Archive for the ‘Way Off Broadway’ Category

Don’t Miss: Justin Sayre’s Final Season of The Meeting* at Joe’s Pub

January 22nd, 2017 Comments off
Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

Justin Sayre (Photo: Ricardo Nelson via The Broadway Blog.)

The Meeting* hosted by Justin Sayre — the monthly gathering of the International Order of Sodomites, the centuries-old organization which sets the mythic Gay Agenda — has announced the themes of the Winter/Spring 2017 season.

Each month, the I.O.S gathers to honor an artist or a cultural work that is iconic to the gay community. Justin Sayre, the show’s creator, writer and host, serves as the Chairman of the Board of the International Order of Sodomites and brings his singular wit to essential business of the day through such regular features such as ”Letters to the Chairman” and “New Rulings from the Board.”

After seven years of audacious humor, trailblazing political discourse and button-pushing cultural exploration, the acclaimed comedy/variety show is being presented for the eighth and final season at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, which concludes its run in May 2017. The Winter/Spring 2017 shows are Sunday nights at 9:30 PM and will feature tributes to:

George Michael (January 22)
Michael Bennett (February 19)
The Velvet Underground (March 19)
Patti LuPone (April 23)

The final celebration will be held with two performances on Sunday, May 14 at 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Tracy Stark serves as the season’s music director. Special guests will be announced for each show.

The Meeting* has been called “delicious and delightfully droll” by The New York Post and “hilarious and sardonic” by The Village Voice. After originally opening at the historic Duplex in the West Village, The Meeting* has also enjoyed successful runs at the Broadway nightclub 54 Below in New York, the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles and  Oasis in San Francisco. Sparkle & Circulate with Justin Sayre, the official podcast of the International Order of Sodomites, was recently named among “10 Comedy Podcasts You Should Listen To” by Backstage.

Justin Sayre and The Meeting* – known for a signature blend of outrageous comedy, politics, culture and everything in between – were named among the Top nightclub shows of 2013 by Time Out New York, and received the 2012 Bistro Award for “Comedy Artistry” and a 2011 MAC Award nomination for Best Male Comedy Performance.

Wilting Theatrics: ‘Consider the Lilies’

January 16th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Consider the LiliesAustin Pendleton, who turns 77 in March, continues to be one of the most ubiquitous presences on the New York stage, appearing in or directing several Off-Broadway plays every year. Unfortunately, while he’s done excellent work in both capacities, he often chooses wilted flowers like Stuart Fail’s Consider the Lilies, now presented by House Red Theatre Company at the TBG Theatre.

Billed as “A World Premiere Play” even though it was produced in 2013 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, this shapeless effort casts Pendleton as Paul, a gay, aging, once successful artist (for what, incredibly, seems like a single painting of lilies), living in Paris in Act One and New York in Act Two.

The irritatingly unlovable Paul is coupled with his earnest, much younger agent, David (Eric Joshua Davis), a failed actor who’s left his girlfriend, Angela (Liarra Michelle), in New York while he struggles to drum up Parisian gallery interest in Paul’s work. Paul, though, is a misogynistic drunk (“the vagina is the enemy”) suffering from painter’s block, thinking he’s washed up, and also from his feelings for David. The latter, who insists on his straightness while Paul insists he’s in the closet, has a conflicted relationship with Angela, whose relationship with someone else while David’s abroad culminates in clichéd consequences.

For two and a half seemingly endless hours we watch the self-pitying Paul and the self-pitying David go round and round wallowing in the same who-cares issues while surrounded by a sea of soap opera bubbles. Father-son themes float about, but there’s very little exploration of the paternal relationship palpitating between the elderly Paul and the decades younger David; as performed, this relationship is as unconvincing as the poorly executed props serving as examples of Paul’s paintings.

The playwright also presents several seriously improbable situations, like having David and Angela, both nearly broke, meet up again on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. And audiences may be surprised to see an important piece of news delivered by telegram (still possible, although not via Western Union). Here, though, it’s introduced so that Paul can have the courier (Alec Merced) enter his apartment and read it aloud in a play where phones don’t seem to exist.

Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis in 'Consider the Lilies.' (Photo: Talya Chalef via The Broadway Blog.)

(L to R) Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis in ‘Consider the Lilies.’ (Photo: Talya Chalef via The Broadway Blog.)

If ever a play needed sharp direction this is it; instead, its structural weakness is exaggerated by Fail’s egregiously sloppy staging on a bland, shabby-looking set of beige apartment walls, amateurishly designed and even more amateurishly lit by S. Watson; apart from changes in the minimal furnishings, the room is precisely the same for both Paris and New York, with the same blank view out of an upstage window.

Fail’s pacing is ragged, his actors seem to be blocking themselves on the fly, most scenes lack dynamic tension, and, sadly, much of the acting is inadequate. There’s one memorable feature, though: Andy Evan Cohen’s jazzy-blues sound design for the scene changes.

Pendleton, with his impish quirkiness, can be delightful when playing the right role; however, he’s anything but an acting chameleon. Here he resorts to his familiar bag of mannerisms: making jittery hand and foot movements; rubbing his face or racing his hands through his thinning, white hair, when agitated; delivering speeches to the floor instead of the person he’s addressing; coupling sudden bursts of anger with equally sudden retreats into quiescence; and smiling ironically when delivering painful remarks.

As David, Davis slouches, grimaces, and, despite artists’ agents generally being fashion conscious, wears costumer Lauren Levin’s schlubby costumes with schlub-of-the-year panache.

If you’re considering Consider the Lilies I’d advise you to reconsider.

Consider the Lilies
TBG Theatre
312 W. 35th St., NYC
Through January 28

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 (




Anne Carrere Triumphs in ‘Piaf! The Show’ at Carnegie Hall

January 11th, 2017 Comments off
Anne Carrere in 'Piaf! The Show.' (Photo: G. Marsalla via The Broadway Blog.)

Anne Carrere in ‘Piaf! The Show.’ (Photo: G. Marsalla via The Broadway Blog.)

Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Tina Turner, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Barbara Cook, Harry Belafonte, and Anne Carrere all share one common denominator: They’ve all played Carnegie Hall.  Carrere’s name may not be as familiar as the others on that list but after an astonishing debut on Friday, January 6 at the notorious venue; her name can easily rank among these esteemed performers.

The French native had audiences in the palm of her hand after a solid two-hour event entitled Piaf! The Show, a theatrical production based on the life of the internationally famous French singer, Edith Piaf. The show has been touring the world, thrilling audiences and garnering immense praise from critics but Carrere’s stop in New York City was particularly noteworthy as it marked the 60th anniversary of Piaf’s January 13,1957 performance at the hall. Piaf made her debut there in 1956 and returned for her last and final performance one year later.

Anne Carrere in 'Piaf! The Show' (Photo: G. Marsalla via The Broadway Blog.)

Anne Carrere in ‘Piaf! The Show’ (Photo: G. Marsalla via The Broadway Blog.)

Carrere, along with pianist Phillipe Villa, accordion player Guy Giuliano, percussionist Laurent Sarrien, and double bassist Daniel Fabricant began the show (sung completely in French) depicting Piaf’s humble beginnings in Paris. Carrere entered the house and solicited audience members for spare change while singing “Comme un Moineau” (“Like a Sparrow”). Piaf, who was born Edith Giovanna Gassion, adopted the nickname “Piaf” (“little sparrow”) for her vocal talents. The remainder of the first act included several lesser-known songs from Piaf’s earlier career, while picturesque images of Paris were projected onto the empty upstage wall.

Act II proved to be the most substantial part of the evening, particularly for die-hard Piaf fans as Carrere delivered the most well known songs of the singer’s career. The light-hearted “Mon Menage a Moi” (“You’re My Carousel”) was first, followed by “Jezebel,” a 1951 flamenco-flavored hit based on the biblical Israeli queen. Many pop tunes from that era were covered and/or translated by a variety of artists and although the names of the French versions may not be instantly recognizable to non-French speakers, the melodies are likely familiar to fans of older standards.

