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.