Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review of "The Bridges of Madison County" - Broadway

The Bridges of Madison County, the new musical based on the best-selling novel of the same name, is different from many recent Broadway shows.  The production does not have a cacophonous introduction, an intricately plotted book, a razz-ma-tazz score, or high-stepping dance numbers.  Instead, The Bridges of Madison County is a quieter, subtler musical with strongly defined central characters the audience slowly comes to know and embrace.  The show stars one of the consummate Broadway musical actresses of today, Kelli O’Hara, in a performance far different from her more exuberant roles over the past few years—Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, Babe Williams from The Pajama Game, or Billie Bendix in Nice Work If You Can Get It.  Here, as Francesca, an Italian immigrant war bride living with her American husband on an Iowa farm in the mid-1960’s, O’Hara displays an inner strength and determination which propels the poignant and sentimental story.

The plot, for those who haven’t read the multi-million selling book or the movie, which starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, is simple.  Francesca’s husband (Hunter Foster) and two children are off to the state fair, leaving her at home alone.  Later in the day a stranger wonders onto her property who, it turns out, is a National Geographic photographer named Robert (Steven Pasquale) looking for directions in order to take pictures of the covered bridges in Madison County.  Her initial thought is to provide assistance and say goodbye, but she is attracted to the lean, hulking figure and volunteers to personally lead him.  From there, a spark is kindled and blossoms into a full-fledged affair.

While Kelli O’Hara is the ying, Steven Pasquale, making his Broadway musical debut, is the yang to the passionate coupling.  Handsome and charismatic, he exudes a quiet resoluteness and vulnerability that draws him to Francesca as well as to the audience.  The chemistry between the two comes across as genuine which, for this type of show, is critical. 

Hunter Foster as Francesca’s husband, Bud, is his usual dependable self.  As with his recent roles in Hands on a Hard Body and Million Dollar Quartet Foster, once again, demonstrates that he is a steady, reliable performer on the Broadway stage.  Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin, playing the older, next door couple, Marge and Charlie, provide some welcome comic relief.  The married twosome also serve as an interesting counterpoint of an established, comfortably established husband and wife to the impassioned and lustful couple in the farm house just down the way.

The book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman, is well-structured, tenderly humorous, and romantic without being too maudlin or overly mawkish.

The score by Jason Robert Brown is lush, stirring and beautifully set within the musical.  These are not the type of songs that will have much life outside the context of the show, but are haunting and exquisite nonetheless.  I could not imagine a different grouping of ballads and plaintive numbers then what Brown has written.

Director Bartlett Sher, working from a minimally adorned stage, keeps the focus on the two protagonists.  He smartly and delicately builds the momentum of the story, slowly at first, until the inevitable romance begins.  Sher imbues the few scenes of Francesca talking with her husband over the phone with pathos and genuine confusion for both, sometimes with very little being exchanged between them.  The end of the production, which could collapse into a warmed-over mess is, instead, handled with sensitivity and aplomb.

The Bridges of Madison County, a more understated, but worthwhile musical, now on Broadway.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review of "These! Paper! Bullets!" - Yale Repertory

When’s the last time you simply just had fun at the theater?  Unpretentious, unadulterated fun?  Those are the operative words that come to mind to describe the semi-musical, These! Paper! Bullets! at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 5th.  The show, described as “a modish ripoff of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” transforms the Italian city of Messina to 1964 London where a band, The Quarto, a rock group unabashedly modeled after the Beatles, is all the rage.  Add to this scenario a few original songs by Billie Joe Armstrong, front man for the punk rock group, Green Day, and you have an entertaining, if not always compelling, retooling of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies.

As adapted by the playwright Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and television writer, the mash-up between Much Ado About Nothing and These! Paper! Bullets! syncs up well.  Whereas in the Shakespearean play Claudio and Hero meet and fall madly in love with each other, in These! Paper! Bullets! Claude, one of The Quarto’s, meets Higgy, a beautiful model, at a party and the two instantly connect.  In Much Ado, the soon-to-be wedded couple and their friends, to pass the time, plot to have the constantly bickering Benedick and Beatrice to cease their verbal sparrings and histrionics and finally fall in love with each other.  In the contemporary update there is Ben, the leader of The Quarto, witty and slightly obnoxious who quarrels and matches wits with the well-known fashion designer Bea, cousin to Higgy.  And, finally, the vengeful Don John character from the Shakespeare play is present in the spiteful and scheming Don Best, the Quarto’s former drummer (yes, a not-so-subtle nod to The Beatles first drummer, Pete Best, who was unceremoniously ousted from the Fab Four to make way for Ringo) who wants to destroy the happiness of Claude and Higgy by concocting a lurid sex scandal to be unveiled at the wedding ceremony.  As with the source material, after some twists and turns, happiness and good cheer prevail by the show’s end. 

These! Paper! Bullets!, while a great idea is only a serviceable reshaping of the Bard’s work, coming across as a bit muddled in the beginning, but after settling in midway through the first act the production gathers steam and becomes a more breezy bit of fare.  The cast, led by David Wilson Barnes as Ben, Bryan Fenkart as Claude, Jeaninie Serralles as Bea, and Ariana Venturi as Higgy is uniformly fine.  Their presentation of Shakespearean type dialogue is more jaunty then proper, but works for the conceit of the show.  The other Quarto members, James Barry as Pedro (he’s George) and Lucas Papaelias as Baith (he’s Ringo), are fun-loving and animated.  Andrew Musselman as an ill-mannered and crass tabloid journalist, Adam O’Byrne as Don West, the vengeful former band mate, and the men of Scotland Yard, especially, Greg Stuhr as a bumbling and dimwitted inspector add some extra zest to the production.

One of the most exciting aspects of the show are a few original songs penned by Billie Joe Armstrong.  They are Beatles-esque, tuneful, and a rousing good time.  Armstrong, during the Broadway production of his group’s, American Idiot, was quoted as saying he wanted to write more for the stage.  Let’s hope, either in further renditions of this show, or in future endeavors, the Green Day leader continues composing.

Director Jackson Gay keeps the good-natured humor flowing.  Occasionally, the large cast is somewhat disorganized on stage and the pacing of the production can ebb and flow.  Gay makes good use of rear screen projections to bolster the excitement The Quartos generate.  He also incorporates hand held, closed circuit cameras to enhance the immediacy of the moment and that playfully involve the audience.

These! Paper! Bullets!, for those who need both their Beatles and Shakespeare fix, at Yale Repertory through April 5th.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review of "The Tribute Artist" - Off-Broadway

Poor Jimmy (Charles Busch).  As an aging drag queen (or as he describes himself, a tribute artist) portraying entertainment legends on the Las Vegas strip he has recently been fired from his job.  With no hope of suitable employment and no place to live, Jimmy’s life is one big mess.  He relates his woes during a visit to long time friend, Adriana (Cynthia Harris), an elderly recluse and virtual shut-in living in a palatial townhouse in New York City.  Her sudden demise at the start of the show gives Jimmy and his boozy, incompetent real estate friend, Rita (Julie Halston) a madcap idea—Jimmy could impersonate Adriana, the two could sell the home for the millions it’s worth, split the proceeds, and head out of town to a life of luxury and wealth.  Since no one has really seen Adriana for such a long time and with no known heirs in the picture, the plan looks foolproof.  Of course, it isn’t, as unforeseen developments conspire to derail the twosome’s scheme.

