Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Theater Review: Ragtime

Quentin Earl Darrington and cast
(Photo: Joan Marcus)


A Feast for the Eyes and Ears
By Lauren Yarger
With its beautiful score (Stephen Flattery), grand, elegant set (Derek McLane, design), lovely turn of the century costumes (Santo Loquasto) and issues like racism, immigration and the economy that could be ripped from today’s headlines, the timing for Broadway’s revival of Ragtime seems just right.

Director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge has found just the right blend of the issues, sights, sounds and movement for one very enjoyable night at the theater. It’s lovely to hear the Flattery score with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and classics like “New Music,” “Your Daddy’s Son” and “The Wheels of a Dream” sung by such excellent voices.

Christiane Noll is Mother, who puts up with Father (Ron Bohmer) who goes off on explorations, leaving her to cope alone with her son (an very winsome Christopher Cox) and an African-American baby abandoned in her garden. She cares for the baby as well as his mother, Sarah (Stephanie Umoh). Sarah’s lover, Coalhouse Walker, Jr (a delightfully smooth-voiced Quentin Earl Darrington) finds her and plans a new life for them as a family, but Terrence McNally’s book, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, is not all song and dance.

Sarah dies and Walker turns to crime when prejudice blocks his quests for justice for her murder. Mother’s brother (Bobby Steggert) joins his cause as well. Meanwhile, a recent immigrant, Tateh (Robert Petkoff) ekes out a living to support himself and his daughter (Sarah Rosenthal) selling silhouettes, then finds success as a director of animated pictures. All of the lives intertwine and affect each other.

The production is grand (applause greets the opening curtain which reveals the gaily attired cast on the three-story set) , with small changes transforming McLane’s functional steel frame into all of the locales, including a home, an immigrant tenement neighborhood and the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Walker’s automobile and the piano he plays also are formed of matching steel-frame design and excellent sound design by Acme Sound Partners makes it sound like the tunes really are coming from the interior-less piano (and makes lifelike the cries coming from the doll used for Sarah’s baby, although it amusingly never seems to grow despite the passage of time).

Some other things feel less real too. Supporting roles for vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise) and escape artist Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond) are hammy and are forced. Noll, though she sings like an angel, goes through the motions and doesn’t exude the spark we expect from crusading Mother. The best cameos, on the other hand, come from Donna Migliaccio as union activist Emma Goldman and the little tyke who plays Coalhouse Walker III (the role is shared by Jayden Brockington and Kylil Christopher Williams) who’s so cute, you just want to run up on the stage and hug him.

Overall, Ragtime is a satisfying journey to days gone by and hope for the present. Catch it at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, NYC. For tickets call (212) 307-4100. Special discounted group tickets that support Masterwork Productions are available here. Make sure the religious charity you support is Masterworks.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sex outside of marriage
• Minor language

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Theater Review: The Age of Iron

Finn Whitrock and Dylan Moore
The Sands of Greece, the Face That Launched 1,000 Ships Come to Life
By Lauren Yarger
It’s all there: love, lust, hate, battles, the sands of ancient Greece and the heroes and villains of The Age of Iron, a story combining the works of William Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida and Thomas Heywood’s Iron Age playing Off-Broadway at Classic Stage Company.

Tightly directed by Brian Kulick on a sand-covered stage tented by Mark Wendland, the story follows beautiful, lusty Helen (Tina Benko), who leaves her Greek husband King Menelaus for the sexy Trojan prince Paris (Craig Baldwin) and launches a thousand ships in a war to bring her back home. Paris’ brother, Troilus (Finn Whitrock) has his own problems, as he must give up his own love, Cressida (Dylan Moore), forced to return to her father and the unwanted attentions of other men.

The tale goes as Greek tragedies do with many battles, intriguingly staged by Kulick. Standing out is Elliot Villar as Trojan warrior Hector. Shakespeare’s prose falls eloquently and beautifully from his lips. If he had stopped to recite a few of the Bard’s sonnets, there would have been mass swooning in the audience. He really is a treat.

Playing his wife, Andromache, is Xanthe Elbrick, who transforms into the beautifully gowned (Oana Botes-Ban, costume design) Trojan woman from a curiously cast cross-gender role as Patroclus, friend (and possible lover) of Achilles (Dion Mucciacito). Steven Rattazzi provides some needed comic relief as Thersites.

The show really is an engaging retelling of the story, and the addition of the Heywood material as a sort of prologue and epilogue adds depth.

The Age of Iron runs through Dec. 13 at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, NYC. Tickets are available by calling 212-677-4210

Christians might also like to know:
• Adultery
• Scantiliy-clad actors
• Cross-gender role

Review: In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play)

Laura Benanti. Photo: Joan Marcus
(Dear Gentle Reader: For those of you among our readership who would consider yourselves rather conservative, I can almost guarantee this play isn’t going to be among your top choices for viewing, and in fact, just reading this review and its description of what takes place might be more than you bargained for, so I’m just giving a little word of warning before your read on. --Lauren Yarger )


Or, How Many Orgasms Can We Witness on Stage?
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Sarah Ruhl’s first offering on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater is a sexually charged, almost-farce about an 1880s doctor who treats women suffering from hysteria with a new electronic vibrating device.

Dr. Givings (Michael Cerveris), appropriately named, it would seem, uses his vibrator on uptight patient Mrs. Daldry (Maria Dizzia), brought to him by concerned Mr. Daldry (Thomas Jay Ryan) to relieve the “congestion of fluid” that has built up in her womb and which is causing her difficulties like sensitivity to light.

