Friday, June 23, 2017

33 (2017-2018): Review: IN A WORD (seen June 22, 2017)

What must it be like to lose a child, not by the finality of death, but by the uncertain fate of a kidnapping? How long must one wait and suffer before being able to move along with one’s life? Is the pain any less because the child was adopted? Or that the child was so seriously troubled it affected your every waking minute, even losing you your job? And endangering your marriage? Does the coping ever stop?

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.

These are some of the questions confronted by Lauren Yee’s tenderly crafted In a Word, being given a quality performance under Tyne Rafaeli’s delicate direction in the intimate Cherry Lane Studio Theatre. This well-acted three-hander, running a little more than an hour, introduces us to Fiona (Laura Ramadei), a grade school teacher, and her husband, Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez); they’re an ordinary young couple, whose seven-year-old, Tristan, appears to have been snatched two years ago after Fiona parked at a gas station and left him alone for three minutes.

Justin Mark, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
After two years of waiting for the cops to solve the case, Guy wants to declare a moratorium on their grief, at least enough so that Fiona can break free of her obsessing and go out with him for dinner, something to which she’s already agreed. She remains, however, chained to her grief and guilt, precipitating the flashback memories that constitute the main action. These are seamlessly integrated into the generally realistic, present-time structure to examine Fiona’s emotional and mental state. Lines of dialogue with words bearing particular resonance are woven through the script as markers, often serving to trigger recollections that instantly shift us from the present to the past.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Sometimes, the recalls are tinged with distortions or exaggerations that invoke mild laughter, which serves as relief to the general grimness. The effect, at times, is to suggest that Fiona’s fixation has driven her to the point of madness. She even imagines different people introducing themselves as the kidnapper in places like the grocery. In the memories, a young actor, the versatile Justin Mark, plays eight roles, among them the detective investigating the kidnapping; Fiona’s principal, Ted; Guy’s buddy, Andy; and, most significantly, Tristan. 
Laura Ramadei, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
When we see Tristan, adopted when he was two from an unwed friend of Andy’s, he’s more than a handful; highly intelligent, he’s rude, potty-mouthed, and undisciplined. He’s also unable to bear more than a passing touch from his mother. Yee’s script suggests that he probably has Asperger’s.  Fiona, despite being a second-grade teacher, is reluctant to accept that he’s anything but a hyperactive kid. Ted, though, urges that he be placed in a special ed class taught by a fellow teacher Fiona unreservedly calls a retard, a word Tristan picks up on as well.
Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin, Perez, Laura Ramadei. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Words, the play indicates, both spoken and unspoken, make a difference; Fiona even keeps a swear jar for every vulgarity someone makes. Misunderstood language--“leave of absence,” for example, through the change of “leave” into “leaf” ultimately becomes “tree of absence”--allows for a distinctive touch of poetry. With so many of the flashbacks suggesting an alternative, even magic reality, it’s no wonder Stowe Nelson’s fine sound design allows the buzzing of improper words to be heard whenever the jar is opened.
Laura Ramadei, Justin Mark, Jose Joaquin Perez. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Rafaeli’s production unfolds in a sleek West Elm-like living room designed by Oona Curley with an upstage area marked by a set of translucent glass doors. The actors slide these back and forth in different configurations, altering perceptions of time and feeling. Curley also did the evocative lighting, with one particular moment showing a ghostly Tristan staring through the doors as if just on the cusp of vanishing. The effect is, in a word, haunting.


Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC


Thursday, June 22, 2017

32 (2017-2018): Review: BASTARD JONES (seen June 21, 2017)

"What's New, Tomcat?"

