Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo @ Richard Rogers Theatre

War. We all hear about it, some of us live it, others create it and a tiger gets to watch it, in the new play, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, written by Rajiv Joseph. Through the eyes of this gruff and ghostly echo of a feline, we are taken on a journey to try and answer the question that has eluded man since the dawn of time: what is the meaning of life?

Two American soldiers; played by Glenn Davis and Brad Fleischer, are posted at the Baghdad Zoo to guard the Bengal Tiger, played by Robin Williams. Out of boredom, Davis’ character decides to taunt the beast only to have his hand bitten off, resulting in the tiger biting the bullet. Yet this is only the beginning, for beyond the veil our tiger finds himself wandering the streets of Baghdad, contemplating the weight and worth of life – both his and others – only to find he is not alone with this question.

Making his Broadway acting debut at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Robin Williams portrays the freely philosophizing, atheist cat of this drama set in war-mangled Iraq. The fact of the matter is, Williams was clearly brought into the production to sell tickets. Unfortunately, with the popular “big-name-only,” bug that has bitten Broadway, without an actor like Williams' name to marquee the show, Bengal Tiger would most likely not have made it to Broadway. Even with Williams not being in the solo spot of leading man, his performance is nonetheless quite excellent. Unrelentingly funny, Williams delivered his lines with spot on comedic timing, exemplifying his stand-up comedy background, making him well suited for this type of role. The supporting cast consisted of Arian Moayed (Musa), Glenn Davis (Tom), Brad Fleischer (Kev), Necar Zadegan (Iraq Woman, Leper), Hrach Titizian (Iraqi Man, Uday), and Sheila Vand (Hadia/Iraqi Teenager). All did an exceptional job of carrying the show, however, in this reviewers opinion the only supporting actor who was almost impossible to enjoy was Brad Fleischer, who whined and groaned throughout the entire production, making it was unbelievably challenging to become tolerant of his poor vocal dynamics.

Although it could be said that the youth in this day and age have become numb to expletives, the use of cursing in this production did not give the "edgy" factor, but hindered the piece as a whole. Excessive foul language in a play equaled more of a writer's weakness than anything else. Although it could be argued the use of foul language sets the tone of times of strife and tension of the situation at hand, the excess use of such words made David Mamet’s work look ‘G’ rated children’s flick. For the first twenty-minutes of the play, the plot was lost among “F” bombs, and not the talk of bombs. We get it, you are hard-core. MOVE ON!

On a lighter note, the technical design of this already impressive play was just incredible. The lights, designed by David Lander, and sound, designed by Cricket Myers, were nothing short of amazing, creating one of the most foreboding and intimidating atmosphere encountered to date. From the moment the doors open, the audience is hit with the bloodcurdling sounds of war in Baghdad alongside of flash bombs and explosive light specials all throughout the show. Set design by Derek McLane enthralls the audience in regality of Baghdad for the majority of the play, only for the entire set to be lifted up towards the end, placing us in the desert – creating a visually stunning picture throughout the entire show.

Although Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo had its entertaining and impressive moments, it is safe to say that this show is not suited for all viewers. Full of harsh language and pressing issues in today’s society, this show is not for the holly-jolly, happy-ending theatre goers and may come off as offensive. But if you are brave enough to venture into the concrete jungle, wishing to venture deeper into the bloodshed jungle, then by all means, come step into this tiger’s cage. Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo is now playing at the Richard Rogers Theatre in NYC.

