Monday, April 14, 2014

“My Mother Has Four Noses” - Intimate But Sometimes Uneven

By Judd Hollander
Photo by Sandrine Lee

The phrase "My mother has four noses" is not a play on words, a joke, parody or something with any major cosmic significance. Rather, it refers to something much more serious and all too real in Jonatha Brooke's very moving one-person show of the same name. This revelation being the starting point in Brooke's tale regarding her relationship with her mother, especially during the final two years of her mom's life.

Brooke takes great care to paint a clear picture of her mom, Nancy Lee Stone through words and pictures, thus allowing the audience to feel they know her quite well. Nancy wrote poetry, had a great sense of humor and was a devout Christian Scientist to the point she ignored a personal medical situation for nearly two decades; leading to the loss of part of her face and the introduction of the four noses in the title - one for each season of the year. Brooke pointing out that while her mother depended heavily on her faith, when there was some kind of crises "then she turned to me". Brooke also admits that her own rejection of this religion caused something of a strain in their relationship. Yet through it all there remains a deep connection between the two women, one often more of emotion than words.

Things change when Nancy starts experiencing signs of dementia. Jonatha becoming her de facto caregiver, along with the support of her husband and her husband's sister Julie. Brooke describing the painful process of beginning to lose someone she loves to a condition over which she has no control and where flashes of her mom's humor and lucidity mix with ever-increasing incidents of disorientation, rage and anger. There's also the issue of her becoming incontinent and all that that entails. Most telling of all however, is the ever-present fear Nancy starts to exhibit, such as when she refuses to take her various medications and the struggles that resulted in an effort to get her to do just that.

This is a tale that is sadly all too universal and Brooke's unhesitancy about bringing forth her own feelings in the matter allows the story to shine as she recounts the huge struggles and occasional triumphs she experienced while dealing with Nancy's condition. These include describing how Nancy starts collecting junk and giving it to family members as Christmas gifts; the pride in her voice as she reads her mom's poems; and the awe and relief she felt when it became clear that Julie was able to calm Nancy down when no one else could.

It also helps that Brooke tosses in a goodly amount of humor into the mix to leaven out the overall seriousness of her tale. Such as when her mother is trying to plan an escape in a wheelchair during a physical therapy session following knee surgery. Stories like these - which include talking about the different noses and her mom' s love of hats - also help to show more than just the pain and hardship of what was happening, thus making the entire piece much more interesting and involving.

Where things run into problems is when Brooke, who is also a singer/songwriter, injects various musical moments into the story. That's not to say the songs she performs aren't good - it's just that they're not really necessary and serve more as a distraction from the overall narrative. It's this uneven blending of styles that keep things somewhat off balance and also succeed in removing an element of immediacy from the tale. It also results in the show feeling a bit too long and taking too much time to get to its ultimate conclusion.

Jeremy B. Cohen's direction is fine as he helps Brooke, who obviously has a clear idea of the story she wants to tell, bring the proper emotional emphasis to the forefront, though Cohen is also hamstrung by the use of the musical selections, which ultimately keep the tale from delivering its maximum potential.

Also quite good are Caite Hevner Kemp's various projections, which greatly aid in creating a more fully formed image of Brooke's mom. Also deserving of mention are the efforts of the two onstage musicians, Ben Butler and Anja Wood.

My Mother Has Four Noses is a very touching and personal tale and Brooke deserves great credit for being able to talk about her experiences so clearly and expressively. However, it probably would have worked better without the various musical touches.

My Mother Has Four Noses
Written and Performed by Jonatha Brooke
Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen
Produced by Patrick Rains
Associate Producer: Pam Carter
Musical Director/Guitar: Ben Butler
Cello: Anja Wood
Orchestrations: Jonatha Brooke & Ben Butler
Set & Projection Design: Caite Hevner Kemp
Lighting Design: ML Geiger
Sound Design: Paul Mitchell
Production Stage Manager: Anne Lowrie
Musical Contractor: Antoine Silverman
General Management: The Work Room
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass
Marketing: Red Riding Marketing
Advertising: Media Bridge Advertising
Press: Susan Blond, Inc. & Coyle entertainment

The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Tickets: (646) 223-3010 or
Running Time: Two Hours, with One Intermission

Closes: May 4, 2014

“Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes” - An Intense Journey

By Judd Hollander

They say truth is stranger than fiction. It certainly is in the case of Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes, a one-man show written by and featuring Hayes, who recounts his own story of his time as a drug smuggler, being thrown into a Turkish prison, receiving a 30 year sentence, and his eventual escape to freedom. His story previously chronicled in the book "Midnight Express", which is prison slang for "escape", and the subsequent feature film. Since the outcome of what happened is known from the first moments of the play, if not before, what makes Hayes' story worth hearing is the actual journey he takes. One not only from place to place, but also of maturing and understanding; and thanks to Hayes' willingness to share his recollections, wart and all, it's a fascinating journey indeed.

