Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Spamalot - Broadway

The Broadway revival of Spamalot, is good-natured fun, provoking a steady stream of titters, cackles, and guffaws from audience members.  While the production loses its steam by show’s end, it still provides a generous dollop of pizazz and show business know how.

Based on the film, The Holy Grail, by the British comedic troupe, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the show is part book musical and part Las Vegas revue, courtesy of original Python member Eric Idle who co-wrote the score (with lyrics by John Du Prez) and its libretto. 
The story revolves around King Arthur’s search for individuals to join the Knights of the Roundtable and then shifts to their quest to find The Holy Grail.  Idle made sure to include memorable, fan favorite bits from the movie including the taunting French soldier and the Trojan Rabbit, the Knights Who Say “Ni!,” the deranged Black Knight, and the killer rabbit.  He also added a character not from the film, the Lady of the Lake (Leslie Rodriguez Kritzer).  Her link to the shenanigans is based solely on how she bestowed to Arthur his enchanted sword.  Otherwise, in a very amusing, scenery-chewing performance, Ms. Kritzer resurfaces every so often to moan and complain about her role in the show.
The cast is filled with seasoned comic performers.  They include Christopher Fitzgerald as King Arthur’s manservant, Patsy; Tara Killam as the macho Sir Lancelot; Ethan Slater in a variety of quirky, humorous roles; Jimmy Smagula as the bumbling Sir Bedevere, Michael Urie as the perpetually frightened Sir Robin; and Nik Walker as the self-centered Sir Galahad.  James Monroe Inglehart, stoic and straightforward as King Arthur, is the glue that holds the production together.  His forthright portrayal keeps the show on task.
The score by Eric Idle and John Du Prez is full of fun-filled tunes including the silly “I Am Not Dead Yet;” the hyper-emoting of “The Song That Goes Like This;” the sweetly melodic “Always Look at the Bright Side of Life;” and the big production number, “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.”  While not the most sophisticated group of songs, many stay with you long after you leave the theater.
Director/Choreographer Josh Rhodes allows his acting troupe a wide berth as they delve into their comedic roles. Scenes are performed with precision and never overstay their welcome.  He incorporates some wild choreographic numbers including “Knights of the Round Table” and “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway.”  My only complaint by the latter song is Rhodes tries to milk it a tad too much. 
The Scenic Design by Paul Tate DePoo III is whimsical and varied.  His towering projections, in the style of Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, also pay homage to the film.  Cory Pattak provides a flashy Lighting Design.  The Costume Designs by Jen Caprio are imaginative and playful. 
Spamalot, yucking it up for a new generation of Python (and not so Python) enthusiasts at the St. James Theater.

Harmony - Broadway

Harmony, the new show with music by Barry Manilow and lyrics/book by Bruce Sussman, is based on the German singing group The Comedian Harmonists, one of the most popular musical ensembles in the world during the 1920’s and 1930’s.   The soaring fame of the six-person group, comprised of three Jewish and three non-Jewish members,  coincided with the rise of Nazism which, eventually, led to the end of their storied career.


The musical, which was first presented two years ago at the National Yiddish Theatre down by the Battery, is an emotional roller coaster, with Bruce Sussman’s streamlined book emphasizing the highs and lows of the group.  Even though the finale – including a moving, angst-filled monologue by the superb Chip Zien – will bring a tear to the eye, Harmony is also filled with joy and wondrous singing by the cast.  The performances by the six-man Harmonists is a joy to hear as they beautifully blend their voices into aural magic.  Dan Moses Schreir’s Sound Design is an auditory gem, which greatly enhances the production.


The story follows the six young men as they form their group and move from dive establishments to star billing at the fanciest nightclubs.  Sussman provides enough of a back story of each member to present a wholly-defined character.  Along the way, two Harmonists marry and they begin to travel the world, including a sold-out engagement at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.  The plot turns from upbeat and hopeful to chilling at the end of Act I as the rise of Nazism begins to take hold in Germany.  In Act II, while still performing and traveling – the Third Reich felt their performances were good for their image – they were eventually reined in due, primarily, because of the Jewish members of the group.  In the end, the Harmonists were disbanded, never to see each other again.


