Tuesday, July 25, 2017

46 (2017-2018): Review: MONEY TALKS (seen July 24, 2017)

"The Buck Stops Here"

Benjamin Franklin never said “Money talks but bullshit walks.” However, as the klutzy Money Talks: The Musical reminds us, he came up with so many other money-related maxims, he probably would have also coined this one had he lived long enough. Bullshit aside, money does actually talk in this show, mainly through Ben (Ralph Byers) himself, represented as a $100 bill, but also in the persons of George Washington (George Merrick) as a one-dollar bill, Abe Lincoln (Brennan Caldwell) as a fiver, and the ubiquitous Alexander Hamilton (Sandra DeNise) as a ten-spot. Their period costumes, designed by Vanessa Lueck, with fabrics bearing currency-influenced motifs, are the show’s creative highlight.  
Brennan Caldwell, Ralph Byers, George Merrick, Sandra DeNice. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
For the most part, this greenback chorus takes a back seat to scenes clumsily constructed along the lines of Arthur Schnitzler’s once controversial 1897 play, Reigen, well known as La Ronde. Schnitzler’s classic strings together 10 scenes, each with two characters; when a scene ends and a new one begins, one character from the previous scene remains and a new one appears, each scene expressing another variation on the theme of sex.

Book and lyric writer Peter Kellogg’s script for Money Talks, its music by David Friedman, shifts the emphasis from sex to money but struggles to maintain the structural conceit, which, like the innocuous scenes themselves, goes bankrupt midway through. Even the money theme dissipates in order to skim familiar political issues, including topics like gay adoption. Overall, the show’s point of view is scattershot, and we’re left to ponder what exactly it wants to say about money, or anything else, that we don’t already know or need reminding of.
George Merrick, Sandra DeNise, Brennan Caldwell, Ralph Byers. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
Franklin is on stage throughout, representing the vicissitudes of a $100 bill as it passes from one person to another. Although no one hears him except us, Ben comments on everything, usually citing one of the maxims from his Poor Richard's Almanac, each with some financial or ethical content. His experiences take him to many places, including a strip club, a stripper’s apartment, a Vegas casino, the lawn of an LA mansion, a recording studio, an Italian restaurant, the inside of a purse, a hair salon, a law office, an adoption agency, an evangelical church, a bank, and so on.

The events often seem created simply as setups for Ben—who loves to brag about his many accomplishments—to zing a famous proverb. He puts up when you want him to shut up. Not that there’d be much there if he did. Awkwardly directed and choreographed by Michael Chase Gosselin on Ann Beyersdorfer’s abstract set using movable black cubes to define locales, with lots of projections (by Ido Levran) on a backdrop resembling a digitalized map of the U.S., Money Talks clunks along from one seriously unfunny scene to the next. Some of the scene transitions define amateurism; and must we keep seeing stagehands doing shifts?
Ralph Byers, George Merrick, Brennan Caldwell, Sandra DeNice. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
Ralph Byers brings a veteran’s polish to Franklin but can’t prevent the guy from boring us to tears. Each of the others plays around a dozen roles, using quick costume changes and wigs, some of them pure cheese. Among the panoply of stereotypes are a hedge fund manager, a sexy stripper, a supposedly dumb blonde, a Hispanic gardener, a guitar playing (ouch!) female singer, a swishy hair stylist, an operatic Italian chef, a crooked cop, a hooker, a Jimmy Swaggart-like preacher, and even a despicable CEO portrayed by putting him in a business suit, a long tie, and a bright red baseball cap.
Ralph Byers. Photo: Jeremy Daniels.
The actors are lively and committed but, generally, lack the versatility and skill with accents to make their clich├ęd characters memorable. They sing Friedman’s generic score—which includes country, gospel, and pop rock—with verve but only passable musical chops. Only Sandra DeNise shows the kind of looks, voice, and charm that might lead to better things.

Money Talks talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk. And that’s no bullshit.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Davenport Theatre
354 W. 54th St., NYC
Through September 3



Thursday, July 20, 2017

45 (2017-2018): Review: PIPELINE (seen July 19, 2017)

"It Keeps Pumping"

As a passage in the current Lincoln Center Theater Review informs visitors to Dominique Morisseau’s (Skeleton Crew) sharply written, vividly acted, but somewhat uneven Pipeline, the play’s title (a word never mentioned in the play) has multiple metaphoric meanings, especially in the education world. The chief one she’s concerned with here is “the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels children out of public schools and into the criminal-justice system.”



Karen Pittman, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Nya (Karen Pittman), an African-American English teacher at an inner city high school, is determined that her teenage son, Omari (Namir Smallwood), will not himself be pushed through that pipeline. She and her ex-husband, Xavier (Morocco Omari), a successful businessman, have sent Omari to Fernwood, an upstate, exclusive, predominantly white, prep school, to help him avoid such a fate. Omari nonetheless finds himself in legal jeopardy.

During a classroom incident in which his teacher singled him out for his responses to the plight of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, a classic of African-American literature, the angrily frustrated Omari responded by pushing the teacher so hard he faces having charges brought against him. This being Omari’s “third strike” at the school, things don’t look promising. When we later learn the specific reasons for his fury, we, like his mom and dad, may not agree that they condone his behavior.

Nya, who sees her aspirations for her son endangered, is devastated by what’s happened. Morisseau introduces us to her as a gifted educator teaching her students a brief but powerful poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool.” Its eight lines sum up the world of young blacks faced with bleak prospects, captured in the final phrase: “We die soon,” a fate she wants to shield Omari from.

To further point up the dangers in inner city schools, the only other school employees we meet are Dun (Jaime Lincoln Smith), a well-meaning security guard (who has a yen for Nya), and Laurie (Tasha Lawrence), a jaded, angry, white teacher, who finds herself having to break up a fight between two boys by herself becoming physically involved.
Heather Velazquez, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
As if the prevalence of such fighting needs further emphasis, many scene changes are accompanied by projections (designed by Hanna Wasileski) of what appear to be actual incidents of school violence. Interesting, yes, but, even with the offstage fight Laurie witnesses, they muddle the main subject, the overreaction of a troubled, middle-class black youth to a prep school instructor’s overzealous teaching. This is not the same thing as what the videos display.

The pipeline issues, while certainly real, don’t seem that well connected to the family drama surrounding Omari, a situation that, with a few tweaks, could apply as well to striving families of any ethnicity, regardless of its obvious pertinence for blacks. In other words, it’s hard to extrapolate larger social lessons regarding the difficulties in educating underprivileged minorities from Omari’s very specific situation; that would seem to lie more within the provenance of the Laurie subplot.

And one wonders why the otherwise verbally adept Omari—with his well-educated parents communicating in excellent English—speaks in ungrammatical homeboy locutions, like “Ain’t wanna leave that way” or “This is his words, not yours,” and is never corrected. It’s one thing for him to choose such language when speaking to his prep school girlfriend, Jasmine (Heather Velazquez), a Latina from an underprivileged family, similarly bright and given to a terrifically heightened version of teenage slang. It seems odd that Omari’s parents, so intent on his acquiring some of the perks of white privilege, pay his words no mind. You don’t have to be a sergeant in the grammar police to want your child to speak properly, especially when you do.
Morocco Omari, Namir Smallwood. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s staging of this 90-minute drama varies the locales (classroom, meeting room, dorm, waiting room, etc.) via minimal scenic units rolled on in front of a set (designed by Matt Saunders) showing a towering white, cinderblock wall with a metal door set in it, suggesting institutional oppression. Yi Zhao’s mostly bright lighting intensifies the effect.

Montana Levi Bianco’s costumes suitably reflect what these characters might wear, with the most noteworthy being Nya’s casual chic of high-heeled boots, skintight jeans, pale blue shirt, and thin, smart jackets or thin, hip-length sweaters; the twisting and tying of the latter's halves give her something with which to occupy her hands.
Namir Smallwood, Karen Pittman. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Blain-Cruz keeps the pace brisk and the energy fierce as her actors engage in a series of high-temperature confrontations, often abandoning naturalism for poetic realism. These scenes sometimes overdramatize what’s being said; luckily, Morisseau’s richly colorful dialogue sizzles and the cast is top-notch at expressing the characters’ rage and frustration.

Blain-Cruz gets a striking performance from Pittman as the distraught Nya, chain smoking (albeit, like many actors nowadays, unconvincingly) and even hitting the bottle; a deft and passionate one from Smallwood as Omari, although he’s too old for the role; a scene-stealing one from Velazquez as the defiant but vulnerable Jasmine; a commanding one from Omari as Xavier, the father who substitutes financial for emotional support; a ferocious one by Lawrence as a teacher at the end of her tether; and a proud one from Smith as Dun, a caring man in a stressful job.

It isn’t the best example of Morisseau’s work, and it does sometimes get clogged, but Pipeline keeps on pumping when other plays might have run out of gas. 

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:




Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse

Lincoln Center, NYC

Through August 27











Tuesday, July 11, 2017

42 (2017-2018): Review: AMERIKE--THE GOLDEN LAND (seen July 10, 2017)

"Let Them In"

Last summer it was the glorious The Golden Bride, this year it’s Amerike—The Golden Land. With these shining examples, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene has struck a rich lode of affecting musical ore expressing the experience of Jewish immigrants to our glittering if somewhat tarnished nation.
Isabelle Nesti, Bobby Underwood, Alexandra Frohlinger, Grant Richards, Dani Marcus. Photo: Victor Nechay.

Daniel Kahn, Alexandra Frohlinger, Glenn Seven Allen. Photo: Victor Nechay.
The show began in 1982 and continued to evolve over the years, with additional productions. The most recent was at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in 2012, about which I wrote in the early days of this blog  when I had little time for more than a cursory notice:

Let me make this simple. THE GOLDEN LAND, a Yiddish-English musical produced by the Jewish National Theatre—Folksbiene, is wonderful. That’s W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L. To paraphrase one of its songs, "Oy, oy, I liked it." . . . I hope you shlep your tuchus down to Baruch and kvell at this delightful assortment of songs that capture the Jewish immigrant experience. . . . You don’t have to be Jewish to like THE GOLDEN LAND. 

The revival of this heartfelt tribute to Jewish immigration’s place in American history couldn’t come at a better time nor be presented at a more appropriate place, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in full view of both Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Dani Marcus, David Perlman, Stephanie Lynne Mason. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Unlike The Golden Bride, a revival of a 1923 Yiddish musical, Amerike is a revue, stringing together three dozen disparate but remarkably expressive Yiddish songs. There are also a couple in English, like the still powerful “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” by “Yip” Harburg and Jay Gorney, or Irving Berlin’s “Give Me Your Tired Your Poor,” using Emma Lazarus’s famous words. 
David Perlman, Daniel Kahn. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Connecting them is a slight narrative, by Moishe Rosenfeld and Zalmen Mlotek, about Eastern European immigrants coming to America at the turn of the 20th century, starving, striving, and struggling to breathe free as they gradually assimilate into mainstream society. The immigrant experience itself, pertinent as it is, eventually merges into what seems a greatest hits list of Jewish-American issues over the first half of the 20th century.
Glenn Seven Allen, Dani Marcus. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Laughs pepper the plot but, while it gets the evening’s biggest response, the show could do without that groan-worthy old chestnut about the refugee at Ellis Island using the Yiddish expression for “I can’t remember” and, because of what it sounds like, being given the name Sean Ferguson. I saw it coming minutes before it arrived. Oy gevalt!
Dani Marcus, Glenn Seven Allen, and company. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Amerike takes us through the years, as fashions change, from the Ellis Island days through those of the tenement dwellers and pushcart peddlers, the Triangle Fire, the citizenship process, World War I recruitment, the Yiddish theatre, unionism, WEVD radio (commercials and all), the Depression, and the immediate postwar world of displaced persons (d.p.’s as we used to call them). Some material, while given a Jewish slant, is not specifically ethnic—like the Depression—while the Holocaust is treated in only a perfunctory way.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
The show’s surprises lie not in its historical facts but in how appealing are its less well-known songs, like Boris Thomashevsky and Joseph Rumshinsky’s “Uptown, Downtown” or Rumshinsky and Louis Gilrod’s “Fifty-Fifty.”
Alexandra Frohlinger, David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Stepanie Lynne Mason. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Seven gifted performers play 10 named roles backed by a chorus of six but so many years pass, so many costumes are worn, and so little character evolution occurs that following any particular character’s arc becomes insignificant, if not impossible. Instead, you’re best off simply giving yourself over to the panoply of musical delights, many of which will be familiar only to klezmer aficionados.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Others, like Aaron Lebedeff’s tongue-twisting “Roumania, Roumania” or Jacob Jacobs and Alexander Olshanetsky’s melodically moving “Mayn Sthtetle Belz,” will be immediately recognizable to most Jews of a certain age—from the nonobservant to the orthodox—who grew up when bar mitzvah entertainers thought hip hop was a sidewalk game.
Isabelle Nesti, Dani Marcus, Maya Jacobson, Raquel Nobile. Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
There’s schmaltz, of course; no one sings “My Yiddishe Momme” but a bereaved momme does sing of her deceased, teenage daughter. Still, the overall tone is upbeat and positive, with swelling voices, vaudeville-style choreography, and cheerful comedy. It’s inescapable that the 90-minute, intermissionless show, which offers a brief klezmer concert during the curtain calls, will get a standing o.
Alexander Kosmowski, Isabel Nesti, Alexandra Frohlinger, Daniel Kah, David Perlman, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Bobby Underwood, Grant Richards, Raquel Nobile. Photo: Victor Nechay.
And, for those whose Yiddish is restricted to the choicer items in Leo Rosten’s hilarious The Joys of Yiddish, you’ll appreciate the English (and Russian, if you’re so inclined) surtitles; if you’re close to the stage, though, you may not appreciate the crick in your neck you’ll get from reading them. A suggestion: place them on the sides of the stage as well.
David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Glenn Seven Allen, Bobby Underwood, Alexander Kosmowsky.  Photo: Victor Nechay. 
Nostalgic and sentimental as it can be, Amerike’s view of the aspiring masses who surged here in the late 19th and early 20th century is a potent plea for our nation to open, not close, our borders to asylum seekers fleeing their hellish existence in oppressive, war-torn countries. 

Not that the Jewish immigrants coming here always found welcoming arms—we see  how even their fellow Jews exploited them as landlords and bosses—but, over time, they assimilated and became an integral, essential part of what made and continues to make America great. When a man in a crowd scene says Holocaust refugees seeking entry should be rejected on the grounds of “America first,” a chill ran down my spine. America first does not mean America great.
Front: Raquel Nobile, Maya Jacobson, Alexandera Frohlinger, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, Isabel Nesti. Back row: David Perlman, Daniel Kahn, Grant Richards, Glenn Seven Allen, Alexander Osmowski, Bobby Underwood.. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Kudos to Bryna Wasserman for her marvelous staging, Zalmen Mlotek for his musical direction, and Merete Muenter for her “movement” (what’s wrong with “choreography”?). Also contributing mightily are Jason Le Courson’s set, using sliding panels to vary the visual effect; Izzy Fields’s multitude of period-evoking costumes; Courson's video projections, including old-time New York street scenes; Yael Lubetzky's versatile lighting; and Patrick Calhoun’s expert sound design.
Alexandra Frohlinger. Photo: Victor Nechay.

Glenn Seven Allen, Daniel Kahn, David Perlman. Photo: Victor Nechay.
And mazel tov to the entire cast, especially the leads, several of whom appeared in last year’s The Golden Bride: Glenn Seven Allen, Alexandra Frohlinger, Jessica Rose Futran, Daniel Kahn, Dani Marcus, Stephanie Lynne Mason, and David Perlman. I’m told that only Kahn, who offers an outstanding “Roumania, Roumania,” is truly fluent in Yiddish, while, of the principals, half have performed in Yiddish and half are completely new to it. An amazing job.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
A major reason for their success is Yiddish diction coach Motl Didner, whose pre-show, 15-minute, introductory primer on the language I urge you to visit. Didner’s expressive teaching even got me to remember some of my own long lost Yiddish words. My fluent, Brooklyn-born mother, would have kvelled.
Company of Amerike--The Golden Land. Photo: Victor Nechay.
Be you Galitzianer, Litvak, Poylish, or any variety of goy, you’ll be doing yourself a mitzvah by visiting Amerike—The Golden Land or, as they used to say on Hester Street, the goldeneh medina.


OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place, NYC
Through August 6










Friday, July 7, 2017

40 (2017-2018): Review: NAPOLI, BROOKLYN (seen July 6, 2017)

"After the Fall"

On the snowy morning of Friday, December 16, 1960, when I was 20 and still living with my parents in Brooklyn, a catastrophe I can still remember occurred in Park Slope, several miles from home. That event, recreated with sudden explosive force toward the end of Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn, is far more powerfully dramatic than anything else in her heartfelt but otherwise patchy depiction of dysfunction in a Park Slope family when the event—described with photos on lobby placards—occurred.
Elise Kibler, Lilly Kay, Jordyn DiNatale. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Napoli, Brooklyn is about the Muscolinos, vaguely reminiscent of the Carbones in Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Nic (Michael Rispoli, “The Sopranos”) and Ludovica a.k.a. Luda (Alyssa Bresnahan) Muscolino—stereotypes both—are the heavily-accented, opera-loving, immigrant parents of three daughters. This irks the macho Nic, a contractor, who gets one of the play’s few laughs by blaming the local water for his not having produced a son. Nic, a bully who lashes out physically when aggrieved, has beaten his 26-year-old daughter Vita (Elise Kibler) so badly she's forced to recover from the broken nose he inflicted on her amidst the silent nuns in a prison-like convent.
Jordyn DiNatale, Michael Rispoli. Photo: Joan Marcus.
His middle daughter, the rough-spoken, 20-year-old Tina (Lilli Kay), sacrificing herself for her family, has a tedious job at a Kentile factory, where her friend and coworker, an African-American woman named Celia Jones (Shirine Babb), encourages her to get an education. In a moment of overstatement by director Gordon Edelstein, we see that Celia’s an avid reader when she takes a five-second break from stacking tiles to glance at a book she keeps in her apron. (By the by, if you happen to know how Kentile, decades later, fell into major legal trouble because of litigation over asbestos poisoning, you’ll realize the extent of Tina’s sacrifice.)

