Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review of "Come From Away"

The events of 9/11 still strike a raw nerve within the national psyche.  The books, movies, and television programs that have been rolled out over the past 16 years have been graphic and numbing.  Their blunt, straightforward portrayal of that morning have been, for the most part, unvarnished and overpowering.  The unintended consequences has been a separation, a significant chasm that precludes our mind from fully processing that tragic episode in American history.

Come From Away, the new Broadway musical, approaches that Tuesday in September differently.  The show relates the true story of how an abandoned airfield in Gander, Newfoundland in Canada suddenly became the pit stop for dozens of commercial airlines when the United States airspace was closed because of the attacks.  In aviation history Gander was the central refueling depot for planes crossing the Atlantic.  With the advent of jet propulsion the Gander locale became an abandoned footnote, until that fateful day when the population of the small town grew overnight from 9,000 to 16,000 residents.  The musical relates how the townspeople and “plane people” reacted, adapted, and came together over a five day period of time.  It humanizes the events of 9/11 through personal stories, song and dance.   The result is a show that is uplifting, funny, and forlorn.  It is a joyous celebration of life and the human spirit even as the very fabric of our lives was upended.    
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Librettist Irene Sankoff and David Hein have crafted a well-structured narrative where the cast portrays a multitude of roles from stunned and shaken airline passengers to the average man and woman on the streets of Gander.  The husband and wife team focus on the determination of everyone to make an unthinkable and untenable situation work.  This optimistic attitude is carried throughout the show.  Some would-be audience members might think any art form with 9/11 as the backdrop would be maudlin and depressing.  But Sankoff and Hein’s book for the show is more heartening and inspirational.  Are there moments when the tissues come out?  Sure, yet they are offset by humorous and tender moments that make you want to stand and cheer.

The ensemble cast is full of individuals you would find at any main street diner.  They exude their own can do spirit as they forcefully take hold of the material with a dynamism and drive that is heartfelt and genuine.  Every one of the actors and actresses fit so well together.  If there was a Tony Award for Best Ensemble Come From Away would be the hands down winner.  Three of the group that do deserve mention are Jenn Colella, who primarily portrays the gritty pilot of one of the diverted planes; Joel Hatch, who’s main character is the unflappable mayor of Gander; and Astrid Van Wieren, who’s central role is as the levelheaded, problem-solving school administrator.
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
The score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is a mix of haunting and soul-searching compositions and exuberant melodies that joyfully reverberate throughout the theater.  Tinged with the Irish roots prevalent in this northern Canadian province, they are almost all ensemble pieces.  The songs are performed by a tight knit, boisterous band that would be welcome at any Emerald Isle drinking establishment.

Director Christopher Ashley does a superb job with the flow of the cast as they assemble from one scene to the next.  There is a good deal of logistics involved as chairs forming the interior of a jetliner may quickly become the setting for the neighborhood bar or coffee shop.  He keeps the pacing quick without rushing the storyline. Under Ashley’s guidance, the transformation of the actors and actresses from one character to another is skillfully executed.  Gratifyingly, the overall effect allows the audience to slowly absorb the impact of what is happening without a preachy or moralistic tone.  The integration of the musical numbers, under the musical staging of Kelly Devine, is organic, developing naturally and mirroring the action on stage.  The dancing is buoyant and lively and reflects the down-to-earth nature of the towns folk. 
Members of the cast of "Come From Away."
Beowulf Boritt’s Scenic Design is spare with, for the most part, tables and chairs, serving a variety of functions.  A smart choice.  Anything more elaborate would have lessened the pace of the show and tethered our imagination.

Come From Away, an absorbing and moving musical that will leave you searching for words of praise. 

