Saturday, December 27, 2008

Review: James Barbour's Holiday Concert at Sardi's

Sketch by Tom Hartman

A Holiday Concert That Feels Like Home
By Lauren Yarger
If you can pick just one night out this season, make it James Barbour's holiday concert at Sardi's.

The star of the short-lived Broadway production of A Tale of Two Cities offers a fun-filled evening of holiday classics, some not-so-classic Broadway tunes and some personal reflections that make the evening feel like a family gathering around the fireplace.

Barbour, who normally performs his holiday concert in California, opted for Broadway icon Sardi's this year in an effort to support New York theater during some tough financial times. He's joined each night by a special guest from the Broadway community. The night I attended, Natalie Toro and Michael Hayward-Jones, castmates of Barbour's in Two Cities, performed.

Barbour is joined by Musical Director Jeremy Roberts on the piano. One night, the concert was performed free for those serving in the Armed Forces. Two performances still are planned: tomorrow and Sunday, Jan. 4 at 3pm.

Sardi's is at 234 West 44th Street. Tickets are priced at $25, $45 and $60 with a $25minimum per person and are available at or by calling 212-868-4444.

Review: Shrek, the Musical

This Musical Might Be Able to Stay in the Green
By Lauren Yarger
Despite the economic climate that will bring down the curtain for 12 Broadway shows next month, at least one production looks like it might have a chance to stay in the green – and we don’t mean just ogre makeup and swamp sets.

It’s Shrek, one of the most solidly cast and humorous musicals to hit the Great White Way in some time. Based on William Steig’s book “Shrek!” and the hit animated movie of the same name, Shrek follows the adventures of a green ogre (Brian d’Arcy James) who finds his swamp hideaway overrun by fairytale characters thrown out of their homeland by Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber) who wants to be king. There’s just one problem, he doesn’t have a princess to marry to make it possible for him to sit on the throne. Shrek sets off on a quest to bring back Princess Fiona (Sutton Foster) as Farquaad’s bride and to reclaim his swamp as a reward.

Along the way, he befriends a talking donkey (Daniel Breaker), battles a huge dragon (Tim Hatley designed the fabulous sets, costumes and puppets with illusion consultation from Marshall Magoon) and falls in love with Fiona who has a secret of her own. Hatley brings to life a swamp full of fairytale characters with the high-pitched, whining, lying Pinocchio (John Tartaglia, who also gives voice to Hatley’s huge magic mirror and doubles as the dragon puppeteer) stealing many scenes.

Hatley’s larger-than-life sets create the swamp as well as Farquaad’s castle and include moving pieces that help create a sense of time passing as the characters travel between them. The hit costume is Farquaad’s, which transforms the 6-foot-plus Sieber into the vertically challenged lord and brings sputters of laugher, especially when expertly used to advantage in Josh Prince’s choreography.

The cast, under the director of Jason Moore, shines. D’Arcy is transformed into a replica of the cartoon character (Naomi Donne, makeup design; David Brian Brown, wig/hair design), complete with a Scottish accent à la Mike Meyers (who provided the ogre’s voice in the film). Some added exposition from David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) about how Shrek’s parents abandoned him when he was 7 gives us some insight in to his irritation with people.

“You’re ugly, son, so that means life is harder.”

D’Arcy let’s us see through the gruff and frightening exterior to the heart of the character—which ultimately is the message of Shrek.

Sutton Foster, cast in the first role since Thoroughly Modern Millie that finally lets her strut her stuff, sings, dances and even belches and passes gas in “I Think I Got You Beat,” a bizarre love song with Shrek which makes the parents wince and the kids giggle. Foster makes the awkward Fiona charming. Fiona’s “I Know It’s Today,” a song sung with her younger selves (Rachel Resheff and Leah Greenhaus who alternate performances and Marissa O’Donnell) is beautiful and a highlight of Jeanine Tesori’s score.

Sieber skillfully plays Farquaad with just enough pomp to keep a running gag funny and the ensemble is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. Every fairytale character who steps out for a line of dialogue or song is top notch.

The book sticks close to the movie script. In keeping the Donkey, however, Lindsay-Abaire might have stuck a little too close. Breaker certainly is capable and has a lovely singing voice, but the character is superfluous. The movie version features comedian Eddie Murphy’s voice bringing his own personality to the character. Here, we’re either thinking Breaker is imitating Murphy or falling short in the attempt. It would have been better to eliminate a part that is a vehicle for comedic genius on film, but which fails to find its place amidst a stage already full of entertaining characters..

The book also relies on the fact that the audience has seen the movie. Those who hadn’t were trying to figure out what was going on, particularly with regards to Fiona’s secret, by asking questions of their fellow audience members at intermission.

Despite the need for a few tweaks, the musical is entertaining for both young and old and may be one of the few shows that have a chance of bringing in some green through the economic downturn.

Christians might also like to know:
• Minor language
• One of the fairytale characters ends up being a cross dresser

Monday, December 22, 2008

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Review: Slava's Snowshow

Audience Participation Gone Amok

Clowns with floppy hats and feet, an ocean of fog, a giant spider web, huge bouncing balls and an indoor snowstorm are a few of the elements that combine to entertain in Slava's Snowshow at the Helen Hayes Theatre. When audience members suddenly get wet, have clowns walk over them and their seats, get stuck in web (actually very sticky)and get clobbered by kids trying to hit balls, however, fun turns to annoyance in interaction gone amok (at least one guy left in disgust during the show I attended).

Created by Russian clown Slava Polunin, who shares lead clown Yellow's role with Robert Saralp and Derek Scott, Slava's Snowshow is performed to recorded music in front of designer Victor Plotknov's worn-looking, blue-quilted, star dotted set with numerous special effects including fog, bubbles, umbrellas that rain on the audience, confetti and flashing lights.

There's kid giggle-inducing stuff in the routines: a shark fin chases the clowns through fog; a clown talks in squeeky nonsensical gibberish on very large plush phones. Unlike the far superior Wintuk from Cirque de Soleil, however, there's not much story for the kids to follow and what happens on stage really isn't all that exciting. Slava has some fun in it, to be sure, but it feels more like a kid's birthday party stretched on too long instead of a Broadway show.

A 30-minute intermission, during which children run up and down the aisles throwing snow (paper from a previous run of the snow machine) is about as long as either of the show's two acts. The concluding snowstorm involves a lot of pieces of paper blown out on to the audience while a blinding light keeps you from being able to see much of anything. Then, in a last effort to create pandamonium, large balls are sent out into the audience. Folks hit them to keep them afloat for an unbelievably long time, all while kids are running around trying to get them and striking audience members in the head when they miss. It's audience participation against your will and gone amok.

Review: Liza's at the Palace....

A Legendary Night of Good
She looks good, she sounds good and she reflects a lot about a woman who was very good to her making for, yes, a very good night at the theater.

