Thursday, February 23, 2017

Kid Victory

By Joseph Cervelli

Any show with the name John Kander attached to it would make all loyal theatergoers rush to purchase a ticket immediately. Composer Kander along with his brilliant lyricist Fred Ebb who sadly died a number of years ago were responsible for such memorable scores to “Chicago,” “Zorba”  and “Cabaret” among others. 

It is unfortunate to announce that Kander’s music is the weakest link in the new musical “Kid Victory” at the Vineyard Theater. While the score of any show is there to propel the story along, here it  actually pulls down the very strong book to “Victory” which is written by Greg Pierce who also wrote the lyrics. It is based on a story by both men. 

The musical begins with a very disturbing scene showing a young man Luke (an exceptionally fine Brandon Flynn) chained to handcuffs in the background with the local townspeople (action takes place in a small Kansas town) singing the spiritual “Lord, Carry Me Home.” It makes for a very interesting juxtaposition. You wonder if it is their faith that helped the release of this kidnapped fellow kept prisoner in the basement of a pedophile for several months.  Or did their  religious beliefs which are play a big  part in their everyday lives have nothing at all to do with it. It is worth debating and Pierce does a excellent job of bringing this up along with dissecting the lead characters including the kidnapper, Michael,  played with a slyly inviting demeanor by a superb Jeffrey Denman. He captures the  kind of bilious charm a pedophile trying to lure his unsuspecting victim would possess. 

Luke is a shy, lonely, gay young man who meets Michael on an online (the show’s title refers to his online name) boating race and the two become friends.  Michael easily maneuvers this introverted teen into meeting where he entices him with sailing various boats he supposedly has.. Their eventual meeting leads to disastrous consequences for Luke.

There is some degree of Stockholm Syndrome when you later find out that Luke did escape but decided to return to Michael. For him the sexual encounters with the older man were what he most likely considered to be love and an understanding of his needs. 

His parents very well played by two stalwart actors Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins are at their wit’s end in how to deal with Luke who cannot seem to adjust to his return home. You gather throughout that while they are warm and loving parents their moral beliefs would not jell well with his sexual predilections. While there is no doubt how much they love him it is difficult for them to understand why he will not return to school or resume a relationship with his girlfriend.  He prefers spending his time working for free at with the bohemian Emily (a very good Dee Roscioli) who runs a shop making wonderfully creative bird cages. Emily who is a lesbian has her own problems with her daughter Mara (Laura Darrell). Luke and Emily do have a meaningful duet “People Like Us” which fits into the storyline about two misfits whose lifestyles hardly blends into the mores of their conservative town. 

So much of Kander’s music is tuneless except for a zippy though ill conceived tap dancing number by Andrew (Blake Zolfo) who meets Luke in a wooded area for a sexual encounter. And although Pierce’s lyrics fare better even they add little to the storyline. 

It is not that the show should have played without music for a prime example is the substantial book and beautiful score to the current “Dear Evan Hansen.” Everything in that very serious show blends magically. 

Also, I kept wondering why Luke was not given a musical solo which would have added to knowing more about his character. And the last scene has Luke and his father in a mimed conversation which is disappointing when even partial  dialogue between both of them would have been so important. 

Despite the well crafted performances and Liesl Tommy’s sympathetic direction, the show stumbles at almost every juncture once the musical numbers stalls the storyline.  

Tickets are available at the Vineyard Theater 108 West 15th Street or by calling 212.353.0303. Limited engagement ends March 19.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ring Twice For Miranda--No Amount of Rings Can Help This New Play

By Joseph Cervelli

Not many shows have luggage falling from the ceiling to the stage. So, in one respect the ghastly new play “Ring Twice For Miranda”  by Alan Hruska at the New York City Center Stage II who wrote the equally poor “Laugh it Up/Stare it Down” has something different.  

A shambles of a play not helped by convoluted direction by Rick Lombardo takes place in either  a dysptopian world or one on the verge of apocalyptic chaos. 

