Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mike Birbiglia’s The New One on Broadway--An Ingratiating Performer in His Delightful New Show

By Joseph Cervelli

I have to admit that I never heard of Mike Birbiglia before I saw him a few years ago in a small off Broadway theater in his very funny and delightfully sweet “Thank God For Jokes. ” I thought he was going to be another standup comic which is about as bad as listening to a dentist drill. Yet, a colleague who has seem Birbiglia before highly recommended him and so glad I am quite grateful I did.  

My concern in seeing his new show “Mike Birbiglia’s The New One on Broadway” at the Cort Theater was that it would lose the intimacy of a small theater. No need to worry. His warm and intoxicating personality shines throughout this one which is even better than the previous. 

It is impossible to dislike this impish looking fellow who has turned 40 but looks much younger. What makes him so ingratiating is that he does not tell jokes but is a storyteller relating funny and touching elements in his life that are relatable.  This new show is actually in two parts. The first deals with his not wanting to be a father. He has a great marriage to Jen although for some inexplicable reason he calls her Chloe. He also has a great relationship with his couch. Yes, his couch. He loves that damn couch. For him it is not only relaxing but in a strange way I would think he would call it trustworthy. Don’t recall if he actually used that word. He starts the show by telling about picking up a couch on the street when living with roommates and then buying one. He almost had a coronary when he found out the price. 

His imitation of his once mild mannered  now boisterous brother (has to do with having children, of course) is hilarious. His retelling about his far from behaved nephew is so believable you can understand why having children is not on the radar for this guy. 

And then horror of horrors! His wife wants a child. Thus, begins the second part of the show listing seven reasons why this is simply not going to work for him. 

One is quite serious. For such a young man, he has had a series of serious illnesses including a very dangerous sleepwalking disease (NREM) in which he fell out of a window. He literally needs to sleep in a sleeping bag wearing mittens so he does not unzip it. He could cause serious injury and even death upon his wife. He finds humor even as he describes getting into this “pod” as he calls it. The other reasons are quite funny, and I would not give any away. Speaking about not giving things away, something quite uproarious unexpectedly occurs later in the show. I would not even give a hint to what it is but it works and relates back to something in the beginning of the show. That’s it. I shall go no further. Just expect to laugh quite heartily. 

You would think you had enough of his storytelling at the end of ninety minutes but you wish he would go on. He is the type of fellow you would like to invite over and have him tell you more about his adventures.He is that charming and throughout you know he loves to entertain. In between the laugher there are some very poignant moments. 

If you have never seen him before I urge you not to miss this endearing actor (yes, he indeed is that) and if you have give him another go around in this winning new show.

Tickets are available at the Cort Theater 138 West 48th Street or by calling 212.239.6200. 


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Good Grief

By Joseph Cervelli

Grief is one of the healing processes in the loss of a loved one. In Ngozi Anyanwu’s well intentioned but detached “Good Grief” at the Vineyard Theatre her goal appears to be obtaining the good vs. negative grief in dealing with such tragedy.  Yet, there were too many scenes that feel almost like fillers (what was with that bizarre wrestling scene at the beginning of the show!) which add nothing to the play which is written in a non-linear style. 

The play stars Anyanwu as Nkechi whose parents come from Nigeria and they all  reside in Bucks County, PA. Her childhood friend MJ (Ian Quinlan) has died tragically in a car accident. In flashbacks we see both of them as children having fun playing video games--a scene that is very realistically played out. Later they are in bed but nothing much occurs sexually between them. Just basically teens unsure of themselves experimenting. For some reason that is not completely clear as to why she takes a leave from medical school much to her parents displeasure. It is hard to get a grip on MJ’s character. He seems to like her but there is a distant feel to his character which does not help involvement in the show. You get the feeling you are being told a story more so than actually feeling what is actually  happening on the stage. I am not quite sure if director Awoye Timpo’s could do much to have added any real warmth to the scenes that leave you strangely aloof. 

There is also a brief relationship with JD (Hunter Parrish) which adds little to the storyline as does bringing in her brother (Nnamdi Asomugha) whose encounters with Nkechi go nowhere.

The playwright has in all likelihood unknowingly written her parents in the show (Patrice Johnson Cheyennes and Oberon K. A. Adjepong)  to be while not uncaring rather standoffish. This is especially evident  for when you hear her sobs (not really effective because they appear to be  pre-recorded)  they are more concerned with “spooning” while being in bed. They quite surprisingly show no interest in their daughter’s sorrow.

There is promise in Anyanwu’s writing but here the show sheds no real life on the grieving process and the entire play lacks focus on characters or situations. Sadly, it is not developed as it should be. 

Tickets are available at the Vineyard Theater 115 West 15th Street or by calling 212.353.0303.


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Fireflies--One of the Best Plays of the Current Season

Donja R. Love’s first play in his trilogy, “Sugar in Our Wounds, ” told a moving and carefully optimistic tale about a slave on a plantation reading about possible freedom and his love for another male slave. His second “Fireflies” is a heart wrenching two character work at the Atlantic Theater Company. Magnificently acted and delicately directed by Saheem Ali, there are scenes almost too painful to bear and others that have such a rare and tender beauty you are consumed in every part of it Easily, one of the best new plays of the current season. 

        Taking place in the segregated south in the difficult times of 1963 Olivia (DeWanda Wise) and her civil rights activist husband Charles (Khris Davis) appear to be very much in love. They dabble in small talk with sexual innuendos that have both smiling. Yet, there is an undercurrent of instability in their marriage and especially emotional issues with Olivia. Both she and Charles are devastated by the recent Baptist church bombing in which four young girls are killed. She cannot seem to get out of her mind what the explosion must have been like and throughout the play you hear the bombing and the lighting up of the sky (excellent sound design by Justin Ellington and projections by Alex Basco Koch). Her husband who is always traveling helping out causes has to give the sermon at the funeral for these young girls and naturally finds it an impossible feat. 

Slowly, things start to unravel. Charles is unsure how to deal with his wife and her problems are compounded by what she perceives to be his infidelities. She has a clever way to discover if indeed he is seeing other women on his travels. What makes her situation even more difficult is coming to grips with her own sexuality while deciding whether to keep the child she is pregnant with. There is a beautiful scene which I will not divulge that has to do with letters that is incredibly poignant in such a delicate way. 

What makes this show, which thankfully does have a hopeful ending,  even more distressing is that we are at a time when there was little help for those suffering emotionally. And for a black couple living in the south it is further compounded. Where especially did an African-American woman go to discuss her issues without being believed or shamed. 

The performances are glowingly alive. Davis who was superb in “The Royale” is equally wonderful here  both caring and bombastic unsure how to deal with his wife while wrestling with his own issues. There is no doubt he loves her but just comforting her when she hears those ominous bombs is  not enough. Wise is stunning as she portrays a nerve jangling Olivia whose only way of coping is reading the letters from a friend which give her the sustenance she needs to face life. Her portrayal is simply mesmerising holding on while sorrow pervades every very being. 

Ali directs tis emotionally potent work by Love with great deft and feeling. You come away exhausted but know that Olivia is going to somehow make it. Or, at least, you certainly hope so. 

Tickets are available at the Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street or by calling 866.811.4111.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018


By Joseph Cervelli

When Janet McTeer (“A Doll’s House” “Mary Stuart’) stands majestically forward at the start of Theresa Rebeck’s entertaining new play “Bernhardt/Hamlet”from the Roundabout Theatre Company at  the American Airlines Theatre” and starts quoting Shakespeare you hang onto every word. Her stance is as commanding as the words she is uttering. She is portraying the famed Sarah Bernhardt who indeed shook heads by playing the Dane shocking critics and audiences alike. The audacity of a woman playing a man’s part!  Yet, Bernardt points out men played women’s parts all the time, so why not do something different.  Acting is ingrained in our Sarah and McTeer portrays her with such authority and outrageousness that in any lesser hands it would not work. Bernhardt is a master of extravagances in her delivery while just speaking to fellow characters when not rehearsing for “Hamlet”  when not performing by flailing her arms in dramatic fashion. Her Bernhardt is always “on stage” whether addressing friends, her lover or son. She knows she is a renowned star whom audiences adore but has been met with hard times being nearly broke for her past plays were critical but not financial successes. 