In 1963, when Tom Jones, Tony Richardson’s brilliantly unconventional movie version of Henry Fielding’s hilariously raunchy 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, opened, 23-year-old Welsh pop singer, Tom Jones, was just breaking into show business. Less than two years later, Jones became an international star with his recording of “It’s Not Unusual”; his personal life—married to the same woman from the age of 17 until her death in 2016 while nonetheless having multiple affairs—demonstrated that this great star’s parents could have given him no more fitting name than that of Fielding’s irrepressibly randy, 19-year-old, sexy tomcat. 
Evan Ruggiero, Rene Ruiz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Fielding’s Tom was no singer, of course, but that’s no reason not to make him one, as you can hear for yourself in Bastard Jones, Marc Acito (book, lyrics, direction) and Amy Engelhardt’s (music, lyrics) freewheeling musical comedy version of Fielding’s book. Musical comedy is actually far too tame a way to describe what goes way beyond even musical farce in its rowdy, hellzapoppin approach, throwing realism to the winds and—although there’s no nudity per se—letting it all hang out.

Acito and Engelhardt have stripped the 18 chapters (or “books”) of Fielding’s picaresque novel down to a two-act romp (with a 15-minute intermission) running nearly two hours and 20 minutes (although advertised as an hour and 45). It might not feel so long were it not for the metal, low-backed, barstool-like chairs at the Cell (or nancy manocherian’s the cell as it seems to prefer being called); they’re so high your feet either rest on a slim crossbar or dangle. They get my vote as the most uncomfortable in the New York theatre.
Adam B. Shapiro, Matthew McGloin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Commenting on the action is a comical narrator, a barber-surgeon named Partridge (Rene Ruiz), who also participates in the narrative as Tom’s sidekick, putative father, and others. The story itself focuses on the relationship between Squire Allworthy (Tony Perry), of Somerset, and two young men, the goodhearted Tom Jones (Evan Ruggiero), a bastard foundling the squire took in and raised, and the ratfink Mr. Bilful (Trey Gowdy lookalike Matthew McGloin), jealous son of Allworthy’s sister Bridget (Cheryl Stern).
Company of Bastard Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tom’s sexual escapades with various women, including the servant Molly (Alie B. Gorrie), whom he believes he’s made pregnant (a belief fostered by his weakness in mathematics); Lady Bellaston (Crystal Lucas-Perry), an aristocratic nympho; Mrs. Waters (Lucas-Perry), a woman Tom rescues; and Sophia Shepherd (Elena Wang), his true love, are commingled with the story of Tom’s birth and true identity, his position as an heir to Allworthy’s fortunes, his joining the British army, and so on.
Tony Perry (above), Rene Ruiz, Evan Ruggiero, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For some reason, Sophia’s last name has been changed from Fielding’s Western to Shepherd, and her father, Squire Western, is transmogrified into Rev. Shepherd (Adam B. Shapiro), a buffoonish fire and brimstone preacher, obsessed with Tom’s fornicating proclivities. But this is a minor question in an irreverent spoof in the Theatre of the Ridiculous tradition that takes neither Fielding nor itself seriously.
Matthew McGloin, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Staged by Acito with an imaginative flair for physical action—his complex fight scenes in close quarters, with multiple characters wielding weapons, fists, and feet are highlights—the rambunctious production has the air of a devised theatre piece birthed by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges. This results in a carefully calibrated cacophony of door slamming, head banging, and otherwise free-swinging mayhem, supplemented by Joe Barros’s vibrantly energetic choreography. 
Evan Ruggiero, Alie B. Gorrie, Crystal Lucas-Perry. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Aside from three well-used doors on the Cell’s permanent balcony, above and behind the general acting area, there’s no set to speak of, making Gertjan Houben’s expert lighting work overtime to enhance the show’s visuals. In fact, Bastard Jones is the kind of show where a few cleverly used props replace the set when used for a variety of purposes other than their original ones.

