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We Were There: Danai Gurira’s Familiar at Playwrights Horizon

Jerrica White

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Danai Gurira has two plays on stage this season. Eclipsed, the highly acclaimed story of Liberian women persevering through civil war, is playing on Broadway at John Golden Theater. And then there’s Familiar, which is playing at Playwrights Horizon through March 27.

One thing that’s consistent between both stories is the comedy, but to think Familar is any less hard hitting than Eclipsed would be a mistake. Gurira takes the lives of a Zimbabwean family, which proves to be, indeed, familiar, and magnifies a feeling of solidarity that we form with the characters in a way that paralysis audiences with equal parts laughter and tears.

My brother is getting married this summer. I can tell you first hand, the union of two families opens the pandoras box of any buried family issues. But I can’t say I was ready to connect as much as I did.

To start, Clint Ramos’ beautiful, model home-esque, set immediately brought me back to the comforts of my own Midwestern home.

No, the White’s aren’t from Zimbabwe. No, their oldest daughter (me) is not exactly Tendi (Roslyn Ruff) — a high achieving lawyer and bride to be. Nor am I wedding someone outside of my race and culture.

But what I can relate to is Nyasha’s (Ito Aghayere) plight as an artist. I deeply connected with her efforts to connect with her roots, all of which seem to go unnoticed, unappreciated, and misunderstood.

I can hear my brothers echoing the pressures of perfection following in their big sister’s footsteps. I can see my parents in Marvelous (Tamara Tunie) — a woman who works and sacrifices to provide a better life for her family, but is criticized by other family members in the process.

I hear my grandparents in Anne (Myra Lucretia Taylor)– great orators, telling the story of our past and challenging the importance of this history in our upbringing. I can finally feel my parent’s heartache in Donald (Harold Surrat) — just wanting to go home to be with their family and uplift their people.

Gurira’s characters make up a portrait of a family—customs, secrets, and all— bonded in a place that is far away from home.

But really, what is home? Or rather, where?

This is the story of tradition versus assimilation. Doing your best to provide for your family. Trying to move forward, without forgetting what’s behind. And that’s a challenge that will conjure familiarity in more households than my own. Familiar tears down your front door and leaves you ready to revisit, listen, apologize, forgive, and love.

There’s no handbook to parenthood. There’s no YouTube tutorial on how to see past the uncertainty of coming to age while pursuing happiness. There’s no think piece on finding your place in the family. Much like the family on stage, it sometimes takes a big life event to appreciate everyone’s perspective. The light Gurira shinned on my doorstep in Ohio, has me forever changed.

Familiar is directed by Rebecca Taichman. The cast features Ito Aghayere, Joby Earle, Melanie Nicholls-King, Roslyn Ruff, Harold Surratt, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Joe Tippett, and Tony Award winner Tamara Tunie (Spring Awakening).

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Off Broadway

We Were There: The Three Musketeers

Rachel Jarvis

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At the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, tucked between a baseball diamond and a playground, the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s fast-paced swashbuckling retelling of The Three Musketeer’sbrings a little Paris to Harlem, but not without taking a little Harlem to Paris.

As the sun sets in the trees somewhere behind the stage, you’ll take in a dabbing Porthos (Reynaldo Piniella), an ensemble of dancers from the Elisa Monte company, and Shayshahn “PhearNone” MacPherson on the Aurora violin, leaving one to wonder “Are we in Harlem or in France?”

In Catherine Bush’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic under Jenny Bennett’s direction, a female D’Artagnan (Miriam Hyman; The Piano Lesson ) moves from the country in hopes of joining the King’s musketeers. Before doing so of course, she must first sword-fight with almost everyone, fall in love with her landlord’s daughter (Ava McCoy), and figure out what it means to be “all for one and one for all.” It’s a tale about the three musketeers that’s less about the classic trio, and more about D’Artagnan the musketeer wannabe who can’t seem to catch a break.

