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New York City - Theatre



Tracy Letts' August Osage County
Open Run
The Music Box Theater

August Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize and the
New York Drama Critics Circle Awards

From Wendy R. Williams' March Theater Column

I saw only one play last month, The Steppenwolf Theatre Company's production of Tracy Letts' August Osage County. August was written by Tracy Letts (off Bug and Killer Joe fame) and directed by Anna D. Shapiro. August stars: Ian Barford as Little Charles Aiken (Cousin); Deanna Dunagan as Violet Weston; Kimberly Guerrero as Johnna Monevata (Housekeeper); Francis Guinan as Charlie Aiken (Uncle); Brian Kerwin as Steve Heidebrecht (Karen’s Fiancé); Dennis Letts as Beverly Weston; Madeline Martin as Jean Fordham (Granddaughter); Mariann Mayberry as Karen Weston (Youngest Daughter); Amy Morton as Barbara Fordham (Eldest Daughter); Sally Murphy as Ivy Weston (Middle Daughter); Jeff Perry as Bill Fordham (Barbara’s Husband); Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae Aiken (aunt).

I am a big fan of Tracy Letts. I reviewed Bug the play and Bug the movie. Both were excellent and were covered in my June 2007 Theater Column.

Bug was witty and eerie and had supernatural elements, so I was expecting something of the same genre with Lett’s new play. Well, I was certainly surprised. August Osage County may be set in heartland like Bug, but there the similarities end. August Osage County is one of the most brutally realistic plays I have ever seen. It is also one of the most brilliant.

August Osage County tells the story of the Weston family, a family headed by a paterfamilias, the (failed?) poet Beverly Weston. When the play opens we see Beverly, a talkative older man, interviewing a taciturn young American Indian woman, Johnna (played by Kimberly Guerrero) for the job of family housekeeper. He tells her that her main duty will be to care for his wife, Violet (played by Deanna Dugan), who has mouth cancer and needs to be driven to her doctor’s appointments. He also tells her that his wife does not believe in air conditioning (it is August in Oklahoma!!!) and that he and his wife have struck a bargain in life – he drinks and she takes pills.

In the next scene we find out that Beverly has disappeared and the extended family has been summoned to “help.” First to arrive is Violet’s sister, Mattie (the hysterically funny Rondi Reed). Mattie is talking to her husband Charlie (played by Francis Guinan) and she proceeds to give the audience some of the funniest exposition I have ever heard. She verbally dices and fillets all the expected family members and informs both Charlie and the audience just who is expected to arrive and when.

Already on the scene is the middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy). Ivy has never left town and is simply appalled that her father has left and now she will have to deal with her mother. But that is not all Ivy will have to deal with. Soon afterwards, the other two daughters, Barbara (played by Amy Morton) and Karen (played by Mariann Mayberry) arrive. And with the two daughters come additional baggage, Barbara’s husband Bill (played by Jeff Perry), Barbara’s precocious pot-smoking fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (played by Madeline Martin) and Jean’s new pedophile boyfriend, Steve (played by Brian Kerwin).

The program for August Osage County has a family tree of the Weston family, complete with photos of all the cast members (there are thirteen of them). But thirteen or not, it would take more than twelve additional cast members to handle Mamma Violet Weston.

When we first see Mamma Violet, she carefully creeps down the stairs of Todd Rosenthal’s excellent set. She actually appears harmless; an old woman suffering from mouth cancer whose husband has gone missing. Well, when Beverly hired someone to “take care” of his wife, perhaps he should have considered hiring Britney’s body guards. Over the course of the next two and a half hours of the play (the play is over three hours long), Mamma proceeds to verbally destroy everyone who has come to “help” her. Anyone who has ever dreaded their own Thanksgiving dinner should see this play and its family dinner simply to get a little perspective.

The apple, however, has not fallen far from the tree and we quickly find out that Mamma’s oldest daughter, Barbara, would be perfectly capable of getting Hannibal’s elephants across the Alps, killing any and all who get in her way. And Barbara’s eerily precocious daughter Jean is no victim either. It may be hotter-than-hell and there may be pills, booze and a pedophile on-the-loose, but the Westons family produces warrior women. And Johnna, the housekeeper, delivers a few whacks too.

Tracy Letts wrote an astounding script for August Osage County. The characters in this play may have learned "to wit" before they learned to walk, but they are all rawly human. The play has been beautifully directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The show is also blessed with a fabulous set by Todd Rosenthal and an original music score by David Singer. But even with all of these advantages, the play could have easily floundered. It is over three hours long and has a cast of thirteen actors. If any one of these actors had not held their own, the show could have dragged. But every actor in this cast gave a wonderful performance and watching them duke it out on stage was a theatrical experience I hope to remember forever.

On a sad note, Michael McGuire has just taken over the role of Beverly Weston. The part had previously been played by Dennis Letts (Tracy Lett’s father), who died last week.

Tickets are $26.50-$99.50 and can be ordered by phone at 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250. Tickets can also be ordered online at telecharge.com.

For more information, log onto augustonbroadway.com

The Music Box Theater |239 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.



Battleworks Dance Company
July 2 - August 2, 2008
Joyce Theater

Prodigy on the Rise: Battleworks Dance Company

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

Should music dictate movement or should movement be supported by music? It’s kind of like what comes first, the chicken or the egg? The argument of what comes first or which discipline serves the other has been argued by choreographers, dance critics and dance fans for decades, if not centuries. The great neoclassical choreographer George Balanchine said, “First comes the music,” while some choreographers confess to begin with the steps.

On the programs presented by Battleworks Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, July 29-August 2, artistic director, Robert Battle attempts to showcase the range of his choreographic abilities to music that spans classical, jazz, and electronic new age. The mixed program performed at this short engagement had some triumphs and some disappointments. Battle is most successful when he allows the music to inform the dance. When this doesn’t happen, Battle’s choreography gets weighted down with movement that doesn’t take the audience anywhere special.

