Showtime! features reviews, commentary and
assorted theatrical musings from Michael Dale,
BroadwayWorld.com's Chief Theatre Critic. To submit
amusing backstage banter, absurd audience observations
or noteworthy links to Showtime!, click here. Anonymity's guaranteed.
My not taking credit for your clever remark isn't. Subscribe to RSS Feed
When Phil Geoffrey Bond was named Programming Director at 54 Below, it became a given that the theatre district’s spanking new nightlife venue would include on its schedule Broadway-centric evenings geared for the knowledgeable musical theatre fan who appreciates both past glories and upcoming works in progress. The producer/host of the Laurie Beechman Theatre’s popular Sondheim Unplugged series now makes a significant debut in the same capacities with New Mondays, dedicated to giving audiences a sampling of fresh material from accomplished theatre composers and lyricists.
Closing night of the series’ quintet of performances was my first visit to 54 Below (beautiful sightlines and sound, attractive décor, reasonable prices and charming service) and the packed house went nuts for the evening’s headliner, Maury Yeston. After teasing the audience with snippets of “There She Is,” “Unusual Way,” “Love Can’t Happen” and “A Call From The Vatican,” he noted to the crowd that Bond had ask him to play some of his lesser-known work, thus launching the composer/lyricist into a madcap rendition of Nine’s “The Germans at the Spa,” where he narrated the action from the piano and sang all the parts.
Recalling an assignment he gave to his Yale students, Yeston sang his own clever lyrics designed to help them memorize Louis Armstrong’s cornet solo for his 1926 recording of “Big Butter and Egg Man.” Johnny Rodgers took over the stage briefly to recreate his twangy recording of “Danglin’,” a song Yeston jokes that people didn’t believe he wrote because it’s so different from his other work.
But the main focus of the evening was to be on new works, so next came a pair from Club Moscow, an upcoming musical about post-Soviet Russia. Jill Abromowitz (who the composer/lyricist calls, “a Tony Award waiting to happen.”) sang the comic “Malvina’s Song, where a character relishes her own bitchiness, and Mara Davi steamed up the place with “Tell Me,” where a seductress makes an unusual request. Ending the segment was Rebecca Luker, sounding lovely, of course, with the lullaby from In The Beginning, “New Words."
Preceding Yeston were three talented composer/lyricists who have yet to see their Broadway dreams realized, but have still gathered a following among theatre fans and have been honored will well-respected industry awards.
Joe Iconis is up there with the most famous of musical theatre’s unknown writers, having gathered up a regular troupe of performers he calls “The Family.” Jason “Sweet Tooth” Williams, one of the more familiar family faces and a terrific interpreter of the composer/lyricist’s “everyday guy” characters, was on hand to perform “Helen,” which surprisingly goes from being a one-joke lyric about a guy discovering that a girl he went to high school with is now a porn star, to an interesting reflection on what the people you knew as a kid would think of the way you’ve turned out. A newer song, “Flesh and Bone,” had Williams playing a robot battling his body image insecurities. Iconis himself, appropriately, sang his amusing “The Song,” where a songwriting tells of a woman who, after their breakup, insists he doesn’t write a song about her.
A new Iconis song ranks as one of the best of his I’ve ever heard. “The Actress,” the story of a woman whose originality was stifling her career until she decided to just start doing what everybody else tries to do, is a perfectly satirical piece criticizing a culture that encourages cookie-cutter vocal gymnasts to suffocate music and lyrics with their American Idol stylings. Katrina Rose Dideriksen performed with aggressive high belting, tender pathos and impish glee.
Katie Thompson lovingly performed Adam Gwon’s intensely romantic “One Little Word” and his sweet lullaby, “Think of the Moon.” There was fine work by Whiney Bashor with the endearing “Favorite Places” and “Uncharted Territory” and Carey Anderson in the very cute “Little Mysteries” from The Boy Detective Fails.
Brett Kristofferson’s set included “Joey Runs,” sung by Jonathan Whitton, a meditation on finding serenity through running, “Micki, Go,” sung by Scoot Koonce, a heartbreaking lyric about ending a relationship for a partner’s own good, and the very funny “Lizzie Borden Rag,” belted with comical joy by Kathy Searle. Another heartbreaker, the MAC Award winning “Things That Haunt Me,” was elegantly turned by Angela Schultz.
So now that Patrick Page will be ending his stint as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark and begin rehearsals for a piece just a tad worthier of his talents, Cyrano De Bergerac, his replacement Robert Cuccioli, a sensitive lyric interpreter with a beautifully masculine voice, will be taking on the honor of singing “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” eight times a week.
Do you think anybody would complain if they just cut the number and replaced it with Cuccioli doing Jacques Brel’s “Jackie”? Makes sense to me that the Green Goblin would be contemplating the possibility of being “cute, cute, cute in a stupid-ass way.”
Joe Iconis has written some damn good songs in his day, but this new one I heard the other night at Phil Geoffrey Bond’s New Mondays concert at 54 Below (more on that later), "The Actress," completely floored me. It's a perfectly satirical story-song criticizing a culture that encourages cookie-cutter vocal gymnasts to suffocate music and lyrics with their American Idol stylings.
