Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review of "Desperate Measures"

Desperate Measures, the small-scale Off-Broadway musical, is a charming rascal of a show full of wit and pluck.

The time is somewhere out West in the late 1800’s.  There, we meet Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan), a simple-minded gunslinger in jail awaiting the hangman’s noose.  His crime – shooting a rival while protecting the honor of his less-than-honorable dance hall girlfriend Bella Rose (Lauren Molina).  Only a pardon from the unscrupulous Governor (Nick Wyman) can save the prisoner, but his licentious terms present big problems for Johnny’s sister (Celia Hottenstein, who was in the cast for Emma Degerstedt), a nun about to take her final vows.  However, with the help of the honorable, straight shooting sheriff (Peter Saide), an inebriated priest (Gary Marachek), and the saloon hussy they foil his Honor’s dastardly deed and save the day.

Peter Saide, Emma Degerstedt, Conor Ryan and Gary Marachek from "Desperate Measures."

Peter Kellogg’s lively book, loosely based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, is boisterous and just plain fun, using inventive and sprightly rhymed couplets throughout the production.  Comical moments are bountiful and puns are aplenty.  The scenes are structured to allow the acting troupe an opportunity for maximum theatrics, gnashing the scenery and just plain hamming it up.

Like the songs from their previous Off-Broadway effort, Money Talks,  
the score for Desperate Measures by David Friedman and Mr. Kellogg is tuneful and engaging, incorporating a number of styles that include country and western hoedowns, comedic ballads, and Broadway standards.
Lauren Molina and Conor Ryan in "Desperate Measures."
The cast is superb with Nick Wyman as the despicably immoral Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber and Lauren Molina as the overly accommodating Bella Rose providing the two best performances of the show.  Wyman, a cagey stage veteran, seems to be having the time of his life as the shameless and debauched politician.  Ms. Molina’s portrayal of the tavern tart is a comic gem.  She possesses a riotous vocal delivery with exaggerated facial expressions to match.  Conor Ryan conveys a puppy dog lovability, as Johnny Blood, the wholly inept gunslinger.  Peter Saide does a highly satisfying job of having his character, Sheriff Martin Green, play the straight man to all the shenanigans swirling about him.  Celia Hottenstein’s Sister Mary Jo is suitably unblemished and prim and proper, even as she harbors a devlish sparkle in her eyes.  Gary Marachek is absolutely hilarious as the mostly intoxicated town clergyman, Father Morse.
Nicky Wyman and Emma Degerstedt in "Desperate Measures."
Director Bill Castellino does a cracker jack job keeping the actors from going over the edge with their histrionics and balderdash.  He keeps the fast-paced show merrily on its paces, effectively incorporating James Morgan’s simple, but savvy Scenic Design into the production.

Desperate Measures, a rollicking good time at the York Theatre through December 31st.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Review of "Once on This Island"

The jubilant revival of Once on the Island takes shape even before the musical begins.  The floor of the Circle-in-the-Square theatre has been transformed by Scenic Designer Dane Laffrey into a sandy, Caribbean island beach populated by local residents.  In one corner a woman is frying up some native delicacy, the aroma wafting through the lower rows of the theatre.  Live chickens are caged at another part of the performing area while a goat is led around by its owner.  Litter, brought ashore by the tides, is strewn about as the inhabitants mingle and socialize.

The 90 minute, intermission-less production tells the fable of Ti Moune, a young girl who falls in love with Daniel, a handsome aristocrat from the other side of the island.  The four island gods have devised a test for the blossoming woman to see which is a more powerful force – love or death.  They cause the injury of the young man in a car accident as a way for Ti Moune to meet and nurse him back to health.   Before he is completely healed he is whisked away by family members to the luxury of the family compound.  Crestfallen, she makes her way to his parent’s estate to convince him of her love.  Bewitched by her genuineness and devotion, he becomes captivated with her before the reality of their star-crossed lives moves him, and their ill-fated relationship, onto a divergent, disheartening path.
Stephen Flaherty’s book of the show is an imaginative tale of the celebration of life and the power of love no matter the pain and heartbreak one may experience.  His use of cast members to form a Greek-like chorus of storytellers enables a fluid narrative flow.  The addition of the four portrayed deities – of the Earth, Water, Love and Death – provide a hallucinatory quality to the story.

The score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Lafferty, their Broadway debut, is evocative of the sounds from the Caribbean and buoyantly sung by the performers.  They are enthusiastically rendered by a small off-stage band and supplemented by handmade instruments fabricated from items lying about the island’s beaches.

The cast is more of an ensemble effort with a few notable performances distinguishing themselves within the acting troupe.  Some of the standouts include Hailey Kilgore as the older Ti Moune.  She possesses boundless energy and conveys the mixed emotions of young love.  Her voice soars and her stage presence reminds me of a fresh-faced Melba Moore.  Philip Boykin as Tonton Julian, Ti Moune’s father and Kenita R. Miller as her mother, make an endearing, caring couple only wanting the best for their questioning child.  Playing the island god Asaka (Mother of the Earth), Alex Newell has a thunderous voice and a commanding stage presence.

