Tuesday, November 29, 2016

108. Review: NOT THAT JEWISH (seen November 28, 2016)

“She Ain’t Chopped Liver”

Stars range from 5-1.
When I go to a show called Not That Jewish I expect to laugh a lot, which, in fact, I did at this engaging one-woman show by and starring Monica Piper. What I didn’t expect, though, was to find my heartstrings being plucked so tenderly that even the Zyrtec I swallowed that morning couldn’t keep my eyes and nose dry.
Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Piper’s show, which premiered in Santa Monica in 2014, is like an extended standup routine. This is only natural considering that she first made her mark doing standup. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of Billy Crystal’s great 700 Sundays, although not as great. Now in her mid-60s, she’s a trim, rubber-faced performer who delivers a mostly very funny, 90-minute account of her life growing up in the Bronx as the daughter of David Poss, a comedian whose show biz name was Roy Davis. In his act, called “vocal pantomime,” which Piper briefly demonstrates, he added physical comedy to the lip-synching of popular songs.
Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
His influence on Piper, who changed her own name from May Lee Davis to Monica Piper when she saw the sign for the Santa Monica Pier, is evident in her every move and facial expression, in which my companion also saw the shadow of Robin Williams. Replete with all the gestural and facial shtick of a Borscht Belt tummler, Piper barrels through her life story growing up in her “Jewish but not very religious” household, and hearing from a childhood neighbor, Carol Bengelsdorf, that she “wasn’t that Jewish” because she didn’t attend Rosh Hashanah services.
Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
She introduces her parents and closest relatives (changing her voice and manner for each), then takes us on a highlights tour of her life, including her two failed marriages to WASPS; her burgeoning career as a comedienne; her Emmy-winning (cue the statuette) stint as the head writer on “The Rugrats”; an encounter with her childhood idol, Mickey Mantle, who tried to hit on her; her mother’s Alzheimer’s; her dad’s passing; and, among other things, the results of a mammogram.
Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Most extensively, she recounts her adoption, in her early 40s, of a little boy, Jake, from a pregnant, 19-year-old, Christian woman from Tennessee, and of the moving aftermath of that experience when the boy grows up (and out of his green Mohawk hairdo) and reaches out to his birth mother. When Piper reads a letter from the Southern-accented woman, you’ll be reaching for your hankie. Schmaltzy? Of course. Effective? I’m writing about it, ain’t I?
Monica Piper. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Through it all, she finds the laughter beneath life’s ups and downs. Many of the jokes are Jewish-inflected and familiar to anyone who’s seen, let’s say, Jackie Mason’s routines. Every now and then, a word—deeds, acceptance, humor, compassion—floats by to spur the next sequence in the show. Despite its theme, the play is for everyone who has a Jewish heart, much as those old Levy’s Jewish rye bread ads used to imply; still, folks who laugh at Yiddishisms will soak up just a bit more of its ethnic gravy than everyone else.
The show, at New World Stages, is performed on a set designed by Michael Carnahan (effectively lit by Julie Duro) that scatters several pieces of furniture across a living room rug. Upstage is a backdrop of irregularly sized, frame-like spaces on which various images designed by Zachary Borovay, many of photos from Piper’s life, are projected. The stage is too wide for so intimate a show, but director Mark Waldrop does his best to create visual interest by keeping Piper moving.  

 So go. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You may even feel that Jewish.

New World Stages
340 W. 50th Street, NYC
Through April 30, 2017

Thursday, November 24, 2016

107. Review: NOTES FROM THE FIELD (seen November 23, 2016)

“Field of Dreams Deferred”

