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Review: The Jacksonian

November 27th, 2013 Comments off

Contributor Lindsay B . Davis takes a hard look at family disfunction through the lens of award-winning playwright Beth Henley. 

The cast of "Jacksonian." (photo: Monique Carboni)

The cast of “Jacksonian.” (photo: Monique Carboni)

There is a moment in The Jacksonian, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Beth Henley’s latest play presented by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, when 16-year-old Rosy Perch (newcomer Juliet Brett in a breakthrough performance) sits at a seedy motel bar table hunched over a piece of Baked Alaska. Her face is close to the cake and the whipped cream peaks look like an extension of the acne in full bloom on her face. Rosy picks at it with little interest under the penetrating eye of a lascivious bartender Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) who grabs the plate and fork to suck down a bite of cake himself. This is not a girl who gets to enjoy dessert. Henley (Crimes of the Heart, The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Miss Firecracker Contest) clearly has an appetite for humor in the bleakest of places.

Rosy is heavily burdened by events involving her well-off dentist father Bill (Ed Harris) and stay-at-home mother Susan (Amy Madigan) who are recently separated in her birthday month of May, which leads to Bill taking up residence at The Jacksonian Motel and encountering Fred and his breathy fiancé, hotel maid Eva White (Glenne Headly). The time, Rosy narrates to the audience, is “not Christmas, near around, before, before Christmas…and a murder happened…” This noir tinted murder mystery set in 1964 Jackson, Mississippi between the months of May and December (though recounted through Rosy’s eyes in non linear fashion) goes to dark, twisted places and yet its characters, who do grotesque things with ugly fervor, do not feel the slightest bit evil.

Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in "Jacksonian." (photo: Monique Carboni)

Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in “Jacksonian.” (photo: Monique Carboni)

This is largely due to the dream team of actor heavyweights anchoring the production and their ability to flesh out characters that are impossible to judge or condemn. The operatic Ed Harris (Fool for Love, Taking Sides, Precious Sons plus more than 50 film performances, including Pollock, The Truman Show, and Game Change), as the self proclaimed “painless dentist,” prides himself for treating patients with the latest in mid 20th century anesthesia while getting high as a kite on whatever remains in his toolkit. His spiral into a suffering abyss of booze, chloroform, Novocain, sex, and violence is nauseating, nuanced and guttural. At times, it is also very funny.

Ms. Madigan (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Lucky Spot, Twice in a Lifetime, Field of Dreams), whose Susan speaks as if she has a copy of Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique on her bedside table— “I am not an artist. I am a wife, a mother, a non-entity”—is so powerful on stage, with her triple threat vocal, physical, and emotional heft, that all I can ask is why she doesn’t do more theater. Ms. Headly’s Eva is a floozy working every angle for a dime or, more specifically, a diamond ring. Her fractured innocence and racist Southern ignorance make Eva a very difficult character to watch. I found myself wondering (in between laughs) what desperate circumstances could have lead her to this place, though Henley does not bring any of that back story into the piece.

Pullman (Oleanna, The Goat, Peter & Jerry on Broadway plus an array of films from Spaceballs to Sleepless In Seattle), draws Fred, a character that uses colorful compulsive lies (from his “heart muscular constriction” to his near Guinness record sword swallowing abilities) with sly, constipated charm. He also happens to be running from the law and bonds with Rosy, who finds comfort doing her French homework in his bar as if it is her kitchen table. Their connection is weighted, dangerous. Rosy, with her disheveled hair, frumpy outfits, skin condition and husky voice, is not a pretty girl by any conventional standards and believes her ugliness serves “the good of human kind.” To Fred, she is prey. As the atmosphere grows more chilling, Rosy’s direct addresses to the audience are as central to understanding the story as they are to knowing how it feels to be a teenager who longs and aches to be rescued.

Walt Spangler’s set design is simple and effective. The motel’s bar sits stage right with dark wood and dingy Christmas lights that could be there all year round. Stage left is Bill’s motel room, dank and dismal, while even further stage left sits an ice machine. Open. Scoop. Slam! Characters who use it help sustain the rhythm and tension that director Robert Falls (Artistic Director of The Goodman Theatre whose Broadway directing credits include Desire Under the Elms, Talk Radio, The Rose Tattoo and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) builds into the production. Falls gives his actors ample room to play and makes no apologies for Henley’s darkly comedic script. Together they originated the production at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012 with Harris, Madigan, Pullman and Headly, whose trust and chemistry on stage is reflective of the time spent developing the show out west.

