Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Review of "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Skeptics can relax.  Playwright Aaron Sorkin has successfully transformed the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, into a first-rate theatrical production.  The play, featuring a superb performance by Jeff Daniels as small-time lawyer, Atticus Finch, is captivating and emotionally riveting.

Like the source material, the focus of the show is on the trial of Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe), a Black worker who is on trial for raping a local girl.  In Macomb County Georgia in the 1930’s that would be a sure death warrant, but Atticus Finch sets his sights on freeing what he sees as an innocent man.  Other characters swirl around the story, both amplifying the action and providing crucial backstory information—the lawyer’s two young children, Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen); their friend Dill (Gideon Glick); the family’s Black house keeper Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson); the father of the accused Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller); and others.

Harper Lee’s novel is rich in its exploration of injustice, racism, loyalty, socio-economic status, the social class system, honor, and morality.  The themes and scenarios have been fodder for middle school, high school, and college undergraduates for decades.  Sorkin, who at one point was sued by the Harper Lee estate for his conceptualization and structure of the play, has reconfigured the book where the trial takes center stage and other plot points emanate, like spokes of a wheel, from this core.  They serve to broaden and provide valuable nuance to the production.  Some of the tangents work better than others, which is expected when attempting to fully spotlight and sufficiently amplify critical moments from the book.

Sorkin has purposed the three performers playing the pre-teen and teenage kids as narrators of the events.  In the book, Scout serves as our guide through the novel’s happenings, but dividing the duties provides variety and subtlety to the action.  During much of the production they also serve, sentinel-like, just off center stage, silently witnessing the proceedings.

One of the playwright’s other significant changes was investing the character of Calpurnia with a more outspoken disposition than would be applicable to the time frame of the novel. Does this updating to 21st century attitudes detract or hinder the overall thrust of the production?  Only somewhat, but it also allows an adult counterpoint for Atticus.

The large cast is led by Jeff Daniels.  The actor totally embodies the role of Atticus Finch.  Fans of the book or movie version, which garnered an Academy Award for Gregory Peck’s portrayal of the lawyer, will not be disappointed.  Daniels is caring and compassionate, yet firm.  He exhibits an inner strength that commands respect and deference.  Celia Keenan-Bolger is impressive as Scout.  She displays the spunkiness, earnestness, and vulnerability of the character.  Will Pullen admirably positions Jem between the world of a teenage boy and young man and all its accompanying pains and questions.  Gideon Glick infuses Dill with both a boisterous outgoingness and saddened affectation.  LaTanya Richardson Jackson portrays Calpurnia with a fine-tuned balance of grace and outspokenness.  Gbenga Akinnagbe imbues Tom Robinson with a quiet dignity and a highly principled disposition even as his fate is in jeopardy.  The character of Bob Ewell is a drunken lout and vile individual and the actor Frederick Weller completely personifies all these malevolent traits.  Erin Wilhelmi gives Mayella Ewell a realistic sorrowfulness layered with an inner, fiery strength.

Scenic Designer Miriam Buether has crafted two primary set pieces—the Finch front porch and the courtroom--that seamlessly flow in and off the stage with silent efficiency.  He also focuses on understated details, such as the dirtied green, peeling paint of the back walls of the courtroom.

Director Bartlett Sher, who has successfully helmed large-scale productions at Lincoln Center, orchestrates the sizable cast and creative components into a well-synchronized team.   The pacing is strong, never dragging.  However, moments of reflection and turmoil are allowed to be teased out for maximum effectiveness.
To Kill a Mockingbird, an entertaining and thought-provoking theatrical experience not to be missed.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Review of "Good Faith"

Dramatizing a real-life event, steeped in politics, can be a daunting task.  An example of a play that succeeded was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, which centered on President Lyndon Johnson’s battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The 2014 production was powerful, well focused and included a gripping performance by Bryan Cranston as LBJ.

In contrast, the Yale Rep’s world premiere of Good Faith – Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department, while well intentioned and firmly knowledgeable of the subject matter, is too broad and loquacious to succeed as a compelling piece of theater.

The show explores the background and ramifications of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Ricci v. DeStefano.  In that ruling, it was found that New Haven violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it refused to certify the test results of a promotional exam for city firefighters because of the disparate impact on Black and Hispanic candidates.

