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Letter from Broadway: Curtains up at last

After a long Covid layoff the Great White Way is bursting with energy, from "Hadestown" to "Six" to "A Strange Loop" and more.

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Kimberly Marable as Persephone in the North American touring company of “Hadestown.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Broadway is back!

That was the headline hype last fall — for the return of a fabled theater district that went completely dark for some 18 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

So when I first set foot in a Broadway theater again this spring, it was like a delayed homecoming. Though based in Seattle, I travelled to New York at least once or twice a year for decades to see buzzed-about new shows and report on them for this site and, previously, for the Seattle Times. It was a ritual jaded me had almost taken for granted. But not this time.

At a loss of billions of dollars in revenue and roughly 97,000 theater jobs, the Broadway combine was battered but not broken by the longest shutdown in its nearly two-century history — much of 2020, most of 2021. And even after the mega-hits like Hamilton reopened to fanfare last fall, by December the omicron variant was cancelling some performances again as the virus spread among casts and stage crews.

By this April, however, things had calmed down considerably. The resurrection was on, with a stream of new plays and musicals premiering, and popular entries from previous seasons returning. I was finally able to catch a couple of buzzed-about, new-to-me musicals (one Tony Award winner, the other a 2022 Tony nominee), in addition to some fresh plays by young-ish writers of significance — all of which are either expected or very likely to hit Pacific Northwest stages.

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Levi Kreis and company in the Broadway touring company of “Hadestown.” Photo: T. Charles Erickson

MY FIRST FORAY was to the Walter Kerr Theatre to see Hadestown, composer- librettist Anais Mitchell’s audacious musical update of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. The show collected a “best new musical” Tony Award way back in the before-times (2019) — as well as Tonys for Mitchell’s score, André De Shields’s featured performance and in several other categories. So I was playing catch-up. (You can too: the national tour of Hadestown comes to Seattle’s Paramount Theatre this July 12-17 and then Portland’s Keller Auditorium July 19-24.)

During my visit, the Walter Kerr (and every other Broadway house) demanded the usual handbag/backpack search, but also proof of vaccination and an I.D. Masks were mandatory – a relief in the aged playhouses where seating can be tighter than the coach section of a new airplane. (The Covid-19 precautions can change from week to week. Latest word is that Broadway theaters will continue to require audiences to wear masks at least through June 30.)

I had read about Hadestown, heard some of its music, watched a snippet on the Tony broadcast. But none of that prepared me for the experience of taking in live this familiar Greek myth, dramatized so many times theatrically and cinematically, and here dynamically idiosyncratic. Wrapped in a postmodern whirlwind of sensory vibrance and dramatic force, it’s an odyssey to the underworld that manages to be
both honestly hellish and hellishly entertaining.

Over a decade in the making by Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin, the show unfolds on a single set for over two and a half hours (with intermission). But from the first moments to the last it was captivating.

In a glittering silver suit, with showmanship polished to a smooth sheen by many years of stagecraft, Andre DeShields was welcomed on the stage by cast and audience, and set about guiding us through the saga as Hermes the messenger god — a narrator with a nod to both African griots and ancient Greek lore.

The show takes a lot of liberties from Bullfinch’s Mythology. But Hadestown makes a creative leap that expands, and renews what, in Hermes’ words, is “an old song…a sad song, but we need to sing it anyway.”

There is a feel-good New Orleans vibe in the music, with some hip-hop touches. The ever-present chorus is youthful, brassy and sassy. Rachel Hauck’s Tony-awarded setting, specified only as a “darkly political, Americana dreamscape,” and described by Hauck as ”the world of rotting American industry,” is a gray and grungy multi-leveled playing space. Vagabond musicians and a minimal café setting dominate
the upper world, and hanging lamps eerily swing over the subterranean-industrial realm of Hades, where peons toil without mercy to further enrich the rich.

If Urinetown tended to mine a Great Depression-era, politically charged melodrama for laughs, the ore in Hadestown is very much a 21st Century dystopian social vision with more tragic than comic bite. In the dark but free upper world, Orpheus is a struggling musician and his beloved Eurydice is a restless waif. Food is scarce, life is tough. So Eurydice understandably succumbs to a seduction by the persuasive bigwig Hades and becomes a drone in his oppressive machine. Meanwhile, Persephone, a woman Hades keeps as a glamorous prisoner of love, gets a pass to visit the upper world.

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Mitchell’s lyrics and music are of a piece with the story from the folksy, catchy opening number, “The Road to Hell,” as is David Neumann’s choreography. And by the time Orpheus sets out to rescue Eurydice their fates have become urgently important to us — like the fate of humanity itself.

