It’s that time of year again, when it’s about making people in your life happy and the joy of giving takes over, and there’s just so much to do and so many to thank and think of, and it gets a little overwhelming at times….so why not turn to live theater as the perfect gift for your loved ones and friends? What could be sweeter than tickets to a show, like “Porgy and Bess” for Mom, or “How To Succeed In Business…” for Dad, or “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” for…ummm…your favorite uncle….? But this year, there’s a few ringers in the bunch that might just surprise you, as they did me recently, so you may want to just treat yourself as well as your loved ones.
I was completely taken by surprise and blown away by a new musical at the New York Theatre Workshop down on East 4th Street, said to be aiming for Broadway, which will probably have the same blazing impact the musicals “Spring Awakening” and “Rent” did, in much the same way, when they premiered off-Broadway. In fact, “Rent” started in the same theatre on East 4th back in the late 90’s. But this one might take even more people by storm, having begun its life as a small indie film back in 2006, and here it is, on stage, based on the film written and directed by John Carney, here directed by John Tiffany and beautifully choreographed (it’s more pure synchronized movement than it is dance, btw) by Steven Hoggett, who did the movement for “American Idiot” and the stunning “Black Watch”, and who won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Choreography for his work on the upcoming Broadway show, “Peter And The Starcatcher”. But this is a musical that catches in your throat and stops you in your tracks. What is it? It’s a beautifully realized stage musical called “Once”.
“Once” started its life as an Irish film about a street busker and a Czech immigrant and their eventful week in Dublin, as she changes his unhappy life, and in the course of one week, write, rehearse and record their songs that tell the story of their individual and combined love stories. The title refers to the many talented artists that the film’s director John Carney knew, who put off their careers by saying “once” they get all their problems sorted out they’ll get their butts in gear, but never succeed because they wound up putting it off too long. As in the film, the leads are simply known as the GUY and the GIRL, and on stage, these two are beautifully and miraculously played by stage veterans Steve Kazee and Cristin Miliotti, both of whom I’ve seen before, but never to this effect. They are marvelously winning together, they create a beautiful and touching love story that will, by end of show, bring your roaring to your feet. The rest of the ensemble cast include stage veterans like David Patrick Kelly and Anne L. Nathan, but this is a true ensemble-the cast roars forward as one to propel this enchanting and heartfelt piece and brings it to fabulous life. I was thrown completely off-kilter and left goofy by this one-a total delight and one no one can afford to miss. It affirms the power of love and the importance of living up to one’s potential-and what better gift could you give someone for the holidays than that?!
On a somewhat more somber note, but just as surprising and just as life-affirming, and also hovering over Broadway, waiting for a theater to settle into from its current off-Broadway home, is a new play, “Sons Of The Prophet” by talented, relative newcomer Stephen Karam, lovingly brought to life by veteran director Peter DuBois, who’s taken this oddball story of two brothers in a Pennsylvania town and given it quiet, soulful life on the stage of the Laura Pels Theatre on W. 46th Street. The story starts as the father of two gay brothers dies of a heart attack, just a week after hitting a decoy deer someone has left in the middle of a country road as a prank. Their uncle, not himself a well man, moves in with the young men, so that he might take care of them, but he’s in worse shape than they are, so who’s really taking care of who? Older brother Joseph, played with love and candor by Santino Fontana, is physically deteriorating from the knees up, and grows weaker as the play progresses, lashing out at those around him, because they don’t understand, nor will he let them understand, his pain. Uncle Bill, played to perfection by veteran character actor Yusef Bulos, is a cantankerous misanthrope, full of bluster and vinegar, trying his best to get by as well. This is a story that sounds as though it can be depressing as all get-out, but this is funny, redemptive stuff-about trying to live your life as the pain in that life deepens and often seems unendurable, and yet, you somehow find the will and the means to go on. It’s a warmly moving and emotional roller coaster of a play, and will leave you loving life as much as “Once”, it’s separated twin but polar opposite, does.
Two wonderful pieces of great theater for the holidays, you should treat your loved ones, and yourself to, as well.