In Reel Time, Battle has created a work that emphasizes the fluidity of the lower body juxtaposed against a rigid torso. At times, Battle brilliantly uses backward running circles and other steps that complement the pulsating rhythms of John King’s score. At other times Battle’s choreography does not keep up with the demands of the music. Also, the intricate rhythms of the music often seem beyond the capabilities of some of his dancers. The one exception is Samuel L. Roberts who demonstrates a deep understanding of the intricacies of the score and the choreography.

Another miscalculation of the evening was Ella. In Ella, Battle unwisely chose to choreograph to the music of Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald scatting is such a work of art in itself that making a dance piece that can rise to her brilliance is a tall, tall order. Battle valiantly uses lots of diving rolls and Graham-based falls and releases, but the frenetic movement interpretations to Fitzgerald’s scatting misfires.

Bach’s Air on a G String is a risky choice for any choreographer in that many choreographers have used this familiar piece of music before—case in point Martha Graham’s seminal modern dance work by the same name. In Overture, Battle effectively uses the modern dance triplet and Graham-like contractions in counterpoint to the introspective tone of the music. Battle’s dancers look most comfortable in this tender work.

The choreography in In/Side works because Battle has chosen a dancer who approaches movement organically and knows how to get inside of the haunting voice of Nina Simone’s. When not consumed by the demands of Battle’s emotionally charged, pyrotechnical choreography, Samuel L. Roberts understands that stillness, as an expression of movement, can be just as effective as high jumps or multiple air turns.

Like many young choreographers, Battle is still trying to find his distinct voice. With his fearless choreographic abandon and prodigious talent, success is guaranteed.


 


Elizabeth Diggs'
Close Ties
Monday 7:00pm
Wednesday 7:00pm
Thursday 7:00pm
Friday 7:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 7:00pm
Sunday 2:00pm
Closes October 12, 2008
Ensemble Studio Theater

Reviewed by Bryan Close

There are a lot of good reasons to see Close Ties, the ambitious family drama by Elizabeth Diggs playing now at Ensemble Studio Theater's 52nd and 11th outpost. The fact that this essential company is alive and well and continuing – despite the tragic 2007 death of founder Curt Dempster – to strive for theatrical excellence is just one of them.

With its strong central female character presiding over an intergenerational web of family tensions and power plays, Close Ties shares marked similarities with August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. This is intended to be high praise, as August is one of the best American plays in years. Most theater no longer aspires to the weight and heft of plays like this – big family dramas full of conflicts and revelations. Even if Close Ties were less effective than it is, Diggs would deserve a lot of credit for aiming so high. Director Pamela Berlin's production doesn't always hit its lofty targets, but when it does, the results are impressive.

Another strong reason to see this production is the wonderful lead performance by Judith Roberts as Josephine Whitaker, the feisty matriarch of a sprawling New England clan, and her battle with approaching senility. Josephine is a proud woman whose haughty stubbornness is softened by a laser wit and a real affection for her mostly grown grandchildren. Watching Roberts rage against the dying of her reason's light is both mesmerizing and terrifying.

The detailed stage business taking place on Michael Schweikardt's sturdy set – a fully functioning 1982 kitchen – is something if a marvel. I lost count of how many food items and hot and cold beverages were made and consumed on stage. Perhaps I was distracted by the smell of cooking bacon that filled the theater at the top of act two.

Polly Lee and Julie Fitzpatrick deliver terrific supporting performances as everybody's favorite and everybody's least-noticed, respectfully, of Josephine's granddaughters. David Gelles Hurwitz, as the 16-year-old who wants to quit school to take care of his grandmother, and Tommy Schreider, as the boyfriend of the unpleasant middle granddaughter, Evelyn, also do nice work.

Other performances are less successful: Carole Monferdini struggles to flesh out Bess, Josephine's repressed (and underwritten) daughter, and Jack Davidson doesn't make much of an impression as Bess's calculating husband Watson. At the other end of the spectrum, Fiona Gallagher dials Evelyn's hysterical misanthropy a couple of notches too high.

The production isn't perfect, but Close Ties does provide several deeply satisfying pleasures: Diggs's sensitive and ambitious play, Roberts's magnificent performance, and the feeling it gives that E.S.T., like the dysfunctional Whitaker family at the play's end, will, in spite of the odds, somehow weather the loss of its defining personality and guiding spirit.

Tickets $20.00-$30.00 $15.00 student/senior 212-352-3101 www.ovationtix.com

Ensemble Studio Theatre |549 W. 52nd St.
Take the 1, 9, C, E trains to 50th Street.

 


 

 


Damn Yankees
Jul 5 - 27, 2008
City Center

Starring: Sean Hayes; Jane Krakowski; Cheyenne Jackson; and Randy Graff.

Music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross
Book by George Abbott and Douglass Wallop
Based on the novel "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" by Douglass Wallop
Choreography by Bob Fosse
Music Director Rob Berman

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

Bob Fosse: The Real Star of Damn Yankees

Broadway has an insatiable need to cast television stars in musicals and revivals in the hopes that name recognition will bring in tourists and nascent New York theatergoers— case in point, Megan Mullally in Young Frankenstein, Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity and more recently Mario Lopez in A Chorus Line. Box office receipts indicate that star power is making Broadway producers richer, but whether these television luminaries bring anything particularly special to Broadway is a point of contention for audiences and critics.

Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) and Jane Krakowski (30 Rock) add their combined star power to the revival of Damn Yankees at New York City Center. Both bring unique interpretations to the roles of Applegate (The Devil) and Lola (the Siren). Hayes and Krakowki’s fresh approach to the musical’s dated material—particularly the double entendres—enliven dialogue that would otherwise fall flat on contemporary audiences. However, solid performances from Hayes and Krakowski are not enough to make Damn Yankees a City Center success. The real star of this current production is Bob Fosse’s choreography.