Review By: James Russo & Kyle Conner

Sunday, March 20, 2011

American Idiot @ St. James Theatre

The band Green Day isn’t a new sound to the ears of America but it is a new sound to the ears of Broadway. The rock band has had songs on top 100’s lists since their formation in the late 80’s and their album “American Idiot” has been transformed into a power-house musical that reminds everyone what it’s like to go out into the world and discover yourself.
American Idiot follows the stories of three friends on their separate but similar journeys to adulthood. These best friends, Johnny (played by Van Hughes), Tunny (David Larsen) and Will (Justin Guarini), decide that it is time to flee the safety of Suburbia, go out into the world, and live life the way they think it should be lived – not the way their parents, teachers, or anyone else thinks it should be. As the trio is packing for the trip of their lives, Will’s girlfriend Heather (played by Jeanna De Waal) tells him she’s pregnant, thus deciding for him to stay with her and the baby. After some time it is evident that life in the city is not what the two boys expected and they separate. Tunny joins the army and is severely injured during the war; however, he finds himself falling madly in love with the Extraordinary Girl (played by Libby Winters) who is one of the women in charge of nursing him back to health. Johnny, on the other hand, has now fallen in love with Whatshername (played by Rebecca Naomi Jones) and been taken under-the-wing by St. Jimmy (played by P.J. Griffith), an influential drug dealer. This combination leads Johnny down a path of drug abuse and partying until he loses the girl and is left alone and miserable. When the desire for stability and comfort finally overwhelms them, the three find themselves together again back in their home town just like they always were, but this time as entirely different people.
Some of the most famous rock songs of all time are brought to life by this high energy ensemble lead by Van Hughes (seen on Broadway in 9 to 5 and Hairspray) who plays Johnny, a frustrated youth dealing with drug experimentation and a love lost. Hughes astounding skill theatrically and vocally forces the audience to experience his frustration with a life bound by rules, his freedom when those binds are severed, his loss of control, and his longing for home just as he experiences them. Playing one of Johnny’s two best friends is Justin Guarini (American Idol alumni who was seen earlier this year in Woman on the Verge) as Will, a good natured but ill equipped father and boyfriend. His love for his girlfriend and his desire to provide for her and their new baby is shown clearly through Guarini’s heart-wrenching gazes and pleas toward Heather (Jeanna De Waal) to stay with him.. The second best friend, Tunny, a young army recruit just trying to get the girl, is played by David Larson (seen on Broadway in Billy Elliot). Larson’s spectacular performance allows for the audience to recall the feelings of shyness, confusion and hope around a person they are attracted to. Paired with Van Hughes was understudy P.J. Griffith playing the role of St. Jimmy, a negatively influential figment of Johnny’s imagination.. Anytime Griffith walked onto the stage there was a surge of energy throughout the theatre from the thrill of danger that St. Jimmy’s character offered and the adrenaline rush of fear that comes with that danger. Griffith‘s wild look and electrifying performance were a contributing factor to that energy. Along with the lead actors there were wonderful performances given by the three leading ladies, Rebecca Naomi Jones (seen on Broadway in Passing Strange) who played Johnny’s love Whatshername, Libby Winters (in her Broadway debut) who played the Extraordinary Girl – Tunny’s caring but desirable nurse, and Jeanna de Waal (who was recently seen in London’s production of We Will Rock You) as Heather – Will’s pregnant girlfriend and an ensemble consisting entirely of extremely talented and energetic performers. While the overall energy of the ensemble was good, at certain points the orchestrations of the songs sounded a little too chorus-like for a rock show; however, the entire ensemble brought such a level of excitement to the stage that it was impossible for audience members to leave without feeling like they just had an adrenaline shock.
Though the actual performance of American Idiot was fantastic the book written by Michael Mayers (who also serves as the shows director) and Billie Joe Armstrong (leading man of Green Day) was not as fully realized as it needed to be. The plotline is one the audience knows well of a boy, or in this case three, going out into the world to discover themselves and getting into all sorts of trouble along the way; however, this is not clearly illustrated in the book. With some weak monologues and an abrupt ending, this piece truly needed the help of a professional book writer. Although the book was not up to par, other aspects of the show were. The first of these was the Tony Award winning scenic design by Christine Jones (designs on Broadway include Spring Awaking). The open set with multiple moving pieces such as furniture, scaffolding, and even a stairwell were fantastically designed. Along with all these movable parts were the three floor-to-ceiling walls covered in individually working televisions that allowed for inner thoughts of the characters to be expressed and many scenic elements to be shown. The transitions between the many locals of the show were not a challenge due to the many mobile pieces and the ingenious and Tony Award winning lighting design by Kevin Adams (designs on Broadway include Next to Normal and The 39 Steps). The hundreds of concert-style lights created a rock concert atmosphere for the audience and made it impossible not to notice the brilliant choreography done by Steven Hoggett who stayed true to the term “rock-opera” as shown by the fact that the dance moves in this show are more likely to be found at a concert than on a Broadway stage. The most fantastic moment of the show in terms of choreography was during the final number when the entire cast was onstage and each member was doing a signature dance move from one of the other numbers, unifying the entire show into one final song. Reflecting the choreography in the final number, the production crew came together and created a piece of art that truly represents what a rock-opera should be.
American Idiot is a show any Broadway fan would enjoy and a show any Green Day fan would rock out to. It will be showing on Broadway in the St. James Theatre until its closing performance on April 24th 2011. Until then audiences will continue to be amazed by this talented collection of artists.

