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

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bread of Life: strength for the journey

Pentecost 11, Proper 14B

In the name of God: our Creator, Word, and Wisdom.  Amen.

Today the Olympics are ending.  But not to worry!  Another time-honored tradition of American TV viewing is falling close on its heels: even as the Olympics draw to a close, tonight is the beginning of “Shark Week”.  In case you’re not familiar with “Shark Week”, it’s a periodic series on the Discovery Channel.  This year is the 25th anniversary of “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel, but it gained wider popularity a few years ago when shark attacks were getting so much press and the beach-going public was buying into the media-fueled fear.

During “Shark Week” all of the regularly scheduled programming shifts its focus to something shark-related.  And just about everything can be shark-related if you try hard enough!  During “Shark Week” you’ll still see “Mythbusters”, but the myths that they test will all be about sharks.  You’ll also still see “Dirty Jobs” but the jobs will have to do with all the disgusting and dangerous things people have to do when their job is to work with sharks.

It’s become an example of marketing genius.  Perhaps it’s the timing – “Shark Week” is usually in the summer, when people’s minds invariably turn to the shore.  Perhaps it’s just because nothing better is on during the summer reruns.  But whatever the reason, “Shark Week” is a huge hit.

The Discovery Channel, however, didn’t invent the concept of the series.  The church was on to that plan long before anyone had heard of “Shark Week”.  As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we’re in the midst of a “Shark Week” of sorts here in the church.

For a few weeks now we’ve been talking about bread.  Now I know what you’re thinking.  Bread?!  No wonder church the church is in decline!  The world is talking about sharks, and we’re talking about BREAD!

I know.  Bread isn’t exactly exciting.  No 1970s horror movie was ever made about bread.  No one will ever tell their story of death-defying experiences with bread.  Bread is just the simple stuff of human hands.  It’s the product of our labor and the source of our sustenance.  It’s just wheat and water.

But it can be through this most simple and ancient of concoctions that we learn about Christ.

Two weeks ago we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  Starting with only five loaves of bread, the multitudes had their fill.

And then last week the miracle became a metaphor: after giving them their daily bread Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…”  Starting from the simple stuff of bread, he begins to change how we see the world.

It’s not exciting the way “Shark Week” is exciting, but it is revolutionary.  And like all revolution-making, change the way we see the world-talk, his words – both simple and infinitely complex – “I am the bread of life” – were enough to shake the community who heard them.

John says, “Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

It’s a story not entirely unlike our own.  Like the crowds who were fed in the field that day followed Christ to see what might happen next, we, too, are drawn to Christ – at least enough to bring us here on Sunday mornings.  And like those crowds, basking in the presence is not always enough for us, either.  In our lust for certainty, we, too, find ourselves murmuring.  Questioning.  Drawn, but never quite sure.

This is the point in the sermon at which the leaders of some other churches might tell you to cast aside that doubt and simply trust in the Lord.  (As if it were that simple!)  One potential action plan in the face of uncertainty is to deny it.  To look the other way until all we can see is the certainty.  To treat faith as a tool meant to obfuscate the doubt that intrudes our every day.  But I would argue that that kind of faith isn’t so much faith as it is filler.  The faith to which we are called is something more.  Like bread, it is simple and yet infinitely complex.

Jesus tells us that he is the Bread of Life - the sustenance that fuels us to be the people of God.  But in our hunger and in our doubt, too often we fill up, instead, less satisfying sustenance: the Bread of Anxiety, the Bread of Weariness, the Bread of Control.  They’re only fillers.  But in facing our own emptinesses we cling to them.  We cling to them because they give us a sense of fullness, even if only for a while.  But sooner or later their truth is always revealed; and with it our emptiness reemerges, and all the heavier.

Like the Jews in the Gospel lesson today, we, too, are called to engage our doubt.  The questions are all around us, and to know Christ – to really, honestly respond to having been drawn to Christ – we must wade through those questions.  We must face our emptiness to find the fullness of the love of God.

