Currently starring in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (extended until January 29, 2017), Melissa Errico is re-defining the ingénue. Her self-written feature in The New York Times was a hallmark moment for the 46-year-old actress, who refuses to play to age-based limitations, writing:
The ingénue police are knocking, but I’m not letting them in. They know the great Mary Martin was 46 when she played the young postulant Maria Von Trapp in the original The Sound of Music. (They probably knocked on her door, too.)
And Finian’s Rainbow is a fable always worth retelling, with an absurd plot that is really not absurd at all. It’s about equality, peace, racism and tolerance. It is about a more hopeful America where each person might see beneath the surface of another, and find within oneself a tolerance toward oneself — even a celebration — as we allow our own surfaces to change.
The Broadway Blog had a chance to catch up with the Tony Award-nominated actress in between shows and an overflowing life with her husband, three daughters, and Yorkshire terrier.
Why do you think Finian’s Rainbow resonates with today’s audiences?
I’ve done the show over the course over 15 years. Concerts then a full production, then a concert at Town Hall. We opened Oct 25 but by the time we had the election the show was very different.
It’s hitting a nerve, offering a possibly reassuring voice. A model of liberal racial politics — somewhat antiquated — but still a model. Yip (E.R. Harburg, the show’s lyricist and book writer) was a great humanitarian and liberal activist. Finian’s Rainbow is about inclusion and we’re living in a time that many people feel threatened.
At first, I didn’t think that the musical was current. In my dream world I thought we were past that. There’s a terrific dialogue exchange that could come out of today’s headlines:
Senator Billboard Rawkins: Of course it’s legal! I don’t know where you immigrants get these radical, foreign ideas!
Sharon McLonergan: From a wee book the immigration officer handed us. It’s called ‘The United States Constitution.’
Finian McLonergan: Haven’t you read it?
Senator Billboard Rawkins: I don’t have time to read it, I’m too busy defending it!
In particular, what do you think makes this production special in Irish Rep’s intimate space?
Irish Rep’s space has become larger and much more playable since it’s recent renovation. There are still those onstage columns, which are incorporated so beautifully into the set design by James Morgan to create this sort of dreamy plantation or rural forest.
From the actor’s standpoint, it’s tight quarters backstage. There’s no chance of warming up and you can plan on brushing your teeth with someone else. There’s this unspoken agreement to be communal and work together, and the only way to succeed is to be that kind of person. Charlotte Moore (Irish Rep’s artistic director) is a genius to find those kinds of people to cast.
In terms of performance, it’s not a Broadway show where you’re ushered along. You’ll notice that there are no microphones — there’s not a speaker in the building. It’s the audience and the actors. And then this all-female Celtic jazz orchestra sits down and forget about it! There’s a lot of color coming out of those four girls. You’ll never have that kind of experience on Broadway.
This is story theater. There’s no ability for the show to get fake or pretentious. We’re constantly looking for the substance, and to tell that story you have to put your heart out there. And then there’s the technical side of things. If I want to crescendo with everything else happening around me I have to walk toward the audience for my voice to rise above the others. There are a million different levels. It’s hard stuff!
The New York Times piece put a spotlight on women of a certain age in the theater. Do you think there’s a double standard?
The theater community wants women to age and wisen and teach and connect and be sensual. But there aren’t a lot of roles out there. But there’s another culture — the world of concerts — where we can create a strong experience and women are not impotent in that domain.
There are also a million catch-22’s. In my 30’s, while my career was soaring, my doctor said, “Are you ever going to have children?” It’s tricky to be a gal but we wanted to have a family.
Being in our 40s is an interesting time. It’s not that long ago that we felt young, but then we realize that we’re really adults now. I’m certainly not moaning. We each have to work it out in our own way. Lead the way in your wanting.
I want to be an adult in the business, so that’s what’s coming. I have a family. I have things to do on the off weeks. I have three amazing daughters. And yes, I’m also desperate to play certain roles.
Do you feel there a special skill set for those actors, like yourself, who seem to embrace the classics, like Finian’s Rainbow?
