The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Thursday, April 26, 2012

FCS: Leap of Faith


Quick facts:
  • Show: Leap of Faith
  • Broadway
  • Date: Friday, April 20, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: St. James Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Great! Mid-mezzanine, center
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: The stage version of the 1992 film of the same name.  A crooked faith healer's bus breaks down in a small depressed town in middle America.  He and the cast of his roving church decide to take them for all they're worth.

My thoughts: Leap of Faith probably won't be described by most critics as "great theater" or anything like that - and I guess it's really not.  But there is something about it.  It hits all the points it needs to hit, and it's truly effective.

The experience begins as soon as you walk into the theater.  I'm the dork who likes to get there the minute the house opens.  Some of my more sophisticated friends tease me about that, but I tend to be somewhat spatially oriented, so I like to get there with time to experience the space - to learn about my surroundings and to begin to immerse myself in the feelings that are being set up for me.  The house at Leap of Faith really got the stage set for me.  The curtain was a kind of circus tent design.  About 20 minutes before curtain, a Hammond organ began to play.  And just a few minutes before, members of the cast began wandering through the house getting the crowd riled up.  In reality, it was a bit silly, but it did help to establish the mood - and it established early on that we (the audience) had an investment in the show.  As such, the stage adaptation worked well.  They didn't simply try to perform what had been on film - they brought us into the world that had once been inhabited only by the film.

One of the defining characteristics of the show that kept emerging for me was its simplicity.  It's not that it wasn't completely high-end in production value, it's just that I never felt like the show was trying to beat itself over my head.  The set (designed by Robin Wagner), though moving and dynamic, was fairly simple.  At the beginning of the show - it was fascinating to watch the revival tent being pitched in front of us onstage.  The choreography by Sergio Trujillo cleverly conveyed the evangelical, revival community.  The lighting (designed by Don Holder) was effective at telling the story, passing the time, and subtly conveying moods, but always remained natural and organic.  The shining moment (if you'll pardon the mostly unintentional pun) in the lighting happened during "Jonas' Soliloquy" - the main character came downstage center before a black background illuminated only by a simple spotlight.  As the music swelled and the emotion ran deeper, slowly more spotlights began to emerge, until he was bathed in at least a dozen of them - coming from as many angles.  It was a simple, but thoroughly powerful effect.

The cast was truly outstanding - led by none other than the star himself, Raúl Esparza.  I have, of course, heard of Esparza, but this was my first time to see him live.  He embodies everything that there is to embody in a Broadway star.  He is sexy, a brilliant singer, and a thrilling actor.  He drips with a charisma that beckons every eye to wherever he would have it go.  I'm pretty sure everyone in that large theater thought that he was there just for them - I know I did!

Though, as brilliant as Esparza is, he was not at all alone in the spotlight.  Talon Ackerman in the role of Jake McGowan was very effective.  I'm always amazed at talented child-actors.  I suppose I've seen (and been a part of) too many amateur productions, and suffered through the performances of too many untrained children - but I'm always amazed when a child in a stage production can really sell his or her role to me.  McGowan did!

Kecia Lewis-Evans often stole the show in the role of Ida Mae Sturdevant.  That kind of gospel style singing isn't easy to act (which is perhaps why we're often so bad at our attempts of it in the Episcopal Church - it just isn't our nature!) - it has to come from a place deeper in the soul than most people can call up.  But Lewis-Evans did it as naturally and skillfully as anyone I've ever heard.

As a credit to smart casting, her character's two children were also runaway stars of the production.  Krystal Joy Brown in the role of Ida Mae's daughter, Ornella Sturdevant, seemed a chip off the old block.  Whenever she took control of the stage - well, it was almost enough to bring me to Jesus.

The most delightful performance, however, was from Leslie Odom, Jr. in the role of Ida Mae's Bible-college-studying son, Isaiah Sturdevant.  His singing was delicate and precise.  I may buy the cast recording just for the joy of hearing him again and again.  The rest of his presence on stage matched his voice - he was strong, but always reserved.  Always giving just enough.  It felt like he might simply explode across the stage - and in a sense, I suppose he did.

Though I'm admittedly amateur - as I've stated from the start - my walk away review will sound all the more so than probably anything I've written before.  This show simply made me feel good.  I laughed, I cried, I clapped in rhythm with up-tempo songs, and I happily stood as soon as the curtain call began.  I even walked away humming the songs.

