Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review of "Flidder on the Roof"

Another New York City production of Fiddler on the Roof so soon after the 2015 Broadway revival?  Yes, and this version, done entirely in Yiddish, demands to be seen.  The language, which could be a barrier for many, is a non-issue (there are brief translations in English and Russian projected off to each side of the stage) for a musical so ingrained in our culture. For theater-goers all too familiar with the timeless Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock score and Joseph Stein book, the Yiddish dialogue and lyrics add to the naturalistic setting and earthiness of the production. 

The story, that addresses such timely issues as anti-Semitism, religious freedom, traditional norms, and forced immigrant migration, revolves around Teyve, a poor milkman, his wife Golde, and their five daughters.  Life in the old-world Russian town of Anetevka is simple and, mostly, uncomplicated until, one-by-one, Teyve’s three eldest daughters become engaged and wed in ways that up-end and challenge family and religious values and customs.  At the same time the Russian authorities in the small village, who have let the Jewish community go about their daily lives with little interference, becomes more aggressive, finally forcing the townspeople to leave their beloved way of life.

The score by Bock and Harnick is one of the greatest in Broadway musical history.  Every song is a gem beginning with the spirited and vibrant opening number “Tradition” (Traditsye).  Other classics include the comedic, “The Dream,” the heart rendering ballad “Anetevka,” and the joyous “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.” Again, because the musical numbers are so well-known the necessity for understanding the Yiddish lyrics is minor.

The cast is superb, led by Steven Skybell as Teyve.  His portrayal is that of an everyman trying to eke out a living and understand the fast-changing world.  He is not the larger-than-life character as embodied by such notable predecessors as Zero Mostel, Topol, and even Harvey Fierstein.  We feel and believe his trials and tribulations.  Jennifer Babiak’s Golde is firm, understanding, and both flustered and content with her troublesome husband.  Jackie Hoffman, always a solid comic performer, is no less so here.  Her Yente injects a degree of humor and unabashed gusto into the musical.  Rachel Zatcoff (Tzeitel), Stephanie Lynne Mason (Hodl), and Rosie Jo Neddby (Khave), the young women who play the three older daughters show a wide-range of emotions and independence as each breaks free from family and tradition.

Director Joel Grey has kept the setting and production values to a minimum.  This allows the audience to focus more directly on the characters and story.  When necessary, he does add embellishments to a scene, such as the dream sequence, only when it will better serve the show.  The Tony Award winning actor knows how to bring both elation and pathos to a scene.  More intimate scenes are handled with aplomb, while larger settings, such as the wedding sequence, in conjunction with Stas Kmiec’s new, spirited choreography, are delivered with a joyous rapture

Fiddler on the Roof, worth seeing again.  Playing Off-Broadway through September 1st. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Review of "Oklahoma!"

Director Daniel Fish’s revisionist take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!, is a vibrant, more modern rendering of the ground-breaking musical.  Not everything the production has to offer works effectively, but there is enough on stage to reinvigorate and propel the show to satisfying heights.

Even before the first strands of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” echo throughout the intimate Circle in the Square Theater, the look and feel of the performance space signals this version of Oklahoma! will be different. There is an onstage country band within the minimal set design.  Six foot tables surround the floor and crockpots, cooking vegetarian chili (to be served at intermission), sit atop each table.  The house lights stay on, in a way signaling to the audience that they will be a part of the show.

When Curly enters, he doesn’t lazily warble the opening number, but almost assaults the verse as he playfully sings and flirts with Aunt Eller.  Intermittently strumming the guitar, the character, with unkempt, straggly black hair, and a slight beard and moustache, begins his unorthodox wooing of Laurey, the unimpressed niece who resides with Aunt Eller.  On the surface, the plot is relatively simple.  Who will take Laurey to the box social that night—Curly or the somewhat menacing, socially awkward farm hand Judd Fry.  The conflict and enmity between the two men is palpable, which leads to, in this production, an unsatisfying ending.  As with most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, the secondary leads provide comic distraction.  Here, Ado Annie, a woman who can’t say no to a pretty face and Will Parker, who comes across as a cornball simpleton, fills the bill.  There is also the exotic peddler, Ali Hakim, adding a degree of distraction to the relationship. 

