Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review of "Is He Dead?"

“Is He Dead?,” the Mark Twain comedy recently unearthed by scholars, now on Broadway, will have a great afterlife in summer stock and community theater. The show provides a fistful of laughs, has a silly, yet gratifying plotline, plum roles for actors and actresses, and the chance for the star to play in drag. What more could middle American want?

This is not to detract for what we see on the Lyceum stage, but an acknowledgement that “Is He Dead?” is more a humorous bauble rather than a side-splitting pearl.

The show’s setup revolves around the fact that the paintings of dead artists bring in more money than live ones. Building on this premise sets Twain’s action in motion, mostly to entertaining effect. “Is He Dead?” is not a Neil Simon gag-a-minute laugh fest, but a more cheerful, clownish affair. What makes the production a success is a top notch cast and tight, yet playful, direction by Michael Blakemore.

The performers are led by a slimmed down Norbert Leo Butz as Jean-Francois Millet, France’s greatest painter, when dead. Butz is gregarious, looney, and self-indulgent—ingredients that add up to a near riotous spectacle. John McMartin’s Papa Leroux, near death in Act I, transforms to a lecherous old goat in Act II to comic perfection. Michael McGrath is more understated than in some of his better roles, but his Agememnon sets in motion the play’s premise and presides over the action like a seasoned ringleader. Jenn Gambatese as Millet’s love interest, Marie, is vulnerable and endearing; and Byron Jennings, a cross between Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless and a moustached Wild West villain, plays art dealer, Bastien Andre, with just the right amount of slimy ooze. Special kudos, however, go to David Pittu. Playing multiple cameo roles, one more hilarious than the next, Pittu energizes the proceedings without halting the action. Without his talented turn “Is He Dead?” would not be half as funny. The rest of the cast contributes soundly making “Is He Dead?” a satisfying production.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review of "The Little Mermaid"

Disney’s stage musicals of its animated movie classics have succeeded because of their creative and imaginative theatricality along with a spoonful of Disney magic. Think of Ann Hould-Ward’s whimsical costumes in “Beauty and the Beast” or the Beast’s spellbinding transformation at the conclusion of that long running show. Or Julie Taymor’s inspired reengineering of “The Lion King” along with her ingenious and breakthrough use of puppertry.

Disappointingly, Disney’s lastest Broadway entry, “The Little Mermaid,” lacks the ingredients so integral to these past successes. The bold, fluid vision that is a Disney hallmark is distressingly lacking. The “Under the Sea” production number is a perfect example. What should be a joyous, raucous, costumed extravaganza is an insipid, watery mess. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes are an embarrassment to the Disney legacy and the energy level would put hermit crab, Sebastian, to sleep. And what are those totem pole-like structures suppose to represent? Flowering underwater trees? Blossoming sea anemones?

The musical’s climatic battle scene with the sea witch is, no pun intended, a Mickey Mouse and lackluster whimper instead of a thundering finale.

So, is “The Little Mermaid” the disaster some have opined? No, in fact young children and tweens might find the production wholly satisfying. While the aforementioned “Under the Sea” number sinks, the tender “Kiss the Girl,” with its understated approach, demonstrates what could have been.

Yet, unlike “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” which had entertainment value for grown-ups, “The Little Mermaid” is purely a young person experience.

The musical handles the underwater locale with a certain amount of illusionary success. The impression of gliding through the ocean depths is accomplished using heelys, wheels attached to the web-wear of the mer-people and other assorted undersea characters. But suspension of belief and flickers of stage trickery go only so far. Act I has its moments; Act II seemed like an eternity.

Francesca Zambello’s direction seems scattered, sometimes inspiring, all too often colorless and drab. The same can be said of Stephen Mear’s choreography.

The score, with new material by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, is underwhelming except for the handful of memorable songs from the movie.

The cast is uniformly fine. Newcomer Sierra Bogges as Ariel, is pretty, pert, and has a lovely singing voice. Eddie Korbich brings much needed comic relief to the show as Scuttle the seagull; Sean Palmer, is flavorless and bland, yet pleasingly sufficient as Prince Eric; and Tituss Burgess has a grand time scurrying across the Lunt-Fontaine stage as the manic Sebastian. However, all others pale aside Sherie Rene Scott as Ursula the eight armed sea witch. Scott is truly menacing in the Disney villain tradition. She seems to relish her role, giving an over-the-top performance. If there is no other reason to pluck down your money for “The Little Mermaid” Sherie Rene Scott is grand justification.