Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Broadway Theater Review: Sunset Boulevard

Glenn Close. Photo: Joan-Marcus.
With One Look, It's As if She Never Said Goodbye
By Lauren Yarger
Glenn Close reprises the role which won her a Tony n 1995 and brings down the house in retooled version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard.

Close delivers a mature, yet more fragile Norma Desmond and when it comes time for her close up, we're surprised by the number of layers that have been revealed beneath the facade of a has-been movie star.

Despite Close's tour-de-force performance, which stops the show with "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and "with One Look," director Lonny Price's skilled direction keeps the other performances from being lost in the sweep of one of Norma's many flowing, glittering outfits (costumes designed by Tracy Christensen). In fact, some of Close's co-stars, who reprise their roles from the company's sold-out and acclaimed run in London's West End, add nuance to the characters.

We have lots of actors we could compare them too, but there is no need. Michael Xavier is a handsome, silky-voiced Joe McGillis, a down-on-his-luck Hollywood screen writer who stumbles into a sweet deal at Nora's mausoleum-like mansion on Sunset Boulevard. The actress lives alone with her chauffeur/servant Max von Mayerling (Fred Johanson, who made me fall just a little bit in love every time he sang in his deep baritone). But the free lodgings and clothes Joe receives while pretending to edit a horrible script Norma has penned to pave the way for her comeback on the big screen come at too high a price. Joe feels trapped when Norma declares she's "mad about the boy" and manipulates his emotions to hold onto her lover while her own mental facilities decline.

Both of Norma's men come into focus in a way I hadn't seen previously in the original Broadway production or in the Billy Wilder Film on which the musical (with a book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) is based. Joe is meaner, calculating and less sympathetic; Max is less transparent and we notice his sacrifice and pain.  

Siobhan Dillon lends a lovely soprano as she sings the part of Betty Schaefer, with whom Joe falls in love as they work on a screenplay together.

The score sounds fabulous thanks to the huge 40-piece orchestra which takes up the rear of the stage. It is the largest orchestra to play a Broadway show in 80 years. Music Supervision and Direction is by Kristen Blodgette, who was brought out for the curtain call. It was well deserved. The first strains of "With One Look" brought goosebumps and its finale brought an extended ovation for Close -- those not as long as the one she received for "As If We Never Said Goodbye."

OK, so what's not to like about this fourth Lloyd Webber musical currently playing on Broadway (it joins CATS, School of Rock and Phantom of the Opera)? 

While Close's performance is stunning, her singing voice is less than optimal, especially in the higher ranges. It works because she acts through the songs and an older singing voice isn't completely out of place in a show about an aging movie star, but I think her voice sounded a bit strained and I would have loved to have these favorite songs belt me out of my seat.

The set is minimally designed by James Noone for this concert staging, but it was very hard not to miss the opulent split set of the original production. Having Joe's dead body floating overhead throughout lends an ominous feeling to the production at first, but loses intensity by the end of the two hours and 40 minutes and is a bit distracting. I also wasn't crazy about people masquerading as cars (by carrying flashlights simulating headlights. If it's a concert version, so be it.)

These are minor complaints. Go see this piece of theater history before the sun sets on Sunset. The run has been extended through June 25 at the Palace Theatre,  1564 7th Ave., NYC. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 8 pm; Thursdays at 7 pm; Fridays at 8 pm;  Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $65-$199: www.ticketmaster.com/sunset; 877-250-2929.

Additional cast:
Nancy Anderson, Mackenzie Bell, Barry Busby, Preston Truman Boyd, Britney Coleman, Julian Decker, Anissa Felix, Drew Foster, David Hess, Brittney Johnson, Katie Ladner, Stephanie Martignetti, Lauralyn McClelland, T. Oliver Reid, Lance Roberts, Stephanie Rothenberg, Graham Rowat, Paul Schoeffler, Andy Taylor, Sean Thompson, Matt Wall and Jim Walton.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Horoscope
-- Suicide attempt

Friday, February 10, 2017

Broadway Theater Review: Jitney TOP PICK

Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown
It Took A While for This August Wilson Play to Make Its Broadway Debut, but it Was Worth the Wait
By Lauren Yarger
All of Pulitzer-Prize winner August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle plays have made it to Broadway at one time or another -- some more than once-- but Jitney, which is the eighth in the series, written inn 1979, is getting its debut in a sensational production by Manhattan Theatre Club.

A talented ensemble, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Tony for his performance in WIlson's Seven Guitars, brings together a group of jitney (illegal taxi cab) drivers in 1977 Pittsburgh in an emotional ride that makes us laugh while running over our hearts.

The men drive for Becker (the always excellent John Douglas Thompson) out of a run-down station (shabbily designed and filled with clutter by Set Designer David Gallo) in Pittsgurgh's Hill district. Regular taxis won't venture there, so customers, like hotel doorman Philmore (Ray Anthony Thomas), have to rely on the jitney car service.

For Darnell Youngblood (Andre Holland), the job is one of two he works to try to buy a house to provide a fresh start for his family: girlfriend, Rena (Carra Patterson), and their young son. He wants it to be a surprise, but Rena thinks he is cheating on her again because he never is at home and keeps taking food money to pay unspecified debts.

