Friday, September 28, 2007

Review – Austentatious (From the Top Productions and the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

There are two shows called Austentatious currently playing at the Julia Miles Theater. One of them is a horrifyingly bad adaptation of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ being put on at a local community theatre by a group of mediocre thespians. The other is the fun musical about the birth of that production with music and lyrics by Matt Board and Joe Slabe, and book by Board, Slabe, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin and Luisa Hinchliff. The former is as deliciously terrible as the latter is clever and amusing.

Austentatious the musical follows the birth of Austentatious the play being performed by the Central Riverdale Amateur Players. Their long-time creative director has left to do bigger and better things – dinner theatre – leaving the company without a leader. Hoping to fill that gap is Emily (Stacey Sargeant), a dancer/playwright/behind the scenes director, who has written Austentatious and is staging it with the help of Dominic (Stephen Bel Davies), a pretentious, wannabe director who has little knowledge of the theatre and even less of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (he owns the DVD and is shocked to discover they made a book out of it).

The production is plagued by problems from the beginning. Only five people show up for the audition: Emily, who plans to star in the show she’s written; Jessica (Lisa Asher), a veteran of the Central Riverdale Amateur Players; Blake (Paul Wyatt), a young man with a bit of a drug habit who is using the play to get out of his group therapy sessions; and a couple, Lauren and David (Amy Goldberger and George Merrick) – she plans to play Elizabeth and he’s there to help her, not to audition. David, of course, ends up as Mr. Darcy, while Emily is cast as Elizabeth by her boyfriend, Dominic. Watching over them all is Sam (Stephanie D’Abruzzo), the stage manager. She is above the egos and the in-fighting. She only wants to see the show succeed.

What follows is a little bit of Waiting for Guffman with some Noises Off thrown in. Along the way there are some wonderful songs, a love story, a full-fledged meltdown by the overworked and underappreciated Sam, and a dance-off between Elizabeth Bennet and her sister, the Pirate Queen, on 42nd Street in New York City (seriously). It’s a fun, silly, crazy adventure that culminates in an awful, but wildly amusing production of the play.

For a musical, however, Austentatious seems a little light on music. Board and Slabe’s songs are good, especially Sam’s “I Manage,” David’s sweet “By the Book,” and the full company number “Tech,” which shows the technical rehearsal before the play opens. But several of the songs merely peer into the characters’ inner lives and motivations, which is interesting, I suppose, but in most cases doesn’t cover anything that the book and the actors themselves haven’t conveyed.

In addition, it’s worth noting that the most hilarious portion of the musical, the actual performance of Austentatious has no musical numbers, other than the dance-off.

Acting is solid throughout the production, with particularly good work by Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Stephen Bel Davies, and Paul Wyatt.

Austentatious, like most of the musicals in the festival, shares its space with other productions. Given that limitation, set designer Jesse Poleshuck and lighting designer Jeff Croiter do an excellent job. Also commendable is Sarah Maiorino’s costume design. The costumes for the play within the play were marvelous, and the street clothes worn by the actors seemed to fit each one’s personality to a tee.

Austentatious is a fun musical with a few flaws that might bother critics, but probably won’t interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s well worth a look.

Music and Lyrics by Matt Board and Joe Slabe
Book by Matt Board, Jane Caplow, Kate Galvin, Luisa Hinchliff, and Joe Slabe
Directed by Mary Catherine Burke
Musical Director: Matt Castle
Choreographer: Rhonda Miller
Asst. Choreographer: Jennifer Littlefield
Stage Manager: Leah McVeigh
ASM/Prop Master: Marianne Ward
Scenic Design: Jesse Poleshuck
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Lighting Programmer: Ku’uipo Curry
Costume Design: Sarah Maiorino
Costume Assistant: Elizabeth Ektefaei
Technical Supervisor: Nathan Watson
Set Construction: No Time for Love Productions, Ken Larson Company
Publicity: Sun Productions, Inc.
Producing Consultant: David Carpenter

Featuring Lisa Asher (Jessica), Stephen Bel Davies (Dominic), Stephanie D’Abruzzo (Sam), Amy Goldberger (Lauren), George Merrick (David), Stacey Sargeant (Emily), Paul Wyatt (Blake)

