Wednesday, December 13, 2017

130 (2017-2018): Review: METEOR SHOWER (seen December 12, 2017)

“Still Wild and Crazy, After All These Years”

Steve Martin, America’s favorite wild and crazy guy, may be 72 but his new Broadway farce, Meteor Shower, shows he’s as wild and crazy as ever. Just not as funny, or at least not as served up by the hyperbolic histrionics of director Jerry Zak’s spacey, 80-minute production at the Booth.
Amy Schumer. Photo: Matthew Murply.
Four highly charged comic actors—the adorable Amy Schumer (Trainwreck), in her Broadway debut; the smooth Keegan-Michael Key (“Key and Peele”), making his as well; the stunning, Tony-winning Laura Benanti (She Loves Me); and the versatile Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park)—carry on with such exaggerated, cartoonish abandon that 15 minutes is all it takes before your willing disbelief collapses, like a bridge in an earthquake.

It’s another natural phenomenon, however, a meteor shower, that brings the play’s characters together at the Ojai, California, home of Corky (Schumer) and Norm (Shamos), on the 1993 night when such an astronomical event actually occurred. Corky and Norm, anxious to show off their upscale new digs, have invited another couple over, Laura (Benanti), allegedly a former Vogue editor, and Gerald (Key), Norm’s coworker, to watch the night sky spectacle.

Corky and Norm, as first seen, are a sweetly quirky pair who have attempted to resolve whatever friction they have by self-help courses, tapes, and books. They’re so ultrasensitive to anything that one of them might perceive as a slight that whenever their radar detects a misstep they engage in a cutesy making up ritual. Also, Corky suffers from “exploding head syndrome,” which, when it acts up, causes enough pain to allow Schumer ample mugging opportunities. And, oh yes, her résumé includes having eaten a friend.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumer, Laura Benanti. Photo: Matthew Murphy. 
Laura and Gerald are even more bizarre. He’s a flashy, bragging, know-it-all who speaks in perfectly enunciated, stentorian tones that sound like F. Murray Abraham on steroids. She, dressed in a form-fitting silk dress, is a drop-dead gorgeous vamp fully conscious of her obvious lusciousness.  

No good reason is provided for why Norm would invite a blatant creep like Norm over. And Laura and Gerald have ulterior motives, fuzzily explained, in being there. Regardless, as meteors occasionally flash across the background (thanks to lighting designer Natasha Katz), the sharply contrasting couples spend the evening in a series of ludicrously absurdist encounters, made even odder by their being repeated in different variations, with a worm-turns twist ending the proceedings.

With an anything-for-a-laugh incentive, Martin throws in jokes about penises, vaginas, and breasts, engages his characters in hetero and homo pairings, introduces drugs of both the injectable and snorted kind, keeps the drinks flowing, and allows a couple of meteor strikes to cause surrealistically ridiculous disasters that, based on your tolerance, you’ll find either annoyingly inane or (hint, hint) hilariously gut-busting. Some gleaming smiles arise from Corky and Norm’s handling of their relationship issues, like which partner in a hug should break off first—a device that offers a quality final curtain—but such moments are insufficient to rescue all those that expire before blazing across the cosmic skyscape.

Norm and Corky’s home, smartly designed by Beowulf Boritt, makes considerable use of a revolve to show both interior and exterior; the fashionable clothes are excellently realized by Ann Roth; and Fitz Patton’s provides an amusing sound design, which opens with Beethoven’s Fifth as we watch the meteor light show. Thus, in all design respects, the production displays a patina of luminous Broadway polish.

That polish, though, is dimmed not only by the innocuous script but by the exaggerated acting—Key being wrongdoer number one—which operates on the principle that more is more, removing even the barest semblance of believability. Of course, many theatergoers laugh loudly at these antics, which only encourages the actors to milk their shtick to the very last drop.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that Meteor Shower would be more amusing if the silliness were performed straight, heightened just enough for comic effect, and not as if it were one of those old wild-and-crazy-guy sketches (which were just as broad but funnier than this play). Schumer and Benanti occasionally manage to do this, scoring some quality comic goals; in the end, though, even these marvelous talents get sucked up into the black hole of comedic overkill.