Jason Butler Harner who matches McTeer scene for scene is superb as married French writer Edmond Rostand (“Cyrano de Bergerac”) and madly in love with her. The chemistry that both actors instill in their roles is combustible. You cannot tear your eyes from them when they are in the throes of passion or anger. Harner who was excellent in portraying the emotionless FBI agent in Netflix’s “Ozark” is quite amazing here. He is razor sharp in his portrayal of a man caught between gale force devotion to Bernhardt and his wife Rosamund (Ito Aghayere). 

When Bernhardt implores Rostand to rewrite “Hamlet’ without as she puts it “the poetry” he,  as well as the esteemed French critic Louis (Tony Carlin), think she is making a monumental mistake. Yet, Rostand is under her spell and decides to comply.

Later in the play we meet her son Maurice (Nick Westrate) who having arrived from the university is  concerned with his mother’s decision to have Rostand rewrite the play. Apparently, the entire city is making a mockery of this audacious decision on her part. 

While the always excellent director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has proceedings moving at a full steam ahead momentum, things start to falter near the end with the arrival of Rosamond who explains how rewriting the play is having such an adverse reaction on her husband. She then goes on explaining Rostand’s new play “Cyrano” is a love letter to Sarah. This is where things go most decidedly off track. Instead of Rebeck having written some scenes with the new interpretation of “Hamlet” she has the actors reenacting the gorgeous scene where Cyrano secretly impersonates Christian the handsome but inarticulate soldier and declares his love for Roxanne. Now Sarah is no longer Hamlet but the devastatingly beautiful Roxanne and it adds nothing to Rebeck’s work. Also, what makes it even worse is that Sarah shows very little interest in the words and the scene never resonates as it has in actual productions of “Cyrano.” The most unbearably beautiful reenactment of that scene is from the underrated musical “Cyrano” with Christopher Plummer. Here is falls flat and is out of kilter with the rest of this fun filled play. 

The incomparable set designer has created a gorgeous set with Bernhardt’s dazzlingly evocative dressing room with an array of colors and objects.

The rest of the cast is very good with a standout Dylan Baker who makes a hilarious Polonius in his scene from “Hamlet.”

Despite the fact that the digressing of the play in the last thirty or so minutes of the play, the two leads are superlative enough to keep your interest firmly intact. 

Tickets are available at the American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.719.1300. The limited engagement ends November 11. 


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Days to Come

By Joseph Cervelli

There is always an element of surprise going to the Mint Theater which mainly  features forgotten and/or obscure shows. Some have had short runs on Broadway decades ago and others may have never played the New York area. While most I have seen there have been quite good and some superb there have been a few that left little impression. Unfortunately, the Mint Theater Company’s revival  of  “Days to Come”  which ran on Broadway back in 1936 and had a run of seven performances not one of their finest efforts. Actually, it is  perfectly dreadful. It is hard to believe that it was written by the firebrand playwright Lillian Hellman. 

In all probability the theme of strike breakers in a small Ohio town and the injury they caused upon workers was quite a controversial topic then,  but now it has less of an effect.  The production is  misdirected by J.R. Sullivan who is not sure whether to keep this as a drama or comedy. And worse yet are the almost uniformly amateurish performances. Only Chris Henry Coffey as veteran worker, Thomas Firth, in the Brush Factory that is on strike gives a fine performance. But more on this later. 

