Review: Deliverance

October 31st, 2014 View Comment(s)

by Samuel L. Leiter

L-R: Nick Paglino, Gregory Konow and Jarrod Zayas in 'Deliverance' (photo Jason Woodruff via The Broadway Blog.)

L-R: Nick Paglino, Gregory Konow and Jarrod Zayas in ‘Deliverance’ (photo Jason Woodruff via The Broadway Blog.)

I first saw the movie version of James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, a story of survival in the backwoods of North Georgia, when it appeared 42 years ago, and unlike most of the thousands of films I’ve seen since then, it has stuck in my mind like a fly on flypaper. I’m sure I share this feeling with millions of others who at one time or another have viewed this tale of four Atlanta businessmen talked by their most machismo buddy into a weekend of camping and canoeing down a raging river soon to be dammed. It is they, however, who find what it is to be damned as they encounter not only the dangers of this wild stretch of water but the threat from the allegedly inbred locals after they are accosted by a couple of dangerously suspicious redneck moonshiners operating a nearby still.

Turning Dickey’s story, with its numerous scenes of extreme physical action, into a play would seem to be an artistic challenge almost as difficult as the excursion of these mostly unprepared city slickers into the fearful Georgia wilderness. But Sean Tyler’s adaptation of Dickey’s novel—whose dialogue preserves much of his colloquially poetic prose—comes pretty close to capturing the extreme tension of this white-knuckle story. It is helped enormously by Godlight Theatre Company’s production, directed by Joe Tantalo in the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters, which offers a sharply theatrical, gut-punching, stripped-down rendition that will keep you nailed to your seat during its speedy 80 minutes.

Nick Paglino in 'Deliverance' (photo: Jason Woodroff via The Broadway Blog.)

Nick Paglino in ‘Deliverance’ (photo: Jason Woodroff via The Broadway Blog.)

Only when the play, unable to find a more inventive theatrical method, shifts from dialogue to diegesis—direct narrative that explains and describes rather than showing (especially during Ed’s climb up a cliff)—does the adaptation falter. It is also hard for anyone familiar with the movie to become as fully engrossed in the performance as someone who has never seen it; that the production succeeds as much as it does is a tribute to the creative team. If this were a new work without the baggage of a nearly half-century long place in the pantheon of adventure thrillers, it would certainly be hailed for its suspenseful power.

The plot has been pared back to its essentials with a well-honed editorial blade and a few liberties have been taken. Perhaps most notably, when compared to the screen version, a modest dueling guitar and banjo number has replaced the famous dueling banjo sequence between Drew (Sean Tant; Ronny Cox in the movie) and an unforgettably odd but prodigiously talented teenage boy, Lonnie (Bryce Hodgson).

Finding an actor suitably weird and musically gifted would be nearly impossible, but, under the circumstances, the slightly built, shaven-headed Hodgson, does very well in suggesting this hillbilly’s strangeness. Most of the other familiar elements remain, including the rape—so startling in the movie—by one of the mountain men (Hodgson, again) of the overweight Bobby (Jarrod Zayas; Ned Beatty in the movie), and his rescue by the archery skill of his friend Ed (Nick Paglino; Jon Voight on screen).

Tantalo’s inventive approach uses a square acting space designed by Maruti Evans that consists of nothing more than a shiny black floor surrounded on four sides by the audience. A cloth band on which a biblical quote is printed marks the space all around overhead, and the rest is up to Evans’s remarkably varied lighting. From the moment you enter the haze-filled space to the last word spoken, you are in an atmosphere of darkness shot through from every angle with pinpoint cones of light. Scenes shift suddenly via sound effects, lighting and verbal cues.

Ien Denio’s sound design is a crucial player, constantly creating dynamic effects, and invoking—with the help of the lights—powerful images, such as the crashing waves when a canoe capsizes and the men struggle for air. For the most part, there are no props, everything being mimed—oars, a bow and arrows, cigarettes, drinks, rifles and so on. The men’s backpacks are an acceptable exception, but I don’t think the sheriff and his deputy need to pack holstered pistols in the final scene; their authority is clear enough from their clothes and attitudes.

Gregory Konow is fine as the smugly machismo Ed (Burt Reynolds in the movie), Jarrod Zayas is appropriately pathetic as the frightened Bobby, Sean Tant is believable as the reluctant rationalist, Drew, and Nick Paglino as Ed offers the right combination of fear and bravado. Supported by the equally talented ensemble of Hodgson, Eddie Dunn, and Jason Bragg Stanley, covering two or three smaller roles each, this Deliverance delivers the goods.

