Monday, June 30, 2014

36. Review of HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME (June 26, 2014)


I’m someone who didn’t hear Tupac Shakur, so I never hollered when he was alive and I’m not about to start now. That’s not to say that I didn’t actually enjoy parts of HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME, the new musical at the Palace Theatre inspired by the lyrics of this leading rapper/actor (born Lesane Parish Crooks), killed 18 years ago in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas at the age of 25. His impact was clearly enormous on the American music scene, and his fans continue to be legion and from all walks of life (like a former student, now a PhD candidate in England, who ran into me before the show). But rap never hip-hopped its way into my musical consciousness and Shakur, for all his success and his reputation for introducing social consciousness into his lyrics, stayed off both my radar and my radio.
SaulWilliams, Saycon Sengbloh. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Shakur’s lyrics are studied in college poetry courses, and there’s a library’s worth of critics who praise his writing to the skies, so I’ll accept these things on faith. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that, given the nature of the traditional Broadway audience, his work is what they’re looking for. Much as the show’s format didn’t work for me, however, I was grateful for the chance to experience Shakur’s words through the medium of a narrative, written by Todd Kreidler, that gives them context, even though the story is a cliché-driven inner city one that, at two hours and 20 minutes, is at least 20 minutes longer than it should be.
Above: Saul Williams. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Directed by recent Tony winner Kenny Leon (for A RAISIN IN THE SUN) and choreographed by Tony winner Wayne Cilento (for WICKED), the show would seem to have its ducks lined up neatly for success, even without a big star headlining the cast. The lead is played by a talented Broadway newcomer, Saul Williams, known for his slam-poetry, and he’s supported by well-known Broadway talents Christopher Jackson and Tonya Pinkins, among a company of mostly fresh faces. But its conventional plot about gangs and guns in a black neighborhood, and its and rap lyrics, with their profanity and racially provocative attitudes (we hear the “N” word over and over), may not be a recipe for success on the Great White Way.

Unlike BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL and other shows based on the songs of a famous writer or performer, HOLLER IF YA HEAR ME eschews the bio-musical approach in favor of a made-up but familiar tale of violence and vengeance on a ghetto block in an unnamed Midwestern industrial city. Tupac Shakur is present only in his words.
The central character, John (Mr. Williams), returns to the block after six years in prison, bringing his newfound insights gained from the writing of poetry to a world of drugs, promiscuity, and crime, from which everyone is struggling to escape. All John wants now is a paycheck and a place to lay his head; he’ll do anything to avoid going back to a life of crime, and isn’t excited about reuniting with his former pals. But he still carries a huge chip on his shoulder and, when, despite being an ex-con, he’s offered a job by Griffy (Ben Thompson), a friendly white guy who runs his dad’s body shop, he treats him like dirt. John’s friend Vertus (Mr. Jackson), who’s now dating John’s girl, Corrine (Saycon Sengbloh), is a drug dealer whose younger brother, Benny (Donald Webber, Jr.), gets killed not long into the show by a member of the 4-5s, a rival gang, and the plot then drags along as Vertus and his homies, desperately needing to bring meaning to this meaningless death, work out whether they should respond to the murder in kind. Through it all wanders a homeless preacher (John Earl Jelks), offering spiritual pronouncements. The tragic, if accidental, ending can be seen coming from miles away.
Tonya Pinkins, Christopher Jackson. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The story incorporates issues of justice, revenge, incarceration, social oppression, poverty, and racism. It struggles to find ways to incorporate Shakur’s songs into the narrative structure, so that “Dear Mama,” for example, allows for the introduction of Vertus’s mother (Ms. Pinkins), a character reflective of Shakur’s own mother, the activist Afeni Shakur. Other numbers fans will hear include “My Block,” “Life goes On,” “I Get Around/Keep Ya Head Up,” “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” “Me Against the World,” “Whatz Next,” “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “Thugz Mansion,” “California Love,” and “Ghetto Gospel.” The songs are acceptable on their own, but they don’t add much to the narrative thrust, and their ideas eventually begin to sound repetitive. Oddly, no specific person is credited with the often effective music; the program credits Tupac Shakur for his lyrics, but for music all it gives is “Music Coordinator” (John Monaco) and “Music Supervision, Orchestrations, and Arrangements” (Daryl Waters).

There are strong performances by Mr. Williams, Mr. Jackson, and the underused Ms. Pinkins (what a great voice!), the supporting ensemble dances and sings ably, and some numbers, like “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” powerfully led by Mr. Williams, and "Thugz Mansion," featuring Mr. Thompson, stay in your mind. But all the characters are stereotypes and there’s nothing that sharply differentiates them from others you’ve seen before on stage and screen.

Edward Pierce’s scenery is grim and dark, with minimal physical elements used to depict specific places. There are lots of sliding panels, brick walls, chain link fencing, and a suspended-in-air jail cell that doubles as John’s pad, but nothing is particularly imaginative. The most vivid image is of a vintage purple Cadillac that features late in the play and allows the cast to dance all over it while singing “California Love”; if you saw HANDS ON A HARDBODY two seasons ago, you’ll get the idea. The set proper is essentially neutral and much of the visual effect derives from the busy work of lighting designer Mike Baldassari, with the beams of multiple spotlights creating patterns of their own, aided by the projections of Zachary Borovay, which illustrate the sketches John is often drawing on his pad.

