Sunday, July 24, 2022

 


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

        By Joseph Cervelli

I have seen five (not the original) productions of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and while the best of all was the 1975 version starring an unforgettably, scintillating Elizabeth Ashley, the others were generally good.  In most cases you had a fine Maggie (Ashley still remains the best) but a disappointing Brick. But in the disastrous revival currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's you may have a more fiercely played Brick (Matt de Rogatis) but a very ineffective Maggie (Sonoya Mizuno). If the show's Maggie is not good the production sinks badly. And this one under the misguided direction by Joe Rosario stands by far to be the worst I have seen. 

One of the biggest culprits is the exceptionally poor acoustics of the theater and the simply terrible sound design by Ben Levine. When Maggie is at the right side of the stage, and you hear her voice from one of the speakers on the left side you are in trouble. 




 

Rosario has updated the show to the present which still takes place on an estate in Mississippi. Maggie is the love starved wife of the sexy but alcohol addicted Brick. There is no mistaking that Mizuno is definitely sensual in her movements but her shrill, screeching voice makes her Maggie so unappealing. One of the funniest lines right from the onset is her calling her nieces and nephews (no nephews are shown here) "no neck monsters." But Mizuno with a very overdone Southern accent rambles on yelling one line after another becoming almost impossible to understand. Within five minutes I knew we were in trouble. The entire first act is basically a monologue of Maggie's emotions who cannot understand why Brick has fallen to pieces since the death of his best friend Skipper. Unless you know the play this production will probably not help you understand the innuendos about Brick's relationship to Skipper. As Williams wrote the character Maggie he makes you feel for this woman who wants more than anything to be loved by her husband and have a child. She and Brick live in the house of his parents Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc) and Big Mamma (Alison Fraser) along with Brick's brother Gooper (Spencer Scott) and his wife Mae (Tiffan Borelli). Maggie knows unless they are in Big Daddy's good graces when he passes they will not be left much. To secure this, a child would make that a reality.

 Mizuno according to the Playbill trained at the Royal Ballet School and danced as listed at two ballet companies. This is her New York City stage acting debut. I saw no stage acting credits listed and this is too difficult a role to tackle for a novice unless under proper direction. She gets no assistance from Rosario. Throughout Mizuno has the sinuous moves of a dancer, but it is never transformed into her acting ability. 

De Rogatis makes a hunky, perfectly chiseled tattooed Brick. De Rogatis also is the most menacing Brick I have seen, and when he threatens to hit Maggie with his crutch (he injured himself while jumping hurdles while drunk) you think he truly wants to kill her.  De Rogatis also is the most self destructive Brick. Unlike others who have played that part you do believe he was indeed sexually attracted to Skipper and either made an attempt to seduce his friend or actually did. While there is not much for Brick to do in the first act except to listen to the epithets of Maggie, de Rogatis does convey his inner demons by the way he moves his body. You can feel his mental anguish. And later in the play his encounter with his father is well  played out on his part. However I don't remember Brick falling down in a drunken stupor as much as here.




Big Daddy has always been played by a tall, broad man.  Remember Burl Ives, James Earl Jones and 
character actor Fred Gwynn?  Yet, Le Blanc is a smaller Big Daddy. That would be fine if he, too, was  not screaming throughout. He thinks he has a spastic colon not knowing until Brick angrily tells him
that he has terminal cancer. He is a belligerent, bellicose and uncouth millionaire. His vile comments towards his wife are thoroughly upsetting but here they fall flat because his dialogue is spoken too fast.

 Fraser ("The Secret Garden" and "Romance/Romance") is a completely different looking Big Mama. Big Mamma has always been a bit overweight, dowdy character ridiculed  by her unpleasant husband. Here she is a slim, but flamboyantly dressed woman looking like she is going to a cocktail party. Much of Fraser's dialogue including her almost sotto voce aside to Brick near the end of the play should  be clearer. Also, what makes no sense is when Big Daddy calls her "fat" on a number of occasions for she is very slim. 




