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‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens Off Broadway

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Of all the pet names you’ve heard used to describe your privates, “bootycandy” might be a first. As the title suggests, Robert O’Hara’s wickedly funny and provocative new play, which opened Off Broadway last week at Playwrights Horizons, is anything but demure.

Bootycandy2Through a parade of short scenes ranging from the outrageously-out-there to more intimate, but no less lively exchanges, the writer-director assembles snapshots of gay experience in a particular corner of black culture. Though plainly autobiographical, O’Hara’s play unfolds less like a linear memoir than an episode of In Living Color, with actors performing multiple characters and offbeat sidebars peppering the central coming-of-age story.

We first meet Sutter (O’Hara’s stand-in, a sensitive Phillip James Brannon) as a young fan of late ‘70s Michael Jackson—afro and all—asking his mom (Jessica Frances Dukes) the pressing, prurient questions of adolescence: Why do you call it bootycandy? Can I lick it? Mommy, what’s a blowjob? The following scene puts us in the pulpit of a pastor (Lance Coadie Williams, a master of versatility) whose riotous sermon could double as a missive from RuPaul. Next we’re in the crossfire of gossip calls between neighborhood hens (Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas) over an expectant mom choosing “Genitalia” as her future baby’s name.

Though a bit of Sutter’s story is introduced in act one (including his affair with a bi-curious friend, played by Jesse Pennington), the play’s first half is something of a sprawl. Episodes seem strung together tenuously at best, and the lack of a clear narrative might try audience patience were it not for O’Hara’s killer comedic rhythms and the company’s adeptness at nailing laughs. As it is, the play’s outer edges provide a colorful context for the playwright’s exercise in self-discovery.

Bootycandy1The second act more closely follows Sutter’s personal story, unpacking his family relationships and sexual history and tapping into his latent rage at feeling oppressed by straight norms. Weightier elements, like a teenage Sutter alerting his parents to a potential sexual predator, are balanced with O’Hara’s biting humor, often hinging on outsize black stereotypes.

A uniformly great cast breathes life into O’Hara’s medley of characters, from sassy shade-throwers to those with quieter convictions. Set and costume designs by Clint Ramos impressively juggle the play’s variety-show-speed changes between venues and personalities.

Bootycandy3Aside from a deliciously frank treatment of race and sexuality, the most daring aspects of O’Hara’s play are in its composition, including scenes that break the “fourth wall,” asking (even forcing) the audience to digest the play’s deeper implications beyond sidesplitting laughs. Thanks to O’Hara’s buoyant hand with comedy, these jarring moments of accountability go down like medicine with a spoonful of sugar.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus)


Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open On Broadway in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan’s seminal comedy about a trio of wayward twentysomethings stalling to come of age in ‘80s New York, which premiered in 1996, hasn’t been on Broadway until now. But director Anna Shapiro’s fantastic, finely tuned and terrifically acted production of This Is Our Youth starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, which opened last night at the Cort Theatre, was worth the wait.

TIOY1In its nearly 20-year history, Lonergan’s play has been a magnet for young stars, including Mark Ruffalo (in the original cast), Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon and Anna Paquin—and its definitive portrayal of Gen X inertia is up there with cult films by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. The current cast comes to Broadway from a production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre, with performances that do Lonergan’s quirky, emblematic characters every bit of justice.

It’s Saturday night in 1982. Warren Straub (Cera), who’s just been thrown out of his father’s house for smoking too much pot, arrives on the Upper West Side doorstep of his dealer and personal hero Dennis Ziegler (Culkin). A textbook spaz, Warren is like a small boy in the body of a young adult; he flew the coop with a suitcase holding his rare toy collection and $15,000 he stole from his dad. Dennis, a charming narcissist and high-functioning addict, uses his evolved business sense to sell drugs, works as a bike messenger by day and lives in a Manhattan studio paid for by his parents.

TIOY2The two cut an endearing figure of affluent slacker-dom, and Culkin and Cera (who did another production of the play together in Sydney in 2012) inhabit their characters’ fractious bromance with an engaging ease. Together they hatch a plan to turn a profit moving some coke, and Dennis arranges for Warren to be alone with Jessica (Ms. Gevinson), an FIT student brimming with convictions, in the hopes of getting Warren laid.