The play opens with a character identified as the Writer (Laura Heisler), a self-deprecating playwright given the job of dramatizing the aforementioned events.  Her questions and probing inquiries focus on some of the important players involved in the case.  They include Frank Ricci (Ian Bedford), a white firefighter who was part of the group that successfully sued for promotion; Mike Briscoe (Billy Eugene Jones) and Tyrone Ewing (Rob Demery), two of the Black firefighters who, because of their low test scores, did not qualify for one of the original promotions; and Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), the lawyer who successfully argued the firefighter’s contention in front of the Supreme Court.   The Writer serves, at times, as interviewer, gentle inquisitor, referee, and impassioned listener within the meetings and sessions she arranges.

Playwright Karen Hartman spent a lengthy amount of time researching the case, the central players, its impact on New Haven and the city’s firefighters.  Many hot-buttoned topics are brought up within the conversations and repartees she dramatizes.  They include discussions of socio-economic status, race relations, affirmative action, equal opportunity, and classism.  However, her attempt to address a multitude of important issues is buffeted by an overload of information and fast-talking, overlapping dialogue.  The non-linear structure also makes it difficulty to grasp onto the valuable arguments being presented.

The cast is uniformly fine.  Laura Heisler brings an inquisitive nature, warmth, and sly humor to her role as the Writer.  Ian Bedford, who plays a number of roles in addition to firefighter Frank Ricci, is forceful and upstanding and gives his portrayals a self-assured cockiness.  While Billy Eugene Jones imbues firefighter Mike Briscoe with passion and a sense of righteousness, he also shows the hurt and pain of his ordeal.  Rob Demery’s portrayal of Tyrone Ewing is expressive and animated.  His scenes with Billy Eugene are layered with humor and are also quite spirited.  Rene Augesen brings an air of confidence and assertiveness to the role of Karen Torre.

Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set of large steel structures, with their bright red pigment, resonate with the authenticity of a multi-bay firehouse. Zachary Borovay’s projections effectively augment the scenic design.

Good Faith would have been much more successful if Director Kenny Leon would have massaged the material more, winnowing down the investigative findings to a more manageable and easily digestible amount.  At certain points in the production the audience has to work too hard to grasp concepts and the nuances of the landmark case.  The rapid fire and overlapping dialogue in some scenes can also be tricky and pose a challenge for the audience.

Good Faith, a well-meaning and provocative piece of theater that doesn’t always hit its mark.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Review of "A Doll's Life, Part 2"

It’s been 15 years since Nora walked out on her husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s classic play of self-determination, A Doll’s House.  But, now she’s back in A Doll’s House, Part 2, a sequel as envisioned by playwright Lucas Hnath.   The very talkative play is sporadically funny and thought-provoking as it presents themes on marriage, independence, woman’s rights, and tradition.

Tasha Lawrence as Nora in "A Doll's House, Part 2."

The production begins as Nora (Tasha Lawrence) appears at the door she so famously closed.  In a quick conversation with her former housekeeper, Anne Marie (Amelia White), the audience learns all about the last decade and one-half of Nora’s life, her rationale for leaving, and her desires for the future.  She then reveals the real reason for her sudden reappearance, which necessitates what could be a difficult tete-a-tete with her abandoned husband Torvald (Sam Gregory) and his acquiescence on carrying out an important, long-forgotten administrative task.  When the initial exchanges with her still wounded husband fail, Nora attempts to induce the Anne Marie, who has stayed in the household, into her plans as well as the daughter, Emmy (Kira Player), she barely knows.  In the end, the main protagonists are back at the beginning, maybe having a little more understanding between them.
Tasha Lawrence and Amelia White in "A Doll's House, Part 2."
Writer Hnath has constructed a unique work that honors the original while branching out with his own viewpoints.  He expands on the nature of marriage and love, which would have been extremely provocative during the play’s timeframe, but are just as stimulating in today’s world. 
While proffering a central character that is exceedingly independent, the playwright has also fashioned Nora as a woman who, ostensibly, runs away when faced with difficulties.  She also looks to others to solve her problems.  In a sense, how independent and forward thinking has she become?
Tasha Lawrence and Sam Gregory in "A Doll's House, Part 2."
The cast is consistently satisfying, led by Tasha Lawrence as Nora.  The actress, while showing perseverance and commitment to her character’s beliefs, could have given a more layered performance to better gain sympathy from the audience and more effectively show emotion outside her own focus. Sam Greogry gives Torvald a somber, damaged quality.  Still suffering from his wife’s sudden departure all those years ago, he convincingly portrays a man trying to comprehend the changes swirling around him.  Amelia White’s portrayal of the long-time housekeeper, Anne Marie, provides a dash of comic relief as she banters, argues, and tries to fathom the motives of her former mistress.  Ms. White comes across as the most genuine character as she demonstrates compassion and combativeness while seemingly lost in a transforming world.  Kira Player, who plays the daughter, Emmy, is slightly stilted in her performance, but possesses a reserve and stalwartness like her stage mother.