The Rodgers and Hammerstein score, which contains so many noteworthy and recognizable songs, has been beautifully and vigorously orchestrated by Daniel Kluger.  Purists may gripe, but the cobwebs from such memorable numbers as "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin',” "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” "I Cain't Say No,” "People Will Say We're in Love,” and the title number are reinvigorated and given a new, contemporary sheen.  I can’t wait for the cast album to be released.

The cast is led by Damon Daunno as Curly McLain.  He is lanky, self-assured, and irascible.  The actor conveys a down home charm, but also a smothering passion.  His contempt of Jud is more overt and odious.  Rebecca Naomi Jones is more straightforward in her interpretation of Laurey Williams, not as layered as the other primary characters.  Patrick Vaill’s Jud Fry is disturbing and creepy.  Usually played by burly types, the actor is slight of build and a brooding jumble of suppressed emotions.  Ali Stoker’s Ado Annie is more a woman of today who knows what she desires and makes no bones about getting it.  Her rendition of “I Cain’t Say No” is more an anthem of female empowerment then an apologetic lament.  James Davis plays Will Parker as too much the fool and Will Brill makes a colorful, beguiling and knavish Ali Hakim.  Mary Testa is a more direct, in-your-face Aunt Eller. 

Director Fish has conceived a production which is entertaining, artsy, and also challenging.  What is interesting is the original book and lyrics have not been altered.  The emphasis, pacing, and delivery of the text is seen through a different light, one that is darker and more sexually charged.  Some aspects of his vision work exquisitely such as employing a country band to reinterpret the score and making some unconventional, but successful, casting choices.  Some of the directorial decisions are perplexing such as the two blackout moments during the production.  The end of the musical will be the source of much debate and questioning. The dream sequence that starts Act II is a pulsating, wildly choreographed modern dance number by John Heginbotham.  Audience members not familiar with the famous Agnes de Mille dream sequence and how it fits into and expands upon the plot, will be somewhat bewildered no matter what one thinks of Gabrielle Hamilton’s athletically charged performance.

Oklahoma!, flawed, but well-worth seeing.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Review of "Girlfriend"

The musical Girlfriend, playing at Theaterworks through April 28th, is a playful, sweet, and satisfying coming-of-age show.  The songs in the work are taken from the 1991 rock album, “Girlfriend,” by Matthew Sweet.  Playwright Todd Almond has crafted an effective storyline around the musical compositions, placing the action in Nebraska during the early part of the 20th century.  The two-person, 85-minute production focuses on Will (David Merino) and Mike (CJ Pawlikowski), two recent high school graduates.  Will, who is gay, seems to have no close friends.  Mike is an all-around athlete, member of the high school Prom Court, and has a steady girlfriend.  The two are polar opposites...maybe.  Right after graduation Mike, who has never said a word to Will, hands him a mix-tape (a cassette tape of assorted songs) and invites him to the drive-in movies.  Perplexed, and seemingly intrigued, Will accompanies Mike to the movies and, soon, a friendship, unexpectantly, begins to blossom.  Or is the developing relationship becoming something more?

Todd Almond has fashioned a plot that is honest and reflective of the attitudes and behaviors of the time-period.   In today’s world, the simplicity and straightforwardness of two young men exploring their sexuality comes across as unremarkable.  However, in 1991, especially in middle American, the prejudice, fear, and isolation such a relationship would trigger were very real.  Almond gingerly, but with forthrightness, presents the twosome’s budding rapport with sensitivity and candor.

The musical compositions by Matthew Sweet fit perfectly into the dramatic arc of the story.  Many of the song title’s—“Reaching Out,” “We’re the Same,” “Your Sweet Voice,” and “I Wanted to Tell You”—just about outline the main plot points of the show.  Most of the numbers are full of energy and passion.  They are performed by a tight, rollicking five-person on-stage band under the superb direction of musical director Evan Zavada.

David Merino and CJ Pawlikowski are talented young actors that intelligently and deftly convey the rollercoaster emotions, confusion, and awkwardness the characters feel.  The two work well together as they move from uncertainty and ambiguity to more sure-footed ground.