“L’Homme a la Moto” (“Man on the Motorcycle”) was an unlikely 1956 hit for Piaf, which tells the story of a motorcyclist who treats his girlfriends with disrespect and meets a fateful death on the highway. The American songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the tune and originally titled it “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”—it’s perhaps one of the most ridiculous songs ever penned. Still, it was one of Piaf’s greatest selling singles. Carrere performed it with the intended cheekiness and it served as one of the many fun moments throughout the night.

Another familiar piece, “Hymne a l’Amour” (“Hymn to Love”) was the most hauntingly beautiful song in the set list. Piaf wrote the lyrics and Marguerite Monnot set them to music.  It was written for Piaf’s lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1949. Dame Shirley Bassey brought the ode to American listeners. Carrere poured her heart into it, bringing tears to eyes of the Carnegie crowd.  Carrere herself was overcome with emotion as she acknowledged how overwhelmed she was to be appearing at the coveted concert venue. “A few years ago, I was just a little, unknown singer,” she said. “And tonight, I am standing here before you at Carnegie Hall.”

French director and producer discovered the 31-year-old marvel. Initially, she had auditioned for his show, Paris! Le Spectacle but he noticed her love for and vocal resemblance to Piaf and constructed the show with Carrere in mind. She is indeed an incredible discovery and carries herself with the poise of a seasoned star. One of her most impressive assets is her vocal stamina. Piaf’s songs are hugely emotive and have quite a range. While many singers would fade by the night’s end, Carrere’s voice only got stronger and was perfectly on pitch throughout.

Piaf! The Show ended with her biggest crowd-pleasers: “La Vie en Rose” (“Rose Tinted Life”) and “Non Je ne Regrette Rien” (“No, I Do Not Regret Anything”). The latter served as a mantra for Piaf’s often troubled life. Aside from the lack of supertitles, which may have enhanced this experience for non-French speakers, the creative team and star of this marvelous production should, like Piaf, have nothing to regret.

Eager audiences will have to hop a flight to northern France for her next appearance in Neuilly Saint Front on January 20.

For more information and to find regularly updated tour dates, visit:

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre 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.


‘Confucius’ Soars at Lincoln Center

January 10th, 2017 Comments off
CAEG's 'Confucius' at Lincoln Center. (Photo: Liu Haidong via The Broadway Blog.)

CAEG’s ‘Confucius’ at Lincoln Center. (Photo: Liu Haidong via The Broadway Blog.)

If you think The Rockettes, Radio City’s legendary dance company, hold the only key to high-impact precision movement, think again. It might not be obvious to compare the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater to the Rockettes, but in terms of size and scope of its recently presented dance drama, Confucius, there are some similarities.

Hu Yang in 'Confucius' (Photo: Liu Haidong via The Broadway Blog.)

Hu Yang in ‘Confucius’ (Photo: Liu Haidong via The Broadway Blog.)

No, Confucius doesn’t offer kick lines. But director/choreographer Ms. Kong Dexin (a 77th generation direct descendent of Confucius himself) knows a lot about moving around a crowd. The cast of 55 performers often glides along the David H. Koch Theater stage at Lincoln Center as if they were on ice, with swooping silk costumes flowing in their wake. Syncopated sections also emerge in the six-section dance drama, as Confucius (brilliantly danced by the athletic Hu Yang) imparts his code of ethics among the empire.

“Inquiry,” “The Chaotic Time,” “Out of Food,” “Great Harmony,” “Mourning for Benevolence,” and “Happiness” offer a loose structure, but don’t expect a linear plot. Instead, appreciate Yang, along with the pristine movement of Tang Shiyi as the Concubine, and the rest of the regimented cast.

The National Opera & Dance Drama Theater was established in 1950 and since its inception has performed more than 100 operas and dance dramas. Part of China Arts and Entertainment Group, the cultural exchange initiative seeks to introduce traditional and contemporary Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world.

