Friday, March 1, 2024

Jelly’s Last Jam – Hopefully Not Truly The Last

Reviewed by Judd Hollander 

The trick when presenting a biographical vehicle is to make sure the audience is able to relate to the subject in question. Especially if that subjects happen to be, in the words of director Robert O’Hara, “sexist, prejudiced, colorist, misogynist and elitist.” Fortunately, the Encores! production of the 1992 Broadway musical Jelly’s Last Jam, about the life of jazz pioneer Ferdinand Le Menthe “Jelly Roll” Morton (1891-1941), is able to do exactly that, and more. Strongly directed by O’Hara, this deeply stirring presentation can be seen at New York City Center through March 3rd.

The story takes place at The Jungle Inn, “a run-down club somewhere's ‘tween heaven n’ hell,” where Jelly Roll Morton (Nicholas Christopher) has been summoned in the immediate aftermath of his death. He’s greeted upon his arrival by the no-nonsense Chimney Man, (Billy Porter, in a superlative performance); a being who will make the determination of exactly where Jelly will spend eternity. Chimney also has no patience for Morton’s airs of self-assurance and superiority. Both of which Jelly wears like a protective second skin. Not to mention his habit of continually stretching the truth. Like how he claimed to have invented jazz.

Nicholas Christopher in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

As Jelly waits to learn his fate, he finds himself reliving pivotal moments from his past. Such as the passion when he first hears musician Buddy Bolden (Okieriete Onaodowan) playing the cornet one night in New Orleans; the joy at reconnecting with an old friend (John Clay III); and the anger he feels when he believes himself betrayed by those closest to him. There’s even a moment of wonder when he finds himself face to face with himself as a young man (Alaman Diadhiou). The younger Jelly having the same amount of swagger and bravado as his older self.

More than just a straight through-line story of Jelly Roll Morton, the musical paints a picture of the title character as a deeply tormented soul. One with a fear of rejection so acute, he instinctively pushes away anyone he fears might someday hurt him. This fear stems in part from a long-ago trauma when, as a teenager, he was disowned by his grandmother (Leslie Uggams) for playing in a local bar and disgracing the family lineage. Morton’s continual fixation of his Cajun roots from that point on, and thus seeing himself as “better” than other people of color with whom he interacted with, might also have been an attempt to reclaim that part of his heritage he feels was taken from him.

Leslie Uggams in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

We also see flashes of Jelly’s artistic integrity throughout the story. As evidenced by his musical contributions to the art form of jazz; and also his strong business sense. He often refusing to sign deals with record companies unless he had control over his material. It was an arraignment that worked well when he was turning out hits. However as times and musical styles changed and other jazz greats began coming up through the ranks, Jelly finds his star power beginning to wane.

While the story offers more than enough material to hold one’s attention, George C. Wolfe’s book does feel a bit rushed at points. Particularly in the much shorter second act. What makes the show stand out is the excellent orchestrations by Luther Henderson, (additional orchestrations by Daryl Waters and William David Brohn), Edgar Godineaux’s marvelous choreography, and a top-notch cast.

Nicholas Christopher and the company of the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Christopher is perfect as Jelly Roll Morton. The actor imbuing the character with a strong sense of style and swagger, plus more than a bit of narcissism and ego. All of which hide the insecurities he carries inside. These sometimes competing factors show Jelly to be a complicated individual always striving for the next big thing. While at the same time always running from what he has lost.

Joaquina Kalukango is excellent as Anita, the great love of Jelly’s life, and also someone who can give as good as she gets whenever they have an argument. She’s also the only person Jelly is comfortable enough with to confide in. Their quiet moments together offer the audience an important bit of insight into Jelly’s tightly controlled persona. Elsewhere, Clay is nicely amicable as Jelly’s longtime friend Jack the Bear; while Diadhiou does a nice job as Young Jelly. Also quite good is Onaodowan, who gives an effective performance as Bolden.

Nicholas Christopher and Joaquina Kalukango in the Encores! production of Jelly's Last Jam at New York City Center. Photo: Joan Marcus

Among the highlights in the score is the torch song "Play The Music For Me," beautifully sung by Kalukango. Other memorable tunes include "Michigan Water," in a rendition by Onaodowan and Tiffany Mann; the rousing "The Whole World's Waitin' to Sing Your Song", delivered by Christopher and Diadhiou; and the poignant "The Banishment, strongly put across by Leslie Uggams. Also quite good is the mournful “The Last Chance Blues,” sung by Christopher and Kalukango. Though there are a few times when the music tends to drown out the lyrics, thus lessening the number’s overall impact.

From the performances to the music to the message, there is quite a lot to unpack in the Encores! production of Jelly’s Last Jam and it is certainly worth checking out.

