Sunday, May 19, 2019

High Button Shoes - Not Reaching Nearly High Enough


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Pretty much relegated to the dustbin of history, the Broadway musical High Button Shoes is mainly remembered by theatre lovers and historians for its “Bathing Beauty Ballet”. A classic piece of choreography by Jerome Robbins which opens act two. The show itself not seen on Broadway since its initial run 1947, where it notched an impressive string of 747 performances. Sadly, a recent revival by Encores! at New York City Center showed why this work is unlikely to again grace the stage anytime soon.

Set in 1913, High Button Shoes tells the story of perennial confidence man Harrison Floy (Michael Urie) and his partner/shill, Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlain). After several close brushes with the law, the two head for Harrison’s boyhood home of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Once there, Harrison passes himself off as a salesman extraordinaire, and re-ingratiates himself with the well-to-do Longstreet family - whom he used to work for years earlier. In short order, Harrison ensnares the entire town in a real estate scam. His plan being to fleece as many folks as possible before he and Pontdue hop a train out of town.

(L-R) Kevin Chamberlin and Michael Urie in the Encores! presentation of High Button Shoes
Photo by Joan Marcus

Harrison also finds himself part of a love triangle. He supposedly courting the very eligible and beautiful Fran Longstreet (Carla Duren); daughter of Sarah Longstreet (Betsey Wolfe). Fran however, is in love with Hubert Ogglethorpe, a.k.a. Oggle (Marc Koeck), a member of the Rutgers football team. Though Harrison’s promises of the bright lights of Paris soon threaten to sweep the unsuspecting Fran off her feet. It doesn’t hurt that Sarah is also firmly in Harrison’s corner. The elder Longstreet trusting Harrison on just about everything. A loyalty which soon stokes the fires of jealously in Sarah’s husband (Chester Gregory).

At the heart of High Button Shoes are several themes with a clear and simplistic moral tone. Such as a warning not to take advantage of others, even when it would be clearly quite lucrative to do so; and how true love will eventually win out. Yet while there certainly is potential in the material, in the Encores! production, it all pretty much falls flat. Stephen Longstreet’s book feels tired and clunky, with almost no character development, and precious little else to hold one’s interest. John Rando’s directorial efforts are also rather lackluster. Particularly in being unable to inject any element of nostalgia into the proceedings. Something one assumes was a big selling point to 1947 audiences. The sets by Allen Moyer and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward also never really rise above the mediocre.

The biggest problem of all is with the character of Harrison. While Urie has previously proven himself quite accomplished in both dramatic and comedic roles, in High Button Shoes, he seems completely out of his depth. He also channels Phil Slivers, as evident in the character's speech and movements. Silvers playing Harrison in the 1947 production. Unfortunately, none of Urie's efforts yield any of the roughish charm or caustic wit which might have made his interpretation at least somewhat appealing. His efforts instead coming off as annoying and vapid. Not a good thing when said character is at the center of the story.

                                        The High Button Shoes Ensemble.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Other characterization problems in the show include a complete lack of chemistry between Harrison, Fran and Oggle; as well as no explanation of why Sarah demonstrates a complete trust in Harrison from the very beginning. The latter issue running counter to the character's otherwise cautious and level-headed nature.

The music by Jule Styne is pleasant enough but unmemorable, as are the lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Not surprisingly, the highlight of this production are the different numbers which feature the Robbins choreography, as excellently staged here by Sarah O’Gleby.

Quite amusing indeed was the “Bathing Beauty Ballet” - a roughly 10-minute piece done in a frenetic Keystone Cops style. The sequence following Harrison, Pontdue and Fran as they descend on Atlantic City, only to be pursued by the police and some of the people from Longstreet. Though without the audience being given a chance to connect with the various characters, and thus start to care about them, the piece loses much of its charm. Far more effective was the gentle duet “I Still Get Jealous”, where Sara and her husband recall how much they still care for one another after many years of marriage. It must also be said that the Encores! Orchestra, under the very capable hands of music director and conductor Rob Berman, is never anything less than superb.

