Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of "A Night with Janis Joplin" - Broadway

If you are a big Janis Joplin fan you will probably enjoy the new Broadway show, A Night with Janis Joplin.  Mary Bridget Davies, who plays the iconic 1960’s rocker, can be quite impressive as she sings and wails through the Joplin catalogue in what is essentially a two-hour concert.

For the rest of us seeking more substance, the production is a huge disappointment.  There is no significant book, no conflict, and no drama, which is such a shame since Joplin’s life and career, her struggles and pain, are an ideal subject for an intelligent and penetrating Broadway musical a la Jersey Boys.

The show starts with Joplin at center stage, framed by a huge light tower, fronting an excellent eight-person band.  She belts out a few songs and then comes to the front of the stage and, speaking into a microphone, enlightens the audience with information about growing up in Texas.  She sings some more then moves over to a comfy chair, microphone in hand, and provides more about her life and how the blues were such a huge influence.  Some of those singers—Odetta, Etta James, and Bessie Smith—come to life throughout the production so we really know what the blues sound like.

That’s A Night with Janis Joplin in a nutshell.  Songs, some with a full-throttled, no holds barred rendition by Ms. Davies, a bit of narration here and there, and performances by artists who had a profound affect on Joplin’s musical career.  Interestingly, younger audience members, maybe not that familiar with Joplin’s short life, would never know about her alcohol usage (I counted two swigs from a bottle during the show), substance abuse, or even her untimely death! 

Mary Bridget Davies gives a solid portrayal of the revered singer.  She can be coy, introspective, joyful, and self-assured..  But, as I stated at the onset, unless you just can’t get enough of Joplin’s voice the musical begins to wear thin very fast.

Book writer and director Randy Johnson embraces a minimalist approach in both capacities.  His direction is pure simplicity--Janis move center stage, now sing, now move stage right, sit, get up, sing, band move up to frame her, band move to the back of the stage.  Back-up singers stand there, dead singers drift in from the wings here, etc. etc. 

The accompanying band, which includes three guitars, a three-piece horn section, drums and piano, is onstage for the whole show.  They are outstanding.  Any rocker or performer would be sincerely blessed by their presence and musical showmanship.

A Night with Janis Joplin, a jukebox musical that totally misses the mark.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review of "Room Service" - Westport County Playhouse

Room Service, currently running at the Westport Country Playhouse, bills itself as a madcap farce, but the comedy falls way short of zaniness and is more flat than farce.

The plot is simple enough.  Down-on-his-luck Broadway producer, Gordon Miller, is desperately trying to land a backer for what he feels will be the next big show on The Great White Way.  While the search goes on he, along with his cast and cronies, are living in the hotel managed by his brother-in-law, running up a huge bill.  Enter the corporate accountant who wants to evict the whole crew for their unpaid largess.  Add in a dim-witted playwright and other assorted characters and the stage is set for the play’s shenanigans and foolishness as it becomes a race in time to sign a money man before the best laid plans unravel. 

In the production of Room Service there are the requisite slamming doors, raised voices, and silly set-ups, but they are never elevated to true high jinks.  Slamming doors for slamming doors sake doesn’t equate to inspired monkey business.  The cast performs well, but they are more acting the parts as opposed to embodying their roles.  There’s the occasional laugh or chortle, but they are few and far between. 

Ben Steinfeld, as the fast-talking boss-in-chief, has the necessary self-aggrandizing arrogance, but he doesn’t go far enough with the role.  The same problem can be said with Richard Ruiz, as the producer’s right hand man, Faker England; Jim Bracchitta as the come-as-it-may director, Harry Binion; and Eric Bryant as the naïve, first time playwright, Leo Davis.  Only David Beach, as the neurotic hotel manager, Joseph Gribble; and Michael McCormick as the boisterous, single-minded accountant, Gregory Wagner reach the levels of insanity and silliness that, with the rest of the cast in sync, could produce a truly comical production.

Director Mark Lamos, while doing a good job setting up the various screwball scenes doesn’t ramp up the action enough on stage to bring the comedy to what should be its delirious heights.  Keeping two intermissions for a two-hour show is also problematic as it deflated whatever energy the play generated.