Miriam Hyman – Photo by Jill Jones

Amidst a simple yet impressive set, Hyman shows us a D’Artagnan as we’ve never seen her before, simply because we haven’t seen her before. As Bennett imagined it, D’Artagnan doesn’t need to man up to be a musketeer but woman up, and woman up Hyman does. With her dred-loc bob and braid clips Hyman bounds around the stage with her sword at the ready as if she were already in the King’s service. “If I wanted to kill you,” she nonchalantly tells an injured Athos (Emmanuel Brown; Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark)  “I’d use my sword.” Hyman’s understated confidence and surety ensure that you haven’t any doubt somebody’s dying at her hand before the 90 minutes is up.

The 90 minutes goes by very fast. So fast that if you paused to swat at the many flies that were also trying to enjoy the show, you might miss a connection between a flashback scene happening on the balcony stage left or when they cut  to the present to reenact a story-within-a-story center stage. Even so, in a scene cut too short- literally stopped by a 5 second blackout- the three musketeers get into a bar brawl with flying mugs and chairs… in slow motion! Arguably the most visually arresting (albeit random) scene in the whole show.

Concerning design, when the sun finally disappeared and the front lighting hit the stage just right, the park faded into nonexistence and you could fully bask in CTH’s colorful production. Costume designer Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s mix of bold and bright patterns added a layer of captivation to the dancers dresses, the Queen of France’s (Afia Abusham) ball gown, and of course the musketeers. Consider this, could Athos, Porthos and Aramis (Brandon Carter) have made better entrances without velvet capes and striped pantalons paired with floral chemisiers, paisley vests and cheetah print boots? I think not!

If Paris, France represents a little respite amidst the chaos of a troubled world, with sword fights and cautionary tales of love gone wrong, then yes, CTH’s The Three Musketeers definitely brought a little France to Harlem.

Courtesy of The Classical Theatre of Harlem

Location: Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, Marcus Garvey Park. Free and open to the public.

Creative: By Catherine Bush, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Jenny Bennett. Choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Fight Choreography by Emmanuel Brown.

Cast: Starring Miriam Hyman, Emmanuel Brown, Brandon Carter, Reynaldo Piniella, Michael Early, R.J. Foster, Anthony Merchant and Piera Van de Weil. Featuring Afia Abusham, Jeffrey Alkins, Jamar Brathwaite, Avon Haughton, Ava McCoy, Nedra Snipes, Jorge Sanchez, Jak Watson and The Elisa Monte Dance Company.

Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Through July 30

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A Must See

Ruben Santiago-Hudson Enlivens First Encores! Unscripted

Leah Marché

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New York City Center, in partnership with The Jerome L. Green Performance Space at WNYC, presented the first of its Encores! Unscripted live-streamed talkback series with Tony Award winners Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Sheldon Harnick and Jeanine Tesori. Hosted by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and with musical accompaniment by Greg Jarrett, the artist panel had a conversation about Broadway musical theatre to answer this question: How can we make sense of an art form that has produced so many beautiful songs and perpetuated so many ugly stereotypes?

While titled “Sexism, Racism, Show Tunes, Discuss,” the Dec. 14 event easily could have been called “Going To School With Ruben Santiago-Hudson.” Santiago-Hudson – who served as artistic director for The Green Space’s productions of August Wilson’s 10 Century Cycle plays and is set to direct Encores! Cabin In The Sky in February – shared poignant words about the responsibility to “Broadway Black” and the need to think about how diversity is reflected on stage, behind stage and in the seats.

Viertel, believing that “the world changes, we change with it,” began the event with this disclaimer:

“We take this very seriously. We love this form, and we love these shows. And we love what they say about America in all of their different eras. That means we have to confront what they actually say word by word as well as the spirit that informs them. I think that’s what makes a panel like this and what makes a program like Encores! so much fun to work on and such a responsibility to work on.”

