Saturday, January 25, 2020

154 (2019-2020): Review: FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: THE NEXT GENERATION (seen January 24, 2019)

“Everything About it Is Appealing”

Shout hallelujah, come on get happy! Judgment day has come again, judgment, that is, of the flops and fads, the hambones and hits, the artists and aspirants that contribute to the continuing survival of the Fabulous Invalid, down one minute and up the next.  

It’s been five and a half years since the last edition of Gerard Alessandrini’s Forbidden Broadway series, born 38 years ago and still finding furiously funny ways to burlesque, spoof, parody, and otherwise make digestible mincemeat of the American musical theatre, with enough room left to grind up a choice movie, TV show, or straight play. 
Aline Mayagoitia, Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin. All photos: Carol Rosegg.
The latest edition, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation, comfortably ensconced at the York Theatre in Jim Morgan’s multi-arched setting of a mini-Radio City Music Hall—recycled from the York’s recent Maury Yeston revue—follows the series’ classical template. Five ultra-talented performers (three males and two women)—none of them stars but all showing star quality—race from one of 20 numbers to another, changing wigs and costumes as they run roughshod over shows both beloved and bemoaned, depending on which side of the fandom spectrum you’re on.
Fred Barton, Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston, Aline Mayagoitia, Jenny Lee Stern.
As per the formula, the songs—accompanied by the sensational piano playing of Fred Barton, seated upstage—are both vintage and recent, using Alessandrini’s consistently clever lyrics to poke fun at productions, performers, practices, and pretensions.

It all begins with Immanuel Houston singing the original Forbidden Broadway song about the Great White Way only for him to be interrupted by an annoying family of out-of-towners checking out the theatres and shows. This segues into “God, I Wanna See it 2019,” based on the opening number from A Chorus Line, riffing on hit shows and major venues they want to see, with nods to Broadway sights like the Naked Cowboy and all the Elmos. Word bombs drop (Sara Bareillis, creator of Waitress, is “the queen of pop shlock”) and coming shows, like Six are hinted at.  

Then, in “Forbidden Hadestown,” Houston assumes the guise of Hadestown’s André de Shields to guide the group through the theatrical hellscape aboard his train, even magically inserting the family into the shows he introduces.
Fred Barton, Joshua Turchin, Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano.
Soon Moulin Rouge (“Follies without a soul”) is getting knocked around in “Moulin Rude” because of how much cash its “visual overload” cost. The voluptuous Aline Mayogoitia channels Karen Olivo as she slithers through “Diamonds Out My Wazzoo,” inspired by “Diamonds are Forever.” The company responds with a number based on “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” tossing darts at a certain musical trend, represented by Moulin Rouge’s 76 pop songs, with lines like “A juke box is a star’s best friend.”

