Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation - Where messages can be found between the lines


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

People of a certain age may recall the joy of going through dusty bins of vinyl recordings at a record store or flea market and seeing one that unexpectedly caught their eye. Said discovery opening a window to a world the finder never new existed and which was now long forgotten by all but a precious few. Such is the effect one has after attending "The B-Side: Negro Folklore From Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation. The show being the brainchild of actor Eric Berryman and presented by The Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Berryman came across "The B-Side”, which was released in 1965, while searching the virtual offering found on Amazon. Intrigued by this particular album, and after undertaking some appropriate due diligence, he began working with The Wooster Group to create an interpretive work that wonderfully succeeds in enfolding the audience into the music and feeling of said material. More than simply playing the various tracks, or “bands” as they are referred to here, Berryman adds just enough narrative to make those who have little or no knowledge of this type of music, or the circumstances under which they were recorded, to be able to understand exactly what the words presented mean. The songs painting a picture that is quiet, melodic and not very pretty.

Eric Berryman in The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From The Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation.  At St. Ann's Warehouse.  Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Popular culture has long had a tendency to romanticize certain situations, especially where music is involved. The work these prisoners were given, doing manual labor on what were basically chain gangs - with tasks ranging from logging to picking cotton and cutting sugar cane - were anything but. While these men often sang to keep their spirits up or to remind themselves they still had their faith - as evidenced by the song "Just Like A Tree Planted By The Water" - many of the others contain bitter warnings, grim reminders and instructions for survival. One such example of this being "Rattler". On the surface a song about a dog employed by the prison guards; but in reality, a mournful dirge about escaping prisoners the dog is trained to catch until they can be brought back, or killed. There's also "If You See My Mother”, a song seemingly about prisoners working together in the fields cutting grass, but actually a warning to every man so engaged not to fall behind the rest. For if they did, they might be whipped by the guards who saw them as not doing their share of the work.

Adding to the flavor of the songs and also making the music more three-dimensional, as it were, are the efforts of Berryman, Jason McGruder and Philip Moore as they sing the songs aloud; accompanied by the music and vocals from the record itself. This method allowing the company to further bring those songs to life while helping those in attendance understand just what kind of a world the prisoners were living in when these tracks - some sung, some consisting of spoken words - were originally recorded.

Berryman in particular does an excellent job with the material. He becoming a virtual chameleon when it comes to accents and expressions as he helps bring forth the different moods, speech patterns and dialects from the recording. Most importantly, he lets the songs themselves take center stage. He providing only a brief overall introduction to the work at the beginning, as well as some quick descriptions before the different pieces begin.

(L-R) Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, Philip Moore in The B-Side: "Negro Folklore From The Texas State Prisons," A Record Album Interpretation.  At St. Ann's Warehouse.  Photo by Teddy Wolff.

The only major problem is that it’s sometimes hard to clearly hear all of the song lyrics when the record is being played, and thus fully comprehend their meaning. In his intro, Berryman mentions the difficulties he himself had when first listening to the album. He using folklorist Bruce Jackson 's book “Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues” to help him better appreciate exactly what the album contained. Jackson also being the person who recorded these various songs in 1964. However, it would have been nice to translate this same clarity to the audience via a glossary of some sort in the show program, with some simple definitions and explanations.

Kate Valk’s direction works fine, the show and songs nicely segueing from one track to the next. Though the last few bands are presented without any narration; the use of which would have been helpful to make thing just a bit more complete and well-rounded.

The term “B-Side” usually refers to a song not as important as the tune most people would be buying the record for in the first place; i.e. the so-called “A-Side”. Yet the “B-Sides” of records throughout history have yielded some unexpected musical gems. Such is definitely the case with The Wooster Group’s latest presentation. Sobering, powerful and hitting home, especially in the final number, thanks to a grainy black-and-white video accompanying the music, this B-Side gets an A+ in delivering its message, with a A- in overall presentation.

Featuring: Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, Philip Moore.

The B-Side: “Negro Folklore From 
Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation

Production Design: Elizabeth LeCompte
Lighting Design: Ryan Seelig
Sound Design: Eric Sluyter
Video Design: Robert Wuss
Costume Design: Enver Chakartash
Musical Director: Gareth Hobbs
Stage Manager: Erin Mullin
Video Engineer: Wladimiro Woyno
Lighting Board Operator: Emery Reyes
Technical Fellow: Danasia Miller
Set Building: Joseph Silovsky Studios
Technical Director: Jacob Bigelow
Production Manager: Bona Lee
Producer: Cynthia Hedstrom
General Manager & Associate Producer: Pamela Reichen
Marketing & Development: Mike Farry
Archivist: Clay Hapaz
Arts-in-Education & Outreach: Michaela Murphy
Director: Kate Valk 

St. Ann 's Warehouse
45 Water Street
Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn
Tickets: 718-254-8779, 866-611-4111 or www.stannswarehouse.org
Running Time: 60 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 31, 2019

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Daddy - Looking Behind The Eyes

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Making a relationship work becomes problematic when those involved are not completely honest about what they want in such a union. It's a message that rings loud and clear in Jeremy O. Harris’ powerful new work, Daddy, currently having its world premiere at The Pershing Square Signature Center; as presented by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre.

