Sunday, May 25, 2014

Review of "Love/Sick" - Hartford Theaterworks

My wife and I were perplexed as we departed from the opening night of Love/Sick at Hartford’s Theaterworks, playing through June 22nd.  We found the comedy/drama’s ten, short vignettes full of pseudo-conflict, unsatisfying pretenses, ineffective set-ups and, overall, unfilled potential.  However, large swaths of the audience pealed with laughter during the show, seeming to be having a great time.  Were the two of us having an off-night?  IMHO, no.

The production’s series of 10-12 minute segments, written by John Cariani, ruminate on different aspects of love and heartbreak.  They are acted by an ensemble of four actors rotating through numerous roles.  The play starts off with a cute, mildly humorous story entitled, “Obsessive Impulsive,” and centers on the chance meeting of two OI individuals at the local Super Center (think Target).  That is followed by, what is the best of the bunch, “The Singing Telegram,” a well-acted, tightly written scene that puts an off-kilter spin on this retro practice.  Having more stories with such delicious twists would have greatly improved the thrust of the show.  Think Christopher Durang or this year’s playwright du jour, Will Eno, and how they could have turned “Uh-Oh” into a deliciously delightful black comedy instead of the ending penned by Cariani with its silly cop out.   A number of the vignettes are rather pedestrian and straightforward as with the runaway bride segment in “The Answer.”  The wordplay in “Lunch and Dinner” falls flat and “Chicken” is just plain trite.

The group of actors—Pascale Armand, Bruch Reed, Chris Thorn, and Laura Woodward—approach each of their roles with gusto and zeal.  But their characters come across, most of the time, as too simplified and uninteresting.  Contrast this with the playwright’s wonderful contribution to last year’s Christmas on the Rocks, where in a short time span, the actors came across as fully developed individuals we cared about and sympathized with.  Unfortunately, after 3-4 of the Love/Sick segments the actor’s characters begin to blend into one another.  So, for example, Laura Woodward’s bride-to-be in “The Answer” is very like her overexcited persona in “Destiny.” 

Director Amy Saltz employs too much yelling, whining, and manic behavior within the production.  This can lead to some funny moments on stage but, overall, it gives a disproportionate feel to the show.  Subtlety is not the strong suit here.  Saltz might have more skillfully served the production, and further able to flesh out the scenes, if there were fewer, more thoroughly structured, scenes.

Love/Sick, at Theaterworks in Hartford, through June 22nd.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review of "Under My Skin" - Off-Broadway

Under My Skin, the new Off-Broadway comedy, uses the conceit of body swapping as a vehicle for a not-so-subtle swipe at the health insurance industry.  Harrison Badish III (Matt Walton), a pompous, chauvinistic health care executive, and Melody Dent (Kerry Butler), a part-time employee, accidentally die in an elevator mishap.  Complaining about their untimely death to a workaholic angel, they are resurrected before emergency workers arrive.  Unfortunately, Badish is now in the body of Dent and vice versa.  This triggers a number of life altering as well as comedic events within their personal lives as they try to deal with family, friends, and relationships while within their new identities. 

Playwrights Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser, who cut their writing teeth on television sitcoms, put a sexier spin on this tried and true entertainment formula.  With some biting commentary on the timely topic of health insurance the comedy, more so then not, is able to straddle the humorous with the serious.  What separates the play from a more mundance rendering is how, eventually, the characters in the show become more nuanced then originally presented.  Not all the twosome’s jokes and topsy-turvey scenarios hit their mark, but there is enough amusing dialogue and humorous machinations to keep the show fresh and appealing.  A lot of the credit goes to the two leads—Matt Walton and Kerry Butler.  Walton, as the egocentric Badish, is too obnoxious and one-dimensional when first introduced but, as the play develops, he becomes, dare I say, likeable.  Butler, one of my favorite actresses, is more at home doing comedy.  While having notable roles in such recent shows as the musical Catch Me If You Can and the drama The Best Man Butler, with charm and likeability that few performers possess, is better suited for parts that make us laugh.  Now, all we need is someone to write a great comedic, preferably musical, role for her.  Megan Sikora as Nannette, Melody Dent’s best friend, is over-top, vivacious and libidinous.   Played, initially, for easy laughs, by the show’s happy ending she has become a more sympathetic and multi-layered character.  Edward James Hyland, as Dent’s grandfather, Poppa Sam, is outrageously funny and steals every scene he appears in. 