Stars range from 5-1.
The dazzling Anna Deavere Smith is back on a New York stage in Notes from the Field, an often searingly pertinent inquiry into American racial problems, now Off Broadway at Second Stage. Onstage, accompanying her, is the marvelous composer/bassist, Marcus Shelby, but this powerful docudrama is essentially a one-person play. Shelby now and then quietly responds to something Smith says (I wish he didn’t) but for two hours and ten minutes, broken with a 15-minute intermission, she’s what you focus on. 
Marcus Shelby, Anna Deveare Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Her job: assuming the personalities, emotions, and speech patterns of 17 people, men, women, kids, and adults, each one sharply different from the other. So vividly does she bring them to life that, in a sense, Shelby’s accompanying a 17-person play.
Anna Deveare Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Although Smith’s best-known previous works in this vein, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994), were about race, she’s also created shows on other national issues. In the timely Notes from the Field, however, which premiered at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater in August, minority oppression is again her target, especially problems related to education, incarceration, and police brutality among black Americans, but also touching concerns of Native Americans.

As usual, all the dialogue is based on taped interviews and conversations Smith had with the people she’s representing. And, though only the voice of the interviewee is heard in each scene, the effect can be quietly devastating. Smith lets her people speak without interjecting her own perspective, which becomes clear enough in the accumulation of evidence these witnesses bring to the table.

As meticulously directed by Leonard Foglia, Smith performs on a neutral set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, using only a few select props (a chair, a couch). Behind her is a series of vertical panels that can be raised and lowered or, like blinds, their angles changed. On them are projected videos (by Elaine McCarthy), many showing charged incidents that went viral after being recorded on smart phones, such as the Freddie Gray arrest, the forcible removal of a girl from her classroom, and the mistreatment by a cop of a teenage girl in a bathing suit. Printed projections provide important information, including each speaker's identification. 

Howard Binkley’s lighting and Leon Rothenberg’s sound design contribute mightily, as do the simple costume elements selected by Ann Hould-Ward to provide just enough differentiation to set one person apart from the other. Smith never alters her hair style; sometimes she wears shoes or boots, other times she's barefoot.
Anna Deveare Smith. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Following a prologue spoken in the person of Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, there are four sections in Act One, “The Death of Freddie Gray,” “Fist Fighting,” “Compassion,” and “The Shakara Story,” while Act Two offers three more sections, the first untitled and the others called “Trauma” and “Never Give Up.”

Among the people we meet are the deli worker who videotaped the arrest of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the fiery pastor of Baltimore’s Empowerment Temple AME Church, a mayoral candidate in Stockton, CA, a Yurok Tribal Court Judge, a parent in Stockton, a Philadelphia high school principal, a high school student in Columbia, SC, a prison inmate in Maryland, an emotional support teacher in Philadelphia, an artist/activist in Columbia, SC, and a famous congressman. Over 250 people were interviewed before these were chosen, but not all are equally gripping. They’re also definitely one-sided despite their varying opinions; alternative voices, like those of the police, are not represented.

Unlike Fires in the Mirror and Twilight, each of which focused on reactions to a very specific event, Notes from the Field, as its title suggests, is more wide-ranging; while it makes many important points about a poor educational system creating a spiral leading to incarceration, its broader focus tends to weaken the overall impact.

The closing scene, featuring Congressman John Lewis, begins softly and builds to a moving climax, and is immediately followed by a vigorous standing ovation. It was a good choice with which to conclude but—not that it matters so much—I wondered if the overwhelmingly affectionate response was a largely white, liberal audience’s reaction to the numerous grievances to which it had been listening or to the mind-blowing genius of Smith’s performance.

Regardless, you owe it to yourself to visit Notes from the Field. Because of the filtering process of Smith’s chameleonic artistry, it clarifies the racial issues roiling our nation more potently even than seeing her characters in person. At this moment, with the alt-right barking at the door of a new presidency, you cannot leave the theatre without a desire to do something positive about helping to trump hate with love.


Second Stage/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through December 18

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

106. Review: THE CITY THAT CRIED WOLF (seen November 22, 2016)

“All the King’s Horses”

Stars range from 5-1.

It was a cold night in the sleepless city. New York. Not Seattle. Icy blasts of mid-November wind chilled me as I left the Lex and hit the pavement. The thump of “Trump, Trump” was pounding in my head as I crossed Park on my way down 59th Street. Needing to numb the pain with a straight shot of theatre the way a junkie needs a needle in his vein, I pushed open the shiny steel doors of 59E59, picked up my tickets, climbed three flights, and found my seat in the tiny venue. There it was, a sheet of paper taped to it shouting out my name.

