Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review of "Cabaret" - Broadway

In 1998, when the previous revival of Cabaret opened on Broadway, the revisionist remounting of the musical was somewhat shocking, primarily in the presentation of the Emcee.  Gone was the tuxedo-clad, asexual nature of the Kit Kat Klub host that Joel Grey, who starred in the original 1966 production, made so famous.  Instead, the part was given a radical makeover as the role of the Emcee, now scantily dressed in shirtless overalls, among other guises, was more overtly debauched and sinister.  The Kit Kat Klub, in the reconceptualized show, was a considerably more hedonistic and debased environment.

I bring this up because so much has changed within our society in the past 16 years--culturally, aesthetically, and morally.  What stunned or offended in 1998 seems rather tame today.  Back then reality television was just entering our vocabulary.  The Internet, and all its salacious applications, was still vastly unknown to mainstream America.  Facebook, YouTube, and Goggle hadn’t even been launched.  How does all of this relate to the recently opened revival of Cabaret?  While the musical is a first-rate production, the shock value has been significantly deflated.  What is presented on-stage is nothing worse then the average fare shown on cable television or even prime time network shows. 

Studio 54 is once again the home for the revival of Cabaret.  Theater style seating has been removed and supplanted with very small tables and chairs for audience members.  Small lamps with red, beaded shades adorn each table giving the interior of the theater the ambiance of a Berlin cabaret.
As the musical begins, we are introduced to the Emcee portrayed, as in 1998, by Alan Cummings.  While licentious, sexually amoral, with a good helping of raunchiness thrown in, his schtick is less revolting and offensive then in the previous production.  The Emcee oversees the wickedness and naughtiness in the club’s environs, not only from the stage of the Kit Kat Klub but, from overhead, where a large, empty frame sits askew.  It gives him and the audience a window into the decadent, overindulgent world of pre-Hitler Germany both inside and outside the Klub.  As Nazi storm clouds gather, the story focuses on Cliff Bradshaw (Bill Heck), an American would-be novelist, and his relationship with young Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams), the night club’s headliner.  A secondary plot revolves around the blooming romance between Fraulen Schneider (Linda Edmond), an aged proprietress of a rooming house, and Herr Schultz (Danny Burstein), an older fruit vendor who also happens to be Jewish.

The action nimbly switches between the lewd and bawdy entertainment within the Kit Kat Klub, where song and dance provide biting social commentary, to the lives of the protagonists trying to make sense of the great political and social upheaval looming on the horizon.

The first-rate cast, led by Alan Cummings and Michelle Williams, is finely tuned and provocative.  Cummings, as the deprived master of ceremonies, convincingly portrays a being that is angry and contemptuous of life, exuding a depravity that is both frightful and pathetic.  Michelle Williams, making her Broadway debut, fashions a highly impressionable introductory presence as the world-weary entertainer.  Glamorous, yet despondent over her status in life, she is thoroughly believable whether as the party-is-never-over girl or as the dispirited downcast.  She demonstrates a fine singing voice that exudes both her emotional highs and lows. Linda Emond is marvelous as Frau Schneider, a jumble of apprehension, confusion, and anticipation.   She has a magnificent voice, which resonates throughout the theater.  Danny Burstein is sublime, as Herr Schultz.  At first reserved, he becomes more vocal and buoyant later only to be thrust back to the hardened realities of being a Jew in 1930’s Germany.   The role of Cliff Bradshaw, played admirably by Bill Heck, has always given me pause.  As the questionably bisexual American writer, he is crucial for the plot to move forward, but his character is so one-dimensional, lacking the gradiated shading of the other characters.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is one of the composing team’s best.  Melodic with sharply observant lyrics it includes such timeless classics as “Willkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Perfectly Marvelous,” “What Would You Do,” and “Cabaret.”  The young band, suggestively clad, located above the stage and comprised of members of the acting troupe, are a tightly led group under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello.  There musical accompaniment is fluid and enhances each of the musical numbers.

Choreographer Rob Marshall provides stylish dance routines that are a combination of sensuality and raunchiness.  Within the confines of the Kit Kat Klub, movement is key.  The denizens of the establishment strut, pose, and parade themselves around the dance floor in an almost adulterated ballet. 