I am not sure who created the ominous music which would have been more appropriate for "A Streetcar Named Desire" than this show. And unsure why Brick and Maggie's bed (set design by Matthew Imhoff) which is a pivotal part of their relationship is off to the side of the stage instead more centered.

The themes of manliness, mendacity and  Maggie's sexual desires are all lost in this overwhelmingly inept production. I can only hope there is another "Cat" to erase the memory of what Rosario has done to such a brilliant play. 

PHOTOS: Miles Skalli

Tickets are available at the Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street. 



Monday, July 11, 2022

 



Between The Lines--Very Likable New Musical That Needs Some Tightening

The first thing that struck me when I entered The Tony Kiser Theater where the uneven though likable "Between the Lines" musical is playing was the song "Books" from the irrepressible "A Man of No Importance." A wonderful song about the delights of reading sung by the lonely man's sister. And if you never caught the show at Lincoln Center it is going to be revived this season. In "Lines" the action takes place in the library, among other locations and indeed revolves around one particular book. 

The show is based on the novel by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer. Here the book for the musical is by Timothy Allen McDonald. I have read several of Picoult's adult books always admiring show she beautifully dissects the characters and her versatility in that no two books are the same. I never read any of her young adult books which "Lines" is based upon. 




Delilah (a wonderful and hard working Arielle Jacobs) is a lonely junior in high school who has moved to the new school about six months ago. She lives with her mother Grace (Julia Murney) whose husband has left them for a twenty something yoga instructor. The mother has a great deal of trouble making ends meet but cares deeply for her daughter though they have frequent arguments. Delilah an avid reader suddenly takes a fancy to the book by the title of the musical. Strangely, there is only one book available anywhere and her school library has it. It is a fantasy about a handsome prince Oliver (Jake David Smith) and his desire to escape into the real world. He is bethroed to the annoying Princess Seraphima (very well played by understudy Aubrey Matalon.) Several of the characters play a multitude of roles which works excellent because each is superb. Matalon plays the 'mean girl' from Delilah's class and her clueless boyfriend Ryan (Will Burton) also plays the dog in the book. The only friend that Delilah has is the nonbinary Jules (a very funny wisecracking Wren Rivera). Of course, Jules is equally ostracized. There is an hilarious turn by the brilliant Vicki Lewis who plays five roles including the highly sexed librarian who has flights of fancy with an unseen except in silhouette form-- Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice."





The show begins delightfully with the very catchy "Another Chapter" sung by Delilah. When she opens the book there is a great scene that suddenly appears behind the back scrim with Prince Olvier climbing a cliff),  As she turns the pages of the book the scene changes to a mermaid saving the drowning Oliver and then you see member so the Royal Family along with others. It is brilliantly achieved by scenic designer Tobin Ost. Gregg Barnes designed the eye popping costumes. 

But after the first 40 or so minutes (the show is overlong at 2 1/2 hours) the delight becomes a bit repetitive. Director Jeff Calhoun tries to make things move swiftly but they are bogged down in much too many songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Grace does not need to sing two solos along with a duet with Delilah. And even other characters' numbers just dilute down the action. Yes, quite a few have clever lyrics and bouncy music but it feels overstuffed. And the book also has a very repetitive feel. We don't need to see the same occurrences in the classroom and a few of the musical numbers involving the storybook characters are tiresome. This is especially true of the unnecessary "Butterflies" sung by John Rapson who also plays characters in and out of the book. 




The relationship between Delilah and Oliver does not work as well as I hoped it to. Smith certainly makes a dashing Prince but has little personality and I never felt his despair being trapped in the book. And his disillusionment with his Royal life is never fully realized. 

The other issue is the theme of reality vs. fantasy and how both coalesce into the realm of things never truly coalesces. 

I was wondering if younger children would enjoy the musical more than adults but not so sure. Perhaps, if it was shortened and tighter a lot it could work better. There is a lot of promise here with necessary editing. 

Photos: Matt Murphy

Ticket are available at the Tony Kiser Theater 305 West 43rd Street.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

 



Chains--Charming and Bittersweet

         By Joseph Cervelli

One of the most enjoyable things about attending Mint Theater Company productions is how far ahead of the times the shows they present truly were. And even more so how applicable they are today. While not earth shattering in their themes by today's standards, I can only imagine how shocking they surely were back in the early 1900's when many were produced. 

