Best Theater of 2017

theater 2017

Awards and “Best of Lists” may be reductive and creating competition where it just doesn’t need to exist…but they are also a lot of fun. 2017 was a great year of theater attending for me, with subscriptions to Cleveland’s Broadway Series and the Cleveland Playhouse, and several theater-centered road-trips.

I’ve tried to distill the year into an award/best-of list hybrid. The only real guidelines I set for myself were that I couldn’t have more than 10 categories, no category could mention more than 3 shows, and any given show could only be mentioned once.

The category titles in “quotes” are intended to be read in a very Matinee-Lady-Talking-to-her-Friend-Marge voice.

“Imagine being that talented at such a young age.”

Amaris Sanchez as Little Gloria, On Your Feet: the Story of Emlio and Gloria Estefan (National Tour, Cleveland)

Amaris Sanchez didn’t have much stage time as Little Gloria, but her powerful and distinctive voice in early scenes won me over and put in the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the evening.

“I saw the original in New York, but I think this was better.”

The King and I (National Tour, Cleveland)

Something Rotten (National Tour, Cleveland)

I saw and greatly enjoyed the original Broadway Cast of Something Rotten, as well as the original cast of the recent Lincoln Center revival of The King and I. I was skeptical that I would find Something Rotten funny a second time, or that a touring cast could live up to my memories of Kelli O’Hara in her Tony-winning performance.

Something Rotten  really won me over all over again, thanks in large part Josh Grisetti’s immensely likable (and gorgeously sung) performance as Nigel Bottom.

Laura Michelle Kelly was a wonderful Anna in The King and I. She basically belted and backphrased the entire score and I was HERE for that. Jose Llana’s King of Siam was impish, forceful, and relentlessly charming, and he had great chemistry with Kelly. I also think, aside from the boat at the beginning, the production played much better on a proscenium stage than it did on the Vivian Beaumont’s thrust. (And believe me, I loves me a thrust.)

“I’m not just saying this because I’m her mother–I truly think that is the best thing I have ever seen.”

Legendale, music by Andrea Daly | book and lyrics by Jeff Bienstock (The Human Race Theater, Dayton, Ohio)

Jeff Bienstock was my last roommate when I lived in New York. We met when I was the SM on a show he wrote that was produced as part of FringeNYC. Right around the time I started getting ready to move back to Cleveland, he told me about this idea he had for a musical that involved a video game lover, his avatar, and his relationships with people in and out of the game world. Though I always knew Jeff to be a composer, as well as a writer smartly crafted lyrics and intricately plotted librettos, he mentioned that he met a composer named Andrea that he was really interested in collaborating with.

Cut to 5 years later when that musical, now fully formed and called Legendale, gets a full (and very impressive) production at The Human Race theater in Dayton, Ohio. Seeing a packed theater enjoy my friend’s show was certainly the most emotional evening in the theater. It also helped that the show was very good–well written, good score, slick staging, excellent design, and good performances including an impressive leading turn by Max “You’re the One that We Want” Crumm.

“I have wanted to see that my entire life.”

Carolee Carmello in Sweeney Todd (Barrow Street Theater, New York City)

The Golden Apple (Encores!, New York City Center)

Like all people who have ears and the original cast recording of Parade, seeing Carolee Carmello perform live has long been on my bucket list. To see her perform in a role that was deserving of her considerable talents was more than I could have hoped for. She was funny, terrifying, and sympathetic. And she belted the whole damn score because she does not play.

I have been fascinated by The Golden Apple ever since i first read about it in Not Since Carrie. The fragments that were preserved on the original cast recording contain some of the most beautiful and exciting music ever composed for the musical stage. When Encores! (finally) announced it as part of their season I immediately began figuring out how (not if) I would make it to NYC to see it. If the whole piece doesn’t quite work for me (the story felt more like an intellectual exercise in adapting Homerian epics, rather than an organic narrative), the score was beautifully delivered by an incredible cast led by Ryan Silverman and newcomer Mikaela Bennet. Lindsay Mendez, Ashley Brown, and Jason Kravits were also particularly wonderful.

