Saturday, April 30, 2011

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

"Seance on a Wet Afternoon" presented by New York City Opera at the David Koch Theatre, April 28, 2011

I always find it exciting when established artists attempt a new direction with their art.  Case in point, the new ballet that Paul McCartney is composing for New York City Ballet announced this spring.

Similarly, Stephen Schwartz, composer of musical theatre works Godspell, Pippin and Wicked announced his first opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon sounded like an interesting turn for his career.  Having performed in a (very bad) community production of Godspell, and having seen Wicked several years ago, I am familiar with Mr. Schwartz' style and was looking forward to seeing and hearing how it evolved for the opera stage.

His story choice is full of opportunity for dramatic musical interpretation.  Myra Foster (Lauren Flanigan), a commercially unsuccessful medium and her more than devoted husband Bill (Kim Josephson) are hatching a plan to bring Myra's talents to light and boost her reputation and fame.  The plan is to kidnap the young daughter (Bailey Grey) of a local wealthy family (Todd Wilander and Melody Moore).  Myra would then turn up and offer psychic assistance to locate the child and return her to her family safe and sound.  The ransom money collected would be donated to charity.

Myra's connection to the other side is her son, Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo), who died as a child.  His assistance with Myra's regular group of believers is fleeting and only accurate on rare occasions.  Bill is reluctant to go along with Myra's plot, but loves her more than he fears the risk of it.  Once the girl is nabbed, the Inspector Watts (Phillip Boykin) turns out to be a believer and seeks Myra's help.

I won't spoil the plot, but suffice to say, things don't work out as planned, though Myra does finally have a successful channeling episode that combines the spiritual moment with her own confession.

Mr. Schwartz' score strays pretty far from his usual style for the stage, unfortunately.  This Seance features stereotypical contemporary opera styling, substituting bland dissonance for the skillful use of leitmotif to define character.  There are one or two arias that speak more to what Mr. Schwartz does best, both in Act II.  Bill sings "You Didn't Know Her" lamenting over the woman he first fell in love with, who she might have been and how she used to be.  Mr. Josephson's interpretation is touching and heartfelt, elevating the proceedings, if only briefly.  Ms. Moore's Rita Clayton also sings of the hope she feels from Adriana's spirit while she's being held captive by the Fosters.  She sings beautifully, capturing the fear and emotion of a mother overwhelmed with worry about her missing child.  Ms. Flanigan's Myra suffers from the insufficient score, though she gives a thoroughly committed performance.

Mr. Schwartz' son Scott directs, but doesn't seem to add much to the production.  Chorus and principals are starkly segregated except in those few scenes when Myra ventures out of the house, or when Bill snatches Adriana.

Heidi Ettinger's translucent house set and chain link curtains are the most successful element in this staging.  Alejo Vietti's costumes suffice, though the black and white attire for the chorus does remind me of Vicki Mortimer's design for the Roundabout's revival of Nine in 2003.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon continues at NYCO through May 1.

Starwatch: Jack O'Brien, David Alan Grier

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Born Yesterday

"Born Yesterday" at the Cort Theatre, April 7, 2011

Garson Kanin's classic spin on Pygmalion has returned to Broadway in a gorgeous, but uneven production directed by Doug Hughes.  This vehicle, which made Judy Holliday a star, provides a similar opportunity for Nina Arianda, making her Broadway debut as Billie Dawn.  Ms. Arianda certainly has earned the chance with her turn in the title role of Venus in Fur last year at Classic Stage Company.

The material is very different here.  (For a plot summary, click here.)

The first two acts are quite engaging.  It's the third act when things begin to falter.  Mr. Kanin's script (perhaps inspiring at the end of WWII) devolves into a cheesy pageant of patriotism as Paul (Robert Sean Leonard) and Billie explain the error of his ways to Harry (Jim Belushi). 

The change in language and tone are particularly noticeable because of the very miscast Mr. Leonard.  Adding to the problem, he and Ms Arianda have such minimal chemistry that other events in Act II and Act III make very little sense. Mr. Leonard's performance is otherwise serviceable, but unremarkable.

Ms. Arianda starts out nicely, bouncing back and forth from sullen to perky to uncouth, and all with a certain charm.  She reflects Billie's evolution adequately, but it's missing that spark from the chemistry with Paul that keeps it from working as well as it should.

Mr. Belushi's Harry huffs and puffs and darn near blows the set down.  While occasionally effective, it's not enough to carry the role. Frank Wood is oddly inarticulate as Harry's lawyer, Ed Devery - disappointing from such a talented actor.  Perhaps the choices were more those of director Dough Hughes, that Mr. Wood.  It's as though Mr. Hughes spent most of his time on Acts I and II and ran out of time to focus on the weakness in Act III.

John Lee Beatty's black and white hotel suite set echoes the stark contrasts in characters, honest and criminal, cruel and kind, polished and uneducated.  Catherine Zuber's costumes are gorgeous as always.

Born Yesterday is on a limited run through July 31.  Click here for tickets.

Love Song

"Love Song" at 59E59 Theaters, April 19, 2011

(Photo by Jeff Larkin - provided by 59E59)

There are times when I forget that getting nominated for an award isn't necessarily an indication of worth.  Love Song was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2007.

I'm pretty sure it didn't win.

Playwright and director John Kolvenbach presents his play in its New York debut with an energetic, if largely miscast, production.  Beane (Andrew Pastides), apparently has Asperger syndrome or something similar, moping about on the edge of existence, driving his perfectionist sister Joan (Laura Latreille) to her wit's end.  Joan's husband Harry (Ian Barford) stays oddly supportive of both of them, until Beane meets Molly (Zoe Winters), who has broken into Beane's empty apartment, confronts him and steals his minimal belongings.

When Molly turns up at Beane's again, he is suddenly energized, a new man, a man in love.  He talks freely, initiates conversation, shows emotion and from a mainstream conformist perspective, seems normal.  Joan is hysterical and Harry is concerned.

I know - it didn't make any more sense to actually watch it either.

Mr. Pastides works hard to provide some dimension to the flat writing.  Ms. Latreille also has some success in the more emotional moments when she encourages Beane once she realizes the impact Molly has, but otherwise her performance feels false.  Mr. Barford and Ms. Winters both coast through unremarkably.

Mr. Kolvenbach doesn't seem to add much to his predictable script.  Ji-Youn Chang's set achieves the greatest success of the evening, juxtaposing Joan and Harry's warm red apartment against Beane's all-white colorless existence.

Love Song runs through May 7.  Tickets are available here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


"High" at the Booth Theatre, March 29, 2011

Matthew Lombardo returns to Broadway from last season's so-so Looped with story of sin, redemption and weakness.  Sister Jamison Connelly (Kathleen Turner) is a well-respected counselor at a Catholic-sponsored rehab facility.  Her supervisor, Father Michael (Stephen Kunken), convinces her to take on 19 year old Cody (Evan Jonigkeit) whose addiction profile falls outside of the facility's usual requirements (gay, not Catholic).  High is a better effort than Looped, but still has its own issues.

Ms. Turner's nun, Sister Jamie, is everything you'd expect from her - tough as nails, jaded, cynical and all let's-just-get-down-to-business-shall-we.  Cody's arrival at the facility comes when he's found high in a seedy motel with the dead body of a 14 year old boy.  She immediately suspects that Cody killed the boy, but no charges were made and Father Michael persuaded the court to put Cody in his facility, rather than a state-run rehab center.  This increases her suspicions and the counseling sessions begin, highly confrontational with Sister Jamie biting, every time Cody baits her.  Everyone's got secrets they don't want to tell.  Revelations follow, fortunately, some of which not in the way one might have guessed (to Mr. Lombardo's credit), but others don't ring true.

As Sister Jamie, Ms. Turner is all about the tough-guy, been-there-done-that counselor, daring her patient to shock her with his history.  Ms. Turner plays her as being so tough and hard, it undercuts the effect when he actually manages to do just that.  When she finally has her own breakdown, it's just not believable.  This result is likely the combination of the writing and Ms. Turner's acting choices.

Mr. Kunken, last seen on Broadway as Andy Fastow in Enron, has a bit less to work with as Father Michael.  When Sister Jamie confronts him about Cody, Mr. Lombardo writes a reaction that is totally inconsistent with how a director of a substance abuse rehabilitation center would respond, even with the plot contrivances in place.