Currently at Theater Row their latest production is British playwright Elizabeth Baker's "Chains" which is a bittersweet tale of breaking free from your everyday constraints to seek new horizons. This especially applies to those encumbered by jobs that have become "chains" around their neck.     





Charley Wilson (Jeremy Beck) and his wife Lily (Laakan McHardy) rent out a room in their house in Hammersmith to a lodger,  Fred Tennant (Peterson Townsend.) When Charley hears of Tennant's imminent departure to Australia to work as a cattle rancher, he becomes peevish which sets the tone for his behavior throughout the play. His wife will miss the congenial Fred but admires his decision. Not so Charley. He dislikes his job as a clerk knowing that his work options won't go beyond head clerk. He loves gardening and farming and would love to partake in such a move but there is no way that Lily is agreeable to this. Even though Charley said he will send for her when he gets established in Australia, Lily is against this move. You can hardly blame her. She is content but not Charley. And to make matters worse when his co-worker Thomas Fenwick (Christopher Gerson) comes to tell him that they are reducing all wages so Charley must accept the lesser amount or leave,  it makes him more determined to set course on this adventure. 





There are a number of other characters in the play and while it is well directed by Jenn Thompson the one flaw is that she never clearly delineates whom they are when we first meet a few of them. It is not until later in the play that it becomes clear. It does not diminish your enthusiasm for the work but would help to know earlier. We learn Percy Massey (Avery Whitted) is Lily's brother and Sybil Frost (Claire Saunders) his fiancĂ©. While Whitted is quite good in a very calming and quiet manner (you can read his feelings from his facial expressions), I did find Saunders' character a bit too silly. And found the Wilson's neighbor Morton Leslie overplayed by Brian Owen. He is supposed to add humor to the role but his boisterous behavior is over the top. 




Things come to a boiling point when it is announced in Lily's parents' house in Chiswick about what Charley wants to do. This is most definitely not well received by Lily's mother, Mrs. Massey (Amelia White) nor her father Alfred, (Anthony Cochrane.) However, this is far from the way her feisty, adventurous sister Maggie (a wonderful Olivia Gilliatt) feels about the matter. She encourages Charley to make this move. Maggie's beau is the quiet Walter Foster (Ned Moyes). Maggie only wants to marry Walter to quit her shop job and hoping he wants to travel around the world exploring and finding a new position. But Walter is very content and working where he currently is. I can only imagine what audiences must have thought of a woman who is encouraging her brother-in-law to move so far away without his wife. Maggie's expression about "seeking one's fortune" must have turned a lot of heads back in 1909 when the play was first produced. And what makes Charley even more determined to escape this staid life is probably seeing Lily's family enjoying a Sunday afternoon singing songs around the piano. This is not the life for this adventurer.  


   





As lovely as the set by John McDermott is, what is truly ingenious is the inventive way it changes from the Wilson's house to the Massey's and back again with the actors moving the set. I have not seen something like this in a very long time and it is done easily with great precision. 

There is a bit of a surprise at the end of the play which had me think if Lily is shrewder than we think. Not sure if this was Baker's intent but creating such an independent woman as Maggie I just wondered if she was creating a different Lily than we saw earlier. Most likely just a farfetched thought on my part but then you just never know. 

PHOTOS: Todd Cerveris

Tickets are available at Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street. 



Sunday, April 10, 2022

 


Birthday Candles--Endearing and Beautifully Acted

         By Joseph Cervelli

The first thing you might notice other than the crowded looking kitchen set at the beautifully written, deeply affecting and wonderfully acted new play "Birthday Candles" by Noah Haidle at the American Airlines Theater is what is hanging above the set. What do items like a guitar, umbrella, rocking chair and a multitude of other things all mean? You will see them in a different "light" by the end of this show. 

Debra Messing from "Will and Grace" fame showed how excellent her stage attributes are in the very fine "Outside Mullingar" from a number of seasons ago. Here again she has a very special and believable stage presence as Ernestine who ages (no make up so all depends on her physicality and voice patterns) from age seventeen to near one hundred. This appears to be the case for all the other actors. 



