Living with Henry
A Letter to Harvey Milk
Leslie Kritzer ensures no show she's in ever feels too small, but even her skyscraper-size talents are challenged by A Letter to Harvey Milk. Jerry James, Laura I. Kramer, and Ellen M. Schwartz have provided, for their New York Musical Theatre Festival offering at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the latest in a line of musicals highlighting Kritzer as one of most brightly gleaming and versatile talents of the current New York scene. What they haven't done is prove that their story is one worth singing about.
Harry Weinberg (Jeff Keller) awakens one morning in 1986, tormented by his recent lessons with writing teacher Barbara Katsef (Kritzer). She's awakened in him thoughts and memories he thought he'd long ago buried, about gay activist-politician Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli), whom he knew from his day-to-day dealings in San Francisco. One of Barbara's assignments led Harry to write a letter to Harvey to explain his complex feelings about Harvey's 1978 assassination and history, leading Barbara — whom Milk inspired to come out, leading to her parents disowning her — to see this as a major step toward equality and liberation, and want to print the letter alongside her own original essay in a gay publication. Which, naturally, stirs all sorts of new trouble.
James's book covers an enormously compelling story in the central pseudo-love triangle, and never fully falters in examining it, but overall musical ambition is scant. Although Kramer's tunes are catchy and often heartfelt, and Schwartz's lyrics, if seldom ground-breaking, do the job, much of the drama resists singing. The core conflicts are almost all general conversations or unstartling revelations; the action's climax, which should resonate with the weight of the final scenes of Cabaret, is handled entirely through scenery-chewing dialogue; and too many numbers are bestowed upon Harry's wife, Frannie (the nonetheless sterling Cheryl Stern), who, being dead, can't easily advance the narrative.
What success the show has, then, comes entirely from its leads. Keller is serene and stoic, but biting as Harry battles over what to reveal and what to keep to himself, and he's believable start to finish as a man who's grown too use to hiding from everyone — including himself. But Kritzer shines every bit as brightly, revealing the atypically average Barbara as a catalytic creature capable of kindling greatness in others. Her own evolution, from quiet revolutionary to Harry's guiding light, mirrors Milk's, albeit with a happier ending in the context of the show, and Kritzer's singing of the unremarkable title song lands as the culmination of a decades-long struggle for civil and human rights that will resonate with many audience members yet today.
No actor needs to sell A Letter to Harvey Milk's worth as a contemporary object lesson in tolerance and forgiveness; it does that all by itself. But even the superhuman Kritzer can't convince us that Barbara and Harry's relationship wouldn't be as affecting, and more focused, were it merely spoken.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Living with Henry
All I knew beforehand about Christopher Wilson's NYMF entry Living with Henry, at the PTC Performance Space, was that it was about a gay man living with HIV, something that struck me as likely not sufficiently lyrical enough to justify (or withstand) a full-scale musical treatment. It took only a few minutes for it to demonstrate it's quite a bit better than that, although it's also sadly quite a bit less than what's likely needed to make it a barn-burning commercial success.
The virus is played by an actor (Dale Miller), who, after being "introduced" to Michael (Ryan Kelly), a young and insecure singer, during a hot-and-heavy fling with an unsavory dancer, guides and goads him for the rest of his days. Michael sees HIV as a figurative death sentence, and is terrified about how it will change how he's treated by his best friend Jenni (Lizzie Kurtz), his mother (Mary Kelly), and his new prospective boyfriend Peter (Gavin Hope). As it turns out, Michael has reason to worry, but also reason to hope as he works to discover that HIV and AIDS are no longer the automatic end of life, but a new beginning.
Wilson and director-choreographer Donna Marie Baratta make their potentially eye-rolling conceit work by never taking it for granted or treating it comedically, and Miller's warm-but-malicious performance anchors Henry as someone you hate but could somehow manage to hang around. Not every number is a winner — does there need to be a bathhouse tango, or a disco duet for a pair of HIV drugs? — but most of them are, melodically charting physical and emotional romances with startling clarity, plumbing the pain of unrealized expectations, and exploring the different kinds of heartbreak Michael (like the rest of us) experiences while striving to live the best life he can for as long as he's able.
This is, in other words, a true-thing musical, bursting with earnestness, and never reining in its performers or blockading them behind walls of plastic artifice. Kelly is at times overly flighty as Michael, but never comes across as less than absolutely genuine, and Kurtz and Kelly do lovingly detailed work as Michael's most important women. Living with Henry, which originated two years ago at the Toronto Fringe Festival, may not have much size, but it completely fills out its compact quarters.
Unfortunately, it does not impress as something that could be scaled up without crushing its intimate charms and imperiling its sense of being a document of your own closest friends. It's a snapshot of attitudes, both social and medical, that are changing into a form we can't yet recognize, but it's a picture more likely to be consigned to a drawer and looked at occasionally than framed and hung on a wall. It's nice throughout, but not profound or world-changing. One hopes that Wilson, Baratta, and interested producers realize that that is, or at least should be, okay.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival