People will look back at 2006 as the year the American musical cracked open. That year, Broadway began waking up from its decades-long coma of revivals, jukebox musicals, and
adaptations of Disney movies. Finally, the generation reared on MTV—who learned about musical theatrics from Doctor Dre and Nirvana and Guns N' Roses—had grown up, figured out how to woo producers, and started writing and performing intelligent, not-cheesy musicals for young adults instead of octogenarians and children. Three notable examples: Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, and The Drowsy Chaperone.
The Drowsy Chaperone, which won five Tony Awards in 2006, is the cleverest and most knowing of the three. It does three jobs at once: It is an homage to cheesy, old- fashioned musicals; a parody of cheesy, old-fashioned musicals; and an apology for cheesy, old-fashioned musicals. Its first line is "I hate theater," spoken by an agoraphobic, homebody musicals-queen in an oversized cardigan (played with precise comic timing by Jonathan Crombie). He hates theater, but he loves old musicals and gives the audience a tour through his favorite, The Drowsy Chaperone, while making tea, sipping brandy, and generally hiding in his small apartment. (And being unbearably hilarious: "She had that wide-eyed expression of pained confusion God reserves for older people on their birthdays. 'Who are you? And who am I? And why is this cake on fire?'")
The musical is a '20s wedding farce with punning gangsters, an aviatrix ("what we now call a lesbian"), a Latin lothario, a blindfolded roller-skating scene, the obligatory expository opening number, and tap-dancing in two-toned high-top shoes. This touring production is perfect, both embodiment and loving parody of America's goofiest art form. And it is a harbinger of great revolutions to come in American musical theater. BRENDAN KILEY
In Becky's New Car, Steven Dietz's sharp new comedy receiving its world-premiere production at ACT, a perfectly ordinary woman stumbles into an extraordinary opportunity: the chance at a brand-new life. This new life is a universe away from her typical existence as a middle-aged wife and mother and overworked auto-dealership employee, but she's not particularly hungry to escape; when she bothers to notice, Becky realizes she's content with what she's got. Nevertheless, when a well-greased rabbit hole opens up before her, Becky can't help herself from taking the plunge, and the twisty ramifications of this sensible woman's experiment with chaos speed this slick, sweet, but far-from-shallow show along to a surprisingly affecting finale.
Considering the double-life/mistaken- identity shenanigans of its plot, Becky's New Car might've glossed by as a whimsical theatrical fantasia. Instead, playwright Dietz and director Kurt Beattie ground the play's characters in real, tangible life, with the help of an exemplary cast. In lesser hands, Becky might come off as a comedic symbol of midlife stasis; as played by Kimberly King in a virtuoso performance, she's a flesh-and-blood woman, the type you'd bump into at an ATM and remember afterward. Equally good: Charles Leggett as Becky's sweet, schlumpy, "Soviet-hearted" husband, whose experience of his wife's impromptu, midlife rumspringa gives the play its emotional weight.
But as with any new play worth celebrating, the ultimate star is the author. Crafting a comedic confection that's actually funny is difficult enough, infusing such a confection with legitimate weight and depth is nearly miraculous—and Dietz has done both. He has written a 21st-century play that somehow makes the prospect of adultery seem shocking again, in which a second chance at life with a schlub in sweatpants feels like a fairy-tale ending. Go see it. DAVID SCHMADER
"Everyone at this table is speaking Sanskrit," argues Ram (Agastya Kohli), a translator of poetry, early in Love Person. He's at a bar, trying to impress Vic (Lisa Reynolds), a party girl he's picked up for a fling. Vic's deaf sister, Free (Kim Nungesser), is having none of it. American Sign Language, she signs, is a purer, more conceptual language, not rooted in the verbal patterns of Sanskrit. It's derived from gestures, Free says, which predate the spoken word.
It could just be an ordinary bar conversation, but there's so much subtext between the characters, and the stakes keep going up. Soon, Free is railing against poetry—why would you need poetry to describe love, she signs, when we already have sex?—and her rage threatens to throw all the relationships at that table into free fall. It's a marvelous script by Aditi Brennan Kapil, enjoying its Northwest debut, and the direction, by Joy Brooke Fairfield and Dawn Stoyanoff, captures the script's complexity.
The way the three languages are translated make a perfect case for the imperfection of translation. Sanskrit poems are projected onto a wall in the original language as Ram reads the English translation and Free signs them out. All three translations work in harmony, but the rest of the play is a gorgeous jumble of languages and intentions. The actors sign to each other, their subtitles are projected, and the portion of the audience that doesn't know ASL has to choose between reading what the characters are saying or watching their faces to pick up the nuance of how they're saying it. The performances are roundly wonderful. You respect and admire these characters even as they make reprehensible decisions and then try to correct them, working together to create a satisfying—and refreshingly hopeful—climax. This is an intellectual play that isn't afraid to be romantic, and despite its different languages, in the end you can't help but understand perfectly. PAUL CONSTANT