Author: leh2165

Photo courtesy of BBB.

Rousing applause closed the night at Bandstand, the latest of Broadway’s American musicals. Bandstand boasts an all-original storyline and an all-American plot, addressing the inaction of American government and society in addressing the needs of our veterans in a post-World War II, swing-era context. A tantalizing portrayal of the not-so-glorious aftermath of World War II, Bandstand catalogues the story of Donny Novitski (Corey Cott), a swing pianist from Cleveland with a desire to make it big in the city that never sleeps, and Julia Trojan (Laura Osnes), a recently widowed choir singer who decides to pursue the dream of being a jazz vocalist in order to cope with the unfortunate demise of her husband in the war.

The musical tells the story of a group of veterans gathered by Donny (in a wonderful scene in which each character has a chance to declare “I know a guy”) who form a band to compete in a national radio contest in New York City while struggling to fit into their old lives and deal with the lingering effects of the war. The prize could guarantee celebrity status to its winners, but dealing with complicated interpersonal relationships and the challenges of finding jobs in post-war America, provides obstacles to the band that confront not only the dismal treatment of veterans, but also the essential flaws haunting any pursuit of the American Dream.

Throughout the musical’s opening, Donny is tormented by his role in Julia’s late husband’s death, and is not alone in his burden. Every character bares the marks of the war on their minds, in their music, and in their hearts. Physical ailments are paired with post-traumatic stress and beautifully choreographed scenes wherein the actors physically struggle under the weight of men in military uniform— dragging their ghosts with them. Even Julia, as she joins the band of veterans, struggles with her own loss in the aftereffects of the war.

In addition to survivor’s guilt, Donny has to overcome his pride and fear. His failure to save Julia’s husband presents a very cutting scene on stage in part because Donny is the epitome of the trope of the overconfident male with complete faith in his ability to achieve the American Dream. In fact, in a beautifully belted solo, Danny even quite forcefully inserts himself among the era’s greats, denigrating Sinatra’s skills in comparison to his own.

Altogether, Bandstand hits on a sensitive and relevant topic in today’s society in a way reminiscent of White Christmas’ classic “What Can you Do with a General,” an early commentary on the aftereffects of war; however, with Bandstand modern theater brings us a portrayal more unapologetically gritty and honest…

And, as the musical clearly elucidates, contentious.

It is often hard to like Donny as he gives in to his pride and aggression, losing himself at times to his own mind, but as Julia comes around to see him in a different light, audience members cannot ignore his charm— nor the damage unfairly done to him by the lack of support and representation for returning veterans, veterans living in a society that does not want to acknowledge the scars inflicted on their brothers, fathers, and sons.

Occasionally the complexity of projecting multiple perspectives onto the stage (i.e. the first scene, which is both set at home with Julia and simultaneously abroad in the trenches) and pairing them with interpretive demonstrations of the characters’ mentalities manifests in Bandstand as strange staging and slightly confusing choreography. But, considering the massive scope of the undertaking, Bandstand does an impressive job of playing out its various plotlines.

The only real criticism that came to me in the mutterings of the audience and my own hesitations while watching Bandstand was the distinctly awkward inadmission of the concurrent issue of racial segregation during the 1940s and early 1950s. After all, Brown v. Board of Education didn’t even occur until 1954. As a result, it was a little disconcerting to see the token black character come to life in their use of Kevyn Morrow, the only POC cast member, as blanket ensemble in ambiguous roles with minimal speaking, the musical’s realism marred by its refusal to acknowledge its historical context in this regard. At one point, he is a preacher (for an all-white church), and, at another, he works as a radio executive (for an otherwise all-white station). To leave this unacknowledged is to pretend the harsh reality of the segregated social climate did not exist.

That being said, the musical dealt and dealt well with the issues it did confront, and it is understandable (though unfortunate and perhaps uncomfortable) that, in the stress of dealing with such a hugely important and controversial subject as the mistreatment of veterans, certain aspects of the play became “unreal” and certain unpalatable realities went unacknowledged.

Still, we can learn from Bandstand, in its message and its omitted lines, a great deal about the change that our society calls for, that America needs. So I would still call Bandstand a great American musical, and, with its hard-hitting message on veterans’ needs and its equally stunning choreography, certainly worth watching.

Christy Altomare and company of Anastasia. Photo Courtesy of Joan Marcus.