Adam La Faci, Dalles Wilie. Photo: Hunter Canning.
A redheaded old dame in the next seat asked why it was reserved. “Press,” I said. “I’m impressed,” she replied. “No, press,” I repeated. I checked her out; large chest, larger hips, around 65. A bad dye job on a balding scalp. Too young for me anyway. I turned to look for my buddy.

He trundled in just then, his tongue so dry you could light a match on it. I knew the drill and poured him a couple of Tic Tacs. He downed them, like St. Paul in the desert. “Lifesavers,” he finally said. “No, Tic Tacs,” I shot back. The lights dimmed and grainy film flickered on a screen.

Black and white titles flashed and bluesy music played. It was a film noir from the 40s, but I rubbed my eyes when the familiarly unfamiliar names appeared. No Bogart, Mitchum, or Powell; no Crawford, Bacall, or Stanwyck. Instead: Jack B. Nimble, Bo Peep, Humpy Dumpty, and Mother Goose. The movie stopped and live drama took over. There was a guy in a cheap beige suit, a fedora, and a five o’clock shadow that looked more like seven. He stepped forward, speaking in a husky monotone:

It was not a happily ever after day. It was dark. The place children glimpsed between their dreams. . . . Citizens locked their doors. Wolves roamed the streets. It was a dangerous city. My city. They called it Rhyme Town. The name’s Jack. Jack B. Nimble, private eye, and this is my story . . .

And thus began Brooks Reeve’s parody, The City That Cried Wolf, in which familiar noir tropes get another poke, this time from Bo Peep’s crook as well as tough guys’ rods. The City That Cried Wolf joins such recent noirish takeoffs as the one-acts “Queen” and “The Dark Clothes of Night” (both on a 59E59 bill) and Kill Me Like You Mean It downtown. Its angle is to set the action in a dreamland of fast-talking, cynical, nursery rhyme characters, and to pummel the material for every play on well-known words it can.

For a time, Reeves does a good job of keeping this comic ball inflated, coming up with a substantial number of zingers. When the leading man, a private eye named Jack B. Nimble, exits a speakeasy, he says, gruffly: “Outside it was raining. It was pouring. Old men were snoring.” When he’s asked why he was hired by someone, he deadpans: “His wife. He wanted her tailed because he was getting some.” “Some what?” he’s asked. “Tail,” he replies. Too many of the jokes barely raise a smile, though, much less a laugh. But eventually, the air in the ball starts leaking.  
Adam La Faci, Rebecca Spiro. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The plot, as convoluted as any noir classic, winds itself around the death—was it an accident or murder?—of local councilman Humpty Dumpty (Dalles Wilie), a rotten egg who falls to his splashy death from an apartment window. This, of course, inspires countless jokes (yokes, in the play’s vernacular). Meanwhile, the town is going to the wolves; those loudly baying, troublemaking have-nots, who are being falsely accused of blowing the town’s buildings down. The wolves are victims of Rhyme City discrimination (a “No Wolves Allowed” sign at the speakeasy and an anti-predator law being passed against them), indicating that Reeves has various issues on his mind, if you care enough to look for them.  
Michelle Concha, Adam La Faci. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Nimble, a private eye, is a former detective forced to turn in his badge two years before when Jill, his partner, fell down a hill. Goose (Michelle Concha), the female police chief, offers him back his job if he can solve the Dumpty case. A prime suspect is the bonnet-wearing, speakeasy singer, Little Bo Peep (Rebecca Spiro), a flame-tressed, femme fatale, who speaks softly but carries a big crook.
Adam La Faci. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Mixed up in the maze is an array of over 30 characters whose more recognizable names include Muffet, Hansel, Gretel, Goldilocks, Jill, King Cole, Chicken Little, and the brothers Grimm (Wilhelm and Jacob), the latter a pair of dumbell gumshoes. Numerous costume and wig changes (Angela Borst is the adroit costume designer) are made by a versatile, occasionally cross-dressing crew consisting of Gwenevere Sisco, Dalton Davis, Holly Chou, and the aforementioned Wylie.
Rebecca Spiro. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Greg Stevens’s unit set is a cleverly adaptable hodgepodge with slatted upstage doors that works for the various locales, especially as lit by Jake Fine, with many video projections by Kevan Loney. The atmosphere is suitably enhanced by Jeanne Travis’s music and sound design.
Adam La Faci, Rebecca Spiro. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The City That Cried Wolf is the kind of thing--if not quite as professional--that you might see produced by talented theatre students as an end of the school year production, or even as an extended SNL sketch. But, for all its clever wordplay, and its never-crack-a-smile-because-you’re-funny performances (all the leads are spot-on), it’s still a spoof of an over-spoofed genre. Lita Tremblay’s staging is inventively cute and the dance sequences choreographed by Lina Sarrello are fun but it would need all the king's horses to make this work for an hour, much less 90 intermissionless minutes.


