Girls Will Be Girls: Our Dear Dead Drug Lord

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is the nuanced and intelligent version of Mean Girls. It's a story of women and female friendships --  but gloriously twisted. Alexis Scheer, the playwright (read her interview for Strip It Down here), brilliantly crafts a story of girlhood, friendship, power, sex, love, and gore. Our Dear Dead Drug Lord shows women at the opposite end of the spectrum of female representation we’ve seen in all the other chick flicks. It shows we can be more than just gossip and burn books and boy talk--though that is a part of us--and allows women to be utterly and completely weird. This play shows women unfiltered: the conversations we fall into, the emotions we experience, the pain we endure, how we navigate friendships with each other, multitask, corrupt, fight, and scream.

The play centers around three high school friends: Pipe, Zoom, and Squeeze. They make up the Dead Leaders Club, in which they study deceased historical figures. At the beginning of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, a new member of the DLC is introduced--whom the original members determine will be called Kit. The members are the DLC are normal girls, engrossed in regular teenage events (breakups, school projects, shit talking) with just a tad bit of quirkiness thrown in. Throughout the show, the DLC members conduct seances in order to connect with the dead leaders they are studying that month. Using a homemade Ouija board and specific rituals, the group is dedicated to connecting with the infamous Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. All deeply dedicated to resurrecting Escobar’s spirit, the young women come dangerously close to the edge of a reality they did not even realize they were approaching… or did they?

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is a call to action to the world: start taking us seriously. This play finally unmasks the intelligence within women--and how dangerous it proves to be when dismissed. The characters Alexis has created are angry. They are not perfect or posed or polished--they’re pissed. They’re pissed because they have not been listened to for their entire lives. Whether this is because they are women, or high schoolers, or both--no one has listened. This play explores the impact of ignoring the voices and anger of young women, why we all do it, and why none of us are taking it seriously.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is inherently meta-theatrical, thanks in part to the strength of the design elements. In particular, the set--exquisitely designed by Kristin Loeffler--epitomizes the childhood of a girl and the adolescence of a young woman. The play takes place in a wooden tree house, perched above the ground as tree houses tend to be, doused with intricately placed sparkly stickers, cut-outs from teen magazines (think Bop and M), pictures of American Girl Dolls, mini motivational posters (be beautiful, be kind, be you), and pretty much anything you would associate with growing up as a girl. Without a set of this caliber, the play would not have had the sturdy backbone of its desired tone and the reminder that this story is--to its deepest core--about women. Although Alexis’ characters are some of the most well-rounded, nuanced female characters I have ever encountered, Loeffler’s set was the clear top coat that sealed it all together.

The direction of the show, by Rebecca Bradshaw, is so seamless in its handling of a story that could otherwise become campy or unbelievable. Bradshaw’s direction allows the true spirit of teenage girls come to the surface, beautifully representing a period of life that has previously been beaten to death with stereotypes. Bradshaw’s directing is the clearest example of what it means to sincerely listen--to the script, the characters, the playwright, and the actors--and causes a sense of reflection and reconsideration of certain tendencies within the audience. Her direction of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord allows the story to slap you awake when you did not even realize you had fallen asleep.

 As for talent, the characters of Zoom and Squeeze will have you doubled over in nostalgia for your high school best friends. Lisa Joyce (Zoom) and Khloe Alice Lin (Squeeze), have such impeccable comedic timing and contagious expressions--it is a gift from the artistic gods every time they appear on stage. Joyce and Lin play our friends. You know their characters because these characters have been, or are still, in your life. It is undeniable that their raw talent, mixed with Alexis’ alluring dialogue, creates two characters you feel you have known since the 6th grade.

******SPOILERS AHEAD*******

It would not be a review of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord if I did not discuss the ending. After what seems to be the final blackout, there is a chilling laugh heard in the darkness… and in enters Pablo Escobar. Though some may take Escobar's cameo as “mansplaining” the play to the audience, I find that interpretation to be an easy excuse to get angry over the presence of a man in a play so perfectly made up with women. Escobar's presence in the play is in no way condescending, nor does it take away from the power the characters have over us, or their presence as women. Instead, Escobar's scene is an inside look at the inner workings of the brain of a dictator. Taking someone with such an evil, rotten, brilliant mind who no longer has any ulterior motives or reasons to hide or lie (death took any stake Escobar had in the game right out) and learning how they think, how they absorb power, and what they do with it. Alexis’ writing was like a 60 Minutes episode with Escobar--no lies, no gimmicks, just a look inside his brain.