Directors Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes put the initial focus on Alan Cummings’ lascivious Emcee, sort of a cold water jolt for the theater going crowd.  He is not only at the center of the semi-controlled anarchy within the Kit Kat Klub, but his prurient presence is also utilized as an observant specter of events unfolding within Berlin.  The two directors skillfully shift between the lewd and vulgar setting of the nightclub to the quieter, yet tension-filled scenes within Frau Schneider’s rooming house.   The interplay between Cliff and Sally comes across as somewhat forced, but the relationship between Frau Schneider and Herr Schultz is tenderly yet, heartrendingly, played.  Overall, Mendes and Marshall allow the drama within Joe Masteroff’s book to slowly build to its bittersweet and tragic finale. 

Cabaret, worth a visit for those that missed the revival’s run the first time around, playing now at Studio 54.

Note:  Some word usage in this review has been gleaned from a previous review of Cabaret.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review of "Violet" - Broadway

This Broadway season audiences have been treated to performances from two of the most dynamic actresses in musical theater today.  Kelli O’Hara, displaying an inner strength and determination, in The Bridges of Madison Country; and now Sutton Foster in Violet.

Foster, known more for her exuberant roles in such musicals as Anything Goes, Shrek – The Musical, and Thoroughly Modern Millie, plays against type in Violet.  Here, she is as plain as can be—simple look, unadorned clothing, and a no-nonsense manner.  As the title character, we learn, as a young teenager, she was horribly disfigured by an axe head, which flew off the handle while her father was chopping wood.  Now, as a 25 year-old woman, she begins a journey, via bus, from her quaint homestead in the North Carolina hills to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  There, she fervently believes, a charismatic televangelist, will use the power of the lord to heal her facial scar.  Along the way she meets two soldiers, Monty, handsome and more of a womanizer; and his friend and traveling companion, Flick, African-American, rugged and, in his own way, psychologically scarred.  The time is September 1964 and the south is not a hospitable place to men like Flick.  During their travels the three bond as they draw close to each other for support and solace.  Paralleling the story are flashbacks to Violet’s childhood with her father.  The girl’s mother is out of the picture.  Did she run away with another man?  Pass away? We never know.  

 One of the reasons that Violet is a strong piece of theater is the bare-bones narrative structure.  Brian Crawley’s book, based on the short story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim,” brings out the essence of Violet’s situation and her interactions, both as a young lass and woman.  There is very little clutter.  Our attention is centered on the action on stage during the almost two hour, intermission-less production. 

The other reason the show is so worthwhile is the superb cast, led by Sutton Foster.  We feel the pain and humiliation of her condition (even though no make-up is used to depict her scar).  She is resolute, strong-willed and, yet, vulnerable.  We empathize with her setbacks and applaud her triumphs.  Colin Donnell, as Monty, comes across with self-confidence oozing from his pores, but underneath he is fragile and self-doubting.  Joshua Henry, as with his two companions, has a brave front, but underneath the façade is a hurting, yet proud individual.  Henry imbues his character with dignity and honor in the face of racial affronts.  Alexander Gemignani is marvelous in the small, but pivotal, role of Violet’s father.  His distress and frustration of raising a teenage daughter is so apparent.  The torment he feels from the accidental maiming of the young Violet is an anguish we, in the audience, also feel. Emerson Steele, makes a head-turning Broadway debut as the blossoming younger Violet.  She is so self-assured and spirited in her portrayal.  This is an actress to keep an eye on in the future.

The score, with music by the veteran composer Jeanine Tesori and lyricist Brian Crawley, has depth, emotional weight and rousing moments.  As a whole, the songs are well-conceived and sung with passionate and emotive clarity. 

Director Leigh Silverman, working with minimal props and sets, and a handful of onstage musicians, smartly puts the focus on the three primary actors as they banter, tease, argue, and connect on their individual and shared odyssey.  Silverman skillfully blends the two stories—the past and present—into a well-balanced and fluid production.  He deftly seasons the musical with careful placement and incorporation of the other equally satisfying supporting actors.

