Sunday, January 29, 2017

Review of "The Comedy of Errors"

The Hartford Stage production of the Bard’s The Comedy of Errors is one lively, madcap, and eye-popping theatrical affair.  There are many non-Shakespearean elements dropped into the play including an homage to Bollywood musicals, some soft shoe routines, and a bubbly beach blanket movie number. 

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and Alexander Sovronsky from "The Comedy of Errors."
Audiences are greeted to this farcical comedy with an intoxicating set design inspired by the cliff-top towns of the Greek island of Santorini.  A small dock, with two anchored boats, completes the picture.  As the show unfolds accordion and bouzouki playing actors accompany actress Paula Leggett Chase in an extended rendition of the song “Never on Sunday,” further setting up the Hellenic tone and mood of the show. After this ten minute prelude the jocularity begins. 

The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s shortest works, revolves around two sets of twins separated at birth and, unbeknownst to each pair, find themselves in the same city on the same day sparking mistaken identities and bedevilment for the citizens of the city of Ephesus.

The large cast is game for the intoxicating pace of the play as they scamper about the stage, romp through open portals, and engage in boisterous and slapstick shenanigans. 

Darko Tresnjak directs with a controlled frenzy.  He has added unique elements that, along with his creative team, make the production a visual feast.  There is so much going on that even the casual Shakespeare fan will be entertained.  The frantic pacing can sometimes get in the way of the dialogue, but the thespians do splendidly getting about their job in between all the wild diversions.
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka in "The Comedy of Errors."
Choreographer Peggy Hickey might be having the most fun as she incorporates many styles of dance, both for just a few cast members as well as the entire company.  The Bollywood inspired number is especially spirited and energizing.

Some of the real stars of The Comedy of Errors are the creative crew.  Foremost is Darko Tresnjak, whose set design is a wonder and feast for the eyes.  The numerous costumes crafted by Fabio Toblini are playful with many being brightly colored confections.  Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Jane Shaw’s sound construction magnify and enhance the onstage antics.

The Comedy of Errors, a zany and diverting production, playing through February 12th at Hartford Stage.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

BroadwayCon 2017 - A Reflection

Last year I heard about the creation of BroadwayCon—based on the hugely successful ComicCon in San Diego, which highlights comics, science fiction and where movie studios and Hollywood and television stars come out in force to promote their upcoming events.  Even though the first BroadwayCon coincided with one of New York City’s largest snowstorms of the season, the proceedings were successful enough to produce a 2017 version with the hope of making it a yearly pilgrimage for theater aficionados and fans. 

This year, now ensconced at the immense Jacob Javits Convention Center on the far West Side of Manhattan, through Sunday, January 29, 2017, BroadwayCon is bigger and better.  Press representative Tori Bryan said they were expecting up to 5,000 people a day.  So, what exactly happens at BroadwayCon? 

BroadwayCon is a mash-up of lectures, panel presentations, Q and A sessions with Broadway actors and actresses, performances, sing-along’s, nighttime concerts, dance parties, and a marketplace with dozens of vendors and companies selling and promoting their wares.  There are even autograph sessions with such theater luminaries as Donna Murphy, Joel Grey, and Chita Rivera.  In short, BroadwayCon is a three-day smorgasbord of activities that would satiate any theater enthusiast.  In short, according to its organizers, “it is a chance to get the complete Broadway fan experience, from every angle…and to celebrate the shows they love with people who bring them to life.”

As a self-proclaimed theater geek, I arrived early Friday morning to immerse myself with the enthusiasts, some dressed as characters from such current Broadway hits as Elphaba from Wicked and the women from Waitress.  I was more interested in attending the historical and creative panel presentations then the other fan-based activities.  In the morning a diverse group of stage managers talked abut their craft.  The individuals--Matthew Aaron Stern, Marybeth Abel, Narda Alcorn, Matt DiCarlo, and Christ Ney--delivered a highly informative presentation on their behind-the-scene work.  It gave the packed audience insight into the role of stage manager and gave everyone a better appreciation for what it means to put on a show.