Director Jenn Thompson has a difficult task in conceiving an entertaining production since, even though this is a four person show, throughout nearly all of its 90 minutes, only two characters are on the unadorned stage at one time.  The effect can be like a tiresome 15-round boxing match with “punches” and “counter punches” being thrown, but not the occasional knockdown to liven up the match. There would have been more drama if the character of Nora was more nuanced.  While she comes off as independent, confident, and self-assured her intense self-focus and almost utter lack of empathy becomes wearisome.
Alexander Dodge's set for "A Doll's House, Part 2."
Alexander Dodge’s Scenic Design is boxed-shaped and bare bones—a few chairs and an imposing door, center, at the back of the stage.  Along with Philip Rosenberg’s Lighting Design incorporating harsh, fluorescent lights, it is highly effective in its allusion to the caged, trapped nature of the four characters.

A Doll’s House, Part 2, provocative discoursing that is moderately rewarding.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review of "The Engagement Party"

What do friends and family really think about each other? What secrets or private thoughts, once unsheathed, may fracture iron-clad friendships or splinter intimate relationships. That’s the takeaway from The Engagement Party, a gripping world premiere production at Hartford Stage.

The evening gathering at the Eastside New York City apartment of Josh (Zach Appelbaum) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf) is to celebrate their engagement.  Invited to the party are the bride-to-be’s parents, Gail (Mia Dillon) and Conrad (Richard Bekins); and Katherine’s best friend Haley (Anne Troup) and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh).  Also joining the festivities are Alan (Teddy Bergman), a mutual friend and Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh’s childhood pal.

There is gaiety, reminiscing, and a relaxed liveliness to the evening.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the shimmering veneer.  A requested favor, to advance a wife’s career, is flatly denied.  Jealousy over income levels is exposed.  Other tidbits of seemingly unimportant information seep out in conversation.  And then, the simple act of misplacing an engagement ring—valued at $300,000--swiftly ignites the undercurrent of hostility and distrust that has been bubbling under the surface all night long, resulting in a rapid disintegration of civility among the guests and a harrowing secret finally released.

Playwright Samuel Baum has produced a well-written, finely plotted play that is both unsettling and uncomfortable, at times, to watch.  But that makes the production more viewable as its twists and turns keep audience members at the edge of their seats waiting for the next shoe to drop or soul-searching accusation to be made.  His characters are vulnerable, pitiful, and confused.  His gut-wrenching finale is like a punch to the stomach, leaving patrons dazed and in doubt.

The ensemble cast works seamlessly together.  Each actor presents a well-rounded portrayal of their character. 

Director Darko Trenjak self-assuredly guides the troupe of performers, starting off the action with a mannered familiarity before he adroitly begins to reveal the cracks and rifts among the characters.  A play like The Engagement Party needs to be shepherded through its paces carefully for maximum impact.  The director, who ends his stint as Artistic Director at the venerable playhouse this summer, achieves these results with blistering effectiveness.

Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge has crafted a modern-looking, sleek, multi-level apartment that is radiantly lit by Lighting Designer Matthew Richards.  While the rotating structure, revealing three distinct sets is the embodiment of sophistication, it’s non-thrust nature creates too much of a divide between audience and performers. 

The Engagement Party, a superb work where trust and truthfulness is in short supply.  The 85 minute, intermission-less production plays at Hartford Stage through February 3rd.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review of "The Cher Show"

Almost anyone who has seen The Cher Show, the mildly diverting jukebox musical tracing the highs and lows of the iconic singer and actress, will agree that Stephanie J. Block, who plays the eldest of the talented performers playing the show’s namesake, is sensational.  Sure to receive a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, this year might finally be Ms. Block’s time.  Can you believe?
The three Chers from "The Cher Show" - Teal Wicks, Stephanie J. Block and Micaela Diamond.

