Stage Corner: School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

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Lightly inspired by the cult classic Mean Girls, but with much more depth, School Girls elucidates the tribulations five Ghanian school girls.  Set in an exclusive Ghanian boarding school in 1986, School Girls opens with its characters sauntering on stage runway style to obnoxious pop music.  Quickly enough, it is established that Paulina is Queen Bee, ruling the school and her friends with a toxic mixture of cruelty and camaraderie.  Everyone expects Paulina to be chosen as that year’s Miss Ghana – that is, until new student Ericka arrives.  American-born, biracial, and light-skinned, the spotlight immediately swivels off Paulina and onto her.

There are five school girls. Nabiyah Be portrays Ericka with a charm that quickly turns to barely-concealed fury at the play’s climax, a performance that seemed a little too big for the play but held the audience in absolute rapture with its utter intensity.  Mirirai Sithole and Paige Gilbert as Mercy and Gifty, witty and affable, bring an innocent light-heartedness. Abena Mensah-Bonsu plays Nana, an overweight girl, with a quiet strength and determination.  Nike Kadri plays intelligent Ama with a natural ease.  Last but certainly not least, Maame Yaa Baofo’s performance as Paulina brings forth depth and complexity to what might have otherwise been an irredeemable character.  While Paulina often seems to cross the line into utter, cartoonish villainy, Baofo lends her a simmering self-loathing that makes it difficult not to sympathize with her.  Not to be forgotten are Zainab Jah and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Eloise and Headmistress Francis, both of whom bring their own mean girl days into the fray.  In other words: a stellar cast.

Written by Jocelyn Bioh (an actress herself), School Girls is inspired by a real-life Miss Ghana: Erica Nego, an American-Ghanian biracial woman who embodies the “universal and commercial” look (read: light-skinned and vaguely European looking) that the Miss Universe pageant inevitably succumbs to.  It is with this context in mind that the play interrogates the toxicity of colorism.

Colorism, as defined by Alice Walker, is “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”  Rooted in anti-blackness, colorism is deeply entrenched in almost all communities of color.  In Egypt, where colorism, anti-blackness, and internalized racism run rampant, bleaching creams like Fair & Lovely littered the shelves of pharmacies and grocery stores. My darker-skinned cousins used it all the time, and even I, already pale-skinned for an Egyptian woman, was encouraged to stay out of the sun and use the bleaching cream whenever I developed a tan.

Fair & Lovely seems mild and innocent, however, compared to the more powerful bleaching creams used in School Girls, which have landed dark-skinned Paulina in the hospital multiple times, for burnt and bloodied skin.  Though the incidents are not directly discussed in the play, their obvious insidiousness nevertheless drew gasps from the audience.  The yearning for whiteness is clearly established in a scene where the girls cluster around Ericka and marvel at her light skin, asking her what bleaching cream she uses, and are stunned when she reveals that is her natural skin tone.  Ericka’s ethnically ambiguous looks attract Eloise, Miss Ghana 1966 and current pageant recruiter, and she sets her sights on Ericka as someone who would appeal to the Miss Universe judges more than Paulina, whose features embody West Africa.  Eloise, very dark-skinned herself, has nevertheless learned to play the game of white supremacy to her advantage.

School Girls treads a thin line between humor and horror, with laughs quickly turning to gasps and stunned silence.  Emotional beats are passionate and hard-hitting, while humorous moments are quick and sharp-witted and occasionally bombastic in fantastic way.  In one powerhouse scene, the five girls perform a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” while auditioning for Eloise.  Without giving anything away, I will say that the scene is big and loud and staged in such a way that sets up a fantastic payoff that had the audience applauding wildly.

School Girls packs a big punch in a short 75 minutes that goes by in what feels like minutes.  With humor and heart, it tackles poignant issues of class, colorism, and intracommunity privileges under the cover of pink lights and mean girl nonsense.  School Girls is a breath of fresh air and an absolute delight.

Stage Corner: Ghost Quartet

a2408801532_10When I was watching Ghost Quartet, the one thing going through my mind was, “This is so fucking weird.” Ghost Quartet is one hell of an avante-garde production, capitalizing on eclectic musical styles and unusual performance.

What is it about? I’m not entirely sure. It’s certainly not the easiest show to follow.  It consists of four intertwined stories, layered upon one another like matryoshka dolls, and told out of order.  The main story is that of two sisters named Pearl and Rose who become enemies.  I’m just gonna copy and paste from the original press notes: “A camera breaks and four friends drink in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries: a warped fairy tale about two sisters, a treehouse astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; a purgatorial intermezzo about Scheherazade and the ghost of Thelonious Monk; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder. Throughout these four stories two women cross paths, sometimes as strangers, sometimes as sisters, sometimes as lovers, sometimes as mother and daughter.”

It’s an odd duck of a show.  The entire production takes place in a tiny carpeted room, with some of the audience sitting on cushions on the floor.  Stage decorations are sparse; some lanterns hanging from the ceilings, old-fashioned carpets, and bottles of alcohol. You wouldn’t think that sitting in a small room watching four people sing would be so entertaining, but it is!

