Thursday, February 28, 2008

In The Heights (Richard Rodgers Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: it's really, really good. It's the first musical I've seen in a long time that I can honestly say has something for everyone. It's original and provocative without being whiney, and the music, choreography and talent are all top-notch.

In The Heights has so much heart that I just want to give Lin-Manuel Miranda a hug. Miranda wrote the book and lyrics, conceived the idea and stars in the show. It's safe to assume his work is at least somewhat autobiographical. The "Heights" refers to Washington Heights, and the show gives you an inside look at life in the barrio. Appropriately, much of the music and choreography are hip-hop influenced.

Although In The Heights is innovative in style and theme, it respectfully maintains a more traditional musical theatre structure. Usnavi (Miranda) serves as the narrator and invites the audience into his neighborhood to meet his people. The musical theatre conventions and conflicts are all in place: it's sort of a coming of age story in a poor neighborhood where everyone is trying to get up and/or out. Meanwhile the ingénue falls in love with the wrong boy and everyone struggles to makes ends meet and do right for their family. Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes (she wrote the book) tell a linear story about realistic people in a place that really exists.

The great thing about In The Heights is that the story is about 2008 and it's told in a style that is appropriate for 2008. In The Heights uses the music and choreography to help define place and time, and in doing so, it takes musical theatre to a ground-breaking place. Hip-hop works in musical theatre.

This show is original, and I can't explain how refreshing that is. It actually has something new to say. So much of what's on Broadway was taken from movies and books and plugged into the Broadway machine. In The Heights is original, it's amazingly well done, and I hope it gets the respect it deserves.

In The Heights comes to Broadway from an extended run off-Broadway last year. If you saw it off-Broadway, here's what you need to know: not that much has changed, but it's a lot less gritty than it used to be. The Broadway version offers a beefier orchestra, flashier lighting, and a set that looks like a Hollywood interpretation of Washington Heights. They've added a couple of new songs and changed a couple of plot details to help explain the story, but it's essentially the same as before. It plays well in a big Broadway house and Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography looks even hotter on a larger stage. See it again, it's interesting to compare.

(In The Heights is in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th Street, and opens March 9. Tickets are available at the box office and at $26.50 ticket lottery available, more info to come. for more info.)

Monday, February 25, 2008

20 at 20 (Cheap Off-Broadway)

Theatre is Easy loooooves affordable theatre, and we're excited to tell you about 20 at 20. It's a cheap way to get off-Broadway tickets, but only for 2 weeks. 20 at 20 is a marketing approach by the Off-Broadway Brainstormers to get audiences into off-Broadway shows, and it's a really great way to see quality theatre at discounted prices. This year 26 shows are participating and the 20 at 20 ticket option is only available from February 25 until March 9. Show up at participating theatres 20 minutes before showtime to get a ticket (subject to availability, first come first served) and your ticket is only $ age requirements, but the 20 at 20 website does say restrictions may apply. For complete info go to

20 at 20 shows Theatre is Easy recommends:
-Hunting and Gathering...Primary Stages (only until March 1), written by Brooke Berman, directed by Leigh the New York Times review here
-The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island...Vineyard Theatre, libretto and drawings by Ben Katchor, music by Mark Mulcahy, directed by Bob McGrath, read the Associated Press review here
-Crimes of the Heart...Roundabout Theatre Company, written by Beth Henley (it's a Pulitzer Prize winning play), directed by Kathleen Turner (her directorial debut)

Visit for a complete listing of participating shows, and let us know what you see (especially if you're highly recommending it or warning against it).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Passing Strange (Belasco Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: an avant-garde new musical for artists, by artists. It's quite inventive and touching, but maybe too out there for the non-artists among us.

Passing Strange is a new rock musical about rock music. And it rocks. The five-piece band sits on stage through the entire show and though they are almost always playing, they are also interacting with the cast and even speaking lines themselves. The five musicians and six actors work together to tell this story. The musicians are lead by Stew, the narrator of the story and the one whose story it is. Stew wrote the book and the lyrics, co-wrote the music with bassist Heidi Rodewald, and stars in this show about his life...welcome to Stew's world.