I know it sounds kind of silly to say these things, but this is as least part of what theater is meant to do.  I've talked about the theater's transcendent potential.  Leap of Faith met that potential and pulled me into another world.  It took me along for the ride.  So while it's probably not going to go down in history as one of the greatest events of theatrical history, it was an unmitigated success.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Yeah, probably.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Definitely.  I have at least one friend who I expect to see it, and I expect that he'll have as good of a time as I did.  I'd love for my mother to see it when she comes to visit.  I even think it might be one of the rare shows that my father would enjoy!
  • Twitter review: Success!  A great night out that will leave you feeling as good as you always hope the theater will!

Monday, April 23, 2012

FCS: The City Club


Quick facts:
  • Show: The City Club
  • Off-Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, April 19, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Playbill.com lists the closing as December 31, 2012.  Online ticket sales are currently available through June 3, 2012.
  • Venue: Minetta Lane Theatre
  • Running time: ~2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Great. Second row from the stage, center.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: Drama in the lives of a night club owner and his employees.

My thoughts: Sometimes that one or two sentence synopsis is kind of hard to write.  As I was walking into my house earlier, I ran into a neighbor who asked what the show was about.  I hemmed and hawed for a while before finally confessing: it seemed to be aching for some sort of plot.  Not that there weren't attempts - there certainly were - but it seemed to twist and turn out of nowhere searching for something to do.  I won't share specifics of these twists and turns (don't want to be a spoiler...), but I will say that the book by Glenn M. Stewart generally lacked grace and poetry.  The speech patterns of the characters seemed more like some caricature of mid-century America than anything real and believable.  Moreover, the show didn't seem to have an organically twisting plot.  It was more like the twists were thrown in because it needed somewhere to go and some way to get there.

The story danced around lots of big themes - the role of women in society, race relations, dysfunctional families, organized crime, political corruption, substance abuse...  But it never really tackled any one.  Everything was just tossed at us randomly while we waited for it to germinate.  Sadly, it never really did.

I really don't have any desire to be a harsh critic for the sake of being harsh.  I don't think that is beneficial either to me or to my readers.  In fact, I really want to enjoy myself at the theater.  I want to see something great and tell everyone else about it.  I want greatness to succeed!  But when I do feel myself responding negatively to a show, I try to look and listen to cues from those around me - am I being a stick in the mud, the only one there not having the time of his life?  It helps to keep me honest.  Tonight's performance left me with some hard cues that I wasn't alone.  During the last number before intermission ("Why Did It Have to Be You"), I heard snoring behind me.  Also, the applause at both the intermission and the curtain call was tepid, at best.  Perhaps even only polite.  One criticism I've heard several times lately of the current New York theater audience is that we're too generous in offering standing ovations - and I tend to agree.  I believe a standing ovation should be reserved for only the very finest productions.  But they've become nearly the standard in today's theater.  But tonight there was no standing ovation, and I believe rightfully so.

I was interested in this show because it was described as "an original blues and jazz musical".  Those are magic words to me - blues and jazz.  And, to a degree, original.  I like to support and experience contemporary original work.  And I love blues and jazz.  And the music didn't really disappoint.  Kenny Brawner, in the role of Parker Brown, though not particularly integral in the story, was, as a performer, the true star of the show.  I marveled at his piano playing and blues singing skills.  While there are a number of shows where the band is on stage (or otherwise in view), it made me long for more shows where they take on characters.  Obviously that's not possible in every show, but in those shows where it is, it really gives a somewhat more natural feel to the ridiculousness of the concept of the musical (admittedly, a "ridiculousness" that I love very much.).  I found myself imagining other performers that I'd love to see in roles like that.

Despite my strong criticisms about the book, there were several bright spots in the production.  Andrew Pandaleon, in the role of Charles Davenport (Chaz), had a lovely voice and a passionate approach to his role.  Kaitlin Mesh, in the role of Lily, regularly grabbed my attention.  While most of the chorus girls in the show were a bit saccharine, Mesh added a bit of a darkness to her character.  It was never really explored, but it seemed as if she had a secret.  I remained intrigued by her throughout.