This sets the stage for The Tribute Artist, a very funny show energized by a sometimes subtle, but mostly flamboyant performance by playwright and star, Charles Busch.   The impersonation of his recently departed friend reminded me of an aged Eve Arden, which is apropos since Busch, as Jimmy, can’t help himself from referencing snippets of dialogue from Hollywood films of yesteryear.  He is spot on with his depictions of such luminaries as Bette Davis, Mary Astor, and Margaret Sullivan.  The New York Times published a cheat sheet guide to the movie references in the play to serve as an aid to playgoers.  Busch has stated he, “may have estranged some audience members who weren’t familiar with the movies he satirized” in previous productions he had written.  In The Tribute Artist he smartly has the character of Rita announce the source material to cast members as part of the show’s plot.  Within the context of the play it works perfectly.  I also greatly appreciated how playwright Busch neatly wrapped up the loose ends by the end of the production.  It made for a very satisfying conclusion.

What makes Charles Busch such an entertaining performer is not just the way he emotes and sashays about the stage, but also with his varied, comical facial expressions and schtick.  The rest of the cast is equally impressive with Busch’s frequent collaborator, Julie Halston, a perfect foil.  She has an expressive theatricality that helps keep the laughs coming.  Cynthia Harris as Jimmy’s aged confidant, Adriana, makes the most of her time on stage with one hysterical zinger after another.  Mary Bacon, as the unknown heir, Christina, initially comes off as a whiny complainer, but as the show moves along her performance becomes more layered and sympathetic.  Jonathan Walker as ex-fling, Rodney, is wonderfully mysterious as well a delicious as a flirtatious lout.  Keira Keeley as the young girl, Oliver, having sexual orientation questions rounds out the superb cast.

Director Carl Andress gives good pacing to the production, allowing the chuckles and laughable situations to unfold naturally.  He knows when to impose his judgement and when to step back and let the actors, especially Charles Busch, just do their thing.

The Tribute Artist, one of the funniest shows On or Off-Broadway, through March 30th.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review of "Appropriate" - Off-Broadway

Appropriate, recently opened at the Signature Theatre, can be described as a poor man’s version of the play August: Osage County.  I’m not looking to compare the two dramas, but more as a point of reference.  Both revolve around a gathering of dysfunctional family members, the revealing of household secrets, and a lot of shouting and screaming between siblings.

The protagonists—brothers, a sister, and their significant others—have converged at the rundown, ancestral home of their recently deceased father to sort through the mountains of refuse and clutter he left behind.  The set by Clint Ramos is a hoarder’s dream come true with heaps and heaps of useless items and bric-a-brac piled, literally, to the ceiling.  Toni (Johanna Day), the manic, self-pitying sister, has taken charge of the purging process, which has, temporarily, led to a cessation of long time tensions and simmering hostilities with her brother, Bo (Michael Laurence), and his wife, Rachel (Maddie Corman).  With the unexpected arrival of the black sheep of the clan, Franz (Patch Darragh) and his girlfriend, River (Sonya Harum), and the discovery of a mysterious and toxic-filled photo album the tentative détente among the group very quickly disintegrates as in-fighting and accusations punctuate the stage. 

Playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins has taken well-established themes of family strife and friction to create a play that seethes with age-old slights and discord.  Yet while the volatility of the players slowly begins to be ratcheted up, too much of the action and dialogue seems empty, without substance, and a focused direction.  The soliloquies and confessions come up hollow.  Add to that characters that are not very likeable and the result is a production that is loud, but bereft of a satisfying conclusion.  In fact, I thought it was rather a disappointing end.

The cast is uniformly fine, but the roles seemed to lack depth and shading.  Johanna Day as the tortured, self-righteous, and self-appointed head of the Lafayette clan plays the part to the hilt, but she comes across as too shrill and whiny.  Michael Laurence as brother Bo looks to be the mediator among the group but, nonetheless, also plunges into the maelstrom of the household.  Maddie Corman as Bo’s wife Rachel comes across as the most believable character showing equal parts conciliation, indignation, and pure disdain for her bossy sister-in-law as well as her position within the family.  Patch Darragh as brother Franz, with his hidden past, comes across as both arrogant and vulnerable, but his true motives are never fully revealed.  Sonya Harum as Franz’s girlfriend, River, is suitably wide-eyed and outwardly naïve, but has an undercurrent of steeliness and savviness.  The children of the two families, Rhys (Mike Faist), Cassidy (Izzy Hanson-Johnston), and Ainsley (Alex Dreier) are serviceable in their roles with Faist having more substance to his character as a somewhat misunderstood and troubled teen.

