One Man’s JUNK Is Another Man’s Treasure

WHO:

  • Ayad Akhtar (Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Disgraced);
  • Doug Hughes (Tony Award-winning director of Doubt);
  • Steven Pasquale (Broadway: The Bridges of Madison County; Off-Broadway: The Robber Bridegroom, TV: The Good Wife, American Crime Story: The People v O. J. Simpson);
  • Joey Slotnick (TV: The Good Wife, Nip/Tuck, Alias)

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WHAT: Set in the 1980s, this fast-paced play dives into some of the brightest (and vilest) in the financial world that exploited junk bonds (some sort of useless piece of paper that is never coherently defined in the play) and the repercussions of their high-risk deal making. Financier Robert Merkin (Pasquale) is our anti-hero who is dead-set on taking over a manufacturing empire that was founded on the quintessential American industry: steel. He manipulates the market, the buyer, and the head of
the generations-old steel company Everson Steel. His actions lead to an all-out war (with Shakespearean undertones) between him and Everson. And all the while, the FBI is closing in on Merkin’s empire.

WHY: Why, indeed? The show is itself is captivating. Every actor delivers a solid performance (even when you can barely hear Teresa Avia Lim’s line delivery as hard-hitting journalist Judy Chen). The stark stage (by John Lee Beatty), comprised of two rows of four boxes, keeps focus on the quick-moving set and story changes as we bounce around the United States watching this drama unfold. And Akhtar’s play does a mostly good job of explaining to the audience how exactly these characters are manipulating not only each other but also the stock market itself (although my eyes glazed over more than once during some of these discussions). He also sets up an intriguing dichotomy of the American Dream between Everson (Rick Holmes) clinging to old-fashioned ideals and Merkin trying to manipulate the system to achieve his dreams.

But why this play? That it is entertaining, I will certainly allow. By the end of act one I was rooting for the rest of the play to just continue. That I felt emotionally invested in the characters and their comeuppances cannot be doubted either (at least in the moment). But after leaving the theatre and returning to the real world, I found that the show quickly disappeared from my mind. I was quick to forget any finance mumbo jumbo I had heard and found that I didn’t really get anything lasting out of the play. I had an enjoyable evening puttering around Lincoln Center and enjoying the thrills of this well-done production. But Junk is hardly a play worth revisiting or recommending (but if you can see it for free, why not?).

WHERE: The Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center

WHEN: Opened on November 2nd; Closing date is January 7th

BONUS PAIRINGS:

  • The Big Short (2015)
  • American Psycho (either the 1991 book or the 2000 film…or, if you’re feeling extra nerdy, explore the 2013 London musical)
  • a double pour of scotch (to numb you to the dark look into the financial world)

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PIPPIN Continues to Deliver Magic to All

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They’ve got magic to do, just for you. In the newest revival of Pippin, all the world’s a circus stage, populated by the limber and attractive acrobatic Players. The Lead Player (Patina Miller) addresses the audience, readying us for the story of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), the son of Charlemagne (Terrence Mann), and his quest to find his purpose. It’s a magical coming of age journey set to 1970s music with a 9th century backdrop.
Pippin’s quest for purpose and fulfillment takes him from joining Charlemagne’s army to a sexual orgy to a simple life in the country. Each episode proves to be unsatisfying, but his journey, narrated and coached by the Lead Player, is building towards one final, ultimate act. But the Lead Player’s role in Pippin’s life proves to be just as nefarious as the power hungry family he’s surrounded by.
photo-07Interwoven in the story are dance numbers and magic illusions performed by the Players (reminiscent of the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret and the musical numbers in the film version of Chicago). With an ensemble cast of trained circus performers and skilled acrobats, their impressive choreography and tricks appear effortless on stage. This only adds to the magic of the world of Pippin, making the show a truly unforgettable theatre-going experience.
It’s a solid and successful musical with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked). He presents a life lesson in the story of Pippin about how the quest for an extraordinary life may be ultimately unfulfilling. And, in this 2013 revival—directed by Diane Paulus—the final act of Pippin does feel unfulfilling.
The number one reason for this is the insertion of an intermission into the middle of the musical. Pippin is written as a one-act musical, and interrupting the story with an intermission kills a lot of the story’s momentum. But, as the Lead Player tells us in the revival of the show, the intermission is included because audience attention spans have shortened over time (a factor that Martin Scorsese didn’t factor into his 3-hour Quaalude opus Wolf of Wall Street). So, essentially, we only have ourselves to blame for the interruption in the story’s flow.
But even I could get past that, if it weren’t for the lackluster material provided in the second act. The magic of act one vanishes as a desolate Pippin wallows in an ordinary life. The lesson here works well for the story’s arc, but it feels that too much time is spent developing the inevitable character changes that occur (and one can only handle Pippin almost walking off-stage so many times).
photo-04Yet, what makes this act really flounder is Catherine. Played by Rachel Bay Jones with a squeaky voice, her chemistry with Pippin and her role in his life feel false and uninspired. (What’s the deal with all these squeaky love interests in musicals right now? Wasn’t Annaleigh Ashford’s nasally Lauren enough of a novelty in Kinky Boots?) It’s hard enough to buy them as a couple, much less believe her motivations when she clashes with the Lead Player’s directions. With this core story point falling flat, the rest of the musical flails in its attempts to teach a life lesson through Pippin—even with the altered ending from the original.
These quibbles aside, Pippin is still an extraordinary experience. It marvels everyone from frequent theatregoers to those newly initiated in the world of musical theatre. Many of Schwartz’s songs can stand alone, but all of the music blends well into the story (even if the 70s style feels hokey today). The inherent sexuality of the show, expressed both subtly and starkly, gives a modern edge to the show (along with some updated moments that resonate with today’s audiences). This is a show that I would love to go back and see over and over again (especially if I could get a behind the scenes look at the intricate backstage workings of the show).

