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Your passport to life behind the curtain!

From Understudy to “On the Town:” Following Jay Armstrong Johnson’s Rise

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress in On the Town

Jay Armstrong Johnson and Alysha Umphress in On the Town

Welcome to Fanmail, our tributes to theatre artists we admire

I discovered Jay Armstrong Johnson in 2009 at a concert of Ryan Scott Oliver songs at Joe’s Pub. I went on a whim because the description caught my attention. It promised “sexy schoolteachers, provocative rent-boys, obsessive homicidal teenagers, and fairy dust,” which was enough to get this teen culture lover/musical theatre nut/Peter Pan fan to buy a ticket. Ultimately, it delivered all those things and more, notably a new performer for me to fangirl out on: Jay Armstrong Johnson. When he closed out the show with “Song of the Dead Fairy,” I fell so under the spell of his booming voice that I started applauding as he sang, “Clap your hands if you believe in me!” I certainly believed in him, which is why I followed his career from that night on.

At the time, Johnson was Gavin Creel’s understudy in Hair on Broadway—one of my favorite mountings of a musical ever. I had already seen Creel, Jonathan Groff, and Christopher J. Hanke play the part of Claude in the production, which had transferred to the Main Stem from Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. But when I heard Creel was going to be out for a few days, I went back yet again just to see Johnson’s take on the character, a ’60s hippie who receives a draft letter for the Vietnam War.

As I watched from the box seat that I won in a crowded ticket lottery, I was once again struck by the power and clarity of his voice, especially in the desperate Act I finale “Where Do I Go.” Johnson brought a touching vulnerability to Claude that moved me more than any other interpretation I’d seen. His youth made the ending—when the cast croons “Let the Sun Shine In” and then parts to reveal Claude in an Army uniform lying dead on the American flag—even more tragic.

For his next Broadway gig, he was the standby for Aaron Tveit’s dashing young con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. It’s the only time I’ve ever wished an actor would get sick—nothing serious, just the 24-hour flu so I could see Johnson in the role at least once. It never happened (kudos to Tveit for never calling out). I started to worry that Johnson was fated to be the perpetual understudy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—in many ways they’re the unsung heroes of the industry. But I kept hoping Johnson would land a role that would allow him to go on every night. [Read more →]

October 31, 2014   No Comments

Tell the Bartender What You Think of the Play

Penny Middleton in Play/Date

Penny Middleton in Play/Date

In Play/Date, 21 plays unfold in a real bar on the Lower East Side

I’m sitting at the bar having a Manhattan. Across from me, the bartender is having an argument with a girl. It’s a classic battle of the sexes: she wants to be more than a hook-up; he just wants to have fun. She leaves in a huff, and he turns to me, saying, “She’s trying to turn me into something I’m not. What am I supposed to do?” A woman standing next to me responds, “You kind of sound like a d—.”

But as familiar as the arguments might sound, this is not your typical night at the bar. This is Play/Date, an immersive show currently running Sundays through Wednesdays at the Fat Baby bar on the Lower East Side

The bartender, for instance, is actually actor Ben Maters, one of the show’s 18 cast members. But actors aren’t the only ones who participate. In Play/Date spectators are free to wander around the three levels of the venue as 21 one-act plays, written by 17 playwrights, happen around them. They can even talk to the characters. (The night I saw the show, the woman who called the bartender a dirty name was an audience member.)

All of the playlets involve dating. When creator and playwright Blake McCarty first conceived of Play/Date, all he knew was that he wanted to mount a show in a bar. And what goes well with bars? Romance.

“Dates consistently happen multiple times over the course of a night [at a bar],” McCarty says. “How can we lift the veil on that so that an audience can share that experience, in what is otherwise almost always a very intimate one-on-one experience?”

So in Play/Date, a voyeur may wander to the lower level, where a couple are having their first date (in a segment called Mother’s Milk by Joe Salvatore), or they may drift to the bar where a woman is ignoring her date in favor of her phone (Phoneland by Greg Kotis), or they may journey to the mezzanine where they can watch two women message each other on OkCupid (Hey Ruby by Elle Anhorn, where the correspondence between the two is projected on the wall). Or they can sit back, order a cocktail from Maters, and enjoy the house music (played by a live DJ throughout) as plays unfold all around them. [Read more →]

October 30, 2014   No Comments

WATCH: Meet Mint Theater Company

From time to time, TDF Stages will highlight exciting Off and Off-Off Broadway theatre companies with exclusive “getting to know you” videos. Today we’re featuring Mint Theater Company, which breathes new life into lost or neglected plays.

