Monday, February 24, 2020

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice - Trying Too Hard To Be What One Is Not

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Such is the message of the new musical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center, this earnest take on the 1969 film of the same name has much to say about four thirtysomethings who try to become part of something which they have no real understanding of. Sadly, the show ultimately fails in its execution.

Documentary filmmaker Bob (Joél Pérez), lawyer Ted (Michael Zegen) and their stay-at-home wives Carol (Jennifer Damiano) and Alice (Ana Nogueira) are the best of friends. Bob and Carol being the freer thinkers of this California foursome, while Ted and Alice are more conservative. Bob and Carol for example, would think nothing of suddenly singing at a crowded restaurant. Something which Ted and Alice would never do. 

One thing both couples have in common is their complete love for their respective spouses, and total commitment to them. Things change when Bob and Carol go on a spiritual retreat to “get in touch with their feelings” as it were. Bob also interested in seeing if there’s enough material there for a new project. However, by the end of their stay, the two find themselves completely immersed in the sessions they've participated in. Ones which allow them to give voice to inner emotions and personal regrets they never realized they had. Or at least ever admitted, even to themselves. This newfound awareness beginning to cause cracks in their marriage.

                           Jennifer Damiano and Joél Pérez . Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Soon after, Bob, who at the age of 35 finds himself in a midlife crisis, travels to Berkley in order to shoot some footage for his latest documentary, and winds up sleeping with a 24-year old (Suzanne Vega). His feelings in the wake of his indiscretion, as well as Carol’s reaction when she learns the truth, threaten not only their own relationship, but Ted’s and Alice’s as well. Bob and Carol having decided to freely share this information with them without any advance warning.

A work filled with contractions, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice takes a swipe at the sexual mores of the time as it shows four people all seemingly prepared to talk the talk when it comes to free love and lack of inhibition, but not quite ready to actually practice what they preach. Bob’s initial reaction when it comes to finding out Carol has had sex with someone else – she doesn’t call it an “affair” or “cheating” - is quite different from the understanding by him which Carol feels is called for. Understanding she previously showed him when the situation was reversed.

 (L-R) Jennifer Damiano. Joél Pérez,  Michael ZegenAna Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni.

Book writer Jonathan Marc Sherman certainly has a lot to work with here. Unfortunately, the different characters come off as so vapid and one-dimensional, one is hard pressed find a reason to care about them. The only one of the four who really gets a chance to break out is Ted when he sings a solo number about his own marital issues. Ted seeing Bob and Carol’s relationship changing while feeling ever more suffocated in his own.

Ted’s solution in his regard, and the reactions by the others to it during a trip to Las Vegas, lead to an pivotal and quite effective moment of understanding between the four. Band Leader Vega hitting the proverbial nail squarely on the head when she sings "that maybe there is a limit to desire".

However the very strong final 20 minutes of the show cannot compensate for all the squandered efforts that have come before. Especially when the individual sequences often feel completely disconnected with one another - as if they don't quite belong in the same play. Such as a quick scene with Alice talking to her therapist (Vega) or Ted chatting with an attractive woman on an airplane. Director Scott Elliott not really able to being any of these moments together into a cohesive whole.

(L-R)  Michael ZegenJennifer Damiano, Joél Pérez, Ana Nogueira. Photo Credit: Monique Carboni. 

One must be also very careful when setting a show in a specific era. Especially one available to the audience either through their own memories or television shows and movies from the time depicted. A connection Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is unable to establish. Neither the costumes, hairstyles, or the various commercials - the latter spoken either by the cast or members of the onstage orchestra – really evoke memories of the time in question, much less any strong feeling of nostalgia.

The score by Duncan Sheik (music, lyrics) and Amanda Green (lyrics) also doesn’t work as well as it should. The different numbers, at times more snippets of songs rather than full pieces, feel either awkward dialogue-wise, or repetitive when it comes to the music. The few exceptions to this being noted above. Though it must be said the onstage musicians all to a great job. Likewise, the actors all warble their respective tunes nicely, and even get to show off their own musical talents on the instruments. Good work by Kelly Devine in regards to the musical staging.

While Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice quite profoundly depicts the foibles that come with being human, the show ends up lacking the crucial spark to make the audience truly care about what unfolds on stage.