Jelly’s Last Jam

Featuring: Nicholas Christopher (Jelly Roll Morton), John Clay III (Jack the Bear), Alaman Diadhiou (Young Jelly), Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Stephanie Pope Lofgren, Allison M. Williams (The Hunnies), Joaquina Kalukango (Anita), Tiffany Mann (Miss Mamie), Okieriete Onaodowan (Buddy Bolden), Billy Porter (Chimney Man), Leslie Uggams (Gran Mmi)

Ensemble: Raymond Baynard, Shawn Bowers, Amanda Castro, Joshua Dawson, John Edwards, Ari Groover, Morgan McGhee, Jodeci Milhouse, Ramone Nelson, Paul Niebanck, James Patterson, Antonia Raye, Salome Smith, Taylor Mackenzie Smith, Funmi Sofola, Jordon Simone Stephens, Renell Anthony Taylor, Nasia Thomas, Sir Brock Warren, Chanse Williams

Book by George C. Wolfe

Music by Jelly Roll Morton

Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead

Musical Adaptation & Additional Music Composed by Luther Henderson

Arrangements & Orchestrations: Luther Henderson

Additional Orchestrations: Daryl Waters & William David Brohn

Scenic Designer: Clint Ramos

Costume Designer: Dede Ayite

Lighting Designer: Adam Honoré

Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Hair & Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas

Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz

Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore

Casting by The Tesley Office, Destiny Lilly, CSA

Score Consultant: Daryl Waters

Choreographer: Edgar Godineaux

Tap Choreographer: Dormeshia

Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra

Guest Musical Director: Jason Michael Webb

Directed by: Robert O’ Hara

Presented at New York City Center

131 West 55th Street

Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission

Closes: March 3, 2024

Friday, February 2, 2024

Once Upon A Mattress - Sheer Perfection

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Every once in a great while, all the elements in a theatrical production align perfectly. So it is with the Encores! Production of the 1959 musical comedy, Once Upon A Mattress. Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, the show - with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer - can be seen at New York City Center through February 4.

The year is 1428 and there is great unhappiness among the people in a far-off mythical kingdom. For until Prince Dauntless (Michael Urie) takes a wife, no one in the realm is permitted to marry. Though there were many princesses from neighboring kingdoms who sought the Prince’s hand, everyone candidate so far has failed a test of character set by his mother, Queen Aggravain (Harriet Harris). 

(L-R) Harriet Harris, Michael Urie, Cheyenne Jackson and Nikki Renée Daniels in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The laws of the kingdom also state that once the Prince weds, he becomes King; therefore the current King and Queen must abdicate. But Queen Aggravain has no intention of ever ceding power. Her husband, King Sextimus the Silent (David Patrick Kelly) has nothing to say on the matter. This due to the fact he was struck mute years earlier as the result of a curse. Much of the backstory explained by the court's Jester (J. Harrison Ghee), who also serves as the narrator of the piece as he works to separate fact from fiction regarding unfolding events.

Harry (Cheyenne Jackson), a Chivalric Knight of the Realm, is determined to marry his true love, Lady Larken (Nikki Renée Daniels), and so sets off to find a suitable bride for the Prince. Harry and his Lady's efforts born of desperation when she learns she is going to have a baby. Fortunately, Harry is able to find an available princess. However it soon becomes apparent the woman in question, one Princess Winnifred (Sutton Foster), may not exactly be royalty material.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Princess Winnifred comes from a less-than-fashionable domain. One filled with marshes and swamps. Where the biggest thrill is watching mosquito larvae; and where items such as soap and houses with roofs are considered luxuries. Her first meeting with Queen Aggravain, Prince Dauntless and rest of the royal court - this after she swims the castle moat in her eagerness to meet the Prince - calls to mind the Beverly Hillbillies crashing a fancy ball in a Jane Austin novel. The Queen is horrified beyond words at Winnifred’s unkempt appearance and lack of proper etiquette. Prince Dauntless, one the other hand, is instantly smitten with her. An attraction the Princess quickly returns. 

Determined Winnifred will never marry her son, the Queen plans to place a tiny pea underneath 20 mattresses upon which the Princess will spend the night. If Winnifred does not feel the pea when she goes to sleep, she will be have failed the test and be sent on her way. Though determined as the Queen may be that the Princess fail, there are those just as determined she succeed. This leads to a continual battle of wits with the future happiness of the kingdom hanging in the balance.

                         Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress can best be described as a cheerful romp where everybody gets exactly what they deserve. Eventually. Also stressed is the need to stand up for whatever and whoever you believe in, regardless of the consequences for doing so. It also has a book extremely on the lightweight side. Thankfully, the production’s other creative elements make it all imminently watchable. Especially thanks to its winning cast.

