Monday, July 27, 2015

Review of "Amazing Grace"

Amazing Grace, the first musical of the new Broadway season, is a fascinating and impassioned, yet not wholly satisfying, look at a key point in the abolitionist movement in England.  The focus is on John Newton (Josh Young), who wrote the venerable hymn of the show’s title.  He is a quarrelsome, restless and musically talented young man heavily involved in the slave trade.  He rebels against his prosperous father (Tom Hewitt), spars with his true love, Mary (Erin Mackey), and shows no respect to any authority figures.  We follow his tumultuous journey that ends in personal redemption and full reversal in his support and participation in the selling of slaves.

The musical unearths a slice of history—the story of John Newton and his life changing epiphany—which is unknown to most Americans.   As written by Christopher Smith and Arthur Giron, there is a great deal of information conveyed in the production.  This can be problematic when the material is presented in matter-of-fact tones.  Compare Amazing Grace with, for example, Hamilton, another historical drama opening this season.  Librettist Lin-Manuel Miranda has crafted what could be a pedestrian topic and, instead, created a dynamic, colorful and dramatic theatrical presentation.  Amazing Grace would have benefitted from such imaginative and provocative thinking.  This is not to say the musical is a long, boring history lecture.  Some of scenes can be quite powerful as when the selling of captured Africans, caged in cramped quarters, is brutally portrayed.  The battle scenes and special effects are quite riveting.

The cast is earnest and forthright.  While the material is not that compelling the actors work very hard in delivering the show’s weighty message.  Josh Young as the impetuous and somewhat reckless John Newton has a roguish air, but his performance lacks nuance and subtlety.  His strong voice resonates throughout the Nederlander Theatre, but charm and vocal strength can only go so far.  Erin Mackey, as Mary Catlett, has a gorgeous voice and shows spirit as she aids the abolitionists and seeks her real true love.  Tom Hewitt, as Captain Newton, John’s father, is intense and blustery.  Only towards his untimely demise does he show the character’s true feelings towards his son.  Chris Hoch’s Major Gray is a bit too buffoonish, yet is sufficiently narcissistic as he seeks the affection of Ms. Catlett; Chuck Cooper as the proud manservant Thomas and Laiona Michelle as the Catlett household slave, Nanna, give reserved, but passionate performances.  Their individual plights, separate, but equally harrowing, form the emotional core of the musical.

The score by first time Broadway composer Christopher Smith is pleasing, but never elevates itself beyond the conventional.  There is the occasional rousing number such as the opening “Truly Alive,” and inspirational with the song “Testimony,” but overall the music and lyrics are too undistinguished.  For a musical that is called Amazing Grace we only hear snippets of the title song’s melody throughout the show.  With the way the score and book are shaped we do not hear the full rendition of the hymn, performed in its full reverence, until the musical’s end.

Director Gabriel Barre is at his best guiding the many action sequences and incorporating the production’s special effects without overwhelming the show.  Unfortunately, there are so many scene changes that achieving a consistent flow or developing an emotional core is difficult.

The creative team has produced exemplary work.  Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce’s scenic design, primarily the sets representing the tall ships and the Act I finale underwater sequence, are laudable.  Ken Billington and Paul Miller’s lighting and Jon Weston’s sound design are valuable collaborators with Lee and Pierce.  Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are regal and sumptuous; and David Leong’s fight sequences add realism and authenticity to the production.

Amazing Grace, a heartfelt effort not fully realized.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Review of "La Cage Aux Folles"

When the musical La Cage aux Folles opened on Broadway in 1983 it was seen as a risky and daring piece of theater.  The show focused on an overtly gay couple running a nightclub in the south of France that featured drag entertainment.  Over 30 years later, the storyline of La Cage seems tame and somewhat old-fashioned, but this joyous and celebratory production, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 10th, is still provocative and captivating.

The show follows the carefree lives of Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) and Albin (Jamison Stern) at their apartment above the nightspot as well as the gaiety and performances within the cabaret setting.  Their “maid” Jacob (Cedric Leiba, Jr.) is a preening handful.  Everything in their lives is running smoothly until George’s 24-year-old son (from a one-night tryst) Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan) arrives home, announcing his engagement.  Before a celebration can commence he tells his papa that the father of the bride is the infamous Edouard Dindon (Mark Zimmerman), head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party whose stated goals is to close the local drag clubs.  To complicate matters he has invited his future in-laws to dinner at their apartment.  Jean-Michel pleads with his father to keep Albin, the man who helped raise him, away for just the night.  Indignant and hurt Albin obliges until fate steps in, entangling both families in hilarity and hijinks.