The story isn't exactly unique; Stew is a young, black man in middle-class L.A. trying to find his way in a society that's trying to make him conform, even though all he wants to do is play music and be himself. He's a good kid who wants to do right, but he pursues his ultimate rebellion in the name of art and goes to Europe to find the freedom to be an artist. Passing Strange is told in three phases of Stew's journey: in L.A before he leaves home, in Amsterdam after he arrives in Europe and finally in Berlin after he tires of Amsterdam.

Angsty-artist-on-a-journey is hardly a new topic in theatre, but the storytelling techniques and creative conception in Passing Strange are definitely innovative. The actors all play multiple characters from scene to scene (although the actor playing young Stew remains that character throughout the show). The visuals are minimal, with the set simply a few chairs, a desk and a music stand. The largest set pieces are the four separate sections of the stage for the band members and their instruments. The staging is clever and seamless and with Stew's narration I always knew what was going on throughout the story. At the back of the stage is a giant wall of lights, carefully designed by Kevin Adams (the lighting designer from Spring Awakening). Adams really likes neon, and the wall serves as a massive set piece itself, with the lights changing and pulsing bright colors as the scene dictates.

Passing Strange is a powerful theatrical experience. For an artist to see this show, something almost indescribable is shared; it's the connection of the plight for self-expression. To the artist, art is more important than anything, and Stew makes it clear he really understands the artists in the audience. But if you're not an artist, I'm afraid Passing Strange won't resonate in the same way. I saw Passing Strange with a intermission the non-artist told me he loved Act I because the story was capitvating (at this point it was more about the rebellious teen than the struggling artist). We applauded the "autobiographical fiction" (as Stew refers to the show) because it wasn't too self-indulgent, but rather, about the audience as well. After the performance, however, Non-artist was singing a new song. He felt Act II was way too narcissistic and swept up with tortured-artist drama. He was no longer able to relate to what was happening on stage, and he felt that the story was no longer being told for him.

Passing Strange takes the rock musical to a new and groundbreaking place and for that, Stew and crew should be applauded. This is a story for artists and should definitely be seen by artists and especially musicians. I definitely recommend it to anyone who digs modern musical theatre because it's a great new take on what musical theatre can be. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Passing Strange is mainstream enough to appeal to the everyman theatre-goer.

(Passing Strange plays at the Belasco Theatre Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are available at the Belasco box office at 111 West 44th Street, at or by calling 212.239.6200. Ticket prices range from $26.50 through $111.50. If you're 25 or younger, get a youth ticket in a great seat for $26.50. Check out for more info.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Liberty City (New York Theater Workshop)

BOTTOM LINE: Seriously. Go see this play. Now.

Liberty City, playing a far too limited engagement - no matter how long it runs - at New York Theater Workshop is, quite simply, amazing. It is a solo show (one awesome woman, April Yvette Thompson who co-wrote the show with director Jessica Blank) about her experiences growing up in the 70's and 80's in Liberty City, a section of Miami, Florida. I will dispense with any further plot information as I think the best way to experience this show is to walk in a blank slate and just absorb the brilliance as it comes raging at you.

Thompson commands the stage for ninety intermissionless minutes, and masterfully guides you on the odyssey of her life, passing the baton of narrator among an array of family members and friends, all of whom helped write and shape her story. Thompson inhabits each of these characters with a richness and a fullness that is spectacular in its specificity, yet loving in its reverence. Though non-linear in time and narrative voice, the play is never confusing. Though about a specific place, a specific period in history and involving a specific group of people, the play's themes of strength and struggle, of hope and dreams, of history and heritage, are completely universal. It is funny. It is heartbreaking. It is inspiring. It is, at times, uncomfortable and challenging. It is, in short, everything a night at the theatre should be, but so seldom actually is.

After the show, a group of about five of us, some strangers, some not, all from varying backgrounds and vocations, sat for hours contemplating what we had just collectively experienced. There were many facets of the play that we had interpreted differently, but our desire to discuss and debate and re-think and keep talking lasted well into the early morning hours. I can't wait to see the play again, armed with the experience of seeing it once as well as four hours of discussion about it, to see what else I can find lurking beneath the surface. My hunch is that the brilliance and complexity of this play and its luminous star are virtually bottomless.

