FIVE ESSENTIAL BROADWAY SHOWS THIS SPRING

As for the coveted Best Musical prize, the showdown will be between the intimate and hauntingly beautiful Fun Home (which I reviewed here) and the all-around brilliant, hilarious and blockbuster Something Rotten.

The Tony Awards also signify the end of the current Broadway season. Below, take a look at some of the most creative shows currently playing, and be sure to grab your tickets now. Some may become impossible to see after Tony’s success and some may close in their wake. Either way, this was one of the most daring seasons in recent years – and that in itself is something to be celebrated.

IT SHOULDA BEEN YOU

STARRING Tyne Daly, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka, Harriet Harris, Lisa Howard, Montego Glover, Adam Heller, Nick Spangler, Edward Hibbert, Josh Grisetti, Michael X. Martin, Anne L. Nathan

WHERE Brooks Atkinson Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 0

STORY It’s Rebecca (Boggess) and Brian’s (Burtka) wedding day, and their polar opposite families have gathered to celebrate the impending nuptials. But when a few surprise guests – including Rebecca’s neurotic ex-boyfriend (Grisetti) – show up, all bets are off and mayhem ensues. What deep secrets will be revealed? And what will they mean for the couple when it’s time to walk down the aisle?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Don’t let the Tony Awards snub fool you. This David Hyde Pierce-directed show is a laugh-out-loud satire and adorable exploration of love and family that turns the conventional wedding day comedy inside out. Think Meet The Parents mixed with a Jewish spin on My Big Fat Greek Weddingand the romantic musical chairs of The Family Stone. You’ll be smiling throughout this entire one act show.

STANDOUT SCENE The soulful song, “Jenny’s Blues,” finds the bride’s sister, Jenny (Howard) finally standing up for herself to her family. It’s the show’s biggest number and Howard cements herself as a rising star to watch with her powerhouse vocals and passionate delivery. See for yourself when she performs the song at this Sunday’s Tonys.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

STARRING Robert Fairchild, Leanne Cope, Max von Essen, Brandon Uranowitz, Jill Paice, Veanne Cox

WHERE Palace Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 12

STORY Inspired by the 1951 MGM film, An American In Paris tells the story of three men – two American soldiers and a local Parisian – vying for the affection of the same French woman. Through the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin, this quartet must navigate the city of love right after World War II.

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Simply put, the dancing is nothing short of breathtaking. Tied with Fun Home for the most Tony nominations this year, this show is a visually stunning homage to the musicals of the Golden Age. It looks and sounds like a classic, making it the perfect show to reintroduce previous and older generations of Broadway fans to contemporary theater.

STANDOUT SCENE The show’s climax, a triumphant 14-minute ballet, is unlike anything on Broadway today. It’s impossible not to marvel at how meticulously choreographed and flawlessly executed this sequence is. It’s not often that an audience gives a standing ovation before the curtain call, but in this case, it is more than warranted.

THE VISIT

STARRING Chita Rivera, Tom Nelis, Mary Beth Peil, Rick Holmes, Matthew Deming

WHERE Lyceum Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY The world’s richest woman, Claire Zachanassian, returns to her impoverished hometown after fleeing it decades ago. Her mission: to exact revenge on those who had wronged her in her youth. Her homecoming challenges the moral core of the town and asks the eternal question: how far are we willing to betray our humanity when offered a glimpse of previously unimagined riches?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Not only does the show mark the Broadway return of the legendary Chita Rivera, it’s also the final collaboration of the prolific writing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. Frequent Kander and Ebb performer (and muse) Liza Minnelli best noted how monumental this is in her recent USA Today op-ed: “To give you an idea of the kind of impact they had, at least one Kander and Ebb show has been running on Broadway during 41 of the last 50 years. This year alone, there have been three. Their work will live on in revivals until the end of time, of course, but the thrill and privilege of hearing their words and music sung out loud for the first time is singular.”

STANDOUT SCENE When Claire first arrives, nobody in the struggling town realizes her true intentions. Instead, they think she has returned to lend a helping hand. But when she dramatically reveals the nature of her visit and exposes the people from her past for who they really are, shock immediately morphs into a ripple effect of torn alliances, pointed fingers, and bloodlust. Meanwhile, as Claire deviously watches the town begin to unravel as a result of her announcement, she already basks in her victory – and thus gives Rivera one of the juiciest and most devious roles of her renowned career.