Room Service, playing at the Westport County Playhouse through October 27th—a chuckle here, a laugh there.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review of "The Most Happy Fella" at Goodspeed Opera House

The Most Happy Fella is not your typical big, splashy Goodspeed Opera House production.  The musical with a book and score by Frank Loesser is also unlike his better known shows such as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  Nonetheless, the show, smaller in scope, is engaging, big-hearted, and wholly satisfying, well-worth the drive to the East Haddam playhouse.

The story, crafted by Loesser from the play They Knew What They Wanted, is simple enough.  Tony, a successful Napa Valley grape grower, an Italian immigrant, portly, not very handsome, who speaks in broken English, is smitten by a lovely waitress he has only glimpsed.  Through a months long letter writing courtship, and a bit of deception by the vineyard owner Rosabella, the object of his affection, agrees to travel to his sumptuous farm to become his bride.  This sets in motion a series of events that encompass love, relationships, heartbreak, trust, and, finally, redemption.

The strength of the Goodspeed’s production is the casting.  Every performer perfectly embodies their character.  I cannot remember a show that was so successful in this regard.  Standouts include Tony, played by Bill Nolte, who is the anchor of the show.  He successfully imbues the role with a wide range of emotions and traits.  We feel his pains and joys.  Mamie Parris as Rosabella, the love of Tony’s life, is sweet, radiant and determined with a delicate, but strong voice.  Natalie Hill as her best friend Cleo, is vivacious, impetuous, and passionate.  Men beware! Doug Carpenter as the farm’s foreman, Joe, is a brooding, wayward soul.  Think James Dean or a young Steve McQueen.  Last, the three Italian cooks, portrayed by Greg Roderick, Daniel Berryman, and Michael Deleget, provide great comedic moments in their two first act songs.

The score by Frank Loesser, not as rollicking and brash as his more well-known shows, is, nonetheless a musical feast.  It features many musical styles including heartfelt ballads (“Somebody, Somewhere”), barbershop quartet (“Standing on the Corner”), the humorous (“Happy to Make Your Acquaintance”), and the lively (“Big D”).  Different from his other works, The Most Happy Fella is mostly sung through.  However, there is a considerable amount of dialogue that effectively bridges the songs unlike, for example, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Parker Esse provides more incidental choreographic flourishes to the show.  However, when called upon, as with the rousing “Big D,” he guides the cast through an energetic and spirited production number.

Rob Ruggiero, who has successfully directed numerous Goodspeed musicals, skillfully balances the various tonal moods of the show.  In addition to the large-scale scenes, he demonstrates his sure-handedness and aplomb with the material through the more intimate and reserved moments of the musical.

The Most Happy Fella, a triumphant success to round out the Goodspeed Opera House’s 50th Anniversary season, now through December 1st.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Review of "Big Fish"

Rejoice, Broadway audiences!  Norbert Leo Butz is back on the musical stage in the imaginative and fanciful show, Big Fish.  Leo Butz is not the sole motivation for seeing the show, but he is the main reason.  His singing voice is first-rate, his dancing superb, and acting sublime.  When he helms the stage, theater magic. 

Big Fish is based on the novel and movie of the same name.  It tells the story of Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman who, throughout the years, has regaled his son, Will, with tales of derring-do, the improbable, and the romantic.  During his formative years, young Will had rejected his father’s stories as nothing more then figments of his rather large imagination, a poor substitute for a boy growing up most of the time without a father around.  Now grown, about to be married and a child on the way, Will finally looks to exorcise and confront his parent’s legacy just as one final chapter is about to be written.

One of the strengths of Big Fish is the fantastic and diverting tales told by Edward (Norbert Leo Butz).  They are strikingly brought to life with imaginative story-telling, playful and dreamlike sets, rear screen projections, and costumes.  There’s the time Edward encountered a witch in the swamps, befriended a giant, wrangled with an assassin during a World War II USO show, two-stepped a school of fish right out of the water, and was shot out of a canon hundreds of miles.  The stories, Will (played by Bobby Steggert) eventually learns, were not some aimless meanderings, but purposeful chronicles meant to inspire a doubting, questioning young man.

