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Photo: courtesy of Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia Brings Deeply Personal, Universally Relatable The New One to National Theatre

When Lin-Manuel Miranda calls your one-man show “As perfect a night as you’re gonna get,” it might seem like an it’s-all-downhill-from-here moment. But for Mike Birbiglia, there is no downhill, as the comic, actor, playwright and director’s personal projects continually supersede their predecessors. His latest one-man show, 2017’s The New One, which inspired Miranda’s sterling review, is also Birbiglia’s most honest and transparent performance to date. The show wrestles with Birbiglia’s initial opposition to having children, and how his thoughts on parenting rapidly shifted toward clichés such as, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” While the story contains tons of jokes, he gets real about feeling like an intern in his own family and having bouts of jealousy toward his daughter. Known for his versatile storytelling, Birbiglia has made frequent stops on NPR’s This American Life, directed films Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice (and starred in the former), and has appeared in several popular TV shows. Before he brings his Broadway show to National Theatre on September 24-29, we caught up with him about his process, writing about the personal and his first year as a dad.

On Tap: At what point did you know this story was a one-person show? What about the narrative lent itself to that kind of performance?
Mike Birbiglia: There was actually a gag order in my family about talking about the pregnancy or having a child for the first year, where I would tell [my wife] Jen [Stein] jokes I was working on and she’d say, “I don’t think you should talk about that.” At a certain point, I was in Nantucket at the film festival and they asked me to tell a story about jealousy. I said, “No, I don’t think I’m gonna tell a story.” My wife said, “Well, you’re jealous of Oona.” That’s our daughter. And I said, “That’s true.” On that trip, Jen and I started writing a story together about how I’m jealous of our daughter and that’s the seed of what became the show. Jen started sharing her writing with me and I started sharing my writing with her, and we got really honest about what had happened in that first year [as parents] and the things we had struggled with. That’s why ultimately the show is really funny and has a ton of jokes, but it’s also very close to the bone and I couldn’t have written it without Jen for that reason.

OT: With something so personal, it’s likely you weren’t necessarily planning on telling this story while you were living through it. How do you know when something you’re going through can become a story?
MB: Once you decide that you’re a storyteller of any kind, your whole life is forever looked at through the lens of, “Could that be used as a story?” No matter how happy or sad or weird or strange or cool, it does cross your mind. If a writer says it doesn’t cross their mind, they’re probably lying. My stories, they’re so personal. So, it was important to me that Jen and I were both on the same page about telling the story. Ultimately, the story is about change and how I never wanted to have a child and [how] I was so glad that we had a child. Really, it’s about transformation and the idea that the things we’re sometimes the most reluctant to do are the things that we need most.

OT: What was the toughest thing to admit and be honest about when writing about yourself?
MB: I think the toughest thing was admitting that I could have done better as a dad in that first year of my daughter’s life. I worked too many hours. I traveled too much. I say it in the show, but I was basically the intern of our family. I was the pudgy, milkless vice president. Huge title, no power, also oversees Congress. But if I’m being completely honest, I could have been a better intern.

OT: What’s the writing process for your one-man shows? How do you approach formulating the narrative?
MB: My director Seth Barrish and I have worked on four solo plays that have been off-Broadway: Sleepwalk with Me, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Thank God for Jokes and now The New One, which moved to Broadway. The way we work is when we arrive at what we believe to be the main event of the show, we work backwards. In other words, with Sleepwalk with Me, it was jumping through a second-story window. With My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, it was being in a car accident and deciding to get married. With Thank God for Jokes, it was telling an inappropriate joke at an awards show. And with this one, it was the moment I understand all the clichés people say about having children. All the things I made fun of and laughed about for all these years [suddenly] made sense to me. So, we really built backwards from that to understand what’s the most impactful way to arrive at that feeling.

OT: What does it mean to have had this performance on Broadway? Was that something you aspired to? How did that experience differ from your previous productions?
MB: Going to Broadway was something we had talked about with all three of the other shows. This one felt like it was the right thing because it was in some ways the most universal. It’s about having a child, but it’s also really just about change and deciding to be alive and what it means to be alive and why we choose to be alive. Plus, it was maybe the funniest of the shows. In terms of Broadway itself, I think what’s special about that is that you enter a community of people who you admire coming to your shows and you going to their shows. I went to Heidi Schreck’s show What the Constitution Means to Me and she came to my show. I went to Rachel Chavkin’s musical Hadestown and she came to my show. That kind of back-and-forth between being in a community of shows and supporting each other, I think that’s the most special part of it. For me, it’s not what street you’re on.