Here’s Katrina Rose Dideriksen singing it loud and high and impressively…
Posted on: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 @ 03:18 PM Posted by:Michael Dale
Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Mary Chase was advocating alcohol addiction with her 1944 Pulitzer-winning comedy, Harvey, she sure makes it seem an attractive alternative.
Who can resist giving a silent cheer – or, heck, even a completely audible one – when our hero explains to the man who is determining if he’d be better off in a sanatorium, “I wrestled with reality most of my life, doctor, and I am happy to state that I finally won out over it.”
Even to those who have never seen the play, or Jimmy Stewart’s turn in the movie version, the title character of Harvey, a six-foot, three and a half inch rabbit that is only seen by the amiable and polite Elwood P. Dowd, is as recognizable an image in American pop culture as the notion that the dangerously crazy ones are actually the people who would repress someone’s indulgence in absurdity.
Director Scott Ellis’ handsome and appropriately folksy production is grounded by Jim Parsons, a soft-spoken and somewhat timid Dowd who exudes comforting warmth when in the presence of those who trust him. If not for the mentions of his pookah pal, you’d never suspect him of being alcoholic until he starts describing his regular evenings of bar-hopping (bunny-hopping?). Maybe not the town nut to his fellow Denverites, he’s perhaps more of a curiosity, as evidenced by his description of how complete strangers tend to gravitate to him and Harvey for impromptu conversations. Seems having Harvey around combats his loneliness in more ways than one.
Jessica Hecht is suitably high-strung and haughty as his sister, Veta, who wishes to both clear the family name and acquire her brother’s inherited home and wealth by having him sent away. Her marriage-minded daughter, Myrtle Mae (a very funny and giddy Tracee Chimo), is all for the plan, as her uncle’s influence on the family reputation has left her suitor-less.
Charles Kimbrough, who plays befuddled authority figures as well as anybody, is just delightful as the gradually confused Dr. Chumley, as is Carol Kane doing her familiar off-beat ditzy routine as his wife.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Charles Kimbrough, Jessica Hecht and Jim Parsons; Bottom: Carol Kane and Jim Parsons.
******************************************************* The tall white guy who narrates the show with his imposing voice introduces himself as Morgan Freeman. For the next eighty minutes, characters will keep confusing him with Samuel L. Jackson. This is pretty much the height of cleverness achieved by Triassic Parq, the terribly uninspired musical spoof of a certain Michael Crichton novel and the film adaptations that followed.
The effort of the bookwriting/lyricist trio of Marshall Pailet (who also composed the score and directs), Steve Wargo and Bryce Norbitz includes all the campiness, broad sexual innuendo and gags regarding low-budget production values that has become standard in such ventures, but the intended comedy of their version of the Jurassic Park story – told from the point of view of the all-female herd of scientifically created dinosaurs whose peaceful world runs amuck when one of them starts growing a penis – thuds along, aggressively unfunny. (“The ‘s’ in science is for ‘Suck my dick,’” goes one of their well-crafted bon mots.)
Pailet’s music includes a fun moment when the company sings “We are dinosaurs! We are dinosaurs!” to a pop-infused version of the film score’s main theme, but the rest of the score is a generic collection of theatre rock, pop and hip-hop.
But despite the weak material, the production is extremely strong. Pailet and choreographer Kyle Mullin remarkably keep the action fluid and energetic in the cramped quarters of the SoHo Playhouse, especially when Mullin has the company humorously hip-hopping. Dina Perez’s costumes, suggesting dinosaurs without going literal, and Caite Hevner’s jungle-inspired scenic design add fun visuals.
Lindsay Nicole Chambers, hilarious as the angry slam poet in the underappreciated Lysistrata Jones, steals every moment she’s on stage as the urban diva-ish Velociraptor of Science and the talented cast includes a charmingly naïve Alex Wyse as the Velociraptor of Innocence and a comically authoritative Lee Seymour as Morgan Freeman, but despite its winning production features, Triassic Parq is loaded down with too much ineffective material.
Photo of Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Alex Wyse by Carol Rosegg.
Although I tend to be a bit old-school in my choice of venues for pre- and post-Broadway theatre tippling, I happily accepted an invite to indulge in a cocktail or two at the Copacabana when I heard about their 4th floor rooftop lounge overlooking 47th Street and 8th Avenue. If you’re like me, you get a little thrill out of watching the excitement of thousands of playgoers rushing to their evening’s entertainment or, a few hours later, venturing back into the real world while discussing the pros and cons of the production. (I’m told it also provides a fine view of 4th of July fireworks over the Hudson.) The retractable room insures protection from any sudden showers in 55 seconds.
I’m sure I took the piped-in music of Barry Manilow singing of “the hottest spot north of Havana” a bit more tongue-in-cheek than was intended but the comfy, spacious lounge with a dark wood floor and black and white décor provided a nicely civilized atmosphere. And with the Copacabana already becoming known as a place to celebrate Broadway openings (Streetcar, Leap of Faith) it might become an old-school theatre hangout yet.
