Saturday, October 22, 2016

89. Review: INNER VOICES (seen October 21, 2016)

“Hear Them Roar”

Stars range from 5-1.

Hopefully, the half-filled house at The Barrow Group (TBG) when I saw the delightful new installment in the biannual Inner Voices series was an anomaly, even though there was no presidential debate keeping people home that night. Each program in the series—produced by Premieres under the artistic direction of Pauline Haupt—offers an evening of independent mini-musicals created for solo performers and accompanied by different musicians. Of the three programs I’ve seen over the years, this was, all around, by far the best. And, while each star gives a terrific performance, the one by Nancy Anderson in the middle piece, “The Pen,” is an absolute must-see for every musical theatre aficionado.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Unlike “The Pen” and “The Booty Call,” the show’s second and third pieces, which are monologues about a particular character’s own thoughts and behavior as they experience them, the opening work, “Just One Q,” directed by Brad Rouse, is a story about the past, narrated by a third party telling us about other people. Written by Ellen Fitzhugh and composed by Ted Shen, the story, set in 1961, is told to us by an African-American nursing home orderly named Bennie (T. Oliver Reid). He tells of two elderly women at the Broadbend Nursing Home in Arkansas, Bertha and Julynne, with a long history of mutual jealousy, who wrangled while playing Scrabble over things like which of them would be buried next to Mr. Greene Cotton, the man both loved (one was his wife, the other the woman he left her for), and who died when whacked in the head by a hot iron.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Benny, dressed in white shirt, pants, and shoes, with a little black bowtie, sings in the first person and as both old ladies, while jazz-like music is played upstage by an ensemble of bass (Mary Ann McSweeney), piano (music director Andrew Resnick), and reeds (Harry Hassell). Reid sings beautifully, has an open and engaging personality, uses a rich Arkansas accent, and makes the most of his not particularly memorable Southern Gothic material.
T. Oliver Reid. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With “The Pen,” sensitively directed by Margot Bordelon, Nancy Anderson offers a truly awesome performance as Laura, a Milwaukee woman who, at first, seems like your average, neatly dressed professional (sensible heels, skirt, buttoned up white blouse, red sweater)—she’s an executive assistant—getting ready to leave for work. But before she can even open the door, she begins to double check her bag to make sure she’s got everything she needs. It’s something most of us have done before departing for the day, and watching her search for her keys, with an almost willful attempt to keep from being too stressed, seems amusing at first.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
It gradually dawns on us, however, that there’s something a bit off about her behavior, and pretty soon, when she treats a purple pen she finds in her bag as if it might somehow be carrying something tantamount to the Zika virus, merely because she doesn’t remember it, we realize the depth of this woman’s OCD and germaphobia. Her manic spraying of disinfectant and her wiping clean everything she might touch as she fights to gain self-control so she can get to work on time reach psychologically frightening proportions. As she struggles she recounts details of her work life (as the “Coffee Bitch”) and personal life. The only drawback comes when we wonder how a woman so oppressed by her compulsions can get through all the other days the piece ignores.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The insightful lyrics by Dan Collins and semi-operatic music by Julianne Wick, performed by musical director and pianist Alexander Rovang and guitarist Tom Monkell, perfectly capture the many shifts in Laura’s emotional predicament, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic. It’s hard to conceive of a finer realization of Laura than Anderson’s; with her delicate features and puppy dog eyes she creates an image of fear and trembling so vivid it could be used as a case study in psych classes. The convincing intensity of her acting (including a mastery of physical movement) is greatly heightened by the perfection of her soprano, demonstrating how powerful the elements of music and acting can be when perfectly balanced with one another. This is exceptional work, deserving of a wider audience.
Nancy Anderson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Closing the program, after an intermission, is something quite different but also valuable as a demonstration of the effect of psychological hang-ups on even the most gifted and seemingly normal individuals. In “The Booty Call,” directed by Saheem Ali (who also contributed to the lyrics), Gabe is a versatile, 28-year-old musician-singer working on a demo in his bedroom cum well-equipped recording studio when a phone call from a girl named Sam, inviting him to come over for dinner and what comes naturally, becomes a potential distraction from the work at hand.
Michael Thurber. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Gabe is in the terrifically virtuosic hands of Michael Thurber (music and lyrics), a friendly, likable guy dressed in basic grunge-wear uniform of socks, boxers, and t-shirt, who wrote the music. He actually seems to be composing it as he works out his recent sexual performance issues and comes to terms with what he’s seeking in a relationship. Demonstrating his multifaceted talent on a drum pad, keyboard, synthesizer, huge electric bass, and electric guitar, and using a looping mechanism to record background effects and multiple voices, Thurber performs in multiple genres, including hip hop, rock, and jazz, all of it greatly appealing.
Michael Thurber. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The stage space remains open for each play, with designer Reid Thompson’s different arrangements of door and window frames supported by carefully selected scenic props (a table and chairs with a Scrabble set; a sink and stove with a few items of furniture; a bed and musical equipment). Oliver Watson’s lighting is consistently supportive, and M. Meriwether Snipes’s costumes never falter.