She's Liza Minelli in a triumphant return to Broadway for her song and dance variety show Liza's at the Palace... at the Palace Theater through Dec. 28.
It's not exactly a Broadway show, but Liza's not your typical performer. Receiving a standing ovation at the start of the show (and burst of enthusiastic standing ovations after every number from ardent fans sitting in the first few rows), Minelli, directed by Ron Lewis (who also choreographs), entertains with long list of dramatically acted songs including some trademarks like "Cabaret" and "New York, New York." She's backed up by a quartet of Johnny Rogers, Cartes Alexander, Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina and a terrific orchestra led by conductor/drummer Michael Berkowitz and the excellent Billy Stritch (who leaves the piano to ham it up with the boys in one number).

The second half of the program is a dance-filled tribute to the late-1940s nightclub act of Minnelli's godmother, Kay Thompson, who was a ground-breaking vocal arranger and musical director/vocal coach at MGM Studios (and also the author of the "Eloise" children's books). Songs include “I Love a Violin,” “Clap Yo’ Hands,” “Jubilee Time,” and “Hello Hello."

Ray Klausen's sparkling backdrops, lighted by Matt Berman, give the production a Las Vegas feel. Minelli appears in a number of sparkling pantsuits and an unfortunate selection of a mini-skirt tunic top with over-the-knee boots for one segment (costume design is unattributed).

One audience member wondered at intermission whether anyone under the age of 50 would even know who Kay Thompson or Liza Minelli are. I hope so. Besides giving a solid night of entertainment, Minelli stood on the stage as proof that you can triumph over circumstances. It also is really nice to hear her speak so lovingly of her mother (the legendary Judy Garland)and of Thompson. Stories about how Garland and Thompson cried into a powder puff while watching Minelli on stage and how Thompson stood by Minelli and made her believe in herself are truly touching and evidence of the good in people.

Take your kids. You'll be entertained by a good performer and the kids will learn a lot about how to be good to each other.

Christians might also like to know:
• Minor language
• God's name taken in vain
• Support of a song with lyrics that reflect on being gay

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Newest Reviews Up Soon!

A case of the flu and a power outage here in New England due to the ice storm have delayed posts of our most recent reviews for Liza's at the Palace! and Slava's Snow Show. They'll be up in the next day or two. Thanks for your patience.

Meanwhile, Andy Propst's look at the best Broadway related CDs has installments 2-5 posted at American Theatre Web:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Best of 2008 Broadway-Related CDs

Editor Andy Propst offers some great thoughts about Broadway related CDs that might make welcome holiday gifts. Check it out part one at American Theater Web:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gerald Schoenfeld, Head of the Shuberts, Dies

The Broadway community mourns the loss of Gerald Schoenfeld, longtime chairman of the Shubert Organization, who died at home today at the age of 84. Condolences are extended to his wife and family and to the many he befriended and mentored during his career.

Broadway theaters will dim their lights tonight at 7 in his honor.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Billy Elliot

Worlds Clash in a Coal Miner Ballet

By Lauren Yarger
Just as divergent thoughts, goals and worlds clash in the Sir Elton John-charged musical Billy Elliot, various elements of the production itself sometimes are at odds with each other and cause a pile up of thoughts on the dance floor instead of allowing the viewer to sit back and enjoy the performance.

The show which opened at the Imperial Theater after playing to rave reviews in London and preceded by months of pre-Broadway hype, is a musical interpretation of the 2000 hit movie by the same name (with book and lyrics from Lee Hall, who wrote the screenplay). Overall, it’s entertaining theater with fantastic choreography, great dancing, a bunch of cute kids, some good music and a heartwarming story. A heavy dose of not-so-great language, some music that’s less than inspiring, overused smoke effects and wince-inducing behavior from little kids detract from the good points, however.

Trent Kowalik had the title role the night I was in attendance (the role is rotated among three actors) and was most engaging as the coal miner’s son who finds his passion in ballet. Billy’s penchant for pirouettes doesn’t sit well with his father (a strong performance by Gregory Jbara), however, so Billy lets him think he’s studying boxing instead of taking dance lessons from Mrs. Wilkinson (Hadyn Gwynne). She sees the potential in Billy and wants to help him find his way out of the squalor of the British mining community with an audition for the Royal Ballet. A beautiful dance number has Billy partnered with his future self (Stephen Hanna) where he soars to the heights of his dreams, but the first few rows of the audience are overcome by the thick wall of smoke that rolls off the stage.
Thought collision: This is beautiful. If I could just see it.

Along the way, he gets advice from the spirit of his dead mother (Leah Hocking), helps his crazy grandmother (Carole Shelley) find her missing pasties and tries to avoid the growing tension between his dad and brother (Santino Fontana) during the1984 British National Union of Mineworkers strike. He pals around with his friend Michael, (a talented Frank Dolce who rotates with another actor), who enjoys wearing his sister’s dresses. He urges Billy to join him and they perform a sort of nightclub number “Express Yourself,” which is age inappropriate and which offers large dancing frocks which seem out of place with the feel of the rest of the show. Billy also rebuffs the sexual advances of Mrs. Wilkinson’s little daughter Debbie (Erin Whyland) who offers to show him her private parts (in more graphic language than I just used).
Thought collision: love the kids; don’t like what they’re saying and doing.

Amidst the clash of striking miners and scabs, the community rallies around Billy and his father softens and supports his going to the ballet audition.

John’s score is a mix of signature sounding rock, melodic soul-felt ballads and a rather boring opening number that doesn’t sound like him at all.
Thought collision: don’t like it; like it; where’s some great sounding Aida type stuff?

The best musical number is “Angry Dance,” where John’s beat, Peter Darling’s outstanding choreography, Kowalik’s dancing and director Stephen Daldry’s excellent overlapping of the working and dancing worlds all come together in a terrific end-of-act-one closer where the conflicting elements collide as Billy literally smashes against the wall he’s hit in his life. Darling shows his flexibility with an earlier almost slow-motion number as Billy’s grandmother remembers dancing and drinking with her late husband. He uses movements to make seamless changes between scenes. His genius is showcased in “Solidarity” where the opposing forces come together, interact and switch identities through movement.
No collision here: Darling should start writing a Tony acceptance speech for best choreography.

Ian MacNeil’s set is innovative, with a three-story twisting house frame that rises from below the stage and full-room compartments that are pulled and pushed out of the sides by the actors. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes tell the characters’ stories and those for Mrs. Wilkinson are particularly outlandish.
Thought collision: while the costumes and dialogue suggest that Mrs. Wilkinson is free spirited and outgoing, Gwynne’s depiction is of a reserved woman never quite able to warm up to Billy and we’re not sure why.

The young children in the ensemble are talented singers and dancers who energize the show. And you can’t help but say, “Awww,” when the small boy, (played at my performance by an adorable Mitchell Michaliszyn), gets hoisted on a burly shoulder à la Tiny Tim.

But the thought collisions had me rolling up and down on the coal ramp saying “I love this” and “I really don’t like this” too many times to tell how I really felt about the whole thing and feeling just a little shafted.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sexual terms
• Mom is a ghost
• An added personal note: I was distressed by 10 and 11 year olds (and younger) using explicit sexual terms, foul language and cross dressing. My friend Retta reminded me that the language and exposure of the kids to these situations is accurate in the setting of the show, and she’s right. Still, what bothered me most, I think, is the uproarious laugher from the audience. Kids involved with these things at such young ages, even if explained, should be sad, not funny.
• Disclaimer: I admit possible bias in saying that Mitchell Michaliszyn is adorable. His family are long time close, personal friends, but I’m certain I would have written that even if his aunt weren’t one of my most favorite people on the planet.