Director Kirsten Sanderson ensures enough laughs during the 90-minute, intermission-less comedy, but also balances the guffaws with a serious undercurrent.  Some of the scenes with the bumbling angel, Dierdre Friel, need a different approach as they generate few laughs and upset the rhythm of the production which, overall, is breezy and light.  She gives Matt Walton and Kerry Butler plenty of room to show their feminine and masculine side, respectively. 

Under My Skin, a playful and somewhat amusing show with a message.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review of "Act One" - Broadway

Life imitates art in the new play, Act One, based on the early years of playwright and director Moss Hart.  The show is written and directed by James Lapine and based on Hart’s autobiography of the same name. In the latter part of the production the audience observes Moss Hart’s collaboration with George S. Kaufman on what would eventually become his first major Broadway success.  We are lurkers as the two writers spend over a year getting the play, Once in a Lifetime, just right.  Act One of their 1930 creation is fine, but Acts Two and Three, we learn, are labored.  Fortunately, for theater lovers, the two solved the dilemma and their co-writing effort became not only a big hit, but the first of many noteworthy writing partnerships.  Unfortunately, (which may be too strong a word) the play, Act One, hasn’t solved its Act Two trouble, leaving the audience with a less then gratifying theatrical experience by the final curtain.  Now don’t get me wrong I enjoyed the show, playing at Lincoln Center.  It was just a letdown after an interesting and engaging beginning. 

Act One does have a lot to offer, besides a generous slice of theater history.  There are two captivating acting performances and an impressive set piece.  Normally, when the scenic design is one of the highlights of a production there’s not much else the play has to offer, but the three-story, circular set piece of Act One is quite impressive in addition to the show’s other merits.  All the scenes take place on the outside of the revolving structure—Moss Hart’s squalid childhood apartment, the multi-level living quarters of George S. Kaufman, offices, stages.  The set allows for quick scene changes, sometimes leaving little time for the actors to hit their mark.

All the actors are marvelous in their roles, including Santino Fontana as the young Moss Hart, full of energy and unbridled eagerness.  But it is Tony Shalhoub, playing multiple characters--the middle-aged Moss Hart, narrating parts of the show; Hart’s gruff, hot-headed father; and the idiosyncratic George S. Kaufman—that brings life to the play.  His narrator is more matter-of-fact, but he infuses the other roles with distinctive personalities to make them believable and full-rounded.  Andrea Martin, always a joy to see on stage, has a number of roles with the most prominent being Hart’s Aunt Kate.  A proud and dignified woman of little means, she lives in the tiny apartment with the Hart family (and their boarders).  Hart’s aunt had a profound influence on him as a youngster.  Martin imbues her with just the right amount of aristocratic haughtiness.

Playwright/Director James Lapine has condensed Moss Hart’s biography to its essential core.  He is much more successful setting up a dramatic narrative in the first half of the play.  This probably has more to do with the variety of different characters and scenes then in Act Two when the focus is on the collaborative process between Hart and Kaufman.  This part of the production is just not as compelling, which causes our interest to wane.  As Director, Lapine does a fine job guiding the actors and incorporating the somewhat imposing set within the show, especially within the first half of the play.  His issue, which ends up unsolvable, is livening up the problematic Act Two.

Act One, some great performances for a less then fulfilling show.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tony Award Musings

The nominees for the 2013-2014 Tony Awards have been announced and in approximately one month, on Sunday, June 8th, we will know the winners.  Like most Broadway enthusiasts I have my opinions and predictions on who/what should be honored.  So, in no particular order, my ruminations on just the musical categories. 

But, before my musings, let me say what I will not be writing about—snubs.  Snubs come in two categories.  First, are the rumblings over Hollywood A-Listers appearing on Broadway not being appreciated.  For some reason, people believe this group of actors should automatically be guaranteed a Tony Award nomination.  Why?  Because they are movie stars?  Famous?  If they were good in their theatrical role they are usually rewarded with a selection and, many times, the trophy itself.  But filmdom does not guarantee Tony glory.  Second, and a subset of the first, are the complainers lamenting on who was left off the nomination list.   I have no real problem with people sparring over who or what should have been included, but if you believe your choice was commendable then who/what should be omitted.   If, for example, the maximum of five actors can be nominated and you make a fuss about a sixth, who then gets dropped?  I always find it annoying when individuals moan about this person or that show being snubbed, but offer no compelling reason on who/what to remove.

