Thursday, 19 March 2015

HAND TO GOD by Robert Askins on Broadway

     In Robert Askins' hilarious, unsettling HAND TO GOD we see libidos run amok in a Texas church basement. A previously prim mother engages in s&m with a baffled, adoring teenager while her sweet, shy son comes under the evil spell of a puppet he has created. A minister's behavior toward a young widow becomes more than pastoral. Is a hand puppet to blame? We know from Tyrone, the puppet's, opening speech that he is an advocate of self-centered, anti-social behavior unfettered by social norms, but he also believes that people tend to blame someone or something else for their anti-social behavior, as in "The devil made me do it." Perhaps Tyrone is merely an excuse for the bad behavior he seems to generate on poor young Jason (the brilliant Steven Boyer) and the people around him. Whatever the case, chaos and some horrifying acts of violence ensue.
     I sat through HAND TO GOD in awe of the imagination that could conceive of this dark but entertaining play. The director, who bears the unlikely name of Moritz von Steulpnagel, and his cast have wisely gone all the way with the play's possibilities. Graphic puppet sex that makes the goings on in AVENUE Q seem like "The Muppet Show." The climatic violence is both funny and scary. Beowulf Borritt has created another of his ingenious settings, moving us quickly and effectively around the church. Kudos, too, to the fight director, Robert Westley, and the creator of those puppets, Marie Johanna, Ekhougen. They seem to take on a life of their own.
     The cast is terrific, once one accepts that grown ups are playing adolescents. Steven Boyer has the most difficult role as meek Jason and his puppet alter-ego, Tyrone. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. He should be up for a Tony. Geneva Carr transforms before our eyes from sweet sitcom Mom to a fury. Michael Oberholtzer makes the most of his part as her dim, lovelorn teenage prey. The ever-reliable Marc Kudish is perfect as Pastor Greg, who is clearly out of his depth,
      I'm not sure everyone in my Wednesday matinee audience knew what to make of HAND TO GOD. It's raunchier, rawer and more cynical than the usual Broadway fare. Perhaps it belongs OFf-Broadway, where it has already had critical and commercial success. I loved it and wish it well.
HAND TO GOD. Booth Theatre. March 18, 2015.    

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Lin-Manuel Miranda's HAMILTON at the Public Theatre

     The Public Theatre has certainly been the place to see new musicals over the past year or so. Gabriel Kahane's FEBRUARY HOUSE, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's FUN HOME (about to open on Broadway), the underrated THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, and now HAMILTON (also Broadway bound), which tops them all in terms of ambition and quality of score and production. HAMILTON is on that short list of musical milestones -- shows that keep the best of the past but rethink what a musical can do and how it can do it. I'd put it with COMPANY,  WEST SIDE STORY and SHOW BOAT.
     The major innovation is musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda has found a way to use rap and hip hop to tell a story. To put it mildly,  I'm not a fan of rap, but here even more than in Miranda's IN THE HEIGHTS, I was convinced that rap works in the context of musical theatre. It becomes the new vehicle for the patter song. It's no surprise that one number quotes Gilbert and Sullivan. Another lyric quotes Oscar Hammerstein. There's no doubt Miranda is staking his claim to an important place in the history of musical theatre. You can't possibly pick up all the words in HAMILTON's raps first time through -- they go by much too fast. Rap isn't the only element of the score. There's jazz, rock, pop and some beautiful ballads. Like all good theatre composers, MIranda is out to demonstrate his virtuosity and versatility. As composer and lyricist, he proves he's one of the best, certainly the best working now
      A musical biography of Alexander Hamilton is an odd choice for any composer-lyricist-librettist, particularly one working in such contemporary musical idioms. The clash between subject matter and style is, however, one of the most fascinating aspects of HAMILTON. Miranda has done his research on Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the politics of the period. Like many creators of musicals about historical figures, a central subject is the desire for public recognition, for acclaim. You could call the show ALEXANDER HAMILTON SUPERSTAR with Aaron Burr as a kind of Judas figure, burning with envy but also a kind of grudging attraction to his nemesis. They both want "my shot" at power and fame. The three women in Hamilton's life are less important but give the musical variety.
     The production (direction Thomas Kail, choreography Andy Blankenbuehler) never stops moving. An ensemble seems to be dancing through every scene. If the performers aren't moving, the revolving stage is. The lighting is constantly changing on the effective unit set. Sometimes I yearned for a little less movement, but the visual swirling gives on a sense of history as out of the control of the individuals involved. The beautiful period costumes (Paul Tazewell) underscore the constant merger between past and present in the show.
     Of course, a notable aspect of HAMILTON is the multi-racial cast. This show about an "immigrant bastard", as Burr calls him, is cast almost entirely with a non-white cast. Lafayette's line, "Immigrants get the job done," is one of the show's subtexts. America is less and less a pure white country and has always been a nation of immigrants. Of the leads, the white King George stands out.
I might add that King George (Jonathan Groff) stands out in other ways. He doesn't seem to be a part of the ensemble. This makes him seem tangential and perhaps unnecessary. I couldn't help wondering why a star like Jonathan Groff would even take the part. By the way, he's really too young to play it. It's odd casting. Everyone else is terrific, particularly Leslie Odom, Jr., a born musical star, who gives Aaron Burr amazing intensity.
     HAMILTON demands repeated viewings, I look forward to see how it fits in a Broadway house.
Five stars, at least.
HAMILTON. Public THeatre. March 17, 2015.