Sunday, July 24, 2022

 


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

        By Joseph Cervelli

I have seen five (not the original) productions of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and while the best of all was the 1975 version starring an unforgettably, scintillating Elizabeth Ashley, the others were generally good.  In most cases you had a fine Maggie (Ashley still remains the best) but a disappointing Brick. But in the disastrous revival currently playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's you may have a more fiercely played Brick (Matt de Rogatis) but a very ineffective Maggie (Sonoya Mizuno). If the show's Maggie is not good the production sinks badly. And this one under the misguided direction by Joe Rosario stands by far to be the worst I have seen. 

One of the biggest culprits is the exceptionally poor acoustics of the theater and the simply terrible sound design by Ben Levine. When Maggie is at the right side of the stage, and you hear her voice from one of the speakers on the left side you are in trouble. 




 

Rosario has updated the show to the present which still takes place on an estate in Mississippi. Maggie is the love starved wife of the sexy but alcohol addicted Brick. There is no mistaking that Mizuno is definitely sensual in her movements but her shrill, screeching voice makes her Maggie so unappealing. One of the funniest lines right from the onset is her calling her nieces and nephews (no nephews are shown here) "no neck monsters." But Mizuno with a very overdone Southern accent rambles on yelling one line after another becoming almost impossible to understand. Within five minutes I knew we were in trouble. The entire first act is basically a monologue of Maggie's emotions who cannot understand why Brick has fallen to pieces since the death of his best friend Skipper. Unless you know the play this production will probably not help you understand the innuendos about Brick's relationship to Skipper. As Williams wrote the character Maggie he makes you feel for this woman who wants more than anything to be loved by her husband and have a child. She and Brick live in the house of his parents Big Daddy (Christian Jules Le Blanc) and Big Mamma (Alison Fraser) along with Brick's brother Gooper (Spencer Scott) and his wife Mae (Tiffan Borelli). Maggie knows unless they are in Big Daddy's good graces when he passes they will not be left much. To secure this, a child would make that a reality.

 Mizuno according to the Playbill trained at the Royal Ballet School and danced as listed at two ballet companies. This is her New York City stage acting debut. I saw no stage acting credits listed and this is too difficult a role to tackle for a novice unless under proper direction. She gets no assistance from Rosario. Throughout Mizuno has the sinuous moves of a dancer, but it is never transformed into her acting ability. 

De Rogatis makes a hunky, perfectly chiseled tattooed Brick. De Rogatis also is the most menacing Brick I have seen, and when he threatens to hit Maggie with his crutch (he injured himself while jumping hurdles while drunk) you think he truly wants to kill her.  De Rogatis also is the most self destructive Brick. Unlike others who have played that part you do believe he was indeed sexually attracted to Skipper and either made an attempt to seduce his friend or actually did. While there is not much for Brick to do in the first act except to listen to the epithets of Maggie, de Rogatis does convey his inner demons by the way he moves his body. You can feel his mental anguish. And later in the play his encounter with his father is well  played out on his part. However I don't remember Brick falling down in a drunken stupor as much as here.




Big Daddy has always been played by a tall, broad man.  Remember Burl Ives, James Earl Jones and 
character actor Fred Gwynn?  Yet, Le Blanc is a smaller Big Daddy. That would be fine if he, too, was  not screaming throughout. He thinks he has a spastic colon not knowing until Brick angrily tells him
that he has terminal cancer. He is a belligerent, bellicose and uncouth millionaire. His vile comments towards his wife are thoroughly upsetting but here they fall flat because his dialogue is spoken too fast.

 Fraser ("The Secret Garden" and "Romance/Romance") is a completely different looking Big Mama. Big Mamma has always been a bit overweight, dowdy character ridiculed  by her unpleasant husband. Here she is a slim, but flamboyantly dressed woman looking like she is going to a cocktail party. Much of Fraser's dialogue including her almost sotto voce aside to Brick near the end of the play should  be clearer. Also, what makes no sense is when Big Daddy calls her "fat" on a number of occasions for she is very slim. 




I am not sure who created the ominous music which would have been more appropriate for "A Streetcar Named Desire" than this show. And unsure why Brick and Maggie's bed (set design by Matthew Imhoff) which is a pivotal part of their relationship is off to the side of the stage instead more centered.

The themes of manliness, mendacity and  Maggie's sexual desires are all lost in this overwhelmingly inept production. I can only hope there is another "Cat" to erase the memory of what Rosario has done to such a brilliant play. 

PHOTOS: Miles Skalli

Tickets are available at the Theatre at St. Clements 423 West 46th Street. 