We first meet Miranda (Katie Kleiger) who is in the downstairs of a mansion with butler Elliot (George Merrick.) They seemed to have had a fling and still have some affection for each other. There is a large board with a number of bells for each member of the staff. The problem is that all have been dismissed except for these two. It is not clear was to why Elliot is kept although there is an indication that Miranda is kept on for the possible sexual favors she bestows upon Sir. Well, that thought needs to be expunged from your mind for what actually occurs when they meet is far from clandestine but rather preposterous. The owner of the mansion  is the mysterious and grizzled looking Sir (Graeme Malcolm). His man in charge is Gulliver (Daniel Pearce) who later in the play announces he was an engineer and then plumber. Who exactly is the strongmanhere? Sir or Gulliver? One cannot help but think of the current political atmosphere with the influence of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

With one ring of the bell or was it three, no matter, Elliot finds that he is going to be dismissed. Sir apparently only needs Gulliver and the doctors who attend to his every need. Miranda decides to leave the cozy protective environment of the mansion along with Elliot and venture into a world that has taken dark undertones. Has the world become an incendiary place in which Sir is the one in charge of his particular district. They find  themselves among garbage and a deserted building that it is alleged houses undesirables. Jason Sherwood has provided an eerie enough set confirming that anarchy has taken over. I must add that Lombardo does much better on his sound design than direction. They meet a Brit by the name of Chester (William Connell) and his Egyptian girlfriend Anouk (Talia Thiesfield) who are looking for gas for their Porsche. Chester is dressed and acts like he is on an acid trip from spending time at the Woodstock festival  back in 1969 and Anouk with her manic movements looks like she came from a production of the  “Rocky Horror Show.” Giving both Elliot and Miranda a lift falls through. And why do both need so many pieces of luggage with no real form of transport? Suddenly, for no specific reason appears who appears out of this malignant atmosphere but a plumber named Felix (Ian Lassiter) who is carrying a wrench. What is there to fix in this vast wilderness of death and destruction? He receives a call from Sir to return them back to the mansion. 

It is not a real surprise that Chester and Anouk have now taken over the duties once held by Elliot and Miranda. The scene that determines why  these two interlopers are dismissed is inane. 

The play just drags on and if Hruska is attempting to create a world filled with moral corruption and edgy despair among the population where their only escape is to make their way to a safe location that never materializes. A big problem is that Lombardo as director and the playwright are not on equal footing. Lombardo seems to be deconstructing what Hruska is intending by aiming for zany humor and  bringing in two characters that are played like automatons. 

I am not quite what the title means but that is one of the least things to try to figure out in this very forgettable play. 

Tickets are available at City Center Stage II 131 West 55th Street or by calling 212.581.1212. The limited engagement ends April 16. 

Photo: Gerge Merrick and Katie Kleiger. Credit: Russ Rowland

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Crackskull Row--Brings A Dysfunctional Family to a New Abyss

By Joseph Cervelli

To call Honor Molloy’s “Crackskull Row” playing a limited engagement at the Irish Rep bleak might be an understatement. Let’s say that it makes many of Eugene O’Neill’s funereal quality dramas feel  like “Life With Father.” Yet, the cast  is so remarkably fine that it makes the play better than it probably has a right to be. I can assure you that you will never be bored. 

  The miniscule basement theater of the Irish Rep is perfect to house the morose surroundings that take place. Taking place in what is called Dublin 2 the name of the road is Crackskull Row and as unpleasant as that sounds it matches the small dilapidated cottage (well thought out by Daniel Geggatt)  where Masher Morrigan (Terry Donnelly) lives with her daughter Wee Dolly (Gina Costigan.) 

The son of Masher, Rasher (Colin Lane) who peaks through the bars of a prison cell as the play opens. Metaphorically it makes sense for him to look into the cottage where his earlier life was fret with agony living with his mother and abusive father. It is not till the end of the show that he enters as the grown son rather keeping the role of narrator throughout. It is easy to be put off by Rasher’s opening monologue “Couldn’t sleep for the bappittties. His music down the stairs. Thumb to the goatskin.” But the dialogue while also not always easy to comprehend still has a kind of fragile and lyrical quality to it. 

Masher is quite the mess being unkempt and dirty eating whatever is around which includes wormy biscuits. She frequently mumbles to herself and is cared for by Wee Dolly who washes her resulting in a basin containing bloody water. (As a bit of humor the daughter first arrives falling down the chimney.) While the mother certainly needs medical care you know that will never happen for financially they seem to be living on meager sustenance. 