With the help of his nurse, Annie (Wendy Rich Stetson), Givings administers daily treatments to Daldry’s private area to cause “paroxysms,” or releases of the tension, all while making small talk and totally unaware that the treatment has a sexual nature to it. Mrs. Daldry responds to the treatment, especially when Annie administers it.

Meanwhile, Givings’ wife, Catherine (Laura Benanti), is the most frustrated of all, a human vibrator, if you will, full of life and constantly buzzing with chatter, while restrained by a new baby who refuses to nurse and unable to unlock the secrets of her husband’s treatments which take place behind closed doors in the room next to the parlor of their home.

The very confident, but clueless Givings extends his treatments to patient, Leo Irving (Chandler Williams), with a special vibrating device for males that is inserted internally. The treatment releases the artistic talent that had been pent up and he and Mrs. Givings secretly set up sessions for him to paint Elizabeth (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), the Givings’ wet nurse, while she feeds their baby.

More and more frustrated with her inability to nurse her child who is bonding with Elizabeth and with her marriage in general, Catherine discovers the secrets of the large old-fashioned camera-looking wooden box with its attachment in the next room. Soon, she and new friends Mrs. Daldry and Annie are sharing the secret with each other and helping each other obtain “paroxysms.”

Soon Catherine’s desires force a showdown with Givings and when their very marriage is at stake, she administers her own type of sexual therapy to him in the snow (oddly their sexual awakening comes in a frigid setting, but I had long ago stopped expecting anything in this play to make any real sense).

Overall, the play seemed like a challenge to sit and be a voyeur (the treatments and the “paroxysms” occur on stage in full view of the audience) more than a thoughtful or well constructed play about self discovery. I got the feeling Ruhl just wanted to see how many times she could put an orgasm on stage and get away with calling it a play. A subplot about Elizabeth’s lost child and a long soliloquy by her toward the end of the piece seem out of place and play more like a last-minute attempt to put some depth in an other-wise weak play.

Now before you check me off as some sort of prude, there are some elements of the production that deserve praise even though it didn’t excite me (sorry, pun intended…) personally:
• there are a few funny lines
Benanti, directed by Les Waters, is superb as the rattling-on and repressed wife
• David Zinn’s late 19th-century costumes are lovely
• Annie Smart’s set, especially the change form Victorian residence to winter wonderland is amazing.

The good doesn’t outweigh a rather ridiculous and "too-much-information" plot on this production, however, and it left me far from satisfied.

In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play) runs at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th St.,NYC through Jan. 10. Amusingly, discounted tickets that will benefit Masterwork Productions are available by clicking here.

Christians might also like to know:
• The show posts a Mature rating
• The patients undress to their undergarments, lie on the examination table and are covered with sheets (some times), and the vibrator is applied.
• In one scene the nurse manually stimulates Mrs. Daldry.
• Sexual dialogue
• Homosexual activity
• Full male nudity

Theater Review: The Brother/Sister Plays

The Brothers Size
Telling the Stuff of Life through the Senses
By Lauren Yarger
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s prose, spiritual songs, African rhythms and direction that enhances dreamlike storytelling combine to make The Brother/Sister Plays at the Public Theater a sensory delight.

The work, presented in two parts, combines three of McCraney’s plays about the African-American experience of a group of people living in the projects in the “distant present” of San Pere Louisiana : In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size and Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet.

In part one, directed by Tina Landau, we meet Oya (an effervescent Kianné Muschett) who gives up an athletic scholarship to stay with her dying mother Moja (Heather Alicia Simms). Her aunt, the non-nonsense Elegua (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) come to look after her when Moja dies, and doesn’t approve of the man in her life, Shango Sterling K. Brown), whose wandering eye won’t let him settle down and give Oya the baby she so desperately wants. Timid Ogun Size (Marc Damon Johnson) steps in when Shango leaves and offers her a life with him.

Landau creates physical mirrors in actors behind the action, moving, sighing and singing to create a dream-like quality to the story. James Schuette’s simplistic scenic design lighted by Peter Kaczorowski enhance the mood.

The second play, directed by Robert O’Hara, follows the story of the Size brothers, Orgun and Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) and their friend Elegba (Andre Holland). This middle segment is the richest as far as character development. Orgun tries to help his recently paroled brother stay out of trouble, and when they have to part, the emotions are raw. In part 3, Elegba’s son Marcus (Holland) comes to terms with the fact that his father was "sweet" (gay) and with his own sexuality.

The performances of the principle actors, as well as the ensemble, many of whom play multiple roles in the saga, are strong and believable. McCraney’s storytelling devices of having the characters speak their stage directions as well as the too frequently used answer to a question, “How could he/she not?” grow tedious in the four and a half hours that make up the entire work, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise satisfying work. If you take out the sensory devices for telling the story, you’re left with a tale of a bunch of folks who make poor choices and have to deal with the consequences, which puts these tales into an “everyman” category, rather than just the genre of Afican-American experience.

The Brother/Sister Plays run Off-Broadway at the Public, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC through Dec. 20. For tickets, call 212-967-7555.

Christian might also like to know:
• Language
• Sexual dialogue
• Hoodoo
• God’s name taken in vain
• Sexual dancing
• Homosexuality
• Homosexual activity


Monday, November 23, 2009

Theater Review: The Orphans' Home Cycle

Jenny Dare Paulin and Bill Heck. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Foote's Orphans' Home Cycle is 'Don't-Miss' Theater
By Lauren Yarger
If you're going to spend nine hours in the theater, I can't think of a better place than the Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre, where Horton Foote's saga of the journey of Horace Robedaux (Bill Heck) from boy to manhood plays through March 28.