To hold the show together and push the action forward, Sussman has structured the musical with an aged narrator – Chip Zien as Rabbi, a member of the Comedian Harmonists in his younger days (Danny Kornfeld plays Young Rabbi in the production).  Zien, a musical theater veteran, pops up to add texture to the story and play a number of characters, including Albert Einstein.  He is the moral compass that gives expression to inner thoughts and outrage from years before.  The actor, a spry 76 year-old, is a natural storyteller.  He is at times funny, moving and passionate as he delivers a tour de force performance.


The six members that comprise the Harmonists are equally distinguished.  The group – Sean Bell, Danny Kornfeld, Zal Owen, Eric Peters, Blake Roman, and Steven Telsey- have been together for a number of years and this comfortability and ease together show in their on-stage interactions and playfulness.  Five of the young men are making their Broadway debut (Zal Owen appeared in the Broadway production of The Band’s Visit), but you wouldn’t be able to tell from their laudable performances.


Harmony is also blessed to have the actresses Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko in the cast.  Boggess, who has appeared in a number of Broadway shows, brings a vitality and confidence to her role of Mary, the wife of Young Rabbi.  Benko who, during the absences of Lea Michel in the recent revival of Funny Girl, wowed audiences, is dynamic and assured in her role of Ruth, a firebrand seeking change to an unjust system.  Her character is not as well-defined as the other cast members but, nonetheless, she makes the most of her portrayal while onstage.


The score by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman can be affecting, upbeat, frisky and, for the most part, very tuneful.  There are few original musicals on Broadway today where I would say this.  Manilow has co-written purely theatrical songs that will also be very satisfying to his legion of fans.  Standout numbers include the upbeat title song, the rousing “Every Single Day;” the stirring “Stars in the Night;” the excitement of “This is Our Time;” and the haunting ballad “Where You Go,” sung by Sierra Boggess and Julie Benko.


Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle has tightened the show since it’s New York premiere.  The pacing and scene changes are smooth and efficient helped by Beowulf Boritt’s minimal, but effective, Scenic Design.  Carlyle is equally adept at staging intimate moments as he is with high-powered routines.  He skillfully inserts dance numbers into the show, both stylish routines for the Harmonists and outright confections as with the “We’re Goin’ Loco!” number for the scene at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. 


While Harmony is a triumph, it should be noted that the anti-semitic and right-wing political rhetoric that underlines the musical, is as present today as it was during the timeframe of the show – almost 100 years ago.   It is a distressing commentary of where we are as a society and should serve as a warning on complacency and ignorance.


Harmony, playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a show not to be missed.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Clybourne Park - Music Theatre of Connecticut

The Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park, is receiving an uneven production at the Music Theatre of Connecticut (MTC).  The show, a well-constructed comedy/drama, is split into two Acts.  The first part of the play mines the field of racial attitudes from the perspective of a Black family looking to move into an all-White neighborhood.  In Act II, taking place 50 years later, the reverse is happening.  In both circumstances, playwright Bruce Norris unfurrows viewpoints and convictions that are, sadly, still prevalent today.  While segments of the MTC staging can be riveting, primarily the latter half of Act I, the show is undercut from some ineffective performances and an Act II which can be confusing and not as well-rendered.
In Act I, which takes place in 1959, we are introduced to Bev and Russ, a white, middle-class couple who reside in the Clybourne section of Chicago.  They are moving, not far away, and have sold their house to a Black couple.  Soon, their home is visited by Jim, the local priest, and neighbors Karl Lindner and his wife, Betsy.  Karl’s missions is simple – he wants to convince Bev and Russ not to sell their home, worrying about falling property values.  Tempers flare and arguments ensue about racism as well as neighborhood values and caring (Russ and Bev’s son was shunned when he returned from the Korean War).  Drawn into the fray is the homeowner’s Black housekeeper and her husband. 
In Act II, the time is now 50 years in the future.   The same cast, in different roles, are sitting in folding chairs in the decaying living room of the same home from Act I.  In the intervening years, the Clybourne section has become an all-Black neighborhood, but is now becoming gentrified.  A white couple, Steve and Lindsey, want to tear down the structure and build a larger house.  The Black couple – Lena and Kevin - from the housing board are trying to negotiate with them as the lawyers Kathy and Tom attempt to mediate the discussion, which soon becomes heated and breaks down into arguments and accusations centering on racism and political correctness.  As with Act I, the second half of the show concludes with characters exiting the stage, battered and nowhere near a resolution.
Playwright Bruce Norris has craftily constructed Clybourne Park with a nod to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic work, A Raisin in the Sun.  For example, the Black family referenced in Act I are the Youngers.  Karl, is also a character in Raisin.  In addition, Lena from the Housing Board is related to the Younger’s and doesn’t want the memory-filled home razed.  The scenes in Act I aptly capture the changes and self-generating strife white neighborhoods were undergoing.  The acrimony portrayed in Act II are, distressingly, still of the moment.  Overall, the dialog is smart, snappy and full of rancorous exchanges. 
As staged by Director Pamela Hill, the show takes some time getting into high gear but, once it does, the tension during the first half of the play is palatable in the small MTC theater.  Ms. Hill is less successful in building up to the dramatic conflicts that ended in Act I.  As the conversations begin in Act II, it was somewhat difficult understanding roles.  There was less fluidity to the flow of the action.  Sometimes performers would be talking over each other and hurrying through their lines as opposed to utilizing a more judicious use of pauses to heighten the growing hostility on stage.
Overall, the cast could have a stronger stage presence.  Many of them have a quiet fortitude, which does set the scene for the latter fireworks in both Acts I and II, but the understated portrayals lessen the power of the work.  Susan Haefner is a bit restrained in her roles of Bev/Kathy.  Frank Mastrone’s Russ is also somewhat subdued even though his underlying resentment and anger eventually erupts just before intermission.  Nick Roesler, who plays Karl in Act I, gives a powerful, full-in performance during the first half of the show.  His relentless rantings were forceful and effective.  As Steve, in Act II, while still the tempest in the teapot, his diatribes were less compelling.  Allie Seibold drifts through Act I as Betsy, but is more vocal and successful as Lindsey in the latter part of the play.  Rae Janeil is appropriately proper as the domestic, Francine, in Act I, but shows a fiery spirit as Lena in Act II.  SJ Hannah is respectful and assured as Albert in Act I, but the actor demonstrates he is not one to back away from his principles.  His portrayal of Kevin in Act II is fine, but more perfunctory.  Matt Mancuso’s portrayal of Father Jim in Act I is somewhat off for a person that should be able to handle conflict and mediation.  As the lawyer, Tom, in Act II, he is rather muted.
Scenic Designer Martin Scott Marchitto has forged two spare, but suitable sets.  For Act I, a dispiriting living room full of moving boxes; for Act II, a decaying, sparsely furnished space.
Clybourne Park, playing at the Music Theatre of Connecticut through November 19.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

I Need That - Broadway

Connections are at the root of playwright Theresa Rebeck’s modest new show on Broadway, I Need That.  Danny DeVito stars as Sam, a shut-in and hoarder, who seems to have only one friend, Foster, along with Amelia, his anxious and overwrought daughter.  Sam’s house is about to be condemned because of the mess inside and out.  No amount of pleading by Amelia and Foster moves him any closer to cleaning the accumulated chaos.  Why?  The objects serve a dual purpose – they bring forth memories of his youth that he doesn’t want to lose and they form an unspoken connection between him and his recently departed wife.  The teetering assemblage of books, a bottle cap, an electric guitar, and an array of classic board games dredge up memories he does not wish to forget. 

There is much angst, handwringing and confessions throughout the 100-minute, intermission-less show, but Rebeck relies on too many heartfelt stories to move the action along.  There just isn’t a lot of substance underneath the piles of dialog.  You also wonder what has been happening in the many intervening years with the three individuals.  Has Sam been estranged from his daughter?  Has she been a constant presence in his life?  Sam and Foster have known each other for over 30 years, but details emerge that such good friends would have known about each other.  Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel does give Danny DeVito room to operate and his schtick can be quite hilarious as when he narrates a game of Sorry he plays all by himself.  But even this scene, as inspired as it is, is overlong.
In the end, there is closure and harmony for all three characters.