Norbert Leo Butz is the focus of Big Fish, playing Edward Bloom through many stages of his life.  His character, a dreamer and romanticist, leads us through a giddy ride until the melancholy finale.  Leo Butz’s energy and passion easily give him the moniker of hardest working actor on Broadway.  Kate Baldwin, as his wife, Sandra, is captivating and beautiful with an enchanting voice.  Her role may not be as well-developed as her co-star, but her matter-of-fact demeanor perfectly balances his more rambunctious predilections.  Bobby Seggert’s Will is serious and overly rational, a more one-dimensional character, who’s presence and earnestness adroitly balances his more capricious father. Others deserving mention are Ryan Andes as the giant, Karl; and Brad Oscar as the ringmaster, Amos Calloway.

The score by Andrew Lippa is solid without any memorable numbers.  Still, the songs can be touching, boisterous, full of heart and, more importantly, help to move the storyline along.

The costumes by William Ivey Long, primarily in Act I, are playful as well as otherworldly and further the overall whimsical nature of the production. 

For the sets, Scenic Designer Julian Crouch and Projection Designer Benjamin Pearcy have collaborated to conceive wondrous creations that fully complement each other.  I am not a fan of projection systems.  Too often they call undue attention to themselves, but with Big Fish the synergy is perfectly matched.

Director/choreographer Susan Stroman provides a sure hand in guiding the musical through its paces.  Whether in large scale production numbers or in tender moments she carefully paces the show up to its emotional finale.  As with other shows she has worked on, a touch of whimsy pops up.  This time with an elephant dance routine.

Big Fish—a big hit, now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Yale Rep

For a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire to work, the character of Stanley Kowalski needs to be parts menacing; brutish, yet sensual; with a commanding, physical presence.  Joe Manganiello has the requisite strapping, hulking appearance, but his Stanley comes across more as an occasionally unhappy husband.  His threatening nature is faint, the aura of intimidation and danger muted.  Add to the mix a more beleaguered, less reserved and self-conscious Stella Kowalski and the careful balance constructed by playwright Tennessee Williams tilts too heavily towards the third member of the central triumvirate, Blance DuBois, Stella’s troubled sister.  The result is a ponderous production with very little emotional impact.

Streetcar begins with the unexpected arrival of Blanche DuBois to the small New Orleans apartment of her sister, Stella.  We quickly learn of Blanche’s weak nerves, closet alcoholism, and sway over her sibling.  She is a fading beauty constantly worrying about her looks and appearance.  Stanley Kowalski, unsympathetic to Blanche’s plight tolerates her presence even as it upsets his balance of power and influence within the tiny household.  As Blanche becomes more entwined in their lives a would-be suitor, Stanley’s friend Mitch, enters the picture.  The tension and fragile détente between the four primary characters begins to disintegrate, as Blanche’s seamy, not-to-distant past becomes known.  This sets up a dramatic break-up between the now overly distraught Blanche and Mitch as well as Stanley’s final confrontation with his sister-in-law.  In the end, Blanche, an emotional and physical train wreck, suffers a full mental breakdown and is led off-stage by a kindly and benevolent doctor. 

The central problem with the Yale Rep’s production is the portrayal of the main characters, something Director Mark Rucker should have addressed.  Joe Manganiello’s Stanley Kowalski, as stated previously, does not appear to be so threatening or dangerous.  Sarah Sokolovic, as Stella, seems far too domesticated.  Rene Augesen’s Blanche can be pitying, bullying, and self-centered, but there is no underlying fraility that allows for a more penetrating and nuanced performance.  Only Adam O’Bryne’s Mitch, a lamentable lug, longing for female companionship to offset his sorrowful life, gives a fulfilling interpretation. 

Director Mark Rucker also misses the mark for the overall tone of the production, setting up an unsatisfying and laborious denouement.

Steven Brush’s soulful and haunting jazz inflected musical interludes deserve mentioning.  They were the one component of the show that moodily suggested the urban despair of 1940’s New Orleans.

A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at Yale Rep in New Haven through Saturday, October 12th.