I’m dreaming of a red Christmas | OSF’s ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan at Seattle Rep are 100% sold out

And there you have it. Appropriately for plays that comes out of a program called the US History Cycle, Robert Schenkkan’s ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY are making history of their own in Seattle.

Both shows are now 100% sold out. And there’s still two weeks to go.

More stats will be forthcoming, but it seems clear this was one of the most successful theatre productions in Seattle, Oregon and Northwest history.

SOLD OUT!  Every seat is filled.

SOLD OUT! Every seat is filled.

Closing out the year in style | Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan are sell out sensations in Seattle

Midway through the first marathon performance day of the sold out Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions of Robert Schenkkan’s two play LBJ epic at Seattle Rep last weekend, as the closing moment of ALL THE WAY faded into darkness and one of the most roof-shaking, riotous standing ovations I have ever seen made the Bagley Wright Theatre feel like CenturyLink Field after a hometown win, one thing was clear.

What the Jet City has playing right now at center stage is no ordinary regional theatre experience. This is something different. OSF’s road show of two towering new plays about America is nothing less than a high water mark in the national theatre of our lifetime.

They built it. We came. And the result is what the theatre can be.

You better believe that's exciting.

You better believe it’s exciting.

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Go big or go home | One week after opening, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of ALL THE WAY by Robert Schenkkan sets all time box office record at Seattle Repertory Theatre

12.13.2014 UPDATE Reflections after seeing both shows at Seattle Rep on the first marathon day

8.3.2014 My review of THE GREAT SOCIETY at Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer

You heard it here: Get ready for that big whooshing sound that says SOLD OUT! Robert Schenkkan’s epic LBJ plays ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY at Seattle Rep are just about to ignite and become what every theatre and playwright dreams of – a full blown cultural phenomenon that captivates a city’s population and rises to the very top of the national must see list.

The man behind the curtain.  Robert Schenkkan.

The man with the stories: Robert Schenkkan.

It’s not a Seahawks game, or a Fleetwood Mac concert, or a marathon performance of Wagner’s entire RING cycle. But it’s turning out to be just as popular in Seattle.

One week after opening, Robert Schenkkan’s play ALL THE WAY, which covers LBJ’s first year in office, has already laid low the former Seattle Rep box office record. It’s impressive, but we’re just getting started.

As LBJ himself might have remarked in trademark blunt style: You ain’t seen shit.

Meaning – the show is only beginning to build. After uniform rave reviews and a few weeks of visibility all over the Seattle media (my Google alert on the show seems to crank out multiple emails an hour at this point), ALL THE WAY is just about to go completely, unreservedly, irreversibly nuclear. And then THE GREAT SOCIETY, part 2 of the cycle (which was sold out all summer in Ashland BTW), will follow suit.

But this blockbuster hit didn’t pop out of left field with no warning. It’s the result of a perfect storm of factors (some years in the making) that have all come together to create one of the most exciting theatrical events Seattle has ever seen.

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Telling big stories on the big stage | An interview with Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan

Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan (@RobertSchenkkan) has had a long and distinguished career in theatre, TV and film. And at 61 he’s not slowing down one bit.

For the theatre, Schenkkan’s latest project is the epic, two play treatment of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, premiered by Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Part 1, ALL THE WAY (2012), which was commissioned by OSF’s American Revolutions program and covers Johnson’s first year in office, started in Ashland and then went to Boston and New York, picking up numerous awards along the way, including a Tony for best new play. In this age of small casts and attention spans, for a big history play to take Broadway by storm is impressive. It’s also being made into an HBO film directed by Steven Spielberg.

Part 2, THE GREAT SOCIETY (2014), was commissioned by Seattle Rep and launched this summer in Ashland. It covers Johnson’s second term from 1964-8. If all goes well, GREAT SOCIETY will also be Broadway bound in the not too distant future – possibly including Bryan Cranston again as Johnson.

But in the meantime, one of the most exciting theatre events anywhere in the US in the 2014-15 season is bearing down on Seattle and involves both plays in the cycle. Starting this Friday, Seattle Rep is bringing the original OSF productions of ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY to the Jet City to play in rep through January 4. ALL THE WAY will open first, followed by THE GREAT SOCIETY on December 5. The two will then run simultaneously for a month. So if you’re the marathon type, come see both shows for a single day six hour immersion in the kind of live experience only the theatre can provide. It’s a big story on the big stage – and it’s already selling out.

I caught up with this extremely articulate American playwright recently to talk about the Austin connection, Johnson, the contemporary theatre landscape and more.

The man behind the curtain.  Robert Schenkkan.

Robert Schenkkan.

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T-10 until LBJ invades the Northwest | Seattle braces for one of the most exciting theatrical events the Jet City has ever seen

Audience

RING fever in 2013 at Seattle Opera. Get ready for sold out houses and shattered box office records at Seattle Rep as Robert Schenkkan’s massive and surprisingly relevant two play study of LBJ hits town.

Are you ready, Seattle? I can’t heeeeeear you.

