Saturday, January 20, 2018

Theatre Review -- Bright Star (Musical) -- 2018 tour

I first learned of Bright Star when I read through the Tony nominees back in 2016. All the hype was surrounding Hamilton at the time but when I listened to the music from both shows I found that I enjoyed them both but I was drawn more to Bright Star. The soundtrack was infectious and fun and the story appealed to me. As 2016 closed out, Hamilton became the sensation and Bright Star faded from view. I thought very little about it until the summer of 2016 when I was surprised to learn that a local Utah Theatre would be welcoming Bright Star as part of its National Tour. I was naturally excited and swooped up a pair of tickets as soon as they were available.

(NOTE: If you're in Utah when I post this, you've got a little less than a week to see the show at Pioneer Theatre. The tour will continue through the Spring and Summer ending (appropriately?) in North Carolina in June. For tour dates, click here.)

Bright Star is a musical about love, loss, family, traditions, pain, hope and the nature of humanity. It's set in North Carolina with two storylines, one set in the 1920s and the other in the 1940s. The music is in a fun bluegrass style featuring a small "orchestra" sawing away on violin, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, accordion, cello, piano and drums. The instruments (except for the drums) are featured onstage in a wooden cabin constructed with partial walls and on a moveable bass so the band can move around throughout the scenes and bring extra energy and emotion to moments in the play.

The show focuses on the primary female lead Alice and shows moments of her life in the 20s and 40s. We meet her parents and the male love interest Jimmy Ray (along with his father). In the 1940s we follow the other male lead Billy as he works to figure out his life now that he's back from the war.

I was curious how the show would handle the transition between the two time eras to ensure it wasn't jarring to the audience but still obvious enough to not be confusing. The play begins with a sort of prelude number from Alice ("If You Knew My Story") where she lets you know that her story is central to the play and it's going to be amazing. From there we're taken to the 1940s and introduced first to Billy and his family after the war and then to 1940s Alice when Billy goes to Asheville to submit some stories to the magazine that Alice works at. After their meeting is the transition back to the past. This transition was a fabulous use of stage direction, choreography and storytelling. Alice begins her song ("Way Back in the Day") firmly set in the 40s but reflecting on her life in the 20s. As she sings and moves she is literally transformed into her younger self through the aid of fully visible costume and set changes brilliantly integrated into the choreography. By the end of the song, the audience is completely comfortable with the transition and given the adequate cues to easily distinguish between the 20s and 40s without needing any additional heavy-handed transitions.

The choreography and direction of this play was absolutely stellar. Not only did they manage to seamlessly transport a character and set 20 years in the past but other songs are packed with such wonderful blocking and planning that I did a few double takes during numerous scenes and smiled broadly as I admired what they had just done.

For example, in the title track "Bright Star", Billy is packed up and hits the road for his first trip to Asheville not sure what to expect but excited for the future. He sings about his hopes and aspirations. This traveling song whisks Billy around the stage with members of the Ensemble using blankets, benches and other props along with lighting and set movements to move Billy from his small country town to the station to the highway into small cars and large busses and finally into a small hotel room in Asheville. The entire scene could easily have happened with Billy simply dancing around in a train car or excitedly moving down the road with his suitcase. But the transition from place to place and vehicle to vehicle along with the catchy bluegrass tunes turned this into a real traveling song that took the audience on a great journey and helped invest them in the show.

The next song featured the fun choreography of transporting Alice back in time as mentioned above. Right after we arrive in the 1920s we meet Jimmy Ray and have another fun piece of choreography and music. The song "Whoa Mama" is a fun interaction between Alice and Jimmy as they talk about their possible relationship and the troubles that could ensue. The song is energetic and catchy but the version on the soundtrack recording pales in comparison to the version directed and carried out by this cast. In addition to the wonderful bluegrass energy from the band, Jimmy Ray and members of the Ensemble are kicking their heels and slapping their hands in a clattering of body rhythm that brings a visceral energy to the song. The physicality of the music combined with the physicality of the dancing, jumping and skipping really showcases the passion and energy that will be found in their relationship.