Featured Musicians: Matt Castle (Piano), Christopher Downes (Bass), Michael Klopp (Drums)

Julia Miles Theater
424 W. 55th Street

Closes Sunday, September 29th

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Review – The Brain From Planet X (Kritzerland, Inc. and the New York Musical Theatre Festival)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Science fiction films from the ’50s and ’60s have provided marvelous fodder for parodists. Their bright-eyed optimism, cheesy special effects and unabashed anticommunist messages seem to be especially fertile ground – witness such shows as Little Shop of Horrors, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Zombie Prom, and Reefer Madness (okay, not technically sci fi based, but it has the right vibe). Also consider Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show created to mock these over-earnest, over-acted films.

For The Brain From Planet X, writers Bruce Kimmel and David Wechter have created a show that is, at its best, a kitschy send-up of those sci fi groaners. Unfortunately, due primarily to a weak book, static direction by Kimmel, some lame borscht belt one-liners and sight gags, and a rather uncomfortable audience participation segment, the show never really lives up to its full potential.

The Brain From Planet X, predictably, deals with an invasion from outer space. It’s 1958 and aliens have set their sights on the San Fernando Valley. They won’t stop until all mankind is enslaved. The Brain (Barry Pearl), with sidekicks Yoni (Alet Taylor) and Zubrick (Cason Murphy) in tow, has the ultimate weapon, a Mind-Bending Ray, that saps the will from anyone who gets zapped by it. Only the Bunson family - good, upstanding, God-fearing Americans - stand in their way. Can the Bunsons stop the invasion and save mankind? Probably. But it’s the how and when that make it fun.

The show is certainly not without its charms. Foremost among these are Bruce Kimmel’s delightful songs. The opening number “The Brain from Planet X” gets the show off to a rousing start, aided by some able choreography by Adam Cates. Kimmel shows good range throughout the show with such songs as “Good Girl/Bad Girl,” “The World of Tomorrow,” his ironic look at the future from the standpoint of the ’50s, the fun and Sondheim-styled “Things Are Gonna Be Changing Around Here,” a duet featuring Amy Bodnar and Rob Evan, and the wild, though totally inappropriate for the show, “The Brain Tap,” a tap dance number which sounds like it could easily find a home in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Even the book has its moments. The role of the Narrator (played with mock seriousness by Benjamin Clark) is spot on. From his notice that a nurse is standing by to assist those whose constitutions might too weak for a show this terrifying to his explanation of the wonder of Feel-O-Rama (a brilliant touch by Kimmel and Wechter), he pokes fun at the terrific excesses of these films. Indeed, when the dialogue is following or even slightly mocking the overwrought dialogue from the ’50s films, it works. It’s when the show veers toward total camp, cheesy one-liners, and novelty songs that it loses steam.

Even when the book doesn’t come through, the acting goes a long way toward making up for it. Of particular note are Merrill Grant as Donna Bunson, the good girl who really wants to be bad, Alet Taylor as the man-hungry space alien, Yoni. The pixyish Grant shows off her athletic ability and comic timing in “Good Girl/Bad Girl,” while trying her best to seduce her beatnik boyfriend (Paul Downs Colaizzo). Taylor shines at several points, most notably during her song “I Need An Earthman.” Chad Harlow deserves praise for his work as Private Partz, a non-speaking role that he plays with much aplomb. A mere roll of his eyes is enough to get the audience laughing.

Also worth noting is the herculean effort put forth by Barry Pearl as the Brain. Covered from neck to feet by a black sheath and wearing a gigantic brain helmet (one of many wonderful costumes designed by Jessa-Raye Court) so he appears to be a giant floating brain, he nonetheless manages to be dynamic and amusing.

The Brain From Planet X has its share of flaws, but if you are a fan of the old sci fi movies it sends up, or just want to enjoy some good music, it’s worth checking out. If you have a low tolerance for cheesy one-liners, this one probably isn’t for you.

