Book of Mormon, this year's biggest Tony winner, sweeping the night with nine awards including Best Musical. Seriously, what's not to love: sleep is for the weak, we met some fantastic fellow rushers in line, the price of our tickets were a LOT less than $150 each ($27, to be exact), and the view from our standing room spots at the back of the orchestra were superb.

(Note: standing room tickets are only available when the show is completely sold out. Fortunately, The Book of Mormon is sold out until kingdom come - literally, they're selling tickets far beyond when Hillary and I will graduate next year - so if you're willing and able to get to the theater early enough, it's a fantastic opportunity to more or less guarantee yourself a ticket. We think it's awesome that the show's producers have left this option for those of us who can't quite afford to buy a premium ticket.)

Oh, and the show actually lived up to every single bit of the hype that we've been hearing since it played its first Broadway preview in February.

The fact that The Book of Mormon is the brainchild of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with music and lyrics by Avenue Q's Robert Lopez, should give you a pretty good idea of where the show's material is headed. To be completely honest, I am not a fan of South Park - more specifically, I don't think I've ever watched an episode of South Park. It's just not something that's ever appealed to me. And I'll admit to being one of those people who always associated South Park with unnecessarily crude humor, with no basis for doing so. That said, The Book of Mormon is by no means, to quote [title of show], "two tight paragraphs on kittens that your grandma would be so proud of." (Although, much to our surprise, there were many blue-haired ladies in the audience at the show we attended...and they were laughing just as hard as we were.) To illustrate more clearly, we present to you a recent conversation that took place between Hillary and her mom:

Mom: "So why is The Book of Mormon inappropriate for your younger brother?"
Hillary: "Uh.........there's a lot of swearing.......and they use the word 'clitoris'. A lot."
*crickets*

But again, that said, the comedy in this show is 1) a nearly unbroken stream of laughs, and 2) really smart. Even though The Book of Mormon is the first show we've ever attended where the words "explicit content" were printed on our tickets, neither of us felt offended by the material or language used in the show. At first it was a liiiiittle disconcerting to hear AIDS used as a subject of humor...especially only a few weeks after seeing The Normal Heart...but it immediately became apparent that AIDS, and the "c-word," and the meaning of "Hasa Diga Eebowai" which we won't spoil for you, and making fun of Mormonism, was done in such a way that it was contained completely within the world of the story. To us, at least. This is definitely a show that won't appeal to close-minded people - but if you're willing to take a step back and appreciate the irony, sarcasm and hilarious truths employed by the story, you'll be shaking with laughter throughout.

Speaking of laughing like hyenas, we are SO GLAD we forcibly restrained ourselves from listening to the cast recording before seeing the show! While the jokes and puns within the score are really only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of "lines that will make you laugh until your eyes start to water," it was really worth the effort to go into the show as blind as possible. Now that we're listening to it nonstop, we've realized just how good the score is - not that we didn't enjoy it in the theater, but perhaps we were too preoccupied with laughing our asses off to truly appreciate it. Parker, Stone and Lopez work completely within the range of traditional musical theater structure, simultaneously honoring and making fun of the form, and it totally works. (U2 should have taken a hint from this when crafting the score for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.)  The only problem? I can't really let myself listen to the cast recording in public, even with my headphones in, because 1) people would look at me cackling like a crazy person and think I was a crazy person, and 2) a large portion of the lyrics are in no way appropriate to have stuck in your head and then start humming under your breath/belting out in the car at a red light when your windows are down and the driver in the car next to you can hear you. Nope, that's never happened.

In addition to the comedic aspect, the heart that lies beneath the laughs beats loud and clear, bringing the characters' stories full-circle and leaving us feeling fulfilled as audience members. And while Hillary and I would rather see the Tony love spread to multiple shows, rather than heaped all on one show, it was immediately obvious after seeing the show that The Book of Mormon is such a solid, tight production, all the way around, and any resentment we had over the show's awards sweep dissipated instantly. The cast just clicked; excellent direction was obvious from the show's pacing; the sets, sound, and lighting were all immaculate; and the score is fantastically layered, in both lyrics and orchestrations. It was incredibly fascinating to see Mormon the day after attending a performance of Spider-Man, because both shows opened on Broadway with no out-of-town tryout...and to say that they received COMPLETELY different responses is a drastic understatement.