This is one of the main job descriptions of the life of the Christian: to face the questions, even in the midst of the fear they inevitably inspire.  That is the truest faith.  Not turning some blind eye to questions, but immersing ourselves into the unknown.  This is the work of discernment: to risk entering the unknown in the faith that God will reveal what is needed.

As a community, this parish, is about to begin a season of intentional discernment.  As Christians we are always called to be discerning the will of God in our lives, but as human beings we sometimes answer that calling more intentionally than at other times.  And now is one of those times of intention in the life of St. Paul’s.

Just two weeks from today we will come to the end of our time together.  Our relationships will necessarily change.  I’ll be moving on to a new life in a new city, but so, too, will you be moving on to a new kind of life here.  You’ll have new leadership, and new goals.  You’ll build new relationships and have new ideas for how to be the people that God is calling you to be.

There are many questions ahead.  That’s normal whenever we’re in periods of transition and discernment.  As I look out across the next several months in my own life, I have almost no sense of who or where I will be at this time next year.  Though that’s somewhat frightening, one thing I do know is that I will need real strength for the journey.  Though I may be hungry for answers, I can’t fill that by eating the Bread of Anxiety.  I am filled with questions.  And though there is so much that I don’t know, I can’t try not to fill that unknown with the Bread of Control.

We have been promised the Bread of Life.  That’s the real sustenance for all of the changes and chances of this life.  It may be harder to grasp than anxiety, or weariness, or control - and in times of uncertainty we may be tempted to cling, instead, to those more tangible fillers.  They’re easy, but they’re not enough.  Real faith, real community, and real discernment are harder.  It will take a lot of work.  But in moving forward together you will find a deeper understanding of the Bread of Life.  It will be embarrassingly simple and infinitely complex.  Just like bread.  Amen.

(this sermon is reworked from a previous version, posted here)

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

FCS: Evita

Quick facts:
  • Show: Evita
  • Broadway
  • Date: Monday, August 6, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: The Marquis Theatre
  • Running time: 2:15 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  Sixth row of the mezzanine, stage left side.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: Max von Essen in the role of Che, usually played by Ricky Martin.  Constantine Germanacos in the role of Magaldi, usually played by Max von Essen.
Synopsis: Andrew Lloyd Webber's iconic biographical musical about the life of the beloved Argentine first lady and political leader, Eva Peron.

My thoughts: I know, I know...  I went to see Evita without Ricky Martin.  Frankly, that's the only way I could get tickets.  The show has been grossing well over a million dollars a week since it opened, so if I was ever going to see this production, I knew I'd have to wait to see it without the *star*...

While I'm sure Ricky Martin is doing a fabulous job portraying Che, there's a degree to which I'm glad to have seen the show without him.  I could think about this production on its own merits.  And frankly, I am much more interested in the production than I almost ever am in any particular star within it.  Part of how I could see the show a bit more objectively is that I'm not seeing it with hordes of people who are screaming fans there not to see a Broadway musical, but to see an individual within it.  I learned that the hard way with Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Before tonight, I had no experience of the stage version of this show.  I have, of course, listened to several cast recordings from various productions, but I had never seen it performed live.  I'd only seen the 1996 film version staring Madonna.  So that's my point of reference - not earlier stage productions.  I don't know at all how or if this production altered anything.

But comparing it with the film version, there were some points where the story seemed less developed than I'd come to expect.  In the stage version, the songs seem to stand alone more than they did in the film.  They would appear for a scene, then vanish.  In the film version Eva's character in particular was more developed through the weaving of these stories and songs.  The example that comes to mind was in the scene when she displaces the young girlfriend of Juan Peron.  The song is "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" on the new cast recording (track 12).  While the tune is lovely, and ably performed by everyone, it lacked the depth of emotion and revelation as in the film version, because we didn't see Eva in the young girl's displaced position just a few scenes earlier.  Similarly, when Eva is going through her streams of men, she is less sympathetic in the stage version, because it isn't underscored as blatantly by Magaldi's having tossed her aside in the previous scene.

