Monday, December 8, 2014

Disenchanted @ The Theater at St. Clements

In Disenchanted, an unrelentingly hilarious musical offering at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, some of the most beloved fairy tale princesses have a few choice words to share about their happily every afters.

This musical comedy is hosted by the sassiest of them all, Snow White (Michelle Knight), the ditziest at the ball, Cinderella (Becky Gulsvig), and the most outrageous of narcoleptic royalty, Sleeping Beauty (Jen Bechter).  We learn from them and many other popular princess guest stars that being a princess isn’t all it’s made up to be, and that “One More Happ’ly Ever After” is all it might take to send this very diverse group of strong female royalty over the edge Thelma and Louise style.

Let’s be clear, from the first number, there is no doubt that any of these women can hold their own vocally, each being a powerhouse in their own right.  Knight delivers a belting Snow White so full of attitude it’s hard to believe she’d ever just sit and wait for her Prince to come.  Gulsvig’s Chenno-esque turn as the bright (yet not the brightest candle in the castle) Cinderella displayed excellent timing and a fantastic contrast from Snow.  Of the three hostesses, however, it was Bechter’s booty-shaking, curvy, and super-confident Sleeping Beauty that really gave the show more heart than anyone could have expected.

Lulu Picart’s performance as Hua Mulan may have been one of the most uproariously and consistently funny performances in the show, beginning with a one-on-one with the audience about being the only princess who’s “Without the Guy.”  As both Pocahontas and Princess Badroulbadour (whose costume was a masterpiece among masterpieces designed by Vanessa Leuck) Picart provided insightful and entertaining glimpses at the characters’ opinions on their Disneyfication.  Alison Burns gave strong and varied performances switching between Belle, driven mad by singing utensils, Rapunzel, who wields a riding crop while singing of being pimped out by Disney, and the Little Mermaid, who enjoys her beer almost as much as she hates her decision to trade her fins for six-inch heels.  Last, but definitely not least, Soara-Joye Ross’ talent as the Princess Who Kissed the Frog shines as she rejoices that “Finally” there’s a Black princess.  Perhaps the only true disappointment is how little the show actually utilizes Ross’ talent.

Overall, the musical uses comedic numbers to address notable problems in the Disneyified fairy tales, many stemming from diversity.  The show tackles everything from historical inaccuracy in Pocahontas’ “Honestly,” to the constant problem of body-image standards in the group number “All I Wanna Do is Eat.” Any topic is fair game, and the message rarely bogs down the performance by being too heavy - thanks to Dennis T. Giacino’s well-balanced book, music, and lyrics.

In the end, Disenchanted is a fun comedic piece, but one that carries a message that happily ever after might just be a little more complicated than one might think, and that every princess is perfect, no matter how unique she is.

Review By: Jacob R. Hines
Photos By: Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Side Show @ The St. James Theatre

From the moment the audience at Side Show is invited to “Come Look at the Freaks,” they’ll be drawn into an odd spectacle they’ll find it hard to resist.  Based on the true story of famed conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, this story follows the sisters (played by Emily Padgett and Erin Davie respectively) from their lonely lives as a freak show attraction to the height of their vaudeville fame.
Daisy and Violet begin their journey under a big-top in Texas under the controlling Sir (Robert Joy).  Together, Terry (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy (Matthew Hyzdik) whisk the sisters off from a dead-end life as sideshow entertainers and make them the hottest ticket in vaudeville.  From there, the sisters’ experiences in love and fame create a compelling and well-told story about their life together and the lasting bond of sisterhood.
As he sets the scene, Joy’s frightening-yet-fantastic performance as the devilish ringmaster Sir commands attention from the moment he begins to introduce his band of freaks (played wonderfully by Brandon Bieber, Matthew Patrick Davis, Charity Angel Dawson, Lauren Elder, Javier Ignacio, Jordanna James, Kelvin Moon Loh, Barrett Martin, Don Richard, Blair Ross, Hannah Shankerman, and Josh Walker), which includes a bearded lady, the lizard man, a geek, and many others.  Davie and Padgett give the sisters powerful life, exuding chemistry and immense talent, even while connected at the hip.  As Terry, the greasy vaudeville manager and Daisy’s selfish lover, Silverman gives a near-perfect performance (his only flaw being that he’s almost too likeable).  Hyzdik is utterly charming in the role of Buddy, Violet’s conflicted love interest.  The ensemble, which includes Derek Hanson, Con O’Shea-Creal, and MichaelJon Slinger, provides powerful vocals and excellent support in various roles throughout the sisters’ journey.
Perhaps the only disappointment from the cast comes from David St. Louis portraying Jake, the sisters’ deeply attached caretaker.  While he does a tremendous job in many of the numbers, he seems to lack the emotional commitment necessary to play this pivotal character, especially in some of the more touching second-act scenes.
It’s notable that this production, helmed by film director Bill Condon, includes new content added by Condon himself to compliment Bill Russell’s original book and lyrics and Henry Krieger’s music.  The content gives more historical perspective (including an appearance by Harry Houdini himself) and never allows the show, which is set during the Depression and deals with some very emotional moments for the sisters, to become dreary or sluggish.  The set (designed by David Rockwell) is another triumph of the production, adding to the spectacle as it takes us from the a dingy big-top in Texas to the glitter of Vaudeville stages.

