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The Beat, Beat, Beat of the Tom-Tom: ‘The Emperor Jones’

March 14th, 2017 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Irish Repertory Theatre has a rather liberal interpretation of its titular mission, which can be seen by its occasional production of plays by Irish Americans, like Eugene O’Neill, whose explosive 1920 play The Emperor Jones, is now receiving its second revival. (The first was in 2009 starring John Douglas Thompson and directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, who staged this replication of his earlier production.)

O’Neill’s semi-expressionistic one-act was considered an artistic pathbreaker in its day. Partly this is because it was one of the first important plays by a white playwright centered on a black character (played by Charles Gilpin in the original and Paul Robeson in the 1933 movie), and partly because it broke away so radically from then conventional realism in favor of imaginative, nonrealistic, theatrical staging for its final scenes. Over the years, the play has had to overcome charges of racism, but, fortunately, it continues to receive notable productions.

Andy Murray in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Andy Murray in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Its present incarnation, running a swift 65 minutes, enjoys the commanding presence of British actor Obi Abili. This impressive-looking thespian fully embodies the boastful, crafty, ruthless, crap-shooting Brutus Jones, a former Pullman porter and murderer who escaped from a U.S. prison to a West Indian island where he manipulated the locals to become their emperor. Forget about skin color and listen to some of his words for reflections on our current political leadership.

O’Neill, using a story he’d heard about an actual Haitian leader, attributes Jones’s sway to his exploitation of the natives’ superstitious fears by claiming only a silver bullet can kill him. Aiding him is a greedy, craven Cockney trader named Smithers (Andy Murray).

When his corrupt dictatorship, under which he makes the laws and embezzles the money, turns his victimized people against him, the haughty Jones flees through the jungle, with the money he’s stolen, toward a waiting boat. In a half dozen brief scenes, during which he’s the only speaker, the jungle comes alive in his increasingly fevered imagination with “the Little Formless Fears,” seen as terrifying spirits, frightening rituals, and chilling sounds (created by the top-notch Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab), including the heartbeat-like throbbing of drums. Jones’s past misdeeds and racial memories, such as a slave auction, burst into vivid life before he fires his silver bullet at a huge crocodile before he himself dies by such a bullet crafted by the natives.

Charlie Corcoran’s set of loose hangings, dominated at first by Jones’s raised throne, becomes, in the scenes of jungle madness, a kaleidoscopic playground for lighting designer Brian Nason’s nightmarish effects. Costume designers Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher contrive a variety of eerie costumes for the spirits, many of them seeming to be offshoots of the surrounding trees, while puppets and fearsome masks (the work of Bob Flanagan) further heighten the hair-raising atmosphere. Every move is excitingly choreographed by Barry McNabb, most memorably a dance featuring a colorful witch doctor (Sinclair Mitchell).

Obi Abili in 'The Emperor Jones.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Obi Abili in ‘The Emperor Jones.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Abili fills the stage with ample physical and vocal force although his words, written in heavy “Negro” dialect, are sometimes muffled. At one point he whips his throne platform with one muscular blow after another, such that you shudder at the thought of what the effect would be on a human back. The ensemble, including Carl Hendrick Louis as the native called Lem, are all up to the task.

I missed Thompson’s 2009 performance so I can’t compare him to Abili but, for now, Abili has set the high standard I’ll remember the next time someone tackles The Emperor Jones.

The Emperor Jones
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd Street, NYC
Through April 23

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).

 

15 Minutes with Melissa Errico

December 2nd, 2016 Comments off
Melissa Errico (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Melissa Errico (photo: Brigitte Lacombe via The Broadway Blog.)

Currently starring in Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Finian’s Rainbow (extended until January 29, 2017), Melissa Errico is re-defining the ingénue. Her self-written feature in The New York Times was a hallmark moment for the 46-year-old actress, who refuses to play to age-based limitations, writing:

The ingénue police are knocking, but I’m not letting them in. They know the great Mary Martin was 46 when she played the young postulant Maria Von Trapp in the original The Sound of Music. (They probably knocked on her door, too.)

And Finian’s Rainbow is a fable always worth retelling, with an absurd plot that is really not absurd at all. It’s about equality, peace, racism and tolerance. It is about a more hopeful America where each person might see beneath the surface of another, and find within oneself a tolerance toward oneself — even a celebration — as we allow our own surfaces to change. 

