Over the holiday break I caught a number of shows, starting with “Lifespan of a Fact” just after Christmas at Studio 54 on Broadway, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale, which I saw with my friend Franklyn.
Then New Year’s weekend, I attended a trifecta of shows, starting with “Sandra Bernhard: Quick Sand” at Joe’s Pub with my friend Bob; “Hamilton” also with Bob; and “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Jeff Daniels, which I attended alone. It was my second time seeing “Hamilton,” which was a last-minute miracle. I won front row tickets for 10 dollars each on the official Hamilton app.
Then last Friday I caught “Network” starring Bryan Cranston at the Belasco with my friend Jay.
The annual Greater New York Dental Meeting takes place the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving every year — which means those of us who work at Dental Tribune are quite busy. The event features educational classes and hands-on workshops for the thousands of dental professionals who attend from out of town, plus a four-day tradeshow for the latest products and technology. We publish four issues of our at-show newspaper, called “today” — two of which we put together “live” on site, which means home away from home this past week has been the Javits Center!
You can see all four issues of our daily at-show newspaper by clicking here. I took many of the pictures at the event, and I conducted a live interview with a company rep on site about a new product (link to my article here). Our post-show “meeting review” article and photo gallery is here. I am particularly pleased with the way the cover of Issue 3 turned out. If you click the image directly below it will open bigger:
This is such a big meeting that it’s “all hands on deck” for the four Dental Tribune editors, but we were short staffed this year because our group editor is out on maternity leave. After we finished our work for the paper, the three of us who were together for the work event attended the Tuesday night showing of “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway:
This was just fantastic. Renee Fleming of opera fame is in it. Joshua Henry was spectacular as Billy. So was Lindsay Mendez as Carrie. My favorite was Amar Ramasar as Jigger. (He was oh-my-god hot!) This was really well done. Great singing, great dancing. My favorite number was Blow High Blow Low a Whaling We Will Go.
The reason I live in NYC is to experience evenings like this.
The first Broadway show I ever saw was “The Will Rogers Follies.” To this day the show remains one of my favorites, and I still play the original cast recording from time to time. It starred Keith Carradine in the title role. It also featured Cady Huffman, who would later go on to star as Ulla in “The Producers,” and the late great Dick Latessa, as Clement P. Rogers. The music was by Cy Coleman and the lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. This big, fun show also had cowboys and Indians, a bunch of cute dogs — and it featured the “special participation” of Gregory Peck as the legendary showman Florenz Zeigfeld, which was akin to the “voice of God.”
This would have been the fall of 1991, if I remember correctly. I was working as an editor at the Hudson Valley News in Newburgh, N.Y., at the time, and I had just completed a big project and my boss wanted to reward me by a trip to the big city to see a Broadway show. I stayed at the Milford Plaza, and I almost got mugged. A year later I had moved to my apartment in Manhattan, I had a new job working at National Jeweler, with offices in Times Square, right across the street from the Palace Theater. When my dad came to visit we went to see “Will Rogers Follies” together. It was still running, with Mac Davis in the lead role.
Thanks to the Seat Geek app, I got an orchestra seat to see Bernadette Peters and Victor Garber in “Hello Dolly!” tonight! She was amazing. So was everyone else in the show. Last May, I saw this same production with Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce. And in the 1990s I saw Carole Channing in a special 25th anniversary production. This is one of the best shows ever, and I am so very glad to have been able to see it so many times with such great talent.
Having read the Ron Chernow book on which the musical “Hamilton” is based, I’ve wanted to see the show for so long. This week, finally, after I had faithfully entered the lottery via the Hamilton app every day for about six months, success! A pair of front row center seats, for 10 bucks each! A neighbor joined me as my guest.
I thought the casting of the performers was inspired. They were all fantastic, especially Michael Luwoye in the title role, Bryan Terrell Clark as George Washington, and J. Quinton Johnson as James Madison. For some reason I have not been not a huge fan of the original cast recording of “Hamilton,” but on stage I thought the numbers and their staging were brilliant. My favorite songs were “You’ll Be Back” and “What Comes Next,” both performed by King George III. I was deeply moved and close to tears throughout, but I managed to hold it together until the very end, when the story of Eliza going on to found an orphanage was told. From that moment on, waterworks. As I stood with the rest of the audience for the standing ovation, I had tears streaming down my face.
I was so moved on Friday night by “Big River,” the country-music musical based on the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, that I went to see it again Saturday night. I loved it even more the second time. The music and lyrics in this show, written by the acclaimed songwriter Roger Miller, are really, really good. The on-stage orchestra of this production — by New York City Center Encores! — was top-notch, and the actors were terrific. From my perspective, their voices brought Twain’s characters to life in a powerful way.
Watching many of these songs performed on stage brought tears to my eyes, starting with “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” sung by a charming Nicholas Barasch as Huck. Here’s this kid, this innocent outsider in 1840s Missouri, trying to figure out where he belongs in the world. Essentially homeless, he’s been taken in by the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson (who own slaves). They make him wash up for dinner and wear uncomfortable clothes and learn to read, so that he can study the Bible and eventually wind up in “the good place,” as sung to him in the song “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” He also pals around with a band of other kids, who are under the spell of Tom Sawyer, who has his own set of rules — those he has read about in adventure books. And then there’s Pap Finn, an abusive alcoholic, who takes Huck and locks him in a shed and beats him. So Huck fakes his own death and runs away to a nearby island, where he declares his own personal independence in the song “I, Huckleberry, Me.”