GIGI

STARRING Vanessa Hudgens, Victoria Clark, Corey Cott, Dee Hoty, Howard McGillin, Steffanie Leigh

WHERE Neil Simon Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 1

STORY Another tale of romance in Paris based on a classic Leslie Caron film,Gigi tells the story of a young girl’s journey into womanhood at the turn of the 20th century. As she’s being groomed to be “perfect marriage material,” Gigi grows increasingly more interested in cinema, traveling, and speaking her mind. But when she and her lifelong friend realize the depth of their feelings for one another, will they live happily ever after or fall victim to the city ofamour?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT Coupled with Catherine Zuber’s colorful costumes, Derek McLane’s art nouveau fortified set design makes for a gorgeous backdrop that bring early 1900’s Paris very much alive. The meticulous attention to detail allows audiences to feel like they’ve stepped into a Toulouse Lautrec painting. Plus, the music and lyrics of Alan Jay Learner and Frederick Loewe (My Fair Lady) are fully restored with songs from both the film and the original 1973 stage production, breathing new life into timeless numbers like “I Remember It Well,” “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” and “It’s A Bore.”

STANDOUT SCENE The act one closer, “The Night They Invented Champagne,” is a celebratory and bubbly spectacle that makes Hudgens’ Broadway debut seem like something that should have happened long ago. It’s the show’s catchiest song (and rightfully the one chosen to be performed at the Tonys) and Hudgens shines as her title character begins her transformation from innocent little girl into a confident, modern woman.

HAND TO GOD

STARRING Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Sarah Stiles, Michael Oberholtzer

WHERE Booth Theatre

NUMBER OF TONY NOMINATIONS 5

STORY Jason, a shy and quiet boy in a tiny religious town in Texas, deals with his beloved hand puppet, Tyrone, developing a foul-mouthed, unfiltered, and boisterous identity of its own. Acting as Jason’s voice when he doesn’t have one and getting him into trouble with everyone from the town pastor to the school bully to his crush to his mother, Tyrone flips Jason’s entire world upside down. But as Jason loses more and more control of Tyrone, what will the repercussions be for him and for those he’s terrorizing?

WHY YOU SHOULD SEE IT If Avenue Q and teen cult film Idle Hands had a child, this would be it. While not nearly as powerful as its Best Play competitor The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, Hand to God is a jarring, crude and filthy examination of what happens when people repress their true feelings.

STANDOUT SCENE The first time that Jason realizes the extent of his powerlessness over Tyrone, actor Steven Boyer performs a full out screaming match with himself. After Jason tries to get rid of Tyrone, the puppet comes back with a vengeance, threatening him so that he will never attempt to free himself of him again. Lying in bed, Jason doesn’t know how to handle the small Tyrone towering over him and barking orders. He cowers in fear, completely surrendering to his creation.

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE Q&A WITH CHEYENNE JACKSON

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This fall, Cheyenne Jackson will show off a brand new and dark side of himself as one of the leads of the upcoming fifth installation of American Horror Story opposite Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer.

After successful recurring roles on shows like Glee and 30 Rock, the acclaimed 39-year-old actor is no stranger to television. He’s also appeared in 18 films, such as United 93, Love Is Strange, and Lola Versus. His diverse career consists of eight Broadway shows, including the original productions of All Shook Up, Xanadu and Finian’s Rainbow. And on top of all that, his voice has been featured on a dozen different albums, including a recently Grammy nominated West Side Story recording with the San Francisco Symphony.

But before he gets to work on the top secret American Horror Story, Jackson will return to his stage roots for a headlining concert at New York’s revered Town Hall venue on Friday, June 12 (buy tickets here). I caught up with Cheyenne about this upcoming show, his plans to return to Broadway and release a new album, this weekend’s Tony Awards, his love for Taylor Swift, and more.

NAGORSKI: What is a distinguishing characteristic about your Town Hall show on June 12 that will make it differ from your previous concerts?

JACKSON: It’s my last big show before I begin 8 months of American Horror Story so it’s kind of the “best of” all of my different shows. It’ll include my favorites and songs people have often requested.

What will the ratio of covers to original music be?

5 to 1 I’m guessing.

CheyenneAlso performing at the show will be Laura Benanti. What made you choose her as the one to share your stage with? And will you be performing any music together or will these be completely separate sets?

She’s a great friend and we’ve only done one show together and I just really wanted to sing with her again. We’ll be singing together.

Is this a one-off show or do you have more touring plans through the rest of the year?

One off. This is it for a long time so I’m going to go big.

Do you have any plans for a follow-up solo album to 2013’s I’m Blue, Skies?

Yes! The album is half done, I’m just trying to make myself sit down and finish!

Earlier this year, you released the charity single, “Find The Best of Me.” How did you initially get involved with amfAR and what made this the perfect song to release as a benefit for them?

I’ve been an ambassador for amfAR for 8 years. I love them so much and when Dan and Laura Curtis asked me to sing a song for charity, it was a no brainier.

Currently, what/who are the most played albums and artists on your iPod?

