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Theater: My 2 Cents, Musicals For a Penny

By Jacquie Wolf
arttimesjournal November 15, 2017

I begin my critical journey with the whole 2 cents, but you should be made aware that Musical Theater must achieve fantastical heights to get more than a penny from me!

Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos at The Public Theater through December 10th

The stage set of Tiny, Beautiful Things

The set is an interior of a small home with a living, dining and kitchen area from which our cast brings to life the questions and answers that form the whole of the experience. Nia Vardalos as the author, is the center of this drama created from a stint as an advice “columnist” on a literary website. Easily coerced into assuming the mantle of “Sugar” we are privy to Strayed’s faltering first steps as she develops her style. She hits her stride rather quickly and responds to the collection of lost and yearning people seeking advice and dispenses it by tapping into her largely painful, occasionally joyful, experiences and regrets.

“Dear Sugar” is the beginning of every correspondence spoken by the supporting cast of Teddy Canez, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Hubert Point Du Jour. Each, in turn, offers an anguish to be addressed by the increasingly popular columnist. Vardalos brings a raw honest portrayal to a woman who has plumbed the depths and is now on the other side. She responds from a place of acceptance, gratitude and compassion. The cast had varying degrees of attitude and emotion to represent and did so with skill and subtle texture.

The quest for the identity of Sugar becomes part of the Q&A of the column and I was taken aback by it. At one-point Sugar responds to that inquiry with the idea that her being anonymous allows the reader to be open to the advice without attaching race, gender, education or any other perceived limitations to the advisor. Makes sense. She then immediately “comes out” and reveals her identity. Why? How did that help anyone (other than Strayed)? It detracts from the substance of the work.

As I fought to focus on the stage I found myself questioning my preference for Drama over Musical theater as the blocking and acting struggled to keep my interest. The set having 3 or more areas from which the cast posed their questions created some movement and distinction but ultimately there was little to keep my attention and I ended up listening with my eyes closed. My thought is that a spoken presentation a la Prairie Home Companion or the focused spotlight a la Spaulding Gray could have more impact.

There are some good lessons here, some profound and horrifying and gratifying analogies. There was quite a lengthy emotional correspondence with a grieving father which brought up some heart wrenching emotions, evidenced by the multiple uses of tissues in the audience.

For my 2 cents this show has some tragic and endearing human correspondence but does little to visually engage the audience. Read or, better yet, listen to the book.

The Public theater (on Lafayette Street in NOHO) supports the burgeoning and cultivated artists of the Theater, playwrights, actors, musicians and many others have graced their stages to bring developing works and to reintroduce classics to a new generation. Perhaps most notably “Hamilton” began its meteoric rise at the Public. although “Free Shakespeare in the Park” can hardly be considered less noteworthy! In any case, you may discover a soon to be polished gem here at a modest ticket price.