59E59 Theaters/Theater c
Through December 11

Monday, November 21, 2016

105. Review: THIS DAY FORWARD (seen November 17, 2016)

"'Til Death Do Us Part"

Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of This Day Forward please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

104. Review: A TASTE OF THINGS TO COME (seen November 16, 2016)

“Mmm Mmm Good”

Stars range from 5-1.
The York Theatre Company (enjoying its beautiful new seating) is serving up a scrumptious soufflé of a feminist-themed musical that should have some audience members returning for seconds. It’s called A Taste of Things to Come, has a high-calory book, lyrics, and music by Debra Barsha and Hollye Levin, touches lightheartedly on many women’s issues, and arrives after its world premiere earlier this year at Pennsylvania’s Bucks County Playhouse. Allison Guinn, one of the four original cast members, is deliciously in tow.

Janet Dacal, Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Its two acts are set, respectively, in 1957 and 1967, but, like almost anything you’ll see on today’s post-election stages, will zing you with ironic reminders of what just happened in America. A line that got me was when someone noted in 1967 that one day a woman would be president: Ooh! Just writing that brings me to a boil. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Daclas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The show first takes us to 1957 and the aqua-colored, checkerboard floor, formica- and chrome-adorned, Winetka, Illinois, kitchen of Joan Smith (Paige Faure). Steven C. Kemp’s bright setting (brightly lit by Nathan W. Scheuer), which doesn’t forget a starburst clock, has a rear wall featuring period ads and includes a cooking island made up of movable sections that play a big part in one of the standout dance numbers.
Allison Guinn, Janet Daclas, Autumn Hurbert. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Joan and her three close friends—Agnes Crookshank (Janet Dacal), Dottie O’Farrell (Allison Guinn), and Connie Olsen (Autumn Herbert)—ranging from 23 to 25, have gathered for their Wednesday Winetka Women’s Cooking Club get-together. Agnes, single, is a sexpot in kerchief and curlers (she later lets her raven tresses free); Dottie, married and stuck at home with four kids, is plain, wears glasses, and is, shall we say, pleasingly plump; Connie is the blonde, all-American type but with a ready-to-pop bun in her oven that may not come out as pale as she and her husband; and Joan is the organizer-in-chief (should that be chef?) whose real name, we’ll discover, suggests she’d be comfortable making gefilte fish and latkes. 
Paige Faure, Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Janet Daclas.Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Joan wants the club to concoct a dish to enter in a new Betty Crocker contest, which gives act one its essential action, but the script is really more concerned with satirically referencing the conventional issues women presumably talked with each other about in the late Eisenhower years. What gets across is the cumulative impact more than any single topic. In dialogue and song they cover cooking, Dear Abby's column, gossiping, women’s roles as housewives vs. outside jobs, dieting, pills for every need, breast feeding (at a time when the word “breast” wasn’t to be spoken in polite company), Joe Bonomo’s advice pamphlets, Rock Hudson (before he was outed), Dr. Spock, sex and the Kinsey Report, the absence of food labeling, how World War II’s end hurt women’s place in the job market, and so on.
Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Janet Daclas, Paige Faure. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Autumn Hurlbert, Allison Guinn, Paige Faure, Janet Daclas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These nostalgic reminders of the days some deluded people think was when America was “greater” than now are embedded in fast-paced, quip-packed dialogue and high-fructose pastiche songs written in various pop genres—like rock and roll and calypso—of the 50s. Highlights include clips showing old TV commercials, including one with a nasty husband scolding his wife for her lousy coffee that would have today’s women marching in the streets. Dana Burkart’s colorful, picture-perfect costumes help recreate the era with panache, continuing to do so in act two, set ten years later, in 1967.
Allison Guinn. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
That year is reunion time at the Smith kitchen, where we see how radically the fashions have changed during the Swinging 60s and discover as well the shifts in everybody’s lives and life styles. The remarkable social changes of the day, along with the groovy slang, are amusingly contrasted with those of the previous decade. Vietnam has its role (Dottie’s son is serving), of course, as does Women’s Lib (bra burning? Natch).  A lively booty-shaking number called “The Whomp” celebrates being a woman, with lyrics like:

Janet Daclas, Autumn Hurlbert. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
You can also anticipate a clichéd pot-smoking scene, with an initially reluctant participant—chubby Dottie—enjoying a toke, turning on (after first saying “I’m not feeling anything”), getting the munchies, and singing a hilarious paean to “Food.” Dottie, seeing the progressive behavior and lifestyles of her old pals—Joan’s an advice columnist, Connie’s a hippie living in Trinidad, and Agnes is a glamorous soap star—also has a strong number, "Just a Mom," in which she defends her everyday life as a stay-at-home mother.
Allison Guinn, Autumn Hurlbert, Paige Faure, Janet Daclas. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

There’s really nothing here we haven’t seen before, of course, including in time-jumping, all-female shows like the nonmusical Vanities and musical The Marvelous Wonderettes. A Taste of Things to Come has a lot of the same nostalgic shtick that made those sentimental, throwback shows digestible. The inventively bouncy and comic staging and choreography of Lorin Latarro takes familiar material and makes it enjoyably fresh, the way a good cook does in creating a flavorsome new recipe. Everyone sings, cavorts, dances, and does everything else well, so it's hard to pick favorites. If last year’s York discovery, Cagney, was able to snare a commercial run, might not that be a taste of things to come?


The Theater at St. Peter's/The York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Ave., NYC
Through December 11

Sunday, November 20, 2016

103. Review: SWEET CHARITY (seen November 19, 2016)

“The Minute She Walked on the Stage”
Stars range from 5-1.

When the New Group's production of New York's fourth revival (the first Off-Broadway) of the 1966 musical comedy Sweet Charity ended on Saturday night, the audience rose to its feet in a show of affection for the show and its star, Sutton Foster. The 41-year-old singer-dancer-actress’s ascension into the pantheon of musical theatre sweethearts was immediately obvious from the warm reception she received on her entrance as Charity Hope Valentine.

Sutton Foster and cast. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The eponymous Charity, of course, is the perky but emotionally aching taxi dancer who’s onstage almost the entire show; she was created for Broadway by the great dancer Gwen Verdon and played by Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film. (This, along with Terms of Endearment, is the second show in the last few days featuring a major MacLaine film character.) Although the smart but foolish Charity perpetually struggles to find a man to love and marry, always to be disappointed, the audience has no trouble falling for Foster, even in a production that, for all its occasional highlights, has a few problems. 

Sweet Charity is a somewhat denatured adaptation (by book writer Neil Simon) of Federico Fellini’s film Nights of Cabiria (co-written with Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano), whose Roman prostitutes have been changed to New York dance hall hostesses. (The waif-like Giulietta Masina played the Charity role in Fellini's movie.) It benefits, of course, from a first-rate score (not entirely approved of by 1966's critics) by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) that birthed a healthy number of jukebox favorites.
Emily Padgett, Donald Jones, Jr., Sutton Foster, Joel Perez, Cody Williams. Photo: Monique Carboni.