Featuring: Jennifer Damiano (Carol), Jamie Mohamdein (Ensemble), Ana Nogueira (Alice),  Joél Pérez (Bob), Suzanne Vega (Band Leader),  Michael Zegen (Ted).

Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

Book by Jonathan Marc Sherman
Music by Duncan Sheik
Lyrics by Duncan Sheik and Amanda Green

Based on the Columbia Pictures motion picture written by Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Jessica Paz
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Music Supervision, Vocal Arrangements and Additional Orchestrations: Jason Hart
Music Coordinator: Antoine Silverman
Consultant: Jill Mazursky
Production Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Casting: Telsey + Company/Rachel Hoffman, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Teresa Gozzo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Production Manager: Lay Hoon Tan

Music Staging by Kelly Devine

Directed by Scott Elliott

Presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 917-935-4242 or
Running Time: 1 Hour, 45 Minutes, No Intermission
Closes: March 22, 2020

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Mack & Mabel - The Perennial Bridesmaid

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Watching Douglas Sills sing “Movies Were Movies”, the opening number in the recent Encores! production of the 1974 Broadway musical Mack & Mabel, one can understand just how wonderful this work has the potential to be. Sadly, the show falters almost immediately as Jerry Herman's powerful score is undone by a number of issues. Including the problematic book by Michael Stewart. While's Stewart's efforts have since been revised by Francine Pascal, the end result is still too unfocused to allow this fictional look at the romance between director Mack Sennett (Sills) and actress Mabel Normand (Alexandra Socha) to really take off. Though thanks to the boundless energy of the cast, it's certainly not for lack of trying.

After setting things up via a sequence in 1938, the story jumps back 26 years to the title characters' first meeting at the Sennett film studios in Brooklyn, New York. Normand inadvertently ruining a climatic scene of the director's latest silent comedy short when she walks through a door at the wrong moment. Seeing something special in Normand, and her reactions to the chaos she causes with her entrance, Sennett offers her a part in his next film. Mabel, after some initial hesitation, soon finds herself bitten by the acting bug and accepts. She quickly becoming the latest and most important star in the Sennett comedy stable.

                                      The cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Mabel's subsequent success enables the director to attract enough financing to transplant his entire base of operations to California. The state quickly becoming a Mecca for the burgeoning film industry. Mabel and Mack also beginning a personal relationship during this time. Even though, as the rather volatile Sennett is quick to point out, he is definitely not the romantic type.

What eventually causes a break between Normand and Sennett is Mack's desire to control Mabel creatively. He refusing to loan her out to other studios and directors, such as William Desmond Taylor (Michael Berresse) who sees a bigger future for Mabel than starring in an endless string of comedy shorts. Something Mabel only finds out about by accident. Sennett meanwhile remains completely resolute in his certainty that he always knows what's best when it comes to making movies.

Mack & Mabel is a musical one wants desperately to enjoy, but there is no getting around the inherent problems of its structure. A main one being that the character of Sennett is a complete bastard. He endlessly putting his actors and staff through their paces, concerned only about getting the next take completed and the next film in the can. It's hard to root for a character who's so unlikable, even when we are given a reason for his being the way he is. The relentless pressure of working for Sennett also taking a toll on Mabel, who begins using pills to help her get through the day. A dependency that only increases as time goes on. Sennett, who also serves as the show's narrator as he looks back on events from years later, finally admitting how he simply didn't want to know about Mabel's problem.

                   Alexandra Socha and Douglas Sills in "Mack & Mabel".  Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

While we do get the chance to understand Sennett, the show doesn't offer nearly the same incite on Mabel. Clearly funny, outgoing and initially star-struck, her ever-increasing booze and drug problem, as well as her involvement in a full-on scandal, all feel almost a tacked-on afterthought. None of this really explored until the final section of the show and by then, it's too late to effectively work it into the story.

While the show is also meant to be a homage to the silent film era, there are too many sequences filled with deliberate, over-the-top acting which all too quickly start to become annoying. In the same vein, a succession of big production numbers also starts to feel rather repetitious, though the songs themselves are certainly nice to hear.  The problem being not only the show's internal structure, but also the direction of Josh Rhodes, who continuously fails to sharpen the various scenes in order to make them more interesting. The result being that too much of the show is played at the same level. An issue that becomes increasingly more apparent whenever things start to veer into more dramatic territory.