"In Trousers" reunion panel with Jennifer Ashley Tepper (moderator), Ira Weitzman, Alison Fraser, Mary Testa, Chip Zien and William Finn, partially viewed.

In the afternoon, members of the cast of William Finn’s ground-breaking, 1979 musical, In Trousers, reunited to present a highly informative, enjoyable and very amusing 60 minutes of stories behind the making of the show.  Mary Testa, Alison Fraser, and Chip Zien were hugely entertaining with composer and librettist William Finn proving to be an extremely engaging raconteur.  I wish there would have been more panels like this, which fused musical theater past and present.
The 1980 revival of "Damn Yankees," starring Joe Namath, Susan Elizabeth Scott and Eddie Bracken.

The Market Place is the centerpiece of BroadwayCon.   Placed squarely in the middle of the action, there are multitudes of booths selling Broadway-related paraphernalia and crafts, services for people in the field, podcasters, arts organizations, and more.  I was swept away with happy memories when I visited the Al Hirschfeld Foundation both.  During my formative years in the late 1960’s and 1970’s I always looked forward to the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times where splashed on the front page was a beautifully drawn Hirschfeld rendering from a new Broadway show or a Broadway personality.  The joy was trying to find the number of “Ninas” hidden within the ink and pen drawing (Nina was the name of his daughter).  You always knew how many to search for by the number at the end of Hirschfeld's signature alongside the picture. 

There were other vendors I thought stood out and tickled my fancy.  A number of them are presented below in photos.

All hand-sewn historical outfits by Alyson (in photo).
More of the outfits on display at the BroadwayCon Market Place.
Whimsical designs by Rediscoverhandbags utilizing LPs and Playbill covers to create handbags, purses and more.
I was very impressed with the craftsmanship of Jane Elisa's creations on canvass--bags, jackets, hats, and more.
Artist Ray Krampf, the self-professed ArtWhore, with some of his creations.
Bawdy drawings with accompanying off-color text.

BroadwayCon 2017, an all-encompassing fanfest for Broadway enthusiasts, through January 29, 2017 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review of "Sunset Baby"

The exploration of relationships, ever-changing and pulsating, is the focus of the taut, sometimes explosive drama, Sunset Baby, playing at Theaterworks through February 19th.

Playwright Dominique Morisseau introduces three characters.  Nina (Brittany Bellizeare) is a low level street hustler who, along with her male companion/lover and handler, Damon (Carlton Byrd), plies the streets of New York eking out a tenuous existence.  They come across as two soulless individuals, existing day-to-day.  That suddenly changes when Nina’s father Tony (Todd Kenyatta), a former Black Panther type activist, suddenly enters her life after many, many years fighting for social equality and other causes and also serving time in jail.  He wants to locate letters his wife, Nina’s mother, left to her daughter after her death.  They are worth, potentially, many of thousands of dollars because of her prominence in the movement.  That sparks conflict between the young woman and Damon as well as dredges up years of pent-up emotions and rage towards her father before an unexpected resolution involving the threesome is revealed.
Todd Kenyatta and Brittany Bellizeare in "Susnet Baby" at Theaterworks (Photo by Lanny Nagler)  

Ms. Morrisseau’s drama presents a slice of realism.  The dialogue is strong and feels authentic.  However, the back-story of each character is sketchy and perplexingly incomplete, which gives the audience pause as to each character’s true motivations.  The real focus of the show, even after the introduction of Nina’s long missing parent, takes time to coalesce.  Themes of family and commitment swirl around the production, but they are uneasily pushed aside towards the end as the trajectory of the play suddenly changes to Nina’s resurrection as a determined, purposeful and independent woman.  