(Liberty City is currently in previews; it opens March 4th and closes March 16th. Shows are Tuesday at 7, Wednesday-Saturday at 8, Saturday at 3 and 8, Sunday 2 and 7 at New York Theatre Workshop...79 East 4th Street. Tickets are $45 each or $20 for Sunday night performances, student tickets are $20. for more info.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Looking Up (Theatre for the New City)

BOTTOM LINE: The classic relationship play with a twist. Or should I say, a lift.

Looking Up is a charming play about the complexities of love and the risks and rewards that come as one learns to navigate his or her way through a new relationship that is not yet certain to fly. Set in various locations in, around and above New York City, Trapeze Artist Wendy (Carla Cantrelle, also the playwright), and bartender Jack (Bryant Mason) do the familiar dance of two people who are drawn to each other, yet because of past hurts and lingering insecurities keep their escape routes readily accessible. Jack’s escape route, naturally, is another woman; Wendy’s is a trapeze bar.

It is indeed unusual, yet provides an interesting visual diversion to the play's main action, and also serves as a fantastic metaphor for our human desire to want to “fly away” when life is not unfolding as we planned or when things get stifling and uncomfortable. The three trapeze bars hanging in various locations around the stage serve as a constant reminder to the circus Wendy ran away from (and perhaps, at the same time, toward), and add an element of performance art to the proceedings that contribute greatly to the depth and texture of the play.

Cantrelle and Mason are very likeable as Wendy and Jack, and deftly navigate their way through their respective roles with the perfect combination of confidence and vulnerability. As I left Theater for the New City contemplating Looking Up, it struck me that the title not only referred to Wendy flying on her trapeze bar, but could also be interpreted as an optimistic comment on how finding love can change one’s outlook on life. For Wendy and Jack, things are, in fact, looking up!

(Looking Up plays a limited engagement at Theatre For the New City, 155 First Avenue between 9th and 10th Streets. Performances run Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm now until March 2. Tickets are $18 and are available at or by calling 212-352-3101.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Eddie Izzard (Union Square Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: British humor...I mean its finest.

Ok you caught me, Eddie Izzard is a comedian and Theatre is Easy doesn't cover comedy... but we're making an exception because Izzard is playing a whopping 3 week run in New York and well, he's really funny. We would feel bad not letting you know about it. So why is Eddie Izzard so funny? His schtick is simply the rambling, rehashing of facts and references, in a dry and unabashedly sarcastic British way. But somehow Izzard's interpretation of giraffes conversing makes me laugh so hard I cry.

If you're not familiar with Izzard, that's probably because he's somewhat of a cult comedian favorite with an eclectic following. His comedy career began in Britain in the early 90s and according to his Wikipedia page his US breakthrough came in 1999 when his act 'Dress to Kill" was shown on HBO. (By the way, I feel totally okay citing Wikipedia as a source because a large part of Izzard's show involves his reverance for the website.) Izzard is also an actor and he's done a lot on stage and on film. He starred in last year's FX drama "The Riches" with Minnie Driver and also played Mr. Kite in Julie Taymor's Beatles love-fest "Across the Universe."

Izzard's comedy style is everything that's good about British wit. It has a Monty Python feel, but without the slapstick, although a lot of it is visual (i.e. snakes on speedboats in the Garden of Eden). His subject matter is relatable, but not in that cultural, self-depricating way like those redneck American comedians. It's relatable on a grander scale, referring to pop-culture, religion, human history and other topics that are common among all of us. And Izzard is a personal library of random facts...either that or he's an amazing bullshitter...maybe a little of both. Either way, he turns Stonehenge and ancient Greece into fodder for fantastic comedy. Izzard's act is mostly improv comedy and he lets his snarky British pretention drive his subject matter. I'm not sure how much the show varies from night to night, but I'm pretty familiar with Izzard's past shows and almost all of what I heard this time was new.

If you are already an Eddie Izzard fan, you owe it to yourself to check out his new show, especially while he's here in New York (where he rarely plays, although he performs a lot in L.A.). If you're not familiar with his work but you like British comedy, you're probably a big fan and you just don't know it yet.

