Saturday, March 30, 2024

Dead Outlaw - Off-Broadway

The pleasures of attending an Off-Broadway production is seeing something different, maybe a little more weighty or quirkier than the fare uptown on Broadway.  Dead Outlaw, is on the idiosyncratic side.  It’s an off-beat musical, based on a true tale, that is a rollicking good time.  Strange.  Outlandish.  Weird.  Yes.  But this tale of the Old West, which eventually spans over 60 years, is nothing short of entertaining.


The creative force behind Dead Outlaw reunites the team from the multi-Tony Award winning musical The Band’s Visit.  The score is by David Yazbek (this time with Erik Della Penna).  The book is by Itamar Moses and direction is from David Cromer.  Dead Outlaw, though, is as far removed from the meditative, gently-paced The Band’s Visit as one could imagine.


The show is essentially divided into two parts.  The first half of the 100-minute, intermission-less production, focuses on Elmer McCurdy, a man searching for a purpose, who rides the rails seeking a place in society.  He’s also a drunken brawler that tries to settle down, joins the Army and, finally, turns to crime.  He is not the best of criminals and ends up dead from a bullet at the age of 30.  From there, and this is the second part of the show, his embalmed corpse (with a tad of arsenic to hold back the decaying process) becomes mummified over a short period of time.  Throughout the ensuing decades his body,  peacefully lying in an upright coffin, is paraded at side shows, a cross-country race, and even stars in the movies.  The cadaver is eventually left in a storage closet until rediscovered and shuttled off as a prop, now painted a day-glow red, for a horror-themed amusement ride.   When an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man is about to be filmed there, the display is revealed to be a human corpse.  Shrieks!  In the end, the body of Elmer McCurdy, a man who lived, and died, a strange life is buried with great fanfare.


The cast, all but Andrew Durand as the star-crossed bandit Elmur McCurdy, play multiple roles.  Durand, who last season appeared in the musical-comedy Shucked, is all-together different in Dead Outlaw, playing a pugnacious, rapscallion bandit.  His full-throttled performance, before his ignoble demise, on the small Minetta Lane stage, energizes the production.  He also deserves some type of award for staying so motionless for such a long time in the plain-box, upright coffin.


Jeb Brown, who serves as the narrator from the center of Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple, wooden front porch set, is also the front man for the six-piece on-stage band, led by Rebekah Bruce’s superb musical direction.  The actor is terrific, whether chronicling the show’s historical events, stepping into character as a dumb luck train robber, or strumming his guitar.  The rest of the cast – Eddie Cooper, Julia Knitel, Ken Marks, and Dashiell Eaves – are outstanding, providing engaging, mostly humorous portrayals.  While all the performers are first-rate, two deserve additional mention for their musical solos.  Trent Saunders, gives a spirited, exhausting telling of a Native American runner.  Thom Sesma is outlandish as a coroner crooning a Vegas-styled lounge number.



The score, by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna, which is sung primarily by the band, contains a combination of powerful rock-heavy tunes balanced with a few slower introspective songs.  All together, they energize the musical and allow a few of the performers, most notably Andrew Durand,  the opportunity to conjure up his inner punk rocker.  Occasionally, the sound design by Kai Harada and Joshua Millican allows the instrumentation to slightly overwhelm the singers, but the gist of the songs do come through.


Director David Cromer, working with Itamar Moses’ inspired, lively, vignette-laden libretto, winningly guides the story at a fast-paced clip.  He flawlessly integrates the aforementioned stage band with the action on stage.  The transitions are smooth, quick and seamless.  He incorporates Heather Gilbert’s lighting designs at just the opportune moments to intensify a scene.


Dead Outlaw, an exuberant, lighthearted romp, playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre through April 14.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Escaped Alone - Yale Repertory Theatre

In the past 25 years there have been a number of potentially catastrophic events for the planet (and I’m not even counting climate change).  Remember as the clocks slowly ticked to the year 2000?  Y2K and its possible disastrous ramifications gripped the world.  The COVID crises produced devastating effects across the globe.  Today?  Wars in Gaza.  The Ukraine.  Hot spots in North Korea.  The China Sea.  The Red Sea.  Yet, through the chaos, there is normalcy.  People still went or go about their everyday routines.  It is this juxtaposition which is at the heart of the Caryl Churchill one-act play, Escaped Alone, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through March 30.


Mary Lou Rosato, Sandra Shipley, Rita Wolf, and LaTonya Borsay in Escaped Alone

Photo © Joan Marcus.

