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Who’s Your ‘Baghdaddy’?

May 4th, 2017 Comments off

By Ryan Leeds

'Baghdaddy' (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Baghdaddy’ (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

If you missed it the first time around (and given the limited run, there is a good chance that you did), I implore you to grab tickets for Baghdaddy, the slick and clever roller-coaster musical that has fortunately re-opened Off-Broadway at the St. Luke’s Theatre where it’s bound to play a healthy, open-ended run.

Years ago, Producer Charlie Fink discovered a screenplay written by J.T. Allen. Fink commissioned the creative team, Marshall Pailet (music and book), and A.D. Penedo (lyrics and book) to write a show based on the screenplay. The result was Who‘s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started The Iraq War, which played for a short time in the fall of 2015 at the Actor’s Temple Theater on West 47th.. It received the coveted NY Times Critic’s Pick star and was justifiably lauded by other critics, including this reviewer.

Perhaps because it was too much text to fit onto marketing materials or because producers decided to shorten the name to make it more memorable, the title has been truncated to Baghdaddy. The show’s impact remains the same. It’s even more potent now than it originally was.

Jason Collins and the cast of 'Baghdaddy.' (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

Jason Collins and the cast of ‘Baghdaddy.’ (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

Baghdaddy, based on actual events, takes place between 2001-2004. George W. Bush is President. Weapons of mass destruction have been discovered in Iraq—or so the CIA has been told by “Curveball” (Joe Joseph), an Iraqi citizen seeking safety in Germany. He agrees to spill information to German officer Richart Becker (Brennan Calwell) if he is granted asylum. His false revelation unravels a complicated web of deception that ultimately leads to the Iraq War. CIA agents, Berry (Larisa Oleynik) and Jerry (Ethan Slater) aid in the misinformation which they, in turn, provide to their superior Tyler Nelson (Jason Collins).

Meanwhile, weapons expert Martin Bouchard (Bob D’Haene) has just published an online compendium containing dangerous information. The Man (Brandon Espinoza) and The Woman (Claire Nuemann) round out the cast to play multiple roles throughout the two-hour escapade. The action takes place in a church basement with each of the players confessing that they started the Iraq War. Flashbacks occur at the CIA Headquarters in Virginia, Frankfurt Airport, Baghdad and other locations.

The plot sounds complex and quite serious, and in fact, it is. The show’s current website makes no qualms about the severity of the Iraq war citing:

Over one million civilians have been killed or seriously wounded, and five million Iraqis have been displaced. Over 5,000 American and allied soldiers have died, tens of thousands have been seriously wounded, and hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women suffer from Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Brennan Caldwell, Ethan Slater and Larisa Oleynik in 'Baghdaddy.' (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

Brennan Caldwell, Ethan Slater and Larisa Oleynik in ‘Baghdaddy.’ (Photo: Ambe Williams via The Broadway Blog.)

However, the creators handle the difficult aspects of the show with a great deal of respect and dignity. It would be impossible to tell the story without covering the tragedy of 9/11, but wisely, it is only a briefly mentioned. In addition, the producers have offered to donate $1 of the ticket cost to charities that support arts programs for veterans.

While the matters of this story are grave in nature, the show is unabashedly satirical. As smart satire often does, it makes the most unbearable circumstances bearable and gives us the opportunity to reflect on how absurd our ill-informed choices can be. (or were in this case). Even as the culture and political war continues to rage, there is solace to be had when we tune into Saturday Night Live each week to watch Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy skewer the current presidential administration.

There is also a deep resonance with the depiction of “alternative facts” — a phrase that has become in vogue, but one that has existed long before Kelly Anne Conway’s face popped onto CNN.

Director Marshall Pailet has secured most of his 2015 cast, but the newcomers fit beautifully into the show. Misha Shields’ choreography is sharp and inventive, and musically, the show soars under Rona Siddiqui’s musical direction and Charlie Rosen’s orchestrations.

Baghdaddy
St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th Street, NYC
Open Ended Run

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.

 

 

California Dreaming: Audra McDonald to Perform in Beverly Hills

April 20th, 2017 Comments off
Audra McDonald (Photo: Autumn de Wilde via The Broadway Blog.)

Audra McDonald (Photo: Autumn de Wilde via The Broadway Blog.)

Audra McDonald heads west! The record-breaking, six-time Tony Award-winner makes her anticipated debut, as part of the acclaimed Broadway @ series, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, a one-night-only event featuring two intimate concerts at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 11. Produced by Mark Cortale, the Broadway legend will be joined on stage by Broadway @ series host and pianist Seth Rudetsky, who recently starred in the London premiere of his Broadway musical Disaster!