Sills does a great job as Sennett. He playing the character as a driven, bull-headed sort who is unable to accept his own failings, or his share of the blame for anything. His one constant underlying drive, the desire to be able to make people laugh. A need he brings beautifully home in the haunting "I Wanna Make the World Laugh".

                           Major Attaway and the cast of "Mack & Mabel". Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Socha is perfect as Normand. A woman filled with the desire to succeed in whatever she sets out to do. Whether it's collecting 15 cents for the sandwich she delivered to Sennett's studio, becoming a top film star, or making Sennett fall in love with her. Her best numbers being the infectious "Look What Happened to Mabel" and the determined "Wherever He Ain't." The rest of the cast do a great job, but other than Sennett and Normand, none of the characters really break out from the pack. Though Lilli Cooper and Major Attaway come closest as respectively, Lottie Ames and Fatty Arbuckle.

The Jerry Herman score, as performed by the Encores! Orchestra, works beautifully. In addition to those songs mentioned above, highlights include the touching "I Won't Send Roses"; the wistful "Time Heals Everything", and the joyful "When Mabel Comes in the Room".

Scenic designer Allen Moyer does a wonderful job in recreating the world of silent pictures. The various costumes by Amy Clark and the sound design by Kai Harada - the latter's efforts quite pivotal here - also work very well.

Volumes have been written about the problems with Mack & Mabel. This latest effort by Encores! is admirable indeed, but ultimately, it can't hide the flaws in the basic makeup of the show.

Featuring: Kevin Ligon (Eddie), Douglas Sills (Mack Sennett), Lilli Cooper (Lottie Ames), Evan Kasprzak (Freddy), Raymond J. Lee (Andy), Ben Frankhauser (Frankie), Janet Noh (Ella), Major Attaway (Fatty Arbuckle), Alexandra Socha (Mabel Normand), Jordan Gelber (Mr. Kessel), Allen Lewis Rickman (Mr. Bauman), Michael Berresse (William Desmond Taylor).

Ensemble: Alex Julian Aquilino, Matt Bauman, Maria Briggs, Julian R. Decker, Sara Esty, Paige Faure, Haley Fish, Leslie Donna Flesner, Garett Hawe, Leah Horowitz, Matt Moisey, Madison Stratton, Diana Vaden, Jacob Keith Watson, Kristen Beth Williams, Joy Woods, Darius Wright, Richard Riaz Yoder.

Mack & Mabel

Book by Michael Stewart
Music and Lyrics by Jeremy Herman
Revised Version by Francine Pascal
Based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Amy Clark
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Kai Harada
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations by Philip J. Lang
Production Stage Manager: Peter Hanson
Casting by: Binder Casting
                    Jay Binder, CSA & Mark Brandon, CSA
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Josh Rhodes

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: February 23, 2020

Friday, February 14, 2020

Medea - Hell Still Hath No Fury...

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Director Simon Stone has staged his new adaptation of Euripides' classic revenge story Medea, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on a white background. Bob Cousins’ set being a literal blank canvass as it were. The idea apparently to strip the piece down to its bare essentials, thus providing a penetrating look at the tale itself. Stone previously putting forth a similar premise in his terrific production of Yerma, seen in New York in 2018 at the Park Avenue Armory. However here, despite some terrific performances from cast, and especially the two leads, this Medea ends up somewhat adrift; with what’s actually presented not always ringing true.

Anna (Rose Byrne), a once-respected research scientist in the pharmacological world, has just been released from a treatment center after being sent there for trying to kill her husband, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale). Confident in her certainty that she is now fully recovered, Anna is eager to pick up where she left off before being sent away. She all set to move back in with Lucas and their two children, Edgar (Jolly Swag) and Gus (Orson Hong). She's also extremely anxious to resume her career - despite being barred from doing any work whatsoever in the medical field. A fact she is well aware of and something which her former boss Christopher (Dylan Baker) reminds her.

The more Anna tries to return to her old life, the more devastated she is to realize things have moved on without her. Lucas having since begun a relationship with Christopher's daughter Clara (Madeline Weinstein). One that has developed to the point where she has moved in with him. Anna's reactions as she refuses to accept these new realities show quite clearly how far she is from anything that could be considered a full recovery. Caught in the middle are her two children, who have conflicting loyalties to their parents; as well as to Madeline, who is trying very hard to have her own life with the man she loves.