As in just about every Mint production show the sets are gorgeously appointed and set designer Harry Feiner has not let us down. The dark wood furniture and almost impressionistic  backsplash of an autumn scene is beautiful. And then the play begins. 

The Rodman family owns the factory where the workers have gone out because of the drastic cuts in pay. The ineffectual Andrew Rodman (a gazed eyed Larry Bull) now runs the company after the death of his father and it is apparent that he has no idea how to be in charge of a board game let alone a factory. Andrew’s lugubrious sister Cora Rodman (a twitchy Mary Bacon) who is forever complaining about everything possible is impossibly annoying. It would have been more advantageous to have a character like Birdie in Hellman’s masterpiece ‘The Little Foxes” instead of this neurotic character. And Bacon so overplays the role in every gesture or facial expression. Andrew’s wife Julie (Janie Brookshire) is having an affair with his best friend and  lawyer  Henry Elliott  (Ted Deasy). The exceptionally bland Brookshire whose hairstyle is too modern looking for the play's time period has no chemistry with either Andrew nor Henry. And the latter relationship is more or less mentioned in passing. It is as if Hellman just threw this in for no apparent reason.   Deasy is generally acceptable for a while but Sullivan has him become exasperating. Roderick Hill is basically good as the labor organizer although his encounter with Julie in the ineffectual second act opening  scene  (she appears to have a love interest in him) goes nowhere. 

And worse yet is when the dangerous head of the strike breakers Sam Wilkie (Dan Daily) brings his two goons Mossie Dowel (Geoffrey Allen Murphy) and Joe Easter (Evan Zes) to cause harm to the 'scabs' who have been brought in to take over from the employees. Both actors overplay their roles and seem to think they are in a comedy.  They seem to be channeling the two characters  from “Kiss Me Kate”  and expect them to break into "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." When one of the two for some bizarre reason throws a knife at the other and several audience members start to laugh you know you are in big trouble.

Coffey is the best in the cast conveying sympathy and disgust with what has been going on with the strikers. He is the most believable and displays honest emotion when you learn what happens to his daughter.

Hellman wants to make a statement about injustice  but the play is so terribly structured with scenes that make little sense and not thought out it is hard that anyone could have made it work. But in its current presentation it falls even further into an abyss. 

Tickets are available at the Beckett Theater at Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.239.6200. The limited engagement ends October 6. 


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Pretty Woman: The Musical

By Joseph Cervelli

While there is nothing particularly wrong with the new show “Pretty Woman: The Musical”at the Nederlander Theater it just never radiates as you would hope it would. A big problem is that the show seems to have no identity of its own. While there is no doubt it needs to follow the immensely popular film (book by Garry Marshall and J.F. Lawton)  it is based upon, there is a mechanical feel to the show and that sadly might be due to the uninspired direction by Jerry Mitchell who also choreographed it. 

The first question that most will ask is how Samantha Barks (Vivian Ward) compares to Julia Roberts' unforgettable performance as the lovable hooker who meets her Prince Charming Edward Lewis (Andy Karl). Barks has a powerful voice and a lovely presence with a smile that could light up a city. She certainly is good and wows with one of her big numbers “This is My Life” but never brings that certain excitement to the role. Again, the problem may indeed lie with Mitchell. The one big scene where Vivian comes out with that stunning red dress should produce “ah’s” from the audience yet met with general silence. Mitchell should have built this up rather than it just be another scene in the musical. Also, the scene where she and Edward go to the opera should have been a highlight where in the film she is so moved by “La Traviata” that she starts to cry. While that is not necessary here, more emotion on her part would have helped make what amounts to a tepid moment shine. 

Karl is a wonderful asset in all he is in but here while also quite good seems to lack a certain amount of chemistry with his co-star. Granted, Lewis is not the most exciting character and Karl brings the necessary energy to him. But in the stage adaptation I  just never believed that relationship would take off as it does. His voice is superb as usual and there is one number where it felt like he was aiming to sound like the composer Bryan Adams who co wrote with Jim Vallance the pleasant if not memorable score. 

