Wednesday, April 17, 2019

New Jersey Review: Benny and Joon

Bryce Pinkham, Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
Benny and Joon
By Kirsten Guenther, based on the film written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil.
Music by Nolan Gasser
Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein
Choreography by Scott Rink
Music Direction by J. Oconor Navarro
Directed by Jack Cummings III

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
A tale of a brother trying to take care of his mentally-challenged sister and a sister trying to find herself outside of her brother's shadow, based on the 1993 film  of the same name, written by Barry Berman and Leslie McNeil and starring  Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson.

This staging, imaginatively directed by Jack Cummings III, features Bryce Pinkham (A Gentelman's Guide to Love and Murder) as Sam, an odd introverted man the siblings "win" in a poker game and who changes their lives. He copes by escaping to the the scenes of old movies that play in his head and somehow, that is a perfect match for Joon (Hannah Elless), who navigates her schizophrenia and the two find the relationship they always have been looking for, but which they thought was impossible. 

Joon's brother, Benny (Claybourne Elder), struggles with this, but is it because he is protecting the sister he has cared for for 15 years following the death of their parents in a car accident, or is it because he resents the fact that she has found happiness when he has sacrificed his own?  He backed away from his own chance at happiness with waitress Ruthie (and engaging Tatiana Wechsler) to stay with Joon. Would a group home -- which Joon adamantly doesn't want -- be the best solution?

What Are the Highlights?
Finally, a musical with wit, warmth and whimsy. Cummings creates an environment where both reality and fantasy feel right at home. Pinkham is in his element as the Charlie-Chaplinesque loner whose character delights with a pure heart and true friendship while he quotes movie scenes (while giving impressions of the stars) and serving up food items prepared in fanciful ways. 

While light and breezy (with choreography by Scott Rink), the story manages to deal with serious issues through characters who are flawed, but very likable. Family and friendship are real winners here. I'd like to see this show make the leap to Broadway.

What Are the Lowlights?
The music by Nolan Gasser is pleasant if not memorable (except for the title tune which sticks). A poker-playing song seems a bit over the top. Some vocals seem stretched (though Natalie Toro, who wowed us in Broadway's Tale of Two Cities, gets a chance to soar vocally during a short solo number).

More Info:
Conor Ryan as Sam at certain performances,Colin Hanlon as Mike, Paolo Montalban as Larry, Natalie Toro as Dr. Cortez/Mrs. Smail, Jacob Keith Watson as Waldo/Video Store Owner and Belinda Allyn.

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Benny and  Joon plays a limited engagement through Sunday, May 5, 2019 at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ.

-- No content notes


Off-Broadway Review: All Our Children

John Glover, Karl Kenzler and Sam Lila. Photo: Maria-Baranova

All Our Children
By Stephen Unwin
Directed by Ethan McSweeny 
Sheen Center, through May 12

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
After an acclaimed run in London's West End, the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture presents the American premiere production of Stephen Unwin's new play, All Our Children.  It is Germany, 1941 and the Nazis are getting rid of children it considers to be a burden, like those with any handicaps or illnesses such as epilepsy, thanks to a program headed by Dr. Victor Franz (Karl Kenzler).  He runs a clinic where parents are told their children will receive care, but instead, the children are systematically exterminated.

The parents should be grateful for being relieved of their burden, according to Eric (Sam Lilia), Franz's SS agent masquerading as a doctor and the doctor's assistant. Not all are, however, especially Elizabeth (Tasha Lawrence), a mother who entrusted her son to the clinic's care over a year ago and who would desperately like to visit her beloved boy.

Franz's maid, Martha (Jennifer Dundas), is oblivious to what really takes place at the clinic, but she doesn't trust Eric, who hopes to create some good Arian stock by coupling with her 15-year-old daughter. The one person who speaks out against the atrocities is Catholic Bishop Von Galen (John Glover).

What Are the Highlights?
A glimpse at a little-known part of the Holocaust.
Unwin includes all the various perspectives -- Eric represents the regime, Franz believes what he is doing is justified, Martha has no clue, Elizabeth embodies the victims and von Galen is the moral compass. The result is a thorough look at the situation.

Set Designer Lee Savage's backdrop of towering file cabinets brings home the enormity of the numbers of files contained within them.

Lawrence is compelling in emotional swings that range from the polite, grateful woman who brings cookies to thank the nice doctor, to the grief-stricken mother who wants him held accountable.

What Are the Lowlights?
The script could use a rewrite. The first half hour drags and doesn't make clear what is happening. While Kenzler deserves and award for the "most realistic sounding cough," we get tired of other characters commenting on it. 
The topic of doctors making choices about who gets to live and die is relevant in the face of recent headlines concerning after-birth abortion and euthanasia of the elderly.