When the houselights went up for intermission at Gina Gionfriddo's provocative comedy of gender issues, Rapture, Blister, Burn, my immediate impulse was to ask my guest – a 1980s Columbia University Women’s Studies graduate who, like myself, remembers the days when an Upper West Side liberal’s coffee table was considered incomplete if not graced by a heavily earmarked volume of Susan Faludi’s latest and simply saying the name “Phyllis Schlafly” at certain cocktail parties would trigger the same venomous reaction the name “Haman” would receive from the most Manischewitz-soused participants at a Lower East Side Purim spiel – if it all seemed realistic to her.
Her reaction was intriguing; that it’s been so long since she’s heard people talking about these subjects. Certainly, Gionfriddo’s plot contains a perfectly balanced formula of contrivances and coincidences to help spark such conversation (Look how many generations of women just happen to be in the same room together!), but her dialogue is too clever, insightful and entertaining to complain. And perhaps in this era of “I’m not a feminist, but…” it’s a refreshing twist to hear dialogue from the standpoint of “I am a feminist, but…”
Taking its title from a line in Courtney Love’s wound-licking anthem, “Use Once And Destroy,” the play concerns two contemporary women in their 40s regretting their life choices; one that followed Betty Friedan’s inspiration to “have it all” and the other accepting the special privileges Schlafly insisted women enjoyed by not being equal to men.
Catherine (Amy Brenneman) is a celebrity author and television talking head who got famous for being the hot chick who wrote academic texts on feminism as it applies to pornography and horror movies. Never married and without children, she still clings to her feelings for her grad school boyfriend, Don (Lee Tergesen), who she left to pursue career opportunities. Don was quickly nabbed by Catherine’s roommate, Gwen (Kellie Overbey), who quit school to fulfill her dream of being a wife and mother.
Today, Don might not seem like quite the catch. A New England college dean with little interest in advancement, his main pleasures in life are drinking beer, getting high and watching Internet porn. Gwen is a recovering alcoholic who feels that staying sober betrays her WASP upbringing. She’s lost any interest in sex and feels trapped by her life of being a mother and wife.
What reunites them is when Don arranges for Catherine to teach at his school while she’s on sabbatical from a loftier institution to take care of her pre-liberation mother, Alice (Beth Dixon), while she recovers from a recent heart attack. A summer workshop that Catherine leads from her mother’s home attracts only two students: Gwen and her recently fired babysitter, Avery (Virginia Kull), an outspoken hipster who shows signs of having an abusive boyfriend.
Guided by director Peter DuBois’ light, peppy touch, the meat of the play is the spirited talk and debate that goes on during classes, where discussions of second and third wave feminism bring out Catherine’s longings for comfortable mediocrity and Gwen’s misgivings about not seeing what life could offer aside from marriage. Their attempt at a mutually beneficial solution is right out of sitcom 101 (Yeah, Gionfriddo actually tries that route.) but the play and the performances are good enough to inspire curiosity to see where it’s going.
The cast is excellent, with Overbey giving Gwen a detached acerbic manner that shows she’s surviving her horrendous marriage by emotionally separating herself from it, and Brenneman subtly hinting at the dissatisfied cracks beneath Catherine’s sexy confidence.
You may not find yourself empathizing with the characters, as they are presented as such extremes, but Gionfriddo makes solid points about the women they represent, and the emotional wall that separates us from them allows Rapture, Blister, Burn to be a very funny play that can inspire further post-theatre debate.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Kellie Overbey and Virginia Kull; Bottom: Beth Dixon and Amy Brenneman.
Though the team of Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) and David Shire (music) hasn’t had much luck when it comes to book musicals (Baby and Big, despite their admirers, struggled through disappointing Broadway runs.) when it comes to Off-Broadway musical revues, the boys are two-time champs. Their 1970s hit, Starting Here, Starting Now, was topped in 1989 by a 300+ performance run of Closer Than Ever, which is now getting a sparkling revival at the York.
Like its predecessor, Closer Than Ever is an intimate revue; a bookless collection of sharp, witty and incisive songs that stress strong storytelling and vivid characters. Though no specific location is mentioned, in spirit and tone you might find yourself reminded of the late 80s/early 90s middle-class urban landscape (For our younger readers, think less Seinfeld reruns and more Mad About You reruns.) as the evening takes a hip, literate look at getting through being a grown-up, with a focus on the big events we expect to change our lives and the little events that unexpectedly do the same.
Directed by Maltby and with music direction by on-stage pianist Andrew Gerle, the brisk evening features four familiar musical theatre faces, all sporting fine voices and intelligent lyric interpreting skills.
Christiane Noll beautifully handles the show’s more introspective and dramatic moments with textured performances of “Life Story,” about a woman who fought in the trenches for gender equality, later to find doors slammed in her face by the younger women who owed her their chances to succeed, and “Patterns” (cut from Baby, but put back in when the show was revised), where a wife musses over the mundane routines putting stress on her marriage.