The panel explored sexism after hearing performances sung by Margo Seibert of “The Very Next Man” (Fiorello!) and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “I Enjoy Being A Girl” (Flower Drum Song). The 91-year-old lyricist Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me, The Body Beautiful) discussed changes he made to each song’s lyrics, which place domestic abuse in a different light when revived for the contemporary stage.

Composer and musical arranger Tesori (Fun Home, Caroline or Change), who is the artistic director of Encores! Off Center, assertively maintains  a woman’s perspective in her work. “There is always this universality about musicals that I go to and then there is the specificity.”

Viertel especially wanted the acclaimed Santiago-Hudson – who made his Broadway debut in George C. Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam and most recently appeared in the Kenny Leon-directed Stick Fly – to bring his wealth of theatrical knowledge to the City Center stage, despite it being his first time directing a musical. “Cabin In The Sky” was sung by J.D. Webster and Santiago-Hudson shared his concerns on racism in the Golden Age of Broadway as well as the changes he would make to the script – a script developed by a creative team with Russian roots. While Santiago-Hudson said he omitted references to picaninny and erased “a lot of other things,” he wanted to keep the lyric that goes: “We will be oh so gay / eat fried chicken every day / as the angels go sailing by.”

“I don’t want to cleanse the script to the point where there’s no conversation,” he said. He took care to ensure “where the conversation would bend so deeply that we don’t hear the play anymore” as the determining factor. Or, in other words: No buffoonery.

During the discussion, the self-described storyteller said he was appreciative of Viertel having the courage and insight to give him a shot.  “What I’ve always felt is if an opportunity is given to me to represent my people and make them whole again that I would do the greatest job that I possibly could do; the best would be called from me to represent. Because it’s a rarity.”

Admitting that White directors are acceptable to lead Black plays, he noted: “But I don’t get chosen to do White work. No one calls me to do Fiddler or Carousel. My name is not in that conversation. But when a Black play comes up, white guys’ names are in that consideration and white women’s names are in that consideration. Now we can… collectively put our heads together and can’t name five Black Broadway directors who’ve directed musicals in the last decade.”

“Directors get chosen,” he clarified, “and those that are doing the choosing don’t look like me,” he also noted. “There are not many Black producers, and the ones that we do have say the same things to me that the white producers say: You can’t do a play without Denzel Washington.”

The New York native of Puerto Rican and African-American heritage continued to enlighten the audience. “If you look on Broadway right now, Hamilton is bringing about 1.6, 1.7 million a week… but then you look at On Your Feet that’s like 1.3, 1.4 (million) a week. That means there is an audience for us. And that audience is not the normal 95 percent white audience…

“With Black plays, with Black directors, with (Black) subject matter brings that audience that is hungry, that spends hundreds and hundreds of billion, close to a trillion dollars… is the Black market in entertainment per year. If you invite them in they will come… I’ll leave it at that.”

Or, it can be left with what Tesori exclaimed toward the conclusion of the event: “I love Ruben Santiago!” The most touching words of the evening were when Santiago-Hudson expressed: “I’m fighting for my people because we have been denied so much. In the time I have on this earth, I’ve gotta fight for them. I have to make a difference. If I’m not fighting for them, who is? Who’s writing for them, if it’s not us?”

Encores! Unscripted: Sexism. Racism. Show Tunes. Discuss.

Learn more: http://wny.cc/W2mzj The “Golden Age of Broadway” conjures visions of romantic innocence, but the original scripts of many classic American musicals, from Babes in Arms to Annie Get Your Gun, are full of troubling sexist and racist attitudes. How can we make sense of an art form that has produced so many beautiful songs and perpetuated so many ugly stereotypes?

City Center will present two more conversations. Watch the entire first conversation here. Santiago-Hudson speaks in length from 29:30 to 49:05, including interesting history about Cabin in the Sky. Harnick attributes the impact of Stephen Sondheim, while Tesori demands challenging norms.