The choreography, by Lorin Latarro, was consistently one of the strongest elements of story telling in the show.  There are several examples of this, but the clearest was in Act II during "It Ain't Right".  Because of the night club setting, complete with dashing young men and striking showgirls, it would have been easy for the choreography to devolve into simple, hyper-sexuality.  It is to Latarro's credit, however, that choreography was used, instead, to draw out and express deeper emotion.  It was sexual, to be sure, but not just sexual.

Emotion was hard to come by throughout the show.  The first time I ever felt that electric pulse of the whole house truly engaged was in Chaz's number, "It Don't Make Me No Never Mind".  Sadly, that connection didn't come until near the end of Act II.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? Nah.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? I'm glad to have seen it - as much to satisfy my own curiosity as anything else - but I can't think of anyone that I'd really recommend it to.
  • Twitter review: Well, I've always said: a bad night at the theater is still better than most other nights.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Scars (in their multitude...)

I forgot to bring my video camera into church today, so no video of the sermon, but I'll attempt to recreate it a bit...  This is, at least, what I was trying/hoping to say.


The entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Easter III (B)
Luke 24:36b-48

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say that the quickest way to put your congregation to sleep is to begin your sermon by saying, "In the early church..."  But even so, today, I promise it's relevant.

In the early church, one of the biggest controversies that was running around was about whether the Resurrection had been in body, or just in spirit.  Part of the concern was, if Jesus had simply sloughed off his body after death, it wouldn't really say anything to the sense of the wider community about the impurity of the body.  If Jesus had come to reconcile us from impurity to true union with God, we needed a bodily resurrection - spiritual resurrection, it was argued, simply would not solve the problems of the impurity of the body.

In many ways, the Gospel lesson that we hear today is an answer to that controversy.  All of the signs of the Gospel lesson today point to the belief that Christ was resurrected, body and soul.  You could see the scars of the crucifixion in his hands and feet.  Moreover - he ate with the disciples.  He was hungry.

So he couldn't have been just a ghost.  He was real.  You could see it in his scars.  The scars revealed the truth - his story.

I was thinking of that a few weeks ago as I was traveling through Israel and Palestine.  Many of the holy sites that we visited were very old - often even in ruins.  But even in the ancient buildings still in use, you could see the scars of their histories.

This was most notable in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  At the entrance to the church there was a vast entryway - an arch maybe as large as this church.  But somewhere along the line it had been filled in, and there was a smaller arch within in its place.  But it, too, had been filled in for a smaller arch.  And a smaller one, and a smaller one - the cycle repeating itself until there was left only this tiny entryway - a door not half as wide as the aisle of our church and not even as tall as me.

There are different stories about how the arch came to be so small.  One is that as piety around the place developed over the centuries, and smaller and smaller entryway was desired until, in its current state, it has been redesigned such that everyone who enters must bow in reverence to the holiness of the place.

The other story - perhaps more likely, as I imagine it - is that the entryway kept getting smaller and smaller for security reasons: the door would get smaller so as to limit the attractiveness of the space for use by military forces.  If you couldn't get your animals or your gear inside, it would be less likely to be used for purposes other than what it was intended.

Who knows what the truth is - probably some in the middle.  But the truth that does remain, however, is that the scars tell something of the story of that centuries-old holy site.  The scars - though not beautiful in any traditional understanding of the word - make it somehow more real.

That's the way it is for us, too.  Our scars are a part of who we are.  They show that we are real and fully present.  They reveal a piece of our story.

I've been thinking about that this week in terms of physical scars.  Most notably, I'm remembering my surgery from last year.  Of course I can feel it in my body - even still - but even on my better days when I can't, the scars remain.  They are a real and present sign of a story from my life.  They help to tell my story.

We all have those scars - whether from accidents as children, or surgeries, or whatever else, our bodies are scared with the stories of our lives.

And, of course, there are those deeper scars: the ones left by the pain and trauma of loss, loneliness, and despair.

They are never the most beautiful parts of us - at least not in any traditional understanding of the word.  But they are some of the truest parts of us.  They tell our stories.  They make us real.

Though the early church controversy about the resurrection of Christ - whether is was bodily or spiritual - is mostly resolved now, most people nowadays don't really care.  People still believe both scenarios (and blends of the two scenarios) - but we don't typically get into fights about it much anymore.  It just doesn't feel as pressing in our generation as it once did.

But a bit of truth that remains in this "scar" of story from the Gospels is that we do believe that Christ is real.  Christ is present.  We can tell because of the scars.  Even though probably none of us have seen the physical scars of in his hands and feet, the scars of his presence remain in our community.

