Elsie Fest 5 was a great concert that left me wanting

Yesterday was Elsie Fest day, or what I like to call The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

I had a great time seeing old friends and making new ones. The winner of my ticket contest, Mardie Baldo, already had her ticket to Elsie Fest and generously donated her free tickets to a high school musical theater student whom I know, and watching that student enjoy the concert was absolutely thrilling. Seeing her mom understand why it’s important for a young Latina musical theater student to attend a concert like Elsie Fest was incredibly satisfying, and I particularly love it when someone who doesn’t know the Broadway scene discovers a talent like Ariana DeBose.

I had a lot of fun, is what I’m saying.

Highlights (in order of appearance):

  1. Dyllón Burnside. Full stop.

Clothes. Singing. Dancing. Song choice. Perfection. Damon Evangelista fought his battles so Dyllón Burnside could do this performance at Elsie Fest.

2. Ariana DeBose’s diva medley.

I can’t count how many times I nearly died during this performance. Brilliant. Benjamin Rauhala does it again.

Also noteworthy was Ariana’s debut of her R&H Goes Pop! version of “Shall We Dance.” But we can wait for the official video of that one.

3. Gavin Creel’s new song.

Everything about Gavin’s set was incredible. He solicited requests from fans a few weeks ago, and chose his set from the requests. He’s an amazing performer, and I encourage you to scour YouTube for videos of this performance and others. But the highlight for me was definitely this song. I love it, and I can’t wait for more info on his upcoming Met performance piece.

4. Cynthia Erivo organizing the entire audience to support her on “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

Again, I’d say that Cynthia’s entire set was a highlight for me. It occurred to me that watching her sing songs chosen by other people in 2016 was amazing, but this set was her set. Good cabaret makes you feel like you’ve gotten to know the artist a little bit, and that’s just what Cynthia Erivo accomplished here, and I loved every second of it. However, her rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was beautiful, and empowering, and brought the audience together to make something beautiful. It was a joy to behold and to participate in. I was standing with my friends who are both singers and we sang along and I felt the joy and the friendship and the connection with everyone in the space, and that’s what a festival is for. Thank you, Cynthia.

5. Michael Feinstein sharing his brilliance

I can’t post a video of my favorite parts of Michael Feinstein’s set because nobody has posted one. The video below is the medley with Darren Criss, which was lots of fun and I’m glad I was there for it. But the joy of Michael Feinstein is his incredible knowledge and love of the American Songbook, and for me, the best part was him singing “St. Louis Blues”, which he told us was the first American song to include African American rhythms, which is the thing that distinguishes American music from its European forbears. The song was incredible, his voice was incredible, and I loved it.

But here’s your video of Michael singing with Darren, including a duet on “You Make Me Feel So Young,” which warmed my Gleeky heart. (But Michael Feinstein is no Kurt Hummel.)

6. Darren Criss singing “Wait for It”

Darren took two risks this year, and I’m sure that by far the more popular will be “Waving Through A Window,” just because I know the Elsie Fest demographic. But for me, “Wait for It” was the bigger risk, and his performance was amazing. The fact that Elsie Fest 2015 was the first performance of this song outside of Hamilton made it all the more sentimental to me.

6. A Very Potter Musical reunion

Obviously, this was fun. The show itself is fun, the friendship among StarKids is fun, and the smile on Darren’s face as he did something he loves with his best and oldest friends was a joy to watch. It was exactly what we all wanted it to be, and for those of us who didn’t make it to StarKid Reunion in Los Angeles, it was a treat to be part of the celebration.

So yes, a great concert. But none of that is why I go to Elsie Fest. I go to Elsie Fest for the surprises and the traditions. This year, there was no Disney Princess (or Heroine). There were only two surprise guests (Lena Hall and John Cameron Mitchell), and they sang exactly what you would expect them to sing: a song from Hedwig. Was it exciting to see three Hedwigs on stage together? Sure. Is each of them a brilliant performer in their own right? Absolutely. Did they surprise me? Not a mite.