There is also something to be said about a female playwright giving voice to a dead, male, dictator. Just as Escobar has no stake in the game, it can feel like us as women, especially artists, don’t have any either. As Our Dear Dead Drug Lord expertly shows, we do not take women, young women--our daughters--seriously. That being said, what do we have to lose? Why not write a meta play about seances, sex, cocaine, and anger? No one will listen. Escobar has to speak to the audience at the end and explain the play--because we have been programmed, down to a subconscious level, to listen to men when they speak.  Throughout the entire play, at least I, didn’t really take the girl’s interest in dead leaders, the after life, and sacrifices seriously until it was too late. By the time I was actually listening, legitimate physical damage that had been done. Yet, once Escobar came out and insured us that all of what was happening was serious and real, I was overcome with the gravity of the situation.

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is giving us a chance to take our daughters, our sisters, women, seriously. We haven’t been paying attention, we haven’t been listening. It’s time we should no longer need the man to explain it for everyone--break the cycle, acknowledge the rage, take us seriously--because we are dead fucking serious.

 

Our Dear Dead Drug Lord runs until September 1st at the Calderwood Pavilion. Get your tickets here.

What's Love Got to Do With Moulin Rouge? A Review

Moulin Rouge The Musical is a show about love between a man and a woman--but more importantly, it is the story about love between a community.

Making its world premier at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, Moulin Rouge the Musical, directed by Alex Timbers, starring Aaron Tveit, Karen Olivo, and Danny Burstein (SWOON), is a show unlike anything that has kissed a stage before. That being said, Moulin Rouge The Musical is a very specific type of show, similar to the film from which it was inspired. However, once you’ve accepted it’s unique style, you can’t help but fall madly in love with it. The musical fuses original music from the motion picture with beloved pop songs. At first, especially for a die hard original score fan like myself, this feels like a slap to the face. Turns out, I just did not know how desperately I, and the entire audience, needed to hear talents like Aaron Tveit tear apart classic songs like Roxanne by The Police. The musical fusion aspect of this production enhances the story and brings the spectacle right to eye level. By choosing to sculpt a musical out of a story that is already known, featuring already popular songs, John Logan, the book writer, and the rest of the creative team was able to make the infamous untouchability of theatre seem within reach.

Once your heart rate comes back down and you can finally pick up your jaw from the floor after the absolutely riveting opening number, you realize that Moulin Rouge The Musical  is more than the hypnotizing lights (designed by Justin Townsend) and shimmering extravaganza--this musical has something to tell you. The familiarity of the music grabs people’s attention, inevitably leading to them taking something away from the story, opening minds and changing perspectives--something we are in desperate need of today.

With sensational costumes by Catherine Zuber, and a  fantastic set by Derek McLane, the familiar music helps you find a personal, intimate connection with the story. At times, it felt like you were being elevated out of your seat by the spellbounding energy. The presence of pop songs in Moulin Rouge The Musical unapologetically combines all of your nostalgic memories and throws them on stage. During Karen Olivio’s first number, a medley of forgotten favorites like Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend, the show felt like a real life moment: you’re surrounded by your best friends, and suddenly a song comes on that everyone knows the words to. Then you spend the next four minutes living through the pulsation and adrenaline that only a really great song can give you. That is the feeling that allows you to appreciate the musical decisions of Moulin Rouge the Musical.

Obviously, with a star-studded cast, the talent does not, even for a second, dissapoint. Especially with the unwavering energy from the ensemble, fearlessly lead by dance captain Jennifer Florentino. There is never a moment where you are left needing more. As you immerse yourself deeper into the universe of Moulin Rouge, ensemble dancer, Robyn Hurder, who plays Nini, leaves you even more breathless than you already were. Her control and fiercely wild energy not only invites you into her world, but makes you sure that you belong under that sparkling red, spinning windmill.

