Thursday, December 19, 2013

This Shit is About to Get Personal: Ruminations on Love and Loss

When I started this blog several years ago, I was adamant that it would be a place where I would write about actual things that I was interested in, which, if you care to go through the archives, is primarily movies, theater, and junk food (and not necessarily in that order). I wasn't going to be just another jackass on the internet with a personal blog for me to pour my whiny thoughts all over, mostly because I like to believe that my emo teenage years are far behind me (though, honestly, aren't we all perpetual emo teenagers, but with bank accounts and larger sized pants?).

But seeing how this is my blog, which means I can break as many of the rules as I make and only have to answer to myself (and I think I'll cut myself some slack just this once), I'm going to stray from the norm and get a little personal.

The past couple of weeks have been challenging, to say the least. (And while I'm keenly aware that there are plenty of people out there with problems much bigger than my own, I only know how to focus on what I've got going on.) In the space of one week, my grandmother—who I grew up sharing a household with in southern state New York—passed away after many years of illness, and I packed up and moved to Chicago, leaving my family behind in Virginia, marking the first time in my life that I've lived more than a couple hour's drive away from them.

The loss of my grandmother wasn't exactly a surprise. She had emergency quadruple bypass surgery when I was 14 and was never the same since (and I recently turned 34, so that's pretty easy math for anyone to do in order to calculate how long she hadn't been well). During her recovery, her cardiologist gave her a strict diet to adhere to that included lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, and ultimately eliminated the chocolate, fatty meats, and carbohydrates she was so fond of. She essentially told him to go fuck himself, and continued to eat whatever she wanted.

Her physical therapist gave her a schedule of daily exercises to perform to help her regain strength and keep her newly reconstructed heart healthy—exercises that included tasks like "walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway" and "lift these one-pound weights when sitting down." She did none of these exercises, instead opting to recline in her lounge chair watching TV all day, and then would blatantly lie to the therapist in her follow-up visits, insisting that she walked on the treadmill we had in the house every day. Anyone who ever visited our house at this time knows that treadmill was used to stack the boxes of snacks she would buy in bulk at Sam's Club (which is like a BJ's or a Costco, for you non-east coasters).

As a result of her refusal to take even the minimal amount of care of herself, the next 20 years were extremely difficult for her and everyone around her (especially my mother, who had become my grandmother's caretaker). Over the years she had several more heart-related episodes that resulted in the installation of not one, but two pacemakers. (Did you know a person could have more than one at a time? It was news to me!) She also eventually developed adult-onset diabetes, had some kidney failure occur, had a hernia, developed a whole host of gastrointestinal issues, and let her muscles atrophy to the point where she couldn't walk without assistance. And as if these physical maladies weren't enough, every time she would go under anesthesia for surgery, she would lose oxygen to her brain, so her memories and logical thinking skills continuously deteriorated to the point where no one knew if she had actual dementia or had just undergone one too many trips under the gas mask.

When I was away at college, my mother rarely called me due to never knowing when I would be available, so we established the Sunday call home where I would reach out to her. But she would call me to notify me of emergency situations, which always revolved around Grandma being in the hospital for any of her many ailments. So I would sit on pins and needles for days, weeks, months, wondering if this time was going to be "the time," only to get a call that she was out of the hospital and doing OK...for now...for her.

The "Sunday call to Mom" tradition carried over into my adult life, as did the "Mom only calls me when something's wrong" tradition, to the point where anytime I saw "Mom" on the caller ID, my stomach would drop and I would prepare to finally hear the words, "Grandma's gone."

My grandmother was never an easy woman to deal with, even when she was relatively healthy during my early childhood years. When asked to describe her, the descriptors most often used are "stubborn," "opinionated," "kind of racist," "often inconsiderate," and "unappreciative." But then there were the parts of her that only those closest would see, like how fiercely loyal she was to her family or how generous she could be with whatever she had to give when someone she loved was in need.