The Jacksonian
The Acorn on Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through December 22

Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.

Big Lies in Murky Waters

November 26th, 2013 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler reviews Big Fish and Lies My Father Told Me.

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in "Big Fish." (photo: Paul Kolnik)

Kate Baldwin and Norbert Leo Butz in “Big Fish.” (photo: Paul Kolnik)

An unusual theme appears on the New York stage this fall as two musicals, each in its own way, tackles the subjects of fatherhood and deception. Big Fish, a new musical based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and subsequent film, is a splashy hodgepodge of forgettable music by Andrew Lippa set against the backdrop of a fantastical world created by scenic designer Julian Crouch and costume designer William Ivey Long (with some blurry projections by 59 Productions). The story brings to life the bigger-than-life tales of Edward Bloom as recounted to his son. Downtown, you can catch Lies My Father Told Me (based on the works of Ted Allan and film by the same name), a memory play with music that follows the musings of lead character David as he recalls his tender relationship with his grandfather and the volatile verbal abuses of his father. Neither show manages to find its emotional core, despite moments of honest theatricality that occasionally bubble to the surface.

There were big expectations for Big Fish, which opened in early October and has already posted its closing notice. (Its last performance is scheduled for December 29.) With Tony winners Susan Stroman as director/choreographer and Norbert Leo Butz taking on the lead role, it seemed like a sure-fire hit. But Broadway overflows with rough waters and Big Fish never found its audience. As Edward Bloom, Butz pulls out all the stops and may well be one of the hardest working men on Broadway right now as he attempts to carry the show along. I rooted for Bloom as he tackled the mammoth tales of a life fully lived, trying time and again to impart his wide-eyed enthusiasm on his son before it’s too late.

But Andrew Lippa’s uninspired score doesn’t do him any favors. Co-stars Kate Baldwin as his dedicated wife, Sandra, and Bobby Steggert as his beleaguered son, Will, create a compelling and conflicted family unit, but the show’s ensemble appears to be floating in the nether regions of someone’s imagination and none are tethered to the same reality.  During the particular performance that I saw, they appeared vacant and detached (with the exception of cameos from the ever boisterous Brad Oscar and Broadway newcomer Ciara Renée).

Stroman, who achieved astronomical commercial success with The Producers and critical acclaim with The Scottsboro Boys, is overshadowed by the production’s “wow factor.” I knew I was in trouble when the visually engineered trees blowing in the upper reaches of the set enraptured me. The subtlety and intelligence of Stroman’s choreography is lost in The Neil Simon Theatre and a sea of yellow daffodils. Big Fish is a big disappointment and a harrowing reminder that a Broadway hit is a tough fish to catch.

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv  in "Lies My Father Told Me." (photo: Michael Priest)

Jonathan Hadley, Russel Arden Koplin and Jonathan Raviv in “Lies My Father Told Me.” (photo: Michael Priest)

Unlike Big Fish, the National Yiddish Theatre’s production of Lies My Father Told Me relies on more traditional storytelling and fares marginally better than its uptown counterpart. The story follows the memories of David as he recounts his childhood in an immigrant community in early 20th century Montreal. As older David, Joe Paparella is tasked with the nearly impossible task of narrating a series of scenes that individually resonate but cumulatively doesn’t offer much dramatic arc.

At the center of the conflict is David’s father Harry (Jonathan Raviv), an angry wannabe inventor who is constantly borrowing money and making empty promises. Young David finds solace in his relationship with his grandfather Zaida (Chuck Karel). This is “Tevye-light” and Karel exhibits the mannerisms and anecdotes you’d expect to see in a production of Fiddler on the Roof but without the fire in his belly. Add the grumpy neighbor Mrs. Tanner (overzealously played by Renée Bang Allen), young David’s beaten down mother Annie (Russel Arden Koplin) and uncle (Jonathan Hadley) and a handful of locals and you’ve got yourself a Canadian Street Scene.

Elan Kunin’s score has moments of great theatricality, from the opening “Rags, Clothes, Bottles” to Harry’s rage-filled “What’s With The Knees” and Annie’s wistful 11 o’clock ballad “Maybe Someday,” but the larger company numbers are undermined by choreographer Merete Muenter’s staging. Muenter seems wholly determined to have the cast of actor/singers turn, shuffle and knee-slap their way around John C. Dinning’s towering set. Their movements are often without purpose or motivation—nor do they feel inspired by the era. Director Bryna Wasserman (who also adapted the piece) is unable to take the reigns and ultimately delivers a production filled only with glimmers of truth.

