Washougal Art & Music Festival

Letter from New York: So many good shows, so little time

As Broadway revs up for this year's Tony Awards, Misha Berson takes in the tales of "Stereophonic," "The Outsiders," "Water for Elephants," "Uncle Vanya" and "Patriots" – and wishes for more.


"Stereophonic," the Broadway hit about the turmoil inside a Fleetwood Mac-style 1970s band, is the odds-on favorite to win this year's Tony Award for best new play. Photo: Julieta Cervantes/Stereophonic
“Stereophonic,” the Broadway hit about the turmoil inside a Fleetwood Mac-style 1970s band, is the odds-on favorite to win this year’s Tony Award for best new play. Photo: Julieta Cervantes/Stereophonic

Planning a theater trip to New York can be tricky.

If you are like me, you want to have some advance idea of what you are seeing (and in my case, writing about). And some idea of what may be nominated for Tony Awards this year. (The ceremony is slated for Sunday, June 16, and will be broadcast on CBS.)

Tickets can be scarce (and very, very pricey) if a show hits the Broadway jackpot and becomes a crowd pleaser.  Many of the most promising shows debut in a cluster before the deadline for Tony nominations (April 28 this year). Reviews and word-of-mouth can come in after you’ve already made plans and bought tickets. And with more productions slating shorter runs, and the sudden closure of others, consulting a fortune teller might be helpful.

For my recent Broadway marathon, I knew there were at least two shows I had to see. One is the odds-on favorite on betting sites (yes, you can gamble on this) to win the best new play Tony.

Scoring an (affordable, as in less than $100) ticket to Stereophonic may not be easy, but some of my critic buddies assured me it was worth it. They were right.

Written by David Adjmi, this smash hit play is a slice of theatre verité – or maybe fictional docudrama? Over three riveting hours, Stereophonic tracks the 1970s recording session of a popular rock band – about to break up over exhaustion, drug use and (most of all) the fraying relationships among its enmeshed members.

It is no secret that the band is loosely based on a real one: Fleetwood Mac, which famously shattered after making their wildly successful second album, Rumours. (They later regrouped, after some bickering uncoupling.)      


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Stereophonic charts similar explosive dynamics in a recording studio, realized on two levels from two perspectives (the recording booth up top and album producer’s perch down below) by the masterful designer David Zinn – a Bainbridge Island, Wash. native nominated for a whopping three Tony Awards this year, including one for this set.

It is fascinating to watch the five band members perform chunks and snippets of songs that will ultimately cohere as the album.  (The actors, by the way, are not veteran rockers – but they do a great job of convincing us otherwise.)

As we observe the difficult, productive creative process at work, Adjmi also deftly splices in the interpersonal frictions that will tear the band apart — and ironically, also fuel the intensity and quality of the music.

The characters seem stock at the start. But Adjmi takes his time to give them texture and ambivalence. No surprise that several cast members are up for Tonys: Sarah Pidgeon, for her turn as a terrific but insecure singer-songwriter; Juliana Canfield as a vocalist-keyboard player fed up with her drug-addled bass player spouse (portrayed by another Tony nominee, Will Brill).

 Also in the running: Tom Pecinka, who perfectly expresses the infuriating perfectionism of the group’s take-charge member (think Paul McCartney, during the Beatles’ last stand); and Eli Gelb, as the schlubby novice album producer, who gains expertise and confidence before our eyes.

Stereophonic, whatever it wins (it has a record 13 nominations, tied with this year’s musical Hell’s Kitchen), employs vivid hyperrealism (and voyeurism) to get us inside the music, and the music makers. It may be hard to replicate the micro-magic if regional theaters take on the play, but at least Will Butler’s ‘70s flavored songs are already preserved in a cast album.

Steve Carrell stars in Lincoln Center's "Uncle Vanya." Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Steve Carrell stars in Lincoln Center’s “Uncle Vanya.” Photo: Marc J. Franklin

My other must-see show was Lincoln Center’s rendering of Uncle Vanya. Because I am a Chekhov devotee, I was curious about this staging of a new adaptation of the play by Heidi Schreck, a Washington state native who began her theater career in Seattle, for a cast that includes TV/film star Steve Carrell in the title role and his Broadway debut.


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Schreck’s version of Vanya modernizes (and Americanizes) the dialogue effectively. But the staging by the hot young director Lila Neugebauer (a Tony nominee for directing the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins hit play Appropriate this season) missed many of the more subtle beats of anguish, bitter humor, acute regret, and unruly passion in Chekhov’s seriocomic study of discontent, longing and perseverance.

