Monday, December 14, 2015

Review of "Passing Strange"

Kudos to Playhouse on Park for staging the provocative, seldom-produced musical, Passing Strange.  The story about a young, middle class African-American youth on a journey of self-discovery and identity is one of the Playhouse’s most fully realized shows in its seven-year history. 

The show is a hybrid of sorts—equal parts staged concert, narrated ruminations, and traditional theatrical presentation.  As the show unfolds we are introduced to the Narrator (Darryl Jovan Williams) who, throughout the musical, provides ongoing commentary—by words and song--on the odyssey of the Youth (Eric R. Williams).  He is adrift in life, yet moved by his creative impulses.  The Youth’s church loving mother (Famecia Ward) prods him to take hold of his life as do others, but to no avail.  Eventually, his self-exploration and experimentation takes him to Europe—Amsterdam and Berlin—where he hones his art and begins to ascertain his role in the world. 

The book by Stew and Heidi Rodewald explores topics that can be viewed through the lens of student developmental theorist, Arthur Chickering--Developing Competence, Managing Emotions, Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships, Establishing Identity, Developing Purpose, and Developing Integrity.  They adroitly incorporate these themes to show the maturation of the Youth.  The musical can be breezy and compelling.  The construction at times resembles a cabaret act or a performance art piece.

The songs, composed by Stew and Heidi Rodewald can be energetic and rambunctious or melancholy in tone.  They serve as a raucous and pensive illustration of the action on stage.  You won’t be humming any of the tunes, but their melodic hooks, coupled with the forcefulness of the tight four piece band, makes for a unique and enjoyable theatrical score.

The cast is fully in sync with each other, which gives the production a seamless and well-balanced quality.  Darryl Jovan Williams is one cool dude as the Narrator.  He is affable and gregarious, but also nimbly displays a tinge of regret and pathos in his soul.  Eric R. Williams is convincing as the lost Youth seeking the answers to life, art, and love.  Famecia Ward gives the Youth’s mother a sympathetic reading.  The ensemble of Karissa Harris, Garrett Turner, Skyler Volpe, and J’Royce skillfully manage their multiple roles within the musical.  None of them disappoint when it is their turn to shine.

Director Shawn Harris successfully takes all the creative elements of the production to achieve a harmonious whole.  He deftly manipulates the actors around the small stage, forcing the audience’s attention to be constantly in motion.  He effectively guides the cast members performing off center stage, whether they are emoting, chattering or gesturing, to be important components of the musical.  They add to the overall ambience of the show as opposed to sacrificing the attention of the audience. 

While Darlene Zoller’s choreography is minimal their seemingly improvised bursts add a charged dynamic when integrated into the show.

Special mention to Lighting Designer Marcus Abbott for his imaginative and mood setting design.  They reinforce the musicals emotional impact and atmospheric venues.

Passing Strange, thought provoking and superbly rendered, at Playhouse on Park through December 20th.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review of "King Charles III"

The British know how to stage political machinations within the monarchy.  Last season there was The Queen with Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth matching wits and going toe to toe with Prime Ministers past and present.  In Wolf Hall we witnessed the ascent of Thomas Cromwell, and his ultimate demise, in the court of Henry VIII.  Now we have King Charles III, a speculative story that examines the state of affairs if Prince Charles becomes king.

Playwright Mike Bartlett has woven a tale that plays like a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions.  He has taken the central members of the royal family—Charles, Camilla, William and Kate, and Prince Harry—the Prime Minister and opposition party leader and created a plausible, yet far-fetched, conspiracy that shakes the very foundation of the British monarchy and government.  At the center is Charles, who the playwright portrays as a man full of self-doubt, but firm in his principles.  It is his moralistic bearing that sets into motion a national crisis with a superb surprise ending.  Bartlett brings the characters and thrust of the plot into focus during an enthralling Act I.   This sets the stage for the more breathtaking, intrigue-laden Act II.

For King Charles III to be fully realized as a rousing theatrical drama the actor playing the newly anointed king must be electrifying in his portrayal and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles does just that.  This is a tour de force performance that is full of anger, agony, indecision, and personal suffering.  The rest of the cast is equally compelling.  Margot Leichester, as Camilla, Charles’ spouse, is suitably loyal and protective. Oliver Chris, as Prince William, is upright, carefree and mildly indecisive until called upon to put country before family devotion.  Lydia Wilson, as Kate, is, on the surface, the obedient wife, but her shrewdness and calculating scheming sets the show on its unforeseen course.  Richard Goulding, as Prince Harry, gives a wonderfully angst ridden performance of a young man dealing with his personal demons as he straddles both the demands of the monarchy and outside world.

Director Rupert Goold skillfully brings Bartlett’s script to scintillating life.  He expertly guides the actors through terse encounters, playful junctures, and sober reflections.  He bestows special attention on Pigott-Smith, coaxing the performer through a number of mesmerizing, introspective, and captivating monologues.  The director deftly maneuvers the cast through the production, building up to the unexpected conclusion.