Jenn Colella is at her steamy best when flirting with bassist Danny Meyer in “Back On Base,” a vampy number about a woman finding the perfect antidote for her case of the drearies, and gets to stretch her generally underutilized comic chops in “Miss Byrd,” a song that reminds us that the ordinary person you see every day may be a tigress when she's out of her office cubical, and "You Wanna Be My Friend," an angry retort at a lover's attempt to let her down easy.
The richly-voiced George Dvorsky brings the evening to an emotional height with “If I Sing,” a son’s heartfelt tribute to the gifts he received from his musician dad, and is charmingly comic in “What Am I Doin’?,” where a would-be lover stops to consider if his actions constitute stalking.
Sal Viviano gives an endearing performance of “One Of The Good Guys,” where a happily married man ponders what he might have missed by turning down offers to be unfaithful, and in duet with Colella, “Another Wedding Song,” where a couple consider the special joys of second marriages. A terrific comic number, “Fandango,” has Viviano and Noll performing the morning dance of a married couple of corporate go-getters when the sitter cancels and each needs the other to watch the baby.
James Morgan’s set features numerous doors and a pretty blue sky with fluffy white clouds, indicative of an optimistic view of life’s numerous opportunities. The right door can always be closer than ever.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano and Jenn Colella; Bottom: Jenn Colella and Danny Meyer.
Backwoods 1800s America proves an unlikely, but ideal setting for Shakespeare’s As You Like It in director Daniel Sullivan’s enormously entertaining Delacorte production that mixes dexterous wordplay with rowdy comedy.
The audience enters to the sight of the exterior of a tall wooden fort with a rifle-toting lookout standing guard. Below is a boisterous bluegrass band plucking and bowing out twangy tunes by Steve Martin. Foreshadowing the wresting aspect of the plot, a poster tacked to a tree displays a hulking fellow grappling with a bear.
The complicated story of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy involves family rivalries, banished lovers, highbrow banter, lowbrow antics and the obligatory leading lady who, for some reason or another, must disguise herself as male in order to win her mate.
That obligation is met triumphantly by Lily Rabe, intoxicatingly masterful at verbal wit and subtle reaction, who, as Rosalind, ventures into the forest with her cousin, Celia (a perky and game Renee Elise Goldsberry) in search of her beloved Orlando (nobly played by David Furr), who she first laid eyes on while watching him getting pummeled in a wrestling match.
Although Orlando’s match against the brawny brute Charles (a terrific Brendan Averett) is choreographed by Rick Sordelet with all the fake-violent humor of a good WWE event, I do have to quibble who whoever made the decision to have Orlando win by kicking his opponent in the groin several times, as the move is traditionally considered a villainous cheap shot; especially after Charles is shown to be the kind of gentlemanly sportsman who chooses not inflict further punishment on his opponent when he is defenselessly battered.
Andre Braugher ably doubles as a ruthless duke and the kindly brother he has banished into the forest; thick with trees that set designer John Lee Beatty cleverly provides with hiding places. When Stephen Spinella, hilariously dour as the melancholy Jacques (pronounced “Jake” for this version), beautifully recites the “All the world’s a stage…” speech, it’s done as a campfire story on a peaceful evening.
Oliver Platt is suitably wry as the jester, Touchstone, and Donna Lynne Champlin, who gets a chance to demonstrate her clogging skills, is very funny as the dumb but lusty goatherd who captures his attention. Beloved character actor MacIntyre Dixon is touching as an elderly servant and Will Rogers and Susannah Flood add humor as a love-struck shepherd and the snarky shepherdess who continually rejects him.
With catchy tunes throughout and a hoedown finale, this As You Like It is a merry romp from start to finish.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: David Furr, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Lily Rabe; Bottom: Jordan Tice and Stephen Spinella.
By the third act of Martha Gellhorn and Virginia Cowles’ 1946 romantic comedy, Love Goes To Press, one of the play’s leading characters, a female war correspondent considered tops in her field, begins discussing marriage with the handsome soldier who has captured her heart. When the stuffy British Major speaks romantically of how his love will, naturally, give up her career and go to Yorkshire to stay with his mother until they get married, the 2012 audience members around me, naturally, smirked and guffawed at the absurdity of his antiquated assumptions.
To his credit, Bradford Cover, the actor playing the stiff upper-lipper, spoke with the utmost of noble sincerity, as though he were Prince Charming granting Cinderella the life she had always dreamed of, making the scene that much funnier. But was it all that comical when Love Goes To Press premiered as a West End hit, when the women who had taken on nontraditional roles in the workforce during World War II were now faced with the assumption that they’d automatically go back to being housewives?
Part of the fun of attending Mint Theatre Company productions is getting immersed in the world of the audiences from long ago. The treasured Off-Broadway company specializes in plays that achieved some substantial degree of popularity – usually from the first half of the 20th Century – but became forgotten with the passing of time. Despite its London success, the only playwrighting effort of Gellhorn and Cowles, who based the work on their own experiences as respected war correspondents, lasted only four performances on Broadway.
Intended by the authors to be little more than a lark, Love Goes To Press, proves an enjoyable museum piece that cruises on its snappy dialogue but stumbles a bit because the story’s most interesting moments either take place in the past (showing up to cover a battle in a smart Schiaparelli number) or off-stage (a dim-witted entertainer being mistaken for a reporter and taken to the front lines).