The cast is compelling and show total commitment to their characters. Todd Kenyatta gives Tony a thoughtful and weighty demeanor.  He is reflective, yet determined.  The actor’s hardened gaze and discourse elevate a purposeful demeanor.  Brittany Bellizeare presents Nina as an emotionally battered woman with numerous unresolved issues and aspirations.  She is strong and feisty, not necessarily comfortable in her own skin.  The numerous costume changes she manages throughout the play could act as a metaphor for her desire to constantly try to reinvent herself.  While the actress demonstrates steely grit, a degree of tenderness or vulnerability would have strengthened and humanized her portrayal.
Carlton Byrd imbues Damon with both rage and lovingness.  Street savvy and book smart, he exudes an arrogant self-pride that, in the end, makes him irrelevant and disposable.

Carlton Byrd and Brittany Bellizeare in "Sunset Baby" at Theaterworks (Photo by Lanny Nagler)

Director Reginald L. Douglas brings an edginess to the production.  At times the atmosphere can be tense and confrontational.  The fervor is amplified by shouting and accusations, which works for most of the scenes, but is occasionally relied on too heavily.  Crafting a three-person drama on a small, one set stage can be challenging but, for the most part, Mr. Douglas deftly manages the task.  His insertion of Tony’s plaintive, dimly lit soliloquies, at key junctures of the show, is, at first, baffling and inscrutable until the show’s conclusion.  It is only then we realize the purpose and poignancy of the solemn, matter-of-factly delivered verse.

Sunset Baby, a fitful, but satisfying drama through February 19th.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Review of [title of show]

The following is based on a previous review of the show.

[title of show], the affable and at times amusing musical now playing at Playhouse-on-Park in West Hartford, gives hope to the multitudes of individuals that dream of creating a show for The Great White Way. Hunter Bell, who wrote the show’s book; and Jeff Bowen, the score; were two out of work actors when the genesis of their quirky, decidedly downtown flavored show, came together. Simply, with three weeks until the submission deadline for the 2004 New York Musical Theater Festival, the two men concocted a musical based on two struggling actors named, surprisingly, Jeff and Hunter, who have only three weeks to write a musical for an upcoming festival. The rest is, as they say, theatrical history:
1.    Their entry was accepted.
2.    After playing their six performances at the New York Musical Theater Festival, an Off-Broadway producer optioned the production for an open run at the Vineyard Theater.
3.    A cast album was recorded and released on Ghostlight Record.
4.    After the Off-Broadway stint, the two collaborators produced a series of Internet videos for YouTube to keep interest in their off-spring alive.
5.    The videos reignited interest from producers.
6.    The newly tweaked [title of show] opened on Broadway.
Peej Mele as Hunter, Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Ashley Brooke as Susan, Amanda Forker as Heidi, Austin Cook as Larry.  Photo Credit: Meredith Atkinson
So, what exactly is [title of show]? Well, it is not a large scale musical with a huge cast, lavish sets, over produced production numbers, or a fully stocked pit band. [title of show] consists of four, casually dressed people—Hunter (Peej Mele) and Jeff (Miles Jacoby), and their two female friends—Susan (Ashley Brooke) and Heidi (Amanda Forker)--who work on bringing the musical to life in Hunter’s slightly drab apartment. With only four chairs on stage, along with musical director, Larry (Austin Cook), sitting behind his keyboard—the sole musical accompaniment, [title of show] concentrates on the actor’s angst and insecurities and, finally, their exuberance as they conceive and mold their show.

