Monday, April 14, 2014


As the New York theatre awards season comes busily racing toward its end my time is being busily gobbled up with constant theatergoing and awards deliberations. Thus I’m able to provide only brief reviews of the season’s final shows. I've also listed in chronological order shows that I’ve seen but that haven’t officially opened yet.

(Seen Monday April 7, 2014)

As the lights go down at the St. James Theatre at the start of this new musical comedy, set in the Roaring Twenties, a black-garbed, machine gun-toting hoodlum enters and lets loose a barrage of bullets aimed at the art deco show curtain, the bullet holes spelling out the title, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Judging by what follows, not a few of the bullets hit the show itself, leaving some holes that remain gaping throughout. That’s not to say that this adaptation by Woody Allen of his 1994 movie of the same title, with a screenplay by Allen and Douglas McGrath, is lacking in lots to admire; it’s only that what promised to be the season’s blockbuster show has turned out to be an uneven concoction, sharing with several others, like BIG FISH, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and FAR FROM HEAVEN, the distinction of being unable to turn a hit movie into an equally successful musical. At this point, the most successful such venture appears to be ALADDIN, based on the Disney animated film.

 Zach Braff, Marin Mazzie. Photo: Paul Kolnik. 

 BULLETS OVER BROADWAY company. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Mr. Allen’s movie, with its broadly written and heightened performances, is readymade for the musical comedy stage, but its current adaptation adds Pelion to Ossa, pushing the show too far into caricature and, except in a few instances, away from believability. The high points are William Ivey Long’s knockout costumes for the mobsters, chorines, and show biz figures, the multifaceted sets of Santo Loquasto, the scintillating lighting of Donald Holder, the smashing choreography of Susan Stroman (who also directed), and the dynamic performance of Nick Cordero in the Chaz Palmintieri part of the tough guy whose rewrites of a new play by young dramatist David Shayne (Zach Braff) are better than the original. For all Mr. Allen’s genius, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY’s biggest hole is its paucity of unforced laughs.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY company. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
To a degree this may be because Mr. Braff lacks humor; moreover, he’s only an ordinary singer, lacking charisma, and failing badly at channeling the Allen persona, which John Cusack did much better in the film. Much as I love watching and listening to her, Marin Mazzie’s turn as star actress Helen Sinclair goes a bit too far in a role that Ms. Wiest (who won the Academy Award) already was on the verge of overdoing; Heléne Yorke is irritatingly shrill in the Jennifer Tilley role of the dumb chorus girl, Olive Neal; and Karen Ziemba is wasted in the Tracey Ullman role as actress Eden Brent. Brooks Ashmanskas as the food-guzzling actor Warner Purcell brings comic zest and physical dexterity to the Jim Broadbent part, although he seems a bit too fey to be convincing as Olive’s potential lover.

Vincent Pastore, Heléne Yorke. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY uses a score made up of little-known and standard songs from the period, the familiar ones including “I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Runnin’ Wild,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” “There’ll Be Some Changes,” “Up a Lazy River,” and “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” which provides an energetic conclusion to the proceedings. Betsy Wolfe as Ellen, David’s wife, gives a terrific rendition of the classic “I’ve Found a New Baby,” joined by Mr. Braff, while the lesser-known “The Hot Dog Song,” sung by Olive, gets a farcically phallic production number with chorus boys dressed as frankfurters.  Most of the songs blend well with the book, but I would have preferred at least one emotionally moving ballad; the overall emphasis is on numbers with an upbeat tempo.

Marin Mazzie. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

BULLETS OVER BROADWAY may have enough going for it to become a hit. Still, it stands out from the rest of the season’s mediocre musical theatre offerings only in relative terms. I was hoping for a bazooka over Broadway but what I got was only a loud pistol.