Director Liesl Tommy does an admirable job guiding the cast whether in the quieter, more reflective moments of the production or in the larger scale, confrontation aspects of the show.  Even with the shortcomings of the play he wrings a sufficient amount of tension to keep the audience intrigued most of the time.

Appropriate, at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 13th.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review of National Tour of "The Book of Mormon" - Bushnell Center for Performing Arts

This following is adapted from my Broadway review of the musical.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind Comedy Central’s long-running animated hit, South Park, have regularly incorporated elements of musical theater into their outrageously funny creation. Along with Avenue Q veteran, Robert Lopez, the threesome have written the book, music and lyrics to the uproariously entertaining, sometimes provocative, Tony Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon.  The national tour is at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, March 30th.

Anyone familiar with Parker and Stone’s work knows that some of the characters will be foul-mouthed and situations will be compromising and irreverent. The Book of Mormon delivers on all counts…and more. The production pokes fun at, gently mocks, and occasionally skewers Mormonism, but never maliciously. The premise of the musical is simple enough. Two mismatched Mormon missionaries, hoping for a plum missionary assignment are, instead, assigned to Uganda and shipped off to rescue the souls of this African nation. Mark Evans, is the handsome, squeaky clean, tightly wound idealistic member of the twosome.  Christopher John O’Neill, a dumpy, disheveled, loud mouth liar is his unlikely partner. Together they enter a world of poverty, AIDs, warlords, and indifference by the villager’s they are charged to save. Of course the harebrained solution to convince their disinterested flock to see the light is, in typical South Park fashion, off the wall and absurd, but would you expect anything different?

The book and score, which is surprisingly tuneful and inventive, veer from good-natured sweetness, as with the opening number, “Hello,” to the wildly subversive “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” production number where Hilter; Genghis Khan; serial murderer, Jeffrey Dahmer; and O.J. defender, Johnny Cochran sing and dance. The creative triumvirate pays homage to Broadway’s past with a vulgar take-off of “Hukuna Matata” from The Lion King, “Hasa Diga Eebowai;” and an equally inappropriate send-up of the “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from The King and I, “Joseph Smith American Moses.”

The direction is crisp and sure-footed, with a dash of zaniness.  This is a production that is constantly on the move, effortlessly shifting from one scene to the next.

The whole cast is top-notch. Besides the two leads, the musical’s male ensemble of missionaries must be acknowledged. These six actors are an integral part of the show. Led by Grey Henson as Elder McKinley, the group provides some of the most hilarious, belly-laughing moments of the musical. Their clap-on, clap-off, tap dancing extravaganza in “Turn It Off” is priceless.  Alexandra Ncube, the sole female lead, the African daughter, Nabulungi, is sweet and innocent with a strong, clear voice.  One of the ongoing gags throughout the production is the way the character of Elder Cunningham continually butchers her name.

The Book of Mormon, a must for South Park fans as well as the rest of mankind.  Playing at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through March 30th.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review of "Higgins in Harlem" - Playhouse on Park

There are two reasons to see the world premiere of Higgins in Harlem—Kevyn Morrow as the incorrigible, self-absorbed Henry Higgins and Janelle A. Robinson as his sassy, no-nonsense mother.  The two seasoned performers provide a healthy degree of professionalism to an uneven production. 