The beautifully staged piece is directed by Michael Wilson, artistic director of Hartford Stage, which collaborated with Signature on this production and presented it prior to its New York run.

The saga, condensed by the author from nine of his plays into a three-part nine-hour play, is presented as three separate plays or as marathons of all three. It's not like some of the other shows presented in parts like the Brother/Sisters Plays or last year's The Norman Conquests where it doesn't matter in which order you see the pieces. See these in order so you can savor Foote's masterful storytelling.

The sets by designers Jeff Cowie and David Barber are fabulous. After the ninth play ends, I guarantee you'll wish there were more.

For a review of part one, The Story of a Childhood from the Hartford run (same cast/crew) click here.
Part 2: The Story of a Marriage opens Dec. 3 and Part 3: The Story of a Family opens Jan. 7.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org/. The theater is located at 555 West 42nd St.

Cirque du Soleil Returns to Randall's Island with OVO

Ants act. Photo:Benoit Fontaine © 2009 Cirque du Soleil Inc.

Cirque du Soleil will return to New York with its latest big top touring production OVO under the trademark blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau (Big Top) at Randall’s Island Park for a limited engagement beginning Friday, April 9.

Cirque Club members have exclusive online access to advance tickets with special discounts at www.cirquedusoleil.com.

The name OVO means “egg” in Portuguese. This timeless symbol of the life cycle and birth of numerous insects represents the underlying thread of the show. Graphically, OVO hides an insect in its name: The two letter “Os” represent the eyes while the letter “V” forms the nose.

The show is a headlong rush into a colorful ecosystem teeming with life, where insects work, eat, crawl, flutter, play, fight and look for love in a non-stop riot of energy and movement. The insects’ home is a world of biodiversity and beauty filled with noisy action and moments of quiet emotion. When a mysterious egg appears in their midst, the insects are awestruck and intensely curious about this iconic object that represents the enigma and cycles of their lives. It’s love at first sight when a gawky, quirky insect arrives in this bustling community and a fabulous ladybug catches his eye – and the feeling is mutual.

Some 54 performing artists from 13 countries perform acrobatic stunts and dance integrated by director Deborah Colker, the first female Director at Cirque du Soleil.

James Barbour Sets Holiday Concerts in NY, LA

Broadway star James Barbour (Tale of Two Cities) will repeat last season’s sold-out holiday engagement at Sardi's with Holiday Concert 2009 in both New York and Los Angeles.

The New York concerts will begin on Friday, Dec. 11 at Bill’s 1890 Restaurant & Café, 57 E. 54th Street, between Park and Madison, and will continue through Saturday, Dec. 19 with musical direction by opera’s revered Constantine Kitsopoulos.

The evening will feature a musically inspired reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” which the scholar/philanthropist wrote for his nine children in 1822 while they lived at 57 East 54th St., the building which now houses the café.

New York tickets may be purchased at a http://www.smarttix.com/%22%3Ewww.SmartTix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. Evening performances are at 7:30 with a matinee at 3 pm on Saturday, Dec. 19.

The Los Angeles schedule will offer one concert only on Monday, Dec. 21
7 pm at The Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank, CA with musical direction by multiple Grammy Award nominated composer, producer, songwriter, arranger and rock impresario Peter Wolf.

LA tickets may be purchased at http://www.colonytheatre.org/ or by calling 818-558-7000 (Ext. 15)

Both concerts are being produced by Treehouse Entertainment Inc. and
Roberta Nusim for TMA (Theatrical Marketing Associates) and will feature special guest appearances by Broadway and Hollywood luminaries to be announced in the coming weeks.

For a review of Barbour's 2008 holiday concert at Sardi's in New York, click here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Theater Review: Idiot Savant

Willem Dafoe and Alenka Kraigher (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Call Me an Idiot, but I Didn’t Get It
By Lauren Yarger
I knew it was going to be “out there” and “brainy,” but within the first 30 seconds of Richard Foreman’s Idiot Savant starring Willem Dafoe in the title role Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, I had a sinking feeling in my gut that this was not going to be a fun time at the theater.

I was right, and if my seat had been on the side of the house by the exit door, I probably would have bolted, because truth be known, this type of avant-garde theater really is not my cup of tea. I like to be able to follow a plot, or in this case, for the play to actually have one, instead of trying to figure out what the heck is going on for 80 minutes (no, there’s no intermission. It’s not a good idea to put one in these types of plays because most of the audience might leave.)

Now I’m a theater critic, and I could put on my theater critic’s cap, stroke my chin while trying to look knowledgeable and say something brainy like, “deep … interesting … thought-provoking … engaging” or some other description that wouldn’t actually require me to try to explain what took place, but I’m not that kind of critic. I’m truthful, and truth is, I didn’t get it, but I’ll do my best to convey what I experienced and let you decide whether you get it.

Dafoe plays the Idiot Savant, in whose mind, we have somehow landed. That mind, as designed by Foreman, who also directs, includes Dafoe clad in an outfit that’s a cross between Samurai warrior and court jester, a lot of black and white shapes, numbered, padded mirror backs into which Savant slams himself from time to time and other strange props, as well as some other characters.