In Los AngelesCalifornia, Franklin (Ronald Beet), a young gay black man, is riding high. An aspiring artist from a factory town, he's preparing for his first solo show - called “Daddy” - while also having caught the eye of Andre (Alan Cumming), a white, middle-aged self-described "collector" with a somewhat unsavory reputation. Accepting Andre’s offering to move into his expansive Bel Air home until his show, Franklin spends his first night being awed by the numerous works of art his new patron has on display, while also engaging him in a discussion on what the value of art really means. The young man also making full use of his host’s massive swimming pool - an excellent job by set designer Matt Saunders. Andre, on the other hand, is more interested in taking his new guest to bed and discovering any other special talents Franklin might have.

Ronald Peet in “Daddy” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor. A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. 

It soon becomes obvious Franklin is looking for a father figure in more ways than one. He seeking someone who will love him, take care of him, buy things for him, and above all, approve of whatever he does. Approval being something Franklin never had from his own father, who he never knew, and which he does not get from his mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard), who has family issues of her own. This is also the reason Franklin never calls Zola when he's away from home. Something Zora is quick to remind him about.

As time passes, Franklin’s relationship with Andre deepens to the point that he begins changing the focus of his artistic creations. Altering these objects (initially little black dolls) which indicate how he seems himself, to how he sees others. Indeed, the entire play often has a stream of consciousness feel – complete with musical interludes. However, Franklin’s perception of how he sees the world, and those around him, is not something others in his orbit may willingly accept. They interpreting certain events with a vision quite different from his. 

The play's use of sex, art and viewpoint makes for an intriguing concept. Especially when Zora, a highly religious woman, arrives for the premiere of her son’s show. As Daddy continually straddles the line between comedy and drama, the playwright delights in confounding any audience expectations of where things are headed by regularly adding new factors to the narrative. So that what first seemed certain seems less so as the show progresses. These changes also highlighting the show’s underlying message that one cannot be honest with others until they are first honest with themselves. Many of the characters keeping their own feelings tightly bottled up, resulting in their being trapped in a sort of emotional limbo and thus unable to move forward.

Ronald Peet and Charlayne Woodard in “Daddy,” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor, A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. 

It’s this feeling of not knowing what’s coming next that really makes the show click, while also keeping the audience’s attention focused throughout the almost three-hour running time. The tight script helped immeasurably by a top-notch cast, whose interplay with one another meshes perfectly. None of the leads anything less than fully three-dimensional.

Peet excellently portrays Franklin with a continual air of youthful exuberance as the character finds himself entering a world he has never known. One completely free from the restrictions set down by his mother. Franklin at times also showing major flashes of immaturity. Especially when confronted with issues he is nowhere near ready to face. Eventually Franklin finds himself quite literally caught between Zora and Andre's respective hopes for his future, with nothing less than his very soul as the ultimate prize. Or at least his own personal sense of identity.

Cumming is excellent as Andre, the one person who evolves the most during course of the play. A man who previously enjoyed his sexual games of catch and release, he now finds himself ready for more than that. Though he still has a way to go when it comes to connecting emotionally. Andre being used to operating more on a materialistic level than a personal one. Something quite evident when he tries to reach out to Zora. While a fuller back-story for Andre is not needed in the context of the play – his actual history being only hinted out – it still would have been to see.

Woodard does a standout job as Zora. Initially coming off both as a caring mom and fervent believer, she is also liberal enough to have long since accepted her son’s homosexuality – if she ever had a problem with it to begin with. However, while her faith may have gotten her through some hard times over the years, she has still not been able to come to terms with regards to Franklin's father. An issue which she has since transferred onto her son. As seen with her continual backhanded comments and occasional outright accusations; some of which come with a racial context. To Harris' credit, he never makes Zora a hypocrite. She acknowledging her errors in judgment when she knows she's in the wrong, but still has a large blind spot when it comes to putting her own past in order.

Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman work well as Franklin's friends. Kim in particular giving a hilarious rendition of a total airhead, before revealing she has certain daddy issues of her own. Dorfman meanwhile getting in some good licks as someone with his own secret, and an increasing disgust in what he sees happening to Franklin. Hari Nef does a nice turn as Alessia, the gallery owner where Franklin has his show. Her final scene, during a sequence that reminds one of The Last Supper, is superb.

Kahyun Kim and Tommy Dorfman in “Daddy,” by Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Danya Taymor. A co-production from The New Group and Vineyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

Danya Taymor's direction is tight and controlled. Like Harris, she knows exactly what she wants each section of the story to say and how to bring it forth. The one glaring exception being a sudden blackout in the penultimate scene. The abruptness of which caused many in the audience to think the play was over. A cleaner bridge from that sequence to the next would have certainly made for a better transition.

Harris has subtitled his work “A Melodrama”. A term which has been defined as “a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotion". This premise also ties in with the sudden dramatic breaks at the end of certain scenes - nicely handled by sound designer Lee Kinney - as well as various tuneful side journeys, many of which are delivered via a Gospel Choir with a Greek Chorus effect. Carrie Compere, Denise Manning and Onyie Nwachukwu doing a pitch perfect job here musical-wise, as well as quietly adding to the background of various scenes when needed.

In “Daddy” each of the characters start out with their own personal illusions of self, only to find themselves stripped bare for all to see by show’s end. What is ultimately revealed is not always pretty, but altogether fascinating to watch as it plays out.