There is something very sweet from the start as her mother, Alice (Susannah Flood), bakes a cake for her seventeenth birthday which plays an important part in the play as they years go by. Flood and two other characters play multiple roles. There is also a lovely touch (so much of the play will bring back memories of your own childhood) where every year her mother measures how much her daughter has grown and marks it on the doorway arch. She is pursued by the very humorous Kenneth (a humorously  likable Enrico Colantoni) who is in love with her. But she falls for the more self assured Matt (a superb John Earl Jelks). 

The play is marked throughout by the sound of a "ding" so you know exactly how many years have transpired. Under Vivienne Benesch's astute direction characters leave and then re-enter the stage now older and some being Ernestine and Matt's offspring.




The play reflects the life cycle in so many ways. When first introduced to Ernestine she is whimsical speaking about wanting to travel the world and the ups and downs of what marriage brings. Things first work out well for her and happiness is in the forefront of her eventual marriage to Matt raising two very different children. The generally easy going Billy (an excellent Christopher Livingston) has shouting matches with his father while his sister Madeline (Flood) has very serious emotional issues that progress. There is one very funny line in which Billy addresses his father that is used later by his own daughter as an insult to him. Like life, marriages that seem wonderful can easily fall apart. Billy and his wife Joan (an extremely funny Crystal Finn) seem to be quite compatible until they are not. 

It is about halfway through the 95 or so minutes that things get very serious and emotionally moving. I won't give things away but like in any life things can turn very upsetting. As I mentioned earlier it  is remarkable at how well the actors without any visible makeup age in the way they not only speak but walk, act and speak. One scene I won't easily forget involves an incredible turn by Jelks who becomes ill. Just take notice how he is fine one second and then suddenly the illness takes over his body. Another involves Billy, now a grandfather, who develops his own illness. 


The play is so razor sharp in depiction of families and life situations. Even though the years move so swiftly nothing in the play feels rushed. Messing giving a sensitive, low keyed performance trying to keep the peace in her family is just as sterling as all the other cast members. 

This Roundabout Theatre Company production is one of the finest plays I have seen this season. 

PHOTOS: Joan Marcus

Tickets are available at the American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.719. 1300






Wednesday, March 30, 2022


 Little Girl Blue--An Electrifying Laiona Michelle

      By Joseph Cervelli

Quite simply Laiona Michelle is electrifying as the late, wonderful Nina Simone in "Little Girl Blue" at the New World Stages. Michelle also wrote the book to the musical which traces Simone's career and personal life told in two concerts that we as the audience a part of.

The first is a 1968 concert at Westbury, NY, in which she was greeted by both enthusiastic fans which we hear cheering along with protesters. It was three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The set is designed perfectly by Shoko Kambara has the smoky, lush feeling of a downtown club back in the 60's. And the tremendous sound system is by Twi McCallum. 

The excellent three piece band played by (Mark Fifer, Kenneth Salters and Saadi Zain) are also her sounding board and protector. Not an easy feat as Simone (especially in the second act)  struggles more and more with depression. It is not until much later that it is discovered she suffered from biopolar disease. 




As the show begins she sings the gorgeous "Feeling Good" from "The Roar of the Greasepaint---The Smell of the Crowd." I remember seeing the show and hearing that song the first time sung by an amazing Gilbert Price who left us much too soon. Sadly, it has been sung poorly with an upbeat tempo by quite a few artists who for me did not understand it. As Simone, Michelle sings it with the soaring and delicate tones that it was meant to possess. So much of those lyrics represent her feelings about black oppression and how changes need to come. She calls herself an activist and "Feeling Good" represents that optimisim. 

Being on the forefront for change she points out that "there's no colored section here." And jokingly with a kind of biting humor how white audiences have always enjoyed her music and pain. The emphasis is on pain because Michelle captures all those moments in Simone's life which audiences were probably so unaware of.