Director Rob Ruggiero, using very little in the way of scenery and props, manages to bring an exuberance and radiance to the production. By placing much of the action at the foot of the stage, the audience feels more connected to the characters and the show itself.  Ruggiero lets the plot unfold without any unnecessary flourishes or embellishments.  At times, he lets the score’s pulsating beats express the joys and heartaches felt on-stage.  At other points, unspoken silences between the two actors communicate more than pages of dialogue could convey.
Girlfriend, taking place in Theaterwork’s temporary quarters of the Wadsworth Antheneum during the company’s renovation of its home theater.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review of "Cabaret"

If you take the essence of the musical Cabaret, it is a show that focuses on relationships during a harrowing time in history.  This perspective allows the show to be reconfigured into a smaller, but no less vibrant, production, which is what the Music Theatre of Connecticut’s (MTC) staging has accomplished on their small performance space.  Their rendering is powerful, well-acted, and musically strong.

The book by Joe Masteroff is based on John Van Druten’s play, I Am a Camera (which was based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel, Goodbye to Berlin).  The story revolves around American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Nicholas Dromard), who arrives in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power in Germany.  On the train, he befriends Ernst Ludwig (Andrew Foote), a shadowy, politically connected, figure, who recommends a rooming house, run by the aged Fraulein Schneider (Anne Kanengeiser) for him to reside during his stay in the German capitol.  That night he and Ernst take in the Kit Kat Klub, a seamy, decadent nightclub, overseen by a hedonistic, no-holds barred Master of Ceremonies (Eric Scott Kincaid), where Cliff becomes enthralled with the headline performer, Sally Bowles (Desiree Dovar).  The two quickly become an item and move in together.  A parallel plotline concerns Frualein Schneider’s ill-fated romance with Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Jim Schilling).  The relationships eventually fray and dissolve just as Nazism becomes a more ominous and deadly force within everyone’s lives.

The structure of Cabaret is its strength, where the lives of the central characters and the musical numbers of the Kit Kat Klub both parallel each other and are interwoven.  On the surface, the performances within the Klub come across as campy and erotic entertainment, but they also provide a chilling metaphor and social commentary for the rapidly changing shift to a more intolerant political scene.

The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind Chicago, is one of the long-time duo’s most iconic and well-known.  The songs range from bittersweet ballads to flamboyant and sexually charged numbers. 

The cast is led by real-life couple Desiree Dovar as Sally Bowles and Nicholas Dromard as Cliff Bradshaw.  They give honest portrayals of their characters who meet in desperate times.  Dovar’s Sally is all about the moment, whether on stage or in bed.  Dromard’s Cliff, is serious-minded, forthright, and a bit naive.  More a supporting player, the role of the Emcee, played by Eric Scott Kincaid, is critical to any production of Cabaret.  He seems to be a cross between Joel Grey’s original Broadway portrayal and Alan Cummings’ more recent, sexually charged character.  The result is a splashy, debauched performance that anchors the musical as it marches to its sorrowful ending.  Andrew Foote, who was so outwardly sinister in MTC’s Jekyll and Hyde, is no less malevolent and threatening here.  In some ways, he is more dangerous as Ernst is so ingrained within the changing environs.  Anne Kanengeiser gives Fraulein Schneider a certain dignity and strength even as she withers under the onrush of Anti-Semitism. Jim Schilling imbues Herr Schultz with a gentleman’s decorum even as his optimistic state eventually leads him to a tragic destiny.  Hilllary Ekwall’s Fraulein Kost is a sneering, immoral tramp seeking pleasure and survival.  Alex Drost and Tony Conaty, playing a number or roles, provide ample support throughout the show.

Director, and MTC co-Artistic, Kevin Connors is very comfortable and skilled reconfiguring large-scale musicals for the intimate staging area.  For this production, he has scaled back the personnel and gaudiness of the nightclub setting, but the emotional impact of the story is still intact.  The attention is more focused on how relationships are shaped by the larger events swirling around the characters.

The creative team of Scenic Designer Kelly Burr Nelsen, Lighting Designer RJ Romero, and Sound Designer Will Atkin have produced a simple, but effective set for the production.

Musical Director Tom Conroy leads a tight, spirited pit band off to the side of the stage.

Cabaret, a compelling musical drama even in the small MTC performance space.