The set was simple with a few sparse pieces of furniture and props but with much of the setting being filled in with lighting and sound. One of the favorite set pieces of my wife was a stretch of model train track that ran across the top of the set (just below the curtain) and across which a model train rolled during a couple of scenes when the characters moved from city to city. The train even blew steam from its smokestack. This was just a small example of the balance between simple and amazing.

If you can't tell, I was impressed by the choices made by the Director, Choreographer and Set Designer. I came to the play already impressed with the story and the music from the soundtrack but seeing the way the cast carried out the numbers took it to a new level for me.

Speaking of the soundtrack, one super special and fun bonus to this touring cast was that it included a number of the original members of the cast who have been involved with the show since its pre-Broadway moments. Carmen Cusack (playing Alice) has been involved with the show since the beginning and from what I read, Edie Brickell wrote/changed some of the songs based on the way she saw Carmen perform. A.J. Shively continued his role as Billy and did a phenomenal job. Jeff Blumenkrantz continued as Daryl, the hilarious assistant to 1940s Alice. Patrick Cummings and Maddie Shea Baldwin were part of the original cast as swings/understudies and they took up the roles of Jimmy Ray and Margo (Billy's love interest) respectively. The actors were amazing and it was evident that they brought passion not only to the parts they were playing but to the production as a whole. There was a sense of true excitement and investment in this show.

I won't reveal the plot to you though I know if you listen to the soundtrack you'll be exposed to the "spoilers" and emotionally shocking moments. What I can say is that the plot truly is emotionally gripping. The music and the performances really help draw you into the story and I can't imagine having to participate in some of those scenes 7 days a week. From a storytelling perspective, it delivers drama and suspense balanced with joy and hope. In some cases, the balances come with coincidences that may be deemed unlikely in reality but which we gladly accept in this play not only because we truly want them to happen but also because the way they unfold just felt right and acceptable in the way they are presented.

I know that from the 2016 Broadway lineup, Hamilton is still getting tons of hype and will be in the limelight for years to come. I hope that the tour of Bright Star helps expose this show to people who may have let it fall under their radar. Judging by what I heard from the audience around me, people genuinely enjoyed what they saw. I hope that word of mouth will spread and we'll see additional productions of this show open up and be available for more people to enjoy. I would certainly love to see it again.

5 out of 5 stars

(NOTE: While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I feel I should provide two warnings. First, it does address the mature theme of teenage pregnancy. Second, it DOES contain very passionately painful scenes that may make you cry and/or very angry. I had tears running down my cheeks more than once).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Books Read in 2017

For the past few years (20162015, 2014, 20132012, 2011, 2010, 2009) I've had a goal to read and review a bunch of books over the course of each year.

My goal had been to average a book per week and end up with 50 books read and reviewed at the end of the year. I usually don't include smaller books (early middle grade, picture books, etc) unless I feel really strongly about them. For the past couple of years I've dropped well below my 50 and only ended up reviewing 9 books last year (though I did read more than that). I don't know if I'll get back to the ~50 range, but we'll see what I can do. Wish me luck.

  1. Ready Player One
  2. A Wrinkle In Time
  3. King Solomon's Mines
  4. Peter Pan (re-read)
  5. The Ultimatum
  6. Herland
  7. The Man in the High Castle
  8. The Metamorphosis
  9. Otherworld
  10. The Thing Beneath The Bed
  11. A Wise Man's Fear
  12. Red Planet
  13. The Dark of Deep Below
  14. The Woman in White

Friday, December 29, 2017

Book Review - The Woman in White

NOTE: As an apology I want to clarify that the length, style and tone of this review was initially meant to illustrate some of the impressions of the style, tone, etc of Victorian literature as perceived during my reading of The Woman in White. I fear that my attempt at flattery via mimicry has failed in great regard. As such I beg your pardon and hope that you will find the following words somewhat worthwhile. Perhaps at some future date I may try to amend this review into something more satisfactory. Until then, I present this narrative to you in its unadulterated state for your perusal.

