With my annual pilgrimage to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival foiled by a series of wildfires burning across the Oregon/California border, I turned tail on the tarmac and headed to New York City with tickets to the current and future hits of Broadway — as well as a more obscure, immersive theatrical experience.
New York is to theater what Los Angeles is to the film industry — and of late, there’s been heavy crossover between stage and screen. The 2017-18 season’s Tony nominees for new works were dominated by shows based on books, films, and television, a theme prevalent throughout the shows I experienced. The Band’s Visit, the current Tony winner for Best Musical, began as a 2007 Israeli film; Be More Chill, a teen-centric, off-Broadway show with a zealous cult following, took its concept from Ned Vizzini’s novel of the same name; even Third Rail Projects’ experiential dance-theater odyssey, the “curiouser and curiouser” haunted-asylum adventure of Then She Fell, took inspiration from the writings of Lewis Carroll — including personal, intimate entries to his “muse,” the young (pre-teen) Alice Liddell.
As a Tony winner, a touring production of The Band’s Visit will certainly play in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the coming years. A dreamy exploration of loneliness and the solace of even fleeting connection, the musical follows an Egyptian ceremonial police orchestra, that, via folly of language-barrier miscommunication, ends up in the desert pit-stop of Bet Hatikva instead of their intended concert destination, the Israeli cultural hub of Petah Tikva.
The story takes place over the course of the evening the band spends in the small town before a bus arrives to right their destination-al wrong the next morning. Members of the band are offered housing with local residents, including salty café owner, Dina, and unmotivated new dad, Itzik, who share a sense of defeated ennui with their town’s lack of potential for excitement and novelty. The arrival of the band offers reprieve from their emotional doldrums, and both townspeople and musicians are given a much-needed perspective refreshment and opportunity for meaningful, if not bittersweet, relationship building. The music, which is supplied by the performers portraying the band, is elegant and forlorn, and satisfyingly full-bodied. These songs may not have the accessibility to land in the Top 40 or become karaoke staples, but they provide poignant, actable moments that fill the theater. The Band’s Visit plays through June 2019 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. See thebandsvisitmusical.com.
One of the pleasures of attending Broadway shows is seeing a full house of theater enthusiasts engaging with the performance. This was wildly apparent at the Pershing Square Signature Center, where Joe Iconis’s off-Broadway musical, Be More Chill, has recently been upgraded to a Broadway run. An upbeat contemporary musical, Be More Chill’s following began with the popularity of the cast album and exploded as young audiences discovered and shared the joys of this goofy, “kids-aren’t-alright” scenario with an emphasis on technology reliance.
High school junior Jeremy Heere is tired of being a loser and takes the questionable advice of a fellow student who went from social reject to cool dude after swallowing a “squip” — a pill that implants a micro-computer into the brain, and then offers advice on how to be popular. It also demands compliance. Jeremy’s squip alter ego manifests itself on stage as increasingly severe versions of Keanu Reeves, and helps Jeremy manage his awkwardness, climb the social ladder, and get the girls. When the squip gains enough power to threaten a school-wide takeover, Jeremy has to rely on more than his popularity to save the day. Be More Chill may be fluffy, but its irreverent self-awareness makes the show engaging to a broader audience than just the teenage set. Whether or not the show remains popular enough on Broadway to prompt a national tour, the casting requirements and content of this musical are rife for pickup by local theater companies, so expect to see Be More Chill at a community house near you. Be More Chill’s Broadway run begins February 2019. See bemorechillmusical.com
While many New York shows will tour or be mounted locally, certain experiences, such as Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell, aren’t designed to travel. More “adventure” than “theater,” patrons of this immersive excursion down the rabbit hole into the mind of Lewis Carroll are taken on a beautiful and bizarre tour of a Williamsburg church that his been flawlessly rendered as the Kingsland Ward. Some rooms are re-created as 19th-century hospital chambers, and others are dressed like a long-forgotten attic in a haunted, Wonderland bordello.
Nurses and doctors roam the halls, and distortions of familiar Carroll characters, including Alice, lead participants through otherworldly scenes within the space, allowing time for exploration of the intricately detailed rooms before whisking them into intimate (often one-on-one) interactions. Characters offer urgent messages of unfinished business or express contention with their portrayal in Carroll’s work. Carroll floats throughout the scenario seeking Alice, an eager but unattainable childlike seductress. The Kingsland Ward is filled with examples of Carroll’s poetry and letters, words of devotion that rouse questions about his feelings for Alice, the daughter of a family friend who was merely 11 years old when they met. It’s a challenging and extraordinary theatrical adventure through the dark fancies of a man with a wild imagination and an unsatisfied yearning. Then She Fell plays through January 13, 2019. See thenshefell.com
Visiting Broadway is a must for the New York-bound theater enthusiast. Seeing a show in a vast and stunning Broadway theater and experiencing the performances and stage wizardry of the masters of the craft carries an electrifying energy. But don’t overlook the lesser-known experiments of the performing arts hidden throughout the Burroughs. Shows such as Be More Chill and The Band’s Visit will be given new and continuing life via tours and remounted runs, but experiences like Then She Fell will likely run exclusively in its original location. New York has the bold energy and concentration of performers and artists (and financial backers!) to support these types of shows, and there’s always something playing for every taste. From family-friendly fantasies such as Frozen to intimate, risky performance-art pieces for the adventure seeker, it’s easy to get lost in the journey of imagination that encompasses NYC theater tourism.