Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window - When Dreams Die

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

There's a line in the 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" about lost causes being the only ones worth fighting for. This also proves to be the ultimate truth in Lorraine Hansberry’s involving drama The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Written in 1964, the play can be seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in its first major New York revival in over 50 years.

New York City's Greenwich Village in the 1960s may be a hotbed of social and political fervent, but local resident Sidney Brustein (Oscar Isaac) has become a disillusioned idealist. A veteran of dozens of protests, he has seen all of the causes he has fought for come to naught. Now he is content to stay on the sidelines, play his banjo and try to find his place in the world. His latest interest is a failing local newspaper he purchased; which he plans to fill with stories of art, poetry, and like-minded pieces. With the pages containing nothing at all controversial.

Rachel Brosnahan and Oscar Isaac in the Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window.  Photo: Julieta  Cervantes

Things change when his friend Wally (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to challenge the local political machine in an upcoming election and seeks Sidney’s endorsement in the paper. Despite his initial refusal, it’s not long before Sidney finds the fires in his belly rekindling, and he enthusiastically jumps into the fray. An effort which includes organizing rallies, coming up with campaign slogans and placing a large sign supporting Wally in his apartment widow.

Sidney is also a something of a condescending narcissist. He continually belittles his wife Iris (Rachel Brosnahan), who he loves dearly, with backhanded compliments and pointed remarks. He also has an intense dislike of any type of psychiatric therapy. Something Iris, a failed actress turned waitress with massive insecurity issues, has been undergoing for some time. Interestingly, it’s Iris, who came to New York from Oklahoma to escape an unhappy family life, who sees things far more clearly than Sidney. Especially how Wally’s campaign may not be as wonderful as it first appears. Sidney’s continual refusal to heed Iris’ warnings or treat her as an equal not only threaten his marriage, but also eventually force him to realize how he's being used by those in power as a way to keep the status quo in place.

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window deftly combines multiple issues, all of which command the audience’s attention. On the surface the play looks at how the system is rigged against the so-called “little people.” Yet at the same time, Hansberry shows that no matter how many times one is unable to change situations they believe to be unjust, the important thing is to continue to challenge them. For only then can the possibility of change continue to exist.

        Oscar Isaac and Glenn Fitzgerald in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Photo:  Julieta Cervantes

Just as the ideas of giving up or fighting on are in conflict with one another, so too are other contradictory elements that appear throughout the work. Ones which deal with racism and how it’s perceived; the danger of holding onto an ideal too tightly; and the question of achieving success after decades of disdain for it. The latter conundrum involving David (Glenn Fitzgerald), a struggling playwright and the Brustein’s upstairs neighbor. Other issues explored include the question of memory, as seen through Iris and her sisters Mavis (Miriam Silverman) and Gloria (Gus Birney). All three of whom have attained a different social strata, and each of which have different recollections of their childhood. The play also asks what happens when you go too far to get what you want. As when Iris has a chance to revitalize her acting career, even though it may mean morally prostituting herself in the process.

Most important of all is the way the play takes care never to hit the audience over the head of with any of the issues it presented. Instead it allows them to unfold gradually during the course of the work and let the story speak for itself easily and naturally.

Isaac gives an excellent performance as Sidney. The character a true believer and complex individual who goes from one extreme to another as he realizes what he truly wants in life – and who he wants to share that life with. He also has a terrible problem when it comes to doing math.

                Rachel Brosnahan in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Brosnahan matches Isaac beat for beat as Iris. A woman who desperately wants to fulfill her own dreams, and also find that one place in the world where she truly belongs. Like Sidney, she must first realize her own limitations, something the play notes is not necessarily a bad thing, and then use that realization to move forward.

Silverman does very well as Mavis. At first glance, a rather narrow-minded and bigoted individual, but also a person capable of remarkable insight. Also pivotal to the story is Birney as Gloria as she portrays an utterly lost soul trapped in a dead-end life. A life from which she is determined to escape, at any cost.

The only major problem in the play deals with how the story is structured. While act one nicely sets up the various characters and situations, act two crams in too much exposition, one right on top of the other, which hampers the work’s overall flow. Additionally, the scenes with Gloria, while quite important to the play, go on a bit too long.

               Miriam Silverman in The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

As topical today as when it was first written, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” makes clear how not taking a stand on any issue is the most dangerous choice of all.

Featuring:  Oscar Isaac (Sidney Brustein), Rachel Brosnahan (Iris Parodus Brustein), Gus Birney (Gloria Parodus), Julian De Niro (Alton Scales), Glenn Fitzgerald (David Ragin), Andy Grotelueschen (Wally O’Hara), Miriam Silverman (Mavis Parodus Bryson), Nash Thompson (Max)

The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window

by Loraine Hansberry 

Scenic Design: dots

Costume Design: Brenda Abbandandolo

Lighting Design: John Torres

Sound Design: Bray Poor

Hair & Wig Design: Andrew Diaz

Casting: Taylor Williams, CSA

Script Supervisor: Joi Gresham

Dramatrug: Amanda Thomas

Movement Director: Sonya Tayeh

Voice Coach: Kate Wilson

Production Stage Manager: Ralph Stan Lee

Directed by Anne Kauffman


Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

BAM Harvey Theater

651 Fulton Street

Tickets: 718-636-4100 or www.bam.org

Running time: three hours, one intermission

Closes: March 24, 2023


Sunday, February 12, 2023

Some Like It Hot- A Rollicking Good Time

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The classic 1959 film "Some Like It Hot" gets the Broadway treatment and comes out running on pretty much all cylinders. Thanks in no small part to an excellent score, some very strong directorial efforts, an absolutely wonderful cast, and a tour-de-force performance by J. Harrison Ghee.

Things start off in 1933 Chicago during the waning days of Prohibition. Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry (Ghee), close friends since childhood, are two out of work musicians/tap dancers. Jerry is the hard-working sort; inclined to keep his head down, do his job, and not make waves. However, Jerry’s efforts are all too often scuttled by the more abrasive Joe. Joe, who comes from a family of con artists, repeatedly pushes things too far in his attempts to get he and Jerry their big showbiz break. Joe's continual roving eye for the ladies also doesn’t help. He having left a string of broken hearts and promises in his wake.

(l-r) Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin

Thanks to some quick talking and fast dancing, Jerry and Joe land a gig at a nightclub owned by mobster Spats Colombo (Mark Lotito). Not long after, the two find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time when they witness Spats and his henchman commit murder. Forced to flee for their lives, Joe comes up with the idea to dress up as women so they can get safely out of town. Sought by both the mob and the police, the duo, now calling themselves “Josephine” and “Daphne”, join up with the Society Syncopators, an all-girl band about to go out on tour. The band is headed by Sweet Sue (NaTasha Yvette Williams). A Chicago fixture who has her own reasons for wanting to leave Chicago.

Also with the band is lead singer, Sugar Kane (Adrianna Hicks). A woman whose chronic lateness, fondness for the bottle and desire to be a film star puts her at odds with the rest of the band. While Joe and Jerry initially plan to stick with the group until it gets to San Diego, and then head for Mexico, complications arise which make them each reconsider. Joe finds himself drawn to Sugar, whose superior attitude masks a deep insecurity. Jerry meanwhile has become more and more comfortable in his female persona as he quickly becomes “just one of the girls”. A situation he is not ready to give up. However once they get to San Diego ,it’s “Daphne” who runs into romantic complications when she catches the eye of millionaire Osgood Feilding III (Kevin Del Aguila).

                          Adrianna Hicks in SOME LIKE IT HOT. Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin

Some Like It Hot works not only due to the comedic situations and enjoyable musical numbers, but also because of the more the somber moments crafted by bookwriters Matthew López and Amber Ruffin. Elements which crystallize perfectly in act two, where Osgood notes how "the world reacts to what it sees" but "doesn't have very good eyesight". A reference to peoples’ habit of taking everything and everyone at face value. Without trying to see what might be underneath.

This is a lesson learned by several of the characters. When Joe defends Sugar against hurtful comments from the other girls in the band, he begins to realize how he himself has treated women in the past. At the same time, Sugar begins to see in "Josephine" her first true female friend. One who can, ironically, see her for who she truly is. Meanwhile Jerry, who realizes how important getting in touch with his feminine side has become, realizes he has to stop simply following Joe’s lead and start to live life on his own terms.

