Friday, August 17, 2018

Review of "Gettin' the Band Back Together"

Can a simple-minded, highly derivative musical (with no real stars) succeed on Broadway?  That’s the question Getting’ the Band Back Together needs to be asking itself as it begins its uncharted journey on The Great White Way.

The story is as basic as they come.  Mitch, a 40-year-old stockbroker, is fired and moves back to Sayerville, NJ with his mother.  There, he reunites with high school chums who were all in a band (Juggernaut) that won the area’s Battle of the Bands their last year in school.  Fast forward to the present—the members of the quartet are in unfulfilling careers, with Mitch unemployed and, due to a razor thin plotline, end up, once again doing battle with their arch rival Mouthfeel, the band they defeated for that long-ago title.  At the show’s end, with a gratifying twist, the bandmates find fulfillment and purpose in life.

The book of the show, by Ken Davenport (also the lead producer) and a dizzying array of writers known collectively as The Grundleshotz, have mined for inspiration material from such musicals as School of Rock, The Wedding Singer, and The Full Monty.  You can even throw in the movie Karate Kid.  The material has been recycled many times before—men in the throes of midlife crisis, reviewing their hopes and aspirations, and not being afraid of chasing your dreams. 

The developments are clichéd, but can also be very funny and entertaining in a low brow, goofy manner.  New Jerseyans in the audience, like myself, will be amused with all the Garden State references sprinkled throughout the show (I’m exit 8A off the Turnpike).  Act I is more streamlined and purposeful, but the second act seems overlong and padded with filler as we wait for the ultimate climax.

The happy-go-lucky score by Mark Allen is at its best when producing high octane silliness such as the title number, the opening song, “Jersey,” and even a rap version of “Hava Nagila.”  They are infectious as well as disposable.   

The characters are loosely sketched.  The cast doesn’t have to stretch their acting muscles for their roles.  The main criteria is for them to have fun and emote within broad set parameters.  While each performer is just fine, three stand out.  There is the ageless Marilu Henner as Mitch’s mom, Sharon.  Her spirit is bubbly and infectious.  Jay Klaitz is affable and dopey as the portly Bart Vickers, Mitch’s best friend and possible paramour for his mom.  Sawyer Nunes gives the best performance as the band’s new teen recruit, Ricky Bling.   He exudes self-confidence, is highly excitable, slightly arrogant, and a very talented musician.

The limited choreography by Chris Bailey can be exuberant in a fist-pumping, in-your-face style.  John Rando guides his crew with energy and freeness.  There’s not much subtlety or nuance in his direction.  The goal, it seems, is to keep the pacing quick and effortless.

Getting’ the Band Back Together, a lightweight entry to the new Broadway season.


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Review of "Head Over Heels"


I was very disappointed with Head Over Heels, the new Broadway musical that incorporates the songbook of the Go Go’s, one of the most influential female groups of the New Wave era.  The book of the production, based on the Arcadia by 16th century writer Sir Philip Sidney, is convoluted and not well suited to the musical compositions of the band.  The show also tries, with muted success, too hard to be hip and politically in tune. 

The story, conceived and written by Jeff Whitty, begins in the land of Arcadia where King Basilius (Jeremy Kushnier) rules with his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) and their two daughters—the eldest, Princess Pamela (Bonnie Mulligan) and her younger sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha).   The full-figured and egocentric Pamela, who her parents are trying to marry off, continuously rejects suitors while her plain and innocent sister yearns for the simple, kindhearted shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand). 

In quick succession, the king goes before the Oracle of Delphi (the actress Peppermint), listens to her dire predictions for the kingdom, and packs up his family for a vacation in an attempt to flee from the gloom and doom prophecy.  During their traveling through the forests outside the realm love, in its many forms and guises, makes its mark on each of the central characters just as the Oracle had predicted, which leads to happiness, song and dance for everyone.

The book of the show comes across as overly elaborate for a jukebox musical and, in the end, engenders disinterest in the plot and characters.  Not to say a show like Mamma Mia is the pinnacle of these types of productions, but that long-running ABBA musical got it right.  The libretto was neatly crafted, full of frivolity and frothiness, and utilized the Swedish group’s song catalogue to perfection.  Whitty’s construction for Head Over Heels would have been better served with a storyline that was more lighthearted and took less effort to follow.

