Jun 262017

The Crusade of Connor Stephens by Dewey Moss

The Jerry Orbach Theater at 50th and Broadway

BSonArts Rating:  B

Show-Score Rating: 80

If timing has any influence on the success of a serious drama, “The Crusade of Connor Stephens” has certainly found the right moment for its off-Broadway reincarnation.  It opens on the eve of the US Supreme Court agreeing to hear a case that purports that selling a cake for a gay wedding is a religious act.  “Crusade” is about preaching hate and the way it destroys families, and in this play, lives.

Set in the sticks of Texas, Kris and Jim Jr. have lost their young daughter to a deranged teenage gunman who sees his religion as not just accepting but advocating violence against gay people, ending “sin” before it will infect others.  It’s the day of the funeral and Kris and Jim’s families have gathered, some willingly, some obligingly.  These families are torn apart by their beliefs and their loyalties.  Jim Jr’s father, Big Jim, is a holy roller Baptist minister who has turned his church into a commercial operation and demands from his followers an acceptance of his distortions of scripture, and his wife is follower #1.  Jim Sr’s mother knows there is more than just religion driving her preacher son as Kris’ sister and brother-in-law demand respect for the grieving couple and their loss.

Playwright Dewey Moss has crafted a very complex and illuminating family drama about acceptance, loss, religion, and hate.  Every week we hear of another “red state” effort to limit the freedoms of LGBT people, but Moss shows us what those efforts mean at the ground level – how families are torn apart, how people lose their friends and siblings, and, most profoundly, how the innocent become the victims.  The play cunningly reveals each character’s values and builds to a climax that forces each to take action.  But this is not a play with happy endings; the characters do not go through catharsis.  The New York audience just leaves with a portrait of how those “those people” live.

In many ways, “Crusade” and the recently closed “Sweat,” by Lynn Nottage, are complimentary views of Trump’s America.  Nottage focused on the troubles of the working class; Moss shows us the power and destructiveness of those who believe the first amendment empowers them to govern others with their religion.  Both playwrights are not interested in the politics; they want to show us the people and the extremes to which they are driven.

However, the current production does not fully realize the potential of the play.  James Kiberd gives a terrifying performance as Big Jim and Kathleen Huber gives warm dimension to the stereotypical portrait of the wise elder in a wheel chair.  Ben Curtis as Jim Jr. gives a convincing performance as a father in shock, but his role is also about a man who is torn between family and identity, a core insight in this play. That struggle is never revealed until the end, presumably because the actor and director felt that internalizing that conflict was a function of his loss. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast falls somewhere between competent and community theatre.  In addition, Mr. Moss’ direction once again demonstrates that playwrights should let someone else direct their works.  Much of the staging is awkward and potentially meaningful pauses lack significance.  The script builds to a rather emotional climax, but Mr. Moss has not controlled the rhythms of the buildup to maximum effect.

This production is still worth seeing for a New York audience, and not just New York’s faithful queer audience.  No number of New York Times editorials can give us the sense of the people behind these conflicting beliefs and values.  Mr. Moss clearly knows these people and understands the complexities of their existence.  Too frequently we think they are simple people and their beliefs are designed to keep them that way.  But Moss shows us the struggle of a gay man to keep his family and his sexual identity; a preacher’s wife who has been lead into darkness; in-laws who only want their families to coexist; and, yes, a preacher’s mother whose wisdom goes beyond the scripture.  We need to understand these people if we hope to “crusade against hate.”

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Jun 102017

Woody Sez: The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie

Devised by David M. Lutkin, Nick Corley, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein

Irish Repertory Theatre at 132 West 22nd Street

BS rating: A

Show Score rating: 95

If folk music is your passion, then “Woody Sez,” at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is a “must-see.”  The Woody, of course, is Woody Guthrie, the seminal influence on popular American folk music in the second half of the 20th century.  His music and his politics inspired the likes of Joan Baez, Paul Simon, and the equally influential Bob Dylan.  A cast of four thoroughly authentic folk performers combine the major events in Guthrie’s life with the music he created at each stage of his career in a wonderfully entertaining and frequently moving tribute to the “hobo poet.”

Guthrie’s life was full of challenges.  His mother suffered from hereditary Huntington’s disease that went undiagnosed as the family suffered from a set of house fires, the death of one of his sisters, and the serious injury from fire to his father – all possibly related to the mother’s uncontrollable dementia. Even though his father had been a successful business man, the series of fires and the father’s debts from bad real estate deals left the family living in poverty throughout Guthrie’s teenage years. At 19, the self-trained troubadour set off to California where he mingled with farm workers and mid-westerners displaced by the great depression and the destructive dust storms.  Guthrie’s music became the voice of the oppressed and an advocate for social justice.

