Talk about transformations. Sarah Jones, the multitalented performer and Lily Tomlin author of "Bridge & Tunnel," goes through quite a few in her amazing one-woman show that Whoopi Goldberg has finally made the jump from off-Broadway to Broadway, opening Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
Call her the Emma Lazarus of the hip-hop generation, a champion of New York's newest citizens and a worthy successor to the woman who wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Jones is not constrained by age, sex, race or ethnicity in her brief, but incisive portrayals of the American immigrant, circa 2006. She does a dozen or so, bringing them together for a poetry slam at a little place called the Bridge and Tunnel Cafe in glorious South Queens. The evening is headlined by a genial Pakistani accountant named Mohammed Ali.
The performer's portraits, compressed into a crisp 90-minutes, are warmhearted, often touching and, on occasion, hilarious. Mohammed, a sweet-tempered man who is fond of bad puns, is Jones' most inspired creation. He is the master of ceremonies at the slam and sets the framework for what is to follow.
A lithe, exotic-looking woman with her hair severely pulled back, Jones is able to create this man with a minimum of effort, just by putting on a jacket. Bits of clothing help her define the other characters, too. Eyeglasses, T-shirts, baseball caps. They all help.
The parade of people is impressive and accomplished with rapid-fire speed thanks to Tony Taccone's efficient direction. Among the standouts: Lorraine Levine, a Long Island Grandma whose poetry decries do-gooders who want to give her a seat on the bus. Bao, a pinkish Vietnamese kid who decries Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Ling, a Chinese woman who frets about her daughter's relationship with another woman. Gladys Bailey, a strenuous Jamaican performance artist. And Juan Jose Martinez, a wheelchair-bound Mexican injured in a construction accident.
Jones has updated the show since her off-Broadway outing last year. It's a bit more political, although the sly digs at a certain administration are not heavy-handed or strident. Just funny.
The performer's verbal dexterity is flawless. She is able to capture a nationality with her voice alone, which may be why costume changes are minimal. And there is a generosity of spirit to these portraits. Jones clearly likes each and every one of her creations.
On a second viewing, what comes through even more is the woman's physicality. She moves across the stage with the grace and assurance of a dancer, providing a kinetic energy that complements the rich texture of the script.
The best one-person shows -those featuring such performers as Lily Tomlin, and Whoopi Goldberg for example - are rooted in character. "Bridge & Tunnel” abounds in highly diverse characters. And that they are played by only one woman makes it all the more astonishing.
There’s a lot to be said for versatility, and Sarah Jones manages to cover an awful lot of it in her one-woman show; "Bridge & Tunnel," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes after a successful off-Broadway run.
Unfortunately, versatility can lead to monotony, especially if the material can't sustain all that histrionic would-be virtuosity.
The title comes from the imaginary Queens cafe where Jones' notional annual poetry jam takes place.
The participants are minorities - most of them immigrants, but first-generation Americans, too - and Jones' script is high-octane political correctness taken to flaming heights.
At times, though, her humorous treatment of some minorities seems to stray into unintended yet patronizing caricature.
Then again, it must be difficult to be funny when you're desperately trying to make sense of America's multicultural, religiously separated, sexually diverse community. Especially, I suspect, when you intend to massage and never offend.
Jones' gathering of the ethnic clans calls to mind Anna Deveare Smith's one-woman shows, but whereas Smith's beautifully composed and written series of vignettes have depth and truth, "Bridge & Tunnel” is merely hopefully jokey, from its Pakistani host (who sounds dangerously like the late Peter Sellers in Eastern mode) onwards and downwards.
Jones is unquestionably a good actress, but the passionless material - even in its attempt at poignancy with a ritual, sentimental evocation of Sept. 11 - is paper-thin, and slowly tears into pieces before one's eyes.
The voices may leave a pleasurable tickle in your ears for a few days, possibly because most of us have never studied them closely before. They're the quiet murmurs of the city that usually form a dimly perceived backdrop for our own daily dramas.
The lyrical sound of the woman in the subway that leaves you wondering about her background. The anxious tone radiating from that fellow — Indian or Pakistani? — who brushed past you on the street, imploring someone on a cellphone. The stream of hot gossip bubbling from the Latino girl at the post office, a comic aria courtesy of the Bronx.
Now, here they are before us, those strangers who pique our interest and pass by. They're singing their souls from the stage, drawing us out of our own circumscribed worlds and into theirs. And all inhabit the remarkable person of Sarah Jones, the gifted author and sole star of "Bridge & Tunnel," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, bringing a refreshing taste of the outer boroughs to the heart of Broadway.