Things then go back in time where Wee Dolly now portrays her mother and John Charles McLaughlin portrays the younger Rasher named for some reason Rash. The names are all quite interesting forming a kind of miasmic feel to this dysfunctional (certainly that is a mild description) family. Rash’s facial expressions could be well described as a life weary one which he wears in such a way that it seems to overpower him. There is an uncomfortable feeling as he hugs his mother and she reciprocates with more than a motherly kiss resulting in what you know is an incestuous relationship resulting in an unpleasant revelation later in the play. 

When their father Basher (aptly named) attacks the mother who by the way is named Dolly, Rash takes a sword to him resulting to his imprisonment. 

Thing get a bit creepy almost reminding me of “Night Must Fall” when in the present day McLaughlin now doubles as an ESB (Electricity Supply Board)  young man. He seems nice enough until he starts to tease Masher about her “mad hair” and taunts her about what occurred between her and her son years ago. More barbs are hurled as Wee Dolly enters and informs the fellow the anguish her  mother has caused her. They form a kind of couple bantering her. 

The cast is quite superlative easily transcending into various characters. They can appear to be despondent and caring one moment and then a shroud of menace appears in each of them. Not an easy thing to accomplish but the actors have this self assured skill to pull it off.

While the ending feels overcooked, director Kira Simring aptly creates an almost dystopian atmosphere where no one of any kindness an enter. The cottage and its residents are doomed from the start. 

Tickets are available at the Irish Repertory Theater 132 West 22nd Street or by calling 212.727.2737. As of this date the limited engagement ends March 19. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Comedy of Tenors

By Joseph Cervelli

A feeling of deja vu comes as quickly as being reminded of the film “Groundhog Day” as you watch Ken Ludwig’s labored sequel “A Comedy of Tenors” to his very funny “Lend Me a Tenor” at Paper Mill Playhouse.  Haven’t we seen all this before in his previous show?  He has basically capitalized on the success of the original rollicking farce and created a facsimile of it. What makes this production even worse than the repetitive comic situations are  both the hyperventilating performances and the wildly exaggerated direction by Don Stephenson. While Stephenson kept things within the realm of farce when he directed “Tenor” at Paper Mill last season, he has gone over the top with his hyperbolic characterizations. Perhaps, he is compensating for Ludwig’s book,  but a farce calls for broad comedy not something falling into slapstick every given moment in this production. 

You could say that the gang’s all here (for the most part) as the characters are basically the same as in the original show. Only now we are in Paris, not  in 1934 Cleveland, in which the stupendously anxious Saunders (a painfully annoying Michael Kostroff) is now the manager of the grandiloquent tenor Tito (John Treacy Egan’s).  The boisterous Tito is giving a concert with two other tenors (one Swedish and the other the much younger Carlo Nucci whom Tito is jealous of although has never seen.) Egan is one of the few performers who keeps the role on more of a steady keel despite some typical  physical antics like falling over a ottoman, etc. Unfortunately, he is still playing the same character with very little room for  any changes. 

Judy Blazer is back as his wife the tempesterous  Maria with her overly demonstrative mannerisms, While her tantrums were funny in the original now they have becomes excessively irritating. Jill Paice now plays Mimi the daughter of the couple, and while I admired her in such productions as “Death Takes a Holiday”  here she has a tendency to not only shout but screech. I realize actors are told that they should project but the loudness of almost all the actors could be heard within a five mile radius. While Tito does not want his twenty five year old daughter to marry, it is Maria who encourages it. When Mimi and her hunky beau Carlo Nucci (Ryan Silverman) first appear (she in undergarments and he in white briefs) it is amusing when Maria comes across them but tries to keep this from her husband. Silverman who was wonderful in the recent revival of “Finian’s Rainbow” is one of the best in the cast because his performance is more grounded without going for overkill and his tenor voice excels.  

David Josefsberg is back as Max, (Saunder’s assistant and wannabe opera singer.) As good as he was in “Tenor” he also has decided to raise he level of speaking to heightened decibels. 

Donna English is good as Racon the sexual temptress who was Tito’s ex lover.

Egan does well portraying two characters--the other being a bellhop who happens to sing opera--and he does get quite a workout coming out of rooms on both sides of the stage. The show is filled with the de rigeur door slamming, mistaken identifies, etc. which is fine with a better book. 

