Tue. Jun 18th, 2019

Review: ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Live’ but also a damn FYC plea to the Emmys

AwardsWatch’s Eddie Mouradian was front and center at the final stop of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Live concert tour (with a surprise appearance by superfan Lin Manuel-Miranda) and took a moment (and a bottle of rosé) to put into words his thoughts on the performances, on the importance and lasting impression of the show and makes his plea for the Emmys to finally take notice.

On Wednesday, May 15th Crazy Ex-Girlfriend closed out its concert tour at Radio City Music Hall with a show-stopping, death defying (at least for my poor, weak heart) performance. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat. No, not figuratively. I was quite literally sitting in the front row of Radio City, close enough to make a joke about “otters” which made Rachel Bloom laugh for approximately 23 seconds (a lifetime highpoint for me). You see, my (late) thirties is about doing things on my own and independence and not letting being single stop me from enjoying capital-l Life! So, perhaps inspired by the CXGF number Fuckton of Cats, when I couldn’t find anyone to join me in this adventure, I bought a solo ticket in the orchestra pit. It was almost as if a butter commercial was urging me to be happy! Much to my delight, this was the scenario for many people in my section, quickly banding us together as a ragtag team of pretzel chomping weirdos.  I think Rebecca Bunch would love to know that the first five rows of her concert were basically the singles table at a distant cousin’s bar mitzvah.

To paraphrase Stefon, this show had everything: half-naked Vincent Rodriguez III and topless Rachel Bloom, the screenwriter of Devil Wears Prada rapping, an entire bit devoted to reading Crazy Ex-Girlfriend interoffice emails, and a surprise appearance by some guy named Lin-Manuel Miranda. It was tremendous. It was amazing. It was – don’t say it, don’t say it – a crazy ex-perience.

For those unfamiliar with the show, well, to be honest, thanks for reading so far. Not entirely sure why you would if you hadn’t ever seen it. Just like West Covina, CA, however, we welcome all newcomers! Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, created by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, follows the misadventures of Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) who flees her unhappy corporate lawyer life in NYC for the San Gabriel Valley after bumping into her sweet, dim boyfriend from camp, Josh Chan. She decides to stalk, err, move to his hometown of West Covina, California, but is definitely, totally not crazy (that’s a pejorative term). Over the course of four seasons, Rachel makes friends, finds and loses love with various suitors, finally receives a diagnosis for her heretofore unknown mental illness (she has Borderline Personality Disorder) and eventually discovers the story she’s been needing to tell this entire time isn’t some romantic comedy, but rather her own story of life, love, self-appreciation. But wait: It’s a musical! And it’s funny and complicated and dark and inspiring. Just like life.

The show started out with Donna Lynne Champlin, an actual angel walking on this earth, getting the cast started on a rousing rendition of the all-hands-on-deck number No One Else Is Singing My Song, a perfect entry point to a show that would showcase the deep bench of talent of the regular and recurring stars of the show. Everyone got a moment to shine, which speaks to both this live concert and the four complex seasons of Rebecca Bunch and her friends (and frenemies) going through – and figuring out – life.

Immediately after, Rachel Bloom took over emcee duties nimbly oscillating between performing, engaging with the audience, introducing and/or being a background dancer for her co-stars. There was a moment early-on where Bloom told people to bumrush the front of the theatre to fill empty seats, that had a high-wire comic energy that was either completely unplanned or executed so perfectly that it didn’t matter. Ms. Bloom’s talent, ferocity and sheer star-wattage was almost blinding, and not just because I could see up her nose from my vantage point. A comparison with a young Bette Midler is fair, but it’s also clear that there’s not comparable as she’s the very first Rachel Bloom; We’re so lucky to be consuming entertainment and pop culture and art while she is making it. She closes the show with a topless rendition of Heavy Boobs, a song devoted to the “sacks of yellow fat” that are her breasts. She makes good on the promise laid out in the song by holding a stapler, ten pencils, paperback copy of Arabian Knights, remote control, hard copy of Wuthering Heights under her double Ds. It’d be reductive to call this “brave”, because what it actually is is hilarious. (Alright nerds, I know she also says a “dog bowl” but I don’t think they had one, so relax.) Hearing her sing You Stupid Bitch, arguably the show’s signature song, was a moment to be relished in, as she was representing everyone in the audience who has ever been unkind to themselves in a moment of darkness. Via Twitter, I requested the song be sung directly into my soul, but honestly, this was close enough. Regardless, I cried. The point is she’s a fucking star and we don’t deserve her.