There are only a few performances left and every seat deserves to be filled. These are Inner Voices you’ll want to hear.


The Barrow Group
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through October 29

Thursday, October 20, 2016

87. Review: TICK, TICK . . . BOOM! (seen October 18, 2016)

“Tick of the Town”

The 1996 death at age 36 of the as yet little-known composer-lyricist-librettist Jonathan Larson, caused by an aortic aneurysm, on the night before the first Off-Broadway preview of his soon-to-be megahit Broadway musical Rent, is one of the most poignant events in recent theatre history. It’s impossible to tell what Larson would have produced in Rent’s wake but the outstanding new revival by the Keen Company of his less well-known autobiographical musical Tick, Tick . . . BOOM!, created years before Rent, gives us an opportunity to confirm, even in this early work, just how rich a talent he possessed.
Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Created as a “rock monologue” in 1990, when Larson began performing it (under different titles) at a series of Off-Off-Broadway theatres, it was posthumously revised in 2001 by David Auburn (Proof). He converted it into a piece for three actors, one playing the Larson-based Jon and the others portraying both his best friend, Michael, and his girlfriend, Susan, as well as various peripheral roles, including Jon’s parents and agent.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Auburn’s version received an award-winning production at the Jane Street Theatre (its run disturbed by 9/11), with Raúl Esparza as Jon; produced an original cast recording; toured nationally; and had multiple American and international productions. It even received a New York Encores! presentation in 2014 with the pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Jon, his Hamilton costar, Leslie Odom, Jr., as Michael, and Karen Olivo as Susan. So, while Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! somehow passed me by (I was never a Rentboy), Jonathan Silverstein’s brilliant staging (abetted by the limited but just-right choreography of Christie O’Grady) at Theatre Row’s Acorn did what its title promises and blew me away.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! is an “intimate musical,” running an intermissionless hour and a half. Steven Kemp has provided a minimal set (a few pieces of furniture rapidly shifted by the actors) on a mostly bare stage over which hangs an off-kilter structure resembling a graffiti-decorated ceiling with four windows in it (used for terrific lighting effects by Josh Bradford). There's a small, onstage orchestra (piano, percussion, guitar, and bass) led by musical director Joey Chancey. And the tiny cast could barely be bettered, with Nick Blaemire (looking not very unlike Jon’s creator), and George Salazar and Ciara Renée as Michael and Susan.
George Salazar, Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Explosively talented, with distinctive faces Al Hirschfeld would have loved, this gifted singing-dancing-acting trio takes us on a mostly rock-infused journey through Jon’s travails in 1990 (mostly true, it seems) as he seeks to get a workshop production for his musical Suburbia. Working as a waiter and living in a cruddy, sixth-floor, Soho walkup, Jon, an artsy-looking, suspenders-wearing dude in downtown grunge (the perfect costumes are by Jennifer Paar), is torn between his passion for a career as a musical theatre writer and the lure of a well-paying corporate job. 