Monday, July 11, 2022

 



Between The Lines--Very Likable New Musical That Needs Some Tightening

The first thing that struck me when I entered The Tony Kiser Theater where the uneven though likable "Between the Lines" musical is playing was the song "Books" from the irrepressible "A Man of No Importance." A wonderful song about the delights of reading sung by the lonely man's sister. And if you never caught the show at Lincoln Center it is going to be revived this season. In "Lines" the action takes place in the library, among other locations and indeed revolves around one particular book. 

The show is based on the novel by Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer. Here the book for the musical is by Timothy Allen McDonald. I have read several of Picoult's adult books always admiring show she beautifully dissects the characters and her versatility in that no two books are the same. I never read any of her young adult books which "Lines" is based upon. 




Delilah (a wonderful and hard working Arielle Jacobs) is a lonely junior in high school who has moved to the new school about six months ago. She lives with her mother Grace (Julia Murney) whose husband has left them for a twenty something yoga instructor. The mother has a great deal of trouble making ends meet but cares deeply for her daughter though they have frequent arguments. Delilah an avid reader suddenly takes a fancy to the book by the title of the musical. Strangely, there is only one book available anywhere and her school library has it. It is a fantasy about a handsome prince Oliver (Jake David Smith) and his desire to escape into the real world. He is bethroed to the annoying Princess Seraphima (very well played by understudy Aubrey Matalon.) Several of the characters play a multitude of roles which works excellent because each is superb. Matalon plays the 'mean girl' from Delilah's class and her clueless boyfriend Ryan (Will Burton) also plays the dog in the book. The only friend that Delilah has is the nonbinary Jules (a very funny wisecracking Wren Rivera). Of course, Jules is equally ostracized. There is an hilarious turn by the brilliant Vicki Lewis who plays five roles including the highly sexed librarian who has flights of fancy with an unseen except in silhouette form-- Mr. Darcy from "Pride and Prejudice."





The show begins delightfully with the very catchy "Another Chapter" sung by Delilah. When she opens the book there is a great scene that suddenly appears behind the back scrim with Prince Olvier climbing a cliff),  As she turns the pages of the book the scene changes to a mermaid saving the drowning Oliver and then you see member so the Royal Family along with others. It is brilliantly achieved by scenic designer Tobin Ost. Gregg Barnes designed the eye popping costumes. 

But after the first 40 or so minutes (the show is overlong at 2 1/2 hours) the delight becomes a bit repetitive. Director Jeff Calhoun tries to make things move swiftly but they are bogged down in much too many songs by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Grace does not need to sing two solos along with a duet with Delilah. And even other characters' numbers just dilute down the action. Yes, quite a few have clever lyrics and bouncy music but it feels overstuffed. And the book also has a very repetitive feel. We don't need to see the same occurrences in the classroom and a few of the musical numbers involving the storybook characters are tiresome. This is especially true of the unnecessary "Butterflies" sung by John Rapson who also plays characters in and out of the book. 




The relationship between Delilah and Oliver does not work as well as I hoped it to. Smith certainly makes a dashing Prince but has little personality and I never felt his despair being trapped in the book. And his disillusionment with his Royal life is never fully realized. 

The other issue is the theme of reality vs. fantasy and how both coalesce into the realm of things never truly coalesces. 

I was wondering if younger children would enjoy the musical more than adults but not so sure. Perhaps, if it was shortened and tighter a lot it could work better. There is a lot of promise here with necessary editing. 

Photos: Matt Murphy

Ticket are available at the Tony Kiser Theater 305 West 43rd Street.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

 



Chains--Charming and Bittersweet

         By Joseph Cervelli

One of the most enjoyable things about attending Mint Theater Company productions is how far ahead of the times the shows they present truly were. And even more so how applicable they are today. While not earth shattering in their themes by today's standards, I can only imagine how shocking they surely were back in the early 1900's when many were produced. 

Currently at Theater Row their latest production is British playwright Elizabeth Baker's "Chains" which is a bittersweet tale of breaking free from your everyday constraints to seek new horizons. This especially applies to those encumbered by jobs that have become "chains" around their neck.     





Charley Wilson (Jeremy Beck) and his wife Lily (Laakan McHardy) rent out a room in their house in Hammersmith to a lodger,  Fred Tennant (Peterson Townsend.) When Charley hears of Tennant's imminent departure to Australia to work as a cattle rancher, he becomes peevish which sets the tone for his behavior throughout the play. His wife will miss the congenial Fred but admires his decision. Not so Charley. He dislikes his job as a clerk knowing that his work options won't go beyond head clerk. He loves gardening and farming and would love to partake in such a move but there is no way that Lily is agreeable to this. Even though Charley said he will send for her when he gets established in Australia, Lily is against this move. You can hardly blame her. She is content but not Charley. And to make matters worse when his co-worker Thomas Fenwick (Christopher Gerson) comes to tell him that they are reducing all wages so Charley must accept the lesser amount or leave,  it makes him more determined to set course on this adventure. 