The new life breathed into this production paired with the powerhouse performances given by Davie and Padgett alone are truly enough to make this Side Show worth the price of admission.  The stellar technical work and supporting performances simply sweeten the deal, and are sure to leave audiences craving a second peek at the spectacle they’ve experienced under the big-top at one of Broadway’s most exciting revivals.

Review By: Jacob R. HinesPhotos By: Joan Marcus

Blank! The Musical @ New World Stages Stage 2

What exactly is Blank! The Musical! about? Envision your fondest memory of the long standing Whose Line is it Anyway? Now, make the cast younger, with musical talent. Next, throw in an adept lighting designer, sound designer and production stage manager. Then, sprinkle a three piece band able to create seemingly timeless music from four simple notes and you have the backbone for Blank! The Musical!

Creators Michael Girts, TJ Shanoff and Mike Descoteaux brought the ever-familiar improv-theater to a different dimension. While audience members were encouraged by host TJ Mannix to shout submissions for key elements of their created musical, top suggestions were added to an application accessible by any smartphone.

Connected to a private WiFi server, the audience and I voted for a title for our musical, three song names, and chose a random one-liner to be featured in the show. In addition, we interactively voted for the speaker of said line, chose the four main notes of the entire show and even named a signature dance move and song style.

Our combined efforts produced the following: Directing One Direction! The Musical! with hit songs I Haven’t Hit Puberty, Peanut Butter Mouth and of course, I’ve Heard This Song Before. We shaped the unforgettable line: What are you doing with that pineapple??? And musical overture consisting of notes C#, A, G, and B were chosen at random. Lastly, the world famous dance The Sticky Casserole was to be performed in the style of Reggae in the completely improvised show.

Mike Descoteaux (piano/musical director), Daniel Bennett (reeds) and Al Vetere (drums) were bolstering with their incredible grasp of music. They accompanied the cast expertly and twisted from our randomly chosen notes an impressive score without an active conductor, sheet music or rehearsal time.

Cast members Katie Dufresne, Nicole C. Hastings, Tessa Hersh, Andrew Knox, Mattew Van Colton and Dougles Widick were the source of the audience’s endless laughter. Outstandingly comfortable with one another, they were able to individually secure a memorable stage presence while enhancing the overall quality of their collective performance.  

Musically, each was able to sing with alacrity and be especially self deprecating with their dance moves. The talent was palpable and invariably enjoyable to see which would succumb to another cast member’s efforts to make them lose composure.

Lighting Designer Jeff Croiter, Sound Designer Matt Kraus and Production Stage Manager Katie Kavett were in-tune with the unscripted and unpredictable performance. Somehow they made our created musical special and believable to be worthy of its New World Stages venue.
Alas, I cannot share exactly what each cast member’s contributions were as your experience will inevitably be different. However, if you seek a night of laughs that you will feel a part of, take the time to see Blank! The Musical! and share endless inside jokes with your friends for weeks.