“Audra is a true Broadway legend, and we are thrilled to welcome her, along with Seth, to The Wallis in May,” said The Wallis’ Artistic Director Paul Crewes. “Our audiences are in for an unforgettable evening seeing these renowned performers in our beautiful and intimate Bram Goldsmith Theater.”

Seth Rudetsky (Photo provided by The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.)

Seth Rudetsky (Photo provided by The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.)

The evening features a seamless mix of intimate behind-the-scenes stories from one of Broadway’s biggest stars—prompted by Rudetsky’s probing, funny, revealing questions—and McDonald singing some of the biggest hits from her musical theater repertoire. This spontaneous evening of hilarity and show-stopping songs is not to be missed.

Since opening its doors in October 2013, The Wallis has produced or presented more than 100 dance, theater, opera, classical music and family programs to an ever-expanding audience. Located in the heart of Beverly Hills, California, The Wallis brings audiences world-class theater, dance and music, performed by many of the world’s most talented and sought-after artists.

 

 

Don’t Miss: An Evening with Bebe Neuwirth at Arena Stage

April 19th, 2017 Comments off

Bebe Neuwirth Arena Stage

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will host An Evening with Bebe Neuwirth on Monday, May 1, 2017. The exclusive benefit features the presentation of the second annual Beth Newburger Schwartz Award to Arena Stage Emeritus Trustee Arlene R. Kogod. The evening, helmed by event chair Susan Haas Bralove and diplomatic chair His Excellency Björn Lyrvall, Ambassador of Sweden, includes a VIP cocktail reception, three-course seated dinner, one-night-only performance and post-show music, wine and dessert reception.

Bebe Neuwirth, a two-time Tony and Emmy Award winner, plays the recurring role of Nadine Tolliver on the hit CBS series Madam Secretary. She was seen on Broadway as Nickie in Sweet Charity and Velma Kelly in Chicago. She later returned to Chicago to play both Roxie Hart and Matron in one of Broadway’s longest running musicals to date. She received two Emmy Awards for her role as Dr. Lilith Sternin Crane on television’s Cheers and reprised her role on Frasier. Her cabaret-style performance will weave together stories from her acclaimed career and feature some of her favorite tunes.

Dinner will feature the presentation of the Beth Newburger Schwartz Award to Arlene R. Kogod, in recognition of her unparalleled commitment to and support of the arts throughout Washington, D.C. (Arena Stage’s 200-seat theater, the Kogod Cradle, is named after Arlene and her husband Robert). The award was first presented to Arena Stage board chair Newburger Schwartz in 2016 and celebrates female leaders in the community.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Arlene Kogod for many years, and am delighted to celebrate her special contributions to our community through the Beth Newburger Schwartz Award,” says Artistic Director Molly Smith. “Arlene is an inspirational leader among Washington women. She is a staunch supporter of the community and of the arts. I love seeing her name on our building every day I come to work. Arlene sets an example to all of us with her quiet and steady generosity of spirit. She deserves to be feted this way, and how better than with Bebe Neuwirth, a multi-talented and amazing artist. Bebe does it all—singing, dancing, acting—and is a great example of the strength of American women.”

“Arlene Kogod exemplifies all that is excellent in a patron of the arts,” adds Newburger Schwartz. “Her love of theater, fine art, music and literature is reflected in her personal collections and public contributions. I am honored that she will accept Arena’s award that recognizes outstanding women in the Washington community.”

All proceeds from the evening support Arena Stage’s award-winning artistic and community engagement programs.

Don’t Miss: Tennessee Williams Festival, May 3-7

April 17th, 2017 Comments off

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

St. Louis again celebrates its world-renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright—Tennessee Williams—with the 2nd Annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, May 3 – 7, in venues across the Grand Center Theatre District.

“The magic of the other” is a thread through all of his hundreds of plays, poems, stories, and essays. “Some of us fear and reject strange people and ideas. Williams understood that by confronting and embracing the other, we can be elevated and mysteriously transformed. This is not just the magic of theater… it is the magic of the other,” explains TWFSTL Executive Artistic Director, Carrie Houk.

Tennessee Williams FestivalHighlights include the unacknowledged Williams masterpiece Small Craft Warnings, a breathtaking Spanish-language (with English supertitles) production of Deseo; and “The Playwright and the Painter,” an exhibition of acclaimed Tennessee Williams’ paintings on loan from Key West. There is something for everyone: plays, live music, movies, paintings, readings, panel discussions, and tours.

“We thrive on the vibrancy of Grand Center. Mary Strauss and Ken and Nancy Kranzberg have embraced us. We are thrilled to have been invited by the Kranzbergs to be an anchor arts organization at the .ZACK!” boasts Board President, Scott Intagliata. “We premiere Small Craft Warnings at the .ZACK theater and it will be our hub. Patrons can settle in to discuss the festival and enjoy a drink or a meal.”