From the moment she first appears, Foster completely nails the role of Princess Winnifred. The character equal part determination and homespun naiveté. Most importantly, Foster is able to bring forth the extensive physical comedy required for the part. From struggling to climb the castle wall to wrestling with the 20 mattresses as she tries to find a comfortable place to sleep.

(L-R) Michael Urie and Sutton Foster in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

Urie is great fun as Prince Dauntless. A misfit who proves the old adage there is somebody perfect for everyone. A point made clear in his scenes with Winnifred. Dauntless is also the character who matures the most as he learns to step away from his mother’s control and become a man in his own right.

Harris wonderfully embodies Queen Aggravain, the comedic villain of the piece. A woman determined to keep a tight hold on her power by any means necessary; yet also the perfect straight woman for Foster ("you swam the moat?") and anyone else in her orbit. 

J. Harrison Ghee in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress."  Photo: Joan Marcus.

Ghee is a real treat as the Jester. A person who basically owns the stage whenever seen on it. Striding rather than walking, with a "try to get in my face and see what happens" air, Ghee imbues the Jester with an attitude of loyalty to those who deserve it: an insider’s knowledge of exactly what is going on at all times: and an unassuming ability to make sure events turn out the way they are supposed to. This despite anyone's plans to the contrary. 

Daniels and Jackson work well as Lady Larken and Harry. Two people very much in love, though it's Larken who has more on the ball mentally. Harry a bit more befuddled, in a good-natured way and also perhaps a bit too obsessed with his title. Elsewhere, David Patrick Kelly does a nice turn as the silent King and plays off well against Ghee and Urine in their scenes together.

          (L-R) Harriet Harris and Francis Jue in Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." Photo: Joan Marcus.

The direction by Lear Debessonet is excellent. Her efforts reveal a firm grasp of the material as she takes things almost but not quite over the top into parody. As well as reining in the cast just enough to make the characters and situations real enough to care about. Credit must also go to Lorin Latarro's enjoyable choreographic work and Andrea Hood's costumes. The latter of which add vibrant splashes of color to the proceedings.

The score is fun, if not particularly memorable. Highlights include Foster singing "Happily Ever After," a riff on other fairy tales heroines; and “Shy,” a comical ballet where she proves Winnifred is anything but. There’s also Ghee's delightful work in "Very Soft Shoes," a wistful number calling to mind the Jester's father. Also quite good is the comic love duet "Yesterday I Loved You," as sung by Larken and Jackson. A tune which has more than a few echoes of “You’re Awful” from the 1949 movie version of On The Town.

Michael Urie, Sutton Foster and the company of Encores! "Once Upon A Mattress." 
Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once Upon A Mattress offers fluff and merriment, with a batch of songs and a gentle morale or two. To its credit, the show doesn’t try to be anything more, and for this production, that is all that’s needed.

Featuring: Nikki Renée Daniels (Lady Larken), Sutton Foster (Princess Winnifred), J. Harrison Ghee (Jester), Harriet Harris (Queen Aggravain), Cheyenne Jackson (Sir Harry), Francis Jue (Wizard), David Patrick Kelly (King Sextimus the Silent), Michael Urie (Prince Dauntless)

Ensemble: Shavey Brown, Demarius R. Copes, Kaleigh Cronin, Cicily Daniels, Ben Davis, Ta’nika Gibson, Gaelen Gilliland, Jaquez, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Paul Kreppel, Amanda Lamotte, Abby Matsusaka, Adam Roberts, Ryan Worsing, Kristin Yancy, Richard Riaz Yoder

Once Upon A Mattress

Music by Mary Rodgers

Lyrics by Marshall Barer

Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller & Marshall Barer 

Scenic Designer: David Zinn

Costume Designer: Andrea Hood

Lighting Designer: Amith Chandrashaker

Sound Designer: Kai Harada

Hair & Wig Designer: J. Jared Janas

Physical Comedy & Effects: Skyler Fox

Music Coordinator: Kimberlee Wertz

Production Stage Manager: Cody Renard Richard

Casting by The Telsey Office, Bernard Telsey, CSA, Craig Burns, CSA

Orchestrations by Hershy Kay, Arthur Beck & Carrol Huxley

Concert Adaptation by Amy Sherman-Palladino

Choreographer: Lorin Latarro

Featuring The Encores! Orchestra

Music Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell

Director: Lear Debessonet


Presented by Encores! at City Center

131 West 55th Street

Tickets: 212-581-1212 or 

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, with one intermission

Closes February 4, 2024

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

A Matter of Faith - Where Just Having Conviction Is Not Enough

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The question of faith and what it represents can be found at the core of Ian Richard Barnes' very intense and sometimes talky drama, A Matter of Faith. Presented by Reckless Few Theatrical Productions at the Chain Theatre, this is definitely not a work for the faint of heart.

