Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Best Friends Become Two Unlikely (or Maybe Perfectly Matched) Lovers (or Maybe Not) in Reality-Based Musical Straight Forward

Also, Clubbed Thumb's hilarious Spindle Shuttle Needle and contemporary issues are explored through Greek drama in The Refugees.

Opening Number...

I think it was 1976 when I first saw a Tony Award telecast. That was the year of A Chorus Line vs. Chicago. Sincerity vs. Cynicism. Sincerity won big that year, but that was just a sprint. Take a glance at the list of Broadway's long runs and you might say Cynicism won the marathon.

When people mention their favorite moments in Tony Award history they might mention Jennifer Holliday singing "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" or Michael Jeter dancing to "We'll Take A Glass Together."

One of my favorite moments is a bit less known. It was 1961 and Phil Silvers, who was starring in the David Merrick-produced musical Do Re Mi was hosting the show.

Merrick, who would earn the nickname The Abominable Showman for his ruthless (and extraordinarily successful) style of producing, was receiving a special Tony that year for his recent proclivity in mounting hit shows. But as powerful a businessman as he was, Merrick was a bit soft-spoken when giving his speech, so Silvers stepped up next to him and said, "Like you told me in Philadelphia, talk louder, David."

The best way to get a theatre journalist to come see your new musical that's giving three performances at an out-of-the-way downtown festival... to budget for an experienced press agent who specializes in Off-Off Broadway and indie theatre. The second best way is to hang out at the bar at Don't Tell Mama on a Sunday afternoon and get into a conversation with someone who writes a column promoting inexpensive theatre in New York.

Method number two is what led me to Teatro LATEA on Suffolk Street Friday night for the New York Theatre Festival production of Billy Aberle and Chris Sabol's Straight Forward, an original musical inspired by an article by Mike Iamele that went viral on social media in 2014, explaining how he began developing romantic and sexual feelings for his male best friend Garrett Lech, despite them both identifying as straight.

After traveling to Boston to interview the two former college roommates, the authors - who share credits for book, music and lyrics - developed a warm and sensitive two-person one-act musical with a nearly composed-through score that tells the story with minimal spoken dialogue and narration.

There's believable chemistry between Greyson Riley as Mike, the party boy turned workaholic whose lifestyle threatens his health, and Andrew King as Garrett, the more reserved and responsible one who starts spending every day caring for his recovering friend, even though he's in a long-term relationship with a woman.

When Mike starts realizing that the feelings he's developing for Garrett aren't going away, he hesitantly brings up the subject and the two of them go through the simultaneous experience of not only exploring how they feel about each other, but trying to figure out their own identities in regards to sexuality.

It's a common observation that love develops quickly in musical theatre, but what makes this piece work so well is that the authors take their time and musicalize every significant moment; from revealing emotions to first attempts at physical intimacy to how this affects their other relationships. True, the attention to detail may slow up the proceedings a bit, but there isn't a moment that doesn't draw you in, especially as presented with Sofia Shirey's appropriately understated direction.

General admission tickets for this afternoon's closing performance of Straight Forward are $25, but hopefully there will be more opportunities to catch this very promising one in the near future.

If it seems insensitive to call Gab Reisman's Spindle Shuttle Needle an uproarious comedy about the vulnerability of women in war-torn countries...

...I'll confidently point out the blasts of laughter that continually accompanied Thursday night's performance.

Video: Ruthie Ann Miles Was Afraid that Audiences Just Didn't 'Get' Her Character
Mia Katigbak, Monique St. Cyr and Zoë Geltman
(Photo: Marcus Middleton)

The second entry of Clubbed Thumb's 25th Summerworks Festival, held at The Wild Project, Spindle Shuttle Needle (tickets $25, students $20) is described by its playwright as "a fable about what it means to be stuck in one's house for too long, and how we handle what's next."

Designers Frank J. Oliva (set) and Dina El-Azize (costumes) contribute fairy tale visuals to director Tamilla Woodard's production, providing a Grimm interpretation of the grim realities endured by four women who confine themselves to a small cottage, making blankets for soldiers while guns and cannons blare nearby.

