Friday, December 26, 2014

Review of "The River" - Broadway

Relationships.   Commitment.  These are the central themes in the listless new play, The River, that stars a more sedate, thoughtful Hugh Jackman.  For theater-goers looking for the full throttle, action hero Jackman normally plays in his movies, The River is not the show for you.  This 85 minute, intermission-less play is a talkative, languid production.  Playwright Jez Butterworth has woven a tale of fishing as a metaphor for one man’s failed romantic encounters.

The play takes place at a cabin on a river where sea trout have returned to spawn.  The Man (Hugh Jackman) is revved up for the hunt, the sport of fly fishing and wants his lady friends, The Woman (Cush Jumbo); The Other Woman (Laura Donnelly); and a third female to share in his enthusiasm.  In fly fishing the challenge, after much patience and courting, is to land the silvery fish.  We see Jackman pursue his women with this same fervor and exhilaration.  However, he is never able to hook one of the sea trout just as he is incapable of successfully wooing any of the women he becomes close with.    

Hugh Jackman, potentially sinister, and circumspect, is intense, but also rather staid in his performance.  He can deliver passionate speeches and create moments of tension, but the problem is his character is one-dimensional, without much depth.   Both Cush Jumbo, as The Woman; and Laura Donnelly as The Other Woman are competent actresses.  But they are more like the river trout—plain and satisfying–rather than like their more accomplished, transformative brethren, the sea trout.

Jez Butterworth’s work, which has been described as lyrical and full of imagery is, unfortunately, tedious and sluggish here.  Not much happens, but a number of monologues and exhortations that just don’t register as two people truly interacting and communicating.  Butterworth can rhapsodize beautifully as when Jackman’s character describes the art of fly fishing, but overall the play lacks luster.

Director Ian Rickson hasn’t brought much life to the show.  There are a lot chairs and furniture being moved around the small Circle-in-the-Square stage, but not much else.  On the other hand, his collaboration with Hugh Jackman on preparing a sea trout for dinner is quite impressive.  Too bad none of the characters actually eat any of it—they are too busy talking.

The River, playing now through February 8th.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Review of "It's Only a Play" - Broadway

Playwright Terrence McNally skewers, eviscerates, and satirizes every aspect of producing a Broadway play in the tepid, mostly lackluster revival of his 1986 Off-Broadway show, It’s Only a Play.  Nothing is sacred from his barbs—Disney musicals, self-centered stars, Hollywood actors in limited runs, exorbitant union costs, and more.  McNally has updated parts of the script so today’s theater audience, maybe not too familiar with theatrical history name-dropping, which is rampant in the production, won’t have to be scratching their heads for total understanding.

The show has been a sellout since previews began in August because of the stellar group of actors, led by Nathan Lane (who is only in the play through January 4, 2015 when Martin Short takes over his role).  There is Matthew Broderick, Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and, making a splashing Broadway debut, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the Harry Potter movies).  Micah Stock, also making his Broadway introduction, rounds out the cast as a naïve, just-off-the-bus, would-be actor.

The premise of the show is a cast party held by the rich, neophyte producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) in her opulent townhouse for playwright Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick).  The action takes place upstairs where members of the creative team, and others, gather.  There is the former theatrical thespian James Wicker (Nathan Lane) now ensconced on television, a Hollywood starlet Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing) seeking a comeback on The Great White Way, mean-spirited theater critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), an enfant terrible director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint), and a young actor Gus Head (Micah Stock) coat-checking for the night.

At first It’s Only a Play is funny and entertaining.  Nathan Lane’s comic timing and shenanigans are priceless.  His bantering with Micah Stock, who’s main function throughout the production is bringing guests’ coats upstairs (and commenting on the attire), is quite amusing.  Soon, other members of the ensemble appear onstage, constantly commenting and trash-talking about their friends and colleagues.  Yet, after a while, the jokes and set-ups are few and far between and the show becomes more humdrum and wearisome.  The actors, almost all seasoned professionals, are just not served well by McNally’s script.  The exception is Rupert Grint, who makes a memorable showing, upstaging his more accomplished co-stars. 

McNally, a multi-Tony Award winner, can write wickedly funny vignettes such as the second act opener, which is simply the recitation by a number of characters of a devastating, godawful review of the show’s play as might be written by New York Times head theater critic, Ben Brantley.  But as a cohesive whole It’s a Play is one of the playwright’s lesser efforts.

Director Jack O’Brien has almost a spread offense style, placing the actors strategically around the stage, but not having them necessarily interact.  They speak their lines, yet sometimes it felt like the characters were reciting self-contained monologues instead of being integrated into a well-balanced whole.  O’Brien could also have prodded Matthew Broderick to show more vitality in his role.

It’s a Play, for star gazers only.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Review of "Side Show" - Broadway

Rarely can a Broadway show flop only to be resurrected on The Great White Way.  But that is the storyline of the compelling and affecting revival of the musical Side Show, which proves a show can have a well-deserved second chance.  I never saw the original production during its 91 performances in 1997 so I won’t be comparing and contrasting the two versions, but focusing on the here and now.

Side Show is based on the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins, who were able to rise from a hellish childhood in their early lives to fame on the vaudeville circuit during the 1930’s. 

The opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks,” sets the initial tone of the productions with its darkened lighting and side show freaks peering out of the recesses of a dilapidated stage.  They are overseen by the sinister and creepy, Sir, played with ghoulish menace by Robert Joy.  Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie), stars of the seedy show, are eventually emancipated by a slick talent scout, Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman), and his sidekick, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), an aspiring actor/choreographer.  Together, the four souls climb the vaudeville ranks to become rich and famous.  However, while on the surface their intertwined lives seem glamorous and exciting their relationships and emotional entanglements are anything but captivating and alluring.

What elevates Side Show are the performances of its two female leads.  Emily Padgett (Daisy) and Erin Davie (Violet) are one, yet wholly different.  Daisy is more outgoing and flirtatious, while Violet is introverted and seeks normalcy in her life.  They are able to convey their anxieties, mistrust of others, and panic, but also their hopes and dreams.  Throughout we, the audience, connect with their characters as their lives are splashed before us.

Robert Joy as the swaggering and threatening master of the side show is also able to suggest a shred of humanity even while he berates and bullies his workers.  He is as desperate as his outlandish employees to fit into society albeit on its fringe.

Ryan Silverman plays the scheming Terry Connor with just the right amount of silkiness and shrewdness as he lures the Hilton sisters to the big time.  Matthew Hydzik as Buddy Foster is a bundle of competing desires and passions as he, too, reaches for fame and fortune.  David St. Louis as Jake, friend and confidante to the sisters, possesses a powerful singing voice.   Employed by Terry Connor when they all flee the side show, his character, an African-American during a time of racial inequity, is a seething inferno of emotions.

The rewrites of the book by Bill Russell and Bill Condon have served the musical well.  This is a taut production where every element fits into a greater whole.  The two furnish just enough back story to provide the audience a semblance of the Hilton girls’ harrowing upbringing.  In Act II the writers focus more on the personal and professional lives of Daisy and Violet, which continue to be chaotic and heartrending.  They also give us a glimpse of the naughty 1930’s through a marvelous newsreel production number, the only scene where choreographer Anthony Van Laast demonstrates his appreciable skills.

Condon, doing double duty as director, keeps the action flowing to effectively create an absorbing drama that is both dark and light; buoyant and poignant.  The essence of the show is connections—those the characters make with each other and those the audience forms with the performers.  Condon ensures these connections resonate throughout the show, forging a bond that gives Side Show its emotional depth.

The score by Bill Russell and Henry Krieger incorporates major revisions and additions from the original production.  Whatever changes they have made, the songs in Side Show are both strong and heartbreaking.  They convey the pain and joy of what Daisy and Violet are experiencing.  The Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am,” is one of the finest closing numbers in recent memory.

A special nod to the artists behind the make-up, wigs, costumes, and illusions of the side show denizens—Dave and Lou Elsey, Charles G. Lapointe, Cookie Jordan, and Paul Kieve.  Their realism and freakishness were both alluring and off-putting at the same time.

Side Show, well-worth seeing the second time around


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Explaining Asperger’s Through "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time"

In the new Broadway show, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s is thrust into a journey of self-discovery and an examination of relationships with his mother and father, teachers, and others.  Audience members are given a window into the mind of an individual with this Austism Spectrum Disorder, thanks to the brilliance of the creative team and director, Marianne Elliott, and the remarkable performance of Alex Sharp in the lead role.  However, there are traits and actions that Christopher exhibits which are not fully explained in the drama, a hit in London before opening in New York this fall.   Why does someone like Christopher not want to be touched?  What is the significance of his model train-building obsession?  Why does he need to always tell the truth and be so literal?   

The following will provide playgoers background information on general Asperger’s characteristics.  Joining me in writing this column is my wife, Jane Thierfeld Brown, a national authority on students with Aspergers, who has co-authored three books on the subject and presents on the topic at colleges and universities across the country.  Our goal is to help enrich the theatrical experience of those attending a performance of this dazzling production by exploring some of the behaviors in the show at a more rudimentary level.

Cannot Lie  - Christopher informs people that he cannot lie. Many people with Asperger’s are literal and concrete in their thinking so lying does not make sense to them.  Lying, many times, takes premeditation, manipulation and forethought, something that is incongruous to individuals with Asperger’s.  Therefore, the character of Christopher needs to always tell the truth.  

Being Touched – In the show, Christopher does not like physical contact.  This is very common for individuals with Asperger’s.   Unwarranted or unexpected touching can be overstimulating for many persons on the spectrum. Often people’s senses are highly acute, much more so then their neurotypical counterparts. This can make individuals  with Asperger’s predisposed to becoming overly stimulated by lights, sounds, smells and touch.  For some people with Asperger’s being touched can produce unintentional violent behavior, which may lead to unnecessary restraint and further anguish by the person with Asperger’s.  In The Curious Incident of the Dog Christpher’s mother and father are the only ones able to touch and communicate with the boy by raising an upright hand, fingers apart.  The teenager can reciprocate the movement, by touching their outstretched hands for just a few seconds.  This ritual has a secondary effect of calming him down when agitated. 

