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