By MISHA BERSON
NEW YORK – Somewhere between the dead of winter and the rebirth of spring, Broadway takes a breath. It’s before a stream of shows hoping to vie for Tony Awards take up residence near Times Square. And it’s after a lot of productions, including really great stuff like last year’s Tony Award for best original musical, The Band’s Visit, prepare to depart.
Yet for a Broadway-bound visitor to New York there is still enough to attract your attendance, if you choose wisely.
During a recent East Coast journey I was able to put together a smorgasbord of shows that included a riveting contemporary drama, an engrossing play revival, a play based on an American literary classic and – oh, right – a new musical. (And it wasn’t Cher.) I watched several screen stars in live action, revisited an old favorite script, and witnessed the flowering of a young African-American writer who is helping revitalize serious American drama on Broadway.
LET’S START WITH THAT LAST ONE: Choir Boy, by Tarrell Alvin McCraney. Though it debuted Off Broadway in 2013, this adrenalin- and music-fueled play set in a black all-male prep school made its Broadway debut only this year, after some revision. If its author sounds familiar, maybe that’s because McCraney collected an Oscar for his screenplay for the valuable film Moonlight. He also wrote the touted new Netflix baseball drama High Flying Bird.
As does the haunting Moonlight, the play Choir Boy centers on young men struggling to balance their authentic identities with survival skills in a bullying world. Racism is not the issue here so much as homophobia. But there’s no mistaking the African-American cultural power in the spirituals, and the inspirational pop tunes, that are powerfully sung and step-danced by a school chorus led by the effusively effeminate student Pharus.
And there is no mistaking that Pharus doesn’t fit neatly into the role his black elders, and some of his peers, expect him to play. Portrayed with shattering intensity and sensitivity by Jeremy Pope, he is an odd duck among boys all wrestling with their own issues of masculine identity. Pharus is louder, sassier, and bossier than the other choristers; but though he lets his freak flag fly, he is also extremely vulnerable. And when unjustly blamed for screwing up at a recital, he eventually breaks the school’s no-snitching code by telling the sympathetic but stern headmaster who threw him off during a choir recital by disparaging his sexuality.
That aggressively homophobic bully, Bobby, is his main adversary. But Pharus isn’t so sure he can trust anyone in the group – even a devout, sensitive, seminary-bound peer, or Pharus’s caring hetero roommate.
There are dramaturgical holes in Choir Boy – sketchy relationships that don’t get fleshed out, a caricatured villain, and a touchy-feely instructor (played by Austin Pendleton) who seems frozen in 1960s counterculture.
But so many other moments are searing, like a violently ambivalent encounter in a steamy gym locker room, and an intimate show of friendship as one boy trims another’s hair. And the exhilarating, tightly choreographed musical numbers take the story to a higher level.
Choir Boy closed its extended Broadway engagement at the Samuel B. Freedman Theatre on March 10. But Jeremy Pope is on a roll: He’s moving on to co-star in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, a new Broadway musical penned by Detroit playwright Dominique Morisseau with a score of Motown hits by the Temps (and just reviewed in the New York Times). Choir Boy isn’t dependent on a one-star turn though: it’s worthy of future mountings in Portland, Seattle, anywhere and everywhere.
FOR SEVERAL REASONS, I APPROACHED the new production of To Kill a Mockingbird, the latest take on the 1960 novel by the late Harper Lee, with some trepidation. I knew that the same complaints that dogged the film Green Book – about a plot that valorizes a heroic white protagonist as a “savior” of a helpless black character – have been aimed at Mockingbird. I had already seen productions of Christopher Sergel’s serviceable stage adaptation. Moreover, it’s hard to get the famous film version, with Gregory Peck a pillar of rumpled nobility as the lawyer Atticus Finch, out of my head.
I was also wary that Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin would apply his penchant for rat-a-tat banter and ironic humor (as in The West Wing and The Newsroom) inaptly to Lee’s story of a small-town Alabama lawyer’s defense of a black man who is erroneously accused of the rape of a white girl in the 1930s.
So it was a pleasant surprise to see the deftness of Sorkin’s dramatization, and the laudable way it wove in more of the perspectives of the black community and poor whites, and presented Atticus as a sincere but tragically naïve advocate for justice.
Sorkin’s version stays faithful to the book’s core, including its first-person narration by Scout (played with spice and grit by the excellent Celia Keenan-Bolger), the young daughter of Atticus. As she watches the story unfold, Scout’s own values (and those of her brother) are being shaped and tested.
But there is also an implied new emphasis, under Bartlett Sher’s effective and engrossing direction, of larger enduring questions about racism and criminal justice. The play begins with the standard court announcement to “All rise!” when a judge enters the courtroom. That phrase is repeated in the end, underscoring the need for the audience, and all Americans, to rise and defy injustices that persist.
The heaviest acting burden, of course, falls on the shoulders of Jeff Daniels as Atticus. Daniels is best known for his starring roles in films and Sorkin’s cable-TV series Newsroom. But he has a hefty stage resume as well, as an actor, a playwright, and the founder of the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Michigan.