OT: You went to Georgetown University and had a stint at DC Improv. Does performing in DC feel like coming home at all?
MB: I think the most exciting thing about performing in DC is that I can invite Jake Tapper and Neal Katyal to come to the shows. The second most important thing is that I lived in DC and started doing comedy there. It’s very meaningful to me to think that when I was seating people and bringing nachos to tables at DC Improv, the idea that I would be performing my Broadway show at National Theatre down the street would be unfathomable. But in the same way, everything in your life is unfathomable. It’s just a matter of which type of unfathomable it ends up being.

Mike Birbiglia’s The New One runs at National Theatre from Tuesday, September 24 through Sunday, September 29. Tickets start at $39. For more about the one-man show and Birbiglia, visit www.birbigs.com.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.com

Photo: Kahn & Selesnick

Amanda Palmer Gets Deeply Personal with No Intermission

It’s no surprise Amanda Palmer tweeted a video of Rocky’s training montage from Sylvester Stallone’s franchise. This particular one isn’t the most famous – I think him running up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps takes the cake – but the “Hearts on Fire”-led video depicts a bearded Rocky running up a mountain, chopping down trees and shouting “Drago!” Palmer isn’t a boxer, and she’s not prepping to rescue the world from communism in a 12-round bout, but she’s a f–king fighter, and she needed a little motivation this morning.

“To be f–king honest with you, that was the first [song] YouTube gave me,” Palmer says with a snicker. “I woke up with my list of sh-t to do rolling through my head, and I had to lift wood because I’m literally living in the [wilderness] and loading up on firewood. I’m training to fight patriarchy. It’s galvanizing me.”

Palmer has been shaking up the music world since 2000 when she and Brian Viglione formed The Dresden Dolls. In the nearly two decades since, she’s produced a variety of music ranging from orchestral mashups to eclectic covers of Radiohead to tributes to David Bowie. With a background in theatre and other forms of performance art, it’s rare that her music stays on the tracks as it typically bleeds into other mediums. Now she’s gearing up for a tour in late March focused on a mixed-medium release titled There Will Be No Intermission, which includes a full-length album, an artbook, videos and live performances with a stop at National Theatre on April 5.

“There was no question I’d take the show on the road,” Palmer says. “I’ve never had a cohesive show; it’s usually been a grab bag. This album, where it came from and what it represents to me, brings with it a kind of accountability where I don’t want to f–k it up. I’ve really had to think hard about how to be a guidance counselor for the audience as far as navigating this material and digesting it.”

Her career is very much built on the personal relationship she has with her audience, and Palmer’s upcoming tour features her most intimate revealings yet with songs about abortion, miscarriages and other powerful vignettes from her life story.

“This record was written in real time and while these things were happening. In a song like ‘Voicemail for Jill,’ I look at it honestly; it took me years to write. I sat down dozens of times, and I found writing about abortion incredibly difficult. You could look at that song and say it took 23 years to write.”

The music on the record and in her performance vacillates from whimsical to serious, dark to witty, political to personal. Despite the wide range of topics and emotions tapped, the piece never feels disjointed and everything is connected.

“You can’t separate the political landscape from the personal experience I’ve had the past few years,” the artist says. “My child was born when Trump became president. I’ll never be able to figure out which was the chicken and the egg, but all those things [led to] a sense of urgency. Even though this is the most personal, honest, inevitable record I’ve made, it feels the most political because the most powerful thing a woman can do right now is tell the truth about an experience.”

The album title represents a clever way of declaring that life never stops. Sometimes there are no breaks in the waves, no pauses for breath and no time to gather yourself in a tough situation. Despite the subtext of the name, the songs are broken up by peaceful interludes of instrumentation.

“There are intermissions – the irony continues,” Palmer says laughing. “They’re the breathing space in between the assaults. I wanted to give the entire album space. I’m really happy; it was a happy accident.”

She did toy with the idea of doing the performance straight through. However, because of the heavy subject matter and emotional relentlessness, she decided to reconsider after a test run where people wandered in and out of where she was rehearsing.

“It’s difficult, and I need to let them leave,” she says candidly. “I’ve tried to address people and no one’s ever angry, but I’ve had to develop a way to warn them about what’s onstage. You don’t go see Halloween 8 and expect a guy without a knife, just like you’re not coming to an Amanda Palmer show and expecting Disney songs and jazz hands.”