High Button Shoes may have been a hit once upon a time, but it needs a complete overhaul to make it anything more than a passing interest today. An interest which is forgotten almost as soon as the final curtain comes down.

Featuring: Michael Urie (Harrison Floy), Kevin Chamberlin (Mr. Pontdue), Matt Loehr (Uncle Willy), Chester Gregory (Papa Longstreet), Aidan Alberto (Stevie), Carla Duren (Fran), Betsy Wolfe (Sara Longstreet (Mama)), Marc Koeck (Oggle), Mylinda Hull (Nancy), Jennifer Allen (Shirley Simpkins), Wayne Pretlow (Elmer Simpkins).

Ensemble: Ward Billenisen, Sam Bolen, Colin Cunliffe, Nicholas Cunningham, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, Christine DiGallonardo, Michael Everett, Ta'Nika Gibson, Berklea Going, Marc A. Heitzman, Lea Horowitz, Cajai Fellows Johnson, Robin Masella, Skye Mattox, Kaitlin Mesh, Justin Packard, Nathan Andrew Riley, Blakely Slaybaugh, George Slotin, Madison Stratton, Shaun-Avery Williams

High Button Shoes
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Book by Stephen Longstreet
Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins
"Bathing Beauty Ballet" and "I Still Get Jealous" choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by Sarah O'Gleby

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Philip Lang
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Production Stage Manager: Peter Lawrence
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by Sarah O'Gleby
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by John Rando

Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed: May 8-12, 2019



Saturday, May 11, 2019

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus - A Missed Opportunity


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

No one involved in the theatre sets out to present a bad play; producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom notwithstanding. However sometimes one gets so enamored of what they're trying to say, the message of the show can become lost. Case in point, Taylor Mac’s glorious misfire that is Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, now running at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.

In ancient Rome, the years of war and bloodshed may finally be over, but the aftereffects are still being felt. The streets littered with the bodies of the dead. In an effort to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, hundreds of corpses have been moved out of public sight to a grand ballroom in a sumptuous hotel. Assigned to clean up the remains, a process which entails draining the bodies of blood and other internal matter, are Janice (Kristine Nielsen), a maid, and a second-rate clown named Gary (Nathan Lane).

                                  Nathan Lane in GARY. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Things do not start off well as the two get down to the gritty business at hand. Janice, a long-time veteran of this kind of process, is all business. She also knowing that they need to be finished by the next morning - the room scheduled to be the site of an elaborate inauguration. Gary meanwhile, is more interested in making jokes in regards to the carnage in front of them, as well as honking the horn he always carries. He is also delighted with himself for having escaped the hangman’s noose. This being the character’s fate in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Though in this case, some fast-talking and the need for people to assist in the clean-up process, helped to spare his life.

In the midst of taking care of the bodies, Gary suddenly makes a decision. He announcing he will no longer be simply a clown; a profession he's actually always hated. Rather, he will now be a fool. Specifically, a fool of Shakespearian ilk. One of those characters used by the Bard in his plays as an everyman voice of common sense. Gary believing that, with these attributes, he save the world and thus make things better for everyone. Or at least he can now get enough people to listen to him so they can help him to change things.

With Gary, Taylor Mac has come up with a satirical tale containing more than a hint of topicality. One showing hope rising from the ashes of despair, and where the seeds for a new society are sewn amidst the devastation caused by the present one. These possibilities leading to some heated discussions between the characters. As when Gary takes Janice to task for burying her head in the sand and ignoring what’s been going on around them, instead of trying to find some way to stop it. Janice coming right back at him saying how someone needs to be around to clean up after the battle is over – this being far from her first massacre. She also making clear that she has long understood how the world works, and how important it is for those who survive to make sure things return to normal. Even if the normalcy is only a cosmetic change, with the underlying problems remaining the same, no matter who's in charge. Adding another perspective is the midwife Carol (Julie White); a traumatized victim of what has occurred, who is desperately trying to find something important she has lost.