 

When the long-anticipated Broadway adaptation of the cartoon classic Anastasia (1997) debuted under the bright lights of the Broadhurst Theatre, the audience was tightly packed and diverse: thick Eastern European accents were offset by the squeals of American women in their teens and early 20s, eagerly anticipating their favorite story brought to life. Indeed, all of the audience members were likely intimately familiar with some form of the story behind Anastasia— whether the “true” history of the ill-fated Tsarevna Anastasia Nikolaevna, allegedly murdered by the Cheka (Bolshevik secret police) in 1918, or the whimsical tale of 20th Century Fox’s “Anastasia Romanov(a),” with its talking bat and mad villain Rasputin hunting the Romanov family to near-extinction, with its train crashes and hexes and wild run to the streets of Paris— but few could predict what would happen when the lights grew dim and these two stories intersected in a new translation of the classic tale.

With the introduction of Anastasia to the stage, Rasputin gave way to the Russian Revolution of 1917 (specifically the February Revolution and the fall of Winter Palace) and the rising Russian Communist movement; the new adaptation brought new “villains” to the story. But as Anastasia grew closer to real life, so did its conflict. Instead of employing the black and white morality shown in the movie, the Broadway play Anastasia thoroughly developed its villains and their drives. This idea of gray-moral conflict was embodied by the well-rounded character development of the main antagonist Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), who faced a moral dilemma threatening his identity even as Anastasia came to recognize her own.

Despite these major changes to the plot, the majority of the characters and music that made Anastasia the movie a success remained in the play. In fact, not only were iconic songs like “Learn to Do It,” “Journey to the Past,” and “Once Upon a December” beautifully rearticulated, but also the original songs like “My Petersburg” performed by Dmitry (Derek Klena) and “Stay, I Pray You,” which featured nearly the entire cast, were instrumental in exposing the raw nerve endings of a country torn apart by revolution and giving new depth to the characters.

“Stay, I Pray You” was a particularly timely addition for today’s audiences, given its thematic focus on the struggles of leaving a war-torn country to seek refuge away from one’s home. Dmitry and Anya (Anastasia) may have been full of hope, but they, along with the refugees they accompanied, still called:

Stay, I pray you.

Let me have a moment,

Let me say goodbye;

Harsh and sweet

And bitter to leave it all,

I’ll bless my homeland

Till I die.

The eyes of the cast at this point twinkled with tears in the bright stage lights. The audience was not immune from the sudden onset of emotions.

Anastasia is inherently self-aware: a nostalgic story centered around nostalgia; a story about respecting the past while growing to make new decisions respecting its past and growing into new decisions. And for the audience members not satisfied by this balance of whimsy and historical realism, a near-topless Derek Klena and a bejeweled Tsarina, stunning graphics that expanded the small stage into a platform crossing international boundaries and spectacular Russian choreography filling the stage in thrusting limbs and fluttering skirts— these seemed to have been enough of a distraction from defamiliarizing plot elements.

In the course of the night, very few technical or performative issues arose. The opening of the first scene, featuring a young Anastasia and her Grandmother the Grand Duchess as the Grand Duchess says goodbye before departing to Paris, was a bit choppy, seeming to be a near-direct quotation of the movie lacking the vivid character of the rest of the play, and Ramin Karimloo (Gleb) sounded slightly nervous at the play’s start; that is, Karimloo’s first two vocal performances were a bit more breathless than breathtaking. However, these minor issues were quickly eclipsed by the interactions between the young Anastasia and her family, the collapse of the Grand Duchess at the news of their deaths (a tear-jerking performance), and Karimloo’s heart-stopping second reprise of “A Simple Thing,” in which his voice persisted where many other actors would have failed.

Altogether, Anastasia overshot all expectations of success and managed a seemingly impossible feat with its reconciliation of history with fantasy. Its near-perfect opening performances can only improve as the actors and actresses continue to bring the streets of Leningrad (ne Saint Petersburg) to our very own West 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves.

Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“Some people are born with the capacity to do great things. Some people change the world. Some people rise from humble beginnings to defeat the forces of darkness in the face of insurmountable odds. ‘PUFFS’ is the story of the people who sit in class next to those people.”-“PUFFS” Press Release

“Puffs,” “Puff” singular, is the fond shorthand of “Hufflepuffs,” the lovable magical misfits of the Harry Potter world, and also the title of the recent Off-Broadway retelling (for avid fans) of the Harry Potter story from the Hufflepuff House’s perspective. While the familiar story starts with a scarred baby dropped on the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive, this adaptation takes another orphan all the way from England to America.