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie’s music was directly connected to social and political events of his time and he developed his understanding of these issues by interacting directly with the people.  This musical tribute carefully illustrates the context for many of Guthrie’s famous, and not-so-famous, songs with brief narratives that meld into the music and lyrics that Guthrie created to define American workers in the 1930s and 40s. For anyone who knows Guthrie from the songs that were made famous by his disciples in the 1960s and 70s, this tribute includes many familiar songs – This Land Is Your Land, Union Maid, Deportees. But there are also many lesser known but equally insightful pieces – Pastures of Plenty, Vigilante Man, sand Talking Merchant Marine.

“Woody Sez” was originally produced at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and, since that time, it has been performed all over the United States and Europe but not in New York.  The four performers, who also developed the piece, have diverse backgrounds in theatre and music, but they communicate a truly authentic feeling for Guthrie’s style and perspective. Each play multiple stringed instruments in the tradition of classic folk performers.  Also in that tradition, their singing is less about beautiful sounds than it is about communicating ideas.

The cast is led by David Lutken as the voice of Woody.  Mr. Lutken does not try to imitate the sound of Guthrie’s voice but instead focuses very successfully on his style and his attitude. He creates a Woody who can move seamlessly from the outrage of “Dust Bowl Disaster” to the whimsy of “Riding in My Car” to the spirit of “This Land is Your Land.”  He is supported by Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russel, and Andy Tierstein – each of whom have effective solos and combine “pitch-perfectly” in ensemble numbers.  Together, these four performers create the sense of a get-together remembering our old friend, Woody Guthrie.

And it is the genius of that old friend that makes this get-together so entertaining and enlightening.  In addition to producing this tribute, the Irish Reparatory has also developed a fascinating display of Guthrie memorabilia and historical documents in its newly remodeled gallery.   In a section on Guthrie’s impact on contemporary music, a quote from Billy Bragg, the British folk/punk artist, defines Woody’s place in folk music evolution: “He’s not a link in the chain.  He’s the stake that’s grounded in the earth that the chain is linked to.”  In “Woody Sez,” we experience the outrage, the insight, and the joy of that stake in the ground.


 Posted by at 5:51 pm
May 222017

Can You Forgiver Her? by Gina Gionfriddo

At the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street

BS Rating: F

Show-Score Rating: 30

It’s not really clear who is the “her” in the title of Gina Gionfriddo’s “Can You Forgive Her?”, but after 95 minutes of tolerating this nonsensical, pretentious, and ill-conceived play, I cannot bring myself to forgive Ms. Gionfriddo.  Billed as a comedy, there is little that is amusing in this portrait of four characters who are both the victims of, and enthusiastic participants in, their misguided lives. There is also very little in Ms. Gionfriddo’s writing that makes these characters believable and the structure of the play anything more than a very forced set of circumstances that give each character the opportunity to reveal their personal history and deepest secrets.

Tanya is a single mother struggling to support her young child while laboring not to “make another mistake” in her love life with a seemingly flagrantly unemployed and unfocused man (Graham) who has spent the last six months in some type of unexplained but inescapable haze over the death of his mother. Graham spends much of the play in high anxiety over whether he must read all of the unpublished manuscripts by his mother, a would-be but never published author of poetry, novels, short stories, and memoirs.

Enter Miranda who is taking refuge at Graham’s home after she causes a ruckus with an “Indian man” at the bar where Tanya is the bartender. Miranda was brought up in a loveless childhood where money was poured upon her in lieu of affection and care. When the money stopped pouring, she ran up “monstrous debt” and now she survives on the goodwill of sugar daddies, yet refuses to see herself as a prostitute.  And then there is Miranda’s prime client, David, a 50-something successful face-lifter who cannot face the unbearable but obvious perception that he lacks the ability to have any form of emotional attachment.

The play really does not have a plot.  Instead, the collision of these troubled souls is mainly motivated by their concern that Sateesh, the Indian man (you remember him, the guy in the bar, who is also a client of Miranda), will do harm to Miranda, David, the people who David’s country-club companion is entertaining, or even Tanya and Graham.  If this all sounds rather ridiculous, well it is.

Ms. Gionfriddo adds to the nonsense by imbuing each of her characters with a tendency to speak in literary metaphors, sometimes appropriate, frequently mangled. Much of the character revelation comes in the form of passionate soliloquys that are less motivated by the events in the play than they are by a contrived moment that allows the character to reveal his or her “big blackness” (Ms. Gionfriddo’s words, not mine).  As Miranda so offensively declares, “big blackness’ is something only gay men can understand since “the act of coming out makes them understand pain.”