Featuring: Ronald Peet (Franklin), Alan Cumming (Andre), Tommy Dorfman (Max), Kahyun Kim (Bellamy), Charlayne Woodard (Zora), Hari Nef (Alessia), Carrie Compere (Gospel Choir), Denise Manning (Gospel Choir), Onyie Nwachukwu (Gospel Choir)

Daddy: A Melodrama
by Jeremy O. Harris

Set Design: Matt Saunders
Costume Design: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd
Sound Design: Lee Kinney
Hair, Wig and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan
Original Score and Instrumental Arrangements: Lee Kinney
Original Vocal Music and Vocal Arrangements: Darius Smith & Brett Marcus
Music Supervision: Brett Marcus
Intimacy and Fight Direction: Claire Warden
Movement Direction: Darrell Grand Moultrie
Doll Design: Tschabalala Self
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Consultant: Adrian White
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Directed by Danya Taymor

Presented by The New Group and Vineyard Theatre
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Scarlet Pimpernel - Fun and Frivolity Amidst the Mayhem


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Given the popularity of The Scarlet Pimpernel, whose premise gave rise to numerous latter-day costumed superheroes, it’s somewhat surprising the property has only made it to The Great White Way twice. First as a straight play in 1900, and then as a musical almost a century later. Manhattan Concert Productions offering a stirring, if somewhat over the top one-night-only concert performance of the Nan Knighton/Frank Wildhorn 1997 Broadway vehicle as part of their "Broadway" series at David Geffen Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center on February 18.

The story takes place in
Paris and England in the aftermath of the French Revolution, during the period commonly known as the “reign of terror”, circa 1792-1794. Where numerous members of the overthrown French aristocracy were condemned to death by the now-empowered masses. Their executions carried out via the unmerciful slice of the guillotine, and often accompanied by the cheers of bloodthirsty crowds. Among those in charge of maintaining order for this new Republic, and thus making sure those condemned have their sentences carried out, are French Agents Robespierre (Drew Gehling) and Chauvelin (Norm Lewis).

Like many people living in England, Lord Percy Blakeney (Tony Yazbeck) looks at what is going on in France with revulsion, but doesn’t consider doing anything to stop it. That is, until he receives word that someone he knew in Paris has been executed, along with his entire family. Determined to no longer simply “sit on his British ass” and enlisting a group of like-minded friends to help him, he forms a secret society dedicated to rescuing imprisoned French nobles and spiriting them to safety. In order to protect their identities, Blakeney and his crew adopt an exaggerated aura of foppish foolery, thus deflecting any suspicion from the authorities - either French or English - that might come their way. The group’s sign of recognition, the symbol of a flower that grows near the Blakeney home - a scarlet pimpernel.

Complicating matters for Percy is the fact he has just married the former French actress, Marguerite St. Just (Laura Osnes), after a whirlwind six-week courtship. He finding out soon after their wedding it that was Marguerite who betrayed his friend in Paris to Chauvelin. Finding himself no longer able to trust the woman he loves, he becomes cold and distant to her. Marguerite meanwhile, who had no idea what Chauvelin was planning to do with the information she gave him, and unable to understand the sudden change in Percy, finds herself becoming more and more disgusted with her husband’s seemingly unconcerned actions about everything. Marguerite’s situation becoming even more dire when Chauvelin, now the French Envoy to England, attempts to blackmail her so she will aid him in discovering the Pimpernel’s identity.

Besides being a rousing adventure of the old school, complete with secret identities and star-crossed lovers, The Scarlet Pimpernel offers a serious lesson about the cost of taking a stand for what you believe in. It is an issue which threatens to consume Percy and Marguerite as they struggle to determine just who they can trust. And where the wrong choice can mean their deaths, as well as the deaths of those they care for. This point also nagging at the thoughts of Chauvelin who, while a passionate member of the new French order, with a great contempt for the old aristocracy, finds himself wondering if the cause he has fought for has gone too far in its attempt to right past wrongs. These matters all coming to a head in a very powerful first act closing number.

The underlying elements of a great story are all present in the MCP offering, Sadly, Gabriel Barrie's directorial efforts often take the work in the wrong direction. Particularly when it comes to the character of Percy, someone who has little enough shading to begin with. Percy may firmly believe he is fighting the good fight, but having such a clear definition of right and wrong, with little or no gray area, doesn’t make him all that interesting. In an attempt to compensate, Barrie plays up much of the humor of Knighton's book. He taking Percy's foppish actions, and those of his friends, to such an extreme it quickly becomes annoying. Something not really necessary, as there are several musical numbers that already nicely address the issue. Such as "They Seek Him Here", a sequence which takes place at the court of the Prince of Wales (Gehling).

This problem of exaggeration is even more evident in the show's finale, when the entire production becomes something akin to a British pantomime. True, parts of it are rather cute – especially when Lewis and Yazbeck compete in a dance-off, but it also takes away from the inherent suspense of the work and feels like a dumbing down of the source material.

The show’s score is quite good and ideally, should have been a joy to hear, thanks to the excellent efforts of the New York City Chamber Orchestra, under the very capable baton of music director Jason Howland. Frank Wildhorn's music especially coming through loud and clear. Unfortunately, there is a constant problem with Dave Horowitz's sound design, with Knighton's lyrics all too often getting lost in the vast venue, making it hard to really appreciate the full impact of the songs. 

The production's use of "an ensemble chorus of aspiring artists from around the world", according to the show program, is a wonderful idea and certainly works when they are portraying angry French citizens hurling "garbage" at those soon to die, or as participants at a masked ball in England. Though at other moments their adding their voices to the cacophony of sound that already exists ends up as something of a mess; with one unable to clearly hear what is being sung. This was especially evident with such numbers as “Madame Guillotine” and “Into the Fire”.

