Wednesday, March 11, 2020

72 Miles To Go...--So Many Missed Opportunities

       By Joseph Cervelli

The most stunning moment in Hilary Bettis' uninvolving and labored new play "72 Miles To Go...." at the Laura PelsTheatre is the physical transformation that occurs in one of the five characters near the end of the show. You might be tempted, as I, to immediately check your Playbill to see if there was another actor taking over. No makeup change nor prosthetics. Just a few minor alterations, and it was quite amazing. You may find yourself staring at the actor and losing concentration of the dialogue which would not be a huge loss for nothing of much significance is spoken about.

It is hard to conceive of a play that deals with immigration and DACA turning out to be so dull and situations just don't really make a great deal of sense or fully explained.

Billy (Triney Sandoval) is a Unitarian minister who lives with his daughter Eva (Jacqueline Guile) who is about to graduate high school as class valedictorian and son Aaron (Tyler Alvarez) who is apprehensive about entering ninth grade. His other adult adopted son, Christian (Bobby Moreno), who for reasons never delved into has a love/hate relationship with his stepdad Billy plans on moving out to live with his pregnant girlfriend.  Years earlier Billy went into the desert from Tucson where the play takes place to give water to escaping Mexicans from Nogales which is as the title indicates  72 miles away from Arizona. He falls in love with one of the Mexican women, Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) whom he sees with her young child Christian and marries. Unfortunately, years later she gets deported. There is really no indication as to why Christian has such a dislike for Billy whom we  never see displaying  any animosity towards the young man. I wish Bettis had explored this instead of just having Christian show vindictiveness towards his stepdad.

Much of the play's dialogue is meandering which never amounts to a great deal and situations that never don't really make a lot of sense. Why would Eva who is class valedictorian decide to wait for her mother to return to the States which could take years postpone entering college when it is clear enough she has the ability. With her grades she should be able to qualify for a scholarship, since money is never discussed as an issue preventing her from attending.  Aaron is such a bright young man whose passion is science that when a few years later is granted a scholarship to Berkeley decides to enter the armed services. It is true that Christian whom he clearly emulates was a Marine but things have become more precarious, and it just does not ring true. And while we hear Anita's voice through phone calls which she frequently makes to them for some strange reason the children don't seem as emotionally moved as you would expect. It was as if she was calling from visiting a relative in the next state.

Billy's conversations are filled with inane jokes and Sandoval gives a rather slack, unemotional performance.

The other performances are all acceptable if nothing more under Jo Bonney's uninspired direction.

What is most upsetting is that there was a great opportunity here for a play that would ignite some discussion and move us with what is occurring in our country today. Yet, with the stale jokes from Billy and the innocuous conversations between the kids it just leaves us flat.

Tickets are available at the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Darling Grenadine--A Beautifully Touching New Musical

       By Joseph Cervelli

There is still time to rush over to the Black Box to see one of the best shows of the season, thus far, "Darling Grenadine" with book, music and lyrics by Daniel Zaitchik. His  catchy tunes and insightful lyrics are very reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown. Maybe, not as stylish as Brown. but there is enough here in especially two of his songs that definitely make this composer/ writer worth keeping an eye out for.

It is a bittersweet tale with Harry (a wonderful Adam Kantor) who writes jingles and only one really seems to have made it big--well as big as jingles could go. He is an aspiring songwriter but something  is keeping him back. That "something" sadly is his addiction to alcohol which starts to play a prominent role in the show.

Harry who plays the piano in his brother Paul's  (an always excellent Jay Armstrong Johnson) bar falls in love with a Broadway performer Louise (a superb Emily Walton) who is in the ensemble and hopes as understudy to go on one day. Zaitchik knows very well how those beginnings of any romance begin. You don't see any blemishes that might take place in a continuing  relationship for all are on their best behavior and everything is simply glorious. Oh, that it could always stay that way but in many instances it falls apart. But for Harry his bursting into the infectious "Swell" says it all about how he feels for this young woman. The feelings they have for each other are so believable and their lovely duet "Manhattan" emphasizes the love they feel for each other. It is not long before she does touch something in his jacket pocket which is a flask that sends up signals of his drinking problem.

They both support each other's goals in a career. She wants him to write more songs that could lead to writing for the theater and he devises a plan which does not go over well with her to arrange for her to indeed go on for the star of the show.

The relationship has its ups and downs with an emphasis on the latter. Before you think this is just a depressing run of the mill story about how a love affair can shatter because of alcohol the show is an uplifting one and there are some very clever touches. Zaitchik has included a trumpet player who makes the sounds of Harry's unseen dog named Paul. It is not only amusing but shows the caring person that Harry is. He is just someone whose life has been taken over by drink.

There are two numbers that are standouts. "Suspended" is a stunning number sung by the mellifluous Walton about how Harry's problem has led to a severe dive in their relationship. I don't think I will easily forget "The Kettle Song." Listening carefully to the lyrics it surely conjures up the heavyhearted feelings they have for each other. When Louise sings about letting the tea water boil on low so Harry does not have to leave I felt my own eyes well up with tears.