It is Mr. Jonigkeit who does all the heavy lifting in this play, and admirably so for his NY and Broadway debut.  He's supported by the writing, Mr. Lombardo's best in the piece, and he fully delivers.  Recalcitrant, defiant, compromising, and compliant from moment to moment, he accomplishes all with great dexterity.  It's a notable performance.

Director Rob Ruggiero returns along with Mr. Lombardo from Looped, improving upon his work.  I'm certain that Ms. Turner is quite a force to reckon with in the rehearsal room, and one can see the results of that in her performance.  He elicits excellent work from Mr. Jonigkeit, as noted above.

David Gallo's stark black box set with a constellation of backdrop starlight and simple white furniture and doors works fairly well.  There was one effect that I wish had been better executed.  In the stage floor were three acrylic panels, uplighted for monologues.  I'm guessing the intent was to have the actor appear floating in a starry sky, but only the balcony really got that impact.  Perhaps it was John Lasiter's lights that didn't pull off the effect.

High is on an open-ended run.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Go Back to Where You Are

"Go Back to Where You Are" at Playwrights Horizons, April 10, 2011

David Greenspan returns to off-Broadway with a new play at Playwrights Horizons.  It seems to be a combination of The Sound and the Fury, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, and Title of Show. 

Bernard (Brian Hutchison), a high school English teacher and erstwhile playwright, is off to visit his enormously-successful-and-grand-Broadway-actress-sister Claire (Lisa Banes) at her Hamptons manse, not far from the small family cabin in which he weekends.  Along for the weekend are her friend, less-successful-actress Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), Tom (Stephen Bogardus), Claire's frequent director, his partner Malcolm (Tim Hopper) and Claire's son Wally (Michael Izqueirdo).  An early prologue introduces Passalus (Mr. Greenspan), a Greek chorus boy, trapped between worlds as God's minion longing for an end to the errands and chores of the Almighty.  God wants Passalus to help Carolyn along in her life, escaping the thumb of Claire, her mother.

(Spoiler Alert)

Passalus strikes a bargain with God that if he completes his task, and only that task, God will send him along to the afterlife.

Easier said than done.

Holding Passalus back is an interminable need to "fix" everything he encounters, and Claire's little weekend party is rife with opportunity.  Claire still mourns her husband Robert's death. Wally still mourns his partner Mark's death.  Bernard still mourns his partner Patrick's death. Charlotte still mourns her failing career. Malcolm mourns his dying relationship with Tom. (lots of death for a comedy)

Performances are rather uneven.  Mr. Hutchison's nervous playwright works for the expository monologues, but falls short in the more emotional moments.  Ms. Banes' grande dame of the theatre works better. Ms. Mayberry's Charlotte probably comes across the best.  Mr. Greenspan pulls out his Queen Elizabeth from last year's Orlando for Passalus' alter ego, an 80 year old neighbor woman.  Mr. Bogardus, ever handsome, cruises along, but Mr. Hopper's Malcolm writhes morosely as the spurned lover.

Mr. Greenspan's script bounces around, alot ("Is there no chronology in this play?").  Throughout, each character takes their leave to speak inner thoughts and reactions in direct address.  Director Leigh Silverman keeps things moving and navigates the odd focus and scenes shifts.  Rachel Hauck's beach deck seems to surrealistically unfold into the sunset.

Go Back to Where You Are runs through May 1.  Click here for tickets.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Catch Me If You Can

"Catch Me If You Can" at the Neil Simon Theatre, March 21, 2011

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have mined Hollywood to create another excellent stage musical adaptation from the 2002 film of the same name.  This time around, wisely, they've taken a bit more of a conceptual approach to tell the story of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Aaron Tveit), who scams his way around the globe amassing and burning through lots and lots of money that's not his.  Working as a memory play, it starts as Frank gets caught by Carl Hanratty (Norbert Leo Butz), the federal agent who has been chasing him for years.  Frank, eager to finally tell his story, turns it into a television musical special along the line of Jackie Gleason's in the 50's or Dean Martin's series in the '60s, complete with a full cast of chorus girls, the Frank Abagnale, Jr. dancers.  With a tight book by Terrence McNally, Frank starts his tale as a teenager, learning from his father, Frank, Sr. (Tom Wopat), that image is everything.  Honesty, financial responsibility - - not so much.