The three leads in the show all acquit themselves well. Despite some of the problems mentioned above with Percy, Yazbeck completely submerges himself in the role and nicely conveys the firmness of the character's resolve. He also convincingly brings forth the feelings of a tortured soul in "When I Look At You", where he displays the depths of the love he feels for Marguerite, but is unable to express aloud.
Osnes is excellent as Marguerite, and handles the French accent quite nicely. She being able to showcase both her love for Percy, and her desperation to keep certain elements of her past from coming to light. She also showing Marguerite to be, when push comes to shove, someone determined enough to take matters into her own hands. The character also having her own “double identity” to juggle. One as a French actress/singer, and one as an accepted member of English society.

Lewis makes a very strong Chauvelin. His powerful bearing and voice showing him to be a perfect fit in the role. His portrayal also offering some hints of a man with an interesting history of his own. One the audience is only offered the briefest of glimpses. Yet it is also one Chauvelin cannot quite forget, even as he continues his obsessive pursuit of what he believes to be the greater good.

The rest of the cast was okay, but came off as somewhat interchangeable in their roles. Notable exceptions being Corey Cott as Marguerite’s younger brother Armand, and Dana Costello as Marie Grosholtz.

Caite Hevner does a nice job with the set. One being treated to the sight of a gigantic French flag draped above the stage when first entering the venue. The effect giving the appearance of a political rally. That is, until one’s eyes focus on the large guillotine that is prominently displayed. Jason Kantrowitz's lighting effect help enhance this duel feeling of celebration and danger. Good work also by fight director Rick Sordelet.

While quite enjoyable, the MCP presentation of The Scarlet Pimpernel didn't always didn't rise to the heights it could have. This thanks to some serious overacting, and the habit of giving away certain plot points before their time, simply to get a quick laugh. Overall however, the pluses of the evening outweighed the minuses.

Featuring: Ashley Blanchet (Ensemble), TyNia Brandon (Ensemble), Dana Costello (Marie Grosholtz), Corey Cott (Armand St. Just), Alysha Deslorieux (Chloe/Ensemble), Kevin Duda (Hal/Coupeau/Ensemble), John Treacy Egan (Ozzy/Ensemble), Drew Gehling (Robespierre/Prince of Wales/Marquis de St. Cyr/Jessup), Kevin Kern (Ben/Mercier/Ensemble), Norm Lewis (Chauvelin), Ashley Loren (Ensemble), Alex Newell (Elton/Ensemble), Laura Osnes (Marguerite St. Just), Eliseo Roman (Dewhurt/Ensemble), Sara Sheperd (Ensemble), Yasmeen Sulieman (Helene/Ensemble), Tony Yazbeck (Sir Percy Blakeney).

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book and lyrics by Nan Knighton
Music by Frank Wildhorn
Caite Hevner: Set Design
Jason Kantrowitz: Lighting Design
Dave Horowitz: Sound Design
Heather C. Jackson: Costume Design
Chris Zaccardi: Production Stage Manager
Willy Kinch: Assistant Stage Manager
Jennifer Paulson Lee: Associate Director & Choreographer
Lauren Widner: Assistant Director
Sordelet Inc: Rick Sordelet: Fight Director
Jackson Miller: Associate Lighting Designer & Programmer
Telsey + Company: Casting
Juniper Street Productions: Production Manager
Manhattan Concert Productions: Producer & General Manager
Jason Howland: Music Director & Conductor
Directed by Gabriel Barre

Presented by Manhattan Concert Productions (www.mcp.us)
David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center
Running time: 2 hour 45 minutes, with one intermission
Presented on February 18, 2019

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Dance of Death - Two People Praying for the End


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

"Death will come and then perhaps, life begins." A line at the end of August Strindberg's bitter comedy The Dance of Death which best sums up what the two main characters are feeling. Written in 1900, this tale of a long-suffering couple bound together by love and hate is given fresh life thanks to a powerful new version by Conor McPherson and crackling direction from Victoria Clark. The show running in repertory at Classic Stage Company with Yael Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie.

Set at a military island outpost off the coast of Sweden at the beginning of the 20th Century, Edgar (Richard Topol), an aging career solider close to retirement, and his somewhat younger wife Alice (Cassie Beck), have been married for almost 25 years. However from the outset it becomes clear neither can stand to be in the presence of the other. Any hint of happiness or contentment having long since disappeared via years of verbal digs and spiteful comments. Ones ranging from Edgar's complaining about Alice's piano playing, to Alice never failing to remind Edgar how she forsook her stage career in order to marry him.

Drawn into this conflict is Kurt (Christopher Innvar), a man newly assigned to the island garrison, and whose past interweaves with both Alice and Edger. Their prior encounters may also have something to do with why Kurt left his wife and family more than 15 years earlier. Though Kurt, at first glimpse, now seems to be on the proverbial straight and narrow, it’s not long before his own inner demons - ones he thought long put to rest – begin to emerge as he finds himself being pulled into the hell Edgar and Alice have created.
(L-R) Christopher Innvar, Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.
While the venom Alice and Edgar have for each other may be obvious, what takes longer to recognize is the deep affection that's still present between them. Disgusted over how their lives have turned out, both are still unwilling to cast off the devastation their marriage has become. The two locked in mortal combat for so long that without it, each would basically cease to exist. This poisonous bond the reason for the most dysfunctional relationship to hit the stage until Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Indeed, there are more than a few echoes of Strindberg in that later work. Particularly with a very nasty game of "get the guests" – or in this case, "guest".