As Mormon's two leading men, Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad are cast so perfectly in their roles that it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Rannells, as an overly-optimistic (and maybe a bit naive), never-do-wrong, confident young Mormon, wants nothing more than to spread the word of God through his faith (ideally fulfilling that duty in a certain Floridian city). Gad, as an overly-optimistic, always-do-wrong, awkward-yet-lovable young Mormon, has the same goal, but needs a bit more guidance along the way as to what the Book of Mormon actually preaches. In a predictable turn of events, the two misfits are paired together on their mission, and the evolution of their friendship becomes the heart of Mormon's book. Both men's voices are incredible, with Rannell's belting strongly and smoothly and Gad's unexpected range especially blowing me away. Many of the show's funniest moments come from each actor's impeccable comedic instincts as well as the pair's juxtaposed physical appearances (with Rannells as squeaky-clean as Barbie's steadfast mate and Gad as the slightly plump nerd character). While neither took home a Tony for his efforts, I thought that the true highlights of both of their performances came when they played off each other.

Over in the realm of supporting actors, Mormon has also achieved near-perfect casting. The visual of a clean-cut, cookie-cutter ensemble of young Latter Day Saints or tribal African villagers is hilarious in itself - let alone watching them break out into a full-on tap number complete with sparkly pink vests and a Clapper. Said number was a showcase for Rory O'Malley as Elder McKinley, a shy young Mormon struggling to repress thoughts of homosexuality; his scenes were some of my absolute favorites in the show. Nikki M. James as Nabalungi, the ever-optimistic and wide-eyed daughter of the tribal chief, also delivered a performance that was impossible not to root for. While we personally still would have given the Supporting Actress Tony to Laura Benanti (she's just ridiculously talented/unabashedly honest/perfect, okay?), James' work onstage made it easy to fall in love with her. The difference between the two awesome ladies? Benanti was wonderful in a not-so-good show, James was wonderful in a great show.

If you really break it down, all religions have a component or two that seems a little extreme or just plain weird. No offense to any Mormons who might happen across our humble blog, but some parts of their canon are absolutely hilarious. God lives on a planet called Kolub? The Garden of Eden is in Jackson County, Missouri? In 1978 God changed his mind about black people? All are mentioned in the show (in just one song, to be more specific), and all are based on actual Mormon beliefs and historical happenings. Not to be discriminatory, however, the show pokes fun at other religions too (i.e. believing something "just....'cuz"), and SO many different groups of people that it would take all the fun out of it to list them all here. But strangely enough, Mormon's conclusion doesn't leave audiences thinking that atheism is the last hope (although there's nothing wrong with atheism either). Somehow, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham learn that a common belief such as religion can bond people together and lift them up like nothing else - just as long as those beliefs aren't always taken so literally.

If I remember correctly, Broadway has not seen a production with as much well-directed hype as Mormon has received since 2001's The Producers. There's no question that this runaway hit will be around for quite a while. So try your luck at the lottery, get comfortable on the sidewalk outside the Eugene O'Neill, or shell out the big bucks for a premium ticket - but definitely keep this one on your list, even if it takes you a Latter Day or two to get there.

Jerusalem

A while ago, we set ourselves the goal of seeing more straight plays on Broadway. Based on our usual steady diet of musicals, we'd say we got a pretty good start this season, breaking out of our shells and opening our eyes to some of the fantastic work that relies on pure dialogue rather than song and dance to tell a compelling story.

Jez Butterworth's Jersualem is a production that first played the West End before opening on Broadway this spring. Johnny "Rooster" Byron, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance, is a kind of rebel hero, hiding away in a trailer in the woods and living a hippie lifestyle, making a stand for his chosen style of life as local authorities move closer and closer toward evicting him from the public land he lives on. Like other similar operations, Rooster's establishment attracts a bevy of misfits looking for refuge and  a place to belong, mostly young teenagers, but also including The Professor, played by Alan David. (I'd love to get a copy of the script and re-read his lines to get a better understanding of why he finds Rooster's life and ideals so attractive.) While the play touched on a lot of English folklore and mythical tales (it takes place on the day of a festival celebrating St. George's Day, essentially equivalent to the Fourth of July in its significance to English national pride), some iPhone-assisted Googling at each of the two intermissions helped us to understand the background of the holiday. While Butterworth's dialogue certainly wasn't simplistic, we didn't find it as difficult to jump into as, say, Tom Stoppard's in Arcadia. There were also a few pop culture references in the first act (undoubtedly updated for American patrons) that helped to draw the audience in.