For some reason, the interior of the Palace Theatre, where the play is showing, has been reconstructed so as to provide risers that climb from the forestage to the balcony, hiding the actual orchestra seats below. This allows for a small staging area under the balcony (used for talkbacks and the like), which, if you’re seated on the new risers, you pass on the way to your seat. An usher told me this means there are at least 500 fewer seats available, but, with business reportedly being poor, it may not matter very much in the long run, which is something I doubt the show will have.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

35. Review of PAT KIRKWOOD IS ANGRY (June 25, 2014)


What? You don’t know who Pat Kirkwood was? Don’t worry. Neither did I until I saw this mildly engaging one-woman show about her, written and performed by British actress-singer Jessica Walker at 59E59’s tiny Theatre C. Just about this time last year, Ms. Walker performed her enlightening solo show THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND in the same venue. Like PAT KIRKWOOD IS ANGRY, it had been set up cabaret style with tiny tables and lamps facing a miniscule platform with barely enough room for Ms. Walker and her gifted accompanist/musical director, Joseph Atkins, who is once again at the piano. This blog responded positively to that show, which surveyed many of the old-time British music hall women, like Vesta Tilley, who performed in male drag. I wasn’t as enthused by Ms. Walker’s current effort, directed by Lee Blakely, although it’s only fair to acknowledge that other reviewers disagree.

Joseph Atkins, Jessica Walker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Pat Kirkwood (1921-2007) was an attractive actress-singer known for her work in music halls, theatre, cabaret, British pantomime, radio, films, and TV. She sang many of the familiar standards of the mid-century, was married four times and, while popular through the war years (as "Britain's first wartime star") and for years afterward, never rose to international stardom status. Her career had the usual ups and downs, but was most notable for an encounter in 1948 with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and husband of then Princess Elizabeth, eight months pregnant. The prince and Pat had dinner together after one of her shows at the London Hippodrome, and breakfast the following morning. The press was onto the story at once and blew it up into a major scandal, although Pat denied there having been anything involved other than conversation and laughs. Letters from the duke arrived many years later, although they didn't go as far as Pat would have liked in clearing the air. She claimed that the incident, such as it was, ruined her career, but, judging from her having continued to perform regularly for many years afterward, it’s hard to say with certainty that the story of the “prince and the showgirl” was the reason for her never reaching the level of, say, a Julie Andrews (who also figures in Kirkwood’s bio). We eventually learn that the effect of malicious gossip created by the incident is what made Kirkwood angry, although what comes through on stage seems more like crankiness to me.

Placards with specific years printed on them sit at Mr. Atkins’s left side; as the narrative progresses he slides them off to show which year we’re hearing about at any particular moment. He also changes hats to heighten the sense of changing periods; thus a civil defense helmet is worn when Kirkwood continues performing during an air raid. Kirkwood talks of her experiences in Hollywood; her various husbands; her British costars (many of them as unfamiliar to American audiences as her); her appearance in ACE OF CLUBS, a show Noel Coward wrote for her; the health issues induced by Hollywood’s insistence on pills to make her thinner; her mother’s Alzheimer’s; her displeasure at never being named a Dame of the British Empire when others she disparages were; her appearance in 1994 on England’s “This Is Your Life” TV show (an unpleasant experience, to hear her tell it); and her own decline into dementia and death. Some of this is interesting and affecting, as stories about the trials and tribulations of famous people in show business tend to be, but I found very little about it illuminating. Music is heard throughout, as almost all the narration is delivered to Mr. Atkins’s accompaniment; the effect is rather like typical cabaret patter but it does help keep the energy level up.

You can visit YouTube to see for yourself if Kirkwood, for all the hype, had what it would have taken to be a major star. TV clips and recorded songs show her to be a vivacious singer with lots of facial expression and personality but certainly not with anything remarkable about her vocally or physically, although she was alluring in the style of the day. The glamour photo on the cover of the show’s program is of Ms. Walker, in a wig, not of Kirkwood, although there are good pictures of Kirkwood inside the program.

Ms. Walker makes no effort at all to replicate Kirkwood’s look or voice. She wears a simple, sequined black dress, which stops slightly above the knee, black stockings, and heels. Later in the show, as Kirkwood ages, the heels are switched for flats, and a black tuxedo jacket is put on. Her red hair, unlike the period hairstyles seen in photos and clips of the brunette original, is cut stylishly short in a pixie. Ms. Walker’s voice has been described as mezzo-soprano, and seems comfortable in that range on only a few of the over 20 songs she sings (some of them abbreviated in medley fashion); it can sound strained when forced to sing music in a lower register. The songs, although related to her career, are often inserted at points where they can be performed with interpretations that underline moments in her life. This can lead to over-dramatization, as with “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” but can serve the material nicely, as when she sings “Begin the Beguine,” which is probably the show's standout moment. Cole Porter, she tells us, was a good friend and said she could sing any of his songs, anytime.

The song list includes standards most gray-haired theatergoers will know, such as “Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Guess Who I Saw Today,” and “For All We Know.” Though competently rendered, there’s nothing about the way they’re sung that makes them unique. Listen to the late Edie Gormé sing “Guess Who I Saw Today,” for example, and you may find Ms. Walker’s version merely passable. Among the less well-known numbers is “Love on a Greyhound Bus,” of which there’s a clip on YouTube from the movie in which Kirkwood sang it. Her styling is in the boogie-woogie vein of the 1940s, which perfectly nails this otherwise forgettable tune to its period and makes it live. Ms. Walker chooses to avoid the boogie-woogie style to help give its lyrics biographical relevance, and the song never fully recovers.

As I’ve noted, other reviewers enjoyed PAT KIRKWOOD IS ANGRY more than I, and the mostly middle-aged and older audience when I visited was having a great time. Still, I admit that as I walked to the subway, I was unable to keep the final song’s beautiful words and music from invading my heart: “For all we know, we may never meet again. Before you go, make this moment sweet again. . . . So love me tonight, tomorrow was made for some, Tomorrow may never come for all we know. It may not be Pat Kirkwood, Nat King Cole, or the Andrews Sisters, but it's good to know someone's still singing these songs.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

34. Review of THE OTHER MOZART (June 24, 2014)


If you wonder how a single dress can make up the entire set of a play, wonder no longer, since the answer can be found at the Here Arts Center, where THE OTHER MOZART is playing. The white dress, designed by Magdalena Dąbrowska and Miodrag Guberinic, based on a concept of Sylvia Milo and Anna Sroka, is spread out in a circle 18 feet in diameter across the stage’s black floor, with dozens of handwritten letters scattered all over it. At center is Ms. Milo, the Polish-born actress who wrote and stars in her own one-woman play, directed by Isaac Byrne, about the early life of Maria Anna (or Marianne) Mozart, nicknamed Nannerl, the older sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (The story is the subject of several novels and of a 2011 French film, MOZART’S SISTER, which title was used for an earlier showing of Ms. Milo's play.) Nannerl appears to have been as gifted a child musical prodigy as her sibling, but, because of contemporary mores, was forced upon reaching her maturity to abandon her musical career, marry, and raise children. “Leaning in” hadn’t been invented yet.
 Sylvia Milo. Photo: Charlotte Dobre.