Those looking to invigorate their theatergoing experience beyond Broadway will find Confucius a dynamic evening of athletic performance and a welcome exploration of cultural expression.

Confucius heads to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, January 13-15.


‘Hair’ Celebrates 50th Anniversary at La Mama

December 30th, 2016 Comments off


The legendary musical HAIR, which began life downtown at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in October, 1967 (prior to its roof-raising debut on Broadway in April, 1968), will celebrate its 50th anniversary and its East Village roots in a one-time-only special event at La MaMa (66 E. 4 St. in NYC) on Saturday, January 21 at 2 p.m.

With book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and music by Galt MacDermot, HAIR is the American Tribal Rock Musical that helped define its generation, and the anti-war movement in the 1960s.

Highlights of the HAIR happening on January 21 include live performances by members of the original 1967 and 1968 casts, as well as members of the recent, enormously successful 2009 Broadway revival.  Songs to be performed include “Aquarius,” “Donna,” “Where Do I Go?,” “Frank Mills,” “Air,” “Black Boys,” “Let the Sunshine” and more.

Performers from various Broadway casts of HAIR expected to participate:  Shaelah Adkisson (‘09), Ellen Foley (‘79), Natalie Mosco (’68), Allan Nicholls (’68), Rev. Marjrie Lipari (’68), Dale Soules (’68), Andre De Shields (’69, Chicago), Ula Hedwig (’68) and Keith Carradine.

The very first demo recording of the title song HAIR (1967), sung by Rado and Ragni with MacDermot on piano will be played.  This recording has never before been heard publicly.

HAIR creators James Rado and Galt MacDermot will be on hand to share their personal stories with the audience.  (Their collaborator Gerome Ragni died in 1991).  The event will be attended by special guests, and feature a pre-recorded video from both HAIR producer Michael Butler, and original cast member Walter Michael Harris. The event will also celebrate creator James Rado’s 85th birthday.

On view will be photographs by the noted lens-woman Dagmar Krajnc, who took rarely seen photos during the early years of HAIR; and photographs from the HAIR private collection provided by producer Michael Butler.

HAIR‘s 50th anniversary event is presented as part of La MaMa’s popular Coffeehouse Chronicles series, which explores the history and development of Off-Off-Broadway, part history lesson and part portrait of downtown artists and their work.

La MaMa’s attachment to HAIR, and vice versa, dates back to the 1960’s when, during its developmental process, the HAIR team turned to La MaMa’s leading, innovative director Tom O’Horgan to take over the reins of the musical.

The HAIR Coffeehouse Chronicles is moderated by Chris Kapp.  The event is curated and directed by Michal Gamily, Chronicles’ director,  with educational outreach led by Arthur Adair. Admission to the Coffeehouse Chronicles is free (suggested donation, however, reservations in advance are required at

Categories: The Buzz, Way Off Broadway Tags: ,

Technicolor Fabulous: ‘Bright Colors and Bold Patterns’

December 23rd, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Drew Droege in 'Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Drew Droege in ‘Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For years, entertainment has often portrayed homosexuals as effeminate, self-loathing individuals who are well versed in pop culture, quick-witted, and way over the top. Some might argue that this same stereotype is being perpetuated in the solo play Bright Colors and Bold PatternsOn the surface, they may be right. But stick with this 80-minute monologue and by the end, you may discover some surprising truths about yourself and your world views, thanks to Drew Droege’s beautifully crafted script and Michael Urie’s wise direction.

Droege, who also stars in the comedy, is best known for his hugely popular impersonations of actor Chloe Sevigny. After watching an interview in which Sevigny nonchalantly name checked and spouted obscure references, Droege’s fascination led to a series of online videos.

His riff on Sevigny might well have been a precursor to the character he plays here. Gerry (Droege), a thirty-something brash and boozy pop-culture authority has just arrived to a decked out Palm Springs home (tastefully designed by Dara Wishingrad) from Los Angeles. He’s there for the wedding of his close friend Josh and Josh’s fiancé, Brennan, who Gerry dismisses as a dull figure and refers to as “mayonnaise on a captain’s wafer.”

Drew Droege (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Drew Droege (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Gerry is one of the first guests to arrive at the posh palace and is met by his ex-boyfriend Dwayne, and Dwayne’s significantly younger boyfriend, Mac. Neither is seen, but Droege’s masterful conversations with them bring the pair vividly to life. It’s not long before Gerry pours himself a frozen margarita and starts to dish on nearly everything and everyone that pops into his head.

Gerry has absolutely no filter and speaks at lightning speed mostly due to his abundant consumption of alcohol and cocaine. He’s particularly irritated by his friends’ wedding invitation discouraging guests from wearing “bright colors and bold patterns,” which he perceives as an affront to gayness. Gerry’s life mantra seems to be “go big or go home” and he has little patience for anyone who doesn’t interact in the world and live loud.

He continues to ramble on, citing references from Steel MagnoliasDesigning Women, obscure Lifetime television movies, and fashion designers. At times he meanders off topic but that is when the show is at his funniest. Gerry’s quips are razor sharp and Droege’s mannerisms and expressions are single-handedly worth the price of a ticket.

I’ve always believed that the term “tour de force” to describe a performance is pretentious and perhaps, it is. Yet there seems to be no better phrase to define Droege’s capacity to captivate and keep his audience fully engaged from beginning to end.

Gay marriage is the essence and thread of Gerry’s diatribe and he wonders whether the newly acquired right will force the gay community into a state of normalcy. It’s been hard for him to sustain a long-term relationship in spite of the proclamation to his fellow guests that he and his boyfriend, Greg, have been fighting. The problem is that Greg isn’t really his boyfriend; he’s a restaurant employee at the Veggie Grille in Los Angeles and Gerry is pining for his affection

It would be easy to dismiss Gerry as a caustic, bitter queen with a substance abuse issue and deep disdain for humanity. At times, I did feel uneasy about his blatant cocaine use and initially found him grating. Yet Droege is careful not to make his character a one-dimensional, shallow soul. In the show’s quieter moments, he’s able to poke a hole through Gerry’s false confidence, revealing a vulnerable, thoughtful guy who is trying to make sense of it all while he lives his life with wild abandon. Droege’s message: We’re not always fabulous, nor are we permanently flawed. We’re an alchemy of it all because we’re wonderfully human.

Here’s what other critics had to say:

“Plays do not get much gayer than ‘Bright Colors,’ a spiffy production directed by Michael Urie.” — Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

“At an easy, breezy 70 minutes, Bright Colors and Bold Patterns doesn’t ask too much of our time while offering a surefire laugh.” — Zachary Stewart, Theatermania

“Gerry guards old wounds of exclusion and heartbreak, dating back decades, that have made him the spiny puffer he is today, inflated with prickly defenses. That’s what gives Droege’s show a poignancy beyond its hilarity. Gerry’s hard-won pride now rains on his parade.” — Adam Feldman, Time Out NY 

Bright Colors and Bold Patterns 
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through December 30

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.

Breaking: ‘Spamilton’ Heads to Chicago

December 21st, 2016 Comments off
The cast of 'Spamilton.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Spamilton.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Spamilton, the critically acclaimed off-Broadway parody of Broadway smash Hamilton, created by Gerard Alessandrini, the mastermind behind Forbidden Broadway, announced today that the show will open its first production outside New York this spring for a strictly limited 12-week engagement.

The Chicago run will begin performances Friday, March 3, 2017, at the Royal George Theatre’s Cabaret/Studio Theatre (1641 N. Halsted), with an opening night set for Thursday, March 9, and will run through Monday, May 29. The production is in discussions for additional productions in Los Angeles, London, and a U.S. National Tour for 2017.

Hamilton opened my eyes to a world of brand new comic possibilities, and inspired me more than anything has in many long years,” said Gerard Alessandrini, creator of Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway. “We have been delighted that New York audiences welcomed us with open arms, and are thrilled that we will be opening our next production in the Windy City. The rest of the country need not worry, as we hope to welcome them to our ‘room where it happens’.”

