Ana Nogueira’s most recently celebrated dramedy, with songs, WHICH WAY TO THE STAGE, is a true New York original. With a plotline that shifts dramatically among the trials of fanatic Broadway autograph seekers, their deep passion for musical theater, the power and limits of close friendship, the search for love in unexpected places, and perhaps underlying it all, the struggles of young actors everywhere – but especially those trying to make it in the Big Apple.
There’s a lot to see in this play that you haven’t seen before. It’s jam-packed with insider theater and acting jokes that will especially resonate with people in the industry and musical theater aficionados. No need to sweat, though, if you miss a couple of allusions, here and there. There will only be a few and, trust me, you’ll get the gist and the joke no matter what – especially as there are so many popular references that everyone can delight in. And they definitely ring true – whether piercing your heart or tickling your funny bone. You can tell the play’s Brooklyn-based playwright gets the scene exactly because she, herself, has spent over 15 years in that scene, working as both a script writer and actress.
Lucky for her, and us, after its MCC Theater NYC debut, “Which Way to the Stage” was chosen for the 2019 prestigious Kilroy’s List and Pacific Playwrights Festival where Nogueira received an Emerging Playwright Commission. And now her play’s been chosen by our own, perfectly sized and newly renovated black box theater, Island City Stage. The highly rated company has developed a knack for introducing exciting, lesser-known quality fare to our area. Like many earlier season successes, “Which Way” is already playing to sold-out audiences in Wilton Manors, under the expert direction of associate artistic director Michael Leeds.
And lucky (or should I say “smart”) for him, Leeds acquired a most talented and versatile cast to bring this fast-paced, two-hour-and-five-minute show (with one 15-minute intermission) to life. The four actors get to portray various roles (and in one case even three distinct characters), exercise their comedic chops with quick-witted repartee, appear vulnerable and deeply emotional, belt out popular musical songs … and two actors also even perform as drag queens, treating us to impressive drag shows!
I might get breathless just trying to take it all in but they pull it all off stupendously and there’s never a lag in interest. You really must pay attention, though, to keep up and not miss a second of all the clever dialog and emotional fireworks! Have I got you salivating to see this play yet? Here’s a bit more.
Set in 2015 Manhattan, Act 1 opens at the backstage door of “If/Then,” an underappreciated and about-to-close musical by the creators of “Next to Normal,” starring Idina Menzel of “Rent” (Maureen) and “Wicked” (witch Elphaba) fame. The entire width of the stage mirrors the light brick facade of Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, punctuated by two huge, historically accurate posters advertising the show and its star lead. Here I’d like to give a shout out to acclaimed South Florida veteran scenic designer Ardean Landhuis for his clever, sliding-door manipulation of these posters for instant scene changes to audition waiting rooms, a bar and nightclub.
Even the scene-change artistry is fun to watch – especially as each new scene is accompanied by a hit musical number that perfectly reflects the action onstage. Like when storm clouds threaten outdoor autograph seekers and we hear Streisand’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” All thanks to our own Carbonell and Silver Palm award-winning sound designer David Hart.
You might recognize the cast as they do get plenty of work, at least locally. Unlike our show’s starry-eyed aspirants – especially the opening’s besties who can’t seem to get a break after years of classes and auditions. Idina Menzel fan fanatics Judy (Sofia Porcel) and Jeff (Matthew Buffalo) eagerly wait for their idol to exit the stage door (despite many earlier disappointments) and get her autograph before “If/Then” closes. Jeff pulls out an impressive collection of Idina Menzel-starring playbills while envying Judy who actually got to see her in “Rent” when she was only 12 (and had tagged along with her older sister).
“She was 26 years old. She was so real,” Judy reflects about Menzel’s breakout role as Maureen. We later learn that this is the same age Judy is now and, while blessed with an impressive voice, she lacks confidence and feminine allure. (Ironically, she’d been advised to take lessons on how to “move like a woman” from a drag queen.) Judy’s been supporting herself as a broker in the city’s overpriced real estate market where her kind heart still tries to give those not born with a silver spoon in their mouth a fighting chance.
