Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Review of Paradise Square at the James M. Nederlander Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Paradise Square. The book was by Christina Anderson, Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas, and Larry Kirwan. The music was by Jason Howland and the lyrics were by Nathan Tysen and Masi Asare. It was directed by Mois├ęs Kaufman, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and music directed by Jason Howland. It was about Paradise Square which was a neighborhood in New York City that was home to many discriminated-against groups during the Civil War era. The musical focuses on Nelly O’Brien (Joaquina Kalukango) as she tries to navigate running one of the most popular bars in the area, sheltering escaped enslaved people, and the draft riots and the effects of the civil war on her family. It is a riveting, reflective, and socially relevant celebration of home, diverse cultures, and the dance and music that help get us through hard times.

I loved how much dance is a part of this show. The combination of Juba and Irish dance styles blended with contemporary dance accented the period well and was a great celebration of the mixing of cultures. The dancing was beautiful but also parallels the social unrest in the period. Two of the main characters are Owen (A.J. Shively) and Washington Henry (Sidney DuPont) who are both new to Paradise square. Washington Henry has escaped slavery and Owen has escaped famine in Ireland and both of them share a passion for dance. I really enjoyed watching the process of them discovering each other’s dance styles and picking up techniques from one another. They start to perform together, but eventually they are forced to compete and find themselves battling over who deserves the prize money more. This competition powerfully symbolizes the catalyst for the draft riots, where the disadvantaged fought among themselves, prompted by the rich and powerful Anglo-American political leaders. I really enjoyed how the dance was connected to the overall themes of the show. Sometimes in a dance number in a musical, the plot ceases to move along. It is interesting to watch but it doesn’t make a point. But here they use dance as a plot device not as a “break.” 

 “Breathe Easy” begins with Angelina Baker (Gabrielle McClinton) singing to herself, waiting for her lover Washington Heny to come find her. I think McClinton’s performance was intimate and very moving. At first it felt like Angelina was unsure if she could get through this and be free with the person that she loved, but as more and more voices joined her, including the voice of Washington Henry, you saw her determination and confidence grow. As she is surrounded by those who came before her, encouraging her, it felt like the room had been transformed and everyone was focused on the storytelling that was happening onstage. The reason why “Breathe Easy” has so much impact is because even though Washington Henry and Angelina Baker have escaped slavery and found each other again, the play doesn’t neglect to reflect on and remember the people who were not able to escape or survive. Even though this musical focuses on the hope and relief that came for Washington and Angelina, it doesn’t forget the disgusting and tragic truths.

My favorite relationship in this show was the one between Nelly O’Brien and her sister-in-law Annie Lewis (Chilina Kennedy). They sang a song together called “Someone to Love,” which focused on how much Nelly had lost during the war and at the start of the riots. What made this song different from most other love songs in musicals is that it honed in on the loss of romantic love and the redirection of that love to family, work, and community. Since both Annie and Nelly lost the same person who was important to them in different ways, Annie tries to remind them both that they should be happy that they had someone to love and that they still have each other to love. It was my favorite song in the whole musical because it felt very genuine and it modeled a type of love that isn’t modeled that much in our culture. “

Let it Burn” was so beautifully performed by Kalukango. She brought so much raw emotion to this song that made her stepping out in front of the people of her community even more breathtaking. She punctuated moments with breath that meant just as much as the lyrics. The song also has so many levels. It was a ballad but drew from so many different types of song. It had initiative and drive to it, even though clearly Nelly is exhausted and has lost so much. In this song she is declaring that she doesn’t need the property or the physical neighborhood, all she needs is the people behind her. Her performance reminded me why I love theater so much--because of multilayered, intuitive, and thoughtful performances like hers. People who would like this show are people who like celebrating varieties of love, moving and relevant music, and dancing metaphors. I absolutely loved where this show is going and it reminded me of so many things I love about musical theater. I am so excited that I got to see it before it moves to Broadway.

Photos: Kevin Berne

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Review of Thirteen Days at City Lit

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Thirteen Days. It was by Robert F. Kennedy, adapted and directed by Brian Pastor. The play is centered on the Cuban Missile Crisis from the perspective of Robert Kennedy (Kat Evans) as he helped his brother John F. Kennedy (Cameron Feagin) and other major players in the U.S. government in the early 1960s. It is about determination, diplomacy, and family.

I really enjoyed the concept for this show: assigning the roles of male U.S. government officials to female-identifying actors. Having this dynamic is intriguing, however I was confused as to why they chose this script to make that choice. The relationships and context of the Cuban Missile Crisis do not seem to have been affected predominantly by gender. If it had been about women’s rights, like abortion rights or women’s suffrage, the concept could have been more effective. I feel as if it may have been more effective to change the gender presentation of one or all but one of the characters to amplify the significance of gender norms at the time. I feel like it could also have made a more relevant statement to have the cast play these characters as women instead of putting on male personas mimicking the original genders of the characters. The choice to have female-identifying actors didn’t feel like it changed the narrative of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so it felt somewhat arbitrary to me. 

I enjoyed the moments of humor within the show, especially in the scene at the UN. In this scene, Valerian Zorin (Maggie Cain), the Soviet Ambassador, had a translation earpiece that helped him understand the speech given by Adlai Stevenson (Anne Wrider). As Stevenson spoke, Zorin grew more agitated. But before he would speak there would be a dramatic and humorous pause while he waited for the end of the translation. This also made Stevenson’s quips get very delayed laughs from the delegates, the loudest and most mocking of course being from Zorin. I loved the gradual build in this scene. It was very well thought out, and the actors had great comedic timing.

