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.

La La Land Will Make You a Believer & It’s About Damn Time

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The word “magic” gets thrown around a lot, but… Image via IndieWire.

I walked into the movie theatre on Saturday honestly expecting to hate La La Land. It has the most hype for a movie so far this year, and I’m usually disappointed when a movie has this much excitement behind it. But the hype train is real, you guys. And after its record-breaking sweep at the Golden Globes, the hype train has turned into an unstoppable freight train.

 

This dreamy, pastel-painted Hollywood magic only comes along once every few decades. Living in a post-Debbie Reynolds world and having just pored over Singin’ in the Rain for the millionth time, La La Land was exactly what I needed to start feeling hope about the world again. The songs are catchy, the story is human, and the cinematography is dizzying in the best, dancey way.

It’s not without its problems, though. Most of the women sing in high, falsetto voices, which bothered me, because I know Emma Stone can really sing (she played Sally Bowles on Broadway opposite Alan Cumming, for god’s sake), but whatever doubts I had were lost after “A Lovely Night,” the tap number the 21st century needed, and when Stone’s character Mia gets her spotlight at the end, they finally finally let her belt. I also wish that there had been more songs when the characters were upset or angry, as they have to feel extreme emotions on both ends of the spectrum and not only sing when they’re happy.

But really – these are nitpicky, musical snob things. If you don’t scope the Broadway scene for current ensemblist news like I do, you might not even notice these things.

I’ve heard people say that although they don’t like musicals, they loved this movie. Well, I hate to break it to you, pal – but you like musicals. You just hadn’t seen one up until this point that resonated with you. Musicals can be cheesy, and some of them are plain ol’ just not good, but they can also be political, passionate, and can sweep you off into self-reflection and imagination like only theatre can.

So get out there and go see what is already the most award-winningest film of the 2017 awards season. But if you like it, then go out to your local theatre and give them a shot too. If you love the artists in this movie, you’ll love the Mias and Sebastians of real life who are trying to achieve their dreams.


Look, I made a hat! I’m launching my first novella, SON OF SONDHEIM, on January 28 at 7 pm at the King’s Head Pub. Pre-order your copy now & get your launch party tickets here!

Review: Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s Another Way Home

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The cast of Another Way Home. Keith Levit/Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. 

The Nadelmans, the featured family in Another Way Home, are a pretty typical quartet. They could even be likened to The Simpsons, minus baby – a tall breadwinner father, an overbearing, worrisome mother, a troubled older boy and a genius younger girl. So it would’ve been easy to caricature them. But that’s not at all what playwright Anna Ziegler did.

 

In the Canadian premiere of Another Way Home, Ari Weinberg directs a cast of Winnipeg theatre vets in a heartwarming play about how a family comes to terms with growing up – yes, even the fifty-plus parents come to terms with maturing.

At first, it was difficult for me to slot myself into this play. How do I relate to anyone? I’m not an angsty teenager (anymore) and I’m not a parent (yet), so I didn’t feel immediately connected to any of the characters. But as it went on, I started to empathize with all of them.

Philip and Lillian Nadelman are visiting their son Joey at summer camp, where he’s training to be a counselor. When they show up, Joey has a breakdown because he never asked for them to come or care about him. His father yells at him, and Joey bolts. His family, including his sister Nora back home, and his counselor Mike T. spend the play looking for him.

I was a moody teenager (and a moody eight-year-old). I told my parents I hated them when I of course never did, I thought I could be independent when I didn’t have a dollar to my name, and I thought that I had it all figured out – now I know that nobody ever really figures it out. That’s exactly what this play reflected. Philip says that it just hits him that he’s been alive for 54 years and it all seems like it was just yesterday. Does he know how to interact with his moody son so that they don’t constantly quarrel? Of course not. But figuring it out is part of what makes these characters so human.

Cory Wojcik did what he does best – playing an intimidating, howling father. I gotta give it up to the actors that go toe-to-toe with him. If papa bear Wojcik yelled at me like he does some of the characters in this play, I probably would’ve peed myself. He has his tender moments too, which makes the scenes when the claws come out so much more valuable. He just wants what’s best for his family, and he’ll fight for it.