Outstanding Supporting Performances

The Women of Great Comet: Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Amber Gray, and Grace McLean (Imperial Theater, New York City)

Not to diminish the performances of the leads–or the men–in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, but Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Amber Gray, and Grace McLean gave some of the most memorable and original performances I’ve ever seen. Though it’s really a damn shame the show isn’t still running, it’s hard to imagine a Great Comet without this fabulous quartet.

Unforgettable Leading Performances

Mason Alexander Park, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (National Tour, Fisher Theater, Detroit, Michigan)

My partner and I drove to Detroit because the Hedwig tour didn’t come to Cleveland. We bought tickets before we knew who would even be in the cast, but I was excited when Euon Morton (who I loved in Sondheim on Sondheim) was announced. So we were somewhat bummed when we saw an “At this performance” slip in our programs announcing that Morton’s understudy would be on. We were also pretty skeptical about seeing a 20-something take on the role.  He was born after the fall of the Berlin Wall for Chrissake! But reader, let me assure you that he was incredible. Concerns about his age turned out to be a non-issue, and he delivered a fully realized, lived-in, and captivating performance. I later found out it was only his second time EVER going on, which somehow made the whole thing even more impressive.

Heidi Blickenstaff, Freaky Friday (Cleveland Playhouse, Allen Theater, Cleveland, Ohio)

I have seen Heidi Blickstaff perform live more than any other actress that didn’t know personally or work with. And she is always hilarious, deeply moving, and can sing the shit out of anything and everything. Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have proven themselves to be masters of writing accessibly contemporary vehicles for women on a certain age, and in Freaky Friday they–along with librettist Bridget Carpenter–wrote Heidi a bespoke role that took full advantage of her abilities. She nailed every joke while also breaking my heart TWICE with ballads in each act that are among the best things Kitt and Yorkey have written. (Check out this video of her recording “After All of this and Everything.”) In a surprising, and admirable, move, Disney has decided to use Blickenstaff for their upcoming TV adaptation of the musical. I hope the movie comes out well, because this was Tony-worthy work that was only seen in the 5 cities where the production was mounted.

I also need to give a shout out to Emma Hunton. In a “swapping bodies” show, it’s hard to even distinguish where one performance leaves off and the next begins.

Production of the Year

Caroline, or Change (Tantrum Theater, Dublin, Ohio)

This production really encapsulates most of the previous categories. It’s a show I’ve wanted to see in production ever since I first heard the cast recording. The performances across the board, including (especially!) the kids. And I will admit to having a slight personal bias since a few of the cast members were friends and colleagues from my days in New York. But most of all, it was just a pitch perfect production. Well conceived and perfectly executed, with every performance, design choice, and movement working together to tell an increasingly timely and relevant story. The fact that a production this ambitious and “non-commercial” could sell out its entire run in a theater company’s sophomore season in central Ohio is astounding and offers a glimmer of hope for the future of the American theater and the American people.

Special shout-out to director Robert Barry Fleming, who also directed a perfectly calibrated production of Between Riverside and Crazy for the Cleveland Playhouse, which was the best production of a play I saw in 2017.

Honorable Mention

  • Michael Brusaco as Peck, How I Learned to Drive (Cleveland Playhouse)
  • The Cast of The Flick (Dobama Theater, Cleveland, Ohio)

Beautiful in Cleveland

IMG_6989.jpgWhat is in the Mueller family well? Jessie was Tony-nominated Broadway debut in a revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that was otherwise ignored. She won her Tony for her star-making Carole King in Beautiful: the Carole King Musical. Her sister Abby is now playing the role in the national tour, currently playing the Connor Palace, and whenever she’s on stage things are indeed beautiful.

