Saturday, December 9, 2023

The Salvagers - Yale Repertory Theatre

Relationships and sense of identity are at the heart of the absorbing play, The Salvagers, receiving its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre through December 16.  There are a number of puzzling plot points and choices that playwright Harrison David Rivers needs to address, though, in order for his work to be fully realized.

Taylor A. Blackman and Julian Elijah Martinez in a scene from THE SALVAGERS by Harrison David Rivers. Photo © Joan Marcus.


Boseman Salvage Junior (Taylor A. Blackman), referred to simply as Junior, is a would-be actor that couldn’t break into the business in New York City so he has returned home to Chicago and moved into his father’s home, Boseman Salvage Senior (Julian Elijah Martinez).  The two have had a fraught rapport, since the divorce from his now ex-wife.  Still, the young man continues to live under his father’s roof.  Junior, in his early 20’s, is angry, unsure, and searching for his play in the world.   In between acting auditions, he is employed at a local restaurant.  Senior is a locksmith with no office.  He is just perpetually on-call.  The husband’s former wife, Nedra (Toni Martin), remains a modest presence in her son’s life.  Enter into the mix two women - Elinor DeWitt (McKenzie Chinn) and Paulina Kenston (Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew).  Through happenstance, Elinor begins a relationship with Senior while Junior becomes intrigued with co-worker Paulina.  How their respective relationships evolve – the ups and downs – along with the sustained dynamic between Senior and Junior forms the latter part of the play.


McKenzie Chinn and Julian Elijah Martinez in a scene from THE SALVAGERS by Harrison David Rivers. Photo © Joan Marcus.

The three women in the show are strong, smart, and more forthcoming with their feelings as opposed to the men who are portrayed, to varying degrees, as damaged goods.  We don’t truly know the backstory of Senior and Junior so it is difficult to understand their trepidations.  When the “reveal” is divulged near the end of the show it leads to more questions than answers.  This, in addition to other puzzling scenes and plot points, is the crux of the problem with The Salvagers.  Some examples (without giving away too much):

  • Why was Junior in therapy and on medication (which we are reminded of a few times at the beginning of the play)?  Except for a necessary plot point, nothing is explained.
  • Senior had a very fractious and volatile relationship with his son, yet Junior still stays.  Why not leave and live with mom?
  • After the “reveal,” the ongoing connection between Senior and his ex-wife Neda becomes very confusing.
  • The involvement of Elinor with the “reveal” comes across as contrived.

Lastly, while I always enjoy a feel-good ending, the show would have had more of a dramatic impact if it ended on the preceding scene.

Taylor A. Blackman in a scene from THE SALVAGERS by Harrison David Rivers. 

Photo © Joan Marcus.


Director Mikael Burke presents a very straightforward rendering of the playwright’s work.  He marches through scenes even if they are somewhat baffling and unnecessary such as the moment with Junior and his lighter. The use of overlapping dialogue and multiple characters performing in the same scene are skillfully staged.  The Director smoothly incorporates quick, choreographed flourishes by Tislarm Bouie, such as the snow shoveling sequence at the start of the show, giving moments of the production a whimsical charm.  Less successful is the set devised by B Entsminger -  an oversized, snowy ice mass that towers over the performance space.  A black meshed screen, pulled across the stage during most of the play, does offer separation between the looming mass and the minimal scenic design.  John Horzen’s projections help define the Chicago locale, but unexpectantly end halfway through the show.  They would have had a fuller effect if used throughout the production.  Lighting Designer Nic Vincent’s dark, moody set-up gives the feel of a chilly, inhospitable Midwestern winter. 


Taylor A. Blackman and Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew in a scene from THE SALVAGERS by Harrison David Rivers. Photo © Joan Marcus.

The cast is marvelous, led by Taylor A. Blackman as Boseman Salvage Junior.  The actor gives an accurate read on a young man with so many highs and lows to his life.  He is at times petulant, immature, and angry as he tries to find his place in life.  Julian Elijah Martinez’s effectively presents Boseman Salvage Senior as a man attempting to connect to a son he doesn’t really understand.  His portrayal can be intense and forceful, but also compassionate and more understanding as he, too, manages an assortment of relationships.  Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew imbues Paulina Kenston with intelligence and self-assurance even as she looks to connect with others.  I was impressed with her performance.  She does need to speak louder to be better understood.  McKenzie Chinn’s Elinor DeWitt, like the character of Paulina, is strong and understanding.  The actress gives a compelling, no-nonsense performance.  Toni Martin is solid in the role of Nedra Salvage.  Besides an explanatory monologue near the play’s conclusion, her character has a small presence in the show.