(Seen Tuesday, April 8, 2014) 
I saw the Pan-Asian Repertory’s production of Hawaii-born playwright Edward Sakamoto’s play, FISHING FOR WIVES, at the Clurman Theatre at a morning show attended by a group of kids from Nathanial Hawthorne Middle School, in Bayside, Queens. The young audience was very attentive and well-behaved, although there were some sexually suggestive scenes, including one in which a presumably lesbian character massages another woman in a private place, which caused giggles and titters. Still, the boys and girls were more appreciative than I about a plot set in 1913 Hawaii, about Nishi Takeo (Viet Vo), a young Japanese immigrant fisherman, who sends for a Japanese picture bride, using a photo of his good-looking friend Aoki Tsutomu (Bobby Foley) instead of his own. The woman, Yamamoto Shizuko (Kiyo Takami), arrives, but, although she weds the unattractive Takeo, who is frequently compared to a toad, she makes no bones about her attraction to Tsutomu.

From left: Viet Vo, Kiyo Takami, Bobby Foley. Photo: John Quincy Lee.

Various comic complications evolve, including the sending to Japan by Tsutomu’s father for a picture-bride to marry his son. Umeko (Rebecca Lee Lerman) arrives but suffers from jealousy so she’s sent back, which also happens to Ihara Aiko (Akiko Hiroshima), who’s into kabuki dancing and martial arts, and has an inclination toward Shizuko. She, too, is sent back, so a third woman is sent for.  As with the other brides, she is first introduced by showing her onboard the ship from Japan, seasick and worried about what faces her in Hawaii. This device proves repetitive and unnecessary. The third wife, Murashima Miki (Allison Hiroto), turns out to be as solid as an oak and a stabilizing influence on all concerned. Shizuko, who until now has exerted all her efforts to making sure no woman gets between her and Tsutomu, alters her behavior after Takeo appears to have drowned, and all comes to a happy end.

The value of Mr. Sakamoto’s play lies in its picture of how Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii, where they became a dominant force, and were assimilated into American culture. As a play, however, it suffers from stereotypical characters, simplistic plotting, and bland dialogue.

Sheryl Lu’s low-budget set design, which emphasizes the folk-like nature of the material, offers only a scenic backdrop showing a postcard-like picture of a beach in Hawaii, with raised, pier-like planking downstage of and parallel to it. Carol A. Pelletier’s costumes, however, especially the women’s kimonos, offer a touch of authenticity to the show. Ron Nakahara’s direction is stiff and unimaginative, and the acting earnest but unimpressive. There is, however, a well-done sequence combining Marie Yamamoto’s lighting, Ian Wehrle’s sound design, and Mr. Vo’s miming that gives a valid impression of someone drowning.

While the rather fishy play failed to lure me, I can’t say the same for the student audience, which went for the play, hook, line, and sinker.

(Seen Tuesday, April 8, 2014)

All you need to say is Audra McDonald if you want to symbolize first-class, Broadway-level singing and acting talent.  Combine that five-time Tony Award winning name in a show whose title bears another that carries with it the aura of invincible musical ability and you’d seem to have a sure-fire guarantee of success. And that would seem to be the strategy behind the revival of LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL, by Lanie Robertson, a 1986 play with music (or musical, as some might consider it), which originally starred Lonette McKee as Billie Holiday in a lauded production at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

Audra McDonald, Shelton Becton. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Audra McDonald, Roxie. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Billie Holiday, as she was in March 1959, might not seem a perfect fit for the robustly healthy-looking Ms. McDonald, as the late singer was then several months away from her death of cirrhosis and heart failure, and was a gaunt impression of her former self. But when the theatre magic of a great performer embodying that of another is before you, you tend to forgive such discrepancies, which in lesser circumstances might be game changers.

LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL directed by Lonnie Price, takes place in the eponymous Philadelphia saloon where Lady Day is giving one of her last performances, and is essentially a monologue to her patrons about her life and its vicissitudes; most of the material is gloomy but there are a couple of funny stories. Much of the same biographical material was presented in LADY DAY earlier in the season, when Dee Dee Bridgewater played the great jazz singer in a show built around her behavior during a rehearsal (see my review under the October 2013 listings). Billie Holiday had a rough life, racial and addiction issues being only part of the mix, but this troubled soul transformed her feelings into a distinctive jazz style matched by very few.