A basket becomes a pregnant belly, or a table, with its center leaf removed, is converted to a wagon drawn by actors playing horses; held vertically, it’s a wall with a window through which an actor sticks his head. Sexual hijinks are viewed in shadow pantomime through backlit sheets. Supplementing the let’s-put-on-a-show feeling are Siena Zoë’s costumes and wigs, a wild, nonsensical conglomeration of found elements from multiple sources, only a tiny few suggesting the 18th century. 
Alie B. Gorrie, Matthew McGloin, Adam B. Shapiro, Evan Ruggiero. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are equally eclectic, crossing gender and racial lines and even including two disabled artists. This is actually the third production I’ve seen this month—the others are The Cost of Living and The Artificial Jungle—in which actors with so-called handicaps display excellent talents Ruggiero, for instance, who lost much of his right leg to bone cancer, plays the lusty Tom with an old-fashioned peg leg that does little to prevent him from climbing all over the furniture or even doing a soft-shoe vaudeville routine with Rene Ruiz’s Partridge. And Alie B. Gorie’s being legally blind is no hindrance to her participation in the knockabout staging and dance numbers.

Engelhardt’s music is generally fun, with large infusions of rock and other upbeat styles, but there’s little here that will last beyond the show it’s written for. Engelhardt and Acito’s lyrics range from clever to serviceable and the songs all get worthy performances from everyone in the well-cast show. Of particular note are the beautiful Elena Wang, gifted with marvelous pipes, and Crystal Lucas-Perry, who rocks her numbers bigtime.
Rene Ruiz, Cheryl Stern. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show’s biggest drawback is its sophomoric humor, especially the attempts to wring laughs from the more salacious references and stage business. Although there was frequent laughter when I went, almost every joke had a winking, isn’t-this-funny juvenility that more frequently missed than hit, like what you’d expect from a college fraternity show. Malapropisms mount, puns are plentiful (fiesta résistance, quel frommage, etc.), farts are frequent, and lines like “I fart on your happiness” get the loudest laughs.

According to Acito’s program note, he and Engelhardt are concerned about communicating the social criticism regarding human rights in Fielding’s satirical writing, but, given the nonstop barrage of singing, dancing, fighting, lovemaking, and general silliness on view, few visitors are going to pay much attention to Bastard Jones’s themes. If they like its brand of broad humor and sexual liberation they’ll have a good time. And, even if, like me, they find themselves groaning at the poor puns and frowning at the clownish campiness, they’ll likely enjoy the joie de vivre of Bastard Jones.

P.S. It was just announced that Bastard Jones has raised $10,000 for Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Fund, dedicated to ending homelessness of LGBTQ youth.


 nancy manocherian’s the cell 
338 W. 23rd St., NYC
Through July 14

31 (2017-2018): THE TRAVELING LADY (seen June 20, 2017)

"She Gets Around"

For my review of The Traveling Lady please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Monday, June 19, 2017

30 (2017-2018): Review: UNDERGROUND (seen June 15, 2017)

“Swipe Left/Swipe Right?”

“Mind the gap,” repeatedly says the voice on the p.a. system in the London Underground carriage that plays a key role in Underground, a British import by Isla van Tricht now in tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway Festival. Ostensibly meant to suggest the gap between the train and the platform, it also implies the indefinable space between people that prevents them from fully connecting with one another. And, for aging theatergoers, it might also indicate the increasing distance between them and the younger generation, who live in a world of social media apps with a language all its own.

Michael Jinks. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For the uninitiated, swipe left and swipe right are the terms used on dating apps like Tinder where swiping left means you reject the person whose profile you’re viewing, and swiping right means you accept. Some dating practitioners are likely to swipe right for this modest little play, which runs 70 minutes, is smartly acted and directed, and captures the world of lonely young urbanites dependent on their phones for the kind of romantic relationships that no longer seem to happen spontaneously. 

But the familiarity of it all, with its Millennials speaking inarticulately articulate small talk, albeit with a few decent laughs and the condiment of magic realism to spice it up a bit, may lead to others swiping right. 

James (Michael Jinks) and Claire (Bebe Sanders), in their mid-20s, live in similarly cramped, overpriced quarters in the same neighborhood, getting by on low wages at (unnamed) jobs they hate. They wake up, check their dating apps, get dressed, and go to work on the Underground where they’re often in close proximity while completely unaware of each other.