It’s time to suit up, saddle up and show up.

Because something WICKED your way comes. Something wicked good (for the Mainers in the house).

It’s bearing down like a February storm on Puget Sound. And based on all advance indicators, it’s going to quite possibly be a direct hit the likes of which the Jet City has NEVER seen before.

So batten down the hatches, get out your calendar, and launder the black tie formal wear. Seattle, if you don’t like a little drama in your life, then the next two months are going to be downright difficult. Deal with it.

What, pray tell, is “it”?

Hints:

* It’s one of the biggest national theatrical events in the 2014-15 season
* It’s breaking box office records
* It’s by a local playwright
* It’s spawning sold out runs on Broadway and across the country
* It’s spawning HBO movies with the likes of Bryan Cranston and Stephen Spielberg involved

Oh – and P.S. Sounders fans: It’s made in Oregon. Ha. Sorry. Had to.

It would be hard to exaggerate just how exciting and electrifying “it” is going to be. But (as you know) we’ll try.

Nutshell: The OSF production of Robert Schenkkan’s epic, acclaimed two play cycle about LBJ starts up at Seattle Rep on November 14. That’s next Friday, people.

And here’s a tip: It’s going to create sold out pandemonium that you may not have seen since last year’s RING cycle packed McCaw Hall. So don’t wait until you hear about it in the paper. Plan ahead.

Portlanders – schedule a weekend trip up north when you can catch both plays on the same day. You may also be able to fit in watching the Sounders lose a game at home if you want.

This is your wake up call. Come be part of American theatre history in the making.

Perhaps you’ve been waiting for an experience like this?

Well here it is.

Theater Review | FAMILY ALBUM by Stew and Heidi Rodewald at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Running over three hours in length, this unfocused work contains many infectiously crafted pop songs but is unable to deploy them in service of a workable core narrative. The result is an intermittently entertaining experience memorable mainly for the songs and not story. The central debate around whether it is better to be a real artist and not make much money or to sell out and become financially successful – as if those are the only two possibilities – feels artificial and way past its shelf life. The show is redeemed by the presence of a radiant Miriam A. Laube.

FAMILY ALBUM by Stew and Heidi Rodewald at Oregon Shakespeare Festival Thru August 31

3-stars

Rocking out.  Clockwise: Heimvey (Luqman Brown), Gibbs (Christian Gibbs), Charles Andy (Vinnie Sperrazza), Paul (Lawrence Stallings) and Claudia (Casey Scott). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Rocking out. Clockwise: Heimvey (Luqman Brown), Gibbs (Christian Gibbs), Charles Andy (Vinnie Sperrazza), Paul (Lawrence Stallings) and Claudia (Casey Scott). Photo by Jenny Graham.

ASHLAND – The thing with musical shows about rock stars is that (surprise) they kind of depend on rock stars. There are no real rock stars in FAMILY ALBUM, the new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald now receiving a bright and colorful world premiere at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though its two creators wield justifiable rock star cred as a result of their stunning first success, PASSING STRANGE (watch it here if you missed it on Broadway). But this time around they’re not actually in the show. And part of the challenge for the audience as we witness this tale of middle age artistic regret and indecision is regarding several of the figures on stage as real rock stars – when they aren’t.

Not that any of the musicians here are lacking. As the stand in for Stew, Luqman Brown is a solid and captivating bandleader Heimvey. Casey Scott is a fiercely scowling Claudia (a stand in for Rodewald), the base player and hard-hearted current (or former?) romantic partner of Heimvey. Christian Gibbs is Gibbs, a thin second guitar player with frizzy hair and a 70’s Marlboro man moustache (which appears to be real). Vinnie Sperrazza holds down the drum kit as Charles Andy. And the incredibly dynamic Lawrence Stallings, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Daniel Breaker, who played the central youth character from PASSING STRANGE and keeps hilariously proclaiming “I can’t believe my life!”, is tambourine player Paul. All the players are fine. But at the end of the day they’re not rock stars. And no one is ever going to replace the presence of the real Stew on stage. This is an absence we will feel, particularly during some of the weaker moments between songs.

The story before us concerns a hard working road band that’s long since arrived at middle age, minus the commercial success they all hoped for. They’re still going through the motions, playing shows at bars in Hoboken, and living out of the van, when all of a sudden along comes a somewhat incongruous chance to be the opening act for the mega teenage band of the moment, The Vomit Puppies, at Madison Square Garden. We’re asked to believe that playing this show at a monster venue would actually mean anything for the fortunes of our fearless rockers – which seems unlikely.

But with this big possible moment a few days out, our band points the van for Brooklyn and comes to crash at the upscale Park Slope pad of Cleo (the ever wonderful Miriam A. Laube), who is a former member of the band and former romantic partner of Heimvey. Cleo got out of the supposed dead end life of being a real artist and married the rich art dealing Norman (Alex Emanuel). They also have a kid (no real name), who is portrayed by the adult actor Daniel T. Parker. Depending on your tolerance for wildly over the top exaggeration and the genius child syndrome – you will either love Parker’s performance or be driven close to insanity by it. With our marginal rock heroes installed in the glam digs of two artists who have supposedly sold out (and god forbid, procreated), the stage is set for all sorts of friction between past and present, dreams and ideals.