Spamilton, which was initially scheduled as an exclusive 18-performance engagement, has extended three times off-Broadway and is now playing its fifth smash month of an open engagement at the Triad (158 West 72nd Street). The New York production earned rave reviews across-the-board, with Ben Brantley of the New York Times calling it “smart, silly and convulsively funny!” and Lin-Manuel Miranda exclaiming “I laughed my brains out!”

 Spamilton celebrates, roasts, and eviscerates the Broadway blockbuster with a cast of five. In addition to Alessandrini, the creative team includes Gerry McIntyre (Choreography), Dustin Cross (Costume Design), Fred Barton (Musical Director), and Richard Danley and Fred Barton (Musical Arrangements).

Spamilton is produced in Chicago by John Freedson, David Zippel, Gerard Alessandrini, Margaret Cotter and Liberty Theatres, and in association with JAM Theatricals.

Spamilton in Chicago will play the following performance schedule: Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm and 5:00pm.

Tickets for Spamilton start at $59. Premium seats are also available. To purchase tickets, please visit

Categories: The Buzz, Way Off Broadway Tags:

Lip-Smacking Good: ‘Nina Conti: In Your Face’

December 19th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Nina Conti (Photo: Idil Sukan via The Broadway Blog.)

Nina Conti (Photo: Idil Sukan via The Broadway Blog.)

Very little is sacred when you’re in the presence of Nina Conti, a multi-award winning ventriloquist currently in a two-week engagement at the Barrow Street Theater titled Nina Conti: In Your Face. It marks the first time that she’s performing in the U.S. after slaying audiences on the West End. It’s always a tricky gamble on whether British comedy will translate to American audiences and I’m relieved to say that it does so in a way that is hugely irreverent and funny.

Before you rolls your eyes with boredom and disinterest over the word “ventriloquist,” take heart and know that Conti is already aware of your prejudice towards what many consider lowbrow, hack entertainment.  Although it appears to be completely effortless, she works hard to turn the pejorative profession around and succeeds with flying colors.

Conti, a fit, slender, forty-something who looks like the traditional  girl next door, opens her solo show by informing the audience that the show is 90 percent unscripted so it’s a new show every night “so if it’s shit tonight, come back tomorrow night,” she jokes in her posh accent.

Next, we’re introduced to “Monk,” a foul-mouthed monkey that Conti makes so life-like that it’s nearly impossible to believe we’re watching an inanimate object. Monk makes every attempt to insult audience members he connects with, labeling them as “boring” and “do-good fucks,” among others. At one point, “Monk” hypnotizes Conti and stares endlessly at the audience. Never before has a nylon hand puppet been so simultaneously creepy and hilarious. During another portion of the show, Conti crawls into a life-size bag and allows the audience to ask random questions of “Monk.” Questions like, “Will you go home with me?” and “What do you think of Trump”? are posed with quick-witted responses delivered at light speed.

Nina Conti (Photo: Idil Sukan via The Broadway Blog.)

Nina Conti (Photo: Idil Sukan via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s only the beginning for audience participation, though, and if you don’t want to be called onstage, you’d better sit near the back. Conti wrangles guests to the stage and dresses them in face masks. She’s able to control their mouth movement with a gadget resembling a remote control. In this way, she can literally put words in their mouths. At this performance, several eager audience members were called to the stage to create the following characters: An IT Tech guru, city advocate, salty Russian Émigré, and a disgruntled Scotsman. Conti astonishes with her dexterity, both physically and vocally and each of her voices is distinctly different. It’s even more of a feat for her to remember all of their details and weave them into a continuous dialogue, all while switching voices.

Conti’s brand of humor is sarcastic, smart, and bone dry. At times, it can be a bit cringe worthy. One of her volunteers, whom she had trouble understanding was met with the response, “I don’t quite understand you. Is that an American accent? Or is that sort of speech impediment?” He did, in fact have a speech impediment so the audience was left to question whether or not it was safe to laugh. Yet whether she’s hiding behind the guise of Monk or ad-libbing her facemask characters, it’s easy to see that Conti means no harm with her comedy style. Though derisive on the surface, she clearly enjoys laughing with her audience rather than at them and the result is a win/win situation.

