Stage Kiss

Here’s a little update on me: It’s been a busy week with the production I am working on.  I was put in charge of all of the wardrobe, which has been a huge undertaking.  The biggest part of that job is orchestrating all of the laundry, as some of it gets hand washed, some gets taken to a laundromat, and some gets dry cleaned.

Last week, I went to see Stage Kiss, the newest play by Sarah Ruhl, esteemed MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Tony Award nominee, and my favorite playwright.  At first glance, the story of Stage Kiss is simple: two struggling New York actors are cast in the revival of tired, old 1930s melodrama, where the leading actors are forced to kiss each other again and again.  Naturally, this would lead to emotions stirring up between the two and a possible “showmance” would begin.  This gets complicated when the married leading actress, played by Jessica Hecht, meets her single leading man, played by Dominic Fumusa, because they are ex-lovers.  The rehearsal process opens up old wounds from the past between the two, as they struggle to keep their on stage story separate from their personal lives.

The bumbling director and supporting cast of the play within Stage Kiss make up the rest of the characters.  Most memorable among them was Michael Cyril Creighton, who plays the director’s assistant and who later fills in as the leading man’s understudy.  Creighton completely captures the essence of that actor who just doesn’t “get it” during rehearsal.  All of the laughs in Stage Kiss come from watching the scenes where the actors are in rehearsal for the forgotten, old play.  Their antics are all too relatable for anyone who has ever been inside a rehearsal room.

Ruhl is a writer known for rebelling against realism.  She writes in a poetic style and imbues her plays with surreal landscapes.  For example, Ruhl’s Melancholy Play features a languishing young woman who speaks in similes. There is also a scene in her play Eurydice where the heroine appears in a elevator, where it is raining inside.  In some ways, Stage Kiss feels like her most realistic play, yet Ruhl still manages to add her signature touches to the story.  There are a few bold moments that step outside of reality, such as a darkly tender musical number in the second act.  Other moments subtly walk the line between fantasy and reality, which left me wondering if what I was seeing was part of the play-within-the-play or the backstage life of the characters.

Ruhl and Playwrights Horizons have an absolute hit on their hands!  I foresee Stage Kiss to be the Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike of the next season; that is, the hilarious audience favorite that gets produced regionally all over the country.

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Kinky Boots

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The complimentary pin for winners. Photo by Jaymie Bellous.

I really don’t want to jinx it, but I tend to have great luck with winning lottery tickets to Broadway shows but not with getting rush tickets.  As of now, I am three-for-three.  Last year, I won lottery tickets to Newsies; this past fall, I won one seat to Matilda; and today, I won the lottery for Kinky Boots.

This 2013 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical (among many others) was based on the 2005 film of the same name.  Following the plot of the film closely, Kinky Boots tells the story of Charlie, a young man who inherits a struggling shoe factory from his father.  The factory produces sensible men’s loafer shoes, and as Charlie soon learns, the factory produces the shoes even when there are no buyers.  One day after visiting his fiancée in London, Charlie attempts to help a woman, who is being harassed by a couple of hoodlums.  Charlie underestimates her self-defense abilities and ends up accidentally getting knocked out when he tries to help.

Cut to a vibrant bar, where Lola is the starring act in a drag show.  When she steps off stage, she greets Charlie, whom she brought back to the bar to rest.  Charlie, the shoe connoisseur, notices the broken heel on one of Lola’s boots and begins to hatch a brilliant plan.  The drag queens at the bar perform in women’s boots that could not possibly hold up the weight of a man’s body.  Why not create a heel designed to support the body of a drag queen?  In an endeavor to save his father’s factory, Charlie switches from making plain, leather shoes to extravagant and colorful stiletto boots that will stomp down the runways of Milan.

Billy Porter as Lola with the cast of Kinky Boots. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Kinky Boots takes the audience on a roller coaster of emotions, from the exuberant joy over the prototypes of their new kinky boots to the painful apologies that come after accepting those we’ve judged.  You see, on the surface, Kinky Boots has the parts that make up your typical Broadway musical: flashy and ornate costumes, music that makes you want to dance in the aisles, and well-known source material. 