Review: Amerissiah

Selene Beretta, William Apps IV, Adam Fujita, Dierdre Brennan and Nancy Clarkson in Amerissiah.

Dysfunction with a Ray of Sunshine

By Lauren Yarger
Yet another dysfunctional family has hit the boards of a New York theater, but with this play, amidst the yelling and backbiting, there’s hope that people can change and that an “I’m sorry” might actually mean something.

The show is Derek Ahonen’s Amerissiah, presented by The Amoralists theater company at the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York through Dec, 7.

Barry Ricewater (Adam Fujita) is dying of cancer and has become convinced that he is God who must die to save America. Creepy in his disease-ravaged appearance (think Edward Scissorhands) and screaming nonsensically at an invisible “Joey,” he gets around with help of a padded mop, his free spirited older wife Margi (Dierdre Brennan) and his family.

The clan meets at the Bronx boyhood home of the Ricewaters, where Barry was born on the living room floor, and where he wants to die (set design by Matthew Pilieci and Alfred Schatz). There’s his brother, Ricky (William Apps IV), who’s stopped using drugs and is trying to help his socially awkward and nervous girlfriend Lonnie (Selene Beretta in a nice turn) do the same. His sister Holly is angry at the world, especially at Margi for planting the “messiah” garbage in her brother’s head and at her ex Bernie (Matthew Pilieci) who won’t let her see her daughter. Their father, Johnny (George Walsh), is in denial about his son’s illness as well the fact that he and Holly might lose the family used-car empire and serve jail time for embezzlement and fraud.

“In my eyes, you’re forgiven,” the Amerissiah tells an unrepentant Holly, who never seems to stop yelling at everyone and who drinks to take off the edge.

Fighting ensues about whether Margi, whose other husbands died mysteriously, convinced Barry not to seek treatment for the cancer because she’s after his money. Past and present hurts caused by the family members and disagreement about whether to allow Barry to continue to think he’s God complete the dysfunction fest. In an attempt to force the truth, Holly challenges Barry’s claims and tells him that if he is God, he should have stopped the holocaust to which the Amerissiah replies that he did.

“Is it still going on?” he asks.
“No,” Holly replies.

It’s this kind of humor and direction from Ahonen which allow each of the characters to be individuals while functioning as a strong ensemble (costumes by Ricky Lang also accomplish this). And there just might be something to Barry’s claims after all, when Terry and Carrie Murphy (James Kautz and Jennifer Fouche) arrive, led to the Amerissiah by a voice in Carrie’s head. Terry (in a very funny performance from Kautz) wants to channel his wife’s gift to get her a spread in People magazine, or even better, to give him six numbers to win the lottery.

Where Amerissiah differs from most of the family dysfunctional plots out there is that some healing takes place. Johnny finally comes to terms with Barry’s imminent death and the fact that he beat his son Ricky as a boy. His “I’m sorry,” seems to be the catalyst for a rebuilding of that relationship. Bernie and Holly have a heart-to-heart. She explains that she has sabotaged herself and their relationship because she craves anything that brings pleasure to her senses. Bernie, who appears to have a strong Christian faith, tells her that when you can’t see, smell or touch, the only thing left is the people who love you and we sense that the couple will reconcile if lawyer Bernie can keep Holly out of jail.

There’s even a strange miracle with a lot of evening sunlight (thanks to lighting director Jeremy Pape) that just might save them all.
For tickets, go to

Christians might also want to know:
• Language
• God’s name taken in vain
• Use of drugs/alcohol depicted
• The AMORALISTS are a theatre company that produces work of no moral judgment, collaborating exclusively with American playwrights whose works are not concerned with the principals of right or wrong, good or bad, but rather full or empty.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Clive Barnes

The marquees of Broadway theatres will dim tonight at 8pm to honor Clive Barnes, theater and dance critic, who died yesterday. I grew up reading his reviews in the New York Times.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Review: Cirque du Soleil’s Wintuk

Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

A Wintery Wonderland of Wow!

By Lauren Yarger
Mystifying, bending, talking lamp posts, snow monsters, aerial feats, skate boarding and tumbling acts combine with other circus delights and a terrific snowfall to create a wintery wonderland of “wow!” for young and old alike in Cirque de Soleil’s Wintuk running at Madison Square Garden through Jan. 4.

The hero, Jamie, (Darin Good, who seems a great deal older than the boy you see in the posters), sets out on a quest to the imaginary North called Wintuk to rescue his girlfriend and to find snow to bring to his city where it's cold and bleak, but not white. Along the way he encounters the characters mentioned above, guided by a shaman (Laure Fugere who sings Simon Carpentier’s music and Jim Corcoran’s lyrics in English) and a shy friend named Wimpy (Gaspar Gimenez Facundo). The colder it gets, the more the characters come together for comfort and warmth (confession: without program notes, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you all of that. Like most Cirque du Soleils, there’s a story, but I usually am unaware of it, sidetracked by all of the special acts and awe-inspiring effects.) A couple of green-striped robbers are pursued throughout by a cop on a bicycle for some comic effect. Choreography is by Catherine Archambault.

Wintuk, created exclusively for MSG’s WaMu Theater and directed by Fernand Rainville, is Cirque de Soleil’s first show geared toward family audiences. It doesn’t play like their other productions, geared toward more mature audiences, and instead is great entertainment for kids of elementary through middle school age. It is written by Richard Blackburn.

There’s an awesome backdrop from set designer Patricia Ruel with projected buildings and snowflake mountains that’s practically a character itself with its winking moons, wind-tossed buildings and floating stars. Puppet dogs and cranes from Tony and Emmy award-winning puppet designer Michael Curry (The Lion King and Cirque du Soleil’s KÀ and LOVE) and the lampposts and ice giants from René Charbonneau (cofounder of Théâtre de la Dame de Coeur, Quebec), are exciting – and very large. “Power Track,” is a tumbling number featuring multiple performers in a fast paced precision routine on a huge trampoline revealed when the stage floor opens.

Additional elements, costumes by Francois Barbeau, lighting by Yves Aucoin and Matthieu Larivee and sound by Jonathan Deans, all expertly complete the circus wonderland.

Wintuk is an hour and a half of non-stop action and fun for the whole family.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Review: Saturn Returns

Memories and Grief Caught in Orbit

By Lauren Yarger
There is no end to grief and tears, but in Saturn Returns, Noah Haidle’s look at three stages of a man’s life, we discover that they are most bearable when shared with a ring of loved ones around us.

The concept behind the story that follows three particular days in the life of Gustin, a retried radiologist played at different ages by Robert Eli (28), James Rebhorn (58) and the excellent John McMartin (88), is that the planet Saturn returns three times during a person’s life to the position it occupied at his or her birth, representing crucial turning points (this information is thanks to program notes; you wouldn’t get this from the play itself).

We meet octogenarian Gustin when he hires visiting nurse Suzanne (Rosie Benton, who convincingly plays all of the female roles), not because he needs care, but because he’s lonely. She succumbs to his charm and reminding him of his deceased daughter, agrees to return the next day to give him something to look forward to. We travel into the past and meet his bright daughter, Zephyr, as she encourages the emotionally dependent 58-year-old Gustin to go out on a date and dreams about going off somewhere on her own, away from her father.

The third phase, another look into the past, introduces his young wife, Loretta, who is consumed with boredom and loneliness and passes the time by instructing her husband on how to kiss her (like we just met; like you’re going to war and we’re saying goodbye) and hopes to conceive a child.

Transitions between the three time periods are nicely staged by director Nicholas Martin, aided by lighting from Peter Kaczorowski and original music and sound by Mark Bennett that enable the characters to orbit in and out of each other’s time periods like visible memories. Finally, with new friend Suzanne, it seems Gustin might be able to defy the gravity which has held him prisoner to his memories and the house which holds them.

Saturn Returns is a study in what it feels like to be alone in the universe, but with a run time of just over an hour, we don’t get to know any of the characters well enough to understand why they cope in the way they do. A feeling that Loretta might be headed for suicide is eclipsed when we find out she died in child birth. So why does 88-year-old Gustin react with hostility when she’s mentioned and say he won’t speak of her? After his daughter dies, how does Gustin ever cope? Why is Loretta so lonely if she enjoys multiple daily phone calls with her mother? Why does Suzanne have no one else to turn to when she needs help? Their stories, in this fine production at Lincoln Center, are compelling enough that I want to know, but clouds obscure visibility.

Christians might also want to know:

• Language
• Lord’s name taken in vain.

Review: Speed the Plow

Raul Esparza and Jeremy Bliven. Photo by Brigitte Lacomb
Rolling Dialogue Flattens the Plot
By Lauren Yarger
Does it really take 90 minutes to figure out that people will take advantage of you and will stop at nothing to succeed? Not for most of us, but since playwright David Mamet needs some sort of basic plot around which to drive his signature rapid-fire, humor-filled, ping pong dialogue, getting to the top in the dog-eat-dog world of the Hollywood film industry serves the purpose in Speed the Plow at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Add to this strong performances from the TV star power of Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Raul Esparza (Pushing Daisies) and Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) and you have a popular, if not very deep play.

Piven plays Bobby Gould who somehow is unaware that his temporary secretary, Karen (Moss), sleeps with him just so he’ll green light her depressing and unlikely movie project about radiation ending the world. Gould’s longtime friend and producing colleague Charlie Fox (Esparza) sees through her and fights feelings of betrayal (his career-making project gets dumped in favor of Karen’s) to remain loyal and help his friend wake up to what’s happening. He easily gets Karen to reveal her motivation (why someone devious enough to use sex to get ahead would admit this is a mystery) and somehow that admission opens Gould’s eyes to the fact that everyone wants power and no one is immune. The two friends go back to making movies together leaving a bewildered Karen wondering how she blew it. Translation: we’re out of snappy dialogue; time to end the play.

Neil Pepe directs strong performances, however, with many of the funniest moments coming from movement – a dramatic throwing away of a script – or the intonation in a voice, as much as from the witty dialogue itself. Esparza shines as the caffeine-hyper, nicotine driven Fox who’s afraid to believe he might finally be on the brink of success. His rapport with Piven is easy and the dialogue bounces, although Piven does appear to get lost from time to time in the long and quick-paced banter. Moss is effective as the seemingly naïve, but manipulative Karen. Her presence, evoking memories of her role as Zoey, daughter of the underdog, come-from-behind Democratic president on The West Wing, along with lines about “mavericks” give the show a present-day feel despite having been written 20 years before the recent presidential election.

Scott Pask’s set turns (literally) from an office into Gould’s apartment, aided by a nice flickering movie projector effect (Brian MacDevitt).

“Speed the plow” comes from a phrase in a 15th century song wishing success and prosperity on hardworking farmers. It fits the play well, as the theme is about working hard, then plowing everything under and starting again. And that’s about as much plot as you’ll find while enjoying the banter.

Christians might also want to know:
• Language throughout
• Sexual gestures

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities Will Close

NOTE 11/10/08: The show closed early on Nov. 9.

Citing the economy and diminished ticket sales, A Tale of Two Cities will end performances on Broadway Nov. 16. A national tour is being planned.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Which Shows Will You Be Seeing?

Check out our listing of touring Broadway shows by scrolling down on the left side of this blog under the "Coming Your Way" heading. We're continuing to update the list.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: A Body of Water

Michael Cristofer and Christine Lahti
Water of Reality Flows Through Memory

By Lauren Yarger
How much of life is a choice and how much depends on our memories? The answer, if you can find one in Lee Blessing’s A Body of Water running at Primary Stages in New York, seems to be all of it.

Avis (Christine Lahti) and Moss (Michael Cristofer) awake one morning to find themselves in a house surrounded by a body of water. Do they know each other? Are they married? Are they somehow connected? They don’t know, except for a couple of unrelated vague memories and they try to stir others (after gingerly opening her robe so Moss can inspect her body for identifying marks, Avis uses some serving tongs to examine Moss’s privates to see if anything looks familiar.) They’re interrupted by the appearance of a rather hostile Wren (Laura Odeh) who seems to be their daughter. But is she? Or is she the lawyer defending them in the murder trial of their daughter Robin, whom they don’t remember in a convenient insanity defense. Maybe Wren really is their daughter who delights in brightening her dull care-giver days by tormenting parents struggling with dementia. Or maybe all or part of what happens is only in the memory of one of the couple, comforted by thoughts of the other now deceased.

We’re never sure about anything, except that the body of water (perhaps representing reality) is ever present. If you’re looking for answers, A Body of Water is not for you and you’ll feel like the little boy not fooled by the emperor’s clothes and want to shout, “But this play has no dénouement or conclusion!” If you can suspend the need to solve the mystery, Blessing raises some thought-provoking issues.

Avis has a memory of breaking up with a boy. They didn’t share the most important memory of their relationship and she recalls that they lived entirely different lives, even as they made love. Even if the couple can’t remember their daughter, they are sure of a connection because they feel it. In fact most of the questions raised examine how much we can exist independently of shared memories with others and how people adapt to make that happen. “Are we alive?” Avis asks at one point. “I’ll settle for an illusion.” In the absence of answers, the characters determine that they do have a choice every day to be happy or sad.

Lahti and Cristofer give strong performances under the direction of Maria Mileaf. Odeh, in an unsympathetic role, is less confident and relies on a shouting monotone. Neil Patel’s set depicting the lovely view through a large picture window upstage and panels on both sides is simple, yet elegant despite being annoying since you can’t make out the water on one side despite repeated dialogue about being able to see water on all sides. Designer Jeff Croiter should adjust lighting that creates a distracting and constant reflection of the actors in the glass window (and gives us additional unwanted rear view of the actors turning from their audience in their robes for the body “inspection” scene.)