For me, what was truly spectacular to me about this show as the performances of the two leading ladies, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell.  I had previously seen both of them in Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812, but in Ghost Quartet they truly have a chance to explore their vocal range.  I had already liked Brittain’s voice, but here she does so many more interesting things with it.  Gelsey Bell left me speechless.  There were moments when Gelsey was singing where I was literally sitting in my seat open-mouthed.

Not only are they both spectacular singers, but they are performers.  Gelsey flitted between various characters, from Pearl to the ancient storyteller Scheherazade to the ill Lady Usher, playing wise and droll and creepy with equal fortitude.  Brittain was equally capable in both her wide-eyed innocence and in her fury.  Together, Brittain and Gelsey make a formidable pair.

The other two performers, Brent Arnold and Dave Malloy, were only “fine” in comparison.  Brent barely featured, but I did enjoy his voice when he sang.  I am still unimpressed by Dave’s voice, but I was very happy to be sitting barely two feet from him as he played piano.

As the show runs through stories spanning seven centuries or more, switching from modern to ancient in a single song, it evokes a feeling of timelessness, like it exists cut out of the normal space-time continuum.  It naturally follows that it feels epic, like the stories of old, and as a creator it inspired me so much I wished I could bottle my feelings from that night and return to them whenever I need creative boost.

Stage Corner: Sweeney Todd

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Last week, I attended a performance of Sweeney Todd at the Barrow Street Theater.  Small and intimate and shedding the matter of the proscenium, the entire show takes place in a recreation of Harrington’s Pie & Mash, which is a London pie shop that has been in operation for 109 years! The set looks exactly like Harrington’s, with cafeteria style tables and dilapidated tiles.  This makes for an immersive, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that intensifies the performances.

And what performances they were! Pretty much the entire cast was stellar, with standouts for me being Michael James Leslie as Judge Turpin and Eryn Lecroy as Johanna.  Leslie has a deep bass voice that practically made the room quake.  Lecroy has a sweet, high soprano, probably typical of this role, but what made her stand out for me was her acting! She played Johanna with a kind of resigned snark and hidden simmering fury that made the character way more intriguing than she could have been.

Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett was utterly hilarious, and rightfully received most of the laughs.  John-Michael Lyles was a very endearing and flamboyant Tobias.  And Jake Boyd played Anthony with a kind of wild exuberance and barely controlled panic (and his voice was fab!).  Hugh Panero was fine – I didn’t dislike him, and his voice is certainly good, but his acting left much to be desired. Perhaps it’s the direction, perhaps it’s the role, but I found him to be wooden and somewhat removed from the performance, as though he were a dimension away from all the other actors.

The show itself was so, so creepy! It made great use of the small room to play around with various lighting effects that enhanced the creep factor.  The actors totally gave in to camp, joining together in intense chorus that sounded nearly hymnal, a brilliant contrast given the show’s subject matter.  There was black humor in droves, including a song consisting almost entirely of puns about baking people into pies.

It was such a fun experience! I really felt like I had been transported to Victorian London, that I was a customer in a dingy pie shop.  I even had the pre-show meat pie and mash, which, sadly, were not to my taste.  Spices, people! Have you heard of spices? And why are you putting cheese in mashed potatoes, come on!

My first and only experience with Sweeney Todd was that Johnny Depp movie like ten years ago.  Needless to say, this was definitely an improvement on that, and a perfect show to see during Halloween month!

Stage Corner: War Paint

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Yesterday I entered the War Paint lottery on a whim, since I was entering a bunch of other lotteries, and I didn’t really expect to win. I didn’t even know what the show was about when I put my name in. I think I had some vague notions of an actual war, but that is not what this show is about at all.  It is in fact using “war paint” as a euphemism for makeup to tell the story of rivals Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein.

Historically speaking, this was an intriguing story.  I had no idea Arden had had any kind of rivalry with anyone, and I’d never even heard of Rubinstein (apparently what was left of her company ended up being owned by L’Oreal).  According to the Playbill, the show tried to be as historically accurate as possible, with the exception of a condensed timeline, and so it was fascinating to witness the rise and fall of these two giants of industry.

What was not fascinating was the musical itself.  The music carried certain hints and flavors of 40s tunes that I like, but otherwise it was forgettable and uninspired.  I don’t think there’s a single song that has stuck with me (I mean, maybe Fire and Ice?).  Staging was quite basic as well.

Christine Ebersole as Elizabeth Arden did fine, though she didn’t wow me.  I did very much enjoy Patti Lupone as Helena Rubinstein, however.  She was given most of the comedic lines, which she delivered fantastically.  I actually found myself much more invested in the spoken dialogue than in any of the music.  John Dossett and Douglas Sills as Tommy Lewis and Harry Fleming were practically indistinguishable, though perhaps that was intentional.  The rest of this small cast didn’t have very much to do, so there were no particular standouts.

And, not to go into some heavy discourse here, but the hodgepodge mix of varying feminisms was somewhat jarring.  Makeup was praised “war paint” and talked about as if it was the one thing that could raise a woman up.  “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones,” Helena Rubinstein famously said.  In the show Rubinstein also muses on her own unusual beauty: her dark hair, her Slavic nose, and insists this is what makes her unique. In one touching moment, she reads a letter from a girl who wonders why she is still ugly after using makeup.  Arden and Rubinstein also frequently muse on their roles as women in a man’s world.  Through it all runs the thread of makeup as empowering and improving lives.

Then, at the very end of the show, when Arden and Rubinstein finally talk to each other, Arden wonders, “Did we free [women] or enslave them?” Yet this throwaway line, sung somewhat abruptly in the final song, feels like an afterthought, tossed in just to satisfy those who might raise issue with the portrayal of makeup.  It is certainly never given appropriate weight, or even appropriate time.  One the one hand I understand this decision given that the story is, after all, about two women who pioneered the makeup industry.  On the other hand, if that line about enslaving women was going to be included, I would have liked to have seen some more foreshadowing of it throughout the rest of the show.

Overall, I didn’t love this, but I didn’t dislike it either.  I certainly enjoyed the show as a learning experience and Patti Lupone is a master at delivering comedic beats.  But would I recommend it? Not really.

Stage Corner: Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812

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From the moment I walked into the Imperial I knew this would be an unusual experience. The entire theater is subsumed entirely into the show; audience members sit on the stage, lanterns light up the aisles, walls are draped in red velvet, performers dance behind the seats, and twinkling starburst chandeliers dangle from the ceiling.  The intimate staging portends the immersive experience that is The Great Comet of 1812.  Pierogis are tossed at the audience (I caught one, delicious!), as are musical shakers the audience is encouraged to use often.

All I knew going in was that the musical is based on a segment of Tolstoy’s War & Peace, chronicling Natasha Rostova’s affair with Anatole Kuragin.  Natasha’s fiance Andrey is off at war, and in his absence Natasha falls prey to Moscow’s charms and delights.  One of these charms is Anatole, who enlists his sister Helene’s help to seduce Natasha.  Helene is married to the titular Pierre, who is good friends with Andrey and Natasha’s family.  Put like that, it all seems somewhat banal, but these events are taken and transformed into something much grander.

The performance is absolutely wild.  Imagine a cross between a 1930s German cabaret performance and a late 90s underground rave.  The costumes reflect this eclectic fusion of styles and time periods; the dancers simultaneously resembled go-go dancers and characters in a Russian-inspired steampunk novel.  This vaguely phantasmagorical aesthetic is most embodied in the ensemble performances, which are bursting with boundless energy on the part of the performers.  There is so much movement in The Great Comet; it’s all so fun and exciting it makes you want to jump up and join in!

The music is gorgeous, a dizzying blend of traditional Slavic folk music, operatic pop, baroque pop, and electronic.  They come together to produce a performance that is dynamic and exuberant.  The standout performances for me were Lucas Steele’s Anatole and Amber Gray’s Helene.  I’ve only seen Amber Gray perform once before, but her style seems to always include powerful vocals and very intense acting that shocks you with its authenticity.  Steele, with his platinum blonde faux-hawk, delightfully preening demeanor, and croaking tenor stole every scene he was in.

Denee Benton is wonderful in her debut on Broadway, her belting soprano belying her tiny figure and her innocent grins bestowing her with ingenue wholesomeness.  Of course, Josh Groban’s Pierre is as incredible as expected.  He brings to the table not only his much-praised vocal prowess, but a performance that is laced with sorrow and self-loathing.  The role was clearly written for someone with his vocal abilities in mind, and so I look forward to seeing the show a second time with Hamilton’s Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan as Pierre.  Oak, who originated the roles of Hercules Mulligan and James Madison, has an incredibly powerful, booming, and versatile voice that is absolutely perfect for the role of Pierre.

Overall I was reminded strongly of the other Rachel Chavkin work I’ve seen: Hadestown.  The similarities are glaring.  Both works are lively and dynamic, both feature a mixture of traditional solos and overwhelmingly ebullient ensemble pieces, both are a blend of styles and time periods, and both have unique staging.  And, not for nothing, but both works also have black woman originating lead roles.  I have no idea if Chavkin has any hand in casting, but that her works seem to have this emphasis on diversity in common certainly bodes well for her future projects.  I’m definitely going to be following Chavkin’s career closely from now on.

It’s difficult to sum up The Great Comet in any meaningful way, and perhaps that’s a good thing.  The show’s strength is in its eclectic style and its wildly enthusiastic and somewhat bizarre ensemble performances.  The atmospheric staging contributes to the intimacy of this immersive theater experience, transporting you from an old New York City theater to nineteenth-century Russia with a steampunk flair.  It’s fun and funny and self-aware and outlandish and exciting, like being invited to an elite private party where everyone is a little bit high on drugs.  It’s one hell of a memorable show, and I can’t wait to experience it again.