In this third week of Easter, we are much like that first community of gathered disciples.  There's this beautiful line in the text: "in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering...."  That's really how it is for most of us here in the wake of Easter Day.  We are still somewhat washed in the joy, but it's somehow fading - not unlike a fading scar.  Though the joy remains true, it exists in the background of our disbelief and wonder.

But the scars tell our story.  The scars reveal the truth that might otherwise be hidden.

Christ is raised.  Christ is real.  Christ is present.  Amen.  Alleluia.



and just in case you got my little pun in the title...  here ya go! :)


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Practicing Lent & Justice

My Lenten reflection commissioned by the St. Luke-in-the-Fields blog, and also appearing on Walking With Integrity

***   ***   ***

The Judean Wilderness, pilgrimage 2012

I often describe Lent to my parishioners as a time set aside each year to practice faithfulness in the midst of wilderness.  When Lent comes around, we may, or may not, be in the midst of actual, in-the-moment spiritual wilderness, but sooner or later - in the season of Lent or in some other season of our lives - at least a bit of wilderness will inevitably fall.  So in this season of the church year, we learn how to be faithful even in the midst of those more difficult times.  And we learn through continued practice, again and again.  The work is never really done.  We always have more to learn and we always can grow ever deeper in our spiritual maturity.

The same is true in our commitment to justice.  Despite the amazing strides we, as a church and as a society, have made in recent generations, the truth is, the struggle for justice for all of God's people is ongoing.  In the past few weeks, I've seen a few theater pieces that have reminded me of this anew.  As a part of my own spiritual disciplines of self-care and nurturing my creative tendencies, I regularly go to the theater and reflect on what I've seen.  Recently I've seen two shows that have reminded me that the work of striving for justice for all is not yet finished.

One (perhaps unlikely) source for this reminder was found in the current off-Broadway revival of Carrie - a musical adaptation of the 1976 horror film of the same name.  You can read my full review here (http://www.jonmrichardson.com/2012/03/fcs-carrie.html), but the take-away for me was a firm reminder that - despite incredible progress - we still live in society where misogyny and bullying are very real, and that those realities continue to have tragic consequences.

Also, earlier this week, I saw the current Broadway revival of the Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.  (Full review at http://www.jonmrichardson.com/2012/03/fcs-porgy-and-bess.html)  Though we in the United States have been consistently struggling with racial inequality for many generations, our work there is nowhere near ended, either.

As Vice President for National Affairs of IntegrityUSA, people often ask me, "Haven't we already won?"  It's true that openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy are the norm in many of our dioceses.  It's true that openly LGBT parishioners are welcomed and fully assimilated into many more of our congregations.  It's true that we now even have bishops who are openly gay and lesbian.  But if we can learn anything from our sisters and brothers in other justice movements, it's that the struggle for equal access to God's justice in human institutions continues long after the initial signs of progress are won.

Justice is not so much a goal as it is a discipline.  That's why the work of IntegrityUSA is still important, even in the shadow of the incredible progress we've made in recent years.  That's why we still need to keep showing up to General Convention, and why we still need to keep educating and empowering people at every level of the church.

Just as we have to keep practicing Lent, we have to keep practicing Justice.  The reign of God is still too much a dream.  Wilderness is still too near.

FCS: Peter and the Starcatcher


Quick facts:
  • Show: Peter and the Starcatcher
  • Broadway
  • Date: Wednesday, April 4, 2012
  • Time: 2:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre
  • Running time: 2:15 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  I was in the Orchestra, stage left, row M
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: A prequel to the tale of Peter Pan, the founding of Neverland, and the origins of the characters.

My thoughts: I was initially curious (maybe slightly concerned) about what was meant when this play was described as a "play with music".  As I've mentioned before - I really do love my musicals...  I love singing and dancing.  So I was apprehensive about how this would figure in to my preferences.

I LOVED IT!  Peter and the Starcatcher is a delightful play - with just a few simple musical numbers, and an incredibly simple "orchestra" (only piano and percussion).  The production is earthy and organic - real, old-time theater - relying nearly exclusively on the talents of the performers and the quality of the script - both of which were up to the task.  For me, it served as an effective and helpful antidote to the overly-stimulating, tech-heavy production of last night at Ghost.