Violet, different from the typical Broadway fare, but well-worth our attention, at the Roundabout Theatre Company on 42nd Street, now through August 10th.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review of "All the Way" - Broadway

I am a political junkie.  I majored in Political Science, have worked in local and national campaigns, and my favorite board game growing up dealt with the Electoral College (Really!).  So, I was looking forward, with great anticipation, to the new Broadway play, All the Way, that chronicles President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first 11 months in office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Happily, the show more then satisfied my addiction.  With a tour de force performance by Bryan Cranston as the 36th President, a host of historic and illustrious characters, and enough backroom wheeling and dealing to make your head spin, All the Way is an entertaining and dramatic piece of theater.

The production begins as the newly elevated Vice President, having just arrived in D.C. aboard Air Force One from Dallas, sets out an ambitious legislative agenda, which is centered around the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Sound dry?  Stodgy?  Tedious?  Not at all, primarily because Bryan Cranston is so forceful and committed in his role.  Johnson was a master technician when it came to political action and the passage of legislation.  His take-no-prisoner philosophy worked flawlessly until the controversy and protests over the Vietnam War toppled him.  Cranston utilizes Johnson’s deceptively folksy charm and strong-arm tactics to give a masterful performance.  He truly embodies the man.

A cavalcade of political leaders of the day are cajoled, bullied, and coerced to aid the president in passing what would become one of his signature pieces of legislation.  These include his Vice President, the liberal Hubert Humphrey (Robert Petkoff); and his political mentor, Democratic Senator Richard Russell (John McMartin).  Other notables in the play are F.B.I. Director, J. Edgar Hoover (Michael McKean); Governor George Wallace (Rob Campbell); and Roy Wilkins (Peter Jay Fernandez), NAACP Executive Director. Interwoven into the storyline is the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (Brandon J. Dirden) and his close group of advisors and allies and their uneasy alliance with Johnson.  Even with their dueling recriminations, denunciations, and criticisms both men realize enactment of the civil rights bill is paramount, for them individually and for the nation. 

The supporting cast, seasoned and suitably gratifying, with actors playing multiple roles, truly do support the outstanding performance of Cranston. 

Robert Schenkkan’s script is dense and full of historical references and personalities.  He turns what could be a lifeless and stuffy exercise in high school civics into intelligent and lively theater.  The audience also comes away with a good grasp on how backroom politics and compromises were engineered during the Johnson administration.  Maybe today’s Republican and Democratic Washington D.C. legislators should be required to attend a performance to learn a thing or two.

Christopher Acebo’s set design is in the form of semi-circular judicial benches where performers sit, overlooking the action center stage, watching and judging silently.  This silent Greek chorus is simple, yet effective.  Their reflections and voiceless deliberations echo our thoughts and circumspections.

Director Bill Rauch is able to create a dramatic tension that reverberates throughout the theater.  He skillfully manages the entrances and exits of the large cast without losing the pacing necessary to keep the audience’s attention.  His ace in the hole is Bryan Cranston.  Even when a slight lull may occur, when the actor enters the stage the energy level increases tenfold.

All the Way, grand theater, even for the politically apathetic, at the Neil Simon Theatre through June 29th.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review of "Aladdin" - Broadway

I feel compelled to give two reviews of Aladdin.  The first is for families thinking about taking small children or tweens to a Broadway extravaganza.  From this perspective, the show will be an enjoyable and entertaining outing.  The second critique is for everyone else (even though families are allowed to peek) that might want an in-depth appraisal for a more adult audience. 

REVIEW ONE [For Families]--If you are looking for a big, splashy, colorful Broadway musical that will amaze the kids, have enough action and comedy for tweens, and plenty of spectacular dance numbers for everyone else then Aladdin, the latest Disney film to transfer to the Broadway stage, will be a perfect choice.  Based on the 1992 musical fantasy, Aladdin has ample amounts of charm, pizzazz, and wondrous effects that most Disney musicals possess.  It is a crowd pleaser that will make parents the heroes in their household.