Heidi Armbruster and Angela Pierce make for a swell pair of smart-talking adventurers as Annabelle Jones and Jane Mason, who are both revered for their skills at getting dangerous stories and resented for being women. They share the kind of camaraderie that comes with being the only people who know what each other is going through. Arriving separately at a battered Italian home serving as a press camp while Allied troops advance on Germany, both are plotting dangerous missions while being surprised by romantic encounters; Jane being courted by the British Major as bombs cause the building to shake and rain rubble on them and Annabelle being reunited with her ex-husband, Joe, the kind of writer whose idea of journalistic inspiration is to get drunk and write a think piece. (Their relationship was no doubt inspired by Gellhorn’s 5-year marriage to Ernest Hemingway.)
The colorful characters surrounding them include Joe’s ditzy fiancée, Daphne (Margot White in a good comical turn), and Jay Patterson and Curzon Dobell as a pair of reporters on the lookout for stories to steal between games of gin rummy and indulging in liquor rations.
Director Jerry Ruiz makes some odd shifts in tone, playing for realistic laughs most of the time but overplaying some of the romance, but it’s a handsome production, thanks to the excellent work of Steven C. Kemp (sets), Andrea Varga (costumes), Christian DeAngelis (lights) and Jane Shaw (sound). A frisky and entertaining evening that is, indeed, a lark.
Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Heidi Armbruster (above) and Angela Pierce; Bottom: Rob Breckenridge and Heidi Armbruster.
The words, “Once upon a time…,” were followed by that familiar Sondheim vamp, and Danielle Ferland skipped onto the stage just as she had 25 years ago as the original Little Red Riding Hood in Into The Woods. Sure enough, there was a wolf there to greet her, but instead of encountering Granny, The Baker’s Wife and The Witch, Little Red found herself in a forest inhabited by a young French revolutionary, an elderly Holocaust survivor, a roller-skating duo and a former President of The United States.
The 1987 edition of Town Hall’s Broadway By The Year closed out Scott Siegel’s 12th season of concerts presenting a year-by-year analysis of Broadway’s songs, placing them in both historical and theatrical context. This was a year dominated by two musicals in particular, and naturally they dominated the evening’s program.
Aside from having Ferland on hand to present her more mature performances of ”I Know Things Now” and “No One Is Alone,” Kerry O’Malley brought back memories of her stint as The Baker’s Wife in the 2002 Into The Woods revival with “Moments In The Woods” and Marc Kudisch (who directed the concert) and Jeffrey Denman lent their robust voices and clowning skills to the princely duet, “Agony.”
Les Miserables was the year’s major blockbuster and with the newly formed Broadway By The Year Chorus – made up of recent college and music school graduates under the leadership of Scott Coulter – stirring renditions of full choral pieces like “One Day More” and “Do You Hear The People Sing?” were able to be included. There was superior dramatic solo work provided by O’Malley (“I Dreamed A Dream”), Kudisch (“Stars”), Ron Bohmer (“Bring Him Home”) and Janine DiVita (“On My Own”).
While the songs from Stardust certainly weren’t new in 1987, that revue of the lyrics of Mitchell Parish was, allowing for the inclusion of standards like “Moonlight Serenade” (romantically sung and danced by Denman and DiVita), “Volare” (Kudisch camping a mock seduction with the female ensemble) and the show’s title song, sung with airy tenderness by Coulter. The novelty number, “Syncopated Clock,” better known as the theme to television’s The Late Show, was an amusing instrumental for Ross Patterson’s Little Big Band.
The underappreciated Teddy and Alice, about President Roosevelt’s stormy relationship with his strong-willed daughter, was represented grandly by Bohmer’s “Can I Let Her Go?,” a sentimental ballad whose melody is an soft rendering of John Phillip Sousa’s “Washington Post March.” And though Roza had its troubles on Broadway, O’Mally’s hearty “Happiness Is” demonstrated the score at its best.
Stepping Out was a play about an amateur dance class and Denman, joined by Anna White and Kelley Sheehan, displayed some snazzy tapping in its title song.
At one point during the evening, Siegel referred to O’Malley, Denman and Kudisch as three of the finest entertainers you’ll see on New York’s stages. While Broadway audiences frequently pack theatres to see lesser-skilled celebrities try their hands at starring in Broadway musicals, for 12 years the Broadway By The Year series has been showcasing some of the highest caliber performers you’ll find in the demanding field of musical theatre.
Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy: Top: Danielle Ferland; Bottom: Jeffry Denman and Marc Kudisch.
Does anybody ever really pay attention to the plots of Cirque du Soleil productions? Or the songs? Sure, their collection of world-class jugglers, balancers, acrobats and daredevils always provide eye-popping and gasp-inducing entertainment, but all too often the evening is loaded down with attempts to connect everything with some convoluted story about a search for serenity or world peace or whatever.