Churchill, whose career spans over 50 years, is one of the United Kingdom’s most celebrated playwrights.  Her works push the boundaries of theater and require audiences to sit up and pay close attention.  By the end of a production, you may be scratching your head, trying to figure out what just occurred on stage.  The play may engage you…or not.  Whatever the reaction, a play by Ms. Churchill will provide ample opportunities for discourse and opinions.


In Escaped Alone, we are introduced to three middle aged friends – Vi (Mary Lou Rosato), Sally (Sandra Shipley) and Lena (Rita Wolf) – sitting in a small, lovely garden, handsomely designed by set designer Lia Tubiana.  A Mrs. Jarrett (LaTonya Borsay), who is passing by, asks if she could join the trio and, after receiving consent, joins the group.  Their chit chat veers in many directions, mostly the mundane and ordinary.  The banter is fast-paced, almost staccato in its delivery revealing, little by little, each woman’s personalities, their pasts, and fears.  Suddenly, without warning, the stage darkens and two mounted columns of bright lights framing the stage (designed with an overpowering radiance by Stephen Strawbridge), shine intensely into the audience accompanied by a blaring horn.  When the momentary brilliance subsides, Mrs. Jarrett stands near the edge of the stage before an ominous projection of bleakness and despair.  There, shrouded in semi-darkness, she delivers a stream of consciousness diatribe about an apocalyptic fate.  Minutes later, blackness again, and then the four women are back in the serenity of the garden trading stories and banalities.  The process repeats – harrowing looks at a dystopian future from Mrs. Jarret, supplemented with designer Shawn Lovell-Boyle’s weirdly pulsating projections.  Then, just as quickly as the afternoon gathering had begun, it's over.  Mrs. Jarrett stands, bids adieu, and the stage goes to black.


LaTonya Borsay in Escaped Alone.  Photo © Joan Marcus.

If the aforementioned description sounds strange, even a bit unsettling, then you have come under the spell of a Caryl Churchill production.  The playwright is known to eschew linear structure, looking more to instill ideas in her works for audience members to ponder.  For Escaped Alone, the show could possibly be about how we go through our regular, maybe uninteresting lives even when the threat of catastrophe is just moments away.  Or, as the world hurtles towards the abyss, there is still serenity, but a sinister ambiance within our lives. 


Mary Lou Rosato, Sandra Shipley, Rita Wolf, and LaTonya Borsay in Escaped Alone

Photo © Joan Marcus.

Director Liz Diamond focuses on the interactions of the four superb actresses, plotting their repartee to a finely tuned pitch.  They work together as an outstanding ensemble.  Ms. Churchill has conjured up scenarios that never lack for creativity or inventiveness.  In this light, she has fashioned a short monologue for each role that reveal an uncomfortable, darker back story for each character.  My favorite – Sally’s horrific fear of cats.  The result is Ms. Diamond has taken the humor in the play, along with its, surreal nature, and crafted an entertaining, if rather off-center piece of theater.


Escaped Alone, a short 50-minute production, playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through March 30.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Friday, March 15, 2024

The Hot Wing King - Hartford Stage

Once The Hot Wing King, receiving a winning production at Hartford Stage, gets cooking midway through Act I, the show becomes a compelling and thought-provoking piece of entertainment.  The play focuses on the relationship of four gay Black men, their friendship, loves and the added weight of family obligations.


The cast of The Hot Wing King.  Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The comedy/drama, running through March 24, takes place in the kitchen of Cordell (Bjorn DuPaty), who is busily prepping for the annual hot wing bake-off in Memphis.  Assisting are his friends, Isom (Israel Erron Ford), Big Charles (Postell Pringle), and his boyfriend Dwayne (Calvin M. Thompson).  They laugh, sing, and banter, all the time following Cordell’s strict preparation instructions.  Enter into the controlled chaos are Dwayne’s nephew Everett (Marchus Gladney, Jr.) and his sketchy father T.J. (Alphonso Walker, Jr.).  Their involvement with the other four men prove enlightening and add a significant dimension to the bonding and complexities within the household.


Playwright Katori Hall has graphed a number of potent themes into her Pulitzer Prize winning work.  Her depiction of the love and kinship of gay Black characters is honest and, as Director Christopher D. Betts states, “is not stereotypical or conflict-averse.”  Ms. Hall superbly intertwines these questions and attitudes of relationships with issues of family, duty, and survival.  The Hot Wing King does take its time finding its rhythm and creating the foundation for which the remainder of the show is based.  While the initial antics and jesting is entertaining, it could have been tightened up to move more directly into the heart of the play.