The 100 minute, intermission-less production, caters to a more knowing theater going crowd. Obscure musical theater and cultural references populate the show.  One of the more creative numbers is the song “Monkeys and Playbills,” which showcases memorable, and not so memorable, Broadway flops within its lyrics.  They include such duds as “Dude,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Smile” and many others.  The January 22, 2017 broadcast of my radio program, “On Broadway,” features many of these songs.
Miles Jacoby as Jeff, Amanda Forker as Heidi.  Photo Credit: Meredith Atkinson
The four actors are good-natured and bring an impetuous flair to their performances, but they don’t necessarily gel as a group.   Individually, Peej Mele is a tad over-the-top as Hunter.  There could have been less histrionics on his part.  Miles Jacoby, as Jeff, is the ying to his partner’s yang, but more energy on his part would have enlivened the duo’s partnership.  Ashley Brooke, as Susan, is game for the work-in-progress nature of the musical, but could have upped her avidity to the role.  Amanda Forker gives Heidi a knowing and affecting, world-weariness to show biz life.  The actress also has a dynamic singing voice.  Austin Cook, as Larry the musical director, almost steals the show with his deadpan delivery of dialogue snippets and very impressive keyboard prowess.

The score by Jeff Bowen can be witty and knowing, without being overly challenging to the ears.  The direction by David Edwards is breezy and light.  There is a lot of silliness, schtick, and somewhat choreographed routines to keep the four thespians occupied.  The show has a somewhat slapdash quality to it, which stays in line with the nature of the musical’s creation.  The production, though, would have been helped with a greater dollop of energy and fine-tuning of the characterizations.

[title of show], a cheerful and diverting musical that provides proof in the power of positive thinking as well as being a tonic for musical theater aficionados.  Playing through January 29th.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of "Dear Evan Hansen"

The show Dear Evan Hansen is an electrifying, captivating new musical with an emotionally powerful and praiseworthy performance by Ben Platt in the lead role.

Evan Hansen is an extremely anxious high school student, on medication and seeing a therapist for his sometimes debilitating condition.  He has no friends and, for all intents and purposes, is invisible to his peers.  He is alone, until a classmate commits suicide. Through an escalating series of lies, fueled by unceasing and insatiable social media networks, his stature and presence begin to change with unanticipated and distressing results.

Ben Platt from "Dear Evan Hansen."

The book by Steven Levenson is an emotional rollercoaster of impassioned scenes and straightforward honesty that connects to today’s teenagers.  The story can sometimes be agonizing to watch as the characters try to negotiate the new landscape that is developing, changing, and spiraling out of control all at once.  But Dear Evan Hansen is not just about angst and crisis.  It also focuses on the a multitude of relationships that are spawned and changed from the events on stage. 
The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is heartfelt with penetrating lyrics that explore the inner turmoil Evan is going through as he confronts a new reality.  The songs can be raucous with an in-your-face impact.  They are playful, with a serious undertone.  And there are tender ballads that reach to the depths of the character’s souls as well as reveal the agony individuals feel upon the death of a son.
The cast of "Dear Evan Hansen."
The cast, led by Ben Platt, is impressive, imbuing their characters with an intensity and delicacy that can be poignant as well as somber.  Platt is the anchor.  He is almost always on stage and singing the majority of the score.  From his first entrance on stage, with nervous tics and darting eyes, you realize this is a young man that has fully taken his acting prowess to a heightened level.  He is believable and authentic.  The other members of the acting troupe include Laura Dreyfus as the sister of the deceased student, Zoe Murphy, and the one who Evan pines for.  The young actress deftly projects a lost innocence and whirlwind of emotions as she tries to make sense of the sudden change in her family dynamics and personal life.  Rachel Bay Jones, as Evan’s mother Heidi, aptly portrays a mother frustrated and panicked over a son she cannot reach.  Jennifer Laura Thompson is superb as Cynthia Murphy, mother of the departed son.  Her grief and confusion strikes a chord with the audience.  Your body quivers with compassionate understanding as she pleas for any scrap of information about her enigmatic boy.  Michael Park as the father, Larry Murphy, gives a finely etched portrait of a man aloof, at first, over the death of his son, who gradually begins to wrestle with his feelings, as he tries to come to grips with the sudden shake-up in his life.  Mike Faist as Connor Murphy, the high school student who suddenly dies, gives a nicely layered performance in life and death. Will Roland as Evan’s “relationship friend,” Jared Kleinman, provides a good dose of comic relief to off-set the weighty mood of the show.  Kristolyn Lloyd as high school classmate, Alana Beck, gives an understated and compelling performance.  She is not unlike Evan Hansen in her anxiety and timidity.
Laura Dreyfus and Ben Platt from "Dear Evan Hansen."
Director Michael Greif, who has sensitively helmed other musicals with dysfunctional characters such as Next to Normal and Grey Gardens, skillfully guides the production from its inauspicious beginnings through to its cathartic ending.  He smartly keeps Ben Platt center stage—aching and trying to find his pathway through the storm he has unleashed--with the other characters swirling around his nexus.  Greif artfully incorporates the social media maelstrom through pulsating, ever-changing screens.  He also intelligently allows the material to unfold naturally without calling undue attention to the series of events that are unfurling onstage.