Last year’s 2-act extravaganza, Zarkana, has returned to Radio City Music Hall just in time to push the Tony Awards to the Beacon Theatre once more and, thankfully, the storytelling aspect of writer/director Francois Girard’s "surreal acrobatic spectacle” – something about a magician, his lost love and a doggy duo named Hocus and Pocus – has been trimmed down considerably, allowing the show to clock in at a slick and entertaining 90 minutes. Even the bland English lyrics of the songs have been exorcised, replaced with a made-up language called “Cirquish,” which seems to emphasize dramatic vowel sounds.
But nothing upstages the troupe of aerialists, trapeze flyers and high-wire balancers when they let loose. A more meditative feature, and a real showstopper, is artist Erika Chen, who works from a glass table above a video camera so that the audience sees a projection of her swift hands creating ever-evolving portraits and scenes out of blue sand. Her time on stage is serenely captivating. Hand balancer Anatoly Zalevskiy wears a midriff-baring outfit that makes lovers of the male physique swoon and displays body-bending skills that no doubt set a few fantasies in motion.
But the most eye-popping act on display is Carlos Marin and Junior Delgado seriously seeming to risk their lives on the appropriately named Wheel of Death; two circular cages placed on opposite ends of spokes which spin on an axis thirty feet above the ground. The boys are continually in motion as they pop inside and outside the wheels even skipping rope while in perpetual motion. When finished, they take their bows like they’re the most macho guys in town and I, for one, wouldn’t argue the point.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel, Richard Termine: Top: Erika Chen Bottom: Wheel of Death.
Fadwa Faranesh, a bright, engaging Palestinian woman living in Bethlehem, hosts a cooking program from her home kitchen, where she prepares delectable dishes like tabouli and baba ghanoush in the traditional manner the women of her culture have been preparing them for centuries. To her, food is an important connection between the past and the present.
However, the television cameraman she chats with isn’t really there. Neither is the camera or the loyal viewers tuning in every day. No, the central character of Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader’s Food and Fadwa is not delusional. She just needs an occasional escape from the realities of her West Bank life, which includes being delayed at numerous checkpoints wherever she goes, enduring sudden announcements of curfews where no one is allowed to leave their home and caring for her dementia-stricken elderly father.
As warmly and humorously portrayed by Issaq, Fadwa is a single woman who, with her mother deceased, has pushed her own needs aside become the sturdy support system for her extended family. Aside from her father, Baba, played with sincere pathos by Laith Nakli, there’s her sister Dalal (Maha Chehlaoui) excitedly preparing for her wedding to Emir (Arian Moayed).
Fadwa’s long distance boyfriend is Emir’s brother Youssif (Haaz Sleiman), who has been living in New York. He arrives for the wedding with her American cousin, Hayat (Heather Raffo), a successful restaurant owner and cookbook author. Hayat is quite oblivious to the conditions this side of the family lives under (Her complains that she was held at customs for a whopping 15 minutes is met with little sympathy.) and, among other things, Fadwa is particularly irked at Hayat’s practice of creating non-traditional variations of classic recipes.
The wedding ceremony is threatened when a suddenly announced curfew, where everyone is confined to their homes for an indefinite amount of time, has Emir unable to return from a trip to Jerusalem and, after many days, leaves the family running out of food, water and Baba’s medicine.
While the issues of Food and Fadwa might suggest a heavily political piece with angry speeches denouncing the Israeli government, Issaq, Kader and director Shana Gold take a lighter approach that might remind older viewers of the Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s like All In The Family and Good Times. Like those landmark programs, Food and Fadwa indirectly approaches controversial topics by using dark humor to show how the family is accustomed to dealing with oppressive restrictions. A comical highlight has Emir and Youssif smearing dollops of leftovers on the dinner table to create a map explaining the various restricted areas of the city, liberally shaking salt all over to represent the numerous checkpoints. Fadwa’s cooking show begins addressing subjects like food rationing and fasting. There’s even a nutty neighbor; Fadwa’s chain-smoking Aunt Samia (Kathryn Kates), whose lives for watching television episodes of Arab Idol. ("That girl from Kuwait was voted off last week. So sad.”)
With Andromache Chalfant’s large and highly detailed unit set looking not so different from a suburban American home, Food and Fadwa successfully emphasizes the similarities between the on-stage characters and the New York Theatre Workshop audience members; boiling down deeply complicated conflicts to how they affect perfectly nice people just trying to live their lives and preserve their culture. It’s a sweet and tasty evening.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Lameece Issaq; Bottom: Maha Chehlaoui, Arian Moayed, Haaz Sleiman and Heather Raffo.
Thomas Kail’s athletic and inventively theatrical directing chops (In The Heights, Lombardi, Magic/Bird) prove a perfect match for Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Caribbean story-theatre musical Once On This Island. The beguiling new production gracing the Paper Mill stage is full of vibrant performances and colorful stagecraft.
Perhaps a bit overshadowed by large-scale productions like The Will Rogers Follies, Miss Saigon and The Secret Garden when it transferred to Broadway via Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1990 (The 1994 West End production did win the Olivier Award for Best Musical.), Once On This Island is a flavorful charmer suitable for the whole family.