I don’t want to get too grandiose here, but while watching Hadestown I couldn’t help think of Hades in relation to Russian neo-czar Vladmir Putin, Orpheus as a very distant cousin of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the heroic Ukrainian leader, and corporate greed as the soul-crushing enemy of Earth. Nothing in this musical is overtly topical and political. But it was inspired by a classic about love and death that reverberates through the centuries, in this show as in Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” — which, in the first sonnet, proclaims, “Hail the force sublime/uniting we who live in signs.”

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Adrianna Hicks (Catherine of Aragon, center) with, from left: Brittney Mack (Anna of Cleves), Andrea Macasaet (Ann Boleyn), Anna Uzele (Catherine Parr), and Samantha Pauly (Katherine Howard) in the Broadway company of “Six.” Photo © Joan Marcus

ON A MUCH PEPPIER, POPPIER NOTE is Six, another current hit musical that employs the new Broadway standard: a single set, an onstage band, and a cast speaking and singing directly to the audience. Oh, and a lot of key creators of the show are women.

The premise here is juicy Renaissance scandal fodder: The six wives of Henry VIII, garbed in snazzy Tudor-style mini-dresses and crowns, compete over who had the worst marriage to Henry, the notorious British monarch and serial hubby. Each one has a solo song (arrayed in a variety of pop styles) that is a spiel to the court of historical opinion (us). For instance: The executed Anne Boleyn makes a good case for the worst-case marriage, as she belts out “Don’t Lose Ur Head.” And Catherine of Aragon’s number, “No Way,” is the plaint of an angry, 24-year queen discarded for a younger model who could bear Henry a son. (It actually took a third wife, Jane Seymour, to give him an heir. She died of postnatal
complications, and gets her own power ballad, “Heart of Stone.”

The tunes are witty fun, but it’s the House-Wives-of-Windsor-Castle interactions among the six, the rivalries and guilt-tripping, that lace together the laughs and the grievances. Concocted by the clever British team of Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss (who collaborated on the book, and the score), Six had successful runs in Chicago and London before it was set to open at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on March 12, 2020 – the day Broadway shut down completely due to Covid-19.

Since its eventual New York debut nearly two years later, it has been making up for lost time. Snazzy and rollicking, the show has upset some Broadway musical mavens (who dismiss it as too silly and Vegas-y), and some feminists (who think a cluster of discarded, carping ex-wives aren’t exactly a rallying cry for female empowerment).

But Broadway has always had its fizzy novelties, crowd-pleasing diversions that just rock your world for a bit (80 minutes here, without intermission). And Six is highly mobile for touring. In that spirit, the Tony Award nominators have given it eight nods, including one for best new musical.

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HOWEVER, IT IS UNLIKELY that anything this year can beat A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning show about the internal/external life of a queer Black theater usher, which NY Times critic Maya Phillips enthused is “searing and softhearted, uproarious and disquieting.” (Sadly, the show had not yet transferred to Broadway when I was in New York.)

The two plays I saw were technically Off Broadway, but close enough to include here.

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Kristolyn Lloyd and Elijah Jones in Dominique Morisseau’s “Confederates” at Signature Theatre in New York. The play was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and will be produced in Ashland beginning August 23.

THERE IS AN OREGON CONNECTION to Confederates, a new work by the prolific dramatist and MacArthur Foundation “genius” recipient Dominque Morisseau (Skeleton Crew, Ain’t Too Proud). The script was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and plays this summer at OSF in Ashland, August 23-October 29. It will be directed in Ashland by OSF artistic head Nataki Garrett, while the midtown Manhattan version at Signature Theatre was staged by Stori Ayers.

While this ambitious play has been enthusiastically received by New York critics, my own response was muddled. And I’m wondering whether Garrett’s version might highlight or reveal something in the play that the New York version did not.

Confederates unfolds in two time zones. In quick-change, alternating scenes it parallels Old South slavery with modern academia, and a rebellious slave’s dilemmas with the travails of a contemporary Black college professor. Both women are asserting power in a hostile society, and both are beset by threats — misogynist, racist, careerist — from seeming “confederates” who are really enemies.

Morisseau has acknowledged the stylistic shift here from her earlier, trenchant dramas centered in the realism of Black working-class lives in Detroit, her hometown. In Confederates she shifts gears to embrace the epoch-hopping style and more sardonic, satirical voice of other recent plays that explore prevalent images of, and modern connections to, slavery — Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliant An Octoroon, for instance, and the intriguing but more problematic Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris.
(The campus infighting here also brings to mind the razor-sharp Netflix satire The Chair.)

