Monday, August 27, 2018

Saturday, August 25, 2018

67 (2018-2019): Review: PRETTY WOMAN (seen August 23, 2018)


“The Billionaire and the Sex Worker” 




Twenty-eight years ago, in 1990, Donald Trump was a married playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman whose affair with actress Marla Maples led to his divorce that year from Ivana Trump. 

Andy Karl, Samantha Barks. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Also in 1990, the late Garry Marshall’s rom-com movie, Pretty Woman, appeared. It told of a playboy billionaire, a ruthless businessman who’s just broken up with his girlfriend, falling in love with a rough-edged professional sex worker. The pleasant fantasy of their unlikely affair, as embodied in the megawatt charisma of Richard Gere and 23-year-old Julia Roberts helped make this potentially tawdry tale into a blockbuster hit.

So, with today’s news cycle consumed with stories about Trump’s later, more egregious peccadilloes, especially the POTUS-pokes-porn star scandal, maybe this is the right moment for a Broadway adaptation of Pretty Woman’s Cinderella-like treatment of the billionaire falls for sex worker plot, in which each is positively transformed by their relationship. Apart from the title's commercial viability, there aren't too many other reasons to justify the show's existence.

Given the film’s success, and its continuing popularity, it was only a matter of time before it was monetized as a Broadway musical. It’s just as likely that the film that slightly trails it in domestic ticket sales in the same category, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, will one day celebrate its heroine’s nuptials on the Great White Way. If that happens, one can only hope for a sturdier offspring than what Pretty Woman has birthed.

The show, which is doing boffo business, is far from a disaster. Adapted from the original screenplay by its authors, Marshall and J.F. Lawton, the book sticks close to the movie, including much of its dialogue; even the program cover is a direct steal from the film’s poster, except for Vivian’s streetwalker ensemble being replaced by her iconic red gown.

Otherwise, the show has a pleasurable, if undistinguished score—lots of late 80s-sounding soft, country, and folk rock—by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance. Don’t expect to hear the famous Roy Orbison/Bill Dees song that gives the show its name, or any other tunes from the film’s triple platinum soundtrack.

Some songs border on the commonplace, like “Something About Her”; some too derivative, like “On a Night Like Tonight,” a tango number which may remind you of Evita’s “On This Night of a Thousand Stars”; some are confusing, like “Freedom,” ostensibly about personal feelings but suggestive of a political anthem; and some inspire big production numbers, like “Never Give Up on a Dream,” whose tired title says all you need to know about its novelty.
Eric Anderson, Samantha Barks, Andy Karl, Anna Ellinsfield, and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
The script, meanwhile, has been deflated by its morphing into a musical. Its use of songs that barely move the action forward or explore characters and themes necessitates a two and a half-hour production that takes the air out of whatever little dramatic action there is. Comedy lines and business are cluttered with clichés (including wheezers like “It’s been a business doing pleasure with you”), and Jerry Mitchell’s energetic direction and choreography substitute obviousness for nuance. Most seriously, its attractive, talented stars—Broadway veteran Andy Karl and Broadway newbie Samantha Barks—are unable to capture Gere and Roberts’s lightning in a bottle, thereby accenting the artificiality of the conceit.

Coming at a time when the best musicals are challenging the musical, staging, design, and thematic standards of the form, Pretty Woman, while superficially entertaining, is a throwback. Those classic predecessors now running in revivals only serve to highlight its shallowness. Its subject, a woman whose empowerment comes from her use of sex to snare a lavishly generous lover, is barely saved from its dated premise by its heroine’s determined desire for self-improvement.

Edward Lewis (Karl), the handsome, perfectly groomed tycoon, whose love life is crumbling, is in Los Angeles to oversee a hostile takeover of James Morse’s (Ezra Knight) company. He borrows the fancy sports car of his lawyer, Philip Stuckey (Jason Danieley), and gets lost in a sleazy spot on Hollywood Boulevard. There, he runs into a pretty, young prostitute, Vivian (Barks, Éponine in the movie of Les Misérables), who needs $300 to pay her rent.
Samantha Barks, Andy Karl. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Edward pays Vivian, who knows a thing or two about cars, to drive him back to his luxury hotel, where, because his girlfriend is no longer available, he makes a deal to pay Vivian $3,000 to be his escort for the week. She will have to attend various business-related functions. One is an elite polo match, which inspires a production number, “Welcome to Our World,” whose lovely costuming (by designer Gregg Barnes) instantly recalls the Ascot races scene in My Fair Lady.
                                                              
Just as that show’s Henry Higgins teaches flower seller Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady, so does Edward convert the crass, untutored Vivian into an elegantly dressed consort whose innate charm allows her to pass muster among his snooty circle. He even whisks her and that stunning red dress (and diamond necklace) off to San Francisco to see La Traviata, whose plot, of course, reflects his own relationship with Vivian. (Brava to Allison Blackwell for her Violetta aria!)
Andy Karl, Ezra Knight, Samantha Barks, Robby Clater. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Edward and Vivian’s relationship blooms, blows up (after he reveals her secret to the predatory Stuckey), then blossoms again, with Edward not only abandoning his cutthroat practices, but fulfilling Vivian’s childhood fantasy of rescuing her from a tower (her fire escape).
Orfeh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
Playing important supporting roles are another hooker, Vivian’s older, wiser, and more experienced friend, Kit, strongly sung by Orfeh (Legally Blonde), and several characters portrayed by the highly versatile Eric Anderson (Soul Doctor). Most notable are two, a jiving, Hollywood hipster cum narrator called Happy Man, and the punctilious but ultimately warmhearted hotel manager, Mr. Thompson, who only need snap his fingers and say Giulio (Tommy Bracco) for the diminutive, dancing bellhop of that name to appear.

As Edward, Broadway stalwart Karl (Rocky, Groundhog Day) adds another famous movie hero to his musical resume. For all his natural gifts, however, he’s unable to do more with this reactive role than be an attractive straight man to the vivacious Vivian. After all, his is the character of which Marshall said to Gere: “In this movie, one of you moves and one of you does not. Guess which one you are?”

In the role of the one who moves, British actress Barks reveals a dynamic voice well suited for pop singing. Like Roberts, her smile could sell toothpaste, but she falls a bit short of the spontaneity, naturalness, and innocent sophistication to make you believe she is Vivian, rather than acting her. The script says Edward falls in love with her. I had to suspend my disbelief.
Eric Anderson Orfeh. Photo: Matthew Murphy.
This is why the most memorable performance comes not from the leads but from Eric Anderson, who displays a noteworthy range of singing, acting, comic, and dancing skills in his several characters and numbers.

David Rockwell’s set for the multi-scened show moves from locale to locale with units flying and sliding in and out. These range from the simplified—hotel rooms, a booth at the opera, Rodeo Drive boutiques, and so on, often placed against the cyclorama—to the complex (Hollywood Boulevard, with a tenement building at one side). Most look familiar, like renegades from other shows. A small trap downstage allows for various surprise entrances and exits. The sets and actors are often used by Kenneth Posner and Phillip S. Rosenberg’s lighting to create pretty silhouettes against pastel backgrounds.

Cavils aside, it looks so far like Pretty Woman will keep walkin’ down the street. She seems to be what Broadway theatregoers like to meet.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

Nederlander Theatre
101 W. 41st St., NYC
Open run










Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sunday, August 12, 2018

63 (2018-2019): Review: LESS THAN 50% (seen August 10, 2018)


“And Now for Something Completely Different”






If you’re tired of conventional rom-coms and are looking for something a little different, something pretty funny, and with an unexpected twist, you may find it in Gianmarco Soresi’s self-described “unromantic comedy,” Less Than 50%, at the tiny Theater C at 59E59 Theaters.

Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco (if I may), who plays himself, is a tall, thin, bespectacled, standup comedian—father Catholic, mother Jewish—whose big-nosed looks he likens to Jeff Goldblum’s. His semiautobiographical play is influenced by Woody Allen via Annie Hall (considered semiautobiographical by some despite Allen’s disclaimers), which it frequently references. Nor can we overlook his affinity for film writer/director Charlie Kaufman, also mentioned; however, for all the play’s preoccupation with illusion and reality, we never hear the more obvious name of Luigi Pirandello.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Actually, Gianmarco’s aggressive persona (honesty first, people’s feelings second) is much closer to Larry David’s. There’s even a stealthy “pretty, pretty” slipped in at one point. As on David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” such a personality doesn’t augur well for romantic stability.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Less Than 50%, a title alluding to the dismal number of marriages that succeed in our divorce-prone age, is an essentially two-character play about Gianmarco’s on-again, off-again romantic relationship with an actress named Laura Catalano. The couple met when they were studying theatre in a conservatory and she was his scene partner in Romeo and Juliet.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco’s unusual setup is to tell his story by presenting it within the context of a standup routine. That is, he addresses us directly as himself, holding a mic and backed by several movable walls with comedy club bricks painted on them: Ashleigh Poteat is the designer, with terrific lighting by Driscoll Otto. The narrative, which covers several years, requires costumer Samantha Rose Lind to provide multiple outfits for Laura, while our hero wears a white shirt and black slacks throughout.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The 80-minute play alternates between his standup-style explanations and flashback scenes depicting his and Laura’s affair and his writing this play about it while in the process of performing it. Thus we see the ups and downs of the relationship as well as how it’s being dramatized, with helpful advice from Laura herself.