Cute animal puppets and animated faces might lead folks into thinking that this is suitable for families, but don’t be misled; Conti pulls no punches and rarely edits anything that her characters say so it’s best to find a babysitter for the night.

The show runs a bit over an hour making for a quick but incredibly worthwhile night of entertainment. Americans have long embraced our artistic friends from across the pond and Conti is a refreshing addition. Her Brit brand of humor is certain to win the accolades of even hardened New Yorkers.

Nina Conti: In Your Face
Barrow Street Theatre
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Through December 23

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.






Watch Your Back: ‘The Bodyguard’ at Paper Mill Playhouse

December 10th, 2016 Comments off
Deborah Cox in 'The Bodyguard.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Deborah Cox in ‘The Bodyguard.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

By the time the time GRAMMY-nominated Deborah Cox belts out “I Will Always Love You,” one of many sweeping musical power ballads in Paper Mill Playhouse’s current production of The Bodyguard The Musical, one thing is evident: I still miss Whitney Houston. This grandiose adaptation of the 1992 thriller that starred Ms. Houston as a pop star with a stalker and her bodyguard, played by Kevin Costner, was never a great film to begin with, but it generated the best-selling soundtrack of all time, with such hits as “I’m Every Woman” and “I Have Nothing.”

Somehow producers secured rights to the songbook and the stage musical was born: a clunky, poorly staged version that begs the question “Why?” The plot follows Rachel Marron (Deborah Cox) as she enlists the services of bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to protect her from the advances of a stalker (Jorge Paniagua). Rachel is none too interested in Frank’s methods as her career is at breakthrough moment with a potential Academy Award looming in the future. But she’s got a family to protect, namely her son Fletcher (alternately played by Douglas Baldeo and Kevelin B. Jones III) and sister Nicki (a terrific Jasmin Richardson). A love interest begins to brew and the pair eventually find themselves entangled in the bed sheets.

Judson Mills and Deborah Cox in 'The Bodyguard.' (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

Judson Mills and Deborah Cox in ‘The Bodyguard.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

After a break-in at her estate, Rachel realizes that she must trust Frank and he whisks her off to his cabin in the woods, but in true thriller fashion, the stalker shows up and somebody doesn’t make it out alive. (No spoilers here!) At the Academy Awards, Rachel gives the performance of a lifetime—perhaps her last if her stalker has his way. But Frank returns to save the day.

The plot line has been simplified from the film version to become merely a thin veil for the familiar songs, and while Paniagua’s stalker is supremely creepy, it’s a one-dimensional story that doesn’t get much help from Mills’ emotionless, cardboard performance as the tough guy with a heart of gold.

Secondary characters like Rachel’s manager Bill Devaney (Charles Gray) and sleazy agent (Jonathan Hadley) are uncomfortably cliché, as are most of the ensemble, who resort to posturing, hip-popping, hair-flipping, and pantomime whenever they’re not engaged in Karen Bruce’s theme park choreography—the exception being a fantastically dynamic Latin-themed number set to “I’m Every Woman.”

Cox, who has the nearly impossible task of tackling nearly a dozen hits made famous by Houston, does so in spades. She dives into the high-range melodies with deceptive ease, reminding us why she has six studio albums under her belt. Her chemistry with Mills is forced at best, but it’s a valiant effort. By the middle of Act II, I wished that I were simply watching Deborah Cox deliver a Whitney Houston tribute concert and forego the rest.

The Bodyguard The Musical is the latest in a series of movie-to-musical productions at Paper Mill Playhouse, which was the recipient of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Last year’s A Bronx Tale transferred to Broadway after opening to mixed reviews, and even with award-winning Kathleen Marshall at the helm, Ever After’s hopes of a life after New Jersey were thwarted after mediocre reactions from critics and audiences.

