Saturday, October 30, 2010


Eric Simonson has written a biography play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, based on an occurrence in David Maraniss’ book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi. What is unexpected is that the play is a lot more about a fictional reporter from Look Magazine by the name of Michael McCormick who stays with Lombardi and his wife to write an article about what makes the winning coach tick. After a disagreeable article came out in Esquire Magazine about Lombardi, he hopes that by inviting this young reporter into his home for a week he will get a counter-article in print. However, McCormick finds Lombardi to be quite elusive and his character is impossible to crack. He gains most of his information from second hand sources––primarily the wife and also from members of the Green Bay Packers, who are reluctant to talk much. So, the play becomes much more about reporter Michael McCormick’s obsession with the Green Bay Packers than revealing the character and life of Vince Lombardi. Lombardi is off stage for long stretches, only to come tromping on to bark orders and put unruly team members (or reporters) in their place. The entire goal of this man is winning and he is single minded about it. He is so fixed on the goal of turning a losing team into a winning team that he loses sleep over it and his health is sacrificed, but these are only minor irritations rather than setbacks, for what happens is what we know going in: the Green Bay Packers become a champion team.

Although the dramatic arc is weak and the title character seems to be only half realized, the 95 minute play is swift and engaging as directed by Thomas Kail and designed for the round by David Korins. Screens drop in to decorate the show with projected montages and the play board is projected as animation on the stage floor to depict the famous “Power Sweep” play. The Circle in the Square Theater naturally replicates the Football arena and so a wonderful atmosphere for this particular story is created. This is a genre of theatre I like to call “The Obsession Play,” where a lead character spends the play obsessing over the topic and showing us why he or she thinks it is so interesting. If done well we are swept up into the obsession a bit and this is definitely the case with LOMBARDI. What is unstatisfying is that McCormick never gets to unlock the secrets of his subject.

Lombardi is played perfectly by Dan Lauria, known to all as the dad on The Wonder Years. Judith Light creates a distinctive character as Marie Lombardi and it is comforting to have this familiar actress hanging about, which is about all she does, though her delightful personality enriches the proceedings. Keith Nobbs is perfectly cast as the reporter, for he looks just like the person as he is described in the lines of the play and he has that particular “New Yorker” delivery that can only come from someone raised in New York as Mr. Nobbs has been. Mr. Nobbs is likable and though he is small of stature, he can hold the audience in a big way, which is imperative since he is essentially the protagonist of the play.

LOMBARDI is a bit light weight for such a big subject and the fans of the sport will walk away learning nothing new about the coach, but it doesn’t take a sports fan to appreciate a good performance and LOMBARDI is that.

The actual Vince Lombardi

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Scottsboro Boys

Patrons arriving at the Lyceum Theater

Fred Ebb died in 2004 and did not live to see his show CURTAINS, written with John Kander, open on Broadway. Another show by the legendary pair who gave us CABARET and CHICAGO was THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and after an Off Broadway run at the Vineyard Theatre last season, it has finally opened on Broadway at the Lyceum. Susan Stroman has staged it and David Thompson has written the book. Fred Ebb was the one with the big idea that the true story should be told in the style of a minstrel show. This sounds like a bold and controversial choice, but on the other hand using the world of show business as a way to frame a musical has always been Kander and Ebb’s way. Whether it is CABARET’S Kit Kat Klub, CHICAGO’S Vaudeville show, or KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN’S Hollywood musical film dreams, “Show Biz” has enabled Kander and Ebb to be both entertaining and deal with their very serious subjects all at once. This story takes place in the 1930s, a time when the American minstrel tradition was being brought back to life in the movies––viewed as a nostalgic old time form of entertainment that dated back to the 1840s. Even in the 1940s when Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were putting on minstrel shows in the barn, the genre was not looked at as inappropriate. This politically charged form turns out to be perfect for allowing for an exhilarating show and a playground for exploring this important story of social justice and an early civil rights benchmark.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in BABES IN ARMS

The story, in short, concerns a group of black young men who, while riding the rails looking for work, were accused by two white women of rape. This was an out and out lie and caused the boys to go through numerous trials over a period of years for a crime they didn’t commit. A few of them were released from prison and years later a few more as well, but all of their lives were ruined. This sounds like a depressing story––it’s horrifying actually––but Kander and Ebb’s good old fashioned show tunes and Susan Stroman’s cake walks and tap dances brighten the whole thing up to a rousing and satirical good time. Even the dramatic scenes are performed in a heightened style in keeping with the minstrel show idea, but somehow, despite the highly choreographed nature, those scenes are still harrowing.