Even with all my reservations The Salvagers is a show worth attending.  Flawed, yes, but the whole of the play is greater than its sum parts.


The Salvagers, playing through December 16 at the Yale Repertory Theatre.  Click here for information on dates, times and ticket information.

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Dreamgirls - Goodspeed Opera House

Show business is a business, according to Curtis Taylor, Jr., the hard-driving, controlling manager of The Dreams.  It is tough, full of shattered hopes and desires and broken promises.  This is the overriding theme in the Goodspeed Opera House’s absorbing, sometimes dazzling production of Dreamgirls.  The musical, which takes its inspiration from the girl groups of the 1960’s, primarily The Supremes, is slow to find its footing.  It’s not until most of Act I has passed that the show begins to find its dramatic and emotional core.  The musical solidifies its dynamic groove as Act I comes to a close and the actress Trejah Bostic, who plays Effie, takes the stage to belt out the soulful, angst-filled signature number, “An I’m Telling You.”

Keirsten Hodgens, Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Shantel Cribbs in Goodspeed's Dreamgirls. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The show starts as the three teenage Dreamettes - Deena Jones (Ta-Tynisa Wilson), Lorrell Robinson (Kiersten Hodgens) and Effie White (Trejah Bostic), along with Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. (Jos N. Banks) – enter New York City’s famed Apollo Theater talent show.  Even though they lose, they meet a number of men who will be influential in their rise to stardom – Marty (Robert Cornelius), Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Evan Tyrone Martin) and Jimmy Early (Mykal Kilgore).  Fame, though, has its price and as the renamed group, The Dreams, rise to stardom each member’s drive and sacrifice cost plenty.  Effie, friends with the other founding members of the group, is unceremoniously dumped for a prettier young woman.  Her story arc in Act II runs parallel to The Dreams’, but is more gritty and difficult.  In the end, there are heartaches and breakups, but the four women survive, stronger and in control of their own destiny.


The book by Tom Eyen covers a lot of ground, from the birth of The Dreams through their rise to stardom and eventual break-up.  Act I is slightly disjointed as portrayals are developed and situations established.  By Act II Eyen is able to breathe more life into the characters, giving them depth and nuance, creating well-rounded characters that the audience cares about and responds to.


Mykal Kilgore with Ta-Tynisa Wilson, Trejah Bostic and Keirsten Hodgens in Goodspeed's Dreamgirls. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

He also weaves in a number of issues that were becoming current to the music business during this time frame.  Rhythm and Blues began crossing over to the pop charts and becoming more accepted by white audiences.  Black artists began taking more control of their careers, both in the limelight and behind the scenes.  Throughout Dreamgirls, the men are dominant and call the shots.  By the end, the tables have turned as the individual women blaze their own pathways, on their own terms. 


The lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger aptly reflect the time and style of the show’s 60’s – 70’s vibe.  The score is full of memorable songs that cross a number of genres from pop to soul.  There is the high-energy “One Night Only” and “Dreamgirls,” the soulful “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” the poignant “Hard to Say Goodbye, (My Love),” and the heartbreaking “Family.”


Trejah Bostic, Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Keirsten Hodgens with the cast of Goodspeed's Dreamgirls. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Director Lili-Anne Brown smoothly and efficiently guides the show, with its numerous scene and costume changes, with skillful aplomb.  She utilizes Arnel Sancianco’s Scenic Design, an arced prosemium stage, arrayed with lightbulbs, to simulate a feel for the characters being constantly in the spotlight. At the back of the performance space he has included large speaker-like pieces that incorporate just one aspect of Jason Lynch and Adam Honore’s vibrant Lighting Design.  The Director smoothly incorporates Choreographer Breon Arzell’s sleek, synchopated dance steps for The Dreams and the character of Jimmy Early.  Ms. Brown sucessfully overcomes the somewhat sluggish start of the show to conclude with a production full of depth and pathos.