Christians might also like to know:
• God’s name is taken in vain

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: 13

A Synergy of Energy and Teen Angst

By Lauren Yarger
A fly-through plot about teen angst, the horrors of junior high school and finding out what’s really important combines with catchy pop tunes from Tony Award winning composer Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years; Parade) and high energy choreography from Christopher Gattelli for a synergistic burst called 13 a new musical running at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Jeremy Sams directs an all-teen cast through the break-dance-speed action and cyber-surfing plot (book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn) following the trials of 12-year-old Evan Goldman (Graham Phillips), who just wants his bar mitzvah party to be the best day of his life. His plans go awry, however, when his parents divorce and he and his mother relocate from New York City to “the lamest place in the world,” Indiana (a transition cleverly made by scenic and costume designer David Farley). There, Evan must decide who is more important: his uncool friends Patrice, played by Allie Trimm, whose nice singing voice successfully navigates Brown’s sharps and flats and whose skilled acting gives her wholesome character some dimension, and physically challenged Archie (Aaron Simon Gross) or the popular crowd, led by jock Brett (Eric M. Nelson), his backup crooners (Al Calderon and Malik Hammond) and cheerleaders Lucy and Kendra (Elizabeth Egan Gillies; Delaney Moro).

Just as in real junior high, nothing escapes a good mocking out including Jewish worry, the Midwest, virginity, and incurable disease (in an uncomfortable tune called “Terminal Illness"). There’s a lot of talking and singing about French kissing and a riotous movie-date scene. The quick pace makes it impossible to bond more than fleetingly with the characters or the emotions they are feeling, but the universal, cross-generational experience of trying to fit in during the teen years means most of us have our own experiences to rely on, making the comeuppance ending satisfying, if not realistic.

A really entertaining post-curtain call number in which all of the teens (the band, under the music direction of Tom Kitt is all teens as well) have a chance to show off their stuff has even those of a more geriatric nature wanting to get up and dance. It is encouraging to see the audience bursting with excited young people, who are the next generation of Broadway goers.

Christians might also like to know:
Some minor language, the Lord's name is taken in vain.
Overall a pretty wholesome musical you can enjoy with your kids.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Review: “Equus”

Griffiths Makes Character Jump from Page to Stage

By Lauren Yarger

Once in a while, we’re treated to one of those rare theater experiences where a character makes the jump from the pages of the script to a full living and breathing person up on stage. Richard Griffiths’ portrayal of Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist who helps a troubled boy who inexplicably blinds six horses with a hoof pick in the revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” is such a performance.

Griffiths mixes Dysart’s genuine compassion for Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame) and the desire to help him untwist the warped thinking that led to the tragedy with envy of the boy’s ability to lose himself in the worship of horses and a loathing of his own psychiatric abilities which will replace that passion with “normal.” In other renditions (although I didn’t see the original on Broadway in 1975 which won Tony Awards for Best Play and for Peter Firth who played Alan) Dysart usually seems more stuffy and uptight to give outer contrast to the inner turmoil of a man who doesn’t enjoy much of anything and would welcome a chance to feel passion. Griffith’s more slovenly appearance and almost nonchalant line delivery put a face on a man swimming in boredom, but who can’t end the foundering, either by grabbing a lifeline by embracing the life he has or by cutting loose and diving into the forbidden pleasures of a world like Alan’s. It’s theater at its best.

Also at his best is young Radcliffe, making his Broadway debut as the boy who has confused religion, horses and sex into one ugly blur and who’s desperately crying out for help. Radcliffe, with a haunting stare, skillfully portrays Alan’s wide range of emotions and whether he’s a 6-year-old boy experiencing the excitement of his first horse ride, a fully committed worshiper of the horse god Equus, a boy who hates his domineering and repressive parents (T. Ryder Smith and Carolyn McCormick) or a 17-year-old feeling the first pangs of lust for a girl (Anna Camp), we know what sickness, turmoil and anguish is in Alan’s mind and how he could have come to commit such a terrible crime. And this was Shaffer’s intent in writing the play: to try to “create a mental world in which the deed (apparently based on a true incident) could be made comprehensible.” In this, and under the direction of Thea Sharrock who wisely sticks to the original vision, the play truly is a compelling study, though 30-plus years have softened the impact of what were shocking issues (including nudity on stage) back in the mid ’70s.

Kate Mulgrew, as the judge who asks Dysart to take Alan’s case, seems uncomfortable and stiff. Lorenzo Pisoni gives a nice turn as a young horseman and as Alan’s favorite horse, Nugget. The horses, played by six men, are crafted by John Napier, who recreates his metal, skeletal horse masks from the original production. They walk on elegant metal hoofs that make them tower over the performers like a horse would. Movement supplied by Fin Walker is skilled in creating horses, but flawed when the movements are choreographed in what seems more like a Rockette drill number than a horse worshiping rite.

Simple functioning sets (including audience seated in a loft on stage) recreate Shaffer’s vision and brooding and ominous lighting from David Hersey complete the picture.

Christians also might like to know:

•Adult themes
•Full nudity
•Sexual acts depicted
•Alan develops a personal religion in which Christ and the horse God Equus become confused.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: The Pearl Merchant

Erin Layton as Hannah and Bryan Taylor as Tom in The Pearl Merchant (photo credit: Christopher Davis)

Pearl Merchant Fails to Sell its Themes

By Lauren Yarger
Some great themes about adoption, faith and prejudice are at the heart of “The Pearl Merchant,” the first full-length production from the Threads Theater Company with a goal of presenting plays that spark conversations about faith and contribute to cultural renewal. Minor irritations, however, like those that produce cultured gems, shift the focus and keep the production from becoming a natural pearl.

Painter Hannah (Erin Layton), unable to have children, wants to adopt her student whose mother is dying, but her husband, Tom (Bryan Taylor, and mother-in-law, Elisabeth (Jillian Lindig), don’t think it’s a good idea for reasons that aren’t known to Hannah. Nenna (Nehassaiu DeGannes), a mysterious visitor, raises questions about whether the white couple has thought through all of the consequences of adopting this black child.

Like its own forced metaphor about nurturing trees, the play (from first-time playwright Cecilia Brie Walker) suffers from too many plantings without a lot of thought given to the roots. Is this a play about adoption, trust, racism, ghosts, guilt, Christian faith or the dynamics of working through a difficult stretch of marriage? Without clear direction, the play presents like a row of all of those seeds watered by a bunch of inserts to try to get them to grow together: “insert wise advice from mother here;” “insert thought about God here;” “insert explanation for ghost here.”

Intended “surprise” plot twists seem telegraphed well in advance and none of the themes ever is brought to a “pearl-like” conclusion. The lack of fluidity translates to the performances where only DeGannes seems comfortable in the skin of her character despite some nice blocking and attention to detail from director Misti B. Wills.

April Bartett’s scenic design stands out, though. She transforms the tiny stage (The Space on West 43rd Street) into two defined areas: Elisabeth’s mountain home with baskets, plants and detailed country accents downstage and the “bald,” an outdoor patch up on the mountain where Hannah likes to paint (as the audience enters the theater, she is seen painting in the shadows for a nice effect) upstage. Bartlett’s skill makes the two separate areas, on stage together throughout the almost two-hour one act, work despite a couple of exits from the bald through wooden doors. A glowing pearl also is a nice effect.

“The Pearl Merchant” was produced with help from Gifted Hands, a Manhattan volunteer program that offers recreation and healing through art, design, and craft classes for a range of populations, including at-risk youth, the homeless, people living with HIV/AIDS, and the elderly.

Christians also might like to know:
• Contains language

• God’s name is taken in vain

• The play contains some confused theology. An atheist who tells us she doesn't believe in God tells us she knows she's not going to hell, “thank God”....

• There is a ghost and Elisabeth, a Christian, offers the following as a possible explanation: “There are places the Celts recognized, where the barrier between the world of matter and the world of spirit is thin. ‘Thin places,’ they call them. Mysteries happen there. And when their children passed through the hills here, of course, many of them stayed. Well, I think something dwells here that is like that ancient thinness.”

• Tom, a seminary professor, is concerned that if the truth about his past comes out, his career might suffer, but seems oblivious to the fact that a guy who has sex with a former atheist girlfriend while engaged to someone else, fathers a child for whom he doesn’t take responsibility and then keeps all of this from his wife might not be the best candidate for tenure at a seminary.

• Threads Theater Company began in 2004 when a group of theater professionals at Redeemer Presbyterian Church began to discuss the connection between faith and theater. The group created a staged reading and discussion series and established a new play development program.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: A Tale of Two Cities

Some “Best of Times” Up There Among the Rest

By Lauren Yarger
OK, I’m a theater critic, so I’m supposed to tell you how the new mega-musical version of A Tale of Two Cities can’t quite overcome the shadow of Les Mis; how it tells the same old story; how its choreography is uninspired and how the plot-laden book and sugary exposition-filled lyrics just aren’t quite up to snuff. And while all that’s true, there’s something else I need to tell you: I liked it.

I liked it a lot, because for me Jill Santoriello’s (book, lyrics and music) treatment was revolutionary. She made me laugh and cry and finally care about the sacrifice Sydney Carton (fabulously played by James Barbour) makes in the name of love -- three things no other version, including the Dickens novel ever has done.

Tale is set in Paris and London on the eve of and during the French Revolution. Sydney, a lazy lawyer who has all but given up on himself, helps clear Charles Darnay (Aaron Lazar) of espionage charges and meets Lucie Manette (Brandi Burkhardt), daughter of Dr. Alexandre Manette (Gregg Edelman) , wrongly imprisoned by the Marquis St. Evremonde (Les Minski). Lucie nurses her father back to health, marries Darnay (who’s really a St. Evremonde, but who has renounced his aristocratic birthright) and wins the heart of Sydney, who sees in her the life he might have had. Following through on his promise to make any sacrifice necessary for her and those dearest to her (although I’m not sure that ever gets said in this version) he trades places with a condemned Darnay on the guillotine.

Brandi Burkhardt and James Barbour

Add to this Madame Therese Defarge (Natalie Toro), who with her husband Ernest (Kevin Early) knits and plots the revolution while she harbors a secret hatred for all Evremondes everywhere, Lucie’s housekeeper Miss Pross (Katherine McGrath), a banker (Michael Hayward-Jones), another lawyer in love with Lucie (Fred Inkley), a spy (Nick Wyman) an estate manager (Kevin Greene) a few grave robbers, 30 musical numbers and an ensemble of more than 20 and you still don’t have a full picture of everything that takes place. This might shed light on the difficulty in translating this saga into a stage production and why director/choreographer Warren Carlyle may have felt lost in the crowd.

The standout, without question is Barbour, whose dreamy voice and sarcastic, yet thoughtful manner give Sydney definition and allow us to see him grow from a wash-out to a man willing to give his life for another. Santoriello’s focus on Sydney’s relationship with Lucie’s daughter also gives us a broader perspective into his character. When he goes to the guillotine, you know he’s doing it as much out of love for Lucie as for her daughter and because this noble act will bring them happiness. This was a breakthrough for me, since in all other versions, the sacrifice always seems more like a last-ditch effort to make his life count for something. If Lucie didn’t weep for him in the “far, far better” scene, I sure did.

I also spent a lot of time laughing. Humor is infused throughout the show and though unexpected in a tale of revenge, blood-lust and all the rest of the “worst of times,” it works most of the time and provides some balance for an otherwise gloomy story. It also is great to sit once again in a Broadway theater (the Hirschfeld) and hear so many great voices (besides Barbour, Burkhardt, Toro, Lazar and Greene) belting their lungs out and hitting notes in the rafters, even if you can’t remember the tunes when they’re finished (ironically two of the songs are titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” and “I Can’t Recall.”)

At left Brandi Burkhardt in one of David Zinn's intricate gowns

All of this takes place against a wonderful backdrop staged by scenic designer Tony Walton, costume designer David Zinn and lighting designer Richard Pilbrow. Walton’s wooden two-story stick structures provide the framework for the homes, bar rooms and other interior locations. They are complimented by furnishings sparse in number, but intricate in detail, and back dropped by muted pastel panoramas of exterior locales.

Dramatic lighting creates various effects, and in the second act, Paris is aglow in a bloody red. Zinn’s costumes are extremely elaborate and detailed. Multiple textures, patterns and fabrics in variegated colors blend with the sets and lighting to complete a beautiful tapestry.

Christians also might like to know:
Relatively blood and gore free given the nature of the subject. Guillotine implied, not witnessed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Importance of Beng Earnestly Mentored

The first time I was mentored, it happened without warning. The Lord simply placed the most Godly woman on the planet in my life, allowed us to become bosom friends and, voila.

It occurred to me one day that Muriel was my mentor as well as my friend when a mentoring program began at church. Eager to find a mature Christian woman who could help guide me along in my Christian walk as a wife, mother and in ministry, I read through the program's information. A picture of what a mentor would look like began to form in my mind and the face was Muriel's. I already had my mentor. Her children rise up and call her blessed. The eyes of her husband of more than 60 years still sparkle with delight whenever she walks into the room and she already offered great counsel on personal and ministry issues.

I returned the information to the program director and never looked back. Muriel knit her heart with mine and I'm the stronger for it. Since then, I have recognized several more mentors divinely placed in my life and each has been a blessing.

Most recently he's using my good friend Retta, who has been encouraging me in my theater reviewing. I'd been receiving prompting from the Lord that I should review theater, but I wasn't convinced it was such a great idea or how to start. Meeting Retta at a show, she suddenly started talking about how I should be reviewing. Coincidence? I think not.

"Start right now," she encouraged. "Review this show." So I pulled out a pad and pen and began one of the most exciting, fulfilling parts of my journey with the Lord yet.

He keeps opening doors, doors that should have been stuck shut for years, usually with Retta there along the way to hold them open. If something exciting happens, she's standing there cheering. If there's disappointment, she has an encouraging word, provides helpful information and redirects me to focus on the Lord. I hope that in some small way he'll allow me to return the favor.

The prayer of a mentor:
"I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe." (Ephesians 1: 17-19 NIV)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Review: The Tempest

Stark Sands, Mandy Patinkin, Elisabeth Waterston (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Production Fails to Gather the Flotsam

By Lauren Yarger
Classic Stage Company’s rendering of “The Tempest” seems lost at sea, with its best elements rising on the swells while others crash on the beach resulting in a production that seems unsure of how to gather in the flotsam and steer a steady course.

Shakespeare’s last play explores the themes of revenge, forgiveness and restoration as magician Prospero (Mandy Patinkin) creates a storm that shipwrecks his brother Antonio (Karl Kenzler) and Alonso, the king of Naples (Michael Potts), who conspired to usurp him as the Duke of Milan and brings them to the remote island where Prospero lives with his daughter, Miranda, (Elisabeth Waterston), his slave spirit Ariel (Angel Desai) and his other slave, Caliban (Nyambi Nyambi).

Also washing up on the beach are Sebastian and Ferdinand, Alonso’s brother and son (Craig Baldwin and Stark Sands), Trinculo and Stefano, Alonso’s jester and butler (Toy Torn and Steven Rattazzi) and Gonzalo (Yusef Bulos), a counselor of Naples. Plots to kill Alonso and Prospero, grief over lost loved ones, a love match between Ferdinand and Miranda and drunken revelry ensue, but without an anchor, the production only skims the surface of the deep emotions and relationships that might have been explored.

Patinkin, with hands flailing and voice delivering lines at breakneck speed with increasing volume and intensity, conjures images of the late Maurice Evans playing Samantha’s overdramatic Shakespearean father in the TV show “Bewitched.” As we watch him battle a personal storm to force lines out without breaking into song, he seems blown off course, oddly distant from his cast mates and foundering without a lifeline from director Brian Kulick. He finally touches bottom in the second act, particularly when he gets to sing in one of the really pleasing original tunes by Christian Frederickson which are a highlight of the production.

Creatively tattooed Ariel is enchanting as she sings and works her magic, although she wears what looks like a large diaper, one of the few disappointments among Oana Botez-ban’s costumes which feature white, sand colored materials for the beach dwellers and opulent court garb for the visitors. Waterston and Sands are engaging with exchanges that are fresh and full of chemistry. Waterston succeeds in embodying Miranda with a delightful innocent charm and Sands is the most skilled of the troop in making Shakespeare’s verse sound lyrical.

Baldwin and Kenzler give a nice turn as sarcastic co-conspirators and Rattazzi makes a delightful drunk. Less defined is Caliban who, also tattooed, is depicted as a little slow witted, but played by handsome Nyambi, has no noticeable deformity to explain dialogue that describes him as misshapen and horrible to behold. Initial thoughts that casting a black actor here might be a statement about racial prejudice are negated as a multi-ethic cast is revealed.

Distracting is Jian Jung’s set design featuring a large canvas flat with a painting of the sky hung precariously over the players (in a theater that already has a cramped and claustrophobic feel) and re-angled throughout by a visible crew of four using ropes and pulleys anchored to its corners. “The sky is falling,” one observer quipped and it does remain an ominous presence over the action, especially when one character looks up to say, “Oh, heaven” to see heaven itself about a foot from his face.

A square of sand through which the actors walk barefoot is one of the most creative elements of the production, giving life and dimension to the island. It’s hauled away, however, in a labor intensive cleaning of the stage during intermission (this crew surely will have impressive upper body strength by the end of the run) presumably to allow a table prop to roll around the stage in the second half. Patinkin scatters sand around later, but it seems a memorial to the missing magical square.

It was a pleasure, though, to see many young children in the audience, apparently enjoying the experience very much. Kudos go to their parents for realizing the importance of nurturing a love of the classics from an early age.

Christians also might like to know:
Prospero is a magician and spends short amounts of time using magic to manipulate the elements and people

Spirits and Roman gods are depicted

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Review: Refuge of Lies

Rudi (Richard Mawe) and the mysterious figure.

A Compelling Play Gets Lost in the Staging

By Lauren Yarger
There’s a thought-provoking play being presented at the Lion’s Theater in New York, but confused staging distracts from the themes explored in “Refuge of Lies” and comes close to turning the production into a farce instead of a probe into the mind of a man haunted by his past.

Inspired in part by true events, Refuge tells the story of Rudi Vanderwaal (Richard Mawe), a converted Mennonite and retired teacher, who is pursued by Jewish reporter Simon Katzman (Drew Dix) who claims Rudi is a Nazi collaborator and not the sweet old man his wife Netty (Lorraine Serabian) and friends Conrad and Hanni (Arthur Pellman/Joanne Joseph) know. Simon’s niece, Rachel (a miscast Libby Skala), questions Simon’s motives and reaches out to Rudi, who is tormented by images from the past and by the mysterious figure of an Orthodox Jew haunting him. He seeks counsel from his pastors (John Knauss, in a duel role as Rudi’s pastors from the past and present) and tries to leave the sins of his youth behind to live a new life as a baptized Christian.

Ensuing are some intriguing exchanges of dialogue raising questions like: are sins forgiven if you hide them and don’t take responsibility for them; are there some crimes so horrible that no punishment fits them; can horror double as justice; are events in the past worth obsessing about if they have been forgotten by those affected; can forgiveness and mercy provide any answers?

At right, Lorraine Serabian, Libby Skala and Drew Dix.

Compelling stuff from Canadian playwright Ron Reed, but the audience spends most of the play asking other questions like: “Why is there a river in the apartment?” “Who is this character?” “Why did these people just turn green?” “What was that noise?” and “Are we in the present now, or back in the past again?”

These distractions come from a confusing timeline and a disjointed “present/past/in Rudi’s mind” concept which prove too complicated for director Steve Day to pull off in the space (and presumably on a Showcase budget).

Rebecca Ferguson designed the set in which a living area serves as everyone’s home and church, with four doors leading to and from unexplained places and through which the characters make endless entrances and exits, most accompanied by a relentlessly loud, scene-shaking “knocking” which goes from being annoying to comical. Other sound effects also are confusing or miss the mark.

A large curtain serves as a window into Rudi and Netty’s bathroom where, surprisingly, a lot of action takes place. The same area, though, also represents a bird coop where Rudi keeps pigeons. The result of using a silhouette effect for both scenes in the same way confuses the audience, which choked back laughter when the pastor twice appeared to enter the bathroom to talk to Rudi and his wife while they were showering (the water sound effect was running, so maybe he did?).

Leaps into the past or into the recesses of Rudi’s mind take place without warning. Moving two chairs apparently means we’ve gone back 50 years in time. Conrad suddenly isn’t Conrad, but Rudi’s father. Eventually we catch on for some repeated scenes: green people (the result of a lighting effect gone awry) plus the pastor with glasses on downstage right equal the past, and the pastor without his glasses downstage left is the present. Other transitions go undetected until part way through the dialogue.

Because we spend so much thought trying to figure out what’s happening, we miss a chance to focus on Reed’s skillful character development and compelling dialogue which examines Simon’s motives, Rudi’s guilt, the real reason behind Conrad’s show of support, Netty’s efforts to come to grips with the truth about her husband and the role of religion in all of this.