The design of the production is simple, with Stroman moving chairs around to help define spaces under a triplet of askew proscenium arches. Drapes come and go to help with the showmanship, but the bulk of the presentation is up to the fantastic cast who plays not only the boys of the title, but multiple other roles. The cast is all men, headed by John Cullum in the position of Interlocutor, Colman Domingo as the traditional Mr. Bones and Forrest McClendon as Mr. Tambo. Rosa Parks (Sharon Washington) is hovering around the whole time looking very significant, but doing nothing significant. The role will shortly become a bore for the actress, for she doesn’t sing or dance and has only one line. Still, her final moment is well worth the decision to add her.

The boys are played by Josh Breckenridge, Derrick Combey, Jeremy Gumbs, Joshua Henry, Rodney Hicks, Kendrick Jones, James T. Lane, Julius Thomas III., and Christian Dante White. The group sings and dances up a storm and the show offers each an opportunity to show off his strengths. The youngest, playing the 13 year old Eugene, has perhaps the most beautiful voice of the show. He is Jeremy Gumbs dancing a mean tap number in “Electric Chair” and shining forth with a golden lyrical voice in “Go Back Home.” He is a boy and his voice has not dropped, but he looks to be in danger of suddenly growing up, so hurry down to the Lyceum to see him before he gets replaced for daring to hit adolescence.

This is a great show––totally entertaining, historically fascinating, emotionally charged and such an unexpected gift to have a new Kander and Ebb show on Broadway.

The Scottsboro Boys in action

Monday, October 25, 2010

In The Wake

Lisa Kron

Lisa Kron was a founding member of the political theatre group “The Five Lesbian Brothers,” and was well received on Broadway in 2006 with her play, WELL. Now at the Public Theatre she has turned in IN THE WAKE, an elaborate conversation about contemporary politics––jump starting from the Bush/Gore election and ending somewhere shortly after the Bush/Kerry election. Between those two bench marks of recent history was a very turbulent time and Kron’s group of people, residing in an East Village apartment of New York City, have a lot to say about it. The playwright’s opinion is definitely presented, but she is willing to argue both sides of any issue. Still, her disillusionment with American politics and the American Democratic system are more than underlined––it is shouted with arms flailing about in the character of Ellen, played believably by Marin Ireland and in the quieter and perhaps more effective voice of Judy, played with a well crafted characterization by Deirdre O’Connell.

The first act, which lasted an hour and a half to intermission, went along nicely enough in a well paced, old school, well made play fashion of yesteryear. Ellen is the talkative leading player who can’t help but rage on about the injustice of the political system, but appreciates the founding fathers’ creation of a government that allowed for change. Her live in boyfriend, Danny (in an endearing Rob Reiner style performance by Michael Chernus) is amiable and is the calming force to Ellen’s manic energy. He is the peace maker between his apartment and the neighboring family members of his lesbian sister and her partner. Moreover, Ellen engages in her own lesbian relationship with Amy (Jenny Bacon) who claims to feel too much while Ellen thinks too much. The all understanding Danny is waiting to see if Ellen’s lesbian fling will simply play itself out and she will choose him over Amy. But this story line is insignificant to Kron’s main motivation for the play, which is to have a heated conversation about the turbulence of the past decade in politics. She wants us to see that the same privileged few who made the Constitution are represented now by similar people who are still at the top holding the power and that the poor and disenfranchised are still at the bottom. It’s not that there haven’t been changes or re-shifting or even improvements here and there, but as Judy explains, no matter how may Band-Aids you put on it, that same fundamental structure remains.

