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Tangled: Keen Company’s ‘When It’s You’

March 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Ana Reeder in 'When It's You.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Ana Reeder in ‘When It’s You.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Courtney Baron’s When It’s You, the Keen Company’s latest offering, is a one-person play about a woman coming to terms with her grief. For 70 minutes, she stands on a bare stage and relates a rambling, sometimes disconnected, but occasionally moving tale about two people she’s recently lost; the play offers her the opportunity to react to these losses and reexamine her life. Why she’s speaking to us is never explained but, by the time the piece concludes, we can be forgiven for feeling like we’ve been part of a grief counseling session listening patiently to a member’s lengthy account of her trauma and what she’s learned from it.

The locale is Dallas, Texas, where Ginnifer (Ana Reeder), still single at 37, has grown up and to which she’s returned after living and working in St. Louis for 17 years. A “dutiful” daughter, she came back when her mother was dying of cancer and moved into hospice care. After her mother died Ginnifer took over the family house, where her mom’s stuff became hers.

Ana Reeder in 'When It's You.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Ana Reeder in ‘When It’s You.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The practically bare setting, designed by Steven Kemp, offers a minimalist platform, being little more than walls and pillars painted a tasteful shade of pale gray. A wooden chair with a carton on it stands at center. Atmospheric variations are supplied by Josh Bradford’s subtle lighting and Justin West’s unobtrusive projections.

Ginnifer’s family issues, explained by Reeder in a dead-on Texas accent (although she mispronounces “ogle”), are intermingled with her recitation of a far more traumatic recent event. This is a mass killing and suicide by her high school sweetheart, Jason Hanley, whom she dated for five or six months, but hadn’t seen in 20 years. No reason is given for the slaughter but the ease with which Jason was able to buy his weapon offers a brief, if peripheral, reflection on America’s gun culture.

As the former girlfriend of a mass murderer, Ginnifer naturally draws attention from those who think she might be able to offer some clues to explain an atrocity that took everyone by surprise. Jason, after all, came from a decent Christian family and showed no warning signs, unlike the local tornadoes that give you notice that they’re coming. As would anyone, she’s stumped by the dilemma of how much any of us ever know about other people. Or how much we even know about ourselves, as suggested by the Cabbage Patch doll in the carton, a memento her mother left for her that reminds her of herself at ten.

Ginnifer’s tangled narrative, which moves around in time, requires patience as it slowly comes into focus. She herself refers to it this way:

There is a ball of yarn. You think you are a ball of yarn, so you think that everything from every time of your life is close together, but you have to untangle it. You have to untangle the yarn. And I think you will find. You will find that in order for the yarn or string to make a ball, it must be a long string.

As Ginnifer untangles her “ball of yarn,” we become enmeshed in her “unbearable loneliness,” her wondering if she actually loved Jason, and her concern over whether she can bring herself to forgive him. But the narrative surrounding these themes isn’t especially novel or interesting. Boiled down to its core, When It’s You is little more than a character study of a lonely woman whose mother died of cancer, and whose high-school boyfriend, with whom she’s been out of touch for decades, turned out many years later to be a mass murderer.

While not much of a play, the vaguely titled When It’s You offers Ana Reeder an extended acting exercise in which she offers a lovingly constructed performance, one that fully captures the emotional toll of Ginnifer’s experiences. As smartly directed by Jonathan Silverstein, she renders the woman’s ordinariness with telling honesty, showing us a simple, friendly (on and off Facebook), unassuming human being expressing her bewilderment at how her life has transpired, and what she sees when she looks in the mirror or clings to a childhood doll when seeking the answer to who she is.

When It’s You
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through April 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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Miss: Keen’s Company’s ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’

November 11th, 2016 Comments off
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire  and Ciara Renée in 'Tick, Tick... Boom!' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

George Salazar, Nick Blaemire and Ciara Renée in ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s nearly impossible to watch Tick, Tick… Boom!, Jonathan Larson’s 1990 autobiographical musical monologue that was posthumously adapted after his untimely death into a three-piece chamber musical (2001), without a sweeping dark cloud of what could have been if the composer/lyricist was still with us today.

Keen Company’s current revival pays reputable homage to the heart of Larson’s early work and offers audiences an opportunity to hear inklings of melodic intervals and turns of phrase cut short by a misdiagnosed aortic dissection that took his life on the morning of RENT’s first Off-Broadway preview in 1996.