Even when remembering how she was during their childhoods, my mother and aunt (her daughters) recall Grandma being the strict disciplinarian, while Grandpa (their father) was the softie that he continues to be today at 90 years old. But she was still their mother, and my grandmother, so we loved her anyway, prickles and all.

In the spring of 2012, after living in New York City for 8 years and feeling completely burned out, I was ready to move somewhere new. My desire was to go to Seattle, for a variety of reasons I won't bore you with. Apparently my relocation plans sparked something in my family 80 miles upstate. My mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all living in that same house, none of them getting any younger. My mother had been retired from teaching for a couple of years, my grandfather was in pretty decent health despite being in his late 80s, and my grandmother was practically immobile, only occasionally lucid, and a raving bitch to everyone. Obviously distressed by the condition she was in, but unwilling to admit that there was no one to blame for her condition other than herself, she lashed out at my mother and grandfather for their gross incompetence in everything, from cooking dinner, to programming the DVR, to folding the laundry.

At the end of her rapidly fraying rope, my mother decided she could no longer handle being Grandma's primary caretaker or continue living under the same roof as her, and decided to sell the New York house and move them all down to Virginia, where her sister lives. So in a matter of months, the house was sold, my mother had bought herself a new house in a 55+ community, and my grandparents had their own apartment in a senior living complex where my mom and aunt would take turns checking in on them, taking them shopping, and shuttling them to doctor's appointments.

Feeling more upset by this familial upheaval than I cared to admit (because I'm a tough, badass, independent woman who doesn't let silly things like emotions affect her, don'tcha know), I put my cross-country move plans on hold. But still needing to get out of NYC, I compromised and moved to the Washington, DC, area to be close (but not too close) to the family who was all now in Virginia.

In the spring of 2013, after some medical episode that sprung from her refusal to eat, my grandmother was put in a hospice care facility for what we—and the doctors—were sure was finally the end. And of course, just to spite us all, she hung on for 8 more months.

I knew almost immediately after moving to DC that it was not a good fit for me. Unsure if Seattle was still my ultimate destination, I went to visit some friends in Chicago over the summer and decided that was where I should be. Due to a project at work that kept getting pushed back, and then pushed back again, my hopes of moving in the fall turned into the reality of moving in the midst of the holiday season. Not exactly what I wanted to do, but I had to get the hell out of Dodge, so moving plans were made for the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.

When I got up at 7:00 on the Monday after Thanksgiving to get ready for work, I had a text message from my mother: "Call me when you get up." My stomach did the drop thing again, but this time it wasn't due to the fear of what was wrong with Grandma this time, but the fear that somehow she had outlived my grandfather and the bad news was about him.

I called my mom immediately and she picked up the phone with a choked silence. "Which one of them is it?" I managed to ask. I heard some shuffling as she passed the phone to my aunt, and knowing that she was at my mother's place that early in the morning was not a good sign. "Rach, it's Grandma. She passed away early this morning. We don't really know the details right now, but we'll let you know when we do. We're going to head over to Grandpa's in a little bit to let him know."

I told her I would work from home that day and to please let me know if there was anything I could do for them. And then proceeded to wonder what to do next. How do you grieve the loss of someone you've already grieved for time and time again when she's been coming "this close" to death for 20 years? The woman I remembered as Grandma—who baked Christmas cookies, bought me new ballet slippers every year, and supported my mother and I through the various trials my wretch of a father put us through—ceased to exist ages ago. Was I really sad that this sick, mean, abusive old woman who treated my mother like human garbage was finally gone? Was it OK if I wasn't sad?

Because what I felt more than sadness was relief. Relief that her struggle to hang onto a life that was finished with her years ago was finally over. Relief that my mother no longer had to carry the burden of caretaker or feel guilty about resenting her own mother. Relief that my grandfather no longer had to watch the woman he fell in love with, married, and had a family with fade further and further away. And relief for myself, because now I felt free to move away without the guilt of wondering if I might be needed back home whenever Grandma had her next episode.

