So, I saw Mike Daisey's one-man show, The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and I was moved and horrified and impressed with his mission, and..I believed him. At no point was it suggested to the audience in any way that this was primarily a piece of theater, with "creative license" taken to make the point; an important point still. Even with the fabrications, it makes us aware of a problem of great magnitude. The audience was even given a flyer as we exited the show, detailing ways that we could help. As Jonathan Mandell pointed out, that would have been the perfect time to 'fess up about the parts that were created for the purpose of theater.
I am not sorry I saw the production. Mike Daisey is a gifted storyteller and the story he is telling is important and not limited to his target, Apple. And that's the problem. By not coming clean early on, he has risked the impact of the true parts of the story. He was unfair to Apple and unfair to the audience, who willingly went with him on the journey. When you buy a ticket to Albuquerque, you expect to get to Albuquerque, not Santa Fe, as beautiful as Santa Fe might be.
Even when I found myself questioning the accuracy while I was listening, I pushed my doubts aside because I thought "No, he would have told us if this was not true." And that's how good a storyteller he is; he was passionately committed to the message and I couldn't not believe him.
I saw the show just a week before the news of the fabrications became public. I met Mike after the show and shared how moved I was. He seemed subdued, and I'm wondering if he either knew already that this was going to happen, or whether he was uncomfortable with my honest reaction to a story that was not completely honest. Or maybe he was just hungry and wanted to get to lunch.
Theater is such an important vehicle for change. But it's strength is that it's not the news. So it's ok to say "this is not the news; I want to tell you a story to make you think and then maybe change tomorrow's news." I wish Mike Daisey had done that. But I'm not sorry I saw the show.
Right off the bat, I want to say that "Chinglish" had all the elements that make a great play for me: clever premise, intriguing story, great cast, amazing sets, creative staging, the right seasoning of laughter and drama....in short, I loved it. I can understand why it was named to the Time Magazine list of Top 10 Plays and Musicals for 2011; and it was in good company with "War Horse" and "The Normal Heart," two of my very favorite shows for this season. Even that wasn't enough to save it; it is closing early after hitting only 36% attendance one week and relying heavily on discounted ticket prices. Why? Well, now I've seen it and I can say I truly don't know.
The playwright is best known for M. Butterfly...no slouch, that one. The audience got the jokes, laughed heartily and appeared to really appreciate the talented cast. But it didn't get a standing ovation, even from me, and I'm a veritable jumping jack for shows I love. So, again, I don't know what was missing. I'll hazard a guess and say that it might be that the wonderful female lead, who is the one Chinese character who approaches a good understanding of English, was a bit tough to understand when she spoke English. That's not inappropriate; however, it was her story that was intended to really make the emotional heart of the play beat; and in the pivotal scene towards the end, I found myself working to understand the words and missing the passion that was easily accessible when her Chinese lines were subtitled for the audience. And the final scene with the English teacher and the disgraced Chinese official was also a bit hard to follow. So perhaps the promise of the story didn't fully realize by the end. It was a very long first act, and I found myself thinking that it was the kind of play/story that would have been better tightened up and without the intermission.
Some shows, plays in particular, that fall victim to shortened runs, seem to clearly have failed in marketing or properly understanding who their audience would/should be. This doesn't seem to be the case with "Chinglish." It got some very good reviews, it's a comedy (that always helps) and it has a fairly easy-to-explain premise. True, it was missing a big-name star; a handicap for new plays, for sure. I think that when a theater-goer has to make a choice, it's hard for them to take that risk on the show that is the most unfamiliar. That's where discounted tickets come in; and making time to see at least one extra show on a trip to NYC (or on a local weekend). My theater season would have been sorely lacking had I missed this show.
Jesus is a Broadway star these days, and theater-goers are the ones benefiting from the chance to see two really fabulous shows that are wildly different and both wildly entertaining.