As the battle between Alice and Edgar becomes ever more bitter, Kurt finds himself not only trapped in the crossfire, but also unsure of exactly who to believe; and thus offer his support and sympathy. It’s this yin and yang effect, one beautifully executed by the entire cast and creative team, that makes the show so fascinating to watch. Alice and Edgar each trying to play the sympathy card, only to have their efforts morph into a desperate need to come out on top, no matter who is actually in the right. The entire experience akin to watching an impending head-on collision of two locomotives racing toward each other at full speed. One completely unable to look away from the inevitable destruction, while at the same time wondering in what condition(s) the combatants will emerge in the aftermath.

McPherson and Clark must be also be commended on the way they are able to make the production continually walk a fine line between black comedy and bleak drama. All while still allowing enough space for Beck and Topol to explore just who Alice and Edgar are under the layers of virtual armor they always wear. These two elements of the story are played so close together, there were times the audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or gasp during some of the exchanges. Another particularly nice touch was how both characters silently made their initial appearance in the show. Not so much walking as gliding silently onto the stage and then beginning an almost macabre dance with each other. One setting the tone for much of what follows.

Cassie Beck and Richard Topol in The Dance of Death at Classic Stage Company. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Topol gives a fine performance as Edgar. A somewhat mealy-mouthed sort who clings to his supposed principles as if they were the holy scriptures. He blaming his failure to move further in his career - he has only achieved the rank of captain - because of his continual refusal to play the political games necessary for advancement.

Beck is excellent as Alice, perfectly matching Topol in their characters' back and forth struggle for supremacy. Beck showing Alice to be a perennially angry soul, who takes her misfortunes out on everyone in her orbit. A main reason the couple can never keep any household staff. Yet in reality, both Alice's and Edgar's outbursts are little more than excuses for their own failures. They choosing to blame others for their actions - ones which have left them virtually ostracized by the rest of personnel on the island - rather than even think of accepting some of the fault themselves.

Innvar does well as Kurt, a sort of stand-in for the audience, as he tries to sort out the stories Edgar and Alice tell - while at the same time trying desperately to hold on to his own dignity and moral compass. An effort which soon gives way to his just trying to survive their onslaught one piece.

Quentin Chiappetta's sound design efforts - which include the sounds of the ocean, seagulls and a off-shore marker buoy - do an essential job in bringing forth the feelings of isolation and loneliness which are central to the story. Nicely adding to this effect are the different set pieces of furniture by David L. Arsenault; said objects all appearing well-worn from years of use. Lighting by Stacey Derosier also works well here, particularly in the opening sequence.

A sobering tale about how the feelings of love and hate are two sides of the same coin, this production of The Dance of Death hits the mark perfectly while being a textbook example of how to blow the dust of a work more than a century old without taking away its original intent.

Featuring: Cassie Beck (Alice), Richard Topol (Edgar), Christopher Innvar (Kurt)

The Dance of Death

By August Strindberg

In a New Version by Conor McPherson

Scenic Design: David L. Arsenault

Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian

Lighting Design: Stacey Derosier

Sound Design: Quentin Chiappetta

Original Music: Jeff Blumenkrantz

Fight and Intimacy Direction: Alicia Rodis, Claire Warden

Production Stage Manager: Roxana Khan

Assistant Stage Manager: Janelle Caso

Properties Designer: Alexander Wylie

Casting: Telsey + Company, Adam Caldwell, CSA
                William Cantler, CSA, Karvn Casl, CSA

Press Representative: Blake Zidell and Associates

Directed by Victoria Clark

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101 (toll free: 866-811-4111) or www.classicstage.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 10, 2019


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam - Bright, Bouncy, and at times creaky


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Given the state of things in the world today, one would think the time would be prefect for a revival of the 1950 Broadway musical, Call Me Madam. The show currently being given a such treatment as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. With a score by Irving Berlin, a book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, and starring Ethel Merman, this gentle political satire originally ending up running for a total of 644 performances.

In Washington, DC, transplanted Texan Mrs. Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack), is the reigning socialite on the political circuit. Her parties are "must attend" events for everybody who's anybody, and where those of competing political stripes can talk, mingle and relax. Even if a problem does occur at one of her gatherings, Sally is always ready with a quick remark to defuse any potential danger.

Carmen Cusaack and Jason Gotay in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sally is also about to broaden her horizons, having just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to the tiny country of Lichtenburg. A somewhat poor nation that's "too small to be a city and too big to be a town", Lichtenburg is also a place on the cusp of change. The younger generations wanting to move into the modern era, with the older ones generally preferring to follow more traditional values - including dressing in the more time-honored Lichtenburg apparel.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sally, who has been instructed to improve relations between the two countries, is ill-prepared for the restrictions of diplomatic protocol and other international niceties. At times having a bull in a china shop mentality, her preferred method of action is to simply throw money at whatever problem she faces. A solution a visiting U.S. Congressional Committee readily agrees with, but one which Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), a Lichtenburg official, is adamantly opposed. A self-described holder of both liberal and conservative values, Cosmo wants to get his country get back on its feet economically without any foreign aid - or the strings that come with it.

Cosmo and Sally's continual disagreement on this point soon threatens the internal stability in Lichtenburg; there being those in Cosmo's government all too eager to accept whatever the U.S. has to offer. While Sally tries to find a way to make everybody happy, and also keep her budding romance with Cosmo on an even keel, her young and idealistic assistant Kenneth (Jason Gotay) further complicates matters between the two countries by falling in love with the Princess of Lichtenburg (Lauren Worsham). Such fraternization between commoners and royalty being strictly forbidden.

