Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

     By Joseph Cervelli

Just this past August playwright and founder of the Ensemble for the Romantic Century, Eve Wolf gave us the fascinating although rambling “Van Gogh’s Ear.” While beautiful to look it never made much of an impact on my senses. She is back with “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” at the Pershing Square Signature Center.  As with the previous production this one incorporates classical musical along with the mezzo soprano Krusty Swann whose gorgeous voice is one of the saving graces of another disjunctive written work which is less interesting than the playwright's previous one.   

Besides the heavenly Swann and compositions by Bach, Liszt and Schubert among others played with utmost talent by Kemp Jernigan (oboe); Steven Lin (piano) and Parker Ramsay (organ and harpsichord) there is the brilliant dancer Robert Fairchild who was with the New York City Ballet. Broadway audiences were lucky enough to have seen him in the glowing “An American in Paris” in which this terrific performer danced, acted and sang. Here he is this show’s major asset both as actor and choreographer but even he cannot save the mess of a script and having to act with three sluggish performers. 

We first see him amidst the excellent set design by Vanessa James and the even more astounding projections by David Bengali writhing in pain as electric currents (stunningly lit by Beverly Emmons)  are running through his body as he portrays the Monster created by Dr. Frankenstein (Paul Wesley). Wesley also plays the part of Percy Shelley along with another character. The problem is that he gives such a flat performance that it makes little difference which part he is playing for they all appear intertwined. He may be speaking such lines in describing his feelings in creating the Monster as “breathless horror and disgust filled my heart” as if he were reciting a shopping list. 

Worse yet is the completely emotionless and monotonous performance of Mia Vallet who portrays Mary Shelley. Her delivery  is equally done in a sedative like feel. And not far behind is the usually good Rocco Sisto who portrays two characters one being a blind man with equally dull rendition. 

So much of the storyline is staged by Donald T. Sanders with little sense of a coherence. First, the Monster appears to be normal then without any type of explanation he turns into a dangerous and killing creature.

Fortunately, there is incomparable dancing by Fairchild who blazes with adrenaline that gives the tentative spark that this show badly needs. I could have done without showing the murder of one of the three young boy characters at the end of the first act and his pulling the dead child across part of the stage at the beginning of the second act. One of the most displeasing and unnecessary scenes I have witnessed in recent memory.

Fairchild’s acting is done with sincerity and he convinces as the Monster but sadly he has no one to play off of.

You long for his dance moments and the thrilling Swann along with the musicians but have to deal with not only the pain of listening to dialogue delivered by three performers devoid of any conviction along with desultory writing and equally meandering direction.

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


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Farinelli and the King--A Castrato Calms A Frenzied King 

By Joseph Cervelli

Those expecting something of a more historical nature in the London import “Farinelli and the King” playing a limited engagement at the Belasco Theater will be disappointed. This entertaining albeit lighthearted show written by Claire Van Kampen which deals with  the relationship between the mad  King Philippe V (Mark Rylance)  of Spain and the famed Italian castrato Farinelli (Sam Crane) touches the surface but never delves much deeper. While Crane speaks the part the remarkable singing is performed by countertenor Iestyn Davies at the performance I attended. James Hall alternates with him. 

Rylance who has one of them most expressive facial reactions of any actor around captures the fragility of the lonely and troubled soul of the king while being quite humorous. When he first appears as the King, he is in pajamas wheeled in his bed fishing in a bowl containing a single goldfish. Looking back on him years later,  it was later surmised he might have been bipolar. He can be zany one moment and then the next have the most outrageous and unwarranted outbursts of anger with an almost chilling affect. His devoted wife Queen Isabella Farnese (a persuasive Melody Grove) is Italian and finds herself at a loss in trying to help him although a perfectly cast Colin Hurley who portrays Don Sebastian De La Cuadra the Chief Minister of Spain hopes with the help of Dr. Jose Cervi (Huss Garbiya) to  get him to abdicate. Yet, as unbalanced as the king appears he is still lucid enough to not relinquish his throne. 