All around, the cast was marvelous.  Ta-Tynisa Wilson is outstanding as Deena Jones, thrust into the limelight just at The Dreams make it big.  The actress gives a multi-layered performance as she transforms from naïve teenager to a sophisticated, world-weary glamour star.  Trejah Bostic’s Effie White is the heart and soul of the musical.  She plays the role beautifully, creating the most well-developed portrayal in the show.  By the show’s end, her character is the one most at peace with her choices.  Kiersten Hodgens, as back-up singer Lorrell Robinson, holds her own with her more exuberant castmates.  Shantel Cribbs is elegant and adept as Effie’s replacement Michelle Morris.


Keirsten Hodgens, Ta-Tynisa Wilson and Shantel Cribbs in Goodspeed's Dreamgirls. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Evan Tyrone Martin (Curtis Taylor, Jr.) has the most significant male role of the show.  His character is divisive as he winningly shifts from seat-of-your-pants hustler to a forceful, svengali presence.  While the actor delivers a superb performance, it could have been more nuanced.  Mykal Kilgore (Jimmy Early) gives a slick, high-powered portrayal that convincingly shifts from self-absorbed artist to one that shows more humility.  Robert Cornelius (Marty), Early’s one-time manager, brings a showbiz weariness to his role.  Jos N. Banks is sound in the underwritten role of C.C. White.


Costume Designer Samantha C. Jones has crafted a kingsize closet full of flashy, eye-popping costumes, primarily for the women of The Dreams.  There are so many costume changes throughout the show, I lost count.  The designs for the men are more subdued but, especially with the character of Curtis Taylor, Jr., parallel his growth with sleekier, more contemporary outfits.  Mention also needs to go to Earon Chew Nealey for the numerous stylish hair pieces she has crafted.  The coiff for Deena Jones during a photo shoot was especially impressive.


Dreamgirls, playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through December 30.  Click here dates, times, and ticket information.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Pin-Up Girls - Playhouse on Park

VFW Post 5470 is set to close.  When a group of friends, cleaning out the building, discover a huge cache of letters – spanning from WWI to Afghanistan – they decide to commemorate the heartfelt, sometimes humorous correspondence with a holiday show for veterans at the post based on the writings.  That’s the simple premise behind the charming, jukebox styled musical The Pin-Up Girls. 


Members of the cast of The Pin-Up Girls.  Photo by Meredith Longo.

Leanne (Olivia Fenton), Megan (Maggie Keene), Dana (Hillary Ekwall), and Joel (Christopher Rhodes), along with the exuberant piano accompaniment of Kevin (Musical Director Kevin Barlowski), entertain with a wide-range of songs and associated skits based on snippets of letters read by the cast.  The correspondence beautifully convey sentiments from the front lines as well as back home.  They songs include Irving Berlin’s ditty "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" from his 1918 musical revue Yip, Yip, Yaphank; The Andrew Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy;” “Please Mr. Postman;” and even Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”  They are presented in a timeworn VFW hall, artfully rendered by Scenic Designer Lindsay G. Fuori.


Olivia Fenton, members of the cast of The Pin-Up Girls.  Photo by Meredith Longo.

The book and song selections by co-creators James Hindman and Jeffrey Lodin, while entertaining, is an uneven affair, with the comedic and upbeat numbers usually hitting their mark.  Whenever a lull occurs or a sketch doesn’t register, there is usually an engaging scene that quickly follows.  Overall, the 90-minute, intermission-less production does its job - pulling at audience’s heartstrings, arousing pride for the men and women who have served in the armed forces, and generating a twinge of nostalgic wistfulness.

Maggie Keene and Hillary Ekwall from The Pin-Up Girls.  Photo by Meredith Longo.

The performers, under the assured direction of Darlene Zoller, display a wonderful, easygoing chemistry as they act and sing together and in combination.  All four possess superb voices, whether belting or tenderly crooning the over two dozen songs (I do wish a song list was included in the program handed out to audience members or even included in the online version).  Zoller has infused the production with creative staging and a whole lot of schtick.  She utilizes the entire Playhouse on Park performance space to achieve a well-paced musical revue. Stef Carr’s Lighting Design strikingly sets the mood for many of the scenes.  Rachel Landy’s Sound Design handsomely blends the vocal flourishes of the three actresses and two actors.


The Pin-Up Girls, an appealing holiday-time jukebox musical.  Playing at Playhouse on Park through December 19.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.