The full cast is in fine form, but the show is really a showcase for the actors playing Georges, Albin, Jacob and the Notorious Cagelles that are both the lead-in act and back-up singers for the renowned ZaZa.  James Lloyd Reynolds gives Georges an understated dignity as he tries to placate his lifelong partner and the situation rendered by his son.  Cedric Leiba, Jr. as the manservant Jacob is the comic jewel of the production with his outrageous outfits and discontented whine.  Sometimes his performance can be a bit over-the-top, but his shenanigans always leave a smile on the audience’s faces.  Jamison Stern’s Albin is, at first, a one-dimensional overwrought entertainer.  Slowly, as the plot develops his character becomes more nuanced and impassioned, which climaxes with the Act I finale, “I Am What I Am.”  In order for the audience to connect with Albin, Jamison Stern has to bring off a stirring rendition of the song, which the actor more then delivers.  The Cagelles, seven men performing in drag within the musical’s nightclub locale, are engaging, athletic and just a bit campy as they strut, dance and sashay across the stage.

The score by Jerry Herman, his last for the Broadway stage, contains some of his strongest work.  They include “With You on My Arm,” “I Am What I Am,” “The Best of Times,” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”  They can be poignant and sentimental without being cloying.  The best of the songs consistently convey an emotional intimacy that celebrates individuality and loving relationships.

Rob Ruggiero, one of the best musical theater directors working in the state, has put together a highly polished production, which is both outrageous and touching.   He takes all the components of the musical, adding a bit of glitz and understanding, to form an entertaining and cohesive whole.  The director also successfully focuses our attention on the relationship between Georges and Albin.  The musical cannot succeed without the portrayal of a strong bond between the two men.

Ralph Perkins’ choreography is flashy, smart and energetic.  He gives the Cagelles quite a workout.  Michael McDonald has a field day with the numerous costume designs, primarily, for the Cagelless.  They are fancy, frivolous and colorful.

La Cage Aux Folles, more family oriented then not, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 10th.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review of "South Pacific"

The enjoyment of the mostly winning production of South Pacific, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 26th, is hearing the magnificent Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers score live.  Every song is a gem and sung by an appealing cast with the vocal talent to wonderfully deliver each number.

Librettists Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan based the musical on a number of stories from James Michener's Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific.  The novel revolves around the author’s experiences in the South Pacific theater during World War II and incorporate two disparate love stories.  The first focuses on the romance between a young American nurse, Nelly Forbush, stationed on one of the islands occupied by American soldiers and a middle-aged French plantation owner, Emile de Becque.  The second liaison is between a young soldier, Lt. Joseph Cable and an island girl, Liat.  The stories intertwine throughout the drama and each highlights the deep-rooted racial prejudice among the Americans.  Hammerstein and Logan’s book  skillfully conveys the boredom of war and the drama and struggles the armed forces faced during wartime. 

The score by Rodgers and Hammerstein is one of their best.  Just about every song is a classic.  Some of immortal tunes include “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’I,” “A Wonderful Guy,” and “Younger Than Springtime.”  They run the gamut from heartfelt ballads to comedic numbers to songs with a social consciousness such as the emotional laden “You’ve Got to Carefully Taught.”

The cast is highly satisfying.  They are led by David Pittsinger, as Emile de Becque.  Pittsinger, who logged in time in the role in the acclaimed 2008 Lincoln Center production, has the regal air of a French gentleman.  His operatic, bass-baritone, is a powerful instrument that captivates the audience.  He can be suave and boyish in his pursuit of Ms. Forbush.  Adrianne Hick, as Nelly Forbush, is perky and a tangle of competing emotions.  She also possesses a beautiful voice and more then holds her own with Mr. Pittsinger.  Patricia Schuman’s Bloody Mary initially comes across as the island fool, but she is more plotting and purposeful as she tries to match the young Lt. Cable with her daughter Liat.  She also beautifully delivers one of the musical’s signature numbers, “Bali Ha’i.”  William Selby’s Luther Billis is a first-rate conniver and the main source for comic relief in the production.  Peter Carrier as Lt. Joseph Cable is manly, a dedicated soldier and painfully confused in his conflicted love for Liat.

