Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of "Murder for Two" - Off-Broadway

My favorite theater genres are:
1.    Musicals
2.    Comedies
3.    Murder Mysteries

Happily, all three are embodied in the very funny, ingeniously written, and energetically performed two person show, Murder for Two, playing Off-Broadway at New World Stages.

All the action takes place on a small stage with the only accoutrements being a baby grand piano, a few props, and one’s imagination.  As with many whodunits the story begins in a large, hilltop mansion where the wife of author Arthur Whitney is throwing him a surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately for the book writer when he arrives inside the darkened structure a gun is fired, fatally killing him.  Who fired the fateful shot?  There is a house full of suspects—each one nimbly and uproariously portrayed by Jeff Blumenkrantz—everyone one of them with solid motives.  Enter would-be detective Marcus Moscowicz, played with equal comic dexterity by Brett Ryback, who methodically, or maybe more accidentally, happens upon the multitude of clues and red herrings to eventually solve the case. 

The two actors have a finely honed chemistry that translates into unbridled zaniness and semi-controlled madness.  Jeff Blumenkrantz sometimes seems possessed as he ricochets from one character to another making each one as believable as the next.  Brett Ryback has only one character to focus on but, nonetheless, needs all his comedic acting prowess to stay in sync with his tall, lanky partner.  

The score, by Joe Kinosian, who also wrote the amusing and clever book of the show, and Kellen Blair, is quick-witted and tuneful.  It would be interesting to hear fully orchestrated versions of each tune.  All the songs are performed by Blumenkrantz and Ryback, who also demonstrate their considerable musicianship by accompanying each other on the on-stage piano.

Director Scott Schwartz expertly guides the two thespians through the fast-paced production, coming up with enough schtick and side-splitting shenanigans for two shows.

Murder for Two, knocking ‘em dead eight performances a week.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Review of "A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder" on Broadway

This review is adapted from my critique during the show’s premiere at Hartford Stage in October 2012.

Pity the D’Ysquith family.  One by one they are being, unceremoniously, knocked off during the thoroughly enjoyable new musical, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.  Transferring to Broadway after its world premiere engagement at the Hartford Stage last year, the musical is smart, funny, and entertaining.  There are many aspects of the production to praise with primary honors going to the tour de force performance of actor Jefferson Mays.  He inhabits all eight members of the D’Ysquith family who are creatively and precipitously disposed of throughout the show.

The production itself, housed in what could be viewed as an elegant Victorian dollhouse of a set, lovingly designed by Alexander Dodge, is not the big razzmatazz musical typically inhabiting the Broadway stage.  A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder is more understated, smaller in scale, but nonetheless wholly satisfying.

The plot of the musical is based on a 1907 book by Roy Horniman and was the source material for the 1949 British black comedy, Kind Hearts and Coronets, where Alec Guinness famously played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family.  In A Gentlemen’s Guide the story unfolds as we are introduced to Monty Navarro, a handsomely charming young man awaiting a verdict in his sensational murder trial.  How did he end up in such a predicament?  We begin to find out why as the action adeptly switches to the beginning of Navarro’s tale. 

Slightly downtrodden and impoverished, he discovers his recently deceased mother was a disinherited member of the D’Ysquith family.  Joyful, yet reserved, he contacts his newfound relatives about his current familial status seeking acceptance, but finding nothing but rejection.  Learning, off-handedly, that he is now eighth in line to become the head of the family Navarro, quite innocently at first, begins to ingeniously find ways to bump off the relationships in front of him for succession.  Driving him onward is his need for retribution, greed, and the desire to impress the love of his life Sibella who, while loving the beguiling Navarro, desires someone more monied to settle down with. 

Enter Jeffrey Mays in the guise of all the soon-to-be fallen D’Ysquith members.   He is variously pompous, arrogant, highfaluting, overbearing, and self-centered in his various portrayals.  All of them are very funny.  When he is onstage, A Gentlemen’s Guide shines and bubbles over with merriment.  This is the one slight problem I have with the show.  Mays is so masterful in his performances that in Act II, when almost all the D’Ysquith clan had by then met their untimely demise, the production focuses mostly on the loves of Navarro’s life, a slight letdown from the over-the-top shenanigans of Act I.  But this is a small complaint of the book by Robert L. Freedman and doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the musical.