Luckily for Palmer, most of her fans are kept up-to-date by the artist herself. She’s constantly finding new ways to interact with the people who have enabled her to be a self-sufficient artist. Through membership platform Patreon and other fundraising methods, she has remained independent as a musician, allowing her art to be beautifully, brutally honest.

“I’ve never separated my evolution as songwriter and performing artist with the conversation I’m having with the rest of the world. If anything, those two things have become intertwined. It’s way less scary. I didn’t want to be an artist separate from a community, behind a wall. I got into making music because I wanted to connect with people.”

Connect with Amanda Palmer at National Theatre on Friday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $39-$54 and available at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about Palmer and her tour at www.nointermission.amandapalmer.net.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Finding Neverland at National Theatre Hooks DC with its Cuteness

The talented company behind Finding Neverland is making a short but sweet stop at the historic National Theatre in DC. British playwright and screenwriter James Graham’s work comes to life with charming music, a dash of romance, heaps of comedy and adorable children. Though some theatre-goers may believe this musical focuses solely on the beloved Peter Pan, it’s less about pirates and fairies, and more about the inspiration behind the story’s famous playwright, J.M. Barrie, portrayed by a charismatic Jeff Sullivan.

Sullivan enchants the audience immediately with the opening monologue/introduction in Act I, and his gentleness and playfulness with the young actors is fun to watch. One of the easiest things to enjoy about this show is the connection between Mr. Barrie and widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons.

Sylvia’s son Peter, Barrie’s inspiration for the Peter Pan character, begins as the most mature of his brothers, portrayed as book-smart with a no-nonsense attitude. However, Peter eventually begins to indulge in the silliness that his siblings and Mr. Barrie provide. Collectively, these five characters hammer in the main theme of imagination with the performances of “Believe,” “Play” and the entirety of “The Dinner Party” scene, which gave the audience a good laugh, from the stuffy characters’ behavior to messing with a toupee.

It’d be foolish not to mention one of the musical’s main scene stealers, Charles Frohman, Barrie’s demanding producer, played hilariously and gruffly by Conor McGiffin. McGiffin doubles as Captain James Hook as well – the character who stems from the dark side of J.M. Barrie’s personality. Both characters McGiffin plays are loud, obnoxious and comedic, so all eyes and laughs are on him when he’s center stage.

The Disney magic, if you will, appears through the dreamy production and set design features, such as light projections, shiny fairy dust and twinkling starry nights. Some of J.M. Barrie’s imagination/dream scenes in the musical involved members of the company impressively choreographed in sync with both the music and the projections, which added to the musical’s creative strengths. A favorite subtlety of mine was seeing the cloud scenery change as time went on.

The entire cast is full of bright energy that keeps you smiling  throughout. There’s even a live dog that plays the Llewelyn Davies’ pet who gives the audience “oohs,” “aahs” and “aaws” at every appearance.

In addition to the show being a visual masterpiece, it’s clear the cast means business when it comes to the elegant singing moments, especially Sullivan’s graceful tenor voice married with Ruby Gibbs’ (the female lead character, Sylvia) stunning, lyrical vocals. Even the terribly precious young boys shine in perfect harmony during their performance of “We’re All Made of Stars.”

From the humor to the heart-warming and emotional moments, Finding Neverland is a musical that will resonate with any audience. See the musical at DC’s National Theatre now through Sunday, March 23. Tickets available at www.thenationaldc.org.

National Theatre DC: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Joan Marcus

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at The National Theatre

Pop music lovers beware; this upbeat jukebox musical will have you moving and grooving to some of the greatest hits of all time. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical follows the personal and professional life of  Carole King, the wildly successful singer-songwriter, and presents a mesmerizing concert of 50s, 60s and 70s hits to the audience. Though the musical only covers a small part of her life – the late 1950s to the early 1970s – this two-hour show packs energy, musicality, character development and moments of shameless cheesy jokes that you can’t help but giggle at. Plus Alejo Vietti’s brilliant costume design and smashing choreography by Josh Prince really set the stage for the “doo-wop” era.

If you’re not quite sure who Carole King is, you’ll learn very quickly in the first act that she’s behind some of the most beloved “oldies,” such as “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The effortlessly talented Sarah Bockel portrays King in the most charming and mature manner, and honestly looks just like her. We see her grow from a young, giddy 16-year-old student at Queens College to an elegant, sophisticated artist behind the piano at Carnegie Hall, which is where we see her from the start of the first act to the end of the second act. Douglas McGrath’s script portrays King as a talented pianist and songwriter who gets her start at 1650 Broadway thanks to big-time publisher Don Kirshner, played hilariously by James Clow.