A substantial downtown hit two seasons ago, "Bridge & Tunnel" is Ms. Jones's sweet-spirited valentine to New York City, its polyglot citizens and the larger notion of an all-inclusive America, that ideal place where concepts like liberty, equality and opportunity have concrete meaning and are not just boilerplate phrases slapped around in stump speeches and news conferences.
In 90 minutes of acutely observed portraiture gently tinted with humor, Ms. Jones plays more than a dozen men and women participating in an open-mike evening of poetry for immigrants, held at a friendly dive in "beautiful South Queens," a step up from the Starbucks, where the sound of the espresso machine created irksome acoustical problems.
Ms. Jones is Mohammed Ali (he's heard all the jokes), the genial host who is hopelessly proud of his awful sense of humor, antsy and eager in his ill-fitting jacket. She is Lorraine Levine, of Long Island, stooped with age into an S shape, eyes big as moons behind those magnifying lenses, proud to share her contribution, a brief lyric titled "No, Really, Please, Don't Get Up." She is the Vietnamese-American Bao Viet Dinh, voice husky with attitude that's a few sizes too large, spitting out terse lines of verse that scorn stereotype: "This is not an ode to Bruce Lee!"
Ms. Jones, who was born in Baltimore, is an astonishing mimic with an uncanny ability to alter the texture, color and volume of her voice and even the shape of her body. Close your eyes and you would never imagine that the breathy chirp of that nervous but exhilarated 11-year-old girl could come from the same larynx unleashing those guttural expectorations from the old Russian guy. Open them again, and wonder at how this lanky actress seems to lose six inches when she slips into the persona of the cocky young African-American rapper, who looks like a giant tangerine in his oversize orange parka.
These are technical skills that invite gasps of admiration, and deserve them. Admire, please. Gasp and applaud to your heart's content.
Just don't downgrade Ms. Jones's talent to a mere gift for impressions, an actor's stunt. A natural affinity for precise impersonation can only be developed into a tool of artistic expression through hard work enriched with empathy for the complicated souls behind the colorful sounds. Proof that Ms. Jones has put her actorly gifts in service to something larger than self-display is found in her writing for these fully imagined characters, which is lively, compassionate, mildly sardonic and smart.
Inevitably, some portraits are more freshly conceived than others, and delivered with more conviction. The performance-art parody from a Jamaican woman feels rote, for instance, and the Russian doesn't bring much to the party other than his status as the lone white guy. But the production, which has been smoothly directed by Tony Taccone, has gained in consistency since its Off Broadway run.
It also seems more steeped in unease about the current state of the Union than it was downtown. Mohammed's cellphone conversations with his wife about an impending and mysterious interview with the feds — he immigrated from Pakistan in 1985 — feel tenser and more pointed, the bad jokes taking on an air of desperation. "Amina, please, why would they care about a poetry reading?," he asks. "What, I am now hiding the limericks of mass destruction?"
Mrs. Levine, a Polish-German-Lithuanian-American Jew, provides some perspective about today's climate of simmering anxiety about immigration. "Listen, when my family came here — from Eastern Europe — they were saying the same thing about us immigrants that they say now about you." But she's a staunch booster of the American way of life, after a fashion. "Here in America we have freedom to say what we want, be what we want, to decide what happens in our country," she says, adding, "We even get to decide what happens in other people's countries."
Was that a cellphone, or did I just hear someone's PC alarm going off? Also among Ms. Jones's entertainingly odd men and women out are a Chinese-American mother of a lesbian daughter anguished at having to part with a girlfriend who lacks permanent residency, and a wheelchair-bound Mexican man who tells of his arduous journey north in search of economic advantages.
In short, if multiculturalism is a dirty word to you, "Bridge & Tunnel" will probably give you hives. But Ms. Jones has closely studied the way all sorts of people order their thoughts, express their hopes and fears and tentatively try to fit the whole of their personalities into an inadequate new vocabulary. The stories of their struggles and anxieties have the uneven rhythms and shaggy shape of experience clumsily but feelingly put into unfamiliar words; they are never just anecdotes cut and trimmed to form political paper airplanes aimed at the audience.
And in focusing on the immigrant experience, Ms. Jones is honoring anew, and embodying in theatrical form, the durable dream that keeps drawing immigrants to America, even in today's more fractious political climate and uncertain economy. It's a concept even the staunchest supporter of a strict immigration policy wouldn't dare to disavow, because it happens to be the subject of that popular performance piece that has been playing in New York Harbor for more than a century now.
That one is also a solo show, starring a big green dame with a torch. Ms. Jones's "Bridge & Tunnel" is naturally somewhat smaller in scale, but it's a worthy sequel. A lot funnier, too.