Not being religious folks, we had a small family-only memorial for her at the cemetery that Thursday. She was cremated and her ashes were buried there, and a plot was purchased next to hers for my grandfather for when his time comes, which I fear will be sooner than any of us would like. Then, that weekend, movers came and collected my stuff, and I packed my car with the essentials, my two cats, and drove up to my new home in Chicago.

This will be the first Christmas without my grandmother and the first Christmas I will not be with the family since I was a kid and had to split my holiday break between my divorced parents. It wasn't how I planned things (obviously), but it is the way it is, and while it will be difficult, I know it will be alright. They will do the big family gathering that I just can't handle any more for reasons that would take up another 2,000-word blog post, and I will usurp the time-honored Jewish tradition of going out for Chinese food with friends. Hopefully next year I can convince my mother to do a Christmas trip with me. Somewhere warm. Because she sure as hell won't want to leave Virginia for Chicago this time of year!

Being an atheist-leaning person, I don't believe in heaven or hell (though I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong when the time comes), so I don't take comfort in imagining my grandmother up in the clouds with all her deceased friends and relatives. Heck, if the latter years of her life were taken into consideration, I'm not even sure she would have been let in! But I do take comfort in knowing that a very long, very trying period of time for many people has come to an end. And I hope her final moments were peaceful and pain-free, because she raged against the dying of the light for long enough.

Goodbye, Grandma. You were a massive pain in the ass most of the time. And I loved you. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Theater Review: 'If/Then' Pre-Broadway Preview

Location: The National Theatre, Washington, DC

Website: Official If/Then musical site

Starring: Idina Menzel, LaChanze, Anthony Rapp, James Snyder, Jerry Dixon, Jenn Colella, Jason Tam, Tamika Lawrence

My Review: Now that I no longer live in NYC, my opportunities to be among the first people to take in a new play or musical are severely limited. (You don't know how many months I had to hear about how fantastic Pippin is before I finally made my way up to NYC to see it.) So when I heard the new Broadway-bound musical If/Then (Broadway previews begin March 5, 2014) would be doing a preview here in Washington, DC, I was interested. Then when I heard it was starring Idina Menzel and being directed by Michael Greif, I was sold.

If/Then is the story of Elizabeth (Menzel); or rather, the two possible stories of Liz and Beth. Back in NYC and pushing 40 after ending a disastrous marriage in Phoenix, Elizabeth is ready for a new start. After being tugged in two different directions by her new friend and neighbor, the free spirited Kate (LaChanze), and her old college friend, the idealistic and sexually confused Lucas (Anthony Rapp), Elizabeth's story is torn in two and played out parallel to each other, showing the vast effect that one decision can have on a person's life path. (I imagine the working title of this production was Sliding Doors: The Musical.) In the one thread, she re-brands herself as "Liz" and follows Kate's advice to embrace her new life as a single woman in NYC; in the other, she goes back to her college moniker "Beth" and accepts a city planning job with former colleague, Stephen (Jerry Dixon).

With music and lyrics by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (the creative team behind the Tony-winning Next to Normal), direction by Michael Greif, and a cast full of Broadway stage notables, If/Then is certainly a pedigreed musical. But unfortunately, I wasn't as swept away with it as I was expecting to be. While certainly enjoyable--and it's always a treat to see Idina Menzel do pretty much anything--the production has a lot of elements that just flat out didn't work for me, and were problematic enough to distract me from the elements that did work.

My breakdown:

Didn't Work: The first half of Act I. It takes a really long time for things to get moving in the first act. Maybe part of the problem is that they're laying the groundwork for not one, but two primary storylines, but whatever the issue is, the pace needs to be picked up.

Worked: The cast. The cast is pretty phenomenal, and is the production's saving grace. Menzel is Broadway musical royalty for good reason, and she gives both Liz and Beth enough distinction so that you believe that these two separate paths are shaping her in different ways, but she also manages to make them similar in specific ways so that you don't forget that you're watching two halves of the same woman. LaChanze is delightful and instantly reminds you of that person in your life who always tells you what you need to hear, even if it's not necessarily what you want to hear. And it's great to see Menzel re-teamed with her former Rent co-star, Anthony Rapp; the two play off each other well, both when their characters are happy and when they're annoyed with each other, and you can actually feel how joyful these two actors are to be working together again.

Didn't Work: Establishing the parallel timelines. Doing a parallel timeline story on stage can't be easy; there's no visual way to make it obvious to the audience when you're moving from one story to the other without being overly distracting. (To go back to the Sliding Doors comparison, the two extreme hairstyles Gwyneth Paltrow sports in that movie make it easy to keep track of which story you're watching, but having Elizabeth constantly switching wigs would never work since she's on stage for almost every scene.) The scenic design team attempts to resolve this by altering the lighting colors as the storylines switch, but it's so subtle that it's easily overlooked. I eventually caught on well into Act I, but my theater companion was still confused at intermission, as were many other audience members if the selections of mumblings I overheard are trust-worthy.

Didn't Work: The songs (for the most part). I admit that I never saw Next to Normal. And not due to lack of opportunity, but lack of interest. After seeing the number the cast performed at the 2009 Tony Awards--where the characters just loudly sung their streams of consciousness at each other--I just didn't feel inspired enough to get tickets. The songs (such that they are) in If/Then are written and performed in the same vein. While not quite patter singing (as that's usually used for comedic effect), the cast sings in a modified patter singing style where they're kind of melodically chanting their inner thoughts or their conversations. The Playbill offers no breakdown of musical numbers, so I have no idea what the names of any of the songs are, but I imagine the list would look something like, "Elizabeth is Excited, But Nervous, About Starting Over Again," "Kate Thinks Liz Should Be Willing to Take a Chance," and "Josh Feels Apprehensive, But is Pretty Sure Things Will Turn Out OK in the End."

Maybe I'm old-fashioned when it comes to musical theater, but I like to leave the theater after seeing a new show humming at least one of the songs I just heard. And then I'll buy the cast album and learn all the songs I like. And then I'll sing them in my shower, and in my car, and after having too much vodka (much to the delight of everyone around me). Even musicals that are sung all the way through, opera-style (à la Rent and Les Misérables), have distinct songs that worm their way into your memory. If/Then has melodic monologues and dialogues, which really didn't do much for me.

Worked: Idina Menzel's songs. You don't cast Idina Menzel in your musical and not give her at least a couple of showstoppers to belt out. Surprising to no one, Menzel brings down the house in a couple of powerful solos, but as I mentioned before, there's nothing memorable about the songs themselves. Rather than leaving the theater remembering how great that musical number was, you leave remembering how great Menzel's voice is, but wishing you could remember any of the music or lyrics she performed.

Bottom Line: Anybody who is a fan of Broadway theater, or just musicals in general, is going to want to love If/Then, because it's bound to be known as "The new Idina Menzel musical." And if you love Menzel enough, that might be all you need to adore this production. But as a stand-alone musical, there is a lot lacking. If the production remains as-is when it makes its way to Broadway, I'm not sure what sort of life If/Then will have once its leading lady moves on. Hopefully the producers have Kristin Chenoweth's number on file. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Theater Review: Signature Theatre’s ‘Miss Saigon’

Location: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA

Website: Official Signature Theatre site

Starring: Thom Sesma, Diana Huey, Jason Michael Evans, Chris Sizemore, Christopher Mueller, Erin Driscoll

My Review: *In the name of fairness, I will disclose that I saw this production while it was still in previews and the pivotal role of Chris (Jason Michael Evans) was being played by the understudy (Gannon O’Brien).*

I have long had a fondness for the musical Miss Saigon. Created by the team of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, it was the blockbuster theatrical production that followed their other blockbuster theatrical production, Les Misérables, and landed on Broadway during my formative pre-teen years. Already being a Les Mis devotee—and a fan of big, emotional musicals in general—it wasn’t hard to fall in line with Team Miss Saigon.

