Acid Test: 'Virginia Woolf,' 'Sweeney' are Coming; 'Funny Girl' Casting Controversy; Plus Takes on 'Sound of Music,' 'Stew'
Christopher Ehlers READ TIME: 12 MIN.
Welcome to the second installment of Acid Test, EDGE's new theater column that seeks to enliven the conversation around Boston's theatrical landscape. Always with an ear to the past, an eye to the future, and contextualized for national audiences, we're thrilled you're with us.
"Funny Girl" Tour Casting Draws Criticism
As Lea Michele winds down her career-redefining performance as Fanny Brice in Broadway's "Funny Girl," the news broke this week that relative newcomer Katerina McCrimmon will step into the role for the North American tour, which will kick off this September in Providence. The casting has drawn criticism for what some are calling "Jewface," given that McCrimmon does not appear to be Jewish (though how the internet knows the intimate details of her family's culture is beyond me).
Those criticizing the casting say that Brice, a pioneering Jewish comedian, should only be played by someone who identifies as Jewish. Some are placing the blame on McCrimmon herself for auditioning in the first place, claiming that the casting notice explicitly said that producers were "specifically seeking actors of Jewish heritage." The casting notice that I saw, however, said that "actors of Jewish heritage are encouraged to submit," which is a very different thing.
Interestingly, back when the idea for a Fanny Brice musical was first being shopped around New York, Mary Martin was involved–as it was her idea–though when Jule Style and Stephen Sondheim (who struck gold together with "Gypsy") were approached to write the score, Sondheim remarked: "I don't want to do the life of Fanny Brice with Mary Martin. She's not Jewish. You need someone ethnic for the part." Later, after Martin, Anne Bancroft, and Eydie Gormé were all briefly attached to the musical, Carol Burnett was approached, who turned them down, saying: "I'd love to do it but what you need is a Jewish girl." Only then did Barbra Streisand enter the picture.
In an article by Jackie Hajdenberg for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, she quotes actor Jennifer Apple, who says that "because Jewishness was central to Brice, a pioneering early 20th-century vaudevillian, it should be for anyone playing her as well," adding that "the content of this show is specifically about how she was not considered a pretty Jewish woman, that she had to change her name and change her looks to 'fit in,' that she had to assimilate because of her Jewish identity. To have somebody not be Jewish and do that could perpetuate stereotypes."
Samantha Massell, an actor who appeared in the last Broadway revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," posting the following on Instagram following the announcement of McCrimmon's casting: "If you consider yourself an advocate for representation in casting and you're A OK with this (or celebrating it), you need to check yourself."
Ilyse Robbins, an award-winning Boston-based director and choreographer, agrees. "I have always been a believer that acting is taking on other people's lives. Sometimes the lives are like our own and sometimes they are very different," she said. "In today's climate where we are far more aware and conscious when casting, I think this casting of Fanny Brice is problematic. I am sure the young woman who was cast is terrific. I have friends who know her and say she is a star in the making. On the other hand, I know several Jewish actresses about whom I could say the same. If you would want Latinx folx in Latinx roles, queer folx in queer roles, etc. (and rightfully so) – then I think you need to do the same for Jews in roles that represent very strong Jewish associations and/or themes. As a director/choreographer, I cast things differently today than I did 15 years ago and there are some jobs I would not take today that I did 10 years ago because I think that I would need to make room for others. We learn and grow. I hope that this will prove to be a learning experience for those who cast the tour."
As it stands now, no Boston date has been announced, but that doesn't strike me as unusual given how Broadway in Boston likes to unveil their season as something of a surprise. It would be a shame, however, not to have "Funny Girl" return home: the world saw "Funny Girl"–and Streisand as Brice–for the first time at Boston's Shubert Theatre during a blizzard in 1964. In fact, when "People" was in serious danger of being cut from the show, it was the response of Boston audiences to the future hit that convinced creators that it should be left in the show.
For tour dates near you, visit FunnyGirlBroadway.com.
Boston's Connection to "The Sound of Music" Runs Deep; North Shore Music Theatre's Production Shimmers
"Funny Girl" isn't the only musical that owes an awful lot to Boston and Boston audiences for helping to shape the show: Rodgers and Hammerstein also relied on Boston audiences and Boston critics for both their love of musicals and their often discerning reactions to their works in progress. "I wouldn't open anything, not even a can of tomatoes, except in Boston" Rodgers once exclaimed.
And for the most part, Rodgers stayed true to that, with "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific," "The King and I," "Carousel," and "The Sound of Music" all opening in Boston before eventually making their way to Broadway.
It was at Boston's Colonial Theatre where the showstopping title song of "Oklahoma!" was rehearsed and put into the show for the first time, bringing life back to a show that was perilously long, yet was missing a second act spark. And after a matinee of "Carousel" at the same theatre, Rodgers and Hammerstein strolled through the Public Garden fretting about the show's problematic second act. After that conversation, Hammerstein locked himself in his hotel room at The Ritz–now The Newbury–and emerged 10 days later with a new second act. In "The King and I," which ran at the Shubert, "Getting to Know You," "Western People Funny," and "I Have Dreamed" were all added to the show for the first time in Boston.
By the time "The Sound of Music" was whipping itself into shape at the Shubert in 1959, Hammerstein was terminally ill with cancer–though he didn't know it yet–and stayed back in New York to rest. One of the things the show needed was a number for Captain von Trapp in the second act, one that bid farewell to his beloved Austria. In his shower at The Ritz, Rodgers came up with the melody for what would become "Edelweiss," and when Hammerstein finally arrived in Boston to see the show for the first time, he supplied the lyrics, and the number went into the show. It was the last song Rodgers and Hammerstein would ever write together.