The creative team of scenic designer David Korins, Projection Designer Peter Nigrini, Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman and Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg show their expertise and presentation skills during scenes where the stage of the Music Box theater is transformed into a hive of activity with screens projecting social media buzz, lights and sound amplifying the dramatic tension. 
Ben Platt in "Dear Evan Hansen."
Dear Evan Hansen, a gripping, dazzling new musical that speaks openly and directly to the culture of today.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review of "A Bronx Tale"

The new musical A Bronx Tale has gone through many iterations—one person show, major motion picture and now big, splashy Broadway musical.  The show is based on the recollections of actor Chazz Palminteri during his formative years growing up in a tightly knit Italian neighborhood in the Bronx.  The musical is a traditionally structured production, as opposed to such other new, more innovative works as Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812.  Nonetheless, A Bronx Tale is, an entertaining and satisfying piece of musical theater.
Bobby Conte Thornton (center) and Nick Cordero (right) and members of the cast from "A Bronx Tale."
The story follows the trajectory of Palminteri from little tyke through his teenage years during the late 1950’s to late 1960’s.  Known as Calogero, his life forever changes when he witnesses a daytime murder by the neighborhood wiseguy, Sonny, but doesn’t rat him out to the police.  To show his gratitude Sonny takes him under his wings, to the displeasure of his mother and, especially, his father who sees the local ruffian as a malignant influence.  However, the boy is transfixed by the hooligan’s lifestyle and respect he receives from people on the street.  As Calogero gets older and becomes more intertwined with the hoodlums the question becomes will the seductiveness these mobsters radiate be too great to resist?  Will he succumb to the appeal of the street or break free to pursue a better, healthier way of life?

As a playwright, Palminteri has crafted a memoir that is funny as well as poignant and introspective.  Having the teenage protagonist consistently step out of character to act as the narrator of the show helps frame the action and provide necessary exposition for the audience.  It’s not just a coming of age story about an impressionable young man and the trials and tribulations he faces growing up in an insulated section of New York City.  It is also a tale of choices and the clash of values and ethics he faces between the hard-working beliefs and ethics of his parents and those of his “adopted” family.
Nick Cordero and Hudson Loverro from "A Bronx Tale."
The music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater combine traditionally structured Broadway songs with doo wop numbers reminiscent of the times as well as rhythm and blues tinged vocals.  The score can by brash, high-spirited, and wistful. 

The cast is led by Nick Cordero as the wiseguy Sonny.  He’s charismatic, menacing and no-nonsense.  He gives the character a magnetic allure even though we are chilled by his demeanor and actions.  Bobby Conte Thornton, making his Broadway debut as the teenage Calogero, imbues the wide-eyed youth with internal conflicts and struggling allegiances.  He admirably grows as a character from a naïve, uncorrupted individual to a more mature person questioning his life, choices and direction.  
Hudson Loverro, as the younger Calogero, brings a spunky enthusiasm and professionalisms to his role.  Richard H. Blake, as their father, conveys an earnestness and principled firmness to his character.  Ariana DeBose as the teenage boy’s love interest, Jane, has an engaging presence, an independent-minded persona, and an attitude to take on and overcome all obstacles. 
Members of the ensemble from "A Bronx Tale."
Sergio Trujillo’s choreographer can be exuberant, as with the opening number, “Belmont Avenue.”   The production numbers move to the rhythms and sounds of the day.  As with his previous work in Jersey Boys, Memphis, and On Your Feet! they can be sexy, sultry, and full of energy as the dance routines  evolve naturally from the action on stage.