Cast members of The Hot Wing King.  Photos by T. Charles Erickson


Director Betts has crafted a diverse set of individualized mannerisms and idiosyncrasies for each character.  He finely guides the men’s constantly ebbing affinities with integrity and tenderness.  Betts also seamlessly transitions the show from the vitality and playfulness of Act I to the more serious mood of Act 2.  He fully utilizes Emmie Finckel’s two-tier set of a kitchen/living room space, with a bedroom atop, to effectively expand the performance space.  One point – it would have been helpful if, primarily during the portions of Act I, to have the characters speak slower during group scenes.  Sometimes the actor’s enthusiasm made it hard to follow the threads of dialogue.


Bjorn DuPaty and Alphonso Walker Jr. in The Hot Wing King.  Photos by T. Charles Erickson

The splendid cast is a finely grouped ensemble that functions well together and within their individual characters.  Their portrayals are complex, bringing a layer of richness to their roles.  Bjorn DuPaty (Cordell ) and Calvin M. Thompson (Dwayne) both provide rewarding, multifaceted portrayals of men caught between many demands and aspirations, needs and responsibilities.  The actors Alphonso Walker Jr. (T.J.) and Marcus Gladney, Jr., (E.J.), who play father and son, initially come across as one-dimensional, almost stereotypical inner city figures.  However, as the show progresses towards its highly satisfying conclusion, the two performers have instilled their characters with depth and nuance.  Israel Erron Ford is a hoot as the flamboyant Isom.  He infuses the play with a good deal of comic relief.  Postell Pringle’s Big Charles is the ying to Isom’s yang.  Quieter and more introspective, he imbues his portrayal with a measured weariness.


The Hot Wing King, playing at Hartford Stage through March 24.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Grumpy Old Men - the Musical - Seven Angels Theatre

The Connecticut premiere of the musical, Grumpy Old Men, playing at the Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury, CT through March 23, has a few features to recommend, namely some of the featured characters.  Unfortunately, the chemistry and interactions between the two warring protagonists – Max Goldman (Rob Bartlett) and John Gustafson (Gary Harger) – which is the center of the show, is lacking punch and gusto.

Rob Bartlett, John De Laurentis & Gary Harger from Grumpy Old Men - the Musical.

Based on the 1993 film of the same name that starred Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the musical focuses on the feud between the two elderly gentlemen, which consists mainly of not-so-funny insults and retorts.  When the beautiful, effervescent English Professor, Ariel (Susan Kulp) moves into their quaint Minnesota town of Wabasha, both Max and John look to woo her.  At the same time, there’s a subplot concerning the potential love interest between the two adult children of the grumpy old men.  You also have an IRS agent scurrying about looking to collect on John’s back taxes.  Within all the shenanigans, silly banter, and occasionally funny wisecracks there is a sprinkling of irreverent characters within the denizens of Wabasha.  By the show’s conclusion, all the loose ends and disputes are neatly resolved for multiple happy outcomes.
The libretto by Dan Remmes follows the movie closely, but instead of clever dialogue or witty bon mots, the book sets its sights on undemanding, irreverent jokes. 
Members of the cast of Grumpy Old Men - the Musical.

The score has music by Neil Berg, who brought a compelling musicality to the show 12 (seen earlier this year at the Goodspeed Opera House), but for Grumpy Old Men he, along with lyricist Nick Meglin, deliver nondescript songs that are occasionally entertaining.
Directors Janine Molinari and Semina De Laurentis need to speed up the pacing of the show in order for the nonstop jokes to hit their mark.  The tempo of scenes, as well as scene changes, also need to be quickened to build a fluid and satisfactory momentum to the production.  Ms. Molinari, who also doubles as choreographer, inserts a few simple, uncomplicated production numbers throughout the show.
Rob Bartlett’s Max Goldman is comically contentious and quarrelsome.  Gary Harger’s John Gustafson is equally argumentative and amusing.  The problem is their interactions seem forced and self-conscious.  Susan Kulp brings a freshness and vitality to the role of Ariel.  When she's onstage, the musical sparkles.  Conversely, Emma Czaplinksi (Melanie) and Josh Powell (Jacob), who play the grown-up children of Max and John are engagingly awkward, with an easy rapport and chemistry.  Semina De Laurentis conjures her inner Rose Nylund (Betty White’s character from The Golden Girls) in her droll portrayal of Punky.
Grumpy Old Men – the Musical, playing at the Seven Angels Theatre through March 23.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