The story opens in the squalid basement home of Seamus (Henry Frontini), a longtime drug addict. Seamus has fallen so far, he has completely given up on life and just wants everything to end. Temporary salvation arrives, ironically, in the form of his supplier, Kenley (Barnes). Seamus it seems, owes him money and Kenley has no intention of letting him go anywhere until matters between the two are resolved.

(L-R) Ian Richard Barnes and Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

The story eventually shifts to The Beacon, a rehabilitation facility/halfway house where Kenley has now been living for over a year. He claims his triumph over his own demons occurred once he learned to let Jesus into his life. Though Izzy (Ava Paris Locknar), a recovering addict who works The Beacon overnight shift, clearly doubts this. Kenley seemingly just talking the talk when it comes to salvation, rather than actually having done the work necessary for recovery. Not to mention his trying to flirt with Izzy while keeping out of sight from people still looking for him. Izzy also considers the place where Kenley claims to have started his rehabilitation process a questionable one at best. 

Matters come to a head with the arrival of Seamus' brother, Patrick (Frontini). A former priest and current alcoholic, Patrick is wracked with guilt over his refusal to be his brother’s lifeline until he gets serious about fixing himself. Now the only thing Patrick wants is to find comfort through the teachings of the Bible. Kenley however, who is seeking his own form of forgiveness, has other ideas.

(L-R) Henry Frontini and Ava Paris Locknar in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

As the play makes clear, the idea of finding something to believe in, be it faith, self-awareness or whatever you want to call it, means nothing unless one is willing to do the work needed to begin the process of healing. Something Kenley and Patrick have yet to come close to achieving. It’s a credit to the story that for all the continual talk about what faith does or does not mean, one never gets the feeling the playwright is trying to impose his own particular point of view on the characters he's created.

While much of what unfolds is very good, with the audience often on the edge of their seats as they wait for the next potential explosion to occur, the show’s quieter moments tend to drag somewhat. The various discussions in regards to the different perceptions of faith, while involving, could easily have been trimmed as a sameness in these conversations soon emerges. In addition, the opening sequence between Seamus and Kenley might have worked better if it were folded in later as a sort of flashback and interspersed with the action at The Beacon rather than a standalone scene. Something for the creative team to think about before the play’s next incarnation.

Barnes is the standout of the cast. His performance embodies Kenley with an angry nature that continually simmers just below the surface. One which threatens to erupt at any moment. Conversely, he’s also someone you want to like at times, with his wisecracks and seemingly jovial attitude, but also a person you do not want as an enemy. Especially as his so-called attempts to make amends can be quite disconcerting, to say the least.

(L-R) Ian Richard Barnes and Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

Frontini is riveting as Seamus, a tormented soul who knows that he has destroyed his life. The scene where he swears that the "fix" he is about to give himself will really and truly this time be the last one he ever takes is heartbreaking in its intensity. He also does well as Patrick, a man who carries feelings of anger inside he never knew he had, and ones he must be willing to face before he can finally begin his own healing process. 

                            Henry Frontini in "A Matter of Faith." Photo credit: Matt Weinberger.

Barnes and Frontini's performances are helped tremendously by director Augustus Childres' understanding of exactly what these two characters are capable of and allowing the actors to play off each other brilliantly in their scenes together.

Locknar is fine as Izzy, the bit of stability Kenley and Patrick revolve around. A woman who has learned to temper her compassion for her fellow addicts with a no-nonsense resolve when it comes to rule-breaking on her watch. While also never afraid to open up about her own struggles, and admitting there is still much that she can learn.

A Matter of Faith looks at the process broken people go through as they try to reclaim their lives. Not an easy play to watch, it offers a powerful message about healing, recovery and what must be done before becoming whole is even a possibility.

Featuring: Ava Paris Locknar (Izzy), Ian Richard Barnes (Kenley), Henry Frontini (Seamus & Patrick).

A Matter of Faith

An original play by Ian Richard Barnes

Presented by Reckless Few Theatrical Productions

Production Stage Manager: Kimberly Van Vo
Sound Design: Sam Henry
Lighting Design: Lauren Lee

Directed by Augustus Childres

The Chain Theatre

312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor


Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission

Closes: February 4, 2024

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

SCENE PARTNERS - It's Never Too Late, or Is It?

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

“The past isn’t as frightening with one foot in the present.” So says a character in Scene Partners, the new comedy-drama by John J. Caswell, Jr., now at the Vineyard Theatre.