Anita Jackson in 'Bertha in Paradise.' (Photo: TWFSTL via The Broadway Blog.)

Anita Jackson in ‘Bertha in Paradise.’ (Photo: TWFSTL via The Broadway Blog.)

All programming is within walking distance of the .ZACK. “Bertha in Paradise,” featuring St. Louis’s Grammy-winning Anita Jackson, kicks off the festival on Wednesday, May 3, at the Curtain Call Lounge. In a bluesy cabaret performance, Jackson conjures up a continuation of her hauntingly unforgettable character of last year’s “Hello from Bertha.” An opening night party follows.

The remarkable showcase, “Tennessee Williams: The Playwright and the Painter,” is a major coup for St. Louis. These 18 deeply personal paintings, only once before shown outside of Key West, illustrate how William’s magical poetry brilliantly suffuses every art form he undertakes. Exhibited at the St. Louis University Museum of Art, they are on loan from the Key West Art & Historical Society and the owner of the paintings, Williams’s longtime friend David Wolkowsky.

The marquee, must-see production of the festival is the little-known but critically heralded Williams play Small Craft Warnings. Richard Corley, one of America’s most praised Williams directors, directs a cast of St. Louis’s top performers. The cast is headlined by New York’s much-lauded Williams interpreter Jeremy Lawrence as Doc, a role Williams himself played in its original New York City run.

Deseo, the festival’s first-ever international entry, provides a thrilling re-interpretation of Williams’s most famous play from the perspective of the Cuban experience. It remains true to the essence of Williams, while freshly channeling the unfamiliar challenges faced by of immigrants and exiles. It is a co-production of Lilian Vega’s Miami-based El Ingenio and the world-renowned Teatro Beundia in Havana, guided by Raquel Carrio and Flora Lauten. In Spanish, with English supertitles, at the Marcelle.

The historic Stockton House, everyone’s favorite venue last year, returns as the stage for Will Mr. Merriweather Return from Memphis? Local favorite Jeff Awada directs the first professional production in fifty years of this intimate, funny, poignant play. The scarcest ticket in town last year was for the immersive St. Louis Rooming House Plays at the Stockton House, so theater-goers should get their tickets early and often.

The Tennessee Williams New Playwrights Initiative makes its debut this year. The winner is Jack Ciapciak’s Naming the Dog, also the recent winner of NYU’s Goldberg New Playwright Award. The play presents us with millennials who live near Ferguson, veering between attempts to cope with racial unrest and the apparently more consequential task of naming their new puppy. Ciapciak leads a Q&A after the staged reading at the Kranzberg Studio.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: Magic of the Other features scenes, songs, and poetry as interpreted by special guests including Ken Page, Lara Teeter, Elizabeth Teeter, Anita Jackson, Michael James Reed, Jeremy Lawrence, and a surprise vocalist from the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. This program will again be curated by Thomas Keith, editor of the continuing series of Williams’s newly collected works for the New Directions Press in New York.

The festival’s 17 distinct elements, receiving 39 performances, include many of last year’s favorites: educational panels, a bus tour of Williams locations, Beatnik Jam, films at the Nine Media Commons, a photo exhibit, and, of course, the crowd-pleasing Stella Shouting Contest (to win Stella beer!).

The Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis looks forward to building on last year’s critical success and exceeding its 2016 attendance. “I’m gratified that Tennessee’s hometown is now embracing our greatest playwright,” says Houk. We look forward to continuing to offer theatrical, artistic, and educational programming to the community, and becoming a major destination event.”

Serving Up Theatrics: ‘Cuisine & Confessions’

April 14th, 2017 Comments off

by April Stamm

'Cuisine and Confessions' (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Cuisine and Confessions’ (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

If only your dinner parties were this cool: your adorable kitchen packed with well-placed hipster kitsch and peopled with fascinatingly gorgeous, mustachioed, skinny-jeans-wearing friends from all corners of the world who all passionately chat about and love and life… oh, and did I mention all the while these fabulous friends perform death-defying feats of acrobatics, juggling and aerial work? The 7 Fingers production of Cuisine & Confessions is that dreamy dinner party. What could be even more impressive than the awe-inspiring physical talent of the performers in this production is that they’ve managed to bring personality, compassion and actual humor to this one-of-a-kind piece of theater.

Behind this production is The 7 Fingers (Les 7 Doigts), a circus/acrobatic troupe out of Montreal, Canada. Created in 2002 by seven circus artists, they have had their hands in everything from original productions, project collaborations, Broadway shows (the recent revival of Pippin) to the Olympics opening ceremonies in Sochi.