We first meet Charity, the heart-of-gold hostess at the Fan-Dango Ballroom, when she’s dumped in a Central Park fountain by her beau du jour, who runs off with her purse, while her plight is ignored by the gathering crowd. The scene shifts to the dance hall where Charity’s sexy fellow hostesses sing and dance to the jazzy “Big Spender.” ("The minute you walked in the joint . . . ")
Sutton Foster, Joel Perez. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The plot soon couples her with an Italian movie star cum Lothario, Vittorio Vidal (Joel Perez) after he’s dumped by his glamorous, equally foreign-accented date, Ursula (Nikka Graff Lanzarone). Charity’s totally into bedding the Latin lover but he’s preoccupied with Ursula, who, all contrition, arrives shortly after Charity dances about his apartment with a top hat and cane (“If My Friends Could See Me Now”). Charity hides in the closet while she comically spies on the lovers’ lovemaking. 

During this scene, Foster hits a sequence of hilarious buttons showing off her Chaplinesque slapstick skills as she does one comic bit after the other (most borrowed from the original, like hiding her cigarette smoke by blowing it into a zippered clothes bag) while hiding amidst the garments hanging on a rack. 
Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Charity’s next romantic encounter is with nerdy accountant Oscar (Shuler Hensley), with whom she’s stuck in an elevator while seeking to attend a lecture at the 92nd Street Y. His claustrophobia gets laughs and leads to Oscar and Charity’s beginning a relationship. Not long after, they’re stranded in midair on the Coney Island Ferris Wheel, the laughs now stemming from Charity’s acrophobia.  
Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, Asmeret Ghebremichael. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Charity lies about her profession but Oscar already knows the truth and says he’ll marry her anyway. After she’s quit the dance hall and they’re on the brink of nuptials, he bows out because he has a hang-up about purity, and can’t bear the thought of all her past affairs. The largely upbeat show takes a swift shift toward darkness, leaving Charity alone once more, singing the heart-tugging lament, “Where Am I Going?” This has to be the biggest downer in musical comedy history and one with which every Charity has had to contend. 

This hit song was originally sung earlier as the show's 11 o'clock number but it's now been moved to the end. Interestingly, Verdon, a fairly weak singer, used to cut the song herself when she was tired.

It may have been financially smart but Leigh Silverman’s decision to borrow the shaved-down musical style of director John Doyle (The Color Purple) isn’t necessarily the wisest artistically. The problem’s not the reduction of the company from the 30 or so of the original to a mere dozen, requiring lots of doubling (which even the large-cast original required) and minor role eliminations.

It’s the undernourished visual appeal created by the abandonment of conventional scenery in favor of a large, open, wood-floored stage (designed by Derek McLane) surrounded by the audience on three sides. Upstage is a brick wall with half-a-dozen openings, on top of which the six-piece orchestra, led by Georgia Stitt, is placed. A selective number of stage props help, but the scene-setting burden falls heavily on the creative conjurations of lighting designer Jeff Croiter.

Some of the usually adept Clint Ramos’s costumes are more disappointing. Charity, for example, wears, almost throughout, an uninteresting outfit of pale mauve minidress (sometimes accented with a jeans jacket) with white piping and white go-go boots that looks more Carnaby Street than Times Square sleaze (remember Gwen Verdon’s iconic, short, black dress on the original album cover and program?). Charity's new uniform, coupled with a questionable blonde wig, makes Sutton seem more like the girl next door than the disillusioned sex worker who’s been around the block a few too many times.
Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley, and company. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Other costume problems include the hostesses’ dancehall clothes, usually an array of sharply differentiated hooker duds, but here uniformly two-piece, red-sequined, chorus girl attire, as if the show were 42nd Street

What principally made Sweet Charity a 608-performance hit in 1966 were its luminous star (the same age then as Sutton is now) and the incredible Bob Fosse choreography (a good idea of which is preserved in the movie, which he also directed), an Everest every subsequent choreographer would, unenviably, have to climb. Joshua Bergasse’s numbers are satisfactory but unexceptional, including “Big Spender,” which only mildly evokes the master’s down and dirty moves while omitting the famous lineup of dead-eyed taxi dancers surveying the evening’s clients as they strike come-hither poses over the ballroom’s railing.