The year is 1985. Following the long-awaited passing of her abusive husband (though she refers to him in far more colorful terms), 75 year-old Meryl Kowalski (Dianne Wiest) is at last celebrating her independence. Determined to become an internationally famous film star, she heads for Hollywood and the promise of new beginning. Left behind is her former home, her drug-addicted daughter, and a lifetime of painful memories.

After a train ride to Los Angeles, with a possible detour through Russia, Meryl arrives at her destination. Determined to no longer be ignored, and thanks to some fast talking, iron determination and a loaded gun, she soon signs with an agent. From there, it’s a quick step to an acting class where she immediately bonds with the instructor, one Hugo Lockerby (Josh Hamilton). Hugo seeing in Meryl a brilliant untapped potential.

                                          Dianne Wiest in Scene Partners. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

While she is seemingly on her way and set to become a star via a documentary about her life, Meryl’s past keeps trying to intrude in her new existence. Including appearances by her late husband, who possesses the bodies of those around her. His purpose, to let Meryl know she will never be free of him. Meryl also finds herself guided by the essence of her long-lost father; who once tried to make it in show business, but failed.  His attempts to do so cost him his family and for Meryl, eliminated any possibility of a happy childhood.

Scene Partners offers a lot to unpack. On one level, it focuses on how it’s never too late to follow through on your dreams. With Meryl intent on grabbing as much as can from life in the time she has left. Also stressed is the importance of being able to come to terms with the past. As well as one's subsequent actions or inactions therein.

Also explored is the need to remove oneself from those who threaten to consume you via their own self-destructive natures. Several of these points explored during a long overdue heart to heart talk between Meryl and her younger half-sister, and former actress, Charlize (Johanna Day).

                                            Josh Hamilton in Scene Partners. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The play also offers a hilarious send-up of the world of show business. Particularly thanks to Hamilton's wonderfully over-the-top portrayal of a temperamental acting guru. He of multiple accents, with a habit of throwing cans of Diet Coke whenever he becomes angry. The scene where Meryl gets herself an agent also calls to mind similar, though not so outrageous stories, recounted in Hollywood lore from time to time.

However as things progress, one starts to wonder how much of the story is only taking place in Meryl's mind. As she has begun to show signs of a medical condition which may be warping her perceptions of reality. This not only adds an extra layer of context to the play, but also increases Meryl urgency to realize her goals. It’s a testament to the script that just when you think you’ve figured out what’s actually happening, the ground shifts just enough to make one question these assumptions. 

                              (L-R) Dianne Wiest and Johanna Day in Scene Partners. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Wiest gives a fantastic performance as a woman determined to make it in a business where so many others have failed. Including several in her own family. The way she juggles her character's different emotional situations - ones ranging from anger and determination to happiness and introspection - comes across very, very well. All the while never making Meryl an object of ridicule.

It must also be pointed out that this is not a perfect show. The use of various video clips and TV monitors, coupled with possible non-linear sequences, can at times feel rather disjointed. In addition, the opening and closing scenes of the play feel somewhat dragged out. Also a scene where Meryl recounts her life story, as told via several other cast members, would have worked better if shortened somewhat.

The cast, many of whom play multiple rules, all do strong work here. Rachel Chavkin’s direction, like the play itself, moves in fits and starts.

(L-R) Dianne Wiest and Eric Berryman in Scene Partners. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Part tale of rebirth and new beginnings, part performance/multi-media piece, “Scene Partners” leaves one with much to ponder. Thanks to an interesting idea and a standout turn by Wiest.

Featuring: Eric Berryman (Chuck + Others), Johanna Day (Charlize), Josh Hamilton (Hugo + Others), Carmen M. Herlihy (Cassie + Others), Kristen Sieh (Pauline + Others), Dianne Wiest (Meryl Kowalski).

Scene Partners

A New Play by John J. Caswell, Jr.

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández

Costume Design: Brenda Abbandandolo

Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards

Sound Design: Leah Gelpe

Video & Projection Design: David Bengali

Hair, Wig & Makeup Design: Leah Loukas

Props Supervisor: Andrew Diaz

Video Producer: Anne Troup

Fight Choreographer: J. David Brimmer

Tapestry Design: Patricia Marjorie

Music Director: Nehemiah Luckett

Choral Arranger: Orion Johnstone

Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire

Directed by Rachel Chavkin


Vineyard Theatre

108 East 15th Street

Tickets: 212-353-0303 or

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission

Closes: December 17, 2023


Friday, September 22, 2023

The Writing on the Stall - Potty Humor of the Highest Caliber

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo by Arin Sang-Urai

Caitlin Cook provides an evening of bathroom humor and touching truth in her show The Writing on the Stall, currently running at the SoHo Playhouse.  Those familiar with Ms. Cook's Tik Tok have already seen and heard some of her humorous songs based on bathroom graffiti, and the songs in this show do not disappoint.  However the true treat is her ability to create an intimate, touching and insightful evening of theatre around the concept.