Also driving for Becker are Doub (Keith Randolph Smith), a Korean War veteran who knows a thing or two about discrimination, Turnbo (a very humorous Michael Potts), who is always getting in everyone's business, and Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), whose alcoholism might get him fired. They interact as well with Shealy, (Harvey Blanks), who uses the phone at the station to take numbers.

The men's everyday existence is interrupted, however, when the city decides to board up the station as part of its urban renewal efforts, and when Becker's son, Booster (Brandon j. Dirden) is released from prison after a 20-year sentence for the murder of a white woman who wrongly accused him of rape. Booster hopes to reconcile with the father who feels his son threw away all of the opportunities he worked so hard to provide. Beyond that, Becker is unable to forgive Booster for not being there for his dying mother.

While all of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle plays provide a glimpse into the 20th-Century African-American experience, Jitney feels contemporary, despite the fashions by Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James or mentions of cab fares topping out at $4 that remind us we are in the '70s.

Santiago-Hudson keeps the house lights up at the beginning as the men assemble. We can't help but feel we are sitting around the station with them. We grow comfortable sharing their lives and banter. Perhaps it is because all of the men, in one way or another, are trying to heal wounds of the past while stepping into an uncertain future - like most of America today.

A gripping scene where Becker rejects Booster opens a wound that can't be healed and is so full of raw emotion that there are audible gasps from the audience.
It is due to fine writing, acting and direction (with uncanny attention to detail) all bursting into emotional fire on stage. It also might have to do, again, with recognizing some of the bottled up emotions we are experiencing in modern-day America.

Booster's justification of his actions, with no apparent understanding of right from wrong or consideration for others -- while seeming for all intents and purposes a nice man --  sounds frightening like so many  voicing their opinions about politics today. Youngblood and Rena's discovery of what it really takes to make a relationship work is touching and hopeful.

This is one of those shows that makes us sit up and take notice as though it is telegraphing, "You are seeing a tremendous and important piece of theater here. You might want to see this one again."

Jitney plays at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC. Tickets: manhattantheatreclub.com

Additional credits;
The creative team for August Wilson’s Jitney includes David Gallo (scenic design); Toni-Leslie James (costume design); Jane Cox (lighting design), Darron L West (sound design); Bill Sims, Jr. (original music); Robert-Charles Vallance (hair and makeup design) and Thomas Schall (fight director).

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Broadway Theater Reviews: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and In Transit

Josh Groban and Denee Benton. Photo: Chad Batka
New Year Brings New and Exciting Shows to Broadway
By Lauren Yarger
You heard me chat about these two musicals on the radio when they opened last fall, but a new year has rolled in and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 and In Transit are still two of the most new and innovative shows to grace the Broadway stage in 2017.

Comet has given pop music star Josh Groban a chance to make his Broadway debut. He has extended his run through July 2. The casting isn't anything new in itself-- Broadway producers seem more and more convinced (thanks to corresponding ticket sales) that shows can't succeed on the Great White Way any more unless they have a big star's name on the marquee.  Groban has delivered
with full houses at the Imperial Theatre each week.

What's interesting about this celebrity casting, however, is that Groban's role isn't what we would think of as the star. It's a prominent role, but in scope of things, the popular singer, who first came to attention on the TV show Ally McBeal, doesn't get a lot of solos or opportunities to wow with rich baritone (though one ballad. "Dust and Ashes"  -- see video below-- has become the tune associated with the show). the show won the 2013 Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theatre and the Off-Broadway version received numerous Drama Desk nominations.

In another innovative twist, the show is inviting fans to join composer Dave Malloy and members of the cast to sing group chorus sections and to play the show's famous egg shakers for the original Broadway cast recording. This special fan recording session will take place in midtown Manhattan on Monday, Feb. 13 from 6 to 7:30 pm. No purchase is necessary – to sign up, and receive the exact location visit www.greatcometbroadway.com/castrecording.

Meanwhile, over at Circle in the Square, In Transit, with music by a team including the creators of "Pitch Perfect" and "Frozen," is Broadway's first a cappella musical. There is some unique staging by one of my favorite set designers, Donyale Werle, to create the subway world of New York. The ensemble includes Broadway vets Margo Seibert and Telly Leung, but doesn't include a Hollywood name -- except maybe for composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez whom you know even if you don't know her name. She is the one who brought you "Let it Go" from the animated film "Frozen," sung by Idina Menzel.

At any rate these two musicals offer something different and that is always exciting on Broadway stages. See below for more specifics.




Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812
By Dave Malloy, based on part of "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
The Imperial Theatre

What's It All About?
Russian music plays as audience members take in the fact that the whole theater seems to be a stage and they are on it. Audience members actually sit on the stage and platforms bring actors out into the house. You're not safe from interaction up in the mezzanine either, as stairs provide access there from the stage. You might be handed a rattling egg to shake during a musical number or a pirogi to snack on. You also might find yourself being nuzzled by Anatole (this was my personal experience while seated on stage).