Review of "War Paint"

The fierce rivalry between cosmetic titans Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden during the post-World War II era seems like an unlikely subject for a big Broadway musical.  But War Paint, with two certified stars in the leads—Patti Lupone (Ms. Rubenstein) and Christine Ebersole (Ms. Arden)—and the same creative team behind the Tony Award winning Grey Gardens, proves to be an engaging, captivating, and classy production.
Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole in "War Paint."
The show examines the competition between the two women who ruled corporate boardrooms when very few women were even in the upper echelons of the business world.  The musical also looks at their individual empires and the ups and downs of both their businesses and personal lives.  Librettist Doug Wright has fashioned a coherent narrative that, while not perfect, manages to include a good deal of information in a dramatic and entertaining manner.  He also succeeds in nimbly touching on a number of notable topics as sexism, classism, and anti-Semitism without appearing so obvious or deliberate.  By covering such a significant amount of historical terrain, character development has been somewhat compromised, more so with the men in the story then the two female protagonists, but not to the detriment of the overall production.
The high voltage women in the cast—Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole—are worth the price of admission.  Both are seasoned musical theater veterans that are able to embody the heart and soul of their characters.  They are iron-willed, classy, sophisticated, but also vulnerable and alone.  Ms. Lupone, who’s Russian émigré accent sometimes gets the best of her, nonetheless is superb as Helena Rubenstein.  Her performance is bold, defiant, and self-assured.  Throughout the show, she delivers a number of very funny, sharp-witted bon mots.  Ms. Ebersole, as Elizabeth Arden, presents a less hyperbolic portrayal.  She is well-poised and assured in her demeanor and possesses a razor-like focus on her goals, no matter what the sacrifices and slights, both personal and business.  Douglas Sills (Harry Fleming) and John Dossett (Tommy Lewis), the two men in Arden and Rubenstein’s lives who serve as their creative directors, publicists and confidantes, give well-honed performances within the limitations of their roles.   The primary focus is on the female leads and their story, which doesn’t allow the necessary time for expanding and refining the Fleming and Lewis characters.
Douglas Sills and Patti Lupone in "War Paint."

Director Michael Greif once again succeeds in birthing a musical with two strong, independent-minded female leads just as he accomplished with Grey Gardens.  He has skillfully worked out a stage management schema for Ms. Lupone and Ms. Ebersole to shine individually and in tandem.  He deftly guides the production through its pace to create a series of tightly woven scenes that together form a persuasively structured, unified whole as opposed to a series of strung-together vignettes.  Mr. Greif also manages to successfully weave through the show feelings of sadness, humor, triumph and defeat.
Christine Ebersole and members of the cast of "War Paint."
The score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie afford each star a chance to, literally, shine in the spotlight as well as together.  The songs are effective in providing shading and nuance to the characters and moving the plot along its many twists and turns.  While none of the numbers will be remembered once leaving the theater they are engaging, finely written compositions well-suited within the confines of the show.

David Korins’ scenic design, along with Kenneth Posner’s Lighting Design, has fittingly captured the essence of the two corporate cultures and the world the women inhabit.   They bring a stylish and polished look to the production.  The costumes by Catherine Zuber are elegant, chic, and smart.

War Paint, a well-crafted musical with two bona fide stars delivering tour de force performances.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of "The Play That Goes Wrong"

Take Murphy’s Law – whatever can go wrong, will go wrong – and amplify it’s outcome to the nth degree.  That is the quite amusing, sometimes hilarious premise behind the British comedy, The Play That Could Go Wrong.  It is opening night for the Cornly University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor.  From the onset, the members of the school’s decidedly amateur cast is undermined in their efforts to entertain by uncooperative scenery, misplaced props, and a corpse that won’t stay dead.  As the play progresses all manner of mayhem giddily erupts.  Just as you think the turmoil couldn’t get worse it does, again and again.

The playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sawyer, and Henry Shields – all actors in the show – must have had a grand time coming up with the situations and anarchy portrayed on stage.  They have written a stage comedy in the tradition of such other London imports as Noises Off and One Man, Two Guvnors.  This show is full of vaudevillian antics, slapstick and a great deal of physical humor..  Question – why can’t American playwrights pen such consistently convulsing shows.  There are some very inspired moments that would spoil the fun and merriment if they were revealed.  Suffice it to say you will not leave the theater without a smile on your face.

The superb cast successfully portrays a troupe of bumbling, provincial actors and actresses.  They butcher the English language, miss their cues, and are literally battered into submission.  If I had to spotlight one actor it would be David Hearn.  His character Max is self-important and smug within his role.  Everytime the audience laughs or applauds he turns his head to the seats with a broad, appreciative smile.  At other times he gesticulates wildly, arms flailing about like a pathetic contestant in a game of charades.  He is so bad, he’s good.  The two women in the cast – Charile Russell as the woeful femme fatale Sandra and Bryony Corrigan (making a superlative Broadway debut) as the overworked stage hand Annie – deliver a master class in stage fighting and pummeling.  You feel their pain, albeit in your funny bone.

Mark Bell does a fabulous job directing his cast to be…awful.  It can’t be easy guiding the actors and actresses through a purposeful dreadful performance, but he does so with skill and aplomb.  In addition, he cleverly  weaves into the production a recalcitrant and disintegrating set, flinging bodies, and even an invisible dog.

You get the impression that Scenic Designer Nigel Hook was like a kid on a sugar high when he created the concept for the show.  He has gone hog wild in coming up with a set that, by play’s end, literally implodes.  On the way to the final destruction he, along with Andrew Johnson’s playful sound design, generate a cornucopia of pandemonium and madness. 

Special mention needs to go to the unnamed stage crew (who actually take a bow with the cast at the curtain call).  Not only must they stay on their toes throughout the entire two hours of the show, but they have to rebuild the set every day (twice on matinee days).  They are the unsung heroes of the production.

The Play That Goes Wrong, a diverting and wacky respite during our topsy-turvy times.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Review of "Assassins"

A musical about Presidential assassins and would-be assailants is the highly unusual, somewhat creepy, premise for a full-fledged musical.  Yet, in 1990 Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman created such a show called, aptly, Assassins, which is receiving a spirited and passionate production at Yale Rep through April 8th.
The cast of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The production features an impressive ensemble cast, who bring to life the irrationality and disturbed state of each person.  Librettist Weidman mashes up groups of characters as well as scrutinizing their individual foibles and beliefs.  He tries to get into the soul of each person through probing vignettes that examine their backstory.  He is successful in creating three-dimensional characters, most mentally ill, hold unfounded grudges or are deranged nationalists.  The rogue’s gallery includes John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln; Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield; Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot John F. Kennedy; and John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.   

The score by Stephen Sondheim echoes the time-period reflected by each Presidential era.  The songs explore the human condition and failed dreams of the protagonists.  Passionately sung with urgent and probing lyrics and melodies this is the work of a mature artist at the peak of his craft.
P. J. Griffith, Julia Murney, Stephen DeRosa, and Robert Lenzi in Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by James Bundy.
Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2017.
The acting troupe is outstanding.  Each person thoroughly embodies their character, mostly with chilling effectiveness.  While every member is superb, standouts include Stephen DeRosa as the delusional Charles Guiteau; Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, who comments on the proceedings and as the languid and unsure assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Richard R. Henry as the unbalanced Nixon hater Samuel Byck; Robert Lenzi as the self-important, courtly John Wilkes Booth; Lauren Molina as the Charles Manson loving Lynnete "Squeaky" Fromme; and Julia Murney as a pathetic and distressed Sara Jane Moore.

Director James Bundy plays on the theme of the carnival setting by injecting menace, the unknown and even humor into the production.  He is keenly attuned to the desperation and torment of the characters, weaving their stories together in a socio-pathetic interpretive dance.  The strength, however, of the show is when the focus is on the individual assailant and their inner turmoil. 

Assassins, a chance to see the rarely revived Weidman/Sondheim collaboration, playing at Yale Rep through April 8th.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Review of "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey"

For a one-person show to be successful an actor needs to be a gifted raconteur with an interesting and engaging story to tell.  James Lecesne, the playwright and performer in the captivating and thoughtful Hartford Stage production of The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey meets these essential criteria.

Lecesne, who had a successful Off-Broadway run with the show, has crafted a tale that, on the surface, recounts a missing person investigation in a small, fictional New Jersey shore town.  However, the real importance of the play is more about differences and acceptance. 
James Lecesne as Detective Chuck DeSantis in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey."

The actor portrays Chuck DeSantis, a local detective, who begins to look into what happened to the individual, a 14-year-old named Leonard Pelkey.  Through interviews with many denizens of the town we learn about the fate of the young man, a gay teenager in a town that’s not very welcoming of such residents.  As the investigation progresses we begin to grasp the effect Pelkey, young and quirky, had on people and how his actions could inspire others in unknowing ways.  This, in essence, is the meaning of the show’s title as Lecesne states in the program:  “each of us brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.  We shine no matter what.”

The 80 minute, intermission-less production, is told with humor and pathos.  Lecesne, the playwright, has created a multitude of colorful, well-etched characters, each with his or her own personality and idiosyncracies.  They include a 16-year-old high school girl, a madam of the local hair salon, a bird watching wife of a Mafioso boss, and an elderly Germanic clock repair man.  As an actor, Lecesne gives a multi-faceted, layered performance. 
James Lecesne, portraying one of the characters in "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey."
Director Tony Speciale, who was also at the helm of the original Off-Broadway production of the show, lets the stories speak for themselves.  Many times Lecesne, in one of his guises, is simply sitting in a chair or standing erect giving us insight to the missing youth.  The director successfully manages the transformation between characters with a quick spin by the actor or change of facial expression and intonation of voice.  He also satisfactorily incorporates Designer Aaron Rhyne's projections to amplify the storyline of the production.  Sometime scenes extend a bit too long but, overall, the show keeps the audience in rapt attention.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, entertaining and engrossing, playing at Hartford Stage through April 23rd.

Review of "Next to Normal"

The best musical in Connecticut right now is playing at Theaterworks.  Next to Normal, the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning show, is receiving a spirited and impassioned production at their downtown Hartford venue.  The show centers on a mother with a bi-polar disorder triggered by the death of an infant son and how her family struggles with this paralyzing condition.

The portrayal of a household at the precipice and how each member copes with their inner tensions, angst, and personal crises is riveting theater. Brian Yorkey’s libretto draws you into their individual despair, their setbacks, and small victories. It is a musical where the audience is connected to the energy and emotionally involved with the characters portrayed on stage.

The raw energy and urgency of the rock-infused score by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey amplifies the edginess and distress on stage. The music and lyrics convey the hurt, desperation, and even hope by the characters. The songs are powered by a tight, six-piece band under the first-rate musical supervision of Adam Souza.

Each member of the six-person company brings a strong intelligence and sensitivity to their role.  Their individual singing voices steadily handle the varied score, whether powerful rockers or tender ballads.  Leading the cast is Broadway and musical theater veteran Christiane Noll.  Her performance as Diana, the troubled mother at the center of the story, is heartfelt and shattering. David Harris, who seems to have found a home within the Connecticut musical theater community the past few years (Les Miserables at CT Rep and Anything Goes at Goodspeed), does a superb job with his portrayal of Donna’s husband, Dan.  He imbues the role with an undercurrent of frustration and helplessness as he seeks to support his beleaguered wife.  John Carboza gives an anguished, mournful rendering to Gabe, the deceased son.  Maya Keleher, making her professional theater debut, comes off as a polished actress in the role of the daughter Natalie.  Nick Sacks is satisfying as Natalie’s funky boyfriend Henry and J.D. Daw delivers a solid performance playing two different psychologists,

Director Rob Ruggiero coaxes heart-wrenching performances from each actor as he slowly builds the emotional level of the show to its ultimate climax.
Working with set designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer John Lasiter, the scenes nimbly and seamlessly meld into each other without disrupting the flow of the story.  Sometimes, when all the characters are on stage, the production can appear crowded, which can be distracting to the audience, but this is a minor issue.  Overall, Ruggiero, one of the best musical theater directors in the state, has a firm and skillful handle on the show.

Wilson Chin’s set design, banks of shelving chock full of with lamps and household knick knacks, is somewhat busy.  However, it is an apt metaphor for the clutterness within Donna’s consciousness and the luminousity she is searching for within her life.  His placement of a center doorway provides an opening into her mind, which only the departed son can enter and leave.

John Lasiter’s lighting design is outstanding as it helps shape the many moods swirling around the show and also helps designate scene changes within the production.

Next to Normal, a compelling and absorbing musical drama, extended through May 7th.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review of "Significant Other"