Review By: Alex Lipari
Photos By: Jenny Anderson

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tamburlaine, Parts I and II @ The Polonsky Shakespeare Center @ The Theatre for New Audience

Theater for a New Audience delivers a bloody spectacle in Christopher Marlows’ Tamberlain, parts I and II.  Playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through December 21st, the show brings a different kind of red to the holiday season.
Tamberlaine is the story of a Scythian shepherd who rises to ever increasing influence through conquest and bloodshed.  It is a tale of the insatiable lust and savagery of humanity.  Director Michael Boyd holds nothing back in his desire to show us all the sins of man and more.
Boyd’s direction allows for a great amount of freedom from the actors.  Often, this can lead to some discrepancy between modern and classic styles.  This carries into set and props, placing a wooden classic chair for the past queen while giving the soon to be new queen a new, modern chair.  He does, however, grant his actors the chance to shine at times and keeps the story moving forward with seamless scene changes (aside from the much needed 30 minute intermission to tidy up the blood)
Leading the cast is John Douglas Thompson in the title role of Tamberlaine.  His presence on stage led the action with the same authority his character leads the story.  Paul Lazar (Mycetes, Soldan of Egypt, Almeda the Jailor) endears himself to the audience early on with his jester like attitude, which he carries with him throughout the piece.  In contrast is Steven Skybell (Meander), who’s clever timing adds a hint of comedy early on.  A wonderful performance is given by Chukwudi Iwuji (Bajazeth/King of Trebizon).  His pomp and conceit as the vain king are wonderfully delivered to the end.  The rest of this ensemble cast, totaling 19, do a splendid job of filling in the many roles called for in Marlow’s epic work.
Worth special note is Arthur Solari on percussion.  His performance in the one man pit is entertaining and extremely well thought out and balanced, adding atmosphere and background for most scenes in an unobtrusive but pervasive way.
This piece may not be a date-night worthy event, but if you enjoy classic theater told with a small amount of nonchalance and a large amount of gore, this is the show for you.

Review By: Paul Morin

Photos By: Sara Krulwich

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Our Lady of Kibeho @ The Irene Diamond End Stage Theatre

Mystical history comes to life at The Pershing Square Signature Center in Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Our Lady of Kibeho is based on real life events that transpired in 1981 Rwanda when three young school girls, Alphonsine Mumureke (Nneka Okafor), Anathalie Mukamazimpaka (Mandi Masden) and Marie-Claire Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango), claimed to see the Virgin Mary.  These apparitions cause mayhem amongst the community, both socially and spiritually. Some of the clergy, including Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford), Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) and Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith), find themselves searching for answers from the visionaries, as well as from their own personal faith.
Katori Hall’s passion of this story is evident throughout the script and the team working on Our Lady of Kibeho helped to translate that passion to the audience.  In tandem with thoughtful direction by Micheal Grief, Hall brings this unique history back to life with an underlying commentary of the need for peace, faith and love.  Micheal McElroy’s original music and music direction added just the right amount of emotional enhancements, which were well balanced with the sound design by Matt Tierney.  The lighting design by Ben Stanton was creative and the scenic design by Rachel Hauck transported us to 1981 Rwanda with whimsical realism. Credit must also be given to dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser, as the central and east African accent was well executed.
The three school girls who the story of Our Lady of Kibeho circles around all equally hold their own weight in their respective roles.  Though Nneka Okafor is making her Signature Theatre debut in the role of Alphonsine, she commands the stage as the loveable, meek and oppressed teen.  Masden delivers Anathalie to the audience with palpable empathy and Kalukango elicits gasps from the audience in almost every scene.
Owiso Odera as Father Tuyisime is one of the most relatable characters in the play.  Odera portrays the kind hearted though flawed in faith priest with the devotion of a prophet.  He is a wonderful counter to Benford’s cantankerous Sister Evangelique.  One of the most notable performances in Our Lady of Kibeho is Niles Fitch as Emmanuel.  Though only on stage for a few moments at a time, he is captivating, his eyes illuminate with the soul and journey of Emmanuel.
Our Lady of Kibeho offers a trip back in time to uncover questions that are still relevant today.  Whether you are a skeptic, a mystic or somewhere in between, you will feel the genuine love for this story at the Signature Theatre!