On the island Huck meets up with Miss Watson’s slave Jim, played by the powerfully voiced Kyle Scatliffe, who has “run off” because he overheard that she was about to sell him for $800 and if that happens he will never see his wife and children again. But Huck is on the run too, and so he and Jim flee on that iconic raft. Down America’s great river. Together they sing two of the musical’s most beautiful and memorable numbers — “Muddy Water” and “River in the Rain.” More tears from this theater-goer.
Their quick departure all happens so fast that Huck does not have time to reflect much on the consequences of his actions. After all, helping a slave escape is not only illegal, but, in essence, stealing. He will have to reckon with that later.
For Huck and Jim, the mighty Mississippi is freedom. But for others it means just the opposite. In the novel, as they are floating downstream on their raft, a boat passes them going in the opposite direction, filled with runaway slaves who have been recaptured and who are being returned to their owners. In the musical, the slaves are being marched on land, and Huck and Jim can hear them from their raft and they are singing a gospel song, “The Crossing.”
Another departure from the novel comes in Act Two, when Huck mocks Jim and plays a cruel practical joke on him by pretending to be a slave hunter. In the novel Huck does play a trick on Jim, but it is much less nasty. Yet the effect is the same: Huck sees that he has hurt Jim’s feelings and feels he must apologize. This is a pivotal moment for Huck, because it is at this point that he sees Jim’s humanity. And it sets up yet another beautiful song, “Worlds Apart” — a song that in my view features lyrics that are just as relevant in today’s partisan political climate as they would have been a century and a half ago.
There’s more. The king and the duke, played by the excellent David Pittu and Christopher Sieber, close Act One with a rip-roaring “When the Sun Goes Down in the South” and open Act Two with a thoroughly entertaining “The Royal Nonesuch.” Lauren Worsham as Mary Jane Wilkes uses her pitch-perfect vocal instrument on two consecutive numbers, “You Oughta Be Here With Me” and “Leavin’s Not the Only Way to Go,” the latter performed with Huck and Jim. Again, more tears. Both songs are pure country, and in my view they rank right up there with the very best ballads of the genre. Wayne Duvall, as Pap Finn, goes on a drunken tea-party rant in the song “Guv’ment,” and ensemble member Katherine A. Guy brings down the rafters with her gospel number, “How Blest We Are.”
And now for Huck’s reckoning. In the novel, the climax, the punch line of the whole thing, comes in chapter 31. The king and the duke have sold Jim for $40, and now Huck has no choice but to really think about what he has done. This is the pre-Civil War South, and in his 13-year-old brain, Huck thinks that he has sinned. Damnation will follow unless he turns away from his wickedness. But he can’t quite pray because he realizes he is “not square.” So he writes a letter to Miss Watson telling her where Jim is. But this does not bring him peace either, because he cannot turn against Jim. He says aloud, “All right then — I’ll go to hell,” and rips up the letter. He’s decided that he is going to help Jim, even though it means he is headed for the “bad place,” as Miss Watson would say. He does the same on stage, just before launching into a reprise of “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” but this time he sings with even more power, more feeling, and more energy than before. This is followed by the 11 o’clock number, “Free at Last,” sung in a muscular voice by Kyle Scatliffe’s Jim, which is the emotional high point of the evening. I can’t stop the tears now. They are streaming down my face, and I don’t care if anyone sees.
The review in the New York Times called this production “ill timed” and said it had “little room for feeling or emotion.” Huh? And the reviewer lamented the use of the n-word in both the novel and the musical as a “racial slur.” Oh come on. “Huckleberry Finn” is arguably the most anti-racist story every written.
Sure, the production itself was not without flaws. Throughout the show both nights, it seemed to me that there was something wrong with the amplification. At times the volume level sounded like it was going up and down in the middle of various songs. Also a problem for me: More than once the singers could have put more oomph into it. In fact, I wanted to yell out from my seat, “Sing out, Louise!” to some of the chorus members on stage in Act 1 during “The Boys.”
It also seemed to me that at times some of the transitions between the spoken-word portions of the work and the musical numbers and back again were choppy. “Huckleberry Finn” is a sprawling tale, and by necessity large portions of the Twain saga were considerably condensed or eliminated entirely.
But these are minor issues, as the songs themselves said more than anything else. And for sheer depth of feeling conveyed by the actors for their characters and the classic book they inhabit, I can’t think of a much more powerful theater experience.
These Encores! productions only run for a week, so if you missed this one I am sorry for you. But you might look up the original Broadway cast recording on iTunes, as I did. As I mentioned, these songs are really worthwhile. The original Broadway staging of “Big River” won a well-deserved Tony for best musical back in 1985, and you can do a YouTube search for the two numbers that the original cast performed on the televised broadcast back then. And of course there’s the book itself. It is always worth reading, or reading again— or even reading a third time.