Landing in London earlier that day, I didn’t know how prepared we were for Best of Enemies, the new play meticulously written by James Graham (This House) that is currently playing at the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End until February 18, 2023. Directed with a sharpness that draws blood by Jeremy Herrin (St. Ann’s/NT’s People, Places & Things), the play thrusts forward a pivotal moment in history, and not just television history. It plays out a conflict when “running out of time” clashed live and loud on camera between two sides of a testy political argument that still rings on today. Based on Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s 2015 documentary, this West End transfer from the Young Vic in 2021, Best of Enemies flips its dynamic channel into the “Firing Line“, broadcasting a particular moment for the whole country to decipher and ingest, when conservative views ran head first into liberalism, delivering an impressively captivating punch-theatrical event, worthy of all the awards this production is receiving and the excitement it delivers.
Digging deep into the intellectual and historical, as James Graham likes to do, this electric production ignites as good or even better than Ink and This House, both of which found dynamic intensity inside Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun newspaper and parliamentary divisions in the era of Thatcher. This go-round boxing match focuses the camera on the onscreen clashes between the New Left liberal, Gore Vidal, played to perfection by Zachary Quinto (Broadway’s Boys in the Band), and the staunch conservative, William F Buckley Jr, played by the powerhouse David Harewood (Young Vic’s Peribanez). It is when CBS executives decided, as a way to boost their flagging ratings, to bring ‘opinion’ and debate to the news. And with that one shift in the structure of reporting and news giving, the world changed, fueling a kind of maddening descent, one that we are grappling with big-time in today’s divisive political landscape.
On a spectacular camera-ready set, designed strong by Bunny Christie (Almeida Theatre’s Tammy Faye), Best of Enemies has an origin story, of a kind, to tell. Carving out glass boxes and multiple screens replaying the live action and adding sensational archive footage, courtesy of video designer Max Spielbichler (NT’s Afterlife), the play dynamically pulls us as if we are glued to the last episode of “The White Lotus“. It feels like event television. But this is history, more specifically, the lead-up to the 1968 US presidential nominating conventions and the election that soon followed. It’s a rewinding, back to that time when the assassinations of influential players dominated the news cycle, and caused a ripple effect that shifted the political landscape that is still being felt today.
This slice of conflictual history zooms in on a number of pivotal moments; speeches that changed the world, and protests that had lasting effects, underlining the tornado of emotional and ideological energy that flared up around these debates, building a fire that still can not be contained or put out. The play shoots from the hip, ringing forward all of the complications of that era to the forefront, with exacting lighting by Jack Knowles (West End/Broadway’s Caroline, or Change) and a captivating sound design by Tom Gibbons (Almeida/West End’s The Doctor). The point and shift in American politics and news programming become real, crystal clear, and powerfully dynamic, in the detrimental effect it had on our world and our political/social history. It ushered in celebrity obsession and angry conflict, that fed and overtook our culture, letting loose a horrific plague on all our houses, with one of the possible outcomes being that Orange Monster taking and trying to retake the White House.
Centering the action around these two equally detested political essayists, the battles shifted our focus from details to drama, making our television studios the place for National debate and grandstanding on a loud battleground scale. Inside two highly stylized, historical roles, the two leads never let history overwhelm their portrayals, somehow finding the humanity inside instead of bland impersonations on the out. Quinto is utterly fantastic and strong. Making his Vidal as snide and electric as can be. He finds inside a spectacularly convincing supervillain who talks from the left, dressed to the nines with a glass of champagne dangling in his leftist hand. His portrayal rachets up the bloody boxing match with Harewood’s Buckley simply by making Vidal’s’ swagger so compelling and different from his opponent.
Casting Harewood in the role of white rightwing conservative, Buckley, is a compellingly big gesture, finding the arrogance, fragility, and anger in the role, but adding the contrasting quality of race into the undercurrent picture. It works a kind of magic over us as we watch Harewood capture almost every aspect of Buckley’s privileged white man frame, except for the one we can’t deny, forcing us to play inside our own unconscious bias and comprehension about how race played a role in all this. The casting forces us to sharpen our eye on Buckley, and his wife, Patricia Buckley, played strongly by Clare Foster (Menier’s Travesties), and their view on race, a concept that is not addressed as succinctly as it could be. But it does resonate, particularly when unpacking the explosive debates between Buckley and James Baldwin, played well by Syrus Lowe (West End/Young Vic’s The Inheritance). The layers there are strong and intense.