Review By: Staci Morin

Photos By: Sara Krulwich

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Grand Concourse @ Playwrights Horizons

Generally, I enjoy when a piece of theatre or any other form of media decides to focus on characters and relationships instead of just moving along a plot. I enjoy when it’s just two characters onstage talking to each other and showing an audience just what their relationship is. Sometimes, it works really beautifully and becomes a great, touching study on human relationships. Grand Concourse tries to do this, but doesn’t 100% pull it off.
Grand Concourse, written by Heidi Schreck, tells the story of a Bronx soup kitchen run by a nun, Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and what happens when Emma (Ismenia Mendes) begins volunteering at the soup kitchen. Also featured are the soup kitchen’s handyman/”security man” Oscar (Bobby Moreno) and frequent visitor of the soup kitchen, Frog (Lee Wilkof). Essentially, the presence of Emma causes twists and turns to appear in the lives of the other characters, for better or worse.
The main relationship of Shelley and Emma is the most interesting, and most grounded relationship that’s examined. Bernstine and Mendes have a natural way of playing off of each other that feels grounded and realistic and really like we’re just watching two people get to know each other and become friends. And when everything falls apart later, we actually feel something for these two characters knowing that their great relationship has been damaged. It’s the odd relationship that happens between Emma and Oscar where things become rocky acting-wise. Moreno is great at playing a cool, likeable and slightly flirty character with a lot of thought and depth.  It’s just when Mendes starts playing with Emma’s attraction to Oscar that her acting starts to feel a lot less grounded and more “schmacty.” Emma is obviously a mentally unstable character in some respects, but her “seduction” of Oscar feels forced and not truthful at all. This made things murky with how the relationship is supposed to be. Is there supposed to be a mutual attraction? It’s unclear, because Moreno and Mendes appear to be playing at different levels, and it makes the relationship ring less true. There’s a way to make crazy appear truthful and honest-Wilkof does an excellent job with the paranoia and instability prevalent in Frog, albeit at a comical level. Mendes’s crazy seems a bit more on the fake side. Whether this is intentional, it’s hard to tell.
Director Kip Fagan does a fine job weaving these characters together and never having the story slow down for too long. There’s a great sense of the balance between hope and struggle that Fagan highlights. Coupled with the witty, natural writing of Heidi Shreck’s script, the characters are well defined. There seems to be an attempt at a message of the nature of forgiveness and betrayal, but it’s not as well defined as it could be. Fagan and Schreck seem to both want to say something important, but that exact thing is lost in execution.  Other design elements worked wonderfully, particularly the scenic design by Rachel Hauck, which makes the non-descript kitchen seem interesting and practically a character in itself.
Grand Concourse will be playing at Playwrights Horizons at 416 W 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, until November 30, 2014.

Review By: Chrissy Cody
Photos By: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Lost Lake @ New York City Center Stage 1

We all want to be seen and to be heard. And those of us who need it most are often the ones who are least likely to get it. We’re cold, or prickly, or dirty, or losers at life as society defines it. Lost Lake by David Auburn and directed by Daniel Sullivan, starring John Hawkes and Tracie Thoms is an “and, and, and, and” paying tribute to that bittersweet irony. Together, this team of seasoned and award-winning performers and enablers, demonstrate the often gritty nature that we, as mere mortals, can be reduced to when faced with our own insufficiencies. Interestingly enough, it is in that reduction that we often find the very thing we so desperately need- a cup of coffee and a donut offered to us by a friendly face with a willing ear. Such has become the state of things in our society, where the quest for better and more has replaced what is meaningful and sincere.
The set design by J. Michael Griggs is special. People actually walked slowly past the stage as they exited the theater, commenting upon it as they might the storefront window displays of the department stores during the holiday season.
Don’t go see this show to be entertained. Yes, you will giggle at times and laugh at others. But rather go because we all have moments when we feel unworthy, and unloved, wishing desperately for someone who will stand in the gap, taking us from our most base nature to a place of principled peace, where we can foster relationships that provide hope that we can be better than what we are at the moment.
I love the shows that Manhattan Theatre Club puts out- they are often painfully and acutely astute in their revelation of the tragic loss that is the human condition. I know we here in the US would all like to think life is wonderful, but behind closed doors, it’s filled with heartache within merely one degree of separation. The goal really ought to be to close the gap.
Lost Lake opened November 11 and will be running through December 21 at the New York City Center.

