Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Review - The WYSIWYG Talent Show: Starfucker - Close Encounters of the Famous Kind

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

The first WYSIWYG Talent Show at it’s new home, Bowery Poetry Club, was full of ups, downs and the occasional sideways. The new venue is smaller than the old space (P.S. 122), with quite a bit less seating. While this made for a nice crowded feel at last night’s show, it doesn’t bode well for the extremely popular I Love a Parade or Worst.Sex.Ever. shows. And since there are no longer advanced ticket sales, you’re highly encouraged to show up early. Luckily the Bowery Poetry Club features a bar (with Magners, glory be!), so you’ll be glad you did. While the bloggers who perform at this monthly reading series are generally amusing, everything is funnier with a slight buzz.

Last night’s show Starfucker - Close Encounters of the Famous Kind featured seven bloggers discussing their brushes with fame: stalking celebrities, digging through garbage, appearing on reality tv - all in a bid to be famous, or at least famous by proxy. In most cases, it didn’t make them famous, but it did make for some fun storytelling.

First up was Matthew Callan, who kicked things off with an amusing story about digging through popcorn, soda dregs, half-eaten hot dogs, and only God knows what else, just to claim a Mike Piazza foul ball. Matt’s story was great and no doubt had the baseball geeks in the audience coveting his piece of history.

Lindsay Robertson followed with the tale of her ‘Summer of Corey Feldman,’ during which she and Corey lived in the same L.E.S. building and she, at least according to the media, stalked him. Lindsay was a great performer and her story had just the right take on the evening’s topic.
Next up was Derek Hartley, who as a former Hollywood insider and current radio host, had the most A-list celebrity stories. His delivery was great and the stories he told were brilliant - and probably could keep a team of lawyers busy for a very long time.

Project Runway contestant Diana Eng was up next with a story of her rise from fashion nerd to reality tv star and the freaks who came out of the woodwork to greet her. Diana was cute and endearing, and though her story was short, it involved faux-robot ‘man parts’, which was unique, even for WYSIWYG.

Rachel Parenta followed, and while she seemed a little off her game - perhaps due to the new venue which made it hard to see and hear the audience - she scored a solid hit with her song about Gabriel Byrne and how he refuses to return her calls, even though everyone knows he loves her.

Next up was Doug Gordon who told a couple of quick stories about ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’, meeting Ted and Jane at a Braves game, and having Claudia Schiffer offer to buy him ice cream. He saved most of his time for a hilarious and cringe-inducing story of how he was partially responsible for gameshow/talkshow host John Davidson singing a love song to a pig in front of a bunch of angry Charlie Daniels fans. This was easily the high point of the evening.
Finally, drag diva Amnesia Sparkles performed a very off-kilter piece about her now famous appearance on American Idol. Amnesia also seemed off her game - in fact, she may have been playing an entirely different sport altogether - but as she would probably agree, when you’re fabulous, you don’t have to be coherent.

While WYSIWYG gurus Chris Hampton, Andy Horowitz and Dan Rhatigan still have a few wrinkles to iron out with the new venue, WYSIWYG continues to provide an outlet for some of the most creative, and often overlooked, writers and performers in the city.

The next WYSIWYG performance will be Scandalous! True! Confessions!!! - You Heard it Here First on April 18th at the Bowery Poetry Club.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Review - The Most Happy Fella (New York City Opera)

Stage Buzz Review by Jere Williams

So last week I caught the opening night of the New York City Opera’s current production of the 1956 Frank Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella at the New York State Theatre up at Lincoln Center. As you are probably aware, this production marks the return to the New York stage of actor Paul Sorvino in the role of Tony.

This is the story of Tony, a vintner in 1930’s California, whose encounter with a diner waitress he calls Rosabella leads to a correspondence courtship and eventually their marriage. Problems arise when Rosabella realizes that instead of his own, Tony has sent a photo of his young, sexy ranch foreman Joe. How the ramifications of this play out is the stuff of the show.

I was very excited to see this production because this musical is rarely produced at all, much less with the huge, full orchestra that the NYCO provides for all its productions. And there’s no better way to experience a classic musical for the first time.

Paul Sorvino is really an ideal Tony in most respects. He certainly has a big enough voice to sing this difficult role and the stage presence to command such a large space. He’s also, as evidenced by his bio in the program, so steeped in Italiana that the accent and manner of this immigrant character seem to issue from his very pores. The only problem is that Sorvino is way too robust and energetic for a character that every other person on stage constantly refers to as being old and feeble. The age difference between Tony and his Rosabella is a major factor in the drama here and, while Sorvino may actually be age appropriate, it’s still difficult to see what all the fuss is about.

Lisa Vroman, a longtime Christine Daae a little further downtown at Phantom of the Opera, delivers a beautifully sung Rosabella. This is a challenging role for any actress. While she’s not the title character, it is Rosabella whose actions drive the slender plot and Vroman does an excellent job of keeping the audience interested in and focused on her desperate, lonely character and rooting for her to find some measure of happiness.

Ranch foreman Joe, the physical embodiment of hot, sweaty sex in musical theatre, is portrayed here by Ivan Hernandez. To be honest, there’s really not a whole lot to this character, but Hernandez does a perfectly serviceable job while also remaining fully clothed throughout. It was Hernandez who was most slighted by the cavernous State Theatre. When sex appeal is the main stock-in-trade of your character, it’s hard to evoke a physical response in an audience, some of whom are 6 blocks away. But he does well by his big ballad, the famous “Joey, Joey, Joey.”
Comic relief is handled by John Scherer and Leah Hocking as Herman and Cleo, a somewhat awkward ranch hand and a sardonic friend of Rosabella’s who find an unlikely simpatico when Cleo arrives at the ranch to keep her friend company. Both are excellent and funny and present well-rounded characters within the confines of their limited roles. Their story doesn’t really impact anything else that happens, but that’s very typical of mid-century musical theatre; they’re the comic duo and merely a sideline from the actual plot.