Following the path many others took in the 1960s, Hayes turned on, tuned in and dropped out. Realizing the money to be had through drugs, he began making trips to Turkey, buying hashish there and bringing it back to the United States where he sold his ill-gotten gains at a huge profit. His first few trips through Turkish customs were relatively easy, taping bags of hashish to his body, hiding them in a plaster cast, etc. to avoid detection. However he found the entire process so easy that, by his own admission, he began to get careless and before his final trip didn't thoroughly check out the security procedures at the Turkish airport. As a result, he ended up being stopped just before he got on the plane where the drugs he was carrying were found by security guards, who were actually relieved that all Hayes had on him were drugs, rather than explosives of some kind. However that was enough to get Hayes sentenced to more than 4 years in jail, at least at first. The added time came later.

Hayes' narrative is divided into sections, he recounting them with alternatively a matter-of-fact air, a bit of wryness when he recalls - as he puts it - the "stupid" things he did to get him into this situation, as well a more serious and somber attitude as he brings to life the emotions he felt from the different events he experienced. Each of these moments being fascinating in their own way, Hayes having the ability to vividly recreate the scenes he's speaking of and bring those listening right into the story with him. The middle portion of the play giving a good idea to the uninformed, which one assumes would be most of the audience - this writer included - of what life was like in a Turkish prison at that time. This includes the camaraderie he felt, the friendships he formed, the enemies he made, and the survival instinct which kicked in that enabled him to withstand it all. Eventually, he is able to come to terms with what he's done and accept his punishment. That is until, due to various political circumstances, his time in jail is increased to 30 years. This in turn leads to a fascinating scene whereby Haynes recounts how he addressed the judge and his accusers just before his revised sentence was handed down.

From there the story takes on the aspects of a thriller as Hayes plots his escape from prison, and from the country itself. Hayes methodically laying out his orchestration and execution of these events, as well as the attitude of those he encounters while on the run. There's also more than a hint of amazement in Hayes' voice when he realizes just how lucky he was to make it to safety.

Hayes is a good narrator and has a congenial quality about him as he takes a story he's told hundreds of times before and fills it with feelings, descriptions and emphasis that makes it all completely fresh and absorbing. It's also the smaller details he talks about that add a more involving element to the entire tale. Such as the fact his additional sentence allowed him to select the prison where he would serve his time, so he could choose one which be advantageous to an escape; his taking a manual labor job at the prison to get himself in shape for his flight; as well as how the dangers of fighting in jail can get you in trouble with the authorities while at the same time building you a rep in prison. Also telling in Hayes' story is his own internal transformation from an irrepressible kid who thinks he's above the law to someone older and wiser who's willing to admits his mistakes. This in turn transforms the play into an intimate, personal and completely relatable journey. Hayes also tosses in a bit of rueful resignation when talking about the Hollywood process as he points out several pivotal moments in the "Midnight Express" film that never really happened. This includes one particular scene which got the Turkish government rather upset - and as Hayes notes, rightly so.

John Gould Rubin's direction is pretty much flawless, giving Hayes enough space to tell his story but never over-dramatizing, over-sentimentalizing or making the entire piece feel overlong in any way. The program notes also help detail Hayes' time in Turkey, along with the escape route he took. All of which help to fill in some important background information for the audience.
Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes is compelling from start to finish and a show one should definitely see. Especially as it offers a chance to hear a riveting story from the lips of the man whose story it is.

Riding The Midnight Express With Billy Hayes
Written and performed by Billy Hayes
Presented by Barbara Ligeti, Jeffrey Altshuler and Edmund Gaynes
Co-Producers: Jonathan Chang, Jann Cobler, Exodus Broadway, Joseph Trent Siff
Press representative: Gary Springer, Springer Associates
Marketing & Advertising: Amanda Pekoe, The Pekoe Group
Set & Lighting Consultant: Josh Iacovelli
General Management: Form Theatricals (Anthony Francavilla and Zachary Laks)
Directed by John Gould Rubin

St. Luke's Theatre
308 West 46th Street
Running time: 85 minutes, including a Q&A with Mr. Hayes

Closed: March 23, 2014

Sunday, April 13, 2014

54 Below - Karl Saint Lucy performs on Monday, April 14th

54 BELOW, Broadway's Supper Club, is expanding its popular late-night series with fresh faces and hot new performances to keep the party buzzing into the wee hours.  Located just below the legendary Studio 54 at 254 West 54th St.