Despite its constellation of stars, Meteor Shower is light years away from further brightening the Great White Way.


Booth Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through January 21

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

129 (2017-2018): Review: SCHOOL GIRLS; OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY (seen December 10, 2017)

“More than Skin Deep”

Most of the actresses in Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play, about Ghanaian school girls and a beauty pageant, are not what you’d call conventionally beautiful but each finds the beauty in her character, helping make this MCC Theater offering one of the season’s most warmly endearing.
Nike Kadri, Nabiyah Be, Paige Gilbert, Mirirai Sithole. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Bioh, the daughter of Ghanaian parents who emigrated to America in the 60s, has written a perfectly suitable vehicle for a resoundingly talented ensemble that gets under the skin, so to speak, of seven teenagers at the Aburi Girls Boarding School, in the Aburi Mountains of central Ghana. That also happens to be where Bioh’s own mother—a self-confessed mean girl—went to school.

Bioh’s plot, set in 1986, is inspired both by her mother’s girlhood at this school and Ghana’s attempt to become the first West African country to have a contestant win the 2011 Miss Universe Pageant; the young woman in question, who didn’t place, was American-born, biracial, and of disputed Ghanaian heritage. The issue of “colorism” in African society, as Bioh calls it, was one of her main concerns in writing the play.
Abena Mesha-Bonsu, Mirirai Sithole, Paige Gilbert. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Four of the girls are in thrall to Paulina (Maameyaa Boafo, sensational), leader of the pack and meanest of the mean:  there’s the Tweedledee-Tweedledum pair of Gifty (Paige Gilbert) and Mercy (Mirirai Sithole); Ama (Nike Kadri), tall, bespectacled, and nobody’s fool; and Nana (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), overweight and so desperate to be part of the group she lets Paulina use and abuse her.
Maameyaa Boafu. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The seventh girl is Ericka (Nabiya Be, fabulous), a lovely, biracial, light-skinned girl raised in America; her father owns a local cocoa factory and family circumstances require her to finish school in Ghana. Immediately, the pack begins gravitating to the friendly, intriguingly appealing, won’t-take-guff stranger, and the domineering Paulina sees her position threatened.
Maameyaa Boafo, Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The stakes keep getting higher as the girls compete to be selected in a school pageant for the Miss Ghana competition, a prelude to what the play calls the Miss Global Universe Pageant. The judge is glamorous, dark-skinned, visiting alumna Eloise Amponsah (Zainab Jah, striking and true), Miss Ghana of 1966, onetime friend of the stern but motherly Headmistress Francis (Myra Lucretia Taylor, convincingly authoritative).
Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The growing enmity between the dark-skinned Paulina—whom everyone, especially Paulina herself, thinks has the title in the bag—and the light-skinned Ericka, whose potential Eloise immediately spots, leads to a strikingly dramatic confrontation during which the girls reveal far more about their personal circumstances than we might otherwise have realized. It’s one of the most gutsily acted scenes on any local stage.
Nabiya Be, Myra Lucretia Taylor. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Much of the play’s charm comes from the high-spirited girls’ naïveté about the world outside their mountain village, a world where New York’s Chinatown is considered a retail paradise and Wal-Mart and Conway are trendy boutiques. Worldly ignorance aside, these kids are no different from those you might see chattering away like chipmunks almost anywhere teenage girls of any color congregate.

With the action set entirely in the school’s cafeteria, realistically created in institutional green and beige by Arnulfo Maldonado and expertly lit by Jen Schriever to suggest the African heat, we’d expect other girls to be present, too. This isn’t a movie, though, so we just have to accept that everyone else is in class or outside playing while the action transpires.

Dede M. Ayite’s costumes make a potent contribution, ranging from the girls’ dullish green uniforms to Eloise’s eye-ensembles to the girls’ clumsily hopeful pageant gowns.