Being Literal – Individuals with Asperger’s can be very literal in how they see the world and in their responses.  For example, in the show Christopher is told to be quiet.  His simple response is how long he needs to be silent?  He doesn’t understand this is just a figure of speech and, therefore, doe not know how long he actually cannot speak.  This can we be wearing on other teenagers and adults that do not realize this need.  Individuals like Christopher also do not comprehend the nuances of idioms or sarcasm, a fact which confounds his parents several times during the show.  

Trains – According to the website of the National Austism Society of the United Kingdom (, an obsession with trains can help individuals with Asperger’s “manage [their] anxiety and [give them] some measure of control over a confusing and chaotic world.”  Many people with Asperger’s are drawn to trains for two reasons.  First, is the preciseness of train schedules, which fits into their need for structure, order, and predictability.  Second, is the orderliness that train track patterns form.  In the show, Christopher spends most of the production laying out tracks in a certain pattern, which can be seen as one of his coping mechanisms.  In real life, a teenager like Christopher would always construct the train tracks in the identical arrangement, rarely varying its sequencing and organization.   A possible third reason is the television show, Thomas the Tank Engine.  The high interest in trains and the easily understood facial expressions of the trains draw many individuals with Asperger’s to this character/show.

The Grid – What makes the scenic design for the show so effective and meaningful is its basic floor-to-floor, wall-to-wall black grid system.  It synthesizes all the needs of Christopher—structure, order, control, predictability and preciseness into the basic math construct of graph paper.  The Grid is a conduit for showing the teenager’s traits, behaviors and defined movements.  Simple in concept, The Grid echo’s Christopher’s need for order and his way of perceiving the world.

In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time we are introduced to a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  During the production audience members are given a glimpse into Christopher’s world.  It can be confusing and unsettling for him as well as for people on his periphery.  Hopefully, the explanations presented above will make the theater-going experience more enlightening and further enhance the virtuosity of the production.  The information should also help us better understand individuals with Asperger’s we interact with in society.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review of "The Last Ship" - Broadway

British labor strife and worker angst have been a popular topic in recent British-based musicals.  From The Full Monty (steelworkers), to Billy Elliott (coal mining), to Kinky Boots (shoe making) the threat of unemployment and the clashes that ensue have been a driving force.  Now comes the latest entry, the musical The Last Ship, with its on the dole group of ship builders.  Unfortunately, unlike the aforementioned group of shows, The Last Ship has a muddled book with characters and scenarios you just don’t care about.  The score by the rock musician, Sting, is reminiscent of his solo career as opposed to his time with the group, The Police.  The songs and lyrics, especially the first two numbers of the production, are soaring, creative highs.  Many of his other pieces are more meditative in style.

So, what’s wrong with the storyline?  There are three issues:
1.      There are no real sustained dramatic markers in the musical.
2.      I didn’t care about the characters
3.      I didn’t find the characters very likeable.
Add in some unexplained plot developments and you have to wonder what book writers John Logan (Tony Award for Red) and Brian Yorkey (Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal) were thinking?  The show is a somber piece and you could take it as a metaphor for the demise of able-bodied laborers in the industrial West, but there needs to be more to keep the audience interested.

Sting’s score can be evocative of maritime shantays and celebrations.  Other times the songs are introspective and ebullient.  Overall, they are different from your normal Broadway fare, which gives the production some soul.  I think my admiration for the music and lyrics would grow even more upon further listens.

The cast was uniformily fine, but only Fred Applegate as the colorful town priest had any distinguishing characteristics worth noting.  Michael Esper as Gideon Fletcher, the boy who ran away and returned a man, was too self-conflicting to really understand his constantly deviating motives and emotions.  The intentions and passions of Rachel Tucker as Gideon’s long forgotten girlfriend, Meg Dawson, came across as ingenuine, and Jimmy Nail as shipyard foreman, Jackie White, was too stoic.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography was stilted and revolved around too much stomping.  Director Joe Mantello, who has such a pedigreed past, almost seemed like he didn’t know what to do with the large cast.  While the main characters would be out front the rest of the cast just ambled about.  The bar scene, the ship building set-up just lacked purpose.  I would almost like to see this as a City Center Encores! production where you could more closely focus on the music.

The Last Ship, wait for the cast recording.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Review of "On the Town" - Broadway

I had my trepidations when the revival of the 1944 musical, On the Town, was announced for the current Broadway season.  The 1998 production was listless and flat and closed after two months.  My concerns with the current version were allayed as soon as the deep-throated singer, Phillip Boykin ambled down the aisle of the Lyric Theatre singing the plaintive “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” Up on the stage workers waited impatiently for the Brooklyn Shipyards to open for business at the 6:00 am hour.  Suddenly, three sailors literally explode onto the stage from one of the docked naval vessels, a 24 hour shore leave in hand singing the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green tune “New York, New York” and, for the next seven minutes or so, dancing to the muscular, athletically-inspired choreography of Jerome Robbins (in this production rendered by Joshua Bergasse). 

So begins the raucously giddy production of On the Town as the three intrepid sailors hunt down love and adventure on the streets of New York City.  Their mission is set slightly askew when, riding the subway, Ozzie (Tony Yazbeck) falls in love with a picture of the current Ms. Turnstiles.  His compatriots put off their desires to help their friend transverse The Big Apple to locate his new soul mate.  Along the way his buddies, Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson), gets tangled up with a sex-starved taxi cab driver and Ozzie (Clyde Alves) falls for a wacky female anthropologist.  The story is silly, but moves the plot along from one great song to another and, more impressively, from one superior production number to the next, including one with a dancing T-Rex. 

On the Town derives its delirious energy, its effervescent air from the combination of the ingratiating performances, what seems like non-stop dance numbers, the first-rate score, and even the vivid color palette of the scenic design.  The three sailors, portrayed by Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson, and Clyde Alves, perfectly complement each other and have chemistry to spare as they pal around, together and separately, from the Bronx to The Battery, looking for love.  Their hoofing skills are impressive and their singing abilities well-honed.  Alysha Umphress, as the man hungry cabbie, Hildy, is a sparkplug of energy, toughness, and stamina.  Elizabeth Stanley, as Claire, a seemingly strait-laced scientist studying man, is equal parts egghead and forlorn schoolgirl as she ponders her thesis over one of the girl mad sailors.   Megan Fairchild, playing Ivy, Ms. Turnstiles for June, is a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet.  Her dancing prowess is beyond question, but her stage presence in her speaking role is, shall we say, a work in progress.

The witty, and entertaining score by the triumvirate of Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green still seems fresh today, 70 years after the musical first opened.  It includes such classics as “Come Up to My Place,” “Carried Away,” “I Can Cook, Too,” “Lucky to Be Me,” and “Some Other Time.”  And that’s not including the opening “New York, New York.”

There is no mistake that the dance numbers in On the Town are an homage to Jerome Robbins, but choreographer Joshua Bergasse doesn’t just rely on strict recreations of the style that made Robbins such a force on Broadway.  Bergasse adds his own flourishes and embellishments to produce a harmonious duality between the two dance maestros.

Director John Rando, not someone who immediately would come to mind for such a large-scale project, admirably takes all the various components of such a big, splashy enterprise and makes it work.  The key is harmony, taking a spirited, care-free show and successfully balancing the extensive production numbers so the 2 ½ hour musical flows smoothly without unnecessary starts and fits.

The revival of On the Town, a good old-fashioned musical retrofitted for today’s discerning Broadway audiences.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Review of "Disgraced" - Broadway

Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama making its Broadway debut, is a powerful and thought-provoking show.  At times uncomfortable for audience members, there are so many themes and issues that playwright Ayad Akhtar has brought forth the production should offer a coffee and chat session after every performance for individuals that need to process what they have just seen.

The plot, featuring two interracial couples, and the lead protagonist’s nephew, starts off simple enough in the high-end, Upper East Side apartment of corporate lawyer, Amir Karpol, of Pakistani descent; and his white wife, Emily, an artist.  Soon, Amir’s nephew, Abe, appears asking for help with a local Iman, detained for, allegedly, funneling money through his mosque to terrorists.  Amir is unwilling, having sought to divest himself of his heritage and cultural upbringing to “fit in” and wants no part of any association with the Iman.  Even though his wife and teenage relative strongly prod him to aid with the defense, he refuses. 

Two weeks later we learn Amir did attend the Iman’s hearing, but only as an observer.  However, his appearance, and a short mention on page A14 of The New York Times, sets into motion a series of events that forever changes his marriage as well as he and his wife’s relationship with their good friends, Isaac, a liberal Jewish gallery owner and his African-American wife, a co-worker of Amir.  Playwright Akhtar has written a riveting drama that addresses such issues as the nature of Islam, American’s level of understanding and comfort level with the religion, support of Israel, racial prejudice and profiling, radicalization of our youth, and even the pretentiousness of the art world.  While it sometimes seems Akhtar’s machinations are too contrived and pour out all at once, there is also a subtler method to his stratagem.   Throughout the production he unveils pieces of information that, at the time, can seem trivial, but the playwright skillfully takes these ostensibly unimportant pieces and weaves them together to form a compelling and forceful show.

Hari Dhillon who plays Amir, adroitly fashions a character that, on the outside, exudes confidence, charisma, and control.  Internally, he battles self-doubt, self-loathing, and his ethnic heritage to ruinous results.   Gretchen Mol, as his wife, Emily, convincingly comes across as woman so focused on her own artistic endeavors she can’t see the reality of today’s world staring her in the face.  Her naivete, aptly played by the actress, is what initially sets the drama into its downward spiral.  Josh Radnor, who plays the self-absorbed art dealer, Isaac, is somewhat understated in his role.  His character is more shaded and hard to pin down until you realize towards the end of the production he is a sleazy opportunist full of seething rage and self-importance.  Karen Pittman, as his high-powered wife, Jory, is no-nonsense and driven.  Her views are sharp and pointed.  Danny Ashok, who plays the teenager, Abe (who changed his name from Hussein) transforms himself from a righteous young boy to a more radicalized individual over the six month span of the show.  His impassioned rant, near the drama’s conclusion, over his treatment by the authorities gave me shivers and some insight into what it may be like for a young Moslem living in the United States.

