Life is a Duet, Next to Normal, In the Heights
By Richard Seff, NY Theatre Buzz Columnist
On a recent Saturday night I joined a friend on the #7 subway out of Manhattan headed for the far reaches of Queens. At the penultimate stop on the line, we landed on an outdoor platform that felt more like East Finchley, London than it did Flushing, Queens. We were told a bus would be waiting to take us off to the Queens Theatre in the Park. There was not a soul around, not one, only the lonely looking token clerk, and she didn’t know anything about the Queens Theatre. So we followed the sign, and found ourselves on a long boardwalk that seemed to lead endlessly into the murky black night. The rains came, the winds with them, and we walked at least half a mile. We were in a Hitchcock film, but there was no camera and no crew. When at last we reached an ominous building we asked the only human being standing there in yellow slicker and hat, “Where is the bus to the theatre???” He bellowed back: “No bus! No bus! You see bus? Where bus park? No bus here! You go back. Go! Go now!” So we turned round and walked a half mile back to the subway station. There, at the bottom of the stairs stood the red and green bus, empty, and waiting. It was close to curtain time; we seemed to wind round endless empty lots, past a crumbling Aquacade from the 1939 World’s Fair, past a Tennis Pavilion, past dozens of ominous forms made of concrete, and then there it was. A circular one story building, the Queens Theatre in the Park. Inside there was a mob of local folks who seemed jolly and happy to be there. I mumbled something about “I feel like we’ve just crossed the moon,” but one or two let me know they love their theatre, rarely trek into Manhattan, and surely know how to make a lot of noise.
Why were we there? Because Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry, two old friends, were offering their musical biography, “Life Is a Duet”, which they’ve performed elsewhere, but never in the New York area. Though both actors have extensive credits onstage and onscreen, they are most fondly remembered for their eight year stint on “L.A.Law” as Stuart Margulies and his bride Anne Kelsey. Happily married off-screen as well, they managed to convince the nation that a tall, beautiful “shiksa” could find joy and fulfillment with a balding, adorable short Jewish guy and that their romance could be as hot as any Brangelina coupling due to a number of innovative ploys on Stuart’s part, one of which was the Venus Butterfly.
The 3 piece combo played us an overture, then there they were, entering one from Stage Right, the other from Stage Left, singing “Cabaret” – in Italian. Odd? Not once they explained that they’d recently bought a second home in Umbria, they were knee deep in Italian lessons, and they used the language whenever they could, so why not here? Fair enough. On they went, delighting us with tales of their first meeting 37 years ago, of their 2 year trial marriage during which they played the Public Theatre in “Trelawney of the Wells”, and songs like “It’s An Art” and “No Two People” about how to make a marriage last. Then came Michael alone singing “I Love My Wife” from “I Do, I Do”, and we were done with a delightful First Act.
Intermission was jolly too – for the Queens audience was out for a fun Saturday night, rain or no rain, and there was a buzz in the corridors as Blondies and Brownies and M&MsTM were devoured as fast as they could be pulled from the counter. Act II began in a less light vein – Ms. Eikenberry had been slugged with a breast cancer diagnosis some years back, and she was about to deal with that. In song, it came out as “Both Sides Now”, and with her mate, “Let’s Face the Music And Dance.” Both of these gifted actors can sing – Ms. Eikenberry with a legit soprano that’s very pleasing to the ear, though she can get low down and funny when she needs to. Mr. Tucker has a rougher instrument, but he knows his way around a lyric, and extracts humor or pathos from a song with a light and graceful touch.
If you were looking for an in-depth analysis of a relationship, you were probably in the wrong hall. I’m not suggesting this material was dishonest; this marriage is a good one. I’ve observed it over the years, and it’s the real thing. And in a musical evening it’s ok to leave out some of the bumps and detours that any life journey has to navigate. The point is that whatever came along to challenge or endanger or disrupt, these two blithe spirits coped, adapted, and so far have always conquered. Even today, Eikenberry’s description of her own mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s comes out as a decent, realistic adult reading of an impossible situation. It’s not Pollyanna time, but it refuses to ignore the good times that are still available, it accepts destiny and doesn’t whine about it. So, in conclusion it’s quite right that these two get to sing “My Cup Runneth Over (With Love)” just before their curtain call, and to conclude with a reprise of “Married”. By exit time, the rain had long gone, and a lot of people hit the road for home satisfied and content. Keep an eye out in your neighborhood for this sweet show — the plan is to play it in many venues around the nation. “Life is a Duet” it says, and this one is filled with harmony.