The script, by Rick Elice (based on the book by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) is truly remarkable.  It's fast and clever.  Moreover, it's funny!  Comedy that actually worked for me!  I'm not usually a "laugh out loud" kind of audience member, but I was today.

The sets, designed by Donyale Werle, nurtured the organic feel of the production.  While I preferred the aesthetics of the Act I set, the second act created some beautiful opportunities for the incredibly effective lighting designs of Jeff Croiter to shoulder some of the story telling.

The cast was superb under the leadership of Christian Borle (in the role of Black Stache, and of NBC's Smash fame), Celia Keenan-Bolger (in the role of Molly), and Adam Chanler-Berat (in the role of Boy).  I was also particularly impressed with the down-page talents of Arnie Burton (in the role of Mrs. Bumbrake) and Greg Hildreth (in the role of Alf).

It's a fast-paced and high energy performance.  An absolute delight!  Much credit goes to directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, and particularly to movement director Steven Hoggett for their consistency of design.  It was easy to be swept into the world of Peter and the Starcatcher - and great fun to boot!  All of the elements of the production pulled together in a very satisfying balance to create an unforgettable event.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? Sure!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? I absolutely recommend this show to you!  It's fun and fresh and light.  My mother will be coming to visit this summer, and this is sure to be on the must-see list I pull together for her.
  • Twitter review: Sometimes theater is just fun.  This is one of those times.

FCS: Ghost


Quick facts:
  • Show: Ghost
  • Broadway
  • Date: Tuesday, April 3, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Lunt-Fontanne Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  I was in the Mezzanine, stage right
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Know someone working the show? No.

Synopsis: The musical adaptation of the 1990 film of the same name: a man and woman are in love.  The man is shot and killed in the street, but isn't able to move on after his death because of unfinished business.

My thoughts:  Earlier this week I was getting a haircut, and my stylist was trying to convince me to try out a new hairstyle.  I protested, fearing that her idea wouldn't cover what I wanted to cover and accent what I wanted to accent.  To defend her position she said: "The eye will go where the design is.  You don't just cover things up, you attract attention elsewhere."  With that, she had me.  She could try anything on me.  Because I knew she was right.

Tonight, as I was watching Ghost, it seemed that the same principle was in play.  The video and projection design by Jon Driscoll constantly stole focus.  They drew the eye to the ever-present design and movement and video.  They helped to cover any number of other sins.

The thing about Ghost is, it was already a movie.  And a really good one, at that.  Throughout this production I kept thinking that what I was watching was more a movie with a few live actors scattered in the midst of it, than a piece of live theater with videos and projections to enhance the experience.

It's worth noting that the first thing I write about - and probably what will prove to be the bulk of these thoughts - is video.  From before the curtain went up, the video was running and it never stopped throughout the show.  And it happened on nearly every surface.  Things were projected onto scrims downstage, all three walls of the set were giant video screens, and there were even projections onto fog.  Everything was fair game.

And again, as mentioned in a previous post, these strange dancing silhouettes made another appearance.  AHH!  I hope two instances doesn't point to a tend.  I won't be able to take it!

Video was used so extensively that it too often distracted from the actors.  Though, generally, the actors weren't particularly worth the focus.  I never believed Cassie Levy in the role of Molly Jensen.  Richard Flesshman, in the role of Sam Wheat, does have a nice voice.  The real star of the show, however, is Da'Vine Joy Randolph in the role of Oda Mae Brown.

Generally the original music was uninteresting.  Obviously the occasional appearances of "Unchained Melody" were crowd pleasing, but the rest of the score was bland and forgettable.  "I'm Outta Here" - Oda Mae's big solo near the end of the show, was, however, a nice scene.  It was a fun way to interact with the real star of the show as it was ending.

The set design was fantastic (though, interestingly, there isn't a designer listed in the Playbill.  Though there are two associates.  Again - calling on my more learned readers to help me here.  What's that about?).  Despite the fact that it served as more opportunities for overkill in the video department.  The three main walls moved and opened and turned in a variety of ways to create the somewhat elaborate spaces.  Their movements were graceful and interesting.  Whoever designed it - kudos!

Also, the video walls could occasionally be translucent, with video on the front and actors visible behind.  Though it's probably a very simple technique, it impressed me, and it provided opportunities from time to time for a great deal of flexibility - particularly in the subway scene.