I would like to say that IN THE WAKE is the rarest of things: a lesbian play. However, this play does not really explore lesbian politics as The Five Lesbian Brothers had done in the past, but more refreshingly just supplies characters that happen to be lesbians, making them visible upon the stage. Their mere existence in the commercial theatre is in itself a political statement, though they do no more than engage in perfectly natural everyday behavior. There is an unspoken statement that the lesbian experience is a facet of the American experience, but this idea is not even driven home. Instead we are stuck with the second act, which dramatically shifts in pace and structure, spiraling out of control into a mess of the collapse of Ellen’s odd little family. Perhaps the shorter scenes in multiple locations, interrupted by Ellen talking to the audience to expound upon the metaphor that she can’t see in her blind spot, are all supposed to mirror the chaos of the past decade. Ellen’s world is falling apart as the outside world is falling apart. Even if that was the intent, it made for a disjointed play, with no resolution of the main characters. Kron doesn’t seem to want to tell a story at all, but just let Ellen funnel her anxieties. For all that, Kron has come up with some terrific lines––stunning gems that underline her point of view succinctly and which illicit laughs of recognition. One does think, “I haven’t thought about it quite that way before...that’s interesting.”

All of this would be more effective if the perfectly good, modern story was emphasized over the debating. Kron wouldn’t have to loose her main points or her brilliant one-liners to do it either. This is a play with important ideas worth the discussion, but it is such a downer in the second act, that it is difficult to not check the watch in hopes for a clue to know just when the misery of Ellen will all come crashing to an end.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Great Unknown

A wonderful entry in the New York Musical Theatre Festival was THE GREAT UNKNOWN composed by Jim Wann of PUMP BOYS AND DINETTES fame and a book by William Hauptman best known for the book of BIG RIVER. This small contained musical told the post Civil War historical story of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River with a group of war veterans. Powell was played by Broadway veteran Tom Hewitt, who has filled out and aged a bit from his days as Frank Wildhorn’s DRACULA or ROCKY HORROR’S Frank N Furter. He is now a distinguished and robust looking man ready for a new era of roles and he leads this cast like the captain of the boat his character is. Powell’s brother Walter (Dan Amboyer) was a survivor of the Andersonville prison and returned home to find his brother had married the girl he was hoping to marry. She is Emma Powell, the only female character of prominence played by Kristin Maloney. The story focusses on the expedition party made up of the brothers and four men. There are pantomimed depictions of the various legs of the journey down river and camp stops––the compass breaks and the provisions are lost in the treacherous rapids. What is really discussed is the men’s residual bitterness of their war experiences and it is through this journey that they come to forgive and forget if not completely understand each other. Emma Powell materializes in flashbacks and the reading of letters to her husband that will never reach him. She would almost be useless except for the fact that it is nice to have a woman’s touch in the musical. This simple character exploration is elevated by a truly wonderful score of country western music. A small ensemble of two men and three women help to make the choral numbers sound big and rich and the soloists are all top notch. Particularly wonderful is young adolescent looking Thomas Wesley Stewart as Rhodes the cook. His song, “Lodore,” about the girls back home showed tremendous range and his effortless tenor voice was a thrill. The one black character, representing the new freedom from slavery is Somers (Bobby Daye), as part narrator, part moral compass, he finishes the show with a majestic ballad, “Memory Hill.” An ingeniously creative number lead by a character called Oramel Howland (Edmund Bagnell) who not only sings beautifully, but plays the violin while dancing with Celia Mei Rubin was the standout bit of staging by choreographer Liza Gennaro. Don Stephenson directed the show using the simplest of elements, making the 95 minute story as visually full of variety as the sound of the dynamic score.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE

You may have seen it on Broadway a decade ago or more than likely you’ve seen the DVD of the original London production, but Matthew Bourne’s version of SWAN LAKE is worth it right now at the New York City Center––a real thrill. The only bone to pick with this perfect work of art is that the music isn’t live. In fact there were members of the musician’s union handing out flyers outside to sort of protest the production. The truth is that this huge barn of a theater has a union price tag too huge for the dance companies. SWAN LAKE is certainly not the first to decide to go with canned music or non-union musicians. Paul Taylor, for example, claims the musician’s union has simply priced him out of using union musicians and that the union is unwilling to negotiate for something reasonable. So be it. Lucky for this SWAN LAKE that the star is the unique production itself and as soon as the curtain rises it hardly matters that the great Tchaikovsky score is recorded (and beautifully recorded it is). Matthew Bourne’s story telling takes over.