Dear Evan Hansen gets the Forbidden treatment in “Evan Has-Been,” with multiply talented 13-year-old (!) Joshua Turchin doing the honors as an overacting “replacement Evan Hansen” (“Depending on my cuteness, I’m as precious as can be, Is everyone in love with me?”).
Jenny Lee Stern, Fred Barton, Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston.
A Wheel of Fortune, with show titles on it, sparks a sequence called “Everything’s Got to Be a Musical,” beginning with an original pastiche song about musicals based on familiar classics (“Ev’ry movie or novel or cartoon or epic must be resurrected”). Thus arise numbers reminding us of Beetlejuice, featuring Chris Collins-Pisano as Alex Brightman; Tootsie, with Turchin in drag doing Santino Fontana; and Frozen, with the ice princess taken by Mayagoitia.
Chris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern.
Here the show shifts to the TV miniseries, “Fosse/Verdon,” highlighting the love/hate relationship of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon as portrayed by Collins-Pisano and Jenny Lee Stern, replete with a virtual encyclopedia of Fosse moves. Meanwhile, they sing and dance to “Whatever Fosse wants, Fosse gets,” before shifting to “Two lost stars, From the old golden age” (no need to cite the originals, right?).
Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano.
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations gets a big number when Houston sings about star Jeremy Pope while the show itself is spiked with cracks like “Ain’t Too Proud is Jersey Boys with much less gumba,” and director Des McAnuff is ticketed for begging, borrowing, and stealing from his own shows.
Fred Barton, Jenny Lee Stern.
Those, like me, who think Renée Zellweger’s Judy Garland in the movie Judy deserved a Golden Raspberry rather than a SAG Award will thrill to Stern’s show-stopping rendition of Garland zinging her cinema avatar with “Zellweger smells in my part,” set to the music of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” (Note to my RZ-hating FB friend, DM: are you satisfied now?)
Immanuel Houston, Chris Collins-Pisano, Fred Barton.
Even the venerable, venerated Fiddler on the Roof, whose production in Yiddish became a surprise Off-Broadway hit, gets its strings risibly plucked in “Translation,” based on “Tradition,” after which we hear the admonition, “Brush up your Yiddish,” as a recipe for theatrical success.
Jenny Lee Stern, Aline Mayagoita, Chris Collins-Pisano, Joshua Turchin, Immanuel Houston.
Joshua Turchin, Fred Barton, Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston, Aline Mayagoitia.
Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman ferries away from musical theatre to ask, to the tune of “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” “How are things in Irish drama, Can we see Martin McDonagh there?” Another routine offers Billy Porter (Houston) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Collins-Pisano), title-dropping Freestyle Love Supreme, Kinky Boots, and the like to point out, to the tune of Gypsy’s “Rose’s Turn,” how “everything is now inclusive” in the theatre.
Immanuel Houston, Chris Collins-Pisano.
Stern, as Mary Poppins, informs us “Where the Lost Shows Go” (set to Mary Poppins’s “The Place Where Lost Things Go”); Turchin and Collins-Pisano use the music of “Bibbiddi-Bobbiddi-Boo” from Disney’s Cinderella and “Magic to Do” from Pippin to satirize Harry Potter and the Cursed Child; and a standout section, “There’s Gotta Be Something For Us to Do,” earned my vote as best of the best. In it, Stern as Bette Midler, Mayagoitia as Bernadette Peters, and Houston as Jennifer Hudson contemplate parts they’d like to play to the music of Sweet Charity’s “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This.”
Fred Barton, Immanuel Houston, Jenny Lee Stern, Aline Mayagoitia.
Fred Barton, Joshua Turchin, Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano, Immanuel Houston, Aline Mayagoitia.
Daniel Fish’s revisionist staging of Oklahoma!, and others like it get a much-deserved thrashing in “Woke-lahoma!” before the revue returns to André de Shields complaining of too many shows being “processed like Velveeta cheese.” This cues a routine based on The Prom, pondering the question of the best way to end a show.
Fred Barton, Chris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern, Aline Mayagoitia.
Immanuel Mayagoitia, Chris Collins-Pisano, Fred Barton, Aline Mayagoitia, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin.
 Before the curtain calls, we hear words of optimism about the next generation from the late director Harold Prince (Houston) and listen to the inspirational strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” cautioning us to be careful about what we say if we ever want to “work again.”
Aline Mayagoitia, Fred Barton, Immanuel Houston, Chris Collins-Pisano, Jenny Lee Stern, Joshua Turchin.
Chris Steckel’s lighting, Dustin Cross’s costumes, Conor Donnelly’s wigs, and Julian Evans’s sound couldn’t be better, nor, for this material, could Gerry McIntyre’s tongue-in-cheek choreography or the inventive direction of Alessandrini be any better. Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation ranges on the humor scale from smiles to chuckles to laughs to guffaws. Its humor may be cutting, but why else would it be forbidden?

York Theatre Company
619 Lexington Ave., NYC
Through February 16

153 (2019-2020): Review: PARADISE LOST (seen January 23, 2020)

"Another Bite of the Apple"

For my review of Paradise Lost please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Guest Review 20 (2019-2020): CARTOGRAPHY

Vignettes of a Border Checkpoint ****

 By Elyse Orecchio (guest reviewer)

Are there any sweeter words for tween and teen theatergoers than “Take out your cell phones—no, really!” In Kaneza Schaal’s and Christopher Myers’s Cartography at the New Victory Theater, the audience is invited mid-show to log in to a designated Wi-Fi network and map their family history by selecting their countries of origin. 
All photos: Elman Studio.
As this happens, a map projected on stage shows live coverage of everyone’s journey to the United States via red lines that become a beautifully tangled mass. As this is New York City, the interactive map, at the performance I attended, unsurprisingly but quite thrillingly, showed representation from all corners of the world and everywhere in between. And because I was allowed to have my phone out, I snapped a pic: 

Impressively, the phone business is handled swiftly and the performance resumes. The actors on stage are back at a border checkpoint waiting room, where much of the action has taken place thus far. 

Written by Myers and directed by Schaal, Cartography is inspired by the artists’ work in
Munich with refugee youth, ages 11-17, from over 12 different countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Rwanda. Schaal and Myers use map-making as a tool to help these young people share their stories, represented via four storytellers. 

As the refugees (Janice Amaya, Noor Hamdi, Victoria Nassif, and Malaika Uwamahoro) wait around for their paperwork to be processed, they muse about their experience. Migrating from the Middle East, Africa, and South America, this ain’t their first rodeo—that, is, border. In fact, it’s one person’s seventh. Frustrated by the never-ending pile of forms that ask them why they have arrived but provide tiny boxes for answers, as if their life can be summed up in so small a space, they share snippets of stories of the journeys that have gotten them to this point.  
In one scene, the storytellers take turns blowing up an inflatable raft with a manual pump, creating a frenetic pulse as the story of a separated father and son builds, culminating in the actors all climbing into the raft in a silent moment, as the waves surround them (Myers also designed the production). 

Eventually, the ensemble steps forward to reveal themselves as actors by shedding the accents they have been using. They take turns delivering monologues of their histories, which I thought the most engaging segment because of the depth of the personal narratives that were lacking in the bits and pieces of the previous refugee vignettes. 
The production is written for young audiences, so there’s an intentional lightness and humor to its tone, even in the face of serious, sometimes tragic, content. 

Before the show, families participate in educational activities in the New Victory lobby, including a neat, virtual-reality glimpse at refugees in a raft, the chance to build one’s own passport (stickers are provided!), and to explore questions like, “Why would someone flee from home?” and “What does hope mean to you?”

Cartography succeeds as an excellent catalyst for discussion among young people, inviting them to explore their own history and effectively draw their own map.

New Victory Theater
209 W42., NYC
Closed January 19

Elyse Orecchio studied musical theatre at Emerson College, acting at CUNY Brooklyn College, and English Linguistics & Rhetoric at CUNY Hunter College. She has worked in nonprofit communications for more than a decade and lives in Sunnyside, Queens. IG: @elyseorecchio

151 (2019-2020): Review: MAC BETH (seen January 22, 2020)

"Double, Double, Toil and Trouble"

Last spring, director Erica Schmidt’s radical staging of Macbeth, respelled Mac Beth, gained critical acclaim when produced by the Red Bull Theater at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theatre. I was one of the production’s less enthused visitors, as noted in my review. Aware of many colleagues’ high opinions of it, I decided to revisit the production in its return visit, now playing at Hunter College’s Frederick Loewe Theatre, to see if I may have underestimated it. 

Four of the original seven actresses have returned: Ismenia Mendes as Lady Macbeth, Ayana Workman as Banquo, Sharlene Cruz as Witch 3, and Sophie Kelly-Hedrick as Witch 2. The new cast features Brittany Bradford as Macbeth (which switches the role from a white to a black actress), Camila Canó-Flaviá as Mcduff, and Dylan Gelula as Witch 1, but the dynamics of last year’s staging remain intact.

Unfortunately, my opinion didn’t change, although I must applaud the cast for its unmitigated ferocity and commitment to Schmidt’s concept, which receives a detailed rationale in the program notes. This background is interesting but theatregoers can decide for themselves how convincing it is. Readers wishing to read my review of last year’s staging can do so here. I am providing below photos of the new production for those who might be interested.


Mac Beth
Frederick Loewe Theatre/Hunter College
E. 68th St. near Lexington Ave., NYC
Through February 22

Brittany Bradford, Ismenia Mendes, Ayana Workman, Dylan Gelula, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick, Sharlene Cruz, Camilia Canó-Flaviá. All photos: Ahron R. Foster.
Brittany Bradford and company.

Brittany Bradford and company.

Brittany Bradford.

Camilia Canó-Flaviá. 

Dylan Gelula, Brittany Bradford, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick; at back, Ayana Workman, Ismenia Mendes, Sharlene Cruz. 

Ayana Workman.

Ismenia Mendes.

Ismenia Mendes, Brittany Bradford.

Sharlene Cruz, Ayana Workman.

Sharlene Cruz, Dylan Gelula, Sophie Kelly-Hedrick.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

150 (2019-2020): Review: 17 MINUTES (seen January 16, 2019)

"Another School Shooting Play"

