Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review of "Falsettos"


The original production of Falsettos opened in 1992 when the AIDS epidemic was front and center.  The story of a dysfunctional family and their friends confronting its affect on one of their own was a powerful theatrical event.  Now, almost 25 years later, the emotional wallop still resonates in this superb, forceful revival.

The musical is a merging of two one-act shows, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, by composer William Finn and librettist James Lapine [the creation of Falsettos was originally conceived at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage in 1991.]  The story involves Marvin, a neurotic and insecure man who has recently left his wife Trina and son Jason to take up residence with his male lover Whizzer.  In response, she begins therapy with the psychiatrist Mendel who, enraptured with the vulnerable woman, eventually marries her.  The five, however, stay intertwined as their complicated and complex lives play out.  In Act II, two lesbian lovers, Marvin’s next door neighbors, are added to the mix just as AIDS rears its ugly head, having a profound affect on all the characters.
Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells from "Falsettos."

The book by William Finn and James Lapine, a less then mainstream creation when it debuted in the early 1990’s, comes across as more matter-of-fact in today’s world.  At its core, the show is one of relationships and family and individuals coming together in the time of crisis.  The concluding scenes are still powerful and forceful stagecraft.

William Finn, who won the Tony Award for Best Original Score during the show’s original run, has written tender ballads, forceful anthems, and comedic gems.  Finn is skillfully able to produce material that delves into the soul of his characters, which gives voice to their frustration, rage, happiness, remorse, and, finally grief.
The cast of "Falsettos."

The seven member cast is stellar.  You would be hard pressed to find a better group of actors and actresses on a Broadway stage.  They are led by Christian Borle as Marvin.  Borle finally gets to portray a more regular, yet flawed, individual then he has done in his most recent Broadway outings.  He is somewhat arrogant and very much self-centered, but the actor tempers these traits with a well-rounded portrayal of a man still unsure of his place in the universe.  Andrew Rannells, as Marvin’s male companion Whizzer, gives a brash, self-confident performance.  He exudes a live-for-the-moment sexuality that, by the middle of Act II, has transformed him into a sorrowful, tragic figure.  Brandon Uranowitz is wonderful as Mendel the conflicted psychiatrist who is a bundle of nervous energy.   He can be overwrought and frenzied, but also provides stability and reflection to the characters when times get tough.  Stephanie J. Block, who plays the suffering wife, Trina, finally has a part worthy of her talents.  Her first act number, “Trina’s Song”, is a culmination of all her pent up feelings--indignation, exasperation, outrage, and anger.  It is a tour de force performance.  Tracie Thoms is satisfying as Dr. Charles, one part of the lesbian couple living next door to Marvin.  She adds a modicum of seriousness as the AIDS devastation takes center stage.  Betsy Wolfe gives the production a comedic lift as Dr. Charles’ daft, well-meaning companion, Cordelia.  Anthony Rosenthal is a self-assured youngster as the Bar Mitzvah aged Jason.  He easily holds his own with his more veteran cast mates and provides the central pivot, which everything revolves around.
Christian Borle, Anthony Rosenthal, and Stephanie J. Block in "Falsettos."

Director James Lapine, who also helmed the original production, obviously knows the material very well.  However, this is not a rote re-creation.  The musical is fresh and vibrant, helped along by the laudable cast.  Scenes seamlessly meld into each other and the interactions of the characters ring true.  Lapine also shows a deft touch by not hitting the audience over the head forewarning us with doom and gloom.  The urgency and seriousness of the storyline evolves slowly and naturally.

David Rockwell’s modular scenic design accomplishes a number of different functions.  They become the building blocks of the set and segment the stage into various backdrops.  It can also be seen as the interlocking pieces of the puzzle of life and a metaphor for individuals building and rebuilding their lives.

Falsettos, a riveting and captivating production with an outstanding cast and praiseworthy score.



Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812"


Note:  Josh Groban was ill the night I attended the performance.

 I have never seen a proscenium arch theater be so transformed for a Broadway musical as what has been done at the Imperial Theatre for the new show, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.  The set, designed to appear as a lavish Russian salon, is multi-tiered, ramps and stairways appear and disappear like an M.C. Escher drawing, small tables and chairs are arrayed about the performing space, and audience members are scattered throughout the stage.  Even before the production begins, costumed actors and actresses are mingling about, chatting with the crowd, and engaging the audience. 
 
