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.