Steve Martin’s plays – Picasso at the Lapin Agile and, with Edie Brickell, the musical Bright Star – don’t deep dive into character or message. (Bright Star appeared to try.) His work will never be compared to Neil Simon who has natural facility for making comedy and pathos go hand in hand. Martin’s original screenplays fare better on this front- remember Roxanne?
Meteor Shower is a diverting piece about the vulnerability of marriage. The clever, timely, gimlet-eyed satire evokes broad smiles and moderate laughs. Its author embraces ba-dump-dump vaudeville humor as much as social comment. Being analytical, he underpins the plot with a psychological device of which we’re mercifully unaware till nearly the end.
It’s August 1993 in Ojai, California. The Perseid Meteor Shower is about to blaze across the sky like cannon fire. Corky (Amy Schumer, audience applause) in a perky Debbie Reynolds ponytail and her sweet husband Norm (Jeremy Shamos) are preparing to entertain sexpot Laura (Laura Benanti) and grandstanding husband Gerald (Keegan-Michael Key- audience applause) for the first time. Only Norm has briefly met the pair.
When amiable chat veers to conceivably hurt feelings, Corky and Norm break action to hold hands, look into each other’s eyes and intone psychobabble learned in therapy. “I really appreciate your attitude on this…I respect what you’re saying…” Everything is upfront with these two. The methodology works for them.
Laura and Gerald, on the other hand, are not what they seem. We glean early on that the couple’s recreation is upending their hosts’ marriage – sexually and sentimentally, apparently for sheer entertainment. They withhold basic information, insult with incisive abandon, and set out to seduce Corky and Norm.
Like many plays in current vogue, this one juggles chronology. Scenes are played out of order, so we often observe what happened and then what preceded. An alternative ending may or may not be true. Parts seem more important than the whole.
Honesty is as virulent as falsehood. Martin works in cannibalism, kleptomania, hard drug use, ignominious near-death, very funny seduction, vulgarity, and a couple of memorable, loosey goosey solo dances. Don’t even ask me about the eggplants. (I don’t have a clue.) You’ll have a good time but may be hungry again after an hour.
Amy Schumer plays a character with which she’s highly familiar, breaking out of the generic, through no fault of her own, only in the second part. Her timing is impeccable.
Laura Benanti effectively showcases both more unabashed allure and wacky physicality that we’ve seen from the actress.
Keegan-Michael Key aptly sucks the air out of the room with over the top cockiness that will keep your brows in constant parachute position. His determined focus just barely keeps Gerald from becoming a sitcom character, but he’s funny.
Jeremy Shamos is darling. The actor inhabits everyman innocence as skillfully as he navigates deadpan, heat-seeking-missile attack. At one point he breaks up another cast member with audacious silliness. A pleasure to watch.
Director Jerry Zaks creates infectious fun with this one. Recent commissions haven’t offered nearly this kind of opportunity for off the wall visuals and spot-on timing. Bravo.
Natasha Katz’s Lighting Design conjures marvelous meteors and explosions.
Costumes by Ann Roth are wonderfully specific to character.
Beowulf Boritt’s modrin Set Design moves fluidly between living room and patio.
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Stamos, Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti
Meteor Shower by Steve Martin
Directed by Jerry Zaks
222 West 45th Street
Through January 21, 2018
Pound for pound this musical showcases more talent than half the new productions on Broadway combined. Almost every superb black performer you might recall from recent years of theater and music is on this stage.The artistic team is crackerjack.
Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry
Critical voices have been raised in regard to the piece’s two hour forty minute running time to which I respond, yes, it could’ve been shorter without losing a whit of pith or entertainment value, but so what? Journalists and historians have also weighed in on George C. Wolfe’s decision to downplay such things as the application of blackface, on-the-road segregation, and theatrical naysayers. When important, of-the-time-author Carl Van Vechten denies the musical’s place in future collective memory, we realize a cultural response which is not otherwise emphasized.
