Four Plays From Broadway And Beyond
Premieres and Revivals
By: Victor Cordell - Nov 15, 2023
On a trip to New York City for the American Theatre Critics Association conference, my wife/editor Karin and I caught four wildly different plays at four wildly different venues.
SPIES FOR THE POPE
First was a trip Off-Off-Broadway (meaning a house with 99 or fewer seats) to the Theater for the New City, which has been offering a home for experimental theater for over 50 years in an earthy, multi-stage facility in the East Village. Playwright Douglas Lackey and Director Alexander Harrington have forged several collaborations, with this most recent one being the highly literate and entertaining world premiere of “Spies for the Pope.”
History is full of characters and stories that have been largely lost to time, and this is one example that the author has unearthed and embellished. Giulio Casare Vanini was a Capuchin friar who was charged by Pope Paul V in 1618 to try to fend off an international conflict that threatened to occur among many European powers, most notably the Holy Roman Empire and France. Since this story pertains to history, it is no spoiler to disclose that Vanini failed, and the result was the highly destructive 30 Years War. And as articulated in the play, this abomination derived from pathetic little differences in religious beliefs and royal family-based tribalism.
Lackey tells the tale in 23 scenes as Vanini and his associate Brother Markus cross many borders and meet with numerous dignitaries critical to international diplomacy. The script is extremely well researched and delights with copious details of political machinations, but an equally important and extremely well articulated thread involves arguments over religious theory. Vanini is a deep and free thinker and even though he devoutly believes in God, the fact that he doesn’t accept specious arguments in the received wisdom of The Church becomes his undoing.
The action moves briskly, which keeps things lively, but at times can seem a little jumpy. More distracting are the tedious if minor set changes that occur with each shift in venue, as they disrupt the flow of the narrative. On the other hand, period music excerpts of various ilks from opera arias to madrigals are used throughout, using both live singing and piped music. They blend well and enrich in an organic manner rather than delay the action.
Eric Loscheider portrays Vanini in a confident and believable manner. If the real friar were half as convincing as the actor, one wonders how he would ever have lost an argument. Other performances are generally but not uniformly effective, and a little confusion derives from actors playing multiple parts. That said, this is an entertaining, intellectual piece priced at a pittance, that offers fine value.
“Spies for the Pope,” is written by Douglas Lackey, is produced by Theater for the New City, and plays on its stage at 155 First Avenue, New York, NY through November 26, 2023.
Just having opened in September, the Perelman Performing Arts Center is an essential part of the rebirth of the World Trade Center in response to 9/11. Though it can seat no more than 1,000 patrons, its cost exceeded (sit down for this one) $600 million. It must be the most technologically advanced theater in the world, with the ability to configure into one, two, or three stages. The capabilities of manipulating the performance spaces on every possible dimension are mind boggling, and many decorative elements are simply arresting.
For its first performance commission, the Center turned to Bill T. Jones, one of the world’s greatest choreographers of modern dance and his collaborator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who like Jones is anchored in dance, but also excels in related artistic realms. So the casual observer might be excused for expecting a dance-centric piece. And while the significance of dance in the artistic expression is undeniable, serious choreography doesn’t occur until 30 minutes into the production. Although it is easy to dismiss “Watch Night” as unfocused multidisciplinary expression, it really masks a serious, modern, sung-through opera full of pathos and diverse, powerful music composed by Tamar-kali.
Appropriate to the rich cityscape rising from the destruction of the World Trade Center, “Watch Night” fervently deals with group trauma resulting from tragic and diabolical events thrust upon two communities. The fictional storyline builds around two real-life incidents among the many that have scarred this nation physically and emotionally. The mass murders in a church with a black congregation in Charleston and in a synagogue in Pittsburgh ground the narrative. Remarkably, like the 30 Years War referenced in another play we attended, “Spies for the Pope”, these tragedies are driven by tribalism (racism) and religion. Sadly, societies seem to have learned little in these 400 years.
The play opens with considerable stridency that suggests that the whole experience that follows may be weighty and without release. However, as characters come into focus, the issues are no less grave, but the humanization allows personal connection and empathy to develop. A journalist, Josh (Brandon Michael Nase), is the key character, and his centrality to multiple situations causes some muddling in the narrative. He is not only witness to Pittsburgh slayings, but loses a brother in the killings.
Josh is conflicted in multiple ways. He is visibly black, though some other blacks confront him with the speculation that one parent is white, which is true. That parent is also Jewish, which places him in two camps that suffer discrimination. Yet, he is not portrayed as the suffering heroic but rather as driven by money rather than principles or tribal loyalty. Many people have defining moments in their lives that shape their life philosophies, and his is revealed when he is treated as black but not Jewish by a rabbi (Brian Golub). The female lead, Shayla (Danyel Fulton) also faces a moment of trial when she confronts the unrepentant white supremacist responsible for the deaths of blacks.