Big Fish
Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
Through December 29

Lies My Father Told Me
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Avenue
Through December 15

Bebe Neuwirth’s “Stories… in NYC: Live at 54 Below”

November 22nd, 2013 Comments off

Contributor Scott Redman gives a listen to Bebe Neuwirth’s new release, Stories… in NYC.

Bebe Neuwirth's "Stories... in New York: Live at 54 Below"

Bebe Neuwirth’s “Stories… in New York: Live at 54 Below”

Bebe Neuwirth, the sultry sounding Broadway triple threat dancer /singer/actress, has recently released a live recording of her performance at New York City’s iconic cabaret space, 54 Below.

Stories… in NYC: Live at 54 Below (available as digital download or CD) showcases the unchained power of a true performer who does everything in her body to portray songs with passion and truth. Neuwirth is dynamically accompanied by  music director and pianist Scott Cady. The 19 tracks include songs from Broadway as well as standards and contemporary selections.

What makes this recording astounding is Neuwirth’s ability to communicate explicitly without regret overflowing with raw passion. Neuwirth starts the evening singing “I Love a Piano”, her old audition song that gave her the opportunity to perform on Broadway, as she recalls her first audition for the musical Dancin’. Neuwirth’s signature vibrato flourishes like the lights of Times Square. Her quirky delivery is often self-depricating as she commits to the audience to perform story songs that have a personal connection to her life as a dancer. There is chatter between musical numbers as Neuwirth engages the audience.

Musical highlights include Kurt Weill’s “Susan’s Dream,” which examines the relationship between dreams and reality. Neuwirth’s voice is primed with a haunting tone as she uncovers the staleness in everyday life. “Mr. Bojangles” (written by Jerry Jeff Walker) tells the story of a southern gypsy dancer who has led a life entertaining those around him. Here Neuwirth isn’t just performing — she is embodying the song, which sounds like a conversation with an old friend. She doesn’t just sing of “Mr. Bojangles” but knows him and understands the pain and joy in his life. “Mr. Bojangles. Mr. Bojangles… dance.”

Neuwirth particularly delivers the Kander and Ebb songs “And the World Goes ‘Round” and “Ring Them Bells” with exceptional aplomb. It is here that the dancer inside Neuwirth relaxes and embodies the music and lyrics as if she is slipping into a snug leather glove. The rhythms come naturally to a dancer who has lived through John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs and shows (Neuwirth won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Velma Kelly in the 1996 revival of Chicago).

Stories… in NYC offers an exceptional showcase of Bebe Neuwirth’s talent, which is a rare power to convey an array of emotional values and give meaning to lyrics. The final song “Shiver Me Timbers” demonstrates this immense power. The balance between brassy and quiet moments of her singing allows the listener to experience the full vigor what a talented performer with a simple piano accompaniment can deliver to an audience. Her approach is wholly unique and uses the sentiments of New York City to tell her stories. Keep telling them Bebe.

Stories… in NYC can be purchased at amazon.com or on iTunes.

Here’s a rare look at Bebe’s silly side as she reinterprets “All That Jazz” for Musical Madlibs.

THEATER BUFF: Matthew Montelongo of “One Night”

November 20th, 2013 Comments off

Every third Wednesday of the month, a fabulous actor/singer/dancer fills out contributor Tom Mizer’s nosey little questionnaire and offers a glimpse of what he looks like from a bit closer than the mezzanine. For November, we’re seriously thankful for our handsome, talented man of the month…

Matthew Montelongo. Image via Matthew Montelongo.

Matthew Montelongo. Image via Matthew Montelongo.

Name: Matthew Montelongo

Hometown: I was born and raised in Independence, MO.

Current Show/Role: I’m currently performing numerous roles (they all have mustaches and they’re all kind of jerks) in One Night at The Cherry Lane Theatre.

The best part of the show I’m working on now is:  The best part of being an actor in One Night at The Cherry Lane is that I finally am working at a stop on the Sex and the City Tour. I kid! Kind of. Seriously though, working at such a storied theatre on what might be the most beautiful block in Manhattan makes going to work every night just a little bit more thrilling.

