Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of "Significant Other"

Four very close college friends, still together in their late 20’s, gather to celebrate at a New York City club the engagement of one of their own.  Kiki, somewhat untamed and sloshingly drunk, is having the time of her life with her best pals.   She is the first among the four to tie the knot in playwright Joshua Harmon’s funny, touching, and bittersweet meditation on the true meaning of friendship as millennials age and take the next step in their lives.  The bond between the diverse group could only be forged during the collegiate years.  They are Vanessa, now a book editor, who nonchalantly fixates on death; Laura a school teacher; and Jordan, a gay man working in an advertising agency with Kiki.  Slowly, each of his female buddies becomes involved with the man of her dreams.  Each time an engagement is announced and a wedding celebrated Jordan feels more removed and alone.  His forays into dating and relationships go nowhere and his only solace are conversations with his elderly grandmother.  In the end, Jordan is literally by himself on stage as he, and we, ponder his future.
Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sas Goldberg and Lindsay Mendez.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Joshua Harmon has crafted a play full of honesty, comic, and heart wrenching moments.  There is a genuine quality to the storyline and the individuals portrayed.  Harmon has developed characters you may know or experiences your college graduated children may be facing.  You quickly become drawn into the ups and downs of their lives.  I don’t remember a time in the theater where, at two critical moments, the audience both collectively sighed and gasped.   We care about the ramifications unfolding before us.
Gideon Glick.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
The ensemble cast is led by the superb performance of Gideon Glick as Jordan Berman.  He is the focus of our attention during the show as he works through the emotions of losing, one-by-one, his dearest friends.  The actor is lively, spontaneous, and vulnerable.   Lindsay Mendez’s Laura is the soulmate of Jordan.  The two are peas in a pod, sharing moments and experiences.  She instills a realism and sincerity into her character, showing compassion and empathy for Jordan’s travails.  Rebecca Naomi Jones as Vanessa and Sas Goldberg as Kiki are spunky, somewhat over-the-top as they add some spice to the more melancholy moments in the production. Both John Behlmann and Luke Smith, playing multiple roles, give their characters an appealing and agreeable assortment of distinctive looks.  The theater veteran Barbara Barrie’s portrayal of Helene is understated and provides balance to the more destabilized and shifting lifestyles of the other cast members.
Luke Smith, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gideon Glick, Sas Goldberg and John Behlmann.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Director Trip Cullum brings a fresh and very real perspective to the production.  He has created an atmosphere where the performers come across as authentic in their feelings and actions.  He does a superb job with movement on the small Booth Theater stage.  He skillfully maneuvers the actors within scenes that morph into different segments of the story, all the time keeping the narrative flow unimpeded.  His intermittent use of players within the shadows adds a voyeuristic and humorous touch to the show.  He also imbues the actors with quirkiness and exuberance, primarily in the club and celebratory scenes.

Scenic Designer Mark Wendland has presented a multi-leveled set that, with minimal changes, and subtle lighting effects by Designer Japhy Weideman, effectively combines the claustrophobic nature of New York City living—at work, home and play.

Significant Other, amusing and heartbreaking as it explores relationships and friendships.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of "Sunset Boulevard"

There are two reasons to see the revival of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway.  First, is the luminous performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, recreating her Tony Award winning role from 23 years ago.  Close, older now, but lacking none of her vitality, totally embodies the character of the aged, fading silent movie star.  This is one of those defining theatrical performances that should not be missed.

The second reason is the 20 plus member orchestra, women in black gowns, men in tuxedos, seated on stage, an unheard of number of musicians in today’s Broadway.  The lush, full sound envelopes The Palace Theatre unlike any other show on Broadway.  While the score is not top tier Andrew Lloyd Webber there are a number of defining songs – “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – that receive a captivating and heavenly sound.

Sunset Boulevard, based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, “revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.” (  Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton stick closely to the movie plot, making sure to provide Ms. Close with enough star turns, which is fine since the show sags somewhat when she is not on stage..

For this limited run Scenic Designer James Noone has created a starker production design then during the original run, with a series of stairways and interconnecting catwalks filling up the stage.  This forces us to focus on the actors as opposed to the opulence and decay within Norma Desmond’s world.  Costume Designer Tracy Christensen has pulled out all the stops with her extravagant, sometimes garish outfits for the character.  All are showstoppers.

The main supporting cast members are mostly effective in their roles without outshining for one moment the star of the show.  Michael Xavier gives screenwriter Joe Gillis the requisite down-on-his-luck, sarcastic edge, but he comes across as too much of a cad, no matter what the circumstance or situation.  Siobhan Dillion’s portrayal of Besty Schaeffer finely toes the line of hard-driving career girl with spunk and a heaping dash of insecurity.  Fred Johanson as Nora Desmond’s manservant and one-time director, Max Von Mayerling, needs to provide more variation to his characterization.  He comes across a bit wooden and one-dimensional.

The score, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, has a sumptuousness and grandeur quality made more impressive with the overly large on-stage orchestra.  As stated earlier, the musical has a number of signature songs delivered in a stirring and sophisticated fashion by Ms. Close.  Overall, though, the score is not one of the composing team’s strongest efforts.

Director Lonny Price smartly keeps Glenn Close center stage as much as possible.  When she is not the focus the production slips, waiting for her poise, worldliness, and energy to take hold.  All of this comes together in the dazzling Act II scene at the Paramount Studio backlot and the actress’s rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”  Her brilliance does overshadow the secondary characters in the musical and the show would have benefitted more fully if Price was able to give each of them an added dimension.    His inclusion of the on-stage orchestra adds a unique and satisfying element to the production.  The car chase through the LA canyon is an inspired piece of stagecraft.