“Watch Night” drips with profound gravitas and will appeal to those seeking a gripping, provocative, and meaningful experience, appropriate to these disconcerting times. Those not willing to meet this challenge may not be satisfied. Production values impress, and performances are generally strong with powerful choreography in movement and dance. Especially notable is Ken Alston, Jr., who does not have a principal part, but whose clarion countertenor singing rings through the cacophony.
Interestingly, supertitles are used on occasion to emphasize important points, but plot details and the whole arc would be much better grasped if the production followed the opera house standard, even for English language librettos, and used supertitles throughout.
“Watch Night,” by Bill T. Jones, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Tamar-kali is produced by Perelman Performing Arts Center and appears on its stage at 251 Fulton Street, New York, NY through November 18, 2023.
I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE
Right out of the box, let’s note that this Off-Broadway (meaning a house with 110-499 seats) musical is exceptionally well done with fine production values and a sensational cast with numerous honors from past Broadway performances. As a bit of an intro, this revival of a 1962 musical opens in the Garment District of Lower Manhattan in 1937. Young Harry Bogen who would become a user and abuser (played by an absolutely fitting and believable Santino Fontana) performs menial tasks, but he aspires. Aided by considerable chutzpah and good luck, he opens a dress making company with two partners. But success is not enough. His greed and gluttony lead him to crises and decline.
Our American Theatre Critics Association conference was fortunate to host a panel discussion of five creatives from this musical, and the tremendous insights the panelists offered form much of the basis for this commentary. Some attributions below are inexact, because multiple participants chimed in on many issues.
Central to the revival was John Weidman, son of Jerome Weidman, who wrote the original book and the novel on which it was based. John revised the book, emphasizing that there must be a reason for a revival, so that while the time and place of the story remain, sensibilities speak to 2023 rather than 1962. For instance, in the earlier era, anti-heroes often went unpunished, whereas today’s audience would expect the perpetrator to pay a price. And while Harry is a con man from the outset in 1962, John cleverly makes him a more appealing character to begin with, which brightens the show’s empathy and allows for a character arc.
David Chase adapted and arranged the music, which is full of appealing, exotic Jewish harmonies, but without any breakout songs. He and others of the team scoured the Yale University archives of the original musical to try to gain further insights. Among other contributions by Chase, he found two songs that did not make it into the 1962 final production. Creating a patchwork, alternating duet from them between the devoted girlfriend, Ruthie (played as sweet and optimistic by Rebecca Naomi Jones), and the gold digging back door mistress, Martha (highly talented actor/singer/dancer Joy Woods). This piece shows contrasting perspectives and becomes one of the musical highlights of the show.
The original story lacked inherent kinetic drive, and playing on a small thrust stage cluttered with sewing tables induces further physical limitations. Choreographer Ellenore Scott was brought in, and she introduced swirling character movement among the tables and had them shoved aside in a couple of instances to allow hora and ballroom sequences that add tremendous vitality to the mix.
Director Trip Cullman drove the overall artistic vision and brought all the pieces together. Among other aspects that he attended to was the depiction of the agency that the five women in the story possess – all in their own special way.
The final contributor to this process was Producing Artistic Director Jill Rafson, without whom there would be no production. In her second year at Classic Stage Company, this was her first production decision - a bold one that appears will be a good one.
The narrative is replete with Jewish and Garment District tropes, but they are not overdone so that the more universal themes of family, faith, and integrity are allowed to come through. Actually, the title is both a trope and a misnomer. The common refrain about never paying retail never enters into the picture.
Rather, the theme of the story relates the sometimes devious behavior and corrupted values of many people whose success is measured by money, notoriety, and power. Songs with indicative titles – “The Sound of Money” and “You’re a Pitcher or a Catcher” suggest this matter. And a sad recurring theme is that you have to step on people to get to the top.
The creative decision to make Harry a suffering youth who initially is clever without dishonesty is perhaps the most important change in the revision. He is able to capitalize the company because two righteous women believe in him as a decent and enterprising individual before his moral compass fails - Ruthie and Blanche (a decisive Sarah Steele), the wife of a future partner of Harry’s. Another desirable quality that Harry has is his loyalty to his mama and his generosity in bringing her gifts and trying to make her happy. Yet, mama (an austere and insightful Judy Kuhn) was the first to sense when Harry was going astray, and she was willing to share her concerns with the more gullible young women.