James, in his room, delivers a monologue in which he wonders which character in John Hughes’s Brat Pack films he most closely resembles. Claire offers one in which she deplores how all the optimism poured into her as she grew up didn’t prevent her unhappy fate as a member of Generation Y. Eventually, James and Claire, noting from an app how often they’ve been near one another, swipe right. Next station: drinks and cigarettes.

Much of their cute but generally unspecific conversation circles around the cautious Claire’s reluctance to consider their meeting a “date,” which she feels would be taking their relationship too far at this stage, although the somewhat shy James has no compunctions about the word. The friendly, garrulous, middle-aged bar owner, Steve (Andrew McDonald), intrudes to show James and Claire the photo album of his daughter’s recent wedding. He, too, it appears, has his own loneliness issues.
Bebe Sanders, Andrew McDonald, Michael Jinks. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
On their Underground ride home in the wee hours on the Northern Line, the train stalls between stations; their phones are dead, forcing the mildly snarky Claire and the uncertain James to get to know each other better, difficult as it is at first to make conversation under these circumstances. Their mating talk turns to dreams and nightmares before intimacy beckons, as does sleep.

James is particularly jumpy, afraid he’s going to die there, perhaps from lack of oxygen. Having been trapped on a stalled A train recently, I know the feeling, albeit there was little romantic about my fellow passengers or the desperation I experienced about getting to my destination.

The only other passenger is a sleeping man, with a sign reading “Wake me up at Clapham North.” When they eventually wake him, it’s Steve, although he denies being the Steve they think he is. It’s a distractingly puzzling, surrealistic touch but no more so than the strange, poetic comments that are heard from a woman’s voice over the p.a. system, which periodically interrupts, in a man’s voice, to inform the passengers about the delay.
Michael Jinks, Bebe Sanders. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
A final scene, set several months later, shows the aftermath of Claire and James’s fateful night out. It seems to have been written to satisfy the conventional boy meets girl formula but, based on what we’ve seen earlier, isn’t fully convincing.

Kate Tiernan directs the play alley-style in a space between two banks of seats, the only furniture being two rows of wooden benches facing each other like seats in a subway car, but used for other purposes, like beds or tables, as well. (The London production was staged in a vault beneath the actual train tracks, where the trains overhead could be heard rumbling by.) This minimalist approach is nearly the same as that currently used in Theater B at 59E59 for My Eyes Went Dark, except that here the few props (phones, mostly) aren’t mimed. In this bare environment, lighting (no one is credited for sets or lights) and sound (well designed by Jude Obermüller) are crucial.

Before you enter, a house manager asks if you’re single, in a relationship, or it’s complicated; depending on your answer you get a colored dot to stick on your clothes. Nothing comes of this, however, and you may not remember you have this dot on your shirt, blouse, or jacket until you get home. Like some of Underground it could use a bit of explanation.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through July 2


Sunday, June 18, 2017

29 (2017-2018): Review: BELLA: AN AMERICAN TALL TALE (seen June 17, 2017)

“Big Booty Bonanza”

Kirsten Childs, who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Bella: An American Tall Tale, the bouncy, bloated, and blithely bizarre new musical at Playwrights Horizons, was inspired to write it when she saw the attention male pedestrians were paying to the expansive derriere of a voluptuous African-American woman passing by.
Ashley D. Kelley. Photo: Joan Marcus.
She wrote the show when she was struck by what she perceived as the male fascination with this “gloriously shaped Venus Hottentot behind,” which she considered a sadly overlooked “American dream girl” feature somehow equivalent to the sensual allure of Marilyn Monroe. (Some men might differ.) In it, she explains in a program note, she sought “to create a new myth celebrating the power and beauty of the black female body, with all the joy, fun, silliness and sorrow, heartbreak and triumph of the black woman’s experience in America.”
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
And thus we have Bella, a two-and-a-half-hour musical paean to big, black, female bottoms, and the women they belong to; oddly, it follows directly upon the heels of the recently closed Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus, another Hottentot-themed show that played only a block away at the Signature.

