I Love New York

I really do, you guys.

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The view from just outside our hotel. That’s Times Square down the street.

About a month ago, I went to New York City – my favourite place in the world. And I finally have time to tell you all about it, because holy god, I saw a lot of theatre, and that was the best money I’ve ever spent in my life.

On my wedding blog, I talked about going on a pre-honeymoon, because a honeymoon after your wedding isn’t always an option – sometimes you have to work, or deal with immigration visas, or maybe you just don’t have the money to go on a sweet vacation right after you get married. This trip was sort of those things, but honestly – I just wanted to go to New York. And I had Hamilton tickets. Hello!

Over our six days in the Big Apple, we saw four shows (I entered some lotteries to fill our Wednesday matinee but to no avail, so we spent our afternoon in Central Park instead). Let me talk about them all while showing you semi-related photos.

Tuesday, February 21: Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812
Imperial Theatre
Understudies: None

This show is a trip from the very beginning. I was in this theatre three years ago to see

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Outside the NYPL. Jeremiah called it a “knowledge palace.”

the Les Misérables revival, and it has been completely transformed. You walk in just having been in 2017 New York, and the box office and lobby are communist Soviet Union, coated in anarchist posters and spray paint and exposed concrete and brick. But then you walk into the theatre, and you once more are transformed to 19th century Russia, where dreamy red curtain and tea lit mirrored tables intersperse with the seats. You’ll hear people talk about how interactive this show is, and they’re not wrong – cast members stared into my face and I sat in the very back row. They threw perogies at me and they were incredible. Girls in the rows below me got egg shakers and papers and a front-row seat to some crazy club scene domination. I’m predicting it for the Best Musical Tony already, simply because this is the most interactive, innovative experience I’ve ever had in a theatre ever in my life, and I doubt anything will ever come close again.

I’d listened to the cast recording before, and I knew the story was only so-so, but the incredible set, choreography, and overall spectacle make it worth the trip.

Wednesday, February 22: Sunday in the Park with George
Hudson Theatre
Understudies: None

This show holds a very special place in my heart. As you know, I wrote a book heavily featuring Sunday, and it was an absolute dream to get to see it in person – and not just in person, on Broadway. With Jake Gyllenhaal (who was the PERFECT George) and Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford. What is my life, you guys?

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The Broadway Theatre, where Miss Saigon is currently playing. Eva Noblezada has a shot at a Tony too.

Sunday has always been troubled in its productions, but this one was absolutely perfect. Every time I think about it, I get misty-eyed. It was precise, dreamy, and story-driven, not set-driven like it’s often mistaken for. This production finally gave the story the spotlight it so desperately needs, and it was perfect.

I went last preview, and Sondheim went the next night for opening.  I never saw him in the street or anything but it somehow still gives me chills knowing that we were in the same city at the same time.

Thursday, February 23: Dear Evan Hansen
Music Box Theatre
Understudies: None

Ben Platt is going to win a Tony Award or I’m going to do something dramatic. Everything you’ve heard about his performance is true. He is breathtaking in the title role. So much so that I think once he leaves, this show will suffer.

That’s not to say that it isn’t an incredible show – it completely is. It’s a beautiful story

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Central Park.

that I know I’ll go back to over and over again in my life because I’ll be able to relate to a different character in different stages of my life. But the story is kept secret, and for good reason. It’s better to find out when you’re there. But without his outstanding performance to brag about, I’m not sure it’ll be as big of a sell. But tickets are on sale through March 2018 right now, so I think they’ll be fine.

A totally original show, and totally unmissable. If you can get tickets, go. Don’t hesitate.

Friday, February 24: Hamilton
Richard Rodgers Theatre
Understudies: Jevon McFerrin as Hamilton

You all know how Hamilton goes, so let me talk about the new cast members (new from the cast recording) that I got to see.