Deliverance
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th Street
Through November 9

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: Lift

October 29th, 2014 View Comment(s)

by Samuel L. Leiter

(l to r) MaameYaa Boafo, Biko Eisen-Martin, John Thomas Resterly in 'Lift' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) MaameYaa Boafo, Biko Eisen-Martin, John Thomas Resterly in ‘Lift’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Two promising ingredients come together in Lift, now playing at 59E59 Theaters: one is playwright Walter Mosley, the popular and prolific African American novelist, and the second is a production that originated at New Jersey’s respected Crossroads Theatre under the direction of Marshall Jones III. Unfortunately, neither ingredient fulfills its promise, and little can be done to prevent Lift—a socially conscious melodrama set in a high-rise office building elevator—from plummeting, overwhelmed by a clumsy, occasionally titter-generating script, and an overwrought presentation that occasionally borders on the amateurish.

The preposterousness begins right away, as three attractive, nicely dressed (costumes by Anne E. Grosz) African American employees of a large financial institution—Tina Pardon (MaameYaa Boafo), Noni Tariq (Shavonna Banks), and Theodore “Big Time” Southmore (Biko Eisen-Martin)—stand waiting for the elevator after their lunch break. When Theodore, overhearing, chuckles at something Noni says, she shoots back at this tall, well-spoken stranger: “This long-assed niggah here cain’t push his big flat nose in my business.” Poof! went my suspension of disbelief.

After the trio gets into the capacious elevator (things must be very slow at Peabody Resterly and Lowe or else they have a skeletal staff), they are joined by John Thomas Resterly (Martin Kushner), the middle-aged CEO, from whom Tina does all she can to hide her face. The elevator takes its sweet time to reach its destination, allowing Resterly the opportunity to spew biased generalities about the world’s different peoples, noting that blacks and browns “are indispensable” as the world’s Atlas—“holding the world on their shoulders while the rest of us . . . climb up their backs and into the promised land.” This Atlas image recurs often in what remains. Finally, after Resterly and Noni exit, the elevator creeps upward again until BANG!! It crashes to a halt, leaving it aslant, its passengers stunned.

Biko Eisen-Martin and MaameYaa Boaf in 'Lift' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Biko Eisen-Martin and MaameYaa Boaf in ‘Lift’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Tina and Theodore must either find a way out or wait patiently to be rescued, with the danger of the cables snapping at any moment. We learn eventually from the offstage voice of a nearby victim with a smart phone that a terrorist attack (not from the usual suspects, by the way) is responsible, fires are raging, and many have been killed. Why someone else’s phone can get this information but not Tina’s or Theodore’s (who actually never produces one) is not explained. Meanwhile we are stuck with Tina and Theodore—whom she insists, to his growing frustration, on calling Southmore, an awful name that sounds like “sophomore”—for the remainder of this bloated, two hours-plus drama. (Note: When I saw the play, it had an intermission. I’ve learned that, along with some other tightening, the intermission has been removed, cutting the running time to an hour and forty-five minutes).

When the elevators were installed, Theodore had been on the maintenance staff (from which he worked himself up, using basketball as his springboard—don’t ask), so he’s a veritable fount of information about all the security measures installed—including soundproofing and phone restrictions—making it nearly impossible to get help. Not to worry, his Swiss Army knife is handy, and with Tina’s wrists of steel helping unscrew a wall plaque—that’s what work in a family bakery can do for you (if, indeed, that’s where she strengthened her muscles)—he manages to open the ceiling hatch.

Everything that follows is either predictable or unbelievable, so why bother with the details? Still, I can’t resist noting that people stuck in neighboring elevators seem to have been able to pop their hatches (your screwdriver: don’t leave home without it!) because we hear a whole lot of badly acted offstage shouting from supposedly soundproof boxes. We also overhear (because they’re obviously screamed for our listening pleasure) two personal dramas, one concluding in a suicide when a guy finds out . . .  Nah. You’d think I was joshing.

To top it all off, the play, like all those movies about people trapped in elevators (I assure you, they exist), is not only about how people survive (or not) in such dire circumstances (bathroom needs and sex are de rigeur); it’s just as much about the power dynamic in black male-female relationships, starting when Theodore shows discomfort with Tina’s dating a white guy. Mosley does not stop with this, though, and throws a cornucopia of family issues into the conversation, much of it  intended to explain Theodore’s dope addiction (as if he does not have enough to worry about).