                          Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen in GARY_Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Gary is billed as “a new comedy” and there is certainly a lot of humor in the piece. More than 90% of it delivered by Lane - look for a funny bit regarding the position of the sun. At least some of which fulfills Mac’s purpose of getting the audience laugh at the most inopportune moments. Unfortunately, all too often, things devolve into half-hearted campiness, continual mugging, and the using of anatomically correct corpses as props. All of which gets very old, very fast.

When doing a so-called sequel, it’s also best to quickly establish any connection to the relevant source material, and then start building a new story from there. Past successful stage examples of this include A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter which also spotlights initially minor characters in a Shakespearian work.

Here however, the exposition takes the form of a far too-lengthy monologue by Lane. As well as frequents asides and references to the characters in Titus and what happened to them – all of which only serves to bog down the play with unneeded information. While one could argue that Titus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, it would have been far better if the show simply used any past events as a springboard to a new story, rather than repeatedly explaining what has come before.

There is also a problem with George C. Wolfe’s direction. The play at times feeling more aimless than engaging; with a story often wandering about in search of a through line. As a result, any message the play purports to have is buried in a sea of excess verbiage and eventually collapsing under its own weight.

The ironic thing is that beneath all the pontificating, one finds a powerful mortality tale with an important message to impart. However, as things stand now, Gary is basically a 30-minute masterwork trapped in a bloated exercise more than three times that length.

Featuring: Julie White (Carol), Nathan Lane (Gary), Kristine Nielsen (Janice.)

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
By Taylor Mac

Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair and Wig Design: Campbell Young Associates
Casting: Telsey & Company
Press Representative: DKC/O&M
Production Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes
Company Manager: Jessica Fried
Production Manager: Aurora Productions
Associate Producer: Jillian Robbins
Movement by Bill Irwin
Original Music by Danny Elfman

The Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Information: GaryOnBroadway.com
Running Time: One Hour, 40 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: August 4, 2019

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lady in the Dark - An Enlightening Journey


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The one thing most people will tell you when it comes to dreams is that they often don't make sense. Either literally or chronologically. Different people from various aspects of one’s life coming together in ways not possible in the waking world, but making perfect sense in the context of the dream. As for what it all means, that's a matter for psychoanalytic study. It’s also the premise Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin used as a starting point for the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. The original production running 467 performances, though it has rarely been revived in New York since. MasterVoices happily deciding to return the show to the Big Apple stage with a recent, and all-to-brief run at New York City’s Center.

Lady in the Dark tells the story of Liza Elliott (Victoria Clark). The hard driving, buttoned-down editor of the fashion magazine “Allure”. A well-regarded industry trendsetter in telling women what to wear, how to look and what to do in order to feel good about themselves. Always on top of her game, Liza is one of those folks who is married to her job. Something Charlie Johnson (Christopher Innvar), the publication's head of advertising, points out.

Lately however, Liza has been having some unsettling dreams. Ones she can recall in vivid detail. These episodes are starting to interfere with her work and causing her to begin to doubt her professional abilities. She is also unable to make up her mind about certain decisions - ones both work-related and personal. Her 10 year-relationship with the married Kendall Nesbitt (Ron Raines) about to change, now that his wife has finally agreed to give him a divorce.

        Victoria Clark and MasterVoices Company in the Circus Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

At her wit’s end and with nowhere else to turn, Liza goes to see Dr. Brooks (Amy Irving), someone who specializes in psychoanalysis. A field Liza initially has little faith in; though at this point, she is willing to try anything. This turning out to be a wise decision on her part. For, as Liza begins to describe her dreams, ones where she is the center of attention, reveling in the adoration she receives from others, it is Dr. Brooks who points out how Liza’s dream persona is completely the opposite of how she is in real life. It’s through the descriptions of these dreams – ones which are acted out on stage – that Liza’s turmoil starts to become clear.