Some people are just born very modern. They’re not given ballet lessons! I had that sort of training and what I call “pretty” lessons, but with an element of trapping a person as a “good girl”— lots of qualities that you find in characters like Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? or Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I love all the ideas behind these works, too. There’s a bookishness about me. My first big job was Cosette in the first national tour of Les Misérables and you could find me backstage reading the Victor Hugo novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the source material of so many of these great shows.
You recently sang “The National Anthem” at a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, what was that like?
I wanted people to remember the country is still there. Hey, I threw in a high “C”!
I was put on the ice in front of 65,000 people to touch their spirit, and for a moment, to lift up that room. It was a chance for that energy to pass through me to the crowd, hoping to bring out the best in everyone for one night. And as performers, we hope they carry a little bit of that out the door.
The Fred Ebb Foundation (Mitchell Bernard, Trustee) has announced that its 2016 donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS will total $1.675 million dollars, bringing the foundation’s total contribution to BC/EFA to $13.325 million since it began twelve years ago. The foundation, which is funded by royalties from the late award-winning lyricist Fred Ebb’s vast catalogue of work, makes an annual donation to BC/EFA.
“Fred Ebb’s brilliant legacy – created with the extraordinary John Kander – has allowed BC/EFA to increase and expand its support for The Actors Fund to more than $5.6 million in 2016 alone. This amazing gift allows us to extend support to the Artists Health Insurance Resource Center and the Fund’s Addiction and Recovery Services, nurtures our longtime commitment to the HIV/AIDS Initiative while increasing support for the Phyllis Newman Women’s Health Initiative, the Dancers’ Resource and more,” said BC/EFA’s executive director Tom Viola.
“Throughout the country right now, many of the most vulnerable are concerned, even scared about their rights, access to social services and personal safety,” Viola continued. “Fred, your gift to BC/EFA and the community will make a profound difference in the lives of thousands of your colleagues and co-workers, friends and loved ones in the business. Your ‘razzle-dazzle’ shines forever bright.”
The Fred Ebb Foundation, in association with the Roundabout Theatre Company (Todd Haimes, Artistic Director) also presents an annual award, named for Mr. Ebb, to aspiring musical theatre songwriters. The Fred Ebb Award recognizes excellence in musical theatre songwriting, by a songwriter or songwriting team that has not yet achieved significant commercial success. The award is meant to encourage and support aspiring songwriters to create new works for the musical theatre, and includes a $60,000 award. This year’s award was presented to Thomas Mizer and Curtis Moore.
“Receiving the Fred Ebb Award is an overwhelming honor, particularly because Mr. Ebb and his longtime partner John Kander have always been idols of ours—consummate songwriters who stretched the boundaries of what theater music can do. It really does inspire us to work harder and live up to their example,” said Mizer and Moore.
“The amazing thing about getting this award is that it purposefully shines a light on music theater writers who have yet to have that big commercial hit. Hopefully, people will hear about it and check out our work,” the writing team shared. “That’s a huge gift in itself when so many writers are simply struggling to be heard. Our musical, Triangle, premiered in California last summer and we’re looking right now at how we can bring it to New York. Getting this award could be the tipping point that brings this piece to a wider audience.”
Past winners include John Bucchino (2005), Steve Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman (2006), Peter Mills (2007), Adam Gwon (2008), Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich (2009), Douglas J. Cohen (2010), Jeff Blumenkrantz (2011), Sam Willmott (2012), Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond (2013), Chris Miller and Nathan Tysen (2014), and Stacey Luftig and Phillip Palmer (2015).
The 2016 Selection Committee is comprised of: Foundation Trustee Mitchell S. Bernard; actress Andréa Burns; lyricist, writer and composer Sheldon Harnick; music director David Loud; and theatre producer Arthur Whitelaw.
If you’re willing to get on the ride, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond’s new musical, Ride the Cyclone, will take you to unexpected places. Chicago Shakespeare presented the U.S. premiere of the work last year, and prior to that Canada’s Atomic Vaudeville first produced the production. MCC Theater brings it to Manhattan under the deft direction/choreography of Rachel Rockwell.
The 90-minute show recounts what happens after a group of Catholic school teenagers die in a rollercoaster accident. They’ve arrived in a sort of American Idiot meets The 25th Annual Spelling Bee purgatory, and under the direction of The Amazing Karnak (Karl Hamilton), must decide which of them can return to his or her mortal life.