Each of the actors appears to make a decent effort toward creating believable characters even though the writing is so broad and their actions so inconsistent that the viewer cannot help but say “come on now, really?” Unfortunately, Ms. Gionfriddo puts the actors and director into an untenable position, being exposed.  Can they forgive her?

 Posted by at 9:21 pm
Apr 272017

A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath

At the Golden Theatre on Broadway

 BS rating: A

Show-Score rating: 98

Several years ago, I attended a Q&A session with Edward Albee, then the greatest living American playwright.  One of the audience members asked Mr. Albee, “What happens to George and Martha the next day in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’”  Albee, never one to mince words, responded, “Nothing!  The play is over.  There is no tomorrow for George and Martha.”  But the question was fair, if not the playwright’s responsibility.  Much of the post-performance discussion of Albee’s play, and many other plays, centers on what happens to the characters and their circumstances in the future.  That is what makes the theatre such a stimulating and thought-provoking experience.  And occasionally, some misguided playwright tries to write a sequel to a great play, usually with disastrous results.

So it was with great trepidation that I entered the Golden Theatre to see A Doll’s House, Part.2.  In this case, the up-and-coming playwright is Lucas Hnath, who has recently caught the attention of New York audiences with two fairly successful off-Broadway productions: The Christians at Playwrights Horizons, and Red Speedo at the New York Theatre Workshop.  But now he was doing what several previous playwrights had tried and failed at: writing a sequel to the play that many see as the birth of modern drama, Henrik Ibsen’s classic and controversial portrait of marriage, identity, and responsibility.

To use the vernacular, I was “blown away” by Mr. Hnath’s extraordinary success, particularly considering several of the additional obstacles that he has overcome.  In the current state of Broadway theatre, it is very rare for any new play to have its premiere on Broadway without some type of try-out, either off-Broadway or in a regional not-for-profit venue, giving the playwright the opportunity to revise and rework the play away from the buzz of the Great White Way. It is unheard of for a playwright’s first Broadway endeavor to open without a previous production.  Actually, Part 2 was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre, one of California’s most acclaimed NFPs.  However, according to reports, when the New York producer Scott Rudin read the script, he decided it was ready for Broadway and negotiated an agreement that allowed him and his producer associates as well as South Coast to premiere the play simultaneously. He was right!

Mr. Hnath’s play is not so much a sequel as it is a very modern look at marriage, identity, and the role of man and woman in- and outside of the home, set in the time and circumstances of Ibsen’s original. The four characters from the original speak in contemporary language even though the action takes place only fifteen years after Nora’s “door slam heard around the world.” We are never given the feeling that we are watching a play about the past.  Hnath has used the context of the original to reexamine much of its content as currently relevant.  What happens as a marriage evolves (or devolves)?  What are the responsibilities of each partner?  What happens to individual identity when that individual becomes a mother or father?  And most importantly, for what and to whom are we responsible?

Hnath investigates these questions with wonderful pointed humor, something rarely seen in the original playwright’s oeuvre. He also develops a sequence of events that forces each character to confront their situation using a combination of pressures both within and outside of the home, a quality that mirror’s Ibsen’s techniques without the feeling of a poor imitation.  There are some similarities to Mr. Hnath’s recent off-Broadway successes.  As with The Christians, his discussions of issues are tinged with a dialectic.  That play investigated the breakdown of religious belief for a holy-roller minister and his conflicts with his faithful associates (including his wife).  In Part 2 he is interested in the most fundamental aspect of dialectal thought: choice.  While choice was a fundamental undercurrent of Ibsen’s original, in Hnath’s sequel it is the main current.  What is choice; are we free to make choice; how do we live with our choices?  Sounds like a heavy evening in the theatre, but this is all accomplished with lots of laugh-out-loud humor combined with thoroughly believable character development.

The production at the Golden Theatre is near perfect.  Laurie Metcalf gives a fully dimensioned performance as Nora. Returning home after fifteen years of independent success in the outside world, Metcalf portrays Nora’s conflicted soul and current challenges with clarity and empathy.  Chris Cooper makes Nora’s husband, Torvald, into a deeply internalized and equally conflicted man who has never gotten beyond the original door slam.  It’s not surprising to find Jayne Houdyshell cast as the maid, Anne Marie.  But Hnath has made this minor character into a central figure and, also not surprisingly, Ms. Houdyshell gives yet another outstanding performance as a follow-up to her recent Tony award winning role in The Humans. In fact, these two roles, one as a loyal wife, the other as a vested family servant, give Houdyshell the opportunity to help us understand two very different versions of the woman who keeps the house together.  Condola Rashad effectively plays the grown-up daughter, Emmy, who was merely a very young child in the original play.  She embodies the other side of Nora’s dialectic, ready to marry a banker and afraid of scandal. Rashad plays her as quietly forceful, not unlike her mother in the original.  Miriam Buether’s set is stark, tall white walls with four simple chairs, a small table, and “that door.” Thrust into the audience, the almost vacant stage tells us to focus on what is said, not where or when it’s said.  Sam Gold’s direction is clear and smart, including the color-blind casting that gives Emmy a sort of “otherness,” not to mention the benefits of the choices made by a very fine actor, Ms. Rashad.  But the real star of this production is Mr. Hnath’s script.  Rarely is something from the past made so present.