Paper Mill has the benefit of its proximity to New York City to draw terrific talent and an apparently bottomless budget to pour into enhanced productions that on the surface look ready to plug into a larger commercial market, but what seems to be missing recently is a level of taste. The Bodyguard hasn’t done much to break the pattern.

The Bodyguard The Musical
Paper Mill Play House
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through January 1, 2017

Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

Don’t Go Through… ‘The Portal’

December 5th, 2016 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

Billy Lewis Jr. in 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Billy Lewis Jr. in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

For more than twenty years, I have seen the best—and in some cases—the worst that the New York theater scene has to offer. In 2005, I had the misfortune of sitting through Suzanne Somers’ one-woman show, The Blonde in the Thunderbird. Since then, no other theatrical event has compared to its tragic level of badness and it has long been perched on my mantel, earning its place as the worst show I’ve ever seen on a New York stage. Congratulations, Ms. Somers. After 11 years a shaman will relieve you from your post.

The Portal, marketed as “part rock concert, part movie, and part performance” and inspired by “Burning Man, Pink Floyd, EDM, and World mythology” is completely unbearable. Within the first 20 minutes, the Front man (Billy Lewis, Jr.) sings the following lyric:

“What Am I Doing Here?”

Funny he should inquire, as I very quickly was asking myself the exact question.

The cast of 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The disjointed show opens with two musicians, percussionist Gilly Gonzalez and guitarist Paul Casanova, whose music—at least for the first few minutes—evokes Peter Gabriel’s masterful score for the film, The Last Temptation of Christ.

With tribal, Arabic rhythms, they are soon joined on stage by three dancers (Marija Juliette Abney, Jessica Aronoff, and Nicole Spencer) and the Frontman who is dressed in meditation yoga clothes. He begins nearly every number with a primal moan, palms facing out at the hip and raising them above his head as though he were one of the “Ys” in the Village People classic, “Y-M-C-A.”

Marija Juliette Abney (foreground), Jessica Aronoff (background) in 'The Portal.' (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

Marija Juliette Abney (foreground), Jessica Aronoff (background) in ‘The Portal.’ (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)

The lyrics are barely intelligible and, glancing at the musical numbers in the program doesn’t clarify anything. Songs listed include, “Eclipse,” “Greeting,” “Holy Fractal,” “Space Child Fractal,” and “Reaper Fractal.” Composer/lyricists Tierro Lee, Lisa Gerrard, and Daniel Katsuk’s music offers no variety or clarity into what this any of this is all about, but one thing is certain: They really love their fractals!

The show is an interpretation of Dante’s Inferno and much of the action is meant to take place in the mind as stream of consciousness. During many of the songs, projections of Dante and Beatrice are displayed on a huge LED screen, performed respectively by Christopher Soren Kelly and Zarah Mahler.

The Frontman is apparently the spiritual advisor who is guiding their journey from the stress and demands of every day life. Every so often, Beatrice will deliver, breathy, meditative lines about surrender and letting go. One of my personal favorites, “Life is the same as death as the river is to the sea,” may be referencing the circle of life, but my unenlightened mind was still in the dark.

Other random moments include a man in a business suit who enters from upstage, walks among the cast, down the steps to the house, and flashes his illuminated cell phone to one row of the audience. Was he sharing a text message, a tweet, a gif?  I have no idea. Later, he returns from the back of the house and strolls down the aisle in a grim reaper costume.

It’s hard not believe that this is simply a vanity project funded by a group of investors who are flush with cash. Peter T. Feuchtwanger and David Goldstein’s set and scenic design—while confusing as hell—are vivid, interesting, and undoubtedly costly, but they still don’t compensate for the weak material. Jessica Chen’s choreography offers very little for the imagination but I can’t blame her. She doesn’t have much inspiration. Nor can I address Luke Comer’s direction because the word doesn’t suit the outcome. I am curious to learn, however, what drew him to this project.

Never did I think I’d yearn for Suzanne Somers’ return to the stage.

Until I went through The Portal.

The Portal
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane, NYC
Through December 31

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.