Sunday, April 30, 2023

Peter Pan Goes Wrong - Broadway

In 2017, the British Mischief Theatrical troupe brought their uproarious, off-the-wall comedy, The Play That Goes Wrong, to Broadway.  The show ran for over 700 performances (a streamlined production is still playing Off-Broadway).  Their latest endeavor, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, is a worthy successor.  Not as outrageously funny as its predecessor, the show is still full of comedic mayhem and loads of laughs.
The three playwrights – Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Fields – who also wrote the previous show and star in the Peter Pan Goes Wrong, have set the play as a production by the Cornley Youth Theatre.  The inept collection of thespians are staging J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.  At least that’s what they start off to accomplish.  From the get go, everything goes wrong, sometimes horribly wrong.  A hallmark of the ensemble is their use of physical and verbal comedy.  There is plenty of both, even before the show officially begins.  Audience interaction is beefed up in the show as members are told to boo Captain Hook and there is a lot of jeering emanating from the theater.  It is a delicate balancing act, especially when some audience members think their call backs and shouts are funnier than the script.  In one very humorous scene, Henry Shields, who portrays the despicable pirate captain, attempts to open a bottle of poison with his hook.  Calling upon his inner John Cleese (of Monty Python fame), he shouts at the audience to “shut up” as he painfully struggles with his task.  What could have been an out-of-control moment turns to triumph for the actor as he solves his dilemma and, with a shrewd maneuver, wins the audience’s approval.
What makes Peter Pan Goes Wrong so giddily sidesplitting is how the imaginative (lunatic) minds of the three authors, come up with so many implausible moments.  I would love to be in the writer’s room to see their inventiveness in action.  Director Adam Meggido and the creative team – Scenic Designer Simon Scullion; Lighting Designer Matthew Haskins; Sound Designer Ella Wahlstrom; and the witty and silly original music of Richard Baker and Rob Falconer - are in perfect harmony, fashioning a full-throttled, enjoyable piece of entertainment.  For this show, high wire aerial stunts have been added, to the detriment of the actors performing them, but to the shameless amusement of the audience.
The other band of artisans in the production – Chris Leask, Matthew Cavendish, Charlie Russell, Nancy Zamit, Bianca Horn, Greg Tannahill, and Ellie Morris – are fully engaged as they attempt to sort through all the shenanigans and foolishness that comes their way. 
As with The Play That Goes Wrong, the scenic design (Simon Scullion) is one of the stars of the show.  More elaborate then The Play That Goes Wrong, the multiple set pieces spin on a rotating platform and implode before our eyes.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a comical piece of theatrical merriment.

Monday, April 17, 2023

Ain’t Misbehavin’ - Westport Country Playhouse

Before Smokey Joe’s, Five Guys Named Moe, Eubie! or Black and Blue, there was the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’.  The original Broadway production was a huge success, winning the 1978 Tony Award for Best Musical and running over 1,600 performances.

The Westport Country Playhouse has brought the show back to Connecticut with a lively, entertaining production directed and choreographed by Jeffrey L. Page.  

The show highlights a fraction of the over 400 songs written by the jazz great.  They are presented by a talented ensemble of five performers - Miya Bass, Paris Bennett, Jay Copeland, Judith Franklin, and Will Stone - who sing and swing on stage with the snappy rhythms of a 7-piece band, led by Musical Director Terry Bogart on piano. 

The production has the feel of a nightclub performance and takes place in front of Scenic Designer Raul Abrego’s stunning Art Deco influenced set that pulsates and shines with Philip Rosenberg’s incandescent Lighting Design. 

Each of the over 35 songs are performed in combination of solo and group configurations.  There are so many glorious numbers in the revue.  A few of my favorites are the comedic “Your Feet's Too Big,” the time-honored “Honeysuckle Rose,” the sweetness of “I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling,” and the rollicking “'Tain't Nobody's Biz-Ness If I Do,” “Handful Of Keys,” “Cash For Your Trash,” “Off-Time,” and “The Joint Is Jumpin' .”

Director/Choreographer Page seamlessly threads together the selections to create a well-balanced show.  He occasionally features Costume Designer Oana Botez’s flashy Harlem Renaissance inspired outfits to add sass, as with “Spreading Rhythm Around.”  Ballads are followed by snappy duets or a raucous ensemble piece.  The dance steps are lively, inventive and clever.  They adroitly bring forth the strengths and talents of each of the energetic performers. 

The one issue I had with the otherwise marvelous production was the sound mix and enunciation by the actors/actresses.  Too often, it was hard to makeout the lyrics to songs, which somewhat diminished the enjoyment of the featured song.

Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue well-worth experiencing.  Playing at the Westport Country Playhouse through April 29.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

The Phantom of the Opera - A Remembrance

Thirty-six years ago (1987), I was the Associate Director of Student Activities at Barnard College in New York City.  I ran a ticket booth, purchasing discount tickets from the Theater Development Fund and reselling them to students, faculty, and staff at a slight mark-up.  As a certified musical theater geek (I currently operate the 24/7 online Broadway radio station,, I was always keeping up with the latest shows currently on Broadway, playing out-of-town engagements and residing on the London stage.  