Four very close college friends, still together in their late 20’s, gather to celebrate at a New York City club the engagement of one of their own.  Kiki, somewhat untamed and sloshingly drunk, is having the time of her life with her best pals.   She is the first among the four to tie the knot in playwright Joshua Harmon’s funny, touching, and bittersweet meditation on the true meaning of friendship as millennials age and take the next step in their lives.  The bond between the diverse group could only be forged during the collegiate years.  They are Vanessa, now a book editor, who nonchalantly fixates on death; Laura a school teacher; and Jordan, a gay man working in an advertising agency with Kiki.  Slowly, each of his female buddies becomes involved with the man of her dreams.  Each time an engagement is announced and a wedding celebrated Jordan feels more removed and alone.  His forays into dating and relationships go nowhere and his only solace are conversations with his elderly grandmother.  In the end, Jordan is literally by himself on stage as he, and we, ponder his future.
Gideon Glick, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Sas Goldberg and Lindsay Mendez.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Joshua Harmon has crafted a play full of honesty, comic, and heart wrenching moments.  There is a genuine quality to the storyline and the individuals portrayed.  Harmon has developed characters you may know or experiences your college graduated children may be facing.  You quickly become drawn into the ups and downs of their lives.  I don’t remember a time in the theater where, at two critical moments, the audience both collectively sighed and gasped.   We care about the ramifications unfolding before us.
Gideon Glick.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
The ensemble cast is led by the superb performance of Gideon Glick as Jordan Berman.  He is the focus of our attention during the show as he works through the emotions of losing, one-by-one, his dearest friends.  The actor is lively, spontaneous, and vulnerable.   Lindsay Mendez’s Laura is the soulmate of Jordan.  The two are peas in a pod, sharing moments and experiences.  She instills a realism and sincerity into her character, showing compassion and empathy for Jordan’s travails.  Rebecca Naomi Jones as Vanessa and Sas Goldberg as Kiki are spunky, somewhat over-the-top as they add some spice to the more melancholy moments in the production. Both John Behlmann and Luke Smith, playing multiple roles, give their characters an appealing and agreeable assortment of distinctive looks.  The theater veteran Barbara Barrie’s portrayal of Helene is understated and provides balance to the more destabilized and shifting lifestyles of the other cast members.
Luke Smith, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Gideon Glick, Sas Goldberg and John Behlmann.  Photo by Joan Marcus.
Director Trip Cullum brings a fresh and very real perspective to the production.  He has created an atmosphere where the performers come across as authentic in their feelings and actions.  He does a superb job with movement on the small Booth Theater stage.  He skillfully maneuvers the actors within scenes that morph into different segments of the story, all the time keeping the narrative flow unimpeded.  His intermittent use of players within the shadows adds a voyeuristic and humorous touch to the show.  He also imbues the actors with quirkiness and exuberance, primarily in the club and celebratory scenes.

Scenic Designer Mark Wendland has presented a multi-leveled set that, with minimal changes, and subtle lighting effects by Designer Japhy Weideman, effectively combines the claustrophobic nature of New York City living—at work, home and play.

Significant Other, amusing and heartbreaking as it explores relationships and friendships.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of "Sunset Boulevard"

There are two reasons to see the revival of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway.  First, is the luminous performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, recreating her Tony Award winning role from 23 years ago.  Close, older now, but lacking none of her vitality, totally embodies the character of the aged, fading silent movie star.  This is one of those defining theatrical performances that should not be missed.

The second reason is the 20 plus member orchestra, women in black gowns, men in tuxedos, seated on stage, an unheard of number of musicians in today’s Broadway.  The lush, full sound envelopes The Palace Theatre unlike any other show on Broadway.  While the score is not top tier Andrew Lloyd Webber there are a number of defining songs – “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – that receive a captivating and heavenly sound.

Sunset Boulevard, based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, “revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.” (  Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton stick closely to the movie plot, making sure to provide Ms. Close with enough star turns, which is fine since the show sags somewhat when she is not on stage..

For this limited run Scenic Designer James Noone has created a starker production design then during the original run, with a series of stairways and interconnecting catwalks filling up the stage.  This forces us to focus on the actors as opposed to the opulence and decay within Norma Desmond’s world.  Costume Designer Tracy Christensen has pulled out all the stops with her extravagant, sometimes garish outfits for the character.  All are showstoppers.

The main supporting cast members are mostly effective in their roles without outshining for one moment the star of the show.  Michael Xavier gives screenwriter Joe Gillis the requisite down-on-his-luck, sarcastic edge, but he comes across as too much of a cad, no matter what the circumstance or situation.  Siobhan Dillion’s portrayal of Besty Schaeffer finely toes the line of hard-driving career girl with spunk and a heaping dash of insecurity.  Fred Johanson as Nora Desmond’s manservant and one-time director, Max Von Mayerling, needs to provide more variation to his characterization.  He comes across a bit wooden and one-dimensional.

The score, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, has a sumptuousness and grandeur quality made more impressive with the overly large on-stage orchestra.  As stated earlier, the musical has a number of signature songs delivered in a stirring and sophisticated fashion by Ms. Close.  Overall, though, the score is not one of the composing team’s strongest efforts.

Director Lonny Price smartly keeps Glenn Close center stage as much as possible.  When she is not the focus the production slips, waiting for her poise, worldliness, and energy to take hold.  All of this comes together in the dazzling Act II scene at the Paramount Studio backlot and the actress’s rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”  Her brilliance does overshadow the secondary characters in the musical and the show would have benefitted more fully if Price was able to give each of them an added dimension.    His inclusion of the on-stage orchestra adds a unique and satisfying element to the production.  The car chase through the LA canyon is an inspired piece of stagecraft.

Sunset Boulevard, catch it for Glenn Close’s thrilling, once in a lifetime performance.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review of "Wakey, Wakey"

A man lies helpless, sprawled on the floor of an unadorned space.  Blackout.  The next moment the man is sitting in a wheelchair talking to us, the audience, about his impending death.  He is engaging, at times humorous, as well as reflective and distressed.  So, begins playwright and director Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey, a meditation on one person’s eventual demise.  Michael Emerson, who embodies Guy, gives a powerful, multi-layered performance during this 75-minute production.  There is joy, sorrow, and warmth in what is, basically, a 60 minute monologue, interrupted only towards the end of the show by the introduction of Lisa (January LaVoy), a home health attendant.  Guy wants to entertain, tell some jokes, and live what is left of his life to the fullest while waiting for the inevitable to occur.  Ms. LaVoy is compassionate and understanding in her brief role as the aide to help Guy right up to the end. 
January LaVoy and Michael Emerson in Wakey, Wakey.
The script is ruminative and introspective and can become somewhat wearing with its philosophical ramblings and usage of playful projections.   Michael Emerson extracts all there is from the play but, in the end, there is not enough substantive dialogue and technique to carry the show to a fulfilling conclusion.  Will Eno, as director, lets loose a barrage of visuals to compensate, but they cannot make-up for the lack of a dramatic arc.

As the production concludes and Guy is wheeled off-stage a torrent of light (by Sound Designer David Lander), sound (Sound Designer Nevin Steinberg), and effects (Projection Designer Peter Negrini)  are unleashed, giving the audience a crescendo of death as envisioned by the now deceased character.  This focus on death’s finality is continued in the lobby of the Pershing Square Signature Center.  There, as theatergoers disperse, they will find an array of food and drink, simulating a Shiva call for a dearly departed friend or family member.

Wakey, Wakey, a thoughtful, sometimes compelling, but not fully satisfactory piece of theater.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review of "Napoli, Brooklyn"

The Muscolino household is awash in domestic drama, economic difficulties, and cultural acclimation.  In playwright Meghan Kennedy’s down-to-earth, languid world premiere, Napoli, Brooklyn, at Long Wharf through March 12th, nothing is matter-of-fact for this Italian-Catholic family.  Husband Nic (Jason Kolotouros) and wife Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) were part of the wave of immigrants coming to American shores before World War II.  In the play, which takes place in the early 1960’s, they along with their three children Vita (Carolyn Braver), Tina (Christina Pumariega), and Francesca (Jordan DiNatale) struggle to navigate the changing times of that period.  As their lives, along with those of their friends and acquaintances, ebb and flow a cataclysmic event—the December 16, 1960 plane crash in Park Slope Brooklyn—changes individual and family destinies forever.
From left, Christina Pumariega, Alyssa Bresnahan, Jordyn DiNatale and Jason Kolotouros.

Author Kennedy’s semi-autobiographic play crafts, what seems like a life-altering story for each character.  The overall effect, while keeping our interest, comes across as slightly manufactured and illusory.  Can one family’s members really be dealing with so much all at once—marital turmoil, sexual awakening, a budding African-American friendship at work, and even a sister’s banishment to a convent—at one time?  The arc of the play purports to revolve around the immigrant experience and how the changing mores of the 1960’s affects the Muscolino clan.  Yet except for a shoe-horned religious element the assimilation and accompanying struggles of the first generation American off-spring and their old world parents doesn’t resonate strongly.