Does this show have problems? Sure…the first act seems VERY ballad heavy and director Phillip Wm. McKinley doesn’t really do anything to keep the pace up and moving. Consequently, the second act really seems like an entirely different show. It’s here that the Herman/Cleo comedy stuff comes in to take some of the weight of the central Tony/Rosabella story and here that the pacing really picks up and moves the show along.

Not much can be done about the size of the State Theatre. From my seat, very high up and far back in the Fourth Ring, it was impossible to see facial expressions clearly. However, the sound design for this show (by Abe Jacob) is a major improvement over the last production I saw in this space, NYCO’s last Sweeney Todd, two seasons ago. While I couldn’t quite make out faces, I could hear everything perfectly, making the ubiquitous super-titles all but unnecessary. Go see this production if you have a chance. You’re not soon likely to have the opportunity to drink in this lush score as played by such a full orchestra of this caliber. This alone is enough to make this Most Happy Fella an event. But there’s also a bonus…it’s a damn fine production up on the stage – as well as in the pit.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser
Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley

New York State Theater
Lincoln Center
New York City Opera

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Review - Temple (Bridge Club Productions)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Tim Aumiller’s vision of the future of America will be disturbing to nearly everyone. To those who are already feeling left behind as their country lurches to the right, his America will be as frightening as 1930s Berlin. To those who see America as on the right track and finally returning to the faith that made it great, his vision of an oppressed minority that fights back by targeting the very halls of power will fuel their fears of anarchy and terrorism.

Temple is set in Washington, DC in the near future, not long after the passage of the Samuel Laws which place draconian punishments on homosexuals and their families. Gays and lesbians lose their liberty, get listed on a sexual deviancy database, are forced into therapy, their parents are sterilized - all for their own good and the good of the country, of course. Not surprisingly, some people choose to fight back.

Temple takes place immediately after a coordinated attack on the Supreme Court by a group of gay militants, or atheist militants as they are called by the media - after all, to the religious extremists running the country, gays and atheists are pretty much the same thing.
Foul-mouthed Russ (Shannon Michael Wamser) is first to arrive at the militants’ hideout, followed by timid Walt (Tom Macy) and his mentally-challenged sister Brenda (Lesley Miller). Russ was part of the group that planted explosives in the Supreme Court building; Walt helped the group gain access. Both are former lovers of Jon, the leader of the cell.

They are eventually joined by Jon (David Rudd), his wounded lover Remy (Tom Baran), Suzanne (Audrey Amey) a militant lesbian driven to fight after her lover left her to return to a ‘normal’ life, and Kent (Joshua Seidner), a straight drug-addicted munitions expert. As they wait for rescue from higher-ups in the resistance, they fight, discuss ideology and worry that the call won’t come before the police do.

This was a decent production of a interesting piece of political theater. Will it be everyone’s cup of tea? Clearly not. In fact, the audience is likely to be very self-selecting, preaching to the choir as the play does. But it asks some important questions. Are we doing enough to make sure that this vision of America doesn’t come to pass? What would you do in the same situation? Can a post-9/11 audience empathize with a group of terrorists and if so, what does it say about our moral relativism? As is the problem with many plays that deal with weighty concepts, the characters frequently engage in philosophical debates that while interesting, don’t advance the story. At times, this makes the show feel a bit like a sermon, rather than a play. Fortunately, Aumiller tends to relegate it to certain characters.

The cast of Temple was generally good. Macy’s Walt was frightened, yet fiercely protective of his sister, conflicted about his involvement with the uprising, yet completely enthralled by the charismatic Jon. Macy was very believable playing these opposing aspects of Walt’s personality. Lesley Miller did a marvelous job as Brenda, who tended to view her world in terms of people she knew, or didn’t, and sayings that her mother taught her. Seidner’s turn as Kent was astounding, both in terms of the physical demands of playing a speed freak and of having to spew long strings of nonsensical dialogue. As Suzanne, Audrey Amey did a good job, but playing the most level-headed member of the group didn’t give her as many opportunities to take chances with her character.

The final three roles were a bit disappointing. Shannon Michael Wamser’s Russ was a one-note character. Russ is loud, angry and very physical, all of which Wamser did well, but there’s not much to the character beyond that. Tom Baran’s Remy is also under-developed, though it’s hard to be a well-rounded character when you spend much of the play unconscious with gut wound. Baran showed his talent during an entirely too authentic-looking death scene. It was very uncomfortable and very effective. Finally, there was Jon, the charismatic man who recruited this group of friends and former lovers. David Rudd certainly had the right look and voice for the role. He delivered his lines with a power and fervor of one who believes he is on a crusade. But there wasn’t an emotional connection between him and the other characters. Jon as played by Rudd would certainly make a powerful debater, but he would never be a man that others would risk so much for.

Director Greg Foro did a capable job of directing. Set designer Marc Janowitz did what he could with the severely limited space at Manhattan Theatre Source, and were this not such a kinetic show, the claustrophobic space would have worked remarkably well. As it was, the action threatened to spill over onto the laps of the front row. Being that close, and worrying about being unintentionally incorporated into the action, made it difficult to be completely absorbed into the play.

While this was an uneven production, Aumiller should be congratulated on his challenging play.

Written by Tim Aumiller
Directed by Greg Foro

Bridge Club Productions
Manhattan Theatre Source

Closed March 11, 2006