Lucy DeVito, Danny DeVito’s real life daughter, is fine as Amelia.  At times, though, she can be a bit too high-strung.  Ray Anthony Thomas is solid as Foster, playing more the straight man to DeVito’s comic shenanigan’s.  Danny DeVito is masterful as Sam.  It’s a shame all his television and movie work have kept him away from the theater.  He is a superb performer with great stage presence.
Director von Stuelpnagel comes up with a lot of busy work for the performers – moving items from here to there, filling garbage bags.  Again, allowing Danny DeVito to let loose, as when he maneuvers a TV’s rabbit ears to get the set to momentarily work.  But the pacing can be slow and tiresome.
Besides Danny DeVito, the other star of the show is the Set Designer Alexander Dodge.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as he and his team mapped out the interior of the dilapidated home.  However, the true Broadway magic comes with the transformation at the end of the play.  How did they do what they did so quickly?
I Need That, playing on Broadway through December 30, 2023.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Private Jones - Norma Terris Theatre

The musical, Private Jones, which finished its workshop production earlier this month at the Norma Terris Theater (part of the Goodspeed Opera House group of theaters), is a unique show with an interesting plotline.  The main character, Gomer Jones, is deaf.  A farmer in civilian life, he becomes an accomplished sniper during WWI.  The show traces his journey from young, naïve country bumpkin to hardened soldier during the prolonged trench warfare of The Big War.  Marshall Pailet, who wrote the book, music, lyrics and even directs, has crafted a musical that, at times, packs an emotional wallop, especially when certain characters are killed.

Johnny Link and the cast of Goodspeed's Private Jones. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


As Director, he has incorporated a number of techniques – blackouts, slow motion movement, and puppetry – to tell the story and move the action swiftly along.   He has skillfully integrated sign language and minimal subtitles to give audiences an understanding of the experiences and conflicts from Jones’ vantage point.  Sound effects – especially the cocking and firing of a rifle - are nimbly utilized to heighten the audience’s auditory faculties. 


The book of the show, suggested by a true story, is well-fashioned and provides a significant amount of drama and tension as the story unfolds.  It can occasionally appear melodramatic as it follows Jones as he hones his shooting prowess at a young age, through his attempts at enlisting – finally succeeding – to his engagements on the battlefield.   Along the way, he befriends a helpful nurse (Gwenolyn) who’s brother happens to be deaf; a fellow enlistee (King), crude talking and a braggard, he eventually befriends; and a swaggering soldier (Edmund) who becomes his main antagonist.  There’s also a creepy, pathetic looking mongrel (represented as a puppet) that plays an integral part in the musical.

The cast of Goodspeed's Private Jones. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Pailet is able to bring a number of themes into the production.  Front and center is the plight, insensitivity and discrimination of individuals who are deaf.  The senseless and destructive nature of war looms over most of the show.  There is, however, hope and resilience even with all the death and anguish swirling around production.


The production is greatly enhanced by Christopher and Justin Swader’s minimalistic set design of moveable crates.  At times, their configuration is highly effective such as the depiction of isolating trench warfare.  Jen Schriever’s varied Lighting Designs helps intensify the action of scenes and Jay Hilton’s Sound Design can be haunting.  


Marshall Pailet’s score for Private Jones is more serviceable to the show, with no distinctive numbers  that resonate after leaving the theater.  They do a fine job in this endeavor.  The songs work well in helping to move the production forward and clarifying various encounters and conflicts.


Johnny Link and David Aron Damane. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The cast, led by Johnny Link as Gomer Jones, is first-rate.  Link delivers a superb performance, handily shifting from a budding innocent lad to a still youth, but hardened soul. He handles the deafness of his character with proficiency and aplomb.  Claire Neumann gives King a raucous, bawdy persona that, as written, is slightly over-the-top.  Still, the actress becomes an audience favorite as the character of King tightly bonds with Jones.  Vincent Kempski’s portrayal of Edmund is full of bravado, even though his intentions are somewhat questionable.  Leanne Antonio brings a refreshing no-nonsense approach to the role of Gwenolyn.  The actress also has a beautiful singing voice.  David Aron Damane, playing a number of characters – Gomer’s Father, a Drill Sergeant and a Major – is able to convey forcefulness, intelligence, and even humor during his appearances in each role. 