But wait, there is also a detailed narrative about what Tina, an Americanized woman of Somalian birth, had to do to earn enough money to aid her poor parents and also pay for her tuition at Princeton, from which she graduated magna cum laude (the last word of which the actress mispronounces).  I won’t reveal what she did to earn her money—it, too, challenges credence—but it does have to do with why she earlier hid her face.

It’s a shame, but the only lift you’re likely to appreciate from this exercise in theatrical improbability is the one you’ll get when you rise to take your leave.

Lift
59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59 Street
Through November 11

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

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Review: Broadway’s On The Town

October 28th, 2014 View Comment(s)

by Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler

'On The Town' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway  Blog.)

‘On The Town’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

A star has been born on Broadway this season at the Lyric Theatre. Unfortunately you won’t see him onstage because it’s choreographer Joshua Bergasse, who has breathed new life into On The Town, the iconic American musical first staged by Jerome Robbins.

Megan Fairchild and the cast of 'On the Town' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Megan Fairchild and the cast of ‘On the Town’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Following the antics of Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) and Ozzie (Clyde Alves), three sailors on leave in the Big Apple, On The Town is a celebration of the American songbook and an era of big, splashy musicals. Gabey quickly spots the girl of his dreams on a poster, “Miss Turnstiles” aka Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild), and sets about finding her in the big city. The trio splits up and they each find their own love interests. Chip hails a cab from a big-voiced broad, Hildy (Alysha Umphress) while Ozzie stumbles across Claire De Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), a sexually starved woman of means at the American Museum of Natural History. Their stories unfold in classic musical theater fashion, with sweeping dance sequences, lots of shtick, and a resounding orchestra helmed by music director/conductor James Moore.

Originally inspired by Robbins’ 1944 ballet Fancy Free, which he created for the American Ballet Theater, On The Town was expanded into a full book musical the same year with the help of music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (both of whom appeared in the original production). Multiple revivals have ensued, including the 1998 short-lived production that helped launch the career of Jesse Tyler Ferguson (of TV’s Modern Family).

Tony Yazbeck in 'On The Town' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Tony Yazbeck in ‘On The Town’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

This latest incarnation set sail earlier this summer under the direction of John Rando (Urinetown) with much of the same cast and creative team at Barrington Stage Company. Mr. Yazbeck as Gabey is the show’s narrative anchor and delivers a Tony-worthy performance overflowing with charm, impeccable dancing and a crooning voice that echoes the great Rat Pack. As his love interest, Ms. Smith brings her New York City Ballet experience to the stage and is ravishing in Bergasse’s complex and demanding sequences. It’s a bit underwhelming when she opens her mouth to speak, and one wonders if Gabey’s infatuation might fade if there was an Act III.

His sidekicks do due diligence, offering laughs, acrobatics and endearing vulnerability. They fare better than their female counterparts, who feel more like cutouts than fully realized characters. (Though Ms. Umprhress’s jazz inflections are worthy of her own show at 54 Below or another such venue.) The hardworking ensemble meets the demands of the choreography and delivers some quirky character performances, including a pocketful of quick-changing accents from Stephen DeRosa and scene-chewing turns from funny lady Jackie Hoffman, who would run off with the set if she could.

From a technical standpoint, On The Town neither reinvents itself nor pays homage to the splashy productions of yesteryear. Beowulf Boritt’s sets and projections feel flimsy and at times even distracting with the extensive use of transparent and reflective materials, assumingly used to add volume to the vacuous stage. Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Jason Lyons (lighting) fulfill their Technicolor duties in spades. It is all but a playground for Joshua Bergasse’s handiwork and a sweeping score that reminds us that New York truly is a helluva town.

On The Town
Lyric Theatre
213 West 42nd Street
Open-ended run

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at www.roodeloo.com and follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.

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Review — Lennon: Through a Glass Onion

October 27th, 2014 View Comment(s)

by contributor Samuel L. Leiter

lennongraphic

Considering the place of former Beatle John Lennon in New York’s cultural history, one would think it about time that Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, a jukebox tribute show (created in Sydney, Australia, in 1992 in honor of his songs and life), has finally made its way to a local stage. The show was conceived by and stars John R. Waters (not to be confused with the movie director of Hairspray), a 65-year-old English-born, Australian-raised singer-actor-guitarist who, with his Australian pianist-singer accompanist, Stewart D’Arrietta, has toured the show widely over the years, including a six-month stint on London’s West End.