Catchy music and strange (magical) P.A. announcements usher the audience into the richly-curtained, dimly-lit theater; the positive side of Elektra Theater’s small size is that every seat is “a good one,” as one man exclaims. Each member of the audience feels intimately connected with the recessed stage. The closely assembled gallery of spectators  are close enough to gawk over  the 1990’s style slide projecter that opens the set. “PUFFS,” it declares, in sketchy letters cast at an awkward angle across the badger-yellow curtain. The theater is complimented by an equally small, but well-selected, staff of actors and actresses, one of whom throws in an April Fool’s Day joke over the P.A. – using a perfect McGonnagal imitation – to lighten the atmosphere.

This is not the only loving nod to the original series. Just after the set opens, an iconic Harry Potter line, in the style of all things “PUFFS,” is cleverly repurposed:

“You’re a wizard, Wayne.”

The Uncle of our young protagonist declares this in a thick drawl, having regained his wits after the unexpected arrival of a British post owl. Soon enough Wayne is ushered away to Hogwarts, where he contemplates the miracle (and the mess he makes) of magic with his fellow Hufflepuff friends: the previously Oxford-bound eleven-year-old mathematician Oliver (played by Langston Bell) and the angsty Death Eater fangirl Megan Jones (played by Julie Ann Earls). With Harry Potter’s arrival headlining Hogwarts’ gossip chains, however, the good-natured (except, perhaps, for Megan) Hufflepuff clan and their charismatic leader Cedric Diggory, who has wonderful theme music, must fight against the odds to recover the Hogwarts House Cup.

And inevitably fail.

The overbearingly optimistic group continues to strive for success, or at least mediocrity, with the often-chanted phrase “Third [place] or nothing,” fully aware that their final takeaway from the year’s events will likely be fourth place (or nothing) in the House Cup.

Through the (mis)adventures of Wayne, Oliver, and Megan, “PUFFS” follows their attempts to gain house points and a sense of what it means to be a Hufflepuff, with guest appearances from characters like Hannah Abbot, J. Finch, and a marvelously acccurate rendition of Professor Severus Snape.

The vocal dexterity of the cast cannot be denied, as Snape and others take the stage, or even before the play starts, in the half-hour of seating as the actors take turns creating clever and ridiculous school announcements over the P.A.

The chairs are wide and comfortable, and peeking over the edges of the seats, black and yellow scarves and ties make their presence known in every row. Among the Hufflepuff gear, one head stands out in blue and silver. A Ravenclaw sits alone in this out-of-the-way Puff Haven.

…Which takes us to the question: Is “PUFFS or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic” a play for everyone, or just those marginalized and hardcore (or at least as harcore as they can get) Hufflepuffs? After all, we’re not all cut out to be Hufflepuffs, are we?

The main message of this strange Harry Potter sometimes-parody, which bounces between hilarious and heartrending, is what makes a Puff. Gryffindors tout bravery, Ravenclaws treasure intelligence, and Slytherins anthropomorphize snakes, or blonde-haired “assholes,” depending on which “PUFFS” definition you prefer.  But what did Helga Hufflepuff seek out in her students? A Puff is loyal, hardworking, and, when it comes down to the four houses of Hogwarts, the Hufflepuffs are, well, the “everyone else.”

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of ?

“Lumos!” Dumbledore may be dead, but the Hufflepuff squad appears to all have mastered the first year curriculum. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

But aren’t we all sometimes the “everyone else?” The narrator, played by A.J. Ditty (featured in Hufflepuff colors above), offered a final assessment that yes, everyone can be a Hufflepuff. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides rooming closer to the kitchens (and the whole hard-working/loyal aspect of the Puffs), the Puffs have one other major advantage: they all fail, and, as Cedric Diggory reminds us before his untimely death, “Failure is just another form of practice… as long as you just keep trying.”

Ditty, of whom a fellow audience member claimed “[He] deserves his own Oscar. Perfect inflection, delivery, and interaction with [the] audience without feeling cliché,” offered a parallel to a quote from the possibly-Hufflepuff Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whose career A.J. Ditty also shares.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett

Ditty adds to the question of who a Puff is, “Oh, I learned a lot by doing the show. The Puffs are the kind of people you want to be friends with.” Possibly referencing one of the more lighthearted scenes of the play, wherein Butterbeer makes its first appearance, he adds, “the Puffs are the people you want to have an adult modern beverage with.”

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

A Hogsmeade scene possibly only outmatched in perfect comedic timing by Cedric Diggory in the bathtub. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When asked what advice he has to share with modern-day muggle (and magical) Puffs, the “extras” and “outcasts” who are increasingly feeling the pressure of today’s society, Ditty offers, “Keep failing— because it only means you’re going to do better. Even if you fail, it is a key part in growing.”

