Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Caesar and Cleopatra - More Intellectual Than Gripping

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Who would have thought Julius Caesar would be turn out to be a moderate sort? At least that’s how he appears in George Bernard Shaw’s seldom-seen comedy, Caesar and Cleopatra. Written in 1898 and presented by Gingold Theatrical Group at Theatre Row, the play offers some valuable lessons on wisdom born of experience, and the dangerous impetuousness that comes with youth.

In ancient Egypt, Roman commander Caesar (Robert Cuccioli), head of a conquering army, has a chance meeting with Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim), the young Egyptian Queen. At first bemused by her impetuous attitude - and her fear of the approaching Roman soldiers; she thinks they will eat her - he quickly sees possibilities in this young upstart. His plan being to mold her into someone who will rule Egypt in his stead when he departs. Caesar's efforts met with the initial displeasure and eventual grudging consent of Cleopatra's Chief Nurse and defacto ruler of the royal palace, Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton).

While Cleopatra soon begins to grow into her role - as evident from the way she carries herself, and by the clothes she learns to wear - her actions show her to still be very much a child. Especially when it comes to choices made in the heat of anger. The results of which neither Caesar or Cleopatra can afford. Egypt being in turmoil when it comes to the leadership question. A situation Pothinus (Rajesh Bose), guardian to the young King Ptolemy, is doing his best to inflame.

       Robert Cuccioli (Caesar and Teresa Avia Lim as the title characters in Caesar and Cleopatra.
                                                                  Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Containing more than a few elements of Shaw’s later work, PygmalionCaesar and Cleopatra is all about the teacher/pupil relationship. However, where in Pygmalion, the student eventually outgrows the teacher; here it is the teacher who is firmly in control. A keen military strategist, and a student of human nature, Caesar understands just how far he can cajole, threaten and push those who oppose him. Violence always being for him, the final option. Of course, the underlying message here is that those who do not heed Caesar's warnings, do so at their own peril. As one person, who stays too long where they are not wanted, ultimately finds out.

As with most of his plays, one can find numerous examples of Shaw’s caustic wit sprinkled throughout. The chronological differences between the two main characters being a frequent subject of discussion and through it, a window into the play's take on the eternal battle between youth and age - and which of them actually knows best. Though it should be noted that Caesar himself is far from infirm and can still indulge in a bit of youthful exuberance under certain circumstances. The show also takes the occasional poke at late 19th century British society – another favorite target of Shaw's – through the character of Caesar's loyal servant, Britannus (Jonathan Hadley).

Cuccioli does an excellent job as Caesar. The actor bringing a genial, and at times almost whimsical world-weariness to the character. While never letting anyone forget the power he commands. Lim is fine as Cleopatra. No Eliza Doolittle here, the actress shows Cleopatra as one who too quickly becomes the person Caesar tries to create. She embracing her new role, but initially unprepared for the responsibilities that go with it.

Braxton is fine as the officious, but always to be reckoned with Ftatateeta. Jeff Applegate is very good as Rufio, basically matching Ftatateeta when it comes to loyalty; and someone always more comfortable when he has a sword in his hand. Bose gets in some good political points as Pothinus, and Dan Domingues offers enjoyable comic relief as Apollodorus - the Sicilian.

                                       Brenda Braxton as Ftatateeta. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Despite its many pluses, the Gingold presentation also suffers numerous missteps. David Staller's direction in particular, never able to make the production feel anything more than amateurish. As such, one is never truly enveloped in the story. The entire presentation lacking any real passion, which makes it hard to care what happens to any of the characters on an emotional level. There is also never a true feeling of danger or peril present in any of the more tension-filled moments of the story. Something those involved with the production needed to find a way to properly bring out.

This is a work that also screams for something more than the “one size fits all” set design by Brian Prather used here. Ftatateeta also acting as a narrator of sorts during various transitions from scene to scene and location to location. Some of Frederick Kennedy’s sound effects also come off as more laughable than realistic.

Caesar and Cleopatra is an intriguing work with some very important points to make. But this production, despite an excellent cast, is unfortunately not able to do its message full justice.

Featuring: Brenda Braxton (Ftatateeta), Robert Cuccioli (Caesar), Teresa Avia Lim (Cleopatra), Jeff Applegate (Rufio), Jonathan Hadley (Britannus), Rajesh Bose (Pothinus/Ptolemy/Sentinel), Dan Domingues (Apollodorus).

Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra

Scenic Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design: Jamie Roderick
Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Mandracchia
Production Manager: Cate DiGirolamo
GTG General Manager: Alyce Stark
GTG Associate Director: Stephen Brown-Fried
Advertising & Marketing: DR Advertising
Press Representative: David Gersten & Associates

Directed by David Staller

Presented by Gingold Theatrical Group
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.Telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 Hours, with one intermission
Closes: October 12, 2019

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Tech Support - When Life Is What You Make It

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Who among us hasn't at one point longed for a break from hi-speed technology and a return to a time when things were simpler? This is the starting point for Debra Whitfield's time-traveling romantic comedy Tech Support, presented by Chatillion Stage Company at 59E59 Theaters.

In New York City, in the year 2020, 40 year-old Pamela Stark (Margot White) is having a meltdown. Her printer is jammed, her coffee maker won't work, and her husband recently broke up with her on Instgram Live. There are also over 200 people in the phone queue ahead of her waiting to speak to a computer technician. A rare book dealer by trade, Pamela increasingly feels like "an analog girl trapped in a digital world" and yearns for the days where everything isn't measured by information bytes, and "trolls were just dolls with funny hair".