A Sign of the Times - Off-Broadway

The key to a successful jukebox musical is the songbook of the production.  For the new Off-Broadway show, the lightweight, easygoing A Sign of the Times, the musical numbers are its strength.  The over two dozen songs include such timeless classics as “I Only Want to be With You,” “Color My World,” “These Boots are Made for Walking,” “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Society’s Child,” and “Don’t Sleep on the Subway.”  They are presented by a cast of engaging and appealing performers under the sure-handed direction of Gabriel Barre, who has helmed the musical since its premiere at the Goodspeed Opera House in 2016.   JoAnn M. Hunter adds a continuous flourish of well-choreographed dance routines that are energized and appropriate for the early 1960’s.  Many of the production numbers are silhouetted in front of Brad Peterson’s hip projections.

Crystal Lucas-Perry and Chilina Kennedy in Sign of the Times.

The book by Lindsey Hope Pearlman, from a story by Richard J. Robin, is playful and lively.  Still, the librettist manages to effectively insert such serious issues as the conflict in Southeast Asia and sexism women face in the workforce.


The show begins in 1964 as Cindy (Chilina Kennedy) decides there is more to her life than her humble Midwest milieu.  Leaving her longtime boyfriend, Matt (Justin Matthew Sargent), behind she takes a bus to New York City to purse her dream of becoming a full-time photographer.  Along the way, she meets Cody (Akron Lanier Watson), an African-American activist who is looking to change the world at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.  After looking all over the city for a place to live, she moves in with Tanya (Crystal Lucas-Perry), an aspiring African-American singer.  In quick succession, Cody and Tanya hook up.  Cindy begins work at an ad agency run by a new beau, Brian (Ryan Silverman), and even hangs out with an Andy Warhol type “in” crowd.  Her career aspirations – and romance - are dashed in the male dominated, sexist work world.  Matt is sent off to Vietnam and her world seems to be crumbling.  But, never fear, in the world of A Sign of the Times, everything works its way out so there is fulfillment and a happy ending for all.

The cast of A Sign of the Times.

The five primary cast members, dressed in Johanna Pan’s colorful and stylish 60’s garb, work well as an ensemble and in their individual portrayals.  Chilina Kennedy finely develops her character of Cindy, moving from deer-in-the-headlights naivete to a more assured and confident woman.   Crystal Lucas-Perry, imbues her role of Tanya with an assertive self-reliance that matches up effectively with her roommate Cindy.  Ms. Lucas-Perry also has a dynamite singing voice.   Akron Lanier Watson gives Cody an earnest and committed demeanor, providing a measure of gravitas to the production.  Ryan Silverman, showing a Mad Men deportment, provides Brian with a fun-loving bearing, that hides a calculating, Machiavellian manner.  Justin Matthew Sargent, at first, comes across as a stereotypical smalltown bumpkin but, somewhat surprisingly, develops Matt into a more fully developed character by the show’s conclusion.


The cast of A Sign of the Times.

A Sign of the Times, a fun, diverting piece of entertainment.  Click here for ticket information.

Days of Wine and Roses - Broadway

Days of Wine and Roses is one of the best musicals to appear on Broadway the last few seasons.  The show is a powerful production that is not always easy to watch as a couple spirals through alcohol addiction.  The musical is anchored by the virtuoso performances of Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James, who both are almost constantly on stage during the 100 minute, intermission-less production.  It is an event when either of these consummate actors appear on a Broadway stage.  Having both of them perform together is an absolute thrill.


Director Michael Grief reveals a deft hand in guiding the production.  He carefully paces the show, building from the gaiety, feelgood moments of two adults indulging in drink to the raw, emotional effects of the disease and its impact on loved ones.  Working with librettist Craig Lucas’ no-holds book, the Director pulls no punches as he traces the ups and downs of the main characters.  Lizzie Clachan’s Scenic Design is superb as it varies from the opulent lifestyle of a couple on the high to the dreary comeuppance of a family on the skids.  Her greenhouse set is beautifully rendered until an inebriated D’Arcy James takes hold of it.