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A Must See

We Were There: Hamilton An American Musical

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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I remember over the summer entering the Hamilton lottery when it was at the Public Theater, and not getting in, no biggie. I thought of it this way- if I had seen it and loved it but the cast recording did’t release until the fall, I would have gone crazy. I was wrong. As it turns out, listening to the cast recording before seeing the show made me go crazy. Like the rest of America, I became obsessed instantly! I officially declare September 25th “Hamilday” because since then it’s all I’ve listened to. No exaggeration, just ask my roommates.

After listening to the recording so many times I thought to myself, I cannot simply wait until NEXT YEAR for this, I must go now. And with a lot of searching and penny pinching, I snagged tickets for October 10th’s 8:00 p.m. show. All I had to do was “wait for it”. So the day finally arrived and I got to the theatre with time to spare, bought my Hamilton swag, and made my way up to the mezzanine to see the greatest show ever.

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I was literally so excited, I could not stay still and thats how I was for the rest of the musical. The lights dimmed and out came “Aaron Burr”… I mean Leslie Odom Jr. I mean Leslie Odom Jr. as “Aaron Burr”. The show didn’t start with an overture like we’re used to, they go straight into the first number and I’m completely captivated. Leslie sounds as crisp and clear, as if the album was playing on a PA system, but it was all live. The snaps, the string instruments, the rhymes, the melodies were all so perfect I wanted to pass out then and there. I didn’t though, after all I had two hours and thirty minutes of musical heaven to get through.

As the show went on, I fell more and more in love with this musical -if that’s even possible. Occasionally mouthing the words to “The Schuyler Sisters” or dancing along to “What Did I Miss”- I’m like a kid in the candy store. The set, brilliantly designed by David Korins, was simple yet complex. The rotating circular platform, which mirrors a turntable, worked well in the narrative–especially during Renee Elise Goldsberry’s “Satisfied.” The staging of that particular number made me weak at the knees. From the rewinding, the lighting, the dancers- it was all spectacular. Another number that was a personal favorite would be the “Cabinet Battles” set up like freestyle battles, including an epic mic drop moment. “The Room Where It Happens” has an amazing dance number, and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” has to be one of the greatest scenes to ever play on Broadway.

It’s hard for me to pick just one favorite moment, because honestly the entire thing was my favorite. This musical is truly an ensembled one, even though it centers around Hamilton, all the secondary characters are extremely important to his narrative. However, I will say Daveed Diggs is an instant stand out. His “Lafayette” and “Jefferson” are both captivating and hilarious. Christopher Jackson’s “George Washington” is something that everyone needs to see. He was so honest and sincere (So it’s true! Washington cannot tell a lie!). Renee Elise Goldberry broke my heart as “Angelica Schulyer,” a woman who sacrifices her own happiness for her sisters’, everytime. Anthony Ramos is endearing as both “Phillip” and “Laurens.” Jasmine Cephas Jones is such a joy to watch as the sultry “Maria Reynolds” especially during, “Say No To This”. Okieriete Onaodowan is fun to watch and listen to (am I the only one who lives for the line “I heard ya mother said come again?” in Aaron Burr, Sir?) and his camaraderie with Daveed Diggs makes for a hilarious dynamic duo.Hamilton

What I loved about this musical is that the narrator of the story is also the antagonist -which for me is a joy because that means Leslie is mostly always on the stage. It was hard to hate Burr, and a lot of that has to do with Odom’s heartfelt performance. From “Wait For It” to “Your Obedient Servant” I felt that he was justified in all that he did. Even with the killing of Hamilton you could see his guilt. Speaking of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel’s portrayal of the founding father was rooted in truth and though he was the protagonist, he was flawed like all humans.