Cuisine & Confessions begins with an overture of small, musical/verbal snippets foreshadowing larger vignettes. This intro segment is cleverly titled “These are the Ingredients.” The rest of the performance plays out in a series of 15 pieces and a finale each focusing on one or two of the troupe with the rest of the accomplished performers serving as the ensemble and oft times as human set pieces to be leapt off or rolled under. Each story is told within a framework of food and memories. Many of the vignettes are based on the performers’ actual lives, dreams, fears and thoughts.

 

'Cuisine and Confessions' (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

‘Cuisine and Confessions’ (Photo: Alexandre Galliez via The Broadway Blog.)

One particular stand out is Anna Kichtchenko’s section “The Departed,” which abstractly tells the story of lost loves and the beauties of borscht through a phenomenal aerial silks routine that is as heartwarming and emotional as it is visually stunning. Tandem hoop-diving drives the stories of Sidney Bateman and Melvin Diggs in “Leaving St. Louis.” Using spoken word recorded by the artists, they tell their individual tales of growing up in the fear and sometimes loneliness of urban St. Louis and the food and love they clung to as they leap through wooden frames.

Putting it all together, the director/choreographer/writer team of Shana Carroll and Sebastien Soldevila has accomplished more than simply staging some great circus routines. They have found a way to make the death-defying feats connectible. Some of the stories are heart-wrenching; Matias Plaul’s “Song for My Father,” a Chinese Pole routine, tells the story of his father’s capture, internment in a concentration camp and execution by the Argentine government. Some segments are quirky, funny and bawdy like Gabriela Parigi’s “One Woman’s Life Recipe,” a passionately frenetic five- minute telling of her entire life through acro-dance. Each story works together literally and structurally to give us a look into the human condition.

 

Without the original music and original arrangements of Nans Bortuzzo, Raphael Cruz, Colin Gagne, Spike Wilner, and DJ Pocket, this production would not be as successful as it is. Doing just as much towards creating a world of warmth, humor and awe as the performers do, the music in this performance is creative, poignant and full of energy. The cover of “You’re the One That I Want” (yes, the tough Sandy song from “Grease”) alone will give you chills.

Circus in is the air lately. Acrobatics, juggling and amazing feats are showing up everywhere from Broadway to your local gym. Setting aside all the hype, what makes Cuisine & Confessions truly stand out is that it emotionally connects with its audience and understands the importance of really telling a story.

Cuisine & Confessions
The 7 Fingers
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 LaGuardia Place, NYC
Through April 16

April Stamm is a theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to Edge Media Network and is a Chef Instructor at the International Culinary Center.

Two Houses, Both Not Alike in Dignity: ‘The Profane’

April 10th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Given today’s preoccupations with Islam, Zayd Dohrn couldn’t have hit upon a more succulent subject for a domestic dramedy than the one he uses in The Profane, his potentially button-pushing but ultimately unsatisfactory new play at Playwrights Horizons.

Taking his cue from works in which social, ethnic, or religious differences create conflict between the parents of conventionally mismatched lovers—think Romeo and JulietAbie’s Irish Rose, and Meet the Fockers—Dohrn focuses on a narrow demographic, Muslim immigrants. His goal is to show what might happen if a girl from a totally assimilated, liberal Muslim family were to become engaged to a boy from a conservative one.

It would be easy to imagine this situation happening within any religion whose adherents range from ultraliberal to fundamentalist. However, with today’s audiences interested in learning more about their Islamic neighbors, what could be riper for an examination of sectarian religious differences than a play about lovers from opposite sides of the Muslim spectrum?

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sorry to say, Dohrn’s play, which has some excellent scenes, sprightly humor, and lively dialogue, is superficial, formulaic, and burdened by a plot contrivance that will spin heads faster than Linda Blair’s.

In Act One we meet the Almedins at their book-lined, New York City home. Raif (Ali Reza Farahnakian) is an internationally known writer, whose novels, about the immigrant experience, are widely read in many colleges. Naja (Heather Raffo), an attractive blond in tight jeans, is a former dancer who once performed at Lincoln Center.

Raif, proud of belonging to the liberal, intellectual elite, is bitter, possibly because he’s suffering from writer’s block. Not only has he abandoned his faith, he despises those who follow its dictates as people who stone their daughters to death or behead people for their beliefs.

'The Profane' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Profane’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The Almedin daughters, in their early 20s, are Aisa (Francis Benhamou, offbeat and funny), a lesbian and former dancer who tends bar, and Emina (Tala Ashe, pretty and sensitive), a college student. Emina has fallen in love with another student, Sam (Babak Tafti, good-looking and sincere), short for Basam, son of the Osman family; their intended nuptials precipitate the central crisis, apparent the minute Emina brings Sam home and introduces him to Raif, who ignores his proffered handshake.

Everything about the Almedins, including their clothing, drinking, snarky humor, colloquial expressions, and profanity, is pure sit-com American; despite Raif and Naja having immigrated when they were young adults and Raif boasting that he taught himself English, their accents are questionably red, white, and blue.

In Act Two, we meet the Osmans: Peter (Ramsey Faragallah) and Carmen (Lanna Joffey). The meeting between the families is at the Osmans new, White Plains home, a modestly attractive one that Raif, in a cheap joke at odds with what we see, snidely designates as the work of Vito Corleone’s decorator.

Peter Osman, who sells restaurant equipment, is a bearded, bearish man, gregarious to a fault in his attempt to please the Almedins; following Sam’s advice, he strives to avoid even the most innocuous religious references. Carmen, his reserved and cautious wife, dresses like a well-off suburban housewife but wears a hajib. The Osmans speak with (stagey) accents.

The contrast between the jovial, nonjudgmental Peter and the persistently edgy Raif couldn’t be sharper, reversing our expected reactions to who would be the more recalcitrant figure in the delicate dance between devotee and apostate. But Dohrn has so loaded the dice on Peter’s behalf that our discomfort with Raif’s behavior is practically forced upon us.

Peter is so reasonable it’s hard to believe he’s as pious as Raif suspects, while the liberal Raif rudely behaves like the actual fanatic. Despite his opportunities, Dohrn only rarely—as in some talk about arranged versus love marriages—suggests the kind of debate we’d really like to hear.

Worse, he concocts a melodramatically outlandish secret that’s exposed by having Naja notice a strange, hajib-wearing woman (Benhamou, in a distracting bit of doubling) in the house. This leads Raif to commit such an unforgivable act that the play loses whatever credibility it may have accumulated, while any lingering sympathy for the guy vanishes.

There are things to appreciate in The Profane, including Takeshi Kata’s substantial, well-appointed sets; Jessica Pabst’s character-defining costumes; and Matt Frey’s lighting, especially his bookcase effects. Kip Fagan’s direction is briskly paced but, with some performances merely skimming the sitcom surface and others (Faragallah, in particular) being so broad, he doesn’t resolve the uneasy tension between domestic comedy and idea-related drama.

“Disappointing” is an overused word in reviewing but when a play with such a potentially interesting subject comes up short it’s the handiest one to reach for.

The Profane
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NY
Through April 30

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).

 

 

 

 

 

Listen: West of Broadway’s Premier Episode

April 7th, 2017 Comments off

West of Broadway

Curtain up! There’s plenty of Broadway caliber talent that’s ventured west, and that’s where Lara Scott and Will Armstrong come into play. Their new podcast, West of Broadway, is a celebration of musical theater in Los Angeles.

The duo’s first episode welcomes Broadway veteran, Laurie Wells. Have a listen! 

Bring on the Monsters: ‘The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical’

April 4th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Chris McCarrell in 'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Chris McCarrell in ‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Perhaps, like me, you didn’t notice that, beneath the Harry Potter hoopla of the past two decades, a series of young adult novels about another boy with supernatural powers was gaining huge popularity. That boy, Percy Jackson, came to life in the imagination of a middle school history/English teacher named Rick Riordan, who entertained his second-grade son, afflicted—like Percy—with ADHD and dyslexia, by making up stories based on Greek mythology.

Those stories inspired a best-selling series that led not only to several sequel series but (thus far) to a pair of box-office blockbuster movies. Now, with a book by Joe Tracz and music and lyrics by Rob Rokicki, the first Percy Jackson book, The Lightning Thief, has been transformed into an energetic, generally entertaining rock musical for the seven-years-old-and-up crowd. They gave it a standing ovation when I attended.

Produced by Theatreworks, renowned for its high-quality, young-audience shows, The Lightning Thief is a fast-paced, decibel-blasting, theatrically frisky take on the original story. Unlike the visually bloated film, the show uses only seven actors, all of them adults, most playing multiple roles.

'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Tracz’s by-and-large faithful book—which expresses several themes, such as that normalcy is a myth and everyone is special, and that parents can be idols with feet of clay—begins with teenager Percy (Chris McCarrell)—he’s twelve in the book—having a weird experience during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, after his mother, Sally (Carrie Compere), vanishes following his victorious battle with a Minotaur (James Hayden Rodriguez), Percy and his best friend, Grover, by now revealed as a satyr, enter the strange Camp Half-Blood.

Here Percy discovers he’s actually Perseus, a demigod, half-human and half-god, the son of Poseidon. If Perseus is here, can Medusa (Jonathan Raviv, in drag) be far behind? He also encounters other demigod kids, including Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), daughter of Athena; Luke (James Hayden Rodriguez), son of Hermes; and Clarisse (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), daughter of Ares.