I could lie and pick something super cool, but honestly if I look at my most played, it’s an even mix of Broadway, top 40, some obscure jazz, and opera. Taylor Swift is in there too.  Sue me, she makes good music.

Recently, you had a residency at Café Carlyle, where you covered Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory.” What can you tell us about working with her on American Hotel Story: Hotel and is there anything that you can tease/share about your character on the show?

I could tell you details about American Horror Story but then I’d have to kill you with Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

Belated congratulations on your wedding! How will you and Jason be celebrating your one year anniversary this September?

Thank you! I’ll be working so we can’t leave town but I’m sure we’ll do something special and chill.

Next February, you’ll be one of the headliners of the Broadway on the High Seas cruise alongside performers such as Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Ebersole, Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, and more. What are you looking forward to most about this experience and what is the one item you’ll have to take on board to keep you from getting homesick?

Hanging with my peers is what’s the most fun and it’s not long enough of a trip to get homesick.

You’ve often mentioned that 9/11 signified a huge turning point in your life in that it gave you the confidence to become a performer. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

I innately felt after 9/11 like life was slipping me by, and at 27 I decided to follow my dream of being a professional actor. It made me really feel how precious life is and I went for it.

Do you have any plans to return to Broadway anytime soon? If not, what type of show would be the most attractive to you to lure you back to the Great White Way?

I keep trying! Every year I’m offered something great and I try and make it work but it hasn’t happened yet. I’d love to do something new. I love revivals, but I’ve done enough of those for a while. Somebody write me something!

This year’s Tony Awards are being hosted by Alan Cumming and Kristin Chenoweth on June 7. What or who are you most excited about seeing at the ceremony?

So many! I loved Hand To God, The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time, and On The 20th Century. Hopefully I’ll get to see Fun Home and Something Rotten before the awards.

You have openly spoken about your struggle with alcoholism. What role did music have in your journey to sobriety?

Not an overtly huge one, but definitely a comfort to me and a conduit for expressing my pain.

What have been both the most rewarding and challenging roles you’ve played to date? And what is your dream theatrical role?

Rewarding?  Sonny in Xanadu, Danny in 30 Rock, and Billy in Behind the Candelabra (I only had two lines, but it was extremely rewarding). The most difficult was Mark Bingham in United 93. My dream theatrical role hasn’t been written yet.

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Originally published on PopBytes

CONCERT REVIEW: AUDRA MCDONALD AT NYC’S CARNEGIE HALL

Audra McDonald doesn’t need to sing a single note to get a standing ovation.

Audra McDonaldCarnegie Hall04.29.2015The second she walked onto the Carnegie Hall stage for a one-night-only concert last Wednesday (04.29), she was greeted with the same type of rapturous applause typically reserved for the end of an evening of phenomenal performances. This entrance alone was a testament to the star she has become: a living legend whose accolades not only are unprecedented, but one who is the envy of any aspiring Broadway actor.

McDonald, 44, is the recipient of two Grammy Awards and a record six Tony Awards. She’s also the first—and only—person to have won Tonys in all four acting categories. Most recently, she took home the prestigious award for her jaw-dropping transformation into Billie Holiday in last year’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill (which I reviewed here). But for her solo show, unofficially titled “Songs from My Living Room,” McDonald wasn’t trying to be anyone but herself.

Having curated a set list that consisted of everything from musical theater standards to contemporary compositions and lesser-known favorites, McDonald tied her song selections together by recounting how she grew up in Fresno, California, dreaming of one day becoming a Broadway performer. Citing idols and influences like Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, and Judy Garland, she took her audience on a deeply personal journey through some of the songs that have inspired, impacted, and shaped her illustrious career thus far.

Accompanied by her music director Andy Einhorn on the piano, McDonald opened her show with “Sing Happy,” the first of four Kander & Ebb pieces she performed. A celebration of the uplifting power that music can have, this song perfectly introduced the theme of singing as an emotional outlet, something that McDonald would continue to underline in various ways throughout the night. Her other Kander & Ebb selections included “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” from The Rink, and an interpretation of Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time” so heartfelt that it would make you want to start a petition for her to play Sally Bowles.

But of all the Kander & Ebb she chose, it was McDonald’s rendition of “Go Back Home” from The Scottsboro Boys that packed the hardest punch. Before singing the song, she talked about how once in between Lady Day performances, she walked over to Covenant House (a charity benefiting homeless children in New York) to make a donation. While she waited there, a teenage boy with only a trash bag full of belongings walked in, unsure of what to expect. She watched as the same workers who only moments prior had joked around and flirted with her went into superhero mode and welcomed the boy, offering him food, shelter and, above all, a sense of safety and belonging.

