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.