On a random note, the production's scenic design (by ULTZ...we're still not sure if that's a person or a company?) was AMAZING! It featured a lush forest of greenery, complemented with real grass and dirt planted on the stage floor. Heck, the fly that buzzed around in our faces during the show honestly could have been placed in the theater on purpose.

We'd first begun our worship of Mark Rylance after seeing him in La Bete in the fall and just being generally blown away at his ability to completely command the entire performance. You may remember that we predicted him to take home the 2011 Tony for his leading performance...well, turns out we were right, but Mr. Rylance went above and beyond our forecast, delivering a second Tony-worthy performance in the same theater, in the same season. Reprising the role of Johnny "Rooster" Byron from the play's run at London's Apollo Theatre, Rylance gives a one-of-a-kind performance. To describe his work as riveting does not do it justice. Acting seems to be nowhere in sight; he inhabits Rooster's shoes with sheer being. It was only as we were leaving the theater that it occurred to us what the production would have been without Rylance that the strength of his performance truly sunk in.

Ben Brantley's review talked about Rooster as a mythical figure that maybe never really even existed, but that we all want to believe on some level did exist. He's more of a staunch defender of "The Last Frontier" than a crusader for it, which is interesting to think about when you consider the crusader symbolism behind St. George's flag, which serves as the show curtain.

To put it lightly, it was so cool to see Rylance in both of his stellar performances on Broadway at the Music Box this season, although both performances were completely different. He is such a physically grounded actor who conveys an incredible range of emotions through the way he carries himself on stage. And while I believe that British actors tend towards comedy through physicality more than American actors usually do, Rylance delivers much more than a slapstick comedy routine. It's incredible to watch him move around the stage as Rooster, and to see the way he instills the character with pure silliness (dancing around in a ridiculous, not-quite-sober manner, chugging a delicious milk-and-raw-egg concoction, and doing a headstand into a water trough...a woman in the front row "splash zone" was NOT amused by this), and then, by act three, gradually transitions into an intense, panicked rage that was enthralling and a little scary to watch. The way the character limped around the stage on a bum foot made our own ankles hurt - it's no wonder Rylance thanks his chiropractor in his bio!

We had the fantastic opportunity to see Mr. Rylance in Jerusalem just a few hours prior to watching Joe Mantello's performance in The Normal Heart (to say that the day was intense is a bit of an understatement), and to compare the two most-talked-about performances by leading men in a play this season just a week before the Tony Awards. What it boils down to for us is this: Rylance plays a gigantic character who is largely unlikable, and Mantello plays a character who is so small in the scheme of things, but is doing everything he can to become a force of nature, and is admirable in spite of everything because of that. (Ironically you could switch those two descriptions and they'd still be accurate.) We would have been happy for either man to win recognition for his performance, but while Mantello's performance was more moving to us, Rylance perhaps gives a more unique performance, which is partially credited to him as an actor and partially credited to the role of Rooster itself.

While the play is very much Rylance's to lead, the supporting ensemble very much holds their own. Mackenzie Crook as Ginger, Rooster's only true (or believes himself to be true) cohort gave a fine performance opposite his gigantic scene partner with some very funny lines (he continually insists that he is a DJ by night; whether this is true or not, we never learn for sure, and it doesn't really matter). Without spoiling one of the play's most crucial scenes, Crook is heartbreakingly real in his attempt to act as a friend and rescuer to Rooster.

