I absolutely love that NYC is a relatively quick drive away because there have been fantastic performance opportunities lately! Specifically, this summer the Encores! at New York City Center gave theater fans more of the Encores! Off-Center series - a series of three revived off-broadway productions produced by Jeanine Tesori, the composer of Tony Award winning Fun Home, Violet, and Shrek.  All of these shows are performed in the Encores! style of about a week of rehearsals before the show opens for only 3-5 performances.  I got to see two of the three from this season - "A New Brain" starring Jonathan Groff and "Little Shop of Horrors" with Jake Gyllenhaal as Seymour, Ellen Greene reprising her movie role as Audrey, and Taran Killam as the crazy dentist.  While the chance to see those shows was thrilling, I can never go to NYC and not binge out.  Yep, it was time for me to fill up on some Broadway and to finally check out something that has been on my to-do list for a couple of years.

A New Brain

As I mentioned, "A New Brain" was the first performance in the Off-Center series.  I am a huge fan of Jonathan Groff, so it was guaranteed that I would love the show.  The back story of the production is fascinating as well.  As told by Groff, he had an obsession with the musical back in high school and had used the song "I'd Rather Be Sailing" as his audition song many times.  Coincidentally, he had been thinking/wishing/hoping just last summer to one day get a chance to be in a production of "A New Brain" in New York.  The Encore! series format was perfect for him because he didn't know his availability with his, then, T.V. show shooting schedule. With Encores! he could satisfy both the craving to perform on stage and the scheduling issue because of the short timeframe.  Around that same time, Jeanine Tesori emailed him out of the blue to ask him to be a part of the 2015 Encores! series, specifically (no joke) to perform "A New Brain."  To be a fly on the wall when he read that email!

Groff's portrayal of Gordon Schwinn, a composer for a kids show struggling to find inspiration who is diagnosed with a brain tumor, was both funny and touching.  Ana Gasteyer was fantastic as his mom who just wants to fix things, as mothers want to do.

Before the show, Jonathan did a one-on-one interview with Jeanine Tesori for a select group of ticket holders who came early.  This was one of Jeanine's "Lobby Sessions" that she enjoys giving to fans and theater goers during the Encore! series.  For a half an hour, Jonathan reaffirmed his reputation as an all-around nice guy who everyone endeavors to work with because he is the shocking combination of incredible talent and kindness that is a rarity in the NYC theater world.  Here he is talking about his typical pre-show warmup routine.

If you missed seeing Jonathan Groff on stage for "A New Brain," you have plenty of time to see him as he continues his run as King George in the fantastic production of "Hamilton" - opening on Broadway July 2015.  I saw the show (and Groff) at the Public Theater earlier this year and am excited to see the enhanced Broadway version soon!  It's the history of Alexander Hamilton told through hip-hop and rap songs imagined by the amazing mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Here's a gorgeous shot of Jonathan Groff taken for the upcoming issue of Cosmopolitan (Photo: Martin Schoeller)

Little Shop of Horrors

OK Encores!, you had me at Jake Gyllenhaal can sing??  I can most certainly confirm that he can! And for an actor that more often plays strong, high status roles, it was refreshing to see him as the vulnerable Seymour who just wants to impress a girl and make people happy.  I also couldn't pass up an opportunity to see Taran Killam interpret the role of Orin the sadistic dentist, a role made iconic by Steve Martin in the 1986 movie version.  And, of course, there was Ellen Greene who, at age 64, doesn't seem to have aged since she played Audrey in that same movie.

(Photo Credits: Sara Krulwich/New York Times and Joan Marcus)

Fun Home

This year's Tony Award winner for Best New Musical is a look back on the narrator's childhood living with a closeted gay father in a funeral ("fun") home.  In college, the narrator discovers her own sexual preferences for women, which also happens to coincide with her father's own struggles with suppressing his urges that leads to a tragic ending.  The show is presented in the round, which is a perfect complement for the production.  All of the cast is fantastic, especially the kids.  Favorite song from the show: "Telephone Wires."

Finding Neverland

Starring Glee's Matthew Morrison as J.M Barrie, author of Peter Pan, this production follows the plot of the movie of the same name, starring Johnny Depp.  Despite the less than happy ending, which those familiar with the movie should remember, the show is an overall success.  I can't say that any particular musical number stands out.  Rather, it was the visual of the production, sets, choreography, and costumes that are imprinted on my brain.  The show follows the themes of embracing the magic of a child's imagination and how we all are still kids at heart.  I was fortunate to also see the show while Kelsey Grammar was still playing the role of Charles Frohman/Capt. Hook before taking a summer hiatus.  This is a Broadway show that is perfect for kids - it even has a real dog ("Nanny")!

Sleep No More

This interactive theater experience has been on my radar for a few years.  Produced by Punchdrunk theatre company, this "continuous" performance, loosely based on Shakespeare's "Macbeth", can be found on several floors of an old warehouse building on W. 27th Street.  Named the McKittrick Hotel for purposes of the show, you purchase your ticket based on your preferred "check-in" time and have up to 3 hours to view/follow the action. After checking in, you are ushered into a bar area where you wait to be called.  Once your number is announced, you proceed to another room where you are given a white Venetian festival mask to put on with the instruction that from that point forward, you must be silent.  The mask is meant for your safety and the actors' safety because it distinguishes between the two.

Your group enters an elevator and are dropped of randomly on one of the performance floors - or, in some cases, several floors in order to split up parties and encourage individual exploration.  I was dropped off on what seemed like a 1930s-era naturalist museum or shop with music from that period playing loudly over speakers.  You are encouraged to look at the items in every room, read letters, open books, do whatever you desire to engage with the production.  Outside of the shop, it appeared to be a street scene.  It was here that I encountered my first actor/character who was running and appeared to be hurt.  I was told that some people prefer to follow specific characters around the rooms/floors.  I opted to observe for a little bit, then move on.  I feel like the most unsettling floor was the asylum and its nurses/actors.  Prepare to encounter a little bit of artistic nudity during the show!  In my case, I felt a little creepy observing those scenes behind my mask.

Here is a great write up I found from  2011 in the New York Times that can explain better than I ever possibly could: "Shakespeare Slept Here, Albeit Fitfully."  I'm not sure if I would go back for a second time, but there are fans that have seen it many times.  There is even a century club for people who have been to the McKittrick Hotel over 100 times!

Fish in the Dark

Any fan of Larry David is going to love this show.  It is basically an episode of Seinfeld, without Jerry Seinfeld, of course.  That's pretty much all I have to say!