In Damn Yankees we get to see Fosse developing his signature tilted pelvic grinds, inverted ronde de jambes par terre, and isolated torso undulations. Also worth noting is Fosse’s affectation for dancers with strong classical training. Many of Fosse’s leaps and turns are bastardized versions of standard ballet steps. Case in point, the ballplayers’ barrel turns in Act 1 are quite similar to the circular ménage Nureyev performed in Le Corsaire. Fosse also incorporates Graham isolations, vaudeville hoofing, and Jack Cole undulations, demonstrating in Damn Yankees that he is a master at blending different movement schools and approaches into a cohesive, unique style.

Gwen Verdon’s famous dance solo to “Whatever Lola Wants” is further evidence of Fosse’s melding of dance styles. In this solo we find bastardized ronde de jambe par terre, Jack Cole’s bosom undulations ala Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, as well as erotic hip rotations ala Katherine Dunham. Instead of imitating Gwen Verdon, Krakowski wisely approaches the famed solo as a pure theatre dance piece, evidenced in Krakowski’s well-stretched feet and taut leg extensions. By slightly altering the phrasing and avoiding signature Verdon gestures, Krakowski creates a solo that is organic and memorable.

Fosse was also one of the first Broadway choreographers to put black and white dancers together on stage. It’s hard to imagine a baseball team today without any African Americans; however, in the original cast of Damn Yankees, all the ballplayers were white. Early on in the show’s run, Fosse replaced one of the white ballplayers with Louis Johnson, a classically trained dancer from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Johnson, who went on to choreograph Aida at the Metropolitan Opera and the movie version of The Wiz, is also prominently featured in the film version of Damn Yankees.

Damn Yankees has survived the test of time because of Fosse’s choreography and a few well-known songs—“Heart” and “Whatever Lola Wants.” A true star in the constellation of Broadway choreographers, Fosse continues to excite the imagination, titillate the senses and always, always entertain.




Michael Tucker, Jill Eickenberry and David Kolowitz
Enter Laughing, The Musical
Photo Credit Carol Rosegg

Enter Laughing, The Musical
Schedule Varies
Previews begin September 3, 2008
Opening Night September 10th
Now Extended Through October 26th
The Theatre at Saint Peter's

Still Funny After All These Years

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

It is very difficult to make stock characters funny and relevant, especially when the caricatures are decades old. For example, most people are familiar with the overbearing Jewish mother and the guilt-ridden son stereotypes. In Enter Laughing, The Musical, the masterful weaving of innuendo and edge elevates the characters beyond stereotype and brings humor and relevance to the tried-and-true storyline.

Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Carl Reiner, Enter Laughing, The Musical tells the story of a stage struck guy (David Kolowitz) from the Bronx who wants to leave the humdrum life of a machinist to become a big time New York City actor. With no apparent training, David gets a scholarship to a questionable acting academy and lands the lead in one of the academy’s productions.

With music and lyrics by Stan Daniels (Fiddler on the Roof, Zorba) and book by Joseph Stein, Enter Laughing, The Musical is an amalgam of Borscht Belt humor, Jewish folk melodies and farcical romping. Many of the songs have a light, love-for-love’s sake quality, reminiscent of Cole Porter’s “Begin The Beguine” or Ivor Novello’s ”Land That Might Have Been.” Also, the script’s rapid banter brings up memories of characters from Reiner’s The Dick Van Dyke Show and Your Show of Shows.

As David Kolowitz, Josh Grisetti authentically captures the naiveté of a Bronx-born guy who is captivated by the bright lights of Broadway. Grisetti’s lanky, wide-grinned Kolowitz is in love with love, lust, life, and fame. Every shapely young woman is an opportunity. Every bright idea is a golden adventure not yet realized. Grisetti’s salacious rendering of “I’m Undressing Girls With My Eyes” portends sexual freedom that young men of the 1930s could only dream about. And the kitschy choreography with the spinning stools was an ingenious approach to the limitations of a small stage.

As the exasperated theater director, Harrison Marlowe, Broadway veteran George S. Irving brings his inimitable wit and charm to a stock character that could have been muddled down with overacting and clichéd gestures. Instead, Irving infuses Marlowe with arch, innuendo and nuance. Irving is especially effective in “The Butler’s Song.” Using a Rex Harrison-like singsong banter, Irving’s comic timing in this song is unparalleled.

Noticeable mention goes to Janine La Manna (Angela Marlowe), Jill Eikenberry (Emma Kolowitz), and Allison Spratt (Miss B). All three actresses give layered, comedic performances.

As a musical comedy, Enter Laughing, The Musical has stood the test of time. In its fifth incarnation, the humor still tickles, the dialogue still resonates, and the characters still amuse. Enter Laughing was funny fortysome-odd years ago, still is, and will always be.

Enter Laughing, The Musical is currently playing at The Theatre of Saint Peter’s through October 26th. Tickets $57.50 212-935-5820 ovationtix.com/trs/pr/46011
yorktheatre.org/EnterLaughing.html

The Theatre at Saint Peter's (Lexington Avenue just south of 54th Street).


 

Face: (Every Good Boy Does Fine)
Part of FringeNYC
Wednesday, August 20 @ 10PM
Friday, August 22, @ 2:15PM
Sunday, August 24, @ 12PM
Clemente Soto Velez
Flamboyan Theater

 

Cast: Krista Amigone; Roy Koshy; Henry Kaiser; T.J. Mannix; Duncan Murdoch. Directed by: Deanna Fleysher

Reviewed by Katharine Heller
http://www.katharineheller.com

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that no matter how crazy a New York City yellow cabbie is driving, you always feel safe inside. They could be cutting off other taxis, swerving through lanes and narrowly missing pedestrians but you still relax and enjoy the ride. That is probably the best way I can explain the unique experience of watching the skilled improv troupe Face that currently has a show at the New York International Fringe Festival entitled: Face (Every Good Boy Does Fine).