Besides the fact that Michelle sounds a great deal like Simone, you know how much the songs replicate the late singer's private life. "Love Me or Leave Me" is almost an ode to her violent husband whom she called "a dirty cop." He was more than that. He abused her mentally and physically. Shades of Ike Turner are apparent here. Forcing Nina to go on stage and taking her money. Focus back to Tina Turner's tragic and dangerous marriage. 





One thing I was not aware of was that Simone was trained as a concert pianist and her love for Bach knew no bounds. She could have been admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music because her white music teacher knew she had the capabilities but because of her color was rejected. 

As the musical moves on in the first act, she speaks about not including any protests songs because she was informed that could lead to riots. So, her famous "Mississippi Godamn" is left out. But she does get her message through that "My People are simply angry becasue they are fighting for their freedom." 

As the first act nears its end she becomes more vocal on her belief that nonviolence may not be the answer. It seems the death of Dr. King has not only made her political views more virulent but her mental condition is getting worse.

The second act takes place in 1976 at the Montreal Jazz Festival in Switzerland where she now lives because of the conditions for blacks in America. She enters wearing an afro and the look of that time period. Even the three musicians have that 70's look. But unlike the Nina of the first act she seems more jittery and derides her drummer for being late. When Michelle  breaks into "Little Girl Blue" she  sings it as beautifully as Simone sang it. I almost wished I could hear that back to back at that moment. And her rendition of Jacques Brel's gorgeous "Ne Me Quitte Pas" is sung interspersed with reminiscing about her destructive times with her ex-husband in what looks like hallucinatory images that she is experiencing. You can almost feel the agony she has been through and the serious effect it has taken on her. 

The book becomes a bit disjointed when you learn before she moved to Switzerland she lived in Liberia. It was not clear why she left there because it was apparent she felt more comfortable living there. Perhaps, Michelle or director Devanand Janki could have worked on that a bit more and there is a deja vu feeling from the first act. But still the book provides a lot of pertinent information. 

Still, when she she sings "I Put A Spell on You" the mesmerizing Michelle accomplishes that as Nina Simone.

Photos: Julietta Cervantes

Tickets are available at The New World Stages 340 West 50th Street.



Tuesday, March 8, 2022



 The Chinese Lady

       By Joseph Cervelli

Lloyd Suh's fascinating though thin new play "The Chinese Lady" at the Public Theater tells the story mostly through monologue about the first Chinese woman to come to America in 1834. We first see Afong Moy (well played by Shannon Tyo) in a Room (stylishly designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee) as it is called which is a raised setting on display in a museum. She was brought over here by The Carnes brothers who were import traders. In order for those to see her they have to pay the admission price (it goes up as the years change)  is a quarter for adults and ten cents for children to hear her speaking about her life and customs in China The brothers hire Atung (an excellent Daniel K. Isaac) as her interpreter. He deems himself irrevalent to the story and Afong agrees. 

Yet, as time goes on we find ourselves intrigued by this man who reveals near the end of the one act play his true feelings for her. There were a few moments throughout when I personally found him a bit more interesting than Afong which does not help the work directed by Ralph B. Pena. The issue is that as years go on you see changes in Afong in age justby the way he moves and acts, Afong (whose gorgeous traditional garb is designed by Linda Cho) never does. Except for minor changes, she remains the same in tone and behavior throughout which makes her character a bit tedious. 



She goes on in exposition form detailing facts through monologue in a nondramatic manner which makes the play feel more of a lecture than true dramaturgy. She speaks about the horrifying custom of what they do to a young girl's feet to make them smaller in appearance. Then speaks about the food and the importance of tea and the traditional way of serving it. I enjoyed her calling chopsticks "elegant" while "forks are violent and easy." 

After each of the various scenes Atung pulls the curtain and when it reopens Afong tells us the current year and how old she is. Her excitement which is understandable is traveling around the east coast. Certainly a nice change from staying in the same room for about 2 years. As the scenes change she speaks about her desire for American food and the enjoyment of eating corn and potatoes, staples which she does not get in the Chinese cuisine.


 

She is excited upon meeting President Andrew Jackson played with a blustery persona as played  by Atung. This was one of the most humorous moments in the play as Atung who doubles as Jackson and interpreter does not interpret the conversation between both Jackson and Afong the way it actually is said but the way he sees fit. 