Book by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel
Music and Lyrics by Bruce Kimmel
Directed by Bruce Kimmel
Choreographed by Adam Cates
Scenic Design: Heather Wolensky
Costume Design: Jessa-Raye Court
Lighting Design: Jason Scott
Sound Designer: Sara Even
Orchestrations: Larry Moore
Additional Vocal and Dance Arrangements: Lawrence Goldberg
Technical Director: Travis Walker
Stage Manager: Rachel Maier
Music Direction/Conductor: Lawrence Goldberg
Casting: Michael Cassara Casting
Publicist: Sun Productions, Inc.
General Management: Martian Entertainment, Carl D. White, Lauren P. Yates

Featuring Amy Bodnar (Joyce Bunson), Benjamin Clark (Narrator/Professor Leder), Paul Downs Colaizzo (Rod), Rob Evan (Fred Bunson), Merrill Grant (Donna Bunson), Chad Harlow (Private Partz/Ensemble), Joe Jackson (Ensemble), Naomi Kakuk (Ensemble), Cason Murphy (Zubrick), Denise Payne (Ensemble), Barry Pearl (The Brain), Richard Pruitt (General Mills), Alet Taylor (Yoni), Erin Webley (Ensemble), Steven Wenslawski (Ensemble)

Featured Musicians: Lawrence Goldberg (Keyboard 1), Brian Cimmet (Keyboard 2), Greg Thymius (Reeds), Marc Schmied (Bass), Aaron Russell (Drums)

Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd Street

Closes Sunday, September 30th, see for schedule and tickets

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Review – Have You Seen Steve Steven? (13P)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

Usually when a play becomes as frustratingly opaque as Ann Marie Healy’s Have You Seen Steve Steven?, I spend so much time trying to figure out what it means that I lose any enjoyment in the simple art of watching it. That’s why I find myself surprised to say that I really liked this play, even though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the playwright was trying to say. Thanks to the humorous writing and marvelous acting, it doesn’t much matter that the audience is as bewildered at the end of the play as the characters onstage are.

Have You Seen Steve Steven? follows Kathleen Clarkson (Stephanie Wright Thompson), a typical American teen. Typical, except she seems to realize that something’s not quite right in her artificial neighborhood of nearly identical mini-mansions. Her parents, Mary and Frank (Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrell) are preparing for a dinner party with family friends, the Dudleys, whom no one quite remembers, in a house that no one is sure how long they’ve lived in, in a neighborhood where they’ve never met any of the neighbors. That makes it easy for Hank Mountain (played with creepy jocularity by Matthew Maher) to insinuate himself into their midst. Is he a new neighbor? Is he something more sinister? Well, that doesn’t quite get answered, but it’s okay. Not knowing may be the point.

As the evening progresses, Kathleen begins to remember her missing childhood, aided by the Dudleys’ son, Thomas (Brandon Bales), a childhood friend she can’t quite recall, and Anlor (Jocelyn Kuritsky), a traumatized foreign exchange student. As Hank and his equally mysterious cohort Vera (Carol Rosenfeld) keep the adults busy, the teens unravel the mystery of their forgotten youth, most of which deals with their imaginary dog, Steve Steven, and the day he went missing. From the moment that connection is made, Hank and Vera nudge them closer to the truth as their world begins to spin out of control.

The acting in Have You Seen Steve Steven? is outstanding. Stephanie Wright Thompson hits just the right note as young girl not quite sure what is happening to her life, and unable to decide if she really wants to do anything about it. Alissa Ford and Tom Riis Farrell, as the Clarksons, manage to gently send up middle class Midwesterners without being cruel or snarky. They’re funny. They’re self-absorbed. But mostly, they’re just average. Kate Hampton and Frank Deal as Jane and Bill Dudley, revel in their characters’ suburban oneupsmanship. Matthew Maher is excellent as Hank Mountain. Part seer, part harbinger of doom, all smiles, he’s implied danger in a bright knit cap.

Director Anne Kauffman creates a dynamic production where everything is just a little off kilter and a little out of reach. Sue Rees’ stage design is interesting. She’s designed a room that has plenty of space, like most McMansions, and lacks any defining touch of style or personality. It’s as if the Clarksons have managed to live in this house without making the slightest imprint on it.

Have You Seen Steve Steven? is a creepy, yet funny show that will leave you feeling somewhat off-kilter. If you feel the need to have everything wrapped up and explained by the end of the play, this is probably not the show for you. However, if you can stand ambiguity and the feeling of being somehow left out, this show is worth a look.