 Posted by at 11:05 pm
Apr 072017

War Paint by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie

At the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway

BS rating: D

Show Score rating: 55

Two certified Broadway legends do not a musical make any more than the simple facts about the conflicts between two of America’s first female corporate heads are likely to engage an audience.  But that’s about all you get with “War Paint,” the new musical that stars Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden.  The writing team and director that brought us the deservedly praised “Grey Gardens” several years ago have adapted two biographies into a stylish but sadly boring musical documentary.  Even the power and polish of the two leads could not keep me from longing for this thing to end.

There is a difference between a star vehicle and a good musical with great stars.  Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie, the book, music and lyrics writers, seem to have been obsessed with the former.  For every passionate ballad given to Ms. LuPone, there is an equally fervent number for Ms. Ebersole.  The rest of the show is taken up with a sort of history of the evolution of cosmetics couched in production numbers that neither excite nor provide any insightful observations.  There is little originality but lots of sparkle and occasional spectacle.

The basic story has a lot of potential.  The tale of two women who rise to corporate superiority in the 1930s and 40s and then lose their power as they refused to respond to the changes in American culture in the 1950s and 60s certainly has the making of an intriguing journey.  Add to that the disdain that each woman had for the other and their starkly different backgrounds, one a Jewish refugee from Poland, the other an immigrant from Canada who could never break into the white society circles of New York.  That sounds like the making of wonderfully complex and engaging story line.   This musical has ability to use songs to go inside the heads of these two feminist ground-breakers under the tutelage of two Broadway stars with a history of bringing conflicted women to life. How can it go wrong?

But Doug Wright’s book is more interested in recording history than it is in delving into the inner workings each of these women’s minds.  Their hate for each other is portrayed largely as a matter of corporate competition with little reference to how either views the person behind the business.  Both characters express frustration at their own circumstances, but the “war” of the title never goes beyond their desire to dominate (as so many wars do). There are many scenes that go back and forth between the two women in their own environments, but even those scenes do not amplify their inner thoughts and vulnerabilities.  They merely reaffirm their competitiveness and their need to succeed at all costs. There is never a hint of the irony that these two women broke the corporate glass ceiling by inventing and perpetuating an image of women that would come to be seen as a major challenge to women in corporate cultures.  The most telling moments in the entire show occur at the very end when both women are asked to speak at a “woman of the year” event and they finally meet each other in the dressing room.  Here Rubinstein and Arden confront their view of each other and what their lives have meant to them in a touching musical interchange, made totally disarming by two actresses with the power to captivate.

The songs in a musical can amplify, explain, and analyze.  However, Mr. Frankel and Mr. More’s score rarely enters those realms.  The music is largely bland and unmemorable. There are several production numbers that describe the history and marketing of cosmetic products.  There are also a number of songs, distributed evenly between our two stars, that suggest some insight into these two dynamic women.  But Mr. More’s lyrics are mundane, superficial, and, at times, misguided.  An example of the latter is a duet in which these corporate heads lament “If I’d Been a Man.”  The lyrics carefully articulate the stereotypical qualities of male CEOs.  What they do not show us is what it is like to be a woman who is entering new territory – do they really want to be like a man or are they forging the qualities that will eventually lead to the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 70s?  Are we expected to empathize with these two women who can only express their identity in terms of the opposite gender?  Surely the real Arden and Rubinstein had more “balls” than that.

The show has plenty of the pizzazz that comes along with Broadway ticket prices – chorus lines, evocative settings, lush orchestrations, etc.  But none of those elements show much invention nor provoke the desired “oh, wow!” response in the audience.  Michael Grief, a veteran of any number of highly imaginative Broadway stagings – look no further than his current hit, Dear Even Hansen — seems to have simply provided whatever the audience expects rather than taking them to places they never imagined.

So, if your admiration for Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole is enough to sustain you for two-and-half hours, this is your show.  Just be sure to have coffee or some other stimulant before you enter the theatre – It’s a long way to that beautiful final scene.