The entire first act is mainly focussed on story and there is more blocking than dancing––a kind of silent movie treatment. Then Act II kicks in and we are in that ultra famous section of music, so familiar to all whether or not you’ve ever seen a production of SWAN LAKE, with the ensemble of swans doing their variations of solos, smaller groups and full company dances. This Act II would all seem practically traditional if it weren’t for the main point of the production that the swans are not young ladies in white tutus. These swans are fierce, dangerous, masculine men. Their costume is no more than a pair of feathery knickers and their otherwise naked bodies painted white with a frightening jab of black across their foreheads. The movements are all inspired by the natural movements of actual swans and these studied attributes make these dancers intricately nuanced wild creatures. Leading the pack as The Swan, was Jonathan Ollivier the night I saw it (Richard Winsor dances The Swan on alternate performances). Mr. Ollivier is intense, long, tall and powerful. His concentration and discipline are amazing. His occasional stillness can be the most powerful of moments. The entire Act II is a sequence of the most thrilling ballet theatre anywhere and far more electric than any traditional staging I’ve seen.

The old story was one of a girl turned into a swan by a witch’s magic spell where she can only be human at night when she meets a lonely prince. Bourne’s telling is psychologically complicated by comparison. His prince is trapped in the struggles of being a royal celebrity. He is struggling with his sexuality as well and one fateful night, disguised as a commoner, he gets drunk and beat up at a bar and stumbles to “the lake” where he has every intention of committing suicide by drowning. Then The Swan appears to stop him. This is a bird, mind you, not a man. The Swan is no princess temporarily relieved of a spell––he is a big, beautiful, potentially dangerous bird. The Prince (danced by Simon Williams who has been with Bourne’s company since the original production) is mesmerized by this creature and somehow there is a connection with this animal. The Prince is temporarily freed by his communing with nature and he leaves the scene exhilarated.

After an intermission, ACT III is centered at a ball. Bourne makes it modern with paparazzi and fans watching the celebrity guests arrive, but sticks to tradition as the various exhibitions of dance are reviewed. In the middle of all this comes The Swan again, but although he arrives through the window, he is now a real man, still dangerous in leather. He seems to seduce the female guests, as well as the Queen, but in a hallucinatory moment, the Prince sees this stranger as his Swan and they dance together. It’s only an unfulfilled wish and the feeling of insanity that overtakes the Prince causes the Queen to send him away for treatment. After shock therapy, the prince is bed-ridden. He hallucinates again and the full flock of swans come to torment him and pick him apart, even as The Swan arrives to try to save him in the most exciting and dynamic dance of the production, capping the excitement of Act IV. This isn’t your grandmother’s SWAN LAKE.

It is difficult for me to go back to traditional stagings of SWAN LAKE with the dainty dancers in tutus and the storyless scenes filled with dance exhibitions and fairytale costumes. Lez Brotherston’s costumes are some sort of today meets mid-twentieth century and depict being raised as a royal prince as being more of a burden than a blessing. Brotherston’s sets operate like a Broadway musical, full of majesty and enough wit to truly aid in the telling of the story. This design is not just decor, it is the further expression of the Prince’s nightmare.

This is a unique, career defining work for Matthew Bourne. This should be seen live if at all possible, even though there is a beautiful record of the production available on DVD as well. New Yorkers should get down to the City Center right away––this SWAN LAKE is not to be missed.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Little Night Music

The replacement cast of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC sounded almost better than the original revival cast. After walking like a robot through two Ethel Merman vehicles on Broadway, Bernadette Peters returned to the Sondheim world where she flourishes. However, she has not given up her schtick––that same mugging schtick we’ve been seeing since SUNDAY IN THE PARK with her baby doll voice for comic effect, the drawing out of words, creating strange line readings, throwing out those presentational arms for the long notes, etc. Even if you’ve never seen her live, then you’ve seen the videos of SUNDAY IN THE PARK or INTO THE WOODS and you know exactly what I’m referring to. Bernadette Peters is an old fashioned Broadway ham. Furthermore, just like in the Merman shows, she stopped the comedy to “make it real” for the ballad. This time the ballad is the well known “Send in the Clowns.” Everyone’s waiting for it, everyone knows it. La Peters delivers. But, after seeing her turn on the watery eyes in the middle of shows where she otherwise seems disconnected, it only seems part of her routine. Still, the performance of the hit tune worked and she made her exit to some fine applause. Not as fine as the hardy applause awarded to Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, who followed up “Send in the Clowns” with a tremendous performance of “The Miller’s Son.” Larkin was perfectly good all night, but then came “The Miller’s Son” and she exploded into another realm of performance that became the highlight of the production.

Not a highlight was Elaine Stritch as Madame Armfeldt. Most likely it is her age, but Ms. Stritch went up on her lines three times (the same number of times she says the night smiles). It was up to little Keaton Whittaker as Fredrika to keep Ms. Stritch going by feeding her hints to get back on track. Ms. Stritch is like a wisecracking waitress from a ‘50s diner whacking away at her scenes. She gets laughs, but at the expense of the refinement, class and character of the show. Yet, there is something heartwarming about an aging star appearing in a role late in the career, for we all feel that we have somehow lucked out to be able to see the Legend one more time. Armfeldt’s death is particularly moving, not because of the character, but because there is a feeling that we might be saying goodbye to Elaine Stritch where the stage is concerned.

Henrick continues to be played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka with a fine voice and his true cello skills. He is adorable and comical and gives the production quite a bit of charm. Fredrik is now played perfectly by Stephen R. Buntrock, who works beautifully with Ms. Peters. All of the supporting players meet or exceed expectations except for the bazaar performance of Ramona Mallory as Anne. Her line readings rise and fall in unnatural hills and valleys. She is nothing less than weird. Director Trevor Nunn needs to shake her and command her to become an actual person.

I was disappointed to hear that this revival would reduce the orchestration to eight pieces, but Jason Carr’s small orchestration is beautiful and I never thought I was getting less in the music department. David Farley’s set and costume designs are simple with an elaborate unit set that changes just enough to redefine spaces. There was an elegance in the simplicity. For all my little complaints this production was an overall joy. Another joy is the fact that the past ten years on Broadway have been dominated by revivals of Sondheim shows. One after the other we’re getting a chance to see top grade productions of all of them. For now we get A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at least until January.

Frog Kiss

This adaptation of the fairy tale THE FROG PRINCE took a bawdy direction, making it a bit of a confusing piece of musical theatre. The jokes tend to be too “adult” for a children’s audience and yet anyone in Western culture would assume they should take their kids to a “Frog Prince” musical. Eric Schorr needs to think about his book with regards to exactly who his audience might be. It isn’t adult enough for adults and it’s too adult for children below middle school. The score by Charles Leipart is fun, but it isn’t unified in style, starting out as a swing score with “Manhattan Transfer” vocals and then engaging in the other styles found at a ballroom competition. If “Ballroom” is the style, then it doesn’t hold together the kooky book. The key elements of the shallow children’s story are in tact and it is the duty of the authors to flesh out the limited characters into three dimensional people and to, perhaps, give reason to the random plot points of the simple tale. This challenge was only half met. The original story teaches the reader to keep a promise. The promise is that the princess must marry the frog. There is a slight ick factor with regards to wedding night issues––an issue discussed among the characters. In the original story a witch casts a spell on a prince, turning him into a frog. The frog insists that he is a prince, but the humans of the story don’t believe him. Finally, after making a deal for the Princess to let him live in the palace and live like the prince he is, the Princess, disgusted by the fact that the frog kisses her, throws the frog against a wall which breaks the spell. Poof! Now he’s a human prince again. In FROG KISS we never get the Witch/Prince back story and so we believe that the frog is just a frog. This only adds to the bestiality subtext.