Leading the pack out of the gate is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg (Tiffany Tatreau), the group’s bratty, bossy ringleader who will say and do just about anything to secure her slot, including throwing her bestie, the apologetic Constance Blackwood (Lillian Castillo), under the bus. The other living dead include the emotionally volatile and soap opera-gorgeous Mischa Bachinski (Gus Halper), the formally handicapped but now virile Ricky Potts (Alex Wyse), the effeminate dark horse Noel Gruber (Kholby Wardell), and Jane Doe (Emily Rohm), an unidentified student who perished in the accident and hopes to claim her life and identity back.
In a somewhat formulaic structure, the kids each have an opportunity to make their cases, but Karnak continues to switch up the rules up until the very last chords are played. What makes Ride the Cyclone so wildly entertaining is what happens within each of those moments. Highlights include Mischa’s epic auto-tuned hip-hop number that eventually evolves into a Ukrainian folklore dance (with captivating projections designed by Mike Tutaj)—trust me, it makes sense when you see it. Noel pulls off a Chicago-style number in a pageboy wig, while Ricky rocks out his alter ego as an 80s space age bachelor man.
Constance is given the 11 o’clock number, which lights up the theatre with a pop ballad that leaves her on a sugar cloud, spouting lyrics like “I could puke a rainbow.” In the end, one teen enters the light, and with deep reverence we’re treated to a montage of a life not yet fully lived.
Rachel Rockwell, who’s made a name for herself in the Chicago theater scene with a list of critically acclaimed productions including Brigadoon (Goodman Theatre) and Les Misérables (Drury Lane), will now hopefully be on the radar of commercial producers. Her work here is thoughtful and nuanced as she is somehow able to unpack a treasure chest of quirkiness delivered by the authors.
Buckle in. Who knows where Ride the Cyclone may land next.
Ride the Cyclone
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortelle Theatre
121 Christopher Street
Through December 29.
Remaining performances include…
December 2 at 8 p.m.*
December 3 at 2 p.m.
On The Nature of Things (2014): Performed by three dancers balanced on a two-foot wide column rising above the stage, On The Nature Of Things explores the power of iconic bodies to tell a story about the birth of desire and its intertwined connection to shame and revenge.
All Is Not Lost (2011) is the live companion to Pilobolus’s video collaboration with the Grammy-winning band OK Go.
Thresh|Hold (2015): Created in collaboration with the Olivier Award-winning Venezuelan choreographer Javier De Frutos, Thresh|Hold is a physically daring quintet that takes us through the labyrinthine mind of a young woman as she confronts lost love. NEW YORK PREMIERE
[esc] (2013): Masters of trickery, Penn & Teller, team with Pilobolus to create the ultimate piece of gripping, do-not-try-this-at-home choreography.
Rushes (2007) Co-Artistic Director Robby Barnett and world-renowned dance-theatre makers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak discover hybrid terrain in a remarkable exploration of the range and intensity of deep collaboration.
December 4 at 2 p.m.
November 30, and December 1 at 7 p.m.*
December 3 at 8 p.m.*
Gnomen (1997) A quartet for men, Gnomen’s lyrical exploration of relationships emerges from an unusually inventive physical vocabulary.
Wednesday Morning, 11:45 (2015): A shaggy dog story about a ne’er-do-well and a bird that uses both shadow and real characters, with original score by Alex Dezen of the Damnwells. NEW YORK PREMIERE
The Inconsistent Pedaler (2014): A surrealist fable about a girl who rides a bicycle that has the power to speed up and slow down time.
Day Two (1981) – One of Pilobolus’s classic works, Day Two’s tribal atmosphere enacts the second day of the creation of the world, from its earliest forms of life to the moment at which creatures of the earth take flight into the air, set to a soundtrack from Brian Eno and Talking Heads.
*Note: Evening performances include nudity.
The Broadway League announced today the shows participating in the 21st Kids’ Night on Broadway, which will take place Tuesday, February 28, 2017. Tickets to participating shows will go on sale to the public on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 at 10:30am.