McDonald was so overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this that she is now is a member of the Covenant House board. She dedicated the hopeful and gorgeous “Go Back Home” to the children (or “my kids” as she now calls them) the organization helps – including those who were in attendance at the concert.

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As much as she loves classics and revivals, McDonald emphasized how important it is for musical theater to continue to evolve and remain current. Thus, she spotlighted the music of some very recent and rising composers who have particularly resonated with her.

These songs included “No One Else,” a haunting ballad from Dave Malloy’s War and Peace-inspired 2012 electropop opera, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and a children’s lullaby by Shaina Taub called “The Tale of Bear and Otter,” which was divided into chapters to feel like a real bedtime story. The true standout of this newer material, however, was Kate Miller-Heidke’s “The Facebook Song,” a breakup song that McDonald believed to perfectly encapsulate “heartbreak in the 21st century” and that allowed her to dare to drop a number of F-bombs in Carnegie Hall.

But McDonald didn’t only pay tribute to up-and-coming composers. The crowd went wild at the end of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Mister Snow,” the Carousel staple that produced her first Tony win back in 1994. She slowed things down for Kurt Weill’s “It Never Was You” and picked them up for a revamped version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” that featured a new hilarious verse (with additional lyrics by Larry Dachslager) about all things Audra – including her undying love for Chipotle, manipulating her voice to sound like Billie Holiday, and advocating for marriage equality.

And speaking of custom-written lyrics, McDonald called upon the prolific Stephen Schwartz (who also was in attendance) to tweak “Proud Lady” from The Baker’s Wife, making the song from Genevieve’s rather than Dominique’s perspective. This revised version of the song showcased McDonald’s stunning lyric soprano voice in ways that were nothing short of triumphant.

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Before going into “How Could I Ever Know” from The Secret Garden, McDonald took a moment to reflect on a very difficult chapter in her life. She spoke about how, when she was still a student at Juilliard, she survived a suicide attempt. Not long after, she booked her first Broadway role as Ayah in The Secret Garden, and she officially transitioned from focusing on opera to musical theater. While “How Could I Ever Know” was never a song she sang in the show (it’s performed by characters Lily and Archibald), it was one that she would listen to from the sidelines. It helped her find a new purpose in life and emerge from the darkness she felt in her past.

When it came time for “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” McDonald applauded NBC for resurrecting the lost and incredibly difficult art of putting on live televised musicals. She told the audience that she never expected she’d be cast as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music, and was so grateful to the network for giving her the chance to play such an iconic role.

She joked that she liked to tell people that she was “from the really sunny side of the Alps.” She also told an amusing story about how her nerves were calmed about performing for so many millions of people live when she received a text message from her daughter asking a question about the laundry moments before stepping in front of the camera. And just as it sounded during that telecast, her rendition was a true show-stopping tour de force.

Other highlights throughout the evening included the Depression-era “My Buddy,” which McDonald sang in honor of a World War II veteran she heard singing the song outside of (you guessed it) a Chipotle while she was in Cambridge, Massachusetts working on Porgy and Bess; and “Rainbow High” from Evita, which she performed for the first time since starring in the show as Eva Peron at age 16 back in Fresno.

She also sang “Make Someone Happy” from Do Re Mi because the song’s lyrics about finding fulfillment through bringing joy to someone else falls in line with some of the best advice she’s ever received; paid homage to Betty Buckley with The Mystery of Edwin Drood’s “The Writing on the Wall;” and impressively showed off just how high she can sing with “Vanilla Ice Cream” from She Loves Me.

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McDonald wrapped up her encore with a sensational take on “Over the Rainbow.” Before she started to sing it, she spoke to the audience about how original singer Judy Garland’s funeral in 1969 helped inspire the Stonewall riots. That turned into a brief discussion about why she’s such a vocal champion for marriage equality. She talked about how, as an African-American, there are so many experiences she’s had that she wouldn’t have been able to have had she been born earlier. And that it was thanks to the civil rights leaders who stepped up to fight for what was right that she’s been given the chance to accomplish all that she has. Why then, she asked rhetorically, would she not support another part of the population who was being discriminated against?

Listening to McDonald speak about this, especially knowing that hearings on this topic were taking place in the Supreme Court at that exact time, the audience knew they were witnessing a truly monumental moment. Naturally, then, her “Over The Rainbow” shined with new meaning and beautiful encouragement.

McDonald will next be seen in the Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash, and the upcoming HBO special presentation of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. There was a lot of speculation about what her next Broadway foray would be. Would it be in a revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother, opposite Oprah Winfrey in her Great White Way debut? Or a revival of Kiss of the Spider Woman alongside Alan Cumming? Or a new musical adaptation of the film Corinna, Corinna written for her by composer Alan Menken?