After meeting and collaborating with her handsome lyricist boyfriend-turned-husband Gerry Goffin, played by the studly Dylan S. Wallach, King’s career only skyrockets further and the audience is treated to an impressive number of their hits performed by The Drifters and The Shirelles — portrayed authentically by the insanely talented ensemble members.

Though Bockel does a thorough job capturing the charismatic nature of King’s character and contributes to the cheerfully cheesy jokes that had the crowd chuckling, it’s mostly songwriter Barry Mann, played by Jacob Heimer, that adds a huge chunk of humor to the show with his hypochondriac tendencies and abnormal but entertaining anxiety.

Mann and Cynthia Weil, another successful pair of hit-makers for artists such as The Righteous Brothers and The Crystals, are both competitors and best friends to Goffin and King. Throughout the first act, we see the two pairs battling for Kirshner’s approval with songs such as “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and a personal favorite, “The Locomotion.” In addition to enjoying music that has paved the way for the pop and R&B genres, we get a chance to see the romantic relationships from both partnerships unfold, with King and Goffin’s ending on a low note (King has married three times since then), and Weil and Mann’s chemistry resulting in a long-running marriage.

The highlight of the musical was hearing Bockel belt some of King’s most beloved hits from her Grammy-winning album Tapestry, including “It’s Too Late” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” At this point in the musical, King was becoming more independent and moving to the West Coast to create her self-sung album. Each Carole King solo, and every musical number for that matter, was received by a roaring, applauding audience as if it was really these famous singers and groups performing in front of our very eyes.

All ages can relate to the themes of the show — dream big and work hard to get where you want, show and give love, and most importantly, girl power. With wit, humor, grace and pure talent, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a must-see for those who love a good success story. The powerful vocals and energetic cast will leave you completely satisfied by this jukebox musical.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs through Sunday, December 30 at The National Theatre DC. For tickets and show dates visit www.thenationaldc.org.

The National Theatre DC: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org

Photo: Darren Cox

Beetlejuice: The Musical! The Musical! The Musical!

It isn’t until the delightfully weird cult classic you can quote in your sleep makes its pre-Broadway debut in your city and the buzz rises to a deafening level that you realize there are thousands, maybe millions, of strange and unusual superfans out there. It’s no surprise that Tim Burton’s iconic, stop-motion aesthetic and penchant for rooting for the underdog resonates with so many of us, but bringing his first successful feature film to the stage as an original musical is indicative of the freelance bio-exorcist’s reach in today’s pop culture landscape.

Beetlejuice: The Musical arrives in the District on October 14 at National Theatre, the second world-premiere production to land at the historic spot in the past year following 2017’s Mean Girls debut. As my fellow Burton nerds and I prep for this epic production, we picked the brain of two-time Tony Award-nominated Alex Timbers (Rocky, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) about taking the 1988 film to Broadway. Like so many of us, the 40-year-old director grew up watching Beetlejuice and was immediately drawn into Burton’s highly stylized world.

“[Beetlejuice] was the first time we were seeing Tim Burton unleashed, in a way,” Timbers tells me on a recent call. “And like a lot of people, I really connected with this story about a group of outsiders.”

A brief synopsis for those unfamiliar with the film (and if so, please go watch it immediately): a young, very vanilla couple, Barbara and Adam Maitland, are killed tragically in a car accident and get stuck haunting their idyllic Connecticut home and navigating the afterlife, complete with a handbook for the recently deceased that reads like stereo instructions. When my all-time favorite dysfunctional family, the Deetzes, move in (Charles is looking for a respite from NYC living, his wife Delia is repelled by the “giant ant farm” they’ve moved into and their teenage daughter Lydia is the brooding goth kid in all of us), the Maitlands panic and hire the ghost with the most, Betelgeuse (known to clients as Beetlejuice) to scare the disruptive trio all the way back to the big city.

While the Maitlands are the protagonists of the film, Timbers says the musical is centered more on the emotional life of Beetlejuice and Lydia.

“I love that Beetlejuice is cynicism through and through and Lydia is innocence masked in cynicism and sardonic wit. The two of them as foils for each other, I just always responded to that in a big way.”

Tony Award nominee Alex Brightman (Beetlejuice) and Lortel Award nominee Sophia Anne Caruso (Lydia) have been workshopping their starring roles with Timbers for over a year now.