Finally getting through to a tech support guy named Chip (Ryan Avalos), and pouring her heart out to him, Pamela is suddenly offered a choice not only for a different technical department, but also a different time period. She then finds herself in 1919, the first of many time jumps she will experience, interacting with those around her as she attempts to find her way home. Though with each successive shift, Pamela must also face the consequences of what her visits to earlier eras had set in motion.

                          Margot White in Tech Support.  Photo by Russ Rowland 

Containing echoes of Eric Overmyer's 1985 stage work On The Verge, and the classic Twilight Zone episode A Stop at Willoughby, Whitfield's script stresses the danger of taking life for granted. This shown via the various women's issues - such as abortion and birth control - explored in the play; and how the rights and choices people in the present have long since grown to expect, may not always be there in the future. Each of the time periods Pamela visits being on the cusp of societal change in regards to traditional women's roles.

Probably the most important decision by Whitfield was to show Pamela as one of those everyday people just trying to get through life. Thus making her far more relatable to the audience than say, a scientist working on a major breakthrough. White does an excellent job in the role; the character growing more confident in herself as the play progresses. This change gradually leading Pamela to realize the importance of living in the here and now - whenever that here and now happens to be. It's a truth the rest of the characters already understand and one Pamela must learn before she can get to her final destination.

Another important aspect of the play is the enjoyable mixture of humor and drama throughout. A nice continuing element, one which ties in to the growing adaptability of Pamela's character, is her ever-quickening ability to recover whenever she accidentally drops in a 21st century saying in the wrong era. There's also an enjoyable running gag of why Coca-Cola seemed to have had more of a kick to it in 1919 than in later times Pamela visits.

                        Margot White and Mark Lotito in Tech Support. Photo by Russ Rowland

It also helps that many of the people Pamela meets are well-rounded enough to make them seem quite real. Particularly interesting is Charlie (Mark Lotito), a widowed World War I veteran and someone who, in his own way, has just as many problems with technology in 1919 as Pamela did in 2020. Lauriel Friedman does very well as Grace, a character whose changes through the decades provides a perfect example of how opportunities for women have changed over the years. Avalos does quite well as various people Pamela encounters in her journey - all of whom have the same name. Leanne Cabrera nicely rounds out the cast in the two roles she takes on.

The various technical elements of the play come together well; particularly in regards to the different temporal shifts. Deborah Constantine's lighting and Ed Matthew's sound design being key here. As are the projection design by Elliott Forrest. Natalie Taylor Heart's sets nicely makes full use of the relatively small playing area.

The once place the script unfortunately does go off the rails is during a brief sojourn to 1978. Too many of the characters in this sequence being presented as stereotypical caricatures; which ends up cheapening much of the entire scene - one which is only there to present a single plot point in the first place. Whitfield, who also handles the directing chores, being unable to make the characters gel here in a way she did with ease in the other segments.

There are a few other elements in the script that don't work as well as they should. A riff on the classic "walk this way" routine falls flat, and a reference to the dancing team of Vernon and Irene Castle doesn't fit chronologically the way it's delivered. On the whole however, Tech Support is an entertaining tale of one woman's attempt to find her place in the universe, and who winds up finding herself in the process.

Featuring: Ryan Avalos (All the Chips), Leanne Cabrera (Maisie/Lupé), Lauriel Friedman (Tech Support Voice/Grace/Tori), Mark Lotito (Charlie/Joe/Biff), Margot White (Pamela Stark).

Tech Support

Written and Directed by Debra Whitfield
Scenic Design: Natalie Taylor Hart
Costume Design: Janice O'Donnell
Lighting Design: Deborah Constantine
Sound Design: Ed Matthew
Sound Design Consultant: Carlene Stober
Projection Design: Elliott Forrest
Hair & Make-Up Design: Inga Thrasher
Prop Master: Cyrus Newitt
Dramaturge: Benjamin Viertel
Casting: Stephanie Klapper, CSA

Presented by Chatillion Stage Company
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 646-892-7999 or www.59e59.org
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Closes: September 21, 2019

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Moulin Rouge! The Musical - Where Love Triumphs

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Love and passion collide with loyalty and responsibility in Moulin Rouge! A stirring powerhouse of a Broadway musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

It's 1899 and the fabled Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris – where one’s darkest fantasies can become reality – is on the edge of bankruptcy. Owner Harold Zidler's (Danny Burstein) only chance to save the club is to convince the Duke of Monroth (Tam Mutu), a frequent visitor, to become its financial patron. The Duke however, is more interested in Satine (Karen Olivo), the Moulin Rouge's beautiful and seductive star. As such, it has been arranged for Satine to meet and seduce the Duke; thus making him more pliable to any financial requests.

Yet on the very night this is to happen, Satine, in the grand tradition of mistaken identities and convenient coincidences - unexpectedly encounters Christian (Aaron Tveit). A singer/songwriter from America, Christian has come to Paris to be an artist, and has arrived at The Moulin Rouge at the urging of his friends Toulouse-Lautrec (Sahr Ngaujah) and Santiago (Ricky Rojas) to sing one of his songs to Satine. The three hoping she will be impressed enough to induce Harold to put on the show they have been working on.