Venus, for all its historical liberties, used colorfully larger-than-life theatrical imagery to tell the true story of Sarah Baartman, an early 19th-century African woman who became an international sensation on the freak show circuit. Bella uses similarly stagey methods to create a tall-tale world in which this “Big Booty Tupelo Gal’s” mammoth rump (represented by an oversized bustle) is not only the male gaze’s object of desire but a powerful weapon able to butt bump a bandit named Snaggletooth Hoskins (Kevin Massey) and even gas a Southern white molester (also Massey) with a fart attack so potent it deserves to have a name of its own.
Ashley D. Kelley, Kevin Massey. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Set in the 1870s, the show tells the story of Bella (a scrumptiously wonderful Ashley D. Kelley), a young, plus-sized, Tupelo, Mississippi, woman with a protuberant posterior, who gets in trouble and has to run away. Using a new last name, she’s sent on a train by her Mama (Kenita R. Miller) and Aunt Dinah (Marinda Anderson) to meet up with her fiancé, Aloysius T. Honeycutt (Britton Smith), a black cavalryman (a.k.a. buffalo soldier), in New Mexico. There’s also her Grandma (NaTasha Yvette Williams), sometimes suffering from comic dementia (not funny) and sometimes a fount of wisdom and advocacy regarding black, female empowerment (illogical).
Ashley D. Kelley, Brandon Gill. Photo: Joan Marcus.
En route to the Wild West, the innocent, child-like, giggling, but unstoppably imaginative Bella encounters various escapades, romantic and otherwise, although it’s not always clear which are real and which fantasy (mostly the latter, it seems). One concerns the prissy Miss Cabbagestalk (Miller), a mail-order bride heading for Arizona who throws caution to the winds with a dashing Mexican caballero, Diego Moreno (the magnetic Yurel Echezarreta, who steals all his scenes). Others include Chinese cowpoke Tommie Haw (Paolo Montalban), who Bella envisions as a Chippendale-like stripper, and a solicitous porter, Nathaniel Beckworth (the splendidly voiced Brandon Gill), who falls in love with Bella and serves as a sort of commentator on the action.
Paolo Montalban, Ashley D. Kelley. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Whereas Act One’s dramatic progression is weak, being essentially a series of adventures, Act Two provides a sharper narrative, in which Bella becomes a high-paid entertainer in a traveling circus run by the flamboyant CP Connors (Echezarreta). Elated at first, she soon meets with disillusion and the bottle. A happy ending tries, although not very efficiently, to pull the show’s strings together.
Ashley D. Kelley, Kevin Massey, and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Childs’s music ranges from the melodically bland to the tunefully enjoyable. Act Two’s numbers, beginning with “Heaven Must be Tupelo,” are generally superior to Act One’s. Satire informs many songs, like “White People Tonight,” sung as part of an African cannibal routine in Bella’s circus act. Others, like “Mama, Where Did You Go?,” well-sung by Miller, are digressive, weighing down the narrative’s progression.

Both Venus and Bella style their happenings within the context of a theatrical world; Bella’s set, designed by Clint Ramos, resembles a saloon placed within an elaborate false proscenium adorned with Wild West images; it has its own small, Showboat-like stage where several scenes are played as if from some old-time, footlit melodrama. Japhy Weideman’s lighting makes the most of such opportunities, Jeff Suggs provides marvelous projections, Dede M. Ayite’s post-Civil War costumes are charming, director Robert O’Hara’s creative staging is eye-filling, and Camille A. Brown’s lively choreography is infectious. 
Script-wise, Bella is all over the place, unsure of its satirical purposes and sometimes so outrageously phantasmagoric and hopefully provocative it becomes difficult to tell just what it is we’re watching or how seriously we’re supposed to take it. Whatever the show’s intentions may be about unearthing untold stories of black lives in the Wild West days they too often get trampled on in the rush from one bit to the other.