The most challenging job in show business I ever had was:  I was in a production of a play called God’s Ear a few years back in which I had to wear six inch stilleto heels (actually, they were probably more like four inch pumps, but heck, who doesn’t lie about size?). I learned two things whilst doing that play: I have very pretty legs and no sense of balance.

Read more…

Categories: Theater Buff Tags:

Spider-Man Swings Out of NYC and Heads to Las Vegas

November 19th, 2013 Comments off
Justin Matthew Sargent as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

Justin Matthew Sargent as Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark, the Broadway spectacular that has been filled with controversy, crisis and spectacle , is moving to Las Vegas.  After more than three years on Broadway, the show play its final performance at the Foxwoods Theatre on January 4, 2014.  Additional information on the upcoming Las Vegas production will be announced in the weeks to come.  SPIDER-MAN Turn Off The Dark is currently the 16th highest grossing Broadway production of all time, having taken in more than $200 million at the box office.  The show has been seen by approximately two million fans, and will have played 1,268 performances by the time it takes its final bow at the Foxwoods Theatre.

Producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah J. Harris commented, “Our years on Broadway have afforded us the opportunity to build an internationally recognized brand, and Las Vegas, with its year-round stream of tourists seeking the world’s best entertainment, is the natural home for this next incarnation.  To prepare for the Las Vegas production, we have tasked the creative team to push the boundaries even further, taking the same story and making it sleeker, bolder, and more spectacular than ever.”

SPIDER-MAN shattered the record for the highest single-week gross of any show in Broadway history for the week ending Sunday, January 1, 2012, playing to 17,375 audience members (100.02% capacity of The Foxwoods Theatre) and setting the weekly box office record of $2,941,790.

Will the reinvented SPIDER-MAN wreak havoc in Las Vegas, or will the creative team finally be able to harness the technical challenges and storytelling to present a hero-worthy theatrical experience? It’s a cliff-hanger!

Last Chance: “The Landing” at The Vineyard Theatre

November 19th, 2013 Comments off
Julia Murney and David Hyde Pierce in "The Landing" at The Vineyard Theatre. (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Julia Murney and David Hyde Pierce in “The Landing” at The Vineyard Theatre. (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Extended through November 24, it’s your last chance to see a charming (albeit somewhat melancholy) new musical at The Vineyard Theatre. The Landing features book and lyrics by Greg Pierce and music by Broadway legend John Kander.

The one-act musical moves swiftly between three scenes: “Andra,” “The Brick,” and “The Landing.” With a cast of four, which includes Tony Award-winner David Hyde Pierce and Broadway belter Julia Murney, each story in it’s own way explores the theme of loss. From a young boy longing for a father figure to a stylized fantasy piece and the final scenario in which a gay father sees the cryptic vision of his own future, The Landing gently trots along, with the most tender and honest moments delivered from Pierce.

Bobbie, who’s dozens of directing credits span both Broadway and off-Broadway, seamlessly maneuvers the action, while choreographer Josh Rhodes (currently represented on Broadway with First Date and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella) makes the most out of pedestrian movement and even throws in some ballroom for Murney and Pierce, who joyously meet the challenge.

Paul Anthony Stewart and Frankie Seratch in "The Landing." (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Paul Anthony Stewart and Frankie Seratch in “The Landing.” (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Where The Landing slightly falters is with Kander’s score, which feels more like an exercise than a fully realized piece. It lacks the defining sound of recent works such as The Scottsboro Boys and A Family Affair. It is neither hummable or haunting, yet his astute craftsmanship manages to keep The Landing afloat.

Critics responded somewhat warmly to the show, which has been extended through November 24. And while it may not be earth-shattering theater, catching the likes of such high caliber talent in an intimate setting is not to be missed.

Here’s what the critics had to say…

“Mr. Kander’s music for “The Landing,” which opened on Wednesday night in an elegantly slender production directed by Walter Bobbie, is on a smaller scale. Often it has the chiming simplicity of children’s songs. But linked and woven into the book and lyrics by the young playwright Greg Pierce (in Mr. Kander’s first full collaboration with a new partner since Mr. Ebb’s death in 2004), these innocent melodies shade into sorrow and sourness, a bit like those tinkling music-box motifs so beloved by makers of horror movies.” The New York Times

“Throughout all three [stories], Kander’s music mixes his street-smart show-biz signature with yearning romantic ballads and, here’s the surprise, snatches of rhythmic colors that suggest Sondheim. Pierce’s characters all have detailed, original specificity beneath their everyday lives. Kander recently described his new collaborator as “a present someone gave me.” It appears the gift, in this small package, was also given to us.” Newsday

“Directed with a nimble hand and a full heart by Walter Bobbie, and featuring the talents of David Hyde Pierce (Greg’s uncle) and some lesser-known but similarly facile performers, TheLanding consists of three vignettes exploring love and loss, discovery and disenchantment. The parts are uneven, but the whole is haunting, startlingly original and deeply moving.” USA Today

The Landing
The Vineyard Theatre
108 Est 15th Street
Through November 24

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more at roodeloo.com.