Carmen Cusack and Ben Davis in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Offering a classic fish out of water story, as well as a spoof of foreign relations, and peppered with numerous political asides - many of which had the audience applauding - Call Me Madam is a slight and winsome tale, which invokes a sense of nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time. However for the show to work properly in this modern era, the property needs a top-notch team to bring the story to life. This particular production unfortunately, suffers from numerous missteps. Many of which are the responsibility of director Casey Hushion, who seems unable to decide how to best showcase the material. The various scenes often coming across as listless and disjointed, rather than anything that feels like a continually flowing narrative. One also can't help but wonder why some of the people of Lichtenburg talk with an accent and others do not.

Another problem is that Cusack is somewhat miscast as Sally. While she does a great job in the role, and has a wonderful singing voice, her somewhat laid-back approach to the character allows the weak points in the production to become more noticeable. As opposed to Merman or someone else of that ilk, who would allow their personality to really take over the part and thus draw the audience's attention to them, rather than what was going on elsewhere on stage.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like in the show. The entire cast projects an infectious enthusiasm in their performances and the Berlin score is a joy to hear. Musical highlights includes the enjoyable "Mrs. Sally Adams"; the rather sweet "It's A Lovely Day Today", as sung by Gotay and Worsham, the latter who loses her Lichtenberg accent at points; the whimsical "You're Just In Love"; and Cusack's very fine rendition of "The Hostess with the Mostes' On the Ball". There's also the deliciously comical "The Ocarina", the national dance of Lichtenberg, which is hilariously presented from start to finish.

The Call Me Madam Ensemble. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Davis makes an excellent foil for Cusack. His Cosmo being a firm, upright sort, with just the right amount of a European cultured feel. He's also never met anyone quite like Sally and is completely unsure how to deal with her - at least at first. It also helps tremendously that the two actors have a strong onstage chemistry and project a smoldering tension between their characters. They also bring off their musical duets together quite well.

Gotay and Worsham are fine as Kenneth and Princess Maria, though neither character is particularly well-developed. Completely stealing the show in what is basically a glorified cameo are Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane as Maria's parents, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Lichtenberg. Their appearance also helping to tie up at least one major plotline.

Also deserving of mention are Adam Heller, Jason Gotay and Brad Oscar, playing three members of Congress who, like all good lawmakers, are quickly able to adapt to whatever changing situations that come up. Such as responding to Cosmo's refusal of U.S. aid by doubling their original offer. They are also wonderful in "They Like Ike", a not-so-subtle musical reminder of how one party's political power can suddenly come to an end.

Denis Jones' choreography is enjoyable, as is Rob Berman's musical direction. Berman also conducting the Encores! Orchestra, which gives its usual impeccable performance here.

Call Me Madam, a reference to Sally Adams' title, Madame Ambassador, offers a lot of enjoyment, and more than one political truism which still resonates in today's world. However all too often, this Encores! offering chugs along when it should soar and meanders when it should be tightly focused. It's not so much a bad production as a missed opportunity.

Featuring: Carmen Cusack (Sally Adams), Christopher Gurr (Henry Gibson/Ensemble), Adam Heller (Congressman Wilkins), Jason Gotay (Kenneth Gibson), Brad Oscar (Senator Gallagher), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Senator Brockbank), Michael Benjamin Washington (Pemberton Maxwell), Ben Davis (Cosmo Constantine), Randy Rainbow (Sebastian), Lauren Worsham (Princess Maria), Darrell Hammond (Grand Duke Otto), Carol Kane (Grand Duchess Sophie).

Florrie Bagel (Ensemble)Daniel Berryman (Ensemble)Taeler Elyse Cyrus (Ensemble)Leslie Flesner (Ensemble)Ta’Nika Gibson (Ensemble)Leah Horowitz (Ensemble)Javier Ignacio (Ensemble)Max Kumangai (Ensemble)Matt Loehr (Ensemble)Brandt Martinez (Ensemble)Skye Mattox (Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Ensemble)Harris Milgrim (Ensemble)Bethany Moore (Ensemble)Mary Page Nance (Ensemble), Robert Roby (Ensemble)Kathy Voytko (Ensemble), Sumi Yu (Ensemble), Ricardo A. Zayas (Ensemble).

Call Me Madam
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Don Walker
Concert Adaptation: Bill Russell and Charles Repole
Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, Justin Bohon

Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by: Denis Jones
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by Casey Hushion

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or www.NYCityCenter.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 25 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam is presented through special arrangement with R&H Theatricals

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"Message in a Bottle" - When love hurts

By Byrne Harrison

Many solo shows have more than a whiff of the psychiatrist's couch about them.  And since much art springs from the struggles of the artists, that can be expected.  The difficult part is walking that line between therapy and performance to create something engaging and entertaining.

Michelle Drozdick's solo show, Message in a Bottle, walks that line quite neatly by giving voice to the struggles and victories that Drozdick faced dealing with alcohol addiction, while also creating a surprisingly humorous piece of theatre that equates alcoholism with an abusive relationship.

Drozdick's addiction is given (somewhat) human form in the guise of Tito, a bottle of vodka with googly eyes, a tie, and arms made from plastic forks.  We see Drozdick's relationship with Tito from first date, full of fun and flirting, to break up--watching as Tito becomes possessive and jealous, separates Drozdick from her family and friends, inserts himself in all aspects of her life, eventually forcing her out of her job so she can spend all her time with him.

Much of the humor in this piece springs from watching Drozdick interact with a bottle of vodka as though it were a human being, which Drozdick handles very well.  But the humor in the scenes belies the serious message of succumbing to and learning to manage her addiction. The result is a fun and moving show that resonates with the audience.