Confederates is bookended with a stunning 19th Century image: an unnamed Black plantation slave, wearily suckling a white baby at her unclothed breast. We soon learn that a copy of this powerfully discomfiting photograph has been tacked onto the office door of college professor Sandra’s office, with her visage photo-shopped over the slave’s face.

Is this an attack by a white racist? An accusation that Sandra is some kind of traitor to the Black cause, giving aid and comfort to the enemy establishment? Who did this? The Black male student who objects to a grade Sandra gave him? The white student assistant, who flashes her PC credentials but is tone deaf to her own softcore racism? The Black female colleague who pressures Sandra to recommend her for tenure?

In the other sphere, Sara is a dauntless warrior in the Civil War south. She’s learning to read, arming herself, engaging in dangerous espionage as a Union spy. But in every interaction we witness — with her soldier brother, with another slave co-opted by her position as mistress to the master, with the master’s sexually predatory daughter — Sara finds betrayal and exploitation.

It is clear why each actor (excluding those playing Sara and Sandra) switches between two different roles, one in each time zone. Confederates sees both eras as reflections of each other, both as fraught with peril for Black women who strive and achieve in a society determined to drag them down. They can’t win because any way you look at it, threats lurk everywhere — which becomes more obvious as the scenes start overlapping toward the end.

It’s a bleak message, but after watching what esteemed Black jurist and Supreme Court candidate Ketanji Brown Jackson went through during hostile questioning in her Senate hearing, a current one. However, the message is also mixed here, given the cartoonishness of some of the characters, and stabs of humor that felt strained and unfunny.

Confederates can be lauded for its quick-change theatricality, its ferocity, and its taking on a pair of intrinsically American institutions. But by boxing in Sara and Sandra so tightly, it also felt at times rhetorical and airless, leaving the audience with no curtain call — just that haunting image of the enslaved wet nurse, as if to equate Sandra’s career problems with Sara’s life and death conundrums.

Other reviewers (most, to be honest) felt differently, and I’m very curious what OSF audiences and critics will make of the play.

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Han Van Sciver and Mary Wiseman in “At the Wedding.” Photo: Marc J. Franklin

THE FINAL PRODUCTION I caught had simpler seriocomic goals that it handily realized. Bryna Turner’s At the Wedding (which, like Confederates, extended its run by popular demand) is a behavioral comedy that would be right at home on one of the big streaming services — where it might, one can guess, end up in some form, but hopefully after it is performed in regional theaters.

Seeing its live premiere in Lincoln Center Theatre’s cozy Clare Tow Theater space was a treat — especially with the remarkable comedic actress Mary Wiseman in the lead.

The setup has a familiar rom-com ring. The zany young neurotic Carlo attends unannounced the wedding of her female former lover Eva (who is marrying a guy). Of course, humorous mayhem ensues — as well as some poignant realizations about self and other.

Wearing a rumpled bright blue suit, her mounds of curly scarlet hair expressively anarchic, Carlo is a fount of tartly funny one-liners. She has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for Champagne — and any other booze she can get her hands on at the reception.

Bitter much about Eva’s “aggressively heterosexual” nuptials? Yup.

Sour on romance? Totally. (She calls it “the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your life.”)

But as she meets others drifting through a banquet room at the wedding site, Carlo can’t help facing her own demons. And her false assumptions about people: an equally cynical, quipping gal who comes on to her. The sadly toxic mother of the bride. A friendly barman. And most importantly, Eva – who, it turns out, truly loved Carlo and didn’t just heartlessly reject her.

That knowledge is a wake-up call and a balm for this lovable, screwed-up misfit. And it gives At the Wedding a nuanced, satisfyingly happy ending that isn’t about happily ever after.

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SPRING IS THE BUSIEST SEASON for Broadway openings, and since my trip there have been many. If you go, be prepared for Broadway ticket sticker shock. Probably to make up for lost time, prices swelled even before inflation made just about everything pricier.

Seats for Hadestown in New York top out at about $300 for a prime orchestra perch. If you don’t mind sitting in the nosebleed section or trying your luck in line at the TKTS half-price tickets booth in Times Square, you can go a lot cheaper. There are also a batch of online sites that sell Broadway seats at a discount. (Just make sure you choose a legit one before handing over your credit card info.)

Also be sure to check what the shifting Covid precautions might require, and whether shows are temporarily closing or putting understudies in for leads while the stars are out sick. Also look into whether any of the hit productions will be heading your way soon. There’s nothing quite like Broadway, but tour tickets are bound to be cheaper.


Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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