The set looked more like the spacious lobby of a well-furbished Scandinavian hotel than the parlor of a corroding country house on Vanya’s struggling family farm. Most disappointing? A cast of able actors (also including Alfred Molina and Tony nominee William Jackson Harper) did not coalesce into a cohesive ensemble – and like all of Chekhov plays, Vanya demands that intense collaboration.

 The characters can too easily be reduced to a collection of whiners. This version isn’t that kind of failure, and Carrell’s expert sardonic-comic timing is displayed in the title role of a man complicit in his own failures. But the show skates along the surface of a play with deeply embedded riches of variegated, poignant humanity that were barely mined.

I was sad to miss out on the new musical The Days of Wine and Roses. This stage rendition of the compelling 1962 film, about a marriage destroyed by alcoholism, may have proved too downcast for commercial Broadway. Despite critical praise, and a score by Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza), it closed in March, after only a two-month run.

But I did cover a couple other new musicals of note.

The musical "The Outsiders" has a touch of "West Side Story." Photo: Matthew Murphy
The musical “The Outsiders” has a touch of “West Side Story.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

Based on a best-selling 1967 novel by S.E. Hinton (and a later Francis Ford Coppola movie), The Outsiders bears more than a slight resemblance to West Side Story in its tale of warring urban youths. But the scene is Tulsa, Oklahoma, not midtown Manhattan, and the adolescents squaring off here are working class “greasers” versus more affluent Soc (short for “socials”) teens.

The heart of the show is the friendship between sensitive, conflicted Ponyboy (Tony-nominated Brody Grant) and his vulnerable best friend, Johnny (Sky Lakota-Lynch). These are basically good kids, but both hail from difficult backgrounds, and get into petty crime with their “gang.”


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While they try to avoid the wrath of the well-groomed but brutal Soc crowd, all hell breaks loose after Cherry (Emmy Pittman), the girlfriend of Bob (the most belligerent Soc), befriends Ponyboy. Violence ensues, Johnny and Ponyboy go on the lam, there’s a deadly fire, an act of heroism, and (of course) a rumble.

An appealing young cast, led by the charismatic Grant and Lakota-Lynch (both Tony nominees) is a big plus here. And the show generates a lot of buoyant musical numbers (choreographed by Rick and Jeff Kuperman, who also received one of the show’s dozen Tony nods).

The adrenaline pacing of Dayna Taymor’s propulsive staging kept an audience filled with teens and their elders engrossed. And, surely enhanced by the name recognition, The Outsiders is selling well.

But Justin Levine’s original score of up-tempo rock-pop and identity-crisis ballads seems generic, and the melodramatic treatment of the novel feels dated – despite the welcome addition of racial diversity among the “greasers.”

"Water for Elephants" provides a circus full of energy. Photo: Matthew Murphy
“Water for Elephants” provides a circus full of energy. Photo: Matthew Murphy

I found Water for Elephants more engaging, and refreshingly different. Like Sara Gruen’s same-named 2006 novel, and the 2011 film based on it, the musical embarks on a grand adventure with Jacob (Grant Gustin, a versatile alum of TV’s Glee and The Flash). He’s a veterinary student whose schooling has been curtailed by the loss of his parents and Great Depression hardships.

So, he takes to the rails, and lands on the train of a scruffy traveling circus. The outfit’s bad-guy ringmaster hires Jacob to care for the animals – but not to disobey his more callous orders, or fall in love with his fetching younger wife Marlena (Isabelle Macalla).

The colorful yarn is narrated, as in the book, by an older version of Jacob (Broadway veteran Gregg Edelman), who revisits the circus world briefly, on a hiatus from life in a boring senior residence. The production also features a cadre of whiz-bang acrobats and other circus artistes, and  life-sized puppets in the forms of a horse, a dog, and Rosie, a lovable 53-year-old elephant.


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Folding circus routines in with musical comedy staples works seamlessly here as a sort of more human-scale mashup of Cirque du Soleil derring-do and Lion King-esque menagerie. Rick Elice’s book and the choreography of practiced circus hands Jesse Robb and Shana Carroll (who also directed the skill acts) are spirited and limber. And the music by the Pigpen Theatre group is nostalgic about Americana without going maudlin on you.