Review: “NORWAY PLAYS: Drama Beyond Ibsen”

November 17th, 2013 Comments off

Contributor Lindsay B. Davis dives into the cold waters of Scandinavian theater, discovering steamy surrealism from the post-Ibsen generation of notable playwrights. 

norway1In June 2013, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry published a Power Point deck online entitled, Norwegian Drama Now. It presents biographies of 14 chosen contemporary (some established, others up-and-coming) playwrights from Norway whom the Ministry would like to see gain international exposure. Amongst them are Maria Tryti Vennerod and Fredrik Brattberg, both previous winners of Norway’s prestigious Ibsen Award for drama. Vennerod’s More (original title: Meir) and Brattberg’s The Returning (original title: Tilbakekomstene) are part of a double bill currently running at Theater for the New City called Norway Plays: Drama Beyond Ibsen, a co-production by the Scandinavian American Theater Company (SATC) and NYC-based production company Ego Actus.

The challenge for Norwegian dramatists is not just creating universal works with global appeal beyond its country of 5 million people, but surviving comparisons to Henrik Ibsen, Norway’s hometown hero who also happens to be considered the father of modern drama and realism. The author of such classics as A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler may be dead over 100 years (he completed his last play in 1899 and died in 1906) but his works are amongst the most produced and highly regarded in the world. These are some large, Shakespearean-size Scandinavian shoes to fill.

According to longtime Norwegian arts journalist and critic Idalou Larsen, for many years Ibsen, “cast a shadow over new young Norwegian authors who had problems freeing themselves from his way of writing.” Vennerod’s and Brattberg’s one acts of approximately 60 minutes in length (performed back-to-back with one intermission) do not suffer that problem. Both break from realist conventions by way of non-linear storytelling and are influenced by their contemporary Jon Fosse, a Norwegian writer known for creating characters that partake in rhythmic, repetitious exchanges. Lineage aside, these are both plays with a distinct voice—subversive works of theater that embrace the art form for its potential as boundary transcending entertainment and social commentary.

The Returning introduces us to an attractive, middle-aged, suburban couple (Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz and Andrew Langton, referred to simply as The Mother and The Father) living in a world of parallel conversations with no connection. Mother is concerned with her knitting and Father is more focused on the neighbor’s lost dog. “I’m looking for the neighbor’s pooch,” he repeats, in one of the phrases that seem slightly lost in translation. Once the couple breaks the fourth wall in direct address to the audience, we learn they are coping with the death of their teenage son, Gustav (the very appealing Kristoffer Tonning). The comedic nature of the piece takes a while to unfold, but under Henning Hegland’s direction (founder/co-artistic director SATC) the characters find their rhythms—oddball representations of the familiar family next door.

The repetition occurs in dialogue as well as action, as Gustav “returns” again and again from his death. With each return, the parents’ reactions to seeing a bloodied son, now back from the dead, changes. From frantic concern to indifference, The Returning considers parental hysteria, suburban repression, teenage rebellion, and how relationships function in the aftermath of a perceived death, as well as the conflicting resistance and relief parents feel while thrust into an empty nest situation.

The Returning has a few swings and misses (including the distracting crocheted pieces of “food” that mom “cooks” and Gustav “eats”) but ultimately succeeds. Despite some moments that need to be pushed further in order to achieve the desired tone and its resulting commentary—something that requires a greater level of commitment from all the performers—it works well. Overall, Brattberg’s piece is astutely written, sharply drawn and effectively lands on an absurdly comedic plane of existence without too many substantial barriers to entry.