The whole design of the show felt like a rock concert - particularly as it was expressed through the lighting.  Occasionally, the lights above the stage lowered into view - but it happened mostly in places where that didn't make much sense: in the office scenes.  I wondered if they were going for an "industrial" type feel as one might find in an office, but I didn't see it that way.  It was like a normal office on the ground, but a rock concert on the ceiling.  I just didn't understand the choice.  It would have been much more effective to simply leave the lights out of view.

The special effects and illusions, designed by Paul Kieve, were incredible - they were probably the real star of the show.  I had several "how'd they do that?" moments.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? Not a chance.  Not if you paid for my ticket.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? With the kind of name recognition this show is getting (and will continue to get) they don't need my help recommending it.  I'm sure my mother will see it next time she visits, but it won't be because I suggested it.
  • Twitter review: Glad to have seen it, so I'll know what all the fuss is about.

Monday, April 02, 2012

FCS: Newsies


Quick facts:
  • Show: Newsies
  • Broadway
  • Date: Sunday, April 1, 2012
  • Time: 6:30 p.m.
  • Closing date: August 19, 2012 (though I expect another extension)
  • Venue: Nederlander Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Amazing! Second row from the stage, near center
  • Ticket source: Ticketmaster through newsiesthemusical.com
  • Understudies: Jack Scott (as Finch) in for Aaron J. Albano.  (Not an understudy, but the alternating role of Les was played by Lewis Grosso at tonight's performance)
Know someone working the show? No.  I do have a friend who works in an administrative capacity at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, where Newsies premiered, but he is not involved in the creative aspects of the show and is not related to this production.

Synopsis: In the summer of 1899, New York City newsboys go on strike in protest of unfair labor practices at a newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer.

My thoughts:  Perhaps I need to just go ahead and admit that I'm something of a snob.  When I had this thought after the Paper Mill Playhouse production I was afraid to admit it.  I mean, how can a regional theater production in little Millburn, New Jersey have produced the greatest night of theater I've ever experienced?  Even though I could barely contain my excitement at the time, I found myself constantly hedging: "It was very nearly the best show I've ever seen."  But now that it's made its way to Broadway I can say it - full throated, and with no qualifications - Newsies is the best show I've ever seen.

I had heard that the creative team had really punched up the show in some striking ways to mark their transition to Broadway.  Though I found it hard to imagine how it could possibly have been true, it was.  Capathia Jenkins, in the role of Medda Larkin, is one striking upgrade from Millburn.  Not only does she add some much needed diversity to the cast, Jenkins is a force on the stage.  She swaggers with a Queen Latifah-style beauty and confidence, she can out-sing anyone in the cast, and she gives her character a depth and grittiness that had been absent before.  Additionally, Kara Lindsay, in the role of Katherine, seems to have grown since I saw her in October.  Her connection with her character, and by association with the audience, seems to have deepened in lovely ways.  Literally my ONLY criticism of the show is that she could stand to play a tad more to the back of the house.  Being on the second row, I caught the subtleties of her eyes and gestures, but I wondered how the folks further away might have felt.  She is a tad too "Disney" for my tastes, but even so, she is brilliant in the role, and in no way a burden on the show.

In all of the technical areas that I tend to consider, the show was flawless.  It's hard to imagine how creative design can be so perfect in every way.  Even down to the changes between scenes - I never noticed the shifts.  Every transition was flawless, to the degree that I was often caught unaware by looking up and noticing that we were in a different place or time.

The lighting design by Jeff Croiter was subtle and textured.  The color palettes were varied and helped to tell the story - there was never any confusion about the time of day or the mood being established.

The projections, designed by the ever-brilliant Sven Ortel are - in a word - perfect.  Even when moving and shifting and being drawn before our eyes, they never grabbed our attention from where it was supposed to be.  They were tasteful: always enough, and never too much.  Even from the beginning - as the projections were serving as curtain - I noticed the subtle details of Ortel's work.  The pictures that made up that image were detailed by the barely visible effect of crumpled newspaper.  Olsen was quietly setting the stage even before most of the audience had begun to notice.  One technical aspect of the projections that amazed me the last time I saw the show, and continued to this time, was how the images - projected on nine different scrims that raised and lowered independently - would seamlessly follow the raising and lowering without spilling off below.  From the perspective of the audience, it might have seemed like magic, but I knew it was the fruits of tedious work and meticulous attention to detail.  This is why I've quickly become a fan of his work!