Scott Stangland as Pierre in "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."


The musical is based on a very small section of the Russian classic “War and Peace.”  Like Les Miserables, a one-page summary has been conveniently published in the Playbill for reference and guidance to the plot and characters.  When the show begins it does so with an almost drunken fervor as the cast quickly outlines the show in the breathtaking opening number, “Prologue.”  Librettist Dave Malloy keeps the foot on the gas as he impressively encapsulates the passage from Leo Tolstoy’s novel into an intriguing and entertaining spectacle.  The story revolves around the alluring and glamorous, but naïve Natasha and her more mature cousin, Sonay, who visit Moscow for fun and excitement while Natasha’s finance, Andrey, is away at war.  During her time immersed in the city’s nightlife she meets and is seduced by the magnetic, narcissistic officer Anatole, which subsequently ruins her standing in society.  Pierre, her husband-to-be’s best friend, seeks to quell the turmoil and restore her sullied reputation with discouraging results.  Other characters weaved into the plot include Helene, Pierre’s carousing wife; Marya D, Natasha’s stern and controlling godmother; Andrey’s idiosyncratic father, Prince Bolkonsky and sister, Mary; and Anatole’s jovial friend, Dolokhov.
 
Part of the set from "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."
The score, also by Dave Malloy, has been described by the composer as an "electropop opera."  Like Hamilton it effectively mixes numerous musical styles--rock, folk, electronic dance music along with classic Broadway fare—into a strikingly affecting whole.  The works can be uplifting, poignant, and unabashedly joyous.  The songs narrate the developments within the plot and express the emotional thoughts of the characters.

The cast is outstanding.  Three notables are Denee Benton as the ravishing, unsophisticated Natasha.  The actress can appear pompously regal-like in one instance and child-like in another.  You feel for her situation while also silently chastising her for her careless and care-free ways.  Lucas Steele is winning as the arrogant, self-centered Anatole.  Initially, a foppish cad, the actor wins our sympathy by the musical’s conclusion as someone who has found, then lost, true love.  Scott Stangland, as Pierre, does an admirable job substituting for the ailing Josh Groban.  He originated the part at A.R.T. in Cambridge, MA during the pre-Broadway run so he knows the role well.  His voice is strong, musicianship first-rate, and he is able to convey a melancholy and philosophical spirit.
 
Denee Benton as Natasha in "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812."
Sam Pinkleton’s choreography seamlessly melds into the flow of the production with cast members not only flittering throughout the performing area, but also in the aisles of the theater.  The dance numbers are a mash-up of so many styles from elegant promenades to traditional Russian folk to industrial techno club gyrations.

Director Rachel Chavkin deserves huge praise for the diverse and complex tableaus she has conceived, which produce an almost intoxicating sensory overload.  Movement is constant throughout the production with scenes developing in one corner and then suddenly materializing from a different part of the stage.  This machination keeps the audience dazzled and entranced.  There is never an tiresome moment, even if the goings-on are less then appealing.

As previously mentioned, the set design by Mimi Lien is a wonderment of style, execution, and grand flourishes, which heighten the stagecraft of the production.  This would not be the same musical without her spark of creativity and ingenuity.  Bradley King pulls out all the stops in his lighting design with red and blue hues helping to set the dramatic tone, spotlights pinpointing the action and even strobes that energize a raucous nightclub scene.  Paloma Young’s costumes range from majestic, imperial gowns to Bolshevik chic to hipster club ware.

Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, even without Josh Groban, is an absorbing, exhilarating piece of theater.


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review of "tick, tick...BOOM!"


Before Jonathan Larson wrote the score and book of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical Rent, he conceived a one-man show entitled tick, tick…BOOM!  This autobiographical tale is receiving a vibrant and inspiring production Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theatre through December 18th. 

Since Larson’s death, the show has been expanded to three characters—Larson; his girlfriend, Susan; and best friend, Michael.  The story centers on his upcoming 30th birthday and how this milestone impacts him personally and professionally.  It is a fact-based narrative by a struggling artist, during the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, who believed in himself and his work as he attempted to find his niche in the world. By broadening the original concept to multiple performers playwright David Auburn gives the production more depth and allows a fuller telling of the artist’s story.


George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, and Ciara Renée in Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick...BOOM!"

