Review: The Secret Society of Leading Ladies, Barn Theatre

RATING: ★★★★★

The Barn Theatre has been one of the best sources of theatre content during the pandemic as they continue to come up with inventive ways to offer shows online. In perhaps their most creative project yet, their latest show is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure concert: "The Secret Society of Leading Ladies." Conceived of and directed by Ryan Carter, it lets the audience put together their own concert line-up as they go and choose from lots of different types of leading lady characters. 

So how does it work? The audience will see five different "Choose Your Player" screens as they navigate through the concert that allows you to choose a character and song. There are fourteen different performances in the concert lineup, allowing for 150 different combinations, before a finale with all fourteen performers. There are also cute interactions between the characters in between songs. The concert lasts for about a half hour and while I would happily have watched more, it makes sure you never get tired of the format. 

The songs come from shows ranging from "Mean Girls" to "The Wizard of Oz" to "Fame." You can choose to hear some of your favorite songs or discover something new that you've not heard before. (I consider myself a pretty intense musical theatre fan and there were still a couple that I wasn't familiar with.) 

Aisha Jawando's "Last Midnight" from "Into the Woods" absolutely floored me not just with her great vocals, but also her fantastic acting choices. I love Aoife Clesham's rendition of one of my favorite songs, "The History of Wrong Guys" from "Kinky Boots." 

Jarnéia Richard-Noel's "I Didn't Plan It" from "Waitress" was another highlight for me, especially as someone who has seen the show but doesn't listen to the cast album and had sort of forgotten about the song. I also love Jocasta Almgill's absolutely electric "Everybody's Girl" from "Steel Pier," a show that I had never heard of before. 

All in all, there isn't a single bad performance as all the women nail their songs and their characters. The show is also very impressively put together, with each singer performing on a stage with a brick background that really does lend a concert feel. The videography by Jamie Scott-Smith is stellar, as is the editing by Ben Evans and sound engineering by Harry Smith.  I also especially love that each woman wears an outfit inspired by the character she's portraying. 

You can buy a one-show ticket and watch the concert through once or you can buy a multi-show ticket that allows you to watch the concert again and choose different performances. I absolutely love how creative this idea is and I'd love to see the Barn Theatre do a "Secret Society of Leading Men" concert next.  

For more information or to buy tickets, visit the Barn Theatre website. "The Secret Society of Leading Ladies" runs until March 7. 

I was given a press ticket to this show for the purposes of review, but all opinions are my own. 

Top Five Books I Read in 2020

My end of year posts are obviously coming a bit late this year, but I still wanted to write them -- for reference for myself next year, if nothing else. I very much failed in my reading goals in 2020, but I enjoyed the nine books that I did read. Plus, I've already read three books in 2021, so things are looking up. 

Here are my five favorite books that I read in 2020, in no particular order. 

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier 

I've been meaning to read Rebecca for many years, but wanting to read it before the new film adaptation came out finally pushed me to do it. This Gothic romance is incredibly gripping and very haunting. I found the characters to be so intriguing and the way that it essentially crafts a ghost story without any actual ghosts to be so fascinating. I wasn't expecting that it's a very interesting class commentary as well. I also discussed Rebecca on Next Best Picture's Next Best Adaptation podcast, which I managed this past year. 

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams

This is exactly the sort of book that I like to read in between more serious books: a cute romance that still has well-developed characters and deals with topics other than just the romance. Our Stop is really adorable and I found the characters easy to relate to. The only issue for me is that it's set in London and it's very English -- which meant that I cried several times while reading it because I miss London so much! 

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I was obsessed with The Hunger Games trilogy when I was in high school, but I wasn't too excited about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. However, my little sister insisted that I read it and I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it. Suzanne Collins is a very smart writer and I loved how she weaved different (mostly Enlightenment) theories about the nature of humans and society into the book. I think this is my favorite villain backstory book (or movie) that I've ever read. 