Director Michael Arden has created an immersive theatrical environment that takes full advantage of the circular stage and its environs to vividly tell the story.  There is constant movement within the production and sights to behold at every corner.  The director forgoes unnecessary stagecraft, keeping sets and props to a minimum, which allows for more creative artistry and imagination. Working with Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and Sound Designer Peter Hylenski he has created a theatrical setting full of wonder and spectacle.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown has infused the show with vibrancy and exuberance.  You feel the vitality and rapture of the performers.  Some of the dances, especially Ti Moune’s high-spirited strutting at a fancy ball, come across as a joyous and infectious celebration.

Once on the Island, an enchanting and radiant production.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of "SpongeBob Squarepants - the Musical"

If you are even a casual fan of SpongeBob Squarepants then you will thoroughly enjoy the zany Broadway musical based on the cartoon character.  The wacky world of Bikini Bottom and its denizens of the deep are lovingly reimagined for the stage, producing a wildly entertaining, splendiferous production.

Kudos, first and foremost, must go to director Tina Landau and her creative team—emphasis on the word creative—for their splashy, colorful and dazzling designs.  They literally transform the interior and stage of the Palace Theatre into a vibrant and beauteous spectacle.  David Zinn’s Scenic Design is peacocky gorgeous and outrageously inventive.  The highlight is two towering Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions flanking the stage that, set into motion, deliver giddy results.  His Costume Designs are equally inspired and flashy.  Peter Nigrini’s Projection Design add a cartoony spirit to the production.  The talents of Kevin Adams (Lighting Design) and Walter Trarbach (Sound Design) are indispensable in establishing the imaginative underwater realm.  The sound effects produced by Mike Dobson (such as Sandy the Squirrel’s karate chops) add an idiosyncratic dimension to the show.

The cast of "SpongeBob Squarepants - the Musical."

The story by Kyle Jarrow captures the whimsy, silliness, and outright lunacy of the animated series.  He has incorporated a bevy of recognizable routines and characters to satisfy any fan.  The writer has crafted a narrative that centers on a cataclysmic volcanic eruption set to destroy the underwater community of Bikini Bottom.  Only one man, ah sponge, can come to the rescue and SpongeBob is up for the job as he recruits his friends to help save the day and gain a degree of respect at the same time.

The actors and actresses are so perfectly cast in their roles.  They are led by Ethan Slater as SpongeBob.  Squat, muscular and impossibly flexible, Slater has the look, goofiness and innocent laugh of the loveable TV creation.  He brings out the childlike qualities of the character without being insipid or tiresome.  His non-stop effervescence and sparkle anchors the musical.
Gavin Lee as Squidward in his big dance number "I'm Not a Loser."

Other standouts are Gavin Lee, woefully wonderful as Squidward.  He is marvelously miserable as he wallows in self-pity.  The performer supplies the most crowd-pleasing moment of the show with his high stepping tap number, “I’m Not a Loser.”  Danny Skinner perfectly portrays the lug of a Starfish, Patrick, a good-natured dimwit and BFF of SpongeBob.  Lilli Cooper is playfully appealing as Sandy, the no-nonsense squirrel living among the Bikini Bottom inhabitants.  Wesley Taylor is fiendishly inept as the diabolic Sheldon Plankton.

The score of the show is by a variety of well-known and indie recording artists.  They include original material from Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, and Panic! At the Disco.  The songs are bouncy, tuneful, and catchy and are sung with a buoyant and earnest enthusiasm.
Wesley Taylor as the one-eyed Plankton.

Tina Landau, who conceived and directed the production, has pulled out all the stops in fabricating a vision that is both artsy and commercial.  Her out-of-the-box thinking and guidance creates another world full of wonder and merriment.  She continuously fills the stage with all manner of underwater life that bounds from the performing area.  She also made a smart choice of not dressing the actors in phony looking costumes, but to allow them, through voice, facial expressions, body language, and subtle costuming to create more three-dimensional characters.

The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is creatively energetic.  The dance routines add even more fullness to a production that is overstuffed with innovation and schtick.

The one question yet to be answered is will audiences not familiar with SpongeBob and his mates flock to the musical?  Much of the enjoyment of the show is seeing gags and routines from the cartoon reenacted on stage.  Without a certain familiarity people could feel left out of the party-like atmosphere.

SpongeBob the Musical, an enchanting and loveable surprise this young Broadway season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of "Nuncrackers"

It’s the holiday season and the nuns of Mount Saint Helen’s Convent are taping their first Christmas special in the cable access studio built by Reverend Mother.  Thus begins Nuncrackers, another Nunsense sequel from the fertile mind of writer and composer Dan Goggin.

The entertaining show, playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through December 17th, is a series of humorous skits and songs performed by the nuns—Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Anne, and Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia)—from Hoboken, NJ.  They are joined by Father Virgil and a gaggle of young school kids.

Some of the vignettes can be quite funny as when Father Virgil and Reverend Mother spoof The Nutcracker as bumbling Sugar Plum Fairies and when the two hawk some rather unusual items on the Catholic Home Shopping Service.