 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Apr 062017

Present Laughter by Noel Coward

St. James Theatre on Broadway 

BS Rating: B-

Show-Score Rating: 75

The current production of “Present Laughter” might more appropriately be titled “Past Laughter.”  That observation is not so much a criticism of the play or its ability to entertain an audience 75 years after its premiere. It is a reference to the play’s style and it’s place in the evolution of what used to be called “sitting room comedies.”  Coward wrote the play at the out-break of the Second World War and toured it with himself in the lead role for many years.  It has been revived on both sides of the Atlantic regularly since Coward has yielded the central part to the likes of Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, and George C. Scott. But a successful production of this type of play relies on an understanding of its essential structure.

The sitting room comedies of the 1920s to 1950 had a fairly common organization.  The first act introduces a collection of characters, usually with exaggerated personalities that make their relationship to each other delightfully complicated, although not necessarily terribly realistic.  The initial act is peppered with humorous asides, cultural sniggers, and giggles at each character’s exaggerated behaviors.  The real laughter occurs in the second act, when the twists of the plot cause the characters to be caught in awkward circumstances and compromised situations, usually in a sort of farcical format with slamming doors and mismatched pairs.  The final act is a classic denouement where the various lovers are reunited and the plot is neatly wrapped up.  That is certainly the model for “Present Laughter.”

Coward was a master of this format and this play has the added fun of portraying an over-the-hill matinee idol who cannot bring himself to see himself, except to fix his hair in the mirror. He is a man of the T-H-E-A-T-R-E.  Gathered around him is a collection of servants, colleagues and hangers-on who are themselves exaggerated stereotypes.  Each role gives the actor impersonating these stock characters the opportunity to play big and not worry about credibility.  As Coward himself said, the play “was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part.”

Occupying the role of the matinee idol, Garry, in this production is Kevin Kline, an actor known for making bravo bravura.  He does not disappoint.  He has that special ability to mug deliciously and he uses it with style throughout the show.  However, he frequently takes his license to over-act a bit too far, making his character into a cartoon that eventually wears thin for the audience and distracts from the little bits of plot that Coward uses to structure the comic interchanges.  This is especially true in the first act as he encounters each of the ten characters who will make the second act revelations so enjoyable.  By contrast, the always delightful Kristine Nielsen shows exactly how to use a distorted facial expression or the turn of a phrase to make her character so enjoyable that we miss her presence in the final resolution of the play – strange that Mr. Coward had her exit before everything is resolved since she is the secretarial organizer of the main character’s life. Kate Burton, as Garry’s separated but faithful wife, Liz, plays the straight-woman with class. She is the voice of reason and much of the humor bounces off her resolute sense of order.  All of the remaining cast adopts Kline’s over-the-top style, usually quite effectively since they are not on stage long enough for the audience to tire of their antics.

The main problem in this production, and the reason it fails to make its “present laughter” evoke as much joy as it did in the past, is its format.  Originally, the play was written in the classic three-act structure.  Bowing to the resistance of contemporary audiences to sit in a theatre for three hours, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, has combined Act 1 with the first scene from Act 2, making the new first act an hour and twenty minutes long.  Given that all of this material in the new first act is the precursor to the rollicking fun of the second half of the original Act 2, these first 80 minutes seem to go on forever with only occasional humor and seemingly endless mugging.  The new second act delivers the truly hysterical farce that is at the core of this play’s style.  However, combining that uproariously funny sequence of events with the rather low key reconciliation that was previously Act 3, makes the play’s finale seem like an unsatisfying tag-line rather than the inevitable ending for a classic well-made play.

Noel Coward knew what he was doing in structuring his three-act comedy.  His audience also knew what he was doing.  Contemporary audiences occasionally don’t balk at spending three hours in the theatre, but they are not accustomed to the classic three-act structure. For some inexplicable reason, three hours are OK, but three acts are not.  There are certainly successful productions that carefully restructure the acts in classic plays from earlier periods whether it be Chekov or Shakespeare.  But a play has a rhythm and the audience must be in sync with that rhythm.  This production of “Present Laughter” changes that tempo and, in the process, makes us wish we could experience this classic sitting room comedy as it was intended to unfold in the past.


 Posted by at 11:19 pm
Mar 122017

Come From Away by Irene Sankoff and David Hein
Gerald Shoenfield Theatre on Broadway

BS Rating: A-
Show-Score Rating: 88

“Come From Away” is a very entertaining musical that is given a near pitch-perfect production on Broadway. Yet there is something strange and unnerving about this show that comes to New York after two highly acclaimed West Coast productions. I believe every theatre production tells the audience how the viewer should receive the play or musical and our assessment of its success should rely heavily on what it tries to accomplish. Otherwise, we fall into the trap that critics so often encounter – telling us what the play and production should have tried to accomplish. This show is very clear on its intent and it most definitely attains it goal.