There are a number of other characters in the play and while it is well directed by Jenn Thompson the one flaw is that she never clearly delineates whom they are when we first meet a few of them. It is not until later in the play that it becomes clear. It does not diminish your enthusiasm for the work but would help to know earlier. We learn Percy Massey (Avery Whitted) is Lily's brother and Sybil Frost (Claire Saunders) his fiancĂ©. While Whitted is quite good in a very calming and quiet manner (you can read his feelings from his facial expressions), I did find Saunders' character a bit too silly. And found the Wilson's neighbor Morton Leslie overplayed by Brian Owen. He is supposed to add humor to the role but his boisterous behavior is over the top. 




Things come to a boiling point when it is announced in Lily's parents' house in Chiswick about what Charley wants to do. This is most definitely not well received by Lily's mother, Mrs. Massey (Amelia White) nor her father Alfred, (Anthony Cochrane.) However, this is far from the way her feisty, adventurous sister Maggie (a wonderful Olivia Gilliatt) feels about the matter. She encourages Charley to make this move. Maggie's beau is the quiet Walter Foster (Ned Moyes). Maggie only wants to marry Walter to quit her shop job and hoping he wants to travel around the world exploring and finding a new position. But Walter is very content and working where he currently is. I can only imagine what audiences must have thought of a woman who is encouraging her brother-in-law to move so far away without his wife. Maggie's expression about "seeking one's fortune" must have turned a lot of heads back in 1909 when the play was first produced. And what makes Charley even more determined to escape this staid life is probably seeing Lily's family enjoying a Sunday afternoon singing songs around the piano. This is not the life for this adventurer.  


   





As lovely as the set by John McDermott is, what is truly ingenious is the inventive way it changes from the Wilson's house to the Massey's and back again with the actors moving the set. I have not seen something like this in a very long time and it is done easily with great precision. 

There is a bit of a surprise at the end of the play which had me think if Lily is shrewder than we think. Not sure if this was Baker's intent but creating such an independent woman as Maggie I just wondered if she was creating a different Lily than we saw earlier. Most likely just a farfetched thought on my part but then you just never know. 

PHOTOS: Todd Cerveris

Tickets are available at Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street. 



Sunday, April 10, 2022

 


Birthday Candles--Endearing and Beautifully Acted

         By Joseph Cervelli

The first thing you might notice other than the crowded looking kitchen set at the beautifully written, deeply affecting and wonderfully acted new play "Birthday Candles" by Noah Haidle at the American Airlines Theater is what is hanging above the set. What do items like a guitar, umbrella, rocking chair and a multitude of other things all mean? You will see them in a different "light" by the end of this show. 

Debra Messing from "Will and Grace" fame showed how excellent her stage attributes are in the very fine "Outside Mullingar" from a number of seasons ago. Here again she has a very special and believable stage presence as Ernestine who ages (no make up so all depends on her physicality and voice patterns) from age seventeen to near one hundred. This appears to be the case for all the other actors. 



There is something very sweet from the start as her mother, Alice (Susannah Flood), bakes a cake for her seventeenth birthday which plays an important part in the play as they years go by. Flood and two other characters play multiple roles. There is also a lovely touch (so much of the play will bring back memories of your own childhood) where every year her mother measures how much her daughter has grown and marks it on the doorway arch. She is pursued by the very humorous Kenneth (a humorously  likable Enrico Colantoni) who is in love with her. But she falls for the more self assured Matt (a superb John Earl Jelks). 

The play is marked throughout by the sound of a "ding" so you know exactly how many years have transpired. Under Vivienne Benesch's astute direction characters leave and then re-enter the stage now older and some being Ernestine and Matt's offspring.




The play reflects the life cycle in so many ways. When first introduced to Ernestine she is whimsical speaking about wanting to travel the world and the ups and downs of what marriage brings. Things first work out well for her and happiness is in the forefront of her eventual marriage to Matt raising two very different children. The generally easy going Billy (an excellent Christopher Livingston) has shouting matches with his father while his sister Madeline (Flood) has very serious emotional issues that progress. There is one very funny line in which Billy addresses his father that is used later by his own daughter as an insult to him. Like life, marriages that seem wonderful can easily fall apart. Billy and his wife Joan (an extremely funny Crystal Finn) seem to be quite compatible until they are not. 

It is about halfway through the 95 or so minutes that things get very serious and emotionally moving. I won't give things away but like in any life things can turn very upsetting. As I mentioned earlier it  is remarkable at how well the actors without any visible makeup age in the way they not only speak but walk, act and speak. One scene I won't easily forget involves an incredible turn by Jelks who becomes ill. Just take notice how he is fine one second and then suddenly the illness takes over his body. Another involves Billy, now a grandfather, who develops his own illness. 