Recreating these dynamic interactions, verbatim insults galore, the energy in the theatre sizzles with its long litany of complex thoughts and arguments, especially around sexuality, race, intellectualism, and societal norms. “People like blood sports” it is said, and with the second half set at the Democrat convention in Chicago, where two sides of the same political party are tugging hard to win the way forward, mainly because of an assassination that shifted everything and a policy war going on outside (and inside) its doors, Best of Enemies keeps elevating the articulate anger while also lowering the discourse in that one key moment that we are teased with from the start.
This highly-stylized combative match of a play shoots out like an ideological slap that still stings from across the aisle. Graham, finding the clash fuel for a fantastically compelling interpretation of what follows, excels on multiple fronts giving us a Best of Enemies worthy of its history and its everlasting effect. That shift we are still doing battle with to this very day. And even though the Buckley-Vidal debates were a rating triumph for ABC, they changed the world forever, inviting, for example, the entertainment network, Fox News, to enter and play on the field of actual news reporting, further enhancing or detracting the interplay of media and politics. Just look at what Graham had to say about that in Ink, and we all know where that led. Best of Enemies is a well-crafted event, destined for lasting effect and remembrance. Let’s hope it makes its way across the pond and fills a Broadway theatre with that same edge. I know I’ll tune in again.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Unpacking Frontmezzjunkies’s London Theatrical Trip 0f 2023
It was one of those spontaneous but well-planned cross-Atlantic journeys, fueled by a one-show idea that blossomed into something bigger. Antonio and I (two theatre junkies of the highest order) typically would find ourselves traveling to London, meeting there for about five nights, give or take. That is after I spent one evening with a good old friend and his longtime husband. Which was a personal requirement, and then, Antonio and I would dutifully schedule one theatrical event after the other, building a theatrical plan that would make others weak in the knees. But for the two of us, a London trip was exactly that. As much theater as we could fit in, with a few museums mixed in with at least one tourist attraction that was new to at least one of us. And a lot of great breakfasts made up of coffee and baked goods, as well as dinners with friends or just the two of us. Close to the theatre that was housing that night’s show. That was also a requirement. Born out of one too many breathless runs through Times Square trying to get to that scheduled curtain on time.
This year’s trip started with a casual statement about Andrew Scott doing a one-man Vanya in the West End. And the rest, as they say, is history. What soon followed was a Mark Rylance-starring play, Dr. Semmelweis, courtesy of a long-waiting National Theatre credit from March 2020. Then an immersive Guys and Dolls, and a quick grab at some standing-room-only tickets for a sold-out Next to Normal that we thought we had missed out on until we got that early morning email announcement. An Ian McKellen-starring Frank and Percy soon followed, as did the play Hamnet, based on a book I’ve never really heard of (but it seems many others had, including Antonio).
That was the plan. But I decided to stay even longer than normal. Surprising even myself. Usually, I would EasyJet myself off to some locale in Europe that I’ve never been to before, or to someplace I wanted to revisit after a far too long absence. But this time I just wanted to stay put a wee bit longer. And to give myself some time to see others that I might not have had the chance to see or spend time with. And of course, some more shows followed. The British farce Noises Off and a new musical The Time Traveler’s Wife with friends that weren’t Antonio. A matinee at the National Theatre on the day Antonio would fly home. And a last-minute day-of TKTS purchase in Leicester Square for a musical about an old English woman going to Paris to buy a dress from Dior. I probably wouldn’t have gone to see that one. Maybe I would have seen the Stephen Sondheim songbook show Old Friends starring Bernadette Peters and Lea Salonga, or the recently transferred National Theatresoccer play, Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes. But the new musical, Flowers for Mrs. Harris starred Jenna Russell, one of my all-time favorites, and that was just too good to resist. So why would I?
So ten shows. In about ten days. Not a record mind you. But a pretty satisfying theatrical and social undertaking. And here are a few words about each of the shows. If you’ve managed to get through this long-winded introduction. So here it is: My London theatre trip of 2023.
London Theatrical Trip 2023
SHOW #1: DONMAR WAREHOUSE’S NEXT TO NORMAL
SHOW #2: WEST END’S DR. SEMMELWEIS
SHOW #3: WEST END’S VANYA
SHOW #4: THE OTHER PLACE’S FRANK AND PERCY
SHOW #5: BRIDGE THEATRE’S GUYS AND DOLLS
SHOW #6: WEST END’S HAMNET
SHOW #7: NATIONAL THEATRE’S THE FATHER AND THE ASSASSIN
SHOW #8: WEST END’S NOISES OFF
SHOW #9: RIVERSIDE STUDIO’S FLOWERS FOR MRS. HARRIS
SHOW #10: WEST END’S THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
Can’t Wait For Boop To Come To Broadway
At the CIBC Theatre in Chicago, BOOP! The Musical, the new Broadway-bound musical extravaganza is making its debut . Actress Jasmine Amy Rogers is currently bringing her to life in Chicago, as she proves in this exciting song “Where I Wanna Be”.