Three words: Brandon Victor Dixon. Oh my God. Leslie Odom Jr.’s Tony winning performance is a calm, composed Burr, but BVD is the opposite. He’s sassy, he’s annoyed, and in the second act, he’s ready to get his. He pushes the role vocally and physically, and was undoubtedly the star of the show.

Mandy Gonzalez was a commanding Angelica. She also pushed the role vocally and when she was on stage, all eyes were on her. I started crying during “Schuyler Sisters,” that’s how good she was.

Jevon McFerrin, son of Bobby, gave a new approach on Hamilton. He wasn’t as silly or sly as some interpretations are, but being (probably) one of the youngest people to play the title role, his naïvety came across in the first act, perhaps more than full-time Ham Javier Muñoz (who was out because of a back injury at the time), known as the “sexy Hamilton”, brings to the role.

I spent a lot of money on this trip, but I would do it all over again. New York is my soul city. I feel so renewed when I’m there. After we saw The Great Comet and we were walking back to our hotel room (side note: stay at the Wellington Hotel when you go to NYC if you’re all about location), I told my fiancée that going to theatre to me is like going to the spa – and Broadway is the biggest and best of all.

Review: Fighting Chance Productions’ American Idiot

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The cast of American Idiot. This looks suspiciously similar to my high school’s Grease cast photo.

Like every other person who was a teenager after the nineties, Green Day was part of the soundtrack of my angsty rebellious years (which, in my case, was mostly staying up later than my bedtime and wearing a lot of black). The album American Idiot has become a rite of passage in learning how to stick it to the man, and it also, ironically, skyrocketed Green Day into the commercial spotlight.

In 2009, the album was turned into a Broadway musical, using the music from the album, as well as selected tracks from Green Day’s next album, 21st Century Breakdown, as its soundtrack. It won a pair of Tonys (for best scenic design and best lighting design), but to be frank: the show itself is weak. It’s hard to make something out of nothing. There’s very little story, but someone desperately wanted to try to thread together unconnected songs until they made sense. The show begins with three best friends wanting to get out of their one-horse town (as every punk song ever describes): one gets his girlfriend pregnant and stays, one joins the army, and the last goes on a drug-fuelled romp through “The City,” finds the girl of his dreams, screws up the relationship, and comes back home. The protagonist never learns anything, no growth really occurs, and the audience is sort of lost trying to make sense of all the characters and how they weave together. It’s clear that the show was only open for a little over a year on Broadway because of its name.

But I digress. Fighting Chance is producing the western Canadian premiere of American Idiot, a feat they should be proud of. The young cast swings off of ladders and wheeled staircases (which, admittedly, distracted me as a former warehouse employee – none of the staircases were ever stabilized throughout the show and someone could have been seriously injured had they slipped) wearing rock n’ roll t-shirts and ripped jeans. This show definitely encapsulates the feeling of being young and only afraid of one thing: becoming your parents.

What impressed me most about this specific production was how multitalented the cast was – a number of times throughout the show, a character will stop to not only sing the song, but accompany themselves on guitar, drums, violin, or even the accordion. At the end, all of the cast came on stage to sing the friends-forever anthem “Time of Your Life,” all holding and playing (or at least, pretending to play) acoustic guitar.

Although the three leading men are the ones who get the most stage time, the real standouts were some of the ladies in the cast, specifically Allyson Fournier as the pregnant teen Heather and Tiana Swan as the Extraordinary Girl.

All in all, the show does a good job of reinterpreting its source material. This specific production is how the show should be seen: performed by kids full of piss and vinegar in a non-profit couple hundred seat theatre. If I had watched it in a multi-thousand Broadway house, I probably would have gagged at the irony.

American Idiot runs until August 27 at the Waterfront Theatre on Granville Island in Vancouver. Fighting Chance is simultaneously performing Heathers: The Musical at the same theatre until August 26. You can get tickets for both here.

Review: The Q Brothers’ Othello: The Remix

My ticket for Othello: The Remix at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

I knew I was in for a different experience when I walked into the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and I heard Nicki Minaj’s booming voice: “I’m a motherfucking monster” was pounding through the speakers.
And it turned out to be the most fun experience I’ve had in a long time. 