Just starting previews is Jesus Christ Superstar as imagined by Des McAnuff. Rare are the motionless moments in this production, and that makes those that do happen all the more effective. The constant movement by the actors and sets: across the stage, up and down ladders, along catwalks, in and out of openings, actors moving set pieces, set pieces moving actors, actors moving actors, words moving in scrolling text across screens, all reinforce the chaos that marked those last few days of Christ's life on earth.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Jesus (Paul Nolan) and Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) are lovely singers and have a great chemistry. But the stand out is Josh Young, who portrays Judas Iscariot. His voice is truly a gift; amazingly rich and emotional. Almost as important, I was struck by how his emotional intensity as an actor was palpable throughout the show, whether up on a catwalk merely observing (I could see tears glistening from down in the orchestra), or performing a heartbreaking, fill-the-stage "Damned for All Time."
The supporting cast is also extremely strong and sound great together, which is critical with this score; in particular, the menacing High Priests Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and Annas (Aaron Walpole), and Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewitt). And I can't fail to mention the one bit of comic relief (that does turn dark in the end) in the person of King Herod, played brilliantly by Bruce Dow as a decadent, fey, swishing "queen" in a taunting, Vegas-style production number performed in front of a beaten, kneeling Christ.
Be forewarned, if you don't already know, this show is entirely sung; which means that if you don't like the score or you don't generally like musicals, you might have trouble. It is a true "rock opera."
Also, remember that the core theme in Superstar is the questioning of the divinity of Jesus Christ. I think that, even if the very idea of doubt as to that question offends you, the show is worth seeing; just be prepared: Jesus Christ Superstar is a spectacle about the last days of Jesus on earth with a very human and raw perspective.
Godspell, on the other hand, running since previews began in October '11, is a small, wonderfully funny, inventively staged, treasure of a show based on a fairly straightforward telling of the Gospel of Matthew: think parables like the Prodigal Sun; played to great hilarity and with great heart. The young, incredibly talented Godspell cast makes magic together. Hunter Parrish, as Jesus, is luminous (as one of my friends described his performance), and strikes the perfect pitch as a gentle, loving, and effortlessly charismatic teacher, friend, activist... But this is a true ensemble show; each actor has a remarkable voice and massive amounts of comedic skill and their own individual charisma. So major shout outs to Lindsay Mendez, Telly Leung, Nick Blaemire, Anna Maria Perez De Tagle, Celisse Henderson, Uzo Adubo, George Salazar, Wallace Smith, Morgan James and the fabulous understudies, Julia Mattison, Eric M. Krop, Corey Mach, Hannah Elles. Godspell is performed in a small, magical, in-the-round theater called Circle in the Square, on a stage that transforms throughout the show to reveal hidden surprises. It's a delight all the way around.
In the end, one of these shows does not stand in for the other; one is a rock opera telling a serious dramatic story of Jesus in a big, powerful musical score ~ the other is a playful musical telling a serious story of Jesus in a funny and heartfelt way. You may be a Godspell person, or you may be a Jesus Christ Superstar person, or, like me, you may be a person who loves both!! If you are considering taking children, Godspell is the safer choice for sure; but if the young person is fairly sophisticated and/or is a theater fan, Superstar is a good choice as well (but not for a very young child, for whom a loud, dark show can be frightening at worst, and unpleasant at best). There was a group of children sitting behind me at Superstar (maybe 9-13) who all loved the show, but the youngest girl did seem to be having a bit of trouble following the fast-paced action.
Speaking of children, I saw the original runs of both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell within a year of each other in the 1970s when I was 13, and loved both of them then, as I do now. I was raised Catholic, and was in Catholic school at the time, and each show actually spoke to me spiritually as well. I will forever be impressed with, and grateful to, my wonderful liberal Catholic parents, who valued theater and freedom of expression (and weren't afraid of questions), for exposing me to both. I've already introduced my 13 year old niece to Godspell (she's a HUGE fan) and hope to be able to take her to this production of Jesus Christ Superstar too - full circle :).