In terms of the production value - it was as off-the-charts, and top notch as anything I've ever seen.  The sets, designed by Christopher Oram, were fantastic.  They were realistic and grandiose.  My mind often wandered back to the majestic and nearly magical sets that I'd seen several years ago in the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard.  From the opening few scenes to the larger set that would emerge as the primary backdrop throughout most of the show, the transition was one of those that left the audience marveling.  It was definitely a "How'd they do that?" moment.

The production was lit (by Neil Austin) with a kind of sepia feel.  In contributed nicely to the historiographical nature of the show, as well as to the tone of economic depression experienced by the descamisados - the force behind Eva's rise.

There were really no standout performances.  Max von Essen was the closest, but even he blended effectively with the rest of the ensemble.  Elena Roger, in the role of Eva, was clearly designed to be a standout performance, but sadly, she didn't answer the call.  Many of her high notes seemed beyond her range (to the point of painful sounding screeches), and her treatment of the Argentinian accent was a complete failure.  She sounded more like the old Bavarian woman from Candide.  The accent seems to mostly work on the cast recording, but it failed miserably in this performance.  Fortunately, I do know the music of the show well enough to have been able to follow her, but if I hadn't been reciting the show in my mind, I would have missed far too many of the lyrics.

In general, it was a flashy production that mostly worked and was certainly entertaining, but it didn't at reach me at all emotionally.

Another benefit of the star being absent - I didn't have to suffer through an undeserved standing ovation!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  No.  I'm happy to have seen this production, but I'd rather go back to the movie when I want to see it again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Diehard Andrew Lloyd Webber fans should certainly see it.  People who love big, flashy Broadway would have their needs met.  But no, I won't be explicitly recommending it to anyone.  I won't be encouraging people not to go (like I do for some shows), but I won't single this out as a preferred show for anyone.
  • Twitter review:  A chance to see a great show - get it while you can.

Monday, August 06, 2012

FCS: Songs for a New World

Quick facts:
The 2012 York Theatre cast of Songs for a New World

  • Show: Songs for a New World
  • Off-Off-Broadway, a "lab production"
  • Date: Sunday, August 5, 2012
  • Time: 7:30 p.m.
  • Closing date: August 12, 2012
  • Venue: The York Theatre Company at St. Peter's Church
  • Running time: ~1:20 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Good.  It's a small enough venue that the only "bad seat" is the one behind the lady in the tall hat.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis:  The musical revue written by Jason Robert Brown.  As he describes it, "a piece that is all about exploring what the unknown future holds".

My thoughts:  One of my closest friends - the Rev. Michael Sniffen - introduced me to the music of Jason Robert Brown when we were roommates in seminary.  It didn't take Michael long to know me well enough to know that Brown's music would be right up my alley.  And he was right!  It didn't take me long to fall in love with his work.

Up to now, however, my experience of Jason Robert Brown has been entirely through recordings of his shows (well, that, and the odd exchange of pleasantries on Twitter, of course!).  Tonight was my first experience of one of his show live and in person!

The idea of the "lab production" is a new endeavor for the York Theatre Company.  The idea behind it is to provide a platform for talented, young, emerging artists to gain serious performance credits and experience.

I went into tonight's "lab production" with fairly low expectations.  I knew it wouldn't be the kind of professional show that I've become accustomed to seeing, but I expected that Brown's incredible music and lyrics would be enough to carry the show.

While the performance wasn't perfect (what performance is, really?  That's part of the magic of live theater!), I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of all that saw.  No...  More than pleasantly surprised.  I was blown away.  I'll admit it.  After being a member of New York City theater audiences for so long now, I've become a bit of a snob.  I have very high expectations.  And these young people grabbed my attention from the start and held it through the night.  The production rose far above my expectations!

