Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Band's Visit--A Luminous New Musical

By Joseph Cervelli

The charming, warmly engaging new musical “The Band’s Visit” presented by the Atlantic Theater Company at the Linda Gross Theater playing a limited engagement (a possible Broadway bow has been recently discussed) is one of the highlights of the current theater season. 

The show with loving direction by David Cromer and a tender score by David Yazbek (“The Full Monty” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”) along with an insightful book by Itamar Moses is based on the Israeli film of  the same name. 

It begins with an unusual statement projected on the scrim to the effect that the true story about to be told “wasn’t very important.” Probably not, but as related in this genuinely fine show it means a great deal in an understated way about how two cultures can get along with an understanding and respect for each other. Too bad it is not a reality.

A  low keyed Colonel Tewfiq (sweetly played by Tony Shalhoub) is the conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arriving from Egypt with his musicians in the wrong Israeli town. They are going to perform in the Arab Culture Center. The mistake occurs when the handsome Egyptian lothario Haled (Ari’el Stachel)  who is infatuated with the reservationist asks her as he does other women ,“Do you know Chet Baker?” books the wrong city. They end up in a remote town with what appears to be only one cafe. A barren place where everyone seems to be sad for a variety of reasons. 

The owner of the cafe which seems to get very few visitors for obvious reasons is Dina (a wonderful Katrina Lenk) tells Tewfiq  whom she develops an affection that to escape boredom she thinks of an Egyptian movie she loves and begins to sing the  piercingly simple “Omar Sharif.” Lenk captures this lonely woman’s only real enjoyment in life. It does not help that the man she is in love with is married. And Tewfiq has his own demons which he shares with her later in the show. Shalhoub is simply marvelous as he expresses his feelings in “Something Different.” I have always found Yazbek’s lyrics to be not only imaginative but keenly observant especially in his quirky score to “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,”  and here he really proves what a poignant lyricist he is. 

Other musicians mingle with the Israeli’s resulting in various reactions. Camal (George Abud) and Simon (Harvey Valdes) have dinner at the home of a young Israeli couple played by the caustic wife Iris (Kristen Sieh) and  husband played by an endearing John Cariani who later in the show sings the gorgeous “Lullaby.” Things are tenuous during their time together until Iris’s father (Andrew Polk) breaks into “Summertime” which brings them all together.
A delightful scene takes place in the roller rink where Haled helps the introverted Papi (Daniel David Stewart) approach a young woman he likes but too shy to make the move. Stachel does a mighty fine abbreviated rendition of Chet Baker’s glorious jazz interpretation of “My Funny Valentine.” For me no one plays that sublime song as well as the late musician. 

I would be at fault if I did not mention a delicately appealing performance by Erik Liberman who is only known as the Telephone Guy waiting patiently throughout the show for a call from his girlfriend. He stands in a shadow of sadness until he finally hears from her and breaks into the  warmhearted “Answer Me.”

Moses has written the show almost like chapters in the book which play out gracefully on Scott Pask’s turntable set. 
Here is a jewel of a show that glows with dignity and the respect that very different characters have for each other.  One only wishes that  world situations could be  filled with the benevolence that shines so brightly in this musical.

Tickets are available at the Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street or by calling 866.811.4111. As of this date the limited engagement ends January 8.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Dear Evan Hansen--Ben Platt Still Electrifies

By Joseph Cervelli

When I first saw the emotionally involving  “Dear Evan Hansen” off Broadway last season,  I knew immediately that a Broadway transfer would have to occur. And there is no doubt that the  electrifying Ben Platt who portrays the anxiety filled young man of the title would be the only choice to play it at the Music Box Theater.

For those who saw it the first go around you might not believe that Platt is even more pulverizing creating this sad, lonely, insecure young man but, let me assure you he certainly is. The boundless energy he instills in his character is so real that when you first meet him sitting on his bed anxiously fidgeting you honestly believe that you are looking into the soul of Evan. 