As it turns out, McDonald’s next project will be Shuffle Along, a new musical (set to open in 2016) that explores the origin of the nearly forgotten 1921 all-black musical of the same name. Helming the show alongside director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, McDonald may need to begin preparing room on her shelf for a seventh Tony Award.

After all, if her concert at Carnegie Hall was any indication, hers is a voice we’ll all be clamoring to hear for years and years to come.

Originally published on PopBytes

THEATER REVIEW: 12x TONY NOMINATED ‘FUN HOME’

Fun_Home_Hot.jpg.pagespeed.ce.sxd7h008XMfj3S2g_wRq“My father’s death was a queer business,” Alison Bechdel writes in her acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home. “Queer in every sense of that multi-valent word.”

While some have used the term “family tragicomic” to describe Bechdel’s book, it is much more than that: it’s both a stirring account of her relationship with her father, Bruce, and the story of her emotional growth. A man who juggled many lives at once, Bruce was a high school English teacher, the head of a family-run funeral home, a husband, a father to three children, and a closeted gay man who was notorious for having affairs with his male students (amongst others). His suicide not long after Alison came out of the closet not only left behind a slew of unanswered questions, but became a defining moment in his daughter’s journey of self-discovery. The resulting story is profound, heartbreaking, and revelatory. And the same is true of its new musical adaptation, now playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway.

Fun HomeCircle in the Square Theatre

With music by the consistently terrific Jeanine Tesori (Violet; Thoroughly Modern Millie; Shrek the Musical; Caroline, or Change),Fun Home is without a doubt the most gripping musical of the year. It’s one of those rare new musicals that, thanks to its explored themes and masterful book, feels at once completely timeless and unlike anything that has come before it. No wonder that it received a staggering 12 nominations when the Tony Awards were announced on Tuesday (tying with An American in Paris for the most total nominations).

As Alison navigates her journey, she’s played by a trio of actresses, each depicting different ages of her life. Showing us Alison at 43, Beth Malone plays the cartoonist at the same age her father was when he died. Acting as a narrator of sorts, this Alison reflects upon her father’s suicide and her life leading up to it as a way of understanding their relationship and contemplating what his life and death meant to her. Malone, who originated this role in The Public Theater’s off-Broadway production of the show in 2013, sympathetically portrays Alison as a secure, self-aware adult who yearns to make sense of her father’s legacy in an attempt to bring balance to the memories of her unstable childhood.

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As 19-year-old Alison, Emily Skeggs is a marvel. This Alison has just left her small-town and Victorian-era Pennsylvania home for college and is discovering what independence means and feels like. For the first time, she allows herself to reach beyond her comfort zones and figure out who she really is. Skeggs’ voice is gorgeous and her solo, “Changing My Major,” is a true comedic highlight in the otherwise largely serious production. In the song, Alison has just had her first lesbian sexual encounter and is reveling in the afterglow. She sings affectionately about her lover Joan and the world that she has opened up for her. Skeggs’ performance brims with youthful excitement but feels like it is delivered by a seasoned veteran. In fact, you may be shocked to learn that she is only now making her Broadway debut.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Sydney Lucas, who plays Alison at 9-years-old. Lucas’ remarkable command of her character makes it immediately clear why the role made her the youngest Obie Awards recipient in history, and garnered her Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League nominations. Now, she’s also up for a Tony and will face off in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role category against co-stars Skeggs and Judy Kuhn (who plays Alison’s mother, Helen). While I believe that the three Alisons should have been given a shared Tony (à la Billy Elliott) to recognize each of their individual brilliant performances, it’s Lucas who shouldn’t be leaving Radio City Music Hall empty-handed if only one will win.

Fun Home Circle in the Square Theatre

Lucas’ Alison rejects wearing the pretty dresses her father has chosen for her and coyly asks for crew cuts. But, above all, she longs for her father’s love and approval, so she delays pushing for what she wants to accommodate what he thinks is best for her (this results in a heartbreaking scene in which she starts to express herself artistically and Bruce won’t rest until she corrects her technique). Lucas’ acting is nothing short of extraordinary, in particular when she sees a butch mail delivery woman and for the first time feels a sense of connection and that she’s not alone in the world. In the scene’s accompanying song, “Ring of Keys,” this revelation is written all over Lucas’ face and its game-changing impact is pronounced with every syllable of her unforgettable performance. Lucas isn’t just one of the best child actors on Broadway today, she’s one of the best actors period.

But it’s not only the myriad of Alisons who make Fun Home so exhilarating. Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris’ layered depiction of Bruce illustrates him as a man desperate to use the appearance of perfection as a mask for his own pain. This creates a haunting portrait of someone too ashamed of himself to ever fully be able to love anyone else. And as Helen, Kuhn expertly plays a woman conflicted between the life she knows and the truth that could make it all come undone. Her nuanced performance will make you want to hug and comfort her and also shake her and tell her to run.