With Satine and Christine each having their own agenda, neither expects the immediate connection that occurs when they first lock eyes. Christian quickly falling deeply in love with this beautiful vision; while Satine, who has long since let her heart grow cold after a lifetime of hardship, is surprised to find herself genuinely attracted to this young man.
                       Aaron Tveit as Christian and Karen Olivo as Satine. Photo by Matthew Murphy

For those who work at The Moulin Rouge, the most important thing is survival. The club may not be perfect, but it is a safe haven from the outside world, and certainly better than trying to survive on the street. This need also translates into a deep-seated loyalty among the dancers, all of whom consider themselves a family. Each willing to do whatever it takes for the others, even at the expense of their own happiness. It's a value system Christian, having never been in such a situation, is unable to understand. It's the same reason Satine, who has agreed to become the Duke's mistress so he will save the club from closing, initially dismisses Christian's belief in love above all as foolish and childlike.

Based on the hit motion picture of the same name, Moulin Rouge! at times feels like an immersive experience. One which begins the moment you enter the theatre and see the stage decked out in red, with a windmill on one balcony and a blue elephant on another. The story may be set in 1899, but the music, through which most of the story is told, is altogether modern. The songs used ranging from the Beatles and David Bowie to the Talking Heads and Lady Gaga.

Alex Timbers' direction skillfully handles the blending of the various musical elements with John Logan's text. With none of the musical numbers, some of which provoke knowing laughs from the audience, coming off as tired or strained. Matching Timbers beat for beat is Sonya Tayeh's flawless choreography. Particularly enjoyable are the dance numbers at The Moulin Rouge in act one, as well as "Bad Romance". The latter a sequence from the show Toulouse-Lautrec and the others have conceived.
                            The Company of Moulin Rouge! The Musical   Photo by Matthew Murphy.

While not all of the songs necessarily advance the plot, they all wonderfully help set the mood and feel of the show, and work to make the overall experience a rousing success. It's also nice for a change to be actually able to hear the lyrics in question, instead of the music being so over-amplified, the audience is unable to discern what the actors are singing. (A sadly frequent problem in musicals today.)

Another strong touch is the continual showcasing of color throughout. A can-can dance number being particularly striking in that regard. Said color use also making it rather jarring when we see the muted and lifeless hues worn by those in high society when the Duke attempts to integrate Satine into that part of his life.

Just as important is the mixing of the show's dramatic elements with moments of humor. Such as Christian's first meeting with Toulouse-Lautrec and Santiago, where he warbles a tune from "The Sound of Music". Christian and his friends, along with Satine and Harold, also doing a hilarious take on the backers audition process when they are forced to quickly improvise themselves out of an awkward situation with the Duke. There's also an amusing subplot involving Santiago, supposedly the "greatest tango dancer in Paris", and Nini (Robyn Hurder), one of the dancers at The Moulin Rouge.

Olivo perfectly embodies Satine, a strong, cynical woman who has long since learned to use her various talents to her advantage. Her dark demeanor nicely offset by the softer, yet just as striking performance of Tveit as Christian. The two meshing quite well as the star-crossed lovers. Burstein is excellent as Harold. He taking what could easily be a stereotypical villain and turning him into a three-dimensional character; struggling to balance what is necessary with what is right. Ngaujah adds both humor and pathos as Toulouse-Lautrec. Someone who once shared Christian's worldview when he was younger, but unlike Satine, has never forgotten what it is to dream. Muto is convincingly menacing as the Duke. His performance calling to mind a combination urbane gentleman and coiled snake.
                              Danny Burstein as Harold Zidler.  Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Exploring the idea of love in its many forms, Moulin Rouge! is nothing less than a heart-wrenching journey through both the darkest and brightest parts of the human soul.

Featuring: Jacqueline B. Arnold (La Chocolat), Danny Burstein (Harold Zidler), Robyn Hurder (Nini), Holly James (Arabia), Reed Luplau (Pierre), Jeigh Madjus (Baby Doll), Tam Mutu (The Duke of Monroth), Sahr Ngaujah (Toulouse-Lautrec), Karen Olivo (Satine), Ricky Rojas (Santiago), Aaron Tveit (Christian).

Ensemble: Jacqueline B. Arnold, Olutayo Bosede, Kyle Brown, Sam J. Cahn, Max Clayton, Aaron C. Finley, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Bahiyah Hibah, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Reed Luplau, Jeigh Madjus, Morgan Marcell, Brandt Martinez, Jodi McFadden, Kevyn Morrow, Fred Odgaard, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Benjamin Rivera.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Book by John Logan

Based on the 2001 Twentieth Century Fox Motion Picture Written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, Directed by Baz Luhrmann.

By special arrangement with Buena Vista Theatrical

Scene Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
Hair Design: David Brian Brown
Makeup Design: Sarah Cimino
Creative Services: Baz Luhrmann/Catherine Martin
Casting: Jim Carnahan/Stephen Kopel
Music Producer: Matt Stine
Music Director & Additional Arrangements: Cian McCarthy
Co-Orchestrates: Katie Kresek/Charlie Rosen/Matt Stine
Dance Arrangements: Justin Levine/Matt Stine
Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons
Associate Director: Ashley Rodbro
Associate Choreographer: Katie Spelman
Music Supervision, Orchestrations, Arrangements and Additional Lyrics: Justine Levine
Choreographed by: Sonya Tayeh
Directed by Alex Timbers

Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 25th Street
Tickets: 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com
Running Time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission
Open run

Monday, June 3, 2019

Happy Talk - Portrait of an Unhappy Narcissist

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

When one continually projects a sunny disposition, no matter the circumstances, it’s possible the person in question is trying to hide some deep personal pain. Such is the situation one character faces in the world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg’s ironically named Happy Talk. The play being presented Off-Broadway by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

At first glance,
Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) seems like a happy suburbanite. She is married to Bill (Daniel Oreskes), whom she loves; and is an apparent social pillar of her community. She is also an amateur actress and is currently in rehearsal for a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the local Jewish Community Center. Perhaps the only dark spot in Lorraine's existence is her strained relationship with her aged mother. The caring of her mom the responsibility of Ljuba (Marin Ireland), the family’s live-in maid/nurse. Ljuba hails from Serbia and happens to be in the U.S. illegally. Lorraine being all too aware of Ljuba's situation.