As time goes on P.T. Barnum takes over and she goes to work for him in less than the best of surroundings. Barnum also hires Atung and while he equivocally states that he was never paid by Barnum,  I don't recall if Afong was though doubt it. 





More historical details follow as she speaks about Britain's desire to take over China and just touches upon the Opium Wars. What is intriguing and beautifully stated by Isaac as Atung is when he relates a dream he had about Afong and his feelings towards it. It was one of the best moments in the play. 

The playwright touches upon the Transcontinental Railroad, the treatment of the Chinese laborers, and the horrid Chinese Exclusion Act.




Since we don't really know what eventually happened to Afong in her latter years when she was let go by Barnum to be replaced by a younger Chinese woman,  the play takes an interesting and disturbing turn in which we are now in the present and Afong states she is 200 years old. With the current wave of heinous attacks on the Asian community this was the most powerful and affecting scene in the play. I could understand how deeply it affected the young Asian woman sitting beside me who was weeping. 

I just wished that there was more dramatic effect and changes in Afong's character and appearance than just a historical lesson which one could read about.

PHOTOS: Joan Marcus

Tickets are available at the Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022



 The Daughter-In-Law

      By Joseph Cervelli

It is always amazing how so many plays from the early part of the 20th Century are so apropos today. Case in point is D.H. Lawrence's "The Daughter-In-Law" being given a first rate production by the always excellent Mint Theater Company. Dealing with marital relationships, social class, strikes and sexual mores, the 1913 play feels so fresh thanks to Martin Platt's lively direction and the sublime cast. I must say that I was a bit concerned knowing that the dialect they speak which is from the British Nottinghamshire area is not the easiest to comprehend, There were just a few moments that I did have some difficulty but you can with a little effort get back into the phrasing, and it does not deter from the enjoyment of the play.

Mrs. Gascoyne (a terrific Sandra Shipley) who lives with her son Joe (Ciaran Bowling) is visited by a neighbor Mrs. Purdy (Polly Mckie) to be told that Mrs. Gascoyne's other son, Luther (a knockout performance by Tom Coiner), has gotten her daughter Bertha pregnant. Luther is now married to Minnie (a delightfully cunning and independent Amy Blackman). Purdy will forget this if she is paid forty pounds. WhileMrs. Gasoynemay have the money to do so, she informs Mrs. Purdy to visit her son and confront him. Mrs. Gascoyne is a sharp, domineering and overprotective mother whose austere personality only build as the play goes on. 



Joe loves his brother dearly and rushes off to tell him of what has occurred before Minnie finds out. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Minnie is aware of what has happened. Her reaction and what she eventually does is marked by staunch feminism. When you first see Luther he is covered in black from working in the coal mines. Minnie is of another social ranking which is clear even in her better speech patterns. She is a shrewd and self-reliant woman not afraid to express what she wishes. 

Mrs. Gascoyne becomes even more possessive and her disdain for Minnie becomes more evident as the play moves on. Why Minnie seems to still have great affection for Luther is not clear especially after her taking leave for a while. But it does not really matter. She has proven her independence as a woman and Luther becomes aware of this. His anger at what he does to a gift she has bought for herself when she was away is thunderous and Coiner's rage is incredibly believable. When you destroy the one thing that a person you supposedly love it becomes even crueler. 




As I mentioned the performances are all top notch especially Coiner's and Blackman's. As boisterously angry as Luther is towards Minnie there is no doubt she knows how to handle him. Watch the part (earlier in the show before she leaves) where she removes his boots when he returns from a day in the mines. Strangely, it is a tender moment that you would not expect. 

The set design by Bill Clarke is very authentic and the ease of changing the set from Mrs. Gascoyne's home to Luther and Minnie's is done perfectly with little fanfare.

I would suggest you listen very carefully to the actors so the dialects become less daunting. It is well worth the effort. The play which was not produced until the late 60's is a joy to watch. 

PHOTOS: Marie Baranova

Tickets are available at New York City Center 131 West 55th Street or by calling 212.581.1212.