‘Which Way to the Stage’ review: A valentine to New York musical theatre fans
Ana Nogueira's new comedy, Which Way to the Stage, is a valentine to New York musical theatre actors and those aspiring who are unable to quit the biz, despite its toxic demands. The play, which is playing at MCC Theater, follows Judy (Sas Goldberg) and Jeff (Max Jenkins), two extreme fans of Idina Menzel waiting at the If/Then stage door for her autograph.
That premise expands into a look at what actors waiting for their big break do to stay afloat financially and artistically. The play provides an unflattering, if not accurate, anthropological dive into the assumptions about how theatre prioritizes looks and heterosexuality. In this instance, the show is devoted to white gaze and its lust for appealing to straight white men. Although Black and other people of color are left out of the discussion, it is understood that the harm caused by catering to these beliefs is as harmful to them as it is to other white people.
Judy and Jeff function as the other white people in this capacity. Judy resists, resents, and is unable to operate as a sexy leading lady ― despite her Broadway-ready voice ― while Jeff, her best friend, is a one-hundred-footer gay, i.e. you can tell that he's not straight from one hundred feet away. Though both rail against the unfairness of it all, they remain devoted to the idea of baring their souls through song and fanning the flames of leading lady fandom.
Their particular devotion to Idina Menzel comes from their belief that she is a normal everyday type who got where she is because of her hard work and incredible talent as opposed to the freak, sui generis allure of someone like Carol Channing. In this way, Menzel fuels their hope that one day, they too will make it. In the meantime, Judy keeps herself afloat as a real estate agent, while Jeff runs a popular fitness class and workshops where women can learn how to be better caricatures of women. He also has a drag show devoted to Barbra Streisand.
However, after Judy meets Mark (Evan Todd) at an audition and begins dating him, things start to change. Mark is the prototypical straight-presenting white man to whom musical theatre caters, despite Jeff insisting that the field was created by gay men who wrote their socially unacceptable desire into roles for leading ladies.
Mark is tall, attractive enough, and interested in having sex with whomever he wants without dealing with the consequences of being labeled. This causes friction after he joins Judy and Jeff's stage door tradition, and Jeff assumes that Mark is gay.
Playwright Nogueira dissects the socio-sexual politics of white patriarchy and its hold over musical theatre in her play, and the results are didactic, well-rendered, and entirely thrilling. In an attempt to have it both ways, Nogueira interrogates Judy's disdain for putting women on a sexual pedestal through an unnamed character (Michelle Veintimilla, who is Ecuadorian though white exotic presenting). Judy assumes that the actress is an arrogant idiot who gets by on her looks, but soon learns that her sexuality doesn't define her.
And though Veintimilla gives her plot-device character greater depth than she deserves, I'd rather Nogueira had left her out of the piece altogether―or given her own play.
Which Way to the Stage ends abruptly with Judy experiencing an out-of-nowhere breakthrough. I'm curious what the play might have been if it dropped its fascination with gender studies and focused instead on how Judy's interactions with an unnamed woman allowed her to step into her own.
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