17 Minutes, by Scott Organ, a Barrow Group production, is the latest run-of-the-mill play trying to come to grips with the rash of school shootings that have rocked the nation, particularly since the tragedy at Columbine two decades ago. Just in the past few years, New York stages have offered such works as The LibraryOffice HourPunk RockThe ErlkingsThis Flat Earth, and When It’s You, each with its values but none—other than, perhaps, Punk Rock—of more than momentary interest.
Brian Rojas, Larry Mitchell. All photos: Joey Moro.
One of these, When It’s You, is a solo play in which a distraught, mature woman remembers a high school boyfriend who recently slaughtered a bunch of students. The others, despite the frequent presence of adults, generally focus on students affected by a shooting. Organ’s own The Thing with Feathers, an excellent work also done by The Barrow Group, has been cited as thematically similar to 17 Minutes. However, that play, while socially relevant, is mainly about an inappropriate Internet relationship, not school violence.
Larry Mitchell, Shannon Peterson.
In 17 Minutes, no students appear. Its plot is clearly inspired by the story of Scot Peterson, the school resource officer who, based on evidence including timeline data, failed to confront the shooter during the Marjorie Stoneman High School massacre in Parkland, Florida; his career and life subsequently went into decline. 
Larry Mitchell.
17 Minutes focuses on Deputy Sheriff Larry Mitchell (Andy Rubens), a soft-spoken, married man who served in Iraq. Assigned with his partner, Mary (Shannon Patterson), to security detail at a local school, he failed to act in the presence of an active shooter who killed 18 children. This is noted in his inability to account for a 17-minute gap in the timeline of events. As the work proceeds, it goes from Larry’s giving a statement at police headquarters to scenes set at home, at his office, at a bar, and outside the school, each showing his psychological deterioration as the weight of his guilt slowly crushes him. 

All the action transpires in a gray, oblong box of concrete and bricks, designed by Edward T. Morris, with the small audience seated in bleachers on either side, where it can see its counterparts across the stage. (Why, I couldn't help wondering, was that woman in the first row smiling all the time?) A few basic furnishings, shifted briskly by the actors, represent the various locales. Solomon Weisbard’s effective lighting, Matsy Stinson’s everyday costumes, and sound designer Emma Wilks’s musical backgrounds create an appropriate atmosphere.
DeAnna Lenhart, Larry Mitchell.
When the play begins, Larry, questioned by Detective Morris (Brian Rojas), seems bewildered by his actions during the shootings. Some things are fuzzy, some are clear but, despite insisting he did what he was trained to do, he’s unable to satisfactorily account for that 17-minute gap. 
Larry Mitchell, DeAnna Lenhart.
In the following scenes, we watch him interact with his supportive wife, Samantha (DeAnna Lenhart), who wants him to retire, take his endangered pension, and move to Tucson. This and other scenes demonstrate the marital tension his situation has created. Meanwhile, while being publicly denigrated, he feels even more remorseful when he hears from his partner, Mary (Shannon Patterson), the emotional story of how she captured the 15-year-old shooter. It's a scene—like so much else on view—that eschews histrionics for underplaying. As Andy’s guilty feelings grow, so does his obsession with cleaning his Glock, as if, rather than seeking therapy, he can thus wipe away his perceived transgression. 
Larry Mitchell.
As in so many other plays with anguished characters, our antihero tries drowning his sorrows at a bar, which provides an excuse for him to encounter Dan Watson (Michael Giese), the equally tormented father of the shooter, who expostulates on “poetic justice” and raises the issue of how people whose inaction sparks disastrous outcomes can’t help reliving the past to see what they might otherwise have done. “We are defined by what we didn’t do,” he postulates. 

Finally, his job lost, his pension questionable, his marriage on the rocks, his self-respect in the tank, he sits with his gun in the schoolyard as a memorial for the slain children goes on inside. We know what he’s considering, of course, but then one of the victims’ mothers, Cecilia (Lee Brock), disenchanted and searching for meaning, steps outside, spotting the deputy and his firearm. What follows may not provide a dramatically satisfying conclusion but it does, at least, offer a note of forgiveness. This isn’t something we’ve necessarily been hoping for on his behalf—whatever that might be—but it at least brings the lumbering play to its end.
Larry Mitchell, Michael Giese.
Organ’s contribution to the school shooting debate does little to illuminate either the issue itself or the unavoidable problem of assigning blame. The play avoids polemical debate and lets the action speak for itself, but the characters never engage us deeply enough for us to care. There’s also little that’s distinctively original in the situation, and the ultimate point of the play—apart from the overused one about forgiveness—doesn’t move the needle on the central issues. More passion and ideas can be found in a single speech by David Hogg or Emma González than anything on view in 17 Minutes. 

Throughout, the tone is low key and conversational, almost as if it’s being filmed in closeups. Seth Barrish’s naturalistic direction, which worked perfectly for The Thing with Feathers, is far less compelling here, where only a few minor flare-ups break through the torpor. While the intimacy of the scenic arrangement probably inspires this approach, the quiet, restrained performances—very well-done as they are—establish a dry, undramatic atmosphere.

Concentrating on internal character dynamics, the style forces us to lean in to catch all the words. It soon flattens out into nontheatrical dullness, making the 75 minutes of 17 Minutes seem more like 170 minutes.

TBG Mainstage Theatre
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Extended to March 1