Sunday, August 23, 2009

VOTE: A New Musical (Fringe NYC)

I recently saw VOTE: A New Musical at the NYC Fringe Festival. Here's my review, as originally posted on twitter:

Bailey Hanks is darling, and sings the role of Muffin perfectly. I kept thinking, “She sure is pretty!” and her voice sounded great, too.

(Note to Bailey: Muffin is cute, but so similar to Elle Woods. I'd love to see you in a role where "great hair" isn't central to the part!)

Sidekick Nina Sturtz @yaynina (Trish) is terrific (highlight: “The Villains Girl”). Can’t wait to see what she does next. (@thebatterysdown)

But Trish's styling distracted me: Amongst HS archetypes, her combat boots made me think she’d fall in love with Muffin, not Mike. @yaynina

Was thrilled to see Deidre Goodwin again (Chorus Line, Nine). She can sing the roof off, and this show proves her fantastic comic timing!

No question about it: Morgan Karr @morgankarr (Mark) is the true star of VOTE. He made the show for me. I could have watched him for hours!

I liked Sasha Sloan as Nikki, but her character development came so late in the show! Wish we had met her earlier. @sashasloan

Big "Brava!" to Tracy Weiler (Angelica). Her few lines proved that despite the Barbie body, she’s actually a character actor. @tracyonstage

One word to describe VOTE: The Musical? “Cute”. It ain’t Broadway-bound, but I had a good time. Two performances left! I recommend it.

(VOTErs on Twitter: @votethemusical @fringenyc @ryannewyork @morgankarr @yaynina @tracyonstage @sashasloan @decasting)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Exclusive: Lin Manuel Miranda Confirms "In the Heights" film role at Freestyle Love Supreme

This morning Twitter is all abuzz with the fact that Lin Manuel Miranda has confirmed that he’ll be starring in the film version of In the Heights. I’m happy to say that I broke this story, after seeing Lin Manuel perform with his hip-hop improv comedy troupe, Freestyle Love Supreme, last night at Comix in New York City.

Freestyle Love Supreme , for the uninitiated, dates back to LMM’s days at Wesleyan University, where he began freestyling, theatrical-style, with his buddies Two-Touch, King Sherman, and UTK. They brought in crazy-smart beatboxer Shockwave, Arthur of Arthur & the Geniuses (who lives up to his name), Christopher Jackson (also of In the Heights) and several other talents to round out the sound when they got to NYC.

Like a traditional improv troupe, they take words that are called out by the audience, and use them to create stories and sketches. Only these MFers do it all with rhyme and rhythm, more closely resembling the final scene of Eminem’s 8 Mile than anything I ever saw at drama camp.

We all know of Lin Manuel’s lyrical skill – in two languages – from In the Heights and his recent translations in West Side Story (let’s face it, when Stephen Sondheim trusts you to take on his prosody, you’ve made it). What you might not expect is how easily the rhymes flow out of him, as if they take no effort at all. And he’s not alone in that: the whole FLS crew is right there with him, a true powerhouse of superhuman wordplay.

Before the show, the capacity crowd at Comix is abuzz, and the cheering starts as soon as the lights go down – this is clearly a pack that knows the treat they’re in for. When the beats begin with the traditional opening number “Mic Check” (visit www.freestylelovesupreme for a taste), everyone is going crazy. The next hour might be the best entertainment any of us will have for a month (that is, until Freestyle Love makes their next appearance at Comix).

From the first moments, the audience is involved in everything that happens onstage. Using a bucket of random words culled from the audience as they entered the showroom, Lin Manuel spits a series of rhymes so quickly that I wonder if he must have taken a glance at the papers in advance of this supposedly improvised scene. But as he grabs, reads, rhymes, crumples and repeats – over and over, about topics ranging from People Magazine to Lobster to my favorite, Corn on the Cob (which lyrically takes him to “Porn on the Job” – I mean come on, genius!) – it’s clear that this is LMM’s gift: the ability to take any word and use it to create a hiphopoetic story that’s both obvious and totally unexpected. His gift is so raw and so rare that there’s an air of watching a sideshow: He is freakish, he is exceptional, and no one can avert their eyes.

