Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"


Cabaret, the landmark 1968 musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and a book by Joe Masteroff needs to exude a decadent immorality. This is Berlin in pre-War Nazi Germany where a looseness and anything goes depravity in the city’s nightclubs is the norm. Without this backdrop, Cabaret loses its power of seduction and socio-political commentary. In the production at the Summer Nutmeg series in Storrs, CT through July 21st, there is an underlying sheen of vulgarity and sin, but it is muted.  In addition, under Scott LaFeber’s direction, the key performances of the Emcee and Sally Bowles are not as strong which, unfortunately, tilts the focus of the show to the two secondary characters, Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz. 

The story of Cabaret revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Aidan Marchetti), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, nightclub, overseen by a sinister, scowling Master of Ceremonies (Forrest McClendon), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Fraulein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jonathn Brody).  Both relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

Throughout the production, the sense of menace and hedonism within the Kit Kat Klub is subdued.  The musical numbers, choreographed by Christopher d’Amboise, are entertaining, but do not convey a sense of naughtiness and eroticism one would expect in such a setting.

The cast, the usual mix at the Summer Nutmeg series of Equity and student performers, is a decidedly mixed bag.  Forrest McClendon, who received a 2011 Tony nomination for his performance in The Scottsboro Boys, portrays the Emcee as a large, caged cat, with shoulders pumping up and down.  He prowls the stage showing both contempt and a restrained appreciation for the audience.  The actor’s approach to the character, however, is more low-wattage.  It is not very risqué and the sexual ambiguity, so key to the role, is lacking.  Laura Michelle Kelly, who has appeared on Broadway and the London stage (she was the original Mary Poppins in the West End) is also less impactful as Sally Bowles.  The actress possesses a powerful singing voice that she showcases in such numbers as “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” But the allure, the mischievousness, the mystery of the character is missing in the performance.  Her relationship with Cliff lacks chemistry and comes across as more perfunctory.  The character of Cliff Bradshaw has always been less captivating compared to the other roles in the musical.  While Rob Barnes, a third-year MFA student at the University of Connecticut, has done splendid work in previous productions he comes across as too young and not as nuanced in this portrayal.

The real stars of Cabaret are Dee Hoty as Fraulein Schneider and Jonathan Brody as Herr Schultz.  Ms. Hoty gives a master class in acting.  Her performance is so heartfelt and strong, her songs so affecting, you yearn for her appearance on stage. Brody’s depiction of the Jewish grocer is equally earnest and impassioned.

The score by the legendary composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is arguably their best work.  There are so many iconic numbers in the show, most performed with pathos and urgency that captivate the audience.  From the exuberant “Don’t Tell Mama” and “Two Ladies” to the bittersweet ballads of “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” the score is an artistic triumph.  Music Director Ken Clifton leads a dynamic onstage band that gives a richness and vitality to the songs.

Director Scott LaFeber has toned down the decadence of the production.  While a sense of urgency is in the air, the ruination within the German city and populace is not front and center.  He has assembled a large ensemble of spirited Kit Kat Klub performers that create a fullness to the production.  The finale of the Cabaret, what should be the emotional zenith of the show is, instead, a puzzlement which required a quick reference check on Wikipedia when I returned home from the performance.

Cabaret, playing through July 21st in Storrs, CT.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Review of "The Scottsboro Boys"

One of the most abhorrent episodes of injustice during the 20th century was the arrest, subsequent trials, and imprisonment of nine black youths, falsely accused of raping two white women in 1930’s Alabama. Their story is the basis for the musical, The Scottsboro Boys, playing at Playhouse on Park through August 4th. 

The cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The production employs the construct of the minstrel show as a method to tell this contemptible story. When the show was set to open on Broadway in 2011, much was written about the controversial use of the minstrel show in the production. Minstrel shows, a mainstay of popular entertainment in the latter half of the 19th century as well as the early part of the 20th century, promoted racial stereotypes of African-Americans and is now seen as an offensive and repugnant art form. However, by utilizing such a highly charged and contentious vehicle to relate this woeful tale the creators of the musical--the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, along with librettist David Thompson—have been able to focus a searing spotlight on this tragic episode of racial injustice that helped to spark the civil rights movement in the United States.

The staging by Director Sean Harris is simple, yet powerful with just a few chairs and some wooden planks for sets. This allows the plot to unfold without any unnecessary distractions.  The Scottsboro Boys is entertaining, with pulsating choreography by Darlene Zoller that conveys the urgency and tension the nine youths are experiencing.  The show, however, is also troubling as audiences are confronted with such blatant disregard for humanity based on one’s skin color.  Yet while this incident happened over 80 years ago, examples of outrage and racism at this level still permeate society today.  Just watch the harrowing events in the current Netflix documentary on the Central Park Five.

Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo and the cast of "The Scottsboro Boys."  Photo:  Meredith Longo
The storyline follows the nine young men and boys as they are wrongly implicated, convicted and imprisoned.  Their so-called trial and verdict is an affront to the legal system, but the impending death sentences are overturned, which leads to numerous retrials, representation by a high-profile New York lawyer and even the recanting of the original charges by one of the victims.  Still, the nine remain jailed and, in the end, tragedy befalls each of them.

The songs are a mixture of haunting ballads with rousing ensemble numbers.  The score is one of the last for the long-time team of John Kander and Freb Ebb and reveals them at the top of their game.  As they have demonstrated in such musicals as Cabaret and Chicago, they are unafraid to tackle provocative topics.

Ivory McKay as Mr. Bones, left, and Torrey Linder as Mr. Tambo, right from "The Scottsboro Boys."                     Photo:  Meredith Longo
The cast is a mix of professional and non-union actors.  In most Playhouse of Park productions over the years, this blending of performers has not affected the thrust of the show.  However, in The Scottsboro Boys, the separation of talent is more noticeable, which lessens the dramatic impact of the musical at critical points.  For a small theater company the expenses for mounting this type of production are considerable.  However, the caliber of the show would have been elevated with a more seasoned cast.  With that said, Ivory McKay, who plays many roles, but mainly the minstrel show stalwart Mr. Bones, is superb.  His partner, Mr. Tambo, played by Torrey Linder, is up to the task of matching McKay’s cynicism and spot on portrayals.  Their roles serve to both accentuate and mock the miscarriage of justice.  Troy Valjean Rucker gives a powerful and moving performance as the principled Haywood Patterson.  As the Interlocutor, Dennis Holland is detached and properly condescending as the Master of Ceremonies.

Director Harris does an admirable job trying to mold the group of actors into a well-tuned ensemble.  He skillfully works through great moments of joy and sadness that keeps the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions.  The insertion of a mysterious lady throughout the production (her identity is revealed at the end of the show) is somewhat overplayed, which sometimes takes away the central focus of the show.

The Scottsboro Boys will challenge you and make you uncomfortable at times, but its message and inspired presentation make it a worthwhile and rewarding theatrical event. Kudos to Playhouse on Park.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Review of "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin"

NOTE:  The Irving Berlin show is now playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through August 3rd.  This is the same production that was at Hartford Stage earlier this summer.

The performer/pianist Hershey Felder has been captivating Hartford audiences for years with his one man shows of famous composers.  Previous embodiments have included George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.  His latest personification is of songsmith Irving Berlin, who’s career as a writer of iconic popular songs, movie scores, and Broadway musicals, spanned over five decades. 

Felder’s concept for the show is similar in approach to his previous incarnations.  There is an abundance of historical and biographical recitations mixed in with a generous helping of dazzling musical performances.  The formula can be a little schmaltzy, but Felder, in his earnestness and showmanship, makes the production thoroughly engaging.