L-R: Marin Ireland and Susan Sarandon in Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk,” in a world premiere production from The New Group, directed by Scott Elliott, at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. for more, www.thenewgroup.org

When Ljuba mentions her constant worry of being discovered by the authorities, Lorraine comes up with the idea of marrying her off to Ronny (Nico Santos), one of the actors in the South Pacific company. This despite the fact Ronny is already in a committed relationship, one he has no desire to terminate. However, Ronny and his partner are not in the best financial straits; and when learning he will receive $15,000 for entering into the marriage, said money coming from what Ljuba has saved over the years for this express purpose, he agrees to the plan. 

While things quickly begin to feel like a television sitcom - one can almost hear the canned laughter at points – it soon becomes obvious what we are seeing is a case study of someone’s world falling apart. Lorraine desperately trying to maintain an air of happiness and certainty, even as key elements in her life begin to unravel. 

Lorraine, as one quickly learns, needs to be the total center of attention – of everything. She happily getting involved in Ljuba and Ronny’s lives, clashing with the South Pacific director about her character, and always steering the flow of any conversation so it becomes all about her. She is also able to come up with convincing excuses for any unfavorable situation, so nothing ever becomes her fault. As when she learns the South Pacific cast has never invited her out for drinks after rehearsals.

It also soon becomes apparent that Lorraine is quite well-versed in the art of denial. She continually putting up a happy front so she does not have to face other, more serious realities. Including certain medical issues concerning those closest to her. Coupled with this is the fear she has of being abandoned and left alone. An issue which further manifests itself when she realizes Ljuba’s upcoming marriage could result in her getting a green card, and thus no longer in need of Lorraine's protection.

L-R: Daniel Oreskes, Nico Santos, Susan Sarandon and Marin Ireland in Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk,” a world premiere production from The New Group, directed by Scott Elliott, at The Pershing Square Signature Center. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni. for more, www.thenewgroup.org
Especially interesting are the events set in motion by Lorraine and Bill’s daughter, Jenny (Tedra Millan). A confrontational sort, she has totally rejected her mother’s sedate, middle-class world. The irony being that Jenny’s various acts of defiance may prove to be just as hurtful to others as her mom’s behavior has been to her.

Eisenberg has crafted a story with a number of possibilities, but misses several key points which would have made everything come together. Such as a fuller exploration of the relationships between Lorraine and her various family members. Yet despite this weakness, one still can connect with Lorraine and what she is feeling. That is, until the final scene where the playwright takes things in a completely new direction. One which makes no sense in relation to what has come before. 

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to surprise the audience with a last minute reveal. But after closing the previous scene with a deeply emotional moment - and an indication of where things are going – by changing gears so abruptly, the entire play falls flat. The final scene also giving the impression of being tacked on as an afterthought. In addition, the last sequence is missing several important points when it comes to characterization and plot. Ones which, if worked into the story earlier, might have made the ending make sense.

Sarandon does an excellent job as she takes Lorraine from annoying to sympathetic to something much darker. Oreskes is quite good as Bill, a character who says volumes with very few words; yet in the end is able to perfectly get any across any point he needs to make. Marin does well as Ljuba, a woman looking to start a new life, although her trust in the wrong person may prove her undoing. Millan is fine in what amounts to an extended cameo as Jenny. Her scenes with Lorraine showing neither woman really listening to what the other has to say. Santos unfortunately, is saddled with a role which never rises above parody. His scenes designed to be light and cute, rather than anything deeper. Also, his habit of joining Lorraine in quoting lines and singing bits of song from South Pacific becomes tiresome very quickly.

The direction by Scott Elliott is uneven. His efforts working better in the dramatic moments, but floundering whenever he tries to bring to life any of the comedic situations in the script. Though ironically, his sharpness in staging the ending only serves to call attention to its failure in respect to the overall narrative of the piece. The scenic design by Derek McLane nicely calls to mind the suburban setting that the play imagines.

Ultimately, Happy Talk feels either like a play rushed into production too soon, or one labored on too long with someone on the creative team not knowing when to stop.

Featuring: Marin Ireland (Ljuba), Tedra Millan (Jenny), Daniel Oreskes (Bill), Nico Santos (Ronny), Susan Sarandon ( Lorraine ).

Happy Talk
By Jesse Eisenberg

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen
Fight Direction: UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Leah J. Loukas
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Judy Henderson, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA

Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.TheNewGroup.com
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermissions
Closes: June, 16, 2019

Sunday, May 19, 2019

High Button Shoes - Not Reaching Nearly High Enough

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Pretty much relegated to the dustbin of history, the Broadway musical High Button Shoes is mainly remembered by theatre lovers and historians for its “Bathing Beauty Ballet”. A classic piece of choreography by Jerome Robbins which opens act two. The show itself not seen on Broadway since its initial run 1947, where it notched an impressive string of 747 performances. Sadly, a recent revival by Encores! at New York City Center showed why this work is unlikely to again grace the stage anytime soon.