Director Kimberly Senior keeps the action free flowing for the first half of the 90 minute, intermission-less production.  However, when the sparks begin to fly in the second half, she keeps the action taut, tense, and focused on the words spewing from the actor’s lips, keeping the audience mesmerized and off-balance.

Disgraced, an absorbing and captivating drama worth a theater goers time and energy.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" - Broadway

Remember the name Alex Sharp.  He is the star of the Broadway drama, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  When award season begins in late spring his name will be on most, if not all, nomination lists.  More importantly, don’t be surprised if, by the night of the Tony Awards, he will have carted off a wheelbarrow full of statuettes from all the various critic’s organizations.  

In the show, based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling book, Sharp plays Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s.  Individuals with Asperger’s are usually high functioning, but still lack social skills and can have issues with spatial relations.  People with Asperger’s can be very smart, some with almost a savant quality, as Christopher demonstrates in his mathematically ability.

At the beginning of The Curious Dog… Christopher discovers his neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden pitchfork.  The boy liked the animal and decides he will find its killer, even over the objections of his father.  This sets off a chain of self-discovery events within his school and, primarily, at home in regards to his relationship with his father and mother.  And, yes, he does discover who killed Wellington, the dog.

There are two aspects of the show, which elevate The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time into such riveting drama.  First, is the actor Alex Sharp, unbelievably making his Broadway debut, having just graduated from the Julliard School.   He has perfectly embodied a teenage boy with Asperger’s.  His mannerisms—both overt and more subtle—are extraordinary.  Anyone with a son, daughter, or relative with Asperger’s will be truly amazed how accurate his portrayal is on stage.  The other primary actors in the production—Ian Barford as Christopher’s father, Ed; Francesca Faridany as the boy’s special education teacher, Siobhan; and Enid Graham as the young man’s mother, Judy, realistically show the angst, determination, and heartbreak in working and loving a boy with Asperger’s.  The parent’s anguish and distress is only touched on through short monologues and interactions at home and at school.  But enough information is conveyed through Simon Stephens’ relatively faithful, yet exceptional adaptation of the novel to give audience members a good idea of the day-to-day rhythms of what it means to live with and be responsible for a boy with Asperger’s. 

The second strength of the show is the creative team’s overall set design, led by Bunny Christie’s scenic work.  She has taken a bare stage and covered it from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall, in what is best described as blackened graph paper.  In Christopher’s world of order and spatial harmony the set is a perfect backdrop for his needs and what could be seen as his obsessions.  Paule Constable’s lighting; Finn Ross’ video projections; Ian Dickinson’s sound design; and Adrian Sutton’s music (which were so critical for War Horse) all blend completely to both show the action on stage and, more importantly, portray what is going on in the teenage boy’s mind.  

Even though the drama is not a musical there is much synchronized movement, aptly choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.   They move the actors and ensemble into the flow of the production, but also help us understand how Christopher sees the world.

Director Marianne Elliott, who last time on Broadway won the Tony Award for War Horse, demonstrates, once again, she is quite adept at taking difficult material, incorporating the strengths of the creative team, and turning out a narrative which is inventive, creative, and understandable by audiences everywhere.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an important show to be seen and experienced.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review of "Newsies" - National Tour

This review incorporates elements from my original Broadway review.

Extra!  Extra!  The pre-national tour of the Broadway musical, Newsies, playing through Sunday, October 26th at the magnificent Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT is an exuberant, first-rate Broadway caliber production—from the singing, dancing and the scenic design.  If you love musical theater or if you are looking for a family friendly show, then Newsies is for you.

Based on a 1992 Disney movie, the show tells the story of an 1899 successful strike by the newsies (the orphans and street urchins that sold the daily newspapers on the streets of New York) against the powerful Joseph Pulitzer and his publication, The World.

The first act is almost flawless with a tight narrative punctuated with solid songs and some of the best dancing on a musical theater stage. The show begins with the introductions of two of the main newsies, Jack Kelly, portrayed with a spunky self-confidence by Dan DeLuca; and his disabled pal, Crutchie, played with determination and grit by Zachary Sayle. Soon the other boys, a ragamuffin group, enter the scene and, from there, the storyline quickly develops as the young men decide to strike over an increase in their upfront costs (newsies needed to buy their newspapers and resell them at a slightly higher price). Fortifying the assemblage’s mettle are two fresh recruits to the newsie ranks—Davey, played with an initial immaturity and then a swaggering resolve by Jacob Kemp; and his younger brother, Les, at this performance played with an impish pluckiness by Anthony Rosenthal.

The strength of Newsies is the full-throttled production numbers designed by Tony Award winner Christopher Gattelli, especially in “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” There probably has not been such muscular and athletic dance routines on Broadway since West Side Story.

Director Jeff Calhoun, who works seamlessly with Choreographer Gattelli, is able to corral the newsies into a cohesive group of performers, conveying both a sense of pathos, hardship, and comradeship of the street-wise youths. He is less successful in the scenes, few as they are, with the adult performers.

The score, by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, consists mostly of compositions from the movie version (which they also wrote), with a few new songs augmenting their earlier efforts. The score works best during the more up-tempo numbers especially when the newsies are involved.