Enter the Guenevere-looking Marie (Alenka Kraigher) clad in a long, black velvet gown and Olga (Elina Lowensohn) who wears riding pants and a sort of breast-plate-looking bodice thing. There also are some servants (Joel Israel, Eric Magnus and Daniel Allen Nelson) who move a lot of the props around and who occasionally come out with bows and arrows threatening to shoot the others. The costumes, which made me want to laugh, are the fault of – I mean designed by – Gabriel Berry.

“What makes chosen words magic?” Marie asks.

“Who among us is prepared for an explanation,” Savant replies.

Well, I was, for one, especially since the question was asked at super-slow speed in a creepy kind of hushed way.

“The experts are confused,” bellowed an off-stage, god-like voice. He kept saying that throughout the play, apparently to remind us that experts are confused about what really takes place in the mind of an idiot savant. The experts weren’t the only ones confused, I thought. Another voice screamed, “Watch Out!” at intervals. At least this was a good warning, I thought, hoping folks outside the theater could hear it and act appropriately before entering this madness.
Loud music pulsed while everyone polished the numbers on the mirror backs. A black table symbolized mental stability.

“I understand,” said one of the women. I wanted to laugh out loud.

The Savant dons a yellow, polka-dotted jacket to protect himself from words and people. I found myself wishing for a jacket that could protect me from the rest of this play which seemed more and more like one of those a 1960’s weird theatrical performances with bongos that you swore someone on drugs had written while having a really bad trip and that really wasn’t all that thought-provoking, but you felt stupid if you said so because everyone else seemed to get great meaning out of it (perhaps because they were high also).

At one point, the two women became spiders and a masked man carrying a bird cage walked by. Then the women felt the need to show their bras and the voice said, “The secret is no longer hidden, friends. Rejoice! Rejoice.”

By now, I was having a hard time containing my laughter and the play’s shift into more brainy questions like "is this play really happening," "does the Savant really exist" and "how many versions of him might there be" failed to interest me at all.

My favorite part was the appearance of a large duck who was likened to a god, but which looked more like a mutant fly. The characters feared him until they realized they could eat duck. The duck said he would prefer a roast beef sandwich, then played some golf. I was eternally grateful my friend, Ron, was not attending the theater with me that night, because the duck would have been the end of any control over the laughter and the ushers would have had to roll two convulsing, sputtering, laughing people out of the theater.

I think I wore out the muscles controlling my left arm by longingly looking at my watch every minute of the 80 making up this particularly painful ring of theater critic hell. If you see a plot or great dramatic prose in anything I have described, you’re smarter than I (and please send me your contact information so I can send you in my place to review the next one in this genre). Foreman is considered by many to be a genius in the creation of avant-garde theater. As for me faithful readers, call me an idiot, but I didn’t get it.

Idiot Savant runs through Dec. 20 at the Public, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. Tickets are available at 212-967-7555.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Bras revealed

Theater Review: Nightingale

A Pleasant Story Leaves Us Wanting a Little More
By Lauren Yarger
At a difficult moment in her life, actress Lynn Redgrave went searching for some help and found herself at the grave of the grandmother she barely knew, looking at a blank tombstone whose information had been erased by acid rain.

She saw the blank surface as a way to create a story about Beatrice, so that her story would not be lost. The result is Nightingale, a one-woman show, written and performed by Redgrave while sitting at a writing desk on the Off-Broadway stage at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Redgrave narrates and assumes the role of Beatrice as a young girl, as a young bride and as an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage while occasionally interjecting pieces of information from her own life when they parallel her grandmother’s experiences.

It’s a nice blend of fiction and fact told in front of a folding screen decorated with scenes of English country life (Tobin Ost, scenic design), directed by Joseph Hardy. We follow the sheltered and naïve Beatrice through her courtship with Redgrave's grandfather, Eric, with whom Beatrice is careful not to do more than hold hands, because kissing might result in a baby. We’re there on her wedding night when she follows her mother’s advice to “close your eyes and think of England” and share her loss years later, when she finds love with a farmer, but barely recognizes her need to be with him.

Beatrice lives her life through her youngest child, Robin, on whom she dotes while ignoring her other son and finding constant fault with her daughter, Rachel. She appears to be very unhappy all through her life.

The tale is intriguing and moving, but fails to put writing back on the tombstone since this isn’t really Beatrice’s tale; it’s a life Redgrave has written for her. The work might better have been formed as a piece about an altogether fictional woman. Redgrave’s personal interjections, while themselves interesting and moving, heighten the need to have an actual grandmother to walk along side her granddaughter.

Redgrave does a nice job of bringing the remade Beatrice and her various moods to life, however, with the help of some subtle lighting changes (Rui Rita, design). Over all, it’s a pleasant 80 minutes that will make you miss your grandmother.

Nightingale runs through Dec. 20 at New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, NYC. Tickets are available at 212-581-1212 or http://www.mtc-nyc.org/

Christians might also like to know:
• Some sexual dialogue

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Theater Review: The Understudy

Performances are Fun, but the Plot Needs a Few Pages of Reality
By Lauren Yarger
If a long-lost, three-hour masterpiece of confusion by Franz Kafka were discovered, how could you make it a commercial success on Broadway? Just cast two hot Hollywood stars.

That scenario, not far from the reality of this season’s Hollywood-star-driven productions on the Great White Way, is the basis for Theresa Rebeck’s play The Understudy, presented Off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theater, and while it loses touch with reality in a few places, it is entertaining if you’re in the theater business. If you’re not, just enjoy the performances.