Ably directed by A. J. Holmes, Ms. Cook weaves together a history of graffiti, the human need for connection, and confessional truths about the hardest days in her life.  Using sight gags, audience interaction, and some terrific slideshows, The Writing on the Stall is a captivating piece of theater, and one that manages to be self-reflective, without being overly self-indulgent.

The Writing on the Stall
Written and Performed by Caitlin Cook
Directed by A. J. Holmes
Produced by Ali Gordon
Creative Consulting: Chase Brantley, Amanda Faye Martin, David Goldsmith

SoHo Playhouse
15 Vandam Street
Through September 23

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Back to the Future: The Musical - An Unnecessary Trip

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The Broadway graveyard is filled with musical efforts that sprang from movies. Groundhog Day, Mrs. Doubtfire, Rocky and Pretty Woman among some of the more recent internees. While it’s too early to consign Back to the Future: The Musical, based on the hit 1985 film of the same name, to the same fate, it may soon be headed in that direction. This despite some pretty strong special effects. As well as a very appealing lead performance.

It’s 1985 in Hill Valley, California and high school student Marty McFly (Casey Likes), whose rock-n-roll band just failed their latest audition, is terrified of ending up like his family. His mother Lorraine (Liana Hunt) is an alcoholic; his older brother and sister (Daryl Tofa, Amber Ardolino) have lives on the fast track to nowhere; and his father George (Hugh Coles) is a beaten-down milquetoast who is terrified of confrontation. George is also is constantly harassed by his former high school nemesis Biff Tannen (Nathaniel Hackman), who is now his supervisor at work.

(L-R) Roger Bart and Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

One evening Marty’s friend Doc Brown (Roger Bart), the town crackpot, announces he has invented a time machine and wants Mary to document an upcoming test run. Doc intends to use the machine himself, which he has built inside a DeLorean. However before he can start on his journey, Doc collapses due to exposure to plutonium. The element used to power the vehicle. In a panic, Marty jumps into the DeLorean to go for help, but once the car reaches 88 miles an hour, the time circuits activate and send Marty thirty years in the past.

Shortly after his arrival in 1955 Hill Valley, and while searching for the Doc Brown of that time, Marty encounters his parents as teenagers. He also inadvertently interferes with their first meeting. One which initially kindled their romantic feelings for each other. Now before he can attempt to return to his own time, Marty has to get his parents to fall in love. Otherwise, neither he nor his siblings will ever be born. Matters become even more complicated when Lorraine starts having romantic feeling for Marty. Much to the fury of the overbearing Biff, who sees Lorraine as his personal girlfriend. Even though Lorraine wants nothing to do with him.

(L-R, top row) Victoria Byrd, Jonalyn Saxer, Becca Peterson. (L-R, bottom row) Casey Likes, Liana Hunt in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

There is certainly enough material here for a stage adaptation. The core idea of the show being how one small event can change the future forever. Tied in with this is the importance of never settling when it comes to what's really important in life. Be it deciding to run for political office or choosing to stand up for someone you care about.

Unfortunately in transferring the story to a new medium, the creative team, which includes Bob Gale as the bookwriter, who also co-wrote the script for the original film, all seem to have forgotten an important step in the process. That being, to make sure the new property is different enough from the original to warrant its creation in the first place. Yet what ends up on stage feels more like a tired retread. With many scenes and dialogue copied almost beat for beat.
It doesn’t help that the creators have also forgotten the “less is more” principle. Specifically as it applies to the characters of Doc Brown and George McFly. 

Roger Bart in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman 

Doc, played by the usually reliable Bart, is so over the top in both eras, there’s no real character development or backstory for the audience to latch onto. Here, he fritters to and fro and rarely varies his vocal cadence. Even worse, Bart’s verbal interactions with Likes often mimic the Burns and Schreiber “taxicab” routine. The only time Doc becomes anything more than a caricature is when Bart sings “For the Dreamers”. A quiet ballad which offers a fleeting glimpse behind his fast-talking facade as he realizes that finally, he has a chance to be something more than a laughingstock.

The character of George has similar problems. A hapless sad sack with no confidence whatsoever, Marty must try to teach him to stand up for himself. However George’s laugh, facial tics, hand gestures and efforts to try to follow Marty’s advice are so exaggerated, they quickly become annoying. This is a case of someone trying too hard to be funny and instead becoming painful to watch. As with Doc, George’s portrayal would have worked far better if we were given some history on the character as to why he is the way he is.

