Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Anthony Rapp’s Without You Engages Joyfully

Without You is based on Anthony Rapp’s 2006 book, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent. The show is not a quick recap of his time in Rent, but about the emotions that Rent brought up and the story of his mother’s illness.

Anthony Rapp is stunning in Without You

The book and play Without You is centered on this time when Rent was beginning and was a massive hit AND at the same time Anthony’s mother was sick and getting sicker. Rent is a great play, yet one also with great tragedy. The parallels with his mother being sick are offset against the the play going through sickness and pain.

Anthony Rapp recalls his journey with Rent, from readings to Off-Broadway to Broadway. He doesn’t add a lot of new information that wasn’t in the book Without You, but the information was new to me.  I found it entertaining and interesting. I confess on traveling to New York (from Los Angeles) to see Rent with the original cast. I loved the show. To hear these new stories was fun and engaging. Without You is peppered with songs from the show, along with other tunes. Only 2 or 3 of the songs are sung completely, most are snippets used to relate to parts of the play.

Rapp’s tie of the story of Rent to the story of his mother’s illness is jarring at first, but little by little Without You pulls us into the analogies he is looking for. 

Anthony Rapp is stunning in the show. It is quick, tight and focused. The musical choices are absolutely perfect. Anthony Rapp’s voice is unique, and may not be your favorite. It isn’t my favorite, either as singing is such a personal thing. But Rapp’s voice work is stunning in the show. It pulls out emotion and pathos. His singing is the compliment that makes this show work.

Director Steven Maler understands the movement and stage business to emphasis the story, without being distracted. I absolutely loved the show, and left on a high.

Without You

Playwright: Anthony Rapp | Music: Jonathan Larson and others
Director: Steven Maler | Cast: Anthony Rapp

Website

Friday, January 20, 2023

Heaven: Lost and Found in Ireland

There is a distinctive way many Irish theater productions play out, and your enjoyment of Heaven might depend on if you love, hate or are indifferent to that style. Heaven is a two hander, where the actors speak directly to the audience. Often, in Irish plays, one character talks to the audience for the entire show. But in this one, both characters talk one on one to the audience, albeit never at the same time.

The characters are a married couple, Mairead (May) and Mal. May is played by Janet Moran in a wistful but lovely turn. Mal is played by Andrew Bennett with more self-loathing and awakening but the same skill. They each describe their marriage and their feelings and questions to the audience. Both partners are separately challenged at the reception of a wedding they are attending.


Janet Moran and Andrew Bennett in Heaven (photo: Ste Murray)

May discusses the rut her marriage is in, the bitterness of having a daughter that fights with her every time they talk, and the disappearing hope for the future. At the party, her assumptions about her complacent life are challenged by the return of an old beau. One with which she had fantastic sexual chemistry.

At the same party MAL, a sober alcoholic, reflects on his hidden sexuality, hidden even from himself in many cases.. A sexuality that manifests itself it some very interesting fantasies about Jesus freeing him from his repression. His internal struggles are deeply felt as are May’s.

The story uses the background of the wedding to illustrate May’s struggles. The story uses a background sexual frustration and then a man's inducements to have Mal to partake of liquor and cocaine to illustrate Mal’s struggles. Neither analogy is as heavy handed as it sounds. And both May and Mal build the tension slowly until it grows to consume them.

I enjoyed the show very much, despite my dislike of the format. Few shows handle this setup as well at Heaven – the last I saw done this well was A Steady Rain on Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. Janet Moran and Andrew Bennet are not nearly as famous as that pair, but these two also inhabit their characters fully and believably.

Written by Eugene O’Brian and directed by Jim Culleton, the timing of the soliloquies and the passion of them is a credit to both. It is a simple set and design in order to bring the characters front and center with lighting and subtlety. I enjoyed it very much.

Heaven
Playwright: Eugene O’Brian | Director: Jim Culleton | Cast:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Joy & Fun & Juliet

I admit that I had low expectations for & Juliet. The premise just sounds clumsy, “What if Juliet didn’t kill herself after Romeo?” And a jukebox musical at that, with songs written Max Martin and collaborators. It sounds like the show was cobbled together to try to mimic the success of Moulin Rouge crossed with SIX. I was wrong that it would not be a ton of fun. It is. And, if it is Moulin Rouge and SIX mashed together, it works


& Juliet is energetic, fun and what people expect a musical to be: big, loud, colorful, and overwhelming. It isn’t perfect, but it a blast.

And I will start by saying the cast is fantastic. I don’t want to be redundant and complement each actor, but the singing, acting and casting were first rate from top to bottom. 

The story begins with Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe). She questions why Juliet has to die in Romeo and Juliet. When Shakespeare (Stark Sands) gives a waffling answer – That is what makes it a tragedy – she convinces him to try a new tack. Let Juliet decide to live and see where it goes. And so, Juliet (Lorna Courtney) escapes her parents plans to send her to a nunnery by running off to Paris. A nunnery is where fallen women are sent. Since Juliet is no longer a virgin , she no use to her parents. Escaping with her are two new friends, May (Justin David Sullivan) and Ann, plus one old friend, the nurse (Melanie La Barrie) from Shakespeare’s original play.


In this show, the star-crossed lovers are the non-binary May and Prince Fran├žois (Philippe Arroyo) and, The Nurse and King Lance - Paulo Szot lending a adult air and voice to the proceedings. Shakespeare and his wife Ann share the stage as feuding couple with different expectations of marriage. The late arrival of Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker), freshly not dead, complicates the happily ever after for all concerned.

The & Juliet songs, mainly bouncing and upbeat, add to the carnival like atmosphere. With one or two exceptions, the songs fit and and add a layer of comedy. & Juliet adds an inside joke or two that everyone who has seen or heard Romeo and Juliet will understand.

The story here is more gender inclusive with love stories between men and women, non-binary characters and a freedom from stereotypes. But the main moral of the story is that self-empowerment gives a person the freedom to choose who to and how to love. And how being true to yourself might be the greatest superpower we all have.

If this all sounds preachy, do not worry, & Juliet is infused with joy and life. Veteran London Director Luke Sheppard balances the razzle dazzle of the show as expertly as he does the moments of love and heart. Instead of a preachy show about gender, he allows this musical to spread the joy throughout the audience without losing engagement in the story. 

& Juliet is good story, great acting and a positive message.

& Juliet
Playwrights: Max Martin & Friends, Music | David West Read, Book | Director: Luke Sheppard | Cast: Lorna Courtney, Paulo Szot, Betsy Wolfe, Stark Sands, Justin Davie Sullivan, Melanie La Barrie, Ben Jackson Walked, Philippe Arroyo | Website: & Juliet