Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review of "The Father"

One of the joys of theater-going is watching a consummate actor create his craft on-stage.  Frank Langella, a three-time Tony Award winner, is such a performer and he is once again gracing a Broadway production in the drama, The Father.

He portrays Andre, an older man living in a nicely appointed Parisian apartment.  Rarely venturing out, he is experiencing the onset of dementia.  His daughter, Anne, under stress from work and trying to provide in-home care for her father, is understandably frazzled.  Her new boyfriend, Pierre, is supportive to a point.  As the play’s dynamics progress what we think we see on stage comes into question.  Is the man walking into the living room real?  A figment of Andre’s deteriorating mind?  What about the other women entering the scene?  Are they actually present?  Where, exactly, is Andre living—his own place or his daughters?  And where is Anne’s mysteriously absent sister?

Playwright Florian Zeller’s inventive script is intelligent and clever.  At first, The Father appears to be a well-told tale of dementia and its affects on family.  But by delving into the mind of Andre, showing us the world through his crumbling mind, what he sees or may not see, the audience is constantly kept off-balance. This keeps our attention focused on the characters and their actions leading up to the heartbreaking finale.

In his portrayal of Andre, Frank Langella gives the character many different looks and emotional faces.  He can be dignified, jaunty, jarring, a suave charmer, imperious, and childlike.  Another strength of this consummate performance is the shading and subtlety he gives to the portrayal.  The theatrics are muted, which allows for a more convincing portrait of a proud and complicated individual.  Kathryn Erbe, with her soul-searching looks and minimal movements, astutely and completely conveys the grief and suffering Anne is undergoing.  She is the more understated ying to Langella’s flamboyant yang.  The other actors in the production—Brian Avers, Charles Borland, Hannah Cabell, and Kathleen McNenny--are all first-rate in their supporting roles.

Scenic designer Scott Pask has crafted a handsome Paris flat which, between scenes, slowly deconstructs, paralleling the disorientation Andre is undergoing. 

Director Doug Hughes smartly tones down the histrionics of the actors, focusing on each character’s development and singularities.  He skillfully brings a nuanced and steady rhythm to the production that allows the turmoil to unfold in an unhurried, but urgent manner.

The Father, an engrossing and gripping drama.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review of "On Your Feet!"

·      Maybe it was the half-filled orchestra?
·      Maybe it was the underwhelming vibe of a 7PM Tuesday night audience?
·      Maybe it was the gaggle of Long Island women seated behind me talking incessantly throughout the show?
·      Maybe it was sitting through the unassuming performance of the stand-in for the female lead?

Whatever the reason(s), I was hugely disenchanted after leaving On Your Feet!, the story of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, at the Marquis Theatre.  The reviews and word-of-mouth had been positive so I was expecting an entertaining and, possibly, lively evening based on the recording artist’s songbook.  Instead, it felt like the show was slightly out-of-phase, not totally in sync.

The musical tells of the rise of Ms. Estefan from humble beginnings in Miami’s Little Cuba to pop superstardom.  Family strife and struggles, her courtship and marriage to the forceful and headstrong Emilio, and her near death experience are all catalogued.  The book by Alexander Dinelaris introduces the plot in a matter-of-fact presentation style without enough compelling exposition.   It was interesting to learn about the behind-the-scenes deal making within the music business and the couple’s struggles within the record industry.  But, besides that aspect of the show, there was not enough dramatic ferment to draw me into their stories.

The score is a cavalcade of hits and other songs released by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine during the 1980’s and early 1990’s.  They include such fan favorites as “Conga,” “Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” “Anything for You,” and “Don’t Wanna Lose You.”  The best are delivered when the sizzling on-stage band cranks up the latin beat.

Linedy Genao, standing in for Ana Villafane, didn’t quite bring the sizzle to the Gloria Estefan role.  Unfortunately, for this performance, an actress needs to completely command the stage, have the audience in the palm of her hand.  That special, je ne sais quoi aura, was noticeably absent.  Josh Segarra, as Emilio, with his thick, sometimes hard to understand accented speech, is obstinate impassioned, and obsessed with success.  He brings fervor to his performance, just not enough nuance.  Andrea Burns gives some depth to her role as Gloria’s mother, a woman with strong convictions and temperament.  Alma Cuervo, as the singer’s grandmother, brings a welcome comedic presence to the show.

Director Jerry Mitchell knows movement and has been honored for his own choreographic stints.  Here, he does a wonderful job setting the stage for choreographer Sergio Trujillo, but the non-dance numbers don’t coalesce to from a dynamic whole.  They came across as individual scenes as opposed to a finely orchestrated composition.