Luckily, Bella is staged and acted with such verve and talent and has such a marvelous, 12-member ensemble, most playing multiple roles, you can simply ignore its messages, whatever they are, and appreciate it for all its buttock-busting, tuchus-tickling, ass-conscious asininity. As they say, life can be bootiful.


Playwrights Horizons
416 42nd St., NYC
Through July 2

Saturday, June 17, 2017

28 (2017-2018): Review: THE END OF LONGING (seen June 16, 2017)

“Drunk Meets Girl”
Writing teachers often advise their pupils to write about what they know. It’s thus no surprise that popular actor Matthew Perry (best known as Chandler Bing on TV’s Friends), who famously underwent rehab for his drug and alcohol addictions, would somehow use that experience in writing his first play, The End of Longing

The sincerity of his intentions, however, doesn’t compensate for a woozy rom-com that isn’t quite able to walk the straight line without wobbling.

Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Perry. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Four characters populate the intermissionless, hour-and-45-minute play, which premiered in London and is being presented at the Lortel by the MCC. The most prominent is Jack (Perry), an alcoholic photographer who believes he functions best when he’s bombed, which also appears to be the only way he can control his DT shakes. He thinks he’s Mr. Charm personified, with an aptitude for shooting comic zingers that come off mainly as crass boorishness.

Someone who, for unexplained reasons, doesn’t seem to think so is the gorgeous Stephanie (Jennifer Morrison), whom he comes on to at a fancy LA bar/restaurant, where she’s accompanied by her jittery friend, Stevie (Sue Jean Kim), annoyingly agitated because some guy she’s slept with hasn’t texted her back in four hours. The guy turns out to be Jack’s buddy, Jeffrey (Quincy Dunn-Baker), a mildly dimwitted construction worker who’s head over heels for Stevie, a feeling we’re supposed to accept is mutual.

The play follows the swelling and ebbing romantic relationships between the two couples. Jack and Stephanie are conflicted because of his boozing and her work as a call girl commanding $2,500 an hour. He turned to the bottle 20 years before when a three-month affair with a woman went sour; her profession is vaguely related to her father’s abusive behavior. Jack, naturally, can’t admit he has a problem, while Stephanie makes too much dough as a sex worker to consider giving it up for something more respectable.

Stephanie may be a fancy hooker but, as written, played, and directed (by Lindsay Posner) she comes off more like the smart, beautiful girl-next-door who might just as easily be modeling or, as her mother believes, high on the corporate ladder at Calvin Klein. Why she would so quickly jump into bed with the vulgar, obnoxious Jack, with no monetary arrangement between them, is a question the play fails to answer. What exactly, one might ask, does he have that all her wealthy Johns are lacking? Booze breath?

The same could be said of the connection between the constantly angry, Zoloft-popping, self-doubting neurotic, Stevie, who works in the pharmaceutical industry, and her naive boyfriend, Jeffrey, by whom she gets pregnant. Kim is so screwed up she considers Jeffrey’s normalcy, that is, his not being in therapy, a drawback.
Sue Jean Kim, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Perry, Quincy Dunn-Baker. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Similarly, the friendships between Jeffrey and Jack and Stephanie and Stevie lack basic credibility. Perry provides so little about these people apart from their most obvious characteristics, it’s hard to see them as little more than superficial figures whose principal raison d’être is to differ sharply from one another simply for the sake of contrast.

What starts out as a briskly paced comedy laced with smarmy one-liners and wishfully shocking dialogue—like the sophomoric way (“waxing the carrot,” “jerking a soda,” etc.) Jack describes his porn-watching behavior—gradually grows darker, with the dramatic highlight, like the 11:00 number in a musical, being Jack’s plea for help at an AA meeting. 