Overall, Moulin Rouge The Musical left me gliding out of the theatre, riding the wave of artistic energy that has yet to leave me since the performance. However, there are definitely some moments that could be tightened up. Placed (perhaps strategically) between the spectacular Act I opening and it’s tear jerking final number, maybe so you won’t remember them, certain points in the show don’t quite click. One point I can’t quite shake is the song choice for Satine’s (Karen Olivio) solo-number. The song is a re-orchestrated version of Firework by Katy Perry. It cannot be denied that Satine’s character deserves a stronger piece than this. Something feels so wrong about hearing Karen Olivio’s powerhouse vocals settle for an underwhelming song. Fortunately, Olivio’s talent does make up for the weak song choice. Even so, I couldn’t help but scroll through dozens of albums after the show, and scan all the better possibilities for the hero of the story to sing. As well as song choice, the seemingly disconnected narration by Christian (Aaron Tveit) doesn’t seem to fit into the story as it was first presented in the beginning. Although I am never one to object hearing Aaron Tveit narrate a story to me, I wish there was more continuity within the book. It is especially lost on the audience when Christian’s character is doing a re-telling of the story versus when he is experiencing it for the first time in front of us. Moulin Rouge The Musical is undoubtedly powerful and moving on stage, but the show needs some adjustments in order for the level of artistic flow to equal the level of its spectacle.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of Moulin Rouge The Musical is the theme of sisterhood and comradery. Like it says on the marquee, and all throughout the show, Moulin Rouge is about “truth, beauty, freedom, love”. Moulin Rouge The Musical displays what it means to have empathy and a real space for compassion in your heart. It reminds us what it means to care for others, to put love before self-preservation, and to fuse our own needs with the people around us. It seems like such a simple idea, love. Watching members of the ensemble (Jacqueline B. Arnold, Bahiyah Hibah, and Jeigh Madjus) perform Florence and the Machine’s, Shake It Out, alongside club owner, Harry Zidler (Danny Burstein), will remind you, however, just how complicated of an idea love has become and how much we have allowed ourselves to forget it.  This scene in particular speaks to what Moulin Rouge the Musical is standing for. To watch a group of people fight, struggle, lose, and possibly win the same game, and come together with a sense of community and empathy for each other, is seen far too infrequently today. Moulin Rouge The Musical is a reminder to audiences about what love is and what it means to love. The pop-Broadway fusion of this musical is simply a reflection of the fusion of characters, backgrounds, minds, and people it is promoting. Especially in the ending of the musical, there was a sense of mutual care and comradery between characters. This stays with you long after the wistful remembrance of sparkly costumes and blinding lights have worn off. Moulin Rouge The Musical is the visit from a soul sister that our hearts have been yearning for.

You Oughta See Jagged Little Pill: A Review

Jagged Little Pill (JLP) has been garnering a lot of attention since its opening at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.)  in the beginning of May. After I saw a performance of the musical, directed by Diane Paulus, which features music exclusively from Alanis Morissette’s album of the same name, all I can say is BELIEVE THE HYPE.

The musical, JLP tells the story of the Healy family—MJ, Steve, son Nick, and daughter Frankie. Similarly to the characters in Next to Normal, also written by JLP’s Tom Kitt, and Dear Evan Hansen, the family is seemingly perfect but struggles with varying degrees of emotional, mental, and sexual issues. JLP is the charmed third attempt of the mental health heavy, dysfunctional family-centered musical. Alanis Morissette's music aids in guiding us through an achingly moving story of relationships, sexuality, friendship, and unwavering female strength.