The final female of note runs interference for Harry, his secretary Miss Marmelstein. Julia Lester is a total scene stealer in the role with over-the-top humor and a singing voice strong enough to power a locomotive. And she is not the least bit intimidated that the cognescenti of musicals know that the role was created by and the launch for another performer who could fit the same description – Barbra Streisand.
Although “I Can Get It For You Wholesale” is a cautionary tale highlighted by Miss Marmelstein’s haunting “What Are They Doing To Us Now?,” it thoroughly engages and provokes without depressing. The musical works on multiple levels. Its only deficiency is the lack of tunes that have taken on a life beyond the musical, but there is so much more to appreciate.
“I Can Get It For You Wholesale” with book by Jerome Weidman, revised by John Weidman, with music and lyrics by Harold Rome is produced by Classic Stage Company and plays on its stage at 136 13th Street, New York, NY through December 17, 2023.
HERE LIES LOVE
Of the four plays that we saw, the revival of “Here Lies Love” was the only one that qualifies as a Broadway show by meeting the location and seating capacity of the classification.
Have you ever observed an undertaking that seems so out of whack that you ask yourself, “What were they thinking?” That has to be the case when you consider that rocker David Byrne conceived, researched, and developed (with the participation of another rocker, Fat Boy Slim) the notion that young audiences would absolutely love the strange admixture of an immersive theatrical musical that tells the biography of Imelda Marcos, who would become the First Lady of the Philippines. What is whackier is that despite much controversy, the device actually works for the greater part – and without a single mention of the thousands of pairs of shoes that Imelda owned. It is an exceptional crowd pleaser that happily brings a new audience into theater. The unanswered question, however, is whether those attendees will return to the theater for anything other than another crypto-rock-concert-dance-a-thon.
So, to understand what makes this sung-through musical work, it helps to know the lay of the land. At the Broadway Theatre (yes, that’s the proper name of the venue), the orchestra-level seating is removed; the rake of the floor is flattened; and a movable, cross-shaped stage is placed in the middle of the space. Ticket holders who opt for the orchestra floor know in advance that they will be on their feet for the whole performance. Add a hyperactive deejay, loud music, colorful flashing lights, and a compulsion to dance, and what do you have? Disco.
The driving force is definitely the pop/rock musical score which energizes the audience. The recurring call to dance, even among those in seats, engages the audience, but at the same time seems like the kind of manipulation that occurs in political rallies, which relates to an underlying theme of the show.
Early on, Imelda is poor but becomes a beauty queen at age 16, known as the Rose of Tacloban, the small town she comes from. Bouncy music like the anthem song “Here Lies Love” is consistent with these younger, happier years, but the disco atmosphere is maintained even after Imelda marries war hero Ferdinand Marcos, who would become president and then dictator of the Philippines. From that point, lavish excess, deprivation of civil rights, and the tragedy of tyranny come into focus and are depicted in the narrative and graphic projections, yet, the dance goes on.
The controversy pertains to what many consider the whitewashing of Imelda’s horrific deeds by Byrne, who may be considered a white, parachute tourist. One glaring example of the lack of his understanding of local sensibilities is writing the lament that Aurora Aquino, Ninoy’s mother, sings upon his assassination – “He always wanted to be a drummer,” which seems inappropriate from an American point of view as well.
In truth, Imelda’s dark side is largely revealed, but critics will still argue that the mere publicity constitutes glamorization and apologism for wretched behavior. Noteworthy, however, one of the most moving moments in this revival is a post script. An acoustic number not only reinforces the damage caused by the Marcoses, but argues that democracies are only as strong as its people. This pointed commentary relates to the extremely troubling political environment in the United States, which itself risks becoming a banana republic.
Unfortunately, supporters of demagogues are usually drawn in by the leader’s charismatic ability to arouse crowds and oblivious to their flaws. One naive supporter notes “Imelda never did anything wrong.” This same formula operates to prop up Donald Trump.
In Asia, pinoys, or Filipinos, have long been known as skilled entertainers, especially as interpreters of Western pop and rock. So it is no surprise that the cast of “Here Lies Love” is fully Philippine-American, and the performances are absolutely spot on. Arielle Jacobs gives a bravura rendering of Imelda, while Jose Llana as Ferdinand Marcos and Conrad Ricamora as Ninoy Aquino also excel. But the other controversy about this show concerns its casting. On the one hand, the Philippine community in general and the performers in particular are exultant that so many of them have the opportunity to make their mark, but will that translate to future success?
With those caveats in mind, “Here Lies Love” showcases Philippine talent in an accurate narrative about recent history that energizes, entertains, and allows viewers to make their own judgments.
“Here Lies Love” composed by David Byrne and Fat Boy Slim is performed at Broadway Theatre through November 26, 2023.