As performed, it’s not as complicated as this may sound: generally upbeat, it has bits of music and dance, lots of amusing lines, occasional profanity, and various theatricalist touches, nicely crafted by director Jen Wineman. Those touches include a sequence imagining the story as a surrealistic sitcom called Gianmarco! and one where the play’s principal actions are reenacted in fast-forward pantomime for an imagined upstage audience.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The comedy’s situations are more conventional than its format, dealing with subjects like marriage registries, the separation of Gianmarco’s parents soon after his birth, the use of dating services, therapy, getting the play performed at the New York Fringe Festival, Laura’s pregnancy concerns, handling a sprung mousetrap, confronting depression, and so on. Sometimes we’re forced to wonder where the play leaves off and life begins, or vice versa. It’s taken for granted that much of this is fictional but it’s also clear that much of it really happened (more or less).
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
Gianmarco wants to confuse the reality of what happens in the play with the reality on which it’s based, making it difficult not to disclose too many spoilers. I guess it’s safe to reveal that, as soon as the play begins, Gianmarco informs us that, because of certain circumstances, the actress playing Laura at this performance will be Laura herself, the actual person about whom the play was written. The veracity of this claim, of course, is belied by the program, but it’s the kind of riff on the play’s proximity to actuality with which the star likes to toy.

Toward the end comes an unexpected development that seems to bring the play to a halt as it makes a strong effort to conclude on a Pirandellian note. I’ll say no more about it other than to point out that such theatrical hanky panky is incredibly difficult to pull off successfully; this one may go a bit too far but, looking back on what's preceded it, you can't say it doesn't fit.
Gianmarco Soresi, Hannah Hale. Photo: Hunter Canning.
The audience when I attended, especially a group of women in their 40s, seemed to find much of the play a hoot; I, though, was more inclined to smile than to laugh out loud. Gianmarco Soresi’s humor, like Larry David’s, clever as it often is, often lacks subtlety and is a bit too self-conscious. Hannah Hale, though, is about as refreshing a comic find as any presently on a New York stage. This petite, baby-faced actress, with the faintest of lisps, is an adorable hand grenade of emotional and comedic shrapnel. Less Than 50% gets 100% out of her.

As for the show itself, let’s give it 25% more than 50%.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 1


Saturday, August 11, 2018

62 (2018-2019): Review: SUMMER SHORTS 2018: SERIES B (seen August 9, 2018)


"Three Nonidentical Stage Plays"



Series B. the second set of three one-acts at this year’s Summer Shorts festival, is only marginally better than Series A. That’s because it concludes with what is perhaps the best play in the festival, “Sparring Partners,” written by its best-known playwright, Neil LaBute, returning for his 10th consecutive season. The other two plays, Claire Zajdel’s “The Plot” and Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” are little more than undercard matches, neither of them a contender, placeholders for the main event.

The plays are performed on the same neutral, adaptable set of a curtain-like background with a central arch, designed by Rebecca Lord-Surratt, used in Series A. The lighting is by Greg MacPherson, the sound design and original music by Nick Moore, the costumes by Amy Sutton, and the projections—from gravestones to noirish images to scattered numbers—by Joshua Langman.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Series B is bookended by plays featuring verbal sparring. It opens with Zajdel’s “The Plot,” a featherweight family drama featuring a brother and sister in their mid to late 20s. Frankie Novak (Molly Broome) is an uptight lawyer just beginning her career at a big firm. Tyler Novak (Jake Robinson), her smartass, slacker brother, is a “freelancer. With emphasis on the word free.”
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
These contrasting siblings meet early one morning at the Niles, Illinois, cemetery, where their mom, Debra, has purchased family plots at a bargain price, even having her own headstone placed there. Their mission is to approve the site, even though mom has chosen not to come, communicating her unheard commentary via cellphone. Clearly, these grown children will be subject to their demanding mother’s authority even beyond this world.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As they plod about on the plots, Frankie’s spikes sinking in the sod, the siblings exchange mutually snarky swipes. These cover religion (their background is Catholic), life and death, the afterlife, cremation, depression, responsibility, their rivalry for mom’s affection, their parent’s separation, and their romantic futures. We’re in a graveyard, so ghosts also float into the dialogue. A few amusing quips, though, aren’t enough to compensate for “The Plot” being a play in search of a plot.
Molly Groome, Jake Robinson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In Series A, the characters do little but sit so you’d think a Series B play set in a cemetery with no visible benches would force them to stand. You’d be wrong, as the script finds opportunities for Frankie and Tyler not only to sit but lie and kneel on the grass, with the expected consequences for her lawyerly slacks. A seriously ridiculous scene (and a rare example of energetic physical activity) involves Frankie trying to dig up the headstone with one of her expensive shoes. Groome and Robinson do their best to overcome the exaggerations of their material, getting little help from director James Reese. This one is D.O.A.
Deandre Sevon, Lindsey Broad. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Equally lackluster is Eric Lane’s “Ibis,” which begins in a film noir style. Director Terry Berliner can do little more with this stylistic requirement than provide some mildly noirish music and a projection of light streaming through venetian blinds.
Lindsey Broad, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lane’s premise is that an African-American man named Tyrone (Deandre Sevon), 27, hires a female private eye with the pseudonym Sam Spade (Lindsey Broad) to find his long-missing father, Victor. In what Lane must think is droll humor, Sam Spade pretends never to have heard of Humphrey Bogart or The Maltese Falcon, although the dialogue soon engages in geeky movie references.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Tyrone’s mother has just passed away from cancer and he’s determined to locate Victor (Harold Surratt), who abandoned the family 20 years earlier and whose disappearance has produced a slew of rumors as to what became of him. Tracking Victor down proves fairly easy, given a certain change in his fortunes (hey, you never know). Reluctant father and anxious son thereby have a tense reunion. Eventually, their sentimental journey toward reconciliation concludes when Tyrone uses his mathematical gifts to prove that his emotionally resistant dad, who had a similar relationship with his own father, still has him on his mind.
Harold Surratt, Deandre Sevon. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Neither the situation, the humor, nor the shifting styles click. Aside from Surratt’s effectiveness as Victor, the other roles are miscast, with both Sevon and Broad lacking the required gravitas, the former being decidedly lightweight, the latter seeming more like a pretty college student in a black leather jacket than the Camels-voiced, hard-bitten P.I. the role suggests.

Regardless of her importance to the setup, Sam, whose potentially interesting past remains unexplored, turns out to be something of a red herring, dropping out well before the play ends. In fact, given what leads to Victor’s discovery, and the play’s reliance on coincidence, Tyrone could likely have found his father by himself. By the time “Ibis” ends, we’ve moved from film noir to film blah.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
With the program on the ropes, Neil LaBute’s “Sparring Partners,” while a minor work about a conventional office romance, nonetheless lands one on the chin with its tightly scripted, granularly acted depiction of the relationship between the anonymously named Man (KeiLyn Durrel Jones) and Woman (Joanna Christie). (Playwrights: enough with the Man-Woman/He-She nominals! Do we really need the morality play labels? Will a play about a transgender character use the pronoun They?)
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Woman, who is single, works for Man, who is married. The pair, mutually attracted, are having lunch on a park bench outside their place of employment. (Is there a rule that every one-act festival include at least one park bench play?) Their usual lunch activity is to play a trivia game involving movie stars and their films, a game at which Woman is much the better player, to Man’s deepening frustration. Much stage time is occupied by the game, which serves as a cover for their subtextual yearnings.
KeiLyn Durrel Jones, Joanna Christie. Photo: Carol Rosegg
Man is attracted to Woman but not so much that he’ll risk his marriage, depressing as it is. Woman, increasingly desperate, wants to move the affair to another level, forcing Man, fearful of going too far, to politely deflect her attentions, or else stop their meetings altogether. When Man’s wife calls him—isn’t it time cell phones got billing in the program?—we see just how much he’s under her thumb.

Woman uses the expression “an affair of the mind,” suggesting that, for all Man’s seemingly above-board behavior, he enjoys the thrill of the relationship, in which he exploits his power over his romantic adversary without having to see things through to a physical conclusion. 
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
What makes the play work are the subtle tensions in the characters’ relationship in terms of timing, nuance, and emotional reactions. Less successful is an implausible sequence in which the otherwise knowledgeable and canny Woman must be informed of her misuse of the word “gorgon” to refer to a man.
Joanna Christie, KeiLyn Durrel Jones. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Although this is yet another play about people sitting around talking, director J.J. Kandel makes the most of it, handling the ebb and flow of revelation, humor, rivalry, flirting, and recrimination with tasteful discrimination. Jones and Christie come closer to behaving like real people than any others in either series, creating a fine-tuned blend of script and performance in which each lifts the other to a higher level.

“Sparring Partners” may not be a championship play but, set against those it follows, it wins Series B by a TKO.

OTHER VIEWPOINTS:

59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through September 1