Billie has several brief colloquies with her piano player, Jimmy Powers (Shelton Becton), but the other musicians, a drummer (Clayton Craddock) and bassist (George Farmer), say nothing; their smooth ensemble playing, though, makes a great contribution to the production. The Circle in the Square’s oblong arena has been converted into the semblance of a night club, with cabaret tables in the U-shaped pit, a bandstand at the far end, and a bar at the other. Projections behind the bandstand of people in her life are occasionally shown. The singer, wearing a beautiful white gown, designed by Isosa, remains mainly on the bandstand but does amble off to the bar, and exits at one point to reemerge with her tiny Chihuahua Pepi (Roxie). Now and then she has some interplay with male patrons in the cabaret section. She drinks a lot and, judging by the way she wears one of her white gloves at one point, has been injecting herself with heroin while offstage.

Ms. McDonald sings 15 songs, most of them in full, so the evening has the feel of a concert performance. The familiar songs are there, including “God Bless the Child,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Strange Fruit,” “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (also being heard in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, with a different spelling for the first word), and many more, all sung in the classic Holiday style, but sometimes with a slight slur to suggest the artist’s being high. When Lonette McKee played the role in 1986, D.J.R. Bruckner wrote in his New York Times review, “Her voice is thrilling. She does not mimic Holiday's sound, and certainly not her tempos. But she gives the impression that somehow Billie Holiday has got inside her and is emerging through her. Her musicianship is faultless, and so is her acting. The woman she embodies is dying, but what impresses one is her strength. It is not desperate or agonized. She seems a beautiful, ruined piece of nature.” Ditto for Ms. McDonald.

(Seen Wednesday, April 9, 2014: matinee)
Opens April 17.

(Seen Wednesday, April 9, 2014: evening)

José Rivera’s ADORATION OF THE OLD WOMAN at INTAR, the W. 52nd Street company that champions Latino theatre, has a cast including Raul Castillo of TV’s “Looking” (he got his start here), but the performer who stands out for me in this generally well-acted piece of magic realism is the pretty young actress Carmen Zilles, who plays Vanessa, a Paterson, New Jersey 17-year-old with an attitude and, when first seen, punkish tastes. Carmen’s parents send her down to a small, rural town in Puerto Rico sometime in “the near future” to stay with her great grandmother, Doña Belen (Socorro Santiago), a spry and foul-mouthed but very pious old woman who claims to be between 100 and 150 years old, and whose bedroom is haunted by the angry ghost of Adoración (Danielle Davenport), the mistress of Doña Belen’s late husband.
Raul Castillo, Socorro Santiago. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

The place of the ghost in this multiple-strand play is tenuously related to its concerns with the coming of age story of Vanessa, a political conflict regarding whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state, potentially weakening its identity, or an independent country, and the romantic entanglements of Vanessa with two young men, Ismael (Mr. Castillo), a smooth-talking real estate agent who argues for statehood, and the radical Cheo (José Joaquín Peréz), who decides to switch from peaceful agitation to revolutionary action when the voters opt for statehood.  As Vanessa, whose falls for Cheo, gets more and more comfortable in her new environment, even diligently learning Spanish, she blossoms into a young lady with growing affection for Puerto Rico and her previously neglected heritage, a transformation made palpably credible by Ms. Zilles.

Socorro Santiago, Danielle Davenport. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

There’s much good writing in this poetic but dramatically lumpy play; the dialogue is often rich and salty, with much to ponder intellectually, politically, and emotionally, but the ghost and her story don’t work for me nor does its dramatic payoff. (I must add that my companion had a much more positive response.) Although most of the play is in English, Mr. Rivera and director Patricia McGregor have found a way to make it clear when people are talking English or Spanish by tonal and verbal means.
Carmen Zilles, José Joaquín Peréz. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ryan Howell’s functional set, well lit by Miguel Angel Valderamma, divides Doña Belen’s shanty-like house into a bedroom and living room, and surrounds the space around the set with a brown sand-like substance that a friend thought, from the smell, to be crushed cocoa beans. Dede M. Ayite’s costumes establish the characters well, and the red dress worn by Ms. Zilles looks great on her, but whoever’s responsible for the awful wig worn by Ms. Santiago should have their hair shaved off as punishment for creating such an eyesore in an otherwise nicely integrated piece. 

