From an all-too-honest advice columnist to audience requests on the mic and a gambling bail-out, the love shown here covers pretty much everything but the romantic kind. Here are my takeaways from each.
Tiny Beautiful Things @ Valley Center Stage
Under the radar pick — Recommended
… That puny word has the power to stand on its own.
A few years back I saw a production of Tiny Beautiful Things on one of Seattle’s biggest stages, and it was a good play. Well-acted. Polished.
But the people writing in to anonymous advice columnist “Sugar” when they reach out into the void don’t need flawless. They want something more like themselves: human, imperfect, a little messy. Wise enough to help them find direction, but accessible enough to just hear them out.
When the original advice-giver behind the “Dear Sugar” column seeks to offload the responsibility and retire, writer’s-blocked novelist Cheryl Strayed agrees to take up the mantle, against her economic interests and better judgment.
For an unpaid position, she never expected the demands or the volume; nor the level of vulnerability that cuts through the occasional burst of cynicism. And she couldn’t have known how hard her advice-seekers would fall for her personal-over-professionally-trained brand of wisdom — and she for them — over the two years she spent responding to their letters behind the anonymous name.
Tiny Beautiful Things, based on Strayed’s book of the same name, is a play adapted by Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). It’s made up largely of fragments of her correspondence from and to advice-seekers. She’s very open, and sometimes contradictory, and sometimes over her head. But her readers respond well, overall, because she’s honest with them. She meets them where they’re at, in a vulnerability that says not only has she been there, but in some cases she might be not too far removed.
It’s that hominess and vulnerability and messiness that make for a really lovely, broken, and endearing back and forth.
Valley Center Stage, a tiny theatre company in North Bend, handles these stories with an empathy and closeness that the big theatres — even in the most polished productions — likely just can’t achieve. The current production, held in an intimate theatre space, feels like a real living room. It’s clear that director Wanda Boe understands the heart and movement of this play. Boe’s direction brings to the surface what this story attempts to do: capture disparate lives interconnected, through this anonymous advice-giver, as they all try to get their houses in a bit more order.
Jen Anderson makes an excellent “Sugar” — a mixture of candid and self-conscious, empathetic and blunt. Her no-nonsense portrayal commands the stage, and it’s especially helpful when the cynics (one is named “Still Not Buying It”) write in; her thoughtfulness is palpable and believable, making her connections with the various letter writers feel real. The remainder of the cast — Peter Cook, Robin Walbeck-Forrest, and Rene Schuchter as Letter Writers 1, 2, and 3 — rise gamely to the challenge of animating some far-flung personalities.
They’ve created the kind of characters you wonder about after the show is over. Exactly the kind of work a play like this should do.
Want more? Valley Center Stage holds a reading series of lesser-done plays every two months. I slipped in for January’s reading of Looking for Normal by Jane Anderson, which centers on an older character’s gender transition. The play was thoughtfully approached, well-acted by a large cast, and well-directed by Walbeck-Forrest (who played “Letter Writer #2” here).
‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ runs through 3/5 at Valley Center Stage in North Bend. Tickets $23, here. Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for Thursday’s show. Readings series tickets are also PWYC.
Freestyle Love Supreme (touring) @ Seattle Rep
A couple minutes into the much-hyped early brainchild of Lin Manuel-Miranda, I had a concerning realization. Oh no. This is going to be like a rap battle crafted for retirees.
That’s more or less how it started off, trading tame improvised rhymes built around audience suggestions of random words like “slalom,” which kept getting brought back throughout the show.
Turns out, that first act was just the light warm-up. Freestyle Love Supreme is like a variety show built on beatbox (laid down by Chris Sullivan as Shockwave and Kaila Mullady as Kaiser Rözé) and verses created on the fly by its core trio of vocalists: Anthony Veneziale as Two-Touch (a show founder, who also serves as the host), Jay C. Ellis as Jellis J, and Aneesa Folds as Young Nees (who also sings hooks with a tremendous voice). Rich Midway (Richard Baskin Jr.) and Not Draggin (James Rushin) provide the machine-made beats for the others to build on. And they’re joined in parts by other vocalists, in this case rapper Jelly Donut (Andrew Bancroft) and guest singer Hummingbird (Morgan Reilly).
The “love” bit comes through with the audience interaction. Two-Touch has an easy rapport with the audience, creating a vibe in which there are no stupid answers; and while the goal isn’t to solicit stupid answers, it does create a level of comfort in which the audience is game to participate. Not always an easy feat here in the freeze.
But this is Seattle, and whatever the mix driving it — the MC’s asks, the audience’s suggestions and energy, or the performers’ moods — their opening-night show here had a whole lot of thuds. One segment asking for things audience members don’t like — we ended up on income taxes, being chased by crows, and 6th-grade girl drama (the latter of which Young Nees’s flow turned into my highlight of the night) — kind of set the tone for the show. A way-too-long sequence involving an audience member’s story of a near-abduction and a parent/teacher relationship was just … not right. A closing sequence in which an affable audience member named George was invited to come on down became a vocalized performance of his day; their portrayal of cats was probably the most interesting part.
For being improvised (“like the Kraken’s lineup!”), they really have this show down to a science. So while the words might be improvised — very impressive in its own right — I got the impression that if I went again, I’d probably see a show very much like the one I just saw. Still, it’s a fun ride with wide appeal; a type of improv (and theatre) you’re unlikely to see elsewhere, and a communal experience that hits the right chords on return from our largely siloed existence.
Jersey Boys (touring) @ The 5th Avenue Theatre
Note: This refers to a short-run engagement, and the local stop of its tour is over (for now).
Musicals can be judged on all sorts of levels, but for me the surest signs of a salient one are first, did I have a good time while I was there, and second, do I still have the songs stuck in my head a few days later.
The second is rather easy to answer for Jersey Boys, because here it is a week later and the Four Seasons’ hit “Sherry” is the song of the morning. In days past, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Working My Way Back to You”, and “Oh What a Night (December ’63)” have all taken a rotation; as has “My Boyfriend’s Back” which, while not a Four Seasons song, does come into play in their biographical jukebox musical. The Four Seasons left an impressive catalog of hits and persistent classics, and they factor prominently in the telling of the group’s story.
As far as was the night enjoyable, the show overcame a delayed start of 75 minutes and some ongoing sound glitches to still get a yes.
The long-running musical (with book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, and lyrics by Bob Crewe) tours frequently and was scheduled to come through The 5th Avenue Theatre back in spring 2020. It tells the group’s history in an innovative way, with each of the original quartet’s members taking a chapter (told as a season). The concept is a little gimmicky, but it plays out well.
Most surprising in the story — which helped take it beyond the light fair and jukebox musical hits — was the enduring love conveyed through dual channels of family tragedy and of loyalty (to a fault) among the band members. It’s also that love that provided the tension, eventually causing enough fractures that the group breaks apart. But every rock star fairy tale needs a happy ending, and Jersey Boys is no exception.
This touring show is made to pick up and go easily, which is evident in the minimal set. But the performers’ experience shines through, and Jon Hacker has a particularly enthralling voice as Frankie Valli.
For a fun night out, this long-running musical checks the right boxes.
‘Jersey Boys’ ran 2/15-20 at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Show info here.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.