Kids’ Night on Broadway is an annual event where kids 18 and under can attend participating Broadway shows for free when accompanied by a full-paying adult. A Kids’ Night on Broadway ticket includes restaurant discounts, parking discounts, activities, and more.
Participating 2017 shows to date include (subject to change):
Aladdin, Beautiful: the Carole King Musical, A Bronx Tale, Cats, Chicago, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, In Transit, August Wilson’s Jitney, Kinky Boots, The Lion King, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, On Your Feet!, The Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock the Musical, Significant Other, Waitress, and Wicked.
Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League, says, “Kids’ Night on Broadway is growing up—this year we have a range of participating shows that will appeal to kids, teens, and their parents! Other League programs including the National High School Musical Theatre Awards and our new website BwayZone.com reiterate our dedication to educating all ages about how live theatre can engage and inspire.”
On Tuesday, February 28, 2017, select shows will offer in-theatre activities for kids including post-show talkbacks, Kids’ Night on Broadway activity books, and more events still to be announced. Many Times Square area eateries will offer specials for Kids’ Night on Broadway ticket-holders, including free entrees for kids. Check kidsnightonbroadway.com for participating restaurants.
Kids’ Night on Broadway will also take place in multiple cities around the country, with different shows and venues putting their own spin on the event, on numerous dates throughout the year. Checkkidsnightonbroadway.com for specific dates and locations.
KIDS’ NIGHT ON BROADWAY, a program of The Broadway League, is generously presented by The New York Times and is sponsored by WABC-TV with additional support from Turnstyle and Westchester Family.
Falsettos in many ways, is a love letter to a time gone by. Originally conceived as the second and third installments in a musical trilogy that follows Marvin and the evolution of his family as he embraces his homosexuality, the segments appeared individually at Playwrights Horizons and other theatres from 1979 to 1990. In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1981), and Falsettoland (1990) bear the mark of an era, including the haunting notes of the AIDS crisis.
The latter two premiered on Broadway in 1992 as a two-act musical and won Tony Awards for Best Score (William Finn) and Book (William Finn and James Lapine). By that time, AIDS had ravaged not only the theater community, but also the American psyche.
Lincoln Center Theater’s revival, currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theater in a limited engagement through January 8, is faithful to the original with some modern sensibilities, notably choreography (mostly staging) by Spencer Liff, who invigorates the material with plenty of movement and keeps the ensemble agile within the recitative-heavy score. David Rockwell’s set—a seemingly endless pile of grey building blocks—also distracts from the fact that Finn’s material doesn’t have a lot of forward momentum.
But those familiar with the composer/lyricist’s work (Little Miss Sunshine, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain) know that Finn’s strengths lie in his ability to create character, and Falsettos offers juicy material for the seasoned ensemble. Marvin (Christian Borle) is at the plot’s epicenter. In Act One he comes to terms with the end of his marriage to Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and eventually the demise of his relationship with Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). Meanwhile, Trina falls for Marvin’s neurotic psychiatrist (Brandon Uranowitz), all the while trying to keep her pre-teen son (Anthony Rosenthal) from spinning out of control.
Act Two takes place two years later. Marvin has reconciled with Whizzer and the couple befriends the “lesbians from next door”: Charlotte (Tracie Thoms), a doctor facing the as-yet-unnamed virus, and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe), her kosher caterer girlfriend. Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms in the near feature as Whizzer faces a bleak diagnosis.
While it might be hard for millennials to grasp Finn and Lapine’s intentional vagueness, in 1981 there were 234 known AIDS-related deaths. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis had yet to be born and it would be another six years before ACT UP was founded. By the time the musical migrated to Broadway in 1992, this was still unchartered territory in the world of musical theater (the Gershwin mash-up, Crazy For You, won the Tony Award for best musical that year and Angels in America would arrive on Broadway a year later).
In short, show a little respect, kids. Falsettos is quirky in structure, a “tight-knit” family unraveling into something entirely new. Borle has been quoted regarding his enthusiasm to tackle a “three dimensional person” coming off of Something Rotten! and Peter and the Starcatcher. His restraint, though, often reads as negative and snarky. Marvin isn’t the most likeable character but the audience needs to understand why Trina and Whizzer have both fallen for him, and it’s only in the Act One finale, the beautifully touching “Father to Son” that we see a glimmer of his soft side.