Representing the latter is his successful, childhood friend, Michael, a gay man who, as played by George Salazar, is a sweet-faced, slightly husky gent with a well-groomed pompadour; Michael himself made the decision he wants Jon to make by abandoning show biz for a job paying off in tailored suits, luxurious apartments, and fancy cars. Further stressing Jon out is his stylish girlfriend, Susan, a dance teacher (to whom Ciara Renée brings a toothy, 1,000-watt smile), who wants Jon to earn a secure living away from New York so they can raise a family.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The title, as Jon informs us, is the sound of his growing anxiety as he approaches 30 with the looming need to make the choice of his life. By the feel-good conclusion, he’s able to accept his age and play his piano loud enough to drown out the tick-ticks as he joins with his friends in singing that “actions speak louder than words.”
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire, Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This schmaltzily clichéd story includes not only a conventional romantic subplot but a development toward the end that seems uncomfortably melodramatic, regardless of whether it actually happened. There’s no escaping the fact that we’re willing to buy all this because of the sad irony we feel at comparing the ambitious ideals of the character Jon with what happened to the real Jon just at the moment when all he’d sacrificed for came true.
George Salazar, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Larson’s emotional investment and his verbal and musical imagination go far in turning narrative dross into theatre gold. While not every song is dynamite—several sound similar to other musical theatre numbers—enough are standouts to make them worth waiting for. Larson’s debt to his idol, Stephen Sondheim, is incorporated in the script, including the wonderful song “Sunday,” an homage to the song of that name in Sunday in the Park with George. My least favorite songs are the ones requiring Jon’s Billy Joel-like piano-pounding, while my favorite would probably be a toss-up between Susan’s powerhouse “Come to Your Senses” and the very clever “Therapy,” which grows naturally out of a fraught conversation between Jon and Susan:
George Salazar, Ciara Renee, Nick Blaemire. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This revival of Tick, Tick . . . BOOM! deserves an extended run. But just in case it doesn’t get one I recommend that you hasten down to 42nd Street and see what all the ticking’s about.
Ciara Renee. Photo: Carol Rosegg.


Acorn Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 20

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

85. Review: PUBLIC ENEMY (seen October 18, 2016)

“When Lies Trump Truth”
Stars range from 5-1.

What with the news of the inept, perhaps criminal, political response to lead being found in the water of Flint, Michigan, it was only a matter of time before yet another revival of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, also about toxic water, was dredged up to remind us of that great dramatist’s prescience. The 1882 play’s various themes, including the conflict between truth and self-interest and its questions about the validity of majority opinions, remain pertinent, especially at times like these when widespread dissatisfaction with our political leaders and the despoilment of the environment roils the nation.

Robbie Tann, Nilaja Sun, Guiesseppe Jones. Photo: Russ Rowland.
For all their continuing bite and relevance, Ibsen’s ideas are embedded in a dated drama that is difficult to effectively embody on stage, as the dull 2012 Broadway production revealed. This has inspired several updated adaptations that attempt to make his characters and plot more immediate, one example being Scottish playwright David Harrower’s (Blackbird) version, retitled Public Enemy, first done at England’s Young Vic in 2013 and now being presented by the Pearl Theatre Company.

Harrower, while retaining the setting of a small Norwegian town (or so it would appear), has radically revised the script to sound colloquial and look contemporary, with its five acts squeezed into a brisk 90, intermissionless minutes. Harry Feiner’s setting is a wide, paneled room in starkly modernist style, dramatically lit by Marika Kent; its wooden tables and squared-off, uncomfortable-looking chairs, rearranged for each locale, echo the wooden walls.
John Keating, Alex Purcell, Robbie Tann, Jimonn Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The set suggests the cold realities faced by the central character, Dr. Stockmann (Jimonn Cole), when the townspeople—led by Stockmann’s obnoxious brother, the mayor (Guiesseppe Jones)—turn against him after his research shows the water has been poisoned by the tannery of Stockmann’s father-in-law, Kiil (Dominic Cuskern). Since the town hopes to thrive from visitors coming to bathe in its spas, and the cost of fixing the problem is prohibitive, Stockmann, the would-be savior, becomes a public enemy, even the liberal newspapers turning against him. He and his family are attacked but, refusing to leave, he vows to stay on and start a school.
Nilaja Sun, Jimmon Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
The essential issues remain in place but everything has been brought to the level of agitprop melodrama. Whatever its value in reducing the play’s themes to a high-school civics class lesson (the first row when I attended was filled with enthusiastic high-school kids), Harrower’s adapting the play to a present-day context simply doesn’t work. It’s not credible for Kiil, for example, to be so ignorant of the fact that bacteria can’t be seen by the naked eye and use that as an excuse to dismiss Stockmann’s claims.

