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.