Friday, June 24, 2011

A Surprisingly Good Musical about Group Therapy

Group: A Musical. Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble. Stella Adler Theatre. 6/23/11.

I must admit, I wasn't too excited about going to a new musical about group therapy. In fact, the only reason I went was because friends of mine had met the playwright, Adam Emperor Southard, at Hollywood Fringe events and thought he was a cool guy. My skepticism, however, was clearly and dramatically proven wrong. The musical wasn't perfect, really, and it's not a concept I inherently like at all, but I was laughing in the beginning and crying by the end, so I seem to have bought in completely despite myself.

There's something so sweet and honest about this little musical, with its dark humor and modest setting, that I couldn't help but appreciate it. It has some rough moments, particularly in the beginning, and particularly with the coming out storyline, which hit closest to home for me and therefore felt the most awkward when the reactions or emotions (or the rhymes) didn't ring quite true to my own experience. There's a little bit of a tendency toward reductive pop psychology, but honestly much less than I would have expected. Mostly, the concept of group therapy is a plausible and compelling backdrop for people to talk about their problems and forge difficult friendships and as such, it really works.

The LA Theatre Ensemble actors, who worked on a run of this show in January and returned to remount it for the Fringe Festival, all gave excellent, heartfelt performances dealing with some rough emotional subjects without feeling heavy at all. Their singing wasn't always spectacular, but there were some beautiful notes and moments that made up for the bits that were a little off. I really need to go see more LATE stuff. They clearly do good work.

Overall, you should absolutely go see this musical at its last two fringe performances this weekend. And I really hope this show has legs to get more productions, maybe a bit more workshopping and refining. This is the sort of musical that could be done anywhere, as it takes place in one small room, but needs and showcases some exceptional acting and singing talent (and 3 extremely skilled onstage musicians). It's a very good small-scale, raw, personal musical that could be perfect for small theaters and second stage spaces all over.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More than Company

Last night I went to a screening in a movie theater of Stephen Sondheim's Company performed by the New York Philharmonic and starring Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby. Somehow, this production was a revelation in a way that I haven't experienced with previous versions. The production itself was magnificent, with its lush orchestral sounds, star-studded cast and spectacular precision, but it was more than that. The performances were tight and nuanced and thoughtful in ways that made me think about and feel the meaning of the play in ways I hadn't before.

Perhaps it's where I am in my life now that shifted the meaning of the show for me. Being over thirty and having friends who are married and having children, and more importantly having long conversations over many beers with friends evaluating and agonizing over desires to or not to get married and have children, certainly made me think differently and more personally about the relationships and life choices depicted in the musical. But I think there were details of this production and the truly skilled acting of Neil Patrick Harris in particular that made me rethink the show as well. I have always loved and appreciated Company, but this time I felt it and it felt true and right and honest and scary in ways that it never has before.

The show was completely sexy (mmm... Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks in bed together) and completely cynical (although Elaine Stritch still beats Patti LuPone in my mind for sheer joyous drunken cynicism) and yet managed to communicate a deeper, more reflective meditation on marriage than I have ever felt. My own personal philosophies about building a community of friendships rather than focusing on the individual or couple was both reflected and challenged as I watched the performances onscreen, and the beloved friend who had been meditating, Bobby-like, on marriage realized that his own individual agonies were more common, perhaps universal, than he thought. Part of me smiled ironically when I watched "Side by Side by Side" and reflected on it as a depiction of a bunch of heterosexual married couples who relied on the unappreciated and unreciprocated labor of the queer person excluded from the institution of marriage (Harris, not Bobby) to keep the institution of marriage going. Though I could have used more of "Being Alive" at the end, with Harris's heartbreaking high notes, the end of the play is beautiful and bittersweet in a way that reconciles my own personal cynicism about marriage with possibilities of Bobby's personal transformation and leaves me happy and hopeful. It's an unbelieveably lovely, detailed, tight production filled with consummate professional performers. I highly recommend it and I will be rushing to buy it if and when it comes to DVD.

Monday, June 20, 2011

See This Fringe Show: Headscarf and the Angry Bitch

Headscarf and the Angry Bitch by Zehra Fazal. Theatre Asylum. Hollywood Fringe Festival. 6/19/11.

Zehra Fazal's one woman show about growing up and coming out as a Pakistani-American Muslim is a witty romp through family, sex and post-9-11 politics. Under the guise of a community-outreach lecture series on Muslim American culture, Fazal's combination of monologue and music were refreshing with just the right amount of sharp-tongued personal detail. The show was more friendly and approachable than stridently political and mostly demonstrated Fazal's excellent performance skills. I highly recommend you see this show.

Headscarf is performing next Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Get there; it truly deserves a loud, adoring audience!