On the other hand, some of the fleshing out of the story is interesting, such as the Princess going through the various methods of training the Frog to be more human. In the process she finds she is falling in love with the Frog just as he is. Good message, but is she really going to marry a frog? Lucky for all of us the unexplained magic of throwing the Frog against the wall works and he becomes human before the wedding. Another twist is added when Claus (Theis Weckesser), the male character of the second couple, has always longed to “come out” as the frog he truly is inside. A little toss against the wall and his dream comes true, humiliating his wife Hortense (Manna Nichols) in the process. This is supposed to be funny, but it’s a little wacky and prolongs the stretched out material too far without good reason. Also, Claus’ coming out is definitely worked in as a gay story parallel––yet another plot point that doesn’t make sense in a children’s story. Not that this musical, by nature of its source material, has to be for children, but the assumption is naturally there. If the show is really for adults, then it isn’t sophisticated enough. Really, it should find the balance of the best Disney classic films where the humor and treatment of the them registers with adults and isn’t inappropriate for the kids. This is what is meant by “family” musical.

FROG PRINCE was a presentation of the New York Musical Theatre Festival and was nicely produced. The cast was wonderful, with Hanley Smith as a delightful Princess Clementine and the outstanding Curtis Holbrook as the Frog. Holbrook is formerly WEST SIDE STORY’S “Action” and his dancing skill was put to great use. He created an endearing character, both physically and vocally. His presence on stage was so dynamic that it was difficult to take your eyes off him, even when surrounded by the entire cast.

A superb band of six was lead by Daryl Waters. Orchestrations were by Daryl Waters and made the show sparkle. Lorna Ventura choreographed some spirited numbers and used the great talents of Curtis Holbrook to the fullest. Kenneth L. Roberson directed, pulling all the elements together and giving the disjointed material as cohesive a production as could be possible. This was an enjoyable entertainment to sit through, but it is a curiosity and needs a serious rethinking to work the idea into a show that will make sense as family entertainment and as a unified work.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Life in the Theatre

Without fanfare or set up, Patrick Stewart walks onto the stage of the Schonebeld Theatre and is greeted with great applause, for he is that well known actor of theatre, film and Star Trek. One moment later T.R. Knight appears and the applause grows again, for he is a featured player on TV’s GREY’S ANATOMY, though he is a creature of the theatre himself. They are on a backstage theatre set––actors. David Mamet’s rhythmic writing takes off, though he’s kept his usual profanity to a record low. What follows are snippets of just what the title suggests. There are dressing room scenes, snatches of performances where invertiblely something goes wrong and must be covered, rehearsals, scenes of social camaraderie and a discovery of character. The youth of Mr. Knight and the age of the amazingly fit Mr. Stewart make for great contrasts. Mamet explores what it is like for the young actor verses the aging actor––the insecurities of both for different reasons, the green verses the seasoned, the methodical verses the impatient, the social aspect and the loneliness. The scenes are not all connected, the timeframe is not known, these actors seem to be playing together in a great variety of productions––perhaps as part of a repertory company. This is simply an exploration and in the mind of David Mamet it is mostly funny––the seriousness of life only bleeding in occasionally. What I would have loved was if one of those few serious moments were strong enough to really move me, but the time was not taken to do so. David Mamet can’t manage that quality the way Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman used to, but then maybe he simply didn’t care to. As it is, the show is worth it. It would be a delight even without Mr. Stewart and Mr. Knight, but those two wonderful people are in it and all the more reason to run out and buy a ticket. Neil Pepe directed the show with a swift pace on Santo Loquasto’s intriguing backstage set. Laura Bauer has designed some whimsical costumes that are made for amazing quick changes and Kenneth Posner’s light design caught the ambiance of backstage life as well as revealing a wonderful look of a darkened theatre auditorium during performance scenes. All of it is a valentine to the life of the actor.

The Fix

NYU loves to tackle the odd shows and that is wonderful. The overly produced classics are not for NYU. THE FIX (music by Dana P. Rowe; book and lyrics by John Dempsey) is an oddity from London’s West End satirizing American Politics from the perspective of 1997. NYU updated a few references and the story played beautifully as contemporary commentary, suggesting the rise of George W. Bush. With a rock score, the show is a kind of hard core OF THE I SING. The problem with satire is that it’s cynical and without heart. For a musical to really work, pointing out the smoke and mirrors of American politics is not enough, there must be someone to fall in love with, support and root for. All of the characters in THE FIX are despicable, sad or stupid and so it is hard to like a show when you don’t like the people of the story. On the other hand, this college cast was superb. They are a talented bunch, headed by the wonderful Bryan Welnicki as Cal Chandler, the boy who will be made into a President come Hell or high water––that is, if he doesn’t get assassinated for having his own ideas and speaking his mind. John Simpkins directed the production, which entertained quite well in spite of itself. MK Lawson choreographed spirited numbers that kept a static script moving. The score, when sung as well as it was at NYU, was engaging and kept the whole thing energized. THE FIX is interesting––it has something real to say about the hypocrisy of the American political system, it has a score worth hearing and the potential to show off great talents, but it is not a good show. It certainly isn’t satisfying for it only shows the ugliness of humanity and none of the beauty.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Penny Penniworth

