Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Amazing Grace @ The Nederlander Theatre

Amazing Grace, how do I begin to praise this production. First off, I had no idea what to expect... A musical about the song, Amazing Grace? Great, it’s going to be a long history lesson with musical breaks in between. I was so completely wrong.

Let’s talk about the set. This amazing, amazing set was used so creatively and used every inch of space. The most creative aspect of the set was the ship. Even though there was never a physical ship, they used ropes and pillars and traps, it was so beautifully orchestrated, and you felt that you were actually on the ship.

The one scene that was completely breath taking was how they staged a shipwreck and showed members of the crew drowning in the water. The lighting was wonderful, the choreography in the harnesses was wonderful, and I just sat there in amazement not even able to communicate my feelings.

Stage combat was a big part of this show, lots of history means lots of battles. And I thought the staging of that was very clever, using the slow motion and then switching to rapid speeds, again, the lighting was spot on and added to the wonder theatre magic. The choreography was great as well. We had beautiful tribal and African dancing which was so refreshing to see and only enhanced telling the story.

Now, this cast is so talented it’s hard to pick just one standout moment. Josh Young, who plays the lead, John Newton. Man can belt his face off and carry a show! Erin Mackley plays the wonder Mary, who may seem sweet and proper, but she manages to challenge the stereotypical idea of a woman, and Erin finds the perfect balance. Chuck Cooper!! Mr. Cooper portrays Thomas, who is John’s servant, and his performance left me speechless. I could not stop watching him, his voice so powerful, yet soft at the same time. His journey with John will stay with me forever. And this cast had some Broadway debuts! Nanna who was played by Laiona Michelle left me crying, her last song is so powerful, she’s a star. And actress Rachel Ferrera who plays Yema, was so much fun to watch. She used so much of her body to communicate her story that she didn’t even need to speak. The entire cast was phenomenal!

Again, I had no idea what to expect from this musical, and did they fool me! From the beginning with the happy go lucky opening number, truly alive, I thought “ok this will be cute’ and then the next scene we learn about auctioning slaves. This production found a balance where you can have a spirit of musical along with a deep meaning and actually learn about history. I think it is important that everyone sees this production. I left with an array of emotions, and of course singing amazing grace, how sweet the sound. (Which surprisingly they only sing twice.) This show is a must see!

Review By: Briana Burnside

Photos By: Joan Marcus

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey @ The Westside Theatre (Downstairs)

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey was an absolute joy. After a sold-out and critically acclaimed run earlier this year at Dixon Place, Absolute Brightness has returned for a limited 12-week engagement, and it is certainly not something to be missed. Its new home, downstairs at the Westside Theatre, provides an intimate experience and allows the audience to be right in the action and one with the story, while also connecting with their fellow audience members. It demonstrates one of the piece’s points that we are all linked to one another and can have an effect on each other.

The play follows detective Chuck DeSantis as he investigates the disappearance of Leonard Pelkey, a flamboyant 14-year-old. Through his investigations he encounters several of the townspeople in their small town on the Jersey Shore who have all been profoundly affected by Leonard, as they explore what this young boy who was not afraid to be himself taught them about life.

While some may be wary of a one-man show, they have nothing to fear, as Absolute Brighness is marvelously helmed and performed by James Lecesne. Lecesne is able to command the stage every second of the 90-minute piece, being absolutely engaging and keeping the energy high. His comedic timing is impeccable, eliciting laughs at all the right moments, while also being able to hit the hard and serious moments. Effortlessly switching between voices and wonderful physicality, Lecesne plays no less than seven different and distinct characters – from a Jersey hairstylist, her sheepish 16 year old daughter, an eccentric drama school owner, an old ex-mob wife, an old clock shop owner, and a teen boy gamer, to the “main” character of Chuck the detective. While one is aware that it is all the same actor, it never feels that way, as Lecesne effortlessly breathes distinct life into each. His talent is absolutely palpable and unbelievable, bringing wonderment and utter admiration. 

What is even more astonishing than Lecesne’s wondrous performance, is the fact that he also wrote the piece. This personal investment and connection shined throughout his performance, as you could tell he cared deeply for the story he was telling, and was proud to be sharing it with the world. Lecesne’s myriad of talents and accomplishments include being the screenwriter for the Academy Award winning film Trevor and a co-founder for The Trevor Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to suicide-prevention for LGBT youth. When purchasing tickets through telecharge, a portion of full price and premium tickets are donated to the organization. While the piece obviously deals with the subject of LGBT issues in today’s society, it never feels preachy or imposing. Rather, it is realistic, meant to make people think- have things really changed?  

