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Bryan Cranston Goes ‘All the Way’ On Broadway As Lyndon B. Johnson: REVIEW



If the finales of House of Cards and Breaking Bad have left a deficiency of political intrigue and binge-worthy Bryan Cranston in your entertainment diet, All the Way, which opened on Broadway March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre, may go at least part way toward filling the void — depending on your stamina and appetite for American history.

1880Robert Schenkkan’s play, in which Cranston tackles another sort of anti-hero as Lyndon B. Johnson, spans the president’s assumption of office following JFK’s assassination in 1963 to his landslide reelection the following year. During that brief time, Schenkkan shows an LBJ as gruff as he is charismatic, strong-arming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (initiated by his predecessor) into law with far more pragmatism than passion.

Making his Broadway debut after performing the role at American Repertory Theatre last fall, Cranston barrels through the dense, detail-laden drama with a masterful presence. His LBJ governs with a thick Texas drawl (more commanding than it is charming, though it’s often both), and a shifty swagger that betrays the vulnerability beneath his power-hungry veneer.

0983For all of LBJ’s cold political maneuvering, Cranston always manages to keep the president’s humanity pulsing close to the surface, opaque as that surface may sometimes appear to be. The actor’s unique, subtle manner of evoking sympathy and disdain in the same beat, so brilliantly distilled in his performance as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, translates powerfully to the stage.

Many actors in the sizeable ensemble play multiple characters, and director Bill Rauch does a fine job of keeping political details clear. Though, as with any historical drama that has an obvious outcome, keeping tensions high is key (we already know, in this case, who ends up on the wrong side of this civil rights debate). Clocking in at nearly three hours, Rauch’s production doesn’t always rise above the level of animated history lesson. 

Particularly in the play’s first act, which deals mostly with the politics of passing the Civil Rights Act and the shifting tide of Johnson’s relationships with Martin Luther King Jr. (a fine Brandon J. Dirden) and other key figures, Schenkkan’s writing is both utilitarian and laced with short-order political jargon—more fitting for historical reenactment than nuanced narrative.

0736The play’s second act proves more engaging, with Johnson’s intense focus on reelection set against popular uprisings and the specter of impending disaster in Vietnam. An outbreak of racial violence, highlighted by the deaths of three young volunteers during Freedom Summer, a project to register black voters, raises the stakes and lends emotional heft to the play’s conclusion. Stripping away the politician’s bravado, Cranston lays bare Johnson’s deepest insecurities in a quietly stunning emotional climax.

The messy clash of social ideals with political realities will always be a timely and relevant story, all the more effective the more compellingly it’s told. All the Way sets itself an ambitious goal; having Cranston in the cockpit certainly proves a great place to start, even if Schenkkan’s drama doesn’t quite go the titular distance. 

Recent theatre features...
Possessed Puppet Satire 'Hand to God' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW
New Musical 'The Bridges of Madison County' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW
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Drag Impresario Charles Busch Dolls Up For 'The Tribute Artist': INTERVIEW
'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW

Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: evgenia eliseeva)

Possessed Puppet Satire 'Hand to God' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW



The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly funny comedy that opened Off Broadway last night at the Lucille Lortel theatre, goes by the name of Tyrone. He delivers some of the most apt criticism of western religion you’re ever likely to hear, and has zero tolerance for B.S.—including from the hand that wears him. A sharp-tongued (and awesomely foul mouthed) sock puppet, Tyrone may or may not in fact be possessed by the devil.

HandToGod290_1Askin’s play, which returns Off Broadway in an MCC production after an acclaimed run at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011, is set in a small Texas town where a few teenage kids meet at the local ministry to rehearse a puppet pageant and stay out of trouble. Jason and his mother Margery (who runs the puppet group) are both reeling from the recent loss of his father to a heart attack. For Marge, running the group seems like a much-needed distraction, for Jason and his puppet Tyrone it’s a lot more than just that.

Aside from his recent loss, Jason is a shy, quiet type and giving voice to his puppet helps raise the volume on his own. Tyrone starts out like the devil on Jason’s shoulder, a wisecracking voice for thoughts the boy might not otherwise say himself. It’s how he first connects with Jessica (Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) his cocky, oversexed rival.

But it quickly becomes clear Tyrone has a mind of his own, or at least a will separate from Jason’s, who can’t just take him off as he pleases. By the play’s second act, blood is drawn, puppet sex is had and it seems an exorcism may be in order. Yet still, his puppet’s violent temper and wild libido are qualities Jason could use himself in moderation—courage to stand up for himself and the nerve to get the girl.