Nick Blaemire in 'Tick, Tick... Boom!' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Nick Blaemire in ‘Tick, Tick… Boom!’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Keen Company’s revival of Tick, Tick… Boom! is essentially Larson’s story, told through song and dialogue with the assistance of his best friend, Michael (George Salazar), and girlfriend, Susan (Ciara Renée), both who play an array of minor characters. But the show belongs to Nick Blaemire, who portrays Jonathan with geeky sensuality. His love for his work (both actor and composer) is infectious, and manages to fill the Acorn Theatre’s too-large proscenium.

The theatre swallows the show, in spite of Jonathan Silverstein’s swift direction. Christine O’Grady’s choreography feels unnecessarily ambitious at times, particularly in “No More,” a frenetic number that pits Michael’s upwardly mobile career choice with Jonathan’s struggling commitment to his art. But there are plentiful moments that offer a sense of Larson’s blooming talent: Michael’s “Real Life” and Jonathan’s 11 o’clock number, “Why,” in which he commits to a life dedicated to his art.

Joey Chancey’s tight musical direction showcases the actors’ strengths, which fit in the pocket of Larson’s pop-rock musical style. There are charming tributes to Sondheim and Bernstein—signs that Larson deeply respected the roots of musical theater, even if he choose to build a new kind of house.

Tick, Tick… Boom!—now more than 25 years past its original inception—is still relevant, drawing teens and millennials, some of which only know of Larson as a memory. I hope this production inspires a new generation of artists to stay true to their artistic expression, push boundaries, and create work that challenges the establishment.

Tick, Tick… Boom!
Keen Company
Acorn Theatre at Theater Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through December 18

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

Keen Company Announces 17th Season

August 10th, 2016 Comments off

Keen CompanyToday Keen Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein announced his plans for the upcoming season, which explore themes of self-discovery. Silverstein stated:

“In the fall we will present a revival of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick…BOOM!, the late composer’s only other musical apart from Rent. Larson’s moving and entertaining piece is a natural fit as Keen’s third ‘intimate’ musical, following our successful productions of Marry Me a Little and John & Jen. We’re excited to reunite with David Auburn, who refashioned Larson’s one man show to create this beautiful three-character musical. Dave was an early supporter of Keen and adapted The Journals of Mihail Sebastian in our 2003-‘04 season.

“This spring, for the first time, we will produce a work developed in Keen’s Playwrights Lab dedicated to fostering the work of mid-career playwrights. Courtney Baron has written an incredibly timely tale about gun violence in contemporary America. Ever since I read it, I knew we had to produce it—and sadly the story becomes more and more relevant with every day. Courtney has had a long history with Keen, including writing for our Keen Teens program and we are incredibly proud to be presenting her work as part of our main season.”

Before Rent, there was Tick, Tick… BOOM! This autobiographical musical, by the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Jonathan Larson, is the story of an aspiring composer questioning his life choices on the eve of his thirtieth birthday. His girlfriend wants to get married and move out of the city, his best friend is making big bucks on Madison Avenue, but Jon is still waiting on tables and trying to write the great American musical. This exhilarating, funny, and moving work by the late Larson will speak to anyone who’s ever gotten lost on their way to finding their dreams.

Nick Blaemire stars in this thrilling work by the late, great Jonathan Larson.  Tick, Tick…BOOM! has book, music and lyrics by Jonathan Larson; David Auburn serves as Script Consultant; Joey Chancey will be Musical Director; Jonathan Silverstein directs, with choreography by Christine O’Grady. Additional casting and design team will be announced shortly.

Performances for this limited Off-Broadway engagement of Tick, Tick… BOOM! at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row will begin Tuesday, Oct 4, and continue through November 19only, with opening night set for Thursday, October 20.

Nick Blaemire will star in Tick, Tick… BOOM!

When It’s You, a world premiere by Courtney Baron, is a personal look at the ripple effects that follow gun violence in contemporary America. Ginnifer is single, 37, and has just lost her mother to illness. She moves back to her hometown and learns her first love from high school is now at the center of a violent crime. Ginnifer must confront her relationship to the heinous act as well as her changing place in society, all while living in her dead mother’s home. Timely and moving, When It’s You complexly and honestly explores America today.

