Wednesday, December 23, 2015

125. Review: THESE PAPER BULLETS! (seen December 20, 2015)

"Much Ado about Mugging"
Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of THESE PAPER BULLETS!, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.

Holiday Greetings and 10 Best List

Dear friends:
This is my last review of 2015. I hope to be back in 2016, but, for now, I want to wish you all a Happy New Year and to thank you for reading my posts. I reviewed 196 shows in 2015, and would have covered even more had I been able to wrangle press seats to them. But that's another story.

I recently was asked to pick my ten best shows of the year for inclusion on the Theater Pizzazz website. Here’s what I came up with.


Obviously, they’re not all great plays or musicals, but each one affected me so memorably--by some combination of its thoughtfulness, humor, music, production, performances, or emotional values--that just seeing its title was enough to demand its inclusion.  

I originally included the Broadway production of HAND TO GOD but removed it after seeing THE COLOR PURPLE. HAND TO GOD was one of my choices when it was premiered Off Broadway last year, so it had to go when I was bowled over by THE COLOR PURPLE. If you’re wondering why such highly praised shows as THE KING AND I, THE HUMANS, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF aren’t represented, it’s because press seats were strictly limited. I also tried to keep several Off Broadway shows on the list, which is why, for example, SCHOOL OF ROCK isn't listed.

Thanks again for your support, and a special shout out to those who’ve signed up to follow me on!

Please continue to check THEATER PIZZAZZ and THE BROADWAY BLOG, where you'll find excellent coverage of the New York theatre scene by a number of other writers.

See you on the aisle in 2016.



Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 West Twentieth Street, NYC
Through January 10
Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Full company. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
James Barry, Lucas Papaelias, Justin Kirk, Bryan Fenkart. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Liz Wisan, Bryan Fenkart, Andrew Musselman, Christopher Geary. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Nicole Parker, Justin Kirk, Liz Wislan, Ariana Venturi, Stephen DeRosa. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Nicole Parker, James Barry. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
James Barry, Christopher Geary, Bryan Fenkart, Lucas Papaelias, Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
James Barry, Lucas Papaelias, Bryan Fenkart, Christopher Geary. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Bryan Fenkart, James Barry, Lucas Papaelias, Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Nicole Parker, Stephen DeRosa, Ariana Venturi, Brad Heberlee, Bryan Fenkart, Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Bryan Fenkart, James Barry, Lucas Papaelias, Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Ariana Venturi, Nicole Parker, Liz Wisan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Nicole Parker, Justin Kirk. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Monday, December 21, 2015

124. Review: MARJORIE PRIME (seen December 19, 2015)

Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of MARJORIE PRIME, please click on THE BROADWAY BLOG.


Playwrights Horizons
426 West Forty-Second Street, NYC
Through January 24

Sunday, December 20, 2015

123. Review: HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE (seen December 18, 2015)

“Just Like a Pasta Fazool”
Remember “That’s Amore,” the song you hear at the start of the 1987 flick MOONSTRUCK, where Dean Martin sings “When the stars make you drool just like a pasta fazool”? Ever wonder what he’s talking about? Well, it’s a way of saying pasta a fagioli, a tasty, meatless dish of pasta and beans that came to mind as I watched Vincent Amelio’s HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE, a not entirely meatless romantic comedy about the Idellos, a bakery-owning New York Italian-American family and their women-addicted son, Alfo (Christopher Thom).
Nick DeSimone, Christian Thom, Armen Garo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This lightweight Italian-American soup of stereotypes and verbal clich├ęs, may, in fact, make you think of MOONSTRUCK itself, if only to ALFO’s detriment. Both tell of a single person—Alfo is 36, the movie’s heroine is 37—struggling with commitment issues while trapped in a tradition-bound family matrix of mother, father, and grandpa (among others). There are other echoes of MOONSTRUCK in ALFO, even including a bakery, but the plots are quite different. In the author’s words, “The play comes down to one statement: A man who adores women cannot find the one woman he is meant to love forever.”
Robert Funaro, Armen Garo, Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Much of HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE (called HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE WOMEN in previous versions, including one for the 2010 New York Fringe Festival) takes place in the busy Idello Bakery, run by Alfo’s opera-loving dad, Sal (Robert Funaro), and mom, Maria (Joanna Bonaro). Also working there is Bellinda (Jenna D’Angelo), Alfo’s business-smart, but baking-challenged, big-haired sister, while hovering over all is the spirit of the bakery’s founder, Grandpa Idello (Armen Garo). The play mingles Alfo’s romantic issues with the sibling rivalry for succession to the business’s ownership, which will go to Alfo when and if he marries.
Christian Thom, Armen Garo, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Alfo's problems are disclosed during confession with a friendly young priest, Father Carmine (Nick DeSimone), which is just one of the ways the play mines familiar Catholic tropes for much of its humor. (An earlier version employed an attractive female therapist instead of a priest.) Alfo can’t commit to any one woman because he likes too many of them, even dating eight or nine at the same time. He also turns for advice to his chauvinistic childhood buddy, Tony Vallone (Dominick LaRuffa, Jr.), the malapropism-prone, “Jersey Shore” cugine who eventually marries cujinette Bellinda.
Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Meanwhile, the ghostly Grandpa, who’s waiting to get into heaven, comments on everything, particularly about his grandson’s romantic relationships. He becomes especially active when Alfo shows an interest in Bellinda’s still single girlhood friend, Gianna Gionfrida (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), Alfo’s teenage crush (she's three years older), who suddenly shows up after being out of touch for 20 years. (The action shifts between time periods.) Grandpa springs into action, telling him exactly what to say to her, almost like Cyrano whispering lines to Christian in CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