The cast is led Dan DeLuca.  The actor is combative, suave, and vulnerable as the head newsie, Jack Kelly. He is the glue that keeps not only the assemblage of outcasts together, but pretty much the whole show. Jacob Kemp gives his character, Davey, a bit more shading then the other newsies as he grows from an innocent outsider of the group to a more resolute, strong-willed instigator. Stephanie Styles is spunky and full of determination as the girl reporter and love interest of Jack Kelly.  Anthony Rosenthal as the little tyke, Les, acts as a seasoned veteran on stage.  The other young men in the production, well, strong acting is not really required for their parts. Delivering a smart aleck remark and palling around is pretty much what is required, besides being able to dance up a storm. The adult actors, while competent and professional, serve more to keep the storyline flowing.

The mostly large-scale, erector set scenic design by Tobin Ost emulates the fire escapes and claustrophobic nature of the late 19th and early 20th century tenements of New York City.

The book by Harvey Fierstein is serviceable and sometimes a bit hokey, but it works in moving the action to its inevitable conclusion.
Newsies, don’t miss this high octane Broadway national tour, through Sunday, October 26th at the Palace Theatre.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review of "Holiday Inn" - Goodspeed Opera House

The world premiere of Holiday Inn, now playing through December 21st at the Goodspeed Opera House, has an abundance of memorable Irving Berlin tunes and some marvelous production numbers.  Based on the 1942 movie that starred Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, this is more an old-fashioned musical that, while entertaining for much of the show, left me somewhat underwhelmed.  My main issues were 1) how the scenes blended into each other—from dynamic, full-throttle dance numbers to more reserved and charming moments with just two or three of the central characters; and 2) my disappointment with the scenic design.  Goodspeed, with its incredibly small performance space, has always done wonders with its witty and creative dance numbers (in full force here) and their scenic savvy.  But for Holiday Inn the stage is rather sparse for much of the show and left me wanting more.

The storyline of the musical, written by Gordon Greenberg (who also directed) and Chad Hodge, follows the film closely, adding some characters, tweaking the plot, and smartly adding a number of classic Berlin tunes.  The scenes populated by a large number of characters are fast-paced and fluid, especially those that include the ensemble of superb dancers.  The more intimate portions of the show, while well-played and necessary for the flow of the production, forces the show to almost recalibrate, uneasily needing to shift gears.

What elevates Holiday Inn is the superlative number of songs from the Irving Berlin songbook.  There is, of course, “White Christmas,” but the creators have wisely added such gems as “Blue Skies” (originally from the Rodgers and Hart musical, Betsy), “Heat Wave” (from his revue, As Thousands Cheer, which also introduced “Easter Parade”), “Stepping Out With My Baby” (from the film Easter Parade), and “Let’s Take An Old-Fashioned Walk” (from Berlin’s 1949 stage musical, Miss Liberty).  These songs, along with those written explicitly for the movie, provide a cornucopia of listening pleasure.  It also makes you wonder why today’s composers can’t produce scores full of the simple, yet melodic numbers that Irving Berlin and his contemporaries pumped out so consistently.

The talented cast delivers in both song and dance.  Tally Sessions has an outstanding voice, but is a little understated in his role of Jim Hardy, the nightclub performer who retires to a Connecticut farm he renames Holiday Inn.  Noah Racey, Jim’s former nightclub partner, is deliciously self-centered and one hell of a dancer.  Patti Murin, who was so good as the head cheerleader in the Broadway musical, Lysistrata Jones, is more muted in her role of school teacher and former Broadway hoofer Linda Mason.  Murin can light up the stage with her megawatt smile and dancing ability.  Hayley Podschun, as Jim and Ted’s female partner, Lila Dixon, demonstrates she can keep up with the boys in the singing, dancing, and acting departments. 

The very funny supporting cast sometimes takes the spotlight away from the leading actors.  Number one is Susan Mosher as the fast-talking, wise-cracking fix-it woman, Louise.  While on stage she always seems to inject some needed energy into a scene.  Noah Marlowe as the young boy, Charlie Winslow, delivers his lines in such great dead-panned fashion.  His simple “Don’t touch me” at one point during the show brought down the house.  Lastly, Danny Rutigliano, was so apropos as the squat, rough around the edges, and gruff theatrical agent Danny Reed.  He, as with Ms. Mosher, always seemed to provide a spark plug to the production when needed.

Director Gordon Greenberg helms the production that packs a lot of material into the musicals two and one-half hour running time.  He’s more successful with the show’s pacing during the large group scenes.  Meshing the more intimate with the more robust aspects of Holiday Inn will be one of the biggest challenges if the musical is looking for an afterlife when this run has been completed.

The choreography, helmed by Denis Jones, once again shows why some of the best dance routines on a musical theater stage are at Goodspeed.  Jones comes up with some wonderful production numbers such as the high powered “Blue Skies” and “Shaking the Blues Away” numbers.  They are inventive and full of energy or graceful and elegant, all maintaining the style of the time period. 

Alejo Vietti’s costumes are sumptuous creations that must have had the Goodspeed dress shop working overtime for the quality and quantity of outfits within the show.