Kantor who was terrific in "Fiddler on the Roof" and in the Broadway version of "The Band's Visit" really takes off in this show. Yes, he has an excellent voice and his performance is exhilarating. You never for a moment have any doubt who Harry really is and how difficult it is for him to overcome his issues. I had read that he portrayed Jamie in Brown's under appreciated knockout "The Last Five Years." How I wished I had seen in him that role.

Watson meshes perfectly with Kantor and you never doubt their interest in each other as the characters they are portraying. They have a chemistry that works  for the entire show.

Johnson has a fine singing voice so was a tad disappointed the was not given a musical number here.

The incredible dancer and performer Michael Berresse (who can forget him in the 1999 revival of "Kiss Me, Kate")  has the right amount of finesse in his direction and choreography.

There is no real set to speak of except for a movable bar and bed but set designer Tim Mackabee has very effective sketches of New York on what looks like windows around the theater (seating is in the round).

The show may end its run soon, but there is no reason for it not to play around the country. It is too good a show to give a final goodbye to.

Tickets are available at the Harold and Miriam Sternberg Center for Theatre/Black Box Theater 111 West 46th Street.


Monday, March 2, 2020

West Side Story--A Staggering Production

        By Joseph Cervelli

The new propulsive "West Side Story"at the Broadway Theater is not, as the saying goes, your parents’"West Side Story." This  brilliantly inventive new production with Belgian  director has Ivo  van  Hove ("The Crucible, "Network," A View From the Bridge") at the helm  is unlike any version you have seen before, and that is what makes it so special. New and different does not always mean better. And I am not trying to infer it is superior to previous productions but his insight into the show makes it so very appropriate in 2020. My fervent hope is that just as "To Kill a Mockingbird" invited 18,000 children to Madison Square Garden to see that show, something similar could be done here. It would be a wasted opportunity not to follow through.

Every moment of this intermissionless production is bristling with tension. Even the first scene where the Jets and Sharks (who are both multi-cultural)  are staring out at the audience almost expressionless you find yourself in rapt attention.  Their faces are projected on the large screen behind them. Yes, I know, van Hove does like projections as was evident very much in "Network." Yet, despite a few minor distractions here and there, it works beautifully and will shortly get into why.

The famous prologue with finger snapping is gone. And it should be. You would not expect kids of today to do that. But wait a second, there is no time period listed and they do use  terms from the original 1957 production, such as, “Daddy-o." The more things change the more they stay the same? Perhaps, that is one aspect of what he was trying to achieve. Slowly opposing groups engage by taunting each other and avant-garde Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker has instilled her own style of dance. While not the balletic movements of the original choreographer Jerome Robbins, it does not stray so far away. I still caught some classical movements incorporated with  hip hop styles. Her strong, robust movements are performed beautifully.

The other changes include no "I Feel Pretty," and in this production it would never have fit in. Maria played by a rapturous Shereen Pimentel is not the meek Maria have seen in the past. She is feisty and displays a fierce independence. She knows she is still curtailed by her overprotective brother, Bernardo, played with quiet intensity by Amar Ramasar, but will assert herself as much as she can. Her voice is simply gorgeous and her outburst in the last scene is as if you never heard Maria’s agonizing pain of loss before.

It was an astute move on van Hove's part not to include an intermission for the time of various scenes appears on the screen and would damage the smoothness and ferocity of the structure of this production.

Quite emphatically Isaac Powell has created the best Tony I have ever seen in the various productions  I have attended over the years. There is something so tender and frolicsome about his interpretation. A young man lost in the clutches of those around  him. He possesses a vulnerability and playfulness, such as, in his duet with Maria you see him hiding in the corner in a lovably silly mood. Exactly like you would expect a young man to act when meeting that special person for the first time and knowing there is no other. Besides possessing a wonderfully melodic voice,listen carefully to his rendition of “Maria” and you will never want to hear any past ones. Each time he utters those words there is a different intonation and feeling. It is quite astonishing.

Van Hove has the ability to keep the original dialogue and book intact and make changes that only add to this epochal musical. "Gee, Officer Krupke" once a comical number is deadly serious with Luke Hall"s mesmerizing projections that include officers involved in police brutality and the Jets all taking out their cell phones. Van Hove along with his vital collaborator Jan Versweveld (sets and lighting) have rain falling several times to set the already dark atmosphere that spells tragedy for the characters.

When I mentioned earlier why the projections work so well, let me for a moment take you to the pivotal moment where Maria and Anita (a scorching Yemeni Ayala) sing the heartbreaking "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love." You don't see them on stage but rather in Maria's bedroom via the projections. Then they step forward and are the only ones who stand on the expansive stage. Perhaps, van Hove is showing how they are mere specks in the world yet while presenting them prior on the large screen you understand their feelings on a more personal level.With this unique director, I always feel that symbolism is inherent somewhere in his work.

There is not one moment when you don't hold your breath and what makes it work so well is that even though that last scene is so agonizing you desperately hope there could be some hope. It is a staggering production which I urge you to see, maybe even more than once.


Tickets are available at the Broadway Theater 1681 Broadway.