In Fall 1986 I had read about (remember, there was no Internet back then, just good old-fashioned newspapers) a new show called The Phantom of the Opera that was receiving rave reviews.  Soon, there was a matter-of-fact article about the musical coming to Broadway.  I sensed this was going to be big so I contacted the Schubert Organization, which was handling group sales, about possible student discount tickets.  “Yes,” they said.  The normal $50 orchestra seats were being sold for $25 and would be located in the last two rows of the orchestra area.  “Great,” I replied.  Put me down for 500 tickets.  I dutifully filled out a purchase order to process a check and sent the tidy sum of $12,500 to the Schubert’s.  Fast forward to just before the Broadway opening.  My tickets arrived.  Phantom opened to thunderous applause.  I put the tickets on sale to students, and all-of-a-sudden I was everyone’s best friend from the upper echelons of the administration on down.  “But these are student tickets.” I would explain to nonplussed VPs and such.  Nonetheless, I do have to admit, a few pairs did make their way to non-undergraduate hands.

A short time after Phantom opened, the Schubert’s realized their extreme error.  The student tickets were in the orchestra, where they could easily have been sold for full price.  Whoosh!  Student discounted tickets were now relegated to the last two rows of the Balcony.  Fine with me because I was still sitting on my hundreds and hundreds of prime orchestra seats.

All these years later, I like to think my good fortune with snagging so many deeply discounted Phantom tickets gave undergraduates their first foray to Broadway and maybe, just maybe, ignited a passion for musical theater that has continued to this day.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Parade - Broadway

The Broadway revival of Parade is captivating theater on a grand scale.  The themes of antisemitism and racism that pervade the musical, which takes place in 1913 are, sadly, still in the forefront today, making this a powerful and relevant production.

The show is based on an abhorrent chapter in American history - the lynching of a Jewish clerk for a crime he didn’t commit.  The locale is Atlanta, Georgia. The story revolves around Leo Frank (Ben Platt), an unassuming foreman at a pencil factory, and his wife, the dutiful Lucille Frank (Micaela Diamond).  When a young girl is found murdered in the basement of the company, Leo Frank is soon arrested and put on trial by the unscrupulous prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan).  Before and during the trial, the public is worked up to a frenzy by the sensationalist articles written by reporter Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson).  Through a procession of unreliable and untruthful witnesses as well as an abundance of circumstantial evidence. Frank is convicted and sentenced to death.  However, after continued pleadings of innocence by Frank’s wife to the Governor of Georgia, the politician reexamines the case and after careful consideration commutes the sentence to life in prison.  Seeing the new decision as unjust, a group of men break into the prison, kidnap Leo Frank, and carry out their own form of justice.

The Tony Award winning book by Alfred Uhry, an Atlanta native whose relative actually owned the pencil factory where Leo Frank was employed, is direct and unflinching in its depiction of race relations and the antisemitic environment of the emerging New South.  Uhry’s libretto is filled with numerous supporting players, all fully rounded and superbly acted.

Jason Robert Brown’s score, his first for the Broadway stage (which also won the Tony Award for Best Score) is one of his richest and most satisfying works.  They adroitly set the show’s shifting moods and deftly define character and plot.

Michael Arden’s direction reads like a true crime docudrama with authentic period costumes by Susan Hilferty and photographs of real-life historic players and scene setting captions periodically projected on the back of the stage.  He positions Dane Laffrey’s elevated set piece front and center, giving it the feel of a political, speech-making podium.  Chairs flank the monolith, serving both as a staging area for the performers and as an area where the crime and injustices are silently witnessed.  Assisted by well-placed and concise choreography by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant, the director skillfully weaves in all the central characters and tangential storylines to create a fluid, energized production.

The outstanding cast is led by Ben Platt as Leo Frank, naive and trusting with the wheels of justice and somewhat aloof and condescending with his wife even as she works tirelessly for his release.  His actor’s transformation into a realist and, more importantly, into a loving and caring husband is heartfelt and convincing.

Micaela Diamond, as Lucille Frank, is the heart and soul of the production.  Her unwavering support and dedication is the thread that connects the musical from beginning to end.

There are so many marvelous performances by the supporting cast, with too many to mention.  Some of the more notable portrayals are Jay Armstrong Johnson, who is striking as the cynical, smooth talking, sensationalist reporter Britt Craig.  Paul Alexander Nolan is first-rate as the aspirational, underhanded, and wily prosecutor Hugh Darcy.  Sean Allan Krill provides an even tempered, subtle performance as Governor Slaton, who’s portrayal strongly balances the more devious characters.  Alex Joseph Grayson is sublime as the duplicitious, self-aggrandizing Jim Conley, the custodian of the pencil factory.