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Rounding out the cast are Roberta Colindrez as Joan, who, with her effortless charisma, excellently counterbalances Skeggs’ naivety, and Joel Perez, who terrifically plays an assortment of Bruce’s secret lovers. As Alison’s brothers when they’re children, Zell Steele Morrow and Oscar Williams are nothing short of exceptional when they join their sister for “Come to the Fun Home,” an adorable fake commercial the trio makes for their family business. It involves using a casket as a prop in ways that only kids could do without it being horribly creepy and inappropriate. This is the type of musical number that will have the entire audience smiling and provides a nostalgic yearning for a child’s boundless imagination to anyone watching.

With such personal source material, Fun Home impeccably retains its sense of intimacy in the Circle in the Square Theatre. Sam Gold’s intelligent direction allows theatergoers to feel like they’re in the Bechdels’ living room with them, almost watching the events unfold before their eyes directly alongside Malone’s Alison as she remembers them. No matter where you’re seated, the actors play to all sides of the theater, allowing the show to keep some of that Off-Broadway smaller scale feel that is rarely a part of big Broadway musicals.

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Of all the shows to choose from this Broadway season, Fun Home will surely be the one to stick with you the longest after the curtain falls. It’s as important as it is beautiful, with a powerful story told by enormously talented actors. Whether you’ve read Bechdel’s book or not, this musical will not just tug at your heartstrings, it’ll stay with you as one of the freshest and most exciting contemporary new shows of this century. When the Tony’s come around in June, don’t be surprised when all the other nominees are disappointed in the wake of its success.

Originally published on PopBytes

TALKING HILLARY AND ‘CLINTON: THE MUSICAL’ WITH KERRY BUTLER

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Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign headquarters may be based in Brooklyn, but about 5.5 miles away, her iconic blue pantsuit is getting a lot of wear.

Now playing at New World Stages in Midtown Manhattan, Clinton: The Musical is a hilarious off-Broadway satire of the eight years that Bill Clinton served as President. Parodying everyone from Paula Jones to Al Gore to even Eleanor Roosevelt, this new show is a laugh-out-loud and over-the-top foray back into the 90’s when Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp were still BFFs and Hillary got her first taste of the White House.

Kerry ButlerFeaturing an excellent cast that includes Emmy Award-winning comedienne Judy Gold and an unforgettable star-making performance by Kevin Zak, Clinton: The Musical stars Kerry Butler as the future Madam President, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I chatted with the Tony nominee about her transformation into the First Lady, her real-life politics, how Hillary’s official campaign announcement has impacted the show, what she’s up to next, and much more.


ALEX: Part of what I think makes this show so brilliant is that it can easily appeal to those who both love and despise the Clintons.

KERRY: I agree!

Clinton: The MusicalIn their review of the show, The New York Times called your portrayal of Hillary, “peppy, very funny” and “whose ambitions are huge but whose capability is never in question.” Given that you’re playing an actual person within a highly satirized world, how did you find the balance between the absurdist comedy and staying true to who Hillary really is?

Well, Hillary is so normal that there isn’t really that much you can make fun of, and that was my challenge in the beginning. At first I thought maybe the Clintons are just grounded people with these zany, over the top people around them. People like Newt Gingrich and Ken Starr aren’t actually like how their characters are in the show – great liberties have been taken with those parts. I definitely did not want to do that with Hillary. But she is funny and sarcastic in the show, so I thought, “I have to bring it up a little bit” because it is a comedy.

When I was doing research on her, I was trying to figure out what I could click into. In the 90’s, she had a stronger Midwestern accent so I exaggerated that a little bit. She always had that really big smile. She’s a little bit stiff when she’s giving speeches and things like that. I watched videos of her dancing and I was like, “Oh, that’s really funny, I can totally play with that.”

Then what really clicked for me was I watched when the President was being inaugurated and I thought that she must be so happy at this moment. Before I watched that video, I had been playing it like she was so excited and over the moon happy with this big smile on her face. Then I watched the video of it and she was so intense and had this crazy look on her face. She wasn’t smiling and it just looked like she just had this drive underneath – almost as if she was trying to contain all the emotions she was feeling in that moment. So that’s when it clicked and I realized, “I need to exaggerate that” and “That’s what I need to do with her.”

At the same time, I love her. The more research I did on her, the more I fell in love with her, her politics and who I think she is. I do really think that she wants to make the world a better place so I was very careful and precious with her and was always very protective of her with the writers. We fought to make sure that her intelligence came across and to show that she was a partner with Bill in everything that he did. It was important to make her strong but still be able to poke fun a little bit. I don’t think she’s going to come see the show, but I feel like if she did, she wouldn’t be too upset with my portrayal of her. I hope.