Ms. Milo, speaking in ever-so-lightly accented English, wears her thick, light blonde hair teased up in a high nimbus that surrounds her delicately featured face, creating the impression of a period cameo. Since Courtney Bednarowski is credited with “hair/wig” design, I’ll assume that Ms. Milo’s natural hair has been supplemented; the effect is convincing and both attractive and unusual, although not as bizarre as Nannerl’s hair looks in paintings of her. Ms. Milo stands or sits at the center of the dress wearing mid-18th-century white undergarments, consisting of a bustier and close-fitting knee-length bloomers, but she gradually dons panniers, a skeletal structure worn under a dress to greatly extend the hip line at either side, in keeping with contemporary fashion. By the play’s conclusion, she has inserted herself into the dress and rises, apparently lifted on some hidden device that elevates her and slowly moves her upstage as the dress enfolds her, allowing her to strike a triumphant pose just before the lights go out. The moment is visually striking and provides a lovely coda to the actress-writer’s presentation, in which she gives a multifaceted performance, sometimes childishly playful or petulant, sometimes tongue in cheek, sometimes poignant, and sometimes angry. She also offers the voices of others, including Nannerl's brother, father, and mother.

The text of this hour and 20 minute piece is not particularly dramatic, taking us on a pared down journey through Nannerl’s life, but it has enough juicy tidbits and historic commentary to keep us interested all along the way. Much of it is derived from letters sent to Nannerl, those strewn about her dress (and, later, showered from above and from the wings). Nannerl was something of a phenomenon, performing as a child for citizens and royalty “the most difficult sonatas and concertos of the greatest composers on the harpsichord or pianoforte, with precision, with incredible lightness, with impeccable taste.” After citing these words commenting on her playing in 1763, when she was 11, she adds, regarding her brother: “Even before that little shit-eater was born, I was playing.”

Nannerl’s proto-feminist commentary, written in crisp, easily digestible, bite-size pieces, some of them quite funny, takes us into the Mozart family, with Papa overseeing the musical and intellectual development of his remarkable children, but with Nannerl getting less support and recognition from him than does Wolfi (she’s got “talent” but Wolfi has “genius”). She takes us along on their concert tours, and gives us her impressions of the people and sights they see, especially the way women elsewhere behave in comparison with those at home in stultifying Salzburg. Peppered throughout are comments on contemporary biases toward women, seen as physically and intellectually inferior to men.

When she becomes of marriageable age, she is left behind while Papa tours with Wolfi, since it would have been considered improper for her to be performing when she should have been at home caring for a husband and family. She says she “screamed, retched and vomited,” but Mamma told her that henceforth music would be her “ornament,” a lure to capture a spouse. She tosses off excited sentences from Papa and Wolfi’s letters about the things they’re doing and seeing, but declares, touchingly, that her own letters were not saved because “There was nothing interesting in them.” She composes her own music, which Wolfi praises but Papa ignores, and remembers one of his friends comparing a woman composing to “a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but one is surprised to find it done at all!”

Nannerl’s performing days decline, but she keeps practicing nonetheless, playing at home in Salzburg with her brother when his career stagnates and he's forced to return home. When offers appear again, he leaves, this time with Mamma, while Papa stays behind and learns to appreciate Nannerl’s abilities, all the while hoping Wolfi will find a permanent appointment that will allow the family to leave Salzburg. Mamma dies while touring with Wolfi, and Papa is devastated; whatever his belief in her talents, he realizes that if he were to die she’d be lost. Nannerl and Papa meet Wolfi’s bride, Constanze Weber, who comes to Salzburg, and Nannerl offers her comical impressions of this shallow new family member and of the cloyingly silly way Wolfi and Constanze express their affection.   

Wolfi falls ever deeper into debt, begs Nannerl and Papa to come to Vienna, and, finally, Nannerl, at 33, weds a twice-widowed baron, who already has five children, and lives in an isolated village. Life becomes a bore. Wolfi finds success, Papa dies, and Wolfi dies. Nannerl has three children with the baron before he, too, dies. Nannerl, now financially secure, returns to Salzburg, giving music lessons and handling the many requests for her brother’s work. She tells us what it says on her gravestone, “Marianna Anna von Berthold zu Sonnenburg. The Sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” And then, she rises and seemingly floats away.

Ms. Milo’s performance is nicely complemented by the original music of Nathan Davis and Phyllis Chen, which uses instruments such as Nannerl would have played and successfully blends its modern sounds with recorded music by Marianna Martines (Mozart’s contemporary), Leopold Mozart (Mozart’s father), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart himself. Joshua Rose’s lighting design of constantly shifting hues and brightness levels adds immeasurably to the experience. But it's mostly Ms. Milo's presence, and her charming depiction of someone whose music was criminally overlooked, that makes this play worth a visit, regardless of what you know or think of the other Mozart.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

33. Review of DONOGOO (June 21, 2014)


As a playwright, Jules Romains remains best known for his 1923 comedy DR. KNOCK, directed by and starring Louis Jouvet, one of France’s greatest modern theatre artists. It was frequently revived by Jouvet, who also starred in the famous 1951 movie version. The Mint theatre offered its own revival in 2010. Less well known abroad is Romains’s DONOGOO, a dramatic adaptation of his 1920 novel, DONOGOO, OR THE MYSTERIES OF SCIENCE. When the technologically advanced Théâtre Pigalle opened in Paris in 1929 it proved the perfect venue for the staging in 1930 of Romains's adaptation of his novel, the play being a complex, 23-"tableaux" satire with scenes set over a wide expanse of the globe, although mainly in Paris and Brazil.
From left: Jay Patterson, George Morfogen, James Riordan, Mitch Greenberg. Photo: Richard Termine.