Directors Robert de Niro and Jerry Zaks know their way around the material—de Niro was the director of the acclaimed film version and both helmed the out-of-town tryout in Spring 2016 at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse.  They bring a knowing language and histrionics to the characters.  The duo spend the first act slowly developing and massaging the overall arc of the musical with a street smart sensibility. This gives them the opportunity to ramp up the storyline with a rush of material and commotion, culminating in a conclusion that neatly ties up the dramatic machinations of the show. 

A Bronx Tale, a welcoming addition to this season’s line-up of new musicals.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of "The Band's Visit"

In the sweetly lyrical, captivating new musical, The Band’s Visit, the Egyptian musicians of the Alexandra Ceremonial Police Orchestra invited by the Arabic Cultural Center of one Israeli town end up, through a miscommunication, in the wrong locale in the middle of the Israeli desert.  With no bus service until the following day, the group ends up stranded in the sleepy town with little money and options.  Thus begins the 24-hour odyssey of the Arab entertainers as they become warmly and enchantingly intertwined with the lives of some of the residents. 

The show, based on the 2007 film of the same name, focuses on three ongoing vignettes between some members of the band and the Israeli citizens.  They are poignantly portrayed, sometimes amusingly and at other moments with deep wistfulness.  What comes forth is how much alike people are, no matter what their background and beliefs.

As he has demonstrated throughout his theatrical career, composer David Yazbeck’s score is inventive and full of surprises.  There is no full-throttled production number like “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or “Jeanette's Showbiz Number” from The Full Monty or “Tangled” from Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  The songs form a gratifying whole that come across as more heartfelt and revealing with influences of Arabic and Klezmer music from beginning to end.

The cast is led by Tony Shaloub as Tewfiq who, at first, appears as a gruff, autocratic leader of the police orchestra.   As the play progresses and the actor begin interacting with the residents, especially the beautiful and alluring Dina, he subtly begins to change, becoming more wistful and reminiscent under the desert moon.  While not endowed with the most dynamic vocal chords he, nonetheless, suitably conveys his plaintive yearnings and passionate longings.  Katrina Lenk has a lovely and seductive voice.  She plays the shop owner, Dina, who is a tough, no-nonsense Israeli.  As with Tewiq, she initially comes across as dispassionate and tough.  But as the magic of the day progresses the actress becomes more absorbing and reflective, delivering a nuanced, fuller portrayal of a woman stuck in time with little options open to her.  John Cariani is a little too over-the-top as the husband Itzik, whose man-child antics cause a seemingly irreconcilable riff in his marriage.  Ari’el Stachel comes across, initially, as a lumbering, boorish Casanova as the trumpeter Haled.  Yet, as with the other characters in the play, the actor deftly sidesteps our introductory thoughts and develops into a more ingratiating and charming person. 

Director David Cromer plays up, at first, the drama caused by the sudden confluence of the two disparate groups.  But as the wariness quickly dissipates he brings into focus the relationships that slowly develop among the denizens of the small town and the traveling troubadours.  It’s the stories that draw the audience into the rhythms and flow of the action on stage.  This is an intimate piece of theater and Mr. Cromer, smartly, does not incorporate any unnecessary embellishments.

Scott Pask’s scenic design of an austere, unadorned, rotating structure in the center of the stage reminds us of both the plainness and stark nature of the resident’s lives and that life is a circle that continually revolves.  Sometimes we have the option of getting off, but other times the choice may just be fleeting.

The Band’s Visit, one of the more heartening and enjoyable new musicals this season.