The production, like last season’s Summer, the Donna Summer musical, casts three women to play the central character at different points in her life.  There is Babe (Micaela Diamond), the teenage Cher; Lady (Teal Wicks), who portrays the diva at mid-career; and Star (Stephanie J. Block), the older, wiser woman.  Unlike Summer, the trio of actresses in The Cher Show appear in combinations on stage, at many moments all together.  In between and during scenes, they discuss their (her) life, show business choices, celebrate the high moments, and lift each other up when all seems lost and hopeless.

The book by Rick Elice, as with many musicals centered on the works of an artist, is problematic.  How should the musical be structured?  What points in a decades long career should be included and omitted?  The Cher Show combines episodic moments that are perfunctory and informative along with more imaginative and artistically satisfying scenes. The result is a show where the parts are greater than the whole, resulting in a lukewarm mash-up.
Jarrod Spector (Sonny Bono) and Micaela Diamond ('Babe' Cher) in "The Cher Show."
The musical covers all the bases you would expect, starting off with Cher’s meeting, marriage, and volatile career with Sonny Bono (Jarrod Spector), with significant emphasis on their television show.  There are her other relationships (Gregg Allman and Rob Camilletti, a.k.a Bagel Boy), singing career, Hollywood phase, setbacks and comebacks.  And, of course, there are the Bob Mackie costumes in all their minimal and sequined glory.  The famous and infamous outfits are paraded throughout the production.

The cast is led by the three actresses that play Cher.  They are engaging, vivacious, and full of passion.  They also possess powerful singing voices.  While Ms. Diamond and Ms. Wicks delivered accomplished performances, it is Ms. Block that truly exudes the star power necessary for the production to succeed at some level.  Her mannerisms, facial expressions, and singing voice are spot on.  But, the seasoned Broadway musical veteran also knows how to deliver a well-rounded, magnetic performance and, here, she makes the audience her own, just like Cher.  Jarrod Spector has Sonny Bono down pat, from his nasal vocalizing to his overachieving drive and his Svengali like control over his wife and partner.  Emily Skinner as Cher’s demanding, but supportive mother, Gloria Holt, makes the most of her time on stage, providing reassuring and compassionate encouragement.
The cast of "The Cher Show."
The songs include all Cher’s most well-known songs, including “Dark Lady,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Believe,” and “If I Could Turn Back Time.”  They are passionately and enthusiastically sung by the cast.

When Director Jason Moore moves away from the straightforward storytelling, The Cher Show, can shine.  This is embodied in the “Dark Lady” production and the wonderfully frivolous move sequence featuring racks and racks of Bob Mackie designs.  The director also manages to bring forth an undercurrent of female empowerment as, but the show’s end, the singer/actress is a more confident, self-directed performer.

Choreographer Christopher Gatteli’s dances are energetic and reminiscent of the numbers you would see on a TV variety show or a Las Vegas extravaganza.

Bob Mackie’s costumes sizzle with their outrageous and whimsical designs.  There’s even one of the more entertaining production numbers centered on his creations.

The Cher Show, a nostalgic diversion for the true fan.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Review of "Murder for Two"

My favorite theater genres are:
1.    Musicals
2.    Comedies
3.    Murder Mysteries

Happily, all three are embodied in the very amusing, ingeniously written, and energetically performed two-person show, Murder for Two, playing at Playhouse on Park through February 3rd.

As with many whodunits the story begins in the drawing room of a large, hilltop mansion where the wife of Arthur Whitney, a well-known author, is throwing him a surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately for the book writer when he arrives inside the darkened structure a gun is fired, fatally killing him.  Who fired the fateful shot?  Each of the suspects, played with giddy aplomb by Trevor Dorner, has a solid motive.  Enter would-be detective Marcus Moscowicz, played with equal comic dexterity by John Grieco, who methodically, or maybe more accidentally, happens upon the multitude of clues and red herrings to eventually solve the case.

The two actors have a finely honed chemistry that translates into unbridled zaniness and semi-controlled madness.  Trevor Dorner sometimes seems possessed as he ricochets from one character to another making each one as believable as the next. They include a prima ballerina, the local psychologist, the cranky couple next door, and the wife of the murder victim.  For good measure, he also embodies the officer’s love interest and a boy’s choir of 12.  Well, actually, three (you’ll get the joke by attending a performance).  John Grieco has only one character to focus on but, nonetheless, needs all his comedic acting prowess to stay in sync with his off-center partner. 