Water for Elephants has its detractors, among them some jaded New York critics who wanted a circus story that was a) grittier; and/or b) more complex – and even c) with more spectacular puppets. I see their points and, yes, the score is more pleasant than impressive. But for a family audience tired of Disney glitz and precocious snark, this is a charming alternative.

Michael Stuhlberg as a Russian oligarch in "Patriots." Photo: Matthew Murphy
Michael Stuhlbarg as a Russian oligarch in “Patriots.” Photo: Matthew Murphy

The final show I squeezed in, and was glad I did, is Patriots, a disturbing, telling portrait of the fall of a Russian oligarch, and the rise of the autocratic leader he tragically underestimated.

Two characters, limned by a pair of outstanding actors, anchor this timeline epic of post-Soviet power machinations. It was written by Peter Morgan, best known lately for The Crown, his irresistible TV series loosely based on Britain’s reigning royal family.

The inhabitants of Windsor Castle, wealthy and privileged as they are, have exhibited little of the shark business acumen of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (played with flamboyant bravado by Tony nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) – or the ferocious political ambition of Vladimir Putin (Will Keen, encoring his acclaimed performance in the show in London’s West End).

In a web of alliances and betrayals worthy of Shakespeare, we see how the real-life oil and television magnate Berezovsky helped to install the political underling Putin in the Kremlin in 2000 – mistaking his chilly reserve for obedience to his mentor.

As Morgan’s play details, the oligarch soon learns President Putin is nobody’s puppet, but a severe and remorseless autocrat. And when Berezovsky resists Putin’s crushing of the brief era of a corrupted but more democratic Russia, he loses that gamble and is shut out of favor.


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The dynamic between these two dishonorable men becomes a chess game that Berezovsky, soon exiled to London but publicly flailing at Putin, cannot win.

Patriots – about power brokers who pledge allegiance only to their own interests – is an imperfect work, with an overlay of mathematical metaphors (Berezovsky was trained as a mathematician) that interrupt the flow and eventually feel superfluous. And one must accept that there is no hero, nor redemption, here.

But as well as its platform for powerhouse performances, the play is timely and instructive. With some exceptions (Robert Schenkkan’s LBJ plays, for instance), our American theater is generally not as interested in the history of political scheming and chicanery as Britain’s is. Maybe it is time that we were.

Tony, Tony, Tony

In addition to the Broadway shows I’ve seen this season, there was a surprising number of others I wish I’d also seen – many of them Tony nominees. Here’s what to also look for if you get to New York, or are tracking the Tonys:

PLAYS: Several major female playwrights are up for winning best new play prize this year: Paula Vogel (whose seriocomic The Mother Play stars Jessica Lange as a complex, difficult single mom patterned on Vogel’s own parent); Amy Herzog (Mary Jane, about another single mother, who struggles valiantly to care for her disabled child) and Jocelyn Bioh (her Jaja’s African Hair Braiding focuses on West African immigrants who find community at a Harlem hair salon).

Along with Stereophonic and Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic (about a Jewish family in France facing a new wave of anti-Semitism) these works represent an unusually fertile year on Broadway for American playwriting.

Vying for best play revival are the highly touted Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (focusing on three estranged siblings, who come together to deal with their father’s estate, a former plantation home) as well as Amy Herzog’s new adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and a long overdue revival of the pointed Ossie Davis comedy Purlie Victorious! All are worthy, but Appropriate has the edge.


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NEW MUSICALS: Along with Water for Elephants and The Outsiders, the contenders for best new tuner are: Hell’s Kitchen, a bio-musical about, and featuring the songs of, hitmaker Alicia Keys; Illinoise, a multi-media mélange of music (by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens), storytelling and dance; and Suffs, which encapsulates the suffragettes’ epic struggle to secure the vote for American women.

The winner? It’s a toss-up.

No question, though, about the Tony for revived musical: The late Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has gone from a 1981 flop to a current success. It will likely beat out new mountings of Cabaret, The Who’s Tommy, and Gutenberg! The Musical!

PERFORMERS:  This season offered a showcase for a lot of star-shine. Some notables with Tony nods: Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Leslie Odom Jr., Liev Schreiber, Jeremy Strong, Rachel McAdams, Eddie Redmayne, Daniel Radcliffe, and I could go on. Beaverton High School grad Shoshana Bean is nominated for best featured actress in a musical for her performance in Hell’s Kitchen.

 All will likely be gussied up and present for the Tony Awards ceremony on June 16.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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