Stewart D' Arrietta and John R. Waters in 'Lennon: Through a Glass Onion' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Stewart D’ Arrietta and John R. Waters in ‘Lennon: Through a Glass Onion’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The barebones show could not be simpler. D’Arrietta, who sings with a gravelly Tom Waits-like voice (in 2005 he portrayed Waits hereabouts in a cabaret show called Belly of a Drunken Piano), sits stage right at the ivories, wearing a fedora, while Waters stands stage left at a microphone, barely moving except to fetch and return the acoustic guitar he plays now and then.

Waters’s short-cropped silver hair frames a high cheekboned face suggesting a mash-up of Peter Finch, Paul Newman, and Paul Freeman, and he wears basic rocker black—jeans, T-shirt, leather jacket, and studded belt over his trim physique. When he sings, his hands hang at his sides, rarely moving; only when he speaks does he emphasize his words with gestures. The stage is bare, visual variety being offered chiefly by Anthony “Bazz” Barrett’s lighting—mainly varicolored smoky beams—with a minimum of projections, as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” A pianist, a mostly immobile singer in black, a guitar, thirty-four songs by Lennon or Lennon and Paul McCartney interlarded with chatter for around 75 uninterrupted minutes: and that’s all there is.

John R. Waters in 'Lennon: Through a Glass Onion' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

John R. Waters in ‘Lennon: Through a Glass Onion’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The chatter, spoken with a Lennonesque Liverpudlian accent, uses words from Lennon’s own commentaries, as well as some imaginary ones, providing a rambling, unchronological narrative of Lennon’s now familiar experiences (including the Beatles breakup, his involvement in radical politics, and the racist vitriol directed at Yoko Ono) and, as distortedly shown here, a sense of his mostly laid-back, cheeky personality. Waters does not, however, do anything else to impersonate Lennon, either in behavior or looks; there aren’t even the trademark round spectacles. While Waters’s spoken bits capture enough of Lennon to make the late singer’s presence credible, his singing, which does not radically reinterpret the canon, sometimes has a metallic raspiness, although this could partly be the fault of Adam Burbury’s sound design. Waters’s diction in certain songs is less precise than Lennon’s, and too many songs are just reaching their apex when the singer suddenly stops and launches into his next narrative interjection.

At this point, no playlist of Lennon songs will hold surprises, so you can expect to hear the standard repertoire, ranging from “A Day in the Life” to “Working Class Hero.” As you can imagine, the show concludes with “Imagine.” You’ll also hear four gun shots at the show’s beginning and conclusion, as if we needed to be reminded.

D’Arrietta supplies as many of the all-important background harmonies as possible to replicate something like the sound of the original recordings, and sings solo at several junctures. His piano playing, while impressive, tends at times to thump too heavily, which works better for the more raucous numbers than for the mellower ones.

If you know anything about John Lennon, you will not find anything revelatory here. The man has been so written about or described and depicted in movies, documentaries, and shows, that only younger audiences are likely to find the show educational. Still, we pay homage to the man, mostly because of the incredible songbook he left behind, but also because of the free-spirited way he lived his life, and, to a degree, because of the unfading aura of martyrdom surrounding him following his shooting 34 years ago. Just as those of us of a certain generation know where we were when J.F.K. was shot, so do many of us remember where we were when Lennon was slain by Mark David Chapman. I was at the Cherry Lane Theatre to see Album, a play about the music business, of all things, starring an upcoming young actor named Kevin Bacon. The cast announced the tragedy and devoted the performance to him.

The awesome musical legacy John Lennon left behind continues to blow our minds, and hearing one song after the other, with barely a frill to distract us from them, reminds us with almost unbearable poignancy of what a loss his early death meant. Lennon: Through a Glass Onion may not be the best show possible to commemorate his music, but hearing these songs again, even in this context, will not leave you unmoved.

Lennon: Through a Glass Onion
Union Square Theatre
100 E. 17th Street
Through February 22, 2015

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

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Categories: To See or Not To See

Review: Jacuzzi

October 24th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Samuel Leiter goes for a dip with the latest production from the Debate Society.

(l to r) Paul Thureen, Chris Lowell, Hannah Bos in 'Jacuzzi' (photo: Ben Arons via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Paul Thureen, Chris Lowell, Hannah Bos in ‘Jacuzzi’ (photo: Ben Arons via The Broadway Blog.)