Judging from extant photos, the production combined highly cartoonish sets with more realistic ones (including an impressive-looking train). It also employed a rather sizable company. Thus for the tiny Mint Theatre, devoted to unearthing forgotten theatrical treasures with limited financial resources, to attempt DONOGOO would seem a foolhardy adventure. Nonetheless, the Mint’s designers, Roger Hanna and Price Johnston (who also did the lights), have managed to pull the job off by an extremely clever use of sliding floor sections for moving people and furniture on and off combined with an exceptional projection design that allows for vividly colored and highly detailed painterly backgrounds that come into view via sweeping movements across the two side walls, built in forced perspective so that they join in a corner up center. A ceiling assists greatly in tying the projections together. Doors that slide open and shut do so without breaking the illusion, since the projections on them move off or on with them. The projections are both still and moving, and even allow for funny effects, such as when the contents of a seasick boat passenger’s stomach seem to fly out of his mouth into the sea. The overall scenic impression looks far more unified than that of the 1930 show, and is the revival’s big takeaway. The problem of casting is handled efficiently by a cast of 13 (itself almost too large for the Mint’s stage) playing 52 roles, although the substantial crowd scenes in the original have been sacrificed in the process. Sam Fleming’s numerous costumes are often amusing and helpfully character defining.

DONOGOO, directed and translated by Gus Kaikkonen, is an interesting piece to meet for the first time, but rather limited in popular appeal and not necessarily worthy of revival (its only previous New York showing was directed by Adrian Hall at the Greenwich Mews in 1961). Its scenic realization apart, moreover, this production is not the one it requires to bring out its theatrical qualities. The play is reminiscent of the as yet to be born Theatre of the Absurd, and its characters and situations veer from the clownishly silly to the fairly realistic, keeping you off guard in what, if well done, just might be a charming theatricalist entertainment; its mildly thoughtful arrows aim at a host of still relevant issues, such as colonialism, patriotism, stock speculation, exploitation of a native people, psychoanalysis, scientific truth and error, and so on, including, near the end, sex in politics. Still, these targets are all over the place and Romains's play, which may have seemed radical in 1930, doesn't actually say anything about them we haven't heard before.
James Riordan, George Morfogen, Vladimir Versailles. Photo: Richard Termine.

The odd title is taken from a location in Brazil supposedly discovered by the renowned geologist Yves Le Trouhadec. Lamendin (James Riordan), a failed architect and artist, learns about this after a friend, Benin (Mitch Greenberg), stops him from jumping to his death off a bridge and sends him to famous shrink Dr. Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen), an apparent quack who uses “biometric psychotherapy” to analyze people. He straps his patients in an electric chair-like contraption connected to a machine he’s invented that examines all one’s thoughts. This allows the analyst, using his extraordinary mathematical skills, to determine the solution to their problems.
Lamendin is told by the analyst to wait at a particular time and place for someone to blow his nose. Finally, the nose-blower turns out to be Trouhadec (Mr. Morfogen), the geologist, to whom Lamendin, as part of his cure, attaches himself with slave-like devotion. Trouhadec is desperate to be voted into the Academy of Sciences within the next six months and would be a shoo-in because of his massive publication on Brazil but for the fact that the tome mistakenly discusses Donogoo-Tonka, an El Dorado type place that doesn’t actually exist.
From left: Dave Quay, Brian Thomas Vaughan, Scott Thomas, Jay Patterson. Photo: Richard Termine.

To demonstrate his devotion and help Le Trouhadec be elected, Lamedin sets out to create a real Donogoo-Tonka, joining up with a banker (Ross Bickell) who sees the possibilities of making a killing by defrauding the public by raising $75 million on a land development scheme in Brazil. When the word gets out, world-wide speculation springs up, and people not only buy the company’s stock but begin to venture to Donogoo in search of it; locals exploit the financial possibilities raised by the influx of foreigners, while the foreigners arrive in search of the gold that’s supposed to be there for the taking (it’s not). When no actual Donogoo materializes, the intrepid explorers find a suitable spot and build it from scratch. Lamedin himself ultimately arrives in the role of governor general, with discontent brewing both about his presence and about the belief by the town’s founders that they've been exploited for the company’s profit. Lamendin immediately assumes his position with a show of colonialist power-grabbing assurance, while promising to pay the workers well. He thereby puts into practice the way he sees his position: “I am a middle road between an old-fashioned patriarchal regime and a modern dictator.”

DONOGOO’s two acts run two hours and 20 minutes; with its numerous scenes (whose shifts are speedily expedited by the projection concept) and talkativeness, the piece, never very funny to begin with, eventually runs out of gas, and no amount of scenic cleverness can do anything about it. Still, there are some satirically enjoyable rewards sprinkled through the text, including a final scene between Lamedin and Benin, in which Lamedin, the would-be suicide who becomes a colonialist ruler, is a suitably comic representative of the abuses of power.
Staging a broadly drawn satire like this, with its many fantastical features mixed with everyday ones, requires finding just the right style, one that requires a proper blend of believability, farcical exaggeration, and even a touch of the grotesque. Mr. Kaikkonen’s staging has only scattered moments of heightened theatricality and too many of straightforward dramatic acting, which deflates the humorous aura of otherworldliness and brings everything down to earth. Mr. Morfogen comes close to capturing the proper off-kilter tone, but few of the other actors, including such veterans as Jay Patterson and Ross Bickell, do much to provide anything distinctive. The most serious problem is James Riordan’s Lamedin, played stolidly and without charm or comic élan. To be honest, I can’t think of many American actors who might succeed in the part, which even Nathan Lane might find impossible.     
From left: Jay Patterson, Megan Robinson, Mitch Greenberg, Paul Pontrelli. Photo: Richard Termine.