The show leans heavily of Berlin’s life and music before World War II.  After quickly setting the scene—Berlin and his Jewish family emigrating to the United States from Russia—and whisking through his teenage years, Felder introduces the composer’s first huge hit in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911).”  From there, a succession of recognizable treasures is presented, including "Always" (1925), "Blue Skies" (1926), "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1928), “Easter Parade” (1933), “God Bless America” (1938), and “White Christmas” (1942).  No wonder when the composer Jerome Kern was asked, "What is Irving Berlin's place in American music,” the response was “Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music.”

The almost two-hour, intermission-less production packs in a great deal of musical gems and stories.  The problem for Felder, who also wrote the show, and Director Trevor Hay is deciding what to include, what to gloss over, and what to leave out in the composer’s illustrious career.  Scenes about Berlin’s army service and deep-felt patriotism are given ample attention, but his well-established movie composing career is relegated to a video montage of Fred Astaire singing/dancing to some of his best-known film songs.  More disappointing was Felder’s brief review of Berlin’s Broadway musicals.  While not every show was a hit - Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam - these musicals and the less successful ones, which include Miss Liberty and Mr. President, produced a cornucopia of riches.

Director Trevor Hay gives the production an easy-going flow, seamlessly blending Felder’s masterful piano work with his biographical snippets.  He incorporates an audience sing-a-long a few times during the show, which is heartily welcomed by those in attendance.

Stacey Nezda’s scenic design is warm and cozy, with a holiday feel to it. Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert’s projection work is finely integrated into the production without being a distraction.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, an exceedingly captivating show, playing at Hartford Stage through June 30th.

-->he performer/pianist Hershey Felder has been captivating Hartford audiences for years with his one man shows of famous composers.  Previous embodiments have included George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven.  His latest personification is of songsmith Irving Berlin, who’s career as a writer of iconic popular songs, movie scores, and Broadway musicals, spanned over five decades. 

Felder’s concept for the show is similar in approach to his previous incarnations.  There is an abundance of historical and biographical recitations mixed in with a generous helping of dazzling musical performances.  The formula can be a little schmaltzy, but Felder, in his earnestness and showmanship, makes the production thoroughly engaging.

The show leans heavily of Berlin’s life and music before World War II.  After quickly setting the scene—Berlin and his Jewish family emigrating to the United States from Russia—and whisking through his teenage years, Felder introduces the composer’s first huge hit in “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911).”  From there, a succession of recognizable treasures is presented, including "Always" (1925), "Blue Skies" (1926), "Puttin' On the Ritz" (1928), “Easter Parade” (1933), “God Bless America” (1938), and “White Christmas” (1942).  No wonder when the composer Jerome Kern was asked, "What is Irving Berlin's place in American music,” the response was “Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music.”

The almost two-hour, intermission-less production packs in a great deal of musical gems and stories.  The problem for Felder, who also wrote the show, and Director Trevor Hay is deciding what to include, what to gloss over, and what to leave out in the composer’s illustrious career.  Scenes about Berlin’s army service and deep-felt patriotism are given ample attention, but his well-established movie composing career is relegated to a video montage of Fred Astaire singing/dancing to some of his best-known film songs.  More disappointing was Felder’s brief review of Berlin’s Broadway musicals.  While not every show was a hit - Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam - these musicals and the less successful ones, which include Miss Liberty and Mr. President, produced a cornucopia of riches.

Director Trevor Hay gives the production an easy-going flow, seamlessly blending Felder’s masterful piano work with his biographical snippets.  He incorporates an audience sing-a-long a few times during the show, which is heartily welcomed by those in attendance.

Stacey Nezda’s scenic design is warm and cozy, with a holiday feel to it. Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert’s projection work is finely integrated into the production without being a distraction.

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, an exceedingly captivating show, playing at Hartford Stage through June 30th.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Review of "Mamma Mia!"

Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical, wrapped around the songs of the 70’s pop super group, ABBA, is the perfect summer tonic for musical theater aficionados.  The production, playing at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in Storrs through June 22, is breezy, effervescent, and entertaining.

Unlike many concoctions of this genre, Mamma Mia! doesn’t take itself seriously, with a lightweight and playful, yet well-crafted story by Catherine Johnson.  An incomprehensible story line was the downfall of the Go Go’s musical Head Over Heels from the 2018 - 2019 Broadway season and a confusing libretto plagued the recent Summer – the Donna Summer Musical.  There are no such knotty issues with Mamma Mia! 

The plot revolves around soon-to-be married 20 year-old Sophie, who lives on a Greek island with her single mother, Donna.  Guests start to arrive, including Tanya and Rosie, Donna’s former back-up singers from their days in the 70’s group, “Donna and the Dynamos.”  Unbeknownst to her mother, Sophie has also invited three men – Sam Carmichael, Bill Austin and Harry Bright – because one of them is her father (Donna had an affair with each of them year’s ago).  The daughter hopes before the ceremony begins she will discover his identity.

The score incorporates many of ABBA’s Top 40 hits including “Honey, Honey,” “Mamma Mia,” “Super Trouper,” “Voulez Vous,” “S.O.S.,” and “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”  The songs – ballads and upbeat compositions--are cleverly integrated into the production.

The cast is led by Jessica Hendy as Donna.  She is cynical, vulnerable, and resilient as the mother of the bride and convincingly flummoxed over her tricky situation.  Lauren Blackman (Tanya) – the tall one – and Jennifer Cody (Rosie) - the short one – form a rollicking trio of friends reuniting for the big event.  Ms. Blackman is decidedly feisty with skewering bon mots and a deadpan delivery.  Ms. Cody is more overt in her comic histrionics and physical humor.  Kelly McCarty’s Sophie is charismatic and engaging.   The actress doesn’t have to stretch her acting muscles as she emotes, broods, and celebrates her upcoming nuptials.  Mason Reeves, as Sky (he’s the groom), is enthusiastic and has the prerequisite boyish charm and good looks.

The men, who play Donna’s loves from 20 years earlier – Bradley Dean as Sam Carmichael, Jamie Colburn as Bill Austin, and Rob Barnes as Harry Bright - perform their roles with a mixture of earnestness and honesty sincerity.

Director Terrence Mann keeps a light touch on the material but, smartly, keeps the pacing nimble, high-spirited, and fast-moving.  The large group scenes are controlled horseplay and hijinks, while the more intimate settings are handled with ease and confidence.  The scene changes are seamless as players and crew members pirouette and gyrate on and off the stage positioning set pieces.

Mary Ann Lamb, fresh from her stint as a principle choreographer for the F/X mini-series Fosse/Verdon, along with Jessica Walker, energizes the musical with period inflected dance routines and vigorous production numbers.  They liven up such Act I songs as the Dynamo’s rendition of “Dancing Queen” and group of young wedding guests in scuba fins tap dancing to “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

Scenic Designer Tim Brown has crafted large, easily mobile sections of scenery, which are quickly moved into position to form multiple set pieces.  He has also created a magical miniature that gives a panoramic view of the coastline of the Greek island of Santorini as soothing visual for audience members.

Mamma Mia!, a frothy concoction sure to captivate, charm, and thoroughly entertain.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Review of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"


The key to mounting a successful production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is making the show fresh without sacrificing its fundamental elements.  This is exactly what Director Michelle Tattenbaum and Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz have done with their staging of the musical at A Contemporary Theatre in Ridgefield, CT.  The show – tuneful and funny – has been festooned with just enough embellishments and flourishes to make it sparkle and seem new again.

