Sunday, May 22, 2022

Reverend's Reviews: Tony-Nominated Penises and More Now on Broadway

Broadway is back in full swing, and Reverend was delighted to attend several of this season's most ballyhooed productions the weekend before Tony Award nominations were announced on May 9th. Whether you are a Tyler Perry hater, a Fanny Brice/Beanie Feldstein admirer or a full-frontal penis lover, there is truly something for everyone currently playing on the Great White Way!

Let's not beat around the bush and begin with the best of the bunch: A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson's unapologetic yet exhilarating look at race, homosexuality, Christianity and the American musical. It led the 2022 Tony Awards nominations with 11 nods including Best Musical, after previously winning the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama following its off-Broadway premiere. Ironically and somewhat unexpectedly, it will be competing against MJ The Musical about late, child-abusing pop singer Michael (no R. and no relation) Jackson. I anticipate and hope that A Strange Loop will win Best Musical even though some older, conservative (i.e. straight, white) Tony voters might be put off by its many graphic descriptions and/or depictions of gay sex. And yet, these contribute to the musical's soul-baring strength.

The show centers on Usher (Jaquel Spivey, fantastic in his Tony-nominated Broadway debut performance), a gifted writer plagued by self-doubt and insecurities. These are personified by six talented, charismatic actors who play his "Thoughts" in addition to other characters including Usher's domineering, anti-gay parents. Company members John-Andrew Morrison and L Morgan Lee have also been nominated for Tonys this year in addition to Spivey. In a case of art imitating life imitating art (the titular "strange loop"), theater-lover Usher is intent on creating a "big, black and queer ass" Broadway musical inspired by his life experiences. To say he and creator Jackson succeed is an understatement. The musical's songs and book are exceptional, making for 105 minutes (with no intermission) of hilarity and heartbreak in equal parts.

Usher/Jackson and A Strange Loop pull no punches when it comes to criticizing Tyler Perry's pandering approach to the black community, "gay white male tyranny" and a certain "terrorist" popularly known as Beyoncé. Despite and/or because of this cultural boldness, the musical boasts an unusually high number of prominent and diverse producers including RuPaul Charles, Alan Cumming, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Hudson, Billy Porter, Don Cheadle, composer duo Pasek and Paul and longtime Steven Spielberg compatriot Frank Marshall. It is, quite simply, the LGBTQA theatrical event of the year. (I have tickets to see it again during Pride weekend in NYC!)

Sadly, the weekend's biggest disappointment was the current revival of Funny Girl. Tony Award nominators were similarly underwhelmed but I was able to find at least a few pleasures in past Tony winner Michael Mayer's staging, especially once one gets over the temptation to compare current star Beanie Feldstein with the legendary Barbra Streisand. Streisand originated the role of Fanny Brice in 1964, and the then-22-year-old became an overnight sensation. She recreated her performance for the 1968 film adaptation, (in)famously tying with Katharine Hepburn (in The Lion in Winter) to win that year's Academy Award for Best Actress.

Yes, whoever was going to play Fanny in the long-in-the-works revival has big shoes and a big voice to fill. (Personally, I would love to see Lady Gaga play the role either on stage or film.) However, it is simply unfair to compare any actress-singer to Streisand, who is in a league of her own. Feldstein proves herself a charismatic presence and great dancer (including tap), and she pulls off the musical's dramatic moments well. Unfortunately, her singing – at least the night I saw her – left a lot to be desired. She's a belter and sounded best during the big/loud numbers. But she often sounded flat or verging on the edge of flatness during many of the quieter songs. Perhaps even worse for a show called Funny Girl, Feldstein simply wasn't very funny.

On the plus side, lesbian comedian Jane Lynch is funny and can sing. She threatens to run off with the show as Fanny's mother but generously restrains herself. Jared Grimes, as Fanny's friend and mentor Eddie, is a very impressive tap dancer and his performance secured the revival's lone Tony nomination. I was looking forward to seeing and hearing hunky Ramin Karimloo live for the first time, but he was reportedly out with COVID-19 so his less-hunky understudy Jeremiah James filled in efficiently as Fanny's gambler husband, Nicky Arnstein. David Zinn's central rotating set was also efficient but became more of an eyesore as the show progressed.

Bottom line: Fanny Brice needs to be played, wherever and whenever, by a funnier actress who can sing well. They don't have to be Barbra Streisand, as if anyone can be. God help whoever plays Streisand in the inevitable (probably posthumous) bio of her life.

I decided to save the full-frontal penis play revival Take Me Out for last, knowing Reverend's more pervy readers would want to read my review of it first. I'm just kidding.... kind of. But seriously, what gay or bi man – or straight or bi woman – wouldn't be interested in a locker room full of hot naked actors playing professional baseball players? However, this presupposition has presented unusual challenges for the Tony-nominated revival of Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning 2002 play. Audience members have to place their cell phones in locked baggies upon admission, then have the baggies unlocked by theater staff when the performance is over. Despite this arguably extreme security measure, footage of the full-frontal locker room scene appeared online the week after I saw it. (I swear it wasn't me!)

The always enjoyable, out Jesse Tyler Ferguson plays Mason Marzac, gay financial advisor to MLB superstar Darren Lemming. Early in the play, Lemming publicly comes out as gay himself, inspiring diverse reactions from his teammates, managers, and fans. He and Marzac, who initially has zero interest in the American pastime, gradually bond. Meanwhile, a troubled player by the name of Shane Mungitt threatens their team's success and becomes implicated in the tragic death of Lemming's best friend. Greenberg's plot is soapy at times but it remains compelling.

In addition to Ferguson, Grey's Anatomy hottie Jesse Williams (as Lemming) and Michael Oberholtzer (as Mungitt) are all up for the Tony Award in acting categories, and the production is up for Best Revival of a Play. Take Me Out remains timely since, sadly, no active major league baseball player has come out before or since its original Broadway run. The play is even more timely today as an allegory for American democracy, threatened as it is by growing internal threats. But it's the infamous onstage nude shower scenes that prove truly timeless.

Reverend's Ratings:
A Strange Loop: A
Funny Girl: C
Take Me Out: B

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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