“It’s been amazing to watch their relationship and rapport build throughout the rehearsal process,” the director says of Brightman (School of Rock) and Caruso (Lazarus). “They have a real friendship, but they also are great at teasing each other and getting under each other’s skin, [just like] Beetlejuice and Lydia.”

Timbers is particularly thrilled to have Caruso on the bill. The 17-year-old actress brings an authenticity to the role of Lydia given her age, plus an impressive resume that includes working with Michelle Williams in Blackbird.

The director describes Brightman as legitimately funny, citing his writing credits and improv background among his full range of talents, and feels the pair’s chemistry is exactly what’s needed for Beetlejuice to succeed onstage.

“Musical theatre has a long history of featuring characters that are great conmen or hucksters. Lydia and Beetlejuice are conning each other. The one-upmanship between the two of them is so smart and bold. They’re great musical theatre protagonists.”

The director also points out that because Beetlejuice is such a trickster, it’s a natural fit for him to break the fourth wall and interact with us.

“[Beetlejuice] can talk directly to the audience. We wanted to embrace that. How many films, in their DNA, have a character that is custom-built to lead you through a musical?”

Beyond the production’s expanded focus on Lydia and Beetlejuice, I have all sorts of geeky questions for Timbers about how true to the film the musical will stay – from brilliant one-liners to arguably the most memorable onscreen use of Harry Belafonte songs in film history. He tells me that he has high expectations for maintaining the wit and edge of Burton’s flick; he’s acutely aware that more outré films adapted for the stage can sometimes soften up, and he assures me that isn’t going to happen.

“The script obviously lines up with a lot of the story from the movie, but it also takes its own turns and surprises. We haven’t felt beholden to delivering the dialogue from the film. The writers have smartly paid homage to the things that hopefully you’ll want [to see], but they’ve definitely created their own piece of art.”

This sentiment expands beyond the script to the original score by Eddie Perfect (King Kong). Burton is famous for collaborating with composer Danny Elfman on almost all of his films, and Timbers says there are little nods to his signature sound throughout the musical.

“Eddie’s been really smart in paying tribute to the Elfman-esque sounds from the movie that you expect, love and associate with Beetlejuice, and also a little bit of the Caribbean nods that you hear in [Belafonte’s] ‘Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ and ‘Jump in the Line.’ It’s got the things you’ll expect, and then keeps carrying it forward to another level.”

Because he mentions “Day O,” I of course have to ask if the famous dinner scene will be included (for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, all you need to know is that it involves a hilariously choreographed calypso dance and surprise shrimp hands). He says it will, and we move on after (a few) exclamations of happiness from my end of the line. Perfect’s score allows the audience to go into the interior life of the characters, Timbers says, giving them new depth.

“We often say in theatre that a song functions in the same way as a closeup in a movie. [Eddie’s] done a great job of balancing the expectations one has for the sonic world of that [with] those elements people are going to love and expect, and then tearing off and creating a larger sonic world as well to voice these characters.”

Another driving force behind Burton’s work is the visual world he’s created. The musical’s creative team is working to draw from the director’s aesthetic rather than emulate it, giving the production an expanded palette and originality. Timbers says the team has been trying to push into “what the theatrical equivalent of the DIY, handmade Burton style that was so surprising and became so quickly iconic” is without saying, “We need to absolutely recreate this dress or that piece of wallpaper.”

“We’re definitely trying to think of what serves the theatre piece, but we’re embracing [Burton’s] oeuvre because we love it as much as the audience does.”

One optic element Timbers gives me a sneak peek of is the puppets created by designer Michael Curry (The Lion King).

“He’s created puppets that exist in the netherworld and in the real world that are really striking and surprising, and really have that Burtonian quality. Obviously, we can’t do stop-motion animation, so [we had to think through] the theatrical vocabulary equivalent. To be in the same room as those puppets in this highly visual, imaginative world is going to be one of the most exciting things about the theatre piece at the National.”

Not to mention that Timbers is psyched to house the musical in such a storied theater in the nation’s capital.

“You’re smack dab in the middle of the nation’s history, so to be a part of musical theatre history but also at the heartbeat of the country is really cool.”

Beetlejuice: The Musical runs at National Theatre from October 14 to November 18. Tickets start at $54 and can be purchased at www.thenationaldc.org. Learn more about the Broadway musical at www.beetlejuicebroadway.com and follow National Theatre on Twitter at @NatTheatreDC for updates.

National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-628-6161; www.thenationaldc.org