The direction and choreography by David Edwards is perfunctory at best.  Scenes unfold, characters move around the small stage and a few innocuous dance numbers are incorporated into the production. 

South Pacific, enjoying a sold out run at the Ivoryton Playhouse through July 26th.  Call ahead for possible ticket cancellations.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of "Gloria"

The play Gloria, extended through July 18th at the Vineyard Theatre, is a scathing indictment and assessment of today’s publishing industry.  It is also a blistering mediation on career mobility, interpersonal relationships and the cold-hearted insensitivity individuals show in order to make the deal.  Everything is framed within a cataclysmic event that forever changes people’s lives.

We are introduced to a number of employees at an unnamed magazine—Dean, a burnt out assistant to the editor, with dreams of becoming a writer; Ani, a care-free member of the back room staff; Kendra, a flippant, holier-than-thou worker; Miles, an Ivy League intern; Lorin, the harried and frustrated fact checker; and Gloria, a long time, slightly off and reticent employee.  They bicker, argue, condescend and console one another.  Suddenly, without warning, a catastrophe occurs just before the curtain for Act I descends.  Act 2, which begins a few months later, looks at the aftermath of this devastating occurrence.  I am being coy in my description so as not to spoil the shocker playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins has so perfectly woven into the story.

The cast—Kyle Beltran, Catherine Combs, Michael Crane, Jennifer Kim, Jeanine Serralles and Ryan Spahn--are a joy to watch.  Each play multiple roles and become lost within each their characters.  They perform as a true collective, which only magnifies the action on the small stage.

Playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins pummels the old media of print journalism and publishing as well as taking a mighty swing at the new media of today.  He has crafted conversations that seem so heartfelt and real, whether between squabbling office mates or two former colleagues sharing a coffee at Starbucks.  I felt like I was ease dropping on the goings on at a highly dysfunctional office or on private, inimate conversations.  The author builds up to the Act I climax slowly, without much warning, providing a heightened buzz at intermission.  He continues to surprise, shock and confound throughout the play.

Director Evan Cabnet has molded his group of actors into a finely tuned machine.  They are not robotic.  Far from it.  The players are just so in sync with each other.  Each member of the troupe knows their part and how it fits into the larger whole.  This is truly an ensemble effort.  Cabnet is adept at staging the messier office battles as well as the quieter junctures of the production, which still pack a wallop and can momentarily stun.

Gloria, only through July 18th at the Vineyard Theatre.  Not to be missed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Review of "Shows for Days"

"Welcome to the theatre, to the magic, to the fun
Where painted trees and flowers grow, and laughter rings fortissimo
And treachery's neatly done.
Now you've entered the asylum, this profession unique
actors are children playing hide-and-ego-seek.”
From “Welcome to the Theatre” by Lee Adams

Margo Channing (Lauren Bacall) sings about the vibrancy, frustrations and love of the theater in the song “Welcome to the Theatre” from the musical Applause.  These sentiments are echoed in Douglas Carter Beane’s affectionate dramatization of a community theater troupe in Shows for Days, playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through August 23rd.  Based on his own beginnings as a teenage actor/playwright, the show also presents his awakening sexual identity as a gay young man in Redding, Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s.

The play stars the indomitable Patti Lupone as Irene, the leader of the small group of actors trying to eke out their art in less than ideal surroundings.  Ms. Lupone is superb.  She is a force of nature, not unlike her role as Mama Rose in her Tony Award winning performance in Gypsy.

The show is narrated by Car, played by the ebullient Michael Urie.  On a bare stage, with minimal scenery and props, he and the other five actors/actresses struggle to present their theatrical season, maintain a sense of quality and dignity and navigate through interpersonal dynamics, including Car’s struggles with his sexual identity.

Douglas Carter Bean has written, in essence, a love letter to the theater.  Even those of us who might have just tread the boards in a flimsy high school production can relate to the characters, shenanigans and pathos of the community theater troupe.  Beane’s inclusion of a narrator gives the audience a necessary tour guide as the show progresses.  He seamlessly comments on race and sexual orientation without being heavy handed on the subjects.  The one minor problem is incorporating both the theater group’s ever evolving aspirations with Car’s personal struggles.  While each is part of the overall story, the plot lines occasionally distract from each other.

