Fall quarter at OU has wrapped and break is already whipping by at speeds akin to something inside the Large Hadron Collider. In a month (roughly), Winter quarter commences and my next workshop will be tapping me on the shoulder as I sit at my desk and ask for my next draft. So I ventured to the Northeast for a short break from the break, to get some perspective, and find some inspiration on the streets of Boston.
While here in the town o' beans (they love it when you call it that), I have submitted several 10-minute plays to a few festivals coming up in 2012. And I've found myself up until the wee hours talking narrative structure with two talented playwrights who happen to be equally amazing friends. But one of the highlights thus far happened the past two Mondays when I had the pleasure of guest speaking at playwriting classes at Boston University. These students are fortunate to have playwrights like Lydia R. Diamond (who is opening Stick Fly on Broadway right now) and Jaclyn Villano as their teachers, so I wasn't sure what I could offer them going in. On the ladder from novice to successful playwright, I'm only a so many rungs above these students. And then, while there alongside fellow writer Michael Parsons volleying questions about productions, play submissions, and seeing your work read for the first time... I saw it. It was hope. Excitement. Sparks of passion. We discussed the writing process, self-producing, networking, and a myriad of things that I've been working hard at for several years now on my journey and at that moment, I wondered if the guest speakers that have come to my MFA program see that same hunger and thrill in my eyes while they share their own experiences.
_Then, last weekend, I was surprised with tickets (and a trip) to New York to see previews of a new Broadway play about to open: Stick Fly (which officially opened this past week). Ms. Diamond's new play, produced by Alicia Keys and rocking a cast of actors I've admired for some time (Dulé Hill, Tracie Thoms, Mekhi Phifer, Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and some new faces (Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad -- who was brilliant, by the by), was one of those "this is where I should be tonight" moments.
So, I'm standing on this ladder. I know I'm not at the bottom, just as I know I'm not at the top. And I'm standing there in the Cort Theater, looking at this beautiful set, on a Broadway stage, people filling the house for tonight's preview, and I wonder to myself "how far up the ladder am I seeing tonight?".
And right then, at that point, I remind myself that it's more important that I know that I'll get there, and not pressure myself with a "when" attached to it. Another thought that raced through my head as the lights came down was "this will be awesome when it's my turn." Smack in the middle of my MFA program, it was a wonderful gift from my friends to get a reminder of why I'm spending so many hours at my laptop destroying my already poor posture.
The whirlwind NYC trip topped off with a morning brunch in Brooklyn (well, actually, later there was pizza at Pelham Pizzeria -- which was amazing, but I digress). And at this brunch were some folks who, in the summer of 2011, had journeyed across the pond to Scotland for a little festival you might have heard of. It was there, in the town of Edinburgh, that they premiered a play called Unanswered, We Ride --- written by my dear friend Jaclyn Villano.
This is a play that I've seen grow from the start and had the honor of directing in a concert-reading workshop at the Last Frontier Theatre Festival in Valdez, Alaska in 2010. That's where Theatre Daedalus met Joy Barrett. I won't go into the details, but between Jaclyn and Joy's combined passion, the play continued and was workshopped privately in NYC, previewed at 59E59's East to Edinburgh Festival, and premiered in Edinburgh to stellar reviews. And now they, like many plays (as Stick Fly once did) are planning the next step. Unanswered, We Ride will see publication and more productions, I'm sure. It's one of those plays that hits you at the core and connects on some inherently human levels (which is truly what all good plays do --- they let us see ourselves on stage). As we discuss marketing and next steps with Jaclyn, Joy, and their team as we sit on park benches and take in the New York harbor and Statue of Liberty (which is wildly inspiring for any conversation), I'm taken back to the class discussions we had with those students at Boston University.
_When they asked how they can get produced, how they can get themselves to Broadway, the discussion included the usual things all playwrights and creative teams work with. The play begins somewhere. Maybe a festival or workshop. It gets attention. It moves to something bigger. Maybe a reading in NYC or Chicago or Seattle. Perhaps it hits the fringe circuit. Perhaps it's picked up by a regional theater. From there it moves again, maybe this time to something Off-Off Broadway, or even Off-Broadway. Some get to Broadway, some to the West End. Some peak Off-Off or at Regional, and find publication and life back in the Regional's, and then community theatre. It's a unpredictable journey. You're staring up this ladder... all those rungs... but before you can climb up, you have to go sideways and back again. Then up. The off to another chance of exposure over here (sideways again) before another climb -- the path to the top is never direct. And you oft feel like a crab walking up a ladder. Tricky, yes, but not impossible (and if some scientist who specializes in crustaceans tells me it is impossible for a crab to ascend a ladder, I'll politely tell that squint to shut up and go with my theatrical representation).
I remember being those students. Just as I long to be Jaclyn taking a show to Edinburgh, and Lydia opening at the Cort with an all-star cast & creative team. So I sit here today, about to hop over to Final Draft and put some more words on digital paper, and I smile because I'm not at the bottom. Sure, I'm not on Broadway (yet) and I know that maybe two people read this blog at this point in time; but I've seen my work in workshop, in small productions, and even on the big screen. And I also know that every playwright starts where I am right now. With an idea. A character. And a blank piece of paper. So I sit down to write, as I've always done, knowing that I'm on the ladder, and it's discussions like the ones I've been having with those around me that give me a better idea of how to climb it.