The other cast members are terrific. Vivian’s best friend prostitute Kit De Luca is played with pizzazz by Orfeh whose dynamic singing voice matches the others. No affront to Barks,  but I would love to see what she would have done with the role of Vivian.  A standout is Eric Anderson who is the street hustler handing out maps to the local tourists in Hollywood and doubles as the hotel concierge. The always reliable Jason Danieley is good as Lewis's sleazy lawyer Philip Stuckey. It is unfortunate he does not have a solo number. 

One big disappointment is the skimpy sets by the otherwise first rate set designer David Rockwell. Lewis’s penthouse apt in the hotel should be a knockout but here there is little to wow. Unfortunately, this is the same for most of the scenes in the show. Even the big shopping scene in an exclusive store proves to be lackluster in design although Gregg Barnes' costumes are on target. 
While the show is modestly entertaining it never charms you or entices you as you keep hoping it would.

Tickets are available at the Nederlander Theater 208 West 41st Street or by calling 212.239.6200.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Gettin' The Band Back Together--Exuberantly Entertaining

By Joseph Cervelli

Poor Mitch Papadopoulos. The stockbroker looks quite forlorn in the first scene in the exuberant, fun-filled and crowd pleasing new musical “Getting’ The Band Back Together” at the Belasco Theater. It is Mitch’s birthday and he has lost his job. So, what is this 40 year old played with dynamic energy by Mitchell Jarvis going to do except move back to Sayreville, NJ to live with his sultry looking  mother Sharon played with vivacity by Marilu Henner. He finds out that her and his friend Bart Vickers’  (gleefully played by Jay Klaitz) houses are being foreclosed by the villainous Tygen Billows (a hilariously evil Brandon Williams.) Bart is the math teacher who has little knowledge of the subject but if you start to question things in this show it will defeat its purpose which is just to tickle you silly.  It may be an original musical but there is not a lot of originality for it is a takeoff of other shows, such as, “School of Rock” as well as references to other musicals. Bart also has a not so secret desire for Sharon which he graphically sings to a mortified Mitch in the playfully distasteful “Bart’s Confession.” The buffed Tygen who  is the perfect example of brawn minus the brains, is full of malapropisms and generally walks off the stage looking at the audience with a smugness before finishing the end of what he wants to say. He is accompanied by his two equally dopy cohorts played with zestful enthusiasm by Ryan Duncan and Garth Kravitz. Kravitz  doubles as the emotionally overwrought lounge singer Nick Styler and has the show stopping “Second Chances.”

Mitch makes a deal with Tygen who will forgo the foreclosures for a chance to regain a trophy he lost to Mitch’s band when they were back in high school.  Thus there is a battle of the bands. Mitch wants to reunite the original band which includes Bart;  Sully Sullivan (Paul Whitty) who is a policeman not really interested in continuing his job; the dermatologist Robbie Patel (Manu Narayan) who does not want the arranged wedding his father has planned; sixteen year old student of the lovable Bart w Ricky Bling (a terrific Sawyer Nunes) who rocks a Jewish wedding as a rap singer. 

There needs to be a love interest and Kelli Barrett perfectly fits the bill as waitress Dani Franco.  If all of this written by Ken Davenport and The Grundleshotz  sounds terribly trite, well, it actually is. But one of the reasons why is all works besides the tremendously talented cast is that it has both a catchy score and some wonderfully funny and purposely insipid lyrics by Mark Allen. 

Derek McLane has created a set that is reminiscent of a small town with a traditional New Jersey diner which is named after one that was sadly torn down, the popular PeterPank. And his amusement park set with great lighting Ken Billington may not look like Great Flags Great Adventure but captures it enough. 

Chris Bailey’s choreography may not be all that inventive but it surely is energetic and the wonderful John Rando (“Urinetown”) is the perfect spearhead for this type of show with his lightening speed direction.