My super-progressive plus-one loved the play because he insisted it was intended as an indictment of capitalism, which, I suppose, could be read into it. Others will lean toward Bioh’s stated theme regarding preoccupations with skin color—even to the point of using dangerous bleaching cream—an issue significant beyond this West African setting. And others will ponder its concerns with female worries about body image, while the issue of physical beauty as the key to international success and wealth for poor young women will resonate as well.

It matters little that the situations are obviously old-hat, contrived, and manipulative; the African setting gives it a delightful twist, it’s written with much wit, and it’s so well-played by a first-rate cast, that you find yourself absorbed from its first words to its last. A huge hand must go to Tony Award-winning director Rebecca Taichman for making this play so theatrically spirited.

School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls play has some moments of bitterly divisive meanness but, with its plentiful laughs and tears, it’s also uplifting, unifying, and funny. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Hollywood producer weren’t already eyeing it for the screen.


School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play
Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St., NYC
Through December 31

128 (2017-2018): Review: HANJO (seen December 9, 2010)

"Waiting for Yoshio"

For my review of Hanjo please click on Theater Pizzazz.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

126 (2017-2018): Review: SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS (seen December 8, 2017)

“Oh, What Joy, For Every Girl and Boy”

Bikini Bottom, home of the characters in SpongeBob SquarePants, Broadway’s newest “family” spectacle, may not have an octopus’s garden in the shade but it does have a fabulous octopus—albeit with only six limbs—named Squidward Q. Tentacles. And while Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” isn’t part of the score, there are plenty of other, mostly new, songs by a raft of iconic musicians, like Cindy Lauper and John Legend, to buoy this bubbly concoction throughout its two-and-a-half hours of seaworthy fun.

Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Reportedly, 10 years went into fashioning this $20 million Broadway fishstravaganza (following a 2016 Chicago premiere), with a book by Keith Jarrow based on Nickelodeon’s enormously popular (and profitable in the billions) animated series. Born in 1999 as the brainchild of marine biologist/artist Stephen Hillenburg (now suffering from ALS), it became an international sensation, inspiring two feature films (with another one coming).

Now, under the ingenious guidance of director and co-conceiver Tina Landau, this tidal wave of nautical nonsense has turned the Palace Theatre into an eyepoppingly colorful seascape filled with subaquatic life ranging from petite plankton to lumbering leviathans.

Landau, having discovered the buried treasure in the original’s free-spirited, anarchic, good-natured heart, has done a whale of a job with a team of brilliant designers: David Zinn for the sets and costumes, Kevin Adams for the lighting, Peter Nigrini for the projections, Walter Trarbach for sound, Charles G. LaPointe for the hair, and Joe Dulude II for the makeup. Also making a big splash are Tom Kitts’s orchestrations/arrangements and Christopher Gatelli’s choreography.

The venerable Palace has been turned into an aquatic paradise, the auditorium lined with shiny blue streamers, and each side of the proscenium fitted with its own huge, unique, Rube Goldberg-like contraption for shooting boulders, big and small. Part of the orchestra is hidden in the pit, a small team of musicians sits at audience right, and Foley artist Mike Dobson performs at audience left. On stage, within a brilliantly lit arch, an array of imaginative props—I loved the Slinky-like, expanding couch—keep offering surprises as the scenic effects grow ever more elaborate.
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Zinn’s costumes tone down the characters’ more abstract, cartoon elements, abandoning prosthetics in favor of human qualities. For example, the eternally positive SpongeBob (Ethan Slater), a kitchen sponge, is a young man in tight, yellow shirt and too-short, plaid, suspendered pants, with nothing sponge-like about him, while his doofus starfish friend, Patrick (Danny Skinner), is a chubby guy in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with a swept-up, blonde hairdo, his hands human instead of the original’s fingerless stumps.
Lilly Cooper, Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There’s nothing squirrelly about Sandy Cheeks, the squirrel scientist from Texas, whose usual diving bubble headgear (squirrels can’t breathe underwater) is replaced by an afro hairstyle. Eugene Krebs (Brian Ray Norton) is more human than crab except for his huge, boxing glove-like claws. The size-challenged Sheldon Plankton is seen as both a tiny puppet and a full-grown villain (Wesley Taylor) in a shiny green suit and ponytail. And Karen the Computer (Stephanie Hsu), just a computer on the series, now is accompanied by an actual person. 

On the other fin, Gary, Patrick’s meowing pet snail, is a rolling puppet. Among the others are the Electric Skates, punk rockers on skateboards and roller skates, the bespectacled Sardine Corps, a chorus of pink jellyfish, and other delectable denizens of the deep.
Danny Skinner, Ethan Slater. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I suspect many spectators will best appreciate Squidward, a slim fellow in a bluish wig, orange jersey, and green pants to which an additional two legs have been attached in such a clever way that they actually not only walk with the actor’s real legs but, in his remarkable show-stopping tap number, “I’m Not a Loser” (by They Might Be Giants), also dance. Just to see this classic showbiz routine is worth the price of admission.
Gavin Lee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The cast is huge and hard-working, most of the supporting players taking on multiple roles as any number of marine species. Several of the principals, like Slater (who’s been part of the show’s development for years), Skinner, and Norris, are making their Broadway debut; all have taken to their assignments like fish to water.
Wesley Taylor and the company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The series’ most familiar relationships and situational conflicts (like the restaurant rivalry between the Krusty Krab and Chum Bucket proprietors, Eugene Krebs and Sheldon Plankton) have been included in a plot about how SpongeBob saves Bikini Bottom from an erupting volcano. As the tension builds, the citizens take refuge on a sunken ship, an increasingly anxious anchorman Perch Perkins (Kelvin Moon Loh) reminds us of how much time is left, and a countdown clock ticks away.
The company. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Staged with unceasing zest, including numerous entrances down the aisles (be sure to look first if you have to leave from an aisle seat) and a confetti-covered, audience beach ball party, SpongeBob SquarePants defies you to be bored. Each musical selection—the original ones (like Jonathan Coulton’s “Bikini Bottom Day”), the familiar ones (like “No Control,” by David Bowie and Brian Eno), and the series’ “The SpongeBob Theme Song,” which ends the show—fits the material perfectly. 

Yet, even within all the nutty behavior and childish antics, a few adult-oriented thematic points are made, with satirical harpoons aimed at those who decry the untrustworthy media, the presence of outsiders, or the value of science. As someone says, “Next she’ll tell us tidal warming is real!”

Before seeing SpongeBob SquarePants I couldn’t resist feeling it was going to be mindless entertainment. I’d watched only a little of it in preparation for seeing the show and found it a little too fishy for my taste. My granddaughter, however, a 26-year-old high school English teacher, was thrilled to accompany me. She’d been watching the series for years and was overwhelmed by how perfectly the musical captured the essentials of the characters and situations she’d grown to love.

But, even without much experience as a viewer, I had no trouble recognizing that a show of such expressive vitality, visual ingenuity, vibrant musicality, and consistently exceptional performances was in no way mindless; if anything, it’s mind-blowing! Why be a SpongeBob sponge snob when SpongeBob SquarePants is so absorbing?


Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway, NYC
Open run


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

122 (2017-2018): Review: ONCE ON THIS ISLAND (seen December 4, 2017)

“Orphan of the Storm”

“Two different worlds on one island,” is a lyric heard early in Once on this Island, the Circle in the Square's sparklingly enjoyable revival of the 1990 musical by Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music). It’s easy to take the line as a simplistic metaphor for our current divisions: racial, sexual, economic, and political. This mostly upbeat show, set on a Haiti-like island in the French Antilles, strongly posits love as the solution for binding disparate people together. If only.


