Stage Corner: Ghost Quartet

a2408801532_10When I was watching Ghost Quartet, the one thing going through my mind was, “This is so fucking weird.” Ghost Quartet is one hell of an avante-garde production, capitalizing on eclectic musical styles and unusual performance.

What is it about? I’m not entirely sure. It’s certainly not the easiest show to follow.  It consists of four intertwined stories, layered upon one another like matryoshka dolls, and told out of order.  The main story is that of two sisters named Pearl and Rose who become enemies.  I’m just gonna copy and paste from the original press notes: “A camera breaks and four friends drink in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries: a warped fairy tale about two sisters, a treehouse astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; a purgatorial intermezzo about Scheherazade and the ghost of Thelonious Monk; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder. Throughout these four stories two women cross paths, sometimes as strangers, sometimes as sisters, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as mother and daughter.”

It’s an odd duck of a show.  The entire production takes place in a tiny carpeted room, with some of the audience sitting on cushions on the floor.  Stage decorations are sparse; some lanterns hanging from the ceilings, old-fashioned carpets, and bottles of alcohol. You wouldn’t think that sitting in a small room watching four people sing would be so entertaining, but it is!

For me, what was truly spectacular to me about this show as the performances of the two leading ladies, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell.  I had previously seen both of them in Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, but in Ghost Quartet they truly have a chance to explore their vocal range.  I had already liked Brittain’s voice, but here she does so many more interesting things with it.  Gelsey Bell left me speechless.  There were moments when Gelsey was singing where I was literally sitting in my seat open-mouthed.

Not only are they both spectacular singers, but they are performers.  Gelsey flitted between various characters, from Pearl to the ancient storyteller Scheherazade to the ill Lady Usher, playing wise and droll and creepy with equal fortitude.  Brittain was equally capable in both her wide-eyed innocence and in her fury.  Together, Brittain and Gelsey make a formidable pair.

The other two performers, Brent Arnold and Dave Malloy, were only “fine” in comparison.  Brent barely featured, but I did enjoy his voice when he sang.  I am still unimpressed by Dave’s voice, but I was very happy to be sitting barely two feet from him as he played piano.

As the show runs through stories spanning seven centuries or more, switching from modern to ancient in a single song, it evokes a feeling of timelessness, like it exists cut out of the normal space-time continuum.  It naturally follows that it feels epic, like the stories of old, and as a creator it inspired me so much I wished I could bottle my feelings from that night and return to them whenever I need creative boost.

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Stage Corner: Sweeney Todd

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Last week, I attended a performance of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater.  Small and intimate and shedding the matter of the proscenium, the entire show takes place in a recreation of Harrington’s Pie & Mash, which is a London pie shop that has been in operation for 109 years! The set looks exactly like Harrington’s, with cafeteria style tables and dilapidated tiles.  This makes for an immersive, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that intensifies the performances.

And what performances they were! Pretty much the entire cast was stellar, with standouts for me being Michael James Leslie as Judge Turpin and Eryn Lecroy as Johanna.  Leslie has a deep bass voice that practically made the room quake.  Lecroy has a sweet, high soprano, probably typical of this role, but what made her stand out for me was her acting! She played Johanna with a kind of resigned snark and hidden simmering fury that made the character way more intriguing than she could have been.

Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett was utterly hilarious, and rightfully received most of the laughs.  John-Michael Lyles was a very endearing and flamboyant Tobias.  And Jake Boyd played Anthony with a kind of wild exuberance and barely controlled panic (and his voice was fab!).  Hugh Panero was fine – I didn’t dislike him, and his voice is certainly good, but his acting left much to be desired. Perhaps it’s the direction, perhaps it’s the role, but I found him to be wooden and somewhat removed from the performance, as though he were a dimension away from all the other actors.

The show itself was so, so creepy! It made great use of the small room to play around with various lighting effects that enhanced the creep factor.  The actors totally gave in to camp, joining together in intense chorus that sounded nearly hymnal, a brilliant contrast given the show’s subject matter.  There was black humor in droves, including a song consisting almost entirely of puns about baking people into pies.

It was such a fun experience! I really felt like I had been transported to Victorian London, that I was a customer in a dingy pie shop.  I even had the pre-show meat pie and mash, which, sadly, were not to my taste.  Spices, people! Have you heard of spices? And why are you putting cheese in mashed potatoes, come on!

My first and only experience with Sweeney Todd was that Johnny Depp movie like ten years ago.  Needless to say, this was definitely an improvement on that, and a perfect show to see during Halloween month!

Stage Corner: Cats

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Cats is known to be a rather divisive musical.  Some folks hate it, some folks love it.  When I won the lottery and did some research on it, I figured, well, there has to be something appealing about it considering how long it’s been running for! It’s so popular! Can it really be so successful on Broadway and yet have little to no appeal? As it turns out, the answer to that question is yes.

I’ll start with the little I appreciated.  The stage is quite cool, decorated in a really busy, cacophonous way, and the backdrop of the full moon is gorgeous.

That’s it.  And now the bad.

