Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cirque Du Kit-Kat-Klub

"Absinthe" at the Spiegeltent at Pier 17. September 20, 2006

With a very European sensibility, "Absinthe" is a cabaret-style variety show featuring a bizarre range of acts. Here's some info about the venue:

Saunter through the gently lit, European style beer garden. Drift on through the beautifully crafted art deco doors and discover a place filled with flirtatious laughter, exhilarating live performances, swirling lighting, and lush billowing velvet.

These gleaming mirrors have reflected loves, laughter, entertainment and spectacles from all over Europe for the last 100 years.

From their beginnings in Belgium at the turn of the last century, these iconic tents have been traveling the world as part of arts festivals and fairs. The famous and the infamous have performed in these haloed halls. Made from finest teak and beveled mirrors, and looked after
lovingly by a small band of owners, these exceptional venues have never failed to enthrall, delight, surprise and seduce.

For more information on the venue, click here.

On with the show...

The pre-show music consists of recorded military marches, which oddly adds to the retro ambience of the tented space. A round platform in the middle of the circular arrangement of folding chairs serves as the stage. Before the houselights dim, a striking and zaftig young woman in a black bustier and skirt enters and seat herself on top of the piano beside the stage. A man enters in a dark suit and bowler hat, begins to play the piano and she sings. Clearly not American, it's difficult to determine whether she's German, S. American, Italian, who knows what? (She's later introduced as Irish.) She is Camille. Earthy and unapologetically sensual, she whirls round and round in a carousel song (Jacques Brel, I think) - and almost makes you feel as if the round tent in which you sit is also spinning.

Following is an acrobatic pair of Englishmen (in dark suits and bowler hats) who go through an amazing series of presses and balances. They are a mismatched pair, size-wise, one taller, one shorter. The pair have a certain Laurel and Hardy quality, the tall one serious and dead-pan, the smaller one all child-like smiles. The suits come off during the act revealing sculpted forms in Union Jack briefs - I think we have a hit!

Next is a scantily clad woman swinging on a trapeze bar. She had some nice moves and was much stronger than one might have guessed from her appearance.

Soon we are introduced to Miss Behave, another Euro curiosity who seems to have neither a uvula nor a gag-reflex. Wearing a 1940's cut dress with a hobble skirt - in red latex, no less - she explains her act during her second appearance describing it as "...not so much 'wow!' but 'why?'..." Her feats include a cute bit with a pair of scissors, a rose stem dropped through her pierced tongue then putting out a lit cigar with same said tongue. Maximum shock effect comes with a bizarre finaletto involving a table leg.

The next act was an inexplicable sound effects guy, whose only note from the director appeared to be "make it a little more creepily sexual from time to time." Skilled - yes, attractive - no. The act had no narrative to justify its presence, nor did it add anything to the proceedings.

Continuing on the creepy track, Rubberman - Captain Frodo! From Norway (I believe) this is the evening's contortionist. Forcing his body through not one, but two, tennis rackets (unstrung, of course and one 2" smaller in diameter than the other), he was quite funny and engaging. Full of pratfalls, at one point he has one foot on the ground, the other leg is pinned to his torso with the larger racket and the smaller racket is just past his head with one arm through and the other just above the shoulder. As he then bends over to pick up the microphone he's just dropped, he gives a leer to the crowd and says "I know what you're wondering. And, yes, I can!" I'm not sure that his spill all the way off the platform was intended.

After the intermission, Camille returns in an hilarious number "In These Shoes?" followed by Capt Frodo. This time, he stacks successively smaller cans while standing atop them, and ends by sitting on a vegetable-size can with both ankles behind his head. It is during this pose that he challenges the audience with "If you think there's something strange that you'd like to try, you'd be amazed at how you can make a living at it."

A Russian hula hoop performer is next, followed by a final song from Camille "Falling In Love Again" sung a capella in German - lovely!

The grand finale - and grand indeed! Well, how to describe it? In one of the more "Cirque-like" acts of the evening, a bathtub full of water is brought onto the stage. Two ropes/straps are lowered from above. David, wearing only blue jeans, gets in the tub, then wraps, lifts and swings himself around for 5-10 minutes. It's a clinical description, I know, but was it HOT! David is German, dark and smooth. The front row did receive some protection from the spray with some plastic sheeting.

