Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review of "Breakfast with Mugabe" - Off-Broadway

The premise for the Off-Broadway play, Breakfast with Mugabe, is newspaper accounts of the Zimbabwe President, depressed and haunted by a ngozi (malevolent spirit) of a fallen comrade, seeking help from a white psychiatrist.  Playwright Fraser Grace has utilized these unconfirmed reports to form the basis for the show, an intense drama set just before the Spring 2002 Presidential elections, that seeks to illuminate the political, cultural, and historical struggle of black Zimbabweans with the minority white landowners of the country.

To most Americans Robert Mugabe is viewed as a controlling and ruthless leader who has had an iron-clad grip on his nation for decades.  But what of his back story?  What are the chronicled events that have shaped his perspective and vision as well as that of his country?  Breakfast with Mugabe explores these questions through the head of state’s interaction with the psychiatrist.  Invited to the presidential palace to treat the elder leader he must also contend with the demands and pleas of his young wife, a plotting and calculating woman as well as be wary of the inscrutable intelligence officer, always nearby and listening.

The sessions of the two central protagonists, while occasionally too talkative, nonetheless are powerful, impassioned, and sometimes frightening.  Their exchanges are more like predator and prey circling one another, warily awaiting for the other to strike.  But throughout their give and take the question arises--who is the predator and who is the prey?  By the end of the 100 minute, intermissionless production the assured, but politically naïve doctor’s life is in shambles as Mugabe, reenergized and full of swagger reasserts his influence and authority across the land.

Fraser Grace has forged an impressive story that, more then not, successfully presents a sizeable swath of issues that crystallize the major racial, economic, and political conflicts in the African nation.  He slowly builds the emotion and forcefulness of the show to a powerful and painful conclusion. 

Since many theater-goers may not be familiar with the African words and historical references cited in the production the program includes a glossary, chronological timeline, and a very brief listing of major players from Mugabe’s past.

The actors are all outstanding, with the main kudos going to Ezra Barnes as the independently minded, principled psychiatrist, Andrew Peric; and Michael Rogers as the intimidating and stoic Robert Mugabe.  They add a realistic edge to their performances that both engage and fascinate.  Rosalyn Coleman as Grace, the very young second wife of the Zimbabwe President, initially comes off as a shallow and self-serving afterthought until you realize there is a shrewd cunning to her make-up.  Coleman endows the first lady with enough shading and contradictions to bamboozle even the most observant political spectator.  Che Ayende, as the solitary sentry, Gabriel, is depicted, at first, as simple window dressing until you eventually realize there is more to his silent disposition then is displayed on stage.  Ayende, endows his character with a sympathetic, all-knowing, and menacing presence especially towards the end of the production when you are graphically confronted with the consequences of dallying with the intelligence arm of an authoritarian ruler.

Director David Shookhoff has shaped a taut, well-executed production.  On the small stage the emotion and tension generated by the actors and plot can be unnerving.  As mentioned previously, the play’s momentum can be weighed down by a sometimes overly wordy script, but Shookhoff still manages to slowly ratchet up the ferment gestating within the show.
Breakfast with Mugabe, a thought-provoking, powerful drama at The Lion Theatre through March 2nd.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review of "Craving for Travel" - Off-Broadway

Pity the poor travel agent.  Always trying to please cranky customers and dealing with sometimes outlandish and preposterous travel requests.  These are just some of the problems portrayed in the mildly amusing Off-Broadway comedy, Craving for Travel.

Joanne and Gary are two formerly married travel agents now operating separate companies.  They have a friendly competitive edge, which becomes more acute as they vie for the profession’s ultimate award—the Globel Prize as top agent of the year.  Along the way, the duo handles a variety of demands, inquiries, and outright pleas from a host of eccentric, over-the-top characters, all depicted by the two actors, Michele Ragusa and Thom Sesma. 

Charlie Corcoran’s sets for the two agencies, reasonable facsimiles of everyday offices, sit side by side on the stage, which allows the show to be structured as a back and forth between the two players.  A phone is answered in one office while the actor on the other side of the stage portrays one of the agency’s many offbeat clients.  When the conversation ends the reverse occurs—the second agent’s phone rings while the first agent/actor has a dialogue as a different customer.  The show alternates in this format as one dilemma after another are presented and then, miraculously, resolved by the end of the 80 minute, intermissionless production.  

The script by Greg Edwards and Andy Sandberg will be beloved by any travel agent that makes a living handling and negotiating the whims and stipulations of their customers.  However, most jokes fall flat and are uninspired.  The goofy two-dimensional characters they have dreamed up, fun when first introduced, become somewhat tedious by the show’s end.

Michele Ragusa and Thom Sesma, both very capable actors, seem to relish the opportunity to play so many ridiculous and colorful roles.  They infuse each of their characters, through facial expressions and varied vocal inflections, with a singular, yet fetching personality.

Doubling as director, Andy Sandberg has the production running at a rapid fire pace, which is essential for the show not to become bogged down through the back and forth interactions of the two actors.  The difficulty is continually creating interesting and comedic short vignettes within the parameters of the show’s structure.  Sometimes Sandberg succeeds with the material that Sandberg (and Edwards) have provided.

Craving for Travel, a less then hoped for excursion, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater through February 9th.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review of "The Underpants" at Hartford Stage

Comedian Steve Martin began his illustrious career as an Emmy Award winning writer on the 1960’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  Since then, besides his stand-up comedy and acting roles, he has penned numerous screenplays, authored books, and crafted plays.  One of his most staged productions, The Underpants, a adaptation of a 1910 German farce, is a lighthearted, often funny undertaking is at Hartford Stage through February 9th.