The real standout for me was Darren Martens as Mike T. His collected counselor brings a calming presence to the whole stage, even when he’s not in the scene – a skill usually reserved for actors that are much older. He doesn’t pretend to be wise or have all the answers, but his reserved coolness earns Joey’s respect, the one thing that his parents want the most.

After I left the theatre, I realized that I could see myself in all of the characters. I could see past self in Joey and my future self in Philip. I could see me and my brother in Joey and Nora’s relationship. I could see how no matter what age you are, you never stop growing up and you never stop learning. Audiences of all ages can surely relate to this.

Another Way Home runs until November 6 at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. You can get single tickets, or tickets to this plus a discount on the rest of WJT’s season, here.

4/5 stars

Review: Rainbow Stage’s Shrek the Musical

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Carson Nattrass beltin’ the ogre blues. Image courtesy ChrisD.ca.

I’ve been going to Rainbow Stage since I was six years old. My first show was Big – The Musical. In the last few years, I’ve made a point of trying to catch their entire season. When I heard that they were going to perform Shrek, my first thought was: “That is a big show.”

I’d watched the pro-shot version of the Broadway show on Netflix, and it has got to be one of the largest shows of the last decade. Not only are there plethoras of costume changes, set pieces, cast members, and special effects, but there’s also knowing that you have to fill some of the theatre scene’s biggest shoes – Shrek was originally led by Brian D’Arcy James as the titular character and Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona.

But last night, I was reminded that nobody does big better than Rainbow. (I’m gonna stop saying that word now.)

I saw Ring of Fire, the first show Rainbow produced this year, and although I had a good time, it didn’t fulfill my theatre experience. I watched a group of talented musicians perform Johnny Cash songs, but it wasn’t a show. It felt more like a bio-concert. Rainbow’s done a few of these in the previous five seasons: joining Ring of Fire is also Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. I’m very aware that most of Winnipeg’s theatre season ticket holders are white-haired, but these bio-musicals are something I can experience by myself, listening to a CD and reading Wikipedia.

Shrek, on the other hand, gave me everything I could hope for in a theatre experience: wonderful actors, a moving story, a laugh every now and then, and performances that made me rise to my feet.

Carson Nattrass was an excellent Shrek, mainly because of his impeccable comedic timing, able to ad-lib and feel out the audience’s reactions. If a Shrek doesn’t know how to do this, the show could ultimately fall flat. The point of the show is to be able to make fun of itself, and Nattrass led by example.

Heather McGuigan was a perfect Princess Fiona, never missing a high-pitched note and never letting her male counterpart steal the spotlight when they had a scene together. The two are balanced in such a way that makes you see them as a pair from the moment they share their first scene together.

The only thing that took me out of the story was the microphone problems that seem to plague Rainbow Stage at every show I attend. Sometimes, I chalk it up to being there early in the run (like missing cues when I saw the preview of Les Mis last season). But this was the sixth (seventh?) performance of Shrek, and there were still mics too loud and young Shrek’s mic wasn’t turned on at all for his first (and longest) appearance at the beginning of the show. The mixing will always be an issue, thanks to its amphitheatre atmosphere, but it’s no excuse for why cues can’t be followed. It was so noticeable that audience members began chatting about it during the show.

When a movie (or book or other source) is made into a musical, I have to ask myself whether it was necessary to transfer it onto the stage. When Shrek was made fifteen years ago, the creators must have thought that a movie was the best medium for this story. Did it need to be lengthened and transformed into what it is now?

Ultimately, I wasn’t able to answer that question. I remember seeing Shrek in the theatre, but there were children there that night that may have been experiencing that story for the first time. People there who weren’t expecting the Donkey = ass jokes, and who don’t quote “you cut me real deep, Shrek” on a regular basis. Whether it was necessary or not might be irrelevant, because this show works. The magic of the story is perfect on stage, and the production values weren’t dimmed at all from the Great White Way. Rainbow Stage is certainly living up to their new mantra, “definitely Broadway, uniquely Winnipeg.”

Shrek the Musical runs at Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park until August 31. You can get tickets at RainbowStage.ca.

Rating: 4.5/5