Meanwhile, her long-time friend Jeff, who is obviously gay, delivers quite the soliloquy on the dearth of roles that call for “out” homosexuals, especially gay men, despite the fact that musicals are mostly created “by the queers for the tourists.” He suddenly decides to add an Idina Menzel number to his ongoing drag show (Jeff’s source of “acting” revenue) to replace lagging interest in Barbra’s “Yentl.” And with Judy’s encouragement, he agrees to invite the actress to see the show when she finally signs his playbill, dreaming that she’ll love his tribute. But is Judy truly okay with this form of female parody – especially of her idol? All will be revealed later on (not here, in the play).
Both Jeff and Judy despise Jeff’s ex, especially now that he’d actually gotten Menzel’s autograph on the one night they couldn’t make it to the stage door. But then they get into a fight when Judy calls the hated ex a “faggot” and, despite their long-time friendship and understanding, Jeff cannot accept a straight person using this pejorative … ever!
More serious battles involving sexual orientation and values ensue (with Judy, at first, rejecting the very existence of bisexuality) in the far more emotionally wrought Act II. But for now we still enjoy lots to laugh as this highly opinionated duo continue to poke fun at famous actors and awards, argue about who was best in “Gypsy” and, later, when they attend an audition for “Avenue Q” that’s playing way out in Maine, wryly comment, “It sucks to be me.” Most starry-eyed actors can relate. Except for handsome, easy-going and admittedly, even to himself, “privileged” auditioner Mark (Clay Cartland) who is instantly cast, and for whom everything in life – including abandoning a lucrative career in finance for his first love, theater – seems to come easy.
Former New Yorkers will get a special kick out of the waiting room banter about whether coming from Westchester or New Jersey makes you more of a NYC kid. Although there is general consensus that “Hoboken is New York now.”
With the entrance of a sexy, and somewhat ditzy actress-wanna-be played by Gaby Tortoledo, we arrive at a new realm of comedic highs and sad lows referencing sexual harassment in the industry. But this naive actress is open to change, encouraging her new friends to not allow their faces to be licked and claim their power! And she’s an absolute hoot when falling all over Mark while portraying a far too drunk “bride-to-be ” at her bachelorette party. But when she heckles Jeff’s drag performance, his downright dirty and chauvinistically cruel attack in response, incites what may be an irreparable rift in his friendship with Judy. As does his attraction to Mark, who she’d just started dating. Launching a lover’s triangle with a twist.
Tortoledo plays each of her three parts so well, we forget she’s one person. Twice dressed alluringly for a casting call; once in short, sexy white lace as an inebriated future bride; and not much later, appearing as a sophisticated, British-accented casting assistant. While both Matthew Buffalo and Sofia Porcel treat us to razzle dazzle, sequin-gowned drag shows that are impressive entertainment on their own. Here we can also thank Island City’s frequent costume designer W. Emil White for his excellent wardrobe choices.
If you don’t want to be left standing at the stage door, hurry and get your tickets to WHICH WAY TO THE STAGE at Island City Stage now, because seats are selling fast. And you only have through February 11 to catch this playful yet profound, modern relationship comedy that’s also packed with classic musical-theater songs and performances. An invigorating wake-up call for all your senses! Island City Stage is located at 2304 N Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors 33305. For tickets go to www.islandcitystage.org or call 954-928-9800
Hailing from New York City, but now a long-time resident of Fort Lauderdale, Mindy Leaf has worked as a professional writer and editor for over 30 years. Her byline has appeared in both national and international magazines, including Omni, New York Magazine, Showboats International, Power & Motoryacht, Yachting, Fine Dining, Jewish Monthly and various literary publications. She is the author of “The Working Mom's Handbook” and childrens book, “Things That Count!” and was series editor for Commuter Press. She’s worked as a restaurant critic for Florida's MyCity magazine network and was senior staff writer at Artblend, an international fine-art quarterly. She particularly enjoyed writing a weekly opinion blog for LA’s Jewish Journal called “The Examined Life.” Mindy has headed a bi-
weekly theater column at Around Town for over a decade and is delighted to also contribute her reviews to South Florida Theater Magazine.