Isabella travels to London where the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden has just been built and Farinelli is the star attraction. Jonathan Fensom has skilfully designed the ornate set which seamlessly moves from outside the palace to backstage at the opera. It is here where Isabella hears the celebrated performer and convinces  him to return with her to Spain convinced his soothing mellifluous voice will have an advantageous effect on the frenzied king. Here is one of the most memorable moments in the show when Philippe first hears him sing. The frenetic king’s immediate impression of Farinelli is dismissive until he performs his first note. The sullen face of Philippe dissipates into a warm almost mesmerizing look. Suddenly, you can see the tension being released from his body. This is certainly Rylance at his best. And what adds to the scene is the gloriously evocative lighting by Paul Russell which is several candle lit chandeliers being raised and lowered throughout the show. Adding to that is the luxuriant  brocaded wardrobe by the U. K. costume coordinator Lorraine Ebdon-Price. 

The second act, unfortunately, adds very little to the storyline which cries out for some complex embroilments between the lead characters.  The King and Queen along with Farinelli retreat to the forest where they lead a silent life with little communication with others. Since there is not much that van Kampen has to say in this part of the play,  she has the audience become members of the village as Philippe interacts with a few of those seated near the stage while we  are there there to be entertained by Farinelli’s silvery voice. This scene which takes up almost all of the second act becomes a bit tedious after a while. It is only when Farinelli,  and here is where the fine Crane excels,  declares his love for Isabella. After she refuses his offer to run away with him, there is a gorgeous moment and one of the best in the play in which while Davies is singing that  Farinelli circles around the Queen creating  almost magnetic force field between them.  It is at this juncture in the play that director John Dove has finally created one of the most  profound moments in the play. 

There is a rather silly scene in which the King leaves the forest on horseback while being  pulled backwards.  And what is a severe letdown is when  we hear of  Philippe’s  demise rather than dramatizing it which could have been a wonderfully conclusive moment. While van Kampen’s quasi historical drama is enjoyable, the play ultimately leaves you unfilled. 

Tickets are available at the Belasco Theater 111 West 44th Street or by calling 212.239.6200. As of this date the limited engagement ends March 25. 


Saturday, December 9, 2017

SpongeBob SquarePants--Universally Appealing Show

By Joseph Cervelli

The sets! The costumes! The lighting! It’s “Spongebob SquarePants” the scrumptious new musical at The Palace Theater with sensational direction by Tina Landau.

I must say that I knew nothing about this character who is a sponge living under the sea in what is known as Bikini Bottom. Yet, within minutes thanks to (oh, where to start!) everyone connected with this show you will find even if unfamiliar with the animated  television series completely enamored by it. 

The moment you walk into the theater your giddiness takes over while looking from one area of the stage to the other. Fish swimming along the scrim, Rube Goldberg type of contraptions on both sides of the stage which include among other things a shopping cart and huge beach balls (yes, they do come down); pool noodles on the stage representing I would think coral and it goes on and on. 

And among all the visuals of the show which leads you onto a phantasmagorical journey there is a definite story which is all about tolerance, forgiveness and true friendship. 

The ingratiating Ethan Slater who is a cross between a claymation figure and a slinky (remember them?) springs into all different shapes as the kind and always optimistic title character who works as a cook at the Krusty Krab restaurant and his one desire is to become a manager. Yet, the manager played by a vociferous Brian Ray Norris who, of course, is a crab (love those red claws which look like boxing gloves) does not think he is up to the job. Spongebob’s best friend is the lovable starfish Patrick Star (played with utter joy by Danny Skinner) along with Sandy Cheeks (a very good Lilli Cooper) a squirrel with a brilliant scientific mind. They have quite a task ahead of them trying to prevent Mt. Humongous from erupting and destroying their community. She has developed a device to prevent this, but it will be up to the limber SpongeBob to drop it into the volcano’s opening. Slater has quite a task climbing the various ladders which form part of the volcano to accomplish this. 

Of course, there is a villain, Sheldon Plankton,  played with slimy delight by Wesley Taylor who wants to stop them. The one other major character is the crotchety Squidward Q. Tentacles  and played to the hilt by Gavin Lee (remember he was the fellow who walked upside down around the proscenium arch in “Mary Poppins”.) With four pant's legs and not  sure how he manages this--his one big number  “I’m Not a Loser” which is part “Razzle Dazzle” from “Chicago” and “One” from “A Chorus Line” is irresistible. 

What is a clever idea and works superbly is having  various composers contribute to the score so you have the harmonic “Hero is My Middle Name” by Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman; the catchy “Chop to the Top” by Lady Antebellum; the hard rock Steven Tyler and Joe Perry’s “Bikini Bottom Boogie.” They all blend in so perfectly which gives the show that extra pizzazz.