REVIEW TWO [For Others]—My expectations for Aladdin were, maybe unrealistically, high since the only two previous occupants of the New Amsterdam Theatre were Mary Poppins (November 16, 2006 – March 3, 2013) and Lion King (November 13, 1997 – June 13, 2006).  Aladdin is solidly good, sometimes great but, overall, enjoyable and energetically fine are apt descriptors.  In the pantheon of Disney animated movies converted into Broadway musicals it ranks below Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, coming just ahead of Tarzan and The Little Mermaid. 

Unlike many musicals today, Aladdin begins with a sumptuous overture, which serves as a primer for the audience to the Disney magic to come.  The Genie (James Monroe Iglehart) then enters the stage and welcomes the assembly with the large production number, “Arabian Nights,” an introductory song in the mode of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.  Soon the stage is alive with delirious movement, colorful costumes, and fanciful sets of an Arabian land. 

The Disney version of Aladdin is simple—boy (Aladdin) meets girl (Princess Jasmine), boy loses girl, boy (now in the guise of a prince) tries to woo girl and, finally, boy wins girl.   Happy ending.  Along the way our hero, his three knucklehead friends, and his newly acquired genie, must outwit the sinister Royal Vizier, Jafar, and his squat henchman, Iago, who are plotting to wrest control of the kingdom from Jasmine’s father, the Sultan.

Aladdin is more cartoonish then its long-running predecessors, Beauty and the Beast and Lion King.  Those two musicals came across as fully fleshed out animated features with depth and pathos.  The current show doesn’t take itself as seriously—the book by Chad Beguelin incorporates numerous puns and silly jokes--which heavily influences the production’s pastiche of various styles and manners.

The real star of the show is James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie.  He doesn’t appear that often on stage, but when he does hold onto your seats. In the musical number, “Friend Like Me,” he gives an absolute tour-de-force performance.  With the full Broadway razz-ma-tazz treatment and inspired zaniness you almost forget the Robin Williams voiced character from the film.  

The rest of the cast is first-rate.  Adam Jacobs as Aladdin is handsome, athletic, and posses a million watt smile.  He has a charming and engaging playfulness that connects wholeheartedly with the audience.  Courtney Reed’s role of Jasmine doesn’t really allow her to stretch her acting talents, but it does give her the opportunity to portray a Disney princess, one who is strong-willed, independent-minded and beautiful.  She and Aladdin do make a dazzling pair.  Jonathan Freeman, a musical theater veteran (and the only performer in history to voice a character in a Disney film and then recreate the role on Broadway) plays Jafar with a comedic malevolency as opposed to the usually quite frightening Disney villain.  Don Darryl Rivera as his short, dumpy, simpleminded sidekick, Iago, provides an amusing contrast to the ultra-serious Jafar.  The two make a wonderful team.  Aladdin’s three amigos—Babkak (Brian Gonzales), Kassim (Brandon O’Neil), and Omar (Jonathan Schwartz)—are funny, irreverent, and just plain goofy.  They provide periodic flippant interludes, which adds to the charm of the show.

The score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, is lively and bouncy.  The standouts songs are the same from the film version, “Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “A Whole New World,” which has Aladdin and Princess Jasmine flying about the New Amsterdam Theatre stage on a magic carpet.  It is a stunning effect and beautifully presented. 

Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw helms the musical with confidence and authority.  The one thing you can’t say about the show is it drags or isn’t energized enough.  While there is more high-stepping production numbers then all this season’s new musicals combined, the choreography, which starts out in grand fashion, becomes simply routine and more repetitive and less original as the show goes on.

Aladdin, while charming and fun, lacks the enchantment and savviness of Disney’s most notable theatrical productions.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review of "The Realistic Joneses" - Broadway

Bob (Tracy Letts) and Jennifer (Toni Collette) are sitting outside their house one night.  They talk, they bicker, they don’t really communicate.  Jennifer gets mad.  Bob is perplexed.  They are married.  The new neighbors Pony (Marisa Tomei) and John (Michael C. Hall) show up and disrupt the quietness.  They are daft.  They say inappropriate and nonsensical things.  Bob is ill.  His comments can be biting and sarcastic.  He has a syndrome with no proven medical protocol.  Pony and John go home.