The musical is a living, breathing display of the contradictions of human nature and full of fascinating contrasts between characters, music, and stories. We’ve seen the jukebox musical time and time again, but never done so seamlessly as with JLP. Alanis Morissette allowed the contradictions of life and human nature come alive in her music, and writer of the musical, Diablo Cody reflected this onto the characters in the story. The scene that features the song “Ironic”, which in the musical is performed in the context of being a poem written for a creative writing class by Frankie Healy, the young daughter of MJ. Played by Celia Gooding, Frankie sets a tone of contradictions and absurdity that reality is made up of. One of the greatest, most compelling contradictions was between the characters of Bella, played by Kathryn Gallagher, and MJ Healy, played by Elizabeth Stanley. Both women represent the disputes over topics such as sexual assault that is created by the generational gap. MJ, as an earlier survivor of sexual assault, represents the outdated, irrational thought process that rape and other forms of sexual violence are at the fault of the victim. Bella, on the other hand, is the voice of right now, a brave young survivor who is lucky enough to have the privilege, and courage, to tell her story. The two share the stage for several scenes but almost never directly interact, creating many powerful moments. Once you are aware of the contrasts and foundational oppositions that are woven into the book and music of this show, the entire story becomes even more beautifully complicated and hauntingly relatable.

There is also something magical about how perfectly Alanis Morissette’s music, written in 1995, marries with the story written in our modern day. Not only does it say something about theatre’s ability to adapt to contemporary issues, but shows the timelessness of music. One of the main aspects of this show that makes it so vibrant and flowing is the commitment by the creative team to create a new story that fits with the pre-existing music. Too often jukebox musicals become poorly structured documentaries that are only salvaged by their familiar score. Having gone into the theatre with little to no acquaintance with Alanis Morissette’s music, I genuinely believe I was equally as moved and enlightened by the story as Alanis’s biggest fan would have been. Our climate right now allows music like Morissette’s to be deeply cathartic and refreshing— almost therapeutic. Even sitting in a theatre taking in a storyline and not being in a concert, there was a sense of relief and freedom that her music released within the audience. Keeping the original soul and raw emotion of the 1995 punk rock album but updating the story of JLP the musical to include current issues like sexual assault and gender identity was arguably the best decision that could have been made for this production.

Some noted numbers in this musical are, without question, Sean Allan Krill’s performance of Mary Jane, which stripped down society’s normalization of making women out to only be loveable when they have it all together— something not portrayed in other musicals like Next to Normal— where instead the women were seen as more desirable for being screwed up or for being in the middle of a breakdown. Contrarily, JLP portrays MJ, the matriarch of the family, as lovable and supported before, during, and after her emotional crisis. Another musical number, which I confidently predict to be seen on next year’s Tony Awards, is Lauren Patten’s performance of “You Oughta Know”. One of the most heartbreaking, yet captivating numbers was “So Unsexy”, performed by Elizabeth Stanley and Sean Allan Krill as husband and wife— probably the most accurate representation of the stage of unspoken anxiety, discomfort, and infuriating desire you have to fight against that almost all relationships go through.

More than that, JLP is a subtle outcry of feminism and female power. The themes of sexual assault, mother-daughter bonds, friendship, and romantic relationships between women are portrayed with such nuance, grace, and strength. The female characters are well rounded, funny, and extremely relatable. When— definitely not if— JLP moves to Broadway, it would be highly rewarding in more ways than one to cast a family of color to portray the Healy’s, and add more racial diversity among the leads in general.

Another wonderful bit of information surrounding JLP is its history of Jewish cast and creative team members, such as Idina Menzel who originated the role of MJ in the first reading of JLP,  and Tom Kitt, who helped transition the music for this show from record to stage.

Like the album, JLP the musical pushes the idea that we have to go through the really, really, shitty times in order to get to a better, more enlightened and elevated place in our lives. Sometimes life can be like swallowing a “jagged little pill,” but you’re better for it once you get it down and keep moving. The musical doesn’t act as a whining fest, but rather as an example of active grieving. Though the characters in the musical endure some very dark experiences, there is neither an overwhelming sense of self-pity or an unrealistic ending where everything is tied into a beautiful bow because people in the audience have trains to catch. Jagged Little Pill proves so many effects of art true. Its beauty, pain, relatability, and entertainment make it almost stupidly incredible and makes you wonder how you fell in love with any show so deeply before this one.