The show is created by Tony Award®–winning director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray) who brings the Queen of the Animated Screen to the theater with celebrated multiple-time Grammy®-winning composer David Foster (“I Have Nothing,” “After the Love Is Gone,” “The Prayer”), Tony-nominated lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly’s Last Jam), and Tony-winning bookwriter Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom).
I am obsessed with the songs already. First was “Something To Shout About” and now “Where I Wanna Be”.
For almost a century, Betty Boop has won hearts and inspired fans around the world with her trademark looks, voice, and style. Now, in BOOP!, Betty’s dream of an ordinary day off from the super-celebrity in her black-and-white world leads to an extraordinary adventure of color, music, and love in New York City—one that reminds her and the world, “You are capable of amazing things.” Boop-oop-a-doop!
“The Father and the Assassin” Enlightens and Questions at the National Theatre, London
Weaving together a memory play with a psychological study of epic historical proportions, the National Theatre delivers a mystery revolving most dynamically around a murder up close and personal. Three bullets fired, we are told by our engaging narrator, Godse, portrayed most cleverly by Hiran Abeysekera (RSC’s Hamlet), all by him, but he says it almost triumphantly. “Even you could turn into me,” he also explains, and in that moment I realized that I knew so little about that sad chapter in India’s political history. Other than the headlines, I might add, but more so that there had to be another side to the assassination story of one of the greatest and most well-known Indians who ever lived, Mahatma Gandhi, and I couldn’t stop myself from leaning in to see and understand just what playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar (When The Crows Visit; The Snow Queen) has in store for us.
“Let’s not exaggerate,” but those three bullets changed history and shocked the whole world, mainly because of the confusion it elicited. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous conflict between India and its colonizing oppressors, the British Empire, The Father and the Assassin attempts to both outline the political journey towards Indian independence and give us a closer more intimate look at the man who fired those shots. Chandrasekhar has noted that thousands of books have been written about Gandhi in an attempt to understand and know every aspect of this famed philosopher and political public speaker and writer, yet very little about his assassin, particularly his upbringing and what would bring a man like him to this violent moment. This was the play’s intent.
“Any dramatization of history requires a degree of imaginative license,” she tells us in her notes, and here on the grand Olivier Stage of the National Theatre, this epic tale revolves forward revealing an upbringing of disorder and subtle discourse. To understand, or at least attempt to understand the central figure and our narrator, we have to peer back into Godse’s upbringing when his parents, and try to look beyond the act itself. You see, after losing three other boys in their infancy, Godse’s parents sought a somewhat odd religious solution to their situation and his birth. They decided, in order to sidestep what they thought was a curse on their family, to raise their boy as a girl. They would pierce his nose and deliver him into the world as a daughter, forever setting up a conflict that may have caused Godse to be quite lost in his own personal identity, possibly making him far more susceptible to father figures who might give him a structural meaning of self and acceptance.
This is Godse’s conflict story, of inner and outer divisions and betrayal of the father, played out in identity politics of a different order, resulting in some trauma and childish animosities that have their roots in personal relationships as well as, metaphorically speaking, political colonialism. At least, this is what Chandrasekhar tries to deliver forth in this psychological study alongside a complex paradigm for Hindu nationalism, all located in the central figure’s cracked psyche, which, in essence, may have resulted in the 1948 assassination of Gandhi.
It’s an exhilarating explorative adventure, laid out majestically (and somewhat typically) on a set on that grand Olivier stage. Rust-colored and ramped in the round, designed well by set and costume designer Rajha Shakiry (NT’s Trouble In Mind) with grand lighting by Oliver Fenwick (Audible’s Girls and Boys) and a solid sound design by Alexander Caplen (Royal Court’s Over There), The Father and the Assassin unpacks the complicated quest of a young boy to find purpose and an identity that would bring him, first to Gandhi (Paul Bazely) and his unifying movement of peaceful resistance. This dynamic laid out a fatherly framework that would be their undoing, as that relationship was followed by the divisive politics of Vinayak Savarkar (Tony Jayawardena), who built the foundations of the Hindu Mahasabha party pushing a strongly formatted idea of Hindu nationalism as a political ideology, all while serving out a life sentence in the Cellular Jail as a prisoner. It was a switch that changed the world, but one that seems to have been drawn from paternal inclinations and rejection, rather than political identifications.