KARL SAINT LUCY, April 14 at 11:30PM:

Karl Saint Lucy, Brooklyn-based composer and singer-songwriter, will present his solo debut, Karl Saint Lucy: Easier Said Than Done, on April 14th at 54 Below. Songs young and old will be sung, all in Saint Lucy's eclectic high-art-meets-campy-trash idiom. Born in St. Louis and raised all over the heartland of the United States, Karl Saint Lucy is a songwriter whose influences are as varied as his experiences. He was conceived the moment Joni Mitchell shared "Free Man in Paris" with David Geffen, and he lost his innocence the moment Rufus Wainwright shared "Dinner at Eight" with his father, Loudon. Saint Lucy found his way into songwriting by way of musical theatre; he studied musical theatre composition with Michael John LaChiusa, William Finn, Polly Pen, and other great New York theatre composers through the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch. What comes out in the work of Karl Saint Lucy is a synthesis of people and places that reveals not only love-hate relationships with genre, approach, and his country of origin; but also a fierce determination to redeem those relationships to better inform the present. He also really loves torch songs. $5 food & beverage minimum. Two alcoholic drinks or $20 food & beverage minimum.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

50 Shades! - A smart, raucous party musical

By Rob Hartmann
Photos by Matthew Murphy

A few years ago, I was sitting waiting for my flight in the gate area in a Midwestern airport during a layover. The woman next to me was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. A woman sitting across from us pulled her copy out of her bag and exchanged a knowing look with the woman next to me. Another woman pulled out a copy a few seats down. Winks and giggles. Another woman pulled out her copy, and the sequel. A fifth woman joined the pack. The woman next to me whispered apologetically, “It’s just so… good.” I hadn’t really heard of the book before that moment, but it was clear that it was a phenomenon.

The latest manifestation of the Grey craze is the frothy, brash satire 50 Shades! The Musical, billed as “The Original Parody of the Greatest Novel Ever Written.” Created by members of the improv group Baby Wants Candy while the troupe was in Edinburgh performing another show, 50 Shades! is a smart, raucous party musical that deftly skewers E.L. James’s “mommy-porn” bestseller. I confess I have never read the book — but 50 Shades! can be enjoyed by fans, haters and non-readers alike.

The show begins with a trio of book club members (Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson and Ashley Ward) who decide to take on Fifty Shades of Grey. Williamson, rocking a Courteney Cox wig, gets things rolling with sharp comic dancing and rockstar vocals. Frotton also appears as bedhead-in-a-bathrobe roommate Katherine Kavanaugh, with a vocal-fry voice like a pan of bacon. Co-creator Ward, as hapless bookclub member Carol, stands out with goofball charm like an American Tracey Ullman.

Amber Petty and Chris Grace take on the roles of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Petty is a wide-eyed wonder channeling the sweet naivete of young Goldie Hawn with the baby-voice breathiness of Amy Adams. Grace rules the stage as the bondage-obsessed billionaire. He struts through his numbers, including a Rocky Horror-style down and dirty rock-n-roll anthem, with a great voice and spot-on comic timing. By the time he appears in a wrestling singlet which leaves nothing to the imagination, Chris Grace has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Tim Murray is a comic standout as Anastasia’s tango-dancing and flashbulb-popping admirer Jose. There is also plenty of eye candy on display: Adam Hyndman and Alec Varcas go shirtless for much of the show, exhibiting physiques that are normally only seen on comic-book superheroes. Casey Renee Rogers, as the Inner Goddess, shows off actual dance chops in the dream ballet (yes, there’s a dream ballet) while poured into a patent leather dominatrix outfit (John Dunnett designed the costumes, as well as the sets.)

Co-directors Al Samuels and Rob Lindley keep the energy turned up to 11 and never let the pace falter. The show doesn’t just parody Fifty Shades of Grey; there are sly references to Phantom, Les Miz and there’s even a helicopter. Mindy Cooper’s choreography finds comedy in small moments, while making the most out of the limited space. The cast proves that New York is home to insanely talented actors: you would not expect a group this funny to also be able to sing as well as they do. This cast gives every screlter on Broadway a run for their money.

The group-written score mixes Motown with musical theater parody, along with a dash of Gilbert & Sullivan. Music director Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards leads a rocking band, featuring Michael Shapiro on drums and Lavondo Thomas on bass.

The Elektra Theatre at the Times Square Arts Center has a bar area, as well as movie-theater-style drink holders at your seat. This show is one to see while having a few drinks with your friends. 50 Shades!  shows its improv-comedy roots — it is smart, sharp, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and knows when to wrap it up. The show zips by, with all cylinders firing at every moment (I imagine the cast has to be exhausted after every performance — they go all out.) Bachelorette parties, girls-night-out, and yes, book clubs should be flocking to this show. 50 Shades! delivers the goods.

Al Samuels, Emily Dorezas, Marshall Cordell, Andrew Asnes, Brett McDonald, Rob Kolson present 50 Shades! The Musical: The Original Parody.

Music & Lyrics by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Dan Wessels, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Written by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Emily Dorezas, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Featuring David Andino, Kaitlyn Frotton, Chris Grace, Adam Hyndman, Tim Murray, Amber Petty, Casey Renee Rogers, Alec Varcas, Ashley Ward & Chloe Williamson.
Costume & Set Design: John Dunnett.
Sound Design: Matt Kraus.
Lighting Design: Herrick Goldman.
Musical Director: Michael Thomas Murray.
Choreographer: Mindy Cooper.
Co-Directors: Al Samuels & Rob Lindley.

Elektra Theatre at Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd Street at Eighth Avenue.