Perhaps someone else will tackle this play someday. But until the right actors can be assembled for it, combined with the right seriocomic tone and acting style, I’d put DONOGOO back on the shelf.

Note: The Mint Theatre does not provide assisted listening devices.

Monday, June 23, 2014

32. THE ZOMBIES: A MUSICAL (June 17, 2014)


The zombies begging for handouts on 42nd Street appear to have taken up residence at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (in the Playwrights Horizons building) to appear in their very own show, THE ZOMBIES: A MUSICAL. A character identified in the program as George, the One Armed Zombie (Philip Akogu), actually has a hand out, his gangrenous left one that is, which he wields in his other one, while he and his fellow living corpses perform Tricia Brouk’s cleverly cadaverous choreography (the show's standout element) to music that fails to sink its rotting teeth into your flesh. 
From left: Sam Givens, Christina Pagan, Philip Akogu, Tamrin Goldberg, Tova Katz. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Max Resto, who wrote the score, the lyrics, and book, while also conceiving (what must that have been like?) and directing, might be called a multiple-threat talent but I'm afraid the emphasis falls on threat. For much of this two-act horror show (take that as you will), a campy pastiche of tropes from pop culture's zombie lore (like the films of George Romero), you will fear not so much for the lives of the imperiled characters but for the state of your own patience; the young lady accompanying me ran screaming into the night after act one. The show claims it runs two hours, but it ran at least 10 minutes over that the night I saw it. That's when I started to have sympathy for the undead.
Although the cast performs with enthusiasm and spirit, and several have real ability coursing through their desiccated veins, a fatal pall of amateurishness enshrouds much of THE ZOMBIES, whose tackiness is underlined by a program credits page listing not a single visual designer. Sound designer and co-composer David J. Rios gets a credit, but you have to search the Production Team list at the back of the program to find a lighting designer (Dan Jobbins) and costume designer (Annette Westerby). Neither gets a program bio, although the “projectionist,” Chris J. Noon, does. The show makes extensive use of projections, but no one is specifically credited as their designer, and the Production Team credits only hint at who this might be. Someone designed the scenery, but it’s so unattractive I wouldn’t be surprised if the one-armed zombie was responsible. The scene shifts, which should be instantaneous, are done in ZPT (figure it out). I have one more cavil about the credits, but I’ll get to it later.

Thomas Poarch, Rich Hollman, Alex Daly. Photo: Hunter Canning.

As for the zombies, we have Will, the Butt Naked Zombie (a comically elastic Sam Given), Kim, the Gluttonous Zombie (Tamrin Goldberg), Tina, the Angry Zombie (Tova Katz), and Ellen, the Silly Zombie (Christian Pagán), in addition to our one-armed buddy, George, who is one of the standout players. Makeup artist Michelle Buongiovanni has done a good job of making the zombies look just like all the ones you see on TV and in the movies, but you can see the same effects every Halloween. I’ll give the zombies credit, however, for being brave enough to insert pale blue-green contacts into their eyes to heighten the effect. There’s nothing new either in the lurching, sideways-stepping, shoulders-hunched-forward, arms-dangling walk the zombies affect. On the other hand (not George’s, of course), Ms. Brouk’s choreography, which injects lots of campy life into the decomposing proceedings, transforms the walking dead into the dancing dead, including a funny kickline they should call the Zombettes.
Philip Akogu, Tova Katz, Sam Givens, Russell Kohlmann, Emily Hope Holland. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Quirky Off Broadway musicals like this appear annually, like last year’s THE CHOCOLATE SHOW and BAYSIDE: THE MUSICAL, among others, with tongues stuck against cheeks so hard they’re practically poking through; such seems to be the case here, but the point of view is so muddled it’s hard to see what’s being satirized (yes, racism, gun control, etc., are touched on, but to no significant effect). Zombies are on the loose in Hill Valley, infecting anyone they bite (unless, of course, they eat them first). One subplot concerns Bruce (Thomas Poarch), a middle-aged redneck, and his two sons, Little Pete (Alex Parrish), a 13-year-old nerd, and Pete’s closeted gay, but aggressively macho, older brother, Junior (Alex Daly), who looks like a young Val Kilmer and displays his buff torso in a sleeveless mesh shirt. They and Bruce’s redder-than-redneck friend, Otis (Peter Hollman, who does a decent job), the beer guzzling owner of a gun shop, go off to shoot as many zombies as they can, popping them off like ducks in a shooting gallery. Ultimately, dad and sons learn to love and respect one another, despite their differences.
Another subplot concerns the not-yet infected denizens of a Mexican burger joint run by the devout Pedro (Luis Galli), who thinks the biblical Tribulation is coming. Other locals include an overweight, philosophically inclined, 68-year-old, black woman, Odessa (Tammi Cubilette), who rejects Pedro’s piety (claiming hell would be more fun than heaven); given the only thing like words of wisdom in the play, she injects a modicum of sass into the deathly atmosphere. Then there’s Basil (Russel Kohlmann), a local pothead and judge’s son, in a Rastafarian wool cap, who becomes the unlikely male romantic lead, and who soon has everyone toking on weed. Chloe (Emily Hope Holland) is a Goth waitress who hooks up with Basil. Whoever these stereotypes are, all eventually become zombie meat. Hey, a zombie’s gotta eat, right? Still, with so much cheesiness on display, might I suggest a switch to dairy?

Mr. Resto--director, composer, librettist, lyricist--exemplifies the phrase, jack of all trades, master of none. The blues-inflected “The Zombie Shuffle” isn't bad, although it has a familiar ring, but it's the only one of 15 songs that comes close to having a pulse. The writing is mostly six feet under, as in: “It’s a mess of a day when they want to bite into you and munch on your ass.” The zombies dance well enough, including a number using ribbons for entrails, and sometimes climb over audience seats (most were empty anyway), but their singing and that of the regular characters—apart from the promising Ms. Holland—shows why croaking and dying are synonymous.