Review By: Michele Seven
Photo By: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Father Comes Home from the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3 @The Public Theater @ The Anspacher Theater

While hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the bloodiest war in its history, there was an emotional war brewing in the hearts and minds of African American slaves in the South. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks gathered these narratives to create an interesting twist on the unfortunately familiar story of slavery in Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Father Comes Home from the Wars

Daring to question any definition of freedom, Suzan-Lori Parks crafted a tale of a strong and capable slave, Hero (Sterling K. Brown), and his strict adherence to morality. Hero oddly believed that it was his moral obligation to remain a slave and not run. Hero reasoned that his monetary worth stopped him from "stealing" his independence. 

This welcome twist had me interested from the start. History aside, I have never considered such a moral dilemma before. The consequences of Hero's blind following of his inner compass affected everything in his life and made for a compelling story. 
Director Jo Bonney brought this tale to life with the help of Scenic Designer Neil Patel, Costume Designer Esosa, and Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu. Nestled near a modest cabin, the stage brought me to a modest Texas planation in the early spring of 1862 in Parts 1 and 3 and in 2, a camp in late summer where the cabin was replaced with a small wooden cell.

Music Director Steven Bargonetti accentuated each mood change with a strum of his guitar and the occasional welcome tune, which was acknowledged and sometimes even joined by cast members. Namely, the Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell Jr., Tonye Patano, and Jacob Ming-Trent. 

Each slave gambled on Hero's choice of whether or not to follow their master to war. They roused laughter and pulled me into a world where the wager of a simple spoon or boot has more worth than any other. The band of less than desirables may have used some 21st Century language but this did not diminish their presence.

The Oldest Old Man and Hero's adopted father was played by Peter Jay Fernandez. This oldest man was a proud and concerned father with unsteady hands, a long gray beard, the inability to hold back thoughts and a modern pair of crocs. Fernandez was the first character to question liberty and its price: Should Hero turn away from this war if he is promised freedom at its end? 

Penny (Jenny Jules), Hero's lover, questioned him further and helped to create this overtone of liberation. Should Hero refuse and take a stand against the Confederate mission to preserve slavery? Jenny Jules attempted to manipulate Hero’s principles and her chemistry with Brown made the exchange more captivating.

Homer, played by Jeremie Harris, was a character whose presence was a constant reminder to Hero of his choices. Harris' dynamic with Brown was that of palpable hostility. This negativity was a pull away from Hero’s belief that running is stealing, but not strong enough to change his mind.

I wanted to see how Hero's morality held against a stronger onslaught. Louis Cancelmi played Smith, a captive Union soldier who began this attack. Surely a Union soldier with his own freedom and tales of a better land could rattle Hero's resolve? Cancelmi portrayed a free “white” man wrestling with Hero’s choice to remain a slave with poise.

My fascination with Hero's belief system and the general overtone of self-determination was mildly slowed by Ken Marks' character, Hero's owner. Marks, a Colonel in the Rebel Army, attempted and succeeded in emulating the convictions of the white male population of the Confederacy at large. Marks effortlessly embodied white supremacy, the belief in the importance of the spread of slavery and even muttered “Thank God I was born a white man.” This was, however, a lot to fit into one character.

The comic relief was Hero's Dog, Odyssey, hilariously played by Jacob Ming-Trent. Revealing himself in Part 3, this surprisingly talking dog expertly drew the air from my lungs. A dog for Hero to have dominion over, Ming-Trent retells Hero's tale with a wagging tail of his own. 
Both believable and thought-provoking, Sterling K. Brown's rendition of Hero was well done. The story of slavery has been told in many ways and often it is mired with a history lesson--lacking freshness. Hero's unique moralistic qualities had a new fragrance.

I enjoyed The Public Theater in association with American Repertory Theater's presentation of Father Comes Home from the Wars. It made me question my own ethical framework and definitions of freedom. Albeit, I would have further enjoyed it if the theme was more concentrated on its unique aspects.   