What the show's creators are saying with Lady in the Dark – the title itself an indication of how Clark’s character increasingly finds herself – is the importance of getting in touch with one’s feelings. The show also taking pains to point out how painful childhood memories can have a lasting effect on a person’s psyche. Even if the original cause of any such trauma may have been completely unintended. While the analysis sessions are rather oversimplified (something noted in the show program), all involved - including Christopher Hampton and Kim Kowalke, who worked on the script adaptation for this production - treat the subject matter with a genuine respect. They meaning to show Liza’s journey to be only the starting point for the work she has to do in order to continue to grow.

A brilliant move was to have all of the musical sequences take place only within the confines of the dreams. This allowing for the use of different motifs and styles without violating the overall premise of the story. Various members of the company performing different roles during these sequences. Roles which ranged from high society types at a nightclub to members of a circus troupe.

The score is enjoyable, if not altogether memorable. The two major exceptions to this being "The Tschaikowsky", a humorous ditty that's expertly delivered by David Pittu; and “The Saga of Jenny”, as brilliantly sung by Clark. The latter, a rather nonsensical song when one listens to the narrative, but one which works perfectly in the confines of the circus dream sequence. Offering excellent musical background work when required were the MasterVoices ensemble. The orchestra, conducted by MasterVoices Artistic Director Ted Sperling, ably helping to set the tone for the various sections; although the music and chorus voices did make it hard to hear the lyrics at points. Especially during the early portion of the story.

        Victoria Clark and Doug Varone Dancers in the Glamour Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

Sperling also does a good job as the show's director, he nicely handling the character development and overall progression of the story. Particularly during the transitional moments when the tale shifts from dreams to reality. The appropriate actions exaggerated or toned down as required. Tracey Christensen's costumes are excellent, particularly the different outfits Clark wore in the dream sequences, as well as the garments used by the different characters in the circus section. Also very nicely done is Doug Varone's choreography - both with the slow, ballet-like numbers and the more energetic comedic pieces.

Clark shines throughout and offers a strong stage presence as Liza; whether trying to understand why her life is suddenly coming apart, or as part of a dream that may hold key to what ails her. Raines is nicely dependable in the pretty much thankless roles of Nesbitt. Pittu does an excellent comic turn as Russell Paxton, a staff photographer at the magazine, milking his lines for all they're worth. He also garnering laughs as a rather over the top circus ringmaster.

Innvar works well as Charlie, and makes a very good caustic foil for Liza. The chemistry clearly visible between the two characters, with each showing an underlying respect for the other. Ben Davis does quite well as Hollywood star Randy Curtis. A man who seemingly has it all, yet is perhaps in need of his own time on the couch. Irving does a good job is the subdued but pivotal role of Dr. Brooks.

Lady in the Dark offers a strong example of the Broadway musical coming of age and not afraid to tackle subjects outside the norm. The recent offering by MasterVoices proving to be, while not completely perfect, a fine offering indeed.

Featuring: Victoria Clark (Liza Elliott), Amy Irving (Dr. Brooks), Ashley Park (Miss Foster/Sutton), Montego Glover (Maggie Grant), David Pittu (Russell Paxton/Beekman/Ringmaster), Christopher Innvar (Charley Johnson/Marine), Ben Davis (Randy Curtis), Ron Raines (Kendall Nesbitt/Pierre), Ruby Sperling Waxman (Young Liza), Bradley Beakes (Ben), Emma Hart (Barbara).

Doug Varone Dancers: Courtney Barth, Hollis Bartlett, Bradley Beakes, Jake Bone, Whitney Dufrene, Madeline Irmen, DeQuan Lewis, Ashley Merker, Aya Wilson, Ryan Yamauchi.