Holiday Inn, extended through December 21st, a handsome musical theater treat that will please the many, but still needs some pruning and fixing to elevate it to must-see status.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of "You Can't Take It With You" - Broadway

There have been many dysfunctional families on Broadway throughout the years, but none as charming and eccentric as the Sycamore clan in the delightful revival of the 1936 comedy, You Can’t Take It With You.  One of the great successes of the playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the show feels fresh and sprightly, primarily because of the seasoned cast of comedic actors and the lively, buoyant direction by Scott Ellis.

The idiosyncratic members of the Sycamore household are a sight to behold.  Martin Vanderhof (James Earl Jones), grandfather and family patriarch, hasn’t worked in 35 years or paid income tax, and has a fondness for attending college commencement ceremonies.  Penelope, the mother (Kristine Nielsen). is a dreadful, unpublished playwright that began her avocation eight years earlier after the accidental arrival of a typewriter to the home.   Paul, the father (Mark Linn-Baker) builds fireworks in the basement along with Mr. DePinna, a former iceman who made a delivery years earlier and never left.   Daughter Essie (Annaleigh Ashford), is an appallingly bad dancer who bounds around the living room all day long when not in the kitchen making candy.  Her husband Ed (Will Brill) plays the xylophone when not indulging in his hobby of churning out inflammatory leaflets on his printing press.  Then there is the live-in maid, her boyfriend, the Russian ballet instructor, an overly intoxicated actress, a Grand Duchess of Russia, and daughter Alice (Rose Bryne), the only normal one of the clan.  She and the boss’ son are in love, but Alice is panicking about her beau Tony Kirby (Fran Kranz) meeting her offbeat family.  For us baby boomers think of Marilyn Munster’s dilemma when she brought dates home to 1313 Mockingbird Lane.  Add to the plot the disastrous meeting of rich, staid Mr. and Mrs. Kirby and the Sycamore family as well as over eager T-men and you have the essentials of You Can’t Take It With You. 

Playwrights Kaufman and Hart have written a lightweight, but humorous, at times hilarious, comedy.  The plot is almost secondary to the nutty, screwball characters the writers have created.  The authors also manage to sneak in some pot shots at the rich, Wall Street, and United States governmental policies.

Director Scott Ellis has molded the large cast into a smooth running production that is crisp and bustling with energy.  The actors and actresses move about the stage of the Longacre Theatre in perfect harmony, which is quite an accomplishment with so many performers in motion at one time.

The entire cast is such a pleasure to watch.  Their comic timing is pure theatrical magic.  While everyone deserves a mention, let me put the spotlight on just a few.  James Earl Jones is contemplative and sagely as the affable and good-natured grandfather.  Kristine Nielsen is daffy, determined, and simply marvelous as Mrs. Sycamore.  Annaleigh Ashford as the ungraceful Essie delivers another comic gem of a performance.  Her rendition of “The History of Wrong Men” from Kinky Boots was one of the best comedic songs from a Broadway show in recent memory.  Her dancing is so bad it’s good and her mannerisms, even the most minute, are priceless.  Rose Byrne, better known for her film comedies, makes a sparkling Broadway debut as the hapless Alice Sycamore.   Julie Halston, who was so outrageously funny in last season’s Off-Broadway, The Tribute Artist, has a very small role as the inebriated actress Gay Wellington.  Yet, her moments on stage are hysterical with no one telling the “Man From Nantucket” joke better.

David Rockwell’s scenic design of the interior of the Sycamore home is as eccentric and outlandish as the family itself.  The walls are chocked full of knick-knacks, relics, and assorted tchotchkes.  It truly adds to the whimsical, quirky nature of the show.

You Can’t Take It With You, an entertaining diversion, playing through January 4, 2015.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of "Fiddler on the Roof" - Goodspeed Opera House

When the Goodspeed Opera House announced Fiddler on the Roof as one of their 2013-2014 productions, I groaned.  Over its 50 year lifespan I have seen the musical numerous times—from high school theatrics to runs on Broadway—and, honestly, I was not excited about revisiting this warhorse of a show. 

My trepidation, however, was unfounded mainly because this version comes across as a unified whole.  In past productions Tevye, the center of the story, has been played by larger then life actors, most famously by Zero Mostel in the original Broadway musical.  Here, Adam Heller, passionate and astute, blends in more with the other cast members.  This is not to diminish his interpretation or suggest the role is diluted or not even the focal point, but that his portrayal allows for the richness of the secondary roles to be realized.

For audience members not familiar with the show, which is based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the setting is the small Russian village of Anatevka, circa 1905.  We are introduced to the inhabitants, their daily lives, and struggles.  The central focus is on Tevye, the milkman; his wife, Golde; and their five daughters.  They, like the other villagers, are experiencing sweeping changes to the traditional way of life, both at home and within the country. 

I have not seen a production of Fiddler for many years.  As I watched the action unfold on stage I couldn’t keep from thinking how relevant the musical is for today’s audiences, how timeless and germane the themes and value are in our present day society.  Our family dynamics, as in the early part of the 20th century, are topsy turvey.  Religious conflict is prevalent over so much of the world and has created such upheaval that whole villages have been forced to abandon their cherished lands.  The parallels are stark and wholly pertinent for today.