                    Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

The story of a woman scorned is one of the oldest tales in history. Stone commenting in the program notes how this tale didn’t originate with Euripides; rather he strongly embellished what already there. Stone now attempts to do the same by adding his own spin to the material. While Stone does succeed in moving the work into the modern era – via the use of cell phones, video cameras and the like - his efforts ultimately cause the core elements of the work to become diluted.

The Euripides tale had Medea left to her own devices by a husband who essentially tossed her aside to marry someone else because it was politically advantageous for him to do so. Medea then enacting a horrible vengeance in return. While the same premise is still in play here, Stone colors the tale by making Anna a woman with definite mental issues. Ones she is unable to deal with. Thus, while clearly nursing a huge amount of anger at her husband, who is certainly no angel, Anna is given something of an out by not being totally responsible for her actions.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Anna is obviously not ready to be released from the place she was confined. A situation which causes one to wonder how she was cleared to return home in the first place. Or why her social worker Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman) would not call her supervisor when she witnesses some of Anna’s subsequent actions. Especially when she admits to having mixed alcohol with her medications, and also not remembering exactly how many of her prescribed pills she has actually taken. This apparent failure of those responsible to see the ticking time bomb Anna has become could be plausible were Stone trying to present an indictment on the country’s healthcare system. But as that does not seem to be part of his equation, the entire premise of the story is severely weakened.

                             Dylan Baker and Rose Byrne in "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

There are also points where the audience gets the opportunity to see video close-ups - via a camera, usually carried by Edgar - of the action unfolding on stage. Including one of Anna’s face when she says how she is now perfectly fine. Her expression clearly showing something different altogether and causing the entire moment to descend into camp as it provokes laughter from those in attendance.

The story does turn more serious as it progresses. Anna’s last message to Lucas particular quite chilling. Even as her final actions show her to be a mother with a deep – if very misguided – concern for her children. It also important to note that almost none of the characters are totally innocent. The entire play a warning about betrayal, loyalty and how one reaps what they have sown. Yet the show’s ending lacks an overall visceral punch, and winds up feeling almost lyrical in its execution. Instead of something that could have been much more emotionally gripping.

Byrne gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Anna. Someone continually on a razor’s edge of sanity as she fights to regain all that she lost in the wake of her mental collapse. Though her continual fixation on getting back to the way things were, instead of learning to accept what they have become, leads to her undoing. As well as that of everyone around her.

                               Rose Bryne and the cast of "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

Cannavale does a wonderful job with the role of Lucas. At first, a seeming long-suffering husband, he quickly turns out to be something of schemer. He having ridden Anna’s professional coattails during their time together – the two first met while working at the same facility - and he also apparently taken credit for some of her discoveries. Lucas now has hitched his wagon to Madeline. Thus ensuring, he assumes, a rosy future both in a personal and professional sense. Lucas is also quite wishy-washy when it comes to making any sort of decision – such as explaining to Anna the facts of his new relationship - unless pushed into it by someone else.

Weinstein is fine as Madeline, a woman who only wants to begin a new life with Lucas and his kids. Baker is excellent as Christopher, a true materialistic bastard and someone not above using anything or anyone – including his own daughter - to consolidate his power base and increase his company's bottom line. Swag and Hong are fine as Lucas and Anna’s children.

Medea is a character who never needed a crutch to justify her actions. That Stone does so here with Anna, in perhaps an attempt to make the piece more well-rounded or more palatable to a modern audience, only serves to weaken the character, and the overall tale.

Also in the cast is Victor Almanzar. 

Bobby Cannavale (Lucas), Rose Byrne (Anna), Gabriel Amoroso/Jolly Swag (Edgar), Emeka Guindo/Orson Hong (Gus), Madeline Weinstein (Clara), Dylan Baker (Christopher), Victor Almanzar (Herbert), Jordan Boatman (Elsbeth).


Written by Simon Stone after Euripides
Directed by Simon Stone

Set Design: Bob Cousins
Costume Design: An D'Huys
Music & Sound Design: Stefan Gregory
Lighting Design: Sarah Johnson
Video Design: Julia Frey
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Costume Associate: Fauve Ryckebusch
Production Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton StreetBrooklyn
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 8, 2020

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake - Finding The Freedom To Be Yourself

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the basic tenets of people everywhere is the need to express who they are inside. This is the underlying principle beautifully expressed in the absolutely breathtaking Mathew Bourne's Swan Lake; as performed to the stirring music of Tchaikovsky. The work first seen on Broadway in 1998 and now currently at New York City Center.