The incomparable Donna Lynne Champlin

My biggest question mark for the evening was whether or not I would cry during Donna Lynne Champlin’s Maybe This Dream solo. The answer was a resounding yes. In what was the biggest self-fulfilling prophecy of the evening, Champlin entered the stage and before even singing a note, received a thunderous standing ovation, to which she said “Stop! I haven’t even done anything yet.” Well, girlfriend did the damn thing, hit the highest high note humanly possible and the crowd erupted. Something about this moment, something about realizing that these actors – seemingly untouchable “tv stars” – were experiencing the magnitude of performing on the Radio City Hall music stage was too much for my little heart to handle. There was a palpable feeling from the audience that we weren’t just cheering for this singular performance, but rather a journeywoman actor like Donna Lynne Champlin, her talent unmatched (her co-stars each literally worshipping her final vocal on Face Your Fears), getting her moment. It was a privilege getting to hear her sing live.

There was so, so much more. A recurring joke on the show was how Vincent Rodriguez III’s Josh Chan looked like a water cooler bottle – short, stout and compact. Watching him dance, you’re almost in shock that any human can move so gracefully, so beautifully. Vella Lovell’s Heather sang her signature song, The Moment is Mine, accompanied by the “Rockettes”, which was actually just the CXGF cast dressed in matching gold outfits. Scott Michael Foster ably ignored me screaming “CAPPIE!” from the front row (where my Greek hive at?) during I Go to the Zoo, while Pete Gardner eagerly roused the heavily LGBT crowd for I’m Gettin’ Bi and brought out his very own real-life sons (dressed as sperm!), playing it perfectly mortified, for My Sperm is Healthy.

David Hull (White Josh) sweeps Rachel Bloom (Rebecca) off her feet while Danny Jolles (George) looks on

What makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so great, so surprising, is how it provided big, standout moments to even it’s more recurring characters; the same was true for the live show. Neither of the songs that David Hull took the lead on in season four made it to the concert, but he got plenty of stage-time, dancing with Rachel Bloom and dueting with Scott Michael Foster for a (clothed, boo) rendition of Fit Hot Guys Have Problems Too. Danny Jolles’ oft-forgotten George got big laughs for his cut-short solo on It’s Me, and I’d argue that the best vocal of the night goes to Michael McMillian for the Buzzing in the Bathroom, a Les Misérables-inspired soliloquy lamenting his wife’s masturbatory habits (Seriously, how don’t you watch this show?). Skylar Astin, CXGF’s second Greg after Santino Fontana left during season 2,  couldn’t make the show, which I believe led way to Burl Moseley getting to solo on the Don’t Be A Lawyer, truly one of the best songs the show has ever produced.

Surprise! Lin-Manuel Miranda drops by to duet with Gabrielle Ruiz

Filed under: Lede, Buried, is the surprise of the night. In the lead-up to Gabrielle Ruiz’s solo performance of Women Gotta Stick Together, she welcomed Lin-Manuel Miranda, fan of the show, and the person who helped her got the audition for Valencia (she was in Miranda’s In the Heights musical). To say that this very female, very gay, very Broadway-loving crowd had feelings about this surprise guest is an understatement. Men fainted, women exploded, I believe the couple next to me literally exploded. It was a Moment. To Manuel-Miranda’s credit, he seemed just happy to be there, enhancing the spotlight on Ruiz’s immense talent, as opposed to trying to syphon even moment of it. The end of the performance, where they did a little salsa dance will run through my mind daily for the rest of my life, whenever I need a reminder of what pure joy feels like.

In between there was a lot more: Group performances, like crowd-pleaser Let’s Generalize About Men (in case you’re wondering if Donna Lynne Champlin nails the end of that song live, as she does on the show, of course she does! Are you not paying attention!?!?), and Erick Lopez (you know him as surfer, chronic oversleeper and mother-lover Hector) handling the rap verse on Sexy Getting Ready Song for the recently deceased Nipsey Hussle. Period Sex is discussed and sang about, co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna deftly takes on Rebecca-nemesis role Audra Levine in JAP Battle, while band members and songwriters, Jack Dolgan and Adam Schlesinger have some nice banter with Bloom during breaks from the reverie. The entire show is an infectiously giddy, group effort, with no dancers  beyond the core cast and wildly talented, Emmy-winning choreographer Kathryn Burns. If there are background performers playing inflatable saxophones or interpretive dancing zoo animals, it’s the core cast of CXGF, adding an element of fun, mischief and joy to the proceedings. Everyone wants to be there, even if they’re just playing some of Darryl’s semen.

