Superheroes haven’t had an easy time of it in musicals. It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman opened in 1966 to critical praise but public indifference, and then there was that little show about Spider-Man some seasons back. Add to this unlucky list Superhero at Second Stage, which at least invents its own superheroes rather than sullying the reputations of beloved ones. Further, it’s beautifully produced, assembled by experienced hands (book, John Logan; music and lyrics, Tom Kitt), and possessing several good songs. The trouble is, Superhero isn’t so much written as programmed.
Steven Levenson’s fast-paced and hilarious play, Days of Rage, opens in October 1969. America is riven. The war in Vietnam has taken more than 30,000 American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy have been assassinated. Twenty thousand mostly young people turned out to protest the war in Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and police are assigned to contain and control the crowd at all costs. Eight of the protesters, later known as the Chicago Eight, were put on trial in late August 1969. Word goes out to bus protesters to the trial. Both the protesters and the Chicago Eight see the case as a way to put the nation itself, its racism and unjust war, on trial. Levenson’s powerful play focuses a sharp gaze at politics and the hidden volatility that can tip over into violence and the spilling of blood.
Signs of the decline and fall of the American Empire are everywhere visible, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Rust Belt, which has decay and depression hammered right into its nickname. Detroit may be its most potent symbol, but this ribbon, stretching from New York to Wisconsin, is peppered with towns both large and small that have never quite recovered from the trauma of deindustrialization.
Bee, the heroine of Bruce Norris’s new play, A Parallelogram, is in the midst of a bout of depression. She sits on her bed playing solitaire. Perhaps it’s because she and her boyfriend, Jay, have recently returned from a vacation on a tropical island, where she saw grinding poverty. Or perhaps because, on returning from their trip, she found that the pet parrot she had for 17 years had died from her own negligence (its empty cage sits in the bedroom). Perhaps it’s the hysterectomy that she recently had. Or could it possibly be because her future self, Bee 2, has materialized to reveal the future to her in all its futility?
Leaving no explorer-themed cliché unturned, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me boldly goes where many, many musicals have gone before, weaving a story of ersatz empowerment out of artistic crisis. The show, which encumbers a pair of insanely talented performers with thankless roles at the center of a human cartoon, patronizes and demeans its audience in its eagerness to be idiosyncratic.
Midlife crisis looms large in The Man from Nebraska, a 2003 play by Pulitzer Prize–winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County). In a series of swift, short scenes, barely punctuated by dialogue, or rather weighted down by silence, Letts delineates the life of the title character, the retired Ken Carpenter—a terrific Reed Birney. His retirement is spent eating at Outback Steakhouse with his wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole, in an unshowy part rife with anguish and bewilderment), attending church together, and visiting his mother, Cammie, in a nursing home, where she suffers from either dementia or Alzheimer’s. They also see their daughter, Ashley, who lives nearby, although his granddaughter, Natalie, lives farther away.
In 2005, Griffin Matthews made the nearly 7,000-mile journey from the skyscrapers of New York City to the hills of Uganda to become one of the many American volunteers looking to “find themselves” and “change the world” by building schools in Africa. Now, Matthews stars in a musical about his journey and in doing so, brings the lives of those in Uganda to a New York City stage. Sound a little cliché? Perhaps it is, but Invisible Thread is a feel-good story brought to life by a clever script, catchy score, uplifting message and talented cast.
Co-written by Griffin Matthews and real-life partner/composer Matt Gould, Invisible Thread began as a piece titled Witness Uganda which won the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2014. Griffin was a struggling actor booted from his church’s choir for being gay when he made the decision to leave his boyfriend Ryan (Corey Mach) behind to sign on as a volunteer. Instead of simply extolling this decision, Invisible Thread calls into question the reason that people perform altruistic deeds in the first place. Is it to help others or to help ourselves feel good? And does the motivation really matter if there is good coming from it?
Through self-deprecating humor and witty lines, both Ryan and Griffin acknowledge their somewhat stereotypical problems. “Imagine, a gay in the tenor section!” Upon arriving in Uganda at the compound where he will be building a school, Griffin meets a woman who is ironically named Joy (Adeola Role). She has built up a wall to protect herself from the constant stream of volunteers who she has learned she will never see again despite their promises. Griffin also meets Jacob (Michael Luwoye), Joy’s brother who works at the compound. They quickly form a bond and Jacob reveals what is really going on with all the schools the volunteers are building. Pastor Jim, who we never meet, immediately sells them for a profit once the volunteers leave.
Looking for answers, Griffin follows Jacob to the market, where he encounters and befriends four teenage orphans—Ronny (Tyrone Davis, Jr.), Grace (Kristolyn Lloyd), Eden (Nicolette Robinson) and Ibrahim (Jamar Williams). Discouraged by the news that his volunteer efforts with the school will result in no real change, Griffin decides that he will instead teach these four teens and Jacob in an abandoned library. As things progress, Griffin realizes that he may be in over his head. His relationships with the students and his determination to make a difference strengthen despite the obstacles.
Throughout the musical, contemporary songs mix with ones of a more Sub-Saharan styling but all are catchy and moving. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo and Darrell Grand Moultrie complements the music wonderfully and adds an energy and power to the performance that is further enhanced by stunning, soulful vocals from the ensemble. A dirt stage is slightly mismatched with the two projection screens, calling attention to the differences between New York City and Uganda.
Diane Paulus directs a talented cast with Role delivering a standout performance as Joy. Mach does what he can with the role of Ryan, though the character seems somewhat less developed than it could be and appears to be an evolving piece in the script based on previous iterations of the production. The climax in the second act seems somewhat muddled, though everything comes together in the end, perhaps too perfectly to properly portray the complicated topics addressed. Invisible Thread is a production which is clearly a result of passion and purpose but it manages to avoid becoming preachy or self-promotional.
Invisible Thread is playing at Second Stage Theater (305 West 43rd St. between 8th and 9th Aves.) through December 27. Tickets range from $69-$125 and can be purchased by calling 212-246-4422 or visiting www.2st.com.