The set, designed by Tobin Ost, appears deceptively simple, but has the ability to shift and change in such a multitude of ways that it can create a countless array of locations.  It has stage-filling levels (and I mean levels!), angles, movement...  It really is the perfect set - so flexible that I can almost imagine how this same set might have been used on any number of other shows.  At one point in the second act ("Seize the Day", scene 6, I believe) the three columns in a line moved downstage with newsboys singing on every platform.  The audience erupted in spontaneous applause.  The music was not particularly climactic at that point of the song, and I'm confident - whether they consciously knew it or not - that the applause was for the set.  I've never seen anything like it.

There are simply too many aspects of this show that deserve accolades, but the greatest among them MUST be the choreography, by Christopher Gattelli.  The dancers' physical abilities consistently astonished me - the choreography is more intense and demanding than anything I could have imagined, and certainly more than anything I've ever seen.  It was amazing how much time these dancers spent in the air.  At one point, I laughed to myself remembering how interesting it was to read in the Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark Playbill that they had a "flight director" to coordinate all of the scenes that happen as the characters fly throughout the theater.  I found myself joking that perhaps Newsies should have had a "flight director", too!  But, as amazed as I am at the guys' abilities in doing it, I'm equally amazed at Gattelli's daring in asking it of them.  He is a visionary, and I can't wait to pay attention to his work in the future.

Rising out of Gattelli's work are a few rising stars that we are sure to see more from in the future.  I've heard it quipped that Newsies makes the case for the need for a "Best Ensemble" TONY award, and I couldn't agree more - at least for this year!  Ryan Breslin (also in the role of Race) is a thrilling actor.  Garett Hawe (also playing Albert and Bill) demands attention whenever he enters the stage.  An unlikely one for this category is Andy Richardson.  My guess is that he is overlooked by some, but he's an intensely talented dancer - enough so to effectively stand out for me in this armada of talent - and he cleverly delivered some of the best one-liners of the show.

I won't bore you with lots of attention to the talent dripping from every pore of Jeremy Jordan - he is Broadway's "it-boy" of today and countless people are gushing over him - and rightfully so!  Just know that I join the chorus.  Instead, I'd rather draw attention to the brightest rising star in the ensemble, Ryan Steele (also in the role of Specs - or for anyone who's seen any trailers of the production - "that amazing guy who spins longer than the laws of physics allow while standing on a piece of newspaper").  He is simply amazing.  And almost too talented for an ensemble.  Though he didn't have any standout solo singing that I recall, if his voice can even remotely keep up with the rest of his talent, I strongly suspect that his next role will be a lead.  If it's not, he needs a new agent!

One of the interesting things about Newsies is how it seems to be infiltrating popular culture.  I keep hearing people refer to what we used to call "cabby" caps as "newsy" caps.  And moreover, I keep seeing them popping up all over town - not just in the line to the theater!  But it makes sense that this show would find it's way into wider cultural applications.  Throughout the show I laughed from the bottom of my seat, I was not infrequently teary, and I leaped to my feet in fits of screams and applause as soon as it ended.  And, though I'm a trained singer, and I know how to use my diaphragm to produce large sounds when necessary, even so, I screamed through my cheers so much and for so long tonight that I found myself feeling hoarse on the ride home!

But Newsies isn't just about top-notch production values and some of the best singing and dancing there is.  Even though it's based on an old movie that's based on an even older historic event, it remains timely and relevant.  Stories of heads of corporations and the wealthy trying to squash workers' rights and unions continue to litter the background of our current political landscape.  So the story of these unlikely heroes rising up against all odds needs to be told now as much as ever.  And even if our current political climate weren't as it is, stories of the unlikely and powerless masses rising up against their oppressors will always be important to hear, to recite, and to celebrate!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again? There aren't many shows that I'm willing to pay full price to see.  This is one of the very few.  And I will again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who? Absolutely, and the list is too long to populate on here.  But anyone who loves a good old-fashioned singing and dancing musical will think this is heaven.  Anyone who wants to leave the theater humming the tunes and tapping their feet won't be disappointed.  In reality, I can't think of anyone who wouldn't at least enjoy themselves.
  • Twitter review: Perfection all over again.  I can't wait to see it again!