Director Michael Arden and his top-tier team, including choreographer Camille A. Brown, set designer Dane Laffrey, costume designer Clint Ramos, lighting design partners Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and sound designer Peter Hylenski have put their remarkable talents together to create a kinetic, intermissionless, 90-minute production with a “devised-theatre” feeling. 
Ahrens’s book—based on Rosa Guy’s 1985 novel, My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl—is largely a fable told to Little Ti Moune (Mia Williamson), a little orphan girl rescued from drowning by the gods when a horrific flood deluged the island and she was taken in by kindly villagers Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin) and Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller). 
You’re immersed in the dramatic world the moment you walk into the Circle in the Square’s sand-filled, theatre-in-the-oval space, packed to the brim, including laundry drying on the surrounding walls, with the effects of the recent flood; there's even an overturned boat near a watery shoreline. A goat in diapers, as well as other island fauna, are visible as the colorfully shabby peasants go about their business, sometimes even interacting with the all-too-willing audience before the show proper begins. It’s impossible, of course, not to recall the devastation of recent events in the Caribbean and elsewhere but, apart from the influence of "the gods" on human affairs, it really isn't what the show is about.
The fanciful folktale inspires imaginative images—sometimes enshrouded by Arden’s fondness for fog effects—in the costumes and props, which have an improvisatory, deceptively artless, found-object atmosphere. Watch, for example, how pieces of junk become a speeding car. Even sounds contributed, like the whooshing of swimming pool filter tubes held by actors. At one point, fans blow so strongly you can feel the storm’s winds mussing your hair (if you have any). 
The story, combining elements of Romeo and Juliet and The Little Mermaid, with a touch of Euripides’ Alcestis, mingles island mythology involving four gods—Agwe (Quentin Earl Darrington), god of water; Erzulie (Lea Salonga), goddess of love; Asaka (Alex Newell), mother of Earth; and Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), Demon of Death—with the romantic travails of the grown-up Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore). Ti Moune, from the dark-skinned, peasant side of the island, loves Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), from the light-skinned, wealthy, French-descended, mixed-race side, where the grande hommes live. When he’s injured in a car crash, she saves his life by offering her own to Papa Ge, who will eventually make good on their deal. The only problem: this homme’s not worth it.
The romance between Ti Moune and Daniel is blocked because of his highborn position, the objection of Daniel’s father, Armand (David Jennings), and his forthcoming arranged marriage to Andrea Deveraux (Alysha Deslorieux); Daniel, of course, is willing to keep Ti Moune as his mistress. Papa Ge cashes in when Ti Moune drowns but love (if you buy it) conquers all when she returns as a tree (crafted here to resemble a telephone cum totem pole) that happily unites everyone on the island. Well, when I think about poor Tree Moune, as I’m tempted to name her, maybe not so happily. 
Regardless of the questions its plot raises, the show bursts with ebullient songs, musically underscored dialogue, colorful choreography, shadow pantomime, gorgeous costumes, and awesome lighting, not to mention exceptional performances. The exuberant ensemble is excellent, and slender Hailie Kilgore makes a fine Broadway debut as Ti Moune, both as a singer and dancer (which latter talent she displays when challenged to do so by Andrea). There’s much to love in the work of Boykin, Miller, and Powell, but it’s the four gods you’ll remember best.
Darrington is a potent, deity-like presence, his bulging muscles and shaved head (painted with blue waves) reminiscent of Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. Newell (the transgender student, Unique Adams on TV’s “Glee”), wearing a huge skirt made from a plastic tablecloth, is every inch an earth mother; when he sings “Mama Will Provide,” you can practically feel the earth quake. Dandridge’s (TV’s “Greenleaf”) Papa Ge, looking like the lead singer in a punk rock band, has a deep voice you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And, of course, the gifted, beautiful Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon), especially in her white gown and exquisite headdress, looks the virtual embodiment of love, reminding us of why she’s a star. 
So, before you take that winter trip to the Caribbean, you’d be well advised to check in for a warm-up visit to Once on this Island. You may even find that once is not enough.


Circle in the Square
1633 Broadway (at W. 50th St.), NYC
Open run