Hyper-articulate, aimless and awash in insecurities, Lonergan’s characters share a steady appetite for their next thrill—be it a strong high, sex with a near stranger or intoxicating fear. All three actors expertly craft their own brand of specific, neurotic hunger.

TIOY3The awkward vulnerability that Cera is known for on-screen works perfectly here, and Gevinson (the wunderkind fashion blogger behind Rookie, making her major theatre debut) brings a raw, frenetic energy that matches Cera spaz-for-spaz. Culkin, who’s worked previously with Lonergan on stage and screen, is perhaps most in his element, exuding the sort of alpha-stoner charisma epitomized in cult teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (released the year the play is set).

Lonergan’s story moves in mercurial fits and starts, with quiet drama, rapid escalations and big laughs cropping up around sharp corners. Shapiro does excellent work navigating the turns and developing candid, palpable connections between characters that grab our full attention.

Some two decades on, Lonergan’s title maintains (at minimum) a double meaning—the “our” of adults looking back on their own youth, or referring (with a shrug of distance) to “kids today.” That both still ring equally—and eerily—true is a testament to the play’s longevity.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:brigitte lacombe)


Andrew Rannells on Stepping into Broadway’s Highest Heels in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch:’ INTERVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Tony nominated in 2011 for his turn as an eagerly pious missionary in The Book of Mormon, Andrew Rannells returns to Broadway this week playing the glam-rock trans goddess in Hedwig and the Angry Inch for an eight-week run. Earlier this summer, the cult 1998 musical brought home Tony Awards for Best Revival and for performances by Lena Hall and Neil Patrick Harris, whom Rannells replaces in the show.

From his breakout role on Broadway, Rannells, 35, jumped quickly into TV with a recurring role on Girls, where he plays Lena Dunham’s now gay ex-boyfriend. He also went on to star as a young gay dad in Ryan Murphy’s series The New Normal, which ran for one season on NBC.

AR - hedwig1With his career taking off, the star returns to the stage in a role he’s been primed to play since he was a college student in Manhattan. I talked to the actor about his history with Hedwig, his jump to the screen, and Anne Hathaway’s best advice to him for walking in heels.

Naveen Kumar: Your last role on Broadway had you all buttoned up, so this time’s a little different…

Andrew Rannells: [Laughs] Yes! Yes it is.

NK: Are we watching a drag pro or a novice? Tell me about your history with heels—because they are sky high in this show.

AR: Well, I did a production of Hedwig in 2002 in Austin, Texas, at a theatre called the ZACH Theatre. It’s been a long time. This is obviously a very slick production, and there are things that I don’t have to worry about, like in Austin I had to do my own makeup and put on my own wig. On Broadway, there’s a whole staff of amazing designers who do that for you, which takes a lot of the stress away. I just have to show up! So that’s very nice.

The show itself, weirdly even though it was 12 years ago, I still remembered big pieces of it. Songs are a little bit easier to remember, but I was really surprised by the chunks of the script that I remembered, somewhere lodged in the back of my brain.

NK: So, jumping around in heels: not a big deal?

AR: One of the first things they did was give me a pair of rehearsal heels, and I was a little nervous about it because they were like 5-inch high heels.

I had just stared working on the Nancy Myers movie The Intern this summer in New York, and all of my scenes were with Anne Hathaway. I was telling her about it and she said, “You know what? Just don’t think about it. Women don’t think about it. They just put them on and do it.” That was her big advice and it was actually very helpful, because I just thought, I’m not going to stress about this, I’m just going to put them on and see what happens. Knock on wood: I have not fallen yet.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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New Musical ‘Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

No one can claim a shortage of Broadway musicals about Brill Building artists who became household names—between them, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and Carole King (Beautiful) have the Baby Boomer market cornered—so it seems fitting that Piece of My Heart, an engaging and surprisingly sexy new musical about lesser-known chart-topping songwriter Bert Berns, opened on a more modest scale Off Broadway Monday, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Piece2Writer of ubiquitous ‘60s hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Cry Baby,” Berns didn’t attain the notoriety of some of his peers, perhaps due to his early death from a heart condition at age 38. With two of his children as lead producers, the new musical tells the story of Berns’ career and his surviving family’s conflict over promoting his legacy.