HandToGod193_1Actor Steven Boyer reprises his mind-boggling and Obie-award-winning performance as Jason (and Tyrone), spending much of the play in conversation with his own left hand—from acting out an Abbot and Costello routine to impress Jessica, to full on hand-to-sock combat. Jason and Tyrone are so distinct in personality and their two-way dialogue is so convincing, half the time it’s actually hard to believe you’re watching just one performance.

Joining Boyer from the 2011 cast, Geneva Carr is excellent as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, finding herself stuck in a role she never felt fit to play. She attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg who oversees the church (an always charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.

HandToGod018_1Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel keeps action moving swiftly with careful attention to detail and draws out incredible performances and puppetry from the winning company. Often shockingly funny, the play's disarming humor makes its dark conclusions all the more startling. 

We’re accustomed to puppets who have something to teach us, like the difference between good and evil. Tyrone's lesson that the two go hand-in-hand is likely to stick around in your mind longer than most.

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

New Musical 'The Bridges of Madison County' Opens On Broadway: REVIEW



If the idea of a musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County sends your eyes to the back of your head, director Bartlett Sher’s Broadway production, which opened on Thursday at the Schoenfeld Theatre starring the peerless Kelli O’Hara, will not only dispel your reasonable cynicism—it will likely take your breath away along with it. With music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) and book by Marsha Norman (‘night Mother, The Secret Garden), it is one of the most beautifully sung love stories on Broadway in years.

Bridges285Like the Clint Eastwood 1995 film adaptation starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep (Oscar nominated for her performance, of course), the musical is based on the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller. It tells of a whirlwind 4-day affair in 1965 between Francesa, an Italian immigrant turned Iowa housewife and Robert, a world-traveled photographer on assignment taking snaps of the covered bridges of Madison County for National Geographic.

On the surface it seems like typical paperback fodder for a Harlequin romance, and in Eastwood’s hands — despite his earnest artistry and Meryl being, well, Meryl —  amounts to little more. But in Sher’s production, the affair to remember is at once vividly intimate and shaded with broader themes that resonate deeply in Brown’s lovely score.

Bridges447The show opens with O’Hara as Francesa (giving a career performance in what is already an illustrious one) singing about her immigrant journey, from growing up in Napoli to starting a family in Iowa.  Refreshingly simple sets by designer Michael Yeargan float into view as darkness is replaced by a simple home, and the distinct sense that Francesa is a fish out of water.

Her husband Bud (Hunter Foster, excellent), and children Carolyn and Michael (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) are packing up for a trip to the state fair, while Francesca stays contently behind. Shortly after their departure, Robert (Steven Pasquale) drives up to the house looking for directions to the last bridge he is to photograph for his assignment.

What begins as an offer to ride along and give directions turns into an invitation inside to cool off afterward, followed by supper, and soon the inevitability of an affair that is the only true love each of them will know in their lifetime.

Bridges264Brown makes sentiments that could easily sound clichéd ring poetic instead, in music that exhibits both operatic and more down-home influences. Songs about time and distance articulate the lovers’ romance — how far each of them has traveled to meet (in this of all places), how long it’s taken them to reach each other, how little time they have together. And later, songs about seeing and being seen express the potential for loneliness while being surrounded by (supportive yet prying) neighbors, and of feeling invisible until discovered by a great love.

Pasquale, who also played opposite O’Hara in Far From Heaven Off Broadway last summer, makes a strong Broadway musical debut, and the two work wonderfully together. Other standouts in the company include Cass Morgan as Francesa’s endearingly nosey neighbor Marge, and Michael X. Martin as her devoted husband.

Previous Broadway collaborations between Sher and O’Hara have been no less captivating, including the recent acclaimed revival of South Pacific, and The Light in the Piazza several years before (in which Pasquale played the leading man out of town, but was unavailable when the show came to Broadway). Seeing all three come together is almost as thrilling as the long weekend affair—though certainly more fruitful.

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

Pulitzer Prize Winning ‘Dinner With Friends’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

DWF Pettie, Burns, Shamos, Hinkle 2268


You don’t have to be married (or straight) to appreciate the compelling insights into intimacy and all manner of relationships revealed by Donald Margulies in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning play Dinner With Friends, which opened Off Broadway last night in a revival at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre.

In fact, anyone in a rush to reach the altar might do well to consider Margulies’ provocative questions about the coveted social institution. Nearly 15 years after its New York premiere, the play takes on a sort of fresh relevance given marriage is a novel (and hard won) right for a growing segment of the population.