Ars Nova is one of those intimate, creatively flexible venues, like the Soho Rep, where you never know what to expect when you enter the space. This is, after all, where a Russian-themed cabaret environment was created for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, and where a burlesque theater was imagined for Eager to Lose. With the Debate Society’s production of Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen’s Jacuzzi, a sometimes humorous, sometimes tense suspense drama with a faint whiff of Emlyn Williams’s Night Must Fall, the audience is placed in three rows of (uncomfortable) bentwood chairs along one long wall. Only a few inches away on the other long wall is the realistically detailed interior—designed by Laura Jellinek—of a ski chalet high in the Colorado mountains. The wide, narrow room, with sliding doors to the snowy exterior at stage right, is dominated by a practical hot tub used so extensively you’ll feel yourself getting pruney. Bradley King’s lighting creates shimmering reflections of the hot tub’s water on the wood-beamed ceiling. A period-perfect TV figures in the action and puts an accurate time stamp on the plot about to unfold.

It’s 1991 and the hot tub has recently been installed at the bequest of the chalet’s owner, Robert, a well-known child psychologist, who has yet to see it. Despite his reputation, he is lonely and alienated from his 26-year-old son, also Robert but insistent upon being called Bo (Chris Lowell). Hoping for reconciliation, he has paid Bo to join him for a father-son ski race. When Bo, dressed in the latest neon-bright skiing garb (costumes by Jessica Ford), arrives a day early, he finds a young couple calling themselves Helene (Bos) and Derek (Thureen) casually sprawling in the tub; he doesn’t notice it, but each is reading a copy of Making Bobby Robert, his dad’s once controversial book about the experimental methods he used to raise Bo, who views it as a constant embarrassment (“It’s great in Junior High to have everyone know about your first boner.”)

Helene and Derek seem unperturbed by Bo’s intrusion and allow him to assume they are renters (despite the imminence of his father’s visit, he never bothers to ask when they plan to leave). The tub seems to be the only spot of warmth in the otherwise freezing chalet (even though we later learn the couple has been there for weeks) so Bo, stripping to his skivvies, jumps right in. In no time, with the help of dad’s brandy, the whiny and self-absorbed Bo, who has no job and spends his time traveling, is bonding with his new, oddly laid-back buddies, even alluding to something nasty he did to a woman in Romania.

The following day, Robert helicopters in; thrilled to see the tub, he’s soon immersed. Helene and Derek (now calling himself Erik) behave as if they have been hired by a local home service company. But, by now, we realize something is definitely up with these mind-gamers, and that the big-haired Helene and the tall, lanky Erik, with his reddish beard and shoulder-length hippie locks, are anything but the cool, sweetly accommodating persons they pretend to be.

Robert, hated by the locals because of his messy divorce from Jackie, Bo’s mother, whose family is important thereabouts, has what he thinks is the hired help pack up the place in keeping with his divorce agreement. As they do so, we watch the strained father-son dynamic play out between this self-important, clueless windbag and his vacuous, overly entitled son. Each is so blind to any but their own selves—Robert has a disconcerting routine of openly flossing his teeth as a substitute for smoking—they are totally unable to sense there may be monsters in their midst.

As Helene and Erik, cowriters Bos and Thureen do an excellent job in capturing their characters’ spontaneous, easygoing friendliness, which only escalates their creep factor. They are perfectly balanced by the naturalistic, everyday behavior and line readings of Friedman and Lowell. Bos and Friedman both excelled in last season’s The Open House, directed by Oliver Butler, who also staged Jacuzzi, which benefits from his slow, deliberate pacing.

No clear motivations for the predatory couple’s evil are offered, even during Helene’s several voice-over, diary-like commentaries; they seem in it purely for their mutual pleasure, although a possibility of class envy lurks around the corners. At one point, Robert asks Helene what they do for fun, and she, lolling in the tub, enigmatically replies: “I guess . . . just doing stuff . . . like this.” This may be how many psychopaths actually operate, and it can certainly raise gooseflesh, but in conventional dramatic terms, where revenge, greed, or some other force usually drives wicked deeds, it leaves something to be desired.

I’m sitting on the edge of the tub about this one, but, because of the smooth performances and direction, I’m more inclined than not to recommend dipping your toes into Jacuzzi.

Jacuzzi
Ars Nova
511 W. 54th Street
Through November 8

Hannah Bos and Peter Friedman in 'Jacuzzi' (photo: Ben Arons via The Broadway Blog.)

Hannah Bos and Peter Friedman in ‘Jacuzzi’ (photo: Ben Arons via The Broadway Blog.)

Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit www.slleiter.blogspot.com.

 

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Review: The Fortress of Solitude

October 23rd, 2014 View Comment(s)
The Fortress of Solitude (photo: Doug Hamilton via The Broadway Blog.)

The Fortress of Solitude (photo: Doug Hamilton via The Broadway Blog.)