The play is so razor sharp in depiction of families and life situations. Even though the years move so swiftly nothing in the play feels rushed. Messing giving a sensitive, low keyed performance trying to keep the peace in her family is just as sterling as all the other cast members. 

This Roundabout Theatre Company production is one of the finest plays I have seen this season. 

PHOTOS: Joan Marcus

Tickets are available at the American Airlines Theater 227 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.719. 1300






Wednesday, March 30, 2022


 Little Girl Blue--An Electrifying Laiona Michelle

      By Joseph Cervelli

Quite simply Laiona Michelle is electrifying as the late, wonderful Nina Simone in "Little Girl Blue" at the New World Stages. Michelle also wrote the book to the musical which traces Simone's career and personal life told in two concerts that we as the audience a part of.

The first is a 1968 concert at Westbury, NY, in which she was greeted by both enthusiastic fans which we hear cheering along with protesters. It was three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The set is designed perfectly by Shoko Kambara has the smoky, lush feeling of a downtown club back in the 60's. And the tremendous sound system is by Twi McCallum. 

The excellent three piece band played by (Mark Fifer, Kenneth Salters and Saadi Zain) are also her sounding board and protector. Not an easy feat as Simone (especially in the second act)  struggles more and more with depression. It is not until much later that it is discovered she suffered from biopolar disease. 




As the show begins she sings the gorgeous "Feeling Good" from "The Roar of the Greasepaint---The Smell of the Crowd." I remember seeing the show and hearing that song the first time sung by an amazing Gilbert Price who left us much too soon. Sadly, it has been sung poorly with an upbeat tempo by quite a few artists who for me did not understand it. As Simone, Michelle sings it with the soaring and delicate tones that it was meant to possess. So much of those lyrics represent her feelings about black oppression and how changes need to come. She calls herself an activist and "Feeling Good" represents that optimisim. 

Being on the forefront for change she points out that "there's no colored section here." And jokingly with a kind of biting humor how white audiences have always enjoyed her music and pain. The emphasis is on pain because Michelle captures all those moments in Simone's life which audiences were probably so unaware of.

Besides the fact that Michelle sounds a great deal like Simone, you know how much the songs replicate the late singer's private life. "Love Me or Leave Me" is almost an ode to her violent husband whom she called "a dirty cop." He was more than that. He abused her mentally and physically. Shades of Ike Turner are apparent here. Forcing Nina to go on stage and taking her money. Focus back to Tina Turner's tragic and dangerous marriage. 





One thing I was not aware of was that Simone was trained as a concert pianist and her love for Bach knew no bounds. She could have been admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music because her white music teacher knew she had the capabilities but because of her color was rejected. 

As the musical moves on in the first act, she speaks about not including any protests songs because she was informed that could lead to riots. So, her famous "Mississippi Godamn" is left out. But she does get her message through that "My People are simply angry becasue they are fighting for their freedom." 

As the first act nears its end she becomes more vocal on her belief that nonviolence may not be the answer. It seems the death of Dr. King has not only made her political views more virulent but her mental condition is getting worse.

The second act takes place in 1976 at the Montreal Jazz Festival in Switzerland where she now lives because of the conditions for blacks in America. She enters wearing an afro and the look of that time period. Even the three musicians have that 70's look. But unlike the Nina of the first act she seems more jittery and derides her drummer for being late. When Michelle  breaks into "Little Girl Blue" she  sings it as beautifully as Simone sang it. I almost wished I could hear that back to back at that moment. And her rendition of Jacques Brel's gorgeous "Ne Me Quitte Pas" is sung interspersed with reminiscing about her destructive times with her ex-husband in what looks like hallucinatory images that she is experiencing. You can almost feel the agony she has been through and the serious effect it has taken on her. 

The book becomes a bit disjointed when you learn before she moved to Switzerland she lived in Liberia. It was not clear why she left there because it was apparent she felt more comfortable living there. Perhaps, Michelle or director Devanand Janki could have worked on that a bit more and there is a deja vu feeling from the first act. But still the book provides a lot of pertinent information. 

Still, when she she sings "I Put A Spell on You" the mesmerizing Michelle accomplishes that as Nina Simone.

Photos: Julietta Cervantes

Tickets are available at The New World Stages 340 West 50th Street.



Tuesday, March 8, 2022



 The Chinese Lady

       By Joseph Cervelli

Lloyd Suh's fascinating though thin new play "The Chinese Lady" at the Public Theater tells the story mostly through monologue about the first Chinese woman to come to America in 1834. We first see Afong Moy (well played by Shannon Tyo) in a Room (stylishly designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee) as it is called which is a raised setting on display in a museum. She was brought over here by The Carnes brothers who were import traders. In order for those to see her they have to pay the admission price (it goes up as the years change)  is a quarter for adults and ten cents for children to hear her speaking about her life and customs in China The brothers hire Atung (an excellent Daniel K. Isaac) as her interpreter. He deems himself irrevalent to the story and Afong agrees. 

Yet, as time goes on we find ourselves intrigued by this man who reveals near the end of the one act play his true feelings for her. There were a few moments throughout when I personally found him a bit more interesting than Afong which does not help the work directed by Ralph B. Pena. The issue is that as years go on you see changes in Afong in age justby the way he moves and acts, Afong (whose gorgeous traditional garb is designed by Linda Cho) never does. Except for minor changes, she remains the same in tone and behavior throughout which makes her character a bit tedious. 



She goes on in exposition form detailing facts through monologue in a nondramatic manner which makes the play feel more of a lecture than true dramaturgy. She speaks about the horrifying custom of what they do to a young girl's feet to make them smaller in appearance. Then speaks about the food and the importance of tea and the traditional way of serving it. I enjoyed her calling chopsticks "elegant" while "forks are violent and easy." 

After each of the various scenes Atung pulls the curtain and when it reopens Afong tells us the current year and how old she is. Her excitement which is understandable is traveling around the east coast. Certainly a nice change from staying in the same room for about 2 years. As the scenes change she speaks about her desire for American food and the enjoyment of eating corn and potatoes, staples which she does not get in the Chinese cuisine.


 

She is excited upon meeting President Andrew Jackson played with a blustery persona as played  by Atung. This was one of the most humorous moments in the play as Atung who doubles as Jackson and interpreter does not interpret the conversation between both Jackson and Afong the way it actually is said but the way he sees fit. 

As time goes on P.T. Barnum takes over and she goes to work for him in less than the best of surroundings. Barnum also hires Atung and while he equivocally states that he was never paid by Barnum,  I don't recall if Afong was though doubt it. 





More historical details follow as she speaks about Britain's desire to take over China and just touches upon the Opium Wars. What is intriguing and beautifully stated by Isaac as Atung is when he relates a dream he had about Afong and his feelings towards it. It was one of the best moments in the play. 

The playwright touches upon the Transcontinental Railroad, the treatment of the Chinese laborers, and the horrid Chinese Exclusion Act.




Since we don't really know what eventually happened to Afong in her latter years when she was let go by Barnum to be replaced by a younger Chinese woman,  the play takes an interesting and disturbing turn in which we are now in the present and Afong states she is 200 years old. With the current wave of heinous attacks on the Asian community this was the most powerful and affecting scene in the play. I could understand how deeply it affected the young Asian woman sitting beside me who was weeping. 

I just wished that there was more dramatic effect and changes in Afong's character and appearance than just a historical lesson which one could read about.

PHOTOS: Joan Marcus

Tickets are available at the Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2022



 The Daughter-In-Law

      By Joseph Cervelli

It is always amazing how so many plays from the early part of the 20th Century are so apropos today. Case in point is D.H. Lawrence's "The Daughter-In-Law" being given a first rate production by the always excellent Mint Theater Company. Dealing with marital relationships, social class, strikes and sexual mores, the 1913 play feels so fresh thanks to Martin Platt's lively direction and the sublime cast. I must say that I was a bit concerned knowing that the dialect they speak which is from the British Nottinghamshire area is not the easiest to comprehend, There were just a few moments that I did have some difficulty but you can with a little effort get back into the phrasing, and it does not deter from the enjoyment of the play.

Mrs. Gascoyne (a terrific Sandra Shipley) who lives with her son Joe (Ciaran Bowling) is visited by a neighbor Mrs. Purdy (Polly Mckie) to be told that Mrs. Gascoyne's other son, Luther (a knockout performance by Tom Coiner), has gotten her daughter Bertha pregnant. Luther is now married to Minnie (a delightfully cunning and independent Amy Blackman). Purdy will forget this if she is paid forty pounds. WhileMrs. Gasoynemay have the money to do so, she informs Mrs. Purdy to visit her son and confront him. Mrs. Gascoyne is a sharp, domineering and overprotective mother whose austere personality only build as the play goes on. 



Joe loves his brother dearly and rushes off to tell him of what has occurred before Minnie finds out. Of course, it is only a matter of time before Minnie is aware of what has happened. Her reaction and what she eventually does is marked by staunch feminism. When you first see Luther he is covered in black from working in the coal mines. Minnie is of another social ranking which is clear even in her better speech patterns. She is a shrewd and self-reliant woman not afraid to express what she wishes. 