Set in 1913, High Button Shoes tells the story of perennial confidence man Harrison Floy (Michael Urie) and his partner/shill, Mr. Pontdue (Kevin Chamberlain). After several close brushes with the law, the two head for Harrison’s boyhood home of New Brunswick, New Jersey. Once there, Harrison passes himself off as a salesman extraordinaire, and re-ingratiates himself with the well-to-do Longstreet family - whom he used to work for years earlier. In short order, Harrison ensnares the entire town in a real estate scam. His plan being to fleece as many folks as possible before he and Pontdue hop a train out of town.

(L-R) Kevin Chamberlin and Michael Urie in the Encores! presentation of High Button Shoes
Photo by Joan Marcus

Harrison also finds himself part of a love triangle. He supposedly courting the very eligible and beautiful Fran Longstreet (Carla Duren); daughter of Sarah Longstreet (Betsey Wolfe). Fran however, is in love with Hubert Ogglethorpe, a.k.a. Oggle (Marc Koeck), a member of the Rutgers football team. Though Harrison’s promises of the bright lights of Paris soon threaten to sweep the unsuspecting Fran off her feet. It doesn’t hurt that Sarah is also firmly in Harrison’s corner. The elder Longstreet trusting Harrison on just about everything. A loyalty which soon stokes the fires of jealously in Sarah’s husband (Chester Gregory).

At the heart of High Button Shoes are several themes with a clear and simplistic moral tone. Such as a warning not to take advantage of others, even when it would be clearly quite lucrative to do so; and how true love will eventually win out. Yet while there certainly is potential in the material, in the Encores! production, it all pretty much falls flat. Stephen Longstreet’s book feels tired and clunky, with almost no character development, and precious little else to hold one’s interest. John Rando’s directorial efforts are also rather lackluster. Particularly in being unable to inject any element of nostalgia into the proceedings. Something one assumes was a big selling point to 1947 audiences. The sets by Allen Moyer and costumes by Ann Hould-Ward also never really rise above the mediocre.

The biggest problem of all is with the character of Harrison. While Urie has previously proven himself quite accomplished in both dramatic and comedic roles, in High Button Shoes, he seems completely out of his depth. He also channels Phil Slivers, as evident in the character's speech and movements. Silvers playing Harrison in the 1947 production. Unfortunately, none of Urie's efforts yield any of the roughish charm or caustic wit which might have made his interpretation at least somewhat appealing. His efforts instead coming off as annoying and vapid. Not a good thing when said character is at the center of the story.

                                        The High Button Shoes Ensemble.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Other characterization problems in the show include a complete lack of chemistry between Harrison, Fran and Oggle; as well as no explanation of why Sarah demonstrates a complete trust in Harrison from the very beginning. The latter issue running counter to the character's otherwise cautious and level-headed nature.

The music by Jule Styne is pleasant enough but unmemorable, as are the lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Not surprisingly, the highlight of this production are the different numbers which feature the Robbins choreography, as excellently staged here by Sarah O’Gleby.

Quite amusing indeed was the “Bathing Beauty Ballet” - a roughly 10-minute piece done in a frenetic Keystone Cops style. The sequence following Harrison, Pontdue and Fran as they descend on Atlantic City, only to be pursued by the police and some of the people from Longstreet. Though without the audience being given a chance to connect with the various characters, and thus start to care about them, the piece loses much of its charm. Far more effective was the gentle duet “I Still Get Jealous”, where Sara and her husband recall how much they still care for one another after many years of marriage. It must also be said that the Encores! Orchestra, under the very capable hands of music director and conductor Rob Berman, is never anything less than superb.

High Button Shoes may have been a hit once upon a time, but it needs a complete overhaul to make it anything more than a passing interest today. An interest which is forgotten almost as soon as the final curtain comes down.

Featuring: Michael Urie (Harrison Floy), Kevin Chamberlin (Mr. Pontdue), Matt Loehr (Uncle Willy), Chester Gregory (Papa Longstreet), Aidan Alberto (Stevie), Carla Duren (Fran), Betsy Wolfe (Sara Longstreet (Mama)), Marc Koeck (Oggle), Mylinda Hull (Nancy), Jennifer Allen (Shirley Simpkins), Wayne Pretlow (Elmer Simpkins).

Ensemble: Ward Billenisen, Sam Bolen, Colin Cunliffe, Nicholas Cunningham, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, Christine DiGallonardo, Michael Everett, Ta'Nika Gibson, Berklea Going, Marc A. Heitzman, Lea Horowitz, Cajai Fellows Johnson, Robin Masella, Skye Mattox, Kaitlin Mesh, Justin Packard, Nathan Andrew Riley, Blakely Slaybaugh, George Slotin, Madison Stratton, Shaun-Avery Williams

High Button Shoes
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Sammy Cahn
Book by Stephen Longstreet
Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins
"Bathing Beauty Ballet" and "I Still Get Jealous" choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by Sarah O'Gleby

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Philip Lang
Concert Adaptation: Jack Viertel
Production Stage Manager: Peter Lawrence
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by Sarah O'Gleby
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by John Rando

Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed: May 8-12, 2019

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus - A Missed Opportunity

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

No one involved in the theatre sets out to present a bad play; producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom notwithstanding. However sometimes one gets so enamored of what they're trying to say, the message of the show can become lost. Case in point, Taylor Mac’s glorious misfire that is Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, now running at the Booth Theatre on Broadway.