Sweet Charity's depiction of women as sex objects and as weak vessels incapable of maintaining their self-respect in the face of male rejection may not please avowed feminists. Even when you accept the time of its writing, you might get a shiver from Helene, Nickie, and Charity's song, "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," in which their dreams go no higher than being secretaries or hat check girls.

Foster receives capable support from Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padget as her dancehall pals, Nickie and Helene. Joel Perez does very nicely in four distinct roles with varying accents, and the always welcome Shuler Hensley squeezes the square Oscar for every laugh he’s worth, while also displaying a fine baritone. 

But it’s Foster many will be coming to see and the minute she walks on the stage you can tell that she’s a gal of distinction, a real big talent.


The Pershing Square Signature Center/Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through January 8

Saturday, November 19, 2016

102. Review: THE SERVANT OF TWO MASTERS (seen November 18, 2016)

“Shticking It to the Man”

Stars range from 5-1.
First, a little theatre history: commedia dell’arte was a widely popular genre of Italian comic theatre that flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries, touring all over Europe and influencing playwrights everywhere, including Shakespeare and Molière. It was based on scenarios rather than set scripts, allowing its easily recognizable stock characters to improvise their lines and use conventional stage business (lazzi) along with memorized speeches, comic as well as poetic, which could be inserted on the spot as needed. The characters had variations and different names from company to company over the years, but their general outlines remained more or less the same. 

 Company of The Servant of Two Masters. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
By the 18th century, commedia was dying but a couple of brilliant but rival Venetian playwrights, Carlo Gozzi and Carlo Goldoni, tried halting its demise by writing for the genre. One of the most successful results was Goldoni’s masterpiece, The Servant of Two Masters (Il Servitore di due Padroni). Its first version allowed for considerable improvisation by star Antonio Sacchi; however, as the playwright became disillusioned with the excesses committed by commedia actors, it evolved by 1753 into a fully scripted comedy of manners, albeit with many of Sacchi’s inspirations still in place.
Liam Craig, Steven Epp. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
In 2011, the frequently revived, translated, and adapted play—very rarely seen in New York, though—received a modern dress, Anglicized version by Richard Bean, One Man, Two Guvnors, that opened at London’s National Theatre and then became a Broadway hit, making a star of James Corden.
Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The beautifully performed, cleverly staged, attractively designed but somewhat hollow rendition now being offered at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, home of Theatre for a New Audience, is by Constance Congdon; it has “further” adapted features by its inventive director, Christopher Bayes, and its excellent leading actor, Steven Epp, based on a translation by Christina Sibul. It arrives after several previous iterations, the most immediate in Washington, D.C.
Orlando Pabotoy, Liz Wisan. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Goldoni’s title refers to Truffaldino (Epp), the clever but foolish, greedy yet lovable troublemaker who serves the beauteous Beatrice (Liz Wisan), who’s disguised herself as her dead brother, Federigo. Seeing a chance to further feed his belly, Truffaldino also takes service with Florindo (Orlando Pabatoy). Beatrice, wanting to marry Florindo, of whose presence she’s unaware, needs the dowry money her brother would have been given had he lived to marry Pantalone’s (Allen Gilmore) daughter, Clarice (Adina Verson), now betrothed to Silvio (Eugene Ma), chubby son of Dottore (Andy Grotelueschen).

