Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Love's Labour's Lost" - Fun and Musical Frivolity - Shakespeare Style

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

One remarkable thing about a Shakespeare work is its seemingly endless elasticity which allows it to be stretched to fit almost any scenario under the sun. Such is the case with the Public Theater's musical adaptation of the Bard's comedy Love's Labour's Lost (songs by Michael Friedman, book adapted and directed by Alex Timbers) which just finished a run at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Combining collegiate hi-jinks, a John Hughes film and an underlying look at just what love really means; this sometimes sophomoric, sometimes touching and always hilarious story offers a brilliant retelling of the Shakespeare tale, with a wide variety of comedic elements and musical styles coming perfectly together.

Somewhere in the Berkshires, right next to a college campus, the King (Daniel Breaker) and his close friends Berowne (Colin Donnell), Longaville (Bryce Pinkham) and Dumaine (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), all members of the secret society of Navarre, have agreed to give up such pleasures as good food, drink and the company of women for a period of three years in order to devote themselves to serious study. This despite Berowne's protests that men of their age - mid-20s - are supposed to be enjoying all that life has to offer; not shutting themselves away with musty books. In any event, their pledge of study, austerity and celibacy is doomed from the start as a Princess (Patti Murin) from a nearby kingdom and her entourage consisting of Rosaline (Maria Thayer), Maria (Kimko Glenn), and Katherine (Audrey Lynn Weston) is about to arrive for a long-planned visit. Making matters perhaps more uncomfortable, it seems the King and Princess are previously acquainted, the two having had a brief fling during their college days. In fact, Berowne, Dumaine and Longaville, have each had their own liaisons with Rosaline, Maria and Katherine respectively during that not-so-long ago period. An attraction which, on some level is still there for all involved.

The basic theme of Love's Labour's Lost is essentially an exploration of the idea of love and how that state of being often means different things to different people. For while the men soon find themselves romantically drawn to the Princess and her ladies, and thinking in terms of flowery verse, rhyming couplets, and endless passion, the women are having none of it. The Princess having long since tiring of one-night stands and promises of endless bliss, wants instead a more solid and serious commitment; these feelings brilliantly expressed through some of the songs Murin sings in this regard. Yet at the same the Princess and her group are not quite ready to fully embrace adulthood, as evidenced by their partying outside the men's lodgings at points. It's this internal conflict of people caught between the seemingly carefree days of youth and responsibilities of maturity which provides the main trust of the story.

After a few awkward moments at the beginning, which includes Berowne singing a song for a sequence that really doesn't need to be musicalized, the production quickly takes off, presenting some wild overacting and scenery-chewing moments, all to completely hilarious results. Some of the highlights include a scene where the Spanish Duke Armado (Caesar Samayoa), proclaims his love for the serving girl Jaquenetta (Naomi Jones). There's also an extended sequence where Berowne, the King, Dumaine and Longaville separately proclaim how much they are in love with their various ladies fair and break into four distinct musical styles of expression, each sequence being completely different from the one that came before and all so not in keeping with the characters as so far presented as to make it all wonderfully over the top in execution.

Yet mixed in with all the comedy are many serious and telling moments, such as Boyet (Andrew Durand), servant to the Princess and her party acting as a sort of moderator for the flirtations between the sexes as the various couples do a verbal dance around what they really mean. There's also Berowne, the rogue of the group, who sings about men committing themselves to the abject beauty of true love; while at another point in the story the Princess pushes her idea of serious commitment, one divorced from any romantic trappings that may come with it. The truth of the matter falling somewhere in between as shown when Rosaline, who makes a perfect romantic foil for Berowne, sings about how it's better to take a chance at love and risk getting hurt rather than wait for something completely safe and solid to come along, especially if that offer is bereft of passion and pleasure.

Acting is excellent throughout. Particularly Murin as the Princess who looks like her character could have stepped right out of a '80s or '90s coming of age movie, the actress showing a no-nonsense attitude coupled with a youthful exuberance lurking just below the surface. Thayer is fine as the more cynical Rosaline, who matches wits with Donnell nicely and who is determined not to be just another in Berowne's string of conquests, but who still can't help finding herself being swept off her feet by his charms. Glenn and Weston are good as the other ladies in waiting who get in few good lines and are able to imbue their characters with enough of a personality to make them stand out on their own and not just blend into the story - a common problem in some productions of this play.