Of the four-member cast, two emerging stars shone most brightly: Diana Buchwald and Rafael Rodriguez.  Buchwald, in particular, had a magical gift for storytelling - not just with her incredible vocal skills, but with her face.  She acted her songs with precision, letting us all in on every aspect of her characters.  Her standout performances were "Just One Step" and Surabaya-Santa".  She can play comedy effectively with a straight face, without ever crossing over into anything cheap.  It's hard to make me laugh, and Diana Buchwald had me laughing out loud throughout.

Rodriguez, miraculously, took one of my least favorite moments in this show - "The Steam Train" - and made me love it.  His voice is powerful enough to crack a brick, and like Ms. Buchwald, he could sell every moment he presented.

As an interesting aside: this lab production of Songs for a New World is being presented on the set of the York Theatre's now-extended run of Closer Than Ever, which I saw on June 28th.  Interestingly, Jason Robert Brown has recently written about how that show influenced and inspired his writing of this, his own musical revue.  While the two shows weren't planned to share a stage like this, there's a certain poetry of it coming to pass.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Absolutely.  This production is worth my time far more than I would have expected, and even if it wasn't: the writing is enough to make it worthwhile.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Sure!  I actually brought my friend Michael with me to see this, since he's the one who first introduced me to it.  But I could imagine several other musical theater fan friends who would also love what they're doing with it.
  • Twitter review:  A delightful show given deeper delight by a delightful cast and production.

FCS: Dogfight

Quick facts:
  • Show: Dogfight
  • Off-Broadway, World Premiere Production
  • Date: Sunday, August 5, 2012
  • Time: 3:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: August 12, 2012
  • Venue: Second Stage Theatre, Tony Kiser Theatre
  • Running time: 2:15 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Okay.  Half-way back in terraced seating, on the aisle, stage left.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis:  The story of three Marines on the night before they deploy for a tour at the beginning of the Vietnam War.  They take one last night on the town together.  They, and their other friends, have a game that they play - the dogfight.  The purpose of this game is to get the ugliest girl as a date.  They bring their dates to a bar to have them judged during a dance.  Then (surprise, surprise!) the leading man falls in  love with the "dog" he brought.

My thoughts:  I mostly went to see Dogfight because my favorite choreographer, the Tony-winning, rock star choreographer of Newsies, Christopher Gattelli, did this show also.  I've become a huge fan of his work, not just in Newsies, but also Godspell, and even Silence! The Musical.  All of these shows have been very different, and Mr. Gattelli's work has been very different as well - which is part of why he's become my "favorite" choreographer.  His work is true to the show he's working on.  The dance has a way of fitting in so naturally that it's almost hard to remember that it's there.  The performers seem to be just doing the most natural thing that they could possibly be doing.  I don't know how he does it, but it's a beautiful thing to see.  He's not just finding a gimmick that works and beating it to death in every show he does.  He gives each show the attention and creativity each show deserves.  His style isn't a particular dance or jump or pattern of movement.  His style is that he has this amazing ability to let each show he does be its own self.  That's the truest measure of creativity and artistry, and I admire him.  I'm not really a "dance" person.  I know almost nothing about dance.  But I do respect creativity, and that's how I came to have a "favorite choreographer".

While I was delighted to see Gattelli's work again, Dogfight wasn't my favorite show.  It wasn't bad, or anything, but it really just didn't grab me.  I felt a little emotional at the end, but not more than I would from one of the better episodes of Grey's Anatomy, or something like that.  The music, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, was interesting and had some lovely intricate moments, but it left the show a little too short on big, climactic production numbers, and nothing left me humming my way out of the theater.  Some of it was actually a bit tedious - particularly the scene in the bar while the "dogfight" was going on.  I would probably buy a cast recording of the show (a pretty low bar for me, I know...) to hear a few of the harmonies again, and to see if, perhaps I missed something the first time around, but on the whole I didn't hear anything that left me excited about the future of musical theater.  This reality was further challenged by a sub-par performance by Josh Segarra in the role of Boland.