Sitting in the Richard Rodgers Theater that Saturday night I felt like I was witnessing history, I have never, I mean never, seen a show that has been able to captivate me like this since my mom got me a DVD copy of the original production of Into The Woods for Christmas. Maybe it’s because I’m a 90s kid and I lived for old school Hip-Hop and R&B and the music and lyrics are rooted in that same sound, or the fact as black woman I feel a sense of immense pride in seeing such a racially diverse cast, or because the show flows through without losing momentum or rhythm and rhyme–or all of the above. Whatever it is, one thing is for sure, I’ll be seeing Hamilton over and over and over again because I simply want to be in the room where it happens.

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Its A Hit

The New Hamilton Cast Recording Lives up to the Hype!

Nicole

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The Broadway musical Hamilton  burst upon the scene setting theatre goers on fire with its charismatic story about founding father Alexander Hamilton. For those far removed from Broadway, the idea of being able to watch the musical anytime soon seemed an impossibility. Fans greedily devoured photos, videos and other goodies shared via social media from the musical and the cast.

Recently, the cast recording for  Hamilton was made available to stream in advance of its digital release.  Suffice it to say, fans have been absolutely blown away! While the music is not technically “rap” in the commercial sense, it is musical theatre performed in mostly hip hop and R&B style. With musical nods to the likes of Biggie, Mannie Fresh, Trina and Beyonce, this production continues to garner new admirers who tag themselves with #Hamiltunes on Twitter. Here’s a flashback of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda debuting what was originally  “Hamilton Mix tapes” at the White House.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Performs at the White House Poetry Jam: (8 of 8)

Writer and star of the Broadway musical In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda performs “The Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word on May 12, 2009. Accompanied by Alex Lacamoire. (public domain)

The beauty of being able to listen to the recording lies in its ability to transport the listener into the rich tapestry of the story without feeling like something integral has been missed. Who knew Alexander Hamilton was such a complicated and intriguing founding father?  If you have kids in Civics and History, love musical theatre, enjoy various iterations of rap and R&B, or just want to expand your palate for the arts, you really ought to listen to the soundtrack. It’s a fresh take on history in a contemporary musical form with a super diverse cast (as in Aaron Burr is played by a Black man).

We enjoyed every second of the recording! It’s a perfect starter piece if you always thought Broadway wasn’t for you. As an added bonus, The Roots stepped in to help produce the official cast recording. It’s always amazing to see the mighty path Hip Hop has carved through our culture and how its ethos continues to be a major part of the American narrative.

‘Hamilton’ Collaborators Lin-Manuel Miranda, Questlove and Black Thought on the Show’s Hip-Hop Cred

The ‘Hamilton’ creator and Roots members, who are prodcing the cast album, talk about why “hip-hop heads” approve of the show and turning the Founding Fathers into real people. SUBSCRIBE NOW http://bit.ly/BillboardSub for more exclusive performances, interviews and in-depth coverage of the world’s biggest music events.

If you do check it out, let us know your thoughts!  You can purchase it on iTunes, Google Play or Amazon or enjoy the music stream right here!

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A Must See

We Were There: Taye Diggs In Hedwig & The Angry Inch

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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It was a Broadway Black family reunion the first Saturday in August, as we all made our way to the Belasco Theater to see Taye Diggs hilariously deliver as the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. 

The show ran for an hour and thirty minutes with no intermission and my first thought was… WHAT?! However, that time was so overwhelmingly entertaining that you don’t ever want to get up from your seat because you will feel like you’ve missed something important. For example, if you had gone to the bathroom, you might have missed a cheeky reference to the “Whitney Rag” (I believe only the Black people in the audience caught that joke). Or you may have missed Taye kissing the man in the front row (Seriously. He comes off the stage to kiss someone. I was jealous.) or you may have missed the Idina Menzel/Let It Go joke that made me laugh and cringe at the same time.

I was laughing at what was hilarious, in awe of what was mind-blowing (the projections on the scrim during one of the numbers was AMAZING), or crying at what was touching. Hedwig draws you in from beginning to end. Much of that is due to Taye Diggs. He brings subtle vulnerability and an abundance of charisma to the role of Hedwig that makes you want to see the character come out on top, which is why the latter half of the show is so moving.