In all, it was a most engaging evening - one I'm glad I didn't miss!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Don't Say Things Like That, or They'll Lock You in an Attic in Amsterdam"

"The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" Theatre at St. Clement's, part of the 2006 New York Musical Theatre Festival. September 17, 2006

Loosely based on the known facts of the life of Sister Smile, "The Tragic and Horrible Life of the Singing Nun" interjects the back story of the Belgian nun who recorded "Dominique" and rose to pop fame in the 1960's. Others have charted this path before, such as the 1960's Hollywood whitewash with Debbie Reynolds and Chad Everett, along with an Italian film in 2001 that took a much darker route.

Author Blair Fell penned this story first in a play of the same name in 1996. Paired with Andy Monroe as composer and lyricist, the story is now presented in a musical format, pulling no punches at any target that may willingly present itself, or even mistakenly wander near.

This energetic production, flagrantly directed by Michael Schiralli, is a high energy show and presents the bones of some good work underway.

The premise is that Mr. Berman (Stephen Michael Rondel), a psychiatric patient in an asylum, believes that he was a friend and confidante to Sister Smile during and after her time in the convent of Our Lady of Pernicious and Postulant Wounds. Mr. Berman was also in residence at the convent after ending his career as a cross-dressing Catholic fashion model, still a cross-dresser and nun under the name Sister Coco Callmeismael. The story opens in the asylum with a very well-integrated musical introduction as Mr. Berman begins his flashback in the middle of a showing of the 1966 "Singing Nun" with Debbie Reynolds (film clip and all).

We are quickly taken back in time to meet Jeanine Fou, the soon-to-be Sister Smile (Laura Daniel) on her way home from school. Unattractive and with an unhealthy religious fervor, Jeanine (with her guitar which she's named Sister Adele) sings of life's possibilities - like being a nun and a pop singing star!(Don't Be Afraid, Adele) Magically, Saint Dominique appears and inspires Jeanine to join a Dominican convent to find this happiness. (You Got to Sing, Girl!) Upon arrival at the convent Sister Coco takes her under wing and introduces her to the Reverend Mother Helen Lawson (Kristine Zbornik). When Mother Helen learns of Jeanine's (now Sister Luke Gabriel) goals of singing and pop stardom, she quickly establishes her dominance in the order (Superior).

Jeanine starts to doubt her decision and reflects back to when she told her best friend Annie (Tracey Gilbert) that she was leaving for the convent. Annie, feeling that they were "more" than friends is crushed by Jeanine's decision, but because she loves Jeanine, she accepts it. (I'll Follow You). Annie has her own dream to open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor. As she looks forward (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life), Annie writes a love letter to Jeanine (Dear Jeanine).

Naturally, the convent is about to hit the financial skids, so Mother Helen calls up Father Lyon (Michael Hunsaker) to help figure out how to raise money. He arrives and discovers Jeanine has written "Dominique" which he knows will be a big hit. Father Lyon was also a Catholic Fashion model's agent before taking his vows and was romantically involved with Sister Coco. As they revive their affair, they work to find a more marketable name for the record than Sister Luke Gabriel (Think!). Unhappy about Jeanine getting too much attention, Mother Helen at first wants to cancel the record, but Father Lyon appeals to her more earthly and material desires. (Loot) The album is released and is a smash hit, money rolling in faster than anyone can count it.

Jeanine is overwhelmed by the success of the album and following performance tour. Mother Helen comes to her aid with pills and liquor to keep her going. (Mother's Here). While drunk and high, Jeanine signs a contract assigning all the profits from the album to the convent. Feeling hemmed in by the convent, Jeanine and Annie reunite. Jeanine wants the freedom to sing on her own terms. Annie hopes that now Jeanine has left the convent, the two of them can consummate their relationship, but Jeanine refuses, offering just a spiritual love. (Welcome to the Rest of Your Life) She's got a new song based on the new birth control pill that will be the center of her new album. With the money from that, she and Annie can open a school for unattractive girls with an unhealthy religious fervor.