As his ex, Trina, Block pulls out all the stops with a voice that reaches the rafters and comedic timing that stops the show midway through Act One with “I’m Breaking Down,” a song that laments her crumbling marriage. Unfortunately, busy staging masks her Act Two 10 o’clock number, “Holding to the Ground.” (Whizzer gets the 11 o’clock slot).
Uranowitz as her nebbishly hippy psychiatrist husband is quite the charmer with just enough shtick to offset the gravitas, while Rannells isn’t too off course from his character on HBO’s Girls. Thoms and Wolfe deliver due diligence in underwritten roles that appear out of nowhere (and go nowhere) in Act Two, while Rosenthal is more believable as a tween than a 13-year-old facing adulthood. Across the board, there’s not a lot of chemistry among the cast, which feels amiable but not deeply rooted.
What is most resonant about Falsettos in 2016 is its message of diversity, tolerance and acceptance—themes that are running amok these days in other circles. In the original script Whizzer’s passing is implied and not so literally staged as in this revival. As his family of choice gathers around his tombstone, Mendel sings:
Women with children.
We’re a teeny tiny band.
Lovers come and lovers go.
Lovers live and die fortissimo.
This is where we take a stand.
Welcome to Falsettoland.
Thanks for the reminder, William Finn. This is where we take a stand.
Walter Kerr Theater
219 West 48th Street, NYC
Through January 8
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him social media at @roodeloo.
by Samuel L. Leiter
Nicky Silver (Pterodactyls, The Lyons), comic dramatist of family angst, is at it again with Vineyard Theatre’s This Day Forward, a schizophrenic dramedy that has an idea about the vagaries of love—romantic, marital, familial, straight and gay—and doesn’t know what to do with it. Its first act, set in a fancy hotel room and dealing with a newlyweds’ catastrophe, could almost be a fourth act in Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite; Act Two, however, taking place nearly half a century later, could be any play set in an apartment and dealing with an all-too-common family crisis.
Act One, introduced in a prologue by well-to-do, Jewish, New Yorker Martin Resnick (Michael Crane), takes place in 1958 in a room at New York’s St. Regis Hotel, to which he and his bride, Irene (Holley Fain), have repaired. Martin’s still in his tux, Irene in her white bridal gown (Kaye Voyce did the fine costumes), and he’s eager to make whoopee with what he assumes is his virginal spouse. The mildly ditzy Irene isn’t interested, though; instead, she confesses to the startled groom that she not only doesn’t love him but that the big lug she does love, an Albanian, Greek Orthodox grease jockey named Emil (Joe Tippett), is on his way so the couple can run off to Acapulco, the newlyweds’ honeymoon destination.
This absurd situation leads to farcically strained situations as Martin, who insists on his love and believes he can make Irene love him back, fights desperately to save his marriage in the face of Irene’s loutish but friendly lover, who arrives decked out in his sweaty garage gear. Things grow more bizarre with the involvement of Melka (June Gable), an old, heavily accented, Polish chambermaid, and her pilfering son, the uniformed room-service waiter, Donald (Andrew Burnap), who advise Irene on which man to choose. The already uneven tone shifts radically from shaky farce to dark despair.
Silver’s theme of love’s idiosyncrasies, which fly in the face of reason, continues in Act Two, set in 2004, and located in the upscale loft of successful stage director Noah Resnick, Martin and Irene’s gay son. The same actors from act one appear but—except for a fantasy sequence involving the young Irene and Emil—in different roles; Michael Crane thus plays Martin’s son.
We learn that, during the intervening years Irene and the recently deceased Martin remained entwined in a love/hate marriage/war. We’re now in a situation where Noah and his actor boyfriend Leo (Burnap) quarrel over Noah’s plans to move to LA to direct TV shows. Silver then shifts to an unnecessary flashback scene showing Noah’s first date with Leo.
Back in the future of 2004, the plot is complicated by a dispute between Noah and his sister, Sheila (Francesca Faridany), over who should assume responsibility for the dementia-afflicted Irene. Sheila’s been taking care of her but Irene’s behavior has gotten out of hand.
The disheveled Irene herself (now played by June Gable, much shorter than the actress sharing the role), who’s been picked up by the police after running off in her pajamas to JFK, enters, garnering laughs by her profanity and eccentric remarks. Finally, this discombobulated work ends with a sentimental tableau that explains what happened that fateful night so long ago.
Veteran June Gable’s Melka is too caricaturish but her Irene, which has nothing in common with how her younger self is portrayed, offers fine comic pathos; she gets a big laugh when she tells Noah she made him gay to get back at his father. Crane and Fain give their all in the first act, but neither is right for their cartoonish Jewish couple (which may draw your attention to the second act’s lines about casting); Crane, though, whose Noah could very well be Martin, is much truer as the former. Faridany’s Sheila is too continually overwrought, while Burnap and, especially, Tippett, are excellent.
The play (Act One, at any rate) reads funnier than it plays under Mark Brokaw’s direction, which inspires only scattered and mild laughter. There is, though, a memorable moment of physical humor when the angry Martin leaps off the bed to be stopped in midair by Donald’s outstretched hand. The best thing in the show, in fact, are its visuals, particularly Allen Moyer’s substantial sets, carefully lit by David Lander. But in this case, the scenery doesn’t equal substance.
This Day Forward
108 E. 15th St., NYC
Through December 18
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).
It’s a full circle moment in the career of Sutton Foster, who stars in The New Group’s intimate and beautifully staged revival of Sweet Charity. Foster’s breakout role came in 2002 when she won the Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing a girl who arrives in New York City looking to marry for money but discovering love instead. Charity, on the other hand, is desperately on the lookout for love but only seems to attract crooks and cheaters. Working as a dance hall girl at the Fandango Ballroom, her naiveté is a source of constant teasing from Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), Helene (Emily Padgett), and the other dancers, but Charity’s bright-eyed enthusiasm enables her to weather many a storm of musical comedy.
With a book by Neil Simon and score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics), Sweet Charity delivers a charming throwback vibe. Bob Fosse originally conceived, directed, and choreographed the Broadway production more than 50 years ago, casting his wife Gwen Verdon in the title role. (Shirley MacLaine starred in the film version). Leigh Silverman (Violet, Kung Fu) directs this incarnation with choreography by Joshua Bergasse (On the Town).
Streamlining the cast to a dozen (the original had 30 actors), the creative team puts Charity center stage amid a whirlwind of changing costumes and wigs, creatively designed by Clint Ramos and Charles G. LaPointe respectively). Foster, now with 11 Broadway credits to her name and starring in TV Land’s hit series Younger, carries it with goofy and heartfelt effervescence.
After recovering from her latest break-up, Charity finds herself in the midst of a celebrity brawl and in the presence of Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Joel Perez). To make his girlfriend Ursula (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) jealous, Vittorio invites Charity into a posh nightclub and then back to his penthouse apartment. Comedic genius ensues as Ursula arrives and Charity hides out in the closet. Foster, evoking some of the best comedy shtick of the era in the spirit of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, is brilliantly on point with her comedic timing.
After that debacle and with the revelation that there might be more to life than the dancehall, Charity heads to the local Y to seek out inspiration. She meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley) in the lobby as he’s en route to group analysis, and the pair become trapped in the elevator. This time it’s Hensley’s turn to chew the scenery in a brilliantly staged panic attack.
Charity and Oscar begin a brief romance, but she’s determined to come clean regarding her career. He’s one step ahead of her though, and just as Charity thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, Oscar reveals that he’s incapable of accepting her sordid past. The original production ended on an upbeat note, but The New Group’s revival wisely shuffles some material in the second act, putting Charity’s 11 o’clock number, “Where Am I Going?” as a final soliloquy for the girl so desperately in search of love.
Foster, who has danced her way to two Tony Awards, chooses to sit firmly in the pocket of Charity’s endearing quirkiness. That’s not to say that she doesn’t tap out clean pullbacks in “If My Friends Could See Me Now” or kick to her nose during “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”—but her movement is informed by Charity’s awkward charm.