I went in expecting a grand ol’ time with a bunch of laughs, but I left the theatre with way more than that. The show was hilarious, but it also had serious undertones. The show’s message was loud and clear with the final song. It’s about being true to yourself, living for your authentic self and not letting anyone take that away from you. We are all individuals with vastly different, unique personalities. Everyone’s journey doesn’t look the same.

After the show it was only right to do what every other theatergoer does, wait at the stage door for Taye Diggs to emerge. This was an event in itself. It was one of the most packed stage doors I’ve been to, and I’ve been to a lot of them. Hundreds of people waited outside to take pictures and get autographs of the man of the night, as testament to Diggs’ star power.

All in all, it was a fantastic evening with even more fantastic people. If you haven’t gotten tickets yet, hurry! Hedwig is only playing until September 13 at the Belasco Theater. You can get tickets here or by calling telecharge at 212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250.

Ah-Maze-Balls!!!!!! @tayediggsinsta @hedwigonbway #YouAreBrownwayBlack

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Listen… YOU. MUST. SEE. @TAYEDIGGSINSTA. IN. @HEDWIGONBWAY. ASAP. SERIOUSLY.

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We’re still thinking #AboutLastNight @TayeDiggs. Phenomenal. @hedwigonbway

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#AboutLastNight The #BroadwayBlack team after a thrilling show @hedwigonbway! #WeAreBroadwayBlack

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A Must See

We Were There: NYMTF Presents Held Momentarily

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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The 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival has officially come to a close but not before Broadway Black got to give one of the shows a visit. I had the privilege of attending a performance of Held Momentarily and what a hoot it was.

I was fresh off the heels of a cookout that started way too late, before catching the C train from Brooklyn to rush to the PTC Performance Space in Midtown. I don’t know if it was coincidence, but my train was also “held momentarily.” That frustration led to me finding Held Momentarily absolutely timely and downright hilarious.  I got to my seat just in time, as the announcement to turn off cellphones had just been made and the piano started to play the first song. Then the cast of six all came out for their opening number. What grabbed my attention though was the clump of fabric on one of the chairs on the stage. All the characters were minding their business singing about their destinations and as they took their seats (which were rusted red and orange just like the A train!) the MTA announcer could be heard saying the phrase New Yorkers know all too well: “We’re being held momentarily.”

India Carney 3Cue music, chaos, and a completely hilarious number about the MTA being agonizingly slow and ruining the characters’ days. I want to download the song because I feel the exact same way when the train isn’t running and I have somewhere to be. It was then that the clump of fabric is revealed to actually be a person! Asherah, played by The Voice finalist India Carneyis the homeless woman on the train who adds her two cents into the song by singing the various phrases you hear from the MTA announcer while on the train. “If you see something, say something” is the one that sticks out the most, as it turns into a full-on completely serious ballad by the end that allows Carney to show off those pipes of hers. After she ended the note the audience applauded for a long while. Vocally, Carney was one of the strongest in the cast, but her character was also equal parts Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Into The Woods’ The Witch in the situation, adding a vulnerability to a character that could have been used strictly for comedic moments.

jordan barrowAnother treat to watch was Jordan Barrow, whose comedic timing was nothing short of perfect. Aside from his rather hilarious duet “We’re In Love” — about being in terrible relationships — with Yael Rizowy, he did most of his best work by simply reacting to the scenes around him. His physical comedy and facial expressions were enough to keep me in stitches, so by the time he opened his mouth I was holding my stomach from laughing so hard.

Oliver Houser wrote the book, music & lyrics and I couldn’t help but think the music mimicked that of Stephen Sondheim. When you thought a note was going up, it was going down. The style of music and the clever lyrics fit the erratic setting of a subway car with six frantic strangers and a homeless person. By the end, I found myself in a much better mood. Laughter is good for the soul. And on my way back to Brooklyn we were not held momentarily.

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Twitter : @BroadwayBlack

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