A week later I was back in harness in the middle of the Second Stage in New York, where a new musical, “Next To Normal” by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey was concluding its limited run to mixed reviews and decidedly mixed audience reaction. I was familiar and very fond of the work of Brian D’Arcy James and Alice Ripley, the two leads, so I had high hopes that the co-stars of “Sweet Smell Of Success” and “Side Show” had found a better vehicle this time out. The two of them, and their four co-players didn’t let me down.
“Next To Normal” evolved from a short musical conceived by its author, and it has lots to recommend it. A difficult tale to tell, it is concerned with a family of 4. When we first meet them, they would seem to be living the American dream. Dan is successful enough to support a suburban life for his family, and Diana would appear to be happy raising teen age son and daughter Henry and Natalie. It’s interestingly non-linear, and has snappy and perceptive dialogue. When it starts to sing, which is immediately, its lyrics are revealing and amusing and moving. “A Perfect Day” gets us going, and describes just that. “Perfect For You” suggests all is not so perfect in this household. Diana is the first to let us know she is often close to tears, is beginning to crack under the strain of playing the role for which she looks so suited. “I Miss the Mountains” talks of the wrong road she may have taken in buying into this marriage. Soon we realize that son Henry is long dead (“He’s Not Here”) and that Diana cannot deal with that, will not face it, doesn’t believe it. She feels her son’s presence at all times, she’s kept his room in tact, and is more attentive to the memory of him than she is to the presence of daughter Natalie. Dan is a brick, a rock that believes that faith and family can save anyone, but must face the lie in that when he’s told, again in song “Do You Know What It’s Like to Die Alone? No, You Don’t Know”. Heavy stuff for a musical, but Brian Yorkey’s writing skills are up to the task, and I was totally involved by first act curtain.
My big complaint, as it is so often these days, is the use of the term “Music by Tom Kitt”. To my ancient ears there is no music. There is beat, there is rhythm, there is noise. I will never be convinced that this new wave will ever work in a book show – for there is no ability in this kind of beat to serve character or story. Each character sounds, musically, like every other. Mother’s songs have the same angry drumbeat as do the son’s. His cry in Act II that “I’m alive!” is no different from his Mom’s anguished cry in “You Don’t Know”. And of course what the mics do to the female voices once they rise beyond their middles is frightening. Shrill, abrasive, ear shattering.
The ideas behind the songs are interesting; Daughter Natalie’s rueful “Growing Up Unstable” tells us much about her and her fear that she will evolve into her mother, who is now more than unstable. Diana has moved into psychosis and requires shock treatment. This ugly scene is effectively flashed at us with lights and lots of loud rock. It’s the one place in the piece where I found the “music” suitable. I know I’m out of fashion in this regard. There’s no question that many in the young audience were thrilled with the musical moments. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that those moments leave me craving music that in itself is moving, or terribly funny. I mean music without words. Were you to play the score on instruments only, I dare you to tell me what “Next To Normal” is about . Let me be clear — in its place, I say welcome to rock. “Hair”, “Rent”, “Spring Awakening” are three examples I can cite that give rock validity onstage. The dozens of others that have followed them simply don’t cut it for me. “Pop” is one thing – “Hairspray” is great fun, so is “In The Heights” (about which I’ll tell you very soon), “Jersey Boys” is joyous. But when a character in “Curtains” sings the haunting “I Miss ihe Music”, my buttons are pushed. When one in “Next To Normal” sings “Song of Forgetting”, I do indeed miss the music.
A final kudo though for this intelligent piece of theatre. I can’t remember the cast of a musical that played more truthfully, more perceptively. Alice Ripley is heartbreaking as she faces the truth of what she’s become, and Brian D’Arcy James plays what little book he has, and all his songs with simple understanding and honesty. He has a moment late in the play, when he realizes – well, I can’t tell you that, for it surprised me and I want it to surprise you should you see this musical, which rumor has it may be showing up at Arena Stage in Washington. But you could hear a pin drop in our audience, because it proved once and for always that, with talent onstage, less is always better than more. Bravo, Mr. James, with able assist from Jennifer Damiano as Natalie. And while I’m tossing roses onstage, Adam Chandler-Berat, Asa Somers and Aaron Tveit must share in them, for they are a fine company of actor/singers. A major work in my opinion, but where are the Music Masters when you need them?