The Broadway Blog had a chance to catch up with the Tony Award-nominated actress in between shows and an overflowing life with her husband, three daughters, and Yorkshire terrier.

Melissa Errico in 'Finian's Rainbow' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Melissa Errico in ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Why do you think Finian’s Rainbow resonates with today’s audiences?

I’ve done the show over the course over 15 years. Concerts then a full production, then a concert at Town Hall. We opened Oct 25 but by the time we had the election the show was very different.

It’s hitting a nerve, offering a possibly reassuring voice. A model of liberal racial politics — somewhat antiquated — but still a model. Yip (E.R. Harburg, the show’s lyricist and book writer) was a great humanitarian and liberal activist. Finian’s Rainbow is about inclusion and we’re living in a time that many people feel threatened.

At first, I didn’t think that the musical was current. In my dream world I thought we were past that. There’s a terrific dialogue exchange that could come out of today’s headlines:

Senator Billboard Rawkins: Of course it’s legal! I don’t know where you immigrants get these radical, foreign ideas!

Sharon McLonergan: From a wee book the immigration officer handed us. It’s called ‘The United States Constitution.’

Finian McLonergan: Haven’t you read it?

Senator Billboard Rawkins: I don’t have time to read it, I’m too busy defending it!

In particular, what do you think makes this production special in Irish Rep’s intimate space?

Irish Rep’s space has become larger and much more playable since it’s recent renovation. There are still those onstage columns, which are incorporated so beautifully into the set design by James Morgan to create this sort of dreamy plantation or rural forest.

From the actor’s standpoint, it’s tight quarters backstage. There’s no chance of warming up and you can plan on brushing your teeth with someone else. There’s this unspoken agreement to be communal and work together, and the only way to succeed is to be that kind of person. Charlotte Moore (Irish Rep’s artistic director) is a genius to find those kinds of people to cast.

In terms of performance, it’s not a Broadway show where you’re ushered along. You’ll notice that there are no microphones — there’s not a speaker in the building. It’s the audience and the actors. And then this all-female Celtic jazz orchestra sits down and forget about it! There’s a lot of color coming out of those four girls. You’ll never have that kind of experience on Broadway.

This is story theater. There’s no ability for the show to get fake or pretentious. We’re constantly looking for the substance, and to tell that story you have to put your heart out there. And then there’s the technical side of things. If I want to crescendo with everything else happening around me I have to walk toward the audience for my voice to rise above the others. There are a million different levels. It’s hard stuff!

The New York Times piece put a spotlight on women of a certain age in the theater. Do you think there’s a double standard?

The theater community wants women to age and wisen and teach and connect and be sensual. But there aren’t a lot of roles out there. But there’s another culture — the world of concerts — where we can create a strong experience and women are not impotent in that domain.

There are also a million catch-22’s. In my 30’s, while my career was soaring, my doctor said, “Are you ever going to have children?” It’s tricky to be a gal but we wanted to have a family.

Being in our 40s is an interesting time. It’s not that long ago that we felt young, but then we realize that we’re really adults now. I’m certainly not moaning. We each have to work it out in our own way. Lead the way in your wanting.

I want to be an adult in the business, so that’s what’s coming. I have a family. I have things to do on the off weeks. I have three amazing daughters. And yes, I’m also desperate to play certain roles.

(Photo provided by Melissa Errico.)

(Photo provided by Melissa Errico.)

Do you feel there a special skill set for those actors, like yourself, who seem to embrace the classics, like Finian’s Rainbow?

Some people are just born very modern. They’re not given ballet lessons! I had that sort of training and what I call “pretty” lessons, but with an element of trapping a person as a “good girl”— lots of qualities that you find in characters like Leona in Do I Hear a Waltz? or Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest.

I love all the ideas behind these works, too. There’s a bookishness about me. My first big job was Cosette in the first national tour of Les Misérables and you could find me backstage reading the Victor Hugo novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the source material of so many of these great shows.

You recently sang “The National Anthem” at a New York Rangers game at Madison Square Garden, what was that like?

I wanted people to remember the country is still there. Hey, I threw in a high “C”!