King Charles III, an absorbing and spellbinding drama, playing through January 31st at the Music Box Theatre.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review of "Daddy Long Legs"

Note:  Adam Halpin joined the cast in the role of Jervis Pendleton as of November 20th.

The Off-Broadway musical, Daddy Long Legs, is a sweet and enchanting two-person production.  The show, based on the 1912 book by Jean Webster, centers on Jerusha Abbott (Megan McGinnis), an 18 year old resident of the John Grier orphanage.  One day she is told an anonymous benefactor wants to send her to college.  As part of the agreement Jerusha is told she must write regularly about her life and schooling and that she will never know the person’s identity.  What follows is a series of letters, read aloud, between the two that continues through four year of college and summer vacations in the countryside.  During the years, the young woman wonders, in her correspondence, what the man she has nicknamed Daddy Long Legs, looks like.  What does he do?  The audience soon discovers the mysterious philanthropist, Jervis Pendleton (Will Reynolds), is a gentleman not that much older then the co-ed.  While, at first, just wanting to do some good Jervis soon becomes bewitched by the maturing Jerusha.   As the production ambles towards its inevitable conclusion we slowly fall under its charming spell.

Megan McGinnis is captivating as Jerusha Abbott.  She is buoyant, winsome and delightful.  Her character is more well-rounded and, as the musical progresses, shows a gradual, but steady maturation.  Will Reynolds is splendid as Jervis Pendleton.  However, the role is more one-dimensional and he doesn’t have much opportunity to stretch his acting range.

The score by Paul Gordon is melodic and tuneful, but by the end of the show the songs have begun to have a similar sound.  This has more to do with the small band of three instruments, which doesn’t allow for that much differentiation in the orchestrations.

As librettist John Caird has taken the essence of the Jean Webster novel and successfully created a tale of a young woman who undergoes personal growth and independence at the turn of the 20th century.  While watching the musical I wondered how millennials and individuals rooted in the culture of 140 characters would react to a musical, which greatly revolves around having witty, descriptive and emotion-laden letters read aloud.  Would it generate a rebirth of the written word?

Doing double duty as director Caird, a Tony Award winner for helming such large scale productions as Nicholas Nickleby and the original Les Miserables, skillfully guides the chamber size musical through its meandering paces. He smartly keeps the focus on Jerusha Abbott, having her front and center through most of the production.  The director is less successful in fully incorporating the character of Jervis Pendleton into the production.  Very often he is mere window dressing, seated behind his ornate desk in the shadows.  Caird playfully works within Scenic Designer David Farley’s trunk strewn stage, fashioning places, objects and memories from the multiple chests.

Daddy Long Legs, an appealing and charismatic musical, playing at the Davenport Theatre.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Review of "Misery"

Laurie Metcalfe puts on an acting showcase as a fanatical devotee in Misery, William Goldman’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel.  The actress is at times caring, playful, creepy and vengeful.  She is someone to be feared and reckoned with.  Whether you have never read the book or seen the movie version (like myself) or are familiar with the source material you will find the stage production generating a good many chills and thrills.

The plot of the show is simple—recluse Annie Wilkes has rescued writer Paul Sheldon (Bruce Willis) from a car wreck near her secluded Colorado home.  Badly injured, she nurses him back to health.  But her motives are not purely altruistic as the self-professed number one fan has more diabolical reasons to mend Sheldon’s injuries.  The result is a convincingly suspenseful play with a sufficient number of twists and gasps.

From the serene beginnings, playwright William Goldman slowly builds up the tension of the story, producing a tranquil environment that goes horribly wrong.  He has transformed the essence of the novel into a 90 minute, intermission-less heart-stopping production.  As a screenwriter (All the President’s Men) and novelist (Marathon Man) the author knows how to weave a dramatic and spine-tingling tale that keeps the audience on its toes. 

The cast is led by the fabulous Laurie Metcalfe.  There are not enough superlatives to describe her singular performance.  She can be flirty one moment and a vindictive, retaliatory presence the next.  Metcalfe successfully brings to life to a very complex and disturbed character.  Bruce Willis, on the other hand, is, initially, too lethargic in his role as the battered author.  Granted, he lies helpless in bed for the first part of the play, but he doesn’t deliver his lines with real emotion or conviction.  However, as the show moves towards its dramatic finish he does become more animated and vested in his part.  Leon Addison Brown is fine in the small but crucial role of the sheriff.

Director Will Frears skillfully uses the confined and suffocating space to tease out a building tension within the play.  The production is well-paced as it almost lazily heads towards its crescendo.  He allows Laurie Metcalfe plenty of room for her acting pyrotechnics without letting the actress go over the edge. 

The creative team of Scenic Designer, David Korins; Lighting Designer, David Weiner; and Sound Designer, Darron L. West have contributed greatly to the eerie ambiance of the play.  Without their artistic involvement the production would not nearly be as fun and ominous.  Special kudos go to set designer, David Korins for his revolving house with its multitude of rooms and Michael Friedman for his original music, which often sets a haunting and menacing tone to the show.

Misery, better then you might expect, now through February 14th.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review of "Ripchord"

In the tepid comedy, Ripchord, Abby Binder (Holland Taylor) and Marilyn Dunne (Marylouise Burke) are roommates in an elderly residence home.  Marilyn, friendly and gregarious, has recently moved into the room much to the chagrin of Abby, who wants nothing more then to be left alone in quietude.  Like oil and vinegar the two do not mix well, at least according to Abby.   Marilyn, seemingly always positive-minded, has no problem with the living arrangements.   Each of the women want something—Abby to be left alone and Marilyn to have the bed by the window.  Eventually a bet is wagered with the winner getting their wish.  Brought into the fray, in some fashion, is the facility attendant, Scotty (Nate Miller), Marilyn’s daughter Colleen (Rachel Dratch) and son-in-law Derek (Daoud Heidami) and a surprising gentleman caller.

Playwright David-Lindsay-Abaire, who has created such impressive dramatic pieces as Rabbit Hole and Good People, has crafted a show that is intermittently amusing.  The two protagonists are ready for battle, but are not always properly armed.  The play is at its best when Abby and Marilyn are trading barbs and lobbing insults at each other.  However, the stinging sarcasm and back and forth repartee is inconsistently funny.  The incorporation of Marilyn’s daughter and her husband do liven up the show, producing a steady stream of smiles and chuckling.  Also, for such a small-scale production there are quite a few set pieces that, again, are hit or miss on the humor meter.

You would expect the set-up of Ripchord to be perfectly suited for the talents of Director David Hyde Pierce.  His sibling rivalry and battles on the television show Frasier were priceless.  In the Broadway comedy, La Bete, his verbal joustings with Mark Rylance were absolutely hysterical.  Here, unfortunately, the pacing is more off then on, which has the tendency of the darts and arrows between the two female leads to miss their target more often then not.  Hyde Pierce is more successful producing laughs when the featured players join in the fracas.

The cast, for the most part, is superb.  Holland Taylor, no slouch when dishing out razor-edged quips and well-appointed bon mots, gives Abby a no-nonsense attitude and laser sharpened glare.  She convincingly portrays her character as a self-absorbed bully, but also a woman that has deep life wounds.   In contrast, Marylouise Burke is effervescent and literally bounces about the stage.  While outwardly cheerful and playful she also gives us a layer of sadness that rounds out her mostly high-spirited character.  Both women are also up to the bits of physical humor the production demands.  The supporting team of Rachel Dratch and Daoud Heidami are terrific.  Every time they appear on stage the twosome provide a needed spark and a dollop of lunacy to the show. 

Ripchord, at City Center in New York through December 6th.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review of "Sylvia"

Annaleigh Ashford, starring in the revival of A.R. Gurney’s comedy, Sylvia, once again demonstrates why she is the reigning comedienne on Broadway.  She plays the title character, a stray dog that is not bashful in speaking her mind.  Ashford was in the original cast of Kinky Boots and her signature song, “The History of Wrong Guys,” is one of the funniest in recent memory.  As Essie Carmichael, a woefully inept dancer in last season’s You Can’t Take it With You, she was absolutely hysterical and was honored with a Tony Award for her performance.  In Sylvia, from the moment the actress enters the stage, the audience was in stitches.  She has the mannerisms of a canine down pat.  Ashford is engaging, frisky and fearless in her physicality.  For anyone that currently owns a dog, has so in the past or even knows such a person then Sylvia will be a welcoming diversion.  Cat owners and other pet lovers will also thoroughly savor Gurney’s genial romp.

The plot is simple.  Gary (Matthew Broderick), a mild-mannered businessman, comes upon Sylvia in Central Park.  Enchanted, he brings her home to his displeased wife Kate (Julie White).  The couple has recently moved to Manhattan as empty nesters without any obligations.  Now, much to her dismay, but to her husband’s unending pleasure, there is another household member to be concerned with and put a crimp in their freedom.  The show examines how the adorable pooch fits in with the twosome and the trouble she causes for the couple’s marriage.

A.R. Gurney has penned a delightful tale that can be very funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  His characters are well-defined, uncomplicated, and likeable.  Many older theatergoers can easily identify with the characters.  You could read more into the play such as it being a meditation on midlife relationships, but Sylvia is more a show to sit back and enjoy.

The four-person cast is first-rate.  In addition to the superb Annaleigh Ashford, there is Matthew Broderick, who could use some pep-me-up pills, but is affable and endearing as Gary, a man who begins to reevaluate his life after hooking up with his new pet.  Julie White is a showcase for the slow burn.  She shows real annoyance, disapproval, exasperation, and frustration as Kate.  Robert Sella, playing multiple roles, is flippant, sassy, irreverent, and puckish.  His interactions with the other players vibrantly enliven each scene.

Director Daniel Sullivan brings a creative and inventive flair to the production.  He skillfully guides the actors through the lighter, playful junctures of the show as well as the over-the-top moments.  This usually involves either Annaleigh Ashford in one of her more inspired moments or one of Robert Sella’s slightly off-center characters.

Sylvia, a breezy entertainment, now at the Cort Theatre on Broadway.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review of "Dames at Sea"

Perky.  Wholesome.  Tuneful.  Small.  Fun.  These are words that come to mind after seeing the delightful Broadway version of the musical, Dames at Sea.  Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1968 (and starring Bernadette Peters in her first New York musical), the show is a spoof of those 1930’s movie musical extravaganzas.  Think 42nd Street in a pared down production and you have the essence of this diminutive—only six performers—but winning musical.

Wide-eyed ingénue Ruby (Eloise Kropp) has just arrived in The Big Apple from Utah looking to make it on The Great White Way.  She immediately snags a minor role; meets Dick (Cary Tedder) a handsome sailor who just happens to pen marvelous show tunes; tangles with the egotistical star Mona Kent (Lesli Margherita); and placates the harried producer Hennessey (John Bolton).  There’s also the requisite secondary couple (Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky) that provide laughs and diversions from the central plot.  However, catastrophe looms around every corner.  Will the curtain go up on the seemingly ill-fated show?  Will Ruby and Dick finally get together?  Will Ruby become a star?  Will there be one great finale?  I think you can guess the answers.

Randy Skinner does a superb job as both choreographer and director.  As choreographer he has created one entertaining tap dance routine after another.  If you are a tap dance aficionado then Dames at Sea is a show for you.  The only disappointment is with just a handful of performers the production numbers, while energetic, challenging and exceedingly cheerful, appear modest and a bit of a letdown.  As director, Skinner keeps the pace fast afoot.  He lampoons the overwrought musical spectaculars with a loving, knowing wink.

The score by George Haimsohn, Robin Miller and Jim Wise is refreshingly tuneful.  They are evocative of the Busby Berkeley inspired pageantries the musical so nimbly spoofs.  They include the jaunty, "It's You;” the frolicsome, "Broadway Baby;” the heartfelt ballad, “Raining In My Heart;" and rousing finale, "Star Tar.”

The cast is led by fresh-faced Eloise Kropp as the starry-eyed Ruby.  She is delectably charismatic with high powered dancing feet.   Cary Tedder is engaging as Dick, Ruby’s would-be love interest.  He has a captivating personality, handsome good looks, and an aw-shucks appeal.  Lesli Margherita, coming off an extended run as the despicable mother in Matilda, is equally boorish and conniving as the self-centered Mona Kent.  She adds a little hot-blooded spiciness to the virtuous cast.  Mara Davi as Joan and Danny Gardner as Lucky make an attractive and bewitching twosome.  John Bolton brings an experienced hand as the stressed out showman Hennesey and a sprightliness as the Captain.

Dames at Sea, perfectly adorned in the jewel box size Helen Hayes Theatre.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review of "The Gin Game"

Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, two wily, aged theatrical veterans, give masterful performances in the revival of D.L. Coburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning comedy-drama, The Gin Game.    Friends in real life, Tyson (90 years old) and Jones (84 years old), have an easy rapport with each other that brings alive the story of two disparate individuals living in a rundown nursing home. 

Through the card game of gin rummy Weller Martin (James Earl Jones) meets newcomer Fonsia Dorsey (Cicely Tyson) at their ramshackle residence.  Martin, a self-professed gin rummy expert, entices Ms. Dorsey to play a hand to his everlasting  regret.  Through their subsequent games the audience learns about each person’s past and present life configurations.  They also begin a sometimes raucous, often funny pas de deux as the two lonely, elderly tenants become more dependent on each other’s company. 

D.L. Coburn’s play, as with the current production, can be a tour de force for seasoned actors.  The playwright successfully uses the device of gin rummy to slowly tease out two interesting and compelling character studies.  The show closes with an unsatisfactory ending but, nonetheless, the play is an entertaining and engaging piece of theater.

Cicely Tyson is wonderful as Fonsia Dorsey.  She is mischievous, crafty and brings a spark of resilience to her character.  Her mannerisms and facial expressions speak volumes.  James Earl Jones’ Weller Martin is rude, a bully and a monumental sore loser.  The actor, a gregarious and imposing presence, knows when and how to use his bearing to enhance his role.  He can be a boisterous intimidator as well as a frisky, caring companion.

Director Leonard Foglia has the luxury of working with two acting legends.  He lets them play out their theatrical virtuosity while intelligently guiding the production through its requisite paces, its bursts of energy and subtlety.  For this revival of The Gin Game less intrusiveness by the director is more fitting.

The set by Riccardo Hernandez, an outdoor porch strewn with junk and residents’ clutter off to the side, is sufficiently rundown and evocative of a home for the aged.

The Gin Game, playing now at the John Golden Theater on Broadway through January 10th.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Review of "Rear Window"

The stage adaptation of Rear Window, receiving its world premiere at Hartford Stage, is an unfulfilling theatrical presentation.  It closely follows the short story written by Cornell Woodrich rather then the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.  Gone are the characters played by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter.  The play still retains is voyeuristic main character and murder mystery core.  However, this is more a low-key character study between the two central protagonists.  It is grittier then the movie and addresses post-World War II racial prejudices.

The show starts off with a cinematic flourish.  A rousing, suspense tinged musical introduction greets the audience as the title of the show is projected above the stage.  The curtain rises onto a claustrophobic looking apartment where crusading reporter, Hal Jeffries (Kevin Bacon), is laid up with a broken leg.  We are quickly introduced to Sam (McKinley Belcher III), an African-American young man who met Jeffries the previous night in a bar.  After a few drinks he convinced the newspaperman to hire him to help out while in his current condition.  Through their sometimes contentious talks we slowly learn about each.  Jeffries drinks and smokes too much and ferrets out the injustices in the world for his readership.  He was once married and deeply in love.  Sam is polite, dutiful, but more of a mystery as are his real motives for being there. 

Each night, after Sam has left, Jeffries satiates his curiosity with people by peering out his window to the building complex across the way.  There, among the humanity in the adjacent apartments, he fixates on one specific dwelling—that of a sulking wife and her meek, attentive husband.  Soon the wife is missing.  Did her husband Lars Thorwald (Robert Stanton), as Jeffries thinks, murder her?  Or not?  Here, the suspense is ratcheted up as Sam and the police become involved in the mystery, which for audience members not familiar with the story, concludes with a satisfying and suspenseful ending. 

The adaptation of the Woolrich story by Keith Reddin keeps the action sparse with little dramatic tension when the characters are within the confines of Jeffries’ dreary apartment.   There is a great deal of chatter among the cast, but little else of consequence happens.  The play blossoms only when we are allowed to peer into the world of neighboring residences and the potential murder mystery machinations begin to unfold.

Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries is subdued and introspective, lighting cigarettes, downing scotch and being thoroughly irascible.  We feel his inner rage, but it all doesn’t add up to be an overly interesting character.  On the other hand, McKinley Belcher III is impulsive, dynamic, and emotional as Sam, a twenty-something man looking for his place in society where racism reigns.  Robert Stanton as Lars Thorwald is sufficiently creepy and seemingly maladjusted as a would-be murderer.  John Bedford Lloyd’s Detective Boyne is hard-boiled with an unforgiving racist streak.  Melinda Page Hamilton, in the dual role of the brooding Mrs. Thorwald and Hal Jeffries’ former wife, is convincingly disconsolate as the former and glamorous and winning as the latter.

The real star of the production is scenic designer Alexander Dodge.  He has created an eye-popping set that literally rises and falls to reveal the side of an apartment building that Hal Jeffries spies on.  It is an artistic as well as breathtaking mechanical achievement.  Lighting designer York Kennedy and sound designer Jane Shaw also add a cool film noir mood to the play.  Sean Nieuwenhuis’ projection design, when used sparingly, contributes winningly to the overall vibe of the show.  When overused, as in the latter part of the play, they create an unnecessary cinematic style.

Director Darko Tresnjak is hampered by a play with two very different sets.  When in the apartment of Hal Jeffries the actors primarily talk as they move from one side of the stage to the other.  Their routine becomes somewhat monotonous for them and the audience.  When the opens to reveal the adjoining back end of the adjoining apartment building the action perks up.  The vignettes within each dwelling are intriguing (even though they are hard to see if seated off to the side of the theater) and keeps our interest.  However, as the production proceeds it becomes a bit choppy as the plot constantly shifts between the two set pieces.

Rear Window, at Hartford Stage through November 15th.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of "Disgraced"

Parts of this review were adapted from my review of the Broadway production.

Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winning drama, makes its Connecticut debut in a disappointing production at the Long Wharf Theater.  The play’s words have an intense and searing effect upon the audience.  However, its execution by the four main protagonists and the director lacks the depth, fervor and emotional wallop needed for the show to succeed. 

The plot, featuring two interracial couples, and the lead character’s nephew, starts off simple enough in the high-end, Upper East Side apartment of corporate lawyer, Amir Karpol, of Pakistani descent; and his wife, Emily, an artist, who is white.  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, sometimes uncomfortable and forceful show.

Rajesh Bose, in the key role of Amir, should exude confidence, charisma, and control, which is critical for the show to work.  But the self-assurance and brashness is missing.  His battles with self-doubt and his self-loathing over his ethnic heritage are hollow.   Nicole Lowrance, 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 naiveté, aptly played by the actress, is what initially sets the drama into its downward spiral.  Benim Foster, who plays the self-absorbed art dealer, Isaac, is somewhat understated in his role.  His depiction prevents us from truly seeing what the character is precisely like--a sleazy opportunist full of seething rage and self-importance.  Shirine Babb, who plays Jory’s African-American wife, is not convincing as a high-powered corporate lawyer.  Instead, she is more down to earth and less charged.  Mohit Gautman, 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.

In order for Disgraced to work as a searing dramatic presentation the tension on stage needs to be slowly ratcheted up until it reaches its crashing crescendo.  Unfortunately, director Gordon Edelstein has not orchestrated the performances to reach this necessary level of unease and shock.  The delivery and actions of the actors in the 90-minute, intermission-less production, should keep the audience mesmerized and off-balance.  However, there are few sparks to ignite the production.

Disgraced, an unsuccessful mounting of what could have been an absorbing and captivating drama.  Playing at the Long Wharf Theater through November 8th.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Review of "It's a Wonderful Life"

The beloved movie classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, comes to the Goodspeed Opera House stage in a faithful, yet disappointing production.  The musical, with a book by Sheldon Harnick, follows the storyline from the film, but there are few flourishes in the show that would make this a captivating treat.

As in the movie, George Bailey (Duke Lafoon) yearns to attend college and see the world, but life’s unsuspecting circumstances interfere with his plans.  While his brother and friends move on and away from their Bedford Falls, NY home George stays put to run the family’s Savings & Loan.  He marries his old flame Mary Hatch (Kirsten Scott), starts a family, and continuously defends his business from the nefarious banker Henry Potter (Ed Dixon).  One day George’s Uncle Billy (Michael Medeiros) misplaces a hefty bank deposit.  Potter, seizing on the situation, contacts the authorities to arrest the good-hearted soul for embezzlement.  With his life suddenly in tatters George realizes he is worth more to his family dead then alive and considers taking his life.  Enter Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), his guardian angel, who saves George and shows him what the world would be like if he was never born.   George realizes how loved he is, the money problem is resolved, and Clarence gains his angel wings.  A happy, holiday ending ensues.

The acting corps puts in a good, but mostly undistinguished effort.  They are also hindered by the rather matter-of-fact book and lackluster score.  Duke Lafoon gives his portrayal of George Bailey a harried and demoralized slant.  While doing his best “aw shucks” routine he often rushes through his scenes where a more methodical, easy-going manner would have sufficed.  Kirsten Scott turns in a pleasant performance as George’s true love, Mary.  But there is not much that is done to elevate her character beyond the role of a loving, supporting wife.  In the featured roles, Michael Medeiros is suitably befuddled as Uncle Billy.  Frank Vlastnik brings a whimsical charm to the role of Clarence.

The score by Broadway legend Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, The Rothchilds, She Loves Me) and Joe Raposo (known for his work on television’s Sesame Street) is uninspiring and lacks any memorable songs.  It is more a dutiful then soaring work.

This is not a musical that provides many opportunities to showcase choreographic flourishes.  Nonetheless, when choreographer Parker Esse is given the chance he weaves in dance numbers that make the production come alive.  This is evident in the Charleston contest at the high school gym and the Act Two opener, “Wings.”

Director Michael Perlman’s big task is to keep the pacing of the musical on track through its 30 separate scene changes.  He succeeds for much of the show, but there is mainly a perfunctory feel to the production.   As a magical tale there could have been more sprightliness and vibrancy to the show.

It’s a Wonderful Life, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29th.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review of "Third"

Kate Levy once again turns in a bravo performance at a Theaterworks production, starring in Wendy Wasserstein’s last scripted play, Third.  The show is provocative and thought-provoking, but contains too many disparate plotlines that undermine its primary focus.

Laurie Jameson (Kate Levy) is an arrogant, pompous and narcissistic college professor.  She is a star faculty member who prides herself on championing freedom of expression, both inside and outside the classroom.  However, her personal biases become apparent when Woodson Bull III (Conor M. Hamill), a white, male athlete (from a New England boarding school) takes her course.  He is personable and smart, but Jameson only sees a well-heeled Midwest Republican.  Her preconceptions and lack of judgement lead to a charge of plagiarism against the undergraduate.  This action not only damages the student, but also impairs the professor’s relationship with friends, loved ones and forces her to reevaluate long held beliefs and values. 

Wasserstein’s play would have been more powerful and captivating if she concentrated on academic integrity within the confines of a learned environment as well as society.  There are so many issues and angles to explore, especially in the Internet age.  However, in Third the plagiarism case only serves to explore one facet of Jameson’s multi-faceted persona, turning the play into more of a character study of the self-important English faculty member.  Alzheimer’s, rebellious children, dysfunctional family dynamics, and cancer (which the playwright was suffering from and died from soon after the play closed Off-Broadway) are probed, with varying degrees of success.  They provide the audience with a litany of hot button issues, but lessen the overall central impact of the show.