But there were brilliant aspects of the production.  I was particularly moved by the lighting design by Paul Gallo - particularly in the opening sequence.  All was black and a sweet song, sung by Lindsay Mendez, in the role of Rose Fenny, began.  Slowly, a silvery-blue spotlight emerged shining down from above center stage, to reveal Mendez singing and playing the guitar behind a tinted glass.  As the song grew, the lights slowly built the set for us, revealing its levels and ins and outs, and the emerging cast.  Gallo's work drew me in.  He carried me away from Midtown Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon and transported me to the world of Dogfight.  It was masterful.

It was also a delight to see the work of Nick Blaemire again.  In Godspell he was the slapstick comic relief man.  This show pulled him in a different direction.  His work is eye catching.  He wasn't, by design, the center of attention in this show, but he has a quality that commands attention.  I look forward to seeing more of his work!

The audience attending this performance was something other than I'd have expected.  It was surprisingly young, and surprisingly male.  I'm curious what the draw was for them.  Being set in the Vietnam era, I expected the audience to be mostly middle-aged couples - people who might remember those days.  But among the people right around me, I was in one of the older age brackets.

While Dogfight wasn't the best show I've ever seen, on the whole it was a satisfying afternoon of theater.  It was entertaining enough.  Funny enough.  The music was fine.  There were a few hiccups in the story-telling as it was expressed through the book by Peter Duchan (the conflict between Birdlace and Boland about the rigging of the dogfight wasn't very completely developed), but on the whole it was nice experience.  I was glad to have gone.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Doubtful.  It was good enough, but there are too many other shows I'd rather see to spend time and money seeing this again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Probably not.  I was glad to have seen it, but it wasn't anything to write home about.
  • Twitter review:  It's always fun to see a new musical!  What's next?

Sunday, August 05, 2012

The boldness of a child

Pentecost 10B, Proper 13
John 6:24-35

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

One of my favorite stories of my life as an uncle relates to one of my favorite stories of my life in this Christian vocation.  I am Godparent to my oldest nephew.  He was born just weeks before I left Louisiana to begin seminary in New Jersey, and my brother and sister-in-law convinced the priest in their parish to move up his baptism to an irregular date - one beyond those set aside in the Prayer Book as being “appropriate” for baptisms - so that I could be present and begin my service as his Godparent before leaving for seminary.  His baptism was just days before I moved out of the state.

Uncle Jon and Brooks (2009)
Throughout his life so far, Charles and Amanda have taken that role that they entrusted me with pretty seriously - as have I.  One of the ways that they’ve taken it so seriously is by keeping me up-to-date on Brooks’ growth into his life as a church member and as a Christian.  They ask me questions.  They tell me stories.  They tell me about the questions that he asks them.

I remember one Sunday afternoon, when Brooks was probably about three years old, and they called me almost in a panic.  I was in my second year as a seminarian intern at St. Paul’s Church in Chatham, and by that point fully engaged in the ordination process.  I knew that I would someday be a priest.

My brother isn’t one of those people who particularly enjoys talking on the phone, and he doesn’t call a lot, so when he does, I make every effort to take the call.  As soon I answered the phone that Sunday afternoon I could hear the concern in his voice.

After a bit of small talk, and hearing that something was on his mind, I finally asked him, “So what’s going on?  You sound like you have something you’re trying to say.”

He answered: “I think we may have messed up this morning at church.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “We went up at the Eucharist this morning like always.  We brought Brooks, like always.  And then, when the priest came by, he held out his hands to receive communion.  He’s too young, so he usually gets a blessing, but for some reason, this morning, he held out his hands.”

There was a long silence.

“So what happened?” I asked.

“Well, the priest gave him bread.”

Another pause…

“And then what happened?”

“Well, he ate it and we all went back to our seats.”

Clearly, with each uncomfortable silence, my brother was waiting for me to react.  Finally I broke the silence and said, “I don’t see what the problem is.”

With a wave of anxiety washing over him, my brother said, “But he’s so young.  He hasn’t had any classes.  He’s never received communion before.  He can’t possibly know what he’s doing!”