Written by Ann Marie Healy
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Sets: Sue Rees
Lights: Garin Marschall
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Sound: Jeremy J. Lee
Dramaturg: Janice Paran
Stage Manager: Megan Schwarz
Assistant Stage Manager: Amara Watkin-Anson
Assistant Director: Sydney Gallas
Press Representative: Jim Baldassare
Associate Producer: Sandra Garner

Featuring Brandon Bales (Thomas), Frank Deal (Bill), Tom Riis Farrell (Frank), Alissa Ford (Mary), Kate Hampton (Jane), Jocelyn Kuritsky (Anlor), Matthew Maher (Hank Mountain), Carol Rosenfeld (Vera), Stephanie Wright Thompson (Kathleen)

The East 14th Street Theater
344 East 14th Street

Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m. through October 6

Friday, September 14, 2007

Review – Auntie Mayhem (Wings Theatre Company and Gato Flaco Productions)

Stage Buzz Review by Byrne Harrison

A gay version of Auntie Mame. I’ll admit, when I heard the title Auntie Mayhem, that was all I was expecting – a crass, shrill rip-off of the original play. To my surprise, I discovered instead a delightful, subtly thought-provoking, and above all, genuinely sweet play about a good-hearted ex-drag performer, Felony Mayhem (the always enjoyable Moe Bertran), and the family he creates when he opens his home to Dennis (Jason Luna Flores), a gay street kid.

The small apartment (beautifully created by designer Florencio Flores Palomo) is pretty cramped to begin with, already home to Felony, his partner Bobo (Ivan Davila), and their sometime houseguest, Charlotte Reyes (Mark Finley), a drag diva who used to be in an act with Felony. Though the apartment is tiny, Felony’s heart isn’t and soon he finds himself the guardian of two more street kids, Ivan (Carl Ka-Ho Li) and Epiphany (Andre Darnell Myers). Taking place over several years, Auntie Mayhem shows the subtle and not-so-subtle ways a family, even a makeshift one, can change people.

Ably directed by Donna Jean Fogel, Auntie Mayhem is well-written and Pumo clearly has an ear for realistic dialogue. The language rings true whether hip hop or camp. This is aided in no small part by the talented cast. Moe Bertran has a gift for playing over-the-top characters in a way that grounds and humanizes them. His Felony is a complex mix of emotions and feelings and they play across Bertran’s body and face in a way that is immediate and powerful. Mark Finley’s Charlotte is the opposite, closed and wary, using arch humor as a way to protect himself. This makes it all the more enjoyable when Finley lets Charlotte’s mask slip a little and allows the vulnerability to show. Ivan Davila as Bobo, an unapologetically blue-collar gay man, is particularly good and avoided stereotype. He is gruff, gentle, playful, humorous, and given the chaos of finding himself the guardian of three teens, remarkably serene.

It is in creating the characters of Dennis, Ivan and Epiphany that Pumo and the actors outdid themselves. It’s enough of a feat to have believable characters onstage, but to create believable teenagers is a true gift. It comes as no surprise that Pumo works with LGBT youth. Jason Luna Flores does an able job as Dennis, especially as he grows from street hustler to college student. He and Davila have excellent chemistry – a strong father/son vibe. Carl Ka-Ho Li has a dancer’s body and uses it to full advantage. He also pulls off a remarkable rap about Generation Q that is worth the price of admission. Andre Darnell Myers is exceptional as the transgendered Epiphany, especially at showing the rage that these kids can feel at the injustices of life.

That brings up the remarkable thing about Auntie Mayhem - the way it manages to teach a little bit about the struggles of gay teens, especially those of color, living on the streets. It also reminds them that all it takes is one person who cares to make a difference in these kids’ lives. Best of all, it does it subtly and never draws attention to “The Moral” or allows the play to become mawkish. For that, Pumo is to be congratulated.

Written by David Pumo
Directed by Donna Jean Fogel
Set Designer: Florencio Flores Palomo
Lighting Design: Michael Megliola
Fight Choreography: Kymberli Morris
Production Stage Manager: Shuhei Seo

Featuring Moe Bertran (Felony), Ivan Davila (Bobo), Mark Finley (Charlotte), Jason Luna Flores (Dennis), Carl Ka-Ho Li (Ivan), and Andre Darnell Myers (Epiphany)

Wings Theatre
154 Christopher Street
Through September 29th; call 212-627-2961 for tickets.