Another issue is that the score by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard is not all that memorable. The strongest numbers in the musical ones that were in the original film. Additionally, the first act finale just falls apart, instead of giving the audience a reason to return for act two. One of the few new numbers to really stand out is “Gotta Start Somewhere”, which boasts a very strong performance by Jelani Remy as Goldie Wilson.

Jelani Remy and the cast of Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

Likes does quite well in the lead role, coming across as a beleaguered sort who you don’t mind spending time with. He also looks alternatively terrified and frustrated as he tries to fit into 1955 Hill Valley, while continually trying to dodge Lorraine’s evermore amorous advances. Additionally, he nicely put across all of the songs he is tasked with. Including a killer rendition of “Johnnie B. Goode”. Other good performances include Mikaela Secada as Marty’s girlfriend, Hunt as Lorraine and Remy as both Goldie Wilson and Marvin Berry.

John Rando’s direction is uneven. He’s on point when it comes to the more dramatic moments, but his efforts fall flat when it comes to the comedy. Attempt at which feel awkward, uncomfortable, and continually distract from the stronger elements in the story.

The one especially strong aspect in the show are the special effects, Especially when it comes to having a full-size car appear to travel 88 miles an hour on a Broadway stage. Designer Tim Hatley and the rest of the team also come up with a finale that is superb. Sadly, these final moments don’t make up for all of the pitfalls that have come before. Indeed, it would be great if the DeLorean really did allow one to travel through time. That way, Gale, Rando, et. al., could have gone back to the beginning of the creative process and this time, tried to get it right.

Casey Likes in Back to the Future: The Musical.  Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman (2023)

Featuring: Casey Likes (Marty McFly), Jelani Remy (Goldie Wilson/Marvin Berry), Merritt David Janes (Principal Strickland/Lou Carruthers/Mayor Red Thomas/Sam Baines), Mikaela Secada (Jennifer Parker), Nathaniel Hackman (Biff Tannen), Hugh Coles (George McFly), Daryl Tofa (Dave McFly/Slick), Amber Ardolino (Linda McFly/Stella Baines), Liana Hunt (Lorraine Baines), Roger Bart (Doc Brown), Victoria Byrd (Betty/Pretty Baby Trio), Becca Petersen (Babs/Pretty Baby Trio), Will Branner (3D), Jonalyn Saxer (Clocktower Woman/Pretty Baby Trio), Nick Drake (Reginald (Starlighter #1)), Kevin Curtis (Starlighter #2), Joshua Kenneth Allan Johnson (Starlighter #3)

Ensemble: Amber Ardolino, Will Branner, Victoria Byrd, Brendan Chan, Kevin Curtis, Nick Drake, Marc Heitzman, Merritt David Janes, Hannah Kevitt, JJ Niemann, Becca Peterson, Emma Pittman, Jonalyn Saxer, Mikaela Secada, Daryl Tofa

Back to the Future: The Musical
Book by Bob Gale
Music & Lyrics by Alan Silvestri & Glen Ballard

Based on the Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment film
Written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale

Fight Director: Maurice Chan
Wigs, Hair and Make-Up: Campell Young Associates
Musical Supervisor: Vocal & Music Arrangements: Nick Finlow
Music Director: Ted Arthur
Orchestrations: Ethan Popp & Bryan Crook
Dance Arrangements: David Chase
Sound Designer: Gareth Owen
Lighting Designers: Tim Lutkin & Hugh Vanstone
Video Director: Finn Ross
Illusion Designer: Chris Fisher
Choreographer: Chris Bailey
Designer: Tim Hatley
Directed by John Rando

Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway
Tickets; 212-239-6200,
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission
Open Run

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Camelot - Where ideals and human nature collide

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Some people will always be resistant to change. Though if said changes are truly worthwhile, one should never stop trying to make them a reality. This is the message at the heart of the 1960 Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical, Camelot. A revival of which is now at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater .

Based on T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” Camelot takes place in a mythical medieval England during the reign of King Arthur (Andrew Burnap). After a long and bitter war with France, the two countries have agreed to a peace treaty. One contingent upon Arthur marrying the French princess Guenevere (Phillipa Soo). Initially against this royal union, Guenevere soon finds herself intrigued by Arthur, who is unlike any royal she’s ever known.

Arthur is rather unique when it comes to royalty, as he is not of noble blood and only ascended the throne after he pulled out a sword embedded in a large stone. A feat thousands of others had tried and failed. Despite feeling ill-suited to his position, and remembering how harshly the kingdom’s knights and others in power have treated the masses, Arthur has a vision of a new era. One where knights are defenders of justice, honor, and chivalry. Though it soon becomes apparent many of those who formerly enjoyed almost unlimited power, and the pleasures it afforded, are not happy with these new guidelines.