There is an old record player (remember, those?) placed at the foot of the stage. Dylan Ebdus (played by Adam Chanler-Berat) enters, puts on an old Motown-inspired vinyl, and begins to weave an emotional tale of friendship, race and the impact of music. That device remains a constant throughout the production of The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical by Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) and Itamar Moses (book) based on the novel by Jonathan Lethem. The story’s peeks and valleys follow Dylan as his visionary mother drags the family from Berkeley, California, to Gowanaus, Brooklyn—now gentrifically referred to as Boerum Hill. She quickly abandons the family and leaves Dylan with his emotionally distant artist father (Ken Barnett). He is one of the few white kids on the block and quickly strikes a friendship with Mingus Rude (played by Kyle Beltran), son of a has-been singer, Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo) and grandson of an urban preacher gone bad (André de Shields).

The Fortress of Solitude (photo: Doug Hamilton via The Broadway Blog.)

The Fortress of Solitude (photo: Doug Hamilton via The Broadway Blog.)

The Public Theater’s artistic director Oskar Eustis says, “The Fortress of Solitude embodies the things The Public Theater strives to achieve: it is a tremendously personal story that takes place within a larger social context, and a story that reveals how our most intimate relationships are shaped by history, class and race.” He’s absolutely right.

The largely linear plotline spends must of the first act with Dylan and Mingus as tweens as they discover comic books and navigate the social structure of the neighborhood. The show nearly veers off track into children’s theater territory, with the adult cast portraying pre-adolescent angst. Mingus takes up graffiti, tagging the city streets with his moniker, “dose,” a chilling foreshadow of the direction his life is headed. Eventually, Dylan places into a magnet high school, which sets him on a trajectory for a college education, while Mingus is left in the shadows. The second act is a more somber reflection of what happens when the cards are stacked against you and Mingus faces the ramifications of a family dispute gone terribly awry.

Mr. Friedman captures a spirit of authenticity with his Motown-inspired score, which is also peppered with contemporary musical theater anthems that are sure to bring tears to your eyes. But it is the heartfelt and achingly emotional performances of Mr. Berat, Mr. Beltran and the eclectic ensemble (special note should be made of Rebecca Naomi Jones’ spot-on performance of Dylan’s girlfriend Abby in Act 2) that breaks down the fortress walls and connects theatergoers to a timely topic rarely expressed so effectively on the stage.

 The Fortress of Solitude
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through November 2

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo

 

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Don’t Miss: ‘Found’ at Atlantic Theater Company

October 22nd, 2014 View Comment(s)
The cast of 'Found' (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Found’ (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

The New York theater season is proving to be filled with an invigorating sense of creativity, including the latest venture from the team that brought us [title of show]. With a book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree and music and lyrics by Eli Bolin, Found is an original musical based on scores of surprising and eccentric discarded notes and letters that have been “found” in the real world by every-day people.

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Nick Blaemire in 'Found' (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Wilbert Weed and Nick Blaemire in ‘Found’ (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia via The Broadway Blog.)

Inspired by actual events, the show follows Davy who, along with his two best friends, is lost and broke. When he finds a strangely revealing note on his windshield meant for someone else, it sparks an outlandish idea that finds him and his compatriots on a wild, comedic journey.

By bringing a host of real notes and letters from Davy Rothbart’s popular Found Magazine to irreverent theatrical life, this insightful new musical tells a story of ambition, betrayal and loyalty while celebrating the weirdness in all of us. And the critics agree. Raves have been pouring in since the show’s October 14 opening. Here’s a snapshot of what people are saying:

“Forget texting and Tumblr: The ebullient new musical “Found” is a throwback to the good old days when reminders were scribbled on scraps of paper, kiss-offs on Post-Its, excuses on the backs of envelopes.” New York Post

“The endearing new musical Found is literally scrappy: It’s organized around messages found on real-life notes, signs and other misplaced or discarded missives, as collected by Davy Rothbart in a magazine he has published sporadically since 2001. These scribbles offer glimpses into other people’s minds—funny, angry, weird, poignant—and have been organized into a paper trail for the plot of Found to follow. Nick Blaemire, sweet and bouncy as a gum ball, plays a fictionalized version of Davy; Barrett Wilbert Weed (in excellent voice) and Daniel Everidge are the decent-hearted roommates who help him follow his dream, and Betsy Morgan is the producer who tempts him to Hollywood.Six tip-top actors, including Community’s Danny Pudi and the limber Andrew Call, play dozens of side characters and bump up the energy with choreography, by Monica Bill Barnes, that adorably evokes real people dancing.” Time Out

“Visually, the show is a lot of fun to watch. David Korins’ amusing wallpaper set is plastered with blow-ups of the hand-written missives. Darrel Maloney’s projections keep coming at you fast and furious. And clever choreographer Monica Bill Barnes has drilled the cast in stylized arm and leg movements that are more interesting and wittier than formal dance steps.” Variety

“The ensemble of six are remarkable at playing and differentiating dozens of other characters — some just the one-sentence “voices” of found notes. Everything technical — from the unusually natural sound design to the orchestrations played by a combo of six arranged in little dugouts on the set, like more found objects — is top-notch, with special notice to the movement by modern dance choreographer Monica Bill Barnes.” Vulture.com

Found
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
Through November 9

Proving to be one of the more difficult tickets to get, consider entering the Found lottery. Click Here for details.

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Review: The Belle of Amherst

October 20th, 2014 View Comment(s)

Contributor Samuel Leiter goes on a poet’s journey with The Belle of Amherst starring Joely Richardson.

Joely Richardson in 'The Belle of Amherst' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Joely Richardson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Emily Dickinson we see in William Luce’s one-woman biodrama, The Belle of Amherst, may not conform to any preconceived notions you have about the reclusive New England poetess. Aside from her immediate family, the real Dickinson (1830-1886) had barely any concourse with others except from behind a closed door from the late 1860s on. Luce, however, could not have written the play without taking liberties; his Emily is talkative, even gregarious. Despite announcing her fright at meeting strangers, she almost immediately warms to the task of hosting us on a two-hour ramble through her life.

amherst2Luce’s well-researched play, much of it based on Dickinson’s diaries and correspondence, premiered on Broadway in 1976, starring the great Julie Harris (whose Tony-winning performance can be viewed on YouTube); it is now receiving its first New York revival, at the Westside Theatre, with Emily in the elegantly capable hands of Joely Richardson, she of England’s fabled Redgrave lineage, under the smooth direction of Steve Cosson.

Emily, garbed in white, her auburn hair in a bun and parted severely down the middle, inhabits the Homestead, the family’s stately home, represented by designer Antje Ellerman’s sparsely furnished box set. Sometimes she behaves as if she’s chatting with an unseen family member or visitor; for the most part, though, she speaks directly to the audience. Her prose narrative frequently bleeds into a recitation of her poems, but there are plenty of opportunities for the poems to be isolated as specific examples of her writing, such as when she tries selecting one to submit for potential publication.

Joely Richardson in 'The Belle of Amherst' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Joely Richardson in ‘The Belle of Amherst’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Displaying a warm conviviality, replete with wryly idiosyncratic commentary, she shares her recipe for black cake; talks of her beloved siblings, Austin and Lavinia (“Vinnie”); describes her stern but loving father, and emotionally distant mother; recalls her schooldays, during which she reveals her religious skepticism; chats about the considerably older men who courted her (she and Vinnie remained spinsters); grieves over the death of Austin’s son; explains her lengthy correspondence with the famous editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and of her disappointment when he chose not to publish her work; introduces significant friends and influences; reads from a newspaper the kind of sensational story her sister loved; expounds upon her love of words, saying that she “raises her hat to” the best ones, like “phosphorescent”; and otherwise touches on her relatively unexceptional Victorian life of quiet desperation, most of it lived within the same home in which she was born and where she died. Her anecdotal observations are underlined by David Weiner’s lighting, which seems driven by the need to heighten each alteration in the character’s emotional stakes.

The great tragedy of Dickinson’s life was her inability to find a publisher (only a handful of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and even those were revised by editors); at one point, she cites a literary contemporary who, despite his being constantly rejected, stuck to his guns and became a success. His name? Walt Whitman.

Although the piece begins in 1883, when Emily was fifty-three, the play moves freely around in time, ending in 1886, the year of her death. Emily’s attitudes are girlish, gossipy, naughty, sad, depressed, enthralled, hopeful, and even flirtatious (as a 17-year-old at a dance), as the circumstances warrant. There is definitely something rather modern about her, as when she confesses to having deliberately created her image as a local eccentric; her habit of dressing in white, for example, is a crucial part of her self-created persona.

The poems, lovingly and intelligently read, touch on themes of love, immortality, nature, and death. Richardson clarifies their ambiguities and syntactical difficulties to make them dramatically accessible. Tall and willowy, with razor-sharp features, she makes full use of her expressively graceful hands, neck, and body (she specifically requested that her costume—designed by William Ivey Long—leave her forearms and upper chest exposed for greater expressivity).