The Prince (James Lovell) of an unnamed country is tormented by dreams of a mysterious flying creature. Graceful and powerful, this being suggests something wild and free. Said freedom something totally lacking in the life of order and responsibility the Prince was born into. His every moment and decision planned out each day before he even rises from bed. From when he brushes his teeth, to when he puts on his clothes, to what he will eat. The Prince finding himself suffocating under the rules and expectations of his position and more and more adrift in a world in which he feels completely out of place.

The Prince’s uneasiness also happens to run completely opposite to that of his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kabera). A woman clearly comfortable with her royal position and the role she is required to play. However, while well-versed in the ways of protocol, the Queen is either unwilling or unable to give her son any emotional support. She continually rebuffing him whenever he reaches out to her.

                                                  Swan Lake - Photo Credit: Johan Persson

After a disastrous attempt at royal date with his new Girlfriend (Katrina Lyndon), the Prince decides to end it all. But he’s distracted by the appearance of a magnificent Swan (Matthew Ball) and the flock which he apparently leads. The Prince astonished by the Swan’s movement and dancing, and totally enraptured by what it represents.

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is set in two different worlds. The first an existence of structured reality, where any expression of individuality is frowned upon. The members of the court and the Kingdom’s citizenry in general - from crowds of royal watchers to the paparazzi - all moving about as if they were simply playing a time-worn part. Their various dances and expressions at times appearing robotic and formulaic. Such as when the Prince’s attendants help him dress. This is a sharp contrast to the actions of the Swans, whose movements and gestures are far more powerful and expressive – such as when a group of them start “preening” – than anything the Prince has ever seen. Their every motion full of grace and purpose. It’s as if they are trying to break free of their earthly bonds.

These worlds are brought together at the top of act two, when a mysterious Stranger (Ball) suddenly appears at the Palace during a royal ball. This figure, who oozes sexuality from every pore, proceeds to captivate every woman present, including the previously standoffish Queen. While at the same time basically emasculating all of the men, and reducing them to little more than background fixtures. At least until they unconsciously accept him as their de facto leader and start to follow his actions. In the wake of the Stranger's presence, most everyone soon becomes more expressive and powerful in their own dancing; and seemingly just as free as the Swans the Prince saw earlier. Yet as the Prince watches all of this, he finds his perception of reality becoming more and more skewed as he struggles to understand in which existence he truly belongs.

                                              Matthew Ball (the Swan). Photo Credit: Johan Persson

The beauty of a well-presented dance is its ability to convey a story without saying a word. The different expressions on the dancers' faces perfectly in synch with their various movements, all conveying emotions, ideas and information necessary to move the story forward. Particularly striking are the moments with the Swans and the aforementioned party sequence, where each succeeding section of dance becomes more and more powerful. Until you finally think there’s no way the scene can get any more intense, only it does. 

Bourne’s concept is nothing less than spectacular. He having a firm handle on the tale he wants to tell as he guides the work, via his direction and choreography, with a sure hand. The different elements in the story ultimately representing the choices one must make when deciding how they want their life to turn out. 

Ball is superb in the roles of the Swan and the Stranger. In each case he carries himself with a combination of intensity and passion that simply explodes off the stage. His characters’ attitude showing him to be someone who gets exactly what he wants. Though as also made clear, even he must fight for what he desires most; while risking losing everything in the process.

Lovell is good as the Prince. While his joy at breaking free, at least temporarily, is obvious, and his scenes with Ball are wonderful to behold, one quickly sees this character as someone without the courage or wherewithal to become truly independent on his own. His inner rebellion never anything more than a token attempt at being different. Until he finally understands what he truly has been seeking.

                                                   The Swans. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Lyndon does nice comic turn as the Prince's Girlfriend. Something of a potential gold digger/celebrity whore, she eventually starts to care for the Prince in her own way. Kabera is fine as the Queen. A person who more has than a few emotional issues of her own to deal with. Jack Jones cuts a nicely sinister figure as the Private Secretary, though he also could be considered the Prince’s shadow or the Queen’s “bagman” as it were. He responsible for making sure that any potential problems or scandals are handled as discreetly as possible.