The large cast of twenty does the piece grand service, as we play along with Godse as he, as a child, supports his family by channeling the goddess as a village fortune teller. It’s a captivating first engagement, as it weaves and rotates into view a childhood filled with obedience, and respect, followed directly by rebellion and political and personal debate.
“Hope smells a lot like sandalwood,” we are told, and the play unfolds with precise non-linear structuring that digs us deeper inside this fractured mindset. As directed with clarity and vision by Indhu Rubasingham (59E59/Round House’s Handbagged), the story sings on a whole other range, playing with our sensibilities and understanding of an event that shook the foundations of our world. With a staging that conjures up multitudes of complex psychological images, as well as dialectic themes of political style and belief structures, Godse becomes something of a childlike shell, trying desperately to control his narrative while batting away childhood trauma, embodied well, in contrast, with the peaceful qualities of his open-hearted childhood friend Vimala (Dinita Gohil) and the games they once played.
The play lives and breathes through the essential performance of Abeysekera as Nathuram Godse. The way he moves about is both delicate and angry; aggressive and casual, allowing playfulness to be weaved within the construct of empowerment and weakness of character. His desperation for fatherly and an authentic understanding of his own identity is at the center of this dynamic new play. His put-upon strut of childish resentment and ultimate vindictiveness delivers in the end, with the pulling of the trigger. The Father and the Assassin ends on a note of complications, energizing the room to seek for more clarity and understanding. It’s a complicated ending, leaving you questioning its stance, and making us want to know more. Which I think is precisely the point.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com
A Tap Happy White Christmas
Running now through December 31st at the Bucks County Playhouse is a new version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical. Based on the 1954 American musical film directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen, the original stage adaptation of White Christmas opened on Broadway at the Marquis Theatre in 2008 after several successful engagements throughout the United States.
Following a stint in the army, song-and-dance men, Bob Wallace and Phil Davis become one the hottest duos in show business. After a chance meeting, they follow The Haynes Sisters to Vermont where they discover a nearly bankrupt inn run by their former Army commander. With no snow in the forecast, and no tourists in sight, can Wallace, Davis and the Haynes Sisters pull off a yuletide miracle?
A very clever book by David Ives and Paul Blake makes this rather sentimentalized story not seem so sappy. And the addition of some of Irving Berlin’s greatest songs, such as “I Love a Piano”, “Blue Skies”, “Let Yourself Go” and “How Deep is the Ocean?” makes for an evening of humable, memorable tunes. But the most entertaining parts of the show are the dazzling tap numbers choreographed with creative exuberance by Richard Riaz Yoder which keep the leads and the entire ensemble tapping their veritable toes off.
Jeremiah James as Bob Wallace possesses a most mellifluous voice and puts it to good use in “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. He also manages to make his curmudgeon of a character appealing. Ashley Blanchet is terrific as Betty Haynes and is exceptional on “Love You Didn’t Do Right By Me/How Deep is the Ocean”. Jarran Muse as Phil Davis, the wolf, is funny and charming and shines in “I Love a Piano” along with Kaitlyn Frank as Judy. Ruth Gottschall is a stand out on “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, and is the young Mackenzie Reff who sings the reprise as Susan Waverly. (This role is shared by Tara Rajan who alternates with her.)
Kudos to the small orchestra of seven musicians who under the direction of Jeffrey Campos (who re-orchestrated the score) sound like a full Broadway pit band.
And kudos to the Bucks County Playhouse for having live music in this age of pre-recorded tracks.
Most notably, Hunter Foster must be commended for making this big, behemoth of a show move along at a speedy clip.
For tickets please visit buckscountyplayhouse.org, call 215-862-2121, or visit the box office at 70 South Main Street, New Hope, PA.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas – The Musical: Running now through December 31st at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hopes, PA 18938
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Choreographed by Richard Riaz Yoder
Directed by Hunter Foster
Teatro ZinZanni Soars Again in Chicago
When you come to downtown Chicago, there are a few “must see” destinations. There’s the Art Institute. There’s the mirrored Chicago Bean. And now, there’s Teatro ZinZanni. This enthralling, acrobatic, variety show, which originated over twenty years ago in Seattle, is in its second incarnation here in Chicago, post-pandemic, and flying high again.
