Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson" - Flaming Brightly, Briefly, Then Flaming Out

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Actress Carolee Carmello is nothing short of stupendous as the lead role in the Broadway musical Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson (book, lyrics & additional music by Kathie Lee Gifford, music by David Pomeranz and David Friedman), her performance being more than reason to see the show. Sadly, there is little else to recommend the musical, which is saddled with multiple problems, the chief of which being the material never delves too deeply into its subject matter.

Purporting to tell the story of Aimee Semple McPherson (Carmello), the musical, after a brief prologue, introduces the audience to the character as a teenage girl in 1907 Canada. Dreaming of becoming an actress, Aimee is constantly at odds with her pious and upright mother, Minnie Kennedy (Candy Buckley). Things change for Amy when she meets and falls in love with Robert Semple (Edward Watts), a young Irish Pentecostal minister, who will become her first husband. Though she finds herself open to the teachings of the Bible for the first time, it is only after a near-death experience that she finally listens to the voice she has heard inside for so long, which tells her to preach the word of God.

Holding revival meetings across the country, Aimee encounters both setbacks and victories - the latter including Emma Jo Schaeffer (Roz Ryan), a former madam of a Kansas City whorehouse, who becomes a convert to her cause. Upon seeing the tremendous attraction of moving pictures, Aimee has an epiphany of sorts and combines the flashy techniques of show business with her religious message, thus allowing her to reach ever larger audiences. Bringing her movement to Los Angeles in 1920, she becomes the darling of the media while earning the scorn of several religious leaders there - including one Brother Bob (Hearn). It's not long before she's hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite of the day, all the while putting on more and more elaborate biblical presentations for her growing congregation. She also becomes a national figure thanks to the new medium of radio.

Though her professional star continues to rise, the private life of this twice married, once widowed, once divorced woman becomes the continual focus of speculation and gossip. There's the matter of Aimee's relationship with actor David Hutton (Watts), as well as with the married Kenneth Ormiston (Andrew Samonsky). Plus Aimee's unfailing devotion to her cause and the ever-growing pressure of holding together her empire begin to put a strain her health, driving her almost to the point of breakdown.

With so much material to play with, McPherson's life would seem to be a natural fit for a musical stage adaptation. Unfortunately, what's offered seems like warmed-over second and third hand information, rather than a full exploration or understanding of the people involved. There is almost no information given about Robert Semple; there's even less insight into Aimee's second husband Harold McPherson (Samonsky); and Aimee's various children are mentioned but never seen, thus depriving the story of several important sources of backstory narrative. This ongoing problem is especially evident when dealing with Aimee's mysterious 16-day disappearance, where she seemingly vanished off the face of the earth - an event which made national headlines. McPherson claims she was kidnapped, though that was a matter of dispute. Unfortunately the musical doesn't take a position on what happened, the characters basically speaking words and offering solutions that seem to come from tabloid magazines rather than anything with real substance. Much of the fault here has to rest with Gifford, who's been working on this project for years, but who never seems to have gone the extra mile to put a different spin or fresh take on information that was already out there for decades.

As mentioned above, Carmello is titanic in the lead role and the actress does a great job in taking Aimee from a young, confused girl to one filled with purpose; having an interesting air of cynical idealism and an unyielding belief in her faith. Carmello's singing is also top-notch. Though with the show offering one powerful musical number after another in continuing succession, the score quickly begins to sound more than a bit repetitious.

Buckley is good as Aimee's mother, the only other decently developed character in the piece, a woman who combines religious fervor with a strong no-nonsense attitude. At the same time the character is a mother through and through, having a long and volatile relationship with her daughter - often being the only person Amy can turn to - yet a fascinating individual all her own.

Rose does a serviceable job as Aimee's father, though he's a more than a bit stereotypical as Bother Bob. This issue also arises with Ryan's portrayal of Emma Jo - okay as far as it goes; though it's too often only a surface portrayal, one at times verging on caricature. Elsewhere, Watts is pretty one-dimensional in his portrayal of David. This may have been what the creators intended, but there is nothing shown of the character to make him even remotely interesting. Conversely, Samonsky has some potential as Ormiston, but there's nowhere near enough information to allow him to really connect with the audience.

Director David Armstrong does his best with the material, but he, like the rest of the cast, is hamstrung by a book that offers only the smallest bit of anything close to being substantial. As a result, the moments of spectacle and glitz come off nicely, but the quieter, softer and more probing ones really do not work. Sets by Walt Spangler are eye-catching at times and the costumes by Gregory A. Poplyk run the gamut from the functional to over the top - all in keeping with the story. Orchestrations by Coughlin are enjoyable, but like the music, one can see a sameness to it throughout.

Scandalous sadly falls into the worst of all musical theatre categories. That of a wonderful opportunity totally squandered. Though if Carmello doesn't at least get a Tony nomination for her work here, something is very wrong.

Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson

Featuring: Carolee Carmello (Aimee Semple McPherson), Candy Buckley (Minnie Kennedy), George Hearn (James Kennedy, Brother Bob), Edward Watts (Robert Semple, David Hutton), Andrew Samonsky (Harold McPherson, Kenneth Ormiston), Sam Strasfeld (Boxer, Charlie Chaplin, Ensemble), Joseph Dellger (Boxing Ring Announcer, Mayor Cryer, William Randolph Hurst, Ensemble), Roz Ryan (Emma Jo Schaeffer), Karen Hyland (Eve, Myrtle, Ensemble, Swing), Elizabeth Ward Long (Louella Parsons, Ensemble), Benjamin Howes (Asa Keyes, Ensemble), Alison Luff (Peggy Rae Wharton, Ensemble), Nick Cartell (Ensemble), Erica Dorfler (Ensemble), Carlos L. Encinias (Ensemble), Hannah Florence (Ensemble), Jesse Nager (Ensemble), Betsy Struxness (Ensemble), Dan'Yelle Williamson (Ensemble), Matt Wolfe (Ensemble) Corey Greenan (Swing)

Book, Lyrics and Additional Music by Kathie Lee Gifford
Music by David Pomeranz and David Freidman
Scenic Design by Walt Spangler
Costume Design by Gregory A. Poplyk
Lighting Design by Natasha Katz
Sound Design by Ken Travis
Hair Design by Paul Huntley Enterprises, Inc.
Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin
Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements: Sam Davis
Additional Vocal Arrangements: Paul Raiman
Music Coordinator: Howard Joines
Production Stage Manager: Amber White
Associate Director: Stephen Sposito
Music Direction & Vocal Arrangements by Joel Fram
Choreography by Lorin Latarro
Directed by David Armstrong

Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes (with one intermission)
Closed: December 9, 2012

Friday, November 30, 2012

Supreme Beings: “Dreamgirls” at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

By Mark A. Newman
Photos by Christopher Mueller

Many people whom I respect in the world of theatre cite Dreamgirls as one of their favorite shows if not their all-time favorite. This is one of those things I simply do not understand in the way I don’t get the popularity of “Two and a Half Men.” As the second musical in Signature’s 2012 – 2013 season, Dreamgirls is a show filled with immensely talented people stuck with singing unmemorable, mediocre songs.

Dreamgirls is an odd show; there are really only two standout roles (not performers, mind you): Effie White, played with show-stopping prowess by Nova Y. Payton and Jimmy “Thunder” Early portrayed with spirited cheeky glee by Cedric Neal. And then there are other characters who seem to spend most of their time waiting for Effie and Jimmy to hit the stage. So is the audience.

However, that is not an indictment of the talent on the stage of Signature’s Max Theatre; nothing could be farther from the truth. The cast is nothing short of amazing, but by now it is a familiar tale that we’ve all seen over and over again. What was new in 1981 seems somewhat trivial and lackluster in 2012. In all honesty, Henry Krieger’s score for the Broadway cult phenomenon Side Show was much more compelling than what is heard here (hint hint, Signature).

Matthew Gardiner’s direction is spot on as he sends our heroes – the Supremes-like divas, the Dreams – on their way through the ups and downs of the music industry. The show really kicks into gear in the middle of the first act when the full-figured Effie is pushed aside to make room for the Beyonce of her day, Deena Jones (the lovely Shayla Simmons) while Lorrell (Crystal Joy), C.C. – Effie’s brother who writes the group’s songs – (David Bazemore), and a last minute addition to the group, Michelle (Kara-Tameika Watkins) all get caught up in the roiling backstage antics. Most of these antics are engineered by the suave music operator Curtis Taylor, Jr. played with impeccable smarm and charm by the debonair Sydney James Harcourt.

A supporting character in this show would have to be the amazing costumes by Frank Labovitz who obviously let his inner Bob Mackie escape to create the lavish, sequin spewing dresses the Dreams wore, as well as the period-savvy attire worn throughout the show. A special kudos must go to the actresses and their dressers for the lightning speed in which they changed costumes almost two dozen times!

Despite the show’s highpoints, it feels like the first act is simply a prelude to Effie’s bring-down-the-house-and-the-rest-of-Shirlington-Village showstopper “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going).” Payton’s entire career could be boiled down to that cathartic moment when Effie lets everyone know what’s what. It’s a “come to Jesus” meeting all encapsulated in that single number. Payton was born to play the role of Effie White and it is a star turn that lights up the night.

Payton shines further in the second act as Effie attempts to make a meager comeback beginning in Chicago’s club scene and further progressing to the point she has a hit of C.C.’s showstopper ballad “One Night Only” that competes with the Dreams own disco version of the same song. Effie’s version is wrought with heartfelt emotion while Deena and the Dreams raise the show’s kitsch level to the extreme.

During this time the married Jimmy is carrying on with Lorrell as he moves from being a James Brown-like firebrand into a milquetoast Johnny Mathis clone. When Jimmy finally has his breaking point, the audience breathes a sigh of relief that the old Jimmy is back. But I guess that wasn’t enough for book writer Tom Eyen; that’s the last we see of Jimmy. He’s fired and sent packing. I guess we all know there’s no happy ending there.

By the time the Dreams have their farewell concert and Effie is brought in for one final number, you are relieved that the show is finally coming to a close. While the performances were stellar, the design was amazing, and the feel and pace of the production were top notch, I just can’t get over the mediocre score and less-than-dazzling book. The performers are the reason to see Dreamgirls because you will not see better diva moments on the DC stage for a long, long time.