Perry may have had such an experience but what he delivers differs little from countless similar moments in TV shows and movies. And the ray of hope that immediately follows and closes the play, set some months down the line, reveals that what we've been watching is a polemic on behalf of convincing alchohol and drug abusers to seek help. It's a good message but its expression is kind of kitschy.

The episodic plot is aided by Derek McLane’s unit set of walls made of translucent glass blocks set on a turntable; most of the scenes shift before our eyes from one essentially similar bedroom to the other, with additional scenes in a bar, a softball field, and a hospital. Ben Stanton’s lighting makes the walls glow prettily.
Matthew Perry, Quincy Dunn-Baker. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Sarah Laux’s costumes generally look right but one might quibble with Jeffrey’s well-tailored jeans and t-shirts, which makes this guy look too hip. He is, after all, a lug who not only doesn’t know what kismet is but thinks Stevie’s suggestion that he needs to more culture is a reference to yogurt.

I wonder, by the way, how commonly LA hospitals. as here, allow a newborn to be freely passed around in the mother’s room not only between the mother and father but visiting friends, none of them sterilized or wearing a mask.

Perry is a believable drunk but his character is too unappetizing to make his romance with Morrison’s Stephanie plausible, Morrison lacks the edge one might see on a woman who’s been doing what Stephanie does for ten years, Kim is over the top, and Dunn-Baker never convinces that he’s anything but a smart actor playing dumb, unlike Matt LeBlanc, who made a similar character, Joey, on Friends so endearing. In fact, Jeffrey was called Joseph in the London production. Make of that what you will.


Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through July 1

Thursday, June 15, 2017

27 (2017-2018): Review: ATTACK OF THE ELVIS IMPERSONATORS (seen June 9, 2017)

“He’s Left the Building”

Every season seems to bring two or three deliberately cheesy, campy, silly, even nonsensical, Off-Broadway novelty musicals spoofing popular culture, politics, religion, and the like. Some, like The Rocky Horror Show and Nunsense, go on to have spectacular successes worldwide in other small venues or even become TV and movie productions. Like the recent Disaster: the Musical, they may also transfer to Broadway.

Eric Sciotto. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
It’s unlikely that such a future awaits the amusingly titled Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, a goofy all-singing, all-dancing, all-mugging exercise in musical banality now burning actors’ calories on Theatre Row. Which isn’t to deny that enough Elvis idolaters seeking anything associated with the eponymous late entertainer may find its subject matter rollicking enough to keep it rocking for the nonce.
Warren Kelley, Badia Farha, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Eric Sciotto, Jayme Wappel, Catherine Walker, Whit K. Lee. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Elvis Presley, who died forty years ago, continues to be a gigantic presence in the American pop music pantheon. His Graceland estate in Memphis, TN, remains a bees-to-honey mecca for worldwide fans, young and old. The Elvis industry chugs along, especially in Las Vegas, and Elvis impersonators can often be spotted in Times Square. This nutty paean to the god of sideburns and glitz is betting some EIs will show up, like the chubby guy in gold satin, sunglasses, and dyed black hair (or was it a wig?) the night I attended.
Eric Sciotto, Laura Woyasz. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
[Full disclosure: I was an early Elvis impersonator; in 1957, when Elvis was a pelvis-swinging, teen idol phenomenon, I played him in a Brooklyn high school revue (the kind known as “Sing”), wailing “Hound Dog” (or was it “Blue Suede Shoes”?).] 