Take the jump for More… Read more…

Review Round-Up: “Two Boys” at the Met

November 15th, 2013 Comments off
Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly's "Two Boys." (Photo: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

Paul Appleby as Brian in Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys.” (Photo: Micaela Rossato/Metropolitan Opera)

Last month we chatted with Paul Appleby, the up-and-coming tenor appearing in The Metropolitan Opera’s U.S. premiere of Two Boys. This contemporary piece by Nico Muhly recounts the troubling relationship between Brian and Jake, two teens who meet in an online chat room. When Jake is found murdered, detective Anne Strawson is assigned the case. As she investigates, the detective unearths a complicated web of intrigue, murder, sex and deceit — all carefully manipulated from the minds of two teenage boys.

If you’re expecting The Magic Flute, beware. Muhly’s haunting score echoes like the invisible data transmissions of the chat rooms themselves. The stark set, with video projections by 59 Productions, and choreography by Hofesh Shechter lend an other worldly feel to the production, as these elements weave their way in and out of the detective’s interrogation and Brian’s fantastical descriptions of the characters he’s met online.

While on a broad scale, Two Boys’ subject matter is timeless in the opera world: love, deceit and murder. But the 21st interpretation of these themes resonates on visceral level and sometimes feels awkwardly delivered through the medium of opera. (Hearing and seeing a classically trained tenor masturbate on the Met stage is one for the books.) That said, Bartlett Sher’s sensitive direction keeps the action grounded in reality and the production ultimately delivers a haunting, powerful message about the virtual world we live in.

The Met should be commended for commissioning what many will consider controversial material and putting it front and center. What did the critics have to say?…

“I wish I could say that “Two Boys” is that longed-for success. The score, rich with intriguing harmonies and textural intricacy, shimmers in Mr. Muhly’s vivid, subtle orchestration, especially as conducted by the impressive David Robertson… But having a compositional voice is not enough in the elusive form of musical drama that is opera. The score does not sufficiently penetrate the complex emotions and shocking interactions between the characters in this story, set in 2001.” The New York Times

“[Two Boys] is an assemblage of ill-fitting components, many of them very fine, others promising but neutralized by context. Muhly, a phenomenally talented 32-year-old composer, and Lucas, a veteran playwright, backed by the full faith and credit of the Metropolitan Opera, have produced a police procedural with an Internet angle and a lurid dénouement.” Vulture.com

“The opera plays like an episode of “Law & Order” with music, but the music, though ear-pleasingly tonal and accomplished, never makes a visceral connection. The libretto, by playwright Craig Lucas, is tight and swiftly paced; the online chat exchanges between Brian and Jake’s various avatars lend themselves to short text lines. Atmospheric orchestral music helps to build suspense and make Brian’s enchantment somewhat credible, but it works more like a film score, supporting the words and story, rather than creating its own world.” The Wall Street Journal

Categories: Opera Tags: ,

Review: “Stick Fly” at Arden Theatre Company

November 13th, 2013 Comments off

The Broadway Blog expands coverage and  heads south of the Great White Way to see what family drama we can dig up in Philadelphia, courtesy of contributor Kathe Scullion. 

The cast of "Stick Fly" at Arden Theatre Company. (photo: Mark Garvin)

The cast of “Stick Fly” at Arden Theatre Company. (photo: Mark Garvin)

When the character of Cheryl enters with her feather duster and dances around the solid white living room, pausing to kiss one of the family pictures on the mantel while half-singing half-housekeeping, I wondered if the character was the lovable maid who gets away with incompetence or the privileged daughter who has been cajoled into minor family chores. The expert blend of Lydia Diamond’s writing, Joniece Abbott-Pratt’s acting and Walter Dallas’ direction is launched with understatement and one of the elements too rarely offered by contemporary writers: foreshadowing.

Biko Eisen-Martin as Kent “Spoon” LeVay and Joniece Abott-Pratt as Cheryl in Arden Theatre Company’s production of "Stick Fly." (photo: Mark Garvin)

Biko Eisen-Martin as Kent “Spoon” LeVay and Joniece Abott-Pratt as Cheryl in Arden Theatre Company’s production of “Stick Fly.” (photo: Mark Garvin)

The stage was set for a stimulating evening at the Arden Theatre. Stick Fly is the story of the affluent LeVay family: Joseph, a neurosurgeon; Flip his plastic surgeon 36-year-old son; and Kent, the younger, highly degreed soon-to-be published writer whose point of view pierces the stunted insights of his father and brother. They have gathered for the weekend in their ordered home, complete with Romare Bearden painting over the mantel, signaling, the way Bill Cosby did in his sitcom, that this is the home of affluent African-Americans. Although the characters are at odds with each other in predictable ways, solid acting by Jerome Preston Bates as Joseph, Biko Eisen-Martin as Kent and U.R. as Flip prepares the audience for moments of surprising strength: Bates is powerful when he gestures in silence and the brothers are intriguing when they are with their women.