Book & Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by Henry Krieger
Directed & Choreographed by Matthew Gardiner
Orchestrations: Harold Wheeler
Music Director: Jon Kalbfleisch
Lighting designer: Chris Lee
Costume designer: Frank Labovitz
Sound designer: Matt Rowe
Scenic designer: Adam Koch
Co-Choreographer Brianne Camp

Tickets: Ticketmaster (703) 573-SEAT (7328)
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

“Figaro” - Quite Simply, A Winner

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Jacob J. Goldberg

Tasting like a delicious farcical soufflé, with a side offering of ribald humor and heaping helpings of tongue twisters and circular logic tossed in, The Pearl Theatre Company's presentation of Beaumarchais' 1778 play Le Mariage de Figaro, entitled here simply Figaro, is a delightful treat. Wonderfully adapted – actually freely adapted, according to the press notes - by Charles Morey, the production offers satirical attacks on the upper class, the courts and the legal system in general – all served up with a generous amount of winks to the audience.

In 18th Century Spain, Figaro (Sean McNall), a servant in the employee of Court Almavia (Chris Mixon), is engaged to Suzanne (Jolly Abraham), the love of his life and handmaiden to the Countess Almavia (Joey Parsons). Though in order for Figaro and Suzanne to wed, the Count must first sign the marriage documents, and before he does that he expects to receive an intimate favor from Suzanne, a woman he has long had his eye on.

Undaunted by this turn of events, Figaro, who always has an idea or two up his sleeve, concocts a plan to fool the Duke and make things right. However Figaro's machinations are continually upset by numerous unforeseen circumstances. Such as Cherubin (Ben Charles), a somewhat younger, mealy-mouthed member of the staff with an eye for the ladies, and who is particularly enamored with the Countess, not to mention having a more physical relationship with Fanchette (Tiffany Villarin), the gardener's daughter. Figaro also has to deal with Marceline (Robin Leslie Brown), an older woman who wishes to marry him, as well as Brazile (Brad Heberlee), the Count's scheming associate, who wants to wed Marceline.

With everyone having an ulterior motive and no one wanting to be caught in the act by the others, the various characters must resort to hiding in closets, cowering under sofas, and jumping out of windows, all accompanied by mistaken identities galore. The show also offers twist upon twist and one unexpected turn after another. Indeed, even when it appears that things are finally untangled – after a hilarious legal encounter – there are still some cards that must be played, for while one couple or two may be happy, there are others who are yet not and in trying to help those unhappy, the ones who are happy may find themselves becoming unhappy once again before all is resolved to the happiness of some, but perhaps not all.

Great credit must go to Hal Brooks' direction in not letting this rollicking ride go completely off the rails. With most of the characters being larger than life and situations that are often over the top, or under the sofa as it were, Brooks is able to keep the show at least somewhat grounded in reality while allowing the actors to have great fun with their roles and keep things moving at pretty good clip. At the same time, he is also able to skillfully blend the show's humor, with its underlying message about the follies of the male sex, and the numerous in-jokes and asides to the audience while never taking the story into the realm of parody.

McNall does a wonderful turn as Figaro, a supremely self-confident individual with a rather interesting past. Something about an incident on Seville, an encounter that one could make an opera out of, he muses as one point. Also look for his story about a handbag. Some of his explanations are hilarious as he talks his way out of one showdown after another, all with a continuous matter-of-fact attitude and an ability to think on his feet; with a little help from Suzanne every so often. Yet Figaro is not completely without  failings, such as a bit of jealousy, which might ultimately prove his undoing.

Abraham is great fun as Suzanne, matching Figaro verbal joust for joust at times, with the love between the characters apparent and with McNall and Abraham having strong chemistry together. Suzanne may also be the wisest character in the play, noting time and again how "men are so stupid", and being able to exploit their moral weak points to her advantage and the advantage of those she tries to aid.

Parsons strikes the right combination of humor and pathos as the Countess, a woman desperately in love with her husband, a man who has apparently fallen out of love with her. At the same time, the Countess is every inch a woman and not above enjoying the flattery of Cherubin; Charles doing a nice job as the hapless young man who just wants to have fun without dealing too much with the responsibilities that go with such actions.

Mixon is nicely officious as the Count, a person whose manner screams for a comeuppance; while Heberlee, in addition to his work as Brazile, does delightful double duty as Antonio, a perennially drunken farmer, and Radisson, a somewhat hard of hearing toady of a judge – the latter acting as a showcase for some of Beaumarchais' feelings about the state of the legal system at the time.

Jo Winiarski's set is nicely scrumptious, especially the dark reds used in the beginning of the story, and the period costumes by Barbara A. Bell are enjoyable to look at.

Good for much more than one hoot, holler and belly laugh, with a moral lesson to be told, this production of Figaro is a clear winner from start to finish and a good way for The Pearl to kick off their 2012-2013 theatre season.


Featuring Sean McNall (Figaro), Jolly Abraham (Suzanne), Dan Dailey (Doctor Bartholo), Robin Leslie Brown (Marceline), Chris Mixon (Court Almavia), Ben Charles (Cherubin/Doublemain), Brad Heberlee (Bazile/Antonio/Bridoison), Joey Parsons (Countess Almavia), Tiffany Villarin (Fanchette)

Freely adapted from Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais
by Charles Morey
Directed by Hal Brooks
Scenic Design: Jo Winiarski
Costume Design: Barbara A. Bell
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood
Fight Director: Rod Kinter
Production Manager and Technical Director: Gary Levinson

Presented by The Pearl Theatre Company
555 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-563-9261 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 Minutes, including one intermission
Closes: December 2, 2012

“Ivanov” - A powerful look at despair and emptiness

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

Guilt, despair, the malicious sting of unsubstantiated gossip, the fine line between comedy and pathos, and the endless boredom of a never-changing existence. All are explored in Classic Stage Company's very enjoyable production of Anton Chekhov's Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Joely Richardson
Ivanov (Ethan Hawke), the owner of an estate in 1880s Central Russia, is in the grip of melancholy, and is disgusted with himself for being so. For months he has done nothing but bemoan his mental state, as well as his inability to function. While all this has been going on, the estate has moved deeper into debt. Ivanov also refusing to listen to any suggestions by estate manager Borkin (Glenn Fitzgerald) about how to get things back on sound financial footing. Adding to Ivanov's pain is the fact that his wife Anna Petrovna (Joely Richardson) is dying.