Sunset Boulevard, catch it for Glenn Close’s thrilling, once in a lifetime performance.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review of "Wakey, Wakey"

A man lies helpless, sprawled on the floor of an unadorned space.  Blackout.  The next moment the man is sitting in a wheelchair talking to us, the audience, about his impending death.  He is engaging, at times humorous, as well as reflective and distressed.  So, begins playwright and director Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, a meditation on one person’s eventual demise.  Michael Emerson, who embodies Guy, gives a powerful, multi-layered performance during this 75-minute production.  There is joy, sorrow, and warmth in what is, basically, a 60 minute monologue, interrupted only towards the end of the show by the introduction of Lisa (January LaVoy), a home health attendant.  Guy wants to entertain, tell some jokes, and live what is left of his life to the fullest while waiting for the inevitable to occur.  Ms. LaVoy is compassionate and understanding in her brief role as the aide to help Guy right up to the end. 
January LaVoy and Michael Emerson in Wakey, Wakey.
The script is ruminative and introspective and can become somewhat wearing with its philosophical ramblings and usage of playful projections.   Michael Emerson extracts all there is from the play but, in the end, there is not enough substantive dialogue and technique to carry the show to a fulfilling conclusion.  Will Eno, as director, lets loose a barrage of visuals to compensate, but they cannot make-up for the lack of a dramatic arc.

As the production concludes and Guy is wheeled off-stage a torrent of light (by Sound Designer David Lander), sound (Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg), and effects (Projection Designer Peter Negrini)  are unleashed, giving the audience a crescendo of death as envisioned by the now deceased character.  This focus on death’s finality is continued in the lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center.  There, as theatergoers disperse, they will find an array of food and drink, simulating a Shiva call for a dearly departed friend or family member.

Wakey, Wakey, a thoughtful, sometimes compelling, but not fully satisfactory piece of theater.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of "Napoli, Brooklyn"

The Muscolino household is awash in domestic drama, economic difficulties, and cultural acclimation.  In playwright Meghan Kennedy’s down-to-earth, languid world premiere, Napoli, Brooklyn, at Long Wharf through March 12th, nothing is matter-of-fact for this Italian-Catholic family.  Husband Nic (Jason Kolotouros) and wife Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) were part of the wave of immigrants coming to American shores before World War II.  In the play, which takes place in the early 1960’s, they along with their three children Vita (Carolyn Braver), Tina (Christina Pumariega), and Francesca (Jordan DiNatale) struggle to navigate the changing times of that period.  As their lives, along with those of their friends and acquaintances, ebb and flow a cataclysmic event—the December 16, 1960 plane crash in Park Slope Brooklyn—changes individual and family destinies forever.
From left, Christina Pumariega, Alyssa Bresnahan, Jordyn DiNatale and Jason Kolotouros.

Author Kennedy’s semi-autobiographic play crafts, what seems like a life-altering story for each character.  The overall effect, while keeping our interest, comes across as slightly manufactured and illusory.  Can one family’s members really be dealing with so much all at once—marital turmoil, sexual awakening, a budding African-American friendship at work, and even a sister’s banishment to a convent—at one time?  The arc of the play purports to revolve around the immigrant experience and how the changing mores of the 1960’s affects the Muscolino clan.  Yet except for a shoe-horned religious element the assimilation and accompanying struggles of the first generation American off-spring and their old world parents doesn’t resonate strongly.

The cast does an admirable job conveying the emotions and feelings associated with their particular narrative.  For example, Tina’s budding relationship with Celia (Shrine Babb), an African-American colleague at work, rings true.  However, the characters can come across as lacking subtlety and depth.  The individual stories associated with each character are not fully integrated into the whole of the play.  Only Alyssa Bresnahan as Luda, who is the heart and soul of the family, manages to successfully insert herself into each vignette of the production.  She is loving and protective as she attempts to understand and cope with the new reality spreading around her.  Jason Kolotouros as Nic, is crass, authoritative, and threatening, yet manages a brief, sympathetic nod after undergoing a transformative experience, before reverting back to his intimidating and unnerved self.
From left, Christina Pumariega, Jordyn DiNatale and Carolyn Braver.

Carolyn Braver comes across, initially, as flippant in her portrayal of the eldest daughter Vita.  But once temporarily away from the semi-imprisonment of her cloistered life she reveals a more hardened edge.  Christina Pumariega’s Tina is unsophisticated, but lacks shading in her role.  Jordan DiNatale’s Francesca and Ryann Shane as Connie, the younger daughter’s best friend, are playful and immature, but come across as juvenile 13 year olds as opposed to the 17 year olds stated in the script.  Graham Winton as Albert Duffy, the neighborhood butcher and admirer of Luda, is amiable, yet prosaic.  Shrine Babb, in her short time on stage, gives the character of Celia Jones a more fully nuanced rendering.

Director Gordon Edelstein lets the story slowly develop as the characters and their stories slowly unfold.  Scenes can be touching and brutally honest, but the overall feel is too episodic.  There is a lack of depth to the actor’s portrayal of their roles, which deprives the characters of generating any sustained passion or poignancy.  Act If’s climax of a holiday meal meltdown comes across as somewhat forced and artificial due, however, more to the way scene is written by the author.  However, Edelstein’s handling of the Act I finale is flashy, explosive, and gripping. 
From left, Shirine Babb and Christina Pumariega.

Special kudos need to go to set designer Eugene Lee, Light Designer Ben Stanton, and Sound Designer Fitz Patton for the audience rousing plane crash sequence—a jolting cacophony of theatrical wizardry.

Napoli, Brooklyn, an unrealized slice of the immigrant experience, playing at the Long Wharf Theater until March 12th.

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.