The score by Dan Goggin, like with his other Nunsense efforts, are silly, lively, and jolly.  The song titles leave no room for doubt on the nature of the show.  There is the opening “Christmas Time is Nunsense Time,” “Santa Ain’t Comin’ to Our House,” “Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn,” and…well you get the idea.  They are accompanied by a marvelous three-piece band under the musical direction of JT Thompson.

The cast is a merry group, led by Michelle Goray as the businesslike, but affable Reverend Mother.  The actress has excellent comic timing and a droll sense of humor.  Cathy Wilcox-Sturmer is quite funny as Sister Robert Anne.  She is like the class clown, always going the extra mile to get a laugh or elicit a heavy groan.  Marcia Maslo as Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia) and Cat Heidel as Sister Mary Hubert round out the quartet of joking, good-natured nuns.  Mr. Waterbury himself, Tom Chute, is sufficiently daffy as Father Virgil.  He really knows how to wear a tutu and is quite extraordinary with his fruitcake recipe.  The young children in the cast add a down home flavor to the show.

Directors/Choreographers James Donohue and Semina De Laurentis keep the musical light and breezy, whether a scene is filled with song or a dialogue filled sketch.  They nimbly mix schtick-laden moments with poignancy and unabashed sentiment.

The Scenic Design by Daniel Husvar is suitably tacky, perfect for a local cable access production.

Nuncrackers, a different and diverting holiday show that, at the very least, will put a smile on your face and a twinkle in your heart.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review of "The Chosen"

Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, is a beloved classic.  Twenty years ago, playwright Aaron Posner brought the story to life in a stage adaptation.  That work, in a slightly new form, is receiving a satisfying production at Long Wharf Theatre through December 17th.  This poignant, and sometimes powerful, play delves into such universal themes as friendship, father-son relationships, developing identity and purpose, and religious adherence and tolerance. 
Steven Skybell and Max Wolkowitz in "The Chosen."

Set in the 1940’s, near the end of World War II, we are introduced to two young Jewish teens, Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), a Conservative adherent and Daniel Saunders (Ben Edelman), a follower of Hasidism.  Living only five blocks apart in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York their spheres--primed by their religious faiths--are light years apart.  In the aftermath of a baseball accident the two boys become acquainted and quickly become fast friends.  Soon, the pair is introduced to each other’s world--a strict, solitary life for Daniel, overseen by his distant, scholarly father, the rabbi Reb Saunders (George Guidall); and a more nurturing, loving household for Reuven, who lives alone with his father, David Malter (Steven Skybell), a modern day intellectual, writer and champion of Jewish causes.  Through their interactions, and as the years pass, the two young men begin to assert themselves, both personally and academically, as they forge new and unfamiliar terrain.  They also learn the truth behind sometimes difficult life lessons their father’s taught, both overtly and furtively.

George Guidall, Ben Edelman, and Max Wolkowitz in "The Chosen."
A central question for non-Jewish theater-goers might be is The Chosen too much of a Jewish show.  While individuals with a Jewish background may find more meaning and identification with the characters, setting, and events of the show, the themes it addresses are so universal as to, fortunately, make the inquiry almost irrelevant.

The adaptation by Aaron Posner, who has also successfully transformed Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev, for the stage, hits upon the major junctures and stirring moments of the book.  He has crafted a drama that is at times compelling and heartrending.  He has modified the play somewhat by eliminating the character of the narrator, who was an older Reuven Malter looking back at his teenage years.  This revision helps streamline the show, allowing the audience to more focus on the four central characters.  The playwright has also fleshed out the presentation by adding an ensemble of four students—played at times as part of Danny’s movement or Reuven’s arm of Judaism.  This revision adds some volume to certain scenes such as the opening baseball game.
Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders in "The Chosen."
The cast is professional and well-tuned to their characters.  Max Wolkowitz’s Reuven Malter shows inquisitiveness and determination.  He ably straddles the world of the secular and religious as he forges a new and, at times, complex friendship.  Ben Edelman as Daniel Saunders, with his awkwardness and at times labored interactions, radiates an inner torment as he tries to balance duty, honor, and the realities of a new age.  George Guidall gives a nuanced performance as the stoic and contemplative Reb Saunders.  He aptly portrays the leader of his Hasidic community, a man with the weight of multitudes on his shoulders.  Steven Skybell renders the character of David Malter with optimism, compassion as well as a degree of thoughtful studiousness. 

Director Gordon Edelstein nimbly guides the four performers through the ebb and flow of the production and seamlessly integrates the ensemble at strategic points of the play. The scenes that focus on the father/son relationships are strong and convincing.  Even though there can be a lot of philosophical ruminations and some abstract concepts discussed, as with the Gematria, a form of Jewish numerology, the director nimbly keeps the pace brisk and pulsating.  My only criticism is the way Danny is presented.  Yes, he is a member of a close-knit, insular group, but he comes across as too mannered throughout the production.  It would seem, through his ongoing exposure to the outside world, he could have developed a less stilted affect over the time frame of the play

The Chosen, a dynamic and crowd-pleasing drama at Long Wharf through December 17th.