Such is beginning of Will Eno’s, The Realistic Joneses, a mildly amusing, off-center piece of theater.  In his recent Off-Broadway production, The Open House, Eno stated: “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, once again, Mr. Eno is true to his words as the four characters simply interact, get angry, ruminate about life, and behave oddly.  He takes a matter-of-fact situation—ill family member and colorful neighbors—then bends and twists it into humorous and absurdist vignettes that he cobbles together in an attempt to coalesce into a whole.

The first part of the 90 minute, intermission-less play bodes well for the audience, but soon devolves into, well, a mixture of strangeness and struggle.  It would be interesting to see the type of play that could be crafted if Eno employed a more structured narrative, while still retaining his skewed sensibility.

The star-studded cast works well within the orbit of the playwright’s machinations.  Toni Collette’s Jennifer, more anchored in reality, conveys concern, pain, and loneliness as she attempts to deal with her husband’s medical condition and cope with his irrational and testy behavior.  Tracy Letts, showing very little affect, can be incredibly insensitive and irritating as he masks how truly afraid he is of his disorder.  Marisa Tomei is child-like, loopy, and the flakiest of the quartet.  She can be very funny but, like all the characters in the show, there is an undercurrent of anxiety and distress as she moves through life.  Michael C. Hall has the most difficult role of The Real Joneses.  He must be lucid, eccentric, an oddball, and erratic, which he accomplishes with aplomb.

Through the many scene changes Director Sam Gold gives his actors plenty of leeway for their flights of fancy.  Not much action happens within the show so Gold is more into positioning of the characters as they enter the stage for their scene.  During the start of the play this is good enough to keep the audience’s attention but, towards the latter half of the production, the inactivity becomes somewhat wearing and tiresome.
The Real Joneses, more misses then hits.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review of "Somewhere" - Hartford Stage

Dreams are sometimes all we can latch onto in life.  For the Candelaria family in Matthew Lopez’s new family drama, Somewhere, now at Hartford Stage through May 4th, dreams are what holds this family together, both individually and as a group, as they eke out an existence on the West Side of Manhattan in the area now known as Lincoln Center.

The time is the late 1950’s when such Broadway classics as Gypsy, The Music Man and, the show that resonates dearly to them, West Side Story, are all on The Great White Way.  The Candelarias, Puerto Rican immigrants, love the musical theater and daughter, Rebecca (Jessica Naimy), and younger son Francisco (Zachary Infante) have aspirations for making it big as a dancer and actor, respectively.  Inez, a more toned down version of Mama Rose from Gypsy, strongly encourages their hopes and ambitions.  The eldest son, Alejandro (Michael Rosen), is the only member of the household who actually performed on Broadway, as a child in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.  A once potentially gifted dancer, he is the man in charge.  With a father on the road, traveling the country as an itinerant performer, Alejandro works long hours, cooks, cleans, pays the bills, and tries to keep the family, including his quixotic mother, grounded in the realities of life.  During Act I, two significant changes whip through their small apartment.  The first is the re-emergence of Jamie, a young man raised by Inez, who is now an Assistant to Jerome Robbins, choreographer and director of West Side Story.  The second is an eviction notice from the city, condemning the neighborhood in which they live in order for urban planner Robert Moses to carry out his vision of a performing arts mecca to be built on the land.  The new site, the future home of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and Avery Fischer Hall would become known as Lincoln Center.  These compelling developments propel the theatrical thrust of Act II as issues are resolved, secrets revealed, and passions realized.

Playwright Matthew Lopez’s Candelaria family are, primarily, dancers. Throughout the production his characters regale each other with interludes from West Side Story as well as with other lightly choreographed numbers, which are very entertaining.  The storyline in Act I, slight as it may be, promises an interesting dramatic set-up for the remainder of the play. However, after intermission the author does not satisfactorily address some of the larger issues presented earlier in the show.  The result is a more muddled resolution, which seems forced and contrived.  The concluding scene brought back memories of the musical, A Chorus Line.  The connection to that landmark show is not just because of the grand finale but, Somewhere’s star, Pricilla Lopez, was the original Diana Morales who sang two of the most memorable songs from that production, “Nothing” and “What I Did For Love.”