The sets by Lez Brotherston are excellent. Such as the city park at the close of act one. A place bound by iron gates where only the sea stretches out to the horizon, free and unencumbered. Brotherston’s costumes also work quite well. As do the lighting effects by Paul Constable.

Told in a sweeping grandeur, yet at the same time surprisingly intimate, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake illustrates the need to be oneself in a world (or worlds) which might not approve of the choices you make. This is one show that totally earned the enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience at the performance’s end.

Featuring:  Matthew Ball (The Swan/Stranger), James Lovell (The Prince), Nicole Kabera (The Queen), Katrina Lyndon (The Girlfriend), Jack Jones (The Private Secretary), Mari Kamata (The French Princess), Nicole Alphonce (The Romanian Princess), Katie Webb (The Spanish Princess), Michaela Guibarra (The Italian Princess), Kayla Collymore (The Hungarian Princess), Freya Field (The German Princess), Zanna Cornelis (The Princess of Monaco), Alistair Beattie (The Nobleman), Andrew Ashton (Swan), Jonathan-Luke Baker (Swan), Isaac Bowry (Swan), Joao Castro (Swan), Cameron Everitt (Sawn), Keenan Fletcher (Swan), Ashley-Jordon Packer (Swan), Jack William Parry (Swan), Barnaby Quarendon (Swan), Sam Salter (Swan), Mark Samaras (Swan), Alex Sturman (Swan), Stan West (Swan).

Maids & Servants, Dignitaries, Cadets, Queens’ Escort, Performers in “The Moth Ballet”, Soho Club Goers, Bag Lady, Photographers, TV Presenter, Autograph Hunters, Royal Watchers, Spanish Dancers and Nurses all played by members of the company. 

Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake

Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Set and Costume Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Design: Paul Constable
Sound Design: Ken Hampton
Projection Design: Duncan McLean
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne

New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 
Running Time: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: February 9, 2020 

Monday, January 6, 2020

Judgment Day - The Degrees of Responsibility

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The idea that every person is responsible for their own actions is a basic tenet in most societies. However, when those actions are called into question, uncovering the truth behind them is another matter. Especially when gossip, innuendo and the complete refusal to believe anything but one's own certainty is involved. Such is the case in Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 drama, Judgment Day. The work being given an absolutely wonderful revival, with a stellar new adaptation by Christopher Shinn, at Park Avenue Armory.

Thomas Hudetz (Luke Kirby) is the Stationmaster and sole employee at the railway station of a small town in 1930s Germany. An officious sort, he is extremely devoted to his job. Well-liked by the locals, the fact he keeps mostly to himself, and has a wife (Alyssa Bresnahan) 13 years his senior, has been a frequent source of gossip. Frau Hudetz's intense jealousy when it comes to her husband also providing endless grist for the rumor mill.

On this particular day, Thomas is at his post when he is distracted by the flirtatious behavior of Anna (Susannah Perkins), the daughter of the local innkeeper (Tom McGowan). Her actions causing Thomas to delay setting a signal lever, which results in two trains colliding, leaving 18 people dead. In the aftermath of the accident, Thomas' account of his becomes suspect. Further complicating matters are conflicting accounts from two witnesses, each of whom claim to have seen exactly what Thomas did just before the crash. As Thomas struggles with what happened, Anna finds herself consumed by guilt over her own involvement in the matter. In addition, Anna's growing feelings for the married Thomas, even though she is engaged to someone else, sets in motion a further series of events which will have their own lasting ramifications.

                    Luke Kirby in Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

While these events are unfolding, the feelings of the townsfolk continue to shift. They at first standing by those they are certain are innocent, before ultimately turning against them. Not because of any new evidence, but because those in question do not act in a manner the townspeople consider acceptable. Thomas, his wife, and pharmacist brother-in-law Alfons (Henry Stram), among those who find themselves, albeit at different times, on the receiving end of the townspeople's scorn.

Judgment Day takes an unflinching look at two types of incidents. Ones which people are directly responsible for, and thus can be prosecuted; and those where people may be morally guilty - through the spreading of gossip and moral condemnation of others - but which are almost impossible to legally punish. This is also a play filled with ironies. Such as how those with a conscience may pay the ultimate price, as shown in a particularly riveting encounter in one of the final scenes; while others, who honestly feel they have done nothing wrong, are free to continue just as they please.

