Thursday, January 11, 2024

Review: Here We Are

Review of the Saturday matinee performance on January 6, 2024 at The Shed's Griffin Theater in New York City, New York. Starring Francois Battiste, Tracie Bennett, Bobby Cannavale, Micaela Diamond, Amber Gray, Jin Ha, Rachel Bay Jones, Denis O'Hare, Bradley Dean, David Hyde Pierce, and Jeremy Shamos. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by David Ives. Set and costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Tom Gibbons. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Music supervision and additional arrangements by Alexander Gemignani. Choreography by Sam Pinkleton. Direction by Joe Mantello. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission.

It seems entirely appropriate that the musical master, Stephen Sondheim, would leave us with a half-finished work that is really a crazy puzzle of a piece. Yes, the coda to a decades long career of complex, challenging musicals is, indeed, an enigma. As a lifelong fan of Sondheim, if I know one thing for certain about his works, it is that you can't possibly get everything from just one sitting. That is certainly true of everything he did. Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Anyone Can Whistle all spring immediately to mind as shows (the scores in particular) that get richer with each listen. Perhaps it is telling that this final work, Here We Are, joins that list, and that even just hearing it once, can hear snippets that call all four prior works readily to mind. 

This review has admittedly been difficult for me. The book (by David Ives) and score (such as it is) work perfectly together in the moment - as manic and surreal as the book is, the score matches that and somehow ups the ante. (Jonathan Tunick and Alexander Gemignani's orchestrations and arrangements are wonderful and befitting a final work.) And yet, none of the songs stick in my mind. They are, as I said, perfect for their given moments, full of clever word play, character insight, and the complex themes, but they disappear into the ether as quickly as they appear. Now, normally, that would be a huge sign that a show is no good, and Sondheim has had his share of clunkers to be sure. This is not one of them. It entirely fits the piece that the songs come and go - intense as they happen, completely gone when finished. It not only works, but even when the music stops, it is always in service to the work. One has to wonder how much more music he'd have actually added to the second act had he lived. A reprise or two? An epiphany number? Or maybe just underscoring? We will never know. It speaks volumes for Ives' book (and the source material) and director Joe Mantello's genius imprint on the affair, that the utter lack of music after a certain point in act two almost feels on purpose - the perfect metaphor for a group of people who realize suddenly that they are trapped and the world as they know it no longer exists. The Sondheim-phile in me always wants more of his art in my world, and as the show ended, I do wish that there was a reprise of the recurring journey song from act one. (I won't spoil it by saying why, but it would very much work.) All of that said, as it is, it is wonderful. The more difficult challenging the better!

While scholars and fans alike will debate the show forever forward, there is plenty about this production to discuss on its own merits - particularly the technical aspects and the casting. In terms of the creative elements, the production is top-tier in all regards. Tony-winner David Zinn provides a surprisingly lavish and appropriately surreal pair of settings, with act one set mostly in a gleaming white box, offering few clues to where we are, save for a few set pieces. His act two set, a lavish embassy drawing room, garnered well-deserved applause upon its reveal and subsequent glide downstage, taking over the entirety of the stage. Zinn's costumes offer up an easily recognizable set of characters that reflect a microcosm of society, ie: a bishop, a soldier and his superior, a wealthy entertainment executive, etc. Even as I say that, though, it turns out that for each trope there are elements of each costume design that are very character specific. Lighting master and Tony-winner Natasha Katz does her usual brilliant work, including somehow making a plain white box look like an emotional kaleidoscope. And Tom Gibbons' sound design was perfection - the balance, clarity, and some terrific effects were on point.

The motion picture and television industries give out casting awards. It's a shame that theater doesn't do the same, because Here We Are would be a shoo-in to win this season. I cannot remember the last time I felt a show was this flawlessly cast. Every actor is at the top of their game and has so willingly thrown themselves into this crazy world it is nearly impossible not to believe that we are seeing real events happening before us. It really makes you pause and think, this is surrealism, but is reality that much different these days?

Tracie Bennett
and Denis O'Hare start the ball rolling in their first of several roles they each play - servants of a sort, all. They wordlessly (and needlessly) clean the set - he wipes down the walls, she vacuums the hard, carpet-less floors. As the evening continues, they play hyper-versions of restaurant hostess and waiter, butler and maid, each carefully, hilariously and ominously crafted. Francois Battiste as the by the book military officer creates an interesting portrait of a man consumed by his past, and numb to the ridiculous sound bites and platitudes he doles out without thought in an effort to calm and give order. He is accompanied by a foot soldier, equally numb to "getting the job done" as a warrior, but completely caught off guard when love at first sight changes him into a swooning, sexually charged mess. Played by the utterly captivating Jin Ha, he sings with a powerful ease and frankly, it was hard not to watch him even when he was not the focus. I am already looking forward to his next stage role.

Though he doesn't enter until the end of act one, David Hyde Pierce's presence is a great one. As a conflicted bishop in full regalia, his dead-pan delivery is hilarious, and the depth of his confusion/resignation over religion and society turns into a sweet realization about self-worth and the "big picture." He is a treasure. Then there's Bradley Dean (on for Steven Pasquale) who's bold, larger than life presence as a foreign dignitary is both political and sexually feral. Watching him try to manipulate the others is fun until it is not and he is squarely put in his place. Satisfying. Jeremy Shamos and Amber Gray make a meal out of what could have easily devolved into one-dimensional stereotypes - he plays a plastic surgeon, she's an entertainment executive obsessed with numbers and Variety. In short, they are both about arranging things away from reality; reality hits them hard. Their screaming fits of fear betray two people lost in life.

While I am loathe to single out anyone in this truly ensemble piece as "the leads," I would be remiss not to express just how much time is spent with the ultra rich husband and wife, and her socialist revolutionary sister. Raspy voiced and as slimy as they come, Bobby Cannavale skulks about the stage in his Velour track suit like he owns the place - buying whatever he wants no matter the actual cost is the entirety of this guy's life. The moment when he realizes he can't, in fact, buy his way out of everything causes him to literally fall ill, and Cannavale plays it brilliantly - never asking us to sympathize with his character. As the socialist Gen-Zer who lives all of the modern expectations of her generation, Micaela Diamond is a mesmerizing presence. Her voice, of course, is above reproach and she belts out a love duet with Mr. Ha as if her life depends upon it. But it is her acting that is so arresting here: equal parts activist and observer, the character takes a very dark turn before "seeing the light," and Ms. Diamond navigates that journey perfectly. Finally, Rachel Bay Jones easily joins the pantheon of great Sondheim women with her star turn as the flighty, just out of reality housewife who wants for nothing but to go through life in her flowing negligee. Oh the depths she plumbs when she has to come face to face with a harsh realization about what she thought was a carefree life! I've never seen her be less than marvelous in any show, but this is next level stuff.

With the recent announcement that a cast recording is coming, I eagerly await the chance to dig into Sondheim's final new work. I'm sure I'll be rewarded with a deeper understanding and many surprises. Until then, I will count my blessings that I got to see Here We Are.

📸: E. Madrid

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