Berns’ daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer) is called to New York City by her dad’s old friend and manager Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), warning her that Berns’ catalogue is in danger of being sold off for a lump sum by her mother (Linda Hart). Predictably, in dad’s Brill Building office, Jessie discovers who her father really was, herself by extension, and finally confronts her mother.

Piece4While its underlying plot is only slightly more original than the E! True Hollywood Story blueprint of its Broadway predecessors, Daniel Goldfarb’s book steers the show, rather than taking a backseat to showcasing the songwriter's hits. Instead of a litany of studio sessions or live performances, Berns’ songs are, for the most part, integrated into the musical’s several love stories. And because much of his music is about different stages of love, the formula works quite well.

Playing a relatively unknown, behind-the-scenes artist is a different kind of challenge from playing an icon, and Zak Resnick’s pitch perfect performance proves he has the makings of a star himself. His voice is both sweet and strong, and he manages to bring a modern sort of sex appeal to Berns that’s rare and refreshing to see in a jukebox musical.

Piece3Director-choreographer Denis Jones hints toward the decade of sexual excitement the songs portend, rather than their author’s achy-breaky heart—to fine affect. While dance numbers pay homage to the decade’s musical mix of styles, Jones forgoes nostalgia for originality and brings a carnal energy to songs otherwise known for being saccharine, if not exactly chaste.

Unlike most artists who die young, Berns knows his heart condition will lead to an early death, fueling his drive to succeed. His story (despite being true) is a potential minefield of clichés that the production for the most part successfully avoids. Maybe because its producers have their father’s legacy as their primary concern, Piece of My Heart stays focused on telling Berns’ story and making his songs sound their best, rather than pleasing the crowd—though it does that, too.  

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Tupac Musical ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

Holler

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

When you imagine what the words ‘Tupac musical’ could mean, you might think back on the colorful verve of ‘90s music videos, the rags-to-riches stories that dominate their soundtracks and find yourself hoping for a big-ticket nostalgic trip down the mean streets of L.A. You’ll find precious few of your (modest) hopes realized in Holler If Ya Hear Me, the surprisingly stagnant and flimsily strung together musical that opened on Broadway last week at the Palace Theatre.

Holler2Rather than trace the iconic rapper’s rise to fame and tragic early death, the show’s creators choose to tell an original story (that’s anything but) about a thinly sketched ensemble of characters struggling against poverty, violence and racial tensions in their unspecified Midwestern city.

In the tradition of jukebox musicals like campy Mamma Mia!, the primary objective of Holler’s watery plot is to string together as many Tupac songs as possible in its two-and-a-half hour run time. But in place of the former show’s knowing wink (or any other gesture of the kind), the material is presented here with an earnestness that only amplifies its abundant clichés.

Holler1Shakur’s songs have a singular sort of gritty, poetic eloquence, many of them broaching the same theme from different angles: man vs. the system—the struggle, its cyclical nature, the impossibility of escape and inevitability of violence. While they add up to a thrilling body of work, combining them into a dynamic story proves difficult. Not only do many of the show’s numbers feel like the same sentiments repeated multiple times over, their quick-spinning rhymes do little to move the meandering plot forward, such as it is.

That story, by book writer Todd Kreidler, concerns John (skillful vocal stylist Saul Williams), who has just been released from prison (on what charges it’s unclear). His ex-best bud Vertus (a moderately hunky Christopher Jackson) seems to have moved in on John’s sometime girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) while John was locked up. In an early scene, Vertus finds out his brother’s been shot and the rest of the story hinges on a vague desire for revenge shared by the whole neighborhood. Tonya Pinkins plays Vertus' mother, a character whose backstory is mined wholly from the song "Dear Mama."

While its music is filled with lyrics about drugs, sex and violence, Holler is remarkably sober and chaste—its characters hardly reach first base and there’s not  a drop of booze in sight until its final scenes—further accentuating how disjointed its songs are from the story they’re supposedly telling. Still, the talented cast does its best to create the world of those songs, and comes closest to doing so in dance.

Holler3Choreography by Broadway vet Wayne Cilento packs the sort of visceral, kinetic energy the show otherwise lacks, making a much-anticipated “California Love” the evening’s clear highlight. But its dance breaks are too sporadic to lift the show from its drudgery and most numbers peter out with little flourish.

Tony winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) has a glittering track record of skillfully told narratives of black America, and Shakur’s pop poetry would seem like an exciting voice to share with Broadway audiences—and in many ways, it is. Perhaps it’s to his credit that Leon doesn’t offer an elaborate production, as Tupac’s lyrics carry powerful messages on their own. But their restless artistry is blunted here, and the larger story they come together to tell doesn’t resonate as the songs do on their own. 

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Trans Rockers, English Gents and LBJ: 2014 Tony Awards Roundup

Hedwig

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Between Hugh Jackman’s dance belt (or lack thereof) and a performance by Neil Patrick Harris in drag teasing everyone from Sting to Samuel L. Jackson, it was a mighty gay time at the Tony Awards Sunday night, which saw downtown cult favorite Hedwig and the Angry Inch win big for Best Revival of a Musical and collect acting prizes for its stars Mr. Harris and Lena Hall.

GGLMBway0858rComedic romp A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the evening’s other big musical winner, taking home both Best Musical and Best Director as well as awards for its book and costumes. Honors for the only nominated musical with an entirely original score proved affection among voters for well executed, traditional-leaning musical theatre.

Otherwise honors were mostly spread among a number of shows, with several big acting wins going to plays and musicals that were unrecognized in other categories. For her star-making turn as Carole King in Beautiful, Best Actress in a musical went to Jessie Mueller, who made history both by performing with Ms. King on stage and breaking into the running man with Mr. Jackman in the aisle. The Best Actress in a play award went to Audra McDonald, who also made history by becoming the first actress to win in all four acting categories, for her turn Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN cap 1431_BThis spring’s acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was another big winner, taking home the award for Best Revival of a Play, plus nods to director Kenny Leon and featured actress Sophie Okonedo (though Denzel Washington, not nominated for his work in the show, was nowhere in sight). Raisin’s strongest competitor in the revival category, Shakespeare’s Globe production of Twelfth Night, took home a featured actor award for Mark Rylance as Lady Olivia.

Best Actor in the play category was another made famous on the small screen, Bryan Cranston for his portrayal of LBJ in political drama All the Way, which also took home the award for Best Play. A new approach to presenting that award, with each of the nominated playwrights introducing his work, inadvertently served to highlight the lack of diversity in the category. While women were underrepresented in creative categories across the board (particularly compared to last season), African American artists were very well recognized, including James Monroe Iglehart for his athletic performance as Aladdin’s genie.

After_Midnight3Tony host Hugh Jackman showcased his song and dance skills throughout, hoofing with the cast of nominated musical After Midnight (a winner for Best Choreography by Warren Carlyle), and heading into the audience to serenade the Best Actress nominees. But maybe his most rousing (and certainly most bizarre) number of the night teamed Mr. Jackman with T.I. and LL Cool J in a rap rendition of a song from The Music Man (maybe there’s a revival on the horizon?).

It was one of several attempts to draw more viewers to the telecast and potential ticket buyers to Broadway and future Broadway, including shows still in the works like Sting’s The Last Ship and a musical adaptation of Finding Neverland (which won’t be on Broadway for two years, and is not very likely to star Jennifer Hudson). Multiple shout-outs to leading regional theatres and about the importance of teachers, mentors and arts education also struck an inviting chord—though perhaps no one was more inviting than Alan Cumming singing the opening number to Cabaret. Hugh Jackman was really gunning for that nipple glitter trend.

Check out a list of all the winners HERE.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus, matthew murphy, brigitte lacombe)

 


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