To call "Bridge & Tunnel" the nicest show on Broadway is not to paste a phony smile button on Sarah Jones' multicultural, multicharacter breakout solo.
Despite the frustration, fury and poignancy in her portrayals of recent New York immigrants, there is a sweetness – a big-hearted loveliness - to the fantasy of an amateur poetry reading in a neighborhood cabaret in Queens.
The 90-minute showcase, which opened Thursday night at the Helen Hayes Theatre, is perhaps best known as the hit Meryl Streep produced Off-Broadway almost two years ago. Although her magic name is no longer listed above the title, Streep has provided one of those hysterical critical endorsements - "If there is one show you should see on Broadway.. ." - as an attention-getting device on the marquee of what's perceived as a risky commercial project.
In fact, "Bridge & Tunnel" holds the mainstream stage with a high-energy emotional presence that - if justice and marketing were to collide - could draw traditional audiences, new Americans and tourists as a welcome-to-New York destination event.
There is nothing especially dangerous or cutting-edge about the concept, which embraces the idea of the outsider with the humanity of an artist who attended the United Nations International School. The evening - directed again by Tony Taccone - feels sharper than it was at the Culture Project, where the material could get monotonous, and some of Jones' characterizations felt more generalized than her acclaim had led us to expect.
She is a tall, lean, athletic chameleon, a half-black, rangy body-sculptor with a quick polyglot mouth and an elegant way with clear-eyed compassion. Her unifying character is Mohammed, an accountant from Pakistan and host for the fifth annual night for a ragtag movement he has named - and spells out in oddly touching layers of acronyms - "I Am A Poet, Too."
This is an awkward, intelligent man, amused by his own terrible puns but serious about the list of participants he keeps folded in the pocket of his mismatched suit jacket. His head bobbles with the music of his accent, and he has a way of reaching his large palms out in a gesture that seems to be proving he is unarmed.
For all his upbeat dedication to the evening, he wears the worried eyes of the subject of an immigration investigation who periodically talks to his wife on the phone in a second-floor office of the festively tacky little theater (designed by David Korins).
By changing little more than a jacket, Jones inhabits a proud, stooped Jewish woman, a Chinese-American mother whose daughter has fallen in love with a "nice Chinese girl," a Jamaican performance artist expressing dismay at the cold, a shy sixth grader who shakes through her entire body to recite a poem about why she doesn't want to grow up and - especially - a disabled Mexican who knows what Hollywood does not about the price of being illegal.
A few characters feel more like impersonations than people. Every so often, Jones gets preachy. And an opening bit with a wise homeless woman has been done too often, better. If you're going to channel another actress, however, one can do worse than the young Lily Tomlin.
The term "bridge and tunnel" is used snidely by some Manhattanites to refer to commuters from the less-hip outer boroughs and suburbs.
But thanks to a force of urban nature named Sarah Jones, that perception could shift. Jones' new one-woman, 15-character show, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, is called Bridge & Tunnel (*** out of four). And it's every bit as fresh and forward-thinking as it was when Jones delivered it to downtown crowds during an acclaimed off-Broadway run in 2004.
Jones' multicultural monologues -- delivered by male and female immigrants of various ages and races who gather in a Queens cafe to recite their own poems – fit firmly in the context of a world after 9/11, with Jones wearing her heart and social conscience on her sleeve. From Muhammed, the sweetly goofy Pakistani accountant who hosts the event, to Mrs. Ling, a soft- What's this? spoken Chinese matron who becomes an unlikely advocate for gay rights, her expertly realized characters have clearly struggled and sacrificed.
Bridge has been amended only slightly, and the original material seems as topical as it did two years back, if not more so. The plight of a Mexican union organizer crippled in a labor accident is especially poignant after the tragic deaths of coal miners earlier this month. And the panicked cellphone calls that Muhammed fields from his wife, who is concerned that he's under federal investigation, have added resonance in light of the controversy over wiretapping by the National Security Agency.
The weight of these questions, and the earnestness that Jones applies in considering them, is balanced by her often irreverent but always good-natured humor. Rashid, a fledgling rapper from Brooklyn, tells the immigrants, "I can relate as a black man, even though I was born here. 'Cause it's like, aight, see, black people ... we got imported. Y'all get deported."
Lorraine Levine, an arthritic Jewish grandmother, feels a similar kinship with the others. "I'm happy to be here tonight appearing alongside Moslemsl" she enthuses, later adding, more soberly, "When my family came here - from Eastern Europe - they were saying the same thing about us immigrants that they say about you now. ... Nobody wanted you around."
Certainly, the world could use more of the wit, warmth and profound empathy that Jones' Bridge is built on.