No Better Place to Be than CTG’s A TRANSPARENT MUSICAL’s JCC - Review
Last Wednesday’s premiere of Faith Soloway, Joey Soloway, and MJ Kaufman’s A Transparent Musical proves there’s no better place to be this month than Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum.
The musical, based on the beloved T.V. series and directed by the visionary Tina Landau, tackles the thorniest issues of identity, censorship, history, memory, and family with disco balls and a whole lot of queer joy. Fans of the hit Amazon show will celebrate the chance to revisit the quirky Pfefferman family, while the uninitiated (like me) can fully appreciate the stand-alone musical.
The musical follows youngest child Ali Pfefferman (played by the sensational Adina Verson, who audiences may recognize from their turn as Poppy on Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building). When Ali’s parent Maura (a vulnerable Daya Curley) calls a special brunch at the family’s Pacific Palisades home to reveal her transition, the Pfefferman family struggles to navigate their relationships with themselves, and each other.
There’s Ali, the JCC’s librarian, determined to uncover her family’s secrets and struggling to understand what it really means to be youngest-daughter-Ali when the parent she grew up loving decides to cast off social expectations to live authentically as Maura. (I would have Verson’s blazing “If You Are You” on repeat if I could. Cast album, please?)
There’s Sarah (Tony-nominated comic genius Sarah Stiles), whose husband prefers fantasy football to the realities of their rigidly scheduled family life, leaving her overworked, undersupported, and trying anything to be more than a “Mom in a Car.” Including microdosing psychedelics.
And then there’s Josh (an amusing Zachary Prince), a model-obsessed sex addict pursuing romance with the JCC’s gorgeous new Rabbi (Murphy Taylor Smith).
And how could we forget mother Shelly (the magnificent Liz Larsen), a grande dame in the style of Dolly Levi who steals the spotlight every second she’s on stage.
Maura navigates her transition with the love of her “Chosen Family,” the JCC’s LGBTQ+ support group led by Davina, played by a commanding Peppermint of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, who also happens to be the first Transgender woman to originate a principal role in a Broadway musical. (All transgender and nonbinary characters are played by transgender and nonbinary actors.)
MJ Kaufman and Joey Soloway’s brave, honest, and oftentimes hilarious book seamlessly weaves together the stories of the modern day Pfeffermans with a European LGBTQ+ history lesson. The musical highlights the fascinating, little-known story of Magnus Hirschfeld’s (Pat Towne, who also plays JCC Director Marv) Institute for Sexual Research, an early gender-affirming health clinic and community haven in interwar Berlin. Faith Soloway’s music and lyrics even draw from the “Lavender Song,” called the first gay anthem, written for a 1920s Berlin cabaret performance. Their original lyrics are at turns exquisitely confessional and delightfully clever, and their music will have you humming long after you’ve left the theater. Highlights include “It’s a Lot,” a duet between Ali and Yale-educated JCC theater director Ezra (played by a witty Kasper) poking fun at Ezra’s “academic swagger,” “Who Suffered More,” an absurd brawl between Shelly and Maura over Spanx, pantyhose, and who had it worse in their marriage, “Deviant,” an anthem reclaiming the label (“They call us deviant/because we deviate”), and “Emergency Contact,” in which Shelly and Maura review their upcoming surgery schedules and dance a jaunty, jazzy waltz. (Yes, the song is about cataracts and colonoscopies. And yes, it made me cry.)
James Alsop’s choreography is marvelously fun, and expertly executed by the talented ensemble. And Adam Rigg’s, Jen Schreiver’s, and Toni-Leslie James’ set, lighting, and costumes (respectively) effortlessly transport the audience from 2023’s Cecile J. Janowitz Jewish Community Center to 1933 Berlin. (There’s a stunning moment in Act II. You’ll know when you see it).
If I had to guess, CTG’s production won’t be your only chance to experience the musical. But I recommend you go immediately – you’ll want the chance to see it again. This brilliantly original new musical unapologetically showcases queer joy while reminding the audience of its power as a form of resistance to ignorance and hate. There couldn’t be a more compelling message as we kick off Pride month.
A Transparent Musical is now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through June 25. For tickets and more information, click here.