The story centers on Louise, the young, naïve wife of a seemingly strait-laced bureaucrat, who’s underpants have accidentally slipped off while the two are watching a parade.  This sets off a sometimes silly, occasionally hilarious, sexually tinged rollercoaster of a ride as Louise tries to placate her whining, emotionless husband and deals with the advances of two men who witnessed her wardrobe malfunction, Versati, a handsome bon vivant and Cohen, an older, balding, milquetoast gentleman.  Both vie to rent the room the couple has to let in order to be near her so they can woo and seduce her.  To complicate matters Louise approves of Versati’s advances and, aided by her upstairs neighbor, Gertrude, seeks to consummate the pairing.  There is, of course, the problem of deflecting Cohen’s intrusions and avoiding her loudmouth, civil servant husband in order to make the deed a reality.

Steve Martin shows his wild and crazy, not too subtle, side with acrobatic wordplay, well-defined characters, and more often then not some uproariously written scenes.  The Underpants does peter out towards the end, almost as if the playwright couldn’t come up with a self-satisfying ending.  Still, for audiences not afraid of provocative banter and the intermittent off-color scene the play has enough laughs and admirable performances to warrant a trip to downtown Hartford.

The cast is thoroughly appealing and a joy to watch.  Jeff McCarthy is marvelous as the pugnacious, irritating, and obtuse husband, Theo.  You just want to reach out and bop him on the head.  Jenny Leona, beautiful as the dutiful and yearning wife, Louise, amusingly exudes a repressed sexual desire.  Burke Moses seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as the self-possessed, egotistical poet, Versati.  For someone better known in the musical theater world (he was the original Beast on Broadway in Beauty and the Beast) Moses gets an opportunity to overly emote without having to burst into song.  Steven Routman, as the mousy, jealous barber, Cohen, with his pauses and befuddled looks, gives the most consistently side-splitting performance of the show.  Didi Conn, is effervescent and bubbly as the deviously plotting neighbor, Gertrude.  The stage is aglow every time she enters a scene.

Director Gordon Edelstein keeps the action fast-paced and the comedic timing perfectly in sync.  He gives the actors room for their own schtick, without completely going beyond the structure of the play.

The Underpants, an amusing and entertaining diversion, perfect to alleviate any mid-winter blues.  Now at Hartford Stage through February 9th.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Review of "Beautiful - the Carole King Musical"

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, is an entertaining blend of charm, nostalgia, and showmanship.  The show’s overall feel and musicality will resonate greatly with a generation of baby boomers (as well as younger audiences).  Jessie Mueller, who plays the pop icon, gives an impressive performance, both for her embodiment of the singer-songwriter as well as for her rousing musicianship on the piano.  The show, unlike recent jukebox musicals, has a mostly compelling book (think Jersey Boys), that traces the artist’s formative years in the music industry, from a bashful, yet assertive 17 year old, through the defining moment of her career, the release of her solo album, "Tapestry," still one of the biggest selling albums in music history with over 25 million sold.  The story of Beautiful is not always uplifting as King deals with an early marriage, divorce, single parenthood, and a crisis of confidence during these years.

King, alone and with then husband Gerry Goffin, penned dozens of hit songs, which form the basis for much of the show’s score.  They include their first number one record, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “The Locomotion,” and a generous helping of songs from the landmark LP, Tapestry.  But while this is a musical spotlighting Carole King, book writer Douglas McGrath has smartly woven into the mix the friendly, playful, and competitive esprit de corps Goffin and King had with songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.  This allows for a generous dollop of their hits which include “Walking in the Rain,” “On Broadway,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” (the most played song of the 20th century).  

While the book provides a cohesive plot and allows for a firmly developed point-counterpoint between the songwriting teams, the overall results for Beautiful are problematic, primarily, because McGrath has so much material to choose from.  The question boils down to what to include/condense/omit within the roughly twenty-year time frame of the musical.  This allows, for example, only glimpses into the creative process where, even occasionally, a more expansive exploration would have been satisfying.  The introduction of musical acts, performing some of the hits quickly referenced in the show, are well-done, but break-up the momentum of the production, especially in Act I. 

The four actors portraying the two song writing teams are engaging and appealing individually and as a group.  Jessie Mueller’s portrayal of the legendary singer is a career-making role.  She personifies King’s vulnerability, charm, and chutzpah.  Her smile, from the very first notes of the show, to its rousing finale, lights up the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.  Jake Epstein gives Gerry Goffin a brash and self-confident air, at first, but then effectively changes direction as he is consumed by insecurities and self-doubt.  Anika Larsen is self-assured and vibrant as Carolyn Weil while Jarrod Spector, who played Franki Valli in Jersey Boys for over 1,500 performances, adds a fine comic touch as the composer Barry Mann.

Director Marc Bruni adroitly guides the production, skillfully presenting the abridged version of King’s early career.    While the machinations of Act I prove somewhat unwieldly, the director regains his footing during the more straightforward narrative of Act II.  He’s at his best when working with the songwriters either in tandem or all together. 

Derek McLane’s two-story set gives one the sense of the close quartered, frenetic, and free-wheeling activity artists worked under at Aldon Music, the hit-making factory of music producer Don Kirshner, who shephered both Goffin-King’s and Weil-Mann’s early start.

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, a highly pleasing trip down memory lane.