WHICH WAY TO THE STAGE is a love letter to theater fans – Review
When I walked into the MCC’s Newman Mills Theater to What a way to the stage, “So much better” from Revenge of a Blonde was playing, and I immediately started singing, like most spectators. All of the pre-show music was musical theater bops, classics that fans love to sing along to. It was from this curated playlist that I knew this was a show for true fans – and I was absolutely right.
What a way to the stage by Ana Nogueira begins at the door of If soa perfect encapsulation of the many, a lot upcoming niche musical theater references. Here we meet Jeff (Max Jenkins) and Judy (Sas Goldberg), two best friends trying to get Idina Menzel’s autograph. The two audition actors with other jobs: Judy is a real estate agent and Jeff is a Crunch gym instructor and drag queen. While they aren’t the most anticipated teenage fans who enthusiastically shout out the door to a stage, they are still extremely passionate (I would say obsessive, but loving) fans of musical theatre. They debate who is the best Mama Rose and whether all the best parts are for women; they bicker over the best way to stage a number, and even educate financier-turned-actor brother Mark (Evan Todd) on how the Chicago revival is, in fact, not good.
The show is a love letter to theater people, working actors, those who love to stage the door, fans, audience members, and anyone who sings to release records. It’s a cleverly curated list of niche references and inside jokes that would confuse or blow the average person’s head, but will make musical theater fans laugh. There’s even a joke about Glass House Tavern. I want to say, go, what more ? This show is for us.
In many ways, the play is about friendship and community, and the play certainly celebrates both, encouraging its audience to form their own community. Far from being a cocky-eyed optimistic story, however, it explores some less rosy aspects of the industry: the difficulties of breaking and entering, the drudgery of auditions, predatory male directors, detrimental casting preferences and, above all, who is allowed to be part of this world.
As Jeff and Judy wait at the stage door again and again, in a playful nod to Waiting for Godot, their debates gradually become more serious, their comments to each other more biting. They argue about a boy, whether Jeff’s drag impersonations are sexist, the scene’s gender politics, and the demands of normative femininity. They disagree on whether Judy can say “fag” if Jeff can say “bitch” and whether Jeff or Judy will ever make it as actors. Their very close friendship is put to the test, and we see how friends who know each other so well also know how to hurt each other.
Sas Goldberg, whom I have loved since My half, and Max Jenkins, whom I recently adored in Special, both give flawless performance. They’re perfectly cast, have impeccable chemistry and comedic timing, and absolutely embody the superfans they play. I can confidently say that I know these people, and they captured them in great detail. I know the auditioning actress who makes her living in real estate. I know the Boston Conservatory gay man working in a gymnasium and as a musical theater drag queen (Jeff must be a tribute/fusion of Jan and Marti Gould Cummings, right?). Michelle Veintimilla rounds out the cast, playing multiple roles (an actress, a drunk bachelor, a casting director) and showing off her comedic chops and versatility. Todd is the weaker actor, but maybe just because he can’t shine alongside the powerful performances of Goldberg and Jenkins.
Adam Rigg’s set recreates the Richard Rodgers Theater with precision and smoothly transforms into an audition room lobby (Ripley Grier? Pearl?) and a drag club (Therapy? Hardware?) with the help of a few subway-inspired sound signals by Sinan Refik Zafar. The show runs nearly two hours with no intermission, but director Mike Donague, armed with a well-written script, keeps things going, and the cast keeps the jokes going, so the show never drags.
Like Jeff and Judy, I couldn’t help but wait for Idina Menzel to exit the stage. As the show progressed, I wondered if there would be a surprise cameo. In that, and in every little inside joke, encyclopedic musical theater reference, and painstaking cultural detail about the industry, I felt seen and transported, as if I were Jeff and Judy on that stage, fighting for a place under the spotlight and waiting to show what a dedicated fan I am. What a way to the stage is for all of us who have always wanted to be the life of the party, defy gravity and jump over the moon.
What a way to the stage is now performing at the MCC Theater on West 52nd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, go here.