First of all, and this is probably more of a personal hangup, but I found it incredibly creepy watching humans crawling around and pretending to be cats. It felt like I was watching a demonic rave in hell.  Second, their costumes…I feel like there had to be a…less embarrassing and cringey way to convey that these folks are playing cats.

Third, I couldn’t follow anything that was happening. Was there anything happening? is there a plot? Who knows, not me.  I also didn’t like the music.

And finally: in general, when it comes to media I consume, I can forgive a lot of flaws, but one thing I can’t forgive is boredom.  If something bores me, that’s it, I’m done.  And Cats bored the hell out of me.  I had to work to convince myself not to leave at intermission.  I kept getting distracted, checking the Playbook to see how many songs were left until I could just get the hell out of there.

Cats could have been the silliest, most pointless, wackiest thing ever (and it was), and I wouldn’t have minded if it had kept me interested with good music or good storytelling. Since it had neither, I was basically suffering through a bunch of grown-ass adults dressed as cats running around singing random lyrics.

Stage Corner: War Paint

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Yesterday I entered the War Paint lottery on a whim, since I was entering a bunch of other lotteries, and I didn’t really expect to win. I didn’t even know what the show was about when I put my name in. I think I had some vague notions of an actual war, but that is not what this show is about at all.  It is in fact using “war paint” as a euphemism for makeup to tell the story of rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

Historically speaking, this was an intriguing story.  I had no idea Arden had had any kind of rivalry with anyone, and I’d never even heard of Rubinstein (apparently what was left of her company ended up being owned by L’Oreal).  According to the Playbill, the show tried to be as historically accurate as possible, with the exception of a condensed timeline, and so it was fascinating to witness the rise and fall of these two giants of industry.

What was not fascinating was the musical itself.  The music carried certain hints and flavors of 40s tunes that I like, but otherwise it was forgettable and uninspired.  I don’t think there’s a single song that has stuck with me (I mean, maybe Fire and Ice?).  Staging was quite basic as well.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden did fine, though she didn’t wow me.  I did very much enjoy Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein, however.  She was given most of the comedic lines, which she delivered fantastically.  I actually found myself much more invested in the spoken dialogue than in any of the music.  John Dossett and Douglas Sills as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming were practically indistinguishable, though perhaps that was intentional.  The rest of this small cast didn’t have very much to do, so there were no particular standouts.

And, not to go into some heavy discourse here, but the hodgepodge mix of varying feminisms was somewhat jarring.  Makeup was praised “war paint” and talked about as if it was the one thing that could raise a woman up.  “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Helena Rubinstein famously said.  In the show Rubinstein also muses on her own unusual beauty: her dark hair, her Slavic nose, and insists this is what makes her unique. In one touching moment, she reads a letter from a girl who wonders why she is still ugly after using makeup.  Arden and Rubinstein also frequently muse on their roles as women in a man’s world.  Through it all runs the thread of makeup as empowering and improving lives.

Then, at the very end of the show, when Arden and Rubinstein finally talk to each other, Arden wonders, “Did we free [women] or enslave them?” Yet this throwaway line, sung somewhat abruptly in the final song, feels like an afterthought, tossed in just to satisfy those who might raise issue with the portrayal of makeup.  It is certainly never given appropriate weight, or even appropriate time.  One the one hand I understand this decision given that the story is, after all, about two women who pioneered the makeup industry.  On the other hand, if that line about enslaving women was going to be included, I would have liked to have seen some more foreshadowing of it throughout the rest of the show.

Overall, I didn’t love this, but I didn’t dislike it either.  I certainly enjoyed the show as a learning experience and Patti Lupone is a master at delivering comedic beats.  But would I recommend it? Not really.

Stage Corner: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

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From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.  The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812.  Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.

All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights.  One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha.  Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family.  Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.

The performance is absolutely wild.  Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave.  The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel.  This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers.  There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!

The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic.  They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant.  The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene.  I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity.  Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.

Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness.  Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected.  He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing.  The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre.  Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.

Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown.  The similarities are glaring.  Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging.  And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles.  I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects.  I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.

It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances.  The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair.  It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs.  It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.

Stage Corner: Hadestown, a Folk Opera

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Hadestown first saw the light of day as a concept album put together by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell in 2010. Even then, it was advertised as a folk opera, though it hadn’t been staged in an official capacity. I listened to the album when it first came out, and it was love at first listen. For six years I listened and envisioned how the musical narrative might look if it came to life on stage. Finally, yesterday, I no longer had to imagine.

The New York Theatre Workshop has put together a production of Hadestown running until July 31st. Yesterday, I sat in the front row, with the audience surrounding the circular stage, like a gargantuan conversation pit. The unorthodox set-up provided the actors with the freedom to move through the rows of audience members as we twisted and turned to watch them. This lent the performance an intimacy and physicality that would not have been achieved with a traditional stage.

Smoke billowed from the ceiling, catching on the rays of light that strategically shone on various actors. The faint scent of lavender and herbs wafted through the air throughout the entire performance. The best way to describe the setting of the production would be a cross between a magical garden and seedy 1920s jazz club (or speakeasy with live entertainment). It felt like a historical performance, a phantasmagorical performance, a steampunk performance.

This, of course, was more than suitable for Hadestown. The folk opera, to my mind, takes place in an alternate universe Depression-era US town. Orpheus and Eurydice fall in love, but times are hard for all, and Eurydice grows hungry. She is soon seduced by Hades, King of Hadestown. It’s the only place in town that has jobs – but it’s a one-way ticket to Hadestown. As they sing, “Once you go, you don’t come back!” Orpheus follows to rescue her, and…well, I don’t need to tell you what happens next. And as they sing, “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.”

In addition’s to Anais Mitchell’s impressive bevy of songs, the play added several new ones to tie the narrative together more cohesively. Along with Hermes’ narration guiding us along, the story becomes deeper, more meaningful. Small details that I hadn’t noticed before emerged, such as that Hades and Persephone’s love is starting to sour (but sweetens again, thankfully, by the end of the play), or that Hades is genuinely conflicted about whether to let Orpheus go or not. Some of the new numbers are less impressive than others (and most less impressive than the original album) but everything is strung together in such a way that structures the story nicely.

A surprising standout performance of the night was Chris Sullivan’s Hermes. I didn’t expect much from the Hermes character going in, as he has nothing more than a bit part in the original concept album, but here his role has been expanded to a much more integral part that includes narration. Sullivan’s Hermes, with his four-piece suit, bowler hat, painted nails, and suit chain, plays Hermes with soul and roguish charm. He embodies his character with every twirl, every step, every twitch of his eyebrow. He’s alluring and magnetic and strange, a lovable rascal, everything you want in your Depression-era bohemian Hermes.

The other standout performance of the night was Nabiyah Be’s Eurydice. Short, tiny, and girlish, with a cloud of curly dark hair, Be’s Eurydice exudes an innocent charm characteristic of an ingenue. She twirls her yellow skirt with gusto and dances with an adorable exuberance. The way she stands up on her tiny tiptoes to speak to Orpheus is as endearing as it gets. When she smiles, you smile too, and then you fall in love with her. Her radiant beauty makes Orpheus’s immediate fall for her completely believable. And her voice is beautiful; a surprising strength emerging from such a small person! To be honest, if I had one complaint about the original album, it would be Anais Mitchell’s voice, which is too high-pitched and nasally for my liking, so having someone else in the part of Eurydice only made it better.

Amber Gray’s Persephone and Patrick Page’s Hades were…surprises. They grew on me by the end of the night, but when I first saw them I couldn’t help being a little disappointed. Aesthetically, they weren’t what I had always pictured. Persephone was older than I had always envisioned her, and Page’s Hades was less a King of the Underworld than a Texas lawman, complete with shiny belt buckle and cowboy boots. He’s also much older than I pictured, and he comes across as both suave and sleazy (and more than a little ominous). However, his deep, chalky baritone was perfect. In the original album, Greg Brown does an chillingly menacing Hades, and Patrick Page does not disappoint in that aspect. As for Amber Gray, she does a wonderfully lively Persephone, though her interpretation of the character is wildly different than my own.

Both actors grew on me by the end of the night, and my initial disappointment with them was certainly not their fault. They both gave incredible performances. But I have been enamored of Hades and Persephone since I was a little girl, and I therefore had highly specific images of them in my head. If I set this inherent bias aside, however, I can say without a doubt that Gray and Page were a fantastic Persephone and Hades.

The Fates, played by Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub, began the night’s performance, and they set the mood by marching onstage with three antique lamps swinging from their hands. Their harmony, the way they pick up on and join in on each other’s singing, is seamless. The three manage to paint the Fates as, alternately, both menacing and benevolent.

And now, for the only performance of the night that was slightly disappointing: Damon Daunno’s Orpheus. I know, I know, it’s hard to live up to Justin Vernon’s Orpheus. But here’s the thing: Orpheus is supposed to be so good, his singing so beautiful, that he sways even the cold Hades’ heart. Duanno just couldn’t convey that. First of all, he looked like a cross between a hipster and a frat boy rather than the carefree poet he’s supposed to be. Second, his voice is…unimpressive at best. He just can’t carry a tune as well as he should, and given that some of the most beautiful, powerful songs on the album are sung by Orpheus, it’s definitely noticeable. He has his moments, and there are some lines that he manages to make lovely, but they are few and far between. All the other performances had me nearly in tears; Damon Daunno just left me ambivalent. Perhaps when I see him again he’ll do a better job.

And yes, that is me admitting that I have already purchased tickets to see this again. I came home yesterday at half past midnight, and the first thing I did was go on the website to purchase tickets for July 1st. Even before the show was over I knew I couldn’t let it be a once in a lifetime experience. And after July 1st, I’m going to hope and wish with all my heart that Hadestown is staged again, perhaps this time on a bigger stage (hear me, Oh Gods of Broadway)!

Hadestown was not everything I had ever dreamed it would be: it was more. It was different. It defied my expectations. It improved upon them. I was awed the entire time; I literally could not stop smiling.  At the end I clapped so long and so hard my arms hurt. I nearly cried several times because the performances were so raw, so genuine, so beautiful. And these were actors performing songs that I had been in love with for six years! It was an entirely emotional experience for me, and one that I won’t soon forget.