John Gallagher Jr. as Lee (one of the few roles that were recast when the production transferred to Broadway from the West End) fit in surprisingly well with the rest of the British supporting ensemble. Well, not surprisingly...it should be no surprise that we admire Mr. Gallagher's work very much around here. His character was actually quite similar to the role of Johnny in American Idiot; if we're being super simplistic, both Lee and Johnny are suburban kids who ran away to drugs, alcohol, and the "guidance" of a Fagin-like character to "find" themselves.

While my attention was held captive for the entirety of the play, coming in at nearly three hours, Jerusalem is definitely very demanding on its audience members. Again, not spoiling anything because we think you should go see the production for yourselves, but act three was VERY intense and left us scratching our heads a little bit. I think this is partially because we'd never seen a three-act play before, and on some level had expected act three to be full of answers...and that's not exactly what the end of Jerusalem provides. I also think I came to appreciate the play more after it had a few days to sink in. Even now, I still find myself debating whether Rooster is admirable for holding so tightly to the freedom of lawlessness, or a character with no redeeming qualities, a stoner in the woods whose defeat by society was inevitable.

If you've seen Jerusalem, we'd love to hear your thoughts, because this one is definitely food for thought! If you haven't, Rylance's performance in itself is absolutely unmissable. Be sure to catch this limited engagement before it closes on August 21.

So Anyway I'm Leaving...For Good

Okay, this is our last post on Next to Normal. We promise. But seriously this time...seeing the tour together last weekend looks to have been the end of the road for us with our beloved show for a while. While I'd been fortunate enough to catch the tour a few times prior to its arrival in Philadelphia, I could not have been happier for Hillary to finally see the production so we could discuss the cast's interpretation of characters we've come to know quite well. If there's one thing the two of us pretty much rock at, it's analyzing any and every aspect of this show. So here we go, one last time...our thoughts on the show that has been a huge part of our lives for the past two and a half years! (Under the jump, because, let's face it, we're not capable of writing anything less than a novel when it comes to this show.)


The Normal Heart

Alright. As previously stated, Hillary and I are hopelessly, hopelessly behind on everything related to Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas...except for seeing a large amount of shows. At several points over the past two months, it's occurred to both of us just how much quality theater we've been privileged to see as of late. And since our show-going has outpaced our blogging, we're planning on cranking out reviews for the following shows in the next week or so:

- Jerusalem
- The Book of Mormon
- The People in the Picture
- The national tour of Next to Normal
- How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
- Now. Here. This.
- Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

In the meantime, we felt it was only appropriate to devote time first to a little production you may have heard mentioned a few times on the Tony Awards a few weeks back. It's called The Normal Heart. And it's absolutely, hands down, unarguably the most important piece of theater we've ever seen in our lives.

That statement may sound a little extreme if you haven't seen the production, playing at the Golden Theatre through July 10 only. If you have seen it...well, you know what we're talking about. You know what it feels like to sit in the midst of a mass of people sobbing collectively at the realities taking place on stage before them. Larry Kramer's play chronicles the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America, and the efforts of a group of men, based closely on the Gay Men's Health Crisis, to force knowledge of the epidemic into the public mind, at a time when the disease was labeled as "the gay plague," next to nothing was known about it, and those in positions of power chose to ignore it. Written in the midst of that crisis, this revival is strikingly and terrifyingly just as relevant as it must have been in 1985, because, largely, not much has changed about the stigma that still surrounds AIDS .

After seeing a few plays that took a more roundabout way of getting to the point they were trying to make, Hillary and I agreed that it was refreshing to see something on the other end of the spectrum. The Normal Heart is extremely direct and blunt in addressing the urgency of the situation. In the first scene, Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Tony Award winner Ellen Barkin) solemnly welcomes a steady stream of patients into her office; as she informs each of them of their probable AIDS diagnosis, the audience is privy to a list of facts and statistics about the earliest days of AIDS. At first the scene felt a little preachy to me, but in the end, introducing the world of the play to the audience in that way was necessary. It served to set the scene and the pace of both the epidemic itself and the urgency of organizations trying to overcome governmental and public ignorance. No dancing around the facts or softening the situation. The pulsing music between scenes also reinforced the fast-moving nature of the issues addressed in the play. The starkly designed set consisted of a black floor and three white walls covered with raised letters, outlining the entire history of the AIDS crisis (poignantly, we saw the show one day prior to the 30-year anniversary of the first diagnosed case of the disease in the United States).