Donnell meanwhile is terrific as Berowne, a likeable rapscallion who knows full well there is a time and place for study and a time and place for fun, yet he's not above being as foolish as the rest of the men when it comes to matters of the heart. The character's strength being that he's not afraid to admit this fact. Breaker makes a good King, nicely officious but with a somewhat checkered past and when he does cut loose, he brings the house down in a shower of laughter and applause via his transformation from a royal ruler to a would-be lover. Samayoa is wonderfully outrageous as Armado. Pinkham and Near-Verbrugghe do good jobs as Longaville and Dumaine, while Durand is fine as Boyet, another often underused character in most versions of this work. Another bit of fresh air comes from Charlie Pollack, a perennially bored servant – and one usually in trouble with the law - who comes across as kind of a stoned David Spade. Jones is nicely appealing as Jaquenetta, one of several working class folk popping in and out of the story. She and a number of the other servants and workers getting together to offer a nicely pointed song called "Rich People".

The score is a lot of fun with the various styles and sequences presented including tap, Mexican, a tuba number and a marching band. Along with multiple songs of love, angst and responsibility. With tempos ranging from ballad to pop-rock.

Direction by Timbers is not always the cleanest, but it works in allowing the various characters to act in a completely unexpected manner at times, all of which only serve to make them and their situations all the more endearing. Also on hand are Rachel Dratch and Jeff Hiller, playing two aging professor types, providing several amusing and comedic moments. The set by John Lee Beatty works well, giving the entire production a proper summer getaway atmosphere and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller are excellent. Danny Mefford's choreography is also very good, with a highlight being a sort of angelic chorus line sequence.

A great breath of fresh air blew through the Delacorte Theater with this production of Love's Labour's Lost which adds a wonderful new twist to a Shakespeare classic. Here's hoping the show will move somewhere else, or at least be recorded for posterity.

Love's Labour's Lost
A New Musical Based on the Play by William Shakespeare
Songs by Michael Friedman
Book Adapted and Directed by Alex Timbers

Featuring: Daniel Breaker (King), Colin Donnell (Berowne), Bryce Pinkham (Longaville), Lucas Near -Verbrugghe (Dumaine), Patti Murin (Princess), Maria Thayer (Rosaline) Kimko Glenn (Maria), Audrey Lynn Weston (Katherine), Andrew Durand (Boyet), Caesar Samayoa (Armado), Justin Levine (Moth), Kevin Del Aguila (Dull), Charlie Pollock (Costard), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Jaquenetta), Rachel Dratch (Holofernes), Jeff Miller (Nathaniel), Michael R. Douglass, Bradley Gibson (Ensemble)

Musicians: Kevin Garcia (Drums), Freddy Hall (Guitar), Marika Hughes (Cello), Justin Levine (Conductor, Keyboard, Synthesizer), Gray Reinhard (Keyboard 2), Charlie Rosen (Bass)

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Music Director: Justine Levine
Choreographer: Danny Mefford
Wig Design: Leah J. Loukas
Orchestrations: Michael Friedman and Justin Levine
Music Supervisor: Matt Stine
Music Contractor: Antoine Silverman
Dramaturg: Anne Davison
Production Stage Manager: Arthur Gaffin
Stage Manager: Jamie Greathouse
Dance Captain: Patti Murin

Delacorte Theater in Central Park
Closed August 18, 2013

"Summer Shorts, Series B" - An Exploration of Relationships

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Carol Rosegg

Personal interactions are the key element in Series B of 59E59 Theater's annual Summer Shorts program. Consisting of three separate one-act works, all by different writers and all with a different director and cast, each of the pieces insightfully explores issues of maturity, change and emotional baggage.  Each piece also looks at people at different stages of life.

Things start off with Falling Short by Marian Fontana. Lee (Kendra Mylnechuk), a New York writer in her early 40s and a long-time widow is trying to get back into the dating game. Though she has the support of her family in this endeavor, she keeps running into one loser after another, all hilariously portrayed by Shane Patrick Kearns, on the dating website she frequents. However, one specific entry does receive her attention, Nate (J.J. Kandel), a thirty-something recently-separated actor who's currently working at a Renaissance Faire. After their first date gets off on the wrong foot, Nate arriving 23 minutes late for dinner at a Brooklyn restaurant, things go from bad to worse when it becomes clear that Nate lied in his on-line profile. Yet as the evening goes on Lee finds, to her great surprise, that she's unexpectedly drawn to this man. Especially when it's revealed she and Nate have both suffered great personal tragedies, and also that Nate isn't the only one who lied, or at least omitted certain things in the dating profile.

Both cute and funny, Falling Short offers some interesting situations when it comes to issues of love, loss and moving on, even though the show's ending is somewhat ambiguous. While both Kandel and Mylnechuk do a good job with their respective roles, the character definition is at times too one-dimensional. Thus one never feels more than a passing interest for the people involved. High marks must go to Kearns, who nearly steals the show in his role as Eric, a gay waiter who commiserates with Lee on the problems of finding a stable and happy relationship while she's waiting for Nate to make his belated appearance. Falling Short is directed by Alexander Dinelaris.

Next up is Paul Weitz's Change. The action takes place in the home of Ted (Alex Manette), and Carla (Allison Daugherty), a long-time and well-off married couple in their mid-forties who are seeing their old friend Jordan (Michael D. Dempsey) for the first time in about two decades. Jordan, who has just gotten out of rehab, has been involved with drugs since the trio's college days and also used to be Carla's boyfriend. During their verbal reminisces, Jordan wonders if Ted and Carla want to revisit their illegal substance days and offers to score some weed if they front him the money. After a bit of half-hearted hemming and hawing, Carla and Ted agree. However what Jordan returns with is something far stronger, the result leading to old feelings, sexual and emotional, coming to the fore, as well as the ironic realization that it's Jordan who may actually be the most mature and together person of the trio.

Interesting to a point, and a play which could easily have been presented as low comedy, high drama or a complete farce, the playwright and director Billy Hopkins seeming to go for something in-between all three; the central idea suffers due to a serious lack of characterization, with all three persons coming off as too shallow to really care about. A chief problem is Ted and Carla's unwillingness to take a stand on anything. Rather they continually pass decisions back and forth, each seeing how far the other will go or perhaps hoping the other will say "no" and bring everyone back to reality. Their overall behavior is also rather strange since their children happen to be asleep in the next room. A fact brought up constantly, lest anyone forgets.

The acting by Manette, Dempsey and Daugherty is okay, if nothing special. Though the comedic moments, especially those by Daugherty when her character is in the midst of a drug-induced haze, work far better than the dramatic ones.

The final piece of this collection, and by far the most poignant, is Alan Zweibel's Pine Cone Moment. A play about two elderly people experiencing what may very well be their last chance at love. That is, if they can find a way to leave their baggage from the past behind.

Harry (Brian Reddy), a widower for the past seven years, has been carrying on a clandestine and so far platonic affair with Emma (Caroline Lagerfelt), the wife of his deceased best friend. Now, Harry wants to take their relationship to the next level with a weekend trip together. However Emma isn't sure she's ready to for that, especially since her late husband Barry (James Murtaugh) is still constantly in her thoughts, even though he's urging her to move on and begin again. At the same time, Harry isn't completely free of his own former spouse, the overbearing Bunny (Camille Saviola), who ran roughshod over their entire marriage, with Harry always giving in simply because it was easier than to put up any kind of fight. Yet Harry now finds that need to take the easy way out preventing him from pursuing a future with Emma and it may take more than one otherworldly intervention to ultimately turn the tide.

Interspersed with flashbacks when Barry and Bunny were alive, Pine Cone Moment shows how marriages are shaped by how much effort one puts into them. All four actors play their roles very well. Reddy is especially good as a man wanting to come out of his shell for the first time in decades, but terrified to try to become the person Emma wants him to be, and the person Barry knows he can be. Lagerfelt strikes the right note as someone holding too tightly to the past, while Murtaugh does well as the wise husband who understands quite well the needs of the living. Saviloa's performance is a bit hamstrung by her rather stereotypical character, but it's both funny and realistic enough to work perfectly in the premise the playwright has set up.

Funny, touching and with a couple of gentle life lessons tossed in, Summer Shorts, Series B makes for an interesting and overly pleasant pastime.

Summer Shorts, Series B

Falling Short
Featuring: Kendra Mylnechuk (Lee), Shane Patrick Kearns (Eric, Others), J.J. Kandel (Nate)

Written by Marian Fontana
Directed by Alexander Dinelaris
Assistant Director: Isabel Carter

Featuring: Alex Manette (Ted), Michael D. Dempsey (Jordan), Allison Daugherty (Carla)

Written by Paul Weitz
Directed by Billy Hopkins
Assistant Director: David Friedman

Pine Cone Moment
Featuring: Brian Reddy (Harry), Caroline Lagerfelt (Emma), James Murtaugh (Barry), Camille Saviola (Bunny)

Written by Alan Zweibel
Directed by Fred Berner
Assistant Director: Megan Correia
Choreographer: Deanna Dys

Set Design: George Xenos
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson

Sound Design: Marios Aristopoulos
Costume Design: Tamara Menear
Production Manager/Assistant Stage Manager: Mark Karafin
Jenna Lazar: Assistant Stage Manager

Wardrobe Supervisor: Megan Parker
Technical Director: Bob Teague
Casting: Billy Hopkins
Casting Assistant: Ashley Ingram
Press Representative: David Gersten & Associates, David J. Gersten/Daniel Demello
Production Stage Manager: Dee Dee Katchen
Producing Organization: Throughline Artists

59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Information: or
Running Time: 1 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission
Closes: August 31, 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" - Definitely ready for a return engagement

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

With themes about love, marriage and relationships that resonate just as strongly today as when the show first appeared, the 1978 Off-Broadway hit "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" (book and lyrics by Gretchen Cryer, music by Nancy Ford) still has a lot to say. The work just finished a five performance run as part of the New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center series.

Heather (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a television soap opera star and musical talent to be reckoned with, has gone through some major emotional upheavals, including a failed marriage and becoming a single mom. Wanting to start a new page in both her personal and professional life, she has put together a musical/cabaret act featuring contemporary songs with an attitude - all of which help convey her own rebirth. Now, on the day of her 39th birthday, she's getting ready for her opening performance, said performance taking place at a New York City cabaret house where numerous members of the recording and entertainment industry will be in attendance. Their presence is due in no small part to the efforts of Heather's long-time manager and close friend Joe (Frederick Weller).

However Joe is not at all sure that what Heather wants to present is something that's going to be accepted by the public. Trying to keep things more "mainstream," he wants her to cut all references in the act to her age, believing youth sells better than maturity. He also wants to take out a sketch showing the problems which occurred in Heather's parents' marriage, as well as one which examines the mistakes she made in her own - using a mock wedding ceremony complete with unrealistic marriage vows. Also on Joe’s list of moments that have to go is what essentially amounts to a diatribe by Heather on the problems men and women have in finding love and understanding with each other.

At first Heather finds herself acquiescing, albeit reluctantly, to Joe’s demands. Heather has a great loyalty to her manager, the two having been through a lot over the years - including a brief romantic fling. Yet she soon realizes that unless she does her act the way she wants to, she'll simply be going back to the way things were. Something she is definitely not prepared to do.

Dated in terms of dialogue used while timeless when it comes to the underlying issues, including looking at truths one doesn't want to see, "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" works very well here thanks to a dynamite performance by Goldsberry. The actress offers a magnificent portrayal of a person who has clearly been through the emotional wringer and is beginning to come out the other side. It also helps that Goldsberry has a tremendous stage presence, grabbing and holding the audience's attention and making one immediately start rooting for Heather to succeed in her journey.

With a script filled with quite telling comments and observations, the overall experience works wonderfully. Any dated moments are nicely taken care of thanks to the show's scenic design work by Derek McClane which gives the entire atmosphere a sort of 1970s coffee house feel. Costumes by Clint Ramos also help to set the mood. The overall musical score is excellent, with numbers ranging from the hard driving "Strong Woman Number" to the more poignant "Dear Tom", a message to her ex-husband; and "Old Friend", a love letter from Heather to Joe, showing the deep and complex bond they share.

Just as important to the story is Weller’s portrayal of Joe, a man who initially comes off as a sort of an anachronistic lounge lizard, but who slowly develops into the most shaded character in the piece. In lesser hands he could easily have been seen as not at all sympathetic, but Weller and director Kathleen Marshall are able to make the character work perfectly, thus forcing the audience to look at the various core issues not only from the women's point of view, but from the man's as well. All the while showing that no one on either side is completely innocent of using manipulation or of being manipulated. It also helps tremendously that Goldsberry and Weller have a good counterbalance to each other, both their characters giving off an undeniable chemistry. 

The rest of the company are all very good in their respective roles. Jason Rabinowitz does a nice turn as a young musician in love, or at least infatuated with Heather; while Christina Sajous and Jennifer Sanchez do very well as backup singers in their musical numbers with Goldsberry. Marshall's direction is also key; taking the piece, blowing the dust off and, except for a few brief moments here and there, making it seem completely fresh and alive.

Touching, joyful, pulling no punches and never trying for the easy way out, there is a lot to like in "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road." A show that, with a cast like this, completely deserves to be resurrected somewhere else, and soon. Here's hoping that will happen.

"I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road"

Book and Lyrics by Gretchen Cryer
Music by Nancy Ford
Scenic Designer: Derek McLane
Costume Designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting Designer: Mark Barton
Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations by: Scott Berry, Bob George, Lee Grayson, Don Scardino and Dean Swenson with Nancy Ford
Orchestration for "Strong Woman Number" by Elliot Weiss
Production Stage Manager: Tripp Phillips
Casting: Carrie Gardner, C.S.A./Stephen Kopel, C.S.A.
Music Director and Conductor: Chris Fenwick

Associate Music Director: Greg Jarrett
Assistant Music Director: Josh Clayton
Associate Director and Choreographer: David Eggers
Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

Featuring: Renée Elise Goldsberry (Heather), Frederick Weller (Joe), Christina Sajous (Alice), Jennifer Sanchez (Cheryl), Jason Rabinowitz (Jake - Acoustic Guitar), Chris Fenwick (Piano), Alec Berlin (Electric Guitar), Damien Bassman (Percussion), George Farmer (Bass).

York City Center Encores! Off-Center
131 West 55th Street
Closed: July 27

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review - "The Fallen" by Yasmina Beverly Rana

By Lex Friedman

In "The Fallen," the latest offering from T. Schreiber Studio and directed by the man himself, playwright Yasmina Beverly Rana dives headfirst into a recent but undertold history lesson: the gruesome events and lasting effects of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It's a subject I knew very little about and after having watched Ms. Rana's play, I am ashamed that I hadn't ever considered learning more.

Ms. Rana takes us through events ranging from the brutal raping and forced pregnancy of Muslim women in the region to the private suffering of one of the children "forced to be born," to the repression and denial of the soldiers who committed these heinous acts. And while the subject is provocative and the performances earnestly realized, the play itself felt overwrought and, at times, pedagogical.

The production was a bit over two hours long, without an intermission (perhaps to better foster the suffocating climate of the country at the time) and at six "parts" (really seven scenes) each one-or-two person interaction averages about 20 minutes. The protracted scenes did little to create the urgency implied by the writer's actual text, keeping the whole of the experience contemplative, rather than experiential.

Each scene is so fraught with high drama that it is difficult to discern which points Ms. Rana wanted to stand out strongest or to underplay for effect. There's a coyness, a reluctance to mention the religious nature of the conflict which, for viewers like me, left me feeling as though I'd be told "you ought to know better." (There are allusions to pork and even one fascinating story about the forbidden meat being snuck into meals as a punishment that shrug toward Muslim as Crime but it is not made clear until a recording of Bosnia's eventual apology is broadcast over the final scene change."

As a writer, however, Ms. Rana does have a way with words, and when you sift through the repetition, there are truly beautiful moments of poetry. "I never learned anything in school," laments a conflicted soldier, played with striking simplicity by Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz. "I never asked any questions."

Mr. Schreiber's staging is curious. He has actors deliberately upstaging one another, forcing their partners to stand downstage, delivering their lines out into the middle distance. In a monologue about valuing stillness and staying where she is, Mr. Schreiber has Anais (Kelly Swartz) pacing back and forth around the stage, expending all this caged energy. A museum security guard (George Mauriadis,) whom the audience can identify as Anais's potential father, circles around his appointed room, and while the Mr. Mauriadis lends an appropriate and engaging stoicism of manner and inner conflict to the man, it is somewhat diffused by all the cat-and-mouse staging of the penultimate scene of the play.

However confounding the direction, though, Mr. Schreiber's passion for the project comes through. Perhaps this is why each scene (save the first) begins already at such emotional heights with little room to rise. The urgency to stay true to the the emotional life of the tortured and the discarded has trumped the necessity for the piece to rise and fall, to follow an arc, to give the audience a moment to understand what it is they've seen. I'd be hard-pressed to pick a climax.

As it is clear that this play is profoundly important to the director, so too it is easy to see how meaningful it is to each of the performers - everyone jumps in with both feet and you can tell a great amount of care went into the craft of this ensemble.

Ms. Swartz has a striking moment near the end of her lengthy speech where she is furious, raging, and at the same time laughing, spitting in the face of irony like a viper. Mr. Sienkiewicz languishes and evades and pauses and considers with remarkable nuance in both his post-coital opening moments and his somehow more vulnerable turn as a soldier ordered but unable to rape the young women held captive in a prison camp. 

The eventual main focus of the piece, Anais seems at once curious to know and combative towards answers. But when presented with the opportunity to get them from characters she meets along her journey, she balks. Eventually she demands answers from her mother (a pillar of seasoned strength as portrayed by Molly Gyllenhaal) and the play ends with the possibility that Anais might learn a little more about the struggle but without the assurance that she'll be satisfied with the answer. Not that we need one. Nothing about this subject is cut-and-dry, but ought it to be? The catharsis one might expect after two hours of theater is muddled by the fact that each event seems to have the same weight throughout. Further homogenizing the story, the six characters revealing their own point of view of the subject, seemed to represent little diversity in their approach to hindsight.

There are a few notable moments of theater magic as well. As the young hostage Mirela, Ms. Gyllenhaal pleads "Am I really here?" and then proclaims "I'm not really here!" all the while sitting on a rotting cot in a gutter elementary school. With a trick of the lights (designed by Eric Cope,) Mirela's shadow appears perched on a school chair, looming over the scene, maybe still here but not here. In a different time, when the building held friendlier memories for Mirela.

Hal Tiné's set was bleak and sparse and effectively versatile, invoking the unfamiliar comfort of a hotel room of a tourist in Trieste, an aerie-like rooftop over war-torn Sarajevo, a starkly-lit holding room in a prison camp.

Overall, it is clear the subject is worth telling, and I don't doubt that Ms. Rana could be the one to tell it - it is clear that it important to her and that she does not approach the subject of being the product of systematic, brutal rape cavalierly. I just felt that if it is to be dramatically dynamic, perhaps she might have been well served standing a little further away from the material for a moment, at arm's length long enough to carve away any bits well-worn or unintentionally recurring or pedantically instructive and reveal the specific, visceral, horrible visage underneath in as succinct and powerful way as Part Five's centerpiece, Jean Feutrier's sculpture that so moved her, Head of a Hostage.

We cannot possibly know, but we are compelled to try to understand.

"The Fallen"
By Yasmina Beverly Rana
Directed by Terry Schreiber

Closed July 28th