The cast is marvelous, holding their own with Ms. Lupone.  All have a role to play within the group.  Sometimes this does give them a one-dimensional disposition.  In addition to Michael Urie’s shaded and nuanced role as Car, Dale Soules as the company’s co-founder Sid, is spunky and sharp.  Her gravely voice adds urgency to her constant dire proclamations.  As an older lesbian she cautiously maneuvers the terrain of the time period.  Lance Coadie Williams as Clive, a gay African-American local, is proud, passionate and a hot house of conflicting emotions.  Zoe Winters as Maria is a bit mousey but, overall, determined.  Jordan Dean as Damian is the hardest character to grasp.  Dean gives him a multi-layered sheen, becoming almost a chameleon in his interactions with the other cast members.

Director Jerry Zaks makes sure Patti Lupone is front and center when she is onstage.  He gives her oversized personality room to scheme, sweet-talk and meddle.  Zak successfully maneuvers Michael Urie’s narrator as the unifying force of the play.  He skillfully and proficiently shepherds the actors around the small performance space as well as their entrances and exits in the three-sided theater. 

Shows of Days, a theatrical valentine, playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center through August 23rd.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review of "Xanadu"

Xanadu, the last offering of the Connecticut Repertory Theater’s summer series, is…well, silly. Silly, daffy, and with a generous helping of camp.  The musical provides a jolt of lovable lunacy for theatergoers.  It can teeter on the verge of plunging down the abyss of excess but, through the strength of its nostalgic score and winning performances, rights itself time and time again.

The cast of XANADU, the musical comedy by Douglas Carter Beane,
with music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. 
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

Based on the 1980 movie flop of the same name, Xanadu tells the story of seven sisterly Greek Muses who appear in Venice Beach, California to save and inspire the soul of a failed artist named Sonny. Led by the youngest of the group, Clio, who in her humanly form transforms into an Australian named Kira (the movie starred Australian Olivia Newton-John), the band of merry conspirators help Sonny fulfill his artistic vision by opening a multi-media performance space that would also include a roller disco. Yes, a roller disco. With a mirrored disco ball.  Remember, this is 1980. Throw in some evil shenanigans by two of the sisterly Muses, the collusion of an aged real estate mogul who, down deep, wants to just make music and, of course, the forbidden love between Sonny and Kira, and you have the whole whacked out scenario.

Book writer Douglas Carter Beane has crafted a lighthearted book based on the aforementioned film.  His goal is nothing short of giving the audience an off-the-wall spectacle that puts a smile on everyone’s faces.  He succeeds completely.

Xanadu works, most of the time, due to its infectious exuberance typified by the off-the-wall nuttiness in the opening number, “I’m Alive.”  The songs, especially for baby boomers like myself, are a sheer joy to hear. There is a generous helping of Electric Light Orchestra hits—“Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” and “All Over The World” along with soft rock standards by Olivia Newton-John such as “Magic,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” and the title song, “Xanadu.” They are delivered by an engaging cast headed by Amandina Altomare as Kira. Altomare started out giving an uneven performance, with a shaky singing voice, but by the end of the show was beaming with confidence and power. Luke Hamilton’s portrayal of Sonny, the artist who requires a Muse’s inspiration, was serviceable at best.
Steve Hayes (Calliope/Aphrodite) and Ariana Shore (Melpomene/Medusa)
are evil women in XANADU.  Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

The show really belongs to the supporting cast led by Steve Hayes and Ariana Shore as the oft-kilter, maniacal muses plotting Kira’s demise. They are superb with perfect comic timing that always give a spark to the production.  Likewise, Dirk Lumbard’s performance as the brusque, ill-tempered Danny enlivens his scenes with some marvelous tap dancing routines.  The Muses, whether they are performing as an ensemble or individually, are a gleeful delight.

Director Vincent Cardinal keeps the pulsating action flowing so effortlessly that the one and one-half hours of intermission less daftness breezily and carelessly flies by. He allows the actors room for playfulness, which Steve Hayes gladly accepts.  Choreographer Cassie Abate adds a nice mix of disco inflected moves for the actors.  Costume Designer Lisa Loen deserves a special note for her whimsical creations—Centaur and Cyclops—that appear towards the end of the production.

Xanadu, something out of the ordinary from your more traditional Broadway musical, dispensing a satisfying dollop of sustained and entertaining silliness.  Now through July 19th at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs.