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.