"Never have I had so much fun at a theater show!" was just one of the many excited comments I heard after the touring company of "Rock of Ages" turned the Palace Theatre in downtown Columbus into an arena-style rock show mixed with a broadway musical. And I couldn't agree more. Brought to us by Broadway Across America Columbus and CAPA, last night's opening performance of the 80s rock spectacular (yes, I said spectacular) left this theater-goer on his feet and wishing he had a lighter to salute the band and cast at the end of the show (don't worry --- they sell little lights at the merch table out front so you can hold it high and sway at the power ballads and everything).
Bookwriter Chris D'Arienzo gives us a self-reflexive show that takes 80s rock classics from rockers like Journey, Stxy, Pat Benatar, Poison, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Night Ranger, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, and more, and weaves their tunes together through what some might call a cliche story. If 80s glam love in L.A. in the face of the corporate annihilation of a city's rock legacy is cliche, than bring it on. A familiar story, yes, but the creative team behind this musical did something unexpected and never ceased to surprise me with how they integrated each rock hit into the show --- and yeah we all know how these 'boy gets girl' tales play out, but trust me when I tell you there will be some wicked awesome surprises along the way.
The show's leading man, Constantine Maroulis (of American Idol fame), showed us why he earned a Tony nomination for this role. Playing the shy city-boy wanna-be rocker Drew, who pines for the small town girl named Sherrie (Rebecca Faulkenberry). Maroulis' vocal range and powerhouse voice brought home numerous applause and ovations once unleashed. Faulkenberry held her own with her co-star, belting out a mix of heart-breaking power ballads and unleashing her own inner rocker throughout the night. The two have wonderful chemistry and easily command the stage.
But like any great band, it's everyone on stage that brings it together, starting with the Patrick Lewallen who played Lonny the sound guy and our narrator throughout the evening. Giving us just enough self-awareness to let us embrace any cliches, his emcee style gave those in the audience who maybe weren't as familiar with the music (or the world of the 80s in general) a guidepost and way to connect with the show and get some of the many in-jokes. For those in the audience who look at the clothes, the music, the hair, and think "That's my yearbook!" -- the show will have you rolling by the end. Lewallen, never shy and in your face with his rocker/theatrical antics, keeps the comedy going and displays an enormous level of comfort with himself and the material.
Other notable treats throughout the night include Teresa Stanley as Justice, whose malfunctioning mic did her no favors -- thankfully her sassy attitude and powerful voice came through nonetheless; Nick Cordero (as Dennis Dupree, owner of L.A.'s The Bourbon Room), steals the show with Lewallen during their rendition of "Can't Fight This Feeling"; Travis Walker dazzles and delights in his turn as Franz; and as the hyper-sexed self-centered rocker Stacie Jaxx, MiG Ayesa -- well, you almost have to see him to believe it. But yeah, MiG Ayesa nails the bad boy hair band rocker image and does it with gusto (read an interview with MiG Ayesa on the CAPA blog).
The show was not without some tech glitches that will hit any touring show on opening night in a new space. A misfiring mic here, a delayed start there, hey -- it happens. The delayed opening or stretched intermission is nothing different than a concert. And at least here you get a cushy seat (though short on the leg room for us tall guys) to wait out any delays. I never once thought it ran long -- if anything, it ended where it should and I would've stayed for an encore. This Broadway musical functions as both a stage show and a rock concert --- so for those not used to going to rock concerts, just relax and go with it. You'll have fun.
Kudos to the design team on a killer set, complete with multimedia, concert style lighting, and yes, fog machines. I told you -- it rocked. The Palace Theatre is not a big stage and they make it work with a morphing set and scene changes that go by in a blink. The fast-paced energy of the Kristin Hanggi directed show is supported and enhanced by the blend of broadway and arena concert tech.
My review would not be complete without a shout out to the Rock of Ages Band, who are more or less on stage throughout the show, playing in The Bourbon Room, and how much they truly rocked this concert within a musical. Their sound was fantastic, supported the singers on stage, and they gave us one of the best curtain calls I have ever witnessed.
There you have it. If you like the music in "Rock of Ages" (big 80s power rock), go see it. If you like to have fun at the theater, go see it. If you're too young to remeber the 80s, but you play a lot of Rock Band and Guitar Hero, go see this show. And mostly, if you're looking to rock out, have fun, and see a touring company bursting with talent own the stage and get you on your feet --- don't miss this show!
“Rock of Ages” runs Dec. 7-12 at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad Street, Columbus. Tickets are $22.50 to $77.50, call 800-745-3000 or visit Ticketmaster.com.
Note: I was invited by Broadway In Columbus to review "Rock of Ages" as one of their volunteer online bloggers. I received no compensation for this review and the opinions are strictly mine.
Thoughts. From my brain. Anything to do with how we tell stories and the stories we tell each other. Literally and figuratively.
Writer. Husband. Father. Effulgent dreamer. A Fightin' Irishman (@NDdotEDU '01). A playwriting Bobcat (MFA in Playwriting, @OhioU '13). I write plays. I'm a geek. I wanted to be an astronaut. I go places in my head.