Priscilla Lopez, a Tony Award winner for A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine, plays the matriarch, Inez Candelaria, as someone living in the present.  She pushes and she prods her children to believe in themselves and, more importantly, their dreams.  When Lopez steps on stage she immediately becomes the focus of our attention.  Radiant, carefree and, on the surface, she appears unencumbered by the duties and responsibilities of everyday life.  However, when necessary, the actress can quickly project a steely reserve.

Michael Rosen, as Alejandro, is tall, lean, with a dancer’s body that he uses to great affect at the show’s end.  He carries the weight of the family on his shoulders.  At times introspective, self-deprecating, and protective Rosen’s Alejandro occasionally ricochets from one emotional extreme to another, which comes across as somewhat artificial.  Jessica Naimy, is young, effervescent, and hopelessly optimistic as Rebecca.  There is not much depth to her character, but her portrayal of the blossoming teenager is real and intoxicating.  Zachary Infante, as Francisco, is an energetic whirligig.  He demonstrates fine comic timing and enthusiasm.  His initial entrance is a riot.  Jamie, portrayed by Carry Tedder, is the less-developed character in Somewhere.  He is called upon to be goofy, introspective, and a cheerleader for members of the Candelaria clan, which he handles with aplomb.  But his role needs more sharpening and purpose within the context of the entire play.

Director Giovanna Sardelli focuses on movement throughout the production--how the performers flow and transition through the one-bedroom apartment.  During Act I, which has a better structured set-up, Sardelli effortlessly guides the production to its harried ending.  But with the second act the pacing becomes more labored as the script is in need of further refinement.   

Greg Graham’s choreograph runs the gamut from muscled athleticism to the charming and witty.  He successfully integrates the dance numbers effortlessly into the show.  As conceived, the play’s essence is totally wrapped up in his choreographic creations.  His end-of-show flourish is a joy to behold, a final dreamscape from a family of dreamers.

Somewhere, an entertaining and engaging show with winning performances that, nonetheless, needs more focus and thought to achieve its intended emotional ambitions.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review of "Beyond Therapy" - Off-Broadway

The revival of Christopher Durang’s absurdist comedy, Beyond Therapy, might, at first, seem hopelessly dated to the early 1980’s.  Historical and cultural references of the era abound.  Newspaper personal ads, discos, and being in therapy are central parts of the show’s landscape.  But the tale of two wayward singles looking for a meaningful relationship continues to resonate decades later.  Twenty and thirty somethings still seek that special soul mate.  The pathway is no longer via newspaper personals, but through online dating sites such as,, and  The  Internet provides weary, lonely hearts with the possibility of more extensive, more pictorial information but that guarantees nothing.  As the caption for the iconic New Yorker cartoon states:  “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

In Beyond Therapy, having its first New York revival since the short-lived 1982 Broadway run, Prudence (Liv Rooth), an unsure, self-conscious, self-doubting woman, answers a personal ad put in by Bruce (Mark Alhadeff), a neurotic, rather strange, confused, and unconventional individual.  Their first meeting, to put it mildly, doesn’t go too well and serves as fodder for visits to their respective psychiatrists who, it turns out, are just as confused and quirky, if not more so, then their patients.  Through a number of scenes at a restaurant, their doctor’s offices, and Bruce’s apartment (which he shares with his whining male lover) the two love-starved loners attempt to forge some type of liaison.

While Durang’s meditation on single life can ring true with today’s audiences the play itself comes across as too loosely structured and more a series of strung together vignettes.  Some are very funny but, overall, just mildly amusing is a better way to describe the show.  However, whatever the shortcoming of the script it is being given a glistening production by The Actors Company Theatre (TACT).  Their artistry is first-rate as the ensemble of performers deliver an acting clinic, which is such a joy to watch.  The entire cast deserves to be praised.  In addition to the superb Liv Rooth and Mark Alhadeff, Karl Kenzler is marvelously pathetic as Prudence’s oversexed shrink.  Cynthia Darlow is entertainingly kooky as Bruce’s off-center psychiatrist and Jeffrey C. Hawkins is wonderfully woeful as Bruce’s live-in boyfriend.  Michael Schantz, in the small role of the waiter, is sufficiently creepy and intimidating at the same time.