During all the scenes in Pedro’s Café, a video projection standing in for the place’s rear wall shows a large cockroach moving from one place to another, even though a line in the script notes how “neat and clean” the joint is (Pedro is incessantly sweeping, if that’s what listlessly moving a broom is called). The roach’s image is on a loop, so it keeps repeating over and over. Before long, you begin to wait for it, neglecting what’s happening in the show proper. My question: shouldn’t there be a program credit for the roach?  

Note: Although the performance is miked, assisted listening devices are available.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

31. Review of HONOR BOUND (June 20, 2014)



At the heart of HONOR BOUND, an earnest yet awkwardly constructed, talky, and often implausible play by Albert J. Repicci, is the tale of a deep friendship shattered by decisions made during the Viet Nam War regarding whether or not to evade the draft. The story of draft evasion may no longer be very fresh or, in our current draft-free society, seem particularly relevant, but it does bear historical import, forcing us to remember how sharply the war divided the nation. The story is encased in a more universal body that examines the lengths to which a journalist will go to pursue a story for purely personal reasons. Mr. Repicci’s play, however, muddles both the heart and body by an overly episodic structure that bloats the narrative with digressive material, and that too frequently lapses into cliché, contrivance, and clumsiness.
Christine Marie Heath, Ross Degraw, Anthony Laciura. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

For one thing, the tiny stage at St. Luke’s Theatre, which currently houses multiple shows that each receive a few performances a week (HONOR BOUND plays only on Fridays), is simply inadequate to the demands of a two-act, two-hour play requiring at least five locales that appear in 14 scenes. The stage crew is kept inordinately busy shifting Josh Iacovelli’s rolling walls to create a newspaper office in Glenville, Connecticut, an upscale home, a suburban park, a bar, and a Greenwich Village hospice; this is not to mention a scene in a car and one in the street outside the hospice that forces the actors to stand below the stage in front of the first row. In a couple of scenes, the walls and furnishings from a previous scene remain in place while a new one has to rely on a fuzzy projection squeezed into a narrow upstage space. The excessive shifts are handled efficiently enough, but the overall effect is unavoidably chintzy. A more abstract, neutral setting, supplemented by projections, like the one now being used for DONOGOO at the Mint, would have done the job much better.
Ross Degraw, Justin R.G. Holcomb. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

A competent but unexceptionable cast does its best to bring conviction to a plot set in 1992 (with flashbacks to 1968) and driven by Lisa Miller (Nicole M. Carroll), an ambitious young Columbia University journalism student doing an internship at a suburban newspaper, the Glenville Tribune. Her editor is Peter Brooks (Justin R.G. Holland), grizzled, middle-aged, and fond of the bottle. Lisa wants more than anything to make her mark by investigative reporting that will, perhaps, uncover a scandal and bring down someone in power. Peter insists, however, that she do a Memorial Day story, hopefully finding a new angle that will make it worthwhile reading. Coincidence, that useful tool of melodramatists, almost immediately enters the scene when Lisa, playing softball, chases a ball and thereby meets Jack Conti (Ross DeGraw), enjoying the day with his accountant and confidant, the Yiddish-accented Irwin Berger (Anthony Laciura). (Mr. Laciura plays the German-accented Eddie Kessler on “Boardwalk Empire.”) Jack, we will learn, was once Peter’s closest friend, having grown up with him near Niagara Falls, where, as boys, they were considered a sensational infield combination at shortstop and second base. Baseball offers a leitmotif to the play’s atmosphere.

Even though they've just met her in the park, Jack and his wife, Kay (Christine Marie Heath), invite Lisa to their home for dinner, where we not only learn that Jack retired early from a successful practice as a doctor, but that Kay is a former concert pianist of world renown. While Jack reads an article that Lisa wrote on a discussion of morality, the action stops as Kay offers an extended performance of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Jack can’t help being annoyed by what he terms Lisa’s journalistic use of euphemisms in her article, and an argument erupts that so infuriates Lisa she determines to use her reporting to get revenge on him. Based on the examples Jack cites, the argument seems blown way out of proportion, but after an hour of often digressive talk (like a story about a musically gifted Nepalese child with polio, or a conversation about Irwin and Lisa’s personal passions) and exposition that take forever to get somewhere, it helps to pry one’s eyes open a bit.

As the play trudges along under Mr. Iacovelli's direction, Lisa makes many phone calls trying to get some background on Jack, using Peter’s office telephone, which has a speaker system that conveniently allows her callers to be heard by the audience. Rather than dial anyone’s number, she simply asks an instantly available operator to get her whoever it is she’s calling, and, faster than the as yet unavailable Internet, the other party’s on the phone. Eventually, she inadvertently discovers that Jack was once in serious trouble as someone who ran off to Canada (working on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls) to evade the draft and was arrested on his return, and she gloats at the possibility of exposing him. But Peter, who in yet one more of the play’s unconvincing coincidences, finds out what Lisa knows, confronts her, and—through flashbacks showing the “young Jack” and the “young Peter” at the falls (seen in a video projection)—tells her the truth behind the story, admonishing her: “We don’t need more vindictive reporters in the newsroom.” To this she can only respond, in the timeworn way of all suddenly contrite characters faced with the consequences of good intentions gone awry, “What have I done?” But this isn’t enough for Mr. Repicci, who feels it necessary to add a scene in which Peter, out of the blue, confesses to Kay his having harbored doubts about his sexuality. More egregiously, in a totally unexpected and hard to swallow revelation, the playwright introduces the way Jack’s secretly been seeking redemption for his supposed sins.   

As Lisa, Ms. Carroll gabbles too quickly in a high-pitched monotone and brings very little color to a role latent with potential dramatic interest. Mr. Laciura is more effective as the play’s comic relief, while Ms. Heath as Kay is capable and attractive but passionless. Mr. Degraw, a burly actor with a blue-collar quality reminiscent of Ed O’Neill on “Modern Family,” seems an odd choice for the intellectually inclined physician, but he and Mr. Holcomb, as Peter, do bring some reality to their not notably well-written characters.