As her romantic foils, Joel Perez (Fun Home) plays most of the male principal roles in the show and delivers an impressive tour de force performance, diving in and out of accents as a one-man-band version of 1960s New York City. And as the affably neurotic Oscar, Hensley is huggabley endearing, even as the unexpected heartbreaker.
Silverman stages wisely within the intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Bergasse’s choreography dutifully nods to Fosse on occasion, but also breathes new life into famous dance sequences like “Big Spender” (practically haunting in its simplicity) and “Rich Man’s Frug.”
But the evening belongs to Sutton Foster, who puts her stamp on one of the great musical comedy roles of the 20th century.
The New Group
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 8
by Ryan Leeds
For the compassionate theater critic—and yes, they do exist—Shades is a theatrical quandary. On one hand, it is unfair to dismiss it as a piece of theater that isn’t worth the time and investment. Certainly there are those for whom this piece will resonate. In fact, the last 15 minutes of the show is rather heartbreaking and poignant. On the other hand, this story of a family reeling from the traumas of war is a sluggish exercise of enduring poor playwriting and for the seasoned theatergoer, it is primarily a forced melodrama in need of some serious surgery.
Paula J. Caplan’s play occurs in 1997 in the home of a Don (Carson Lee), a Vietnam veteran who denies that Agent Orange is the cause of his chronic lung illness. Even in the face of doctors finding E.coli in his lungs, he is insistent that the U.S. government has not lied about the dangers of the popular defoliant used in the war. His sister, Val (Ashley Wren Collins), a home nurse aide, is strongly suspicious about his illness and uses the name of this bacterial strain in her dialogue so often, Caplan must think that her audience either fell asleep or couldn’t hear the first several references.
Val and Don’s father, Jerry (Hal Robinson), is a kindly World War II veteran who is hesitant to speak about the war because he doesn’t believe he has anything noteworthy to say. Now a widower, he mostly reminisces about his late wife:
“Oh, hey kids, you know what a go-getter your Mom was? Just before her trip, she called the city archivist and told her World War II vets would all be dead soon, and I’d have free time while she was traveling, so the archivist should interview me!”
This is only a sampling of the forced, unrealistic dialogue that runs rampant over the course of two hours.
Jerry presses on and there are numerous sequences when he spends lengthy monologues speaking into a camera, recalling his early days as a soldier. While honoring veterans and their stories is noble and respectful, his stories tend to drone on more than they captivate. Caplan may have been wise to take a page from Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a series of memoirs collected by a group of men and women who Brokaw considers “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” Jerry speaks objectively about his service but is pressed by Val and the archivist to describe his feelings. Most people know and respect the unwritten rule that one never questions veterans about their war experiences. Apparently not the team behind this play.
Meanwhile, Val is caring for June. (Holly Walker), an African-American paraplegic who is also a Vietnam War veteran. The two have a seemingly homoerotic relationship with one another, which builds to an odd climax. Val invites June to dinner with the hope that she will find common ground with her fellow Vietnam Vet, Don.
The major problems with Shades is the lack of nuance and subtly. The characters are clichéd and rarely believable. With an inevitable death looming, Don suggests—at least twice—that, “Life is a gift.” I could not agree more, but pithy writing like this seems inspired more by quotes on embroidered pillows than by human conversation. In addition, nearly every family outburst and tense argument is smoothed over by an awkward suggestion for a glass of water or food.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an unfortunate affliction suffered by too many brave men and women who sacrificed all they had for their country. However, the list is long of titles that have tackled this in an effective and powerful way. On stage, Donald Margulies’ searing portrait of a war photojournalist in Time Stands Still immediately comes to mind. Two recent movies about soldiers re-acclimating to real life, The Hurt Locker and American Sniper bring raw emotions front and center in a manner that neither sugar coats nor falsifies the experience. Basetrack Live, which is currently touring nationally, approaches the subject matter using multimedia and 21st century theatricality.
Caplan is a noted clinical and research psychologist who obviously has a great deal of empathy for the topic and her subjects. I admire her attempt to capture this on stage and do not wish the minimize the healing effect that this work might have for veterans and their families. For seasoned consumers of entertainment, however, it will be a slight slice of life.
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street, NYC
Through December 17
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.