Justin Kirk is Harry, a down-on-his-luck actor who has been cast as understudy to one of the Kafka play’s stars, Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), whose most recent film earned him millions for delivering riveting lines like, “Get in the truck!” amidst a lot of explosions and action-packed plot. Harry’s a little jealous of that. OK, he’s a lot jealous of that, especially since he had tried out for the action movie part and didn’t get it.

He did land this understudy part, but there probably is no chance Harry will ever get to go on, unless Jake, who also understudies the play’s other Hollywood star whose movies gross even more than Jake’s, has to go on for him. The truth is that if either of the film stars can’t go on, the theater audience probably will walk out and demand refunds.

He and Jake butt heads during a put-in rehearsal where the understudies runs through their scenes on stage. The process is made more difficult when the harried stage manager, Roxanne (Julie White) turns out to be "harried" in more ways than one: he's her ex who left without explanation two weeks before their wedding.

Trying to put her personal feelings aside and deal with things like a pot-smoking techie (an unseen character named Laura) who keeps bringing up the wrong lighting and sound cues while moving the wrong set pieces onto the stage (the at-night stage set and the accompanying sets for the Kafka play are designed by Alexander Dodge), Roxanne tries to appease big-star Jake while keeping the “let’s-try-it-another-way” Harry on book.

White is a lot of fun playing the range from neurotic stage manager to broken-hearted bride. She is the epitome of frustration, offering body language, facial expressions and changing tones of screaming to try to get through the rehearsal (if you’ve ever been in charge of a rehearsal like this, believe me, you feel her pain).

Kirk, who ironically sounds a lot like a big movie star, namely his voice reminded me of Tom Hanks, has a comparable talent for timing delivery and makes the most of his lines. He had me laughing out loud when he tried to hit his mark in the light while uttering a Kafkaesque line about the light being lost. A scene with Gosselaar involving some hand slapping and paper stamping is almost slapstick.

Both White’s and Kirk’s performances can go over the top, however, and should have been reined in by director Scott Ellis.

Gosselaar gives Jake depth, so we believe that the pretty-faced and attractively built star, whose physique is showcased in jeans and a T-shirt by costume designer Tom Broecker, reveres the horrible-sounding Kafka piece because he wants to do something deeper than “get in the truck!”

The play’s biggest weakness, however, is its plot, which Rebeck hinges on implausible coincidences to make it easy to write: Harry just happens to be Roxanne’s ex and she doesn’t realize this until he arrives because he had changed his name (but he, when told to report for this rehearsal doesn’t recognize her name?); would a Hollywood star of Jake’s caliber also be understudy to the other Hollywood star in the show (not likely, but this justifies Jake’s being at the rehearsal); how many times can the characters go off in search of props or to use the bathroom only for those left behind on stage to discover that their revealing conversations or actions have been overheard by the other on the theater’s intercom system which for some reason is on for the rehearsal (a lot of times, apparently); would a pot-smoking techie who can’t do her job really remain employed (and while Roxanne is up in the booth fixing Laura’s mistakes, why doesn’t she switch off that darn intercom?)

Overall, The Understudy isn’t as deep as Kafka, but thankfully it can be an entertaining time at the theater.

The Understudy runs through Jan. 17 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Tickets are available by calling 212-719-1300. For a special group discount for our readers, click here and be sure to indicate that the religious organization you wish to support is Masterwork Productions.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Theater Review: Finian’s Rainbow

The cast of Finian's Rainbow. Photo: Joan Marcus


This Revival is a Spectrum of Delight
By Lauren Yarger
With recipes for bland musical revivals like Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls and Bye Bye Birdie stirring the recent Broadway revival pot, the prospect of another insipid ingredient in the form of 1947’s Finian’s Rainbow at the St. James Theatre didn’t have me running to the stage asking for more, but had I passed on director Warren Carlyle’s masterful resurrection, I would have missed a colorful treat, indeed.

This revival, thanks to a deft touch that doesn’t take itself too seriously, is a real pleasure to watch despite a silly love story (and a rather silly plot overall, if truth be told), a lot of knee-slapping choreography (also directed by Carlyle) and Og, a singing leprechaun (Christopher Fitzgerald). It’s an Irish blessing to hear a full orchestra in fine form conducted by Rob Berman playing the score by Burton Lane with at least one song you’ve probably heard: “How Are Things n Glocca Morra?,” all beautifully sung, particularly by leads Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson (Scott Lehrer, sound design).

The book by Fred Saidy, who co-wrote the even less memorable lyrics with Yip Harburg, and adapted here by Arthur Perlman, is a stretch even for the most devoted lovers of musicals. Finian McLonergan (Jim Norton) steals Og’s pot of gold in Ireland and brings his daughter, Sharon (Baldwin), to Kentucky so he can bury it in the ground near Fort Knox and prosper in America.

There she meets and falls in love with Woody Mahoney (Jackson, pictured right), but before they can marry, lots of other things happen. Woody’s mute sister, Susan (Alina Faye), who can express herself only through ballet dance, steals the gold and falls in love with Og. Meanwhile, a corrupt white man is turned into a black man (played delightfully in both parts by David Schramm and Chuck Cooper), wishes are granted, the town’s tobacco industry is reborn and Sharon faces death at the stake as a witch.