Mrs. Gascoyne becomes even more possessive and her disdain for Minnie becomes more evident as the play moves on. Why Minnie seems to still have great affection for Luther is not clear especially after her taking leave for a while. But it does not really matter. She has proven her independence as a woman and Luther becomes aware of this. His anger at what he does to a gift she has bought for herself when she was away is thunderous and Coiner's rage is incredibly believable. When you destroy the one thing that a person you supposedly love it becomes even crueler. 




As I mentioned the performances are all top notch especially Coiner's and Blackman's. As boisterously angry as Luther is towards Minnie there is no doubt she knows how to handle him. Watch the part (earlier in the show before she leaves) where she removes his boots when he returns from a day in the mines. Strangely, it is a tender moment that you would not expect. 

The set design by Bill Clarke is very authentic and the ease of changing the set from Mrs. Gascoyne's home to Luther and Minnie's is done perfectly with little fanfare.

I would suggest you listen very carefully to the actors so the dialects become less daunting. It is well worth the effort. The play which was not produced until the late 60's is a joy to watch. 

PHOTOS: Marie Baranova

Tickets are available at New York City Center 131 West 55th Street or by calling 212.581.1212.




Tuesday, February 15, 2022



 Black No More--Fascinating Story Overwhelmed By Musical Score

    By Joseph Cervelli

While I never read the 1931 novel "Black No More" by George S. Schuyler about a machine that can turn blacks into whites as a remedy to race relations,  I was most definitely looking forward to the new musical of the same name presented by The New Group at the Signature Theater. While not severely disappointed, I was less than impressed. And one of the reasons that makes this hardworking show not soar surprised me even more. Will get to that in a bit. 

The show begins on a somber note on a large empty set (Derek McLane is the set designer) with a Dr. Crookman (Tariq Trotter) announcing that after studying skin diseases he thought it would be quite a feat if someone could turning a black person white. In his warped way of thinking this would resolve race problems in America. Immediately afterwards,  this sour beginning turns into a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance with the large cast robustly singing "This is Harlem" and dancing to the gymnastic movements of the always energetically appealing choreographer Bill T. Jones ("Spring Awakening.") Several of the leads are introduced which includes Max (Brandon Victor Dixon) the black man who decides to be transformed in white; his friend Buni (an exuberant Tamika Lawrence) and the singer and part narrator Agamemnon (a fine Ephraim Sykes). 



What is the deciding factor for Max to sit in what looks like an old barber shop chair which makes the conversion, is his going into a nightclub  only to be called various epithets by a white fellow from Atlanta namedAshby (played with terrific nastiness by Theo Stockman) there with his lovely looking sister Helen (Jennifer Damiano). Although both she and Max form a mutual immediate attraction, she, too, indulges in a vile insult to appease her brother. 

What happens much to the dismay of members of Harlem is expressed by the always welcome Lillias White who portrays Madame Sisseretta, the hairdresser. It seems that many blacks have decided to go the same route as Max which destroys Harlem and the black culture.   




Eventually, Max goes to Atlanta now as a white man and at a celebration (one of the best moments in the show) is unsure whether to join in with the whites or blacks. It is a heartfelt moment and one can easily understand his confusion. He meets Helen and and eventually  Ashby and their virulently racist father Reverend Givens (a very good Howard McGillian). He attends a rally berating the Black No More machine and how it is science that is the real culprit. He does eventually marry Helen but things become worrisome when she finds out she is pregnant. The musical moves from Atlanta to New York repeatedly for too many production numbers which add little to the impact on the show itself. 

One big  issue with the musical is not the book by John Ridley, but the fact that it is oversaturated with about 30 songs (music by Tariq Trotter, Anthony Todd, James Poser and Daryl Waters with lyrics by Trotter.) The melodies all seem to sound the same and the lyrics that I was able to understand were intelligent and meaningful though whether it be the orchestrations or the singers, a good deal of them  undecipherable. A score to any show should enhance the book not deter from it. There are times, sad to say many times, that I almost groaned when I heard the first note of yet another song. 



My biggest disappointment was with Dixon. I have admired him in all the previous shows I have seen him. Yet here I was more than surprised how lackluster he was. His singing was up to par but there was so very little emotion in his performance. When he first turned into a white man he had this rather "cutesy" grin which did not work and throughout there was no distinctive quality to his persona in any of his scenes. Take, for example, when he is attending the racist rally of Nordica spewing hatred comments about blacks. It should have been delivered with a fiery oration not with so little passion. Not sure if this was director Scott Elliot's interpretation of the role or Dixon's but the performance falls grievously flat. 

There is a lot of fine material here and if songs were cut and there was less choreography which also  became repetitious, however good,  it could have amounted to a memorable show.  Because the story line is so diluted by the score, the show is instead fascinating but never involving. 

PHOTOS: Monique Carboni

Tickets are available at The Pershing Square Signature Theatre Center 480 West 42nd Street. 