The leader and founder of the very-much-autobiographical group, Ned Weeks, is played by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best known for his directing work (Wicked, Assassins, and 9 to 5, among others), but whose last appearance on stage was in the original production of Angels in America, where he played Louis. Although he lost out on a Tony Award to the well-deserving Mark Rylance, Mr. Mantello is giving the performance of the season. We have no idea how he runs the emotional gamut of this show eight times a week, let alone twice in one day. Mantello plays a character who is so small in the scheme of things - just one man fighting against an epidemic and the entire city government of New York - but truly believes that he can become a force of nature, and is ultimately admirable in spite of all the bridges he burns because of that.

Ned's partner, Felix, is played by John Benjamin Hickey, who took home this year's Supporting Actor Tony for the role. As a lover, he is appropriately understated and powerfully influential over Ned, when the scene calls for it. Felix is one of several characters depicted or mentioned in the play who suffer from AIDS, making Ned's fight for awareness even more potent. Ellen Barkin, also a Tony winner for her role, plays the hardened shell of a woman who sees death every day and can't do anything to stop it with so much heart and so much rage. The fact that she is a victim of polio, contracting the disease just three months before the vaccine was released, draws an incredible parallel to the stories and journeys of those suffering from and fighting against AIDS. Her monologue in the second act, after a chairman of the medical board refuses her request for research funding, cannot be described as anything other than draining for both actor and audience. Additionally in act two, director Joel Grey's staging called for actors to remain visible to the audience and each other, lining the outskirts of the stage and looking on when not in a particular scene, and Barkin spent the entire act crying quietly off to the side.

The entire cast works together as a true team, as evidenced by their Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. A particular standout to me was Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, the group's elected president, for the strong presence he exerted. I'm not even sure how to go about giving him acclaim for his delivery of a monologue that chronicled the death of his partner. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed anything like that in a theater or in my life, let alone imagined that something like that could take place in the realm of humanity. Mark Harelik as Ben Weeks, who loves his brother Ned but can't quite let go of the idea that homosexuality is a choice, was also impressive in the depth he brought to his character.

A recurring theme mentioned in the play was the negative effect of the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, and what that did for the gay image (essentially creating the stereotype of equating homosexuality with promiscuity). As Dr. Brookner's character points out, having multiple partners spreads a disease like AIDS infinitely and needlessly. Another character's exclaimation, "If they'd just have let us gotten married in the first place, this wouldn't have happened!" drew spontaneous applause from a good portion of the audience, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be now, after the passage of marriage equality in the state of New York.

To be completely honest, parts of the show were painful to sit through - not only because they were so, so horrifically sad, but also because, as a straight female audience member, I felt a sense of removal. At times I felt that I didn't have the right to be sitting there, watching such intimate scenes of physical, emotional, and social suffering, when I've never had firsthand experience with or known someone who suffers from AIDS. And I suppose that feeling leads to my only fear about this production - that audiences will leave talking more about the play (i.e. the production values and actors, many of whom are well-known from film and television work) than the issues. Because the scariest thing is the relevancy of Kramer's play. As audience members leave the theater each night, ushers distribute copies of a letter written by Kramer (which can be read here), asking patrons to "please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened...please know that there is [still] no cure." (The production's final scene leaves Mantello and cast standing onstage, surrounded by projections of hundreds, thousands of names on the walls of the stage and theater of AIDS victims.) Many theater-goers of our generation are familiar with the depiction of AIDS in Rent and Angels in America, but after seeing The Normal Heart, it became all too real to me that nothing has changed. AIDS is still associated closely with homosexuality, funding for research is still minuscule, and millions continue to fall victim to the disease around the world.

If you have the means to see this production before it closes in two weeks, please do. We would also recommend making The Normal Heart your only theatrical experience of the day - I could not imagine seeing anything else, happy or otherwise, immediately following this show, as it requires some time to digest. And if you leave the theater with nothing else, we hope that this powerful production leaves you with a glimpse of the harm that ignorance can achieve, and the need for a continued sense of activism on behalf of all those affected in any way by that silence.