With Astin unavailable and the original Greg, Santino Fontana performing in Tootsie just down the block, Greg Serrano’s absence loomed mediumnoticeable, sure, but not entirely distracting. Somewhat selfishly, I wanted more Donna Lynne, particularly in my Top 5 favorite song from the show, First Penis I Saw, but much like real-life penises, beggars can’t be choosers.  With many audience members wearing Amazon-purchased or homemade #GurlGroup4Evah and Let’s Generalize About Men t-shirts, the fundraiser in me felt like there was a missed opportunity at the merchandise stand. I, for one, am an easy mark for official apparel, and my only options were a woman’s t-shirt the lady at the counter tried to convince me was unisex despite its dramatic scoop neck or a $50 hoodie. I obviously, bought the hoodie because I am – say it with me – BAD WITH MONEY. That said, I easily could’ve been moved to buy a We Tapped That Ass tote bag had it been for sale. Similarly, there’s no way on earth I would’ve passed up the opportunity to buy a You Stupid Bitch temporary tattoo to apply directly to my left butt cheek (the show, however, did have a silent auction to support the protection of women’s rights, because these people are miracles).

I was also sorry to not see Michael Hyatt pop-up as Rebecca’s long-suffering, golden-voiced, therapist Dr. Akopian, if only to see this cast of mind-blowingly talented performers get to tap their way through Anti-Depressants Are So Not A Big Deal, as they did in the live show following the series finale. These are all minor quibbles. The show was wonderfully, infectiously and lovingly performed from beginning to end.

It’s important to stay hydrated when wearing a CXGF hoodie and writing up a piece as important as this

And yet. And yet.

Although this means I would’ve missed it, I can’t help but wish that this was an Emmys For Your Consideration event. It is, and I hate to be hyperbolic, HIGH TREASON, that a show with this much talent, nuance and degree of difficulty has been left out of the awards conversation for its entire run (that isn’t to discount the below-the-line Emmys it has won, nor Rachel Bloom’s Golden Globe win for season 1).

In a time when the Television Academy (or hell, let’s not just blame the Emmys, where was the SAG TV Ensemble nominations?), this is a show that has told stories that no other show is telling. Yes, the show centers on a cisgendered white woman, but a) her identification as a very specific type of Jewish woman in her late-twenties dealing with the pressures of life, love and career is representative of an entire subculture that, as a Long Islander, I’m very familiar with and b) Rebecca’s battle with mental illness has been the spine of this show, and handled with more nuance, depth and satisfaction than many more “prestigious” shows racking up hardware year-after-year (I love you, Claire, but I’m looking at you, Homeland!).

These characters represent the real world we live in. So much so, in fact, that one can’t help but look at Scott Michael Foster’s very straight, very white, very wealthy Nathaniel Plimpton as the token white guy in a cast that is filled with LGBT and people of color (but he’s nice now!).

That in of itself, doesn’t earn you awards. What does is the storytelling, performances and impact. Take a look at the other cisgendered white character on the show, Donna Lynne Champlin’s Paula Proctor. She’s a woman, over forty, discounted by the men in her life, who rises to achieve dreams she never thought possible. Watching Paula work through her husband’s infidelity, navigating relatable financial and self-esteems struggles, and in one of the show’s most prescient storylines, having an abortion in season two, has been one of the most potent story arcs on a television series in years. Maybe that’s why hearing her sing Maybe this Dream makes me cry, because she did the damn thing, and while the writing was there every step of the way, it’s also Donna Lynne-Champlin’s all-timer performance that needs to be singled out.

I could go on. Gabrielle Ruiz never let Valencia become a joke, even before her character was fully fleshed out as an insecure but deeply loyal friend, while Vella Lovell has the best deadpan on television. Pete Gardner started out the series as a 1/8 Chippewa divorcee law firm owner, only to discover his bisexuality thanks to David Hull’s White Josh (I mean, yeah, we get it), a representation on television and film that barely exists. Again, none of this would matter, if Gardner didn’t make a Darryl an overly earnest character who loves to make people happy first, and a middle-aged bisexual man second. It’s truly a television breakthrough that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves. This show even gave us the growth in Josh Chan I didn’t expect – or know I wanted – which makes it all the more rewarding. Josh’s final season redemption through seeking out therapy and hard, personal introspection has hit all the right notes, making Josh more than just a dim piece of eye-candy.

Rachel Bloom is just a girl in (self) love

But in the end, it’s Rachel Bloom’s show. Her week-in, week-out commitment to making Rebecca Nora Bunch a character we don’t always like, but always root for, is one of the indelible creations of the Peak TV Era. She’s taken Rebecca through the ringer (or is it the other way around?), and come out the other side with hope for a future we can all relate to: Happiness. Self-love. Acceptance of ourselves. It wasn’t always easy, but Bloom (and Brosh McKenna and the glorious writers) told us that it might not be OK, but that’s life and let’s get through it together. Based on the yelps and the cheers and the squees of the crowd at a packed Radio City Music Hall for many people that really mattered, that really helped.

Now it’s Emmys turn to return the favor.

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