My friend and I sat beside the stage, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else: right in the action. We sat there bobbing our heads to Outkast and Biggie tunes before the DJ (this show has its own DJ? You bet) climbed the ladder to his nest and took his seat. Then the four main players — GQ, JQ (the Q Brothers), Postell Pringle and Jackson Doran would play every part —  took the stage. 

I was afraid I would be lost: I’ve never read or seen any adaptation of Othello before. To be honest, I Sparknotes’ed the plot summary but it was too long and I decided to wing it. I wasn’t lost at all. 

Maybe it’s the months of listening to Hamilton that got me prepared for being able to follow the fast raps, but I think that’s only part of it. Mostly, I could follow it because it was so smartly written with knowledge and experience since the Q Brothers do this all the time. Othello is only one of many “ad-RAP-tations” they’ve created. 

The troupe has been performing Othello for four years, so they have it down to a science. Their rhymes are slick and fast, but still well-paced that the audience could follow along easily. None of the rhymes were forced, even when rap star Othello is talking to his label CEO, who is obsessed with tennis and doesn’t stop talking about Agassi. There are some smart pop culture references: “a few good men who could handle the truth,” Iago and Amelia: “You witch! / I’m not a witch, I’m your wife!” 

The simple utilitarian costumes made for quick changes onstage. When GQ played Iago, he donned a green hat and shirt along with his green shoelaces to show he was green with envy. 

I think Willy Shakes would be stoked to know that 400 years after his death, people are turning his work into raps: keeping the message, changing the medium, but keeping that same beautiful rhyming flow. 

My only complaint is that Cassio never played a Casio. But he does have some sweet dance moves. 

Othello: The Remix runs until May 8 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Get your tickets at ChicagoShakes.com.

Review: Winnipeg Studio Theatre’s Heathers

IMG_4014Let me start with a disclosure: I went in to this one fully and totally already obsessed with Heathers.

Two years ago, almost to the day, Heathers opened Off-Broadway. It ran for about four months and never transferred to the big time, but the cult classic movie was now a cult classic musical. It got a cast album (which doesn’t necessarily happen all the time for an Off-Broadway show) and now, it’s being performed regionally across North America.

After I had listened to the album a bajillion times, I tried watching the Heathers movie, and I fell asleep part of the way through. I don’t even remember where, it wasn’t the end. All I could focus on was how nobody looked like they were high school age and that made it not relatable.

But Heathers the musical? I’m all about that.

Let me start with that the Tom Hendry Warehouse is a beautiful theatre. It’s well-kept and under utilized. All of the seats ascend with each new row, so in my third-row centre seat, I was eye-to-eye with the performers. And I loved it.

Like I mentioned before, I’ve listened to the cast album dozens of times. I know where every breath goes. Going in, I was worried that whoever was playing Veronica wouldn’t be able to live up to Barrett Wilbert Weed’s notorious high belting. I was not disappointed. Julie Lumsden was incredible as the geek-goes-chic protagonist. I realized halfway through the first act that although the show is called Heathers, Veronica is in almost every single scene. If she were a weaker performer, the show would’ve fallen on its face. But she wasn’t. And it didn’t.

One of the things that bothers me about the Heathers movie is that Christian Slater is so creepy that I have a hard time believing anybody would ever want to approach him, let alone date him. But Matthew Fletcher was the perfect combination of cute and charming as JD, who only reveals what he’s capable of after Veronica has fallen for him. And them pipes. “Freeze Your Brain,” JD’s ode to Slurpees, is one of my favourite songs in the show, and not only was it delivered perfectly, but Fletcher showcased all of JD’s intentions and emotions within the number.

Despite her character being dead for most of the show, Brittany Hunter made an incredible Heather Chandler, serving as the devil on Veronica’s shoulder. She was able to perform the exact formula of beauty queen, comic relief, and “mythic bitch” that the role needs.

Like I said, Veronica is in almost every scene of the show. The only one she isn’t in is the one where she doesn’t need to be: Jillian Willems’s “Kindergarten Boyfriend” was more than enough to stand alone. Martha Dunnstock spends most of the show being the butt of the joke, but she gets her own time to shine here.

The simple set did the job, Kayla Gordon’s directing was superb, and the four-piece band played the score without missing a beat. The only thing I’m choked about is that I missed WST’s production of Spring Awakening.

Heathers runs until Sunday, April 10 at the Tom Hendry Warehouse. You can and should get tickets here.

Review: Theatre Projects Manitoba’s Reservations

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Steven Ratzlaff, Sarah Constible and Tracey Nepinak star in Reservations, now playing at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Image courtesy CBC.

I hate being late.

My friend and I jogged a few blocks from our parking spot so that we would be on time for Reservations. We made it, with extra minutes to spare, but I found that I wasn’t the only one that had this concern.

Reservations is two one-hour plays stitched together to be one normal-length play with the same theme. In the first act, aging farmer Pete wants to give away his former farm land to the Siksika people, since it was originally theirs before the settlers came in. He is also worried about running out of time.

Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about indigenous culture and issues. As much as I try to pay attention to news articles and be aware of the world, it’s not something I’m actively involved in. I wondered if playwright and actor Steve Ratzlaff shared the same experience. Why a non-indigenous man would write a play about indigenous issues intrigued me. Of course, these stories need to be shared, but it takes caution and great care to write about a culture that isn’t your own. So I asked him during the talkback. He told me that for the second act, he came across “a story” that moved him and he followed the Phoenix Sinclair inquiry. And for the first act, he said was influenced by people he knew in Alberta. And that was it.

Alright, thanks Steve.

The stories, though framed by indigenous issues, were about white people. The first act focused on the struggle between a father and his entitled daughter and her potential inheritance going away. The second act was about a couple who fostered indigenous children and didn’t want them to be re-integrated into their “place of origin.” Out of the three actors, one was indigenous. I appreciated that Ratzlaff didn’t try to write stories rooted in indigenous perspectives – because frankly, that’s not his place to do so.

Actress Tracey Nepinak had only good things to say, though. During the talkback, she said it was “brave” for Theatre Projects to be taking on a show dealing with these issues.

I see a lot of musicals (if you haven’t noticed by now), but it’s been a long time since I saw a play without singing. The last honest-to-goodness play I saw may have been my high school’s production of The Princess and the Pea six years ago. So although the structure of experimental plays aren’t necessarily something I’m experienced in, I know it when I see a good stage story. Though I walked away from the play initially feeling content with my theatre experience, after reflecting for a while, I realized it lacks some basic storytelling pillars. With both plays, there was no protagonist. None of the characters make any choices, which means that none of the characters have story arcs or progress in any way. This was deeply unsatisfactory.

Despite the literal 20-minute Heidegger lecture in the middle of act two, the thing that really took me out of the play was the use of the c-word. A woman says it to another woman (which I have never encountered in real life) in the middle of an argument. The male playwright knew exactly what kind of reaction he was going to get with that word, and so for its use, it’s a cheap sucker punch and lazy.

The set was the star of the show. The actors interact with a simple table and chairs most of the time, but the three hanging projector screens in addition to the backdrop is the real beauty. They show beautiful prairie fields blowing in the wind, dipping from colour to greyscale depending on the intended mood of the scene.

Though the messages are well-intentioned, Reservations leaves the audience grasping at straws. These two mini-plays should have been two flushed-out, two-act plays with story arcs and resolutions. They don’t have to be happy resolutions or even complete ones, but when your audience doesn’t applaud at the end of the act because they don’t think the story is over, you have a problem.

Reservations runs through March 20 at the Rachel Browne Theatre. Tickets are available at TheatreProjectsManitoba.ca.