When talking about the attributes of Fiddler on the Roof one must start with the score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.  Oy, what a grouping of songs—“Tradition,” “ Matchmaker,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “To Life” –and those are just within the first five songs of the show.  The numbers vary from the very lively to the heartfelt to the forlon.  As the saying goes, “They don’t write them like that anymore.”

The book by Joseph Stein has richly defined characters and a seemingly simple plot that uses the story of Tevye, his family, and the denizens of Anatevka to explore the more broad-based themes discussed earlier. 

The large cast, led by Adam Heller as Tevye, is superb.  Commanding and charismatic, Heller doesn’t overwhelm as the father bewildered by the changes swirling around him.  He is the lead, but more ingrained into the greater whole.  The supporting members of the troupe are equally engaging.  Two that deserve special notice are Barrie Kreinik as the eldest daughter Tzeitel and Lori Wilner as Tevye’s wife Golde.  Both are feisty and, in different ways, impassioned by their beliefs and ideas.

Parker Esse has lovingly and expertly recreated the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.  The dances are full of energy and fervor as they envelope the small Goodspeed stage.

Director Rob Ruggiero once again exhibits why he is one of the best musical theater directors around.  He has molded the sizable group of actors into a cohesive body, allowing the ebb and flow of the work to appear natural.  Whether in the more lively scenes, such as the opening’s “Tradition,” or the surreal dream sequence near the end of Act I, or in such poignant moments as in Tevye’s wistful query of “Do You Love Me?” Ruggiero demonstrates his full mastery of the production.

Fiddler on the Roof, a classic, beautifully mounted, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 12th.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review of "June Moon" - Williamstown Theatre Festival


June Moon is one of those clichéd song titles that were prevalent during the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, roughly the end of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th Century.  The title is easy to remember, can be effortlessly reprised within the body of the work, and the rhyming schemes are simple and schmaltzy.  Songwriters and music publishers aggressively pushed this type of unimaginative and hackneyed composition on a susceptible public.  They were greatly helped by “song pluggers,” individuals hired to sing the latest offerings in public venues as one method to market the newest tunes.  This business model, as well as the music industry of the time, is gently skewered in the 1929 revival of the George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner comedy, June Moon, which opened the 2014 season of the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Lauded in its time, June Moon, comes across today as a less biting depiction of a bygone era and more 1930’s melodrama of small town yokel being corrupted by a blonde bombshell and big city life.  The show opens as the unsophisticated Fred Stevens (Nate Corddry) trains to New York City, after leaving his job at General Electric in Schnectady, to become a songwriting lyricist in The Big Apple.  Onboard he meets fresh-faced Edna Baker (Rachel Napoleon) and the two, tentatively at first, hit it off.  Fred discusses his plans, impressing his new, wide-eyed lady friend.  They banter.  They laugh. They innocently come up with the title of a song, “June Moon.”  Upon arriving in the city the would-be wordsmith arrives at the apartment of semi-successful composer, Paul Sears (Rick Holmes), his dispirited wife, Lucille (Kate MacCluggage), and her unscrupulous sister, Eileen (Holley Fain).  Also, in attendance is nightclub entertainer and colleague Maxie (David Turner).  Sears is desperate for a hit song and, through a letter of introduction, sees Fred Stevens, the greenhorn, as his possible salvation.  The three men discuss possibilities and settle on developing “June Moon.”  About to leave for a date with lady friend Edna, Stevens is introduced to captivating and alluring, Eileen, and is unabashedly smitten.   From there June Moon settles into a tale of coming up with the big hit.  Predictably, “June Moon” does become a success, lining the pockets of Sears and Stevens with an infusion of cash.  Unfortunately, the hard sell and pushiness of the music business is overshadowed by the relational problems of Sears and his despondent wife and Fred and his now fiancé, the gold-digging Eileen (Semi spoiler alert--the kind-hearted Edna does return at the play’s conclusion for the requisite happy ending).   

We get a glimpse of the chaotic music world at the beginning of Act II as the set unfolds to a raucous suite of singers plugging away songs in closet-sized offices.  The marvelous Christopher Fitzgerald as the hapless songwriter, Benny Fox, provides steady comic relief as he desperately tries to impress anyone within breathing distance with one of his abysmal compositions.  The one character that fully embraces the intent of Kaufman and Lardner is Maxie (David Turner).  The actor is superb as he delivers his sarcastic observations and smart-alecky remarks, giving the play its lone heft.  The rest of the acting company is splendid.  Their performances just don’t elevate the show to a level of real stinging satire of the music industry.

Tobin Ost’s scenic design is evocative of the time period, especially the music publisher offices.  The set changeover between Act I and II was unnecessarily long, which hopefully will be rectified for the remainder of the run.

Director Jessica Stone admirably guides the cast, yet there is not too much movement or flair onstage.  The performers do a lot of sitting and talking, moving around from one location to another, and then continuing their talking and sitting.  Again, once the action locates to the music publishing offices Stone is able to bring out the essence of the play with the hustle, bustle, frantic nature of the industry where sell, sell sell is the nature of the business.

June Moon, more toothless then biting send-up of Tin Pan Alley at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through July 13th.