The songs Larson wrote, performed by a four-piece band on stage, include raucous rockers and heartfelt ballads.  They speak to his personal experiences, relationships, and angst in trying to change the American musical theater.  The musical numbers are performed with passion and zest by the trio of actors.  The raw emotions infused in Larson’s compositions ring true and foreshadow some of his output for Rent.

The group of performers work well as a small ensemble.  They are led by Nick Blaemire as Jonathan Larson.   He gives an edgy performance tinged with hope as well as despair.  The pain and helplessness he feels is so prevalent among individuals trying to make it in “the business” that his vulnerabilities and despondencies resonate with authenticity.  Ciara Renee as Larson’s girlfriend, Susan, is radiant in her “Green Green Dress.”  She possesses a dynamic voice and convincingly sways from supportive soul mate to, finally, a woman who needs to be faithful to her own goals and aspirations.  George Salazar as the composer’s best friend, Michael, gives a multi-faceted performance in both sickness and in health.  He is, at times the comic foil and at other moments a lecturing, sobering big brother. 
 
George Salazar, Nick Blamire, and Ciara Renee in Jonathan Larson's "tick, tick...BOOM!"
Director Jonathan Silverstein, keeps the actors fast afoot as, sometimes, they literally bound off the minimally arrayed set, which includes few props with piano center stage.  He keeps the focus on Blaemire, as Larson, with the other characters revolving around his sphere of creative energy.  The director is also able to dramatize the powerful determination and dreams inherent in all hungry, aspiring performers. 

tick, tick…BOOM! An entertaining and tuneful show in an intimate environ.  A must for Jonathan Larson fans. 


Friday, November 11, 2016

Review of "Relativity"


The playwright Mark St. Germain became intrigued after reading the following statements, “In 1902, Albert and Mileva Einstein had a baby daughter.  After 1904, she was never seen or spoken of again.”  That prompted the author to ask “Why?” What happened?  What were the possible circumstances for this occurrence?  His contemplation and reflections on this historic mystery became the basis for his intriguing, yet modest drama, Relativity, playing at Theaterworks through November 20th.

The main reason to purchase tickets for this 85 minute, three-character show is for the performance of Richard Dreyfus as Albert Einstein.  Yes, having a big Hollywood star on the intimate Theaterworks stage is exciting, but Dreyfus demonstrates his acting prowess by totally subsuming himself in the role and delivering a multi-layered portrayal of the famed physicist. 

The play begins with a reporter, Margaret Harding, tracking down Einstein near his Princeton, New Jersey home.  She convinces him to sit for an interview at his house.  Once there, her true motives are revealed as the two engage in a battle of words and emotional skirmishes.
 
Christa Scott-Reed, Lori Wilner, and Richard Dreyfuss in "Relativity" at TheaterWorks.
The two protagonists are mismatched opponents, which lessens the dramatic impact of the show.  In one of St. Germain’s previous works, Freud’s Last Session, a fictional encounter between C.S. Lewis and the famed psychologist, the two intellectuals debate weighty issues and topics.  In Relativity, Harding and Einstein are unequal adversaries so even though their repartee revolves around meaningful affairs there is less for the audience to savor.   The reasons for the comings and goings of the characters can also come across as contrived.

The cast, led by Dreyfus, is uniformly fine.  You can see why the actor was attracted to the role of Albert Einstein since it provides a substantial and well-rounded character for him to portray.  Dreyfus is at times cagey, shrewd and wily in his performance as Christa Scott-Reed’s mysterious journalist, Margaret Harding, confronts him.  Maybe due to the nature of the role where, at first, she is unsure of how to proceed with her subterfuge, the actress comes off as aloof and hard to relate with.  As the play progresses, Ms. Scott-Reed’s character becomes more sympathetic, making it easier for the audience to connect with her.  Lori Wilner as Helen Dukas, Einstein’s housekeeper, secretary and confidante, bristles with indignation at another interloper into the Professor’s personal space.  But, as the dynamics of the threesome changes, her rigid demeanor softens, giving us a more layered performance.

This is a workman type assignment for Director Rob Ruggiero.  He keeps busy with guiding, primarily, the two main cast members about the performing space, more to vary the actor’s movements on stage.  This keeps the play from getting too static where the focus would be just on the dialogue.