As we all know, on September 11, 2001, all air traffic into and out of the United State was put on hold for five days as our government tried to grapple with the worst terrorist attack in this country’s history. Planes were diverted to the nearby international airports as our government and foreign officials evaluated the safety of resuming air travel. “Come From Away” celebrates the story of an isolated small town in Newfoundland that becomes the refuge for 7,000 passengers on deferred flights to the United States. The show demonstrates the goodness of the town’s people to stranded strangers, the way they pull together to relieve the passengers’ stress and divert their attention from terrors of the news, and the way strangers become friends under the most taxing conditions.

The music, book and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein combine seamlessly to reveal the struggles within the town and the difficulties that a truly international, dare I say alien, set of passengers have adapting to circumstances beyond their control. But adapt they do and their combined spirit turns toils into a celebration of the things that make humanity human. The show is full of humor and a company of sixteen talented performers play multiple characters – residents and visitors – with aplomb and warmth. Most of the music is sung in ensemble and is staged with imagination and skill. The set is simple and there are only the barest of effects. It’s about the people and the way they form a “more perfect union” in the face of such adversity.

The score is a sort of country-western sound mixed with the Irish, English and Cornish influences brought to Newfoundland by their ancestors. Much of the music sounds the same but it blends perfectly with the story and the sound of a full ensemble gives credence to the sense of unity and developing solidarity. In 100 minutes with no intermission, we become a part of this celebration as only a good musical can induce. So, on its own terms, the show does exactly what it sets out to do and it brings its audience very pleasantly along with it.

But as the show progressed and the sense of disorder and disillusion gave way to camaraderie and merriment, something was tugging at me. This was 9/11. This exuberance played against the picture of ground zero in my mind, and I felt almost a sense of guilt for being seduced by the show. The script does not ignore the unimaginable tension that these stranded passengers faced. One of the women has a son who is a NYC fire fighter and she cannot get any information about his whereabouts. Others must wait in long lines for access to telephones in this isolated township just to assure worried relatives that they are safe and being treated well. And in the process, we are given tidbits about each character’s back-story and their evolving relationships with each other. But there is still this nagging sense of what’s going on “out there.”

This show is relatively unique in its structure. It’s a docu-musical – an attempt to dramatize actual events. Documentary musicals are fairly common but usually they are about well-known people: Carole King in “Beautiful;” James Cagney in “Cagney;” or, on a more serious side, a set of perverse assassins and would-be killers in Sondheim’s “Assassins.” Word has it that the authors did copious research on the people involved in this less famous set of events and they have done a very effective job of making them real, although occasionally inescapably predictable: the Muslim chef who evokes suspicion, the Orthodox Rabbi who needs to observe kosher, the gay couple who are torn apart by their different response to the welcoming strangers. But the story is less about the characters than it is a portrait of collaboration and caring.

It is significant that this show found very receptive audiences in Seattle, Washington, and La Jolla, California. Certainly our whole country was drawn into the horrors and anxieties of 9/11. But I lived in San Francisco when this terrorist attack occurred and, even though I knew the city and site quite well, in those days, I was still a tourist. Now that I am New Yorker, somehow this show has a sort-of inexplicable tension for me, a sensation that I should not be feeling so good about all of this. It will be interesting to see how “the NYC natives” respond.

 Posted by at 12:21 pm
Mar 092017

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams

At the Belasco Theatre on Broadway

BS Rating: C+

Show-Score Rating: 70

If you are familiar with Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (and who isn’t?), when you walk into the Belasco Theatre you are likely to whisper to yourself, “Oh, no, it’s going to be one of those productions.” The stage is bare revealing the theatre’s walls, fly gallery, and service doors.  There is a 1950s-style dinette on stage right and a few Knickknacks on stage left.  That’s it.

Sam Gold’s production is an interesting, if not always successful, rethinking of this classic.  In the process, he sheds light on aspects of the play that are rarely as clear in more traditional productions.  But he also distorts some qualities that are central to Williams’ style and intent. The most fascinating innovation is the main focus of this production, an interpretation that I think is faithful to the playwright’s intent.  It is a battle between mother (Sally Field) and son (Joe Mantello): the story of a young artist who is oppressed by his commitment to his sister and his desire to break free of his domineering mother.  More traditional productions usually use these clashes to reveal Amanda, the mother, as a deluded, self-possessed remnant of the old South.  This production shows us two people who cannot get what they want from each other, and every effort they make toward accomplishing their individual goals only causes them to move further apart.