In addition to Jeffrey Mays, Bryce Pinkham is wonderful as Monty Navarro.  At first soft-spoken and unassuming he slowly blossoms into a determined and devious gentleman of the world perfectly complementing Mays’ more over-the-top characterizations.  Lisa O’Hare, as Sibella Hallward, is sexy, alluring, and more than a bit of a tease as the love of Navarro’s life.  She, along with the two male leads, provide a rollicking good time throughout A Gentlemen’s Guide.

The score by Freedman and Steven Lutvak actually provide tuneful, witty songs, which seems such a rarity these days with new musicals.  The well-crafted ballads are beautifully sung and the comic numbers perfectly executed.  Jeffrey Mays, while not the keenest vocalist as his co-stars, nonetheless, knows how to deliver a song with aplomb as he does with the comic numbers “I Don’t Understand the Poor” and “Better With a Man.”

Having directed the show in Hartford, Director Darko Tresnjak, in his first Broadway outing, assuredly guides the musical through its paces.   He knows the musical well, adding a number of creative flourishes throughout the production, primarily surrounding the deaths of the D’Ysquith family (which I won’t spoil).   Tresnjak keeps the show lighthearted and sprightly.

A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, delivering hilarity and mayhem at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review "Fix Me, Jesus" - Off-Broadway

A Neiman Marcus department store dressing room is an unusual spot to set the action for a play, but that is the locale for Fix Me, Jesus, playwright Helen Sneed’s  rambling, yet appealing, self-examination by a young woman seeking her path in life. 

Annabell Armstrong (Polly Lee) is an up-and-coming Democratic Party stalwart in Texas, following in the footsteps of her politically powerful father.  Unfortunately, this is the Reagan era and her liberal leanings find little affinity among voters.  That is just one problem in her life, which is one big mess.  The trials and tribulations—in her personal and professional life--spew forth as she searches for just the right dress for a wedding that very night, a potentially very special wedding.  The longtime clerk, Mrs. Craig (Lee Roy Rogers), helping her in the quest as she has done for many years, listens, offers sagely advice, and acts as a sounding board to the excitable woman.  In addition, throughout the production, the small dressing area becomes alive with visitors from her past and present, including her younger, reticent self (Kate Froemmling); her overbearing mother (Lori Gardner); her boorish and rough hewn grandmother (Lisa McMillan), and present-day psychiatrist (Mitch Tebo).  All these characters provide a back story, which centers on her self-emancipation from her parents and the pains and adversity this causes her.

Ms. Sneed has sought to exam and chronicle the central character through her past and present, mostly familial, associations.   She is partially successful.  The show would have been more robust if scenes and characters were expanded, giving the audience a better framework for Annabell’s later years. Still, having the action take place within the confines of a Nieman Marcus dressing room, with characters popping in and out, keeps the audience engaged.

Polly Lee as the present-day Annabell Armstrong can come across as self-assured and directed, but for a successful woman she often appears too manic, indecisive, and fragile.  Maybe as a male I can’t totally appreciate her situation in life.  The rest of the cast is uniformily good even though some of the characters are rather one-dimensional.  Lori Gardner as Annabell’s mother would have been stronger if her character was inbued with more shading to present a better developed persona.  The same could be said with Lee Roy Rogers as the harried store clerk, Mrs. Craig.  She gives a solid performance as she tries to keep her charge grounded and focused, but there is resentment and a yearning boiling underneath, which could have been more fully exploited by the playwright.  Mitch Tebo is rather bland as a disaffected New York City psychiatrist.

Lisa McMillan as Annabell’s grandmother is opinionated, prejudiced, and sure of her convictions.  The actress, with a full-throttled delivery, makes the most of her time on the small stage.  Likewise, newcomer Kate Froemmling, as the adolescent Annabell, is enchanting and able to instill a certain level of intelligence and precociousness to her role.

Director Sam Pinkleton is at his best when shuttling characters in and out of the dress-laden changing room.  Scenes in the dressing room between the actresses Polly Lee and Lee Roy Rogers are more straightforward.