The play within a play structure has an ensemble of villagers from the French Antilles distracting a frightened child (Courtney Harris) from a scary thunderstorm by acting out the story of Ti Moune (Syesha Mercado), an adopted girl from the peasant side of the island where the “black as night” natives live their lives controlled by the whims of the gods of Earth (Aurelia Williams), Water (Darius de Haas), Love (Saycon Sengbloh) and Death (Alan Mingo, Jr.).
Ti Moune’s prayers to find a purpose in life prompt an other-worldly bet to see which is stronger, love or death, and an encounter is arranged between her and the wealthy and handsome Daniel (Adam Jacobs) from the side of the island where lighter-skinned descendants of French planters live. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel tests the social restrictions that forbid a relationship between them and while the outcome of the story is realistic, it is also optimistic.
Mercado’s greatest strength as Ti Moune is a powerful belt that launches the money notes of her character-introducing song, “Waiting For Life.” She’s an appealing performer and Kail surrounds her with a company of well-seasoned musical theatre actors who each claim their moments to shine; particularly Kenita R. Miller and Kevin R. Free, who bring deep feelings and comical warmth to their roles as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents and Williams, completely enthralling in her robust rendition of “Mama Will Provide.”
Donyale Werle's do-it-yourself set pieces inspire a lively “little theatre” atmosphere, with Kenneth Posner's lights and Jessica Jahn's costumes providing the kind of colorful joy expressed through Bradley Rapier's choreography.
The production glides through its ninety minutes on waves of captivating performances, beautiful singing and material that teaches the importance of handing down the traditions and folklore of a community through story-telling. It’s a wonderful night out.
Photos by Jerry Dalia: Top: Darius de Haas, Saycon Sengbloh, Jerold E. Solomon, Kenita R. Miller, AureLia Williams, Alan Mingo Jr., Syesha Mercado and Courtney Reed; Bottom: Courtney Reed, Saycon Sengbloh, Adam Jacobs, Syesha Mercado, Alan Mingo, Jr., and AureLia Williams.
When I first heard the title Potted Potter – The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff, my American mind immediately thought of the slang term we use for inebriated and figured Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson’s two-person, 70-minute presentation would be some kind of irreverent adult spoof of J.K. Rowling's septet of Harry Potter novels. But no, “potted,” to our Brit friends, merely means abridged, and the show, which actually doesn't involve much parody, is really more of a wholesome family entertainment; not that there’s anything wrong with that, as we say on the Upper West Side.
I haven’t read any of the books nor seen any of their film adaptations, but despite the insistence of the show’s promotional material that you need not know the difference between a horcrux and a Hufflepuff to find yourself roaring with laughter, as insurance I invited a Harry Potter enthusiast who was very excited to see the show to be my guest, figuring she could fill me in on any insider references I wouldn’t get and to give me her perspective as a fan. However, her educated reaction seemed to mirror my novice one and the biggest compliment she could muster was that the boys were certainly “energetic.” But we both did notice that the children in the audience seemed to be very much into the show.
The evening begins with Turner, wearing those familiar round specs, sitting in a corner of the stage quietly reading while Clarkson glad-hands his way through the audience. It seems straight man Jeff claims to be the world’s foremost authority on all things Potter and plans an extravagant presentation summarizing the entire literary series, averaging ten minutes per book. However Dan, assigned as the goofy one, has foolishly wasted the budged on some less-than-appropriate set pieces and a costly dragon. The crux of the attempts at humor primarily stem from Turner’s frustration in Clarkson’s ignorance of the source material (“Dumbledore... Is he important?”), rather than deriving humor from the books themselves. Instead of cleverness, there’s a lot of frantic silliness as Clarkson plows his way through a multitude of characters, using makeshift props and costumes, while Turner remains the title wizard, a role that he concludes “is so boring!”
The marquee moment comes when a pair of young volunteers is plucked from the audience to assist in a game of Quidditch, which consists of a large inflatable ball being smacked across the auditorium by audience members while Clarkson complains about how poorly we’re playing. And while I did detect some mild enjoyment being had by my fellow viewers, Potted Potter had me wishing I’d stayed home with seven good books.
Photo of Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson by Carol Rosegg.
“Mensch” is not a word you might immediately think of to describe Frank Sinatra, but the label seems to fit Cary Hoffman quite snugly. And though his solo musical, My Sinatra, has the nice Jewish guy from Long Island singing fifteen Sinatra hits (“One For My Baby,” “”Summer Wind,” “Luck Be A Lady,” “The Lady Is A Tramp”… you know the rest.), it is not a celebrity impersonation show. It’s actually a very warm, enjoyable presentation of his lifelong obsession with the man who many would consider to be definitive male interpreter of American popular music.
Through photo slides and humorous patter, Hoffman tells the story of a boy who lost his father at an early age and was raised by his mom and a trio of professional musician uncles and eventually a step-father. But the biggest male influence in his life was someone he would meet only briefly, as an adult. It was through Sinatra’s voice and the songs he recorded that Hoffman found a role model for being a man. As a boy he copied the crooner’s singing style and discovered his own confidence by emulating his role model.