Review By: James Russo & Courtney Labossiere

Friday, March 18, 2011

Arcadia @ Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Arcadia. When looked up in the dictionary, it is said to mean “a garden area of bliss” or “a simple oasis.” Both of these definitions are ironic because Arcadia, the revival currently playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is not simple or set in a blissful garden. Instead, playwright Tom Stoppard creates a world in which the answers are never simple and the garden is always the route of a debate. This well crafted piece requires much thinking, great care to the small details, and quite an open mind. Arcadia is a wonderful piece of theatre that, unfortunately, is simply not designed for everyone’s enjoyment.
With themes of math, science, intelligence, and love, Arcadia tells the story of what happens in the same room over 100 years apart. Set in both 1809 and the present day, the audience watches as mysteries are uncovered, theories are proven, and bonds are stretched to the max. In 1809, a young genius Thomasina (played by Bel Powley) is in the center of a wonderfully crazed group of characters. She learns all of her knowledge from her tutor Septimus (played by Tom Riley), who is desperately trying to please the entire household by hiding from the poet whose work he negatively critiqued, Mr. Ezra Chater (played by David Turner), and by making love to the mother of Thomasina, Lady Croom (played by Margaret Colin). As the days and years pass, a garden re-model begins to take form, a duel is issued, and love is turned up-side-down – all leading to a tragic death. Meanwhile, in the present, Hannah Jarvis (played by Lia Williams), a published author, and Bernard Nightingale (played by Billy Crudup), a university professor, go head to head trying to solve the unanswered questions of the past. With the help of Valentine Coverly (played by Raul Esparza), a post-graduate student currently doing research at the estate, Hanna and Bernard begin to slow uncover the truth about the exact happenings of the past.  Arcadia brings both the past and present together to prove that everything happens for a reason – what that reason is, is anyone’s guess.
An ensemble of 12 cast members brings the time altering world of Arcadia to life each night. Starting in the past, Bel Powley, in her Broadway debut, delivers a stunning performance – full of heart, intrigue, and compassion. She takes this beautifully written character and breathes life into it making Thomasina funny, loveable, smart. Tom Riley, also making his debut, delivers a wonderful performance that often left the audience wanting more. His youthful energy mixed with his charming sophistication made him the perfect tutor, lady’s man, and quick thinker that Septimus truly is. The rest of the past clan featured Edward James Hyland as Jellaby, David Turner as Ezra Chater, Byron Jennings as Richard Noakes, Margret Colin as Lady Croom, and Glenn Fleshler as Captain Brice – all of whom give delightful performances. In the present, Lia Williams (seen on Broadway last in Skylight) portrays the passionate author Hannah Jarvis. Williams gives this character the much needed spunk that is required, delivering a funny yet moving performance. The true star of the show is Billy Crudup (who comes with a long list of Broadway credits, including the original production of Arcadia, and movie spots, including Eat Pray Love and Watchmen) as the high spirited professor Bernard Nightingale. Delivering a performance sure to capture the eyes of Tony Award voters, Crudup is an absolute power house. His high energy performance brings life into the roundabout search for truth. Completing the ensemble was Grace Gummer, Raul Esparza, and Noah Robbins as the Coverly siblings. This large ensemble filled the theatre with energy and passion that brought Stoppard’s world of Arcadia to life.
The time bending world of Arcadia was designed with elegance by the stunning work of the production team. Designers Hildegard Bechtler (designs include Broadway’s Hedda Gabler and The Seagull) on set, Gregory Gale (designs include Broadway’s Rock of Ages and Urinetown) on costumes, and Donald Holder (designs include Broadway’s Spider-Man and The Boy from Oz) on lighting worked together to bring the picture perfect plan for this new revival. The stunning room of Arcadia, complete with a time altering table, is lit with wonderful ease, with clear time change lighting, and filled with period pieces, that easily allow the audience to determine the difference in years. The one design element that did not meet all expectations was the sound design by David Van Tieghem (designs include Broadway’s Doubt and A Behanding in Spokane). With loud sound effects and less than capable microphones, the extremely complex plot was often hard to hear leaving the audience confused and bewildered; however, the stunning direction of David Leveaux (past Broadway productions include Nine and Jumpers) helped clear up many of the loose ends. While there moments that dragged and could have been sped up, these were over ruled by the wonderful pictures that Leveaux painted upon the stage. Masterfully weaving in and out of different time zones, Arcadia put forth a stunning directorial performance that is sure to get Leveaux yet another Tony Award Nomination.
This current limited run revival of Arcadia comes complete with great acting, beautiful design, genius directing, and an amazing plot. While audiences might be over whelmed by the complexity of this play, there is no true reason to shy away from what could be a great night out at the theatre. When going to Arcadia, be prepared to feel, laugh, and above all think.