Chamber Chorus: Miriam Baron (Mrs. Bennett), Colton Beach, Jennifer Bell (Liza’s Mother), Jessica Bobadilla, Nicole Coffaro, Takira Cross, Mark Filatov, Joan Harris (Guest), Nina Hennessey (Schoolteacher), Taylor Hopkins (Schoolboy Announcer), Laura Kroh, Luisa Lyons, Reina Muniz, Sheikh Muhtade, Cindy Ohanian-Aledjian, Mikhail Pontenila, Bob Reichstein (Guest), Edsel Romero (Liza’s Father), Jim Roume-les, John Sabatos (Charles), Ronny Viggiani, Erin Winchester.

Lady in the Dark
Music by Kurt Weill
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Moss Hart
Script Adaptation by Christopher Hart & Kim Kowalke
Ted Sperling, Conductor and Director
Doug Varone: Choreographer
Doug Fitch: Scenic Designer
Tracy Christensen: Costume Designer
James F. Ingalls: Lighting Designer
Scott Lehrer: Sound Designer
Dave Bova; Wig and Hair Designer

Performed at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed April 25-27, 2019


Monday, April 29, 2019

Nantucket Sleigh Ride - A Few Bumps In The Road


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Barely remembered images from childhood collide with recollections others simply don't want to revisit in John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride. The show offering an interesting take on the idea of a memory play, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through May 5.

It's 2010 and Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette) is a Wall Street executive. Someone who, if not a member of the so-called 1%, is certainly in that neighborhood. Yet more than three decades earlier he was an up-and-coming young playwright whose major effort, Internal Structure of Stars, was considered a masterwork. One of those pieces just about everybody back then performed in, tried out for or used as an audition piece at least once. Edmund recalling those days, when he actually does, with nothing more than a sense of tired bemusement. Though it does irk him that he has never been asked to autograph a copy of his work. 

Edmund's well-ordered life is suddenly upended when two figures from his past suddenly appear. Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his sister Lilac (Grace Rex) having tracked Edmund down in an attempt to learn exactly what happened thirty-five years earlier. During a time they were children, living with their mother off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Nantucket. The story then flashes back to 1975 when Gowery was a 30-year-old New York playwright basking in his recent artistic notoriety. He is also more than a little full of himself; being either somewhat brusque or downright rude to those he does not know or has no time for. Edmund is also in the midst of a torrid affair with Antonia (Tina Benko). The very beautiful wife of his middle-aged literary agent, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber).

It takes a call from Nantucket police officer Aubrey Coffin (Stacey Sargeant) concerning the subject of child pornography to bring Edmund to Nantucket for the very first time. He having previously purchased a house there. Site unseen, for tax purposes and on Gilbert's advice. A house complete with tenants. Said tenants consisting of Poe, Lilac, their mother Elsie (Clea Alsip) and husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills). Or has the mysterious McPhee (Will Swenson), taken Schuyler's place in Elsie's bed and her heart? This question one Edmund is soon trying to figure out as both men clearly have different perspectives on the issue.

As Edmund attempts to navigate the ins and outs of the above mentioned relationship, he also finds himself somewhat persona non grata on the island for having previously refused an invitation to attend a performance of his play. His actions in this regard sparking a plot of revenge against him. If that weren't enough, Edmund soon finds himself a subject of a possible murder investigation. Coffin not looking to frame Edmund for anything he didn't do, but clearly relishing the possibility of putting him away should the evidence continue to point to him as the guilty party.

As events continue to unfold, the question quickly becomes whose truth matters the most? Is it more important to remember things as they actually occurred, or is it better knowing why they happened the way they did? Especially if one wants to avoid hurting those affected by the events in question. There's also a gentle warning throughout about treating other people with respect. As your actions towards them just might come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Something Edmund learns again and again as he struggle to discern just how much of what he is experiencing is actually real.