Parade, an exceptional revival, playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway. 

Life of Pi - Broadway

 Dazzling.  Magical.  The Broadway production of Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, is stagecraft at its best.  Director Max Webster incorporates life-sized puppets, inspiring sets by Tim Hatley, a thundering sound design by Carolyn Downing, and dramatic lighting by Tin Luktkin to create an extraordinary tale of hope and survival.


Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has synthesized the essence of the book to present a concise, well-structured play.  She has managed to jettison aspects of the book without hurting the narrative or highly-charged portions of the novel.  What is understandably missing is the richness and detail in Yann Martel’s original work.  However, knowledge of the source material is not necessary for audiences to enjoy and be entertained by the stage production.


The show begins, in a sense, at the end of the story.  Pi Patel, after spending hundreds of days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, has washed ashore in Mexico.  He is in a hospital being questioned by a shipping firm official about the unexplained sinking of the vessel that claimed all lives except the young Indian boy.  What, he asks, can you tell me?


The story then shifts to the events leading up to the fateful ocean journey.  We are introduced to Pi Patel, who lives with his sister, mother and father.  The family owns a zoo in India and this fact allows for the very early introduction of the marvelous and fanciful animal creations by Puppet Designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell.  There is OJ the gorilla, a zebra, and a Bengal Tiger, named Richard Parker.  Due to growing civil unrest, Pi’s father decides to move the family and the contents of the zoo to Canada.  During the early part of the voyage the ship sinks during a raging storm.  There are no survivors except Pi and a few of the animals - OJ, a menacing hyena, an injured zebra, and Richard Parker - afloat on a large lifeboat.  Very soon, the hyena starts attacking the other animals and when all is said and done, there is only Pi and the Bengal tiger remaining.  So, starts an uneasy alliance between the two as they drift aimlessly in the Pacific Ocean.  


Pi perseveres with help from dreamscape encounters with a survival guide author and departed family members.  The action jumps back and forth between the hospital room, where he relates his tale and the exploits on the high seas.  All the time, Richard Parker lurks, prowls, challenges until Pi and the tiger settle into a symbiotic relationship as they endure hunger, thirst and treacherous waters.


In the end, at the hospital, an incredulous shipping administrator discounts Pi’s story as delusional.  Pi responds with a much more palatable tale, without animals.  Satisfied with the “other” rendering, the official and his partner depart leaving Pi alone with his thoughts and the truth of what really happened.


The superb cast is led by the breath-taking performance of Hiran Abeyskeera as Pi.  On stage for just about the entire play, the actor deftly portrays a teen who’s world has suddenly imploded.  He is at times sullen, combative and introspective.  Other notable actors/actresses include Rajesh Bose (father), Mahira Kakkar (mother), and Brian Thomas Abraham (cook)..


Director Max Webster’s vision and execution is spell-bounding, incorporating elements of fantasy, whimsy and realism.  At some points, it is almost cinematic in scope as he blends Andrzej Goulding’s Video Design and Andrew T. Nackay original musical compositions into the production.  His staging of the interplay between the life-size puppets and Pi is both threatening and exciting.


Recognition needs to go to all the puppeteers that bring all of Puppet Designer’s Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell creations to life.  Bravo.


Life of Pi, a show not to be missed.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Dancin' - Broadway

Let me start off by stating what the revival of Bob Fosse’s Dancin' is not.  The show is not a retrospective of the multi-Tony Award winning choreographer/director’s career a la Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.  Fosse created iconic dance numbers for The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, Pippin and the movie version of Cabaret.  In the revival, directed and musically staged by Wayne Cilento, who was Tony nominated in the original 1978 production of the show, the routines occasionally pay homage to some of these shows, but that is the extent of any connection to his previous works.

As with the original production, the revival has no plot.  There is no thread connecting one dance number to the next.  Instead of original music, there are songs touching on a variety of styles including jazz, pop, Americana, and classical.  Many of the production numbers feature notable Fosse dance styles such as the use of turned-in knees, sideways shuffling, rolled shoulders and jazz hands.  Hats, a Fosse trademark, are incorporated throughout the production.

The large company of dancers, well-chiseled, athletic and full of vitality, are a talented group, who can sing and have the opportunity to show off their acting prowess.  In addition to the large-scale numbers, a few of the performers get to shine individually, others in various pairings.  Standouts include Peter John Chursin, Manuel Herrera, and Kolton Krouse.

The problem with the revue is after a while the show becomes somewhat tiresome and unexciting.  Visually Dancin’ works, abetted by Scenic Designer Robert Brill’s twin towering scaffold sets, David Grills’s vibrant Lighting Design, and Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s exhaustive number of form-fitting and eye-catching costumes.  Wayne Cilento strives to bring an authentic vision to the production, but unless you are a die hard fan of Bob Fosse or dance aficionado, the end result is a show that lags.  The original production of Dancin’ played for years on Broadway, running for over 1,700 performances.  This version will most likely have a much shorter lifespan.