The music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman & Shaiman are excellent. Several of their contributions (i.e. “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him)” and “Vamp” brought brilliantly to life thanks to the sterling musical, verbal, and physical interplay between Borle and Ghee. Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography is also a main contributor to the show’s success. Particularly enchanting is a graceful dance number between Joe and Sugar (“Dance the World Away”), which calls to mind a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers ballroom sequence.

                 Kevin Del Aguila and the cast of SOME LIKE IT HOT. Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin

When looking at Ghee as Jerry/Daphne it‘s hard to imagine anyone else in the part. This is a case of the performer fitting the role so perfectly, that the moment Daphne comes into being, it’s as if the actor and character have fused into one. The resulting performance is touching, comical and completely believable. The character also makes the number You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather” into a truly show-stopping experience.

Borle make a perfect Joe, a heel when it comes to women, who learns the value of finding something more permanent. Hicks is very good as Sugar, a woman with a weakness for saxophone players who has constructed a cynical shell of protection due to bitter past experience. Hicks also powerfully delivers with the ballads “A Darker Shade of Blue” and “Ride Out the Storm”. Along with the quietly wistful “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee”.

    NaTasha Yvette Williams and the cast of SOME LIKE IT HOT. Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin

Williams is enjoyable as Sweet Sue, a brassy, no-nonsense, take-charge woman. Aguila is a perfect fit as Osgood. Someone who initially only seems there for comic relief, but eventually proves far to be more intuitive than expected. Angie Schworer is fun as Minnie. A member of the band who has a continual habit of confusing apartment numbers. Lotito has a nice scenery chewing role as Spats.

The only thing that doesn’t work as well as it should are some of the chase scenes. Most done in full tap dancing mode; and which are sometimes a bit more slapstick than necessary. The various sets by Scott Pask are enjoyable. Costumes by Gregg Barnes nicely fit the period, though they’re not all that memorable.

Some Like It Hot may not be completely perfect, but it comes pretty darn close.

Kevin Del Aguila, J. Harrison Ghee, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Adrianna Hicks, Christian Borle and the company of SOME LIKE IT HOT. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Featuring: NaTashya Yvette Williams (Sweet Sue), Christian Borle (Joe/Josephine), J. Harrison Ghee (Jerry/Daphne), Devon Hadsell (Nellie), Casey Garvin (Mack), Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. (Sonny), Mark Lotito (Spats), Adam Heller (Mulligan), Charles South (Toothpick Charlie), Angie Schworer (Minnie), TyNia René Brandon (Dolores), Kayla Pecchioni (Ginger), Jenny Hill (Vivian), Adrianna Hicks (Sugar), K.J. Hippensteel (Bar Manager, Man with Suitcase), Kevin Del Aguila (Osgood).

Society Syncopators: TyNia René Brandon, Gabi Campo, Devon Hadsell, Jenny Hill, Abby Matsusaka, Amber Owens, Kayla Pecchioni.

Gangsters, Porters, Bellhops, et, al.: K.J. Hippensteel, Casey Garvin, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., Brian Martin, Charles South, Brendon Stimson, Julius Williams, Richard Raz Yoder.

Some Like It Hot

Book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin

Music by Marc Shaiman

Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman

Based on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Motion Picture "Some Like It Hot"

Scenic Designer: Scott Pask

Costume Designer: Gregg Barnes

Lighting Designer: Natasha Katz

Sound Deign: Brian Ronan

Hair Design: Josh Marquette

Makeup Design: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira

Additional Material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell

Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter

Vocal Arrangements: Marc Shaiman

Dance & Incidental Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly

Music Director: Darryl Archibald

Music Coordinator: Kristy Norter

Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw


Sam S. Shubert Theatre

225 West 44th Street

Tickets: 212-632-6200 or www.telecharge.com

Information: www.SomeLikeItHotMusical.com

Running Time: 2 Hours, 40 minutes with one intermission

Open Run


Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Heaven – What Does It Mean To You?

Reviewed by Judd Hollander 

When it comes to Eugene O’Brien’s drama Heaven, the story begins and ends with the play’s final line. Presented by Fishamble, this intriguing work about past choices and second chances can be seen through January 29th at 59E59Theaters.