As the narrative arc comes off the rails (particularly in the second act), the enjoyment to be had here is really from the songs – whether they make any sense in reference to the larger story or not. There are some gorgeous, sparkling numbers. And as pop songs must, they will mercilessly infest your brain. Some that still ring are Mistress Melody, Sexy Brooklyn Mami, Black Men Ski, and especially the super-charged, hook-laden and beautiful Dysfunctional Family Song. Gorgeous.

Quite a large tonnage of hay is required to stuff the numerous straw men into which our characters repeatedly thrust their under-sharpened jousts. “You either stay pure and mean – or you sell out your art to the man!” “Park Slope is an evil yuppie lair!” “Cash in before you’re old!” “All suffering is caused by desire!” “Yeah!”

There are many cliches in the air, but you also want to stop the music and ask: “Wait – who among us actually believes any of this?” The problem that no amount of heaven sent song writing will fix is that the story offers little of consequence. There’s a general lack of seriousness to everything. Nothing much matters so – sure, go ahead and sing a song about how a Ken doll thinks he’s gay.

At one point, Heimvey takes a deadpan crack at a band whose name the world DOES know. “And you know, as REM says, ‘Everybody hurts sometime’,” he wails forlornly, mocking the hyper sensitivity of it all. It’s funny but would be a lot funnier if Michael Stipe weren’t a household name and musical genius – and if the reference didn’t remind at least one audience member that some of us are hurting NOW, and that we could be spending the afternoon watching an REM tribute band instead.

While the absence of (musical) rock stars has been noted, what saves the show is the presence of one very real theatre rock star. And that’s the entrancing Miriam A. Laube. A lot of the show becomes about watching Cleo and trying to figure out where she’s at. Laube has a gaze that could drown out a Marshall stack or hold a packed MSG (Madison Square Garden) rapt, and when she’s staring right at you in the small Thomas Theatre, the effect is electric. She delivers a starry performance given the material she has to work with, essentially transforming thin air into drama by sheer force of personality. And, as those star OSF-ers do, she’s on double duty at the moment, also starring in INTO THE WOODS simultaneously. Very impressive.

A final major stage presence to note – Lawrence Stallings. This guy, who is a background character here, is so so good. He really needs to be given more runway to come out front and center and really show what he has, because there’s clearly a huge amount of talent. And when that breakout moment happens, he is going to knock our socks all the way to Madison Square Garden.

Or even Brooklyn.

-Win Goodbody

Song list

QUE LASTIMA

MISTRESS MELODY

ADRENALINE LANE

ABOUT HOW YOU CAN’T BE RICH & GOOD

I JUST CAST A SPELL

SEXY BROOKLYN MAMI

SOMEBODY

20 MILLION UNITS SOLD

MY LIFE YOUR HOBBY

THE BOHOS

DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY SONG

UNIVERSAL

TOMORROW NIGHT

BLACK MEN SKI

SOMETHING LIKE RELIEF

INCORPORATED

MISTRESS MELODY REPRISE

“MILLION DOLLAR FEELING

UNFINISHED PAUL SONG ABOUT THE MEDIA’S FADING INTEREST IN CLEO

KEN

LOVE IS A CULT/SOMETIMES I WISH I HAD IT LIKE MY DAD

QUE LASTIMA

“THESE SONGS”

WATERING HOLE

Cleo (Miriam A. Laube) and Heimvey (Luqman Brown) get reacquainted as Clara (Dana Lyn) plays. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Cleo (Miriam A. Laube) and Heimvey (Luqman Brown) get reacquainted as Clara (Dana Lyn) plays. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Charles Andy (Lawrence Stallings) jokes with The Kid (Daniel T. Parker). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Charles Andy (Lawrence Stallings) jokes with The Kid (Daniel T. Parker). Photo by Jenny Graham.

THE GREAT SOCIETY at Oregon Shakespeare Festival scores strong review from The New York Times

All the way from that quaint little hick burg theatre town known as Manna-hata (located a mere stone’s throw from Bayonne, New Jersey), Christopher Isherwood touched down in Ashland last week to catch THE GREAT SOCIETY by Robert Schenkkan.

Here’s what he thought.

It’s a pretty strong review.

What does this mean for Northwesterners?

As we have been pointing out for some time, the pending production of both parts of Schenkkan’s LBJ epic in rep at Seattle Rep in November and December is going to be an exciting national theatre event for the 2014-15 season. If we had an official national theatre in America, it would look a lot like this. Coverage in the NYT will only raise the profile.

If you can’t catch it in Ashland before November (where it is selling out), all roads lead to Seattle.

So saddle up – as LBJ might say.

NYT comes to OSF.

NYT comes to OSF.