Next time you're at Boston's Shubert Theatre, consider for a moment that in that very space, Oscar Hammerstein openly wept after seeing "The Sound of Music" for the first time.
While I didn't openly weep at North Shore Music Theatre's deeply fulfilling, supremely affecting revival of "The Sound of Music," I had plenty of tears dotting my eyes, which I didn't expect given the sheer number of times I've seen the musical.
Director Kevin P. Hill has mounted a production that is just about the finest "Sound of Music" a guy could ask for. Hunkering down for a few hours with the Von Trapp children is often a dicey proposition for an audience, just as it is for Maria when she first arrives at their stately mansion. For Maria, she has toads and pranks to worry about, whereas an audience runs the risk of being subjected to treacly sentimentality and a creaky old show the seems to go on for as long as it took the actual Von Trapp family to scale the Alps into Switzerland.
But Hill's production possesses such uncanny heart and an unflappable belief in the material–not to mention an enormously talented cast–that it manages to feel both familiar and fresh, enchanting and emotional.
Part of the marvel of Hill's direction is that it allows the darkness to percolate quietly under the surface before the entire auditorium becomes consumed by it in the second act. And if we don't quite leave the theater feeling like we could outwit the Nazis, we leave with the unflappable conviction that staring down the face of evil and standing up for goodness is always the right move.
Much of the success of this production is due to the remarkable central performance of Desi Oakley, who somehow makes lines and lyrics we've heard a hundred times before sound earnest and fresh. She's incredibly sincere in a way that feels effortless, and one byproduct of that is that her blossoming romance with Captain von Trapp (played by an excellent Joseph Spieldenner) is utterly believable and, frankly, intoxicating. Just like the rest of the production.
A Scorching Pulitzer Finalist at Gloucester Stage
"The Sound of Music" isn't the only show playing on the North Shore right now that has an awful lot of darkness percolating under the surface. Zora Howard's "Stew," a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, has received its Boston-area premiere at Gloucester Stage.
The pain and trauma that threatens to consume the three generations of women at its center is represented by a big pot of stew that is constantly seconds away from boiling over and being burnt to a crisp. The joy of "Stew" is in its performances (Cheryl D. Singleton, Breezy Leigh, Janelle Grace, and Sadiyah Dyce Janai Stephens are all exquisite), and in the sneaky way Howard's script and Rosalind Bevan's taut direction lull the audience into thinking they're watching something of a sitcom. Then, in the final moments of the play, an explosive finale sends the audience home speechless.
"Stew" is about the corrosiveness of inherited trauma and loss and the ways that it can repeat itself and seep into generation after generation. "Stew" feels like a sister piece to Jackie Sibblies Drury's "Fairview" and Antoinette Nwandu's "Pass Over," both of which received A-Plus treatment at Boston's SpeakEasy Stage. While I wholeheartedly recommend "Stew," I can't help but wonder about who these trauma plays are for, which have the potential to–at varying degrees–sometimes feel like trauma porn. More black joy, please. Which, for the record, there's also plenty of in "Stew."
A Shakeup at Bedlam's "Angels in America"
Eric Tucker's revelatory revival of "Angels in America" at Central Square Theatre is one of the best productions of the year so far. Although Part One: Millennium Approaches ran this spring, it will return in the fall to run in repertory with Part Two: Perestroika. But it appears as though the cast will be slightly different upon its return: Steven Barkhimer, who shared the role of Roy Cohn with Tucker, will not be returning this fall. Neither, it would appear, is Nael Nacer, who acted the hell out of Mormon closet case Joe Pitt but was woefully miscast. No word on Barkhimer's replacement, but it's looking like the indelible Paul Melendy might be taking over the role of Joe.
Never Mix, Never Worry
Theater UnCorked, the small theater company presided over by the hugely talented Shana Dirik (brilliant in this year's revival of "Side Man"), recently announced that their fall production of "The Memory of Water" by Shelagh Stephenson has been scrapped due to last minute production and technical issues. The replacement, however, has me vibrating with anticipation: Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof," which will run for five days at the Boston Center for the Arts. One can assume that Dirik will star as Martha. And if that comes to pass, it just might be the most heat that dank basement theater has seen in years. Boston's last "Virgina Woolf" was with Paula Plum and Steven Barkhimer at The Lyric Stage in 2017.
"Sweeney Todd" Is Coming
Moonbox Productions has landed on their demon barber and deranged accomplice. The Ryan Mardesich-directed revival looks to be the first production at Moonbox's new Arrow Street Arts space, the longtime home of OBERON. Elliot Norton Award-winner Davron Monroe will wield Sweeneey's bloody razor and Joy Clark–terrific in Moonbox's "Cabaret"–will don Lovett's iconic apron. Boston's last professional "Sweeney Todd" was at The Lyric Stage in 2014.
Actors' Shakespeare Project Reveals Venues for Upcoming Season
After a killer season that included a searing revival of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" and a life-affirming "As You Like It," ASP has announced the venues for their upcoming season: Paula Vogel's "How I Learned To Drive" and the Marianna Bassham-directed "Romeo & Juliet" will both play at the Calderwood Pavilion's Roberts Studio Theatre; "The Taming of the Shrew" will happen downtown at Suffolk University's Modern Theatre; and August Wilson's "King Hedley II" will play Roxbury's Hibernian Hall, the same place where ASP made magic with "Seven Guitars." Summer L. Williams will be at the helm of "Hedley," which means that there's a very high chance of more magic being made next spring.