Kate Levy, who has previously been honored with the Connecticut Critic Circle’s Outstanding Lead Actress Award, skillfully displays a whirlwind of emotions as Laurie Jameson.  She is angry and sad, but also empathetic.  Unfortunately, her righteousness causes numerous problems for her and those within her sphere.  Levy adroitly handles all the emotional ups and downs of a character who has been in the teaching trenches for many years and is dealing with a number of personal crises.

Conor M. Hamill capably plays Woodson Bull III with both an intensity and a reserved zeal.  He needs to bring in more nuance to the role to make him more of a well-rounded character.   Andrea Gallo as Jameson’s teaching colleague, Nancy Gordon, brings a layered depth to her role.  She is combative, understanding and, by the end, a beaming ray of hope.  Edmond Genest as Jameson’s father is competently befuddled as a man in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s; and Olivia Hoffman is satisfactory as the confused, slightly rebellious daughter, Emily.

Director Rob Ruggiero proficiently guides the actors through their paces.  Some scenes can appear stilted and interactions can seem forced, but this has more to do with Wasserstein’s writing.  He is at his best in the dramatic settings when two characters are confronting or clashing with each other.

Third, playing at Theaterworks through November 8th.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review of "Newsies"

This review incorporates elements from my original Broadway review.

Extra!  Extra!  The national tour of the Broadway musical, Newsies, which began in Waterbury one year ago is playing through Sunday, October 18th at The Bushnell.  It has lost none of its exuberance and luster in between Connecticut performances.  This is a 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, charismatic, self-confidence by Joey Barreiro; 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 Stephen Michael Langton; and his younger brother, Les (played by a rotating group of three young actors).

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 a musical theater stage 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, led by Joey Barreiro, 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. Stephen Michael Langton 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. Morgan Keene is spunky and full of determination as the girl reporter and love interest of Jack Kelly.  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 18h at The Bushnell in Hartford.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review of "Tuesdays with Morrie"

Tuesdays with Morrie, a two-character play based on Mitch Albom’s hugely popular book of the same name, will make you laugh, smile and cry.  The show, receiving an intelligent and appealing production at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, celebrates life even as Morrie, Albom’s Sociology Professor at Brandeis during his university years, lies dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

Learning about his condition Mitch (Chris Richards), a former student of the faculty member reconnects with his one-time mentor 16 years after graduating from school.  A successful Detroit sports writer and broadcaster, Mitch is the embodiment of the hyper busy, no time to smell the roses career man.  His one visit to Morrie’s (Gannon McHale) suburban Boston home turns to two, then three, then every Tuesday until his death.  Their meetings encapsulate life’s lessons, teacher to student.  They reflect, debate, exchange views, and argue as Mitch cares for his “coach.”

The play is full of aphorisms from a man still embracing his life aura.  They can make the production teeter on the brink of being maudlin, but Morrie’s feistiness and honesty keep the show from being dragged into a gushy sentimentality.

Chris Richards’ Mitch is a good narrator.  The actor is a able to personify a man with boundless energy from his seemingly non-stop work schedule.  However, Richards doesn’t exhibit any growth in his character.  Many months go by, but there is no change, no shading to Mitch.  What you see is what you get.  Gannon McHale, on the other hand, endows Morrie with an emotionally layered performance that at times grabs our heartstrings while also making us laugh.  To be fair, the character of the university professor is the spotlight role.  However, a less seasoned performer would not be able to convincingly transform from a life affirming, aged adult to a bed-ridden, almost helpless child.  Gannon follows one of Morrie’s own dictums—that it’s okay to show one’s feelings and emotions.

Director Sasha Bratt keeps the focus on Morrie, almost relegating the role of Mitch to a nightclub straight man feeding his comedic partner one good line after another.  Bratt does a superb job slowly introducing the crippling affects of Lou Gehrigh’s disease on an individual.  Morrie’s affliction develops haltingly—from his labored breathing to shaking hands, agonizing pain and muscle degeneration.  While the interplay between Mitch and Morrie can be playful and serious the rapport between the two never solidifies into a satisfying camaraderie.  Maybe, once the actors have had more on-stage time together, the bond that formed in real-life between Mitch Albom and Morrie Schwartz will be more apparent.

Christopher Hoyt’s scenic design of Morrie’s in home study is simple--a few pieces of worn through furniture on a dark planked floor--but effectively evokes a well-lived in, comfortable, and inviting environment.

Tuesdays with Morrie, a touchingly rendered version of the best-selling book, playing at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford through October 18th.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of "An Opening in Time"

A man and woman’s unrequited romance from 30 years ago forms the basis for Christopher Shinn’s unsatisfying new play, An Opening in Time, playing at Hartford Stage through October 11th.  This is a very meditative work where events happen, conversations are manufactured, and very little of substance occurs.