At the same time, the play makes quite clear how important it is for some people to be on the right side of public opinion. Alfons going so far as to publicly denounce his sister in order to get back in the community's good graces. Only to later receive a warning about the dangers of going against the town when he once more stands by her.

Luke Kirby (right) and the cast of Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

It also becomes obvious how Judgment Day, with only some minor changes to the text, could easily take place almost anywhere in the world. This being a rather sad indictment on the state of society in general. Especially one continually poised to accuse first and examine the evidence later.

An added bonus to this already powerful story are the truly massive sets by Paul Steinberg. Ones which include the train station where Thomas is employed, a series of railroad tunnels, and a rather imposing entrance to a viaduct. The structures often used to deliberately dwarf the human characters in the play, making them appear tiny and insignificant.

Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting effects, and the work by sound designers Drew Levy and Daniel Kluger all help to create a perfect foreboding atmosphere for the piece. Also quite good are the costumes by Antony McDonald, particularly the immaculate uniform Thomas wears. The direction by Richard Jones also works perfectly here. His efforts keeping the story moving forward while continually building up the tension, and never giving the audience a chance to catch their breath until the end.

                   The cast of Judgment Day at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Kirby is excellent as Thomas. A man outwardly quiet and calm, until circumstances sets him on a path he cannot change. One can see his growing despair and desperation the more he tries to deny what he has done. Bresnahan does a good job as his wife. Someone who has long since lost herself to the demons of jealousy and insecurity. She also being so afraid of losing her husband to someone younger, she has long since pushed him away - yet another irony in the story.

Stram is very compelling as Alfons, the closest thing one has to a sympathetic character in the piece, though even he doesn't have completely clean hands when it comes to his actions. Perkins projects just the right amount of innocence and sexuality as Anna. Harriet Harris does a nice turn as Frau Liemgruber, one of the townspeople clearly aware of the social power she can wield. McGowan works well as the innkeeper. As does Alex Breaux as Anna's fiancée.

Judgment Day pulls no punches while delivering a searing indictment against those who refuse to accept responsibility for what they have done, no matter the circumstances involved.

Featuring: Andy Murray (Lumberjack), Harriet Harris (Frau Liemgruber), Alyssa Bresnahan (Frau Hudetz), Henry Stram (Alfons), Jason O'Connell (Salesman/Trackworker), Luke Kirby (Thomas Hudetz), Alex Breaux (Ferdinand), Susannah Perkins (Anna), Charles Brice (Policeman), Tom McGowan (Innkeeper of the Wild Man), Glen Daniels (Frau Krenn), Jeena Yi (Lena), John Glowacki (Herr Koller), George Merrick (Stoker/Truck Driver), Maurice Jones (Prosecutor/Pokorny), Cricket Brown (Inspector), Joe Wegner (Detective).

Judgment Day
by Ödön von Horváth
Adapted by Christopher Shinn

Set Designer: Paul Steinberg
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherin
Costume Designer: Antony McDonald
Music and Sound Design: Daniel Kluger
Sound Designer: Drew Levy
Anjali Mehra: Movement Director
Kate Wilson: Vocal Coach
Thomas Schall: Fight Director
Lisa Iacucci: Production Stage Manager
Janet Takami: Stage Manager
Michael Medina: Assistant Stage Manager
Casting: Telsey + Company/Tiffany Little Canfield, CSA/Karyn Casl, CSA

Directed by Richard Jones

A Park Avenue Armory Production
643 Park Avenue
Running Time: 90 Minutes, with no intermission
Closes: January 10, 2020

Friday, January 3, 2020

Greater Clements - Starting Over Is Not For Everyone

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Just about everybody has wished for a second chance at least once in their lives. The opportunity to undo a certain decision, change the direction of one's life or simply move on from the past. So it is in Samuel D. Hunter's fascinating and often bleak new play, Greater Clements. A place where possibilities and emptiness walk hand in hand. The show now at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.

In 2017, Maggie (Judith Ivey), a 65 year-old widow, runs the local historical museum in the former mining town of Clements, Idaho. A place which, for all intents and purposes, has ceased to exist. Having lost its major industry with the closing of the mine 12 years earlier, Clements has seen a major influx of new arrivals - mostly from California - in recent times. These newcomers are on the verge of becoming plentiful enough to determine the town's legislative agenda going forward. As a result, the remaining Clements old-timers, in the ultimate form of rebellion against change, chose to unincorporate the town in a recently completed, highly charged vote.