Scott Alan Evan’s direction is crisp and firmly in sync with his actors.  Scenes that could be mundane and matter-of-fact are enlivened with inspired lunacy.  His strength, though, is enriching the characters with idiosyncratic mannerisms and delusional eccentricities.  A whimsical touch are the changeovers between scenes where the performers rearrange set pieces as they execute casual disco moves.

Beyond Therapy, an outstanding ensemble of acting talent in an intermittently humorous production.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review of "The Other Place" - Theaterworks, Hartford

In the beginning of The Other Place, playing at Theaterworks in Hartford through April 19th, we are introduced to Dr. Juliana Smithton, as she speaks to a hotel ballroom full of doctors on the isle of St. Thomas.  A renowned researcher she is extolling a wonder drug she has developed that may help stem dementia.   The next moment the scene shifts and she is being interviewed in a doctor’s office on the mainland describing, in fits and starts, what she calls an “episode” she had on the U.S. Territory.  At first, we are not sure if this refers to a medical issue or something else.  In fact, during the course of this sparkling production reality itself is called into question.  Throughout the show we are fed clues, given bits of information and occasionally led astray into what is occurring in the professional and personal life of Dr. Smithton. 

There is a lot more I could say about the plot of The Other Place, but that would be unfair to audiences waiting to see the production.  The mystery, the unraveling that unfolds during the play would be sacrificed with any more details.  Let it suffice that the show, penned by Sharr White, is well-written, cleverly structured, and extremely well-acted.  The female lead, a captivating Kate Levy, is on stage for just about the entire 80 minutes of the intermission-less show, giving one of the best performances of the year in Connecticut theater.  She is at times annoying, vulnerable, abusive, and sorrowful.  It all adds up to a powerful portrayal of an individual in free fall, trying desperately to make sense of it all.

The other cast members are equally satisfying in their roles.  R. Ward Duffy, as husband Ian Smithton, at first, is a slight enigma.  Is he an uncaring, unfeeling spouse or are we being kept in the dark about his true intentions?  Duffy displays a wide range of emotions as he confronts, copes, and addresses his partner’s condition.  Amelia McClain, playing three other female characters in the production, gives each enough shading for a different personality to ring true.   Most of the time her role can be viewed as the set-up person for Levy’s histrionics.  Clark Scott Carmichael, rounding out the quartet of players, is fine in his portrayal of three minor roles.

Writer Sharr White has crafted a compelling and forceful drama that pulls no punches.  On the minimally designed set the intensity and passion of the script is almost nakedly apparent.  By keeping the audience off-center for most of the show he is able to both ruminate on a topical issue so prevalent in today’s society as well as keep our interest.  Not an easy undertaking to accomplish and to accomplish well.  

Director Rob Ruggiero’s greatest strength is his handling of the small cast, especially Kate Levy.  Since she is on stage for much of the production her believability is essential.  That the two craftsmen, director and actor, succeed is no small feat.  While the emotional intensity eventually becomes more heightened, Ruggiero’s overall approach is more low-key, allowing the intensity of the show to rumble beneath the surface before bubbling to the top.  Through quick scene cuts the audience is kept off-balance, which magnifies the storyline.

The Other Place, another superb production by Theaterworks, playing through April 19th in Hartford.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Review of "Rocky - The Musical" - Broadway

When I review a show I evaluate all its various components to decide if, in my opinion, it is worthwhile for the general public to spend its hard earned dollars on the significant cost of purchasing a ticket.  For a musical this could include the quality of the acting, how melodic or memorable the score is, the numerous design elements, the coherency of the book, and the forcefulness of the direction.  For Rocky – The Musical, based on the 1976 Sylvester Stallone boxing epic, it’s a split decision.  On the one hand, the extended “Training Montage” sequences and the slugfest finale, “The Fight,” are captivating and riveting spectacles, especially Rocky’s 15 round clash with Apollo Creed.  On the other hand, when the testosterone levels are ratcheted down, the production limps along like a fighter who has seen better days.