Percy’s in hot water because his father, brother of Zeus and Hades, violated an oath never to have any more children; moreover, Percy alone can prevent war among the gods by locating Zeus’s stolen thunderbolt. This sends Percy, Annabeth, and Grover on a nation-crossing, monster-quelling quest to retrieve the bolt from the likeliest suspect, Hades (Raviv), in whose realm Sally is a prisoner and Charon (Compere) is an overstuffed, Beyoncé-like, pop singer in a sequined minidress. And where, by the way, we glimpse Kurt Cobain (Raviv), Janis Joplin (Pfeifer), and Mozart (Rodriguez).

Percy, with his magic sword and special powers (a comic surprise unlike what the book describes), must fend off an unexpected foe before all comes to its foregone happy conclusion. (The fun fight direction is by Rob Kinter.)

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell and George Salazar in 'The Lightning Thief.' (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

Kristin Stokes, Chris McCarrell and George Salazar in ‘The Lightning Thief.’ (Photo: Jeremy Daniels via The Broadway Blog.)

To pack all this in, the show, directed with verve by Stephen Brackett and spiritedly choreographed by Patrick McCollum, adopts an air of deliberate, even self-deprecatory playfulness; this keeps the budget down and highlights its air of tongue-in-cheekiness. It’s the kind of thing where someone, hearing about hell’s musical stars, asks if Josh Groban is there; more such jokes would be welcome, even if they soar over most kids’ heads.

Rokicki’s conventional rock score—played on keyboards, drums/percussion, guitar, and bass—is a listenable, efficient engine for keeping the show moving but most of its songs are of the undistinguished, volume-up variety; only two even hint at standard balladry.

This is a solid ensemble, with good work from all, including the slender, tousle-haired McCarrell; the dynamic, big-voiced Compere; and the comic Salazar, who scores as both the sidekick satyr and the always-shouting Dionysus (he’s the god of drama, after all).

Sydney Maresca has crafted numerous, clever, cost-cutting designs, like, for example, that for Chiron (Raviv), the centaur. In the film, Pierce Brosnan’s lower body is digitally morphed into that of a horse. Here, the character needs only a white shirt, sports jacket, leather slacks, high shoes, a bushy tail, and some equine movements to make you see a human horse.

The same don’t-take-this-seriously approach affects the various monsters whose deliberately cheesy scariness is heightened by smoke and David Lander’s fancy lighting, much of the latter in eye-catching, rock concert mode. It works well with set designer Lee Savage’s use of metal scaffolding fronting a background of graffiti-scrawled Greek pillars; the walls and their backstage equipment are exposed, and a pair of rolling scaffold-platforms is deployed for miscellaneous purposes. Ryan Rumery’s ingenious sound effects complete the package.

Finding a show most kids would enjoy can be like catching lightning in a bottle. Bringing a kid to The Lightning Thief might be like bringing your own bottle.

The Lightning Thief
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through May 6

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).

 

 

 

Guns, God and Government: ‘Church & State’

March 31st, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Rob Nagle in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Rob Nagle in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Despite its title, Church & State, a thoughtful but patchy political dramedy by Jason Odell Williams, has very little to do with the separation of powers as mentioned in the Constitution’s first amendment. That’s the one that says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” More germane here is the second amendment.

Not that religion doesn’t play an important part in the play’s treatment of Senator Charles Whitmore (Rob Nagle), a North Carolina “compassionate conservative” seeking reelection. The good Republican’s dilemma occurs when, after witnessing the results of a mass murder at his children’s primary school, he makes a grief-stricken admission to a blogger doubting both God’s existence and the efficacy of prayer. Click! It goes viral on Twitter.

Them’s fighting words. When the pol’s bibulous, Bible-quoting wife, Sara (Nadia Bowers), and dogged campaign manager, Alex Klein (Christa Scott-Reed), learn not only of his potentially damaging gaffe but that he means to defend it by going off script in his last pre-election speech, he seems well on his way to voter perdition.

(l to r) Nadia Bowers and Christa Scott-Reed in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Nadia Bowers and Christa Scott-Reed in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

In dramaturgic terms, however, Charlie’s crisis of faith is secondary to the playwright’s real target, the need for saner gun control. To NC conservatives, that’s as sinful as denying the Lord’s existence.

For many of its 75 uninterrupted minutes, snappily directed by Markus Potter, Church & State uses this promisingly provocative material for behind-the-politics domestic comedy. The good senator fights to overcome the shock to Sara’s religious system (she created his campaign slogan, “Jesus Is My Running Mate!”) and to her fondness for her Baby Glock. Meanwhile, Alex does damage control to prevent a debacle at the polls.

Set in a greenroom backstage at a bunting and campaign poster-adorned Raleigh theatre (set by David Goldstein; lighting by Burke Brown) where Whitmore is scheduled to speak, the play teeters uncomfortably between broad comedy and grave issues, seeking every opportunity to garner laughs and argue politics and religion.