Evan who has no friends except for his caring single  mother beautifully played again  by  Rachel Bay Jones (and, yes, even she has grown more into the role). Coping with a job, going to night school and raising a teen is far from an easy job and dealing with a teen who is filled with emotional crosscurrents makes being a parent even more difficult. 

Brilliantly and honestly written by Steven Levenson he has realistic understanding of what it is like for outsiders who are trying to fit in a society that does not understand them. Evan was told by his therapist to write a letter to himself expressing how he is feeling. This seems to go well enough until he mistakenly leaves the letter in a school room found by another emotionally defective young man Connor Murphy (a wonderful Mike Faist.) Connor has violent outbursts and we later find out was addicted to drugs. Evan has a crush on Connor’s fragile sister Zoe (Laura Dreyfuss) who has been tormented by her older brother.

There is no need for a spoiler alert to tell that Connor soon commits suicide and when that note is found in his pocket it is believed he was the one who wrote it to Evan. To help Connor’s distraught parents (Jennifer Laura Thompson and Michael Park) deal with this he pretends that he was a great friend of Connor’s. You can tell that things are going to spin completely out of control when Evan asks his quirky friend Jared(Will Roland) to create emails supposedly between Evan and Connor so that the parents  will have a more positive feel about their late son.

Directed with superlative skill by Michael Greif (“Rent”) we begin to wonder if indeed is Evan doing this solely to help Connor’s  parents cope and visit them on a regular basis along or to ingratiate himself with Zoe and other classmates. 

In some shows  when a multitude of projections are used they can  become a cumbersome intrusion in the action, but it works perfectly here as the amusing Alana (Kristolyn Lloyd) makes sure that all the emails are on the social network along with the actual letter thought to have been written by Connor. 

Two of the most gifted young composers around Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who wrote the searing one to “Dogfight” again prove they have such an interior feel for the material that each number  here carries forth the breadth of the book both seriously and even humorously. 

Platt’s eleven o’clock number which I can only compare to Rose’s in “Gypsy” again proves to be as staggering as when  I first saw it. The scorching emotion that he imbues in Evan comes to a shattering climax in this number when he realizes the unintentional pain he has caused upon the family. Yet, Levenson has given us an uplifting and promising conclusion which never feels false or added on. 

While there is no doubt that this young actor will receive a Tony nomination, he may want to start working on his acceptance speech which is a definite possibility even this early in the season. 

Tickets are available at the Music Box Theater 239 West 45th Street or by calling 2121.239.6200.

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Thursday, December 8, 2016


The Bodyguard--Oh, Please, Let the Music Never End

By Joseph Cervelli

Shhh!  A stalker (Jorge Paniagua)  is lurking around wanting more than just to meet superstar Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) in the overly melodramatic and, at times, laughably bad, London import musical “The Bodyguard” based on the film currently at the Paper Mill Theater. 

The musical casually directed by Thea Sharrock along with bookwriter Alexander Dinelaris who was more successful with his “On Your Feet” have aimed for a cinematic feel with photos of the stalker on the scrim looking up in a menacing manner and then later a scene directly out of Lifetime  with Marron and her bodyguard  Frank Farmer (Justin Mills) juxtaposed. There is no doubt that the latter was accomplished to give a thrillingly romantic feel. Sadly, Mills who has no stage presence and the chemistry between he and Cox is in a deep freeze that you never for a nano second believe their involvement. And what about the “holes” in certain scenes? Please, give me a moment. 