The show, an African-American version of Pygmalion, transports the locale to Harlem, circa 1938.  Those familiar with the source material or, more likely, the Lerner and Loewe musical of the show, My Fair Lady, will know the storyline.  Professor Henry Higgins, a linguistic specialist and teacher, scoops up a street-smart, mouthy, inerudite young woman, Eliza Doolittle (Geri-Nikole Love), and, through a bet with his colleague, Colonel Pickering (Bob Johnson), vows to transform her into a well-mannered, perfectly speaking African princess within six months.  Through fits and starts the duo succeeds, but not without pain for their subject as Eliza’s metamorphosis is simply viewed as a grand experiment.  Higgins and Pickering seem to have very little outward feelings for her and have no plans for her when their deadline arrives, leaving the now beautiful and polished young woman without a future.  She could marry Freddie Hill (Joshua Ramos), who has fallen heads-over-heels for her, strike out on her own, or even move in with her now respectable father (Jeffrey Cousar), a former street person who, through a twist of the plot, is now very well off.  As the lights dim, we are left to ponder what might happen.

Writer/Director Lawrence Thelen presents an interesting twist on George Bernard Shaw’s classic tale, but there are problems.  There is no chemistry between the two protagonists which, in the least, should have some spark.  A few scenes, more to the quality of the acting, seem overlong.  I would have also like to have seen more scenes that delved into the mechanics of teaching Eliza.  There is one unsatisfying pantomime and a variation of “The Rain in Spain” being substituted for “Take the A Train.” The show takes place in Harlem, but except for some name dropping and the type of taped music played between scene changes you would never know.   It would seem if the play is being promoted as being in a certain time period and location you would stress this fact.  As written it seems too much like just an African-American version of Pygmalion.  Even though Thelen has extensive directing experience it might have been better to have a different set of eyes and ears helming the production.

Kevyn Morrow is headstrong and slightly more off-putting then necessary as the language expert.  But he is focused and a dynamic personality when on stage.  Janelle A. Robinson is the other bright spot in the play, giving a straightforward, classy performance as Higgins’ mother.  Geri-Nikole Love, as Eliza, undergoes a convincing transformation from the periphery of society to its very heights.  She is beautiful, poised and, by the end of the show, strong-willed, yet melancholy.  Bob Johnson is rather one-dimensional as Higgins’ ally Colonel Pickering.  Jeffrey Cousar is a whirling dervish of energy during his few appearances as Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle.  A bit more restraint could have been in order.  Xenia Gray is quietly strong as the reliable maid, Mrs. Pearce.

Higgins in Harlem, at Playhouse on Park through March 23rd.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review of "4000 Miles" - Long Wharf Theatre

In Amy Herzog’s play, 4000 Miles, playing at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through March 16th, a grandmother and her early 20’s year old grandson, suddenly thrown together, slowly forge a symbiotic and trusting relationship that leads to mutual understanding and growth for the impetuous young man.  

The play begins as Leo (Micah Stock) surprises his grandmother (Zoaunne Leroy) when he arrives at her Greenwich Village apartment in the middle of the night, having just concluded a cross-country trek on his bicycle.   The youth, a free spirit and a bundle of self-importance, asks for temporary shelter while deciding his next step in life.   The brief stay soon stretches out for three weeks as the two become closer and more dependent on each other.    Along the way Leo must deal with death, relationships, and family matters.

During the almost two hour, intermissionless show Herzog gradually builds a story that seems longer then the aforementioned time frame, but fulfilling in the end.  Her characters are full of personality and complexities as they struggle with each other’s temperament and individuality.  The playwright also manages to weave in the pain of aging and the desolation of loneliness.

Micah Stock is impressive as the irresponsible and immature grandson.  He is irritating and self-absorbed, yet also vulnerable as he comes to grip with his personal demons and uncertainties.  Zoaunne Leroy is wonderful as the octogenarian grandmother, Vera Joseph.  She is mercurial and sassy, but pained as she confronts her own frailties while trying to develop some type of rapport with her daughter’s son.  Leah Karpel as Leo’s girlfriend, Bec, is fine but not given enough emphasis to make her role as well-rounded as the two central performers.  The same goes for Teresa Avia Lim as Leo’s one night stand, Amanda.

Director Eric Ting doesn’t hurry the material, allowing the actors to sink into their roles and let them slowly evolve.  His pacing of the production is key.  Some audience members may find the play’s tempo somewhat sluggish or lethargic, but those that stay attuned to the show’s rhythms will be rewarded with a rich and satisfying, yet melancholy ending.