I couldn’t help smiling through the telephone.  My Godson had had his first communion.  And it had happened organically.  It had happened because he knew he was a part of the community, and he knew that he was missing something that his community shared.  When he was ready to be fed, he felt confident enough and assured enough of his place within that community to hold out his hands and to ask to be fed.  With the boldness of a little child he held out his hands and asserted his belonging.  I told my brother all of that, and then reminded him of bigger picture:

“You’re right,” I said.  Brooks couldn’t possibly know what he’s doing when he receives communion.  He just doesn’t know enough yet.  But tell me, Charles - do you?  Do you really understand what happens in the Eucharist?  Do you really understand how Christ is present in the bread and wine?  Do you really understand that hunger that draws you to the table again and again?  I know I don’t.  I receive communion several times a week - every week - and I don’t really understand it.  I’ve read a lot of books by a lot of really smart people.  I’ve preached and written, myself.  I’ve spent hours thinking about it and praying about it for years now, and I don’t really understand it either.  I know there’s something there, but I don’t really even have a clue what it is.  I know that it satisfies a hunger, but I don’t know how, and I don’t even really understand the hunger.”

“So it’s okay if Brooks doesn’t understand.  It’s enough that he knows how to handle it.  It’s enough that he knows that his community is there to help him with it.  It’s enough that he knows that he belongs.”

The story we hear and study in the Gospel lesson today is the same kind of story as the one of my nephew’s first communion.  It’s the same kind of story that we heard in my brother’s anxiety.

Last week we heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand.  You’ve all heard it before.  It’s another one of the “greatest hits” from the Bible.  It’s one of the big miracles that captures our imagination, and makes for great artwork, and tangible illustrations for children’s Sunday School lessons.

But in the wake of the people’s captivation after that miracle - in the wake of their wonder, and the crowds, and the fame - Jesus reminds us that it’s not about the bread.  It’s not about the “thing”.  It’s not about the material possession or even the physical need.  It’s about so much more.  So much more, in fact, that we can hardly wrap our minds around it.

The things in life that are most real are often that way: love, justice, faith, truth…  Our attempts at capturing them in words are feeble, at best.  They’re not so much to be known and understood as they are to be experienced.

That’s part of why I am so moved by the central place that the celebration of the Eucharist has in our tradition: the core of what we believe isn’t captured in a creed, but in an action.  It’s an action that is rich in metaphor and symbolism - so rich, in fact, that we have to experience it again and again.  So rich that it can’t simply be explained - it must be felt.

We’ll spend the next few weeks exploring the metaphor of bread.  Today is its second of five consecutive appearances.  If you push your mind too deeply into it, it might begin to feel laborious.  But try not to overthink it.  Try not to simply understand it, but look for that deeper, ineffable truth that lies within it.  Listen for the tiny whisper of truth that God might have for you.

Reach out your hands with the boldness of a child to take this bread.  You’re among friends.  You may not understand, but you might just come to know.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

FCS: Fela!

Quick facts:
  • Show: Fela!
  • Broadway
  • Date: Wednesday, August 1, 2012
  • Time: 2:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: August 4, 2012
  • Venue: Al Hirschfield Theatre
  • Running time: 2:30 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Okay.  Near the back of the orchestra, center section.  The overhanging balcony obstructed a small part of the view of projection screens on the sides.
  • Ticket source: TKTS booth, Times Square
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The musical based on the life and music of Fela Anikulapp-Kuti, the Nigerian Afrobeat musician and revolution leader.

My thoughts:  I had been wishing to see this show a couple of years ago when it was in its original Broadway run.  I didn't know a lot about the show, just that it was focused on African music.

Since the original Broadway run, the show has been on tour for a couple of years.  Now the tour is ending and they've returned to Broadway for a very limited run - only 32 performances, and it ends this Saturday!

I'm so delighted that I did finally see this show.  The music is admittedly a little out of my usual comfort zone, but that was more than okay.  It brought back for me memories of my times in evangelical churches in a township in Cape Town, South Africa and Accra, Ghana.  The music that Fela helped to inspire and pull together has swept the continent of Africa and it resonates even today.