If Ditty sounds a bit like a Hufflepuff himself, it shouldn’t be surprising. The entire cast seemed cheery and approachable in their interactions with the audience attending the show.

Coming forward to greet me and discuss the performance when the play was over, Ditty paused in his tracks at first.

“Did I high-five you during the show?” He sounded both amused and surprised.

Due to fortuitous seating arrangements, my answer was a definite and mirthful “Yes.”

Later, as I was leaving my interview, I passed by some other cast members signing scarves and programs. The enthusiasm of the crowd had left them one pen short. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out my fountain pen and handed it to Eleanor Phillips, who played Hannah Abbott (and Others).

She paused while signing the first program.

“This writes beautifully!”

The waiting fan laughed, leaning toward me. “Good luck getting that back.”

Eleanor looked confused. “I wouldn’t steal a pen.”

In that moment, she was the epitome of Hufflepuff. Something a “normal person” might not think twice about just seemed absolutely impossible to her. She would never steal a pen.

It was my turn to laugh.

Sure the play is often satirical, but the reituration of Harry Potter’s story from the Puff perspective was cleverly genuine to the smallest detail; even the outside of the theater was decorated with contrived Harry Potter posters and references, papers and designs. There is a whole Harry Potter Hufflepuff world within the walls of the Elektra.

The young woman watching beside me offered her opinion on the “Wayne,” or Neville-esque (Hufflepuff) character’s appearance: “the retelling… was very convincing and tasteful… instead of trying to force the whole ‘Neville should’ve gotten a whole 7 volumes, too!’ Puffs instead faithfully reproduced much of the plot of the series without making it an explicitly different story.”

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

When the “Yellow Trio” (“Golden Trio” was already taken) come in for a hug. Photo Courtesy of Puffs

The idea that the play was true to the series and yet introduced a new twist – a story within a story – corresponded with what Ditty offered as clarification during his interview:

“I think there’s a misconception about the show that it’s strictly a parody. It may wink at the Harry Potter series, but it really does tell its own story. I think it’s a really good one. It’s about heroes, and how not everyone is one conventionally, but everyone can be a hero to someone.”

Who needs to be just a hero, or just brave, just intelligent, just an “asshole” anyways? As one of the play’s Puffs questions, “Why be one thing when you can be everything?”

That perhaps was the biggest issue that I hold with “PUFFS.” “90-ish” minutes is not enough time for everything.

In only ninety minutes, the quick pacing and clever utilization of fun props and rapid-fire transitions made the play dynamic and drew the audience in as much as the Dementors did in the third act, but they left little time to go deeper into what playwright Matt Cox crafted as incredibly interesting and multi-faceted characters.

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of???

Ditty introduces the third year arrival of the dementors, who are really quite terrible school safety officers. Photo Courtesy of Puffs.

The play leaves its crowd of Harry Potter fans wanting seven more volumes.

Kristin McCarthy Parker who directed Cox’s “PUFFS” was clearly aware of this. Her spacing and designation take full advantage of the time the actors do have.

Indeed, the whole play seems very self-aware, sometimes crossing the fourth wall, often nodding to the movie series (“I’m telling you guys, the headmaster looks different this year” and “HARRY! Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?”), and often parodying scenes that otherwise require suspension of disbelief (like the lake-watching in the second task of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” or “The Puffs and the Year They Matter”) in a manner which performing artist and Columbia College student Cindy Liu claimed is “delicious.” With full-grown adults playing eleven year-olds (which Mr. Ditty points out with a quirked brow), these are a necessary and graceful concession to the “magic” of theater.

Altogether, “PUFFS” is the Ferris Bueller of Harry Potter reproductions. It is clever and unexpected, with corny humor and philosophical moments; it is an instant classic and has an endearing cast that leads you to question:

“Am I a Puff?”

And after “PUFFS,” you’ll want to find the Puff in yourself.

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of ??

The Hufflepuff house comes together (and the “PUFFS” Mac & Finch ship finally draw their wands). Photo Courtesy of Puffs

“PUFFS” is not a sixteen hundred seat “Lion King” style, heart-stopping production, but instead an intimate show built on inside references and energetic acting that at least deserves its motto of #ThirdorNothing on the list of shows for which Harry Potter fans should keep an eye out for tickets in the coming months, notably until the end of its extended run by popular demand (July 30th, 2017).
*As a final note, there is definitely a reason for the PG13 rating, so be cognizant of the “PUFFS” sense of humor when deciding who to bring with you.*
Tickets to Puffs can be purchased here with tickets starting as low as $29.