Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Talls @ 2econd Stage Theatre - Uptown

In a tiny theatre that seats a little over one hundred people, some very “tall” people are filling up the stage.  2econd Stage Theatre’s latest piece, The Talls, takes a journey back to the 1970s to explore the life issues of love, sexuality, politics, and family.  With strong relationships being formed, interesting plot points, and a nice blend of humor and drama, this new piece by New York playwright Anna Kerrigan delivers a nice and simple night out at the theatre.  While a Broadway run may not be in The Talls future, it will definitely find life in quality regional theatres around the U.S.

Life can be hard enough without being six foot-something, so imagine what life might be like for the incredible tall Clarke family.  However, height is the least of this family’s concerns when a family friend is suddenly hospitalized with a strong chance of never recovering – all while John Clarke (the father) is in preparations to run for office.  After receiving the tragic news, the whole Clarke family rushes out of the house accidently leaving behind the eldest of three siblings, Isabelle.  Within seconds, John’s campaign advisor, Russell James, arrives at the house to go over plans for the upcoming election.  After a few drinks and some grass, Isabelle and Russell take their relationship to a new level; however, before they can go all the way, the family returns home from the hospital – each seeking help with different problems.  Catherine and Christian (the middle siblings) are dealing with trust issues; Nicholas (the youngest) is starting to discover the wonders of sex; and Anne (the mother) is dealing with feeling that she has kept a secret for a long time.  With all different events happening to each family member, the Clarke’s will have no choice but to pull together to make it through the summer.

The Talls features a cast of seven almost unknown actors that work together very well – pulling this piece together nicely.  Parents John and Anne Clarke are portrayed by Peter Rini (South Pacific National Tour) and Christa Scott-Reed (Broadway’s Pitman Painters).  Rini does a nice job with playing the stereotypical 70s father figure – “man of the house” style.  It is interesting watching his struggle to support his family, reach out to his wife, and juggle his career plans all at the same time.  Scott-Reed delivers a very strong performance – showing how a secret can truly change a person over time.  She forms a wonderful relationship with the eldest child Isabelle, played by Shannon Esper (film Coming Up Roses).  Esper’s character is facing the conflicts of sexuality (losing her virginity) and family (leaving them to go off to college) which causes this character to need a wide range of emotions.  While Esper is not bad, her performance fell a little flat – never really changing her tone or range throughout the piece.  The middle children, Catherine and Christian, are played by Lauren Holmes (Off-Broadway debut) and Michael Oberholizer (Incident at Vichy NYC Revival).  These two work very well together forming the perfect brother/sister bond.  Their ability to go from love to hate was incredibly realistic and touching.  The stand out performance came from young actor Timothée Chalmet (television’s Law & Order) as little brother Nicholas Clarke.  With a great sense of charm and curiosity, Chalmet delivers a hilarious performance that truly steals the show!  The only non-Clarke cast member is Russell James, played by Gerard Canonico (Broadway’s American Idiot).  Canonico does a nice job with the part, but plays it a little too safe - bigger and bolder choices could have been made; but, all around, a very nice job.

The script by Anna Kerrigan (film Five Days Gone) is original, bold, and quirky.  While billed as a comedic drama, the humor in this piece is a little off the wall.  The audience tended to laugh out of awkwardness rather than a punch line; however, this piece is creative, daring, and smart.  Director Carolyn Cantor (Bravo’s The Green Room) does a lovely job at moving this 80 minute piece along with great flow and ease.  Cantor’s direction is helped by the work of a creative team lead by scenic designer Dane Laffrey (Off-Broadway’s The Patsy) who creates a 70s living room complete with the standard orange and brown sofa and green walls.  The touches of religious artifacts around the room really heighten the sense of faith and family that the Clarke’s share.  Costume designer Jenny Mannis (Off-Broadway’s Dog Sees God) brings the 70s back again with hippie dresses, short-shorts, and retro suits.  Japhy Weideman (Off-Broadway’s current All New People) makes some different choices with his lighting design that creates some shadows that are a little awkward for the eyes; however, a stunning job is done with the lighting shining through the doors and windows from both the outside an indoor lights.  All comes together for a simple, yet nice piece of theatre.