Loosely based on Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon is the ultimate tragic love story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. American GI Chris meets and falls in love with the Vietnamese prostitute Kim (but she’s only a prostitute out of desperation and only for that one night when they meet, so she’s not that kind of prostitute, making her a protagonist that even the most conservative theater-goer would feel OK rooting for). Unfortunately, his plans to marry her and bring her back to America with him go awry when they get separated during the fall of Saigon and Kim is left behind. Three years go by, and an increasingly desperate Kim is still holding onto the dream of the return of her American husband. A reunion seems imminent when Chris’ war buddy, John, discovers Kim’s new whereabouts in Bangkok and they set out to find her. But the presence of Chris’ wife, Ellen, throws a wrench into Kim’s happily-ever-after fantasy.

Those who aren’t intimately familiar with the story or music of Miss Saigon probably know it best as, “that musical with the helicopter.” And it’s true; the early 1990s original Broadway production landed a helicopter on stage, along with having a full-size Cadillac appear for a major musical number and featuring a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh that loomed over the stage. For better or worse, it was what I like to call “a big-ass musical.” But the Signature Theatre is a modestly-sized venue, so they couldn’t do this big-ass musical with its original production values even if they wanted to (or could afford to). So how could they translate Miss Saigon for what their space would allow?

With some pretty creative staging and choreography that, for the most part, actually worked. All the musical numbers are still there, but instead of 30 dancing chorus members, there are 10. Instead of one giant Ho Chi Minh, there are six normal-sized ones still casting an imposing presence. Instead of landing a helicopter…well, I don’t want to give away all of Signature’s tricks, but what they come up with works just as well for the scene.

Surprisingly (to me, at least), the show doesn’t suffer from the move to its new, smaller digs. Sure, grand theatrics and stage pyrotechnics are fun and all, but the story, songs, and heart are what make a musical worthwhile, and none of that is missing at the Signature Theatre. There were a few instances where you could tell the cast would have liked a little more space to move or dance about in, but that didn’t detract from the more important moments, like feeling the necessary gut-punch when Kim first encounters Chris’ new wife.

Kim is, in my opinion (check the name of the blog, bitches), the performance that can make or break a production of Miss Saigon. And luckily, Diana Huey is up to the task. She’s believably scared and overwhelmed when first thrown into the life of a Vietnamese prostitute, sells you on the joy she feels when she thinks she’s found a good man who will take care of her, then breaks your heart when all of her dreams fall apart. With a voice that my theater companion aptly called “Disney princess pretty,” she’s a perfect fit for the sweet, naïve Kim. (Fun, if not overly relevant, fact: Lea Salonga, who was the original Kim on Broadway, also provided the singing vocals for Disney’s Princess Jasmine in Aladdin and Mulan in Mulan.)

Another cast standout is Thom Sesma as the Engineer, the club-owner/pimp/opportunist who first brings Kim into her new line of work and then latches onto her when he sees her as his ticket to becoming the American entrepreneur he dreams of being. Gifted with some of the more fun musical numbers, he provides bursts of much-needed comic relief during the performance, easily working his sleazy charm over on the audience while completely failing to do so on stage with various Vietnamese officials and American soldiers.

The role of Chris has always been problematic to me. His development is shoved aside in favor of focusing on Kim, so his motivations are never as clearly defined. Does he really love her, or is he just trying to do what he thinks is the right thing in the moment? Did he really tap every resource he could to find her after being forced to leave her behind? How invested was he really if he managed to find a new American wife relatively quickly? As previously stated, I saw understudy Gannon O’Brien as Chris on the night I attended, and while he was capable enough, he was clearly not as comfortable in the role as I would imagine someone who had been rehearsing it for weeks would have been, which did nothing to make me stop questioning Chris’ various motives and decisions.