Lory Lazarus (Courage, the Cowardly Dog), who wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, says in his program notes that many Elvis fans worship “the King” like a deity, hoping to be healed by his spirit. This cult fervor is among the inspirations that drove him to create the show, barely any of which can be taken seriously.
Eric Sciotto and company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
It strains to be funny with sight gags and comical verses but its biggest laughs actually have little to do with Elvis, coming late in the evening when it joins the anti-Trump bandwagon with the president likened in a projected image to the Anti-Christ; that villain then gets the show's biggest howl when he employs a certain tweeted expression that’s probably in the running for 2017’s Oxford Dictionary word of the year.
Eric Sciotto. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Eric Sciotto, a slender performer with good cheekbones and an enviable Elvis-like pompadour, plays the lead in this peculiar tale of Drac Frenzie, a swaggering, boozing, enormously wealthy, heavy metal rock star, styled to resemble Guns N’ Roses’ top-hatted Slash.
Eric Sciotto, Laura Woyasz, and company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Drac, the richest man on earth, burned out from playing heavy metal, decides to give it up and join the ranks of Elvis impersonators, having had a mystical relationship to the King through a locket returned to him by Matt Shadow (Curtis Wiley), his African-American friend. A quick change, hidden by feathered fans held by his sexy, pink-wigged backup singers, and voila!, Drac's rocker's duds and crinkly, shoulder-length locks vanish and the Elvis we know and love appears.

What follows is equally outlandish, involving the surging attempt of the Anti-Christ (Jim Borstelmann) to take over the world; the winning by Drac/Elvis of every eligible Grammy; his love affair with and eventual marriage to Prissy (read Priscilla) Bordeaux (Laura Woyasz); a Miller Park, Milwaukee, concert replete with a cheesehead chorus; an Elvis impersonator epidemic with everyone wearing Elvis masks; and a visit to Graceland where Elvis is worshiped in the satirically pious “You Are the King of Kings.” Okay, time to take a breath.

Then we have Drac’s transformation into a reincarnation of the real Elvis; the creation of the Hound Dog religion (celebrated in the bounciest tune, “Spread the Word of Hound Dog”); an international war with the Anti-Christ; Elvis’s denunciation by a band of religious fundamentalists in thrall to the Anti-Christ who sing about “The Evils of Elvis”; and on and on.
Jim Borstelmann. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Finally, Elvis, using all his superpowers (replete with “Batman” images of “Pow,” “Ka-Pow,” “Boom,” etc. [R.I.P. Adam West]) overcomes the king of Satania a.k.a. the Anti-Christ, who’s a pussycat, after all. World peace is achieved, with planet Earth being renamed Graceland. ‘Nuff said?

Attack of the Elvis Impersonators, directed for maximum energy consumption by Don Stephenson, and breathlessly choreographed by Melissa Zaremba, squeezes as much out of the intimate Lion Theatre as it can, with actors rushing up and down the aisles and with an attractive unit set by Paul Tate DePoo III that allows for a constant barrage of Shawn Duan’s vivid, scene-setting, comical still and video projections.
Eric Sciotto and company. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
The 14-member ensemble, most playing multiple roles, are kept on the run with frequent costume and wig changes; kudos to costumer Tracey Christensen for giving the show so much visual pizazz, including those classic Elvis costumes. 

Ensemble member Borstelmann, who plays everything from the governor of Tennessee’s (Warren Kelley)’s nerdy, Elvis-addicted kid to the Trumpian Anti-Christ, stands out for his devilish comic chops. The charismatic Sciotto deserves applause for holding the crazy show together; he has the right Elvis move and sings decently enough but, let's be honest, he's more an actor impersonating Elvis impersonators than a top notch impersonator himself. Woyasz's Prissy is cute as Elvis's cardboard sweetheart.
Laura Woyasz, Eric Sciotto. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Audiences ready to give an overlong show like this (two hours) wide latitude for its broad satire and self-aware absurdity may not feel so lenient toward Lazarus’s music. Most of it ranges from the passable to the forgettable, with Elvis’s numbers among the weakest. In part it’s because they’re mediocre pastiches of now classic numbers, none of which the show includes. 

If the ocean had no fish would it still be the ocean? If Trump didn’t have his hair and money would he still be Trump? And if Elvis—even an imitation Elvis—didn’t have his music would he still be Elvis? Or, for that matter, an Elvis impersonator?

Without his music, Elvis isn’t even in the building.


Lion Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 24