In the Time We Lost by Carrie Hope Fletcher

I'm a big fan of Carrie Hope Fletcher's books, especially as someone who enjoys magical realism. In the Time We Lost broke my heart a bit but also was very thought-provoking. I loved the setting of a small Scottish town and felt like I was whisked away despite being in quarantine. Both this and the 2020 movie Palm Springs have plots similar to Groundhog Day, which I think is also more fitting than ever during a pandemic where your days blend together because you can't do much. 

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

I started off the year by rereading one of my favorite books of all time. I've read Little Women so many times that my copy is practically falling apart and revisiting it felt like catching up with an old friend. It gave me an even greater appreciation for Greta Gerwig's 2019 film adaptation (my favorite movie of all time) which I went to see one last time in the movie theater after finishing my reread. So much of who I am as a person comes from me identifying with and idolizing both Jo and Meg March when I was young. 

What were your favorite books you read in 2020? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter. You can also follow my book-themed Instagram account. x

Looking Back on a Year of Starry

There are a handful of musical theatre albums that can make me cry even though I've listened to them a hundred times. After listening to it for a year, I can confirm that "Starry" joins the likes of "Les Misèrables" and "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" in having a finale that will suddenly make me tear up out of the blue, no matter how many times I've heard it. 

The concept album for the new musical about Vincent and Theo van Gogh was released in January of 2020 and the deluxe physical CD was released just before Christmas. Last March, I wrote a review of the album, but watching the recent listening party on YouTube with the writers and some of the cast made me want to revisit it. 

Revisit writing about it, that is. I can honestly say that a week hasn't passed since the album's release that I haven't listened to it. When my best friend Lexi told me about the album just before it was released, I couldn't have conceptualized how important it would become to me. 

One of the last shows that I saw before coronavirus hit and shut down theatre was the "Mean Girls" national tour with Mariah Rose Faith as Regina. At the time, I was loving her vocals as Jo Bonger and was so excited to see her live. 

In April, I asked Lexi if she'd want to watch a StarKid show together over Skype since she's a fan and I'd never seen any of them. (What was I doing in high school? I have no idea.) Over the next couple of months, I ended up watching all of their shows and it was so exciting to see actors that I was familiar with on the "Starry" album like Dylan Saunders, Jeff Blim, Mariah Rose Faith, and Lauren Lopez in other shows. (I'm even now a patron of Lauren's on Patreon.) 

Matt Dahan and Kelly Lynn D'Angelo's music and lyrics have truly been the saving grace of my quarantine. The album helped pull me out of some quarantine-induced existential crises and was what I comforted myself with when I was in pain from a sudden small surgery I had in November. It's the thing that has encouraged me to continue to push myself as an artist, to dare to actually call myself "a writer," and even to foray back into creative writing after many years. 

The more I listen to this album, the more I find to appreciate in it, from musical motifs to small acting choices I hadn't noticed before. The way in which Kelly managed to weave in so many references to van Gogh's and Gauguin's art is amazing. I got a biography of Vincent and Theo for Christmas and I'm very excited to read it and find out all of the actual historical things that Kelly was able to include. 

In some ways, it's weird to think that there was a time before I knew "Starry." For me, the best shows are the ones that feel both fresh and exciting and somehow impossibly familiar when you discover them. I now consider "Starry" to be one of my top five favorite musicals of all time and I look forward to a day post-quarantine when I hopefully will get to see it onstage. 

My friends and family are likely very tired of hearing me talk about "Starry," but it's one of those shows that I knew was special as soon as I heard it but have only realized after a year with it just how magnificent it is. As a historian and an art history lover, having a musical that recognizes both Vincent van Gogh's brilliance and Theo van Gogh's work as well is so important to me. Despite the current state of theatre, I have high hopes that the show will have a long future and introduce many to its beautiful story, music, and lyrics. As the line goes, "Even in the dark, the road is bright." 

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