When the Pope declares that no Catholic woman should take the Pill, Jeanine (who is still on drugs and drinking)sees her world begin to fall apart. (Jeanine Meets the Media) Coco, who has left the convent as well to be the girl's field hockey coach at Annie's school, shares the news that the Tax Collector has arrived for the income from the first album. (Things Couldn't Get Much Worse) Annie, the optimist, tells Jeanine that whatever happens, they're still together. Jeanine returns to the convent to ask Mother Helen if the convent could pay the taxes, but Mother Helen refuses. (Superior). Jeanine arrives back home and learns that Annie has sold the school to pay the taxes. With nothing left for them, Annie pulls out six bottle of barbiturates and offers to share them with Jeanine, so they can finally be together in the next life. (I'll Follow You)

As Sister Coco, Stephen Michael Rondel carries a large portion of the story-telling in the show. He is experienced in gender travesty, but his Coco comes off a little less than three-dimensional. Some of this may come from the writing because it seemed, at times, there wasn't much for his character to do other than come on and milk a laugh.

Laura Daniel as Jeanine gives a strong performance. Not very tall, and more attractive than the role calls for, she effectively carries Jeanine's arc from dreams to suicide. As Annie, Tracey Gilbert has the strongest connection to her character. When she writes to Jeanine, not knowing where Jeanine has gone, you get a good idea of the love that the real Annie might have felt for the real Jeanine.

As Mother Helen, Kristine Zbornik channels her best Ethel Merman. It's an apt characterization but sometimes borders on caricature. Her first song, "Superior" is terrific. Michael Hunsaker, as Father Lyon and other roles brings a great voice (and a nicely sculpted torso) to the proceedings. Randy Blair, Kristen Beil and Eileen F. Stevens complete the cast, all making excellent contributions in their many supporting roles.

Mr. Fell's book, starts out cleverly and holds up pretty well during a somewhat long first act. He spares no feelings and takes a comic jab wherever he can find it. Jeanine has a fellow nun, Sister Maria who's preparing to be the governess for a widowed naval captain with seven children. Father Lyon has just come from the Monastery of Saint Stephen Edie. Jeanine gets a few of her own quips in "Belgian endive is like life, well-shaped but bitter" and "a an all-girl hotel." When Jeanine tells her mother "I think all people are basically good." Mother replies, "Don't say things like that, or they'll lock you in an attic in Amsterdam." And, it is not without its anachronisms. As Jeanine accepts her Grammy award, we get the Sally Field "you like me, you really like me."

Mr. Monroe's music and lyrics also keep that strong first act going. It's in the second act when the "tragic and horrible" part begins that the story loses steam. The nice touches of integrating music and story that worked so well in Act 1 all but disappear in Act 2. The scenes get longer, and the songs are fewer and farther between. Having heard Annie's letter song in Act 1, I had expected to hear the suicide note in the form of a reprise. It's quite a challenge to try to balance camp/musical comedy with the tragedy of Jeanine's real life. I think had they left the story and returned to the asylum just after the suicide note, it wouldn't have been such a task to bring the energy and humor back up to end the show.

For more information on the show including cast notes and song clips, click here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

If Only the Carpenters Had Been Involved

"Rainy Days & Mondays" Lion Theatre and Theatre Row, part of the 2006 NY Fringe Festival. September 16, 2006

Well, as is always the case with shows at the NY Fringe, some are good and some are not. One might presume that a Fringe show brought back for encore performances might have earned that invitation through some good quality of the production, be it the writing or an actor's performance.

Having seen "Rainy Days & Mondays," I found no quality worth revisiting, other than a very pretty cast of boys. (If that's all you're looking for, there are plenty of venues in NYC to find as many and more without throwing away your money or your time.) The story was pointless and the performances wooden at best, despite the flagellations of Jamyl Dobson in the role of Lenny. David Reiser needs better career guidance. I've now seen him in two of the worst shows I've seen in NY - this and "Good Vibrations."

Had there been an intermission, I would have left then (like the three guys in the front row who slipped away during a blackout).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Buddy System

"Never Swim Alone" The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row, part of the 2006 NY Fringe Festival. September 16, 2006

Boys will be boys, it's been said. Sometimes that can mean the frat boys from "Animal House" and sometimes it can mean Leopold and Loeb.

Daniel McIvor gives us something in between as we explore the relationship between Bill and Frank in this revival of his 1999 Fringe entry, "Never Swim Alone." Simply staged for this 10th anniversary of the Fringe Festival, it seems a quintessential Fringe-type show - small cast, simple costuming, sets and lighting, and a script that may not be quite as edgy as it was intended to be.

Bill and Frank have known each other for all of their lives. Best friends from childhood all the way through school. As they grow up, their friendship becomes a rivalry. Mr. McIvor has used an effective technique in his play that has the two (now men) speaking simultaneously as they talk about themselves and each other. More often than not, not only are the speaking simultaneously, they speak identical dialogue in unison. This communicates a bond that ties them together, whether they like it or not. The third character in the play is billed as the Referee, a woman wearing a swimsuit with a whistle on a lanyard. She announces each round of this competition Bill and Frank have undertaken to win the hearts of the audience, calling foul on occasion when one or the other cross an inappropriate line. She also plays the role of a young girl, whose innocent flirtation with them as boys, results in the transformation of the relationship from callow friendship to a series of heated and sometimes cruel competitions. The goal of each competition, as we learn was started with the girl's innocent invitation of "race you to the point" is who will be "first."

Bill and Frank, at a certain level, are interchangeable. "Blue suit, white shirt, silk tie, black socks, black shoes, black briefcase" they announce as they describe themselves in unison. In this first round of their competition, further inspection reveals that Frank has on not black socks, but blue socks. Bill is the winner of round one and gets to speak next. Like their friendship, the nature of the competitions get more and more personal, and more and more vicious as the play progresses.

As Frank, Douglas Dickerman is adorably smug and self-righteous, engaging the audience very quickly with boyish good looks. Mr. Dickerman has the difficult role of being the beautiful monster, but never quite manages to get the monster part across. Even his most cruel actions never quite bite as hard or cut as deep as they should.

In the role of Bill, John Maria gives a subtle portrayal of a man terrified of losing to someone he's always thought of as his equal. Mr. Maria blusters and puffs in Bill's efforts to keep up with Frank. His Frank is someone whose pain you can identify with, but doesn't raise feelings of pity for him.

Not so subtly, Mr. McIvor (who also directs this production) has given away the end of the competition by having Bill in a foot cast throughout the show. The catalyst for the degradation of the relationship is the girl, which is telegraphed fairly early on. It's only a matter of time before he reveals that during the "race to the point" the girl drowns when the boys are more focused on beating each other in the race. Bill shows remorse, but Frank can't let himself do the same. Frank's victories, as you may well imagine become more and more hollow, as he and Bill nurse the wounds they have inflicted on each other. The writing concepts Mr McIvor employs are interesting, but there were many times when he seemed more caught up in form over substance. The simultaneous dialogue and biting exchanges only reveal that the competition is bitter, but doesn't enlighten.

As for production values, this was a typical Fringe show performed in a black box space, using three black stools. The only distractions were Frank's references to wearing a blue suit that was clearly an ill-fitting grey pinstripe.

On the Fringe, (and you all know how I like a little fringe)

I felt like I had made a mistake when I was on vacation during the 2006 NYC Fringe Festival. This is the 10th anniversary of the NYC Fringe Festival, the largest theatre festival in North America. Based on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the NYC Fringe always presents a full range of theatrical offerings, from drama, to musicals, to mime, to camp, to political plays. Along with this is a full range of artistic choices and quality. Some shows manage to have respectable budgets that allow for good quality production values, others do not have such budgets. There too, the size of the budget is never a reliable indicator of the quality of the event you'll experience. On occasion, Fringe shows have found their way to Broadway, most notably "Urinetown, the Musical," from the 1999 festival, which was nominated for 9 Tony Awards in 2002. Oddly, it won three for Best Book, Score and Director, but not Best Musical. (I've never figured out how that worked.)

But I hopes were temporarily raised when I got a blast email that several of this year's Fringe shows were getting encore presentations in September. I say temporarily because as soon as I received the first email, I tried to buy tickets to a couple of shows. At that time, the shows I wanted to see appeared to have already sold out. So, I resigned myself to a "fringeless" 2006 theatre season. (sad face here)

Magically, I got another blast email this week about these encore presentations offering discounted tickets!! (happy boy!) Clicking as quickly as my carpal tunnel would allow, I secured seats for two of the shows, "Never Swim Alone" and "Rainy Days and Mondays."

Reviews will follow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

And why hasn't he posted lately?

Well, I'll tell you!

My theatrical attendance has been somewhat "budget-challenged" because of recent and upcoming travel. I spent a week in Provincetown, MA in August, and I'm going to Russia for 10 days at the beginning of October.

I do plan to see a couple of shows this month and will post my two cents' worth about them before I get on a plane to St. Petersburg.