A few thoughts as Private Jones readies for its next engagement at the esteemed Signature Theatre company in Arlington, VA.  Pailet might want to reexamine the almost non-stop, profanity-laden dialogue of the character of King, Jones’ comrade-in-arms.  The constant swearing and crude retorts could be off-putting.  Sometimes less is more.  In addition, the character of Edmund appears rather cavalier as he strolls through the trenches, giving new arrivals his take on what will happen and how to survive.  At times, even though scenes of warfare are brutally honest, he seems to be on his way to high tea.  Near the end of the show, audiences are led to believe one final raid is due to the war about to end…but it isn’t.


Private Jones, a musical one hopes continues to develop as it reaches for a broader audience.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Sunset Boulevard - ACT of CT

The production of Sunset Boulevard, which opened the 6th season at ACT of CT, continues the company’s success they had with last year’s rewarding staging of The Secret Garden.  While Sunset Boulevard is not my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the show is given a grand production, with multiple stylized and sumptuous sets by Scenic Designer David Goldstein, luxuriant gowns and outfits crafted by Kurt Alger, and some smart directorial choices by Daniel C. Levine that keeps the show humming.


Pearl Sun and members of the cast of Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.

The book of the show, by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, teeters towards the melodramatic as it faithfully follows the storyline from the Billy Wilder film of the same name.  The plot focuses on Norma Desmond, a faded movie star of the silent era and Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, cynic, and survivor of the broken Hollywood dream.  Through accidental circumstances, their paths cross.  She sees him as a vehicle to return to film stardom.  Conflicted at first, Joe, becomes seduced by the opulent lifestyle offered by Ms. Desmond.  Their partnership and apparent romance leads to tension, discord and, finally, tragedy. 


One of the key dramatic points of the musical is the age difference between Norma and Joe. In previous productions I’ve seen of the show, Ms. Desmond is portrayed as a woman in her mid-60’s so the relationship between her and a 30-ish Joe Gillis felt uncomfortable.  However, in the film, she is only 50.  In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s, 50 years old seemed…well, old.  Today, 50 is middle aged and women are vibrant and still accomplishing.  Getting back to ACT’s Sunset Boulevard, the casting of Pearl Sun as the recluse Norma Desmond is more in line with the original intentions of the movie producers.  It also makes the pairing of the two protagonists less awkward.  Ms. Sun is majestic in the role of Norma Desmond.  The actress strides with purpose and poise.  She brings an arrogance and privileged air to her portrayal, but she can also be girlish and so very frightened by her own shadow.  Ms. Sun has a beautiful and powerful voice.  Her rendition of two of the show’s signature songs –“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – are captivating.

Pearl Sun and Michael Burrell in Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.


Michael Burrell is superb as Joe Gillis.  He gives the character a swaggering braggadoccio with an undercurrent of self-loathing.  The actor, also with a fine singing voice, adroitly conveying his clashing emotions and motivations as he skulks through the worlds of Norma Desmond and the Hollywood underbelly.  The other main performers – George Xavier as Max Von Mayerling and Helen J. Shen as Betty Schaefer - are fine, but more problematic in their portrayals.  Xavier, with a haunting voice and manner, is a bit rigid in his demeanor, only showing the character’s potential at the musical’s finale.  Shen, in a role that is underwritten to begin with, does not add a lot of depth to her character.


The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, contain some highly tuneful songs (see above) and also include such solid numbers as “This Time Next Year” and “The Perfect Year.”  The cynicism and hollowness of the Los Angeles movie scene are aptly rendered in the opening number, “Let’s Have Lunch” and Joe Gillis’ derisive rant in Act II’s title number.  Besides the forementioned songs, the overall score can seem repetitive with melodies frequently repeated.  The score is wonderfully orchestrated and performed by an 11-piece orchestra under the superb guidance of Music Director Bryan Perri.

Pearl Sun and members of the cast of Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.


Director Daniel C. Levine has taken what is normally a large-scale show and skillfully downsized it for the confines of the ACT stage.  However, the interior of Norma’s memory-filled mansion and a boisterous movie soundstage are still resplendently rendered.  Changeovers are nimbly effected by positioning action in front of a drawn curtain.  This also keeps the pacing brisk and fluid.  Large cast settings, such as the opening scene at Paramount Studios, are a finely conceived  demonstration of controlled chaos.  The interactions between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis are well-defined if somewhat perfunctory.


Sunset Boulevard, playing at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, through November 19.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.