Anne (Deborah Hedwall) has recently moved back to her hometown after the death of her husband.  Ron (Patrick Clear), a high school drama teacher discovers she has returned.  Decades earlier their lives and passions could have drawn them together, but life’s circumstances kept them apart.  Now, potentially together again, the question swirls around Antje Ellermann’s artfully rendered clapboard house set design--will their unfulfilled relationship be reborn or languish.

The playwright spends a good amount of time setting up what turns out to be a lackluster heart-to-heart encounter.  There are a number of tangential threads—Anne’s relationship with her estranged son, the befriending of the foster child living next door, the vandalism of her newly purchased house—that somewhat flesh out her current circumstances.  They also serve as a catalyst for some of the underlying reasons the two main protagonists had difficulty years earlier and now, once again, as they reenter each other’s lives.  However, these diversions are more superficial then helpful in understanding Anne and Ron’s psyche.  There are a lot of scene changes, which only exasperate a fragmented dramatic structure.

While the cast is uniformly fine, the sweeping impression is of forced emotions and drama.  Characters come across as one-dimensional.  If they were more fully developed this would have strengthened the secondary roles and helped in providing a better back story for the play.  The believability factor is low even during the major confrontations and scenes of angst.  Deborah Hedwall does embody Anne with a quiet determination as she searches for purpose and possibly salvation in her new environment.  Sometimes, though, I found the actress too understated as she went about her business.  Patrick Clear’s Ron is a jumble of emotions.  He is agitated, excited and detached, but his pent-up feelings and outbursts come across as labored.

Director Oliver Butler spends a good deal of time orchestrating scene changes with sets coming from the wings and up through the floors.  He keeps the action flowing and can bring some intimacy and wistfulness to certain scenes, but the overall presentation is more incomplete then of a finished product.

An Opening in Time, playing at Hartford Stage through October 11th.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of "Little Shop of Horrors"

Before the composing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken wrote the music and lyrics to such Disney blockbusters as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast they wrote the score for the musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors.  The original 1982 production, based on Director Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget movie, became one of the longest running shows in Off-Broadway history.  Always an audience favorite the sci-fi spoof, centering on a rather large man-eating plant, is receiving an entertaining, animated production at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 11th.

The plot of the musical is simple.  Seymour (Nicholas Park), a nebbish of sorts, works at a flower shop on New York’s Skid Row.  His co-worker Audrey (Laura Woyasz), a beauty with low self-esteem and a sadistic boyfriend (Carson Higgins) employed as a dentist, toil away at Mushnik’s (David Conaway) storefront awaiting any type of customer.  One day Seymour unveils a plant purchased under mysterious circumstances that soon attracts shoppers because of its uniqueness.  The trouble is regular plant food won’t suffice and as its true diet is revealed the lives of everyone in the Skid Row shop become topsy-turvy with unsettling consequences.

The strength of the show is the casting.  All the principle actors perfectly fit into their roles delivering two hours of merriment, mayhem and tunefulness.  Nicholas Park as Seymour is nerdy and plain without being pathetic.  Laura Woyasz as Audrey may emulate the original actress, Ellen Greene, a bit too closely, but she does manage to put her own spin on the wistful, heart-of-gold character.  David Conaway is thoroughly convincing as the downtrodden Mr. Mushnik.  Carson Higgins, a standout from the previous Ivoryton Playhouse production of Memphis, infuses Orin the dentist with just the amount of degenerate fiendishness without being too over-the-top.   The threesome of Azarria White (Chiffon), La’Nette Wallace (Crystal), and Denielle Marie Gray (Ronnette) form a winning mini Greek chorus along with their supporting roles.  Even with a superior acting group Little Shop of Horrors would not work without a colorful, boisterous Audrey II.  Thankfully, the team of Steve Sabol and puppeteer Austin Costello form a dynamic union that gives the growing plant a believability that is both engaging and somewhat scary.

The score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is witty, playful, melodic and can be very funny.  The songs include do-wop, yearning ballads, comedic gems, and unusual duets.  You can see why Disney plucked them from the theatrical ranks to reinvigorate their moribund animated film division.

Director Lawrence Thelen lets the material speak for itself without adding any unnecessary flourishes.  He has an excellent feel for the characters and the actors portraying them.  Along with choreographer Apollo Smile, who adds some solid incidental dance routines, Thelen keeps the production moving to its fulfilling conclusion.

Martin Scott Marchitto’s rotating set design is seedy and decrepit, perfectly embodying this battered, broken-down area of New York City.  The small and confined space of the small Playhouse stage only adds to this run-down vibe.

Little Shop of Horrors, a rollicking good time at the Ivoryton Playhouse through October 11th.