Which brings me to a new musical that does indeed have a score. It’s not exactly what we used to call “Broadway”, but at least it’s not rock’n roll. It’s salsa! And it comes from the mind and heart of one man – music, lyrics, even book — a newcomer to the street named Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has concocted for us a street scene musical called “In the Heights.” He wrote an earlier version of this piece in his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, a far cry from the Barrio. It first showed up publicly off Broadway some months ago. It has all the crudity of a first work; it is innocent and episodic, but its heart is just where it should be, and as a result it is an entertaining entry into the latino world of the upper west side, which is its setting. One street, East 181st Street, is the set. As colorfully designed by Anna Louizos, it includes the suggestions of apartments, offices, a beauty salon, a bodega and all sorts of nooks and crannies that are used by director Thomas Kail to bring this world to life.
Mr. Miranda’s book is his least memorable contribution. He has a fine story sense, but he’s inclined to soap opera situations and contrived, happy endings. Personally, I have no problem with this. I see nothing wrong in a musical wanting only to entertain. Others have suggested they’d prefer a more probing work. Me? I have enough frustrations and disappointments in real life; when visiting a musical I’m perfectly happy to see the mortgage get paid, the bodega get saved, the guy get the girl.
As performer, Miranda is more a personality than a singer, but he gives himself lots of rap material with which to inform and entertain us, and he delivers with gusto, as he bounces about the stage taking charge of it, and us. His opening, the title song, begins as rap, and evolves into a mass production number featuring most if not all of the 24 members of the company, all of whom sing, dance and act with talent and abandon. He is generous in offering material to a dozen principals, all of whom know what to do with it.
Olga Merediz as the senior member of the community, wraps herself around her big number, “Pacienda & Fe” (“Patience and Faith”) to score a home run. Curvatious and beautiful Andréa Burns, she of the radiant smile and glorious voice, never stops moving those curves about while belting “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio”. Ms. Burns never fails to surprise. I’ve seen her before, in “The Full Monty”, “Saturday Night” and a musical workshop called “Shine!” and in each she was totally different and totally effective. Here she lights up the stage with her every appearance and even in ensemble numbers she manages to carry her own built in amber spotlight. As Daniela, the beauty shop owner, she is a marvel. Priscilla Lopez, who looks only a couple of months older than she did as Morales in the original production of “A Chorus Line”, brings her own warmth and sparkle to Camila, the co-owner of an auto rental company, whose family story could make a play in itself. She is given one number, “Enough”, but it’s just that to implant her in your memory. Powerful.
The ballads are not Mr. Miranda’s strength, but at least he makes the attempt to write them, and they are nicely performed by the young lovers, played by Christopher Jackson and Mandy Gonzales. Most of this cast is making its Broadway debut, and that helps give it the spark that’s always welcome on Broadway. In my own early days of theatre going, it’s the sort of young cast featured in musicals like “Best Foot Forward”, “Pins and Needles” and “On The Town”. We’ve moved on though from the white bread crowd in the cast, through the bagel and egg salad group to the rice and beans congregation, and welcome they are.
Sorry to say, even this lovely piece of work is diminished slightly by its incessant high volume amplification that we seem to be stuck with. It’s not as offensive here as in many of the current crop, but particularly in the ballads, voices in the upper register become thin and unappealing, often ending in what can only be called a shriek. I sat in the mezzanine of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and was reminded of the dozens of musicals I’d seen there when it was simply the 46th Street Theatre, musicals like “How To Succeed”, “Redhead”, “New Girl In Town”, “Damn Yankees” and so many more – all of them unmiced, all of them totally audible. The high school group around me seemed happy enough, but of course they didn’t know what they were missing, poor innocent deprived young things. I do believe they think a Broadway musical is a pop concert. Or worse, a rock concert. Well, let’s hope this particular pendulum swings.
Small complaint though. I loved this show – and recommend it highly. I don’t know what else Mr. Miranda can do – this one is clearly based on his own story – but I’m sure we’ll hear from him again.
[Editor’s Note:] Worth watching: In the Heights video