Sunday, February 13, 2022


 Space Dog--Great Visuals But Not Much Else

    By Joseph Cervelli

"Space Dogs" a new musica  at the MCC Theater written and performed by Van Hughes and Nick Blaemire is certainly very original if less than successful. It tells the story of the Russian dog, Laika, one of the first dogs to travel into space and first dog to orbit the earth. This was long before long before any astronauts were sent up. The idea was that of a Russian scientist back in the 50's. We don't know the name of the scientist but see his photograph with his name covered up (until later in the show.) He is basically known as the Chief Designer. 

Unfortunately, the musical which could have been much better is rather silly, jam packed composite of information. I am not so sure of its success on a commercial stage but with certain revisions could play very, very well in a school auditorium. It could be a great history lesson for kids if it was presented in a clearer manner than it is here. It was not always easy to follow even as an adult. 




Both Hughes and Blaemire who wrote the sometimes catchy though mostly repetitive rock score (I did like Blaemire's number in which he sings as Laika decrying why he was lied to and left to die in space) did put a lot of work into the show. There were a number of facts that I was never aware of. It seems the Russians gathered up forty stray dogs for space exploration. Twenty four survived. And why the Chief Designer was placed in the Gulag was never clearly discussed. The writers/actors seem to want to move along too speedily with more and more details and including such characters as Stalin, Khrushchev, Wernher von Braun, Lyndon Johnson, etc. What also was fascinating was after the war when the German-American von Braun came to America about 1600 German scientists also eventually came. 

There is a cute touch in which Laika writes in his diary about how he rather be going with these strange men who capture him and other dogs (the first domesticated animal) rather than be on the streets.




With Blaemire under the American flag on the right and Hughes representing the USSR on the left they try to get an audience cheering section to get into the action although it amounts into very little and falls flat although most of the staging by director Ellie Heyman works well.

BUT the best part of the show and one that makes a definite impression are the amazingly superb projections by two wizards, namely Stefania Bulbarella and Alex Basco Koch. Truly among the best visuals I have seen in years in any show whether be it on or off Broadway. I won't spoil it by discussing what they have created but it is quite unique. Along with both of them I must comment on the adorable puppets and props created by Amanda Villalobos. I especially loved the canine beauty show along with the shimmering curtain they "perform" before. Wilson Chin's set design blends in very well with Villalobos's work. 




Both Hughes and Blaemire work very hard, although Hughes could take down some of his antics a bit, the show just never really takes off as well as I hoped it would. While it only runs about 90 minutes I must say I was getting a bit itchy after 45 minutes. 

And not to burst your bubble, but if you are one of the lucky audience members to catch the adorable stuffed dogs thrown into theater at the start of the show, don't get too excited. You have to return them shortly afterwards or as Hughes warns, "be sent to the Gulag."

Photos: Daniel J. Vasquez

Tickets are available at The Robert W. Wilson MCC theater Space 511 West 52nd Street or by calling 646.506.9393




Thursday, January 20, 2022

 


Whisper House--Bewitching New Musical 

      By Joseph Cervelli

An oddly entertaining, gothic style new musical has just opened at 59East59 Theaters called "Whisper House"  and if you let yourself be seduced by it you will find it bewitching. What should grab you most especially is the deliciously atmospheric score by Duncan Sheik ("Spring Awakening") who is responsible for the music and joined by Kyle Jarrow ("SpongeBob SquarePants The Musical") writing both wrote the book and lyrics. While the book is fascinating  it is the very enticing score that lingers in your mind.

Not many shows begin with two ghosts singing the opening number and who rarely leave the stage singing as roaming balladeers.  Mostly ghosts portrayed are not evil but these two (Alex Boniello and Molly Hager) are seeking revenge for something you will discover later in the musical. The opening number is called "Better to be Dead" referring to each of the characters and you know you are in for something very different. While the premise is simple, director Steve Cosson keeps you guessing exactly what is the relationship between the ghosts and the humans and what are the secrets that are being kept. And the show segues thoughtfully into racism and how jumping to conclusions leads to dire consequences. 





The time period is 1942 and  12 year old Christopher (Wyatt Cirbus)  whose father was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor results in his mother being admitted to a mental facility for attempting suicide. Christopher's only family member is his Aunt Lily (Samantha Mathis) who was the sister of his dad and someone he has never met. Lily is a bit of a curmudgeon who never married and is living and running a lighthouse in Maine. She most certainly does not prefer having to care for a young boy.  Living in the bell tower is Yasuhiro (James Yaegashi) who emigrated to the United States long before war broke out. There is a kind and loving relationship between both of the adults. Yashuiro sings a lovely ballad about how difficult it was to make the transition to his new country in "The Art of Being Unseen." He sings about the memories in Japan and his devotion for Lily but cannot forget the reason he left his native born land. 