Because of the very different style of music from most musical theater, Fela! is a bit of an oddity among Broadway shows.  True to the story that it tells, much of it has an improvisational feel.  It's the story of the Fela's attempts to lead a revolution against government corruption in Nigeria following years of colonial rule.

Fela is, by design, the one real star of the show.  But the ensemble worked beautifully to share in telling his story, to support him, and to establish that culture and mood which is so much more than simply foreign for most Americans.  The whole cast worked beautifully together, and watching the high energy spectacle left me wide eyed.

If there was a "star" aside from Fela, himself, it would have been Melanie Marshall in the role of Funmilayo, Fela's mother - one of the ancestors that guides him on his difficult journey.  She has the natural, tempered grace of African women I've known, and supports the show and the story with unmatched vocal quality.

The other shining figure was Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green in the role of the djembe player, Mustafa.  Though he never spoke or sang, other than perhaps with the ensemble, his drumming drove the whole show - and really the whole experience.

The setting of the show was an evening in Fela's "African Shrine" in Lagos, Nigeria.  The story was told to us, the audience, as if we were in the crowd at the real shows he would produce living there.  So the set in general reflected that - corrugated metal, graffiti...  The lighting was rock concert style lighting and the story-telling was enhanced by liberal use of projections.  Though, because of the setting it didn't fall into the "overuse" category that I so often bemoan!

The real thrust of my love for this show, however, was simply reveling in the idea of music and dance as tools of revolution.  Fela masterfully used his talent to further the goal of social change in Nigeria.  And that's when art is most exciting to me - when it's not just an exercise in self-promotion or self-gratification (for either the artist or the audience), but a way of speaking to the culture - calling it out and driving it forward.

As I said, I didn't know much about the story of Fela or about the story of Afrobeat culture, but Fela! has inspired me to dig deeper.  I want to know more and I want to learn.  Which is, of course, a sign that not only was Fela effective, but that Fela! is, too.  It's living beyond the couple of hours that it had me, and inspiring me to go deeper.  That's success!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Probably.  I will definitely be getting not only the cast recording, but some of the original music that inspired the show.  I'm hungry for more.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Yeah.  I saw it with a friend who is also a priest and who has been active in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and if he hadn't been with me, I would have called him to encourage him to go on his own.  But I'd also recommend it to anyone who sees art as an avenue for justice (or who would like to!).
  • Twitter review:  An important, and unlikely show.  Inwardly digest!

FCS: Bring It On

Quick facts:
  • Show: Bring It On: the musical
  • Broadway
  • Date: Monday, July 30, 2012
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: October 7, 2012
  • Venue: St. James Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Very Good.  I was on the fourth row of the mezzanine, center.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The stage adaptation of the film.  I haven't seen the film, but I'm told it's roughly the same story.  A high school senior is the captain of her cheer leading squad, and it's the center of her life.  Then she transfers out of her cushy suburban school into an urban school that has no cheer leading squad.  She's forced to work at making friends for the first time in her life, and to find her way in a world that's different from all that she knows.

My thoughts:  I have to admit.  I approached this show with basically no expectations.  Were it not for my general addiction to musical theater, and the fact that I could get cheap tickets through TDF, I almost certainly would not have seen this show.  It's not the kind of show I expect to like.  I mean...  cheer leaders?  That's a pretty far cry from anything within the realm of my interests.  (Just being honest here...)

But I was pleasantly surprised.  To be sure: Bring It On did have a lot of elements that would normally make me cringe - cutesy actresses, teen angst subject matter, rock concert feel, rap(!)...  But even despite those things that normally don't work for me, there was something on the whole that did work.

No aspect of the structure of the show was brilliant - not the book, not the music, not the lyrics.  But there were enough nice aspects of each of those that it somehow added up to something that worked.