At least some of Ivanov's problems stem from the fact that he has fallen out of love with Anna, a woman who loves him still. Yet theirs was more than just a simple marriage. Anna was Jewish, renouncing her faith when she married Ivanov, subsequently being disowned by her family. Thus, she brought no dowry into the union. Since that time there have been persistent rumors that Ivanov feels be made a bad deal with his marriage to Anna, and is waiting for her to die, or is perhaps hastening her to the grave, so he can find better arrangement. This is a feeling brought out time and again by Dr. Lvov (Jonathan Marc Silverman). Also living on estate is Shabelsky (George Morfogen), an aging Count and uncle to Ivanov.

Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance
Ivanov's only relaxation are his nightly sojourns to the estate of Lebedev (director Austin Pendleton subbing for Louis Zorich the night this reviewer saw the show), where he listens to the various news of the day. While Ivanov has a good relationship with Lebedev, the same however cannot be said of Lebedev's wife Zinaida (Robert Maxwell), who is determined Ivanov at least begin to pay the money he owes them. Also usually present at these gatherings is Babakina (Stephanie Janssen), a wealthy young widow, and Sasha (Juliet Rylance), daughter of Lebedev and Zinaida, who has long had eyes for Ivanov.

The one continual theme in the play which stands out above all others, is the terrible boredom the various characters experience day after day, and how most of them will do anything to escape from it. Such attempts ranging from entering marriages that one knows are ill-advised, to business machinations that seem plausible, but upon closer look are not on the up and up. There is also continual verbal beating about the bush by just about every character present, as if all of them are afraid or unwilling to express exactly what they want or how they feel.

All of what is being presented could be played as straight drama, but Pendleton, using Carol Rocamora's translation of the work, takes great care to leaven the piece with humor, showing not only the depths of these people's despair but also the foibles and follies of those involved. Morfogen is quite good with this, with his endless diatribes on doctors and to a lesser degree lawyers, showing perhaps what Chekhov felt about those professions. Borkin also works well in this regard, the playwright using the character for a satirical attack on business.

Ethan Hawke
Hawke is brilliant in the title role, showing Ivanov to be a man perpetually in the grip of hopelessness, as well as contempt for himself for how fall he has fallen - such as when he must beg Zinaida and Lebedev for an extension on his loan. Yet at other moments, his mind is filled with clarity, understanding and finally, an ultimately resignation to his situation. An object of pity and pain, Hawke is able to make this tormented character seem quite real. There is one moment where, after having an epiphany of sorts, one wants Ivanov to put everyone in their place and finally reclaim his life once and for all. At the same time, he is not above prejudices when it comes to his wife, and is also clearly affected by the malicious gossip that seems to always follow him.

Morfogen is pointedly hilarious as the dry-witted Count. A man who, like Ivanov, has almost no money of his own. A level-headed and principled sort, Shabelsky is not above getting involved in some of Borkin's schemes, such as a marriage to the much younger Babakina, simply as a way to relieve the boredom his life has become. Morfogen also has good chemistry in his scenes with Pendleton, their characters supposedly very old friends.

Pendleton does a nice job with Lebedev, a man who attempts to see the humor and/or reality in most situations and prefers not to lose his temper or even give advice unless forced to. His reactions during a heart-to-heart talk with Sasha are good examples of this. As for his directorial work, Pendleton demonstrates a good understand of the characters and helps to create the right atmosphere for the play. While the work has a tendency to drag at points, especially in the middle third of act one, which is mainly just two people talking to one another for a long time, once things shift from the Ivanov estate to Lebedev's, the play picks up steam and never weakens again.

Fitzgerald is nicely overbearing as Borkin. At first a seemingly astute and level headed businessman, it eventually becomes obvious he is a budding manipulator trying to better things for himself, and not above pushing people into situations they not might care for if the financial rewards were ultimately worth it.

Silverman wonderfully exudes malevolence as Lvov, the real villain of the piece. A so-called honorable man who despises those who don't live up to his definition of morality, it is by his actions that much of the gossip about Ivanov has spread throughout the province. Lvov at times going to methods and extremes that would, in today's world, be considered harassment.

Richardson is fine as Anna, though she has little to do other than continually ask Ivanov why he no longer loves her and play the pious, dying wife. However she does very well in playing a scene, one dripping with spite, when she thinks Ivanov has not been true to her. On the other side of the coin, Rylance nicely portrays Sasha as an earnest and naive young woman, drawn to the shattered wreck Ivanov has become and believing wholeheartedly that it is her duty to fix him.

One other actor definitely worthy of mention is James Patrick Nelson in the role of Kosykh, a local tax officer who's perennially complaining about what happened to him during a game of cards. His continuous descriptions and explanations of the event, and everyone else's reactions, quickly become highly comical.