“I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the Keen Company’s 2016-‘17 season. The connections run deep: the founding artistic director, Carl Forsman, directed my first production after I finished grad school. It is wonderful to now get to work with the incredibly talented current Artistic Director, Jonathan Silverstein, who will direct, and his excellent team,” said Baron.

“I was also very fortunate to be a part of the amazing Keen Teens program which provides teens with the opportunity to work on commissioned plays by working New York-based playwrights. My new play, When It’s You was written in the Keen Company Playwright’s Lab. When Mark Armstrong approached me about being a part of the Lab, specifically for mid-career writers, I jumped at the chance,” continued Baron. “The lab was one of the most supportive writer’s groups I have been a part of and this play wouldn’t have happened without it. To now be offered this production is a testament to how dedicated Keen is to fostering its artistic partners. I am grateful to be one of them.”

Performances for this limited Off-Broadway engagement of When It’s You by Courtney Baron, directed by Jonathan Silverstein, will begin Tuesday February 21, and continue through Saturday April 8, only, with opening night set for Thursday March 9. Casting and design team will be announced shortly.

All performances will be at The Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues) and will be Tuesday through Thursday evenings at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm; and Sunday matinees at 3pm.

Tickets for Tick, Tick…BOOM will be $75; premium tickets will be $90; for When It’s You, tickets will be $65; premium tickets will be $80. (All ticket prices include restoration fees.)

A subscription package for both shows of the season is only $100 which includes unlimited exchange privileges, invitations to Keen Company readings, and more. Keen patrons 30 or under see both shows for just $25 each with a KEENConnect Subscription at only $50.

Individual tickets and subscriptions are on sale now. To purchase tickets visit Telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200. For subscriptions, call the Subscriber Hotline at 212-560-2185.

For more information, visit www.keencompany.org

‘Boy’: Nature Versus Nurture

March 11th, 2016 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in 'Boy' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Heidi Armbruster, Ted Koch, and Paul Niebanck in ‘Boy’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

The zeitgeist’s obsessive fascination with issues of sexual confusion and gender identity continues with Anna Ziegler’s Boy, an engrossing yet inconsistently satisfying new drama being offered by the Keen Company under Linsay Firman’s direction on Theatre Row. In it, New York stage stalwart Bobby Steggert plays Adam Turner, a character whose story was inspired by a famous case of sexual reassignment surgery performed in 1966 on an eight-month-old Canadian boy, David Reimer.

Reimer—the late subject of the “John/Joan” case—was the victim of a botched circumcision that led to the loss of his penis; his agitated parents sought the help of a noted psychologist, John Money, who advised them to have the boy’s testicles removed and raise him as a girl. Despite the efforts to nurture him as a female, David, after learning of his biological gender, rejected his imposed identity at fourteen and had genital reconstructive surgery; eventually, he even went public in an effort to help dissuade others from following the same path.

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in 'Boy.' (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Rebecca Rittenhouse and Bobby Steggert in ‘Boy.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Boy hews fairly closely to Reimer’s situation, including his having been a twin; it imagines not only what it might have been like for him to grow up as a girl (hormone shots included) with a boy inside struggling to get out, but what such an individual might experience if he found himself in a romantic relationship with a woman. The play actually begins with the beginning of that relationship when, wearing a mask (presumably symbolizing his need to disguise his sexuality), Reimer’s avatar, Adam, meets Jenny Lafferty (Rebecca Rittenhouse) at a Halloween party in 1989, a date projected on the rear wall. Each scene, in fact, is introduced with a projection of the year in which it’s set, as well as Adam’s age, since the action jumps around in time, from 1968 to 1990.

Ziegler’s primary focus is on the classic nurture/nature debate—a lengthy program note provides helpful background—so we’re forced to ponder just how much of human behavior is based on how we’re raised as opposed to our genetic predispositions. When Adam’s parents, the warm but anxious Trudy (Heidi Armbruster) and the gruffly macho, working-class Doug (Ted Köch), of Davenport, Iowa, agree to the recommendation of celebrity psychologist Dr. Wendell Barnes (Paul Niebanck) that Samuel be raised as a girl, he’s renamed Samantha. Important scenes show the bookish, sensitive, and highly intelligent Samantha in her childhood sessions with Dr. Barnes in Boston.