OK, now if you have finished laughing, stay with me, because there are a lot of lines and situations about racism, immigration and the economy throughout that oddly seem more relevant today than they probably were in 1947. The “let’s-have-fun” approach keeps things from getting too deep, however, and prevents audible groaning at lyrics like:

“It's so terrifish, magnifish, delish.
To have such an amorish glamorish.
We could be oh, so bride and groomish
Skies could be so bluish blue.
Life could be so love in bloomish,
If my ishes could come true.”

In short, Carlyle allows the large, very fine ensemble cast to enjoy itself and the fun trickles out the end of the rainbow and showers on the audience. John Lee Beatty crates a colorful, but almost cartoon-like setting lighted by Ken Billington and this, along with Toni-Leslie James’ creative costumes (there’s one number where the dancers’ dresses appear to change before your eyes), allows the rainbow theme to shine without too much glare from the prism.

I particularly liked the colorful patchwork quilt framed by a rainbow lighting truss that marks the beginning and ends in the story. I wasn’t crazy about the glowing pot of gold that looked more like a large pumpkin, but I laughed out loud when Og trotted by carrying hats and canes for a singing and dancing quartet. So if you're willing to check reality at the door for a while, or maybe bury it there, to extend the metaphor, the show is highly entertaining.

Finian’s Rainbow offers its full spectrum of spirited fun at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets that benefit Masterwork Productions, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• Some magic
• One of the more family-friendly shows out there. The little ones will enjoy the leprechaun’s shortening pants and other antics.

Theater Review: Love, Loss and What I Wore

Lisa Joyce, Mary Louise Wilson, Tyne Daly,
Mary Birdsong and Jane Lynch. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg


Life’s Story All Dressed Up
By Lauren Yarger
For most women, the important moments in life can be remembered not by the date, but by what we were wearing when they happened. Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron’s delightful Off-Broadway celebration of those moments, Love, Loss and What I Wore, looks at stories from the lives of varied women portrayed by a rotating cast of five actresses directed by Karen Carpenter.

The women narrate, share and become participants in 27 scenes during which the women remember moments and outfits that stand out in their memories and the people connected with those moments. Everything from purchasing a first bra to trying to find something in the closet to wear is discussed, sometimes with a stage hand moving drawings of the outfits on hangers along a clothes rack stage right. The rack is the only thing on Jo Winiarski’s stark stage except for the five chairs for the all-black clad actresses (Jessica Jahn, costumes) with music stands for their scripts, which contain, of course, a bit about how we all end up thinking we look best in black.

Occasionally the lights change (Jeff Croiter, design), but the stories, all funny, engaging and heart-touching, are acted from the chairs. The mostly all-women audience (there were a couple of guys) is fully engaged with knowing laughter and audible gasps expressed as they relate to the women’s stories.



In the cast I saw, were three actresses whose work I have enjoyed for years: Tyne Daly, Mary Louise Wilson and Jane Lynch (Mary Birdsong and Lisa Joyce completed the ensemble), so the production had the feel of sitting down with some old friends. The script, based on Ilene Beckerman’s original book and drawings, has much humor in it, but the part of the afternoon that brought me the most enjoyment was watching Daly react to the other actresses. She genuinely enjoyed the stories and seemed to be having a terrific time up there.

The show is a wonderful mom/daughter or girls’ night out (and well, maybe those two guys thought it was a fun guys’ night out too). The cast I saw continues through Nov. 15. Following that, the casts will be:

Nov. 18-Dec. 18
Kristin Chenoweth. Lucy DeVito, Capathia Jenkins, Rhea Perlman and Rita Wilson
Dec. 16-Jan. 3
Mary Louise Wilson, Kate Finneran, Lucy DeVito, Capathia Jenkins and Natasha Lyonne
Jan. 6-Jan. 31
Michelle Lee, Deborah Monk, Tracie Ellis Ross, Cassie Wilson and Kate Finneran

Love, Loss and What I Wore plays downstairs at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, NYC through March 28, 2010. For discounted tickets that benefit Masterwork Productions, click here.

Christians might also like to know:
• God’s name taken in vain
• Language
• Sexual dialogue
• Homosexuality
• A portion of the production’s proceeds will benefit Dress for Success, a charity that provides work clothing and job support for low-income women. Audience members are invited to donate their gently-used purses and other accessories in the theatre lobby.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Theater Review: Memphis

Give This One 45 RPMs -- for Really Pleasing Musical
By Lauren Yarger
A terrific score by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan, a story full of heart, humor and heat by Joe DiPietro (book) an outstanding vocals spin Memphis into one of the most exciting and satisfying musicals to hit Broadway since Next to Normal.

Chad Kimball plays Huey, a never-do-well department salesman who finds his niche as a radio DJ in 1950s Memphis by spinning the “black” music he hears hanging out a club run by Delray (J. Bernard Calloway) instead of the usual “Perry Coma” stuff to which white listeners have become accustomed.

Huey loves something else at the club too: Delray’s sister, Felicia (mega-talented Montego Glover), who dreams of making it big as a singer. Huey’s mother (Cass Morgan) opposes the match, as does Delray and some of the musical’s finest moments come in the interaction between him and Huey as the men take stands for what they believe in while sharing mutual respect. The couple decides to keep their interracial romance, sure to be a powder keg in the midst of civil rights unrest, a secret, though Huey believes Memphis will embrace it as they have him. Eventually, he discovers he's wrong.