Daniels’ mushy Deep South accent can smudge his lines, but otherwise he is quite convincing as a moral man who tries to set a good example for his children, and act on his belief in the inherent goodness of his community. That faith is dashed when Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), the black handyman he is defending, is wrongly convicted and then lynched – something that the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, and other black townspeople feared. So why did Atticus insist on Tom filing a not guilty plea, rather than accepting a jail sentence? Why persist in the belief he’d be exonerated?
That question becomes more prominent in this retelling of the tale, which in my view upends the notion that Atticus is any kind of savior. Daniels projects him as a highly principled but flawed man, for believing the best in everyone and not being prepared for the worst. The final demand to “All rise!” has an unmissable timeliness.
One note: Scott Rudin, the producer of Mockingbird, apparently secured full stage rights to the novel from the Harper Lee estate. He has taken that literally, and slapped a cease-and-desist order on a planned U.K. tour of Sergel’s play. Recently, after some bad mojo and negative publicity, Rudin has amended that stance somewhat by making available the rights to Sorkin’s version to community theaters that had already scheduled the Sergel script. That doesn’t do much for the late Sergel’s version – and shouldn’t there be enough room for (at least) two adaptations of the novel?
ON THE OTHER END OF THE BROADWAY SPECTRUM is the new musical The Prom. What piqued my interest, beside its sheaf of enthusiastic reviews, was the co-writer: Bob Martin, author of the delectable musical The Drowsy Chaperone and co-author of the best backstage/show biz TV mini-series ever, Slings and Arrows (a sublimely witty, spot-on look at a Shakespeare theater company closely modeled after Canada’s Stratford Festival).
Martin’s new, well-received show is concept-heavy, and breathlessly energetic thanks to the expert machinations of director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the tireless genie who made marvels of Hairspray, Aladdin, and The Book of Mormon.
Grabbing hold of a screwball device, Prom (with a book by Martin and Chad Beguelin) imagines a couple of Broadway has-been stars desperate to refuel their careers. They plot to become relevant at a time when “nobody likes a narcissist” by beaming down to Edgewater, a small Midwest town where the local PTA has banned a lesbian student from attending the high school prom with her girlfriend. (A similar incident in Sullivan, Indiana, made news headlines in 2013.)
Much is made of the culture clash between the preening Tony-winning diva Dee Dee Allen (Beth Leavel) and the flamboyantly gay Barry Glickman (former Portlander Brooks Ashmanskas), in the company of two fellow Broadway-ites, and the salt-of-the-earth Indianans who resent their publicity-hound scheme.
Gradually, however, they draw close to gay lesbian Emma (the terrific stand-out, Caitlin Kinnunen), who at first recoils from these interlopers but eventually appreciates their vigorous public (and private) support. That’s more than Emma’s girlfriend, Alyssa (Isabelle McCalla), can offer: She hasn’t come out yet to her homophobic mother, the arch-meanie of Prom who leads the campaign to deny gay kids their rights with bigoted gusto.
Musicals about alienated teens are trending on Broadway lately – witness Mean Girls (also staged by Nicholaw) and Dear Evan Handler. This one has a serious subject on its mind, which is treated with some sensitivity. But Prom also jolts unevenly between broad satire and splashy musical numbers, and the more sobering issues of self-acceptance and oppression.
The problem for me isn’t so much the jumpy tone or the enjoyable but evanescent score (by Matthew Sklar and Beguelin). It’s the yards-long comedic stereotypes, even the affectionate versions, that grow tiresome after a while (i.e., the hick-vs.-sophisticate jokes about the Midwest) and make it harder to shift into more thoughtful dramatic territory.
However, there’s no denying that The Prom is vivacious, performed with panache, and has its heart in the right place. That may be enough to keep it running – and preaching tolerance to the converted.
I ALSO CAUGHT A WORTHWHILE STAGING of one of Sam Shepard’s best works, True West – a primal brother vs. brother, yin vs. yang, New West versus Old West cage match between Paul Dano’s straight-arrow screenwriter Austin and Ethan Hawke’s renegade desert rat Lee.
The play, which has become a touchstone for a couple of generations of male actors, has held up beautifully under James MacDonald’s direction, and both of its movie-star leads met its demands. Too bad it’s a limited Roundabout Theatre run; it closed last Sunday. But, Shepard fans, do not despair: The first play in his “family cycle,” the surreal family psychodrama Curse of the Starving Class, will be playing at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, April 23 – May 26, 2019. Maggie Siff (Billions) co-stars.
SPEAKING OF SCREEN STARS (who almost always limit their theatrical runs), quite a few more are headlining on Broadway this spring: Glenda Jackson as the crotchety lead monarch in King Lear; Adam Driver and Keri Russell in Terrence McNally’s explosive romance Burn This; Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton; and Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in Arthur Miller’s morality tale All My Sons.
Also be on the lookout for Northwest native Heidi Schreck’s inventive and important civics lesson-cum-memoir What the Constitution Means to Me and James Graham’s drama Ink, about the rise of newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch. For details and tickets about current and future Broadway shows check out www.playbill.com.
Misha Berson is a Seattle-based freelance journalist, teacher, and author who spent 25 years as the theater critic for the Seattle Times. She is a frequent contributor to the Seattle Times, American Theatre and Crosscut.com, and her latest book is Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination.