Saturday, September 17, 2011

Unique Productions

I recently had the chance to see some shows that I have wanted to see for some time. The first is the Utah premiere of Next to Normal at Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City. Next to Normal was nominated for a Tony on Broadway and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama just last year (the only other musicals to win this prize are Of Thee I Sing, South Pacific, Fiorello!, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Chorus Line, Sunday in the Park with George (yea!), and Rent). It’s an unusual piece in that it’s a rock musical about a woman suffering from manic-depression and the effect it has on her and her family. If the only type of musicals you like is stuff like Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Mary Poppins, and Mamma Mia, this show will probably not be up your alley.

I went in with high expections because I had heard so many positive things about the original Broadway production, and I was very excited to see PTC’s production because I never got an opportunity to see the Broadway production, and unless they bring a touring production around, this was my shot.

I worried a little because I saw PTC’s recent production of Rent and was a bit disappointed because the sound system didn’t support the show well, and I even know that performers were asked to pull back so they wouldn’t blow out the system, and unfortunately, it showed. So I worried that the same thing might happen in this show. I was told, however, that some new equipment was rented for this show, and it showed.

I was not disappointed. I thought the show was terrific, and it kept me very engaged. All of the performers (only six of them) were all terrific, and the lady who played the mother, who has the biggest load, was fabulous.

The set was exceptional. I loved it! I was a house with an off-kilter suburban backdrop, and various panels would open to reveal parts of the house, which seemed symbolic of the things that happen behind closed doors that are kept under wraps that eventually see the light. It’s one of my favorite sets I’ve seen at Pioneer Theatre.

The story itself was quite intriguing and dramatic, of course, but with enough humor that you didn’t feel like you were being dragged down. The drums in the orchestra got a little loud at times, and one actor had a mannerism that I felt he overused. Still, I liked the show very much.

One way I could tell I liked the show was that I got so wrapped up in it, I didn’t pick it apart and criticize it in my head like I so often do with other shows. The music was good, too.

Obviously, the subject is quite serious, but I really thought the show did a good job of showing you what it’s like to get in the head of (and live with) someone with bipolar disorder. I actually had a few friends there (three of whom have bipolar disorder and one whose mother has it). Two of my friends were brought to tears by the show. One said she felt like her life was being portrayed on stage and that it was kind of cathartic.

Anyway, I really enjoyed it and was so glad I had a chance to see it before I leave for home in Vegas. I highly recommend it. It’s still open for two weeks. If you live in Utah, go see it!

The next show I got to see is a community production of Grey Gardens at Wasatch Theatre Company at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City. Obviously, this was a much smaller scale show than Next to Normal was, but Grey Gardens, too, is a show I’ve wanted to see since its Broadway debut four years ago. It, too, was nominated for a Tony and Christine Ebersole won for Best Actress for an amazing performance.

For those of you unfamiliar with Grey Gardens, it is a musical based on the 1974 documentary of the same name. the documentary was made after it was discovered that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ cousin and aunt were living in squalor and filth in their dilapidated estate, Grey Gardens. The two women were once wealthy socialites and the documentary and the musical (as well as an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange) attempt to unconver how these once rich and beautiful socialites fell so far. If you get a chance to see the documentary (or even the HBO movie), it’s pretty interesting (and sad).

In any case, I had really wanted to see the musical, and I knew it was likely this would be my only chance as I don’t expect many productions of Grey Gardens to be done in Utah. The first act deals with the mother and daughter’s lives at the height of their wealth and popularity. The second act is basically the events in the documentary. The same actress plays the mother in the first act and the now-older daughter in the second act. My friend played this part, and I must say, as unbiased as I can be, I thought she did a really great job in a very demanding part. I also though the lady that played the mother in act two was quite good, and so act two was more enjoyable than act one because the focus was on the strongest actors.

It was a community theatre production, and so there were weaknesses; although for a community theatre production it wasn’t too bad. Fortunately, the act two mother and daughter were very good performers. The young lady who played the daughter in the first act was kind of weak, however. I just didn’t think her voice was up to snuff as far as what the part demanded, and I also felt she didn’t quite fit the part. An older gentleman played the mother’s father in the first act, and I thought he was pretty terrible. He had no rhythm, which is not good if you’re in a musical. He also flubbed his lines a lot and didn’t seem terribly confident, which is unfortunate because the character is supposed to exude confidence and authority, neither of which he was able to do. I just cringed every time he was stage, but tried to forgive him because it was, after all, a community theatre production.

There are also two little girls in the the show, who play Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier, respectively. They were cute, but not great actors. Jacqueline, in particular, was hard to hear. Two actors played Brooks, a servant, and George Gould Strong, a hanger-on who lived off the mother’s money. Both actors were fine.

I did enjoy one actor, who played Joe Kennedy in the first act and a handy man named Jerry in the second act. I thought he had a nice voice. I think he has some maturing to do as an actor, but he has great potential, I think. He, too, was featured more in the second act, and because he was one of the stronger performers, it was stronger act.

My friend had the bulk of the show, which was good because she did a good job, and he scenes with the mother were quite good.

The show dragged a bit, and the music (which I had heard before) doesn’t do a ton for me, although I think if I listened to it over and over, I might develop more of a taste for it. I do have it on my iPod. Maybe I should listen to it more. The musical isn’t written for the songs to be catchy; it’s written more for them to be like spoken dialogue. I do wish it had more memorable tunes, but I also realize that probably isn’t the point. There is one song I quite like called “Around the World.” Very sad, but a pretty melody.

The show is well-written and interesting. I’m not sure if this is the strongest production you will ever see, but since you’re not likely to see many in Utah, you might give it a gander. I’m not giving it as strong a recommendation as Next to Normal, though. I think Grey Gardens closes in two weeks, too.

The last show I saw was probably one I wasn’t supposed to see, but a friend got a bootleg copy of The Book of Mormon from his friend, and since neither he nor I are likely to get a chance to see it any time soon, we watched it. I typically don’t like the idea of bootlegs of productions. I think it’s only fair to pay to see things so that that money can go to the artists responsible, but since I won’t be able to see a production any time soon, and because I didn’t pay any money to see an illegal copy (nor had anything to do with obtaining it), I figured why not watch it?

I was nervous because I know there is a lot in the show that was likely to offend me, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed it. In spite of some very foul language, the show is quite funny and, yes, as many people have said, there is a sweetness in it that touched me.

The choreography was terrific. Some very clever stuff. And the performances were all very strong and there was some very excellent comic timing in abundance. There were even a couple of moments that caused me to tear up, if you can believe it.

I posted about my responses to the songs in an earlier post, so now I’ll say what my impressions are now that I’ve seen them in context.

“Hello” – Very simple choreography, but very effective. A really strong way to begin the show (although the true beginning was a Hill Cumorah Pageant-type tableau that was actually quite funny). I still like the song a lot. Very catchy.

“Two By Two” – Loved the choreography in this one. Lots of funny stuff.

“You and Me (But Mostly Me)” – Also very funny and very well sung by Andrew Rannells.

“Hasa Diga Eebowai” – The song still offends me, but it is funnier in context.

“Turn It Off” – Very funny and great choreography!

“I Am Here For You” – I like the song, but the missionaries are in their garments in this scene, which I found a little off-putting. It bothered me.

“All-American Prophet” – This was a really well-done number. A fun piece.

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti” – I was amazed by how much this number touched me. It also has some humor in it, but I thought it was a really sweet number. Nikki M. James sang it terrifically, too.

“Man Up” – This was not my favorite number when I heard the soundtrack, but the number is funnier and more rousing in context. Still not my favorite tune, but I appreciate it more.

“Making Things Up” I still don’t care for the language, but the song makes more sense in context, and there are some visual gags that are humorous.

“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” – Really great choreography and visual gags that made the songs much more enjoyable when seeing it. I quite liked what they did with it.

“I Believe” – Still my favorite song, I think, and it was very funny and well-performed. Not too different from how it appeared on the Tony Awards.

“Baptize Me” – The song still offends me and makes me uncomfortable. I get the humor, but the sexual innuendo in a song about baptism, which I still consider a sacred ordinance, makes me very uncomfortable.

“I Am Africa” – I didn’t really get this song when I heard it, but seeing it made it much more clear, and the choreography is quite humorous.

“Joseph Smith American Moses” – The language in this song is still too much for me. The parody of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is not lost on me, but the language and situation is just too foul for my taste.

“Tomorrow Is a Latter Day” – Very strong closer and wraps the show up nicely.

Josh Gad and Andrew Rannells are very funny. There are some very clever and funny lines and situations, and the story is sweet. I don’t necessarily agree with the points Matt Stone and Trey Parker are making, but I understand why they are making them and where they might be coming from.

If I got a chance to see the show live, I might go, but I definitely wouldn’t take my mother or niece. I doubt anyone in my family would be able to watch it without feeling offended and assaulted (and I was offended at times, too, although not as much as I had anticipated). Overall, I liked the show; I just wish Parker and Stone could lay off some of the profanity.

Anyway, those are three productions I’ve seen. You aren’t likely to see the latter unless you go to New York, but you can catch the other two in Utah if you live there.


Michelle said...

Love, love, love Broadway. :) Thanks for these reviews...I'd love to see Next to Normal.

FYI--The Book of Mormon will have a run in Chicago, but patience is required. It will begin in December of 2012. Group ticket sales have already begun.

I understand when people are offended by Hasa Diga Eebowai, but I think the profanity of that song is answered in the line, "If you don't like what we say, try living here a couple days..."

Thanks again for the info on these shows. I need to get the NtN soundtrack. :)

Gay LDS Actor said...

My pleasure.

Certainly I get the sentiment of how the people in "Hasa Diga Eebowai" feel, but that doesn't make it any less jarring to my ears. lol

ca said...

Hey -- I found your blog several weeks ago because I was looking for a review of the Book of Mormon that was both sensitive to Mormonism and was interested in what Parker and Stone had to say -- and I stayed (lurking) because you have such insightful and spiritual posts. (By the way, I'm an agnostic practicing Mormon, so I have sort of an opposite but related viewpoint to you -- I love my ward very much, and appear to be following the "rules," but can never get a temple recommend or anything like that.) So thanks for your blog -- I really appreciate it.

I've listened to the songs and watched the Tony Awards but have not watched the play live at all, and wasn't planning to, because... watching the "I Believe" performance really bothered me in a way that listening to the song didn't -- not because of the song itself, which I actually really love, but because people were laughing at places that made me feel like they were laughing at my religion and me. Did that bother you at all?

And I agree, the profanity bothers me! I do see why they're doing it, but it does turn me off -- it's funny, I've listened to the songs without profanity about ten times more than the ones with.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Hey, ca,

Thanks for the comments. I'm glad to hear that you find some of my posts spiritual and insightul and that you enjoy my blog.

Your situation sounds very interesting. I'm glad you love you ward. I really have a great love for my home ward in Utah, but I'm back home with Jonah now. I like this ward, too, but don't have the same connection with it as I do the one in Utah.

In answer to your question about "I Believe," yes, when I watched the Tonys, I was bothered for the very same reason you were and had the same reaction which I didn't have when I just listened to it.

It does feel (and felt when I watched the copy of the show) at times that people are laughing at things that I find sacred and important; that they are laughing at my beliefs rather than sharing a joke with me, and that was and is uncomfortable.

At the same time, I think most people are laughing at things that seem humorous from an outside point of view because they don't understand them from the inside.

I don't feel that people (the majority anyway) are laughing at my beliefs maliciously nor do I even feel that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are creating the humor from a malicious angle. I think there are simply things that Mormons believe that seem so strange from an outside point of view that they come off as funny and absurd.

But when you hold certain beliefs and traditions close to your heart and someone makes fun of them, it can still hurt your feelings or make you uncomfortable or offend you.

I don't feel Matt Stone or Trey Parker mean any harm, nor do I feel the majority of the audience means any harm, but that doesn't mean they don't cause harm, even if it's unintentional.

I do remember as I watched the show that the phrase "for God will not be mocked" came into my head, and I did wonder how my Heavenly Father would feel about the lighthearted and mocking portrayal of some of the beliefs others hold so dear.

On the other hand, the phrase, "forgive them, for they know not what they do" also came into my head.

Let's face it, some Mormon beliefs can be viewed as very odd to someone who isn't Mormon, especially when they are taken out of context, and I must admit there were also some Mormon culture jokes that I laughed at because they were true.

The fact of the matter is that "I Believe" doesn't really contain anything that is doctrinally unsound, but, yes, when taken out of context by people who really don't fully understand those beliefs, and when laughed at by people who don't fully understand those beliefs, it can hurt one's heart, and it did mine and obviously did yours.

And even though it does hurt and makes me uncomfortable, I try to step outside of myself and see it from an their point of view, and that makes it a little easier.

But the very same things you've brought up are also why I'm very uncomfortable with songs like "Baptize Me" and "Joseph Smith American Moses," because something that is sacred and special to me is being mocked or treated in a flippant way, and I am uncomfortable with it.

I'm with you; I rarely listen to the songs with the profanity. I get their point and even see the humor, but I don't have to listen to it if I choose not to. That doesn't make me better than anyone; it's just my preference.

Thanks for writing.

ca said...

...that they are laughing at my beliefs rather than sharing a joke with me, and that was and is uncomfortable.

Yes, this exactly. At the same time, I agree with you,

nor do I even feel that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are creating the humor from a malicious angle.

For some reason, as I said in my previous comment, I don't get the same feeling of discomfort from listening to the songs themselves. I get the impression Stone and Parker are laughing at Mormonism, sure, but they're laughing at a whole lot of other things as well, including themselves, and I also get the feeling that they are quite fond of Mormons and Mormonism -- they might not understand the wacky doctrine (well, heck, I don't either, often), but I do get the impression they have a great deal of respect, and even love, for Mormons.

Perhaps what bothers me about the audience reaction is that it strikes me as coming from the outside and not sympathetic, whereas I get the impression Stone and Parker do have quite a bit of sympathy? Either way, I think you have the right idea to think of it from their perspective.

And yes, I laughed so hard at some of the cultural jokes. I almost think much of the musical is lost on those who aren't Mormon!

And yes, I'm not saying either of our reactions are right and wrong; it just struck me as interesting that I could like the songs so much (and I really do -- I go around singing "I Believe" and "Two by Two" around the house all the time, which probably confuses my (nonmember) husband) and have such a strong negative reaction to the audience reaction, which I hadn't expected.