When I’m not living in New York City for school, I go home to the Boston area for the summer. The best thing about summer in Massachusetts, especially this year, is all the summer theatre that goes on across the state. (Living in Massachusetts is also convenient for day trips to New York City.) This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to see many regional and off-Broadway premieres of new musicals, and I have lots of thoughts. From jukebox exploration of the secret life of the typical American family to old-fashioned musical comedy to drug fueled 80s rock opera, this summer season has all kinds of things going for it – were all my trips to the theatre worth the commute?
The first show I saw this summer was the highly-anticipated Jagged Little Pill at the American Repertory Theatre. The ART is a gift for Boston theatregoers, and some of the musicals they’ve ushered to Broadway in the past few years – Great Comet and Waitress – have earned huge fan followings. JLP opened at the ART to an immediate, huge fan following with loads of repeat attenders and constant sold out houses – but was this easily-destined-for-Broadway show actually good? For the most part, absolutely. Jagged Little Pill is set to the iconic and relatable music of Alanis Morrissette, and tells the story of a seemingly perfect Connecticut family and their messy, intense life hiding under their yearly Christmas card photo. The cast was absolutely wonderful and their performances of the Tom Kitt-arranged score were thrilling – Lauren Patten, playing a nonbinary lesbian named Jo, got standing ovations nightly for her perfect delivery of “You Oughta Know” – but as I watched the show, my bookwriter brain was at a constant, muddled whir. Diablo Cody, Oscar winner for her screenplay to the indie hit Juno, has written a book that is completely all over the place. The characters talk unrealistically, and the plot and dialogue at times remind me less of a musical theatre book and more of an afterschool special on sexual assault or drug use. Some characters get excellent development, and some characters’ stories felt abandoned by the end of the show. Diablo Cody writes movie characters well, but fails to understand that theatre characters should come from a place of heightened reality and NOT sound like their dialogue comes from textbooks. I hope that when this otherwise excellent show makes it to Broadway, Cody learns how to trim fat from dialogue and let stage direction and silences guide characters rather than solely having their banter be their only source of development.
A few days after I saw Jagged Little Pill, I went up to the Berkshires to see The Royal Family of Broadway. I was extremely excited to see this show for a number of reasons, first and foremost that William Finn, of Falsettos and Spelling Bee genius, had been working on this score for over a decade. It was worth the wait, for me at least. The story of Royal Family is taken from a George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber play that gently lampoons the Barrymore family and their legacy in the theatre, and with Spelling Bee’s Rachel Sheinkin on adaptation duty for the book, the characters popped brilliantly to life on the Barrington stage. Harriet Harris was perfectly cast as Fanny, the matriarch of the Cavendish family. Laura Michelle Kelly, wonderful in everything, gave my favorite performance of her career as Julie, the strong-willed oldest daughter of the family. The ever-dashing Will Swenson played fast-living Tony Cavendish to hilarious perfection. The entire cast was truly delightful – sweet Chip Zien, daffy Arnie Burton, and lovely Hayley Podschun also giving wonderful performances. William Finn’s score was my favorite part of an evening already filled with so much good material – sounding more like golden age Broadway than anything Finn has written before, it was so good to hear new music by one of my favorite theatre writers that I honestly had blinders on to any potential weakness in the production. I loved it to bits, as did the regional papers. A shame the New York Times didn’t agree. I hope this show gets a second life soon. I never expected William Finn to write an old-fashioned musical comedy, but he did, and I think he succeeded.
Just a few weeks ago, on my trip where I saw and fell utterly in love with Head Over Heels, I spent my evening at the Atlantic Theatre Company seeing the first preview of Stephen Trask and Peter Yanowitz’s experimental rock opera This Ain’t No Disco. First previews are always interesting because you know the show will not be the same after you leave for the evening. I hope I can revisit this one before it closes – it was weird and meandering and misshapen but I loved every second and I’m dying to see what’s changed. The story centers around a few characters during the heyday of Studio 54 and its drug-fueled bacchanals – busboy-turned-club dancer-turned-street artist Chad (a winsome Peter LaPrade,) beat poet-turned-pop sensation Sammy (gorgeous voiced Samantha Marie Ware,) the coked-up owner of Studio 54, Steve Rubell (Theo Stockman, ridiculously good,) the adorable couple running the coat check, Meesh (Krystina Alabado, delightful) and trans boy Landon (Lulu Fall from Great Comet, fierce as always,) publicist Binky (Chilina Kennedy, giving Stephanie J. Block meets Joan Rivers realness,) and the Andy Warhol-like Artist (Will Connolly, haunting) – and they all get moments to shine. The book, co-written by Rick Elice, is half-rhymed almost like a Dr. Seuss story. The more I think about it, Seussian is a weirdly apt description of the show. Sure, the story and artistic choices take turns for the surreal, but the characters are engaging and the visuals are certainly creative. This is my first time seeing Darko Tresnjak take on more experimental material – I’ve been a fan of his work on Gentleman’s Guide and Anastasia for ages, and the work I’ve seen him do on Shakespeare plays at Hartford Stage is exceedingly clever. I love seeing directors work out of their comfort zones, and here I think Tresnjak succeeds. He has fun with his productions, dark as some of them may be at times. That playfulness combined with Trask and Yanowitz’s eclectic and interesting score brightens up what could be a dour, drug-hazy evening simply chronicling the downfall of Studio 54. This Ain’t No Disco ain’t a simple show at all, and I hope it finds an audience. The New York critics may not be fans, but I certainly am one.
In the coming week I am attending two more highly-anticipated tryouts – Moulin Rouge! at the Emerson Colonial, and Lempicka at Williamstown. I’m very excited to see new work directed by two of my absolute favorite directors, Alex Timbers and Rachel Chavkin, back to back. You’ll hear my thoughts on them very soon.
(Photo credit: This Ain't No Disco, by Ben Arons.)