A lesser playwright would have offered two lovers of the sons as accessories. Diamond dares to introduce two women who are the soloists in the dramatic symphony. Jessica Frances Dukes plays Taylor, the tumultuous fiancée of Kent. Dukes delivers an articulate, scarred and cloying gal who manages to convince us that the outbursts she has are crucial. She has to wake the other characters up.

Flip’s girlfriend, Kimber, played by Julianna Zinkel, is an intellectual and emotional match for Taylor. They banter, explode, inform each other and forgive. Kimber is an idealistic realist. She loves Flip, knows he is a philandering carbon copy of his father and relishes her status as the white Wasp observer of the black family who managed to make it from the bluffs of Martha’s Vineyard “where the rest of the black folks are” to the Whitcomb Estate. Cheryl’s presence takes some twists and turns in Act 2 as “Stick Fly” ultimately rollicks, wrestles and delivers a compelling snapshot of modern family drama.

Stick Fly
Arden Theatre Company
Arcadia Stage, 40 North 2nd Street
Through December 22

Kathe Scullion is a Philadelphia/New York based writer with a former career in New York theater. M.F.A. Columbia University

Reviews: “After Midnight” and “Lady Day” Bring the Sounds of Harlem to the NY Stage

November 11th, 2013 Comments off

Guest contributor Lindsay B. Davis takes a time trip back to Harlem and discovers the joy and blues of a bygone era.

New York City is alive with the sounds of Harlem: the Duke Ellington-inspired song and dance revue, After Midnight, and the Billie Holiday concert musical Lady Day, have hit the boards as part of New York’s fall theater season. While both shows honor the artistry of legendary jazz giants, the two are vastly different theatrical vehicles, each their own meditation on singing the blues away.

The cast of "After Midnight." (photo: Matthew Murphy)

The cast of “After Midnight.” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

After Midnight is an evocation and celebration of the love, connection and liberation that jazz fostered in the era considered to be Harlem’s Golden Age (1920s-1930s). I felt rocketed to the heavens by this show, 26 songs by Duke Ellington and Jazz Age greats such as Cab Calloway, Dorothy Fields, Ted Koehler and others, performed by a brilliant cast of more than 20 triple-threat performers and a stunning 16-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars band (conducted by Daryl Waters). Add to that a singing, tap dancing, Langston Hughes-spouting Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) and glamorous Fantasia Barrino (American Idol, The Color Purple), who handles her vocal selections with authenticity and passionate command, and you have a show that does justice to the musical geniuses of the era. Every single moment of the show’s 90 minutes tingles with boundless joy and bright revelry.

Fantasia in "After Midnight." (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Fantasia in “After Midnight.” (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Barrino’s interpretations of “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and “Sunny Side of the Street” are at once raw and polished while stage and film veteran Adriane Lenox (Caroline or Change and Doubt, for which she won a Tony) flexes her musical comedy muscles in “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Another vocalist standout is Carmen Ruby Floyd (Porgy and Bess, Avenue Q, and The Lion King) whose captivating “Creole Love Call” could put an end to any debate over whether females are the more powerful sex.

Choreographer Warren Berger, who also directs, draws inspiration from the period without being bound by it and the result is downright innovative. Dancer Karine Plantadit (Tony-nominated for Come Fly Away) leaves lasting, powerful visual and emotional imprints, particularly in Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.”  Contemporary dancers Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgin “Lil’O” Gadson, who can do everything from break dance to ballroom, bridge the gap between the old and the new. After Midnight uses dance as if to say the boundaries between eras can be softened but let us not forget it all began in Harlem.

After Midnight’s design team accentuates the production’s lush feel. Costumer Isabel Toledo creates a dapper display of formal wear, but also takes liberties by adding neon and contemporary accents to the more casual outfits for “The Skrontch.” John Lee Beatty’s scenic design creates the perfect atmosphere to fall in love and escape whatever problems you may have, just like those days at The Cotton Club when performers went on at midnight and 2 a.m.

After Midnight is full of surprises and moves gracefully like a perfect suitor courting his new beloved, encouraging us all to leave the darkness and blues behind to spend what precious time we have “on the sunny side of the street.”

After Midnight
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street

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