I go to Elsie Fest to see amazing duets that the artists sing to make themselves happy. The only unscheduled duet this year was Darren’s medley with Michael Feinstein, which was basically a rehash of their previous tribute to Frank Sinatra. Fantastic, but expected. Darren played guitar for one of Cynthia Erivo’s songs. That could have been anyone.

I go to Elsie Fest to get excited about new musicals. The new items on offer this year were High School Musical the Musical the Series and Jagged Little Pill. One is built on a previous show, and the other is a jukebox musical. I knew what to expect from both of those going in. I didn’t learn anything about them because there isn’t anything to learn.

My absolute favorite thing about Elsie Fest, though, is the performances that give me something I always needed but never thought to ask for. Cynthia Erivo singing “You Will Be Found” (2016).  Jenna Ushkowitz singing “Granger Danger” (2017). Grant Gustin singing “Sincerely Me” (2018). I have nothing to cite for 2019.

In short, this was a terrific concert of Broadway talent that I could have seen anywhere. Stuff like this happens all the time at Broadwaycon, at 54 Below, at Seth Rudetsky shows. It’s not why I made a podcast and spent five hours sitting on a fence in the park in the cold. If Darren wants Elsie Fest to be one of the mainstays of the Broadway calendar, he needs to provide something that’s unique. Four times out of five, that’s exactly what he did. There is a magic that only Darren Criss can provide beyond curating a list of amazing talent from Broadway and musicals, but that magic wasn’t on display yesterday. Last night’s Elsie Fest was a brilliant collection of performances that was fun for everyone there, but it didn’t go beyond that.

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Thoughts about Cursed Child (no spoilers)

I’ve seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (part 1) and I have thoughts. Part 2 thoughts are in blue for Ravenclaw. 

I am a massive Potterphile and have been since I first read books 1-3 in 1999. When she was in first grade, my Kid came home with a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that she found in her classroom library. “Look, Daddy!” She said. “They had this book you like in my classroom library! I brought it home for you!”

I was offended. Yes, my husband also loves Harry Potter. But I loved it first, I love it more, and we own that book, goddammit.

When she asked permission to read it, we said it was fine, figuring she wouldn’t be able to understand it and she’d put it down.

She loved it.

When she asked to read Chamber of Secrets, we said, “Sure!” After all, those books get harder as Harry ages (which is brilliant), so a six-year-old will just get frustrated and put the books down, and she’ll come back to them when she’s older.

Then we had to make a rule that she couldn’t read Prisoner of Azkaban until she was 8. By now, she’s read all seven books at least 5 times. She knows the names of the chapters. She owns a stuffed Crookshanks and a pygmy puff, and we had a Potter-themed birthday party when she turned ten. She’s seen Puffs twice.

All of this to say that when Cursed Child came to America and tickets went on sale four days before the Kid’s 14th birthday, it seemed like a sign. We got my parents to chip in, and we bought the tickets. In October. For now.

When I read the play, (which I did as soon as it was published–at that point we didn’t know if it would ever come to America, and who knows when I’ll get to London?) I wasn’t impressed. It was fine, but it didn’t feel like a JK Rowling book.

Seeing the play is a whole different thing.

Now, I’m not going to spoil anything about the play itself, but I am going to talk about my experience, so if you really want to enter that theater without knowing ANYTHING, you should stop reading now. Just know that I think it’s worth it.

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OKAY.

The theater is an experience from the moment you walk in. Of course there’s merch–lots and lots of merch. They renovated the entire theater, so there are wizardy touches everywhere–sconces and lamps and the way the bar is designed. The coat room is called a cloak room and I found that really funny, for some reason.

The Lyric has always been a beautiful (and huge) theater, and it still is. I believe they added seats somehow in this renovation, so it’s really, really big. It also has a long entryway because the theater is really on 43rd street but the entry is on 42nd street (a more prestigious address, especially back in the day when it was built), so entering is an experience in which you are drawn into what is actually the main lobby–a three story space that is hexagonal (I think–I can count sides tonight if that’s important to anyone). (I didn’t. You’ll have to count for yourself if you care.) You walk into a two-story lobby with shops around and a large split staircase to one side that leads down to another lobby with bathrooms, or up to a balcony that leads to the mezzanine and then up further to the balcony. There are bars on all the levels, and tons and tons (and tons) of people.