The opening production numbers is most definitely supercharged with Cox’s sensational singing voice. Aptly named “Queen of the Night” it most definitely fits the lead actress and let’s not forget that can also apply to the equally wonderful Jasmin Richardson who portrays Rachel’s sister. Both have towering voices that resonant each of the gorgeous songs made famous by the late Whitney Houston. The difference is that as good a singer as Cox is her acting is adequate while Richardson gives a very heartfelt performance as the singer who never made it big. To make things worse Nicki is madly in love with Frank even though they never had any type of relationship. Richardson does a beautiful job on the lovely  “Saving All My Love for You” and this is one instance where the lyrics fit in with the action. Yet, when Richardson sings the immensely touching “All At Once” late in the second act it makes little sense for that song exemplifies a long relationship which she and Frank never had. So, it like others are just fillers for the repertoire of the magnificent songs sung by Whitney Houston through her all too short career.  

Right from the start Rachel is a true diva feeling that she does not need an an ex-secret service agent who is a professional bodyguard. She already has one Tony (Alex Corrado) who is apparently not as adept as the new guy. Rachel also has a young son Fletcher (Kevelin B. Jones III). Jones gives a likable performance and has the energy to keep up with the ensemble of gyrating dancers. While Karen Bruce’s choreography is certainly lively it is commonplace and while Mark Henderson’s lighting is quite good (love those dark moments with the Stalker ominously entering the stage) the sets by the usually quite good Tim Hatley (also providing the costumes) are non descript. 

Despite the bumpy relationship between Rachel and Frank he does accompany her to a Karaoke Bar where she will not be know. Really?? A major pop star walks into a bar and expects not to be noticed.  Three young ladies known as the College Girls do a purposely awful  job of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” as wont most people in such a bar. Then for no reason other than to offer comic relief (please, there is enough unintentional ones in this show as is) Frank “sings” off key “I Will Always Love You.” Now, let’s just take a moment. Granted he cannot sing so instead of having Sharrock play that scene strictly for laughs she could have built more of a connection between the two leads. Not easy to do when you have Mills who, unfortunately, seems to be wading through the role, but worth the try. 

But then--key up the ominous music--when Rachel breaks into “I Have Nothing” at the bar who is there with a knife but Mr. Stalker.  May I also add that earlier in the show for no particular reason  we see a shirtless Paniagua with six pack abs in what amounts little more than a Calvin Klein ad. 

The second act begins with Rachel and Frank now in love in bed and and wham! (are there no locks on the door) in walks the unsuspecting Nicki.  And speaking about locks on the door, how did the Stalker get into the cabin so easily where the four are staying. Another scene making little sense is at the Academy Awards where Rachel is singing the nominated song she wrote with Nicki when who should appear standing aiming a laser pointed gun at her but--HIM! No one immediately saw the red light from the gun going from the bottom of her dress to her head? 

As gorgeous as the ballads are and while the ingratiating production numbers do please, especially “I Just Want to Dance With Somebody” which is given an encore, once the music ends and the dialogue and book take over over the calamity begins. 

As an aside, while there is not currently a cast recording of this production the London version with an excellent Alexandra Burke is equally good. 

Tickets are available at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ or by calling 973.376.4343. Limited engagment ends January 1.

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Wolves--Superbly Written and Incredibly Well Acted

By Joseph Cervelli

Like surfing  on a huge wave they almost crash onto floor which acts as the stage of  The Duke Theater where the thunderously good new play by Sarah DeLappe has returned for a short visit until the end of December. This funny and ultimately sadly powerful work brilliantly acted captures the world of young high school girls on a winning soccer team so honestly that it could easily be playing around the country. 

I have to admit that when the play first began I was a bit concerned. No one is addressed by their names--you have their numbers to know them by--and the dialogue becomes overlapping for about a good 20 or so minutes which is off putting. Talk ranges from their having their periods to the Khmer Rouge (jokingly mispronounced) to boys. But that dissipates and the identity of each character comes clearly out. 

It is amazing that DeLappe has such a naturalistic feel for the way young people speak. And right on target is the invigorating direction by Lila Neugebauer who has the girls going through various warm up exercises while having conversations with each other.  Some are emotionally stronger than others while #00 (Lizzy Jutila)  gets so worked up in the game  she needs to run off the field to vomit frequently. And her solo moment near the end is simply electric in its intensity. Each of the girls is unique in her own way which is the way you would expect things to be. And never for a moment does any of the dialogue feel forced or even rehearsed for that matter. 