This video features director Davis McCallum; actors Kristin Griffith, Rob Breckenridge, and Julia Coffey; and artistic director Jonathan Bank.

Meet more theatres!

This video was directed by Mark Blankenship, TDF’s online content editor, and shot and edited by Nicholas Guldner.

October 29, 2014   No Comments

The Rhythm of Grief

The cast of brownsville song

The cast of brownsville song

Playwright Kimber Lee asks audiences to mourn for a murdered up-and-comer in brownsville song

Though not a tuner, brownsville song (b-side for tray) has a musical sensibility. Hip-hop frequently blares from the speakers, and the characters deliver impassioned speeches that often sound more like lyrics than lines. In fact, the searing soliloquy that opens Kimber Lee’s new drama at LCT3′s Claire Tow Theater features a chilling sort of refrain, as a grief-stricken grandmother who recently lost her grandson to a senseless street shooting defiantly repeats, “He was not!” over and over and over again.

“I was actually supposed to be working on something else at the time and that first monologue just came pouring out of me,” remembers Lee. An amateur boxer just like Tray, brownsville song‘s promising but ill-fated 18-year-old protagonist, Lee was inspired to write the show after reading a blog post by a fellow female pugilist. “She was coaching at one of the gyms owned by Teddy Atlas, who’s a pretty famous boxing trainer,” she says. “It was out in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, and they lost one of their kids to violence. He was a rising boxer and getting ready to go to college in the fall and had won a scholarship from a local community organization. Even though I didn’t know him, I couldn’t stop thinking about his family and what they were going through.”

Despite similarities between the real-life victim and the character of Tray, the family at the heart of brownsville song is purely fictional. But in a country where the murder rate for African-Americans is four times the national average, Lee believes the play reflects a grim reality, one that should make citizens sit up and take notice. “There are young black men dying every day in struggling neighborhoods,” says Lee. “We all get news of horrible things like this but they’re in our consciousness and in the news for a very short amount of time before we move on to the next thing.” And yet this tragedy got stuck in Lee’s head—almost like a song. “There was something about this story I couldn’t shake. It just kept coming back. I felt very helpless but I thought letting it drop would be an admission that it didn’t matter… but it mattered to me.”
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October 28, 2014   No Comments

This Caftan Tells a Hundred Stories

Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, & Maggie Gyllenhaal

Ewan McGregor, Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, & Maggie Gyllenhaal

Costumes impact our understanding of Broadway’s The Real Thing

Cynthia Nixon’s caftan is a fabulous fashion statement, yes, but it’s also an emblem of how costumes enhance the storytelling in Roundabout’s current Broadway revival of The Real Thing.

The caftan—a glorious black-and-white number with a paint-splatter pattern and matching shirt underneath—operates on several layers at once. For one thing, it tells us something important about Charlotte, Nixon’s character in Tom Stoppard’s play, which charts how a playwright named Henry leaves his actress wife (Charlotte) for an activist named Annie.

While the characters are clearly delineated in Stoppard’s script, with Charlotte’s acidic wit and confident maturity at odds with Annie’s youthful passion and naiveté, costume designer Kaye Voyce knew that her work had to make those differences even sharper.

That’s why, when Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her husband Max (Josh Hamilton) come over for a visit, Annie sports a denim jacket and snappy floral skirt, while Charlotte greets them in her flowing frock. “Annie, Maggie’s character, has a kind of earthiness and playfulness about how she dresses,” Voyce explains. “But Cynthia’s character has more elegance. Partially that’s a difference in age and partially it’s a difference in their place in life. It’s even just how those two actresses look and feel.”

But the clothes have to do more than indicate who these characters are. They also have to tell us when they are. The Real Thing takes place in London in the early 1980s—it originally ran on Broadway in 1983—which means that by now, it’s a period piece.

“We had to figure out which pieces felt authentic to the period, but didn’t feel like the joke of the early 80s,” says Voyce. “But they also couldn’t feel too hip. There’s a way, especially in New York, in which people wear vintage clothing that feels cool, and a lot of that is from the early 80s.”

She continues, “We didn’t want to have those layers of information getting in the way of these people on stage. There would be things Maggie would put on, for instance, and we’d say, ‘That’s fantastic, but no. She looks like a college girl in Williamsburg.’ We had to make it natural and real while avoiding this other possible track.” [Read more →]

October 27, 2014   No Comments