This whimsical device quickly becomes annoying, partly because it’s overdone and partly because the hulking physical presence of Armen Garo (a former kickboxing champ who resembles Brian Dennehy) steals focus, dwarfing the indeterminate Alfo. Alfo—like the insipid Christian—becomes more of a shadow than his dead grandfather; his ability to see and hear the old man in the presence of others, not to mention his own talking back, suggests the guy’s got too much cheese in his cannoli.
Christian Thom, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE, which runs an hour and 45 minutes with an unnecessary intermission, actually contains some appealing material; surprisingly, though, considering all the actors with vowel-ending names—except for the pleasant but miscast Mr. Thom—the production rarely succeeds in realizing it. Some actors underplay, others are too broad, and the comic style never coalesces. Daisy Walker’s direction fails to inspire any urgency, there’s little rhythmic coherence, and several actors swallow their final words. Only Ms. Cipoletti seems just right.
Robert Funaro, Joanna Bonaro. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The technical elements hold few surprises: Steven C. Kemp's modest set, efficiently lit by Patricia M. Nichols, consists of a few functional pieces of furniture downstage of several shelved units displaying cakes. These can be moved aside (usually by Grandpa) to create openings or reversed to show more solid rear sides. Kevin R. Reed’s everyday costumes are more or less what you’d expect.
Jenna D'Angelo, Dominick LaRuffa, Jr., Joanna Bonaro, Robert Funaro, Lauren Nicole Cipoletti, Christian Thom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The audience laughed far more often at this pasta fazool than I, especially at the meager tidbits of comedic originality, as when Tony compares marriage to eating pizza. On the other hand, if you’re looking for the moon to hit you in the eye like a big pizza pie, I can’t promise it’ll happen at HOW ALFO LEARNED TO LOVE.