Fame is just around the corner for Huey as he auditions to host an American Bandstand-like national TV show, but the networks want to replace his black dancers with white teens. Meanwhile, Felicia has a chance at a label, but it means leaving Huey.
The musical is just very satisfying. There’s bounce in Sergio Trujillo’s choreography, varied and catchy beats in Bryan’s music, humor and tight plot in DiPietro’s book (he and Bryan, who collaborated on off-Broadway’s Toxic Avenger co-wrote the lyrics for Memphis as well) and those really terrific vocals. Kimball is sexy and engaging as Huey and sings his lungs out. Glover hits amazing notes and the rest of the ensemble is great too, particularly Calloway, who performs one number during which it’s hard to hold your seat (you want to get up and dance). David Gallo’s set and co-production design lighted by Howell Binkley with sparkly, swingy costumes by Paul Tazewell bring the era to life (I really enjoyed music groups performing in giant spinning 45s).

Don’t be deceived by your impression of the opening number which is a large musical number full of people you don’t know singing words you can’t hear (Ken Travis, sound design) and as the weakest part of the production, will have you thinking, “what the heck?” But almost like a light switching on, the musical takes shape immediately following. From there on out, Christopher Ashley expertly directs the action, whether it’s a full-scale dance number or a quiet romantic scene with gusto and brings everything together for a toe tapping, heart-tugging, fully satisfying story.

Memphis rocks out at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th St, NYC. Discounted tickets can be purchased here. Indicate Masterwork Productions is the religious charity you wish to support.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sex outside of marriage

Theater Review: Brighton Beach Memoirs

Fine Acting Brings Brothers to Life
By Lauren Yarger
Some terrific acting by Noah Robbins (at left) in his Broadway debut as Neil Simon’s alter ego Eugene Morris Jerome and Santino Fontana as Stanley bring to life the relationship between these brothers as well as the revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs on Broadway.

The cast is rounded out by Laurie Metcalf at the boys’ mother, Kate and Dennis Boutskaris as father, Jack, who works extra jobs to try to support his depression-era family as well as Kate’s sister Blanche (Jessica Hecht) and her two daughters Laurie (Gracie Bea Lawrence) and Nora (Alexandra Socha), the object of the boys’ lust and Eugene’s consuming quest to see a girl naked.

While the scenes between the two brothers are genuine, moving and seem spontaneous, rather than scripted the rest of the cast seems to be in search of director David Cromer to bring them together. Metcalf’s Kate has a lot of Jewish mother-type lines that are funny, but her harsh shell and seeming lack of affection for Eugene is so well developed, that we’re unable to penetrate it when she finally shows some vulnerability. Hecht is sweet as the shy and withering widow unable to make decisions on her own, but again, the transition doesn’t happen to make us believe it when she finally takes a stand.

The heart of the revival comes in those scenes where the boys are closeted in their bedroom (John Lee Beatty designed the two-story set) and the never-do-well (except in the eyes of his younger brother) Stanley gives advice to sex-obsessed Eugene. There’s obvious affection between the characters and a natural feeling which makes us feel like eavesdroppers. This part is really good theater.

Brighton Beach Memoirs has closed and the continuation of the story, Broadway Bound, which was to have played in rep with Brighton, will not go forward.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sexual dialogue
• Lord’s name taken in vain

Theater Review: Broke-ology

A Sweet Story about Priorities
By Lauren Yarger
Two brothers are at odds about how best to care for their ailing father in Nathan Louis Jackson’s tender and moving Broke-ology playing off-Broadway at Lincoln Center.

Malcolm King (Alano Miller) returns to his Kansas City, KS home after college to take a job with the EPA and ostensibly to help brother Ennis (Francois Battiste) care for their father, William (Wendell Pierce), who is suffering debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis. An offer to return to his Connecticut alma mater to teach under his mentor has Malcolm wondering whether he can make the sacrifice to stay, however.

There’s no decision to make, according to Ennis, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and who works at a menial job to support himself and his girlfriend and their baby. The tensions are skillfully woven against a genuine affection among the King men and the presence of their mother, Sonia (Crystal A. Dickinson), whom we meet in 1982 when she is expecting Ennis, and again as the action continues in 2009 when she appears as a ghost to William.

Whether the brothers are engaging in good-natured banter as they play a game of bones with their father , discuss Ennis’ "scientific” theory of how to be broke, prankishly steal a neighbor’s garden troll or argue about whether William should go into a nursing home, the drama is taut, well directed by Thomas Kail and real. You not only feel for the brothers in their desire to pursue their dreams while doing what is right by their father, but you understand William’s anguish about not being able to care for himself and wanting to do what is best for his sons.

Dolyale Werle creates the “men obviously live here’ cluttered and dingy set representing the King home in a less than desirable section of Kansas City and costumer Emily Rebholtz dresses the men appropriate to their characters. “We Are Family” is among the selections playing as the audience enters (Jill BC DuBoff, sound) to set the mood and lighting by Jason Lyons lets us catch glimpses of life outside the house where the Kings seem trapped.

It’s funny and moving and ultimately, a portrait of our own family lives: we’ll ether be in the position of the sons or the father one day, despite our best hopes and dreams, and we too will have to decide what’s most important.

Broke-ology plays through Nov. 22 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street, NYC. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200
Outside NY: (800) 432-7250 For discounted group tickets go here and indicate the charity you wish to support is Masterwork Productions.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Suicide
• Ghost

Theater Review: After Miss Julie

After Miss Julie, Relief That There Isn’t a Second Act
By Lauren Yarger
I didn’t think there was anything that could make me think last year’s mindless The Philanthropist with Matthew Broderick wasn’t so bad, but After Miss Julie, Roundabout Theatre Company’s latest offering at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway sure did.