A. Mueller’s King is intelligent, funny, sympathetic, empathetic, and relatable. And she sings real good too.  The show, directed by Marc Bruni with a book by Douglas McGrath, that surrounds her is polished and professional, if not necessarily distinct (although costume designer Alejo Vietti creates some fun period looks and a few magical quick changes).  The story is somewhat thin–Carole falls in love and becomes a successful writer. She gets divorced and records tapestry–and padded with other hits of the era under the pretext that they were written by friends of King or came out of the same office she worked in before moving to the West Coast. This glimpse into the music biz in the 1960s is not as interesting as it could be, but the baby boomers around me sure loved hearing those songs.

But the show has one clear objective–to make you like Carole King and appreciate the emotional context for Tapestry (an album the production assumes you already know and love…and let’s face it, your probably do). In this–thanks in large part to the utterly delightful Abby Mueller–it is unquestionably successful.

The BWYinCLE Series is Announced!

IMG_5408Last night the KeyBank Broadway Series was announced is a surprisingly fun and informative evening. I attended with my chorus buddy Patrick and our excitment in this picture was both genuine and shared by the rest of the capacity crowd in the Connor Palace (which seats 2,800). The announcement of each show was accompanied by some enthusiastic discussion between series producer Gina Vernaci and local newscaster Natalie Herbick. This patter was often joined by a special guest star and/or live musical performance. My thoughts on each announced show – as well as notes on the presentation specials guests and performances – is below.

For the record, I correctly predicted 5 out 7 shows (and one more was a prediction until I changed my mind on February 21st). Correctly predicted shows will be GREEN. Incorrectly predicted shows will be in RED.

Continue reading

5 Things I Loved About If/Then

IMG_6883If/Then is exactly the type of show that makes me glad I’m a subscriber to the KeyBank Broadway series. If I had to buy a single ticket to it…I probably wouldn’t. Not because I had zero interest, but because it’s really easy to think of reasons to not leave the house and not spend money on theater tickets, especially in Cleveland in February, and especially when the show in question was somewhat coolly received by critics and generally overlooked by awards. But boy am I glad I saw it. I found the production smart, tuneful, and quite entertaining. Here are 5 things I loved about If/Then:

  1. Despite If/Then being the definition of ponderous, everyone in it has a lot of fun. And I don’t mean “ponderous” as an insult, it’s simply a fact that the characters spend a lot of time  asking “What if?” I mean, that’s the title of the opening number. And some pretty dark shit happens to them. But the production finds a joy and energy in asking the question and dealing with the answers.
  2. It wasn’t at all confusing. In this musical, a young woman is presented with  two seemingly innocuous choices (get coffee with a new friend or meet housing activists with an old friend), and we see the divergent ways in which her life plays out as she goes down each path. The musical goes back and forth between parallel stories giving “Elizabeth” only enough time to put on/remove glasses to differentiate between “Liz” (she gets coffee with the new friend and falls in love, though is less career driven) and  “Beth” (she meets the activists and has a wildly successful career…and an equally unsuccessful love life). Not only is this all perfectly clear as it plays out, the production has a lot of fun with the transitions and connections between the Liz and Beth’s plot lines.
  3. It works against expectations. It’s a musical about youngish people in NYC trying to discover who they are and what they want–and no one is an artist! Serious career-driven Beth doesn’t wear glasses–Liz, the fun one, does! There’s racial diversity! There is a bisexual character whose interest in both men and women is taken seriously. Even its choice of Madison Square Park as a recurring meeting place is unconventional. Who even remembers Madison Square Park exists? I sure don’t, and I worked half a block away for three years!
  4. The ensemble. There wasn’t a huge chorus–basically enough to play an assortment of bit parts and cover the principals–but their presence added a sense of movement to the evening and helped expand the scale of many of the numbers. And they had some great vocal arrangements.
  5. The SANGING. This musical seems to operate under the philosophy that the audience’s investment in a character is directly proportionate to the amount of belting done by said character. This philosophy is not wrong, and suffice it to say I was VERY invested in most of the characters. Jackie Burns sings her face off approximately every 7 minutes and it is pretty thrilling. This may have originally been a bespoke Idina role, but it’s Ms. Burns’ now, so bow down. In the role of “new best friend”, Tamyra Gray doesn’t have the best material, but is strong voice and is a natural and commanding actress. Janine DiVita is very winning (and underused) as Gray’s love interest. Their Act 2 duet, “Love While You Can” is definitely the evening’s non-Jackie-Burns musical highlight. In the  second most demanding role, Anthony Rapp sounds as good as any Rent fan would want him to.