Relativity, worth the price of admission to see an up-close, outstanding performance by Richard Dreyfus.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of "He Wrote Good Songs"


The performer and composer Anthony Newley was a talented entertainer.  From the late 1950’s through the mid-1970’s he wrote Broadway musicals and film scores; acted on stage, screen and in television; and was even a pop star.  His personal life, however, was more of a shambles with multiple marriages, divorces and, finally, a losing battle with cancer.  Newley’s private and professional career, which can be summed up by the title song from his London musical, The Good Old Bad Old Days, is being presented in the rewarding one-man songfest, He Wrote Good Songs, at the Seven Angels theatre in Waterbury.

The production is a showcase for the impressive talents of actor Jon Peterson who conceived and wrote the musical, and convincingly embodies Newley in voice, mannerisms, and dress.  The actor is a dynamic presence on stage with more then enough energy and charisma to sustain a two hour, solo performance.  While mostly upbeat in his portrayal, Peterson demonstrates the subtlety and emotional nuance inherent in such a complicated entertainer.  The performer is also an beguiling raconteur as he effortlessly weaves together dialogue, anecdotes and music into a seamless package. 
 
Jon Peterson as Anthony Newley in "He Wrote Good Songs."  Photo by Paul Roth.
Peterson is constantly in motion on stage as he runs through the highlights of the composer/actor’s life.  In quick succession the audience is introduced to his difficult teenage years in East London and his post-adolescent movie success, his accomplishments as an actor and composer for the musical stage, dalliance with the pop music scene, his flight to Hollywood and Las Vegas and, towards the end, his more fallow years.  Newley was known for his womanizing.  His ceaseless philandering and failed marriages also take center stage.

The songs, almost all written by Anthony Newley and his longtime collaborator Leslie Bricusse, are beautifully and artfully rendered by Jon Peterson in all their vibrato and emotive glory.  They include “Who Can I Turn To?,” “Feelin’ Good,” and “The Joker,” from The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd; “Gonna Build a Mountain,” “Once in a Lifetime,” and “What Kind of Fool am I?,” from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off; and “Pure Imagination” and “Candy Man” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

As with any biographic production choices have to be made on what to emphasize, breeze through or ignore from the person’s life.  Peterson touches on most of the key points of Newley’s notable career, but there are aspects of the show that should be reexamined, which could tighten the book and storyline.  For example, the scene about co-writing the song “Goldfinger” is almost a throw away that could be more fully incorporated or removed.  There are few points of reference in regards to time—what year or decade are we in?  How old is Anthony Newley during critical moments in his life?  Having a better idea of the time frame of events would give the audience a better perspective on what is happening.  The production ends with the standard “What Kind of Fool am I,” a necessary inclusion, but it comes across as being shoe horned into the show as opposed to fitting in organically like the other compositions.

Director Semina De Laurentis has taken the material conceived by her star and crafted an engaging show that is spry and purposeful without appearing busy.  She skillfully paces the musical with patter and song and breaks up Peterson’s almost non-stop traipsing of the boards with well-timed costume changes and introspective moments.  De Laurentis has also taken Newley’s well-known gesturings and affectations and kept them more naturalistic as opposed to leaning more towards parody.

He Wrote Good Songs, entertaining with a bravo performance by Jon Peterson, playing at Seven Angels in Waterbury through November 27th.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Review of "Unnecessary Farce"


Silliness abounds at Playhouse on Park in their amusing, diverting production, Unnecessary Farce.  A well-crafted farce requires a continuous cacophony of slamming doors and awkward and outrageous moments.  Playwright Paul Slade Smith has penned a show that ensures a steady stream of all three.

The plot centers on a simple sting operation overseen by two inept police officers.  The mayor, it seems, has embezzled $16 million dollars from the city.  An accountant, working with the police, plans to confront the politician in a hotel room while the whole meeting is being videotaped from the adjacent room.  Unfortunately, the best laid plans go amusingly astray as unforeseen entanglements intermingle with sexual hijinks, a hired assassin, and a few tittering plot twists.
Julie Robles as Karen Brown, Will Hardyman as Eric Sheridan, Mike Boland as Agent Frank.  Photo by Meredith Atkinson.

The author has created a show with lovable characters, likeable losers and screwball scenarios.  This is no great piece of writing, but it succeeds in its straightforward goal of giving an audience an appealing and amusing two hours of humorous entertainment.