Even though I graduated with a degree in English, I had never read anything by Wilkie Collins either as part of curriculum or through my pleasure reading. I had heard his name from time to time and knew generally of (his arguably) most well-known work The Moonstone, largely because of its fame as being the first English detective novel. I had also heard of The Woman in White but new nothing more than its name. As far as his other works, I was completely ignorant.

I suspect his oversight in the English curriculum is due largely to the eclipse caused by Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters who dominate the studies of the Victorian period. Indeed, Collins himself was a fan of his contemporary author friend Dickens and it seems the two even worked together from time to time.

Those familiar with the Victorian period won't be surprised by the length of The Woman in White nor by the denseness of the writing. I remember stories about the authors of the 1800s intentionally stretching out their vocabularies to earn more money due to being paid by the word or by the page in their serialized stories. While there is some truth to that, it should also be remembered that the companies publishing the stories also wanted to make money so they weren't just going to push out 500 pages of verbose drivel without making sure it was coherent, engaging and marketable. As a reader, especially in the 21st century with our short attention span and our desire for quick flashy bite-sized reads, it's easy to get bogged down in lengthy scenes with intricate details and descriptions along with thoughtful, methodical and often minute actions and progress.

All discussion aside about my delay in becoming acquainted with Collins and in the nature of Victorian literature, I transition now to impressions about this novel in particular. As I began my reading, I had no clear expectations for the plot or characters in this book other than knowledge of the title character. I speculated that perhaps there may be gothic elements and that the Woman may turn out to be a ghostly apparition or otherwise influenced by supernatural means. That theory was quickly destroyed but was replaced by a concept that still left more questions unanswered. We walk the streets of London with Walter Hartright late one night and encounter the titular Woman in White. In his own words, seeing her brought his blood "to a stop." He was entranced, not necessarily by her beauty but by her mysterious and strange appearance. He briefly accompanies her and provides words of friendship and compassion while trying to unravel the mystery of her appearance and person. When she hurries on her way he is left wondering about her. Moments later he is more confused when confronted by men pursuing her as an escapee from an asylum. For reasons unknown, he guards her secret and lets the men continue on ignorant of her location but Walter is left contemplating ore on the Woman in White.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Book Review - The Adventures of The Princess and Mr. Whiffle - Books One and Two

This post contains mini-reviews of two picture books written by Pat Rothfuss illustrated by Nate Taylor. They are in a series called "The Adventures of The Princess and Mr. Whiffle" and each book contains a disclaimer that these are NOT books for children and that the reader should consider him/her self warned.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Game Review - Kingdomino

Kingdomino was the Spiel des Jahres (German Board Game of the Year) winner for 2017 so I was naturally intrigued. There are 3 levels of the Spiel des Jahres: a children's game award, a family game award and an "advanced" or "strategic" game award. Kingdomino won in the standard/family category so it fit into a sweet spot for my family of gamers.

The theme of the game is that each player is a ruler in a land trying to build up their kingdom to contain the most prosperous swaths of different types of terrain ranging from deserts to mountains to lakes and others in between. That said, the theme is very light in this game so it's doubtful you'll feel like a regal Lord or an imperialist land baron without some serious role playing at the table.

The mechanics of the game are based on game play from dominoes (hence the mash-up in the game title). The game consists of a number of rectangular tiles (the number varies based on number of players). Each rectangle can be thought to split down the middle like a domino with each side containing an image of one terrain type or another...for example a tile may have a forest on one half and water on the other half...or you may find the double-mountain tile or some other tile with the same terrain across the entire tile.

The twists to the game that differentiate it from dominoes come in the way you select your tiles, the way you place them in your tableau to build your kingdom and the way you score at the end of the game.