More than just traditional freestyle rap done improv-style (as if you see that all the time), FLS creates brilliant little spur-of-the-moment plays, complete with detailed characters based on members of the audience. Last night’s included Eric, “who was more than a little bit generic” and was given the chance to relive a regrettable moment from his past; and Chiara, who had her entire day reimagined FLS style, complete with a dirty tryst with a hottie real estate agent (played masterfully by Utkarsh “UTK” Ambudkar).

Another portion of the show was titled “A Person, a Place, and a Thingity Thing” in which each of three guys rapped lyrical about the nouns thrown at them by the audience; in this case David Hasslehoff (the person), Dubai (the place), and the band Blackstreet (the thingity-thing). (Shout out to UTK here, for apparently being a human wikipedia of Blackstreet information. He knew that band’s history so inside out that I could have written a term-paper about them after the show!)

The entire hour is performed as one continuous, beat-driven, pulsing song – underscored by the incomparable Shockwave on beats & SFX, and the absolutely brilliant Arthur of Arthur & the Geniuses on keys. Their contributions go beyond accompaniment, and serve to remind us that what we’re watching is basically full-body jazz – fully interactive, improvised hip-hop genius.

“Tell me something you can’t live without!” invites Two-Touch, aka Anthony Veneziale, our host and the guy who conceived Freestyle Love Supreme. As the crowd calls out their favorite things – pasta, air conditioning, orgasms – one group of drunken women can’t stop screaming their choice: Horses. “They can not be denied, ladies & gentlemen, the word is HORSES… and everything you’re about to hear is TRUE”.

Thus launches a trio of true horse-inspired stories: UTK used a fear of horses to arouse female sympathy (which led to sex) throughout his college career. Two-Touch mucked out stalls for a summer for $2.50 an hour. And Lin Manuel Miranda… well, he took a different approach to the topic, and recounted his year of Broadway stardom during which he was forced to live as “healthy as a horse”.

I don’t have the lyrical skill (nor did I smuggle in an illegal audio recording device) to be able to recreate LMM”s rhymes about In the Heights on this blog. But the basic gist is this:

During the year that her was starring on Broadway, our hero didn’t drink or indulge in fattening foods; he was working out all the time and bulked up and saw muscles he didn’t know he had. He ate a lot of sashimi (shouting out J Piven during the story, who apparently couldn’t handle the lifestyle), and became a physical specimen to behold.

Now that he has “retired” from his stage career (his word), he’s back to KFC and pizza and beer, and has the gut to prove it (although as much as he insisted, I didn’t see any evidence that his figure has changed at all from when I saw him on Broadway).

THEN, in the middle of his rhyme, came the scoop – tucked away, spit so fast you could almost miss it – but I didn’t:

He’s gonna have to get off his ass and start working out again, because when they start filming the movie, he has to have his “tickets to the gun show” back. Usnavi’s gotta be hot in the film version, as well, and “healthy as a horse”.

Yes, it was announced in November 0f 2008 that Universal had acquired the film rights to In the Heights; rumors of involvement by Jennifer Lopez have circulated the internet; But this is the first time, to my knowledge, that Lin Manuel has actually confirmed the movie deal – particularly the detail that he’ll be playing the beloved star and narrator of the story.

Not that it’s a surprise – how many of us can imagine an In the Heights film without LMM in the lead? – but it sure is thrilling to hear it from the master’s mouth himself.

As the crowd stood up in ovation, I may have whooped the loudest. Backed by his crew and doing what he does (and loves) best, Lin Manuel Miranda brought the house down last night. The promise of a film version of his already classic Broadway musical, starring him in his signature role, was the icing on the cake of an already incredible evening. My only question is this: will there be a spot in the movie for Freestyle Love Supreme ?