The acting style in this production is contemporary.  The actors are no longer caught in some sentimentalized memory – they speak with none of the embellishments that Williams’ poetic grace usually requires.  Joe Mantello makes the most of this new freedom playing Tom as a fully realized person struggling to break away from his entrapment.  It is a very fine and enlightening performance.  Ms. Field brings her well-honed skills to a very different Amanda.  Most of the time she is very successful as a nagging, insensitive, domineering mother – certainly “playing against type” of the roles we are used to seeing her perform.  She has abandoned the deep southern accent.  Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to utter some of the speeches that Williams has given Amanda without replicating the rhythms and tone that the playwright so deftly created around the sound of a Southern drawl.  So, at times her speech sounds oddly stilted and her naturalistic acting style trips over the language.

Tom tells us “the play is memory, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”  Gold’s production ignores that description; in fact, he is intent in stripping the play of its sentimentality. The lack of period dress and settings, the stark lighting (the house lights remain on for the first 30 minutes), the simple and spare furnishings — all make this play more of an interpersonal horror story than a place where “in memory everything seems to happen to music.”   There is much to be gained from this alternate point of view.  This radical departure from the expected forces an audience who has seen this play too many times to rethink its meaning.  That’s what reinterpretation should do.  But there are limits on how effective such a transformation can be with material that is so poetic and expressionistic in tone.

And then there is Laura, Tom’s sister.  Williams tells us “a childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other…this defect need not be more than suggested on stage.”  At the core of Laura’s character is her extreme reaction to her differentness causing her to cut herself off from the outside world, obsessed with her glass menagerie and old music on the phonograph. Mr. Gold made a bold move in casting this role.  Madison Ferris is a disabled actor; however, her disability is far more incapacitating than the “slight disability” Williams describes for Laura’s character.  This difference makes much of the action around Laura awkward and occasionally totally unbelievable, like when Amanda sends Laura on an errand to the grocery store and Ms. Ferris must work her way out of her wheel chair and crawl down a set of stairs to leave by one of the theatre’s exit doors.  There are some interesting interpretive choices that Ms. Ferris makes.  When she opens up to her “gentleman caller,” there is a sort wry quality to her observations about her past and her current state of mind.  She is not the introverted fragile glass unicorn that usually restrains actors playing Laura.  But as with Ms. Field’s more grounded portrayal, there is a bit of disjointedness between the way Ms. Ferris plays Laura and the character Mr. Williams wrote.  Her encounter with Mr. O’Connor, the gentleman caller (Finn Wittrock), is less tender and more didactic, consistent with Mr. Gold’s effort to de-romanticize the action, even though it’s lit solely by candlelight.

It’s not surprising that this production elicits none of the emotional impact that more traditional approaches stimulate.  This is a “thinking man’s” “Glass Menagerie” – and the oddity of those two phrases in the same sentence reflects the best and worst of this unusual interpretation of this legendary play.





 Posted by at 11:35 pm
Mar 042017

Kid Victory by John Kander and Greg Pierce

At the Vineyard Theatre on 15th Street

BS Rating: B+

Show-Score Rating: 85

This is a powerful play and, at times, it’s also a powerful musical play. If you who had the misfortune to see the first collaboration by the Broadway legend, John Kander, and his new (much younger) collaborator, Greg Pierce, you should give these new partners another chance.  This is a much more substantive work than “The Landing,” also produced at the Vineyard Theatre. You also need to be warned that this is a disturbing and decidedly “adults only” piece that may not be to everyone’s taste for entertainment.

I use the term “musical play” very intentionally because this is not the type of show that you leave singing the songs, although there are some very effective musical moments.  The “kid” in the title is a troubled teenager named Luke who has been kidnapped, seduced, and held captive by a disturbed middle-aged former history teacher.  The play portrays the boy’s struggles in dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the failure of his family to recognize that he needs help beyond their middle-America assurance that his well-being is in the hands of God. At one point, Luke asks his father, “Do you believe in God?” His dad tries to defend his belief in a God that would allow his son to experience such awfulness, replying, “He’s a good God that can make bad plans.” The only comfort Luke receives from family and friends is their assurance that they continue “to pray for him” and wait to see the boy they once knew.

Pierce’s well-crafted book shows the boy’s need to be accepted as someone different – no one can go through what he experienced and come out of it the same person.  His inability to communicate with his Christianity-possessed mother and his passive father drives him to cultivate a relationship with a confidante and surrogate mother in a person who is a sort of 2017 flower child.  She employs him in her struggling gardening store and they openly share their deepest secrets and personal troubles.  Pierce uses brief flashbacks to show the horrors and, strangely, the attractions of his relationship with his abductor. As the story progresses, we come to learn Luke’s back story – a narrative that shows the challenges he faces in recovery, in discovering himself as a different person, and the fact that he might not have been exactly the same person everyone thought he was before this traumatic event.