Pervading the last few years is a style of theatre epitomized by the long running THE 39 STEPS (currently in its third year in New York), where a small cast plays multiple roles to tell a story. We also see it in the current BRIEF ENCOUNTER and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS a few seasons ago. This method turns the otherwise serious source material into comedy and reinvents the story. Not only that, it’s a very economical way to put on a play that might otherwise be a gargantuan endeavor. Emerging Artists Theatre’s production of PENNY PENNIWORTH by Chris Weikel used four actors to tell one of those sprawling Charles Dickens tales––only this one was Dickens-like, not from the actual Charles Dickens, and found humor in sending up a Dickens kind of world. The quick changes of costume, switching of gender by both necessity and because it’s always funny, knowing takes to the audience, puns and the general creation of theatre before our eyes made PENNY PENNIWORTH a potentially great time if only it had opened before THE 39 STEPS and the others like it.

Jamie Heinlein as Penny and others lead the ensemble of four talented and amusing actors: Christopher Borg, Jason O’Connell and Ellen Reilly. All were funny, but at times Director Mark Finley let certain jokes go overboard. Jason O’Connell’s speech impediment bit went from funny to irritating after the third time. A routine with removing a skirt to become a man’s cloak to differentiate between male and female characters voiced by a single actress took it’s toll as well. The length of this joke-fest was trying, however if Finley could have guided the actors through the material without layering on extra business the show might have played better. The enterprise was a good idea and we all know enough about Dickens to appreciate the send-up, so this comedy has possibilities, but this is not the best production it will ever have. Unfortunately, save for a previous outing at the Fringe Festival, it is the first.

The Language Archive

Lingologist George (Matt Letscher) is studied in numerous languages, but somehow he can’t communicate with his wife (Heidi Schreck), so she leaves him. On a whim she takes over a bakery and lives happily ever after making the most wonderful bread. Meanwhile, George is having an awful time dealing with the end of his marriage. The one person he has to confide in is Emma (Betty Gilpin), his assistant at his Language Archive. She has always been in love with George and upon finding out that he is single, Emma spends her portion of the play working herself up to telling him so. Enter into the mix Jane Houdyshell and John Horton as a European couple, Alta and Resten, who happen to speak a dying language. George hopes to record them in conversation, but they are in the middle of an argument and so will only argue in English. They say their language doesn’t have anger in it, so they have to speak English––the perfect language for expressing anger. Although their relationship seems strained at first, we find out that they have continued to love each other deeply for decades and will die together. What happens between George and Emma is secondary to the idea of exploring how love manifests itself in different forms and surprising ways. Julia Cho’s play makes a singular fascinating idea, when at one point George is at his saddest, he reaches out for a hug from Emma. As she hugs him, she is the happiest she has ever been. Here the ultimate sadness and the ultimate joy hold each other––two people as one––whole for a moment.

This is a play where the characters sometimes talk to the audience––narrating––even asking for audience participation. This is a play where two of the small cast play the chorus––filling in all the little characters that come along to facilitate the plot. This is a play with a unit set by Neil Patel, that serves all purposes. Mark Brokaw directed this play of quirks and odd rhythms by simply giving over to it. There isn’t much of a story there and the idea is straight forward and simple, but the telling of it is complicated. Yet there is enough there, what with Jane Houdyshell and John Horton popping in and out as different entertaining characters to expand the little story into a full two act evening. And there is a sweetness that pervades the story that gives a feel good warmth by the final curtain. This Roundabout Theatre Company production is not a monumental play, but it has loads of charm and that may be enough to make it last through the years.