Spoiler Alert

Fresh out of high school, Frank leaves home with barely the clothes on his back as his parents split and learns quickly how to profit from bad checks, kiting his way through Manhattan before every bank in the city is looking for him.  He heads west for "greener" pastures and bluffs his way into the cockpit of an airline, flying around the world, and bedding innumerable stewardesses along the way.  Life is good until the FBI starts after him.  He lands in New Orleans, impersonating a pediatrician in a hospital ER.  Love turns out to be his undoing, meeting nurse April Strong (Kerry Butler). Agent Hanratty is close on his heels and Frank finally comes clean with April and convinces her to meet him at the airport to make their escape.  April turns him in and we're back to the opening tableau.

Mr. Tveit makes an impressive turn in his first billing above the title, capturing Frank's charm.  Mr. Butz' Hanratty is a song and dance man in the style of Jimmy Cagney, ornery and crusty with a heart.  Mr. Wopat is capable, if unremarkable.  Rachel DeBenedet as Frank's mother, Paula, is straight out of central casting: tall, blonde and elegant.  Ms. Butler doesn't have so much to do, not appearing until Act II, but she does what she does best with "Fly, Fly Away."

Director Jack O'Brien's staging keeps the energy high enough to pull through some of the weaker numbers, for example, "My Favorite Time of Year," which closes Act I.  Jerry Mitchell's choreography is some of the best work I've seen from him in a long time, spot on to the period.  Mr. Shaiman's music is full of hummable melodies, but the lyrics tend to border on Hallmark.

Catch Me If You Can may not be the absolute front-runner for this year's Tony, but it will certainly be a well-deserved member of the pack.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Tomorrow Morning

"Tomorrow Morning" presented by The York Theatre Company at Theatre at St. Peter's, April 2, 2011

In a slimmed down one-act version, following its US premiere in Chicago, Tomorrow Morning has arrived in New York, courtesy of The York Theatre Company, an off-Broadway troupe which focuses exclusively on producing musicals, both new and revivals.

The story follows two couples on the eve of large events in their respective lives.  What we get is an interesting concept that puts a spin on The Fourposter, showing the simultaneous progression and degradation of a relationship at its beginning and end.   For the first, living ten years ago, John (Matthew Hydzik) and Kat (Autumn Hurlbert), they are about to be married.  The second, living in the present, Jack (D.B. Bonds) and Catherine (Mary Mossberg) are about to divorce.

Spoiler alert

John and Kat are eager about everything, as twenty-somethings tend to be, their careers, their relationship, their plans for the future of both.  They're passionate and as absolutely certain of themselves as callow youth propels them.

Jack and Kat separated after Jack's affair with a co-worker.  And she's angry.  Really angry.  What she doesn't see is that her own ambition is what pushed him away in the first place.  She also wields custody of their son like a sword.

In the single night, many twists and turns arise. John sneaks over to see Kat against her mother's wishes to give her a present, a childhood picture of Kat dressed up like a bride.  Later, Kat learns that she's pregnant when the lab calls to confirm their marital blood test.

Similarly, Catherine panics when her son, after overhearing yet another argument between his parents, takes off in the night to find his dad.

The first half follows very familiar territory for both couples with no new insights to the situation of either.  It's only once the child becomes part of the story that some true feeling and emotion turn up.  The music is pleasant enough, though occasionally unremarkable.

Performances are generally even, though Mr. Bonds seems to get the short end of the stick in an apology of a role.  To his credit, he still manages to fill in a third dimension to the very limited writing.  He and Mr. Hydzik also create a very touching moment as they sing of the child in "Look at What We Made."

Director Tom Mullen keeps things moving well, fortunate to have an excellent set by Dan P. Conley to facilitate the multitude of shifts in time and place.

Tomorrow Morning runs through April 23, 2011.  Get tickets here.

Thursday, April 07, 2011


"Benefactors" presented by Keen Company at Theatre Row, April 2, 2011

Photo: Richard Termine, Theatremania

Once again, Carl Forsman and Keen Company prove that producing off-Broadway with a limited budget doesn't have to look like community theatre.  Their current revival of Michael Frayn's Benefactors is a well-paced and thoughtful presentation of two couples in semi-urban London, struggling to be helpful to each other without getting too involved in each other's business.