HONOR BOUND has subject matter some will find compelling regardless of whatever infelicities the writing may contain. However, being honor bound to express my true feelings, I can only say that a play is more than what it’s about; it’s how that subject has been realized in theatrical terms. This one could stand judicious cutting and revision, but for now it is what it is and, like the former draft, its problems can’t easily be evaded.   

Note: St. Luke’s does not provide assisted listening devices.

Friday, June 20, 2014

30. Review of WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID (June 19, 2014)


Twenty-year-old Morgan Saylor, who plays Nicholas Brody’s daughter, Dana, on TV’s “Homeland,” is making a smashing Off Broadway debut in Sarah Treem’s mildly provocative, often enjoyable, but rather uneven new play, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID. The production, given at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center venue, offers several outstanding performances, particularly from Cherry Jones and Zoe Kazan, and is smartly directed by Pam McKinnon, but good acting and direction can’t prevent Ms. Treem’s play, which deals with feminist issues, from either its soap opera or soap box tendencies.

Zoe Kazan, Morgan Saylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It’s 1972, a year before Roe vs. Wade became law. Agnes (Ms. Jones) is a determined, middle-aged, single woman; she’s a former nurse whose license was revoked because she performed abortions. Agnes runs a bed and breakfast on an island off the coast of Seattle, where she also harbors at least two or three battered women each year. Her main help is the studious16-year-old Penny (Ms. Saylor), presumably her daughter, although Penny calls Agnes by her given name. Agnes wants Penny—who has her eyes on Yale—to date a nerdy classmate Penny calls a “blowhard”; Tommy, the football team captain Penny longs to have take her to the prom (which she initially rejects as being too “bourgeois”), ignores her. A young woman, Mary Anne (Ms. Kazan), arrives, her face badly bruised, and Agnes and Penny begin their usual, secretive procedure of welcoming, hiding, and caring for the woman; as always in such cases, there’s a chance her spouse may be following her, bringing danger in his path. Mary Anne is instructed to stay isolated in her room, and not to let any of the regular guests see her. Soon, Mary Anne bonds with Penny and, despite her own miserable experience with her husband (whom, foolishly, she can’t help calling), advises the strangely eager Penny—up to now a budding feminist—on how to land Tommy, teaching her the maneuvers that lead to a contrived development jarring with everything we’ve thus far learned about Penny; they would also set a radical feminist’s hair on fire.
Cherry Jones, Cherise Boothe. Photo: Joan Marcus.

We actually get to meet such a feminist in the person of Hannah (Cherise Boothe), a turbulent, college-educated black woman with an Angela Davis afro spouting the ideas of “political lesbian” Ti-Grace Atkinson. Hannah’s seeking the Gorgons, a group who’ve set up a cult-like lesbian commune nearby from which men are excluded. The commune is called Womynland, thus eliminating the contamination of “man” from its name. There is a man in the play, however, and it’s Paul (Patch Darragh), a songwriter taking a break from his strained marriage in hopes of being able to write songs here on the island.
Morgan Saylor, Zoe Kazan, Patch Darragh, Cherry Jones. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Once these parts are in place the situations that arise, which seem more like set pieces than organic developments, set one character’s view of women’s place in the world, and how they should behave vis à vis the opposite sex, against another. (Men, those evil patriarchs, do not fare very well in this atmosphere, and Paul’s ambivalence doesn’t do much for men, one way or the other.) Each woman will become, if not a mouthpiece, then a representation of some aspect of early 1970s feminism during those days when, as the song said, something was happening out there.

The presence of Paul, who intrudes on the part of the house that Agnes considers her private space, will lead to largely foreseeable romantic and sexual consequences, while further complications will emerge from Hannah’s radical agenda. By the end of the play, all the relationships will have gone through several permutations, and Agnes will discover a part of herself she either didn’t know existed or that she kept hidden for fear of dealing with it.

All of this happens in a very realistic b&b kitchen-dining area, well designed by Scott Pask and nicely lit by Russell H. Champa, where Agnes seems always to be making muffins, cookies, or the like; there’s a sliding door at stage right leading to the rest of the house, a door upstage, a staircase next to it, and a sink with a window over it through which Hannah at one point enters and by which, needlessly, she tries to leave. Jessica Pabst’s costumes seem true to the period, and the girlish, but not especially appealing, dresses Penny dons in an attempt to follow Mary Anne’s advice, add an effective touch.

Ms. Jones, using the same rich Southern accent she recently employed in THE GLASS MENAGERIE (Agnes seems to come from Tennessee, like Ms. Jones), is, as ever, a formidable stage presence, fighting to protect her battered women, but fiercely demanding it be on her terms, just as she does when struggling to fill her maternal role with the newly rebellious Penny. Zoe Kazan shows many sides to Mary Anne, from frightened abused wife to too-smart-for-own-good adviser to Penny. As Penny, Ms. Saylor is every inch the anxious, insecure, and defiant teenager, not unlike the role she plays on “Homeland.” Now that she’s proved she can handle such roles, I look forward to seeing her in something completely different next time. Ms. Boothe and Mr. Darragh fill out the excellent ensemble by making something watchable of their unconvincing roles.

Sarah Treem’s credits include TV’s “In Treatment,” “How to Make it in America,” both of which I like very much, and “House of Cards,” which I still haven’t seen. She can certainly write, but WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID doesn't rank with her finest work.  