Fix Me, Jesus, a mostly entertaining show, at the Abington Theatre Company through November 24th.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review of "The Jacksonian" - Off-Broadway

A slow, painful and tragic descent into hell takes place at The Jacksonian, Beth Henley’s wholly satisfying new work playing at The Acorn Theatre Off-Broadway on Theatre Row.   The show is a meditation on the seedy side of a small southern town, Jackson, Mississippi circa 1964, where racism and the Klan still prevail.

We are introduced to five characters, who inhabit the hotel of the play’s title—Bill Perch (Ed Harris), a local dentist taking refuge in the tattered establishment after beating his possibly unbalanced wife, Susan (Amy Madigan).  Though estranged, she visits, along with their daughter, Rosy (Juliet Brett), as he holds out hope for reconciliation.  Within the hotel is a ditzy waitress, Eva White (Glenne Headly), who just wants a man to marry and Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) a repulsive and menacing bartender.

As the action progresses, a murder investigation unfolds in the background adding an ominous ambience to the production.  Gradually the family dynamics spiral downward, secrets are revealed, and lives are forever changed.

Henley’s tale, full of color and detail, grows slowly until the cataclysmic end.  While the story keeps our interest, the strength of the play are the characters she has created and the dynamic performances, primarily by three of the lead actors.  Bill Pullman is almost unrecognizable coiffed in an exaggerated pompadour.  With deliberate movements and tight-lipped speech he exudes a subdued, but frightening and disturbing sleaze.  Glenne Headly is as alluring as she is off-putting in her embodiment of Ms. White—an attractive, calculating, and obtuse woman stuck in a town with no escape and no future.  Ed Harris’ depiction of the strait-laced dentist, Bill Perch, who eventually loses everything he holds near and dear is a sight to behold.  No one does controlled craziness better then Harris and his performance here is nothing short of brilliant.

Director Robert Falls does a superb job of pacing the show as the production builds to its crescendo.  He works so well with the actors, helping them shape their parts into characters we believe in, are repulsed by, and pray for.  In lesser hands the roles could have become more cartoonish or southern caricatures.

The Jacksonian, filled with unforgettable performances, playing through November 30th.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review of "Mrs. Mannerly" - Theaterworks, Hartford, CT

Mrs. Mannerly, the title character of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s somewhat amusing show, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through November 17th, is a formidable woman.  Her no nonsense approach to teaching the young of Steubenville, Ohio has been a rite of passage for generations.  Learning how to properly speak, glide around the dance floor, and knowing the differences between the European and American place setting are just some of the competences acquired by the sessions’ end.  Enter young Jeffrey, an intelligent young boy, not athletically inclined, who sets his sights on mastering the intricacies of the course as a way to prove to himself and others that he can succeed in something.  Thus the stage is readied for a battle between the two protagonists. 

The two-character play by Jeffrey Hatcher, taking place in the mid-1960’s, is to some extent remindful of the movie Harold and Maude as the relationship of the two main players is fleshed out and deepens.  The show is full of jokes, hitting the mark about 40% of the time.  There are many cultural references to the era, especially to old-time television detective series, which might leave younger audience members scratching their heads for lack of understanding.  Within the humor there is also the heartache as we slowly realize Mrs. Mannerly is alone and probably an alcoholic.  Fortunately, Hatcher doesn’t dwell on her misfortunes or depressing life for very long as he continually launches one-liners, wisecracks, and rib-ticklers, hoping some of them will stick.   In the end, after a rather contrived final scene where Jeffrey must perform in front of a luncheon of the local chapter of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution, while at the same time protecting a dark secret from Mrs. Mannerly’s past, the two come to a mutual detente and understanding.

Raymond McAnally, who portrays Jeffrey, as well as a number of other adolescent boys and girls in the class, is impish, reserved, and determined.  He also plays the grown-up playwright, who narrates the story, providing his recollections and reminiscents, both good and bad, of his experiences in the course.  The actor seamlessly alternates between the adult Jeffrey and the assorted youngsters.

Dale Hodges, as Mrs. Mannerly, is an imposing, spinster-type drill sergeant.  You would snap to attention if in attendance at one of her sessions.  Ms. Hodges shades her character with world-weariness and resolve.  She has poured just one too many cups of tea over her 36 years of manners classes.

Director Ed Stern, who has helmed the production at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, keeps the pacing brisk on the small stage and allows the actors to fully develop their characters. 

Mrs. Mannerly, a mild diversion of a show, at Theaterworks through November 17th.