It's the late 60s and David (Daniel Jenkins) has been assigned the impossible urban renewal task of tearing down a shabby and dying neighborhood, and building new housing to increase the population density, while improving life for the residents.  His wife Jane (Vivienne Benesch) supports the effort, surveying the displaced and helping push the change through.  Neighbors Colin (Stephen Barker Turner) and Sheila (Deanne Lorrette) spend as much or more time at  Daniel and Jane's than they do at home.  Sheila can't quite seem to get ahead of the tasks of running her household, preparing meals and seeing to their two children.  Most days Jane feeds everyone tea and dinner.

Spoiler Alert

As the project faces political opposition, Colin loses his job, and he and Sheila struggle and separate.  Colin takes up the opposition's cause, increasing the already heightened tension after Sheila has moved in with David and Jane.

Colin, David and Jane all serve as benefactors in one form or another.  Colin, pushing the agenda of the political opposition, David, trying to build better housing for the less fortunate and ultimately, Jane, who ends up helping everyone in one way or another throughout the play.

Director Carl Forsman has assembled a strong cast and generally keeps things moving along.  There are a couple of scenes that get bogged down in the construction and design details where additional visuals might have helped.  Ms. Benesch's Jane is the most powerful performance of the evening, balancing love and loyalty to her husband while making the effort to find and express her own voice in the heyday of "Women's Liberation" at the time. Dane Laffrey's simple and elegant set conveys both the period and the concept of construction with walls of gray-washed plywood.

Benefactors runs through April 30, 2011.

Friday, April 01, 2011

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

"How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, March 31, 2011

 When the last revival of Guys and Dolls was announced a couple of years ago, my reaction was, "Why?"  I didn't see the revival, but based on its limited run, that seems to have been a general consensus.

Then, the announcement came last year that How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was headed back to Broadway with Daniel Radcliffe in the lead.  Again, I asked, "Why?" 

Now, I get that commercial theatre is about making money.  It's a high-risk venture, and from time to time art and commerce combine to create something magical and profitable.  Every producer is looking for that secret formula to achieve that same goal. 

I get that revivals are easier to market because earlier production(s) have taken care of creating awareness and setting a basic interest level, more often than not.  That takes one variable out of the formula, again more often than not.  And, apparently, just like the last Guys and Dolls, removing that variable is not the silver bullet to perfect the formula. (How's that for mixing metaphors?)

It's a similar situation with Rob Ashford's revival of H2S.  There's a strong element of star power with Mr. Radcliffe and John Larroquette to combine with the generally favorable awareness of the show, but addressing that variable isn't enough to perfect the formula either.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad show by any means.  It's just unremarkable.  Musically, it's serviceable, but David Chase's music direction and arrangements add little to Frank Loesser's score. 

Mr. Radcliffe's very young J. Pierrepont Finch is certainly likeable.  He's not a particularly strong singer, but looking at his predecessors Robert Morse and Matthew Broderick, the role doesn't call for that.  He gets the Faith Prince choreography treatment for most of the show (that's where the chorus dances around him), but does jump into it in "Grand Old Ivy" and "Brotherhood of Man."  At his young age, he's got the energy to compensate for training.  Plus, Mr. Ashford is truly skilled at choreographing men to dance like men.  The combination works well for an inexperienced dancer like Mr. Radcliffe.

Mr. Larroquette (who still seems to be working on his lines in a scene or two) blusters and struts as J. B. Biggley.  Tammy Blanchard's Hedy LaRue pulls a lot from Jennifer Coolidge, and for the most part, it works. 

Rose Hemingway, like Mr. Radcliffe, is very young for the focused Rosemary Pilkington and still a bit of a raw talent.  I look forward to seeing her again as she hones her skills.  Christopher Hanke's Bud Frump borrows heavily from Molly Shannon's Mary Catherine Gallagher (superstar!!).  The effect works very nicely, making a more adorable Bud Frump than one might expect.

Mr. Ashford's direction and choreography are unevenly applied.  The direction is minimal, where most of his energy seems to have gone into the choreography.  The dance is impressive, but this is not a show one can pull off on dance alone.  There are still plenty of laughs and some nice moments.

Derek McLane's massive sets evoke the period nicely, but occasionally overpower the diminutive stars.  Howell Binkley's pastel lighting complements the sets and the 1960s costumes by Catherine Zuber.

How to Succeed... is set for an open-ended run, but I'll be surprised if it lasts past Mr. Radcliffe's contract period.