By the of the first act, as things continue to go exponentially off the rails for Edmund, the entire play ends up taking on an almost farcical context. Matters taking a sharp turn into Twilight Zone territory, with one having absolutely no idea where things will go after intermission. Or exactly how Guare will be able pull it all together going forward.

Unfortunately more often than not, he doesn't. The pace of the show soon beginning to slow to a crawl with what was shown before never allowed to come full circle. Guare and director Jerry Zaks taking great delight in tantalizing everyone with the idea of numerous possibilities; but without proper closure, one can't help but feel a little cheated by the end result. The work simply too uneven to really allow the audience to connect with the various characters. It also doesn’t go far enough either comedically or dramatically to make a lasting impact.

Larroquette give a fine performance, although perhaps a wig or some other piece of clothing would have worked to make him better appear 35 years younger in the flashback sequences. Playing someone rather befuddled for a good part of the play, it’s a treat to see his character suddenly come alive when he finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. While seemingly breaking the confines of time and space in the process. Chanler-Berat and Rex are nicely earnest and deliberately annoying as youngsters living happily in their own world until it's all pulled out from under them. The rest of the cast, several playing multiple roles, are all enjoyable enough. Swenson doing a standout turn as Elsie's possible boyfriend/stalker McPhee.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride – an old whaling term – poses a complex question about the power and fragility of memory, but it lacks the overall spark to make the show offer anything more than a passing interest on the subject.

Featuring: Stacey Sargeant (Secretary/Aubrey Coffin), John Larroquette (Edmund Gowery), Adam Chanler-Berat (Poe), Grace Rex (Lilac), Jordan Gelber (Gilbert), Tina Benko (Antonia/Alice), Douglas Sills (Dr. Harbinger/Schuyler/Walt Disney), Germán Jaramillo (Jorge Luis Borges), Clea Alsip (She/Elise), Will Swenson (McPhee).


Nantucket Sleigh Ride
By John Guare

Sets and Projections: David Gallo
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Original Music and Sound: Mark Bennett
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Casting: Daniel Swee
Dramatrug: Anne Cattaneo
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi

Directed by Jerry Zaks

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
Address: 150 West 65th Street
Tickets: (212) 501-3201 or /www.lct.org/shows/nantucket-sleigh-ride/
Running time: 2 Hours, 5 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 5, 2019

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Do You Feel Anger? - The Dangers of Running with the Herd


Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Trying to see things from another's point of view can be an admirable trait. But when one sacrifices their own principles in the process, even if they believe it's for the right reasons, tragedy can result. This is the idea at the heart of Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s satire "Do You Feel Anger?", now having its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre.

Sofia (Tiffany Villarin), is a so-called "empathy instructor". Someone companies hire to help their workers better understand the feelings of their customers; and through that process, hopefully develop insights into their own behavior. Sofia’s latest assignment is at a debt collection agency. One which has been the target of multiple lawsuits. At least some of which stem from the employees’ attitudes toward those they contact.

It quickly becomes clear that the company in question is a misogynistic breeding ground for condescension. The employees' overall attitudes being basically that of immature high schoolers, with sexual innuendos and other crude comments the order of the day. Management, as personified by Jon (Greg Keller), being no better. They basically preferring a “hands-off” approach to the entire matter. Sofia's only ally is Eva (Megan Hill), one of the few apparent female members of the company, who offers her several veiled warnings on how to navigate the obstacles she will soon be face.

(L-R) Tiffany Villain, Justin Long and Ugo Chukwu in "Do You Feel Anger?" At the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Rosegg

Initially hitting a brick wall in her attempts to connect with the workers - via a series of visual and verbal exercises - Sofia decides to come at the problem from a different angle. She suddenly seeming to go along with their attitudes. Such as laughing at their obscene jokes and lewd drawings of women. Sofia then using these new-found bonds of familiarity to push her own agenda.

Surprisingly, the men quickly respond to her new approach. This leading to some rather humorous moments as they begin to open up emotionally and try to realize the people on the other end of the phone are often more than simply financial deadbeats.