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In the show, there are two actors who play the President. There’s William Jefferson, who’s the more grounded, public face of the administration, and there’s Billy, the carefree, sex-crazed, sax-playing fast food enthusiast – and Hillary is the only one who can see them both. What do you think the choice of having Bill Clinton be two separate characters accomplishes and how did that impact your approach to playing his wife?

It’s fun to actually see them fight with each other! And, you know, most people have two sides to their personality. I know I do! You’re different around different people. Paul Hodge, our writer, read in a lot of books that people constantly said that Bill has these completely split personalities. So I think that it was just something fun to add to the show – like a gimmick that clicked into the comedy and to make the story telling different.

As far as playing opposite the two of them, I just decided that she treats them like they’re two different people. One she has to mother and take care of, and the other one is an equal partner who she listens to and takes advice from and he takes advice from her. She loves both sides of him, and she loves the one that she has to mother because he’s like a little kid and he’s fun and he brings out the little kid in her, so they can have a good time together. But, at the same time, because of her strong desire for her career and her life that she’s kind of carved out, that’s the part of him that I think, initially at least in this play, she wishes would go away.

cast-sign-leftThe show takes a somewhat serious turn during “Enough,” the song Hillary sings after she finds out that the rumors of the Lewinsky affair are true. It’s a heartbreaking ballad that makes you really sympathize with her and that you as a performer really sing the shit out of. What’s your personal favorite song to perform in the show and which one do you find to be stuck in your head the most frequently?

The one that’s stuck in my head most frequently is “Monica’s Song” (“I’m fucking the fucking President!”). Obviously, that’s not actually my song but I think it’s the catchiest one in the show and it’s just so fun too. It’s funny because when I read the script, that’s the song that turned me off the most. When you read the script for the show, you’re like, “Oh, noooo.” I did it because initially Dan Knechtges, our director, was working on it and I trusted him and I thought, “Well, it’s just a reading, I’ll do it.” And then, I quickly learned that it’s just so much better on its feet than on the page. It’s much less insulting and much more fun, you know?

As far as my songs, I love singing “Enough” because I like the through line of the song and how it builds. And I definitely think it’s important to the story. It makes you see that Hillary does have a backbone and I love that you said that it makes you feel for her because that’s what I was hoping would happen. I also really like how another song that I sing, “Both Ways,” gets all fun and Celine Dion-like at the end. Just in terms of having fun with something, I really like that part. That’s kind of Hillary’s onereally silly moment in the show.

Looking at your resume, it seems as though you enjoy moving back and forth between big Broadway shows and smaller off-Broadway and regional venues. As an actress, what have you found to be the biggest differences and advantages of these larger vs more intimate productions?

Off the top of my head, you get paid a lot more money for the big shows. You can’t really make a living doing the Playwrights Horizons shows, but they’re very fulfilling. One of those shows I did, The Call, is one of the things I’m most proud of. It was about adoption, something that I did in my life, and something that I feel like I’m called to do and to tell people about. Sometimes you can do jobs just because it’s something like that, something that’s so personal to you.

With Broadway, you obviously reach a bigger audience. Those big Broadway shows tend to be like a high. I’ve missed doing musicals. Even though Clinton is only around 300 seats, it’s just fun to sing and dance and be silly. We feed off the audiences’ laughter. It’s exciting to be able to give that to them and then they give it back to us.

It’s interesting when you have a matinee crowd. Sometimes they’re older and they aren’t as responsive as the evening crowds, and that kind of unintentionally affects the show for everyone. I don’t think a lot of people realize that when they go to the theater they have a control over the experience as much as the performers do. You know what I mean? Because if you go into a show where you know it’s going to be silly and you know you’re going to have a good time, you can just let go and do it. Then it’s infectious for the whole audience and then that even is infectious for the actors on stage because they respond off of what you’re giving them. Actors definitely try to give the same performance every night, but you have this live audience and are fueled by their energy.

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You’ve played a whole slew of iconic women – Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables, Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, and Clio/Kira in Xanadu to name a few. What was something you discovered about yourself as an actress through playing Hillary that you never knew before?

Clinton: The MusicalIn terms of me being an actor, I was petrified to do this part. I did not think I could do it in any way. I thought Dan was crazy to ask me to do it. I consider myself an activist, but I’m not political. And I’m not composed like Hillary is. I’m much more giddy and over the top than she is. Plus, I’ve never played anybody who’s living before. That’s something that people on Saturday Night Livedo, that’s what impersonators do, that’s not what I do. So it’s been really exciting for me that I did it, even though I was scared to death. I guess now I have more confidence in myself since I was able to pull it off. People aren’t like, “Oh my God, what were they thinking casting her?” so that’s been very nice. It’s great to be able to tap into the strength that she has. It brought me strength to see through her strengths. There’s something exciting about doing things that you are petrified of and that you don’t think you’ll be able to do. And then to actually accomplish it feels really good.