There are a few ludicrous scenes in which characters either speak to the cold tongue on the hotel room’s (luxuriously designed by Michael Schweikardt)  food platter tongue or remove it to use for personal pleasures. I kept thinking of the granddaddy of all farces “Noises Off” in which a dotty character has a simply riotous time with phone cord. Here the gratuitous inclusion of a tongue resembling something more sexual is bawdy humor that feels stale. 

To make matters worse the last twenty or so minutes feel more like a filler than anything else to add extra time to the show. It is disheartening that such a truly classic farce as “Tenor” has been turned into an overblown and undernourished sequel.

Tickets are available at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ or by calling 973.376.4343. The limited engagement ends February 26. 


Thursday, February 2, 2017


By Joseph Cervelli

You may not be that familiar with playwright/performer Ed Dixon, but he was in quite a few shows (“Les Miserables” “The Iceman Cometh”) portraying important though not lead roles. He seems to take delight in calling himself a “character actor.”

In the delightfully spirited “Georgie--My Adventures with George Rose” at the Davenport Loft he tells about  his personal  (platonic) and professional relationship with the late actor who was murdered in the Dominican Republic where he owned a home. Dixon is quite the raconteur whose stories begin quite literally at the hilarious first meeting with Rose and end on a very unfortunate note. 

He frequently morphs into Rose and for those of us who remember this actor who almost stole every show he was in creates an indelible portrait of him. 

As a young actor (30 years Rose’s junior) Dixon had no knowledge who this gay British actor was even though he was quite renowned doing Shakespeare with such luminaries as Sirs Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier. So, when his first big break came in doing “The Student Prince” he was mesmerized by the hilarity that Rose brought to a role not known for being funny.  That humor was carried forth when Dixon went to Rose’s dressing room to be asked “Who’s your favorite Lithuanian oratorio singer?” Dixon superbly captures not only Rose’s supercilious British accent but the acerbic wit of the great performer. You can imagine Dixon’s surprise when Rose informs him that even though he has his male dressers outfitted in French maid costumes and calls each one “Lissette.” What makes the first three quarters of the show so deliriously funny is Dixon’s ability to replicate not only Rose’s voice but all his effete mannerisms. This is especially difficult with Dixon possessing a strong, textured voice while George’s was not.  And there is a priceless imitation of Rose doing Katharine Hepburn when they appeared in the musical “Coco.” 

When Rose first invited the young actor to  his apartment, Dixon was mortified (quite literally) to find two mountain lions kept as pets. Dixon tells this with such clarity that even though it occurred decades ago you can see in his eyes the same panic he must have felt coming across them one of which was nuzzling at his knee. Rose was quite the audacious character who took joy in the fear that Dixon felt. 

Besides the iconic British actors mentioned and envisioned  by Dixon as Rose, I loved his portrayal of two wonderfully talented British grand dames Gladys Cooper (shocked when she is asked to rehearse in the evening) and Dame Edith Evans who scolds Gielgud as a “naughty boy” after being arrested for cruising a men’s room.

The list of actors that Rose worked with go on and as told by Dixon will leave you howling. I especially liked  his comment was Richard Burton (sorry, you will have to see the show for that one!) 

There is a touch of foreboding when he tells about seeing Rose in a play called “Wise Child” which from the topic rightfully closed after opening. He played a pedophile who wants to buy the landlord’s young son. 

Dixon never quite understood what Rose meant when he spoke about his affection for “coffee colored boys.” He assumed he was speaking about young African American who were of legal age but soon finds out he was wrong when it came to the age aspect. With a sadness and serrated anger in his voice, Dixon is soon to discover when he visited Rose in the Dominican Republic he had “purchased” a twelve year old and frequented a brothel for underaged boys. After a run in with the police on a faked accident charge, Dixon leaves abruptly sickened by what he found out about a man he idolized. You can see in Dixon’s eyes filled with tears that he still cannot believe this of his colleague and friend. A man who was filled with wildly funny and unflappable  stories had such a dark and amoral predilection .  It was when he returned to the states that he later discovered that Rose was murdered by the young man’s family. 

Rose’s secret life and death had more of a profound affect on Dixon than he could ever imagine as his own life began spiraling out of control. Yet, he got himself together which enabled him to play many roles he and for us who can rejoice in his ability to tell a story about a man whose stories were robustly funny and retold so brilliantly by Dixon. 

Tickets are available at the Davenport Theater 354 West 45th Street or by calling 212.239.6200. As of this date the limited engagement ends April 15.