(Eddie Izzard performs at the Union Square Theatre from now through March 8, Monday through Saturday at 10:30pm. Tickets are $40, available at

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Farnsworth Invention is closing

Just a quick note to let you know that The Farnsworth Invention announced it will play its last performance on March 2. In a season of really solid plays on Broadway, it sustained a successful run, playing over 100 performances despite its 3 week delay in opening due to the strike. Cheap balcony seats are available for under $30 if you don't want to pay full price for a ticket. The Farnsworth Invention is planning a US tour and a run in London, but check out the original production in the next few weeks if you can.

Read the Theatre is Easy review of The Farnsworth Invention here.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sunday in the Park with George (Studio 54)

BOTTOM LINE: not Sondheim's best work, but a really beautiful revival of a really beautiful musical based on the life of French painter Georges Seurat.

The revival of Sunday in the Park with George comes direct from London after an amazingly successful run first at a smaller theatre (an off-Broadway kind of venue) and then at a larger theatre in London's West End. It's everything a revival should be...a new adaptation of a story that has already told, adjusted for the audience now while still maintaining the authenticity of the script. Not to be confused with revivals that are simply rehashed creations that fit the original staging moment to moment (ehem, A Chorus Line). The revival of Sunday in the Park with George uses projections and animations to fill the space and create an artistic angle to a play based on art while also adding depth and life to the set. It enhances the story in such a clever and visually effective's pretty impressive.

So here's the thing: I like art a lot, but I also grew up in the 80's and my attention span doesn't last more than 30 minutes at a time (without a commercial break for Ecto Cooler). When I go to a museum, I'm great for about an hour, maybe two if it's modern art. Sunday in the Park with George is like a lovely trip to a museum...that lasts 2 hours and 40 minutes. It was a bit too much art for me, but I suppose for the more sophisticated art aficionado it's not overkill at all. It's unfortunately not the greatest score ever, but there are a couple of songs that stand out and the cast is very good. The story is pretty solid and actually really informative (I now know more about Seurat than any other painter) and the storytelling technique is clever as well.

Act I is set in mid-19th century Paris. Georges Seurat is an under-appreciated painter trying to perfect a new method of painting called pointillism, while finishing his big painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (see painting above). The people in this painting are all real in Seurat's life and he paints them whether they like it or not. At the end of Act I, they all come together and take their places in the painting. Act II takes place in America in the 80's at an art gallery. Seurat's great-grandson George is an artist who creates light installations and he shows his newest work while he pays homage to his family history...his grandmother, Seurat's daughter, is there to cheer him on. Although based sort of on fact (Seurat was a real person and "A Sunday Afternoon..." is a real piece he painted) the story is an embellishment of what could have happened in his life. The book to the musical won a Pulitzer Prize in 1985. For more info on the story, check the Wikipedia page here.

Sunday in the Park with George is a really lovely musical and this staging is unique and smart. If you like musical theatre and Sondheim, it's a must see; this is classic Sondheim. If you want a romantic and/or traditional night out at the theatre, this is a good bet too. If you want anything other than beautiful, traditional musical theatre, look elsewhere.

(Sunday in the Park with George plays at Studio 54 and is currently in previews. For tickets call 212.719.1300 or visit Tickets are $36.25-$121.25 and $21.25 if you're under 35 by visiting

Friday, February 1, 2008


Ladies and Gentlemen, introducing the first of our new monthly series, Best Bets. Let us save you time and let you know the NY theatre experience perfect for your every need. Theatre is really easy.

To take a date: The Farnsworth Invention
(Go with the hot, intellectual thing)
To take your parents: August: Osage County
(Relatable family drama that will make your family look normal)
For a laugh: Avenue Q
(Obvious but solid entertainment; Try the lottery for cheap tickets, 2.5 hrs. before show)
For a good story: The Seafarer
(The plot is hole-y, but the characters are fantastic)
Cheap but awesome: Speech & Debate
(The first of Roundabout Theatre's new Underground series)
Quick, before it closes: Speech & Debate
(Closes Feb. 24 after a very extended run)
Let us be the first to tell you: In the Heights
(Previews begin Feb. 14 for this awesome new musical)

Check back March 1st for a new and updated Best Bets list!