More information:
Von Galen was a real-life Catholic bishop who spoke out for the some 20,000 children and young persons who died at the hands of the Nazis.

Additional credits:
Lighting Design by Scott Bolman; Costume Design by Tracy Christensen; Sound Design by Lindsay Jones

The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture ( is a New York City arts center located in NoHo that presents a vibrant mix of theater, film, music, art and talk events. A project of the Archdiocese of New York, The Sheen Center serves all New Yorkers by presenting performances and artists that reflect the true, the good, and the beautiful. Named for the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, best remembered as an inspirational author, radio host and two-time Emmy Award-winning television personality, The Sheen Center reflects his modern-day approach to contemporary topics. The Sheen Center is a state-of-the-art theater complex that includes the 270-seat off-Broadway Loreto Theater,

All Our Children plays a limited five-week engagement through May 12 at The Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St. at the corner of Elizabeth Street, NYC) in the Black Box Theater. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturday at 2 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. There is a special Tuesday evening performance on April 30 at 7. 

Tickets are $65 and $80:; 212-925-2812

OPEN CAPTIONED PERFORMANCES - Thursday May 2 at 7 pm and Saturday. May 4 at 8 pm.  A service for patrons with slight to profound hearing loss. One LCD screen will be visible from any seat in a section of the theater, show what the actors are saying in real time. Assisted listening devices will also be available at all performances.

PARENT-FRIENDLY PERFORMANCES - Sun. May 5 at 3PM and Sat. May 11 at 2PM: At these performances, experienced caregivers will be available to look after neurodiverse children in two separate rooms for children aged 4 to 8 and 9 to 12+ so parents and caregivers can enjoy the show. Children of all abilities are welcome.

"Little Differences: The Portrayal Of Children With Disabilities Throughout History" on exhibit through May 3 examines the depiction of children with disabling conditions in a variety of formats across the ages. Whether appearing in works of fine art, literature, media campaigns, or in popular culture, these children were intended to rouse the audience to action. 

-- Stong language
-- God's name taken in vain

Off-Broadway Review: Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish) TOP PICK

The cast of Fiddler in Yiddish. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish)
Music by Jerry Bock
Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Joseph Stein, based on stories by Sholem Aleichem
Yiddish translation by Shraga Friedman
Musical Staging and new Choreography by Staś Kmieć
Musical Direction by Zalmen Mlotek
Stage 42

By Lauren Yarger
A Yiddish translation of the much-loved musical telling the struggles of Tevye the milkman (a marvelous Steven Skybell) and his family in Tsarist Russia has moved to a new home at Off-Broadway's Stage and it probably is the best production of the musical you ever will see.

Fiddler, you may ask? How can it be that different from the other 100 versions we have seen and which have been presented on thousands of stages since the original production, with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Joseph Stein, took Broadway by storm in 1964? I'll tell you.  It only takes a few moments to recognize it as the quintessential version of this musical you ever will experience. It's almost perfect in every way and feels like it's the version of this classic we have been waiting to see-- much like David Cromer's revival of Our Town became the standard against which any other productions now will be measured.

Yiddish, you may ask? Yes, this musical, expertly directed  by Joel Grey, is presented in Yiddish, with English and Russian supertitles projected on Beowulf Boritt's parchment backdrop. Most of us know the story pretty much by heart: Tevya struggles to uphold the traditions that have kept survival an option for his family and their little village of Anatevka.  And most of us can sing the familiar tunes like "Matchmaker," "Sunrise Sunset," "Do You Love Me?," "and "If I Were a Rich Man" by heart, so the translations of Shraga Friedman's adaptation aren't needed to follow the story as much as to provide reference. It's also fun to observe at times how details  vary from the traditional version: the dispute in tradition is over whether a she-goat or a he-goat had been delivered, not a horse or mule, for example. It's fascinating -- and still one of the best opening numbers of a Broadway musical ever staged. Staś Kmieć, who provides musical staging and new choreography, remains faithful to Jerome Robbins's original and iconic choreography.

Beowulf's set is minimal, yet descriptive in that the parchment panels forming the backdrop to daily life bear the word "Torah." The biggest set change occurs when the parchment is torn -- a visual image of a way of life being torn apart as Russian officials begin targeting Jews for deportation. This musical is personal and we all feel the wound.

For more, listen to the review here.

For more information, click here.