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The marquee of the Al Hirschfield Theatre. Photo by Jaymie Bellous

  Yet behind all of the sequins and eye shadow, the strongest scenes in Kinky Boots are the ones that tug hard on the heartstrings.  Tony Award-winner Billy Porter, who stars as Lola, ignites these moving scenes with unabashed honesty and vulnerability.  Those tears won’t last for long, though, with Porter on stage.  In the next moment, the audience will no doubt erupt with laughter from a Lola one-liner.

Jerry Mitchell’s direction and choreography were innovative and fanciful, featuring the actors performing acrobatic tricks on tread mills in the first act’s finale.  Harvey Fierstein’s riveting kept this viewer at the edge of his seat, and Fierstein’s script provides the actors with the right material to make their performances honest and grounded.  Kinky Boots features a rocking score by Cyndi Lauper with standouts like the seductive tango number “What A Woman Wants” and the inspiring finale that had the audience clapping along, “Raise You Up/Just Be.”

Throwback Thursday to 1812

While sequentially this should have been the topic of my first post, I thought it would be a great idea to post my review of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.  I was fortunate enough to see the closing performance last Sunday.

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Yours truly after the performance. Photo by Sinan Zafar.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 or “The Great Comet,” as it is called for short, is an Off-Broadway rock opera based on a portion of War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  Now, if you are not a fan of complicated Russian novels, you will be relieved to know that “The Great Comet” is not presented in a tight-laced, high-collared way.  The vibrant score blends folk rock and electronic pop with a touch of Klezmer to give off the Russian feel.  You enter Kazino, the performance space, to find a red-curtained room modeled after a Russian supper club.  The audience sits at tables and bar stools and the stage resembles a bar that snakes around the audience.  There were a few small bandstands on either side of the room where the musicians played and the action of the play took place in every which direction.  One moment you might be watching a scene take place across the room and the next minute, you hear an actor behind you beginning the next song.  The effect is invigorating and chilling.

The interior of Kazino. Photo by Chad Batka.

The story follows Natasha, who is waiting for her fiancee, Andrey, to return from the war.  One day, while at a performance of a pretentious opera, Natasha meets Anatole, a dashing young officer.  Natasha begins to fall in love with Anatole, torn between her love for him and her fiancee.  There are many more characters involved, all with complicated connections in true Russian literary fashion.  In the opening number, the actors address the audience directly to introduce all the characters, while reminding the audience that “this is all in your program / You are at the opera / Gonna have to study up a little bit If you wanna keep with the plot / Cuz it’s a complicated Russian novel  / Everyone’s got nine different names / So look it up in your program
/ We’d appreciate it, thanks a lot.”

Philippa Soo as Natasha. Photo by Chad Batka

Philipa Soo dazzles in the title role.  At the start, I dismissed her as just another dewy-eyed ingenue, but after her first aria, Soo really established Natasha’s steadfast love for Andrey. Grace McLean is another standout as Marya D, Natasha’s “strict but kind” godmother.  McLean’s voice has a bravado reminiscent of Ethel Merman that is just so rare in the American musical theatre these days.  Her portrayal of Marya D had many layers; and once you cracked her warm-hearted and extravagant exterior, the morally staunch protector of Natasha was revealed.  Other standouts in the cast included: the multitalented David Abelles as the titular Pierre, who also played a few musical instruments; Briitain Ashford as Natasha’s cousin and confidant Sonya, with a voice that reminded me of Joni Mitchell; Amber Gray as the brazen Hélène; and Katrina Yaukey, who took on a variety of roles with aplomb.

It is a shame that the production has now ended, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of “The Great Comet.”  With such a strong cast, riveting score by Dave Malloy, and a brilliant concept and direction by Rachel Chavkin, I hope to see “The Great Comet” remounted in another city or perhaps–On Broadway.