The show has the type of music that made Kander a legend.  However, the lyrics, by both Kander and Pierce, frequently lack the bite that made his late-partner, Fred Ebb, so revered. There are several numbers that use the musical convention of the song as a commentary on its content – the specialty of the former team.  For example, the boy’s effort to elicit empathy for his evolving identity from his family and friends is turned into a tap dance as he rejects being trapped in their view of his former self — “What’s the Point?.”  But most of Kander’s music is sabotaged by mundane and less than revelatory lyrics. There is also space for added development of the story by Pierce.  Luke’s relationship with his father deserves more attention and the questions of the investigating police officer about the nature of the relationship between the captor and captive might add to the dimension of the boy’s personal struggles.

Brandon Flynn gives a perfect performance as Luke.  This newcomer can shift mood and attitude as quickly and effectively as required in a story that goes freely back and forth in time.  Even if the characters in the play fail to have empathy for him, we certainly do.  Daniel Jenkins does an effective job portraying the underdeveloped father.  Some will find Karen Ziemba’s portrayal of the bible-thumping momma overdone; but in this time when so many believe religious doctrine is an essential part of “making America great again,” she is disturbingly believable.  The weak link in the cast is Jeffry Denman as the predator. Denman is faced with communicating lechery, brutality, and warmth with little room for character development in the boy’s flashbacks. That takes an actor capable of projecting an aura, and while Denman is a very competent actor, we never feel that unnerving quality that masters of the perverse like Anthony Hopkins evoke so naturally.

John Kander has a long history of tackling stories that do not fit the usual mold for a musical – last year’s unfortunate commercial failure of “The Visit” after an extended period of development is the most recent example.  That adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s darkly satirical masterpiece still had the benefit of Fred Ebb’s talents. At a point in life where many artists rest on their laurels, Kander has found a talented and willing collaborator in Greg Pierce.  Now they both need to find an equally talented lyricist.  In the meantime, this is a thoughtful and moving production that is worth the visit, if intense musical drama appeals to you.

 Posted by at 12:56 pm
Mar 012017

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

At the Barrow Street Theatre on Barrow Street

BS Rating: A+

Show-Score Rating: 97

One of the tests of greatness for a theatre work is its ability to be reinterpreted in ways that give the audience a fresh perspective without losing the essential qualities of the work itself.  The Tooting Arts Club’s extraordinary production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is just such a verification, not that there was any doubt that this “musical thriller” is one of the great works of the post-Golden Age of musical theatre.

Tooting Arts does not actually change any aspect of the show itself – the book, the music, and the period are held sacred. But unlike most revivals of this show, Tooting Arts makes this an intimate drama, rather than the large scale, quasi-operatic versions so frequently presented.  The Barrow Street Theatre has been converted into a meat pie shop and many members of the audience sit on benches at tables in the center of the action (not to worry, there are regular seats in and under the theatre’s balcony).  This is environmental theatre at its finest.  All too frequently this type of theatre distracts the audience from the play itself, focusing on the setting rather than amplifying the material.  This production does the opposite – you in the environment and there is no escape from this story of love and revenge. There is no fourth wall to protect the audience and distance these 19th century English low-life characters.  We are in the drama.

The power of this production comes from the relative simplicity of its elements.  Eight actors portray the main characters and shift into an ensemble chorus when necessary.  The show is accompanied by a violin, a clarinet, and piano played by the production’s very talented music director, Matt Aument.  The cast is without fault.  Jeremy Secomb is a scary Sweeney.  He can stand right next to you and give a blank stare that draws you into his world while making you just a little bit afraid as you lose the sense that this is an actor, not a real serial killer.  Siobhan McCarthy manages to give a fresh portrait of Mrs. Lovett, even for those of us who cannot get Angela Lansbury out of their minds.  Matt Doyle, as the hopelessly romantic Anthony Hope, is the consistent barer of normalcy against terrors of this horrifying story. He also has very sweet tenor voice that makes his love ballads into respites of beauty.  The rest of the cast is equally terrific, each bringing new insights and entertaining twists to these dark characters.

But the real allure of this production is the clarity and the effectiveness of the way it reveals the wonderful marriage between Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s book.  Many see Sondheim’s ability to endow his words with the same power he gives to his music as his major contribution to the modern musical.  The intimacy of the Barrow Street environment and the company’s careful attention to detail amplifies this power and we are drawn into this world in ways no large-scale production could accomplish.

If you have difficulty with productions that break the fourth wall and “touch” the audience, then get seats under or in the balcony.  But be warned: you will miss some of the excitement and truly scary moments that make this production a compelling call to “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.”



 Posted by at 11:29 pm