59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC
Through January 3

Saturday, December 19, 2015

122. Review: THE COLOR PURPLE (seen December 17, 2015)

“Color it Beautiful”
Stars range from 5-1
Cynthia Erivo, Joaquina Kalukango, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
If any current big-time director of musicals can be said to have an instantly recognizable brand it would have to be Scottish-born John Doyle, recently anointed artistic director of Off Broadway’s Classic Stage Company. That brand, noted for how efficiently it pares away the visual excesses of traditional staging to get at the heart of the material, is distinctively on display in his gloriously sung and acted revival of THE COLOR PURPLE. This, of course, is the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, whose original production—which I never saw—opened on Broadway in 2005 and ran for 910 performances, closing only seven short years ago. Mr. Doyle’s exciting version comes to the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre after a successful run at London’s intimate Menier Chocolate Factory. 
Antoine L. Smith, Patrice Covington, Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo, Isaiah Johnson, Kyle Scatliffe, Danielle Brooks. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
I say “sung and acted” but not “danced,” since only a few moments that might be thus described are present in Mr. Doyle’s swiftly paced “musical staging,” even though Donald Bird’s choreography in the original was nominated for a Tony. Unlike several other of the director’s productions (SWEENEY TODD, COMPANY, ALLEGRO), the actor-singers don’t also accompany themselves on musical instruments, but their marvelous voices are instruments enough. And the voice of voices—in a company of great ones—belongs to Cynthia Erivo, from the British cast, who soars to Broadway stardom in the role of Celie, which earned LaChanze a Tony in the 2005 production.
Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The narrative-rich show (adapted by Marsha Norman from Walker's novel), focusing on four women but mainly on Celie, is set mostly in a black community in Georgia. It spans 40 years in Celie’s life, from 1909 to 1949, beginning when she’s 14 and ending when she’s 54. When the story begins, the downtrodden girl, called “Po Chil,” gives birth to her second child by her presumed father, Pa (Kevyn Morrow), only for it to be taken away by him, just as he did with her first. The narrative follows her travails as she’s forced to marry the oppressive, whip-snapping farmer, Mister (Isaiah Johnson), who treats her more like a slave than a wife, and who angrily separates Celie from her beloved sister, Nettie (Joaquina Kalukango). Nettie moves to Africa, but Mister prevents Celie from seeing her letters, leading Celie to think her sister dead.
Danielle Brooks, Kyle Scatliffe. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Mister’s son, the sweet Harpo (Kyle Scatliffe), marries the prodigious Sofia (Danielle Brooks, “Orange Is the New Black”), who won’t let any man lord it over her and takes pity on the oppressed Celie. When Sofia leaves Harpo, he opens a juke joint and takes up with the squeaky-voiced waitress Squeak (Patrice Covington). Mister’s former lover, sultry singer Shug Avery (Jennifer Hudson), arrives to sing at Harpo’s place, and moves in with Mister and Celie, where she and the girl forge an emotional (and sexual) bond. A letter Shug finds reveals to Celie that Nettie is alive and serving as a missionary in Africa; Celie soon finds Nettie’s other letters and a correspondence, verbalized in the dialogue, ensues. And this skeletal outline covers only act one!
Jennifer Hudson and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Time passes; the characters grow older and wiser; broken relationships are healed; the abusive Mister undergoes a (credibility-straining) transformation; Celie finds new strength and confidence when she becomes a successful pants maker in Memphis, where she lives with Shug; and a joyful reunion brings all together for a powerfully moving finale.
Jennifer Hudson, Cynthia Erivo. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The complex, episodic action is beautifully simplified without a single scene change. Doyle himself designed the unit setting, lovingly lit by Jane Cox: a towering wall of crisscrossing planking on which hang a motley collection of wooden chairs, the same kind of chairs carried about and placed in multiple configurations by the actors to establish locales and scenic elements. Visual interest is enhanced by the imaginative use of sheets of fabric, from the white one Celie unravels from between her legs and bundles to suggest a newborn, to the colorful ones flapped in the air in a scene set in Africa. Ann Hould-Ward’s simplified period costumes, mostly in subdued tones except for Shug’s sexy red dress during her juke joint number, undergo few changes (like the wigs), despite the passage of time; thus the impression made when characters wearing Celie’s pants enter is that much more eye-catching.
Cynthia Erivo, Jennifer Hudson, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
THE COLOR PURPLE takes a strong feminist stance against patriarchal dominance, demonstrating the redemptive force of spiritual faith, and depicting the overcoming of oppression. Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray’s gospel, R&B, ragtime, and jazz score is filled with foot-stomping, roof-raising, and seductively balladic numbers, performed by a vibrantly talented ensemble topped by the remarkable Ms. Erivo. Her acting remains conversationally honest, in keeping with the production’s own minimalism, while her singing displays both sweet grace and rafter-shaking authority. Watching her evolve from subservient child-wife to proud, independent woman is an artistic revelation. And when she sings “Miss Celie’s Pants” or her 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here,” you’ll know what all the fuss is about.
Danielle Brooks, Patrice Covington, Cynthia Erivo, Bre Jackson, Carrie Compere, Rema Webb. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
But this takes nothing away from the sensational Danielle Brooks, who rocks the place with her explosive vocals, as in the gospel-shouting “Hell No!” nor from the magnificent Jennifer Hudson, making her Broadway debut, and demonstrating her multidimensional charisma. Her “Push da Button,” “Too Beautiful for Words,” “What About Love” (shared with Ms. Erivo), and “The Color Purple” define her star quality. Mr. Scatliffe, Mr. Johnson, and Ms. Covington couldn’t be better, which can also be said of the rest of the splendid 17-member troupe.

There are other Broadway shows getting rousing reactions from theatergoers, but the love and enthusiasm demonstrated by the audience when I attended, including loud responses to every suggestion of female empowerment, was unforgettable. If that reaction is typical, this revival of THE COLOR PURPLE may have the legs to outrun even the original. And you can color that beautiful.


Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West Forty-Fifth Street, NYC
Open run

Friday, December 18, 2015

121. Review: ANNIE (seen December 17, 2015)

"Little Awesome Annie (and the Kings)"

Stars range from 5-1.

For my review of ANNIE, please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Issie Swickle and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Lucy Werner, Garrett Deagon, Lynn Andrews. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Gilgamesh Taggett, Ashley Edler, Issie Swickle. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Gilgamesh Taggett, Issie Swickle, Jeffrey B. Duncan (in chair), and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

ANNIE company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

Foreground: Gilgamesh Taggett, Issie Swickle. Photo: Matthew Murphy.