The score utilizes Top 40 songs by the Go Go’s, popular numbers, and lesser known works such as “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” “Vacation,” and the title number “Head Over Heels.”  They are briskly and good-naturedly delivered by the cast.  A well-rehearsed, musically adept five-piece female band (who are revealed to thunderous applause at the conclusion of the show) provides indispensible support.  As good as the songs may be, the overall impression is how most feel shoe horned into scenes.

The cast is game for what Mr. Whitty and Director Michael Mayer throws at them.  They cavort around the stage, gnash their teeth, primp themselves, fret and, as in the case of Andrew Durand, find their inner femininity.  The two cast members of note are Bonnie Mulligan, who is appropriately over-the-top and assuredly confident as Princess Pamela and Peppermint, who it has been noted, is the first transgender performer to play a lead in a Broadway musical. She is appropriately flamboyant and high-spirited and is the sole person who’s portrayal has best grasped the silliness and irreverence of the production.

Director Michael Mayer has a difficult task, trying to fold the cumbersome book into a well-paced, vibrant Broadway musical.  There are flourishes that work, such as the “Vacation” production number and the meeting of the Oracle in the serpentine forest and others that are strained and pedestrian such as the king and queen’s shadowy carnal moments.

Choreographer Spencer Liff ‘s ramped up dance routines give a manic feel that proves distracting and takes away from the enjoyment of the songs.  This is exemplified right at the top of the show with “We Got the Beat.”

Head Over Heels, an inauspicious start to the new Broadway season.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

August 12, 2018 Radio Show

I am now linking my weekly Broadway radio show, "On Broadway" via my blog.  There are two ways to listen:
Click & Listen - You can click here to listen to this week's episode.  There are also hundreds of past episodes available on my website.

Podcasting - Each week a new program will be available by podcasting. If you have iTunes you can subscribe to the weekly "On Broadway" podcast or download it.

The podcast address is:
http://www.broadwayradioprograms.com/podcasts/Broadway.xml

TONIGHT'S THEME - Overtures & More
Below is the playlist from August 12, 2018. Tonight, we focus on overtures and ballet music from Broadway shows.

Name of Song
Name of Show

Overture
The King and I
Overture
Bajour
The Bathing Beauty Ballet
High Button Shoes
Overture
Promises, Promises
Overture
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman
Overture
How to Succeed in Business
Sadie Hawkins Ballet
L'il Abner
Overture
Candide
Overture
Funny Girl
Overture
Mack and Mabel
Overture
The Boys From Syracuse
Overture
Man of La Mancha
Overture
Finian's Rainbow
Overture
My Fair Lady

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Review of "Straight White Men"


A family reunion during the Christmas holiday is the setting for playwright Young Jean Lee’s mostly terrific play Straight White Men.  The men, in this case, are an aged father and his three grown-up sons, in their mid to late 30’s.  Together, for their yearly celebration, the quartet of guys are goofy, reminiscent and, at certain points, serious-minded. 

Their comradery and constant teasing can be very funny.  Let’s just say I will never think the same way of a certain type of protein and Chinese food ever again.  It is during this traditional meal that a hint of instability is first raised as Matt, the eldest son, breaks down in tears for no apparent reason.  This incident serves as a vehicle to propel the production forward as, in between the horseplay and exuberance, the other two siblings and their father attempt to help, even fix, what they perceive to be their brother’s problem.

Ms. Lee’s play can be very, very funny.  Where it starts to go astray is trying to decipher what message the author wants to convey to the audience.  There is much talk of white privilege—when the boys were young and their mother was alive she taught them about social justice and caring about the downtrodden--but there are also discussions of mental health and about people fulfilling their potential.  With no consistent slant, it is hard to grasp the central thrust of the play.

Then there is the loud, very loud, music that greets theatergoers as they take their seats.  The reason, as presented before the show begins by two characters - “Person in Charge 1 and 2” – is supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, just like these gender non-specific performers may feel in a world of Straight White Men.  The idea provides interesting food for thought, but distracts from the primary focus of the show.

The ensemble cast works so well together.  Josh Charles (Jake), Armie Hammer (Drew), and Paul Schneider (Matt) have an ease and comfort level that come across as genuine and unaffected. Their interactions and tomfoolery appear heartfelt and true to life.  Paul Schneider, who portrays their father Ed, has an easy-going, old-fashioned disposition, which subtly provides a stabilizing presence within the endless barrage of shenanigans.

Director Anna D. Shapiro has fully grasped the playfulness, togetherness, and smoldering tensions within a maturing family.  Her guidance appears almost effortless during the scenes that relive family traditions and memories.  Her task is more challenging, and less successful, in putting forth a cohesive point of view of by the author.