Review By: Alex Lipari
Photos By: Sara Krulwich

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Disgraced @ The Lyceum Theatre

Bravo Kimberly Senior, director of Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar. How gutsy are you to dare to challenge an audience with such brazen ideas as: maybe the US had some culpability in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 or, that Muslims are the new “niggers”. Wow! Talk about shocking. People don’t even suggest such things in the privacy of their own homes, in the company of close was demonstrated in the staged dinner party on the fateful evening when secrets were revealed and lives changed forever.

But it wasn’t the revelation of the secrets themselves that was so horrifying; it was how the words spoken mirrored the inner thoughts we all have but don’t wish to admit to ourselves or our loved ones. And those thoughts, though intentionally provocative, only served to demonstrate how in this society, this so-called “free society”, we are trapped by convention and fear- damned if we do; damned if we don’t. Does one perpetuate the lie he lives, thereby being accused of duplicity; does she accept that which she’s not earned, taking full advantage of a work places need for a “token”? What is worse- to live a lie and get what we want, or be honest and lose what we never really had? Seems easy enough, except that we are all liars- made so by the conventions of so-called “polite society” which is really just a cover-up- gracious hospitality has replaced plain old grace which is the one thing needed for us to truly get along and which was lacking by all of the characters in this must-see play.

Hari Dhillon as Amir endears us with his all-too-pitiful desire to please and then takes us straight into an abyss that is his innermost sanctuary as he plays the accuser and accused. Gretchen Mol gives a believable performance as Emily, a waspy liberal whose naiveté would be charming if it wasn’t so self-serving. Danny Ashok, Hussein, AKA “Abe” provides a fair representation of a twenty-something whose youthful bliss is at odds with the harsh realities for a young Arab man in post 911 era in the US. Playing opposite of the couple are Josh Radnor as Issac, a pretentious and weak-willed man whose apparent strong convictions are simply a mimicry of what society has told him to believe. Conveniently, his wife, played by the gorgeous and talented Karen Pittman as Jory, lets him be pretty with his pictures while she clearly and unapologetically claws her way to the top of the law firm where she and Amir are associates. 

The Lyceum Theatre is the oldest in the City and is charming with its reflection of the lavishness of turn-of-the-century New York. Seats and loos are tiny so leave your shopping bags elsewhere. I will be very surprised if this does not win a Tony for best production, direction, acting. If it doesn’t, meh, blame it on the Jews. And if you think that comment is inappropriate, you better buckle up because that’s nothin’!

Review written by: Michele Seven
Pictures by: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Fortress of Solitude @ The Public Theater @ The Newman Theater

The Public Theater bills itself as the “only theater in New York that produces Shakespeare and the classics, musicals, contemporary and experimental pieces in equal measure.” As such, the theater takes more risks than more commercial theatres and this is readily apparent in the world premiere of The Fortress of Solitude, a new musical written by Itamar Moses, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, that bends reality and fantasy to tell a unconventional coming of age story of two boys growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1970s-and what happens after those boys are all grown up.
The Fortress of Solitude revolves around Dylan Ebdus (Adam Chanler-Berat), a boy whose parents move him into Gowanus, Brooklyn at a young age, because his mother Rachel (Kristen Sieh) feels that Brooklyn is where things were going to happen. At first, Dylan feels ostracized by being one of the only white boys on the block, he quickly develops a strong friendship with his neighbor, Mingus Rube (Kyle Beltran) after Rachel suddenly leaves her husband and son with no intention of coming back, unbeknownst to Dylan. Mingus’s father Barrett Rude Junior (Kevin Mambo) used to be a successful R&B singer, but now only sings back-up. Dylan and Mingus are close friends, playing and putting Mingus’s graffiti “tag” everywhere they can, until life and tragedy drive them apart.
The performances in general are top notch. Adam Chanler-Berat deftly leads the fairly large cast with his normal adorkable charm and flawless vocals. He nimbly ages Dylan from a young boy to a young man with subtlety, and showing all the emotional highs and lows skillfully. Kyle Beltran also shows an amazing journey from awkward child to a beaten-down young adult in a masterful way, reminiscent at times of Donald Glover in Community. The most vocally impressive was Kevin Mambo as Junior-his voice made my hair stand up, and hit amazing heights every time he sang a note, particular when he first shows off those tones in “Superman.” The ensemble is wonderful too, stepping in and out of multiple roles and vocal styles with ease. Particular praise goes to the Greek chorus, the Subtle Distinctions (Britton Smith, Akron Watson, and Juson Williams). The only slight misstep in the story was the characters of Dylan’s parents (Sieh & Ken Barnett), neither of who were really distinctive in the narrative, so the audience doesn’t really seem to care about them. Thematically it makes sense to have Rachel stick around in Dylan’s subconscious, particularly in a musical, but at times she seemed unnecessary and boring.
The music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, most know for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson are both contemporary and era appropriate mixes of emotion and passion. The music really drives the story on, as good musical theatre should do. No song particularly stands out, particularly since many blend together, making it hard to figure out where one ends and another began, but none are clunkers either. One particular lyric in “The One I Remember” sums up the music with the ine “Everyone’s singing a different song / But if they all sing together / it can’t be wrong.” And the mix of songs really does work well together, weaving in and out of Itmar Moses’s book, guided by the smooth and careful direction of Daniel Aukin.