If/Then. Director – Michael Greif. Music – Tom Kitt. Book/Lyrics – Brian Yorkey. Choreographer – Larry Keigwin.

What will come to #BWAYinCLE in 2016/2017

logo-bigOn March 22, I will attend the Key Bank Broadway Series launch event, at which the shows for next season will be announced. This will be the first season to run each show for 3 weeks (a fact Playhouse Square is REALLY driving home). It doesn’t seem like we’ve had an issue getting first-tier tours to stop here before adding a third week, so I’m curious what effect this will have on the line-up. Does it make us more or less likely to get a show like The Bridges of Madison County to stop here? Would Idina have added Cleveland to her list of If/Then cities it we had or 3rd week? I know literally nothing about how these decisions are made, so this kind of speculating is pointless. That being said, I have been looking into what OTHER cities have planned for 2016/2017 (though most have not announced their season’s yet either) and have created the following list of possible shows. This is probably 50% prediction and 50% wish list.

The list is broken up into 3 categories.

God I Hope I Get It” represents the tours launching in 2016/2017 I most want to come to Cleveland.

I Ain’t Down Yet” lists shows that I wanted to come last year and didn’t, but appear to be making bookings in other cities next season.

Possible…Very, very possible” lists shows that could possibly (or even very likely) come to Cleveland next season…and I’m not particularly excited about it. These are also shows that could come to Cleveland even if they are not included in the Broadway series.

The shows in RED are my best (if random and totally uninformed) guesses and to what will be announced on March 22.
  • Aladdin (This is more likely to happen in 2017/2018 as it launches in Chicago in April 2017…but it could definitely hit Cleveland next summer.)
  • An American in Paris
  • Curious Incident…
  • Fun Home
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch (**added to list 2/5/2016, made a prediction on 2/21/2016)
  • The King and I
  • Cabaret
  • The Sound of Music (Jack O’Brien)
  • An Act of God (** added 2/15/2016 per Denver’s announced season)
  • Amazing Grace (**added 2/11/2016 per this article)
  • The Bodyguard
  • A Christmas Story
  • Finding Neverland
  • The Illusionists
  • The Lion King
  • The Little Mermaid
  • A Night with Janice Joplin (***removed on 2/21/2016 because it’s playing in Cleveland this March)
  • Rent 20th Anniversary
  • Riverdance
  • Something Rotten! (***removed from prediction 2/21/2016)
I may update this list periodically as more cities announce shows. I will try to make revisions clear

Scene in Cleveland: Bullets Over Broadway the musical

Last night I saw the first official performance of the 1st National Tour of Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical. I had trepidation about the show from the start because I knew that, despite this being a 1st National Tour, it was a non-Equity production, which made me queasy both ethically—they’re charging Broadway tickets prices and paying the actors 25% of a Broadway salary—and artistically. Once the house lights went down, however, the cast’s lack of union representation was the furthest thing from my mind.

They didn't sell magnets so I had to make one out of my ticket.

They didn’t sell magnets so I had to make one out of my ticket.