4000 Miles, at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre through March 16th.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review "The Open House" - Off-Broadway

The description for the Off-Broadway play, The Open House, by Will Eno, states:  “Playwrights have been trying to write Family Plays for a long time…They try to answer the question, ‘Can things really change?’ People have been trying nobly for years and years to have plays solve in two hours what hasn't been solved in many lifetimes. This has to stop.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Eno has taken this observation to heart as his new work, while haltingly funny at first, leaves the audience wanting more of a resolution by the end of the 80 minute show.

At the onset we are introduced to quite the dysfunctional family gathered in the living room for what is suppose to be a wedding anniversary celebration.  The father (Michael Countryman), confined to a wheelchair after a stroke (maybe a series of strokes), is contentedly reading the newspaper and simultaneously ignoring his young adult son (Danny McCarthy) and daughter (Hannah Bos), just in for the occasion, his brother-in-law (Peter Friedman), and wife (Carolyn McCormick) and delivering one mean-spirited bon mots after another at his family members.  His bullying, mockery, and sarcasm are alternatingly funny and very disturbing.  The children’s uncle (possibly someone with post-traumatic stress disorder), mostly silent and invisible in the background, is the target for most of the taunts.  The wife, serene, cheerful, with a dash of passive-aggressiveness, is somewhat oblivious to her husband’s offensive shenanigans.  Slowly, events and actions begin to change the dynamics of the group as cast members leave the stage, one by one, only to return in the guise of different characters.  It is the latter part of the play, connected, yet disconnected to the first segment, which gives The Open House, overall, an incomplete feel.

Playwright Will Eno provides sharply defined characters that provoke and entertain.  He intriguingly sets the stage for what could have been a very interesting production if he kept with his initial group of performers and developed a more user-friendly, traditionally structured play.

The cast is uniformily fine with Michael Countryman giving the most complete and distinctive performance as the thoroughly unlikeable head of the household.  Danny McCarthy and Hannah Bos, as the berated and constantly criticized children, are rather one-dimensional, but achieve much fuller portrayals with their second line characters.  Peter Friedman stands out in his role as the listless, mostly undemonstrative brother-in-law, convincingly conveying a sense of aimlessness.  Carolyn McCormick gives an understated performance as the slightly confused, yet sometimes lucid mother.

Director Oliver Butler, while centering attention on the father figure, organizes a tableaux of nuanced performances that, in totality, paints a distressing picture of one family’s life.  He skillfully orchestrates the departure of one set of characters and the introduction of the next in a seamless manner.

The Open House, now through March 30th at the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Review of "Opportunity Makes the Thief" - Off-Broadway

The little OPERA theatre of ny lives up to its name with their delightful production of Opportunity Makes the Thief.  The show, taking place at one of the shoebox-sized theatres at the 59E59 complex, is a one act comedic romp of happenstance, mistaken identity, and discovery.  Written by Gioachino Rossini, the opera is sung in English, with a translation by Mark Herman and Ronnie Apter, which an opera neophyte like myself thoroughly appreciated.

The seven person chamber ensemble, under the sure-handed guidance of James Bagwell (who also demonstrates a deft comic touch with the players), provides a rich and precise sound.

The group of rotating actors present for the performance I attended possessed rich, full-throated voices that beautifully resonated within the small performing space.  They were all very polished, delivering accomplished performances.  Baritone Adelmo Guidarelli stood out with the showcase role of Martino, the bumbling, amusing man-servant.  Sometimes the lyrics were hard to understand, as the enunciation wasn’t as smooth as a strictly Broadway musical, but with the simple plot outlined in the program the action was not difficult to follow.

Director Phillip Shneidman, working within a cramped space and what could basically be described as an up and down ramp surrounding the musicians, deserves kudos for just keeping the actors from running into each other.

Opportunity Makes the Thief, validating the old adage of good things come in small packages.