Or for the printer Aslasken (John Keating, usually so interesting but here quirkily unconvincing) to think he can stop Stockmann’s words from getting out by refusing to print them. In fact, all the arguments to stop Stockmann from informing the world of his research become meaningless in the Internet world. A laptop makes its presence known in the staging, but I guess nobody in Norway knows how to use it.
Jimmon Cole and company. Photo: Russ Rowland.
And why doesn’t Stockmann call for additional scientific support for his findings? Is he the only scientist in Norway? And how can the townspeople ignore scientific findings that will cause major health problems merely because to do something about them is too expensive? Won’t the eventual expense of dealing with the results be even worse?
Guiesseppe Jones, Jimmon Cole. Photo: Russ Rowland.
It’s easy to accept the skepticism about scientific evidence in an 1882 context, which would allow the people to rationalize their decision based on inadequate general knowledge. But in 2016? It’s not enough to argue about the ignorance of today’s climate change deniers; that issue, for all its potential relevance on another plane of discussion, doesn’t apply on this one, where the evidence is being presented in advance of the problem it’s intended to prevent, and in public, not in a political backroom.
Company of Public Enemy. Photo: Russ Rowland.
Would an entire town knowingly ignore scientific conclusions and invite potential catastrophe merely because of self-interest when that self-interest is itself bound to be destroyed? It’s questions like these that may drive you crazy as you watch these otherwise clueless people go about their business. On the other hand, there are enough provocative nuggets scattered here and there to stir your thoughtful ire.

The production itself, directed by Hal Brooks, is awkward and overwrought, the acting (or, too often, overacting) mediocre. Cole’s Stockmann has his moments, especially when his anger boils over during his extended speech at a public hearing (staged to make the audience complicit in his downfall), but nothing he does can make this Stockmann other than a cardboard hero. As for the supporting company, some of whom have done much better work before, the less said the better. Best not to become a public enemy, after all.  


Pearl Theatre
555 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through November 6

Monday, October 17, 2016

84. Review: THE ROADS TO HOME (seen October 16, 2016)

“Home Is Where the Heart Is”

Stars range from 5-1.
Harrison, Texas. Playwright Horton Foote’s (The Trip to Bountiful) fictional hometown—a stand-in for Wharton, Texas—mentioned with deep nostalgia in various plays, is the soul of The Roads to Home, now in a fine revival at the Cherry Lane, directed by Foote specialist Michael Wilson for Primary Stages; thankfully, Hoote’s foremost performer, his daughter, Hallie, is involved. For all the references to Harrison, however, both first act scenes are set in Houston and the sole second-act scene in Austin. 
Hallie Foote. Photo: James Leynse.
Like so many works by the prolific author, who died at 96 in 2012 (2016 is his centennial), it’s a chatty, thinly plotted, occasionally comic, but ultimately affecting domestic drama about average, not especially dramatic, people. First seen locally in a 1982 Off-Off Broadway production, it had its Off-Broadway premiere a decade later at the Lambs Theater. Hallie Foote, who played Annie, now portrays the middle-aged Mabel Votaugh (taken by Jean Stapleton in 1992).

Harriet Harris, Hallie Foote. Photo: James Leynse.
The two-hour, 10-minute play’s three scenes were originally intended as loosely related one-acts: “Nightingale,” “The Dearest of Friends,” and “Spring Dance.” Each is preceded by the projection of these titles printed in silent-movie style. The Houston scenes take place in 1924, and the one in Austin four years later; the dialogue contains numerous details that bring the period to life. Only one of the characters from act one appears in act two, which gives the impression of being more of a “what ever happened to her?” sequel than as an organic continuation of what preceded it.