Like with most long-form improv shows, this unstructured forty-five minutes is an amalgam of on-the-spot set up, scenes and transitions. What differentiates this show from any other I've seen is the stunning collaboration between the actors and a live jazz trio onstage. Improv is, by design, very similar to jazz music in the sense that the performers have to work seamlessly together to create the ebb and flow that is a completely new piece every time. The failure of some improvised theater can be blamed on lack of teamwork due to an unbalanced cast or individual egos. Luckily, the strength of Face is their extraordinary ability to tune into each other, thereby keeping the audience enthralled by both the unique concept of the show and its execution.

It is unfair to talk about cast standouts as each of the five actors work so hard at making the scenes clear, driven and interesting. As a result the show is constantly entertaining, and I found myself sometimes watching the offstage actors, as the focus and energy of the team could be felt throughout the entire theater.

On the particular show that I saw, the audience gave a suggestion of "The Olympics" as a jumping off point, and what followed was a hilarious and touching montage of scenes and stories involving an unhappy wife, a man with the sad misfortune of sharing the same name as swimmer Michael Phelps (but spelled with an F), a jingle writer, a stunt woman and a jealous husband. Sometimes the cast broke out into song, often one would add to scenes while speaking or making sound effects into one of the two microphones onstage. A particular highlight involved the all cast musical number about the perils of "work love".

So, much like that cab ride I was talking about, by way of design the show is invariably at times completely out of control. However with the extraordinary cast at the steering wheel, (sorry, I had to), I never felt unsafe. Face is improv at its most beautiful.

$15. Purchase tickets 1-888-FRINGENYC
http://www.faceimprov.com/

Clemente Soto Velez Flamboyan Theater| 107 Suffolk & Rivington St




Gypsy
Monday 8:00pm
Tuesday 8:00pm
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Opens March 27, 2008
Open Run
St. James Theater

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

As an entertainment journalist and critic, I am hyper aware of the overuse of certain adjectives when describing a work you are taken with. Many of my colleagues, print and online, suffer from the same cyber-superlative-diarrhea- gushing I have been guilty of. Some shamelessly want to be quotable; others, like me, have pet words and phrases they love to reuse. I am promising right now that I will make a valiant effort to curb my “amazings” as well as my “astonishings” –but it will have to wait until after this particular review.

Every once in a decade or so, theatergoers are afforded the opportunity to witness a truly transcendent, instantly classic performance—the stuff legends are made of. The nature of live theatre and audience subjectivity is that often what is felt to be a great performance by one person is simply good or acceptable by another’s standards. Sometimes, though, tragedy smiles at comedy, and there can be no denying sheer magic has taken place before everyone’s eyes.

There aren’t enough praise-infused adjectives in all existing thesauruses to describe how right Patti LuPone gets it in the new revival of Gypsy. Fresh on the heels of the celebrated Encores! performance, LuPone completely commands the stage as she richly redefines a classic character who has been embodied by some of the best in the business (Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Betty Buckley and Bernadette Peters, to name the best of the best).

I am a proud and true LuPoner, meaning I have seen everything the woman has done on Broadway since my parents brought me to the Broadway theatre in the early 80’s to experience Evita when I was a wee lad. I was bitten by the Patti bug and have been a fan and admirer ever since. Over the years I have seen her in: Anything Goes; Oliver; The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (lasted less than a week—but I loved it); The Old Neighborhood; Patti LuPone on Broadway; Noises Off; Master Class and last year’s revival of Sweeney Todd.

At Encores, a few months ago, I was blown away by LuPone’s Mama Rose. It was a tour de force from her barreling onto the stage and shouting: “Sing out, Louise!” to the closing moments, LuPone was a restless tornado for three solid hours. She was the personification of the old adage “give ‘em what they want.” She certainly did as each number proved a show stopper. Her energy seemed limitless.

The absolute genius of the Broadway performance, and how it differs from Encores, has everything to do with how carefully modulated her steps are now. There is an amazing and calculated build to her fury…to that ultimate tour de force (‘Rose’s Turn’). LuPone now shows us the character’s arc. She painstakingly develops Mama Rose from the unrelenting stage mother to the frustrated and angry star wannabe she actually is. By the end of act one, you may find yourself disappointed in her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” because she is not singing the shit out of the song. But be patient, because there’s an urgent reason for that. Mama’s on a journey. She’s not a Broadway belter blowing her wad, wad after wad, with each musical number. She is a real, hurting, breathing theatre person filled with idiosyncrasies and foibles. She is not just a stage mother, she is everyone who once had a dream and felt they, for whatever reason, could not pursue it.

By the time this Mama Rose is ready for her turn, she infuses that (literal) eleven o’clock number with all the angst and regret and desperation that’s been building all night long. She manages to strip away layers of the character throughout the show until she is rawness personified. And we are lucky enough to have been along for the ride. The final image of her reaching up at the footlights trying desperately to catch a moment for herself: “For me,” is a moment that I will never forget. Patti LuPone is diva Broadway personified, but she is also one of the best stage actresses of our generation. She has earned her place in the pantheon and deserves every type of accolade possible for her turn. Pun rightfully intended.

But let’s not forget she is also blessed with an amazing cast.

Boyd Gaines is the definitive Herbie. It’s a pleasure to see him as a virile and sensitive character as opposed to the sad schmo cartoons from the past Herbie canon. Gaines’ Herbie may be henpecked but he chooses to be out of devotion to his Rose, not because he’s a silly shlub everyone walks all over. And the sexual tension between LuPone and Gaines is palpable. (LuPone, it should be stated, is also the sexiest Mama Rose ever.)

The exquisite Laura Benanti perfectly underplays Louise so that when she finally finds herself and emerges as the notorious Gypsy Rose Lee in Act Two, we are thunderstruck and mesmerized. She has become a tigress before our eyes and
we believe the transformation wholeheartedly.

The dynamic Leigh Ann Larkin’s angry and resentful Dainty June is a perfect match for Benanti’s forgiving Louise and they both bring the house down with “If Mama Was Married.” It’s a moment that bonds the sibs in an extraordinary and poignant way.