Spelling Bee revolves around six elementary school students, misfits and outsiders, competing in the town’s annual Bee.  Sitting on bleachers in a school gymnasium they take turns spelling, at times, incredibly difficult words.  Sound boring?  Not at all.  Librettist Rachel Sheinkin has created rich characters with lovable eccentricities.  The interplay between contestants and judges, as the students ask for word definitions or use in a sentence, can be absolutely hilarious.  In Act II there is an underlying theme of melancholy as we learn more about each character, but never do these reflective moments take away from the lighthearted nature of the musical.

Ms. Sheinkin has also added a touch of audience participation where seated individuals are introduced as Spelling Contestants and seamlessly added to the performance.  They interact with the cast members, dance and are called upon to spell words, often with uproarious results.  Eventually, the “guests” are weeded out and the actors get down to business.

The charming, perfectly cast group of performers, is first-rate and defines an ensemble effort.  They thoroughly blend together where the sum of the parts create a greater whole.  Phil Sloves as William Barfee, he’s the nebbish with the magic foot, is the nominal star, but his fellow performers are all endearing with well-defined quirks and back stories.  They include Colin Miyamoto as the eager-to-please, Chip Tolentino; Emma Tattenbaum-Fine, as the resolute Logainne Schwarzand Grubeniere; Graham Baker as the ingratiating, definitely off center, Leif Coneybear; Sumi Yu as the intensely focused, serious minded, Marcy Park; and Morgan Billings Smith as the sweetly winsome, Olive Ostrovsky.  The supporting characters are equally well cast and provide, for the most part, a stabilizing effect for their charges.  They are Amy Hutchins as the perky host of the spelling bee, Rona Lisa Perretti; John C. Baker as the harried, slightly agitated Vice Principal, Douglas Panch; and Ryan Williams as the tough-minded Mitch Mahoney, serving out his community service mandate as the comfort coach for losing contestants.

William Finn’s score is catchy, at times poignant, and full of humor.  He has crafted songs that fully encapsulate each character’s unique background. 

Scenic designer Jack Mehler has created a cozy gym, replete with bleachers, sports banners and, with the assistance of Theresa S. Carroll, a varied assortment of amusing props.  Details like colored tennis balls at the ends of each chair leg add a whimsical nature to the production.  Marika Kent’s Lighting Design and Megan Culley’s Sound Design further enrich the show.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a crowd-pleasing production playing through June 23rd.

Note:  Parts of this review were previously published.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Review of "Actually"


In a way, the play Actually is cheating.  The show, which deals with the ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter of sexual consent on college campuses, spends a great deal of time providing an extensive backstory of the two protagonists.  The scenarios, while multifaceted and psychologically thought-provoking, providing audience members with plenty of information to process, make for good theater, but would have little relevance at an actual campus hearing on the charges.  The impression playwright Anna Ziegler gives is just the opposite--that all the occurrences on stage are important in determining the central question of consensual sex.

The focus of Actually is on two incoming Princeton University freshman—Tom, a handsome, self-confident African-American male who has a way with the women and Amber, a pretty, somewhat self-deprecating, Jewish female.  After a couple of meet-ups they attend a campus party, where they both become extremely drunk, and head back to Tom’s residence hall for a sexual encounter.  The next morning, neither remembers exactly what happened, but soon Amber is talking about the escapade as a rape and not a consensual fling.  From there, there are brief snippets of scenes with unseen Deans and faculty representatives intermixed with pithy monologues about the night’s events.  In the end, nothing is resolved, letting the audience come up with their own judgement.

What makes this issue so confounding for all parties is who to believe with very little outright evidence or witnesses.  Again, most of what is presented in Actually would not be available to a University hearing panel.  What the play does get right, in fleeting glimpses, is the sometimes free-wheeling and undisciplined nature of a campus hearing with poorly trained campus personnel deciding life-changing charges.  It would have been interesting if Ms. Ziegler would have spent more time commenting on the administrative process.

The play is structured as a combination of the two characters interacting and making direct comments, speeches, and pleadings in the direction of the audience.  It is not that the audience is being acknowledged.  Instead, these asides and digressions have the feel of an accuser and accused making their case, presenting their version of the truth.