They joke about the new coach who to the girls always drunk and would rather have back the previous one who had to leave because his wife is quite ill. As worldly as the girls think they are they are still immature,  especially when one expresses her hopes that when his wife dies he can return to coaching.  

#14 (Samia Finnerty) is Armenian while the others always thought she was Mexican which leads to some humorous moments.  They have no idea where that country is nor anything about the history of it. The interaction between her and her sassy, foul mouthed friend #7  (Brenda Coates) which seems fine has an undercurrent of anger that becomes explosive when something is later revealed. 

The Captain #25 (Lauren Patten) has the fortitude to keep the girls in order which is not an easy feat. When she does something startling at the end of the show that has some of her team members laughing they don't’ quite understand her motive. Yet, it is clear to her that after what eventually occurs she needs to be herself for life is very uncertain even for someone her age. 

Something more startling occurs out of nowhere, and while I will not divulge any of that let me say it is incredibly moving. Watch the incomparable array of actors  (it is truly ensemble acting) sitting on the Astroturf listening to an adult who appears in the last scenes. Without one word you know how each one feels as you gaze from one young lady to the next. A few are fidgety, one has a kind of  nervous smile, while others are trying to remain stoic. Exactly the type of reactions what you would expect from someone their age. 

This frequently humorous but always intense new play left me wanting more from a razor sharp playwright who writes dialogue that feels so very real. Too often that is sadly lacking in the theater. 

Produced by The Playwrights Realm tickets are available at the Duke on 42nd, 229 West 42nd Street or by calling 646.223.3010. As of this date the show ends it run on December 24. 


Wednesday, November 23, 2016


By Joseph Cervelli

Like a flash of lightning Paco Tolson who plays a number of roles in the out of focus “Vietgone” bounds onto the stage to inform us that he is the playwright of the show  which is being presented by the Manhattan Theater Club at City Center. Well, no he is not. The playwright is actually Qui Nguyen who does not make an appearance. Tolson continues that the show is really not a biographical account of the meeting of his mother and father in a refugee camp in the United States. Well, they actually it is. Get the picture? The show does have some find moments of dramatic verve but Nguyen who incorporates both rap and hip hop (unsuccessfully, may I add) is unsure what kind of play he wants this to be. There are too many outlandishly cartoonish moments that reminded me of Marvel Comics and dialogue that feels all too modern for the time period which is the mid 70’s. Add to that performances that are all over the place. It also does not help that the timeline of the play is a bit muddled. The playwright needs to take a step back and get his thoughts together for somewhere in this messy and sketchy comedy/drama there is a good play.

Hectically paced by director May Adrales we learn that Quang (Raymond Lee) was recruited by the U.S. to train  here to be a pilot at the start of the Vietman War. He then was sent back to Saigon and during the fall of that city begins to fly refugees including his friend (Jon Hoche) out of the city leaving back his wife and two children back. 

When he arrives again in the States he ends up in one of the refugee camps and meets the lovely Tong (Jennifer Ikeda) who thinks being American is to be promiscuous and use four letter words. Well, it is not surprising since her mother overplayed by Samantha Quan is annoyingly foul mother and would like Quang for herself. I always find it annoying when a playwright thinks it is cute to have an older person, although Quan is probably closer to the age of Ikeda, uttering expletives.  Tong is unsure about her commitment to Quan rather having him as a sex partner while she has her designs on marrying the American (Hoche) with his stilted Southern accent. Meanwhile, her mother runs around cursing both the men in her daughter’s life. 

Throughout this the actors for no apparent reason break into the aforementioned songs laced equally with curses and lyrics that are either cloying or just done for shock value. Aside to  Lin Manuel Miranda--you have nothing to worry about with Nguyen being a competitor to your brilliant rap score to “Hamilton.”