In scene one, we’re in the kitchen of Mabel Votaugh (Hallie Foote), where she’s visited by her next-door neighbor, Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris). Mabel and her incommunicative, railroad-worker husband, Jack (Devon Abner), have moved here from Harrison, while Vonnie and her spouse, Eddie (Matt Sullivan), have recently moved in from Monroe, Louisiana. The times are such that these neighbors simply walk in unannounced, without even knocking, or while still in nightclothes. Mabel and Vonnie are kind and well-meaning churchgoing ladies, but they’re not as personally content as their outward behavior might suggest.
Harriet Harris, Rebecca Brooksher. Photo: James Leynse.
Mabel and Vonnie, wearing loose-fitting housedresses, gossip—often amusingly—about trivialities, such as luncheons, parties, movie going, people’s church denominations, and scandals new and old, usually involving marital infidelity. As we’ll discover, they themselves are partners in stultifying marriages. Soon, Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher), a young woman from Harrison, arrives by streetcar from across town, where she lives with her husband, Mr. Long (Dan Bittner), and their two kids.

Annie, who witnessed her father’s murder in her youth, is a lost soul; she keeps pointing her finger like a gun, saying “pop, pop, pop,” or bursts unexpectedly into song (“My Old Kentucky Home”). She’s been visiting Mabel frequently, finding in their mutual backgrounds in Harrison a grounding in the reality that keeps sliding out of reach. Mabel, too, must reach into her memories of Harrison to maintain stability. Vonnie, having heard so much of it, makes a trip there with Eddie, much to her regret, when it leads to Eddie’s decision to divorce her, the almost comical subject of the second scene.
Hallie Foote, Abner Devon. Photo: James Leynse.
The last scene abandons the Votaughs and Hayhursts to focus on Annie, confined for four years now to a state asylum in Austin. But this institution, in the days before drugs became the cure du jour for psychiatric problems, is the kind that offers patients a modicum of normal life, such as annual dances attended in formal attire. Annie wears a lovely yellow gown (the costumes are by David C. Woolard) and the three men who appear—two of them from Harrison—wear tuxes.
Rebecca Brooksher. Photo: James Leynse.
Everything looks perfectly normal until we realize that one, Dave Dushun (Dan Bittner), is practically catatonic, and the others have memories as slippery as ice. The quiet poignancy of the scene is heartrending, especially when the gabby Annie (a bit like a young Amanda Wingfield at a cotillion), now divorced and separated from her beloved children, and striving for normalcy, seeks to have one of her equally disturbed friends get in touch with her mother.
Rebecca Brooksher, Dan Bittner. Photo: James Leynse.
Hallie Foote’s sensitive, liltingly accented Mabel is absolutely lovely; you can practically touch the humanity of her concern for the neurotic Annie. Harriet Harris is perfectly cast as Vonnie, the aging belle whose marriage is cracking. Her comic desperation when she decides to call her husband’s mistress is priceless. Brooksher’s Annie is a moving study in psychological distress, especially luminous in act two, while the five male roles are each sensitively handled, four of them via doubling.  
Matt Sullivan, Devon Abner, Dan Bittner, Rebecca Brooksher. Photo: James Leynse.
Jeff Cowie’s efficient set for the Votaugh home is very spare but uses a turntable to show both its kitchen and living room in consecutive scenes; his terrace garden for act two, which is more substantial, is atmospherically lit by David Lander. John Gromada’s original music and sound design help establish time and place.

Home may be where the heart is, but the effort to recapture it, if only in memory, is nothing short of heartbreaking in The Roads to Home.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through November 27

83. Review: OH, HELLO ON BROADWAY (seen October 14, 2016)

"Grumpy and Gregarious"

Stars range from 5-1

For my review of Oh, Hello on Broadway please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Saturday, October 15, 2016