Another non-LuPone showstopper is “You Gotta Have a Gimmick,” with a hilarious Alison Fraser as Tessie Tura and the scene stealing Marily Caskey as Electra, the oldest woman in burlesque!

Gypsy, originally staged in 1959, features a book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Style and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (one of the last times he would agree to writing lyrics only). At ninety years old, Mr. Laurents has directed this current production—quite masterfully.

I have always had my problems with Gypsy. I also know that admitting that will get me in trouble since it’s considered one of the great American musicals. And I have had a rocky journey believing that. The Sam Mendes version, five years ago, had me liking it more than I ever have. And Bernadette Peter’s revisionist Mama Rose was a joy to behold.

This production, however, inches me closer to understanding the power of the story. It’s a quintessentially American a story that defines a time and an art form (Vaudeville) that has long since vanished but has influenced every other art form that followed. It is also about the pursuit of the American dream—in this case: stardom. It almost has a Nathanial West quality about it. And Rose is the ultimate American monster mother who dreamed big…FOR her children, but really FOR herself.

Still, there are certain songs I felt never worked (“All I Need Now is the Girl,” “Little Lamb”) and one major fault I have always had with the book; the fact that June is never brought back in Act Two. I still feel this was a misstep in the original book and would have added so much. Regardless, there are no perfect musicals (except for Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George…), but this Gypsy comes quite close.

Last year, I boldly stated that Meryl Streep’s performance in Mother Courage was among the truly great stage performances of all time. Add Ms. LuPone’s Mama Rose to that very small but priceless list.




Photo Credit: Ryan S. Brandenberg

In Conflict
Tuesday 8:00pm
Wednesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 9:00pm
Saturday 4:00pm & 9:00pm
Sunday 4:00pm
Opens September 24, 2008
Open Run
Barrow Street Theater



Reviewed by Bryan Close

To paraphrase William Blake, the road to mediocre theater is paved with good intentions.

In Conflict is a docudrama that originated at Temple University, which Culture Project has brought to New York. The play is an adaptation, by director Douglas C. Wager, of journalist Yvonne Latty’s book of Studs Terkel-style interviews with soldiers who have returned from the war in Iraq. Good for Latty, Temple, Wager and progressive Culture Project; surely these are projects that journalists and undergrads, directors and downtown theaters ought to be doing.

The problem is, that in spite of the often-powerful material and several talented actors in the young cast, the play just isn’t very good as a play.

For the record, lots of out of town reviewers disagree with me – the show comes with a load of raving blurbs. Not quite sure what those folks were watching, but it isn’t the artlessly conceived string of over-performed monologues currently running at Barrow Street Theatre. There is obviously a strong and thoroughly human temptation to grade documentary-style art about important social issues on a curve of some kind. This would be a mistake. Such plays can, and often do, stand up on their own as great theater. The Exonerated and the work of Moises Kaufman and Anna Deavere Smith come to mind.

The stories told here of the shattered bodies and psyches of these young people are important. The heroism of these soldiers and the vacuous leadership that caused their lives to be ripped apart inspires humility and even reverence. Heroic, too, were Latty’s efforts in compiling and publishing these stories – some of which, as you might expect, are extremely moving.

If you don’t know that the lives of combat veterans are often wrenchingly difficult, then you should see In Conflict. It will open your eyes. If you’re so disgusted with our cynical and ineffectual foreign policy that you’re willing to suspend your own critical faculties to bask in anything that further exposes the architects of this disastrous war, then you might enjoy it. Or even if you’re just somebody who feels it would be good for you to spend a little time hearing from the men and women on the front lines of this war, then, by all means, go see this play. I’m not telling you not to.

What I am telling you is that In Conflict is theatrically unsatisfying. Ultimately, Wager doesn’t seem trust the stories that inspired him to create this potentially important play in the first place. If he did, he wouldn’t have his cast – again, several of whom are genuinely fine young actors – overdo so much of it the way they do, diluting the payoff moments. He wouldn’t have them perform vignettes between the monologues that range from mildly cheesy to genuinely embarrassing – and which significantly undercut any momentum the cumulative power the stories might generate.

Damon Williams, playing both an alcoholic train wreck of a man haunted by images of a young mother he killed and as an amputee who tries heroically – and fails heartbreakingly – to maintain a positive outlook on life, is the strongest of several strong actors. Stan Demidoff, Joy Notoma and Tim Chambers also stand out.
The set design by Andrew Laine is interesting – spinning panels with a huge map of Iraq on one side and an even huger American flag on the other. Interview clips with author Yvonne Latty are surprisingly effective (video design by Warren Bass), although Latty’s realness (even on video) points up the unnecessarily heightened style of so much of the acting. And it is not without some real heart-in-the-throat moments – such as during the curtain call when the cast turns and applauds images of the actual soldiers they’re portraying.

In Conflict is a play to root for, and the stories that it tells deserve to be heard. I’m glad it exists, and, as an American citizen, I’m glad I saw it. But none of that makes it a very good play.

Tickets $35.00 & $15.00 student w/ID ovationtix.com/trs/pr/67692

Barrow Street Theatre |27 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Tickets: 212-352-3101
866-811-4111(toll free)



 



Legally Blonde - The Musical
Wednesday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00PM
Friday 8:00PM
Saturday 2:00PM & 8:00PM
Sunday 2:00PM, 7:00PM & 8:00PM
The Palace Theatre


Reviewed by Katharine Heller
katharineheller.com


To compare Legally Blonde the Musical to great theater would be like putting a Twinkie up against the Miso Black Cod at Nobu. But goddamn it, sometimes, nothing beats a good Twinkie.

Based on the box office hit of the same title, Legally Blonde rarely strays from the original script. For the five of you who are not familiar with the premise of the story, I'll sum it up. Beautiful Delta Nu sorority sister Elle Woods is crushed when her beau Warner dumps her before leaving for Harvard Law. Elle applies and gets
accepted to Harvard (even though I would assume the application deadline had passed- I never quite got that part, although the rest of the story is perfectly plausible) in hopes to win back her man. Long story short she realizes she doesn't need Warner, makes some new friends and solves a murder case in court along the way.

The stage translation is exactly what you would expect, complete with spunky dance numbers, an energetic young cast and tunes so catchy I might consider quarantine for a good few hours after the show. I still cannot get the opening number, aptly called "Omigod, You Guys!" out of my head. No, seriously, it's pretty frustrating.

The fresh faced and immensely talented Laura Bell Bundy as Elle carries the show with grace and confidence. Right behind her are Richard H. Blake as the arrogantly hilarious Warner and Christian Borle as her sweet love interest, Emmett. The obvious cast standouts however are Chico as her faithful Chihuahua, Bruiser, and Chloe the Bulldog as Rufus. (Rufus is the dog of Elle's friend Paulette played
by the singly named human, Orfeh.)

The amusing book, written by Heather Hach with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin, includes other engaging numbers such as the infamous, "Bend and Snap!" and "Gay or European". With crisp direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, this family friendly show is a lot of fun. Just make sure those you see it with have a sweet tooth.

Tickets $40.00-$110.00 212-307-4747 www.ticketmaster.com

Palace Theatre | 1554 Broadway



Christopher Johnson as Quentin, Linda S. Nelson as Leona
and Tommy Heleringer as Bobby in Small Craft Warnings
Photo Credit Joe Bly

Tennessee Williams’
Small Craft Warnings
Tuesday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 8:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm
Closes October 5, 2008
Workshop Theater

Unfettered Musings and Exclamations:
Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings

Reviewed by William S. Gooch

What happens when a great playwright is free from artistic restraint and past inhibitions? Does he stay with the tried-and-true formula that made his pockets rich or does he take a chance on presenting his truth in raw, revealing language not made to sweeten the ears of devotees and critics? In Small Craft Warnings, Tennessee Williams chooses the latter.

With dialogue enriched by brute honesty and pathos, Small Craft Warnings examines the hopelessness of lives filled with regret and unresolved trauma. Set in a small, rundown seaside bar, wretched barroom regulars kvetch, postulate, and ruminate about missed opportunities and life’s inequities. Based on the earlier one-act play Confessional, Small Craft Warnings also gives insight into what it means to live on the precipice of disaster and ruin.

Many of Williams’ earlier plays– Suddenly Last Summer, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire –- have a homosexual subtext that is often veiled in mystery and abstraction. Moral constraints of the 1940s and 50s didn’t afford Williams the latitude to delve openly into gay characterizations. (The APA defined homosexuality a subversive behavior until the late 1960s.) With Small Craft Warnings, which opened Off-Broadway in 1972, Williams abandons gay abstractions for a realism that is reflective of the sexual revolution and his own life.

Small Craft Warnings has the raw edginess and guttural outburst found in similar plays of the 70s –- Manuel Pinero’s Short Eyes and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls come to mind. Small Craft Warning is also a great example of a hybrid style that Williams was experimenting with in the 1970s. This style is a melding of the flowing banter of his earlier style synchronized with the later experimental phase in which mood and reverie are more important than complex characters and plot.

This production staged by the White Horse Theater Company is notable for its respect and understanding of the cultural morays in which Williams sets the work. The men have the confident swagger of the ‘me generation,’ and the women, though liberated in actions, still need male companionship to help them through hard, lonely times.

Linda S. Nelson portrays Leona as a brassy, out-of-control drunk who uses bravado and alcohol to mask deep feelings of remorse and abandonment. Nelson’s performance though forced and out of focus at times, is admirable in its exuberance and flailing energy.

As Quentin, the gay screenwriter, Christopher Johnson brings an authentic candor to a character that believes life holds no surprises. Quentin is the archetype of the well-heeled, jaded gay man of the 1970s who has had too many sexual encounters that lead to nowhere.

The other standout in the cast is Andrea Maulella as Violet. Maulella completely embodies the character of Violet evidenced from her despairing moans for help to the tremulous musings on her abused life. Violet is a character study in neglect and emotional abuse. At moments there is clarity and foresight, but the abuse runs too deep to support long-term lucidity.

In Small Craft Warnings, Tennessee Williams normalizes loneliness and desperation. And even though there is some light, the glow may be too small to eradicate the midnight of the forlorn soul.

For information, go to www.whitehorsetheater.com.

Tickets $18.00 212-868-4444 www.smarttix.com

WorkShop Theater Company - Main Stage Theater
312 West 36th Street | New York, NY 10018


 

 

Steve Sater & Duncan Sheik’s
Spring Awakening
Monday 8:00pm
Wednesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday 2:00pm & 7:00pm
Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

When I first heard that Spring Awakening was moving to Broadway, I was a bit concerned. Would such an intimate show lose all potency and urgency in a big Broadway house?

Well the answer, thank the theatre gods, is a resounding no!

I am elated to report that this exciting, enthralling and oddly-enchanting production thrives at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. And it’s improved greatly from the version I saw this past summer.

It’s still audacious and ambitious but it now has a wonderful sense of humor as well. The original production took itself a wee too seriously. But the gifted director Michael Mayer has found the perfect blend of comedy and pathos here. And it doesn’t hurt to have the extraordinary Christine Estabrook on board.

Based on Frank Wedekind’s highly controversial 1891 play The Awakening of Spring (not produced until 1906), and adapted by Steven Sater (book & lyrics) and rock star Duncan Sheik (music), the ‘play with songs’ (quoted by Sheik) focuses on adolescent schoolboys and girls at the age of sexual and spiritual awakening. The central figures being the good looking, wave-making Melchior (Jonathan Groff), his sweet, naive girlfriend Wendla (Lea Michele) and his troubled, oddball friend Moritz (John Gallagher, Jr.) as well as a slew of other angst-ridden, sexually-stirred, hormonally-bonkers characters.