I was put on the ice in front of 65,000 people to touch their spirit, and for a moment, to lift up that room. It was a chance for that energy to pass through me to the crowd, hoping to bring out the best in everyone for one night. And as performers, we hope they carry a little bit of that out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Theatrical Pot of Gold: Irish Rep’s ‘Finian’s Rainbow’

November 14th, 2016 Comments off

By Samuel L. Leiter

The cast of 'Finian's Rainbow.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Finian’s Rainbow.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

This past week has been a tough one to get through but, for two hours, at any rate, I managed to escape the political madness by visiting the mythical Jim Crow state of Missitucky, enchantingly reimagined in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s revival of Finian’s Rainbow. This 1947 hit is guilty of occasional silliness and simplistic racial politics (once considered radically progressive). Nonetheless, it never stops pleasing as a tuneful, socially conscious, romantic fantasy laced with moonbeams, a leprechaun, rainbows, and a crock of gold.

Although the aforementioned treasure plays a significant role, the show’s true crock of gold is the eternally delicious score by Burton Lane (music) and E.Y. Harburg (lyrics), filled to overflowing with 17 songs, many of them now standards: most famous, perhaps, is the glorious, impossible-to-stop-humming “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?,” but there are also the up-tempo ballads, such as “Look to the Rainbow” and “Old Devil Moon.” Add spirited numbers like “Necessity,” with its infusion of scat singing, “Something Sort of Grandish,” “That Great Come-and-Get-It Day,” and the gold glows even more brightly.

The cast of 'Finian's Rainbow' at Irish Rep. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ at Irish Rep. (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Finian’s Rainbow, for all its datedness (tobacco plays a positive role!), has a surprising number of satirical points whose pertinence still pushes laugh-erupting buttons, including issues of race, wealth, unions, and immigration. Its fanciful plot tells of old Finian McLonergan (Ken Jennings) fleeing from Glocca Morra, Ireland, to Rainbow Valley, America, in the Missitucky mountains, with the magical crock (it provides three wishes to its owner) he stole from the leprechaun Og (Mark Evans); with him is his beautiful daughter, Sharon (Melissa Errico).

Finian plants the gold near Fort Knox, believing its contents will increase. Og pursues the McLonergans, finding himself becoming ever more human as he falls in love with both Sharon and a local girl, Susan the Silent (Lyrica Woodruff), a mute who speaks in ballet gestures. Love also blossoms between Sharon and union organizer Woody Mahoney (Ryan Silverman), within a subplot in which the racist Senator Rawkins (Dewey Caddell) mends his bigoted ways after being turned black by an imprecation from Sharon. By the final curtain, everyone, including the audience, ends up the better for whatever it is they’ve been going through. Would that real life were like this.

Melissa Errico (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Melissa Errico (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Moore has assembled a superb company of 13 to cover a trimmed-down, two-hour (with one intermission) version of Harburg and Fred Saidy’s book, which originally included over 30 performers. While it’s impossible to take seriously anything in the whimsical proceedings, the cast consistently delivers with affecting conviction and charm, led by the marvelous Errico (sweetly convincing as a character half her age), bringing beauty, assurance, happiness, and a gorgeous voice to her every moment.

The company is so good all deserve to be mentioned, beginning with the Mickey Rooney-like Jennings, a tiny tornado who defines the word “lovable,” as the comically irascible Finian; the silver-voiced Silverman (who paired with Errico so excellently in Passion a couple of seasons back) as the handsome Woody; Evans as a tall, spindly Og; and the lyrically lovely Lyrica Woodruff as the sprite-like Susan.

James Morgan’s lovely unit set—suggesting a neutral, vine-covered, Southern environment, with musical notes splashed across the upstage wall—beautifully integrates the Irish Rep’s infamous pillars into the décor. More visual sugar comes from James Toser’s colorful costumes, combining 1940s period wear with fanciful inventions like Finian’s vaudevillian, battered top hat and baggy pants. With the four-musician orchestra ensconced upstage under the expert directorship of Geraldine Anello, and magical lighting by Mary Jo Dondlinger, Finian’s Rainbow is as much a pleasure to view as to hear.

Feeling down? Turn off CNN and look to Finian’s Rainbow for a crock of old-fashioned theatre gold.

Finian’s Rainbow
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 W. 22nd St., NYC
Through December 31

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).