Note: City Center Stage 1 provides assisted listening devices to those who need them.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

29. Review of WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER (June 18, 2014)


J. Mallory McCree, Maurice Williams. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

As its title, WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER, suggests, climate change is one of this play’s chief themes. The play itself, however, is subject to its own sudden shifts in temperature, from hot to cold, or warm to cool; like the weather, it can be disconcerting. Cori Thomas’s play, which won the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award of the American Theatre Critics Association in 2011, was first produced at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, but had its first reading in 2007 at the Momentum Festival, so it’s been kicking around for the better part of a decade before receiving its New York premiere at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, coproduced by Page 73. Set in Central Harlem and mingling a dramatis personae of African-American and East Indian immigrants in what is essentially a romantic comedy, it can veer from delightfully appealing to frustratingly implausible, and then to something else; it's not unlike one of its own scenes, when a January day shifts from warm and sunny to a sudden downpour that is itself replaced by snow. 
 Mahira Kakkar, Debargo Sanyal. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER, which has scenes set in a subway car, a convenience store run by East Indian immigrants, a hospital room, and an apartment, ties together a small but strikingly disparate group of local characters. Devaun (Maurice Williams) is an uneducated, malaprop-spouting, self-styled lover boy. Jeron (J. Mallory McCree) is Devaun’s only slightly better educated (he knows how to spell) best friend, but he’s less sure of himself with “wimmens.” Nirmala (Mahira Kakkar) is an unhappy Indian woman whose husband, Prasad, has been in a coma after being shot three years ago; she resists pulling the plug on him even though he neglected her sexually (she’s still a virgin) and his death could net her an insurance bonanza. She lives with her brother, Ishan (Debargo Sanyal), a former accountant, who prefers being called Indira because he’s undergoing sex change procedures, and wants the sharply resistant Nirmala to end Prasad’s life so he can use some of the money to have a gender reassignment operation. He’s also looking to open his own matchmaking business. Finally, there’s Joe (Dion Graham), a friendly, divorced (from a drug addict) African-American sanitation worker attracted to Nirmala. Joe becomes reluctant fodder for Indira’s matchmaking project.

The plot involves the trash-talking Jeron and Devaun becoming would-be activists on behalf of recycling as a way to prevent global warming, which they understand in only the most subterranean of ways but about which they’re nevertheless sincere. They also begin a personal campaign to report the potential danger of an acquaintance who put his hand on the homophobic Devaun’s shoulder when he was reaching for a Pepsi in a bodega’s refrigerator. Although the young men’s efforts to warn the community about the danger represented by this “predictor” (Devaun’s substitution for “predator”) are based on behavior toward Devaun that seems harmless enough, it turns out that the man is a real threat, which, incongruously enough, makes the boys New York heroes, although Jeron considers making money out of the free Metrocards he’ll be getting as a reward.

Debargo Sanyal, Maurice Williams. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

Meanwhile, we watch the gradual transformation of Ishan into Indira as he begins to wear makeup, a flowing black wig, and feminine clothes, with the bulge at his chest produced by hormone treatments. In the most outlandish development, even though it’s the play’s big takeaway, Devaun falls for the smart, sassy, and considerably older Indira (she’s 28, Devaun is 20), who tries her best to ward him off. Her need for love, however, is too great to overcome his persuasive wooing and, when the moment for a sexual encounter finally arrives, Indira, who still has her original package, comes up with a remarkable story to explain what Devaun is going to find. Devaun, being the ignorant and gullible homeboy he is, buys her incredible explanation. Nirmala and Joe, the play’s two most believable characters, discard the garbage in their lives as they find happiness over a banana split. Smiling over everything is a tiny statue of the Indian elephant-boy god, Ganesh.

Ms. Thomas lards her dialogue with amusing and often poignantly honest lines. She has a good handle on the language-mangling remarks of Devaun and Jeron, although some may find they come a bit too close to sounding like an Amos ‘n Andy routine. Devaun and Jeron are sometimes depicted as dumb and dumber, at other times with more intelligence than you’d expect. Jeron imagines he’ll one day be a video game designer and shows an ease with smart phones that totally evades his buddy; however, when he’s urged to call a girl he’s interested in the first question he asks her is so off the wall you’d think he was 10 years old. Most implausible is Devaun’s inability to see that Indira is a guy; however femme the actor playing Indira may appear, there’s no mistaking his true gender, and the relationship is something we’re simply forced to buy. But when Devaun accepts Indira’s story about the unusual appendage he’s about to find in her nether regions, all plausibility flies out the window, and we’re relieved to return to the story of Joe and Nirmala, who, by comparison, seem the very model of normality.
Dion Graham, Mahira Kakkar, Maurice Williams, Debargo Sanyal. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

A sit-com aura floats above WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER. Ms. Thomas also hasn’t found a way to make her exposition seem fully organic; it’s often forced, with people blurting out things for the sake of getting the information out there. A long monologue spoken by Nirmala to her comatose husband (not seen) in the hospital is the most egregious of such moments, but there are others as well, such as Indira’s revelations about her gender switching plans to Joe, early in the play.

The cast, under Daniella Topol’s firm direction (apart from the sluggish final scenes), keeps things lively in Jason Simm’s flexible set of graffiti covered brick walls that serve as a suitable background for multiple locales. Sydney Maresca’s costumes perfectly capture each of the characters, beginning with excellent choices for Mr. Sanyal’s transgender clothing and extending to Mr. Williams’s low-riding jeans exposing an expanse of green boxer shorts. Austin R. Smith’s lighting and Shane Rettig’s sound design complete the high quality technical components.

Mr. McCree and Mr. Williams offer convincing portrayals of brash, underprivileged, undereducated Harlem youth. Mr. Graham and Ms. Kakkar give the production a grounding in simple realism with their sincere and truthful characterizations, but Mr. Sanyal, in the play’s most challenging role, has a tendency to overplay a bit too much, with sarcastic facial expressions and vocal inflections that bring attention to him as a performer more than as a person. Still, there aren’t many actors who could pull off this kind of role convincingly, and the actor must be awarded kudos for getting as close as he does.

A full house gave the show a warm response when it ended, after a too-long, two hour and 10 minutes. My own response was somewhat cooler, more like when summer feels like January (March, actually). 

Note: The Ensemble Studio Theatre doesn't provide assisted listening devices.