Joined on stage by music director Alex Nelson at piano (there are also recorded big band arrangements), Hoffman sings with Sinatra’s phrasing and diction but is always his own likeable self on stage; a guy in a tuxedo who found a popular artist he can identify with, who gave him comfort and inspiration throughout his life.
And that’s the universal appeal of My Sinatra. It’s about how celebrities – the ones who really touch us – can be major influences in our lives. So even if your own personal obsession is with someone named Barbra or Judy or Michael, there’s something to relate to in Hoffman’s story.
Photo of Cary Hoffman by Stephen Sorokoff.
One of my favorite aspects of the neo-burlesque movement, which has been around for so long that they may as well drop the “neo,” is the tongue-in-cheek way in which crassness and vulgarity is often portrayed as a commentary on crassness and vulgarity. That seems to be the attitude behind The Naked Truth, the new burlesque game show at The Triad. Or maybe it’s just another gimmick to kick back with while enjoying drinks and watching attractive men and women strip. Either way works for me.
Co-producer Jonny Porkpie, known as the Burlesque Mayor of New York (He actually did run for the city’s highest office once; mostly as a protest against the candidacy of The Naked Cowboy, whose politics, he claimed, was not truly representative of New York’s naked community.), serves as the wise-cracking host. His clever quips are often one-upped by the show’s unseen announcer, Scott Rayow.
The night I attended, the burlesque end of evening included some of the more popular names in Gotham’s burley scene. Jo “Boobs” Weldon, who runs the New York School of Burlesque (where many local performers go to learn their craft), performed a novelty act where her lovely curves were topped by an enormous Godzilla head as she menaced stage kittens Buxom Bunny and Satira Sin while shedding her extra layers. Tigger, a major name in boylesque, performed a wild act as The Traumatized Clown, hesitantly removing the colorful garb covering his well-defined chest while asking the musical question, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”
More traditional strip teases out of evening gowns were elegantly (and a bit bawdily) offered by Tansy and The Maine Attraction. The previously mentioned kittens performed a cute double act where each tried upstaging the other and even Porkpie joined in the flesh exposing with his sardonically macho routine.
But The Naked Truth, as explained by our host, was created to discover, “What’s behind the behinds.” After each of the four guests’ performances, Porkpie wanders into the house to find appropriately enthused and/or drunk audience members to answer a very personal multiple choice question about the people we’ve all just seen twirling their tassels. (How many times a day do they like to have sex?, What is the most unusual place where they’ve had sex?...) Four correct responders get to win valuable sexually oriented prizes by being victorious in competitions like an erotic version of password and a condom-applying race. It’s all very silly and a lot of good-natured fun.
The Naked Truth is co-produced by Gary Beeber, who also brings some of New York’s best burlesque talent to The Triad with Gotham Burlesque; next seen on June 2nd, headlined by Danger Dame Veronica Varlow and featuring two of my favorite burlesque vocalists, Shelly Watson and Broadway Brassy.
Photo of Jo Weldon and Jonny Porkpie by Don Spiro.
Snooty Manhattanites such as I generally have a short list of offerings that would lure us all the way out to Brooklyn. For some it’s a steak at Peter Lugar. For others, it’s the Rodins at the Brooklyn Museum. But the quickest way to get me aboard a Gowanus-bound F train is to say that director/choreographer Austin McCormick has got a new theatre/dance piece for his Company XIV.
Their current “Baroque Burlesque Opera” inspired by the mythical events setting off the Trojan War, Judge Me Paris, samples heavily from the 17th and 18th Century work of John Eccles, John Weldon, Antonio Vivaldi, Marin Marais and William Congreve and is produced in association with Morningside Opera and SIREN Baroque.
After being handed complimentary champagne upon entering, audience members observe the ensemble preparing before the performance, stretching and applying makeup touches at one of the mirrored walls. (We also get to take in the sexy period costumes by Olivera Gajic.) A prelude is played by three strings and a harpsichord followed by Jeff Takacs, as the gregariously comical Zeus, narrating the story of how three goddesses – Juno (Amber Youell), Venus (Brittany Palmer) and Pallas (Brett Umlauf) – each claim a golden apple intended for “the fairest.” Zeus sends the apple to the mortal Paris (Sean Gannon) via his messenger Mercury (Cailan Orn) and the two engage in a sensual dance as he learns he must decide who truly deserves it.
The three goddesses, all possessing dramatic soprano voices, individually sing of their worthiness as their images are projected across the wide and deep playing space with live video cameras. They also lure Paris with troupes of enticing dancers performing in steamy pageantry.
Finally, Venus offers the most beautiful of mortals, Helen, played by the most charismatic and dramatically interesting of Company XIV’s actor/dancers, Laura Careless. Unfortunately, the decision to give Helen a rather short and not very flashy dance moment, especially after giving her such a big buildup, ends the piece with a bit of a letdown.
But until that point, Judge Me Paris is full of opulent splendor, soft eroticism and moments of cheery playfulness. A lush and lovely fantasy.
Photos by Corey Tatarczuk: Top: Jeff Takacs, Sean Gannon and Amber Youell; Bottom: Company.