 

Review: The Belle of Belfast at Irish Repertory Theatre

April 24th, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

 Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley in "The Belle of Belfast" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kate Lydic and Hamish Allan-Headley in “The Belle of Belfast” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Belle of Belfast, a little firebomb of a play, is now detonating eight times weekly at the Irish Repertory Theatre in one of the best acted productions I’ve seen at this venerable Off Broadway venue. Set in 1985 during “the troubles” in Belfast, where a production would probably cause protests, it sounds to these non-Irish ears—especially in the company’s finely honed accents—about as Irish as anything by Martin McDonagh; this despite playwright Nate Rufus Edelman (whose program bio says he’s “a proud member of the Choctaw nation) being from Los Angeles, where the play premiered at Ensemble Studio Theatre-LA in 2012. Edelman did study, however, at Trinity College Dublin, where—supplemented by visits to Belfast itself—he picked up enough of Belfast’s lingo and politics from his Belfastian flat-mate to convincingly pen this Irish hot potato.

Kate Lydic and Arielle Hoffman in "The Belle of Belfast" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kate Lydic and Arielle Hoffman in “The Belle of Belfast” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

At the heart of the 85-minute, one-act play is the simmering relationship between a hotheaded redhead, 17-year-old Anne Molloy (Kate Lydic), and Ben Reilly (Hamish Allan-Headley), a devout, sincere, and all-too human, 35-year-old priest. The seething Anne, who “has a mouth on her that would make a Dublin junkie blush,” as the alcoholic priest, Father Behan (Billy Meleady, who created the role in L.A.), describes her, was orphaned as a child when her parents were accidentally killed in an IRA bombing aimed at Protestants, seven of whom also died. Anne—infuriated and depressed by the senseless conflict—has become a boundary-testing teen with no qualms about using bad language in the confessional (where “feck” passes, but its close cousin is verboten) or seducing Ben, who immediately suffers a crisis of faith. Their liaison serves as a premise on which to explore other issues as well, including the meaninglessness of Northern Ireland’s political violence and its clergy’s skewed perspectives.

Of particular interest is the priests’ private earthiness, not merely because Behan is a drunk and Reilly a heavy smoker. These priests even hesitantly share the confidences they’ve heard in the confessional. Behan is particularly memorable, especially as realized in Billy Meleady’s electrically authentic performance. He represents the deep Northern Irish Catholic hatred of Protestants, which makes Anne’s parents heroes (“collateral damage” he calls them) just because they died in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even Ben admits to feeling proud when Anne’s parents became martyrs, but this was before Anne helped him have a change of heart.

Reilly and Behan take as much pride in being patriots as priests, seeking a united Catholic Ireland at any cost. When two Catholic teens become bombing victims, all the unsympathetic Behan can offer is: “He was a poof and she was a slutty bitch.” He wishes he could be sent away from Belfast’s dreariness to the seaside town of Donegal; why not, since another priest was transferred there as punishment for molesting boys (somewhat anachronistically, considering that priestly pedophilia was not yet a widely exposed issue)? Yet, for all his bonhomie, after taking a bribe to hear his friend’s confession, he erupts in unbridled, compassionless fury when he learns of Ben’s mortal sin.

Hamish Allan-Headley and Billy Meleady in "The Belle of Belfast" (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Hamish Allan-Headley and Billy Meleady in “The Belle of Belfast” (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Belle of Belfast is laced with humor. Partly, this stems from the misguided confession of Anne’s caretaker, her slightly batty great aunt Emma (delectably handled by Patricia Conolly), who seeks weekly absolution for what she erroneously considers her sins, which more likely are those of others. Even serious scenes have laughs threaded through them, like those between Anne and her chubby, overeating schoolmate, Ciara (an excellent Arielle Hoffman), whose Catholic morals are shocked by what Anne divulges.

For all its punch, the play leans a bit on melodramatic contrivances, although to expose them would lead to spoilers. Still, the vigorously stageworthy dialogue, the heated issues broached, the colorful characterizations, and the uniformly three-dimensional acting satisfactorily cover the holes.

Lydic is TNT as the troubled, outspoken Anne, her fiery outspokenness nicely offset by the reserved suffering of Allan-Headley’s Reilly. All the performances are precisely calibrated under the incisive direction of Claudia Weill (who also directed its L.A. premiere), complemented by John McDermott’s split-stage, outdoor-indoor setting, Justin Townsend’s capable lighting, Terese Wadden’s appropriate costumes, and Jeff Larson’s projections. This is good theater. And that’s the fecking truth.

The Belle of Belfast
Irish Repertory Theatre
DR2 Theatre
103 East 15th Street
Through June 7

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).

Review: “Da” at Irish Repertory Theatre

January 23rd, 2015 Comments off

by Samuel Leiter

"DA" at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

“DA” at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The Irish Repertory Theatre is cozily in its element with Da, a lovingly realized revival of Hugh Leonard’s 1978 play about a son’s fraught relationship with his late dad (“da” in the play’s vernacular). The original—which began Off Broadway and moved to Broadway, where it copped the Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best play—reveled in a Tony-winning performance by the late Barnard Hughes as the delightfully cantankerous gardener of the title (a.k.a. Nick Tynan).

"DA" at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

“DA” at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Call it the luck of the Irish, but the company is fortunate to have the effervescent Paul O’Brien in the role, bringing to it all the charm, obtuseness, ignorance, pride, conviviality, and vitality it requires. And, under Charlotte Moore’s vibrant direction, the rest of the authentic-sounding ensemble, especially Ciaràn O’Reilly as Charlie (Brian Murray in the original), Fiana Toibin as Mother (a.k.a. Maggie Tynan), and Sean Gormley as Mr. Drumm, provide superlative support.

Leonard’s nostalgia-laden, autobiographical tale of Charlie, a successful London playwright, who returns in 1968 to his parents’ home to attend Da’s funeral and clean up the old man’s affairs, is performed on a naturalistically detailed set, which cleverly crams a working-class family’s Dublin suburb home onto the tiny confines of the DR2’s stage, with just enough space for exterior scenes. As Charlie rummages through some paperwork, Da himself appears, as if alive. The next two hours concern the illegitimately-born Charlie’s attempts to come to terms with his memories of and feelings toward his adoptive father.

"DA" at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

“DA” at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Despite the shame and anger often stirred in the scholarly young Charlie by Da’s uninformed, narrow-minded behavior (hating Britain, he favored the Germans when World War II began), he comes to appreciate the old man’s life-affirming existence. Charlie also realizes that, regardless of the efforts he made, all of them stubbornly rebuffed, nothing he could have done to help Da would ever have been able to repay him for his love, but that Da henceforth will always be with him.

Using flashbacks, the play moves back and forth in time between 1968 and Charlie’s youth, with young Charlie played by the fine Adam Petherbridge, although the older Charlie enacts himself as a six-year-old. Scenes from the past, involving Charlie’s boyhood pal Oliver (John Keating, with his welcome eccentricities); Mary Tate (Nicola Murphy, spot-on), a pretty girl with a naughty reputation suggested by her being called the Yellow Peril, with whom the desperate Charlie is about to have his first sexual encounter when Da suddenly comes along; Mr. Drumm, the cynical older man who offers young Charlie not only his first job—one he held for fourteen years—but, as a secondary father figure, the kind of honest if painful advice absent from the young man’s home life; Charlie’s sharp-tongued, demanding mother, who really rules the roost; and Mrs. Prynne (Kristin Griffith, impeccable), the stingy upper-class employer who, despite his over half a century of loyal service, rewards the too complacent Da with a measly pension and a bizarre memento from the San Francisco earthquake.

Leonard’s play, like those of so many great Irish dramatists, overflows with richly colorful, character-defining, rhythmically musical language; when well spoken, as by these actors, you hear a symphony of brogues. Despite the possibility of seeming queasily whimsical, this complexly structured play, in which a living man interacts with ghosts and his own younger self, remains consistently believable. James Morgan’s set, Michael Gottlieb’s lighting, Linda Fisher’s costumes, and Zach Williamson’s sound offer excellent assistance. Da represents the Irish Rep at its shaggin’ best.

Da
Irish Repertory Theatre
DR2 Theatre
101 E. 15th Street
Through March 8

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).

Review: A Christmas Memory

December 5th, 2014 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

The cast of 'A Christmas Memory' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘A Christmas Memory’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Truman Capote’s semiautobiographical short story, A Christmas Memory, first published in Mademoiselle in 1956, would not seem the kind of material that would inspire dramatization. It is a heartwarming, elegiac work honoring Capote’s deep friendship with a distant cousin, Sook Faulk, who goes unnamed in his story; he writes that she was his closest friend when he was seven and she was “sixty-something” (the script, among other revisions, gives Buddy’s age as 10 to 12 for Buddy and Sook’s as 45 to 65). Yet the story, set in rural Alabama in 1933, during the heart of the Depression, has been the source of multiple TV versions and recordings, an opera, and two musicals, one (presumably) unproduced and the other now in a pleasant, pretty, but dramatically tepid Irish Repertory Theatre production at the DR2 Theatre, following its premiere four years ago at Theatreworks, in Palo Alto, California, with other productions in between.