 

Life Is A Cabaret: A Review of RTC's National Tour of Cabaret

            In the Boston Opera House, life is truly beautiful. The Roundabout Theater Company’s production of Cabaret, which is currently on tour in Boston, serves as a brutal, but incredible wake up call to its audiences. From the moment the show begins, with the classic, sensual Emcee welcoming the audience into this new universe, the spell is immediately cast. Captivated is the audience as the shimmering curtain rises to reveal the outstanding orchestra, which also doubles as the ensemble- a brilliant and breathtaking group of performers who could sing, dance, and play circles around anyone. Instantly, the raunchy yet romantic set, decorated with not much more than three doors and a red wall, pulls the audience deeper into the dangerous ignorance of the Kit Kat Klub.

            Along with the perfectly exposed set, the choreography, recreated by Cynthia Onrubia, was as much a symbol of the raw sexuality, blissful ignorance, and torn conscious seen throughout the show as any other aspect of the production. The most stand out number of Roundabout’s production was, without a doubt, the incredible Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles and the ensemble performing “Mein Heirr”. From the darkness of the costumes to the rebel cry of the lyrics, this musical number absolutely stopped the show. Andrea Gross interrupts the space-time continuum with her powerhouse of a voice, and the ensemble is stunning as they perform the intricate, yet Fosse inspired, choreography. “Mein Heirr” incorporates an immense amount of feistiness and power from Sally’s character while she stuns the audience with her grand finale at the club. Throughout the show, Onrubia’s choreography is a constant symbol of what is currently happening in the scene. From the military-like synchronization in the beginning of Act II, to the wild, sporadic, even free movements in most of the musical numbers during Act I. Without even hearing the music, words, or dialogue, it is not at all far-fetched to say one could easily be just as captivated and effected by this story just by watching the choreography.

            Although the cast of the national tour of Cabaret was, as a whole, was exceptional, Randy Harrison as the Emcee was pure magic to watch. Harrison’s performance as the Emcee brought fun, and sexuality, but also a somber gravity to the shows overall message. Watching Harrison go from the playfulness of “Willkommen” to the heart wrenching, infamous ending of the production was a true honor. The stage was not commanded with so much force as it was whenever Harrison entered. Contrasting his ability to bring a sense of gravity to the production, Harrison also gave the audience plenty of comedic relief throughout the show, seamlessly throwing out dirty little jokes here and there, as if he were flawlessly speaking a second language.  As expected, the Emcee presented the audience with a host, a narrator, but most importantly, a preview as to what was to come. Randy Harrison understood this responsibility and took on the character full force, creating an eerie, sexy, cheerful, and struggling person who did not fit into one single category. Without a powerful actor embodying the Emcee in Cabaret, the production would have no backbone, no trail of bread crumbs, and no morbid bow to tie everything together at the end. Harrison’s performance was no small feat and his Emcee truly represented how ugly life can get if we believe it is only beautiful.

            Though the music of Cabaret is not unpopular, this production did not force the audience to grow weary of the familiar musical numbers or ever shocking plot. Somehow, most likely through a combination of the impeccable set and lighting design and brilliant direction, Roundabout’s production revived a beloved classic. Despite director BT McNicholl sticking to most of the original direction, there was something so fresh and striking about the production. Cabaret is a perfect example of how a piece of theater created decades ago can still be revived, produced, and adored by all generations.

            A show such as Cabaret has a funny way of finding its way into the theater at the times when we most need a story of its caliber. For a show that is famous for such human lines of dialogue as “that’s just politics, what does that have to do with us?”, it does a phenomenal job of using it’s tragic story as a grave reminder to future generations. Cabaret serves as a warning that sings and dances. A warning to those who think that they are safe in the dim lights of the KitKat Club, drowning blissfully in their ignorance towards the reality of the world they live in. A warning to those who believe they have too little life left to stand up for what is right and to speak for those with a stolen voice. This stunning production of Cabaret is not simply a musical, it is a display of reflection on the human race, the mistakes we have made in the past, and the striking possibility that we may make those very same mistakes once again. Cabaret is a wake- up call, a last call for anyone still straggling in the pool of denial and indifference. By the end of the show, Cabaret presents the audience with two different options: stay in the cabaret, or force yourself to acknowledge the light of day. In the words of Fräulein Schneider, beautifully played by Mary Gordon Murray, “what would you do?”.