Ronald Emile, who plays Tom and Arielle Siegel, who portrays Amber, are both very good and convincing as two University Frosh somewhat over their heads.  They produce a realistic sense of empathy for their situation.  When need be they are playful, forceful, vulnerable and sexy. 

Director Taneisha Duggan shows restraint and compassion.  She adroitly teases out each character’s personal history and circumstances to present well-defined portraits of two undergraduates coming together for a fateful night.  Ms. Duggan adeptly utilizes the empty-laden stage to create a fullness to the production.  She seamlessly alternates the action from character interaction to character orations to the audience.

Jean Kim’s scenic design of highly polished steps leading to the empty stage gives the set the feel of a campus lecture hall or classroom.  Adding a screen at the back of the stage, allowing the characters to be occasionally portrayed in silhouette, adds to the sometimes shrouded nature of this type of episode.

Amith A. Chandrashaker’s lighting design, with colored hues and bright, intense spotlights, contributes to the under-the-microscope complexion of the play.

Actually, a challenging and provocative work that, nonetheless, only “actually” skims the surface of the subject of consensual sex on college campuses.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review of "Flidder on the Roof"


Another New York City production of Fiddler on the Roof so soon after the 2015 Broadway revival?  Yes, and this version, done entirely in Yiddish, demands to be seen.  The language, which could be a barrier for many, is a non-issue (there are brief translations in English and Russian projected off to each side of the stage) for a musical so ingrained in our culture. For theater-goers all too familiar with the timeless Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock score and Joseph Stein book, the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics add to the naturalistic setting and earthiness of the production. 

The story, that addresses such timely issues as anti-Semitism, religious freedom, traditional norms, and forced immigrant migration, revolves around Teyve, a poor milkman, his wife Golde, and their five daughters.  Life in the old-world Russian town of Anetevka is simple and, mostly, uncomplicated until, one-by-one, Teyve’s three eldest daughters become engaged and wed in ways that up-end and challenge family and religious values and customs.  At the same time the Russian authorities in the small village, who have let the Jewish community go about their daily lives with little interference, becomes more aggressive, finally forcing the townspeople to leave their beloved way of life.

The score by Bock and Harnick is one of the greatest in Broadway musical history.  Every song is a gem beginning with the spirited and vibrant opening number “Tradition” (Traditsye).  Other classics include the comedic, “The Dream,” the heart rendering ballad “Anetevka,” and the joyous “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Again, because the musical numbers are so well-known the necessity for understanding the Yiddish lyrics is minor.

The cast is superb, led by Steven Skybell as Teyve.  His portrayal is that of an everyman trying to eke out a living and understand the fast-changing world.  He is not the larger-than-life character as embodied by such notable predecessors as Zero Mostel, Topol, and even Harvey Fierstein.  We feel and believe his trials and tribulations.  Jennifer Babiak’s Golde is firm, understanding, and both flustered and content with her troublesome husband.  Jackie Hoffman, always a solid comic performer, is no less so here.  Her Yente injects a degree of humor and unabashed gusto into the musical.  Rachel Zatcoff (Tzeitel), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), and Rosie Jo Neddby (Khave), the young women who play the three older daughters show a wide-range of emotions and independence as each breaks free from family and tradition.

Director Joel Grey has kept the setting and production values to a minimum.  This allows the audience to focus more directly on the characters and story.  When necessary, he does add embellishments to a scene, such as the dream sequence, only when it will better serve the show.  The Tony Award winning actor knows how to bring both elation and pathos to a scene.  More intimate scenes are handled with aplomb, while larger settings, such as the wedding sequence, in conjunction with Stas Kmiec’s new, spirited choreography, are delivered with a joyous rapture

Fiddler on the Roof, worth seeing again.  Playing Off-Broadway through September 1st. 
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