(seen Thursday, April 10, 2014)
Opens April 16.

(Seen Friday, April 11, 2014)
Opens April 21, 2014.

(Seen Saturday, April 12, 2014: matinee)
Opens April 20, 2014.

(Seen Saturday, April 12, 2014: evening)
Opens April 21, 2014. 

(Seen Sunday, April 13, 2014: matinee) 

My second visit this season to the tiny cell theatre (spelled with lower case letters), situated on W. 23rd Street in what appears to be a 19th-century building that once was a private home, was to see Christopher Randolph’s wonderfully integrated staging of THE INTERNATIONAL, a three-character piece reportedly based on the 1995 Bosnian-Serbian war, although not specifically mentioned as such in the script. The previous piece I reviewed here, given by another company, was HARD TIMES, a fine musical about Stephen Foster. THE INTERNATIONAL, presented by the Origin Theatre Company, is a serious 90-minute play about moral responsibility during a horrendous conflict. (The play was premiered in a 2013 workshop production as part of Origin’s Next Generation Series during its 1st Irish Theatre Festival.)

From left: Ted Schneider, Carey Van Driest, Timothy Carter. Photo: Michael Priest.

The audience sits on straight-back metal chairs, each with a thin foam pad, facing a hanging triptych of abstract paintings whose images you may find some meaning in before the play concludes. Similar pictures hang on either wall; presumably they are the work of set designer James Maloff. The three characters are first seen observing these pictures as if in an art gallery, but when the play proper begins they each remain on or very near a small bench of their own. Hans (Timothy Carter) is a graying Dutchman in corduroy jacket and plaid shirt who occupies upstage left; Irene (Carey Van Driest), down center, is a Bosnian Muslim wearing a form-fitting black top and long black skirt, her hair tightly covered in a kerchief; and Dave (Ted Schneider), an American living in Los Angeles, wears the casual clothes of an average young husband and father. The costumes are by Tristan Raines.

There’s no dialogue among the three characters, each of whom delivers their own narrative, interwoven with the others, until we gradually understand how they are all related. Irene, a farmwoman, is a witness and victim of the war when it comes to her village, expressing the horrors she was forced to undergo to save her child, and undergoing an erosion of her identity. Hans is an increasingly frustrated officer in the International (the UN isn’t mentioned), a peacekeeping battalion stationed in the war zone to protect the local citizens from the unnamed enemy but prevented by legal restrictions from fighting unless attacked. And Dave is a struggling artist/truck driver, hoping to save his marriage by winning $1,000 to take his wife and child to Disneyland, bets with his male relatives on the outcome of the war, which he watches on TV, and which—despite his conflicted feelings—he wants to end badly for the people being attacked so that he can win the money.

Each is exceptionally well acted by the trio, which forms a wonderful ensemble, albeit one without direct interaction or dialogue with the others. One might argue with minor elements of their performances, such as Ms. Van Driest’s too-frequent tendency to chuckle at some of her comments as a sort of self-defensive tic against letting the enormity of what she’s gone through overwhelm her. Mr. Carter begins with a mildly Dutch accent but as the play proceeds it takes on a British tinge. Nevertheless, the performance, while dealing with material that—apart from Dave’s wager—is not especially new (plays and films emphasizing the inhumanity of human beings during war are rather common), keeps you riveted, especially with the actors so close. I was especially impressed by the presence of the striking Ms. Van Driest, who has a strikingly statuesque physique and a facial bone structure that, when effectively lit, as it is here by Derek Van Heel, gives her an appearance that would make her ideal for classical roles.

Mr. Van Heel, working on a low budget, makes the most of it, not only by his lighting of Ms. Van Driest, but by what he does to illuminate the paintings, especially the triptych, which the lights reveal as actually translucent. THE INTERNATIONAL ties its simple visual elements together with a brilliantly coordinated sound design by Benjamin Furiga in a superbly blended way so that they mesh seamlessly with the outstanding acting of the three performers. This is good theatre about a disturbing situation that deserves strong support.

(Seen Sunday, April 13, 2014: evening)
Opens April 15, 2014.