Mal (Andrew Bennett) and Mairead (Janet Moran) are a married couple in their early 50s. Together for close to 30 years they have returned to their mutual hometown, located in the midlands of Ireland, for the wedding of Mairead’s sister. The town itself is little more than a couple of shops and a number of empty buildings. Basically, it's one of those places progress has passed by. Though Mairead actually describes the town in somewhat more colorful terms. Still, the place holds important memories for both her and her husband. Recollections each of them has been unwilling to face, or perhaps even acknowledge, until now.

                         Andrew Bennett in "Heaven" at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo Credit: Ste Murray 

Mairead and Mai’s union can best be described as “safe”. While they certainly love and depend on one other for stability, whether they are actually still in love is another story. In addition, any real passion between them has since long vanished. Part of it due to Mal’s heart surgery of several years previous; and part because of his attempts to deny decades of his own desires when it comes to his own sexual preference. As a result, Mairead, a passionate woman with no outlet for her own needs, finds herself remembering her youthful encounters with Breffni, a long ago lover who still lives in the town. A subsequent meeting between the two quickly makes clear these old feelings still exist, with only the smallest push needed to ignite the flames once more. As the various wedding events begin, images of something old and possibilities of something new emerge for both Mal and Mairead. Ones which may be too tempting to resist.

With a title that means different things to the different people involved, Heaven asks what happens when someone starts to feel suffocated by what their life has become? Hand in hand with this is the idea of how any attempt to break free of that yoke can come with a high price. Something both Mal and Mairead learn on their very personal journeys of discovery.

                       Janet Moran in "Heaven" at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo Credit: Ste Murray

O’Brien's text conjures up a detailed picture of time, place and personal need. Images and emotions all brought brilliantly to life by Bennett and Moran. The two do an excellent job not only in making their own characters come across as fully formed, but the also the different characters they interact with during the play.

The work itself is basically a series of extended monologues. Mal and Mairead never verbally interact with one another, although they may be at the same place at the same time. Each of them in turn relating events from their own perspective. Jim Culleton’s direction is also a key element. His efforts help keep the story tightly focused and the tension continually rising, as the audience is drawn into this very absorbing tale.

Moran does a fine job as Mairead, a neglected wife who yearns for the passion that has been missing from her existence for far too long. She seeing in Breffni a chance to enjoy the life she believes she should have had and now, may finally attain. Yet even as she contemplates making the change, reality intrudes upon the rosy picture she has painted for herself. As an unexpected chance to make a different type of connection threatens to change everything.

Andrew Bennett and Janet Moran in "Heaven" at 59E59 Theaters.  Photo Credit: Ste Murray

Bennett has the more restricted role here as the perennially repressed Mal. He feeling trapped not only from what he has denied for so many years, including to himself, but also from a medical condition which has forced him to insulate himself even more from things that may give him pleasure. Yet it’s his slow awakening to his own passions – with a little help from various stimulants -  that is quite powerful to behold. Mal finding himself willing for forsake everything he has in order to embrace who he has the chance to finally become. Though the path which is now determined to take comes with multiple risks. Including the possibility of reaching a point of no return.

Zia Bergin-Holly’s set on the small theatre stage nicely matches the intimacy of the piece, while Saileóg O’Halloran’s costumes and lighting by Sinéad McKenna all work well within the atmosphere of the story.

An intimate tale about desperately wanting to start your life anew, Heaven shows how doing so requires far more than simply taking the first step. Especially when there's a chance that what one envisions may not turn out as planned.

Featuring: Andrew Bennett (Mal), Janet Moran (Mairead)


By Eugene O’Brien

Set Design: Zia Bergin-Holly

Costume Design: Saileóg O’Halloran

Lighting Design: Sinéad McKenna

Music & Sound Design: Carl Kennedy

Stage Manager: Heather Klein

Dramaturg: Gavin Kostick

Directed by Jim Culleton


Presented by Fishamble: The New Play Company


59 East 59th Street

Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/heaven/#schedule-and-tickets

Running Time: 90 Minutes, with no intermission

Closes: January 29, 2023