Officially opening on October 22, The Fortress of Solitude is only running at the Public Theatre until November 2, so get your tickets now to see this fierce and awesome new musical.
Review By: Chrissy Cody
Photos By: Joan Marcus

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Belle of Amherst @ The Westside Theater (Upstairs)

If you have ever wanted to have an intimate conversation with Emily Dickinson, you now have the chance in The Belle of Amherst.
In The Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson welcomes audiences into her lifelong Amherst homestead in mid-19th century Massachusetts. While Dickinson found solace in solitude through much of her life, acclaimed playwright William Luce weaves her poems, diaries, and letters into a one-woman portrait of one of America’s greatest and most prolific poets, mixing Dickinson’s encounters with close friends and family with the poet’s own, often amusing observations.
Playwright William Luce completely embraces and compliments the language and poetry of Emily Dickinson with The Belle of Amherst. Through his writing, Luce is able to take the audience on an interesting, heartfelt and quirky journey through Dickinson’s life. The play begins with Emily (Joely Richardson) welcoming us (the audience) into her home as if we are established friends. The conversation is casual and also intimate, though Richardson is the only person speaking in this one woman performance. Luce also incorporates multiple memories of Dickinson that are acted out through a solitary “dialogue”. He should be applauded not just for his witty use of Dickinson-like speech and the thought provoking depth he gives to Emily, but also for the excellent ways he weaves in the works of Dickinson.
Joely Richardson as Emily Dickinson is a delight to watch on stage. She has the perfect blend of grace and humility that captivates the audience. Performing for 100 minutes alone on stage is no easy feat, but Richardson is more than up to the challenge. Even though it seems she may have had a bit of a cold, Richardson still harnesses and evokes the passion that Emily had for the written word. Director Steve Cosson gave Richardson a lot of room to unfold her character. Though it was just her on stage, the set never felt empty or overbearing. Cosson and Richardson together explored every corner of Emily’s space and brought it into motion.
The beautiful scenic design by Antje Ellerman is simplistically detailed. For example, the wall paper which contains birds (one of Emily’s favorite creatures) is a subtle and appropriate nod to the heroine.  The lighting design by David Weiner flatters Ellerman’s scenic design wonderfully and also offers a surprise for the audience. Richardson’s costume by William Ivey Long is tasteful and elegant. Long’s ivory palette also enhances Weiner’s lighting design. All these elements with Luce’s book, Dickinson’s poetry, Richardson’s fire and Cosson’s vision meld together and present a lovely night with Emily.  
If you are longing for romanticized and eloquent language delivered to you through the stage, be sure to see The Belle of Amherst. After all- “the heart wants what it wants” ~ Emily Dickinson