At the same time Sofia is becoming “one of the boys” so to speak, she is just as quickly alienating Eva. Someone who, until now, has simply gone along with the attitudes of the rest of the office. Now however, thanks to Sofia’s presence, she is beginning to stand up for herself. Sofia’s subsequent actions being seen by Eva as a complete betrayal at a time she needs her support the most.

This viewpoint shift is also visible in the clothes Sofia and Eva wear during the course of the play. When Sofia first arrives at the company, she is wearing a formal suit – only to be told that she should probably wear a dress. Sofia does appear in such attire soon after, with her outfits becoming ever more casual and loose fitting (i.e. a sweatshirt) as time goes on. Eva on the other hand, begins to wear garments that are more professional and austere during the course of the story. She and Sofia moving in opposite directions in terms of attitude and permissiveness. 

(L-R)  Ugo Chukwu, Megan Hill and Justin Lord in "Do You Feel Anger?" At the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Rosegg

Nelson-Greenberg has come up with a fascinating idea here. The work showing, despite how far we think we may have come in terms of equality and basic decency, that we still have so much further to go. The piece also pointing out the importance of standing one’s ground when it comes to these issues, and not simply excusing them for the sake of expediency. No matter what the underlying reason for doing so may be.

While we do get a good picture of the various employees, most of whom are stereotypical caricatures, we never get a clear idea of Sofia is, or what drives her. Without such insight, the audience is unable to see where she's coming from, and thus can't truly understand her. Which is rather ironic, as doing just that is the basis for the work Sofia does. The only thing we do know about Sofia is that her parents have just split up. She apparently either taking her father's side in the conflict, or simply refusing to deal with the matter at all. Though we only know this via a series of one-sided phone calls she receives from her increasingly distraught mother (Jeanne Sakata). Sofia choosing, for whatever reason, not to respond.

Another misstep occurs when, after laying out the basic scenario of the story, the playwright takes things in a completely new direction for the final scenes, pretty much upending everything that has gone before. The show going from a not-so-gentle poke at some serious issues, to a much harsher atmosphere; with no real explanation for the shift. Including the changing attitudes of some of the characters. The last scene in particular, meant to offer a moment of clarity by moving things completely into the metaphysical, feels more like a tacked-on afterthought. One which pretty much falls flat.

The various performers all acquit themselves well. Justin Long stands out with a strong performance as a sexual objectifier, who changes from being from simply offensive to outright threatening at the drop of a hat. Also quite effective is Sakata, who delivers some rather heartfelt monologues as Sofia's Mother as she continually tries to plead her case.

Margot Bordelon’s direction works nicely, but it's stymied by a weak script. Emilio Sosa does an excellent job with the costumes, particularly the different outfits Sofia and Eva wear. Laura Jellinek’s sets are good, with the final scenic effect being especially striking. Marie Yokoyama's lighting design works fine.

Do You Feel Anger? is definitely a show with something important to say, but the final product is too disjointed - logistically and emotionally - to leave a lasting impression.

Featuring: Jeanne Sakata (Sofia's Mother), Tiffany Villarin (Sofia), Megan Hill (Eva), Greg Keller (Jon), Justin Long (Howie), Ugo Chukwu (Jordan), Tom Aulino (Old Man)

Do You Feel Anger?

by Maria Nelson-Greenberg
Scenic Design: Laura Jellinek
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Marie Yokoyama
Original Music& Sound Design: Palmer Hefferan
Wig, Hair& Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Casting: Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Production Stage Manager: Megan Schwartz Dickert
Production Supervisor: Adrian White
Production Manager: Conor McCarthy
Press Representative: Sam Rudy Media Relations
General Management: DR Theatrical Management

Directed by Margot Bordelon

Presented by the Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street
Tickets: 212-353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org

Running Time: 1 Hour, 35 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: April 27, 2019

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