Book writer Duane Poole uses the conventional framing device of having the Capote character, nicknamed Buddy (Ashley Robinson) by his cousin, now a successful writer, return in 1955 to his childhood home in Monroeville (unnamed in the short story), where he was raised by relatives after his parents divorced. There he meets the now aged black housekeeper, Anna Stabler (an excellent Virginia Ann Woodruff), who still lives there. As they reminisce, Buddy’s childhood memories come alive and he serves as an omnipresent narrator of his childhood experiences, enacted by Young Buddy (Silvano Spagnuolo), sometimes inserting himself as an unseen player in those events, but mostly watching and commenting on the boyhood he recalls.

Silvano Spagnuolo and Alice Ripley in 'A Christmas Memory' (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Silvano Spagnuolo and Alice Ripley in ‘A Christmas Memory’ (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The show uses nine characters, with one actor (Samuel Cohen) playing three of them: Young Buddy’s hypochondriac bachelor cousin Seabon Faulk, the scar-faced café owner Haha Jones, and Farley the mailman. Filling out the cast—in addition to Young Buddy’s dog, Queenie—are the two spinsters, Sook (Alice Ripley) and her everything-by-the-rules sister Jennie (Nancy Hess), a milliner; and Nelle Harper (Taylor Richardson), Young Buddy’s friend, a pigtailed tomgirl (who grew up to be Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird). Aside from Haha and Queenie, none of these characters, all based on actual people, is named in Capote’s story, although he alludes to “two relatives.”

A Christmas Story concentrates on the uncommon friendship between Young Buddy and his eccentric cousin, a woman old enough to be his grandmother whose pronounced childlike tendencies are balanced by a subtle, unappreciated wisdom. The limited action focuses on the pair’s efforts to gather the ingredients, especially whiskey (illegal at the time), to use in the preparation of fruitcakes, Sook’s specialty, which she bakes in large batches to send as Christmas presents to friends and strangers—including President Roosevelt and movie star Jean Harlow. Sook and the boy’s visit to the café of the scary Haha Jones, to obtain the liquor, provides a mite of tension, as does Young Buddy’s vivid recounting in song (“Buddy’s Midnight Adventure”) of his and Nelle’s mostly imaginary encounter with the same imposing figure. When Sook allows Young Buddy to share with her the remaining whiskey, Jennie and Seabon are so angry that they decide to break up the friendship and send the boy off to military school.

The sixteen songs, by Larry Grossman (music) and Carol Hall (lyrics), some with ragtime syncopation, are nicely performed, and a few, like “Mighty Sweet Music,” in which everyone plays the ukulele, are especially delightful. More songs and less text would go a long way toward giving the too talky A Christmas Memory the theatrical jolt it needs.

James Noone has provided a simple, if spatially cramped, unit set of a slatted rear wall fronted by a tree composed of similar slats, with a small window door to suggest someone speaking from a tree house. It is given expressive life by Brian Nason’s multihued lighting, while David Toser’s period costumes offer additional visual appeal.

Despite the presence of Tony winner Alice Ripley as Sook, a role in which—despite a gray wig and frumpy housedress—she seems too young, attractive, and normal for someone considered such an oddball, neither she, her capable co-performers (especially Ms. Woodruff), Charlotte Moore’s direction, nor Barry McNabb’s choreography can make this slow-moving, slender story maintain continual interest for over two hours. I’m sure that many theatergoers will welcome the show for its sentimental appeal, but I’m afraid it is already fading from this reviewer’s Christmas memories.

A Christmas Memory
DR2 Theatre
101 E. 15th Street
Through January 4

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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three to See: June — “One Night Only Edition”

June 3rd, 2014 Comments off

Broadway is gearing up for the Tony Awards on June 8, which means that this year’s crop of nominees are pulling out all of the stops for enthusiastic audiences and producers are hoping that a big win may solidify box office sales and the possibility of future touring productions.

irishrepBroadway is, after all, commercial theater, meaning that the almighty dollar can sometimes supersede artistic integrity. But for one night only, many theater artists take to the stage to strut their stuff in celebration of the craft itself. This month The Broadway Blog highlights three can’t-miss theatrical events that will have audiences leaping to their feet. An array of performers will take to the stage to celebrate that there’s no business like show business.