Spring Awakening is mesmerizing to the eye--and ears. It’s a deliberately hard-edged visual and aural cacophony of the evils of repression--religious and societal (usually one begets the other).

The richly-rewarding anachronistic nature of the work adds to its originality and freshness. Although the piece is set at the turn of the last century, the actors whip out mikes and perform raw, intensely-modern rock songs. The device achieves a Brechtian break in the ‘period’ action. It’s as if the audience has warp-sped a century to a modern day rock concert. But the songs are the inner monologues and emotional mind states of Everykid. And that is why it works so well.

Sheik’s music is extraordinary, whether it be a heart-wrenching ballad (”The Song of Purple Summer”) or an angry rant (the fantastically fun “Totally Fucked”) and are matched by Sater’s intelligent lyrics and by the extraordinary ensemble’s vitality and conviction in song as well as performance. These guys were great last summer. They’re even better and seem more assured now.

“The Bitch of Living”, in particular, raises the levels through the rafters!

Melchior is that perfect blend of youth: a walking sack of sexual energy mixed with smarts and savvy and Jonathan Groff brilliantly brings him to life...and to despair as is necessary. Groff has a command now that is dazzling to behold.

Moritz is a tad more difficult since, as written he goes from frustration and confusion to doom very quickly, yet Gallagher, Jr. transcends the trappings and let’s us inside the loopy/scared mind of this tragic hero (especially in Act Two’s Don’t Do Sadness”).

Michele’s Wendla still feels too tentative as Wendla but she conveys naiveté much better and has an amazing voice. Lauren Pritchard’s Ilse still brims with sex appeal and evoked the perfect combo of tumult and rebellion. And king of smarm and charm, Jonathan B. Wright nails his role down perfectly as the gay survivor about to feast on his prey. His self-pleasure moment is a riotous combo of delight and embarrassment. Special mention to Gideon Glick as the adorable Ernst.

Newly added cast members Stephen Spinella, and especially, Christine Estabrook give the show a great lift as well.

Beyond the masterful score, near-perfect performances and deft direction, I had
a problem last time with feeling emotionally caught up in the lives of the characters. This, too, has changed. I DID feel passionately drawn into their worlds and I did care about their fates.

Spring Awakening is a triumph that should be seen by anyone who cares about the future of musical theatre.

Tickets $66.25-$111.25 at www.telecharge.com

Eugene O'Neill Theatre | 230 West 49th Street | New York, NY 10036




Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

[title of show]
Monday 8:00pm
Tuesday 8:00pm
Thursday 8:00pm
Friday 8:00pm
Saturday 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sunday 3:00pm & 7:00pm
Lyceum Theatre


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Self-reflexive. Self-indulgent. Self-aware. Self-referential. Self-reverential. [title of show] is all of the above. And that, dear theatergoers, is a very good thing.

[title of show] was masterminded by it’s two male leads, the bizarre but winning duo of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell, both gay, both theatre aficionados, both struggling artists.

Jeff is the hunky, well-spoken, perfectly groomed, gay eye-candy. Hunter is the shlubby, ill-grammarred (that one is deliberate) Oscar to Jeff’s Felix. Hunter also happens to be the book writer for the long-awaited spoof Silence! The Musical, a lunatic satire on the Oscar-winning film Silence of the Lambs.

These two had the crazy idea of writing a show about writing a show. But that’s not the crazy part since it’s been done to death. The crazy part is that they would chronicle their journey as faithfully as possible, right down to the mundane minutiae-filled moments and allow themselves to break character as well as the fourth wall and comment on these moments. And, for the most part, the execution of this daring notion, works marvelously.

Bowen, in particular, has fantastic comic timing and his constantly correcting Bell is a hilarious running gag that never gets tired.

But the dynamic sho-mo duo aren’t alone onstage; they are joined by the uber-odd but hilarious Susan Blackwell and the more traditionally appealing Heidi Blickenstaff, who also happens to have a unique and astoundingly good voice.

The quartet have a wild time tearing apart the structure of musical-comedy and then putting it back together in it’s own unique way. At one point, Bell turns to his fellow actors and, with an understood wink to the audience, announces that the scene they are playing feels too long. In a second there’s an instant blackout. It’s difficult not to enjoy the style, although it does wear a tad thin after a while.

The book is sometimes clever for the sake of clever and the references are sometimes terribly obscure, but so what? Both those things make you feel closer to the characters because we feel just how much they are immersed in their craft, their art…the theatre. For the record, the Into the Woods references had me in stitches!

The songs erratically range from the forgettable (some of the earlier numbers, I forget which!) to the inspirational (“Die Vampire Die”) to the profound (“Nine People’s Favorite Thing”) to the sublime (“A Way Back to Then”). Not a bad collection, actually.

The show asks the key question: Will audience bother to shell out a hundred bucks for a musical with no real set, costumes or stars? And a song asks: “Is art a springboard for fame?” It will be interesting to see just how long [title of show] runs and whether it will be able to build the kind of audience Spring Awakening (an unlikely but bracing hit) has managed to.

What saves [title of show] from being a gimmicky, theatre-geek-appeal-only show is the last quarter of the play where everything turns quite serious and scarily real. The grit in these moments leading up to the finale bring the show home, so to speak, and give the audience a glimpse into how difficult it can be to follow your dream and persevere until you are lucky enough to be living that dream.

[title of show] stands as one of the most original musical to open along the Great White Way in years. And while it’s not as mesmerizing and tantalizing as the innovative and groundbreaking Passing Strange, it’s extraordinary and refreshing in it’s own way. And that is reason enough to celebrate!


Ticket $36.50-$101.50 $201.50 Premium - Phone 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com

Lyceum Theatre 149 West 45th Street



Xanadu
Tuesday @ 8PM
Wednesday @ 2PM & 8PM
Thursday @ 8PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2PM & 8PM
Sunday @ 3PM
Opened July 10, 2007
Helen Hayes Theater


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Okay, how bloody tiresome has it become for the Broadway theatregoer to have to withstand yet another screen-to-stage translation? In recent years, we’ve had to suffer through the abysmally bad (Saturday Night Fever, Footloose) and the not-so-bad-but-why-the-frig-bother (The Wedding Singer, Legally Blonde). And then there’s Disney, in the ‘ you own the world so just stop it already’ category. All this appropriation has shown a complete lack of originality and proven producers have no faith in the audience.