As Maggie prepares for the closing of the museum, in the wake of the aforementioned decision, she learns that her old high school sweetheart Billy (Ken Narasaki), with whom she has remained in touch over the years, will be passing through town with his 14-year old granddaughter Kel (Haley Sakamoto). That Maggie and Billy still have feelings for each other is immediately obvious, raising the possibility the two might start a new life together.

             Judith Ivey as "Maggie" in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

For Maggie however, things are not as simple as just packing up and leaving. She also has her son Joe (Edmund Donovan), to consider. Joe has struggled with mental illness for many years, and has recently moved back in with his mom. A somewhat jumpy sort, Joe used to take great pride in giving tours of the now-disused mine. Including describing a fire there in 1972 which claimed the lives of 81 miners, including his own grandfather; Maggie's dad.

Running through this story is the idea of rebirth and beginning again. Be it with Maggie and Billy and a new chance at romance, or the dogged efforts of Maggie's friend and town busybody Olivia (Nina Hellman) to overturn the unincorporation, and thus start to put the community back together. Though as it becomes quite clear, sometimes one is simply carrying too much emotional baggage to be able to move on. Which also makes it rather ironic that the one character who has the most possibilities in their future doesn't want any of them. At least not until a dose of reality is delivered from a most unexpected source.

Another very strong element in the story is the way many of the characters come off as both sincere and pragmatic. Its as if their very words are weighed down with the experiences of the past. This clearly visible in Maggie's various conversations with both Billy and Olivia.

        (L-R) Judith Ivey and Ken Narasaki in Greater Clements.  Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Ivey gives a very powerful performance as Maggie. She being one of those dependable people always ready to lend a hand to those in need. At the same time, Maggie carries a deep seated guilt stemming from those times she did put herself first. As well as an undercurrent of anger when forced to deal with matters she's since come to terms with. Her scenes with Billy are especially sweet and touching as this normally guarded soul tries to balance her needs and responsibilities both as a woman and a mother.

Donovan is thoroughly dynamic as the thirty-something Joe. He showing the character to be both a manic and officious sort, while continually trying to hold himself together; both for his sake and his mom. Yet despite all the progress he has made, via medication and psychiatric visits, there are those who, for various reasons, will always judge him for what he has done before. A conversation between Joe and Wayne (Andrew Garman), the county sheriff, being particularly telling in this regard.

Narasaki is fine as Billy, a gentle sort and a realist who just wants to enjoy whatever time he has left with someone he cares about. Hellman is both passionate and annoying as Olivia, a woman who wants things to go back to the way they were. The vote to unincorporate the town and the apparent heated debate over the question can almost be a stand-in for the feelings Americans had over the 2016 election, and the upcoming one in 2020 in regards to who they support and why.

(background L to R) Nina Hellman, Ken Narasaki, Andrew Garman; (center) Judith Ivey and Edmund Donovan in Greater Clements. Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Direction by David McCallum is strong for the most part, though things could have been a bit more focused at points, with certain sections of the play tending to meander. It would also have been nice to see a bit more backstory for the characters of Wayne and Olivia. Plus the way the final scene is set up - while also introducing a completely new character - has the effect of taking away some of the play's overall impact.

Dane Laffrey's sets, which include the museum, Maggie's living quarters, and the mine itself, are excellent. As are Yi Zaho's lighting effects and the sound design work by Fitz Patton.

A deeply absorbing tale about people and places bypassed by time and circumstances, Greater Clements is quite the powerful work indeed.

Featuring: Edmund Donovan (Joe), Judith Ivey (Maggie), Nina Hellman (Olivia), Ken Narasaki (Billy), Haley Sakamoto (Kel), Andrew Garman (Wayne), Kate MacCluggage (Mona).

Greater Clements

by Samuel D. Hunter

Sets: Dane Laffrey
Costumes: Kate Voyce
Lighting: Yi Zhao
Original Music and Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage Manager: Roxana Khan
Assistant Stage Manager: Karen Evanouskas
Dramaturgs: Anne Cattaneo, John Baker
Casting: Daniel Swee
Director of Marketing: Linda Mason Ross
General Press Agent: Philip Rinaldi
General Manager: Jessica Niebanck
Production Manager: Paul Smithyman

Directed by Davis McCallum

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including two intermissions
Closes: January 19, 2020