The Talls is running at 2econd Stage Theatre’s Uptown theatre space through August 27, 2011.  This world primer is a simple piece that looks into the hardships that many Americans face today (even with the piece set in the 1970s).  The Talls is a small piece with a very large (or tall) heart.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

RENT @ New World Stages - Stage 1

After only three short years, the mega-hit, rock opera RENT has returned to New York – this time with a whole new attitude.  New World Stages, one of Off-Broadway’s leading companies, has assembled a team of fresh young actors, an imaginative design team, and RENT’s original director – Michael Greif – to give this classic show a whole new look, feel, and vibe.  With talent beyond measure and edgy technical elements, the newly imagined RENT is fun, moving, and all around better than ever before.  Skip the Hollywood version and forget about the Broadway version, simply go check out the kick ass new production currently playing at New World Stages!
For those not familiar with the story of RENT (a.k.a. those living under a rock), it is a rock opera that tells the story of seven individuals whose lives all come together through art, love, and disease – taking a ground breaking look into the world of AIDS.  Mark Cohen, a filmmaker, and Roger Davis, a musician, live in a run-down apparent in New York’s Lower East Side.  Over the course of one year, Mark helps former girlfriend Maureen Johnson (now dating Joanne Jefferson) pull of a performance protest; Roger falls for the dancer next door, Mimi Marquez; and both friends reunite with former roommate Tom Collins (now dating the loving cross dresser Angel Dumott Schunard).  As friendships are made and broken, these friends all learn the importance of life and love.
Bringing the world of RENT to life is an ensemble of fourteen incredibly talented performers – led by Adam Chanler-Berat as Mark and Matt Shingledecker as Roger.  Chanler-Berat (Broadway’s Next to Normal) gives Mark a soft side making him easily relatable.  The audience is always fighting for his character to prevail – whether it be in the world of television or simply in his friendships, one cannot help but see a piece of this character in oneself.  Shingledecker (Broadway’s West Side Story), with his strong rock voice, finds the humor in Roger making him a much more down to earth character.  Shingledecker gives depth to Roger so that he not tough and edgy as usually portrayed; his depiction of this character is much lighter and refreshing than audiences might be expecting.  Bringing in some girl power is Arianda Fernandez (RENT National Tour) as the sexy yet sweet Mimi.  Fernandez brings in the triple threat – great vocals, acting and dancing.  Fernandez also reins as champion when it comes to the cheesy RENT ending with her character coming back to life; making it realistic and not over the top and fake.  RENT features two powerhouse couples that time and time again please audiences.  Pair number one is that of Collins (played by Nicholas Christopher – In the Heights National Tour) and Angel (played by MJ Rodriguez).  These two men had wonderful chemistry together and truly made the parts their own.  Christopher gave the audience chills with his performance of I’ll Cover You (reprise); and, Rodriguez made Angle everything that character is supposed to be – smart, funny as hell, sexy, and all around passionate.  The other lovers are Joanne (played by Corbin Reid – Broadway’s Sister Act) and Maureen (Annaleigh Ashford – Broadway’s Legally Blonde).  Reid spun a new twist on the character of Joanne making her less aggressive and angry – making her smart and powerful, yet fiery – a risk that totally paid off.  Ashford delivers the performance of a life time, taking a part that has been done by some of Broadway’s best and making it her own – probably even doing it better.  Her song Over the Moon is the scene stealer of the show – fresh, quirky, hysterical, and deeply touching are all new emotions that this song takes on.  Ashford delivers an all around brilliant performance.
One might think that it is hard to re-imagine the original when the original director is the one behind it all; however, this could not be further from the truth.  Director Michael Greif (Broadway’s RENT and Next to Normal) once again tackles Jonathan Larson’s rich book, music, and lyrics with a new eye.  Fused with a innovative creative team, Greif is able to not only recreate his original masterpiece, he is able to exceed it.  Leading the design team is scenic designer Mark Wendland (Broadway’s Next to Normal) who creates a New York jungle-jim out of metal pipes, stairs, moving platforms, dozens of candles, and a few hundred string lights (including a light up reindeer).  Adding to this work is the advanced imagery created by projection designer Peter Nigrini (Broadway’s 9 to 5).  Mixing live video feed and simple yet effective images, Nigrini brings RENT into the new dawn of theatre projection.  Lighting all of the energy boosted cast and twists of the set is designer Kevin Adams (three-time Tony Award winner).  Bringing arena concert lighting to the Broadway stage, Adams does a stunning job of making the crazy world of New York’s Lower East Side shine.  Rounding out this team is costume designer Angela Wendt (Broadway’s RENT).  Mixing that classic RENT look with new elements, Wendt helps delivers an overall visual feast for the eyes.
RENT is back and better than ever!  This retooling is smart, real, and all around brilliant!  With a hip new cast and stunning visual elements, this production proves that not only can a revival surpass its original, but also that Off-Broadway is a force to be reckoned with.  There is "no day but today" to see the new and improved RENT!

Review By: James Russo