The set by Santo Loquasto of the Ivanov and Lebedev estates are good, costumes by Marco Piemontese come off well, and the lighting by Keith Parham and sound design by Ryan Rumery all works nicely within the context of the story.

Funny, poignant and powerful, if occasionally a bit dragging at times, this well-executed production of Ivanov is very good indeed.


Featuring: Ethan Hawke (Ivanov), Glenn Fitzgerald (Borkin), Joely Richardson (Anna Petrovna), George Morfogen (Shabelsky), Jonathan Marc Silverman (Lvov), Roberta Maxwell (Zinaida), Anthony Newfield (Grigory Grigorich Gost), James Patrick Nelson (Kosykh), Annette Hunt (Avdotya), Anne Troup (Gavrila), Stephanie Janssen (Babakina), Louis Zorich (Lebedev), Juliet Rylance (Sasha)

Written by Anton Chekhov
Translated by Carol Rocamora
Set Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Marco Piemontese
Lighting Design: Keith Parham
Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Hair Design: Paul Huntley
Managing Director: Jeff Griffin
Production Stage Manager: Joanne E. McInerney
Production Supervisor: Production Core
Casting: Calleri Casting
Press Representative: The Publicity Office
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Presented by Classic Stage Company
136 East 13th Street
Information: 212-677-4210 ext. 10 or
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, One Intermission
Closes: December 9, 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

“The Freedom of the City” - "Packing a Political Wallop"

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Playwright Bran Friel offers a resounding indictment against oppression, misinterpretations by the media and the excessive use of force by those in power with his 1973 work The Freedom of the City. The play is based on an actual 1972 incident where 13 protesters were shot by the British Parachute Regiment in the town of Derry in British-occupied Northern Ireland.

Using that real-life situation as a template, Friel sets his story in the same location, and two years earlier, where three very different people, all strangers to one another, are taking part in a civil rights demonstration. When British authorities break up the gathering with water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas, such demonstrations being illegal, the three take shelter in the first open building they can find, which happens to be the Guildhall, where the Mayor of the town holds court.

As the trio begins to take stock of their situation, each reacts differently. Lily (Cara Seymour), a mother of eleven and who sees these demonstrations as an excuse for her to get out of the house, is fascinated by her surroundings and treats the entire experience with a sort of awe and wonderment. Skinner, (Joseph Sikora) the most vocal of the three, sees their being at the Guildhall as a tremendous joke, and through his tendency of "defense flippancy", as he calls it, a chance to get in some quick satisfaction now that the location is in the hands of the people, so to speak. Meanwhile Michael (James Russell), who's more cautious than the others and who firmly believes in civil rights, as long as there's no violence involved, wants to leave as it's safe to do so, with everything being left exactly the way they found it.

It may be too late for any of them to leave, however, as the police are preparing to surround the Guildhall, believing it to be filled with armed terrorists. All the while the media, unable to get specific information on just who is inside or what their intentions are, report a series of half-truths and possibilities, turning those in the Guildhall into local folk heroes. With the masses rooting for the unknown protesters and the British authorities desperate to regain control of the situation, a potentially dangerous scenario quickly goes from bad to worse.

Friel pulls no punches here, going for the jugular in accusing those in charge of totally mishandling things due to ignorance, fear and the need not to look stupid in the eyes of both their supporters and their detractors. Increasing the emotional impact is the fact that the story takes place in two separate time periods, continually switching back and forth between each. The first follows Lily, Michael and Skinner at the Guildhall and the subsequent involvement of the police and media; while the second takes place sometime later as a court of inquiry tries to unravel who is ultimately responsible for what occurred on that fateful day. As such, it's interesting to see the theories presented and conclusions drawn regarding what was going on, as compared to seeing what actually happened.

The only time a lack of believability creeps in is with the reaction of the three inside the Guildhall when they realize the gravity of their situation. The first act ends with the police ordering them to come out with their hands in the air. Yet in act two, while Michael wants to leave immediately, Skinner and Lily continually talk about one thing or another, with Skinner also beginning to trash the place. Yet Skinner's actions and Lily's attitude don't really jibe with the characters as they have been presented. There are some strong points made between the three during these exchanges, but it would have worked much better had the police announcement come later in the play, as having them holding a mock meeting on various mayoral issues of the day after they're been given a warning to come out stretches the credibility of the scene somewhat.

Seymour does a good job in making Lily more than a stereotypical wife and mother. At first glance a woman slowly being suffocated in a life she nonetheless loves, Lily eventually admits, with some urging from Skinner, that she's more involved in the civil rights demonstrations than she first thought, seeing in them not only a temporary escape from her endless housewife duties, but also the possibility of a better life for her children. Still, regardless of how she feels inside, she is first and foremost a mother; as shown in a cute moment when she orders a quickly chastised Skinner to get out of his wet clothes before he catches cold.

Russell effectively makes Michael both a study in denial and the most unsympathetic person of the trio. A man who believes in peaceful protests, as well always trying to see the best in people, Michael worries more about the cause he supports than what's happening to the people said cause is supposed to benefit. He also steadfastly refuses to believe that the police would harm them indiscriminately, making him somewhat naive considering what has gone on up to that point. Michael's attitudes are also in marked contrast to the unfolding events, the audience already knowing what is about to happen, though not in the manner that it does.