Choreographer Sergio Trujillo does offer up a dazzling, flashy, and simply scintillating number of full-throttled production numbers.  They consistently energize the production at the most opportune moments.

On Your Feet!, a flawed jukebox musical that occasionally excites but, more often then not, disappoints.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of "Disaster!"

For audiences of a certain age, 1970’s disaster movies are remembered for their overblown silliness and A list casts.  These films are lovingly satirized in the Broadway musical Disaster!  The show is a mash-up of such classics of the genre as Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure.  As with their celluloid brethren the production is over-the-top, self-conscious, schmaltzy, and features a first rate cast of Broadway musical veterans.  They include Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlain, Adam Pascal, Roger Bart, and Rachel York.  Special mention goes to Jennifer Simard as a deadpan, cynical nun with a past.  She consistently enlivens the production every time her black patent leather shoes set foot on stage.

The score is comprised entirely of hits songs from the era, including such personal favorites as the “Hawaii 5-0” theme song; “Saturday Night,” from the Bay City Rollers; and “Hooked on a Feeling,” by Blue Suede.  They are creatively and mirthfully integrated into the storyline.  For example, two trapped passengers sing “Knock Three Times” as they try to signal the other survivors about their worsening plight.

Book writers Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick have stitched together a smattering of plot lines from disaster movies.  They involve an overly large cruise ship, shoddily constructed; an earthquake; tidal wave; and absurd mayhem.  They have also added a bevy of featherbrained characters.  There are many sight gags and inventive devices integrated into the libretto.  However, by the beginning of Act II the set-up begins to get a little thin and tiresome.  There’s just so much a spoof of this nature can achieve.  Then, again, you don’t attend the show for its dramatic merit. 

The point of Disaster! is for the audience and actors to have a shipshape, top notch experience and Plotnick, doing double duty as director, makes this the priority.  At the performance I attended both groups were successfully having a rollicking good time.  The director helms the show with a breezy, carefree, and somewhat slapdash style.  Sometimes it appears like a good-natured college production.

Disaster!, fun, entertaining, and not to be taken too seriously.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of "Having Our Say"

Dramatizing the oral history of two 100 year-old African-American women can be a daunting task.  But when the individuals are the Delaney sisters, who led such interesting and compelling lives, the undertaking is not too difficult.  The show, Having Our Say, by the playwright Emily Mann is an amusing, engaging, and intelligent drama.  It traces the lives of Sadie and Bessie Delaney from their formative years in the late 1800’s through the racism and segregation of the Jim Crow South to New York City and the Harlem Renaissance and, finally, their move to the white suburbs of Mt. Vernon, New York in the late 1950’s.  These were well-educated and activist women.  Sadie was the first African-American woman to teach in an all-white New York high school.  Bessie became a licensed dentist.  What makes the production so striking are the stories.  They can be playful, heartbreaking, and riveting.  Sometimes their memory-laden tales can become pedestrian and unentertaining but, for the most part, the audience is treated to a chronicling of personal history as well as yarns about such historical figures as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The two actresses playing the sisters are formidable and no-nonsense.  They are the very essence of oil and vinegar, ying and yang.  But they make the century old relationship work, despite their differences and temperments.  Oliva Cole is wonderful as the easygoing, soft-spoken Sadie.  A self-confessed momma’s girl, Ms. Cole layers her character with emotional depth.  She conveys a relaxed and unhurried charm in her performance.  You believe the actress has topped the century mark.  Brenda Pressley is feisty and on-target as the sharp-tongued, irascible Bessie.  She convincingly portrays a woman that has experienced untold struggles throughout her long life.  My only criticism is I didn’t get the feel from Ms. Pressley’s performance that this was a 100 year-old woman.

The set design by Alexis Distler transports the audience into a well-kept, slightly faded, multi-room home interior.  Even though the set it is rather large for a two character play, the well-appointed living room, beautifully set dining room, and orderly and spic and span kitchen add an understated grandeur to the show.

Director Jade King Carroll manages to give the production movement and flow, even as much of the two-hour play has the performers sitting and chatting.  She has enriched the actresses’ characters with a profusion of charming mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that adds depth to their portrayal of the women.  

Having Our Say, at Hartford Stage through April 24th.        