Not that I’ve gotten that off my chest on with my speculative grandiloquence.

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical—James Monroe Iglehart should walk away with the award.  His big, splashy number in Aladdin, “Friend Life Me,” was fabulous.  His overall performance was a comic gen.  He actually made you forget Robin Williams from the film version.  Joshua Henry in Violet and Danny Burstein in the revival of Cabaret were excellent, but neither could match the razz-ma-tazz of Iglehart.
Best Supporting Actress in a Musical—This is an interesting grouping of female performers.  While all are worthy, not one of them jumps out at you as an overwhelming favorite.  I’m going with Linda Emond from Cabaret.  As I stated in my review of the show, I thought she was “marvelous as Frau Schneider, a jumble of apprehension, confusion, and anticipation.”
Best Book of a MusicalA Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder will notch a win in this category.  Aladdin and Bullets Over Broadway are retreads from their respective movies.  Beautiful – the Carole King Musical, while very entertaining and compelling, can’t match the originality of A Gentlemen’s Guide.
Best Score of a Musical—I would be very surprised if A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder doesn’t walk away with Best Score.  It is witty, literate, and includes some well-crafted songs.  Aladdin’s best numbers are from the film and If/Then, while another sound effort by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey, cannot compete with A Gentlemen’s Guide.  Jason Robert Brown’s score for The Bridges of Madison County has been deservedly praised.  In my review I stated, “The score…is lush, stirring and beautifully set within the musical,” but the show never caught on (regrettably) with the public, which translates to very little support.
Best Choreography of a Musical—The most disappointing category of the year.  In the past, the Broadway stage was ablaze with fanciful, athletic, and creative dance numbers.  This season is rather blasé.  Aladdin has it moments, but I found it repetitive.  Rocky?  If you count the fight scenes then a winner hands down, but I can’t even remember what the traditional choreographer consisted of.  That leaves Susan Stroman for Bullets Over Broadway and Warren Carlyle for After Midnight.   While Stroman has been a Tony favorite, look for Carlyle to snatch his first Tony with his high-flying dance numbers for After Midnight.
Best Director of a Musical—An interesting selection of nominees.  I’m going to quickly put aside Warren Carlyle for After Midnight.  Leigh Silverman guided Violet to an exceptional dramatic presentation, but I think it’s going to be between Michael Mayer, who could be riding a Hedwig and the Angry Inch bandwagon and Darko Tresnjak for A Gentlemen’s Guide.    I’m going with Tresnjak for two reasons.  A Gentlemen’s Guide is a show with more structure, where Hedwig is primarily a monlogue with music.  Second, A Gentlemen’s Guide began life at the Hartford Stage, in my backyard, so the director is a hometown favorite.
Best Actor in a Musical—Up to the end of April my hands down pick would have been Jefferson Mays for A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.  Playing eight members of the D'Ysquith family Mays has a jolly good romp as each of his characters are systematically disposed of during the course of the show.  Unfortunately, a German transvestite, in the guise of Neil Patrick Harris, decided to spoil Mays’ party.  Even though both actors received some of the best reviews of the year I think Harris will get the nod for three reasons.  First, he has never been honored with a Tony Award (Mays won in 2004 for Best Actor in a Play for I Am My Own Wife).  Second, everyone loves Neil Patrick Harris, especially Broadway people.  Third, he has worked tirelessly over the years promoting the Great White Way.  This will give the edge to earn the coveted award.
Best Actress in a Musical—The toughest category to predict.  An argument could be made for each of the five actresses—three certified musical theater heavyweights—Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, and Kelli O’Hara—and two newcomers—Jessie Mueller and Mary Bridget Davies—that impressed both audiences and critics.  As with multiple choice exams I chose by the process of elimination.  First to go, Davies of A Night with Janis Joplin.  Notable performance, but too much of a concert act.  Jessie Mueller for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, was fabulous, a role that will make her a star, but it is just not her time.  Sutton Foster in Violet showed a new dimension to her considerable talent, but she has two Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical.  I think voters will want to spread the wealth.  That leaves Idina Menzel for If/Then and Kelli O’Hara for The Bridges of Madison County.    While Menzel is huge right now, courtesy of Disney’s mega-hit, Frozen, she has also won (for Wicked).  That leaves O’Hara, my choice.  This is her fifth nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.  Her show, Bridges of Madison Country, is set to close next week, but she is a Broadway favorite.  This is her year.
Best Revival of a Musical—The Best Revival has only three nominees, all were well-reviewed and all are very different shows.  Les Miserables doesn’t have any “buzz” surrounding it, unlike the other two musicals.  I would love to see Violet eke out the win, but I think Hedwig will steamroll over the competition.
Best Musical—The Best Musical category shows what a lackluster year it was on Broadway.  There was a lot of promise when the season began, but it has limped to the finish line.  The Tony nominators reinforced this view by only selecting four shows even though they could have chosen five (I know I whined about using the “s” word, but in this case I think it was an undeserved snub to exclude The Bridges of Madison County).  So, which musical will I choose?  Using the process of elimination I would first eliminate After Midnight, a well-received revue, but, it’s a revue.  Only three other revues have won the Best Musical Award in Tony History—Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1978, Jerome Robbin’s Broadway in 1989, and Fosse in 1999.  This year will not be the fourth.  Aladdin is very entertaining and doing bang-up business at the box office, but the Disney magic will not shine this year.  Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is outstanding, with a breakout performance by its star, Jessie Mueller.  It could be the dark horse in the race, but I think A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder should stand tall at night’s end.  It has proven itself by surviving the desolate winter months, received unanimous praise, is intelligent, funny with a solid book, and a full score of original compositions.  NO other nominated musical can boast these credentials.  Hartford Stage, where it all began last year, I hope this is congratulations!

How well did I do?  We’ll have to wait until Sunday night, June 8th, to find out.  Join me that evening as I’ll be blogging live with my thoughts, reversals, and musings.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review of "Beauty and the Beast" - National Tour in Hartford

The basic question about the current national tour of Beauty and the Beast, now at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through May 11th, is whether the very young will enjoy the show.  Based on the reception the musical received from this core group opening night, the answer is a resounding yes.  However, for older individuals (not accompanying sons, daughters, or grandchildren), the production is less satisfying.

Beauty and the Beast is based on the acclaimed Disney film of the same name (if you know the tale, skip to the next paragraph).  It follows Belle, a daydreaming romantic from a small village.  Her simple life is complicated by the vain, brawny, dunderhead, Gaston, who has set his sights on marrying the beautiful, brainy, young lass.   Through happenstance, while lost in the forest searching for her father, she stumbles onto the castle of the Beast, a prince transformed by a spurned sorceress years earlier.  His servants have also been magically changed to humanized furniture, dishware, and other furnishings.  At first a captive, Belle soon becomes enchanted with the creature and their relationship grows.  This development could mean salvation for the Beast and his staff as true love between the two would break the curse and return everyone to their human forms.  Time, though, is not on their side as Gaston and the townspeople are looking to storm the stronghold.  If the enchanted rose, left by the witch and housed in the fortress, loses all its petals before their love fully blossoms, the castle and all its occupants will forever retain their ill-fated forms. 

The musical has enough familiar songs, enchanting characters, and large-scale dance numbers to keep young children captivated.  But keeping the tykes enthralled (or is it distracted) has its drawbacks.  Many in the cast, especially Darick Pead as the Beast, overly emote and seem more interested in squeezing out laughs and schtick.  This gives the overall production more of a cartoon feel unlike the original Broadway run, which found just the right balance between two-dimensional and three-dimensional characters.  The sets and award winning costumes have been pared down, which minimizes their impact.  Again, for those between 6-9 these concerns are immaterial, but for older viewers they are disappointing.

So, can all I do is whine?  No.  There are a number of strong points to the production.  First, is the wonderful score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice.  The songs are tuneful and memorable.  They include “Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “If I Can’t Love Her.”  They are beautifully sung and, with the large ensemble numbers, well choreographed.  Second, the actors, for the most part, give it their all.  Belle, played with spunk and determination by Hilary Maiberger, has a beautiful voice that, projects well in the cavernous Bushnell even if her speaking voice was too often so low that it was hard to hear.  This was a pervasive problem with many of the cast throughout the show.  Darick Pead, as the Beast, when he isn’t hamming it up, can give the role poignancy and compassion.  Tim Rogan is arrogant and self-assured as Gaston, but he also imbues the rascal with an undercurrent of deviousness and mean-spiritedness.   Jordan Aragon as LeFou, Gaston’s fawning sidekick, would have had a great career in vaudeville with all his well-timed pratfalls and foolishness.  Other performers--James May as the fussy Cogsworth, Hassan Nazari-Robati as the womanizing Lumiere, Kristin Stewart as the level-headed Mrs. Potts, and the scene stealing Tony D’Alelio as the acrobatic carpet, are appealing and enjoyable.

Beauty and the Beast, perfect for the little ones, questionable for older ones, at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through May 11th.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Review of "Damn Yankees" - Goodspeed Opera House

The baseball season has just begun, but the intense rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox is already heating up at the Goodspeed Opera House with a reconfigured production of the musical Damn Yankees that features the two clubs.  The team from Fenway replaces the Washington Senators in this version, but librettist Joe DePietro’s retelling, while changing the overall flavor of the production, keeps the main story intact—an impassioned baseball fan (of the Boston Red Sox) makes a deal with the devil in order to thwart the dominance of the New York Yankees and try to win the American League pennant.

Members of the hapless Red Sox from "Damn Yankees." Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The show is a welcome relief after such a lackluster New York musical season.  Damn Yankees features a great score, outstanding choreography, and a squad of highly talented comedic actors.  The story revolves around a middle-aged Red Sox fan, Joe Boyd, who declares he would sell his soul if his team could just get a long-ball hitter.  In a flash the Devil appears, in the guise of a Mr. Applegate, to grant the wish.  The next moment Joe Boyd transforms into Joe Hardy, an earnest, gung ho, strapping young man.  He quickly joins the hapless Red Sox, changing them from cellar dwellers to contenders.  However, as the Bosox race up the standings, Hardy longingly yearns for his old life and the company of his wife.  Applegate, not wanting to lose his promised soul, has a few tricks up his evil-minded sleeve including his sure-fired assistant, the seductress Lola, to woo him to stay.  In the final game of the year, with everything on the line, the Red Sox…well, why spoil the ending?

Damn Yankees, as mentioned above, has much to offer.  The score, by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (a follow-up to their smash debut, The Pajama Game), consists of one gem after another—“Heart,” “The Game,” “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets,” “Two Lost Souls.”  I might as well list every song in the show.  They are all that good.

David Beach (Applegate), Stephen Mark Lukas (Joe Hardy), and Angel Reda (Lola).  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
Joe DiPietro has judiciously and seamlessly incorporated Red Sox jargon, references, and lore into the original book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop without sacrificing its integrity. 

The choreography by Kelli Barclay is smart, creative, and lively.  They include the best dance numbers around—including what is currently on Broadway.  With a large ensemble of brawny, able-bodied men the production numbers are athletic, whimsical, and inventive.  A perfect example is “Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO” from Act I.  At one point reporter Gloria Thorpe (Lora Lee Gayer) tries to keep in step with the Red Sox players as, in unison, they initiate a series of convoluted hand signals.  Soon, everyone is in perfect sync as the large-scale routine turns into a rousing dance number with the hand signals at the corps.

The "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, MO" dance number.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.
The acting team is marvelous, with the featured actors almost stealing the show.  Stephen Mark Lukas, as the well-built Joe Hardy, has boyish good lucks and, at first, a “gee whiz” quality to his performance.  But as the show progresses he adds a nuanced layer of weariness to the role.  David Beach, looking like the twin of the Mayhem character from the Allstate commercials, is devilishly entertaining as Mr. Applegate.  It is a part where acting histrionics can be applauded.  As Applegate’s tried and true femme fatale, Lola, Angela Reda is a sexy triple threat for her dancing, singing, and acting prowess.  Ron Wisniski is a comic gem as Coach Van Buren.  His facial expressions alone spark howls from the audience.  Lastly, Kristine Zbornik  and Allyce Beasley are irresistibly funny as neighbors Sister and Doris, respectively.  They provide comic bon mots throughout the musical.

Director Daniel Goldstein keeps the pacing of the show moving at a fine clip whether the stage is crowded with the large cast or simply populated by just two actors.  When the plot moves into more somber territory he quickly follows up with a perfectly timed comedic moment.  He also allows his performers leeway in embellishing their roles, which provides more distinctive and finely tuned characters.

Damn Yankees, a homerun of a musical, at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 21st.