Part of it was simply the stagecraft.  The choreography, dances, and stunts by (also director) Andy Blankenbuehler simply stole the show.  If nothing else had worked, that alone - particularly the stunts - would have been enough to make the evening worthwhile.  It was simply magical.  My review of the very first Apple iPhone when it came out was: it does things that simply aren't possible.  It was so far advanced beyond anything I'd ever seen in a phone, it just didn't make sense.  There's a degree to which that's how I felt about the dancing and stunts in this show: it was simply impossible.  And yet there they were - doing it right in front of me.  That, combined with Christopher Gattelli's genius in Newsies, makes 2012 a bar-raising year for Broadway choreography.

It feels like sort of a silly thing to comment on, but I'd like to say a word about the set changes.  I love it when I'm watching a show and look up to notice that some major feature of the set has changed without my having noticed it.  This happened repeated throughout this show.  The set was fairly simple, but even so (and maybe even more because it was so simple - there were fewer built in distractions) the changes were invisible.  It feels silly, because it's not that big of a deal, but on the other hand, I think it speaks well to the overall design.  The creative team behind the show figured out how to draw my attention away from the mechanics of the show, and kept me focused always where they wanted me to focus.  It's a triumph of lighting, staging, video design, music, orchestrations, and everything else.  Kudos to Bring It On!  I was genuinely impressed by that.

The video design, by Jeff Sugg, was generally well executed, though it was, at times, a little bit over the top.  The videos were displayed on four large, dynamic LCD screens suspended from above.  The moved left and right and up and down, and each screen turned to present to the audience at various angles.  Usually they were used effectively to expand on the physical set, much the way projection and video design is often used, but occasionally the video seemed too busy and distracted from the actors' work happening onstage - particularly during a couple of high energy ensemble dances toward the end, when we wanted to be watching the people instead of the screens.  Oftentimes with projection and video design, it almost feels as if the designer is trying to squeeze in every trick of the trade that he or she knows.  It's the same kind of common mistake that young preachers make - sometimes they feel like they have to cram everything they learned in seminary into their first sermon - as if they'll never preach again.  Soon, however, they learn that just a few takeaways is plenty.

Sugg is no novice - he's designed on Broadway and off many times.  But even so, there were times when it felt like he was using tricks simply because he could, and forgetting that his work is best when it's subtle and complementary - not something designed to steal the show.  Again - that usually wasn't the case, but there was enough of it to notice.

As to the stars of the show: on the whole I'd say that there weren't many, really.  I could tell that there were a lot of Broadway debuts in this company even before I read the Playbill.  That's not to say that they weren't incredibly talented professionals, but there was a noticeable lack of "seasoning" on the stage.  There's a degree to which that worked, since it was a show about high school - people at that age tend to be green and still finding their way in the world.  So it worked.  But the other end result of that was that there weren't very many standout stars.

The most noticeable among them, however, were Jason Gotay and Nicolas Womack.  Womack was brilliant as the comic relief - impeccable timing, and a larger than life presence.  Gotay, on the other hand, in the male lead role of Randall, had me marveling at his ability to fill the stage and steal our attention with quiet, dignified authority.  His character was the wise, "old soul" type, and Gotay captured and conveyed that experience like a Shakespearean master.

Finally, as an LGBT activist and general social justice person, I have to give credit to the designers for introducing and sensitively portraying the transgender character, La Cienega, played by Gregory Haney.  Too often transgender roles in the theater are produced more as cheap laugh lines - little more than as comical drag queens being silly.  La Cienega did have a couple of moments of that in her character, but on the whole, she was a strong, stable woman who understood the world and who provided insight and affection to her community.  She was different, but not apart.  It was one of the most positive representations of a transgender character that I've ever seen in the theater.  Haney should certainly be commended for that, but also the entire production team who designed and directed the character.  I was pleased.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Probably not, because it's not really my style of show.  But that's not to say that I didn't have a great time.  I did!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Sure.  I have one friend in particular, a theater professional, who I think will love the show.  We saw Lysistrata Jones together and he liked it a lot more than I did.  This show is similar in some ways, but better and more developed, so I think he'd like this one.
  • Twitter review: Nice tunes, nice talent.  AMAZING jumps!  Not life-changing, but worth your time.