Sunday, 5 June 2016

SHUFFLE ALONG at the Music Box

     Those of us who study American musical theatre know that while there was a wholesale appropriation of African-American music by white popular composers, particularly in the 1920s, there was SHUFFLE ALONG, a Black created and performed musical that ran over 500 performances (a good run in those days) in a shabby theatre near what is now Lincoln Center. The score was by Noble Sissle (Joshua Henry) and Eubie Blake (Brandon Victor Dixon), the book by the comedy team of F.E. Miller (Brian Stokes Mitchell) and Aubrey Lyles (Billy Porter). All four men were in the original cast of the show along with Lottie Gee, a diva of the Chitlin Circuit (Audra McDonald). George C. Wolfe's SHUFFLE ALONG is not a revival of the show, though the producers tried to convince the Tony Award committee that the show is a revival so they had a chance against the HAMILTON juggernaut. The first act is about the creation of the show, the second about its effect on the lives of its creators and performers. The focus overall is on a chapter of African-American history--how a group of artists temporarily overcame all the obstacles Black writers, composers and performers faced a century ago. Even though Broadway and Off-Broadway now welcome artists of color, it is crucial to remember that this is a recent phenomenon. Wolfe's book is intelligent and always absorbing. The musical numbers are all from the score of the original SHUFFLE ALONG and they're terrific.
     The production--what can one say? The five leads are the creme de la creme of current musical stars. Audra McDonald is funny as the diva-ish Lottie Gee. She sings magnificently, of course and even dances up a storm. I will run out of superlatives for the performances of Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry. Brian Stokes Mitchell has less to do, but adds even more star power. How often does one get to see this many great stars in the same show? Brooks Ashmanskas is delightful as all the white characters. Savion Glover's tap choreography is awe-inspiring and one can only cheer the great ensemble that dances it. A special cheer to Ann Roth's spectacular costumes.
     Nobody seems to be able to talk abut anything but HAMILTON right now, but SHUFFLE ALONG is also a great show. Even the band is special. Don't miss it.
SHUFFLE ALONG. Music Box Theatre. June 2, 2016.

INCOGNITO by Nick Payne at Manhattan Theatre Club

     INCOGNITO is a descendant of the best of Tom Stoppard's early plays, a collage of characters and situations taking place over many years, built on science and connected by a vision of the paradoxical ordering and chaos of the human brain. On a circular playing area, four superb actors enact twenty-one characters who interact over generations. Slowly we come to see the links between these characters who are related really and metaphorically. We see a man who, due to a brain disorder, lives in an eternal present. Another man, a pathologist, has stolen the brain of Albert Einstein, hoping to understand how the brain of a genius works. Einstein's granddaughter tells him that science won't help. The man was "a shit." A woman is great at dealing with people professionally, but an unhappy drunk out of work. As the title suggests, people aren't really knowable even to themselves. This is a brilliant, witty play that in its best moments is also heartfelt.
     Under Doug Hughes direction, the cast acts as an ensemble, like a great string quarter. Best is Charlie Cox, particularly in his touching impersonation of a man who has no memory. His Henry is sweet, but pained at his realization that he is mentally unmoored.
      This is one of the best plays I have seen so far this season.
INCOGNITO by Nick Payne. City Center Stage 1. May 3, 2016.

DAPHNE'S DIVE by Quiara Alegria Hudes at the Signature

     Well, they can't all be good. You can't fault the acting or Thomas Kail's direction of DAPHNE'S DIVE. There's just not much of a play there, so little that one wonders why the Signature decided to produce this.
      DAPHNE'S DIVE is one of those barroom plays, though with all the free liquor that is consumed and no customers except the five who seem to drink for free, one wonders how the saloon has survived for the nineteen years of the play's action. Over those nineteen years, the characters don't change except to drink more. The most obnoxious of the characters, one of those life worshipping "free spirits" without a coherent idea in her head, immolates herself between scene two and three. It would be a relief if the other characters didn't insist on talking about her for the rest of the play. Daphne and her friends allow her adopted daughter to become a self-righteous drunk and a scold. A politician is, of course, an adulterer.
      The cast is so good that at some moments they almost convince the audience that there's a play there.
DAPHNE'S DIVE. Signature Theatre. June 5, 2016.

THE TOTAL BENT at the Public Theatre

     What to say about this enjoyable, brilliantly performed, but not always coherent musical that soars when it sings? Basically it is about the clash of generations of Black preacher-performers in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Yes the boycotts, riots and police brutality are going on outside the church and recording studio. Joy Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), represents the older generation. He's a former blues singer turned preacher who is moving from church to television studio. Joe has been wild with women and with money, but he preaches that Christ forgives all sins, so he, to paraphrase Faulkner, tries to endure and prevail. His message is that Blacks should be good and unthreatening. He's against Martin Luther King and his followers. Joy Roy believes that one survives by making nice with white folk. After all, how many poor Blacks had television sets in Alabama in 1965? Joe Roy's power comes from his gospel songs, which are ghost written by his more talented son, Martin (the brilliant Ato Blankson-Wood).  Joy Roy depends on Martin but is also frightened of him. Their rivalry is maintained by Byron, a British record producer who is an aficionado of old blues and particularly of Joe Roy's early work. To this middle-aged British blues fan, Black music is "authenticity." Joe tries to stop Joy Roy from producing Martin's work. Nonetheless, Martin become a star in England, though the American rock press calls him an Uncle Tom. What is "authentic" music? Martin's mocks the religion his father sells.  It is also very much of its time and Martin, Black, anger and queer, represents the present and the future. I can tell you that much but dare anyone to figure out the last ten minutes of the show.
      THE TOTAL BENT is well worth seeing for its dynamic music (Stew and Heidi Rodewald), the star-making performance of Ato Blankson--Wood, who is filled to the brim with talent, and the great band. Everyone in this all-male cast is excellent. The production (Joanna Settle) is  more staged concert than full production, which doesn't help the muddle of the ending. Stew's attempt at rhymed dialogue and his lyrics are best when they are taking a humorous view toward a very serious topic. Having just seen, SHUFFLE ALONG, I was interested in this take on Black culture and politics.
THE TOTAL BENT. Public Theatre. June 4, 2016.