DWF Hinkle, Shamos 0090For the two couples on stage, marriage is not so much a choice as a matter of course—which is perhaps part of the problem. The play opens with Gabe (Jeremy Shamos) and Karen (Marin Hinkle), an almost gratingly perfect couple, tripping to finish each other’s sentences while describing a recent dream trip to Rome for their distracted friend and dinner guest Beth (Heather Burns).

The meal has just been cleared (Gabe and Karen aren’t just foodies, they’re food writers), the kids are upstairs with ice cream and a movie, when Beth finally spills a confession—her husband Tom (Darren Pettie) is leaving her for another woman. Beth and Tom aren’t just their best friends; Gabe and Karen set them up 12 years earlier (a scene we’ll see later), so the news strikes a particular blow. 

What follows is the swift unraveling of one relationship and a slow burning, penetrating examination of another. More than the minutia of what makes some relationships succeed or fail, Margulies uncovers the subconscious roles in which we cast friends and loved ones in the interest of self-preservation.

DWF Pettie, Shamos 9457Gabe was counting on Tom to be his partner in expanding waistlines and matrimonial bellyaching. Karen counts on Beth to be a mess she can help clean up. Any shift in these roles feels like a free fall, raising unnerving questions about their own life choices that Gabe and Karen seem at a loss to answer.

Direction by Pam MacKinnon (Tony winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), though markedly staid in physical action, brings out fine performances from the cast of four. Shamos (The Assembled Parties) is a particular standout, his affluent New England intellectual the perfect blend of undisclosed yearning and neurotic ennui.

Scenic design by Allen Moyer emphasizes the beige of middle age with blank canvas walls, which fill with vibrant color for the play’s single flashback to Martha’s Vineyard, where newly wed Gabe and Karen introduce their ill-fated friends. Though fitting, the broad-stroaked design is hardly necessary, the play's subtle brilliance speaks clearly on its own.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: jeremy daniel)

Randall Mann's 'Straight Razor': Book Review


Straight RazorThe elegant, savage poems of Randall Mann’s excellent third collection are filled with the unglamorous stuff of daily life, from a childhood of ketchup on quiche to the “Meat-Rack ambitions” of young adulthood in San Francisco. Mann is a rarity in current American poetry, a formal poet, committed to traditional structures of rhythm and rhyme. But there’s nothing old-fashioned in Mann’s mastery of old techniques, which he puts to use in poems that are moving and funny and vicious, and always electrically alive. 

The early poems in the book are full of the claustrophobia of gay boyhood in the suburban South. In a landscape of Supercuts and Pall Malls and Cinnabons, the speaker of these poems quickly stands out:                     

                        Bloody, slick, and fierce,
                        I slid out of the womb.
                        My heart was underfed.
                        My mouth began to foam.

                        At six I bit my lip
                        and took to backyard voguing:
                        I struck a rigid pose
                        in vigilante leggings.

School is a minefield of dangerous crushes on unobtainable boys (“my fear—Smear / the Queer”), of used towels snatched from locker rooms. At 20, he’s found different dangers in the bars he frequents, “the gin-soaked dread / that an acronym was festering inside,” as well as the cast of his own desires, which lead him to anonymous, sometimes brutal sexual encounters.

In the book’s title poem, a man holds a straight razor to the speaker’s ear as part of erotic play: 

                                                            ….Sticky, cold,
                        a billfold 

                        wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt,
                        I felt

                        like the boy in a briny night pool, he who found
                        the drowned

                        body, yet still somehow swam with an unknown joy.
                        That boy.

RandallMannThe poet seems shocked by his own reaction, the inappropriate, “unknown joy” that comes in place of the fear he knows he should feel. As in many of the poems in this book, form is cunningly bound to content, the careful control of the rhyme and the alternating length of the lines allowing for a sense of off-kilter command, an equilibrium on the point of giving way.

In his love of traditional form paired with decidedly untraditional subject matter, Mann recalls the great poet Thom Gunn, to whom he paid tribute in his second collection. (If you haven’t read Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats, one of the finest books of poetry of recent decades and among the most powerful responses I know to the AIDS crisis, you should grab a copy right now.) But it’s to another gay poet, W.H. Auden, that he tips his hat in “Only You,” which transfers Auden’s marvelous “As I Walked Out One Evening”—rhyme and meter intact—to San Francisco:

                        As I skipped out this morning,
                        skipping down Castro Street,
                        the queens upon the asphalt
                        were racks of hanging meat.

Mann finds a kind of sexual wonderland in San Francisco, but what had seemed to promise freedom in the Florida of his childhood is soon enough revealed as another trap, what he calls in one poem “The Lion’s Mouth.” “I am so sick / of pretending to be me,” he writes in “Larkin Street,” exhausted by the erotic marketplace, and in “Civic Center” he offers a biting satire of certain shapes of modern love:

                        In bed, we only play together, because
                        this is the way we elude each other,
                        with the barback from Prague we’re thinking of adopting
                        by mail. We sometimes send our love.

Satire is one of Mann’s dominant modes, and he can wax cynical about both gay life and the literary world. But when the satire lifts what’s revealed (as in all good satirical writers) is serious, even moral feeling. In a book that lays claim to a huge range of tones, from high lyrical to queen-at-the-bar, repeatedly there occur lines that give voice to a finally tragic sense of the intrication of joy and pain. To quote again from “Only You,” Mann’s homage to Auden:                     

                        “The night is falling soon.
                        And love is never love
                        without a tub of ruin.”

Also mixing with this satire, making it richer and more complex than mere ridicule, is a sense of others’ suffering, a compassion nowhere more evident than in “September Elegies,” one of the book’s finest poems. Dedicated to four gay boys who committed suicide in a single month of 2010, the poem is a pantoum, an extremely challenging form of multiple repeating lines. As the details of the boys’ lives reoccur—ages, towns, last words—an arbitrary formal scheme takes on devastating emotional force.

Not least among the distinctions of Mann’s poems is that they aspire to one of the oldest ambitions of art: to fix the transient moments of our daily lives—in all their banality and beauty, their reverence and ridicule—in enduring forms. Mann is among our finest, most skillful poets of love and ruin. You should read this terrifically accomplished book.

Previous reviews...
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’: Book Review
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter

'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical' Opens On Broadway — REVIEW



In the nearly 15 years since Mamma Mia! shimmied open on Broadway, a glut of nostalgic jukebox musicals hoping to replicate its startling success have prompted groans from the throats of theatre cynics and lovers alike. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which opened on Broadway Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim theatre, will likely replace those groans with full-throated laughs and the distinct thrill of witnessing a star finally land her breakout role.

Beautiful_SF_-_0333_1From determined teenage songwriter busting down doors to acclaimed vocalist taking the stage at Carnegie Hall, Jessie Mueller’s sensitive, seamless performance as Carole King demands a certain rapt attention—even for those who know quite well how the story goes. Tony-nominated for her performance in last season’s short lived On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, as King Mueller is candidly funny, ambitious, and self-deprecating in a way that recalls another scrappy Brooklyn girl, Barbra Streisand.

Mueller’s voice makes oft-heard (and sometimes dusty) classics like ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ and ‘It’s Too Late’ sound fresh, as if being played for the first time — which is the context in which we hear a great many of the hits written by the show’s songwriter subjects.

Beautiful_0241Beautiful has more than a little in common with that other all-you-can-sing-along buffet of baby boomer nostalgia, Jersey Boys, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Similarly made up of sentimental hits from the bountiful, cross-pollinated crop of doo-wop and rock n’ roll that dominated the era’s airwaves, Beautiful follows an artist’s exhilarating rise to fame and, eventually, the parallel demise of her personal life.

Skipping straight to her lucky break, Carole quickly meets and sparks a romance with collaborator Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein) and begins writing hit songs for groups like The Shirelles and The Drifters. Meanwhile, competing songwriting team Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen, excellent) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector, also great) also strike up a romance, take up residence in the studio next door, and the couples become fast friends in their arms race to the top of the Billboard charts.

Back and forth competition between the songwriting teams takes up a lengthy portion of the first act, in which songs like ‘Some Kind of Wonderful,’ ‘On Broadway,’ and ‘The Locomotion’ please the crowd while doing little to move the story forward. Hits like ‘Walking in the Rain’ and ‘It’s Too Late’ are increasingly integrated into the story of the second act, which finds Barry and Cynthia working out their relationship and Carole writing deeply personal songs on her own.

Beautiful_2331Though like Jersey Boys its plot mechanics don’t much exceed standard E! True Hollywood Story fare, as written by screenwriter Douglas McGrath the story clips along briskly, with sharp, memorable moments of wit and insight at nearly every turn. Oscar-nominated for his screenplay collaboration with Woody Allen on Bullets Over Broadway, McGrath writes with a refreshing, smart humor that firmly engages the audience in a relatively simple story.

Choreography by Josh Prince is (perhaps necessarily) a bit hokey while solid direction by Marc Bruni keeps the action moving fluidly across Derek McLane’s stylish, efficient set. Though by final curtain Beautiful may seem like a one-sided story, with Carole’s philandering ex Gerry as the clear villain to her flawless heroine (as played by Mueller), she’s an idol worthy of her pedestal. 

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


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