Ultimately, after yet another tragic event, it devolves into a gun control admonition, which liberals will relish (the play originated in Los Angeles). It should be interesting to learn of its eventual reception down South, where, reportedly, productions are planned.

Jonathan Luis Dent in 'Church & State.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Jonathan Luis Dent in ‘Church & State.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For all the potential interest in Church & State’s polemics, everything is abridged for immediate gratification, with too many cheap jokes that create an air of superficiality and implausibility. Williams is an Emmy-nominated writer but he’s no Aaron Sorkin.

It’s hard to believe that, even if the senator’s Chapel Hill-educated wife is written as a stereotypically ditzy, blonde, y’all-drawling, good ol’ gal, she’d be clueless enough to call ticker tape “sticker tape,” refer to a blogger as a “blobber,” confuse “petard” with “retard,” or cite Twitter as “the Twitter.” (That last is a running gag even harder to swallow when, in the age of Trump, it comes from the senator’s mouth.)

Would she really call Alex, with whom she has a flinty relationship, a lesbian, and then counter the denial with, “You’re a Democrat from New York—it’s the same thing”? At any rate, the silly belle we see early on is far from the sober one we encounter toward the end, suggesting a character disconnect.

There are too many similar flat notes. It’s doubtful, for example, that the liberal, skeptical Alex would manage a Republican’s campaign. Or that, as a holidays-only Jew, she could she so readily cite an Old Testament reference by chapter and verse, just to set up a joke. And when the play’s most perceptive religious commentary suddenly springs from the innocuous campaign assistant, Tom (Jonathan Louis Dent), you can be forgiven for squirming.

Fortunately, Nagle gives the play ballast by making Whitmore believably sincere and emotionally vulnerable; his big, emotional speech about guns is especially well handled. Bowers’s Sara is colorfully brassy but can’t avoid cartoonish overkill, while Scott-Reed’s Alex is sharply determined, and Jonathan Louis Dent’s four small roles are nicely differentiated. Dianne K. Graebner’s costumes help make everyone look their parts.

Judging by Church & State, when it comes to political issues, North Carolinians have little but God and guns on their minds. Even, one supposes, when they go to the bathroom.

Church & State
New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through July 2

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MCC Theater Announces $2.5 Million Challenge Grant

March 28th, 2017 Comments off

MCC TheaterMCC Theater announced today the launch of a matching gift challenge made possible by The Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust. The Trust has awarded a $2.5 million challenge grant in support of MCC’s first permanent home and expanded programming. The campaign has raised $30 million to-date. Upon the Theater completing the dollar-for-dollar matching challenge by April 30, 2018, the company will meet the campaign’s $35 million goal. MCC’s new home will unite the company’s diverse roster of programs under one roof for the first time in its more than three-decade history.

Set to open with the Theater’s 2018/2019 season, the facility will also allow the company to expand its programming and establish it as a cultural anchor within the Clinton neighborhood. One of New York’s leading nonprofit Off-Broadway companies, MCC Theater fosters the dynamic exchange of ideas between artists, audiences, and students through its production of world, American, and New York premiere plays and musicals, a robust playwright development initiative, and one of the nation’s leading arts education programs. 

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in 'Yen' at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Stefania LaVie Owen and Lucas Hedges in ‘Yen’ at MCC Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

Robert W. Wilson was a well-known and successful investor from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1980’s. After his retirement, he devoted his life to philanthropy. Wilson was a transformative philanthropist, primarily funding worldwide organizations in the preservation and conservation areas.

An avid New Yorker, he was also involved with a number of New York’s cultural institutions. He was a major supporter of, and held leadership roles with, the Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Opera, where he was a board member for many years. In addition, he and the Trust support the New York Public Library, Central Park Conservancy, BAM, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This matching gift marks the Trust’s first grant to a theater company.

“We are very grateful for the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust’s generosity and we’re proud to launch this matching challenge with their support,” said Bernie Telsey, Co-Artistic Director of MCC Theater, speaking on behalf of the company’s artistic leadership. “As we wrap up our 30th anniversary season, it’s thrilling and truly humbling to consider where we started—operating out of a studio apartment—and the bright future for MCC Theater as we move closer to opening the first home of our own. From new plays and musicals, to workshops developing the next generation of bold artists, to the voices of students in our Youth Company from across the five boroughs, our home will be a vibrant hub of activity in the Clinton neighborhood. We’re eager to open its doors to everyone.”

Groundbreaking at MCC Theater (Photo courtesy of MCC Theater via The Broadway Blog.)

Groundbreaking at MCC Theater (Photo courtesy of MCC Theater via The Broadway Blog.)