Message in a Bottle runs about 40 minutes, just about the right length of time.  The show never feels rushed or unnecessarily drawn out.

Message in a Bottle has its final show on Sunday, January 27th at 6 PM at The PIT (123 E. 24th Street).

Message in a Bottle
Written and performed by Michelle Drozdick
Directed by Adrian Sexton
Photo by Giancarlo Osaben

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - A stirring wake-up call


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

It's easy to draw parallels between Bertolt Brecht’s blistering political satire The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and the current U.S. presidential administration. Or for that matter, just about any nationalistic (i.e. “strongman”) government in existence. Yet it’s the work's quieter elements which ultimately have the most impact. As evident in the very powerful Off-Broadway production now being presented by Classic Stage Company.

In 1930s Chicago, gangsters and corrupt politicians control the city. Each faction working toward its own specific agenda, yet all united by a common goal of profit and power. At the same time, all sides know their place and which lines they can and cannot cross. Thus, when such guidelines are followed, everything runs relatively smoothly.

When an aging but respected local politician (Christopher Gurr) is used as a patsy by mobsters controlling the town's cauliflower trade, it opens the door for a thug named Arturo Ui (Raúl Esparza) to muscle his way into this particular racket. Ui, known for his rather unsavory methods - at one point he boasts of twenty murders - has been previously shunned by the town's established criminal element. They preferring a more subtler way of doing business. Ui however, quickly proves himself a force to be reckoned with. He using threats and intimidation to stop anyone who gets in his way. As well as other, more violent methods against those who would still defy him.

At the same time Ui begins building his new base of power, he also sets about making himself a so-called "man of the people". Telling those he needs to follow him exactly what they want to hear, he quickly creates a populist wave of enthusiasm in his wake; while at the same time coming up with a scapegoat on whom his followers can blame all their problems. One they can all unite against. Such as those who don't support Ui's organization when it comes to the cauliflower trade.

Ra

úl EsparRaúl Esparza
úl EsparRaúl Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui - photo by Joan Marcus
Raúl Esparza in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui . Photo by Joan Marcus

Brecht wrote this play in 1941, in response to Hitler's rise to power. This connection becoming perfectly clear thanks to various radio-style announcements made during the course of the show, which chronicle the growing fascist movement in Germany.

Despite the clear linkage between Ui and Hitler, it's the play's less showier moments which have the closest connotation to today's world. These instances proving to be much more ominous because they are happening almost without the affected characters ever being aware of them. Or if they are, they believe they will never be directly affected by such events; only other people will. As when Ui declares that people must be willing to give up some of their freedom to those they have chosen to be the protectors of that freedom. Or when another character pins all the cauliflower-related misfortunes - ones which include arson and murder - on agitators who are quite probably "foreign born". All the while holding up Ui and his crew as the ones who will take care of this particular problem. Segments like this casting a far more chilling air than other, deliberately over-the-top examples of corruption which presented in the show. Moments like an attempted prisoner interrogation by the authorities, or criminal trials that are clear miscarriages of justice from the beginning.

(L-R) Christopher Gurr, Raúl Esparzain The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Photo by Joan Marcus

Esparza is perfect in the title role. His performance showing Ui to be a completely amoral sort, with a megalomaniac's need for the limelight. One who demands complete loyalty from all who work for him, yet who will not hesitate to betray these same people if his own self-interests are threatened.

Among the standouts of the rest of this very strong cast are George Abud in his role as Clark, a gangster with a continual monotone delivery, which works quite well here; and Elizabeth A. Davis as a killer named Giri. She having a penchant for the hats of those souls she has so dispatched.

Director John Doyle shows a firm grasp of the text - as translated by George Tabori. He letting the words of the script be the star, while keeping the actual characterizations (other than Ui) to a minimum. The different characters in the play being more representations of certain situations, rather than complete individuals. Doyle also makes good use of the show's minimalist setting to help give the piece a more timeless quality; though the reminders of Hitler are ever-present.

Perhaps the most sobering thing about The Resistible Rise of Artuo Ui is that remains just as relevant today as when it was first written. With a powerful message, an indelible central character, and a final line that can't help but strike a chill into the hearts of all who hear it, this is one production that should definitely not be missed.

Featuring: George Abud (Clark/Ragg), Eddie Cooper (Roma), Elizabeth A. Davis (Giri), Raúl Esparza (Arturo Ui), Christopher Gurr (Dogsborough/Dullfeet), Omozé Idehenre, (O'Casey/Betty Dullfeet), Mahira Kakkar (Flake/Dockdaisy), Thom Sesma (Givola).

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by George Tabori

Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: Jane Cox/Tess James
Sound Design: Matt Stine
Associate Scenic Design: David L. Arsenault
Associate Costume Design: Amy Price
Associate Sound Design: AJ Surasky-Ysasi
Casting: Tesley + Company/Adam Caldwell,
CSA/William Cantler, CSA/Karyn Casl, CSA
Press Representative: Blake Zidell and Associates
Production Stage Manager: Bernita Robinson
Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Fleischman

Directed and Designed by John Doyle

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Tickets: 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111 or www.classicstage.org
Running Time, 2 Hours, 10 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: December 22, 2018


Sunday, November 11, 2018

Girl From the North Country - Bleak, Beautiful and Absolutely Brilliant


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

For those who have known nothing but despair for far too long, the idea of one's survival takes on an almost fervent urgency. A reality brought devastatingly home in Girl From the North Country, now at The Public Theater. Writer Conor McPherson melding his text with the songs of Bob Dylan to examine the deeply buried or long-forgotten passions of the inhabitants of a Duluth, Minnesota boarding house during the Great Depression.