A principal question concerns whether Barnes is more interested in Adam (who chooses that name when he decides to live as a man) as a person or as a case study he can use to benefit his career. The other main question is how Adam will resolve his love affair with Jenny, the single mother he falls in love with and who can’t understand what his sexual hesitancy is all about: “Well, are you gay, then?” she asks.

Despite its theatrical devices of moving back and forth through time and having Adam morph from one age or gender orientation to the other, without costume changes or radical behavioral alterations, the narrative and its issues—particularly the nature versus nurture argument—are clearly laid out. But just what’s going on sexually with Adam when he yearns for Jenny remains indefinite; he says “I have a dick that doesn’t really work. Not really.” You have to wonder what that means, and what he’s feeling or is sexually capable of when he kisses her, especially with his condition having been such an obstacle. More details, please!

Boy moves along efficiently on Sandra Goldmark’s simple setting of black backdrop fronted by two freestanding doorframes. Steggert, 35, is suitably boyish-looking and versatile for a role demanding so many shifts in age and tone, but Adam remains more a textbook case than a three-dimensional person. Armbruster and Köch are acceptable as his conventionally distressed parents while Niebanck’s psychologist is stiffly artificial in both writing and performance. Only Rittenhouse, as the confused girlfriend, approaches a fully realized performance.

At 90 minutes, Boy isn’t concerned with Adam and Jenny’s future. You may wish to Google “David Reimer” to find out what happened to Adam’s source, and to wonder whether the note of promise on which the play ends might be not only misleading but disingenuous.

Boy
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through April 9

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).

One Night Only: Kate Baldwin

October 26th, 2015 Comments off
Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in Keen Company's John & Jen (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in Keen Company’s John & Jen (photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Keen Company presents Keen OnKate Baldwin, an evening of songs with Tony Award and Drama Desk nominated star Kate Baldwin (John & Jen, Giant, Big Fish, Finian’s Rainbow) and special guests.

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

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

An audience favorite, Kate Baldwin will be joined by Katie Thompson (Giant, Big Fish) and Graham Rowat (Mamma Mia!, Guys and Dolls). The evening will showcase Baldwin’s unique range and ability, featuring diverse material by The Dixie Chicks, Stephen Sondheim, Georgia Stitt, Andrew Lippa, and more. The eclectic evening will have Musical Direction and accompaniment by Georgia Stitt, with percussion by Michael Croiter, and bass by Brian Hamm.

The one-night-only event will be held  Monday, November 2 sat 7 p.m. at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street)—home to Keen’s current MainStage production of Grahm Greene’s Travels With My Aunt.

General admission tickets are $60, Premium tickets (including champagne toast with the artists) are $150, and available at telecharge.com, by calling 212-239-6200, or at the Theatre Row box office (410 West 42nd Street).

Here’s a peak at Kate Baldwin’s recent performance at SubCulture in New York City.

 

Review: John and Jen

February 26th, 2015 Comments off

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Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in "John & Jen" (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in “John & Jen” (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s been 20 years since the original production of John & Jen, a song cycle musical by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald. A lot can happen in two decades. Lippa has gone on to write the theatrical oratorio I Am Harvey Milk (in which he has also appeared), The Addams Family, and a retrospective of his work, Life of the Party, was presented at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory last summer. Greenwald is the author of the young adult book series, Charlie Joe Jackson. People grow up and move on—and occasionally bear the weight of life on life’s terms. Such is the subject matter of their endearing, if sometimes saccharine riff on sibling/parent relations and letting go, now receiving a respectable revival by Keen Company.

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin in "John & Jen" (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Conor Ryan and Kate Baldwin in “John & Jen” (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Starring Conor Ryan as John (The Fortress of Solitude, Cinderella), and Tony Award nominee Kate Baldwin as Jen (Big Fish, Finian’s Rainbow), the musical’s first act follows the course of brother and sister respectively as they find coping mechanisms for an abusive father. Jen as the older sibling makes a promise she can’t keep: to protect her little brother and always be there for him. But as they grow older and transition from 1950s America to the Vietnam Era, Jen’s tolerance for violence informs her decision to stay away from the family and ultimately move to Canada, leaving her brother at home to fend for himself. He joins the military and prior to deployment, the pair has an uncomfortable reunion. It’s the last time they’ll ever see each other.