Designed by Andrew Berman Architect, the 27,000-square-foot space will advance MCC’s mission and act as a hub for all of its programming, allowing the institution to better serve its growing audiences and broaden its offerings—increasing its productions from four to six per season, supporting a broad and diverse roster of young writers developing new work exploring a range of contemporary topics, and expanding its groundbreaking arts education programs for New York City public school students both at its new home and in classrooms across the five boroughs.

“We are thrilled to support MCC Theater at this important moment of expansion for the company,” said Richard G. Schneidman, a trustee of the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust. “Bob enjoyed and supported cutting-edge theater. We admire the impact MCC has had on the American theater landscape, and its commitment to supporting emerging artists and young people. We invite the cultural community to join us in supporting this great New York company as it broadens its reach and embarks on this exciting period of growth.”

MCC Theater’s new home will feature resources for rehearsals, workshops, meetings, public conversations, and two state-of-the-art theaters, with 249 and 100 seats, respectively, designed to accommodate both traditional and non-traditional stagings. Adjacent to a public lobby that invites connection between the outside courtyard space on 52nd Street and the interior, these two theaters will be the heart of the new home.

The 249-seat theater will be named for Ruth and Harold Newman and Marianne and Steve Mills, who serve as campaign co-chairs alongside Board members Judith Light and Julianna Margulies, in recognition of their leadership gifts. Mr. Newman and Ms. Mills are also longtime board members who have provided significant support for MCC Theater’s education and artistic programs. Mr. Newman is the lead individual donor to one of MCC Theater’s renowned arts education programs, the in-school and after-school partnership programs at George Washington High School in Washington Heights, where he is an alum. Ms. Mills served as MCC’s Miscast gala chair for a decade, helping shape the evening into one of the most anticipated fundraising events each season. The 100-seat theater will be named for Susan and Ronald Frankel in recognition of their campaign gift. Mr. and Mrs. Frankel have been active with the company since 2015. They are proud to be a part of MCC Theater’s development and education of artists and NYC high school students.  Mrs. Frankel is also an MCC Theater board member.

“MCC Theater’s journey to our first permanent home continues to be a thrilling time for everyone at MCC,” said Susan Raanan, Chair of the Theater’s Board of Directors. “I want to thank our entire Board for their leadership and support of this campaign as we take this great leap forward and acknowledge the generosity of the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust. We invite everyone to help us meet this matching gift challenge as we continue building support for this exciting next phase in MCC Theater’s history.”

“Having the support of our partners at the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust means the world as we build a home to serve our artists, audiences, and students for generations to come,” said Blake West, Executive Director of MCC Theater. “The Trust’s generous challenge grant will have an extraordinary impact on this transformational project. As we look forward to welcoming everyone to this great new space for our 2018/2019 season, we invite our entire community to join our campaign.”

An engine for creative exchange, the company’s new home has been designed by Andrew Berman Architect to provide fluid connections between spaces dedicated to performance, behind-the-scenes development, and front-of-house—all of which will provide greater freedom for MCC Theater’s artists and give audiences greater access and insight into the company’s work. Raw materials are employed throughout, including concrete and warm woods, reflecting the process-based nature of theater-making to which the facility is dedicated.

Francesco Simeti has been commissioned to create two new visual art installations as part of New York City’s Percent for Art program. For the 53rd Street façade, Simeti will create a collage of historic images of New York City that speaks to the cultural and ecological history of the neighborhood. Utilizing digital printing on Mylar interlayers between glass panels, “A Tale of a City” (working title) will incorporate illustrations and references to native weeds and flowers that are now extinct in New York, as well as elements of the botanic, natural, and the human-made urban environment. In a second floor interior public space, the artist will install a tapestry composed of historic imagery relating to theater, sets, masks, and props from cultures all around the world.

Located on West 52nd Street at 10th Avenue, the facility occupies the ground floor of the Avalon Clinton complex, which also includes residential units as well as office and performance spaces for A.R.T./New York and the 52nd Street Project. The $35-million project broke ground on March 22, 2016 and is funded by a public-private partnership between the Theater and the City of New York, which has contributed $25.5 million to the project. The campaign supports construction and expanded artistic and educational programming. Several naming opportunities are still available, including public lobby and backstage areas.

MCC Theater’s annual Miscast gala will be held on April 3 at The Hammerstein Ballroom. This year’s event celebrates MCC’s 30th anniversary and features an all-star lineup of performers, including Tony® winners Annaleigh Ashford, Norbert Leo Butz, Jennifer Holliday, and Kelli O’Hara. Proceeds support the Theater’s artistic and education programming. The company’s final presentation of its 30th anniversary season, the American premiere of Matthew Perry’s new play The End of Longing begins at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on May 18.