As with the film, the story centers on Rocky Balboa (Andy Karl), a seemingly washed up boxer who takes bouts with third-rate sluggers while working as an enforcer for a two-bit gangster.  He pines for Adrian (Margo Seibert), the shy, introverted sister of his best friend Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio).  While Rocky trudges about the City of Brotherly Love, training in a rundown gym, and feeding his pet turtle the world-boxing champion, Apollo Creed (Terence Archie), swoops into town to gear up for a championship fight.  When his opponent gets hurt while training the larger-than-life pugilist comes up with the showy idea of giving a local boxer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go blow-to-blow with the champ.  Of course, Rocky is the chosen one.  He trains; he downs raw eggs; he trains; he snags his girl, who suddenly blossoms into a self-assured woman; he trains some more, now with the help of Mickey (Dakin Matthews), an aged, veteran fight trainer, and then the long awaited big bout takes place with all the pomp and circumstance a Broadway show can muster.

When Rocky hit movie theaters in 1976 it was the year of the Bicentennial.  America was throwing itself the largest party in history and feeling a patriotic fervor and can do attitude extraordinaire.  This resonated with moviegoers and Rocky Balboa, the perpetual loser who embraced the American Dream, was adopted by the public and became a winner.  The musical of Rocky attempts to replicate this zeal and vibrancy, but only succeeds halfway.  It’s not for a lack of trying.  The iconic movie scenes are replicated in the show—using a side of beef hanging in a meatpacking locker as a punching bag and the slow trot up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  As I mentioned before, the training sequences leading up to the big bout, to the strains of “Eye of the Tiger,” are exhilarating and visually thrilling.  For the title match the creative team and director, Alex Timbers, pull out all the stops.  Audience members in the first few rows of the center orchestra are ushered onstage to watch on bleachers while the entire boxing ring moves out over their now vacated seats.  A large arena-sized scoreboard descends from the ceiling as two television announcers, perched above the stage, provide high-flying analysis.  If the remaining portions of Rocky could somehow generate the same type of energy as these two scenes then the show would be the must-see musical.  

Unfortunately, the high-octane story comes to a grinding and sentimental halt when it deals with relationships, primarily Rocky’s wooing of Adrian.  It’s nice.  It’s tender and it rounds out the story, but it’s rather pedestrian and unexceptional.  The book, by multi-Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan and Sylvester Stallone, has it moments, but they are too few and far between.  If the score was noteworthy the semi-plodding plot wouldn’t be so noticeable, but the songs written by the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is probably the most unremarkable output they have penned during their long and illustrious career.  The twosome behind Ragtime, Once on This Island, Lucky Stiff, and My Favorite Year, among others, have put together a score that is bland and uninteresting, which is too bad since I was really looking forward to their return to writing for a major Broadway musical.

The cast, led by Andy Karl as Rocky, is uniformly first-rate.  Karl has all the Rocky-isms down with the lumbering gait and Philadelphia drawl.  The brawny actor shows off his athleticism throughout the production.  He also has a fine voice.  Margo Seibert as Adrian, at first, is convincingly meek, scared of her own shadow, but then becomes more assured once she hooks up with her new beau.  Terence Archie, chiseled, oozing self-confidence, with an ego the size of his biceps, might come across solely as a puffed out braggart, but when he realizes he is in the fight of his life his tone and temperament turn decidedly serious and full of purpose.  Danny Mastrogiorgio is more annoying then necessary as Paulie and Dain Matthews as Mickey is suitably grizzled as the wily old-timer.

Christopher Barreca’s Scenic Design and Dan Scully and Pablo N. Molina’s Video Design are some of the highlights of the production.  They are large, muscular and add depth and dimension.  Incorporating hand held video cameras, with their output thrust onto strategically placed screens, add an immediacy throughout the show.

Alex Timbers, when given the leeway, delivers knockout direction.  What’s so frustrating is the almost Jekyll and Hyde nature of the musical—the over-the-top and the, well, under-the-top.  There’s not much, for example, you can do within a pet store, Adrian’s place of employment or close-quartered apartment scenes.

Rocky – The Musical, with a discounted ticket, worth entering the ring.