Jordon Donica, Phillipa Soo (background), Andrew Burnap and the company in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Other potential trouble appears in the form of Lancelot du Lac (Jordon Donica); a Frenchman of great courage, virtue, and strength. Something he continually reminds himself, and everybody else. Lancelot’s greatest desire is to become a knight in the service of King Arthur. While he quickly succeeds in this, his overwhelming arrogance alienates him from the rest of the knights. At the same time, Guenevere finds herself becoming attracted to this new arrival. An attraction which quickly becomes mutual and threatens the stability of the kingdom.

Further danger arrives thanks to Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred (Taylor Trensch). Bitter and angry at his father, Mordred is determined to destroy the King and the legacy he had hoped to create.

Camelot looks at the different sides of human nature while showing how the baser elements of humanity often impede moral progress. As continually pointed out, most people often have to be forced to accept something new, whether it is the better treatment of women, or that the coach carrying a royal bride may now stop at the top of a bottom of a hill rather than the top. Also explored is the danger of implementing change too quickly. For such upheaval may not only threaten those who would do anything to maintain the status quo, but it can also destroy closely held traditions many have lived by all their lives. Yet through it all is the message that it is possible for us to become better. Plus even if we do not achieve everything we hoped, the next generation will be able to build on what this one has begun.

Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica, and company in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT.Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

The Lerner and Loewe score, backed here by a 30-piece orchestra, never fails to soar. Highlights include the whimsical title tune, the haunting “If Ever I Would Leave You,” and the comic numbers “The Lusty Month of May,” and “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?” Also a standout is “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. A culmination of a verbal fencing match between Arthur and Guenevere, the song illuminates the importance of communication between partners and the danger from a lack thereof.

The only real weak point is the show’s revised book by Aaron Sorkin. While Sorkin has attempted to make the original Learner text more palatable to today’s audiences, some of his efforts are rather questionable. Such as making Arthur’s longtime adviser Merlyn (Dakin Matthews) and Mordred’s mother Morgan Le Fey (Marliee Talkington) scientists instead of wizards. This removal of the magical element from the story makes the work feel a bit more pedestrian.

Andrew Burnap as Arthur in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Soo makes a fine Guenevere. A woman with a strong inner core who projects a sense of responsibility, passion, and a desire for a better world. Burnap works well as Arthur. A man initially unsure of himself, we see him grow into both the office and character of King during the course of the production.

Donica makes a powerful as Lancelot. His first number (“C’est Moi”) drips with irony as he sings about virtue and honor, even though he falls for a married woman. His character one you initially dislike for his arrogance, yet eventually come to understand. Trensch makes a strong villain as Mordred, and Matthews is good in the comedic yet wise roles of Merlyn and Pellinore.

Phillipa Soo (center) and company in Lincoln Center Theater's production of CAMELOT. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.jpg

Bartlett Shers’s direction makes effective use of the vast playing space, while Michael Yeargan’s set, coupled with 59 Productions’ projection work, nicely enhances the story.

Camelot is not perfect, but with a strong message, an appealing cast, and a wonderful score, it makes for quite a fulfilling experience.

Featuring: Anthony Michael Lopez (Sir Dinadan), Danny Wolohan (Sir Lionel), Fergie Philippe (Sir Sagramore), Dakin Matthews (Merlyn, Pellinore), Andrew Burnap (Arthur), Phillipa Soo (Guenevere), Holly Gould, James Romney (Pages), Jordan Donica (Lancelot du Lac), Paul Whitty (Dap), Ann Sanders (Clarius), Tesia Kwarteng (Lady Catharine). Delphi Borich (Lady Sybil), Taylor Trensch (Mordred), Marilee Talkington (Morgan Le Fey). Camden McKinnon (Tom of Warwick)

Ensemble: Delphi Borich, Matías De La Flor, Ṣọla Fadiran, Christian Mark Gibbs, Holly Gould, Edwin Joseph, Tesia Kwarteng, Ann Sanders, Britney Nicole Simpson, Frank Viveros, Paul Whitty


Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Music by Frederick Loewe

Book by Aaron Sorkin

Based on the original book by Alan Jay Lerner

Based on "The Once and Future King" by T.H. White

Sets: Michael Yeargan

Costumes: Jennifer Moeller

Lighting: Lap Chi Chu

Sound: Marc Salzberg & Beth Lake

Projections: 59 Productions

Hair & Wigs: Cookie Jordan

Fight Director: B.H. Barry

Vocal & Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson

Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett & Philip J. Lang

Dance & Choral Arrangements; Trude Rittmann

Music Direction: Kimberly Grigsby

Choreography: Bryon Easley

Directed by: Bartlett Sher


Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center Theater

150 West 65th Street

Tickets: 212-239-6200 or


Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes, one intermission

Open run