The plot, as with the movie of the same name, focuses on Joe Clay (Brian D’Arcy James), a good-natured public relations man.  Already an accomplished drinker, he meets Kirsten Arnesen (Kelli O’Hara), an Executive Assistant to the head of the company they both work at.  A teetotaler, she is introduced to drinking by Clay at a casual get-together.  Soon, they become inseparable from each other and the bottle.  As their lives progress through marriage and a child, their boozing becomes more prevalent.  Personal and family crises ensue.  There is recover and relapse.  In the end, there is somewhat of a resolution, but the hoped for (at least by this critic) happy ending is fleeting.


Bookwriter Craig Lucas has crafted a pair of fully drawn, three-dimensional characters, fully embodied by O’Hara and James.  Both, veterans of many Broadway productions over the past 25 years, they deliver impressive and heartbreaking performances.  The show would not have the same impact with less versatile and experienced actors.  Bryon Jennings, as O’Hara’s stoic, no-nonsense father, also puts forth a notable portrayal. 


Days of Wine and Roses has music and lyrics by Adam Guettel (Light in the Piazza).  His work lacks the overall melodic lilt of mainstay Broadway musicals and has a sameness to the lush, sometimes operatic score.  I found his work functioning more for character developing and moving the story forward.  In a way, the show comes across more as a play with numerous musical interludes.  This isn’t a knock of Guettel’s music and lyrics.  They actually strengthen the production.  However, I won’t be playing many of the songs on my 24/7 online Broadway radio station,


Days of Wine and Roses, a show worth catching before it closes on March 31.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Million Dollar Quartet - ACT

On December 4, 1956 one of the great impromptu jam sessions in music history took place at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, TN.  Gathered were Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.  This once-in-a-lifetime gathering of legendary musicians is the basis for the jukebox musical, Million Dollar Quartet.  A production is rockin’ and rollin’ at ACT in Ridgefield, CT through March 23.


The plot, devised by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux, is thin with small dramatic morsels.  Sam Phillips, the owner of the label, has invited Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash to a recording session of Carl Perkins.  Phillips wants to celebrate the holiday season with the acclaimed foursome, but also has an ulterior motive, namely looking to re-sign Johnny Cash to a multi-year contract extension.  He is also wrestling with an offer from RCA Records to buy the Sun Studios.  Within this framework, egos clash, individual self-esteem is bruised, and braggadocio reins supreme.  Yet, in the end, the slights and wounds easily heal.  Interspersed within the whirlwind of testosterone, audience members are treated to 22, mostly powerhouse songs, including some of the member’s biggest hits.


All of the principle actors, who play their own instruments, have portrayed their roles in previous productions of Million Dollar Quartet.  This shows in the comfort level and professionalism in their performances under the sure-handed guidance of Hunter Foster (who played the role of Sam Phillips in the original Broadway production).  The Director has created a production that is tightly focused with unforced banter and interactions that come across as real.


The four leads form a dynamic assemblage of talent.  Alessandro Gian Viviano (7th time as The King) viably portrays Elvis Presley, giving him the swagger of a man at the top of his profession.  The actor adds a layer of nuance to the role during the moments he lets down his guard, ruminating about the cost of success.  Scott Moreau, who has portrayed Johnny Cash in more than 1,200 performances, adds a low-key, but effective performance as The Man in Black.  Christopher Wren imbues Carl Perkins, a role he has played 13 other times, with an anxious, resentful air.  An electric guitar virtuoso he, effectively portrays a man unsure of his future in the business.  Nat Zegree (over 500 performances as The Killer), an unbelievable piano playing Jerry Lee Lewis, is slightly over-the-top with his unceasing histrionics and manic outburst.


Bart Shatto, who portrays Sun Record owner Sam Phillips and acts as narrator of the show, chatting with the audience every so often, shows the most range within the cast.  At times he is fatherly to his charges, melancholy, ornery and, finally, forgiving as he strives to keep his studio alive.  Megan Reinking, who portrays Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend who accompanies him to the festivities, has a gorgeous singing voice and more than holds her own in the manly environment.  Nathan Yates Douglass (Brother Jay) and Matt Spencer (Fluke) provide ample backup to the musicians and an occasional comedic assist to the production. 


Lighting Designer Kirk Bookman provides festive holiday lighting.  Jeff Sherwood’s Sound Design keeps the theater awash in the sonic pleasures of early rock ‘n roll.  Josh Smith’s Scenic Design of the Sun Records Studio is quite impressive, maybe a bit too dazzling for a studio on the brink.


Million Dollar Quartet, playing through March 23 at ACT.  Click here for dates, times, and ticket information.