The cast was, by and large, excellent. Recent college graduate Michael Williams is wonderful leading man: instantly likable, an impressive dancer, a fine singer, and in possession of good comedic timing. I imagine this won’t be the last time I hear from him. The three leading ladies—Hanna Rose Deflumeri, Jemma Jane, and Emma Stratton—are all fantastic singers. The latter two are pretty darn funny as well. (Deflumeri had more of a “straight man” role and as such didn’t have to opportunity to exhibit whatever comedic chops she may or may not possess). The remainder of the cast and ensemble fully inhabited the zany world of the show and pulled off Susan Stroman’s impressive choreography (recreated by Clare Cook) enthusiastically.

But a well-executed musical (I’m sure there’s a gangster pun in there somewhere) is not the same as a good musical. And I’m not even sure that Bullets… is a musical to begin with. There were definitely songs, dances, characters, and the general shape of a plot, but they rarely had anything to do with each other. The score represents the first time in which I’ve seen a jukebox musical in which 90% of the audience has never heard of 90% of the songs. The book (by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath based on their screenplay) tried to squeeze in jokes wherever it could, but failed to justify the actions of their lead characters or the existence of the minor ones. (There is a character whose sole arc is seeking psychiatric help for a stuffed dog. Another character gets two unrelated plot lines—if you count “having an affair with a mobster’s girlfriend for no discernible reason” and “eating pastries” as plot lines.) The songs—aside from a phallic ode to hot dogs–were largely devoid of any humor whatsoever unless Stroman was able to find a way to ignore the content and choreograph a joke on top of it, a rabbit she managed to pull out of her hat a few times over the course of the evening. While the performances and heroic efforts of Susan Stroman (at least as a choreographer…perhaps she should consider ceding directing duties to those with a better understanding of musical development) created an evening with much to enjoy, the disjointed affair didn’t give us anything to like.

Broadway Series Preview: Newsies

group-2On Tuesday I will see the second show of the Playhouse Square Broadway Series, Newsies (or, rather, “Disney Newsies the Musical“). This is the only show of the season that I have seen before, having caught the original cast of the Broadway production. I’ve always been a huge fan of the movie, ever since I saw it IN THEATERS and bought the soundtrack, at the Disney store, packaged in a CARDBOARD LONG BOX. I’ve attended Brooklyn-hipster-sing-along nights. For years (and kinda still today) Newsies was my primary reference point of Christian Bale, Robert Duvall, and Ann Margret. And I know that the movie is about 30 minutes of awesome (all of which involves singing and dancing and shirtless men whose ages we will never ever discuss) surrounded by about two hours of really boring movie.

Disney Newsies the Musical was as big of a surprise hit as anything leading off with “Disney” can be. It started at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey and originally came to Broadway under the guise of a “limited run” that would then launch a national tour. But then the “limited run” ran for over two years, fueled by enthusiastic singing and dancing of a corps of muscular, obviously-over-18-but-under-25, men. Harvey Fierstein wrote a new book that streamlined the story, balanced the pacing, and generally greatly improved upon the screenplay. It even took home Tonys for its score (Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman) and choreography (Christopher Gattelli).

So why didn’t I like it nearly as much as I (desperately) wanted to? Continue reading

Scene in Cleveland: Motown the Musical

motownAs I walked down Euclid Avenue after seeing Motown the musical, I was confronted by a series of vertical digital screens staggered along the sidewalk with ever changing displays promoting current and future performances, selling the mere idea of going out (a quartet of white-haired ladies with martini glasses is captioned “It’s Never Too Late for a Girl’s Night”), and dizzying collage of Motown-related tweets with the hashtag #DancingInTheSeats, culled from the previous weekend (and no doubt updated through it’s run.) Even though my show tweets were limited to an instagram of my souvenir magnet (see image to the left) and murderous rage and the audience members behind me, I will confess I too was frequently inspired to boogie in the confines of red velour. I was also frequently inspired to wish I had worn a watch, or that there was enough light to check the program to see how much time I had until intermission/the end. Continue reading