It’s November of 1934 and the boarding house in question is run by Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus), who lives there with his family. Nick, who has no head for business, is barely two months away from losing the building to a bank foreclosure. A fate to which Nick is now resigned. He doing his best in the meantime to care for his wife, Elizabeth (Marie Winningham), who has suffered what appears to be a mental breakdown. Nick is also continually urging his ne’er-do-well son Gene (Colton Ryan) to find a steady job; while trying to convince his daughter Marianne (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant by someone long since vanished, to wed a much older man. Someone she does not want or love. Said union however, would ensure a future for herself and her unborn child. Nick's actions toward his children taking on an increasing air of desperation as he tries to help them the only way he knows how.

Also part of this ever-growing tableau are the various guests and long-term residents of the boarding house. Among them, Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), a woman in love with Nick and currently awaiting a long-expected cash windfall; Reverend Marlowe (David Pittu). a bible-selling preacher; Joe Scott (Sydney James Harcourt), a former prize fighter recently released from prison; and Mr. Burke (Marc Kudsich) a once-prosperous factory owner who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Burke now trying to stay one step ahead of his creditors, with his long-suffering wife (Luba Mason) and somewhat slow-minded son (Todd Almond) in tow. 

Each of the characters are also carrying their own personal secrets, and will do almost anything to keep them hidden. Though when some are pushed to the breaking point, everyone around them becomes a potential sacrificial lamb in order to ensure their own survival.

Despite their circumstances - or more accurately, because of them - many of the characters also have a need to leave behind some kind of mark to show they passed this way. Even if it’s only an attempt to bring truth to the lies they tell themselves. Burke’s actions and statements when he tries to convince Joe to let him become his manager being a perfect example of this.

Todd Almond (center) and the cast of Girl From The North Countrywritten and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, running at the Public Theater. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

It’s the show's seamless blending of text and music which brilliantly brings the characters to life. Each of these fully-developed individuals quickly becoming far more than just an object of pity. The effect something akin to tapping directly into these people's psyches to reveal the torment within. Many longing most of all for a place and time that no longer exists. It may take a few minutes for the audience to become accustomed to this particular type of narrative structure, but by the time the third such song is introduced in this manner, one is able to easily move with the transition and perception of one scene to another.

An excellent example of these conflicting emotions can be seen in the character of Nick. Nick believing, after all he's seen and experienced, that he's no longer capable of loving anyone. At one point he even questions if he still has a soul. Yet it eventually becomes obvious that Nick does care. As do they all. It's just that some of them have gone so far past the point of redemption, there's nothing left but despair. Kudos to Bogardus in making Nick come across as someone far more than just a simple loser.

In a particularly nice touch, Tom Nelis does an excellent job as Mr. Perry, the owner of a shoe store, and Marianne’s would-be suitor. An old man, he's clearly making a fool of himself, and knows it. Yet he's quite willing to risk his pride and self-respect for the chance of a little happiness. Other standouts include Winningham, for whom fantasy seems to have become a refuge (her marriage to Nick having long since ended in all but name); Ryan, who must face losing the girl he loves (Caitlin Houlahan); and Pittu, who dreams of God and a perfect world, but who is forced to make his way amidst the gullibility and failings of man.

(L-R) Caitlin Houlahan and Colton Ryan in "Girl From the North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, running at the Public Theater. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The score is exquisite, with poetry of Dylan's lyrics never more evident. In many ways, it's as if one is hearing these songs for the first time. The scenarios and accompanying music such a perfect fit, it feels like they've always belonged together.

McPherson shows the same sure-handedness with his direction that he does with his writing. The result being a smooth flowing presentation with not a single bit of business feeling out of place, extraneous or tacked on. Each character is also given their own chance to shine, so to speak, as the story spins toward its conclusion.

Rae Smith’s set design is excellent. The pieces and backdrops calling to mind the time and era depicted. Also quite good is the on-stage orchestra. Several of the cast taking turns on one instrument or another during the performance. A process which, unlike other shows that have used this method, doesn't take a single thing away from the overall effect, but rather, helps add to it.

Girl From the North Country (also the title of a Dylan song) offers a heartbreaking look at those who have lost what they care about the most, and who are desperately trying to begin again. If such a time is truly possible. It's an experience which stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

Featuring: Todd Almond (Elias Burke), Jeannette Bayardelle (Mrs. Neilsen), Stephen Bogardus (Nick Laine), Sydney James Harcourt (Joe Scott), Matthew Frederick Harris (Ensemble), Caitlin Houlahan (Kate Draper), Robert Joy (Dr. Walker), Marc Kudisch (Mr. Burke), Luba Mason (Mrs. Burke), Tom Nelis (Mr. Perry), David Pittu (Reverend Marlowe), Colton Ryan (Gene Laine), Kimber Sprawl (Marianne Laine), Rachel Stern (Ensemble). Chelsea Lee Williams (Ensemble), Mare Winningham (Elizabeth Laine).

Girl from the North Country
Music & Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Scenic & Costume Design: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Orchestrator, Arranger & Music Supervisor: Simon Hale
Additional Arrangements: Simon Hale, Conor McPherson
Movement Director: Lucy Hind
Fight Director: Unkledave's Fight-House
Music Coordinator: Dean Sharenow
Music Director: Marco Paguia
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato
Fight and Dance Captain: John Schiappa
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Avenue
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or www.publictheater.org
Running time Two Hours, 20 minutes one intermission
Closes: December 23, 2018