The seven person cast has bought into the play’s daft structure, giving their all in the pursuit of a sustained laugh or an energetic chortle.  They include Will Hardyman, who gives a sweetly endearing performance as the bumbling, love forsaken undercover officer, Eric Sheridan.  Susan Slotoroff is appealing as the enthusiastic, but all thumbs partner, Billie Dwyer.  Julie Robles is gratifyingly delectable as the somewhat oversexed accountant, Karen Brown.  Everett O’Neil is affable in a loopy way as the good-natured Mayor Meekly.  Mike Boland’s portrayal of Frank, the Mayor’s lone security detail, is finely honed as he vacillates from a menacing swagger to a cowering pushover.  John-Patrick Driscoll pulls out all the stops and garners the most laughs as the over-the-top assassin, Todd.  Ruth Neaveill is delightful as the not-so-unassuming mayoral wife, Mary Meekly.
Will Hardyman as Eric Sheridan, Mike Boland as Agent Frank, Ruth Neaveill as Mary Meekly, John-Patrick Driscoll as Todd.  Photo my Meredith Atkinson.

Director Russell Treyz keeps the pacing brisk with a well-orchestrated group of actors.  Timing is essential in such a production and he has nimbly guided the cast to create a seamless and consistent swell of frivolity.  There is a healthy dose of physicality that he directs with aplomb and vitality.

Unnecessary Farce, lighthearted and fun, playing through November 20th.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Review of "Chasing Rainbows"


In 1976 a little girl named Andrea McArdle, full of spunk and gusto, wowed audiences at the Goodspeed Opera House with her powerful vocals as Little Orphan Annie in the original production of Annie.  Forty years later another young lady, albeit somewhat older, is again making a lasting impression on Goodspeed crowds as a teenage Judy Garland in the musical Chasing Rainbows.  The actress is Ruby Rakos and her rich, dynamic soprano and spot on portrayal of the well-known, famous star elevates this production to a wholly satisfying theatrical experience.
 
On the MGM backlot with Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
The storyline follows Ms. Garland, who’s original name was Frances Gumm, and her family of two sisters, mother and father, from a cute-as-can-be youngster through her mid-teen years.  The show concludes as she begins to film her classic role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Librettist Marc Acito covers a lot of ground during this timeframe, but even as the years breezily pass, the musical does not come across as episodic, which has torpedoed many a biographic endeavor.  We witness young Judy’s trials and tribulations with her dysfunctional home life and trying to gain a foothold in Hollywood.  It was interesting to watch an overly self-important Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios, continually ignore the teenager’s impressive talents.

The score of the show is comprised of songs from the American songbook from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  They include “I Can’t Get You Anything But Love,” “Broadway Rhythm,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” “Bill,” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.”  Be forewarned:  toe-tapping-itis has been reported during performances.
 
Members of the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Overall, the cast is first-rate.  Notables include, first and foremost, Ruby Rakos as the teenage Judy Garland.  The actress is enthusiastic, earnest, impassioned and exudes a down home charm.  And she can sing, whether it’s belting out one of the show’s spirited numbers or caressing a tender ballad.  Ella Briggs as Baby Frances is a conundrum.  You sit there wondering how can a seven year old—yes, seven years old—have such a powerful voice and fearless attitude, whether singing, dancing or acting.  Micahel Wartella as Mickey Rooney provides a spark plug to the production whenever it begins to sag.  He is carefree, energetic, and fun to watch.  Gary Milner brings a sanguine as well as world-weary disposition to the role of Roger Edens, a composer and arranger at the studio and mentor to the actress.  Karen Mason is marvelous as the business like, serious minded Kay Koverman, Mayer’s secretary and guardian angel to Garland.  Lastly, Michael McCormick is pugnacious and a real SOB as Louis B. Mayer.

The strength of choreographer Chris Bailey’s dance routines are how they begin very innocuously and naturally, slowly building in intensity, many times to a feverish pitch.  He creates controlled mayhem and frenetic production numbers with this group of exuberant, tireless young performers.
 
Judy (Ruby Rakos) and Mickey (Michael Wartella) are having a "Hollywood Party" with the cast of Chasing Rainbows. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Director Tyne Rafaeli smartly keeps Ms. Rakos center stage with her full-throttled voice.  She adroitly and smoothly moves the show through its numerous scenes without losing a beat or having the production appear too disjointed.  Working with minimal sets and props allows her to keep the focus on the characters, which are well-drawn and more three-dimensional then one might expect.

Chasing Rainbows, an entertaining and, at times, rousing look at the life of the young Judy Garland with a star turn by the young actress Ruby Rakos.  The musicals continues at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 27th.