Don’t look too hard at the material and you should just have a blast which is what those involved intended. 

Tickets are available at the Belasco Theater 111 West 44th Street or by calling 212.239.6200.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

Fiddler on the Roof--The Definitive "Fiddler"

By Joseph Cervelli

That feeling of exhilaration you experience throughout the wondrous production of “Fiddler on the Roof” presented by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage will not leave you as you exit the theater.  Down at the Battery where it is playing, you glance over at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and think about not only those residents of Anatevke where the show takes place who plan on leaving Russia to make a new life in America but your own ancestors.  The prophetic words in  the closing number “Anatevke” resonate with even  more realism as the plight of the migrant families comes to life. 

This might be the fifth production of a classic show that is sheer perfection and yet in its own way this, at least, for me is the definitive production. Entirely performed in Yiddish with two screens on sides of the stage projecting English supertitles, it is physically a bare-bones production in terms of sets and scenery though we do have that evocative lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.  Chairs and tables along with Tevye's cart are basically the sets. Even when Tevye (a wondrous Steven Skybell) and his lovably strong willed wife Golde (an equally winning Mary Illes) perform the delightful “The Dream” there is no bed to speak of. They are on several chairs and a quilt. And, yes, I do still say this is the best production of the show I have seen. In the delightful film  “Meeting Venus” a group of singers perform Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and when a union strike prevents any use of scenery one of the actors makes a comment to the effect that as long as they believe in the material they don’t need sets. That certainly applies in this “Fiddler.” In other productions, and all have been first rate, you felt you were watching a musical. Here I honestly felt that I was in their small town watching the actual inhabitants.  

From the first chords of the memorable “Tradition” the orchestra of twelve sound (the clarity in the theater is sublime) as if you are listening to a full orchestra. Yes, it sounds that good. 

While the show always had its share of hilarious and moving moments here it is performed with such robust dedication (learning Yiddish is enough of a chore) you feel you are watching the show for the first time. 

Normally, Jackie Hoffman as funny as she can be has a tendency to overdo all her roles but not here. She portrays  the loquacious matchmaker Yente as straightforward as it was written. No need for needless antics. 

Tevye's daughters are beautifully played by Rachel Zatcoff, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Rosie Jo Neddy, Raquel Nobile and Samantha Hahn. Daniel Kahn makes a fiery Pertshik, the radical teacher  who falls in love with Hodl. While “Far From the Home I Love” which Hodl sings to her father before leaving to join her husband, Pertshik, in Siberia has always been a pleasingly touching number here Mason imbues the song with more raw emotion than I recall.  Ben Liebert is most pleasing as the nebbish tailor Motel doing a more emotionally gratifying version of the always tuneful “Miracle of Miracles.” I don’t recall ever seeing another Motel with tears in his eyes but thought I noticed them in Liebert’s interpretation. 

Illes is excellent displaying razor sharp humor as Golde and is a perfect counterbalance to the more laidback Tevye. Skybell could not be better as the engaging milkman. He captures Tevye's puckish charm and comic moments along with the fierceness of his dedication in  his beliefs. He superbly nails every emotion that book writer Joseph Stein has created in this character.

The score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick still reigns supreme in the musical theater world and here a number of the lyrics are more faithful to Sholem Aleichem’s stories. You may think you know them by heart but there is a difference here.

Stay Kmiec’s staging is filled with the necessary adrenaline  and brings Jerome Robbins’ original breathtaking choreography vibrantly alive. 

Much praise surely goes to Joel Grey’s accomplished direction. It is a tightly directed show which adheres to the original production. Yet, in its own way it has a fresh incandescent feel thanks to both Grey and the cast. 

Thus far, this is easily the best show of the new theater season. 

Tickets are available at the Museum of Jewish Heritage Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place or by calling 866.811.4100. The limited engagement as of this date ends August 26.