I think this show has real educational value. It is much more entertaining than the textbook in which I learned about this event during my freshman year. It really amplified the significance of the relationships in the Cabinet, especially between the Kennedy brothers. This relationship is made more poignant by the last moment of the show which slyly references the fact that both of them will be assassinated in the near future. JFK mentions Lincoln’s facing a similar difficult crisis and going to the theater to celebrate, which brings a very clear connection to the audience's mind, since both presidents were assassinated.

People who would like this show are people who like new approaches to historical theater, eerie foreshadowing, and loud Russian laughs. I think this is a very interesting concept for a show that needs some fine tuning. There were some strong performances and dramatic plot points. It is a very engaging way to revisit this historic event.

Photos: Steve Graue

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Review of Kinky Boots at Paramount Theatre

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Kinky Boots. It was directed by Trent Stork, music directed by Kory Danielson, and choreographed by Isaiah Silvia-Chandley and Michael George. The book is by Harvey Fierstein based on the film written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth. The music and lyrics are by Cyndi Lauper. Kinky Boots follows the intertwining stories of Charlie (Devin DeSantis), a man who has inherited a failing shoe business, and Lola (Michael Wordly) who is an awe-inspiring London drag performer with an infectious spirit (infectious in a good way). They end up starting a business together, as Charlie's last resort, making boots for drag queens, but they end up breaking free of the bonds societal norms put on them. It is about embracing femininity, finding your own path, and white men being let off the hook. I think this is a very well done and empowering show full of stunning queens and vocal acrobatics.

Every scene with Lola was completely breathtaking. Michael Wordly’s performance of this role gave just the right amount of sensitivity, sultriness, and swagger. When you go to see a production of Kinky Boots, of course you are going to look forward to seeing Lola and the performer’s take on the iconic role. What Wordly did very well that I haven’t seen before is that, during the first part of the show, even though Lola is the embodiment of confidence in her performances, there are glimpses of that uncertainty about herself that makes Lola such a complex and lovable character. In “Land of Lola,” the energy in the room was palpable. The audience was in awe of the performance. I also loved the individual presence and personality of each of the Angels (Terrell Armstrong, Anthony Avino, Matthew Bettencourt, Christopher John Kelley, Anthony Sullivan Jr., and J. Tyler Whitmer) Lola’s backup group. Each Angel had their own drag style, and I felt like I got to know each one, No one blended into the background. When she is away from her Angels, Lola’s vulnerability is clearer. It is most evident in “Not My Father’s Son,” which takes place when Lola has come to the factory for the first time out of drag. Even as Simon, Lola still wears her nail polish, but that is not enough of a barrier against the harsh words of some of the less open-minded workers, like Don (Mark Lancaster). This song reached into my heart and pulled it out. Every word that Simon uttered was genuine and emotional. When is in drag as Lola, Wordly likes to punctuate his points with high notes, but in this song everything is more soft and gradual. Almost every note drew out and showed a journey from fear to resentment to resolution.

I love many of the messages in this show, like being true to who you are and opening your mind to others. However, I feel like the level of forgiveness that Lola shows Charlie is slightly concerning due to the hail of offensive insults that Charlie throws upon her just days before the fashion show they have been planning. If Charlie hadn’t gone on for so long pelting Lola with abusive language, I would understand a bit more why Lola chose to forgive him. Because Lola does eventually help Charlie out and forgive him, Kinky Boots is added to the already lengthy list of shows that promote the narrative of white men being forgiven by underrepresented groups. Charlie joins a long line of white male characters who are invincible to taking responsibility for their actions and who avoid consequences they deserve. If Charlie had done any grand gesture, like the more straightforwardly prejudiced Don did, to show that he had changed as a person and was trying to improve, the narrative would have provided a better example of how to change and make amends for your ingrained biases. But, because Charlie is the main character, all he seems to need to do is apologize when really that isn’t enough. Don helps put together a group of people to stay overtime and help make Lola’s vision a reality. Don did something to show that he was changing, which at least shows the path to change instead of the path to immediate forgiveness and gratification. I in no way want to say I didn’t enjoy Devin DeSantis’ performance as Charlie. The flaw is in the script. Charlie has a song called “Soul of a Man” that DeSantis absolutely crushed. His vocal performance paired with his raw emotion made for the perfect power ballad. Lauren (Sarah Reinecke), like Lola, seems perhaps too quick to forgive Charlie so the play can wrap itself up and get to a happy ending. It’s not that I don’t want a happy ending, but I would like it to come as a result of a real, trackable change in Charlie. Reinecke did an absolutely masterful job with this role. She found the perfect balance between the comedy that her character’s song, “The History of Wrong Guys,” contains and relatable and believable moments of self-realization. I think the performers seemed like they would have been able to do even more nuanced work around the issue of transformation and forgiveness if the script had given them space for that.

The ensemble for this show was absolutely amazing. They had an overarching sense of community that carried from scene to scene and character to character. The workers in the factory are all supposed to be like family and each person in the ensemble gave the factory scenes a palpable sense of community and love. Each ensemble member also had a very distinct and lovable personality. Even when characters had flaws, it was hard not to feel love for the character just like the friends of the character did. This effect on me was especially evident in the relationship between Trish (Christina Hall) and Don. They clearly love each other and see the good in each other. Pat’s (Dana Tretta) character was also fully realized and very open-minded from the start. She had a fun-loving personality that made every scene she was in enjoyable. I know that I have seen an amazing and well-cast ensemble when everyone clearly knows who they are on a deep level and brings something to any scene they are in, no matter how large their role in it.

People who would like this show are people who like stellar ensembles, complex drag queens, and shoe-motivated changes in perspective. This is an amazing production to see as your welcome back to in-person theater. I missed the community of theatermakers and theater lovers and the joy that fills the room when they get together. I’m so glad to be back.

Kinky Boots runs through October 17, 2021 at Paramount Theatre

Photos: Liz Lauren