In ancient Rome, the years of war and bloodshed may finally be over, but the aftereffects are still being felt. The streets littered with the bodies of the dead. In an effort to get things back to normal as quickly as possible, hundreds of corpses have been moved out of public sight to a grand ballroom in a sumptuous hotel. Assigned to clean up the remains, a process which entails draining the bodies of blood and other internal matter, are Janice (Kristine Nielsen), a maid, and a second-rate clown named Gary (Nathan Lane).

                                  Nathan Lane in GARY. Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Things do not start off well as the two get down to the gritty business at hand. Janice, a long-time veteran of this kind of process, is all business. She also knowing that they need to be finished by the next morning - the room scheduled to be the site of an elaborate inauguration. Gary meanwhile, is more interested in making jokes in regards to the carnage in front of them, as well as honking the horn he always carries. He is also delighted with himself for having escaped the hangman’s noose. This being the character’s fate in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Though in this case, some fast-talking and the need for people to assist in the clean-up process, helped to spare his life.

In the midst of taking care of the bodies, Gary suddenly makes a decision. He announcing he will no longer be simply a clown; a profession he's actually always hated. Rather, he will now be a fool. Specifically, a fool of Shakespearian ilk. One of those characters used by the Bard in his plays as an everyman voice of common sense. Gary believing that, with these attributes, he save the world and thus make things better for everyone. Or at least he can now get enough people to listen to him so they can help him to change things.

With Gary, Taylor Mac has come up with a satirical tale containing more than a hint of topicality. One showing hope rising from the ashes of despair, and where the seeds for a new society are sewn amidst the devastation caused by the present one. These possibilities leading to some heated discussions between the characters. As when Gary takes Janice to task for burying her head in the sand and ignoring what’s been going on around them, instead of trying to find some way to stop it. Janice coming right back at him saying how someone needs to be around to clean up after the battle is over – this being far from her first massacre. She also making clear that she has long understood how the world works, and how important it is for those who survive to make sure things return to normal. Even if the normalcy is only a cosmetic change, with the underlying problems remaining the same, no matter who's in charge. Adding another perspective is the midwife Carol (Julie White); a traumatized victim of what has occurred, who is desperately trying to find something important she has lost.

                          Nathan Lane, Kristine Nielsen in GARY_Photo by Julieta Cervantes

Gary is billed as “a new comedy” and there is certainly a lot of humor in the piece. More than 90% of it delivered by Lane - look for a funny bit regarding the position of the sun. At least some of which fulfills Mac’s purpose of getting the audience laugh at the most inopportune moments. Unfortunately, all too often, things devolve into half-hearted campiness, continual mugging, and the using of anatomically correct corpses as props. All of which gets very old, very fast.

When doing a so-called sequel, it’s also best to quickly establish any connection to the relevant source material, and then start building a new story from there. Past successful stage examples of this include A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter which also spotlights initially minor characters in a Shakespearian work.

Here however, the exposition takes the form of a far too-lengthy monologue by Lane. As well as frequents asides and references to the characters in Titus and what happened to them – all of which only serves to bog down the play with unneeded information. While one could argue that Titus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, it would have been far better if the show simply used any past events as a springboard to a new story, rather than repeatedly explaining what has come before.

There is also a problem with George C. Wolfe’s direction. The play at times feeling more aimless than engaging; with a story often wandering about in search of a through line. As a result, any message the play purports to have is buried in a sea of excess verbiage and eventually collapsing under its own weight.

The ironic thing is that beneath all the pontificating, one finds a powerful mortality tale with an important message to impart. However, as things stand now, Gary is basically a 30-minute masterwork trapped in a bloated exercise more than three times that length.

Featuring: Julie White (Carol), Nathan Lane (Gary), Kristine Nielsen (Janice.)

Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus
By Taylor Mac

Scenic Design: Santo Loquasto
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Lighting Design: Jules Fisher/Peggy Eisenhauer
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair and Wig Design: Campbell Young Associates
Casting: Telsey & Company
Press Representative: DKC/O&M
Production Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes
Company Manager: Jessica Fried
Production Manager: Aurora Productions
Associate Producer: Jillian Robbins
Movement by Bill Irwin
Original Music by Danny Elfman

The Booth Theatre
222 West 45th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Information: GaryOnBroadway.com
Running Time: One Hour, 40 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: August 4, 2019

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Lady in the Dark - An Enlightening Journey

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The one thing most people will tell you when it comes to dreams is that they often don't make sense. Either literally or chronologically. Different people from various aspects of one’s life coming together in ways not possible in the waking world, but making perfect sense in the context of the dream. As for what it all means, that's a matter for psychoanalytic study. It’s also the premise Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin used as a starting point for the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark. The original production running 467 performances, though it has rarely been revived in New York since. MasterVoices happily deciding to return the show to the Big Apple stage with a recent, and all-to-brief run at New York City’s Center.

Lady in the Dark tells the story of Liza Elliott (Victoria Clark). The hard driving, buttoned-down editor of the fashion magazine “Allure”. A well-regarded industry trendsetter in telling women what to wear, how to look and what to do in order to feel good about themselves. Always on top of her game, Liza is one of those folks who is married to her job. Something Charlie Johnson (Christopher Innvar), the publication's head of advertising, points out.