Of course, no one has tackled the bad Hollywood movie musical adaptation yet. Then again, exactly how many bad Hollywood movie musicals can actually boast having a terrific score? Not that many. Certainly very few in the last thirty years. Actually one. A notorious debacle from 1980 known as Xanadu.

Now, I have to admit to having my own personal love/hate relationship with the screen mess known as Xanadu. Every time I watch it (and yes, I have watched it many times) I keep waiting for it to be different. I keep wanting the performances to improve and I keep praying someone will come along and actually DIRECT and CHOREOGRAPH those great songs (written by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) in some way that isn’t catastrophically impossible to watch. Alas, I am always disappointed.

Yet I keep revisiting Xanadu. Why? I have never quite figured it out. It isn’t even a very campy film--the kind that’s so bad it’s good. But it does feature Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly...and a tiny spark of a good idea...and have I mentioned the fantastic score?

When I read about plans to bring it to Broadway, I thought: “well, it couldn’t possibly be as bad as the film.” Then I read that Douglas Carter Beane, thanks to the dogged persistence of producer Robert Ahrens, had been cajoled into writing the book. At that point, I knew it would have some merit. And I knew that if anyone could tap into the reason why so many folks are Xanadu-obsessed, it was Beane. After all he was responsible for the brilliantly biting and insightful play, The Little Dog Laughed, the funniest work to hit Broadway in the last few years. (and of course it closed prematurely!) My hopes were high.

Then casting problems followed as well as the leading male (James Carpinello, the only good thing in Saturday Night Fever) being injured while skating and having to be replaced. Was all this a sign?

I am elated to report that--Spring Awakening notwithstanding--Xanadu is the best musical currently running on Broadway! Actually, it’s the smartest and most entertaining musical to open in quite a long time!

How could this be, you ask?

It’s fairly simple. Assemble the best creative team possible. Cast actors who are working at the top of their game. Shake. Stir. Shimmy. Skate!

Part of the heavenly ‘magic’ on display at the Helen Hayes Theatre has everything to do with a keen awareness of the tongue-in-cheeky satire at play. But no one ever condescends to the audience. Quite the contrary, they invite the audience in on all the jokes (and they are legion).

Beane has written an intelligent, witty and clever script and manages to work several miracles in the process. Firsty, he remains faithful to the original film while drastically improving the story, making spendid script alterations and adding much-needed character dimensions. He creates a believable, old-fashioned love story where the audience roots for Kira and Sonny--even though she’s a Greek daughter-of-Zeus pretending to be an Australian and he’s a mere mortal AND struggling artist.

Beane also does justice to each and every one of his cast of characters, so rare in a musical, especially one that clocks in at ninety minutes! Finally, he has penned a ton of ovation-inspiring one-liners that will have you howling with laughter.

The tremendously talented director, Christopher Ashley (along with choreographer Dan Knechtges), ingeniously finds enormously entertaining ways to stage those wonderful ditties mentioned earlier (so poorly rendered onscreen). From the delightful opening number, “I’m Alive” to the sensational title tune at the end, Xanadu explodes with an exuberant and euphoric energy and life, most musicals would kill for.

A new Broadway star is born in Kerry Butler. She is absolutely remarkable as Kira/Clio. Having seen her shine in Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors and the devilishly delightful Bat Boy, I was still wholly unprepared for her performance here. She has perfect comic-timing and displays so much verve and charisma, you will truly have a tough time taking your eyes off of her. She also happens to be quite stunning. Her Kira is a rich parody of Newton-John infused with some daffy Nicole Kidman, yet she creates a loveable, complicated and quite memorable character that is ultimately her own. She also happens to have a powerhouse voice and is particularly divine singing “Magic” and “Suspended in Time.” Butler fascinates right up until the curtain call.

When you are able to look away from Butler, Cheyenne Jackson (All Shook Up) provides delicious eye-candy, but so much more than that. From his very first bit of dialogue, he seduces the audience and endears himself as a loveable lump of a hunk, wide-eyed and earnest. It’s a fabulous performance, filled with comedic gem moments. Jackson is also an excellent songman, tearing the roof off with the showstopping “Don’t Walk Away.” And, boy, does he look good in those denim shorts. Yikes!

Tearing through the production like two hungry tigresses are stage vets Mary Testa (as Melpomene, muse of Tragedy) and Jackie Hoffman (as Calliope, muse of Epics). These two scenery-chewing vamps have a bloody blast with their parts. The duo’s rendition of “Evil Woman” is rousing and ‘nasty’, in the best sense of that word. Testa’s turn is particularly Tony-courting.

The rest of the ensemble seem to be having the time of their lives as well with Curtis Holbrook providing a killer tap dance during “Whenever You’re Away from Me”. Veteran stage actor, Tony Roberts has his own fun in the Gene Kelly role and really impresses as Zeus. One of the oh-so-may highlights involves both the song “Have You Never Been Mellow” and the Harryhausen film Clash of the Titans. I can’t say more, lest I spoil a classic musical theatre moment.

So, what is it that Beane and the Xanadu team are able to do what the original filmmakers couldn’t? Because...they have found the magic in Xanadu as well as the irony and the joy. They tell a simple love story in a complex and interesting way. They comment on art and the creative gifts that are given to us. And they show us a damn good time while doing it. What more could we ask for? Okay, maybe just ninety minutes more, because once you see this show, you will want to see it again...

Xanadu Tickets $51.25-$111.25 Buy tickets online www.telecharge.com - Phone 212-239-6200 & 800-432-7250


Helen Hayes |240 W. 44th Street


 

 


 

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