Sienna Miller stars in Patrick Marber’s version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, about a spoiled society girl who has a sadomasochistic affair with John (Jonny Lee Miller), a man servant on her estate, even though he’s sort of betrothed to Christine (Marin Ireland), the woman servant there, and despite the fact that Julie’s father and all of society is sure to object to a relationship across class lines.

While colleagues assure me that Marber’s adaptation, which moves the action from late 19th-century Sweden to post World War II London is true to the original, which I have not seen or read, I have to wonder why anyone would choose to produce this story in any form. These are a couple of really disturbed, unlikable people who seem to enjoy the danger of their relationship and using each other to assuage their own needs and fears more than they care about each other. They spend more time throwing stinging insults at each other then groping each other on the large work table on Allen Moyers massive set recreation of the estate’s kitchen.

In this version, directed by Mark Brokaw, there isn’t any visible sexual tension between the lovers; they just perform the actions and say the lines, which you’re lucky to hear (Jonny Miller’s accent makes it difficult sometimes, but I found I couldn’t hear the women at times too, David Van Tieghem, original sound design and music). Ireland’s performance is the strongest, but maybe that’s because Christine is the only one of the three who seems to have a grip on normalcy and gives the actress something concrete with which to work.

Otherwise, the play is incredibly boring and interruptions when three rude audience members allowed their cell phones to ring actually were welcome as other audience members seemed to be inciting a riot. At least this gave us some interesting action to watch. Occasionally some of the lines, though not intended for humor, bring robust laughter.

“I’m just a simple country girl, John,” says this woman who is anything but simple. She attempts to hurt herself and her lover offers her a cup of tea. You just have to laugh at the incongruity.

While I wasn’t mentally compiling my weekly shopping list as I had during The Philanthropist, I did find myself realizing I hadn’t checked to see whether there would be an intermission. A few minutes in I was hoping there would be one -- and soon -- because the dialogue just wasn’t taking me anywhere. About a half an hour in, I was really hoping this was a one-act which would be over soon. At the end of the play (which is 90 minutes without an intermission) my companion turned to me and said, “Is this a one-act?” We could only hope.

After Miss Julie plays through Dec. 6 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd St., NYC. Tickets are available by calling (212) 719-1300 or online at www.roundabouttheatre.org
For discounted group tickets go here and indicate the religious charity you wish to support is Masterwork Productions.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sexual dialogue
• Sex outside of marriage
• Sadomasochism
• Attempted rape

Monday, November 2, 2009

Share the Play that Changed Your Life

The American Theatre Wing has announced an online essay contest in conjunction with the release of its original book, "The American Theatre Wing presents The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays that Influenced Them," available Dec. 1.

The book shares the stories of 19 playwrights talking about work that had a great influence on them and ultimately their careers. Whether you work in theatre, hope to make your life in the theatre or just enjoy being in the audience, you might have had a similar experience: a single play (or musical) that you saw at some point in your life that had a profound effect on you, be it a childhood production of Cinderella in a school auditorium featuring an older sibling, a parent’s appearance at the local community theatre, a Broadway spectacle like Les Miserables or The Phantom of the Opera, a journey to a small out-of-the-way theatre that told its story with a minimum of technical tools.

The ATW wants to hear about them. Submit an essay about the show had the greatest impact upon you, when you saw it in the course of your life, and most importantly why it meant so much to you. Entries (limited to 350 words) will be judged based on their creativity, their clarity and perhaps most importantly, for how they convey your passion for the theatre.

The contest entry period begins Nov. 2 and closes on Sunday, Nov. 29. To enter, visit http://americantheatrewing.org/contest. The final expert panel judging the contest includes ATW Board of Directors Chairman and President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization Ted Chapin; Applause Books’ Editorial Director Carol Flannery; award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang; and former "Time" Magazine arts editor and “Broadway and Me” blogger Janice Simpson. Additional prizes will be given based on voting by the general public, which will continue through Dec. 11.

Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, the 200-page paperback, edited by Ben Hodges (Theatre World), will be released in December 2009 and features an Introduction by Paula Vogel and contributions from nineteen of America’s most distinguished playwrights on the plays that transformed their lives. Contributors, who have a combined total of some 40 Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prizes and Obies, include Jon Robin Baitz, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Horton Foote, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, John Patrick Shanley and more.

From Edward Albee’s 1935 visit to New York’s Hippodrome Theatre to see Jimmy Durante (and an elephant) in Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo, to Diana Son’s twelfth-grade field trip in 1983 to see Diane Venora play Hamlet at The Public Theater, from David Henry Hwang’s seminal San Francisco encounter with Equus to a young Beth Henley’s epiphany after seeing her mother in a “Green Bean Man costume,” The Play That Changed My Life offers readers a unique peek into the theatrical influences of some of the nation’s most important dramatists on stages both professional and amateur, in New York, across the country and overseas. Other contributors include David Auburn, Charles Fuller, A.R. Gurney, Tina Howe, David Ives, Donald Margulies, Sarah Ruhl, Regina Taylor and Doug Wright.

The American Theatre Wing presents the TONY Awards annually with The Broadway League.
For additional information about all American Theatre Wing programs, go to americantheatrewing.org. You can be a fan of the American Theatre Wing at facebook.com/TheAmericanTheatreWing, and also keep up to date with the Wing on Twitter (http://www.blogger.com/www.twitter.com/TheWing).

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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