Lately however, Liza has been having some unsettling dreams. Ones she can recall in vivid detail. These episodes are starting to interfere with her work and causing her to begin to doubt her professional abilities. She is also unable to make up her mind about certain decisions - ones both work-related and personal. Her 10 year-relationship with the married Kendall Nesbitt (Ron Raines) about to change, now that his wife has finally agreed to give him a divorce.

        Victoria Clark and MasterVoices Company in the Circus Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

At her wit’s end and with nowhere else to turn, Liza goes to see Dr. Brooks (Amy Irving), someone who specializes in psychoanalysis. A field Liza initially has little faith in; though at this point, she is willing to try anything. This turning out to be a wise decision on her part. For, as Liza begins to describe her dreams, ones where she is the center of attention, reveling in the adoration she receives from others, it is Dr. Brooks who points out how Liza’s dream persona is completely the opposite of how she is in real life. It’s through the descriptions of these dreams – ones which are acted out on stage – that Liza’s turmoil starts to become clear.

What the show's creators are saying with Lady in the Dark – the title itself an indication of how Clark’s character increasingly finds herself – is the importance of getting in touch with one’s feelings. The show also taking pains to point out how painful childhood memories can have a lasting effect on a person’s psyche. Even if the original cause of any such trauma may have been completely unintended. While the analysis sessions are rather oversimplified (something noted in the show program), all involved - including Christopher Hampton and Kim Kowalke, who worked on the script adaptation for this production - treat the subject matter with a genuine respect. They meaning to show Liza’s journey to be only the starting point for the work she has to do in order to continue to grow.

A brilliant move was to have all of the musical sequences take place only within the confines of the dreams. This allowing for the use of different motifs and styles without violating the overall premise of the story. Various members of the company performing different roles during these sequences. Roles which ranged from high society types at a nightclub to members of a circus troupe.

The score is enjoyable, if not altogether memorable. The two major exceptions to this being "The Tschaikowsky", a humorous ditty that's expertly delivered by David Pittu; and “The Saga of Jenny”, as brilliantly sung by Clark. The latter, a rather nonsensical song when one listens to the narrative, but one which works perfectly in the confines of the circus dream sequence. Offering excellent musical background work when required were the MasterVoices ensemble. The orchestra, conducted by MasterVoices Artistic Director Ted Sperling, ably helping to set the tone for the various sections; although the music and chorus voices did make it hard to hear the lyrics at points. Especially during the early portion of the story.

        Victoria Clark and Doug Varone Dancers in the Glamour Dream. Photo by Richard Termine.

Sperling also does a good job as the show's director, he nicely handling the character development and overall progression of the story. Particularly during the transitional moments when the tale shifts from dreams to reality. The appropriate actions exaggerated or toned down as required. Tracey Christensen's costumes are excellent, particularly the different outfits Clark wore in the dream sequences, as well as the garments used by the different characters in the circus section. Also very nicely done is Doug Varone's choreography - both with the slow, ballet-like numbers and the more energetic comedic pieces.

Clark shines throughout and offers a strong stage presence as Liza; whether trying to understand why her life is suddenly coming apart, or as part of a dream that may hold key to what ails her. Raines is nicely dependable in the pretty much thankless roles of Nesbitt. Pittu does an excellent comic turn as Russell Paxton, a staff photographer at the magazine, milking his lines for all they're worth. He also garnering laughs as a rather over the top circus ringmaster.

Innvar works well as Charlie, and makes a very good caustic foil for Liza. The chemistry clearly visible between the two characters, with each showing an underlying respect for the other. Ben Davis does quite well as Hollywood star Randy Curtis. A man who seemingly has it all, yet is perhaps in need of his own time on the couch. Irving does a good job is the subdued but pivotal role of Dr. Brooks.

Lady in the Dark offers a strong example of the Broadway musical coming of age and not afraid to tackle subjects outside the norm. The recent offering by MasterVoices proving to be, while not completely perfect, a fine offering indeed.

Featuring: Victoria Clark (Liza Elliott), Amy Irving (Dr. Brooks), Ashley Park (Miss Foster/Sutton), Montego Glover (Maggie Grant), David Pittu (Russell Paxton/Beekman/Ringmaster), Christopher Innvar (Charley Johnson/Marine), Ben Davis (Randy Curtis), Ron Raines (Kendall Nesbitt/Pierre), Ruby Sperling Waxman (Young Liza), Bradley Beakes (Ben), Emma Hart (Barbara).

Doug Varone Dancers: Courtney Barth, Hollis Bartlett, Bradley Beakes, Jake Bone, Whitney Dufrene, Madeline Irmen, DeQuan Lewis, Ashley Merker, Aya Wilson, Ryan Yamauchi.

Chamber Chorus: Miriam Baron (Mrs. Bennett), Colton Beach, Jennifer Bell (Liza’s Mother), Jessica Bobadilla, Nicole Coffaro, Takira Cross, Mark Filatov, Joan Harris (Guest), Nina Hennessey (Schoolteacher), Taylor Hopkins (Schoolboy Announcer), Laura Kroh, Luisa Lyons, Reina Muniz, Sheikh Muhtade, Cindy Ohanian-Aledjian, Mikhail Pontenila, Bob Reichstein (Guest), Edsel Romero (Liza’s Father), Jim Roume-les, John Sabatos (Charles), Ronny Viggiani, Erin Winchester.