Perhaps because she was suffering from the sniffles at the preview I attended, and because she occasionally stumbled over her words (two hours of them, with a single intermission), Richardson’s performance resisted transcendence and, except for passing moments, remained earthbound. Nevertheless, she was always compelling, and for that I raise my hat to this latest belle of Amherst.

The Belle of Amherst
Westside Theatre
407 W. 43rd Street
Through January 25

Samuel L. Leiter is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit www.slleiter.blogspot.com.

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Review: It’s Only a Play

October 18th, 2014 View Comment(s)
The cast of 'It's Only a Play' (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: F. Scott Schafer via The Broadway Blog.)

Broadway is going meta and I wonder if producers are interested in plot lines that don’t involve a life in the theater. Earlier this month we saw the opening of The Country House by Donald Margulies, a new play about a family of actors ensconced in the Berkshires. This week Michael C. Hall stepped into the role of Hedwig, a star-turn performance about a gender-bending performance artist. And of course, we’ve still got Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams traipsing along in the revival of the revival of Cabaret. But none of them tackle the theme of a life on the boards with such biting humor as Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play. Dating back to 1978 and originally titled Broadway Broadway, the script has gotten a 21 century makeover with no additional writing credits, but I would guess that the playwright had some keen millennial eyes on the prize, as this latest version is peppered with references to Lady Gaga, One Direction and other chart-toppers.

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Megan Mullally and Nathan Lane in ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

The play centers on the opening night of Peter Austin’s (Matthew Broderick) new play as he and others gather at the home of lead producer Julia Budder (Megan Mullally) to await the reviews. Along for the ride are his longtime friend, James Wiker (Nathan Lane), who has returned from L.A. and a long TV stint to see his best friend’s work; leading lady Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing); critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), who has another agenda on his mind; British Wunderkind director Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) and a fresh-of-the-bus coat attendee, Micah Stock.

Together, the cast rattles through McNally’s script, which is packed with one-liners and smart commentary about the business. The audience seemed revved up for a Lane-Broderick reunion, as the team appeared so famously together in The Producers. Mr. Broderick also appeared opposite Ms. Mullally in the 1995 revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. There’s a lot of history on that stage and when Mr. Lane entered for the first time, the audience burst into applause as if he was theater royalty. By the final curtain call (yes, there’s an actual curtain, along with a lux set by Scott Pask), he’s earned every last clap.

The supporting cast for the most part keeps up. Mr. Stock makes a charming Broadway debut as a naïve actor who has stepped into the world he’s dreamt about. Ms. Channing captures both the humor and gravitas of an actress of a certain age who can no longer rely on “pretty.” But Mr. Grint’s stomping and hair-pulling turn as the director desperate for a bad review is somewhat of a self-prophecy. It is an unwieldy performance untamed by director Jack O’Brien’s otherwise deft hand.

If you’re looking for a light-hearted night at the theater—about the theater—then head to the Gerald Schoenfeld where this cast of Broadway vets and their up-and-coming counterparts offer laughs, perhaps a swelling tear or two, and a gentle reminder that a play (even though it’s only a play) is a beautiful thing.

It’s Only a Play
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Through January 4

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from 'It's Only a Play' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

Rupert Grint, Megan Mullally, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, and Stockard Channing in a scene from ‘It’s Only a Play’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog).

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Categories: To See or Not To See

Exclusive First Look: Side Show

October 17th, 2014 View Comment(s)
'Side Show' (photo by Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo by Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

Have you tired of those happy-go-lucky musicals packed with leggy chorus girls and perfectly coifed gents tapping their way through a perky Cole Porter dance break? Fear not, the dark, underbelly of show business is arriving on Broadway this fall and it’s called Side Show.

In an unprecedented move, the creative team and producers of Side Show invited press into the St. James Theatre for a first look at the much-anticipated musical revival by Bill Russell (Pageant) and Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls). The original production, which opened in 1997, ran for only 91 performances but has been a cult favorite ever since.

Based on the real-life story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made a name for themselves on the Vaudeville circuit, the plot  is set against the backdrop of 1920s and ’30s show business, seamlessly blending the worlds of carnival, vaudeville and Hollywood glamour.

Speaking of Hollywood, notable film director Bill Condon is at Side Show’s helm. Condon is known for his screen adaptation of Dreamgirls, which won two Academy Awards and three Golden Globes. The stellar production team includes sets by David Rockwell, costumes by Paul Tazewell and special make-up effects designed by Dave and Lou Elsey.

Previews begin October 28 with an official opening scheduled for November 17.

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

'Side Show' (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Side Show’ (photo: Matthew Wexler via The Broadway Blog.)

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Categories: The Buzz