June 9

The Spectacular Songs of Lerner and Loewe!
Irish Repertory Theatre’s annual benefit gala overtakes the Al Hirschfeld Theater for a night (no Kinky Boots this time around) and celebrates the music of classic hit shows including My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon and Brigadoon. Tony Award-winners Malcom Gets, Maryanne Plunkett, John Cullum, James Naughton and Joel Grey headline the evening, which pays tribute to the 27-year-old theater company. It is currently the only year-round theater company in New York City devoted to bringing Irish and Irish American works to the stage.

7 p.m.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre

fiddler_folksbiene_art

June 9
Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Fiddler on the Roof
An all-star benefit concert for National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene brings together stars of stage and screen, including Joshua Bell, Andrea Martin, Adrienne Barbeau, Jerry Zaks, Austin Pendleton, Pia Zadora and a special appearance by Tony- and Academy Award-nominated Topol, who played Tevye in the 1972 film version and 1990 Broadway revival.

7:30 p.m.
Town Hall

Ben Platt in The Book of Mormon (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

Ben Platt in The Book of Mormon (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

June 23
Broadway by the Year: 1990-2014
Author/critic Scott Siegel created the series for Town Hall, which he writes and hosts. Siegel takes audiences of all ages on a musical tour of the Great White Way, offering an entertaining verbal account of Broadway’s history. Each evening celebrates the songs from Broadway shows of a selected year, sung by a cast of talented cabaret and Broadway performers. This year marked a departure in format, showcasing 100 years of Broadway history. The final installment of the season will include performances by Orfeh, Bobby Steggert, Barrett Foa, Margo Seibert, Rory O’Malley and dozens more with musical selections of the era including Young Frankenstein, Avenue Q, Ragtime, The Light in the Piazza, The Book of Mormon and others.

8 p.m.
Town Hall

Bobby Steggert in the Broadway revival of Ragtime.

Review: “Transport” at Irish Repertory Theatre

February 17th, 2014 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler goes overboard at Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Transport.

Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein, and Jessica Grové in "Transport" at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo Carol Rosegg) via The Broadway Blog.

Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly,
Pearl Rhein, and Jessica Grové in “Transport” at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo Carol Rosegg) via The Broadway Blog.

It is a true tale of epic proportion. More than 4,000 young women were transported from Ireland to Australia in the 1830s and ‘40s to propagate with the thousands of convicts who had already been transported to the unchartered territory of southern Australia. Most of them were convicted of petty or fabricated crimes. They made the journey on rough waters with little comfort and were lucky to survive — many of them didn’t.

Transport (book by Thomas Keneally and music & lyrics by Larry Kirwan) delivers their story as a chamber musical, told through the eyes of four women and a handful of crewmen responsible for their safe delivery. It is a story ripe for the stage, reeking of dramatic tension and epic proportion. But instead, the audience sails into yonder with just a smattering of backstories, and simple melodies and lyrics that leave one yearning for a turn of phrase that doesn’t neatly wrap itself at the end of each line.

Directed by Tony Walton (Tony-, Emmy- and Academy Award-winner for his design work), the musical lacks the creative staging necessary to compensate for its small size. Irish Rep’s awkward theater space (an “L”-shaped black box) doesn’t do the work any favors while a central turntable spins the actresses around gales on the open ocean.

Mark Coffin and Edward Watts in "Transport" at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg) via The Broadway Blog.

Mark Coffin and Edward Watts in “Transport” at Irish Repertory Theatre (photo: Carol Rosegg) via The Broadway Blog.

Jessica Grové, Terry Donnelly, Pearl Rhein and Emily Skeggs are tasked with embodying the spirit of a shipful of women—a nearly impossible feat, yet each summons a shining moment. As Polly Cantwell, a young mother forced to travel with her infant child, Ms. Skeggs is most successful at creating this imaginary world and playing the stakes that will keep her alive through the journey. The men onboard each have their own skeletons as well, for nobody on this transport ship is without their secrets. But they are written with broad strokes, and the action chugs along in predictable linear fashion.

While the subject matter may be dramatic, Transport’s creators perhaps needed a compass to steer this theatrical ship in a direction that could resonate to the degree that the material requires. If the intension was to bring these women’s stories “to musical light,” then more texture and theatrical innovation was needed to do so. In the hands of a more daring creative team, perhaps this rocky course could have braved the harsh ocean, but as is, Transport gets lost at sea.

Transport
Irish Repertory Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Through April 6, 2014

Take a sneak peek…