Lady in the Dark
Music by Kurt Weill
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Moss Hart
Script Adaptation by Christopher Hart & Kim Kowalke
Ted Sperling, Conductor and Director
Doug Varone: Choreographer
Doug Fitch: Scenic Designer
Tracy Christensen: Costume Designer
James F. Ingalls: Lighting Designer
Scott Lehrer: Sound Designer
Dave Bova; Wig and Hair Designer

Performed at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Performed April 25-27, 2019

Monday, April 29, 2019

Nantucket Sleigh Ride - A Few Bumps In The Road

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Barely remembered images from childhood collide with recollections others simply don't want to revisit in John Guare's Nantucket Sleigh Ride. The show offering an interesting take on the idea of a memory play, now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center through May 5.

It's 2010 and Edmund Gowery (John Larroquette) is a Wall Street executive. Someone who, if not a member of the so-called 1%, is certainly in that neighborhood. Yet more than three decades earlier he was an up-and-coming young playwright whose major effort, Internal Structure of Stars, was considered a masterwork. One of those pieces just about everybody back then performed in, tried out for or used as an audition piece at least once. Edmund recalling those days, when he actually does, with nothing more than a sense of tired bemusement. Though it does irk him that he has never been asked to autograph a copy of his work. 

Edmund's well-ordered life is suddenly upended when two figures from his past suddenly appear. Poe (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his sister Lilac (Grace Rex) having tracked Edmund down in an attempt to learn exactly what happened thirty-five years earlier. During a time they were children, living with their mother off the coast of Massachusetts, on the island of Nantucket. The story then flashes back to 1975 when Gowery was a 30-year-old New York playwright basking in his recent artistic notoriety. He is also more than a little full of himself; being either somewhat brusque or downright rude to those he does not know or has no time for. Edmund is also in the midst of a torrid affair with Antonia (Tina Benko). The very beautiful wife of his middle-aged literary agent, Gilbert (Jordan Gelber).

It takes a call from Nantucket police officer Aubrey Coffin (Stacey Sargeant) concerning the subject of child pornography to bring Edmund to Nantucket for the very first time. He having previously purchased a house there. Site unseen, for tax purposes and on Gilbert's advice. A house complete with tenants. Said tenants consisting of Poe, Lilac, their mother Elsie (Clea Alsip) and husband Schuyler (Douglas Sills). Or has the mysterious McPhee (Will Swenson), taken Schuyler's place in Elsie's bed and her heart? This question one Edmund is soon trying to figure out as both men clearly have different perspectives on the issue.

As Edmund attempts to navigate the ins and outs of the above mentioned relationship, he also finds himself somewhat persona non grata on the island for having previously refused an invitation to attend a performance of his play. His actions in this regard sparking a plot of revenge against him. If that weren't enough, Edmund soon finds himself a subject of a possible murder investigation. Coffin not looking to frame Edmund for anything he didn't do, but clearly relishing the possibility of putting him away should the evidence continue to point to him as the guilty party.

As events continue to unfold, the question quickly becomes whose truth matters the most? Is it more important to remember things as they actually occurred, or is it better knowing why they happened the way they did? Especially if one wants to avoid hurting those affected by the events in question. There's also a gentle warning throughout about treating other people with respect. As your actions towards them just might come back to haunt you when you least expect it. Something Edmund learns again and again as he struggle to discern just how much of what he is experiencing is actually real.

By the of the first act, as things continue to go exponentially off the rails for Edmund, the entire play ends up taking on an almost farcical context. Matters taking a sharp turn into Twilight Zone territory, with one having absolutely no idea where things will go after intermission. Or exactly how Guare will be able pull it all together going forward.

Unfortunately more often than not, he doesn't. The pace of the show soon beginning to slow to a crawl with what was shown before never allowed to come full circle. Guare and director Jerry Zaks taking great delight in tantalizing everyone with the idea of numerous possibilities; but without proper closure, one can't help but feel a little cheated by the end result. The work simply too uneven to really allow the audience to connect with the various characters. It also doesn’t go far enough either comedically or dramatically to make a lasting impact.

Larroquette give a fine performance, although perhaps a wig or some other piece of clothing would have worked to make him better appear 35 years younger in the flashback sequences. Playing someone rather befuddled for a good part of the play, it’s a treat to see his character suddenly come alive when he finds inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. While seemingly breaking the confines of time and space in the process. Chanler-Berat and Rex are nicely earnest and deliberately annoying as youngsters living happily in their own world until it's all pulled out from under them. The rest of the cast, several playing multiple roles, are all enjoyable enough. Swenson doing a standout turn as Elsie's possible boyfriend/stalker McPhee.

Nantucket Sleigh Ride – an old whaling term – poses a complex question about the power and fragility of memory, but it lacks the overall spark to make the show offer anything more than a passing interest on the subject.

Featuring: Stacey Sargeant (Secretary/Aubrey Coffin), John Larroquette (Edmund Gowery), Adam Chanler-Berat (Poe), Grace Rex (Lilac), Jordan Gelber (Gilbert), Tina Benko (Antonia/Alice), Douglas Sills (Dr. Harbinger/Schuyler/Walt Disney), Germán Jaramillo (Jorge Luis Borges), Clea Alsip (She/Elise), Will Swenson (McPhee).

Nantucket Sleigh Ride
By John Guare

Sets and Projections: David Gallo
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: Howell Binkley
Original Music and Sound: Mark Bennett
Stage Manager: Janet Takami
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Casting: Daniel Swee
Dramatrug: Anne Cattaneo
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi

Directed by Jerry Zaks

Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center
Address: 150 West 65th Street
Tickets: (212) 501-3201 or /www.lct.org/shows/nantucket-sleigh-ride/
Running time: 2 Hours, 5 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: May 5, 2019