The cast does an admirable job conveying the emotions and feelings associated with their particular narrative.  For example, Tina’s budding relationship with Celia (Shrine Babb), an African-American colleague at work, rings true.  However, the characters can come across as lacking subtlety and depth.  The individual stories associated with each character are not fully integrated into the whole of the play.  Only Alyssa Bresnahan as Luda, who is the heart and soul of the family, manages to successfully insert herself into each vignette of the production.  She is loving and protective as she attempts to understand and cope with the new reality spreading around her.  Jason Kolotouros as Nic, is crass, authoritative, and threatening, yet manages a brief, sympathetic nod after undergoing a transformative experience, before reverting back to his intimidating and unnerved self.
From left, Christina Pumariega, Jordyn DiNatale and Carolyn Braver.

Carolyn Braver comes across, initially, as flippant in her portrayal of the eldest daughter Vita.  But once temporarily away from the semi-imprisonment of her cloistered life she reveals a more hardened edge.  Christina Pumariega’s Tina is unsophisticated, but lacks shading in her role.  Jordan DiNatale’s Francesca and Ryann Shane as Connie, the younger daughter’s best friend, are playful and immature, but come across as juvenile 13 year olds as opposed to the 17 year olds stated in the script.  Graham Winton as Albert Duffy, the neighborhood butcher and admirer of Luda, is amiable, yet prosaic.  Shrine Babb, in her short time on stage, gives the character of Celia Jones a more fully nuanced rendering.

Director Gordon Edelstein lets the story slowly develop as the characters and their stories slowly unfold.  Scenes can be touching and brutally honest, but the overall feel is too episodic.  There is a lack of depth to the actor’s portrayal of their roles, which deprives the characters of generating any sustained passion or poignancy.  Act If’s climax of a holiday meal meltdown comes across as somewhat forced and artificial due, however, more to the way scene is written by the author.  However, Edelstein’s handling of the Act I finale is flashy, explosive, and gripping. 
From left, Shirine Babb and Christina Pumariega.

Special kudos need to go to set designer Eugene Lee, Light Designer Ben Stanton, and Sound Designer Fitz Patton for the audience rousing plane crash sequence—a jolting cacophony of theatrical wizardry.

Napoli, Brooklyn, an unrealized slice of the immigrant experience, playing at the Long Wharf Theater until March 12th.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Review of "The Comedy of Errors"

The Hartford Stage production of the Bard’s The Comedy of Errors is one lively, madcap, and eye-popping theatrical affair.  There are many non-Shakespearean elements dropped into the play including an homage to Bollywood musicals, some soft shoe routines, and a bubbly beach blanket movie number. 

Louis Tucci, Paula Leggett Chase and Alexander Sovronsky from "The Comedy of Errors."
Audiences are greeted to this farcical comedy with an intoxicating set design inspired by the cliff-top towns of the Greek island of Santorini.  A small dock, with two anchored boats, completes the picture.  As the show unfolds accordion and bouzouki playing actors accompany actress Paula Leggett Chase in an extended rendition of the song “Never on Sunday,” further setting up the Hellenic tone and mood of the show. After this ten minute prelude the jocularity begins. 

The Comedy of Errors, one of Shakespeare’s shortest works, revolves around two sets of twins separated at birth and, unbeknownst to each pair, find themselves in the same city on the same day sparking mistaken identities and bedevilment for the citizens of the city of Ephesus.

The large cast is game for the intoxicating pace of the play as they scamper about the stage, romp through open portals, and engage in boisterous and slapstick shenanigans. 

Darko Tresnjak directs with a controlled frenzy.  He has added unique elements that, along with his creative team, make the production a visual feast.  There is so much going on that even the casual Shakespeare fan will be entertained.  The frantic pacing can sometimes get in the way of the dialogue, but the thespians do splendidly getting about their job in between all the wild diversions.
Matthew Macca and Ryan-James Hatanaka in "The Comedy of Errors."
Choreographer Peggy Hickey might be having the most fun as she incorporates many styles of dance, both for just a few cast members as well as the entire company.  The Bollywood inspired number is especially spirited and energizing.

Some of the real stars of The Comedy of Errors are the creative crew.  Foremost is Darko Tresnjak, whose set design is a wonder and feast for the eyes.  The numerous costumes crafted by Fabio Toblini are playful with many being brightly colored confections.  Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Jane Shaw’s sound construction magnify and enhance the onstage antics.

The Comedy of Errors, a zany and diverting production, playing through February 12th at Hartford Stage.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

BroadwayCon 2017 - A Reflection

Last year I heard about the creation of BroadwayCon—based on the hugely successful ComicCon in San Diego, which highlights comics, science fiction and where movie studios and Hollywood and television stars come out in force to promote their upcoming events.  Even though the first BroadwayCon coincided with one of New York City’s largest snowstorms of the season, the proceedings were successful enough to produce a 2017 version with the hope of making it a yearly pilgrimage for theater aficionados and fans. 

This year, now ensconced at the immense Jacob Javits Convention Center on the far West Side of Manhattan, through Sunday, January 29, 2017, BroadwayCon is bigger and better.  Press representative Tori Bryan said they were expecting up to 5,000 people a day.  So, what exactly happens at BroadwayCon? 

BroadwayCon is a mash-up of lectures, panel presentations, Q and A sessions with Broadway actors and actresses, performances, sing-along’s, nighttime concerts, dance parties, and a marketplace with dozens of vendors and companies selling and promoting their wares.  There are even autograph sessions with such theater luminaries as Donna Murphy, Joel Grey, and Chita Rivera.  In short, BroadwayCon is a three-day smorgasbord of activities that would satiate any theater enthusiast.  In short, according to its organizers, “it is a chance to get the complete Broadway fan experience, from every angle…and to celebrate the shows they love with people who bring them to life.”

As a self-proclaimed theater geek, I arrived early Friday morning to immerse myself with the enthusiasts, some dressed as characters from such current Broadway hits as Elphaba from Wicked and the women from Waitress.  I was more interested in attending the historical and creative panel presentations then the other fan-based activities.  In the morning a diverse group of stage managers talked abut their craft.  The individuals--Matthew Aaron Stern, Marybeth Abel, Narda Alcorn, Matt DiCarlo, and Christ Ney--delivered a highly informative presentation on their behind-the-scene work.  It gave the packed audience insight into the role of stage manager and gave everyone a better appreciation for what it means to put on a show.

"In Trousers" reunion panel with Jennifer Ashley Tepper (moderator), Ira Weitzman, Alison Fraser, Mary Testa, Chip Zien and William Finn, partially viewed.

In the afternoon, members of the cast of William Finn’s ground-breaking, 1979 musical, In Trousers, reunited to present a highly informative, enjoyable and very amusing 60 minutes of stories behind the making of the show.  Mary Testa, Alison Fraser, and Chip Zien were hugely entertaining with composer and librettist William Finn proving to be an extremely engaging raconteur.  I wish there would have been more panels like this, which fused musical theater past and present.
The 1980 revival of "Damn Yankees," starring Joe Namath, Susan Elizabeth Scott and Eddie Bracken.

The Market Place is the centerpiece of BroadwayCon.   Placed squarely in the middle of the action, there are multitudes of booths selling Broadway-related paraphernalia and crafts, services for people in the field, podcasters, arts organizations, and more.  I was swept away with happy memories when I visited the Al Hirschfeld Foundation both.  During my formative years in the late 1960’s and 1970’s I always looked forward to the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday New York Times where splashed on the front page was a beautifully drawn Hirschfeld rendering from a new Broadway show or a Broadway personality.  The joy was trying to find the number of “Ninas” hidden within the ink and pen drawing (Nina was the name of his daughter).  You always knew how many to search for by the number at the end of Hirschfeld's signature alongside the picture. 

There were other vendors I thought stood out and tickled my fancy.  A number of them are presented below in photos.

All hand-sewn historical outfits by Alyson (in photo).
More of the outfits on display at the BroadwayCon Market Place.
Whimsical designs by Rediscoverhandbags utilizing LPs and Playbill covers to create handbags, purses and more.
I was very impressed with the craftsmanship of Jane Elisa's creations on canvass--bags, jackets, hats, and more.
Artist Ray Krampf, the self-professed ArtWhore, with some of his creations.
Bawdy drawings with accompanying off-color text.

BroadwayCon 2017, an all-encompassing fanfest for Broadway enthusiasts, through January 29, 2017 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City.