And speaking of pizzazz David Zinn’s sets and costumes are a feast for the eyes and senses. It is like a box of Crayola just exploded onto the stage but never mismatched which is a difficult feat. He has created the underwater world expertly with shark heads protruding from the side of the stages, surfboards surrounding Lee during his knockout number and pink jelly fish walking down the aisles. 

Kevin Adams' consummate lighting is vibrantly multicolored  blending in expertly with the costumes and sets.

Kyle Jarrow’s book not only has many laugh out loud moments but tender ones and the derogatory sign about land mammals going home directed to Sandy Cheeks is a lesson in acceptance which those in Bikini Bottom soon learn. 

All of this jubilance would not have been possible without the keen and brilliant mind of Landau. It is a show that could have easily gone completely overboard and awry but she made sure that it flows along in a orderly manner. It enhances the viewer’s senses while never  bombarding them with unnecessary touches. She also has quite amusingly included some sight gags. Did I see a video of a fiddler on top of a roof just before the people fearing the worst from the volcano of their town walk with all their belongings like villagers singing “Anatevka” from you know what show? 

     Here is a universally appealing show for as the circus line goes "Children of all ages."

     Tickets are available at The Palace Theater 1564 Broadway or by calling 877.250.2929.


Sunday, December 3, 2017


Once on This Island--Still Jubilant but Overbloated

By Joseph Cervelli

What originally was a lovely, charming and sweetly ingratiating musical has been turned by into an overbloated revival under director Michael Arden’s frantic staging .  “Once on This Island” at Circle in the Square originally opened back in 1990 and made a star of the effervescent LaChanze portraying  the peasant girl Ti Moune (played by the equally winning Hailey Kilgore) who falls in forbidden love with Daniel better known as one of the “grand hommes” from the wealthy part of the island. Not only is Ti Moune poor but dark skinned unlike the lighter skinned Daniel who is a descendent from the original French who took over the island years ago. 

Dane Laffrey has realistically designed an island (though not sure about that truck located near the rear of the stage) that has been hit after a huge storm.  The various actors come onto the stage which is the floor of the theater in a kind of preshow to clean up the strewns of palm leaves and  bring out chickens and even a rambunctious goat who enjoys all the leaves it is being fed. The actors (and even the goat) travel up and down the various aisles of the stadium seating of the theater throughout the show which leads to much distraction, and the story gets lost in the excessively busy staging by Arden. If you are unfamiliar with the story you may not know exactly  whom a few of the characters are, and it does not help that the program omits the description of several of them. It is easy to figure out that the ominous Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge) is Death but will most know that Lea Salonga portraying as Erzulie is the Goddess of Love?  Most of the other gods are boisterous but don’t have much of a personality. The very talented Quentin Earl Darrington makes little impression as Agwe, the God of Water. Worse yet is the excessively bland and expressionless Alex Newell as Asaka (Earth Mother). She needs to have a universal full embodied warmth which is missing from her performance. When she sings the immensely rousing and crowd pleasing “Mama Will Provide” it comes across lacklustre. 

Yet, among all the hurlyburly and over amplified sound there are some very special moments thanks to both  Kilgore’s splendid performance and the always valuable Phillip Boykin as Tonton, Te Moune’s adoptive father as well as Kenita R. Miller as her adoptive mother, Mama Euralie.  Their duet “Te Moune” is powerful in its simplicity.  Powell makes for an excellent Daniel and his interaction with Kilgore is honest and touching. Thankfully, Arden captures the essence of the play more in the latter half which deals with a love doomed because of people from  two different backgrounds.  Sure, it is “West Side Story” and other likewise shows  but “Island”  has an ingrained beauty that cannot be denied. 

       The  resoundingly wonderful score by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) still remains among the bounciest in years despite the fact that the ensemble numbers don’t give much justice to the delightful lyrics which are not always clearly understood. 

The last scene which should have us with a bright and hopeful smile on our faces left this reviewer with a blank look. While I won’t get into the reason for the tree at the end, what was presented was disappointing and misses the point. The tree should be flourishing representing the particular character’s soul inner beauty. Yet, it appeared to be more of a log which was a huge letdown. 

While  Camille A. Brown’s energetic choreography and Clint Ramos’s colorful costumes are assets the jubilation is overshadowed by the overwhelming bustling atmosphere. 

Tickets are available at Circle in the Square Theater 235 West 50th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.