Check out the casts’ performance at the Tonys for a true taste of the magic Pippin has to offer:

In Which I Rave About Off-Broadway’s “Around the World in 80 Days”

 

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My discovery of Around the World in 80 Days was almost completely happenstance. I spent 30 minutes hoping to win the lottery for Kinky Boots tickets, when some couple from Arizona scored the last pair of tickets. Distraught—but still craving theatre—I walked halfway down the block and happened upon the small performance space that is The New Theatre, now featuring a comedic adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Being a huge Jules Verne fan (and already curious about the play based on its subway posters) I wandered into the theatre and snagged some last minute tickets. Safe to say, I was not disappointed.

 

2D2529A74-E3E8-66DF-BAD024725B02D0BBRigid and stoic Phileas Fogg (Josh Segarra, a recent replacement for Bryce Ryness) enters into a wager with members of his reform club that he can’t travel around the world in 80 days—a feat that is now supposedly possible in 1872 with the completion of a new railroad in India. Traveling with his newly hired (and very goofy) servant Passepartout (John Gregorio), Fogg undertakes this daunting trek with surprising confidence. Along the way he finds himself pursued by the bumbling Detective Fix (Stephen Guarino, familiar to fans of Happy Endings), who suspects him of a scandalous bank robbery; saving the beautiful and transfixing Auoda (Shirine Babb) from being a human sacrifice; and dealing with the various roadblocks that inevitably arise from a world trek.

Drawing from Jules Verne’s classic novel, playwright Mark Brown infuses the story with contemporary humor, giving the play an infectious and approachable feel. This Off-Broadway production—directed and designed by Rachel Klein—tells the story at a zany pace, with the 5 actors playing 39 characters and delivering Gilmore Girls-paced dialogue. The speed and wit of the production works well in the intimate space, which they utilize to its full potential. And the manic energy of the play keeps the audience fully engaged.

 

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Although the actors occasionally garble their lines while working through their affected accents (so many different accents!), they handle their quick character changes with amusing ease (and they managed a set piece accident with blasé efficiency). Segarra is steely as Fogg (and little uneasy with his accent) but a good center for the show, being the only actor who plays the same character throughout. Gregorio and Guarino are both amusing in their capacities as bumbling sidekicks to the story. Babb shines as the only woman in the gang, hamming up her comedic moments perfectly. But most notable is Jimmy Ray Bennett who plays most of the one-off characters, effortlessly switching humorous accents and completely embodying each character like a skilled sketch comedy actor (he is the one who truly makes the show so great).

 

This show, which just opened at the end of May, seems to be flying under the radar (I hadn’t heard a single thing about it beyond that subway ad). But it’s a surprising treat, an adaptation that remains true to Verne’s vision while still telling something fresh. It is also so infectious that I want to dive right back into that novel or maybe just see the show again. So, if you’re in NYC, take a break from those big Broadway productions and go see this delightful and charming play instead.