A more problematic role, in that it’s a totally thankless one, is that of Ellen, Chris’ wife. She creates the primary roadblock to the happily-ever-after we want to see, but rather than emphasizing how it’s a position she never wanted to be in, Erin Driscoll makes her version of Ellen seem almost cold and cruelly disinterested in the devastation that her very existence creates for Kim.

Signature’s new production of Miss Saigon also features a brand-new song for Ellen: “Maybe,” which replaces her former Act II number (and only solo), “Now That I’ve Seen Her” (or “It’s Her or Me,” depending on if you saw the original show in London or New York). The new tune is unmemorable and, being intimately familiar with the Original Broadway Cast album, I don’t know why the Monsieurs Schonberg and Boublil felt the need to fix what wasn’t broken.

The less I say about Christopher Mueller as Thuy, the horrible man Kim’s parents arranged for her to marry before the war, the better. It’s a relatively small part, so the minutes you’re forced to spend watching him try to portray an intimidating figure are blessedly few.

Bottom Line: The Signature Theatre is marketing this new staging of Miss Saigon as the most ambitious and largest production in their history, and thankfully they were up for the challenge. There are a few growing pains (or in this case, shrinking pains), but nothing that detracts from the overall enjoyment of the show. Much like its older sister Les Misérables, Miss Saigon isn’t without fundamental problems on the page, but the newly trim version at Signature is a testament to how well a small theater can do a big-ass musical. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Theater Review: The National Ballet of Canada's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'

Location: The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC

Website: Official National Ballet of Canada site

Starring: The company from the National Ballet of Canada

My Review: I admittedly know very little about ballet beyond what I learned in dance classes I attended as a child (where it was less about skill and more about looking cute in a tutu), but just as with graphic art (another art form I have little formal education in), I know what I like when I see it. And the National Ballet of Canada's production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is something I liked very much.

Alice in Wonderland has long been one of my favorite stories, from Lewis Carroll's original book, to the Disney animated classic, to the bizarre '80s mini-series (that made me one of the few first-graders who knew who Red Buttons and Imogene Coca were), to Melanie Benjamin's recent novel, Alice I Have Been. When I first saw that the Kennedy Center would be presenting this new ballet version of Alice, I wondered why it hadn't been done before. Being such a lively, episodic, and whimsical tale, it seems to naturally lend itself to a dance performance.

Luckily, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon saw this potential and crafted this new and exciting Alice. Using a brilliantly creative combination of animated screens, puppetry, breathtaking scenery, and extremely talented dancers, Wheeldon takes you on Alice's familiar journey, but in a way that manages to feel brand new.

Clocking in at almost three hours long (with two intermissions), Alice's Adventures in Wonderland could be a tedious exercise in sitting still (especially considering how the production is likely to appeal to children). But each scene moves along at a steady, quick pace, and there's always so much to take in on stage that the length isn't even noticeable until you check your watch on the way out.

One of the key reasons that I've had less exposure to ballet than other performing arts is that I find featured dance solos to often drag on for too long. I fully support giving each principal dancer their moment to shine, but I often wish they would shine for about the half the time they take. In Alice, this is never an issue. Each solo dance is just the right length, and is energetic enough to hold your attention until the end.

I was also delighted to see that ballet could actually be funny. A lot can be communicated through dance, but it's rare that I've seen an audience burst into laughter at a dance routine that isn't accompanied by a comical show tune. The Mad Hatter's tea party is a colorful tap dance routine that is periodically interrupted by a suddenly narcoleptic Dormouse. The caucus race is completed in dramatic slow-motion. And in a highlight of the evening, the Queen of Hearts is a high-strung hostess forcing all of her reluctant servants to join her in a dance that only she thinks is worthy of performing.

Bottom Line: As my first big theatrical experience since relocating from NYC to DC, I don't think I could have chosen better than both going to the Kennedy Center and seeing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. If you're lucky enough to have this production come to a stage near you, I highly recommend purchasing tickets, even if you don't consider yourself a "ballet fan."