MCC has built its reputation producing intimately intense plays like the recently staged Yen, Hand to God and the many plays by Neil Labute who serves as their playwright-in-residence. So it was a little jarring to walk into the cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom for their annual gala, Miscast. Though it featured the traditional trappings of events of this sort (open bar and passed h’orderves followed by sit-down dinner), it was decided un-black tie. I failed to spot a single man in a tux during cocktail hour.
When it was time to transition to dinner, Jonathan Groff appeared on a large screen with a whimsical directive: “I want to encourage you to continue drinking, a little less talking and more walking to your seats.”
A plate of Mediterranean burrata salad with shaved ratatouille vegetables and basil focaccia awaited at the tables as board members and the theater’s artistic directors (Robert LuPone, Bernard Telsey and William Cantler) gave their obligatory thank you speeches in commemorating their 30th anniversary—hard to believe it’s been that long. After years of producing from rented spaces, most recently the storied Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street, the non-profit is finally getting their own two-theater space in Hell’s Kitchen.
An entrée of beef verde cooked tenderly with a saffron cauliflower puree preceded the main event of the evening: a cabaret collage of songs sung by people who would never be cast to sing them. Kelli O’Hara kicked off the show with “Pure Imagination,” though it seems in the 21st century we could have a female Willy Wonka—the name is even gender ambiguous.
Many of the performances were structured around gender reversals. Mandy Gonzalez (currently starring as Angelica Schuyler in Hamilton) called offstage for a prop before launching into “Waving Through A Window” one of the signature songs from Dear Evan Hansen. “When you’re falling in a forest and there’s nobody around/do you ever really crash, or even make a sound?” she questioned wearing a cast and an elegant black jumper, not the traditional garb of an anxiety prone teenage outcast.
Her Hamilton co-star Brandon Victor Dixon confessed, “I’ve always secretly harbored the desire to be Kelli O’Hara” before they launched into “One Second and a Million Miles,” the rousing duet from The Bridges of Madison County. Of course, he sang O’Hara’s part and Gonzalez sang Pasquale’s. The theme of Hamilton continued as Carmen Cusack donned a crown and cape and channeled a joyously maniacal King George III in “You’ll Be Back.” Her well-trained soprano amped up the song’s rich contrast as she sang lines like “I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love.”
The zaniest song of the night belonged to Norbert Leo Butz who launched into the famous Dreamgirls showstopper “And I am Telling You” as he frantically gyrated around the stage. It was the final song of the evening though, “I Am What I Am” that ended in a standing ovation. Sung by Dreamgirls’ Jennifer Holliday, the defiant anthem to throw conformity to the wind and be who you are felt as resonant as ever.