Review By: James Russo & Ryan Oliveti

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

That Championship Season @ Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Let the basketball talk begin, booze flow, and secrets come out. The 1973 Pulitzer Prize, Drama Critics Circle, and Tony awards winner, That Championship Season (written by Jason Miller), has returned to Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. With a stellar cast featuring the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Brian Cox, this revival refuses to hold back, constantly throwing its message in the audience face. It is about winning – no matter what it takes. Unfortunately, this production with great performances and design falls just short of that game winning basket leaving the audience somewhat bewildered has to how exactly to relate to this somewhat dated piece.
That Championship Season tells the story of four middle aged men and their high-school basketball coach on the night of their yearly reunion. Each one of these men has something that they are desperately trying to hold on to in order to survive in a world that only accepts winners. George Sikowski (played by Jim Gaffigan) is the mayor of the town in which the reunion takes place. George, who has recently lost a child, is currently planning his campaign for re-election. Phil Romano (played by Chris Noth) is the typical two-timing business man who lives for money, cars, and married woman. Brothers Tom and James Daley (played respectively by Jason Patric and Kiefer Sutherland) are battling problems all their own. Tom is a raging alcoholic while James, a high school principle, is simply fighting to be noticed. The last of these men is Coach (played by Brian Cox), fresh off a forced retirement, is desperately trying to bring his team back together to have yet another championship on his hands – this time the election of George. As the night trucks on, more and more secrets begin to come out as the liquor slowly begins to disappear.
This starry ensemble does not fail to disappoint. All five actors give extremely powerful and heartfelt performances. Jim Gaffigan (stand-up comedian of the films Going the Distance and It’s Kind of a Funny Story) as George gives a hilarious and moving performance in his Broadway debut. In a role that goes from funny to dramatic faster than one can imagine, Gaffigan finds the perfect flow and tackles this role with ease and grace. It is very possible that this Broadway debut will earn Gaffigan a Tony Award nomination. Chris Noth (known for his work on the small screen in Sex and the City and The Good Wife) is perfect as the back stabbing business man Phil. Looking out for only himself by sleeping with friends’ wives and throwing friends’ under the bus, Phil is not an easy character to like; however, Noth found the sympatric side of this character. At one point in the production, Noth’s character breaks into full tears leaving the audience feeling sorry for this typical business man. Jason Patric (seen on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he is also son to That Championship Season’s playwright) has Tom and Kiefer Sutherland (known for his many years on the hit television show 24) as James portray brothers that are night and day. Patric plays the alcoholic brother that, as usual, is the only one at the reunion who knows how to speak the truth. His performance is absolutely wonderful – going against the grain to portray the typical drunk. Sutherland does not hold back as the brother who just for once wants things to go his way. His performance was strong and very emotional; he had the audience rooting for him from line one and crushed when he was defeated on the end line. The cast is rounded out perfectly by Brian Cox (known for his work in such films as Braveheart and Red) as the desperate Coach. Cox takes the audience on a roller coaster of different emotions from sympathy to disgust and right back to sympathy. It is a performance that is truly not to be missed – especially when backed by those four other truly talented men.
That Championship Season takes shape technically with stunning designs from some Broadway greats. The play takes shape with a gorgeous scenic design from Michael Yeargan (Tony Award winner for designs for The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific). The 1970s are fully realized in the perfect stylized living room complete with one the first television sets and a rattling radiator. This set was lit with a great lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski (represent on Broadway right now with designs for Driving Miss Daisy and Anything Goes). The lights were placed with care to light every old time championship photo and stained glass window. The foul comes in the directing of this revival. Gregory Mosher (seen last season on Broadway with A View From the Bridge) left his cast a bit too typical – with constant up and down to create different levels and awkward blocking. Unfortunately, this one and only technical flaw causes some distress and interrupts this classic game.
That Championship Season storms back onto Broadway with many strong points – a great cast and wonderful design elements. While the play might be outdated, the performances are soon to not be forgotten. This is truly an actor’s championship season!

Review By: James Russo & Ryan Oliveti