And having Quang and his Asian buddy on their motorcycle  traveling from Arkansas to California so they can take the next plane back to Vietnam becomes tedious. Along the way they  meet two  “flower children.”  Those scenes are silly as predictable as when they meet a “redneck” and their fighting him comes along with the help of ninjas. 

The performances are generally good although they do have a forced not completely reliable feel to them. 

The best part of the show are the terrific projections on the billboard sets by Tim Mackabee. Focus on that and it will make the repetitive, overlong show less painful.

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

Sweet Charity--Sutton Foster A Ray of Sunshine

By Joseph Cervelli

Tackling the role of Charity in the infectious musical “Sweet Charity” is a high wire act considering that the memorable Gwen Verdon originated it back in 1966. Who could easily forget her stance dressed in black in silhouette form with a brightly lit background. She won your hearts right from the beginning. Two other actresses attempted the same role and for this reviewer both disappointments. Debbie Allen was a bit too harsh never capturing  Charity’s vulnerability and  Christina Applegate years later was better but slightly on the dippy side. Now, at The New Group we have Sutton Foster in the leading role. Could anyone be better? Like Verdon,  Foster possesses both the  innocence and toughness of the dance hall hostess.  And in this slightly darker version with a bit fewer laughs directed with deep sincerity by Leigh Silverman just about everything clicks thanks to the lead and the other cast of actors who are equally good. There is also a wonderful standout from Joel Perez an actor you need to keep an eye out for in future shows. 

Let me first complement the amazingly talented Foster who sings and acts with the conviction of a character looking desperately for love in all the wrong places. In this revival it is indicated that she provides more than just dances for the gentlemen who come to the Fandango Club.  Foster dances beautifully and her big number “If My Friends Could See Me Know” is a delight.  Like a little child she romps around the luxury apartment (minimum sets by Derek McAllen) of the famed Italian actor Vittorio Vidal played with suave authority by Joel Perez. Perez who gave a good performance in the recent “Fun House” excels in a variety of roles, especially as Vidal. He puts more warmth in “Too Many Tomorrows” a song I always thought to be a filler more than anything else. Yet, here he sings it with such a conviction that I appreciated it more than previous productions.  

As Charity goes around looking for love and finds it when  she accidently meets Oscar (a first rate Shuler Hensley) in an elevator. Slightly neurotic and claustrophobic Oscar starts to have panic attacks when the elevator gets stuck. It is possible to wildly overplay the anxiety that Oscar goes through and that is what the otherwise fine Denis O’Hare did in the last revival. He was so hyperkinetic  in his performance that it was grating. Yet, Hensley finds the right rhythm being crazed without going to extremes. Anyone who has seen this fine actor in such musicals as “Oklahoma” knows what a beautiful voice he possesses. 

Charity’s two best friends at the Fandango Club played by Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are on target with their lovely rendition of the bittersweet “Baby, Dream Your Dream” and dance up a storm along with Foster in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”

The score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields which still remains one of the catchiest in years feels as fresh as if it was written today and the cynical book by Neil Simon has been slightly changed making it more melancholy. 

What is missing that could prove a sore point for some is the lack of Bob Fosse’s choreography. While it is understandable that the  excellent choreographer Joshua Bergasse wanted to adopt his own style we do miss the hunched shoulders, turned in feet and slithery movements so Fosse. But Bergasse has incorporated some of those unique movements in the stylish “Rich Man’s Frug.” The big disappointment is his lackluster “Big Spender” number done in strangely muted manner. 

One big change (despite greatly missing the knockout overture) is that the contemplative ‘Where Am I Going” is now at the end of the show which actually makes a lot of sense since you will not find a happy ending here. It was felt that was the reason  the underrated film starring Shirley McClaine was a flop. 

Still, with such a snappy score and Foster a ray of sunshine this “Charity” is a bouquet of roses. 

Tickets are available at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.279.4200.