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Review of "Blackbird"

Blackbird, is a hard driving, troubling drama that addresses the after effects of a child molestation incident on the two involved parties.  Una (Michelle Williams) was abused when she was 12 years old.  Now in her mid-20’s she, by chance, discovers the whereabouts of her violator.  She barges into his workplace one late afternoon and, for the next 80 minutes or so, verbally spars with the scared, antagonistic culprit (Jeff Daniels).  She wants to rehash what occurred years ago, the reasons, and aftermath.  The venom spewed, from both scarred souls, is raw and feels real.  During the course of the production preconceived notions become less defined.  Actions long ago, while thoroughly reprehensible, are not so black and white.  The conclusion of the play raises further questions of truthfulness and motives—from both parties.

Playwright David Harrower takes an abhorrent event and teases out a very plausible scenario.  The strengths of the show is the uneasy questions and retorts from each character.  Harrower keeps the audience off-balance, zigging when you think the direction will zag.  While Blackbird is an absorbing drama with outstanding performances it does seem somewhat longer then necessary, which doesn’t diminish its strength, but slightly lessens its impact.

Both Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels are worthy adversaries.  The pair each run through a jumble of emotions and reactions.  They can be deceivingly soft-spoken at one moment, conniving foes the next, and seething aggressors after that.  These are both damaged individuals and the actors skillfully convey this mental make-up.  The performers bring a nuanced approach to their character, giving them a complexity that combs the depths of their respective despair and inner agony. 

Director Joe Mantello is able to extract superior performances from Williams and Daniels.  With the action-taking place in the deserted break room, he skillfully uses the long, eight-foot table as a barrier as well as a shield for the combatants.  He deftly maneuvers Una and Ray around the fluorescent-lit room, treating them like two caged, unpredictable animals, each ready to pounce.  They lunge, they parry, they retreat. 

Blackbird, playing at the Belasco Theatre through June 11th.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of "She Loves Me"

The revival of She Loves Me is an old-fashioned, charming, romantic comedy with a winning cast; a vintage, classic score; and an eye-popping set.  Based on the play, The Shop Around the Corner, its plot revolves around two clerks working at Maraczek's Parfumerie.  When Georg Nowack (Zachary Levi) and Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti) first meet, it’s like oil and vinegar.  Unbeknownst to them , they are secretly smitten with each other through their correspondence, having met through the newspaper’s Lonely Hearts advertisement.  Their co-workers—Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), the smooth womanizer; Ilona Ritter (Jane Krakowski), the aging beauty hopelessly looking for love; Ladislav Sipos (Michael McGrath), the eager-to-please company man; the high-spirited and determined delivery boy, Arpad Laszlo (Nicholas Barasch); and the gruff store proprietor, Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings)—are all oblivious to the friskiness and subterfuge between the two associates.  Eventually, through inadvertent roadblocks, misdirection and stubbornness the romantic pen pals connect and fall in love.  Real love.  In the flesh.

Bookwriter Joe Masteroff has written a witty, breezy and entertaining libretto.  The dialogue is engaging, lively, and carefree.  He has developed real, substantive characters and scenes that effortlessly flow from one to the other.

The score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock ranks as one of their finest and this is the team behind Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello!  All the songs are self-contained gems, beautifully crafted and sung.  If you crave music and lyrics that are memorable and even hummable, She Loves Me will be a tasty treat to treasure.

The marvelous cast is led by a bevy of talented Tony Award winners.  Laura Benanti (Tony for Gypsy) is fiery, goofy, love lorn, headstrong, and radiant.  Her singing voice is so pure and beautiful.  Zachary Levi is totally convincing as the bewildered, lovesick and fumbling clerk who, once putting pen to paper, becomes an eloquent and erudite gentleman.  Jane Krakowski (Tony winner for Nine) is marvelously comedic as the yearning, passionate charmer searching for true contentment.  Michael McGrath (Tony winner for Nice Work If You Can Get It) is a lovable nebbish as the long time company man.  Gavin Creel is a devilish cad as the narcissistic, smooth operating clerk, Mr. Kodaly.  Nicholas Barasch is youthfully exuberant and Byron Jennings is sufficiently patriarchal as Mr. Maraczek.

Director Scott Ellis has taken the first rate cast and skillfully integrated them into a dynamic whole.  In fact, all elements of the production blend so wonderfully together, keeping an almost perpetual smile on audience members.  He smartly keeps the focus on the two central protagonists, but provides enough of a spotlight for the supporting performers to shine.  This includes a very amusing sequence in the CafĂ© Imperiale by the wait staff, portrayed by Peter Bartlett and Michael Fatica.

David Rockwell’s set design is impressive and visually breathtaking.  A jewel box Parfumerie opens up to a bright, splashy interior with multi-colored bottles and vessels.  It is a feast for the eyes that only heightens the overall pleasure of the show.

She Loves Me, a welcoming spring tonic.