Todd Rosenthal’s set design is homey and reminiscent of every comfy den from what seems like the 1980’s.

Straight White Men, at times hilarious even as its more serious side can be convoluted.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

August 5, 2018 Radio Show

I am now linking my weekly Broadway radio show, "On Broadway" via my blog.  There are two ways to listen:
Click & Listen - You can click here to listen to this week's episode.  There are also hundreds of past episodes available on my website.

Podcasting - Each week a new program will be available by podcasting. If you have iTunes you can subscribe to the weekly "On Broadway" podcast or download it.

The podcast address is:
http://www.broadwayradioprograms.com/podcasts/Broadway.xml

TONIGHT'S THEME - All-Request (OCR M - Z)
Below is the playlist from August 5, 2018.  The first Sunday of the month is an all-request program. Tonight cast recordings M - Z..

Name of Song
Name of Show

Bikini Bottom Day
SpongeBob – the Musical
Waiting for Life
Once on this Island
Something's Cooking
The Spitfire Grill
Never
On the 20th Century
It's Today
Mame
Oom-Pah-Pah
Oliver!
There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This
Sweet Charity
What’s Goin’ on Here?
Paint Your Wagon
Someday
The Wedding Singer
No Time at All
Pippin
Don Jose of Far Rockaway
Wish You Were Here
Overture
Promises, Promises
Welcome to the Renaissance
Something Rotten

Review of "Barefoot in the Park"


For a good part of the 20th century, from 1961 through 2003, Neil Simon was the most successful and prolific playwright on Broadway.  His output was a staple of regional and community theater productions, it seemed, forever.  [Trivia Note:  He is the only writer to have had four of his works playing simultaneously on the Great White Way.]

While his latter plays, most notably Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, and Lost in Yonkers have continued to prove popular, his earlier works now appear more anachronistic and dated.  They have seemingly dropped off the radar screen.

This brings us to the production of Barefoot in the Park, Simon’s 1963 hit comedy, currently running at the Sharon Playhouse through August 12th.  The show has its charms and there are scattered laughs throughout the production.  However, this tale of two newlyweds starting off life together in New York City comes across more as a relic of bygone days.

The plot is simple.  Corie Bratter, a woman full of life in her mid-20’s, and Paul Bratter, a junior lawyer, have been married for just about a week before setting up house in a six story Manhattan walk-up.  Besides the steep climb, there are problems with their new abode, which causes consternation and some angst.  Adding to the young couple’s adjustment is Corie’s widowed mother, Mrs. Banks and Victor Velasco, an idiosyncratic charmer living on the rooftop apartment.  As the action progresses the trials and tribulations of starting life together shows some strain.  Slight misunderstandings and spats turn into something much grander, which become magnified with the involvement of the two “mature” adults, before a happy resolution is realized.

Neil Simon’s strength has always been his ability to mine the everyday, especially when it comes to marriage, with amusing circumstances and characters.  When Barefoot in the Park originally opened, its situational comedy style was hip and refreshing, but now seems tame and out of favor. 

The older cast members—Rex Smith as the flamboyant neighbor Victor Velasco and Susan Cella as Mrs. Banks—are very comfortable in their roles and elevate the quality of the production.  Smith, a 70’s heartthrob singer and actor, cultivates a bon vivant and lively spirit.  He adds a spark to the play whenever he sashays on stage.  Ms. Cella is a wonderful counterpoint to Smith—a ying to his yang.  More low-key in her performance she, nonetheless, has a light comedic touch, which produces some of the funnier moments of the play.  Rebecca Tucker, can be somewhat hyperactive and scatterbrained in her role as the recently wed Corie Bratter.  Like actor Craig Bryant Belwood, who portrays husband Paul, there could have been more nuance and variation to their performances.

Randall Parson’ set design, with its large vertical windows towering over the stage, perfectly captures the look and feel of a small, cramped New York City apartment.  Think of a much more modest version of Monica and Rachel’s dwelling in the TV series Friends.

Director Clayton Phillips brings a mostly harried pacing to the production.  This is coupled with occasional kooky and humorous episodes. The interactions that include Rex Smith and Susan Cella work better as there is more effervescence to their scenes.  He does an excellent job creating the illusion of a tiny NYC apartment and the utter exhaustion of mounting six flights of stairs.  There could have, however, been more subtlety in guiding Ms. Tucker and Mr. Belwood through their paces.

Barefoot in the Park, a weathered Neil Simon warhorse, playing through August 12th.