The merch is not bad. There’s your typical HP stuff (there’s a Ravenclaw shirt I have my eye on), some new wands (belonging to newly introduced characters from the play) and of course merch specific to Cursed Child. They have lovely stuffed owls, too. The play-specific merch changes for Part 2, so if there’s something you really want at the first show, you should get it. The general HP stuff in the 42nd street lobby is always there, and I was told that shop is accessible whenever the box office is open, so if you’re looking for a new house scarf, you can stop in any time.

Disappointingly, they did not get permission from Warner Bros to sell any of the branded foods. There is no butterbeer. There are no chocolate frogs. Not an Every Flavor Bean in sight, even.

Now to the play itself (again, no spoilers about the story itself, but slight spoilers in the form of mentioning specific elements of the Wizarding World that appear in the play.) (I have reviewed these in the spirit of Keep the Secrets, and there’s nothing I say here that hasn’t already been covered in published interviews.) It’s magnificent. They brought over all the principals from the original production in London and they are wonderful. The acting is incredible. The stagecraft is brilliant. They have managed to reproduce things from the Wizarding World that we have come to expect–things like moving staircases and wizard duels and travel by Floo Powder–in ways that are completely believable and every bit as good as the films. While some things are obvious (the staircases are pushed by actors who are visible during the scene) other things are impenetrable even by my family, and I have a background in theater and have certainly seen enough Broadway shows to know how things are done, while my husband has worked in film and my child is obsessed with how magic is done onstage and has been ever since she saw Mary Poppins when she was six.

The level of precision in the magic is amazing. I want to know how much practice it took to get everything perfect. I want to know about things that have gone wrong. I want to know what’s the most fun. In any case, the stagecraft is delightful and absorbing and I kept finding myself delighting in the fact that I was so absorbed in the story that I didn’t even appreciate at first glance how challenging some of the effects must be for the actors. (Ex: when a character travels from point A to point B using an invisibility cloak, the actor obviously did not take the same path. Yet it’s completely believable.)

And possibly the best part–I’ve often wondered why the cast never goes to stage door after Part 1. After all, last night they all went home after the play. It’s because the play has been left on a cliffhanger, and it would disrupt the suspension of disbelief if you then went and chatted with one of the actors before seeing Part 2. (I don’t know why I didn’t figure this out, but I didn’t.) Just as coming into the theater sets the proverbial stage for your experience of seeing the play, walking out of the theater keeps you in the moment. I expect that walking in tonight will help me reorient myself to the moment where the story left off.

Some general notes for theatergoers:

  • There are a lot of bathrooms, but there are a LOT of people. They advise you to get to the theater an hour before the show starts. That’s when you should use the bathroom. The lines get long.
  • There are merch shops EVERYWHERE. Several per floor. I’m fairly certain they all have the same merch, although it’s possible they only have the general Potter stuff (like House t-shirts) in the front lobby. In any case, my advice is that if there’s a long line for a merch shop, you should just go find another one. Again, the merch changes between shows. 
  • The sippy cups are awesome and very worth the price of a beverage.
  • There are two different Showbills (one for each part), which is cool. (FYI, Showbill is made by Playbill, but has family-friendly advertising.)
  • Frozen lemonade (regular or strawberry) is available in the snack shop of the main floor lobby. The strawberry is overly sweet, but the regular is delicious. You’re welcome.
  • Plenty of legroom in the mezzanine. It’s probably worth it to get seats in the front mezzanine or front balcony. I don’t remember how much they cost. We paid a lot for rear mezzanine and it’s FAR from the stage.
  • If you need a quiet break between acts, the quietest place during intermission is the front lobby shop. Most people either use the bathroom, stay in their seats, or go to buy merch and/or food in the central lobby area.