The youngest daughter, 16-year-old Francesca (Jordyn DiNatale), has recently taken the scissors to her hair, a reflection of her lesbian inclinations. Francesca’s inamorata is another teen, Connie Duffy (Juliet Brett), with whom she plots to stowaway to Paris (Nic was a stowaway from Naples) where their love will no longer be forbidden.
Erik Lochtefeld, Alyssa Bresnahan. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Connie’s the daughter of the local butcher, Irish immigrant Albert Duffy (Eric Lochtefeld), who, in his gentlemanly way, professes his affection for Luda. She, the family’s backbone and master chef, is the play’s heart and soul, struggling to maintain a sense of love and decency amidst the anger and pain inflicted by Nic, with its consequent bitterness among the three sisters.
Michael Rispoli, Jordyn DiNatale, Elise Kibler, Alyssa Bresnhan, Erik Lochtefeld, Shirine Babb, Lilli Kay. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Act One slowly sets up these multiple character and plot strands, showing the problems everyone faces in trying to live at peace with one another, and how the differing goals of each sister are on the brink of disrupting whatever family unity remains. Then, Boom! As in life, when least expected, tragedy strikes. Act Two, which examines the aftermath, seeks to bring a resolution to the group dynamic.

The Christmas dinner that brings everyone together to relish Luda’s pasta has the single most moving moment, but it’s between the minor characters of Duffy and Celia, whose dark-skinned face, it might be noted, Nic can’t bring himself to look at. Given the racial feelings of people like him during the period, it’s next to astonishing he even allows her into his house. Also effective is Luda’s proto-feminist speech of encouragement to Connie at the end, although it seems more like the voice of the playwright speaking than the character herself.
Lilli Kay, Shirine Babb, Alyssa Bresnahan, Elise Kibler, Jordyn DiNatale, Erik Lochtefeld, Michael Rispoli. Photo: Joan Marcus.
While the multiple narrative strands tend to weaken the overall emotional impact, the writing is often too self-conscious to fully engage interest and belief. Giving Luda a habit of revealing her fear of losing her faith by having her speak to an onion because she's no longer able to cry is a disturbing bit of whimsy. So is having Tina soliloquize her thoughts in what’s otherwise a play of kitchen-sink realism.

Several elements don’t always pass the plausibility test. Nic’s violence seems more forced than organic; it takes so little to push his buttons it’s a wonder he’s not up the river. And, for all their assumed difficulties with English,  Nic and Luda's vocabulary and syntax strain credibility. But even these flaws could easily be overlooked if the company wasn’t so disparate in its ability to recreate this specific time and place.

Edelstein’s direction has not been able to create a cohesively believable tone, not even with the help of dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Without that tone, every inauthentic intonation and pronunciation—whether Italian, Irish, or Brooklynese—reminds you that the right casting (even with Italian-American actors) of plays like this can solve 9/10s of their problems. They may have grown up together, for instance, but each sister sounds like she’s from another neighborhood. Certainly, it's smart to differentiate them, but this way is too distracting. Still, artificial Italian accent aside, Bresnahan stands out for the fortitude and wisdom she conveys as the indomitable Ludovica.

Eugene Lee’s spare setting, its backdrop showing a row of 19th-century brownstones, allows for the episodic narrative and multiple locations to be represented mainly by overhead signs—a tile factory, a butcher shop, Jesus on the Cross, and a stained glass window. The period-perfect costumes are by the redoubtable Jane Greenwood, while Ben Stanton’s lighting keeps the intensity low until he and Lee together, abetted by sound designer Fritz Patton, create the memorable effect that brings Act One to a climax.

Meghan Kennedy, whose Too Much, Too Much, Too Many was a Roundabout selection in 2013, is a promising playwright. Napoli, Brooklyn shows that the promise remains; fulfillment, though, is yet to come.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 W. 46th St., NYC
Through September 3