Multiple romantic complications arise from Truffaldino’s double service. These are unraveled, the various lovers, including Truffaldino and Smeraldina (Emily Young), Clarice’s servant, are successfully coupled, and everyone goes home happy.
Liz Wisan, Eugene Ma. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Bayes’s approach is to return The Servant to its improvisatory roots and to recapture the wild zaniness and madcap, anything-goes excitement of commedia as it might have been performed in its heyday, as seen in Renaissance illustrations of its capering, caricaturish characters. But everything here is so carefully calibrated that there seems little room for real improvisation. Comparing its street-theatre style to the theatrical illustrations of Goldoni’s own day, as in the art of Pietro Longhi, where elegance predominates, is like comparing apples to oranges.
Liam Craig, Steven Epp. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Imagine a company of clowns in the tradition of the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, Carol Burnett, Martha Raye, and Lucille Ball, all performing at high energy with every move perfectly choreographed, and every line accompanied by a preplanned piece of shtick, such as musical punctuation, double and triple takes, or pratfalls, and you’ll get an idea of what’s in store. It’s the kind of show in which a hand never meets a face it doesn’t slap (cue the drum!).
Allen Gilmore, Liam Craig, Adina Verson, Eugene Ma, Emily Young, Andy Groteleuschen. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Bayes has assembled a versatile, agile band of mugging mummers, who can also make beautiful music when they sing. All excel, but Epps, even with his face hidden by his black mask, rules because of his limber physicality and the amusing flexibility of his nifty responses to every threat. He’s particularly memorable in the play’s famous banquet scene as he catches food on a tray as it goes flying through the air.
Company of The Servant of Two Masters. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Katherine Akiko Day’s attractive set converts the flexible space into an old-time proscenium theatre on whose wood-planked, footlit floor is placed a traditional booth stage, dominated by a washed-out looking half-curtain, whose constant swishing open and shut, as well as its being flung into the air, practically makes it another character. Upstage are miniature houses and a blue, cloud-filled sky drop. Chuan-Chi Chan’s lighting—which encases the theatre in Christmas lights—creates enchanting effects.

Most of the classic characters--like the servant Truffaldino (a variation of Arlecchino/Harlequin); another servant, Brighella (Liam Craig); the miserly old man, Pantalone; and the pompous pedant, Dottore—wear the half or partial masks seen in classic illustrations, while the others remain unmasked. Valérie Thérèse Bart’s vivid costumes, with a few exceptions, such as Clarice’s exaggerated, steampunk-like getup, with puffy crinolines, are purely traditional, like Truffaldino’s lozenge-patterned tunic and pants.
Christopher Curtis, Aaron Halva, Liz Wisan. Photo: Henry Grossman.
Rather than have the actors play their own music, a terrific pair of costumed musician/composers, Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva, who play multiple instruments, sit at stage right responding with musical reactions to all the business, often being cued for more by the characters themselves.
Steven Epp. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The lively adaptation, most of it in current-day speech, including scattered vulgarities, is chockablock with contemporary references, many of them of the anti-Trump variety, but also including things like Wikileaks and Cellino & Barnes commercials; and let's not forget the improvisatory byplay with spectators down front. I love the bit when Truffaldino pulls a wall switch, cutting off the lights and saying: “If you pull the wrong lever the world gets plunged into darkness.” Nothing is taken seriously, the audience is considered as a co-conspirator, and the jokiness is never-ending. And therein lies the problem.
Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Goldoni has, indeed, provided a complexly structured, comedic love plot but, as played here it’s seen as little more than a scenario, a blank wall on which to stick a lot of shtick. Many audience members giggled consistently when I attended, occasionally bursting into a big laugh, but the insistent focus on clowning robs the play of its human element and greatly diminishes its warmer humor. Too many of the characters, for all their masks and costumes, are on the same broad comic wave length, and distinctions among them are only superficial. There’s just so much one can take of stage silliness, no matter how well done.
Steven Epp, Emily Young. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The show reveals nearly all its cards in act one, leaving little to anticipate theatrically in act two. The second act, however, which is slightly less frenetic, is actually funnier, and even a bit more human than the first. Nonetheless, when it ends, after two and a half hours, you may feel, with me, that it’s overstayed its welcome by an hour.
Company of The Servant of Two Masters. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Polonsky Shakespeare Center/Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through December 4