Tilda (Mia Katigbak) is the tough leader of the group, with the restless Hanni (Zoë Geltman) her daughter, fathered by a fallen soldier. The stoic Jules (Florencia Lozano) cooks meals, while the highborn Charlotte (Monique St. Cyr) seems out of place in these surroundings. They live off the animal carcasses they can trade for from a slick fleece merchant played by New York stage gem Tina Benko. The only male member of the company, Seth Clayton plays a hapless soldier who unwittingly assists Hanni in her quest for a better life. And at the war's end, the women must adjust to a new kind of free market.

None of this may sound especially funny, but Spindle Shuttle Needle is cleverly written with dark humor expertly played by a crackling ensemble that gets the message across that tales of suffering can sometimes best be told through humor.

It's not that I was feeling particularly belligerent when I arrived to see playwright/director Stephen Kaliski's The Refugees...

...but when I saw the slip of paper on my chair asking me to write a haiku in response to the statement "You didn't do enough," my immediate response was:

That's your opinion.

You don't define my actions.

See to your own deeds.

The play, which runs through June 26th (tickets, $35) has an interesting concept; to debate contemporary issues involving refugees in the form of Ancient Greek drama, which was often used to debate the issues of the day.

Video: Ruthie Ann Miles Was Afraid that Audiences Just Didn't 'Get' Her Character
Carolina Đỗ, Rachel McPhee and
Jonathan Nathaniel Dingle-El (Photo: Kaylin Gess)

So when climate change makes neighboring lands inhospitable, Queen Clytemnestra of Argos (a thoughtful Rachel McPhee) learns that refugees from Athens, Minoa and Thrace have gathered at the border, begging for entry and a chance to work and reestablish themselves.

Her gothy daughter Electra (Carolina Đỗ) and celebrity lifestyled son Orestes (Jonathan Nathaniel Dingle-El) both want to let them all in, but the queen is reluctant to help others if it causes the least hardship to her own people. So her children insist she travel with them to the refugee encampment to meet representatives from all three groups.

This is where the audience haikus come in. No, mine wasn't used.

It's no spoiler that The Refugees leans heavily on the side of welcoming all that can be helped, and a curtain speech urges audience members to donate on their way out to Women for Afghan Women.

Curtain Line...

"I'm against identity politics when it swerves from moral greatness and spiritual greatness and integrity, honesty, decency. Now, somebody like John Coltrane, he was as Black as he can be in the most beautiful sense, but 'A Love Supreme' ain't about just loving Black people. It's loving everybody. Stephen Sondheim, Jewish as he can be. His middle name was what? Joshua. One of the greatest musical geniuses before he died. But as he digs deep into his Jewishness, following Oscar Hammerstein, his mentor, where does he end up? Embracing all of us. Listen to 'No More' in act two of Into The Woods. He'll touch the depths of your soul in the same way Aretha will touch the depths of your soul when she sings 'Respect.' That's what the quest for moral and spiritual greatness is about. It has little to do with just worldly success." - Dr. Cornel West



Sunday Morning Michael Dale: My Favorite Cease and Desist Letters

A while back. I was in an audience of theatre fans watching an onstage conversation between Frank Rich and Stephen Sondheim and the subject of unauthorized changes made in regional and amateur productions came up. The composer/lyricist mentioned that he had heard of a production of Company that ended with Bobby committing suicide by shooting himself.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Dear Funny Girl: Let Julie Benko Sing!

Like many theatre fans, I'd been reading the raves she's been getting as Beanie Feldstein's standby, and since I doubted press would be offered comps during her run, I sprung for a ticket to see for myself.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Alison Fraser Thrillingly Reinvents Cat On A Hot Tin Roof's Big Mama

A popular stage actor best known for being quirkily funny in musicals (Off-Broadway in March Of The Falsettos, on Broadway in Romance, Romance, The Secret Garden and Gypsy), Fraser reinvents a classic character and turns in a performance that thrills with its gutsy power masked by her character's well-rehearsed elegance.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale: All Singing! All Dancing! All Legal! Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville

A collaboration of two of Off-Off-Broadway's favorite historically subversive companies, the HERE production of Cannabis! A Viper Vaudeville, presented at La Mama is an entrancingly fun and educational two-hour festival of song, dance and spoken word, beginning as a relaxing communal experience and evolving into a call for activism.



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