Review By: Staci Morin

Friday, October 17, 2014

Big @ York Theater Company

When thinking of a musical named “Big,” audiences wouldn’t immediately think of a bare-bones production in a very intimate theater.  However, the York Theatre Company’s production of Big (which is part of their Fall 2014 Mufti Series) definitely delivers a performance that is anything but small.
Every kid dreams of the life they’ll have when they’re grown up, and Big, the musical adaptation of the 1988 classic comedy film, sets out to show that growing up isn’t always as great as it seems.  Big tells the magical story of Josh (Hayden Wall), a twelve-year-old boy who makes a wish on a carnival machine to be grown up.  When his wish comes true, he finds a job with a toy company owned by George MacMillan (Richard Maltby, Jr.) and meets the jaded Susan (Kerri Butler), a woman whose poor luck in love has gotten the better of her.  Of course, the now “big” Josh (John Tartaglia) soon learns that the perks of being grown up don’t come without some downsides.
Though the cast took the show from script to stage in less than two days, every individual gave a bright and energetic performance, and they all clearly had a great time.  Tartaglia brings humor and refreshing sincerity to Josh, a child suddenly in a grown man’s body.  Butler shines from the moment she enters as Susan, and shows great depth as she takes the character from a cold executive to a jaded woman who had forgotten how wonderful life could be.  Of course, Janet Metz gives an endearing and emotional portrayal of Josh’s mother, a woman who suddenly found herself dealing with the disappearance of her child.  Jeremy Shinder gives a solid comedic performance as Josh’s pre-teen friend Billy.  Finally, it is worth noting that Maltby, known for being a director and lyricist, gave a commendable performance as MacMillan, the kind-hearted owner of a huge toy corporation.  Maltby was added to the cast following a last-minute cancellation, and was a welcome addition.
The rest of the cast (James Ludwig, Rhyn Saver, Tom Lucca, Elainey Bass, Liam Forde, Trista Dollison, and Whitney Brandt) each play multiple characters, and give fun and enjoyable performances in each unique role they take on.
Overall, the cast of this stripped-down production of Big, under the direction of Michael Unger and the musical direction of Eric Svejcar, gives audiences an unexpectedly satisfying treat that certainly lives up to its name.

Review By: Jacob R. Hines

Sunday, October 12, 2014

While I Yet Live @ The Duke on 42nd Street

All families have some sort of degree of dysfunction to them, and most of the time, those families try to make the best of that dysfunction and still find happiness and peace. “While I Yet Live” showcases one particularly dysfunctional, and yet resilient, family, inspired by the real life experience of playwright Billy Porter.
“While I Yet Live” tells the story of a family living in Pittsburgh, where amongst a host  strong women, Calvin (Larry Powell) a young gay man is trying to become the man he wants to be-which just so happens to be a gay man who loves musical theatre in a very Christian house. But that’s not the only issue brewing-everyone has secrets and is fighting their own battle-against cancer, disability, abuse, old feuds, or just trying to live their own life. The house is run by Maxine (S. Epatha Merkerson), but there are a plethora of women living their lives there as well, including Calvin’s younger sister, Tonya (Sheria Irving), grandmother Gertrude (Lillias White), great-aunt Delores (Elain Graham), friend of the family Eva (Sharon Washington) and Maxine’s husband Vernon (Kevyn Morrow). Each character is a realistic, vibrant character fully realized by each of the actors.
All of the performers are obviously skilled, deftly navigating the heavy dramatic moments of the show with the comedic moments that maintain the constant hope and love the family dynamic brings. Sheria Irving was a particular standout, transitioning smoothly between narrator, a young girl, and growing up into a young woman with ease and great specificity. S. Epatha Merkerson does a wondrous job of maintaining faith and poise in difficult situations, without ever forgetting about humor. Some particular escapades with a motorized scooter were particularly effective.
The script itself very neatly walks the line between intense drama and some more light-hearted moments. Especially evident is the great love and respect Porter has for every single character-none are neglected by the narrative and each have a chance to shine. The direction by Sheryl Kaller, is neatly done. While the action may be in one room of the house, there is always something happening in other rooms, so that the visual is always interesting and dynamic. The other design elements of the play like the wonderful set design by James Noone, coupled with costume design by Esosa, lighting design by Kevin Adams, and sound design by Leon Rothenberg.
“While I Yet Live” deftly walks the line between heart wrenching drama and lovely moments between a close family. Playing for a limited six week engagement at The Duke on 42nd Street, don’t miss it.
Review By: Chrissy Cody
Photos By: James Leynse