Their new show, Love, Chaos and Dinner, expertly combines music, circus, arial acts, acrobatics, juggling, and magic. I made my first ever visit to Teatro ZinZanni Chicago this week, and was blown away by the talent and professionalism of this group. It is a dazzling roller coaster ride of non-stop entertainment, not to be missed. Hop on!
The organization of the experience itself is a marvel. Every member of the staff, from the greeter at the door to the servers who dance as they bring you your food between circus acts, is as well rehearsed and professional as the acts themselves. The staff sweeps you through the evening with friendly, polite efficiency. Kudos to the management for assuring that there isn’t a single element of the Teatro ZinZanni experience which isn’t a complete joy.
The show is presented in a round structure resembling a circus tent, fitted inside the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel in downtown Chicago. Although it looks large in some ways, it is remarkably intimate at the same time. The tables encircle the performance area, and the performances spill out into the crowd. The clowns and comedians weave through the tables all night as the acts change, making sure there’s never a dull moment.
The individual talents in this show are universally remarkable. Collectively they make a perfect ensemble.
The Ringmaster, Michael Evolution, is a master spinner and juggler of basketballs. Ulzii Mergen is a mind-boggling contortionist who seems to be made entirely of very beautiful rubber. Danila Bim hangs from her hair and spins faster than a dental drill. Lithe and lovely Lea Hinz works a large hoop with fluid grace. Cassie Cutler and Oliver Parkinson, known collectively as Duo 19, are a breathtakingly sexy arial duo. Ms. Cutler also does a wonderful job earlier in the show as the show’s featured clown, in a washer woman character resembling Sarah Silverman doing Carol Burnett.
When I saw the similarly styled Cirque du Soleil, I was impressed by the physical talents of their acrobats. But the work often felt posed, and I was somewhat distanced from the experience by the vastness of the theater. The talented artists of Teatro ZinZanni engaged me in their experience far more. They spin, twist, leap, and contort at speeds and in ways that nearly seem impossible, always surprising, with unerring precision, and unforgettable beauty. It also helps that the performers are so close to you. The intimacy of the experience will make your heart race non-stop with excitement.
The “special guest” of the show is the delectable Lucy Darling, the theatrical alter ego of lovely young magician, Carissa Hendricks. She has performed in Chicago several times before, at the Rhapsody Theater and Chicago Magic Lounge, but I’ve always missed her. I became a fan of hers on Fool Us, and was excited to see her live. Her character of Lucy Darling is a modern Mae West with a touch of Marilyn Monroe for good measure. Sly, sexy, seductive, and deceptive, Lucy Darling keeps us laughing and delightfully off balance as she slips into her magic, which is all built around cocktails and bar paraphernalia. You will get drunk on her smile. A toast to her talent!
My only criticism of this show is that they don’t give Ms. Darling a magical enough entrance. In fact, it takes a bit too long before you even know she’s supposed to be a magician. Later in the show, she magically appears from an empty chair in what is otherwise a throwaway transitional moment between acts. It would make a lot more sense if they were to incorporate this magical appearance into her entrance.
Last but not least is the outstanding music which envelops the evening. The central character of Madam ZinZanni, normally played at evening performances by Sa’Rayah, was embodied at the performance I saw by matinee performer Tina Jenkins Crawley. She is a powerhouse singer whose soulful performances were all a delight to hear.
Another musical treat is the live band, lead by the fast-fingered keyboard stylings and expert musical direction of local jazz legend, Theodis Rodgers, Jr. He is matched and supported by top notch performances from Jose Martinez on drums, Jon Negus on woodwinds and keyboard, Phil Seed on guitar, and Chuck Webb on bass guitar. It would have been worth the price of admission just to hear them play.
Finally, this is a dinner theater show. Remarkably, the meal also is quite excellent. It starts with a generous assortment of crudités. The wait staff will suggest a yummy appetizer to keep you going for an hour until the entrees are served. I had the salmon, and my friend had pork, both of which were well prepared. But nothing prepared me for the amazing desert, which featured the most unusual cheesecake and best chocolate mouse I’ve ever had.
I’m someone who likes value for his money, and Teatro ZinZanni gives you that across the board. In every aspect, Teatro ZinZanni delivers a tasty and tasteful experience which you will remember happily long after you leave.
As soon as the show was over, I was ready to come back and see it again. I don’t say that very often!
The next time you are in Chicago, make Teatro ZinZanni your first stop.
Teatro ZinZanni continues open ended Wednesdays through Sundays at the Cambia Hotel, 32 W. Randolph Street in Chicago. (312) 488-0900. Chcagoemail@example.com
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