Sikora is good as Skinner, an angry malcontent with a fatalistic attitude, and a man determined to leave him mark, even if it's only by signing the Guildhall guestbook, before he's done. His devil-may-care attitude, coupled with a smoldering aura of violence and a past he won't discuss, leads to several confrontations between him and Michael, with Lily more often than not coming down on Skinner's side of things.

Elsewhere, John C. Vennema is nicely officious as the Judge who presides over the official inquiry by the authorities, while Craig Wroe is good as Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury, the man in charge of the various companies which surrounded the Guildhall, and who ultimately may have been responsible for the final outcome.

Ciarán O'Reilly's direction works well, building the tension nicely, though much of the extraneous material in act two slows things down a bit. However he does a good job in helping the actors to bring out the human side of their characters, showing them all to be flesh and blood figures rather than simply symbols of a cause or a particular moment in history.

Charlie Corcoran's set is nicely furnished without being over the top. Costumes by David Toser range from the functional to the officious. Sound design by Ryan Rumery is excellent throughout, particularly hitting home in the last moments of the play when it helps to paint a devastating final image just before the blackout.

The Freedom of the City looks at an event which should never be forgotten, and while some aspects of the play have become a bit dated, the work's underlying messages of misuse of authority, wrongful oppression, the rights of the individual and the need for the truth to ultimately come out, still strongly ring forth.

The Freedom of the City

Featuring: James Russell (Michael), Cara Seymour (Lily), Joseph Sikora (Skinner), Christa Scott-Reed (Photographer/Dr. Dobbs/Eileen O'Kelly), Ciaran Byrne (Priest/Soldier C), John C. Vennema (Judge), Clark Carmichael (Constable B/Soldier D/Balladeer/Reporter/Dr. Winbourne), Craig Wroe (Solider A/Reporter/Brigadier Johnson-Hansbury), Evan Zes (Soldier B/Army Press Officer/Processor Cupley)

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Ciarán O'Reilly
Set Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: David Toser
Lighting Design: Michael Gottlieb
Original Music: Ryan Rumery
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Props: Sven Nelson
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Casting: Deborah Brown
Hair and Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallance
Production Stage Manager: Pamela Brusoski
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe
Press Representative: Shirley Herz Associates

Presented by the Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
Address: 212-132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Closes: November 25, 2012

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Internet access is spotty, so sorry for the lack of updates.  Hope to be back soon.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ghosts and Ghouls in St. Mark's Place

By Byrne Harrison

If there can be said to be a theatrical equivalent of sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories, it is RadioTheatre's latest production, "The Haunting of St. Mark's Place."  Featuring the outstanding cast of Frank Zilinyi, R. Patrick Alberty, Alexandra Hellquist and Richard P. Butler, the production features all the things that you want out of a Halloween tale - supernatural visitors, spooky scenes, terrified screams, and enough creepiness to see you all the way to Halloween night.

The play begins with a classic, Lovecraft's "The Music of Erich Zann," reimagined to fit the St. Mark's Place setting for these short plays.  It continues with a story of possession, the return of a dead groom ready to claim his still living bride, a reimagining of W.W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw," and a terrific story about a dead wife's screaming skull.

Using little in the way of sets and special effects (just enough to create atmosphere), but taking full advantage of terrific music and sound effects, the company puts on a truly delightful evening of ghostly terror under the deft direction of Frank Zilinyi.

I have now seen four or so productions by this company, and continue to be impressed not only by the overall strength of the productions, but by the extremely talented cast and the well adapted plays (their work with H.P. Lovecraft's work is outstanding).  If you have never seen one of their shows, I urge you to head down to the East Village and catch one.  If you like radio theatre, you'll love RadioTheatre.

"The Haunting of St. Mark's Place"
Created by Dan Bianchi
Directed by Frank Zilinyi
Sound Engineer: Eduardo Ramirez

Featuring: Frank Zilinyi, R. Patrick Alberty, Alexandra Hellquist, Richard P. Butler

Closed: October 21st

Book Review: “Drama: An Actor’s Education” by John Lithgow

By Mark A. Newman
I’ve always found John Lithgow to be a wily sort of actor: self-possessed with patrician dignity but not too proud to turn himself into a braying jackass at a moment’s notice. I have also always thought of him as one of our country’s most underrated actors. Thankfully he’s not underused as well since he finds his way from TV (the murderous and conniving Arthur Mitchell in Dexter and his free-spirited know-it-all Dick Solomon on 3rd Rock from the Sun), to movies (his joyous and heartbreaking role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), to the stage (his suave Lawrence in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and, most recently, as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist), all the while managing to deliver compelling, artful, and entertaining performances.
In Drama: An Actor’s Education, Lithgow takes us on an autobiographical road trip through his acting career from his nomadic childhood to his Oscar-nominated and Tony-winning triumphs. Rest assured, it is a bumpy ride; his father, Arthur, a stage director and actor in his own right, took his family from hither to yon in a seemingly never ending wild goose chase from one teaching job to another directing job around a good portion of the greater Midwest and Northeast.
While some adult children of dreamers often look back in anger on such an upbringing, Lithgow instead speaks of his father with glowing admiration and affection. As the family moved from town to town young John simply rolled with the punches and the affable youth soon blossomed from just filling a spot on the stage in his father’s productions to soon having his own commanding presence in productions both amateur and professional.
Lithgow doesn’t hold back on his own foibles either. He is brutally honest about his own marital infidelities in his first marriage and dumps all of the blame on himself. He apparently had the bad habit of getting into torrid affairs with his leading ladies…ALL of them, more or less. The most notorious was Liv Ullman while the two were in the Broadway revival of Anna Christie. This was the final straw for his first marriage and this relationship had more drama than the play itself with backstage tantrums and teary confessions.
As the thespian details his forays into motion pictures, you will log on to to see exactly who he was talking about when he detailed working with an older leading man whose glory days were well behind him. You have to respect Lithgow for not naming the Oscar-winner’s name. This is a “tell all” with certain limitations.
At the heart of this book is a father and son story. Arthur Lithgow was a dreamer and he longed for bigger and better things for himself and his family. The elder Lithgow touched many fledgling actors’ lives throughout a career that was both tempestuous and triumphant. He no doubt had a vast impact on his son’s life; had he not been such a theatrical maven, young John would’ve no doubt pursued his earlier career leanings of being an artist. After seeing Lithgow recently in his Tony-nominated role as Joseph Alsop in The Columnist on Broadway, I for one am grateful for the senior Lithgow’s influence on his son.
Note: I actually listened to the audio version of Drama: An Actor’s Education while on a multi-state road trip. Read by the author, I really got the feel for his younger years as he, too, was on a never ending road trip as his father moved the family from one quixotic adventure to another!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sherie Rene Scott engages in hilarious and poignant soul-searching in "Piece of Meat" at 54 Below

By Rob Hartmann

At its best, the art of cabaret represents the peak of the storyteller’s craft. From a simple beginning, the yarn-spinner draws you in to a tale which takes you places you never quite expected to go – through twists and turns which make perfect sense at the time, although in the end you aren’t quite sure exactly how you arrived home again.

Sherie Rene Scott, in her new show, Piece of Meat, currently playing at the elegant midtown cabaret room 54 Below, demonstrates her complete mastery of cabaret and storytelling. This should come as no surprise to those who saw her earlier work, Everyday Rapture, for which she was Tony-nominated as both performer and co-author.

Ms. Scott is a professional who knows exactly how to capture an audience from her first entrance, in a deftly hilarious rendition of “5 Years Time” (by English indie-folk band Noah & The Whale.) The evening’s music ranges from the Broadway standard (1939’s “Are You Havin’ Any Fun”) to Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and the Talking Heads – all innovatively arranged by musical director Todd Almond. Mr. Almond, an accomplished theater composer-lyricist, also contributes two songs to the lineup: “Oh Sean”, an ode to a relationship sung by someone who finds herself more cynical than she is willing to admit; and the haunting encore, “This Is Why We Do This” (a collaboration between Mr. Almond and Adam Bock.)

To fully explain the details of the story with which Ms. Scott beguiles the room would be to destroy some of its magic. Suffice it to say that it begins with (as the title says) a piece of meat – or rather, a craving for meat that puzzles Ms. Scott, a longtime vegetarian who has proudly survived for years on “Tic Tacs and applause”. The journey to understand her craving takes her from encounters with a gyro on Ninth Avenue, to her youth poring over pictures of vegetarian Linda McCartney in Life magazine, to a time spent with a gay-for-pay hustler boyfriend with a yin-yang tattoo – and ultimately to conversations with present-day Sir Paul McCartney and the Dalai Lama.

The songs float in and out of the narrative effortlessly, as the mood pivots from a snappy comic tone to quieter moments of reverie. Ms. Scott is a modern incarnation of a classic Broadway type: a wide-eyed soul who sees the world with a particular mix of naïveté and bubbling wonder (who blithely dances across tabletops to retrieve a disco ball from a bow-tied-but-shirtless fella) but who, in time, reveals a carefully hidden wistfulness and longing. Her voice shifts easily from a deliciously bright pop soprano with a Broadway zip, to a more plaintive, pure and folky sound. Ms. Scott inhabits all the songs fully – to the point where it seems that music disappears and the audience is simply being treated to a full-on glimpse of the performer’s soul.

Mr. Almond, at the piano, is joined by Alana Dawes on bass (who contributes some beautiful legato phrases in the instrument’s upper registers) and Levy Lorenzo on percussion. Mr. Lorenzo supplies everything from a calypso beat to mesmerizing work on the vibraphone. In one instance, he captures a shimmering undersea mood to accompany Ms. Scott’s story of an underwater encounter which seems to begin as a comic anecdote, but which deepens into something transcendent.

Piece of Meat was presented earlier this year at Australia’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It seems that the evening might continue to evolve; certain narrative threads could easily expand further, if Ms. Scott and Mr. Almond wished to lengthen the show. However, the evening in its current form is absolutely satisfying – and the audience is left hungry for more (no pun intended.) The show feels dreamlike and at the same time very much of the present moment in the issues it explores. Ms. Scott’s particular brand of deadpan comic musings has the ability to completely suspend the audience’s disbelief. If Ms. Scott has not actually exchanged chatty e-mails with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then please don’t tell me: I prefer to live in a world where this is real.

Mention must also be made of the venue itself, the gorgeous 54 Below. Designed by Tony-award-winning set designer John Lee Beatty, the restaurant and bar evoke the vanished glamour of a 1920s speakeasy along with Parisian Art Nouveau elegance. The room strikes the perfect note of intimacy – a feeling of warmth and clubbiness (golden lighting, leather-covered tables) without overpacked claustrophobia. The food was smartly done, and the service was expertly coordinated with the show: plates magically appeared and were silently whisked away.

If Sherie Rene Scott had lived in another era, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and the Gershwins would all have been battling one another for the opportunity to create shows for her. We’re lucky that today, Ms. Scott (with her collaborators) creates a unique theatrical world for herself.

Sherie Rene Scott at 54 Below: Piece of Meat. Musical direction and arrangements by Todd Almond. Choreographer: Michael Lynch. Featuring Mr. Almond on piano, with Alana Dawes, bass, and Levy Lorenzo, percussion.

October 16-20, 23-27 at 8:30 pm, October 19, 20, 26 & 27 at 11:00 PM $60 cover charge, $30 food & beverage minimum. 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. (646) 476-3551

"Detroit" - An interesting commentary overall

By Judd Hollander

The changing times, the lack of a feeling of "community" in the present-day suburbs and the dangers of keeping secrets are the underlying themes in Lisa D'Amour's dramatic comedy Detroit.

Ben (David Schwimmer) and wife Mary (Amy Ryan) are a moderately well-off couple, living in a suburban community while trying to deal with a recent downturn in their economic situation. Ben has been laid off from his job and is working feverishly on starting his own website to launch his new business; while Mary, currently the sole breadwinner, supports Ben wholeheartedly in his new endeavor. Or so she says.

The two have also recently met their new neighbors: Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) and Kenny (Darren Pettie). A somewhat less refined duo who work menial jobs and are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Sharon and Kenny met in rehab and got married soon after. Once they finished their substance abuse programs, the two moved into a house owned by Kenny's uncle Frank (John Cullum).

The two couples make for an interesting study in contrasts. Ben and Mary being the more guarded of the two, while Sharon and Kenny are of the "let it all hang out" variety. They decided early on that due to their past problems, they should have no secrets, not only from each other, but also from the world at large. Sharon in particular has a habit of going off on rants, especially about everybody being so busy with their own lives, that they have no time for becoming involved with anyone else, even if the people in question live right next door. In an attempt to prove her wrong, Ben and Mary accept an invitation to come over for dinner, though Kenny and Sharon's food and home is definitely of a somewhat lower tier than Ben and Mary's.

The characters, while not feeling all that real at times, can nonetheless be quite interesting. Particularly with the relationship that develops between Mary and Sharon. In Sharon, Mary finds someone to tell her worries to, while Sharon offers some candid and brutally honest comments about Mary's own situation, as well as her own. Their husbands also do a bit of bonding, but in their case it's more of the stereotypical male variety, which entails them drinking beers, talking about women and planning for a boys' night out. However, even as Kenny and Sharon struggle to stay on the straight and narrow, Ben and Mary are dealing with their own repressed feelings and secrets, ones which finally come bursting out in a wild barbeque that ends in a literal blaze of alcohol and sober realization.

The underlying strength of the play is that the story itself is so involving, dealing with subjects both topical and universal - people struggling with addiction, the need to achieve success and/or maintain a style of living with which they've become accustomed, and the need to change one's situation and start anew. There are a few plot holes here and there, such as the initially somewhat self-centered Ben and Mary actually agreeing to come over to Sharon and Kenny's for dinner out of a sense of guilt, something that doesn't quite seem in their nature; and can anyone remember a wild party in the suburbs where someone didn't complain about the noise? But other than these few little narrative hiccups, the play works well enough, making its points powerfully and succinctly, rather than being overly broad or preachy.

As mentioned above, the characters are interesting, though not as fully drawn as they could be. Sokolovic is extremely good as Sharon, a young woman trying to hold on to her sobriety and home as best she can, while seeing in Mary the close friend she's never had. Pettie works well as Kenny, though the character has an excessively hard-nosed attitude, making one feel he's always ready to explode, thus removing much of his sympathy. Schwimmer is fine as Ben, but the character is too much of a cipher, spouting the words and playing a role, but never explaining what drives him or what he wants in life until the very end. By which time, it's really too late to care about him all that much. Ryan is quite good as the long-suffering Mary, her scenes with Sokolovic providing much of the dramatic meat of the play. John Cullum is fine as Frank, appearing only briefly, but his time on stage is pivotal to the story, as he flawlessly delivers a somewhat wistful monologue which takes things full circle and explains much of the back story not previously revealed.

Anne Kauffman's direction of the play is fine, though the pacing is a bit off here and there, the show moving sometimes slower than it should. The piece also feels a bit long at points, with about 10 minutes that could have been cut from the running time. Sets by Louisa Thompson are fine and the lighting by Mark Barton, as well as the various effects, all work well.

Detroit does have a few problems, but the soul of the show is enjoyable to behold, with its ultimate meaning having a powerful impact. That being how, despite everyone's best efforts and intentions, the more things change, the more they ultimately stay almost exactly the same – in terms of a mental, if not always physical perception.

Written by: Lisa D'Amour
Scenic Design: Louisa Thompson
Costume Design: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Matt Tierney
Production Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff
Assistant Stage Manager: Ryan Gohsman
Directed by: Anne Kauffman

Featuring: Amy Ryan (Mary), Sarah Sokolovic (Sharon), Darren Pettie (Kenny), David Schwimmer (Ben), John Cullum (Frank)

Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theatre

416 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running Time: I hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Closes: October 28, 2012