The second act picks up years later and there is a new John in Jen’s life: her namesake son. As a single mom, Jen smothers (albeit with love) her son, desperately trying to keep the memory of her brother alive. You can imagine how that goes. Through some innovative theatrics, including a talk show sequence where the actors have a brief reprieve from their main characters, the mother-son relation finds resolution and the bird—so to speak—is set free to fly.

Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in "John & Jen" (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan in “John & Jen” (Photo: Carol Rosegg via The Broadway Blog.)

Baldwin and Ryan do their best to navigate the material. As sister then mother, Baldwin is tasked with a vast range of age and emotion. While less believable in the first act, she hits her stride in Act 2, where the maternal instincts (and age range) feel like a more natural fit. Ryan, who has skyrocketed onto the New York theater scene since his graduation from the University of Michigan last year, displays an adept physicality as well as restraint when appropriate. Each has his or her shining moments, though the physical production doesn’t do them any favors.

Steven C. Kemp’s oppressive set feels more suited to a futurist production of King Lear, with gloomy and foreboding geometrical shapes jutting in all directions in the Clurman Theatre’s wide proscenium. Josh Bradford’s lighting feels misplaced and over saturated. Combined, these elements exude an unnecessary weight on a production that would be better served by more fluidity and space.

Directed by Keen Company’s Artistic Director Jonathan Silverstein and featuring musical direction by Lily Ling, John & Jen reaches for emotional summits and occasionally finds them. For musical theater fans, the show offers insight into the Lippa cannon, offering early glimpses of his current status as one of the more prominent theater composers of this generation. And while the musical may not always soar to new heights, it is an endearing exploration of the human spirit.

John and Jen
Presented by Keen Company
Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through April 4

Matthew Wexler is the editor of The Broadway Blog as well as the national style and travel editor for EDGE Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.

“Once” Explodes, “Assassins” Guns for a Return & More Theater News

August 24th, 2012 Comments off

Lauren Molina & Jason Tam. Photo by Win Lubin.

I’m back from my hiatus only to discover that the theater world continued on without me. The nerve! So let’s catch up with a few of the biggest stories in a slam bang news round-up…

  • Certain theater producers better be buying everybody rounds of drinks at Bar Centrale this week, because two Broadway shows announced they have officially recouped their investments. The Tony-winning Best Musical Once and the imported farce One Man, Two Gov’nors are now playing for profit, baby. (Might I suggest that if you see a show with “three” in the title, you invest in it right now.)
  • Broadway Cast of "Assassins". Photo by Joan Marcus.

    Speaking of number one with a bullet, my favorite under-appreciated  Sondheim score, Assassins, will be heard again in New York at a one night only benefit performance for the Roundabout Musical Theatre Program. The cast of the acclaimed 2004 revival–including the snoggable Neil Patrick Harris and the divine Denis O’Hare–will reunite on December 3 for a reading of the gorgeously twisted show.

  • While we’re on a Sondheim binge (“More hot pies!”), the Keen Company announced the cast for their upcoming revival of the revue Marry Me a Little. Starting Septemeber 11, the lovely Lauren Molina and the, well, lovely Jason Tam will be singing a host of Uncle Steve’s best including trunk song rarities like “Rainbows” from the much delayed film version of Into the Woods.
  • I don’t know about you but I wanted to be Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark) when I grew up. I mean, seriously, she could handle her whiskey and she got to kiss Harrison Ford. She also happens to be a compelling actress with theatrical credits beyond her 80’s blockbuster film resume. All this is a long-winded way of saying that Ms. Allen will be starring in a new play, A Summer Day by Jon Fosse, starting October 10 at the Cherry Lane Theater. Don’t let anything (say, huge rolling boulders or a temple full of snakes) get in your way of seeing it.
  • And while we’re thinking of Indiana Jones (go with me), the opening sequence in the second film in that series not only started with a big musical number but it took place in Shanghai…which, according to the New York Times, is now the proposed home for a multi-billion dollar entertainment complex intended to “to rival the Broadway theater district in New York and the West End in London.” (Yeah, even my head hurts trying to follow that segue.) The project, expected to be completed by 2016, is a joint initiative between Chinese partners and the folks at Dreamworks Animation SKG (Spielberg! See, it’s all connected).