TL:DR–The show is awesome and you should go see it if you possibly can. I am completely exhausted but I can’t wait for tonight to see Part 2! Part 2 was also excellent, of course, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. I was exhausted and the Kid was cranky, so that may have factored in. But I think plot-wise it gets a bit more convoluted (and a lot darker, of course) and the end bit is rather talky and kind of anticlimactic. In the books, I’ve always found that soothing, but it’s sort of odd in a play. Still, I cheered, I cried, and in the end I was on my feet and madly applauding. Also I spent $65 on merch, so. 

TeePublic Review (Guest post by DJ Lilly)

Seven days. One week. That’s all the time it took to get my nifty new “He’s weird but he He's weird shirtsure is happy about it” Darren Criss shirt produced by Elsie Cast featuring brilliant artwork by @JesslovesDarren! This is my first experience with TeePublic, but it certainly bodes well for my future online t-shirt orders.

I have a…thing for message shirts. I allow myself to have only a certain amount (established many years ago after I realized I had a RIDICULOUS number of them which is embarrassing to even say out loud) so I have to be somewhat discerning in buying them, but I just love walking around with something I believe in or like visible for everyone to see. No surprise, a lot of mine are library-related, and many reflect my life philosophies, and the rest…well, the rest have something to do with Darren Criss.

shirt collectionI knew I had a LOT of Darren Criss shirts, but I just now found out that I have ten of those (including the new one).  This means a full third of my NSFW wardrobe says something about Mr. Criss or some project he’s involved with. I also know what you’re thinking. WHY do I need TEN shirts about Darren?

The logical answer, and the one that I am fully aware of, is that no one NEEDS ten shirts about one person. But, MY answer is that I respect, enjoy, admire and flat-out adore Darren (in a non-stalker way), so why shouldn’t I have as many shirts about him that I can find that reflect the amazing scope of his talent, his unique view of the world, and his quirky sense of humor like this new one does?

For those more interested in the logistics: I got an email two days after I ordered it saying they’d shipped it, then it arrived five days later which is truly amazing. The discounted price was great, of course, although it looks like their regular prices including shipping aren’t bad. The shirt is comfortable (not scratchy like some) and the sizing is accurate. If I had to come up with a negative, it’s that the choice of colors in the plus sizes are limited, but that’s not unusual…(sorry, got distracted by an earworm there for a second) and there was still enough of a variety to choose from.

So, go forth and shop! You’ll support Elsie Cast’s fabulous efforts to spread art around the world AND you’ll get a fabulous shirt or sticker or some other fun tidbit for yourself.


Thanks to DJ Lilly for writing this guest post! You can follow DJ on twitter at @wemeow2 (a must-follow for Klaine fans).

For official Darren Criss & Elsie Fest merch, check out our friends at Ann Arbor Tees. More about Ann Arbor Tees in Episode 44.

For Elsie Cast merch, click here:

Elsie Cast Shop

26: Adam Brunetti backstage at Elsie Fest 2016

If you’re looking for the FAQ about Elsie Fest 2017, it’s here.

Episode 26 is here, and it features Adam Brunetti! You can listen to it here: https://elsiecast.podbean.com/e/26-adam-brunetti-backstage-at-elsie-fest-2016/

Adam is a freelance event producer and he was backstage at Elsie Fest 2016 helping out his buddy Darren Criss.

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We talk about that (Adam has some great stories) and speculate wildly about what might happen at Elsie Fest 2017. And talk about some other stuff.

Also, I reviewed Elsie alum Aaron Tveit’s production of Company at Barrington Stage Company. I mean, he’s in it, he didn’t direct it or anything. But he’s Bobby, so it’s kind of all about him.

Just thinking about Adam makes me ramble and tangential. So you can imagine what the episode is like. But I learned how to add music and do fades and properly beep swears (you kiss your mother with that mouth, Adam?) so you can enjoy all of that stuff and my husband the Sound Mixer says I got all my levels right so that’s some good work right there.

Also, we talked about stuff from past episodes like Julie James and Larry Hochman, so you can check those out by clicking their names.

Oh, and here’s a video of my friend James dancing with Lin-Manuel Miranda.