The score, by Joe Kinosian, who also wrote the amusing and clever book of the show, and Kellen Blair, is quick-witted, inventive, and tuneful.  It would be interesting to hear fully orchestrated versions of each tune.  All the songs are performed by Grieco and Dorner, who also demonstrate their considerable musicianship by accompanying each other on the on-stage piano.

Scenic Designer David Lewis has stuffed the small Playhouse stage with all the accouterments of a gothic manor, giving the set a mysterious ambiance.

Director Kyle Metzger expertly guides the two thespians through the fast-paced production, coming up with enough shtick and sidesplitting shenanigans for two shows.

Murder for Two, imaginative, original, and diabolically funny, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through February 3rd.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Review of "Network"

The stage adaptation of the 1976 film classic Network succeeds solely for the tour-de-force performance of Bryan Cranston as the aged, downtrodden newsman Howard Beale who, on the brink of professional collapse, rises Phoenix-like to become a modern-day prophet railing against corruption, greed, and political ineptitude.  There is a lot of flash and glitz to the production, courtesy of Scenic Designer Jan Versweyved, but it is the performance of Cranston, which sets the stage ablaze with fury and passion.

As with the movie, the focus is on Howard Beale, a venerable TV news anchorman for a second-rate network, who has been fired from his lofty position due to poor ratings, by his best friend, Max Schmacher (Tony Goldwyn), the news division head.  On his last broadcast Beale disregards the text scrolling on the telepromoter and goes on an impromptu, profanity-laden speech where he declares he will commit suicide on-the-air. Aghast, the network executives immediately fire him until his friend convinces them to give him one more chance for a dignified exit.  Once again, Beale starts ranting when the cameras begin rolling and the network looks to immediately cut ties with the seemingly off-hinged newsman.  However, unexpectedly, the ratings soar during the broadcast.  A young, driven producer, Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany), with questionable moral and ethical views, sees the potential of a ratings bonanza for a TV program allowing Beale to speak his mind and convinces the network’s higher-ups to keep him on the air.  At first, the Howard Beale show becomes a top-rated, money-making machine, but eventually the appeal wanes.  This triggers a series of cascading events, affecting the lives and careers of all the central protagonists.

In his screenplay for the film, written over 40 years ago, Paddy Chayefsky, was eerily prescient on the evolution of TV news and corporate consolidation.  What he fabricated then is common place today - the all-powerful influence of television, corporate intrusion into the newroom, the blending of news and entertainment (It was only one year after Network’s cinema release that Roone Arledge, President of ABC Sports, was promoted to President of ABC News), and the consolidation of media companies.  Even the birth of reality programming can be traced to the central plot of the movie.  Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay is a faithful rendering, which highlights all the central plot points of the film.

Director Ivo Van Hove keeps the production fast-paced, mirroring the frenetic bustling and energy in a TV newsroom.  He scatters technology about the stage, giving the performance space a real TV studio feel.  The production dazzles when Van Hove has Cranston out front.  Otherwise, the corporate interplay and backstabbing, while intriguing, are not as compelling.  The relationship between Max and Diana is also not too engaging.  One of the central difficulties the director faces is creating cinematic type moments on stage.   He does, at times, succeed as when Arthur Jensen (Nick Wyman), the corporate president, stands high above the stage, preaching the gospel of corporate supremacy to a flummoxed Howard Beale.

As stated previously, the cast is led by the riveting performance of Brian Cranston as Howard Beale.  Superlatives such as triumphant, brilliant, and outstanding can all be used to describe his portrayal.  His “I’m mad as hell” speech is simply mesmerizing.  Tony Goldwyn instills the Max Schmacher character with a tired, defeated, and almost soul-less quality.  He has a foot in both the old and new world of electronic journalism.  The seasoned actor gives a passionate portrayal of a man who’s life, like his friend, is also spiraling out of control.  Tatiana Maslany imbues Diana Christensen with a cold-hearted determination who will do almost anything for a rating point or increased audience share.  But while appropriately callous and uncompassionate in her professional and personal life, she could have been even more icy and calculating.

Jan Versweyved set design is very high tech, the centerpiece being a large screen, which encompasses the back of the entire stage, bringing the action up front and personal.  At certain points, when the projection system is not displaying the activity on stage it can be somewhat distracting as the segmented screen shows multiple commercials from the late 1960’s, early-1970’s.  Remember “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” Alka Seltzer’s “That’s a spicey meatball,” and “Hai Karate?”

Network, a solid production with a magnificent performance by Bryan Cranston, now extended through April 28th on Broadway.