Monday, September 24, 2018

Review of "Make Believe"

How do the traumas and events of our childhood shape our adult lives?  This is the central question in the disappointing world premiere of playwright Bess Wohl’s Make Believe, playing at Hartford Stage through September 30th.

L-R: Sloane Wolf, Roman Malenda (background), RJ Vercellone, Alexa Skye Swinton

The show begins with an interesting set-up.  Four pre-teen children, waiting for the arrival of their mother, are entertaining themselves in their spacious rec room, effectively and meticulously conceived by Scenic Designer Antje Ellermann.  But we soon realize that play time is not all innocent fun, filled with sugar and spice and everything nice.  These are kids that have been brought up in an unloving profanity-laced environment and it shows in their interactions and foolery.  We learn some of the backstory from a serious of voice mails left on the telephone (this is the pre-cell phone era of the mid-1980’s) during their wait.

L-R: Molly Ward, Megan Byrne, Brad Heberlee

Almost a third of the way through the production the cast of children seamlessly changes over, with three of them morphing into their adult selves.  They have reunited, some 30 years later, for a funeral.  Gathered in the old playroom, their splintered and distressing struggles come into full view as they reminisce, pontificate, and contemplate their present lives.

While the premise of the show has potential, it is not fully realized and leads to unfulfilling characters who invite little sympathy and compassion.  The problems and the ordeals of the adults read like a laundry list of hardships and quandaries—divorce, alcoholism, gay relationships, pill popping, infidelity, dysfunctional relationships and even autism is thrown in to the mix.  We obtain a cursory understanding of each role, nothing more.  Delving further into the psyche of the characters would have produced a more satisfying result.

Chris Ghaffari in "Make Believe."

The cast is uniformly fine.  The four child actors—Alexa Skye Swinton (Addie), Sloane Wolfe (Kate), Roman Malenda (Chris), and RJ Vercellone (Carl)—deserve praise for, on the whole, holding the audience’s attention as they lay down the foundation of the play. The adult performers portraying their childhood counterparts--Megan Byrne (Kate), Brad Heverlee (Carl), and Molly Ward (Addie)—aptly demonstrate angst, regret, and a dollop of self-loathing, but their portrayals lack a substantive core, which hampers a more well-rounded performance. Chris Ghaffari, adds a touch of comic relief (or is that numbskull relief) as Chris’ friend Chris.

RJ Vercellone in "Make Believe."

Director Jackson Gay is more successful guiding her small charges through their paces.  She has the freedom and flexibility of composing playful games and routines for them while also bringing forth the darker side of their lives.  The adult segment is less compelling except during the moments that are punctuated by silence and lack of intimacy.  By having the siblings be more distant to each other, even though close in proximity, Gay effectively illustrates their non-relationships and damaged persona.  The most telling part of the entire production occurs when the grown-up Carl begins to cry and neither sister reaches out to comfort him.

Make Believe, a work that could use some further refining, playing at Hartford Stage through September 30th.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

September 16, 2018 Radio Show

There are two ways to listen to my weekly radio program:
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:

TONIGHT'S THEME - Remembrances
We remember recently departed Neil Simon and Marin Mazzie and celebrate the legacy of Leonard Bernstein. The first Sunday of the month is an all-request program. Tonight, cast albums A - L.

Name of Song
Name of Show

There's Gotta Be Something Better Than
Sweet Charity
Here's to Us
Little Me
A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing
Promises, Promises
My Rules/Elliot Garfield Grant
The Goodbye Girl
When You're in My Arms
They're Playing Our Song
Back to Before
Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me
Bullets Over Broadway
I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance
Third Letter
I Hate Men
Kiss Me, Kate
Build My House
Peter Pan
One Hundred Easy Ways
Wonderful Town
West Side Story
I Can Cook Too
On the Town
The Best of All Possible Worlds

Sunday, September 2, 2018

September 2, 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:

TONIGHT'S THEME - September 2018 Requests
Below is the playlist from September 2, 2018. The first Sunday of the month is an all-request program. Tonight, cast albums A - L.

Name of Song
Name of Show

Outside of That I Love You
Louisiana Purchase
I Married an Angel
I Married an Angel
The World is Upside Down
Finding Neverland
A Little Luck
Honeymoon in Vegas
If I Were You
Blue Skies
Holiday Inn
I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
An American in Paris
Sister's Pickle
Truly Alive
Amazing Grace
You Deserve Me
I Had a Ball
Cross the Line
Always Starting Over
If I Knew My Story
Bright Star

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Review of "Pretty Woman"

Is the new musical, Pretty Woman, a great musical?  No, but, at times, it’s a captivating and charming adaptation of the iconic film. 
Andy Karl and Samantha Barks from "Pretty Woman."
As with the Richard Gere/Julia Roberts movie, the story introduces Edward Lewis (Andy Karl), a workaholic billionaire that buys up distressed companies only to turn around and sell off the assets for huge profits.  By chance, he meets Vivian Ward (Samantha Barks), a gorgeous hooker on Hollywood Boulevard and, through some implausible plot twists, hires her to be his weeklong companion while he conducts business in Los Angeles.  After some false starts, a touch of meddling and prying from friends and colleagues, and a dash of more improbable incidents, romance blossoms and a fairytale ending is secured.

The book of the musical by the movie’s director Garry Marshall and its screenwriter J.F. Lawton follows the film’s plot and scenarios much too closely.  Most successful movie to musical transformations need to reinterpret the celluloid version, avoiding a strict rote presentation, which the creators have effected too often here.  The romantic and fanciful storyline that incorporates a hint of Pygmalion and essence of Cinderella has always been hard to swallow, especially in its sanitized view of prostitution.  However, the public has not seemed to mind as it has responded enthusiastically to the whole contrivance.

The score by 80’s rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime songwriting collaborator Jim Vallance is a mix of power pop confections and more conventional Broadway melodies.  There are enough hooks and well-crafted numbers to satisfy an audience seeking original, appealing songs.

Samantha Barks and the cast of "Pretty Woman."

The chemistry between the central cast members Andy Karl and Samantha Barks is the strength of the show.  They look good together, feel natural, are frisky and sexy.  Andy Karl, who has been in a number of recent movie to musical creations (Rocky, Groundhog Day), is charismatic, playful, and debonair as the extremely successful businessman, Edward Lewis.  At times, though, he is too laid backed and unbothered.  The steeliness and central focus of someone so intent on profits is missing, which undermines the overall impact of his character.  Ms. Barks is a stunner with a powerful voice.  Within the constraints of a musical comedy the actress is able to convey a diverse array of emotions as she sets forth on her life-changing journey.

The supporting players—Eric Anderson as the Happy Man and, more importantly, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel manager Mr. Thomapson; Opreh as Vivian’s best friend Kit; and Tommy Bracco as the bellhop Giulo—are all superb and handsomely complement the production.

Director/Choreographer Jerry Mitchell seems to play it safe with too few innovations or modifications from the source material.  It is a tricky road to travel—how much of a transformation to impose on a beloved film as it is reconceptualized for the Broadway stage?  With only a few embellishments and adjustments the show does not achieve its full potential.

Pretty Woman, a pure delight for fans of the movie, but more pedestrian for the rest of us.