As we see glimpses of blackface, exposition there seems missing. Otherwise, it’s a case of not being all things to all people. (An attempt at rounding up history occurs with biographical epilogues.)
Brandon Victor Dixon and Audra McDonald
Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake met in 1915. As The Dixie Duo, they were the first negro performers to eschew blackface. The collaborators provided songs for the musical in question and respectively had long, successful, musical and theatrical careers. Producer/Performers F. E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles became friends as students and then a vaudeville comedy team. They both produced and performed in this 1921 show (here, in traditional blackface to which, one would have thought, their partners might’ve objected), afterwards mounting and writing others.
Sissle, Blake, Miller and Lyles encountered one another at an NAACP benefit where the vaudeville team performed a sketch called ‘The Mayor of Jimtown.’ Finding themselves likeminded, the four decided to turn it into a show about a small town election, creating the first all black musical to viably compete with Broadway productions.
Adrienne Warren, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Audra McDonald and The Ensemble
After a grueling, squabbling hand-to-mouth tour, Shuffle Along landed at an off the grid West 63rd Street Theater without an orchestra pit, where, to everyonelse’s surprise, it ran 500 performances. It wasn’t that its flimsy book or staging were innovative, but rather that this black cast and creative team showcased energy, ebullience, and talent as skilled as anything on 42nd Street. The landmark production nurtured young performers like Josephine Baker, Florence Mills, and Paul Robeson, revising expectations and opening the door to black revues outside of Harlem.
Brian Stokes Mitchell (F.E. Miller) not only returns to The Great White Way with bankable, resonant vocals and signature style, he tap dances! Billy Porter (Aubrey Lyles), last seen cavorting in Kinky Boots, sings, dances, displays terrific comic flair without regressing into parody and, turning serious at the last, brings it home.
Joshua Henry, Brandon Victor Dixon, Billy Porter, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Richard Riaz Yoder
Brandon Victor Dixon of the musical Motown, is utterly charming as the pixilated, two-timing Eubie Blake. Dixon taps, sings, and acts with naturalness that allows us to excuse the character’s weaknesses much as Lottie does during their on again/off again affair. His reaction to a mouse is priceless. Joshua Henry (Noble Sissle), who was unequivocally great in The Scottsboro Boys, here lightens up without losing an iota of authenticity or grace. And oh, that voice!
Adrienne Warren (Gertrude Saunders/Florence Mills) delivers a sassy performance with bright-eyed finesse and nimble footwork while veteran Brooks Ashmanskas plays a slew of roles, each with pitch perfect comic timing and precision dancing he makes look ridiculously easy.
As to the visibly pregnant Audra McDonald (go quickly lest you miss her!), she’s simply magnificent. Fully inhabiting Lottie Gee who was herself, a regal cut above the environment in which she achieved fame, the artist’s vocals, acting, and yes, tap dancing, are a veritable joy to behold.
Daryl Waters’s Music Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations are immensely clear and rich. (Sound Design-Scott Lehrer) Choreography by Savion Glover is exuberant, loose-limbed, gorgeously synchronized, and feels fresh, though its underpinnings reflect the era. Company numbers are a master class. The visual creative team excels with Ann Roth’s Costumes and Mia M. Neal’s Hair Design original, yet accurate stand-outs.
Adrienne Warren and The Ensemble
If you’re anything of a theater-goer, you know there’s been a fracas about whether the musical is a revival or an original, the latter putting it in competition for the juggernaut called Hamilton. In the opinion of this journalist, book writer George C. Wolfe’s framing device as indicated in the show’s subtitle, should have set it firmly in the latter category. Though there are lots of recreated numbers, the story of its artistic collaboration provides vertebrae. Alas, my view is among a minority.
Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening: The Ensemble
Or The Making of The Musical Sensation of 1921 And All That Followed
Music and Lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake
Original Book by F.E. Miller and Aubry Lyles
Book by George C. Wolfe
Directed by George C. Wolfe
The Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street