-- No content notes. Do your self a favor and see this one. It's as near-perfect a Fiddler as you'll see. I would go back again and I don't say that about every show.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Broadway Theater Review: Be More Chill

The cast of Be More Chill. Photo: Maria-Baranova
Be More Chill
Music and Lyrics by Joe Iconis
Book by Joe Tracz based on the cult sensation novel by Ned Vizzini
Choreography by  Chase Brock
Directed by Stephen Brackett

What if popularity came in a pill? Would you take it, no questions asked? In Be More Chill, achieving that elusive "perfect life" is now possible thanks to some mysterious new technology-but it comes at a cost that's not as easy to swallow. What could possibly go wrong? Blending the contemporary with retro sci-fi, this thrillingly exciting, comically subversive, and deeply felt new musical takes on the competing voices in all of our heads. And ultimately proves, there's never been a better time in history to be yourself-especially if you're a loser...geek...or whatever.

Full disclosure: I am friends with a number of investors in this show.

-- God's name taken in vain
-- Sexual situations
-- Language

Broadway Theater Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

LaTanya Richardson Jackson and-Jeff Daniels. Photo: Julieta-Cervantes
To Kill a Mockingbird
By Aaron Sorkin, adapted from the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Shubert Theatre

Set in Alabama in 1934, Harper Lee’s enduring story of racial injustice and childhood innocence centers on one of the most venerated characters in American literature, the small-town lawyer Atticus Finch, played by Jeff Daniels. The cast of characters includes Atticus’s daughter Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger), her brother Jem (Will Pullen), their housekeeper and caretaker, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), their visiting friend Dill (Gideon Glick), and a mysterious neighbor, the reclusive Arthur “Boo” Radley (Danny Wolohan). The other indelible residents of Maycomb, Alabama are brought to life on stage by Frederick Weller (as Bob Ewell), Gbenga Akinnagbe (playing Tom Robinson), Stark Sands (as prosecutor Horace Gilmer), Dakin Matthews (playing Judge Taylor), and Erin Wilhelmi (as Mayella Ewell).

Ensemble features Baize Buzan, Thomas Michael Hammond, Ted Koch, David Manis, Aubie Merrylees, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, Jeff Still, Shona Tucker, and Rebecca Watson.

Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th St., NYC.

-- God's name taken in vain
-- Language
-- Mature topics
-- "N" word

Monday, March 11, 2019

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The Other Josh Cohen

David Rossmer and Steve Rosen. Photo:  Caitlin McNaney

The Other Josh Cohen
Book, Music and Lyrics by David Rossmer and Steve Rosen
Directed by Hunter Foster
Westside Theatre
Through April 28

By Lauren Yarger
What's It All About?
A quirky and fun rock musical reviewing events in the last year of the life of Josh Cohen (Steven Rosen) as told by Josh Cohen (David Rossmer). The stars are the book, music and lyric writers of this tale about a nice guy who cannot find a girlfriend and cannot catch a break. Suddenly, it seems as though luck might have come his way when he receives a large check in the mail from a long-lost relative. But this is Josh, the guy with all the bad luck. The check actually was intended for someone with the same name and so he begins a letter writing campaign to vent his frustration at the "other Josh Cohen."

What Are the Highlights?
A bouncy, catchy score and smart direction by Hunter Fosters which allows interaction between the two Joshs as well as with the ensemble transforming with wigs and costumes (Costume Designer Nikki V. Moody) into a variety of characters. Hunter creates characters and scenes as if from air and seamlessly has actors switching between action and playing instruments in this fast-paced 90 minutes. 

Filling out the cast are (amusingly credited in the Playbill as "A Lot of People," "A Bunch of People," "A Bunch of Other People," "The Rest of the People" and "At Least One More Person" -- if that makes you chuckle, you will enjoy the show -- are Jane Bruce, Louis Tucci, Cathryn Wake, Luke Darnell and Elizabeth Nestlebrode. 

What Are the Lowlights?
There is a bit of confusion at the top of the show as Josh's apartment is burglarized. the action takes place over a fairly long period of time as the audience is still entering and it is hard to know if we are supposed to be watching the action carefully or not.  It's  a small complaint.

More Information:
The Other Josh Cohen has been extended at the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd St., NYC through April 28.

Additional credits:
Scenic Designer Carolyn Mraz; Lighting Designer Jeff Croiter; Sound Designer Bart Fasbender; Music Supervisor Dan Lipton;; Co-Orchestrators David Rossmer and Dan Lipton. Musical Staging is by Whitney G-Bowley.

-- Language
-- Lord's name taken in vain

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Book Reviews Coming -- and Some Awards

The National Book Critics Circle (I am a proud member) will announce winners of its 2019 awards at a ceremony March 14 at The New School in New York City. The ceremony at 6:30 pm is free. Tickets to the reception following are available at

Look for more reviews of  arts and theater-related books coming to this site soon!
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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 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. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

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

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

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

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 Episcopal Actors' Guild.

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.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


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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