Complications come into play even though Lily and Christopher begin to forge a more understanding relationship when the sheriff (Jeb Brown) tells a story about a young boy turning in a German neighbor who might be a spy. The Sheriff sings the eerie "The Ballad of Solomon Snell" which will explain about the ghosts and indicates something concerning Lily that she explains to her nephew near the end of the show.






If not for xenophobia which ran rampant during this time period, things would not have taken a more serious and unpleasant turn for one of the characters affecting the others. 

The two ghosts are wonderfully played with an ethereal Hager and a very handsome Boniello who both harmonize together perfectly and move on and off the stage as if they are floating. They never seem to change their personalities which could have added a bit more to their characters, but they have this magnetic grace about them that you really find alluring in a daunting manner. 

Mathis makes her character much more likable as the musical  proceeds and a standout is Yaegashi as the kind and sympathetic character Yasuhiro. 





Brown does very well as the sheriff who becomes more understanding. While Cirbus is good I just wished he was a bit more animated. He has part of a song near the end and it would have added more to his character if the composers wrote a ballad for him somewhere earlier. 

The minimum but effective choreography is by Billy Bustamante and Alexander Dodge has created an inventive set design. 

Don't be put off by the coming and goings of the ghosts which may appear silly during the first 20 or so minutes because everything blends together very well.

 I found the show to be one of the most original of the season thus far. 

PHOTOS: Richard Termine

Tickets are available at 59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street.




Tuesday, January 11, 2022




The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe--Lacks the Impact of the Original

    By Joseph Cervelli

Jane Wagner's 1985 hit play "The Search For Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe" boasted an incredibly brilliant solo performance by Lily Tomlin portraying about twelve characters. The word portray does not accurately describe her ability to almost literally morph into each of them-- both male and female. The play itself while entertainingly clever could be a bit bewildering.  Yet, Tomlin clearly delineated each of the characters so you understood where Wagner was going.





With Cecily Strong now taking over Tomlin's role in a new revival at the beautiful Griffin Theater at The Shed, the show as not necessarily worn well with time. Wagner's tale of the interconnection and observations between men and women along with feminism and the arts seems frequently outdated. When Trudy the self proclaimed "crazy" homeless woman whom we are first introduced to and acts as a kind of narrator states, "I refuse to be intimated by reality anymore" it does not seem to have the effectiveness it once did. And when one character states that he reads The World Street Journal on acid it evokes a chuckle if not more. The alluding to Andy Warhol several times with art vs. soup falls flat. 

In order for this show to work with the multitude of characters you need an actor who can not only infiltrate but define that person. Strong is good but she never gets into the core of any of them even though she starts well with the first,  Trudy,  who is waiting for her alien friends to arrive. Appearing on Saturday Night Live for the past 10 years she can appear amusing and tender in her portrayals on stage, but she needs to do more. She should try to change her voice intonation more than she does and get into the various characters' psyche which which she rarely does. 

She does a fine job of portraying the rambunctious teen Agnes who wants to be a performance artist and  whose parents lock her out of the house.


While Chrissy is the young woman unable to hold any job Strong does not seem to have a grip on her role to make her more pertinent. 

Strong does better with the snobby socialite Kate who can't stand her hairdresser whom she amusingly calls Bucci The Arrogant  Her line about seeing an "uplifting" show had her "dozing off" probably  still resonates with theatergoers feeling obligated to like shows just because they may have gotten rave reviews. 

I had wished she portrayed the somewhat obnoxious Paul with greater fortitude creating more laughter about his attitude towards sex. I loved the line about his sex urge being "industrial strength" but minus any desire.





Strong does much better as the compassionate and lovable sex workers Brandy and Tina.

As Lyn, Edie and Marge there is a discussion of  the feminist movement which is more of a retrospective. While this is fine and certainly still pertinent, it needed to be updated to bring a fresher feel.  And Strong lacks the punch to make it as effective as it should be so basically it feels like a history lesson. 

Director Leigh Silverman could have had Strong show more vigor in creating the characters and there was no need for several props and an unnecessary colorful belts one of the characters wears later in the play. One other issue that works to the detriment of the show is the fact what was once a two and half hour or so play is now one hour forty five minutes. Not sure if this was Silverman's or Wagner's decision but not a good one. It takes a while to understand each character and the shortening of the play makes them more superficial than they should be.

While I still admire Wagner's work, with few updates it is less than dazzling and unless you have a highly animated and deeply believable characterization of every person the playwright has created you may find your interest sagging.  Sadly, that was how I felt. 

PHOTO CREDIT: KATE GLICKSBERG

Tickets are available at the Griffin Theater at The Shed 545 West 30th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues.)