The story, taken from a couple of chapters of Tolstoy's epic novel, follows the scandalous romance of Natasha (Denée Benton , also making her Broadway debut) and womanizer Anatole (Lucas Steele, reprising the role for which he won a Lucille Lortel Award) just before Napoleon's invasion of Russia. Groban is Pierre, an outcast, disillusioned aristocrat, unhappily married to Anatole's sister, Hélène (Amber Gray).

What Are the Highlights?
The music. Very different and varied. The opening number which introduces all of the characters in a fun and repetitive catchy tune actually sets the story and makes it much easier to keep track of who all these people are and what their relationships are to each other:
"This is a complicated Russian novel; everyone has nine different names.... Hélène is a slut; Anatole is hot; Marya is old school; Sonya is good; Natasha is young; And Andrey isn’t here."
There also is a very helpful family tree in your Playbill and in the song they tell you it's a good idea to get that out and follow along....

Director Rachel Chavkin distinguishes herself as one of the upcoming directors on stage (this one stunningly created by Mimi Lien with costume design by Paloma Young to bring 19th-Century Russia to life.) You can't imagine how completely Chavkin shatters the fourth wall here without experiencing it for yourself. While I felt the chaos was a bit too much for me in places, the sheer genius of creating the scene still impressed. Small moments also aren't lost in the midst of putting the huge ensemble through what must be a grueling workout (choreography is by Sam Pinkleton,) In one scene, for example, snow falls directly on one character instead of on the whole stage, or on the whole theater, which is what we might be expecting given the scope of the interactive commotion taking place. The result is a moving moment that might otherwise have been lost.

Similar effects are achieved through expert Lighting Design by Bradley King. Bright lights and solo highlights mix nicely.

The highlight for me personally is "Sonya Alone," a haunting ballad of loyalty sing by Natasha's betrayed and abandoned friend, Sonya (an excellent Brittain Ashford). Goosbumps.

"I will stand in the dark for you. I will hold you up by force. I will stand here right outside your door. I won't see you disgraced."

What Are the Lowlights?
It's a sensory overload. It's like having a video game explode all around you. I have seen this show three times-- once Off-Broadway in the intimate tent setting -- and twice on Broadway, once on stage and once in the house. The orchestra seat provided a little less interaction, which I preferred, but the seat on stage provided the best vantage point to tke in everything that was happening.

At two and a half hours, it's way too long (but then again, we are talking "War and Peace....") I didn't think the energy level could get any higher, but the second act blew it off the charts. It's just a lot to take in. If you have ADD, this probably isn't the show for you.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 plays at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St., NYC. greatcometbroadway.com.

Additional casting:
Sonya,’ Gelsey Bell as Mary, Nicholas Belton as Andrey/Bolkonsky, Nick Choksi as Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Marya D, Paul Pinto as Balaga.The ensemble includes Sumayya Ali, Courtney Bassett, Josh Canfield, Ken Clark, Erica Dorfler, Lulu Fall, Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Nick Gaswirth, Alex Gibson, Billy Joe Kiessling, Mary Spencer Knapp, Reed Luplau, Brandt Martinez, Andrew Mayer, Azudi Onyejekwe, Pearl Rhein, Heath Saunders, Ani Taj, Cathryn Wake, Katrina Yaukey, and Lauren Zakrin.

Additional creatives:
Sound Design by Nicholas Pope, Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino, Musical Direction by Or Matias.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS
-- No specific notes, but I would say this story probably is for 12 and up.




In Transit
Book, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez, James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

What's It All About?
It's a ride -- literally -- through life, career and family. The story follows the intertwined lives of 11 New Yorkers.
Seibert plays Jane, a wanna-be actress who is stuck in office jobs waiting for her big break. Leung plays the boyfriend of Jane's agent, Trent (Justin Guarini), who is unable to reveal to his fundamentally religious mother (Moya Angela) that Steven is more than just his roommate. Nate (James Snyder) is a down-on-his-luck businessman who also is down to his last dollar, which won't even buy him a metro card. His sister, Ali (Erin Mackey), has just been dumped by the guy for whom she moved to New York.  

There are some other stories in there and a few smaller roles, like an unhelpful ticket agent, that are amusing. The things that make this show different are the set, which allows us to feel like we're on a subway car, and the a cappella score.

What Are the Highlights?
That set. It transforms from a subway station to a church. A people-mover conveyor belt provides the train motion.

This one clocks in at about 90 minutes with no intermission. I found it likable with humor for those of us who brave New York City transit.

Group a cappella numbers are so strong that it makes it easy to forget there are no musical instruments playing (Music Supervision by Rick Hip-Flores).

What Are the Lowlights:
The book is fairly predictable. 

The a cappella arrangements (by Deke Sharon) sometimes make it very difficult to hear the lyrics.

In Transit rides at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 West 50th St,. NYC. InTransitBroadway.com,

Additional credits:
Costume Design by Clint Ramos, Lighting Design by Donald Holderand, Sound Design by Ken Travis. 

Additional cast:
David Abeles, Steven “HeaveN” Cantor, Gerianne Pérez, Chesney Snow, Mariand Torres and Nicholas Ward.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTORS:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Homosexuality
-- Homosexual activity

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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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