The scenic design by Jo Winiarski is minimal, consisting of a table laid out with artifacts of Leonard’s that are now pieces of evidence and a few chairs is effective, as it keeps the focus on Lecesne’s spectacular acting and supports him when necessary. Similarly are the effects of Aaron Rhyne’s projection design, which enlarges the various exhibits in Leonard’s case, showcasing how he is connected to each of the different townspeople. The play features original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening); this along with sound design by Christian Frederickson and Matt Richards’ lighting, easily characterize the different settings that each character resides in, and set the world and tone as the story shifts.

While Absolute Brightness is centered around a tragedy, at its core it is a heartwarming tale. This seemingly contradictory nature is what makes the play so profound and intriguing. Theatre is the perfect medium for this story, as it allows a human connection between performer and audience, and truly encourages and invites audience members to reflect on relationships within their own lives. As Lecesne took his bow, the audience leapt to its feet, smiles beaming on every face, all of us impacting by Leonard’s story just as those in the show were. Not only is The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey brilliantly conceived and performed, but it makes you think, laugh, and examine the brightness that exists around us. Head over to the Westside Theatre before Absolute Brightness disappears on October 4. Be inspired. Be bright.

Review By: April Sigler
Photos By: Michelle V. Agins

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Wild Party @ New York City Center

The roaring 20s incited a wildness that could not be containedand it is celebrated today with productions such as Encores! Off Centers The Wild Party. Equipped with an incredible score, Lippas The Wild Party brought me into the inner conflicts of abuse and the outer celebration of freedom.

Wild Party’s revival was directed by Leigh Silverman, who capitalized on an all-star cast’s talent to bring a captivating production of the musical to New York City Center’s stage. Scenic Designer Donyale Werle brought the 20’s to the 00’s with a unit set—perfectly showcasing musical director Chris Fenwick’s orchestra.

Costume designer Clint Ramos’ swanky selection emulated the time period with a unique artistic flair, especially when coupled with Sonya Tayeh’s choreography. Mark Bartons’ lighting design pulled the audience in; while Leon Rothenberg’s sound design made sure that no note went unnoticed. With subtleties managed, Queenie began a performance that had a roaring support from the first downbeat.

Sutton Foster (Queenie) brought a world of confusion, delight and the consequences of indecision to life on the Encores! stage. Foster’s powerful performance made the theater into an extension of the wild party ensuing.

Steven Pasquale personified the negative characteristics of strength in his portrayal of Burrs. He carried the rising insanity with him, ushering in the lows of un-contained emotion with  masterful precision.

The life of the party was Joaquina Kalukango, whose rendition of Kate enticed the audience to its feet. Kalukango, like her cast-mates, is a do not miss.

Certainly matching her performance was Brandon Victor Dixon (Black). Harnessing superb chemistry with Foster, Dixon pushed humanity back into Queenie’s reality and an opposing force into Burrs’. Dixon had me out of my seat.

The dynamic duo of Eddie and Mae was played by Ryan Andes and Talene Monahon. Andes’ musical Stallone-esque performance was accentuated by Monahon’s lyrical innocence. All the while, everyone’s favorite lesbian Madelaine True (Miriam Shor) had the audience doubled over from her first line.

The supporting cast, RenĂ©e Albulario (Nadine), James Brown III (the Neighbor), Rachel De Benedet (Dolores), Raymond J. Lee (Max), Clifton Oliver (Oscar d’Armano), Charlie Pollock (Sam/The Cop) and Britton Smith (Phil d’Armano), brought life to every note. They did not fall behind the stacked lead roles, rather, they pulled an even stronger performance from them. The ensemble (Penelope Armstead-Williams, Kenita R. Miller, Sydney Morton, Ryan Steele and Samantha Sturm) was no different.

This unforgettable cast harnessed every high expectation; and with this pool of talent, it would be a surprise if there was any portion of the performance that was lacking. A night filled with laughter is seldom forgettable.

Review By: Alexandra Lipari
Photos By: Joan Marcus