That’s awesome! It’s definitely a great new way to challenge yourself. I read that you actually volunteered for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. How were you involved in that and is there anything you took away from those experiences that helped inform your depiction of Hillary?

I actually didn’t volunteer for her campaign specifically. I volunteered for the Democratic Party when she was in Senate, so I had to call up and ask people to give money to support her getting her seat in the Senate and things like that. But once I had kids, I could not volunteer anymore because it was too much to try to balance volunteering and being a mom and working. But it was really fun when I did it. I think Al Gore was running then, so I was volunteering for his campaign in a way too. It’s funny when you do that. I was just this young girl who didn’t really know that much about what she was saying, and when I’d call other Democrats up to ask them for money, they’d just start talking to you. Whereas if anybody calls me, I’m like, “Please put me on the do not call list!” People actually want to talk to you and think that you know what you’re talking about, as if I’m actually friends with Hillary and I know all the in-and-outs of her campaign and what she’s going to do. So it was fun.

That’s so funny. One of the many things I found to be hilarious in the show was Hillary’s obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt and her constant desire to quote her. Who are some of the women who you look up to and are inspired by?

Well, Mother Theresa. Now I really love Hillary Clinton. I’ve already started collecting quotes of hers. I love a writer named Madeleine L’Engle. She’s written a lot of children’s books. Her husband was an actor and so she had to raise her kids on a Broadway schedule and have this other lifestyle which I kind of have to do. Like I’m working all weekend so my husband takes the kids and stuff like that, so I really love her writing. It’s very spiritual and just how she was able to kind of manage being a working mom and everything is very inspiring to me.

Obviously, Hillary just officially announced her plans to run for President in 2016. With her headquarters based in NYC and given that she was recently seen attending Hamilton at The Public, what would it mean to you to have her attend this show?

I would just love to meet her. I actually reached out to her people and said, “I’m going to be doing a lot press. If you guys want to tell me something specific to say to people, I’m happy to because I would love to help out the campaign any way I can.” But I think they’re afraid of the show. Hopefully they’ll hear things like you saying that we’re not being negative towards Hillary. Hopefully that will change their perception of the show. But I think at first they were afraid of it and didn’t really want that kind of press.

news-monicaHow did you and the rest of the cast celebrate and/or react to her announcement?

Well, it was a really fun day because she announced right before our afternoon show started. And so in the cast we didn’t know and then we found out as soon as the show was over. Then we had another show that night and that was when the audience went crazy. The show opens with me saying, “I’m Hillary Rodham Clinton and I would like to tell you the story of my first Presidency.” They went crazy and then again at the end when I said, “Vote for me!” So since she’s announced, it’s been really, really fun because now it kind of seems like a place where Hillary supporters can go and be together. They love the parts when we talk about how she’s already the President or how she’s going to be the President. The audience goes much crazier than they did before. So that’s been really fun.

I’m sure! How often do you were a pantsuit when you’re not in character as Hillary?

I own one pantsuit that I only got from doing a soap opera. They actually wanted me to wear it for press and I was like, “I can’t! I have one pantsuit, I can’t keep wearing it for every press thing I do!”

Politics is often such a touchy subject for so many people. But when a farce like this comes along that can really make people laugh at it, what do you think is the greatest takeaway an audience member can have when leaving the theater?

That’s what I love about the show. I think it’s very even-handed. One thing you can takeaway is the circus of the press surrounding the Clinton era. It was so silly how crazy that was when there were so many other important things going on, like healthcare costs. Everybody was so concerned with Whitewater, which wasn’t even a real thing. Obviously the Monica Lewinsky scandal got completely blown out of proportion. Those were personal matters and Newt Gingrich was doing the same thing as Bill, like you saw in the show. So I would hope people would instead decide to work together and focus on the issues that matter. Nobody’s perfect.

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If you could star in the Broadway revival of any musical of your choosing, what would it be and why?

The first show I ever did was Blood Brothers and I was the understudy and I never got to go on for the part that I understudied. So if I’ve aged out of that part, Linda, I would want to play Mrs. Johnstone, the mother in the show. That’s one of my favorite shows and I’d love to be in it again.

Do you already know or have some ideas of what you’ll be doing next after Clinton: The Musical?

I don’t! I did Seth Rudetsky’s show Disaster! and that may be moving to Broadway so I may do that. I’m also doing a workshop of a musical based on the TV show Hazel. So you never know! That’s life as an actor!

 Originally published on PopBytes