Tuesday, November 24, 2009


How do you solve a problem like Fela!? If you’re crafting a musical based on the radical Nigerian musician who created the genre “Afrobeat” and used it to criticize his government, you must formulate a production that is just as outside-the-box as the man was. Director Bill T. Jones presents a Broadway-quality experience that feels unlike anything “Broadway.”

Jones paints the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in Fela’s colors. The show felt like it had already begun when I walked into the director/choreographer’s old Spring Awakening home. The band is already playing, and as I step into the building, I see that covering the walls are murals of African art, enlargements of Fela’s headline-making antics, and strands of lights stretching all the way from the back mezzanine to the boxes. The theater is unrecognizable and I felt like I wanted to get a table and eat a good meal there. For this show, arriving to the theater early allows you time to soak up the mood of Fela’s world and by the time the show begins (forgoing the parental “Unwrap your candy, turn off your cell phones” warning), your interest will be piqued.

I knew nothing about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti prior to this show, and I’m venturing to say few others did too. But being this is a bio-musical, the narrative is supposed to take care of that for you. By curtain call, I did have an understanding of Fela’s life, but I can’t say I’d pass a test on the details. I then thought theatergoers would benefit from a little trip to Wikipedia before taking their seats, but then certain plot points would be less of a surprise, such as Fela’s mother’s death (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler. It’s made clear in the Playbill that she is dead, but the circumstances surrounding it are the real shocker).

Monday, November 23, 2009


Having the national tour of Dreamgirls kick off at the Apollo Theater in Harlem is a special event. The historic theater is celebrating its 75th year, this incredibly successful show is coming off a much-lauded film adaptation, and it happens that the opening and closing scenes of Dreamgirls take place at the Apollo. So it’s a particularly commendable gesture that the Apollo is making an outreach to the community.

The theater is offering half-price tickets for specific “community performances.” To be eligible, you need to either be a Harlem resident or work in the neighborhood. Since I just happen to be a proud SpaHa resident, I sent my roommate to the Apollo to snap up some tickets before they were all gone. Sammy said there was a good line of people at the theater, and quite a bit of curiosity from passersby as to what the line was for. She was armed with an addressed envelope, to confirm our Harlem residency, and an ID to connect her with the mail. So as to keep this as close to a typical rush experience as possible, I entrusted Sammy not to purchase any tickets over $30.

I received an elated text from Sammy exclaiming, “$18.50!!!!” Ding ding ding! Ladies and gentlemen, we have our record-lowest rush price ever - $18.50! Congratulations, Dreamgirls; let’s see how long it takes for another production to beat that. (I know what you’re thinking. Bye Bye Birdie offered $10 tickets to the first preview. But those tickets were sold way in advance and… well, I didn’t get those tickets. Leave your objections in the comments.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The 39 Steps

Usually when I can’t follow the plotline of a show, that doesn’t bode well for how I feel about the production as a whole. Bizarrely enough, this is not the case with The 39 Steps. I was incredibly engaged the entire show, and I think I smiled the entire way through. I also didn’t know what the heck was going on. I hope that’s not an insult to writer John Buchan; it shouldn’t be. What he lacks in story clarity, he and director Maria Aitken make up for in stage directions and concept.

The 39 Steps is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title and follows Richard Hannay (Sean Mahon), a detective, a college professor, a mystery writer—I don’t know!—on a mad chase. The police are after him for the death of a strange woman, Annabella Schmidt, who was murdered in his home. Earlier in the night, the mysterious Annabella (who fired a gun in a theater and followed Richard home) yammered on to Richard about some kind of something, her search for this thing called “the 39 steps.” I don’t really know what she was talking about, but it sounded serious. Anyway, she ends up with a knife in her back and a freaked Richard takes off into the night, and somewhere along the way decides to continue Annabella’s search for the 39 steps.

But wait; this all sounds way too serious. The 39 Steps is a comical mystery (comystery?) similar to the style of Monty Python. The show is incredibly inventive; a cast of only four actors portrays 150 characters, using tricks such as shadows, quick costume changes, and abstract scenery. What’s delightful about this show is that it reaches out to an audience that knows how to use its imagination.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


It isn’t often that we see a stage family that gets along. Recently, we’ve seen the Goodmans in Next to Normal throw things at each other (OK, maybe only Alice Ripley does), and the Gordons of Dividing The Estate are at each others’ throats, as are the Westins of August: Osage County, literally. That the King family in Broke-ology is so close and jovial contributes to the warmth that emanates through this play by Nathan Louis Jackson. But hey, I didn’t say they were free of problems.

This Lincoln Center Theater production finds Malcolm (Alano Miller) returning home to his brother and father in Kansas City, Kansas, just after completing his master’s degree and securing a local job for the summer at the Environmental Protection Agency. His blue-collar father and restaurant-employee brother are both happy for his achievements, and even happier that he’s home. Both are in need of his aid, and assume Malcolm’s summer job means an indefinite stay.

Patriarch William (Wendell Pierce) is suffering from multiple sclerosis, and the homebound son, Ennis (Francois Battiste), is his caretaker. Ennis also has a pregnant girlfriend, and it doesn’t take long to see that he is stretched thin by his responsibilities. Malcolm is wrecked with guilt, torn between his needy family and even higher career aspirations tugging at him from Connecticut.