It’s too bad, because there’s great purpose here, and commendable intention by the presenting company, Firebone Theatre, whose mission is to produce and develop works that tackle the metaphysical themes of God (fire) and Death (bone).
A portion of the proceeds from the run (through Sept.28) are being donated to charities.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Prayer, Politics and Pretzels

Recently I had the privilege of joining a group of journalists covering religion beats for a Religious Newswriters Association seminar on how to find faith angles in news stories. Specific attention was given to the presidential race, to popular culture and to covering Pennsylvania (where the seminar took place, thus the "pretzel" part of the title).

Funny, but it doesn't seem like you have to look very far these days to find a religious angle -- usually a negative one -- being played in the press. It's fortunate that we have some well trained journalists dedicated to covering the issues in an unbiased way. The possibilities for writing about religion don't stop in print or broadcast media either. According to information given by presenter Marcia Z. Nelson, nearly one in five of the books read in 2003 dealt with religion or spirituality. Just browse in your local bookstore and you'll see a wide range of topics and suggested ways to find fulfillment through religious experience.

For those of you who are Christian writers, the time has never been more ripe for sharing your gift to help spread the word, clear up confusion and help people sift through the reams of misinformation being written. In some cases, the motive is to discredit Christianity. Some other works are written by people who seem well intentioned, but whose thoughts don't spring from the eternal waters of Christ. Pray about how God would have you use your talent and make a difference.
"But when you proclaim His truth in everyday speech, you're letting others in on the truth so that they can grow and be strong and experience His presence with you." (1 Corinthians 14:3 THE MESSAGE)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Walking Wih God Through the Grief of September 11

The seven years following the devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001 have been long, difficult ones for me, filled with different stages of grief and with learning how to go on in a world that still seems slightly askew. Having a personal relationship with the living God who has conquered death and sin was the anchor that allowed me to weather the storm.

I grew up right outside of New York City and it and its skyline are as much a part of me as the bones and tissues that knit together my framework. Two weeks after the tragedy, I returned there to spend some time trying to find normalcy and to take my children there so that they wouldn't be afraid to venture into Manhattan. First stop: the Empire State Building, a personal favorite of mine. A symbol to me all of my life of the city's greatness, romance ("An Affair to Remember" is one of my all-time favorites) and beauty, the 103-story deco building offers breathtaking views from its observatory. After seeing the still-smoking hole that was Ground Zero, we headed to our hotel and my heart cried out to the Lord. I needed to feel bottom in a sea of emotion and heartache.

The Lord answered. The view from our room was the Empire State Building. We'd chosen the hotel because of a discount rate, but the Lord knew I needed a few days of being able to gaze out at something I loved, something still standing amidst the chaos around it; something still alive with activity. It and 2 Corinthians 4:8 from The Message version of the bible ("We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken") were life-saving medicine.

A few weeks ago I realized that though it had taken almost seven years, I had worked my way through the desert of grief and was ready to visit Ground Zero and lay it to rest. I had business that took me into the city and I decided to stay over in a hotel not too far from the site so I could walk to wherever the construction would allow me to get closest and spend some time in prayer.

I checked into my room and found a pair of complimentary earplugs on the desk with an apologetic letter from hotel management explaining that I might be able to hear noise from nearby construction. I settled in and opened the drapes to find that my room directly overlooked the Ground Zero construction site. My heart was filled with gratitude to a loving God who knew just what I needed. I drank in the site, all of it in one sweeping panorama, devoid of debris and the center of new life and activity, and quenched a seven-year thirst. Foundations for new office buildings, a performing arts center, a transportation hub, a visitor's center and memorial were going in. The activity continued around the clock and I never once thought of using those earplugs. The sound was music; streams in the desert.

There is no pit so dark or black that God's light cannot shine through. There is no place so lost that we cannot be found because He is always right there with us to share the experience and lead us out.

"Sing praises to the LORD, enthroned in Zion; proclaim among the nations what he has done." (Psalm 9:11)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Theater Touches Us; Honors God

Theater gives us a sense of human action, changes people on the inside and is a necessity, rather than an option.
Those were some of the thoughts conveyed in a reading by actor Boyd Gaines at the 11th annual Broadway Blessing last night at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York under the direction of Retta Blaney.
Theater, the art of storytelling and it's value, goes right to the heart of the artists using their gifts in the church as well as those who gathered to ask God's blessing on the new season and to give thanks for their gifts in the arts.
God's ability to gift and to use the product of that gift to touch hearts was evident in the offerings which included dance, song, readings and prayers. The song "Nothing There to Love" by Christopher Smith from "Amazing Grace: The True Story," a show in development with hopes of making it to Broadway, is about as close to perfection as I have heard in a long time. Isn't it exciting when you just know God wrote the notes or the words of a work we produce?
Find your gift. Give thanks for it. Use it to the glory of God.

Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and glory are in his sanctuary.
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come into his courts.
Worship the LORD in the splendor of his [a] holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, "The LORD reigns."
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;
They will sing before the LORD, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his truth.
(Psalm 96 NIV)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

39 Steps Contest

This just in from one of the producers of The 39 Steps, some of the most fun you'll have on Broadway. It's a contest to find an Alfred Hitchcock look alike. Trust the creative team of this comedy to come up with a fun contest. Send in your photos-- good luck!

Do you think that you look like Alfred Hitchcock? If you don't, do you know
someone (a relative, co-worker, baby, pet) who looks like Alfred? The
Broadway company of Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS believes that Hitchcock
lives in all of us. In celebration of Hitchcock Month (Sept 2008) Alfred
Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" is holding a look-a-like contest.

So take a photo of you or someone you know who looks like Alfred and you can
win a BIG PRIZE. Remember, the photo need not be an exact likeness of our
beloved Alfred, but convey the persona of Alfred.

Four "finalists" will be selected to appear for a live vote where the audience
of Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" will decide who is the best Look A
Like! Each finalist will win four tickets (for you and three guests) to attend the show on Tuesday evening Sept 23 followed by a live vote by the audience to decide a winner who will receive a prize package and the title "Best Alfred Hitchcock Lookalike."

Anyone in the New York area can enter. There is no cost. Send your "Alfred Hitchcock Look A Like" photo via email by Sept. 16 to "" In the subject line, please write "Look A Like," and in the body of the email please give us the name of the person/thing in the photo (if not you), your name, your phone number, your mailing address and your preferred email address. You may also inquire at that email address for a full listing of rules and limitations.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Review: "But for the Grace"

Photos By David Roy

Once in a while, you stumble on a great piece of theater that makes you think and want to be part of a solution. "But for the Grace," a one-man show written by David Eliet about the plight of this country's hungry, now playing in the NY Fringe Festival, is such a show.

My official review of the show runs at American Theater Web, but the message of the show is so powerful, I felt it deserved a few more words here.
Eliet interviewed more than 100 clients, volunteers and staff at food pantries in Rhode Island and wrote the piece commissioned by the RI Community Food Bank to dispel false ideas about people who rely on food pantries to feed their families.

Actor Bob Jaffe portrays a wide range of characters, 11 in all, to tell the story. Their reflections are neatly woven with statistic about how hard it is for some to put food on the table. The hungry themselves are statistics, "Angelina DeFabrio, age 83, lives on a widows pension," Jaffe tells us as he piles client files on top of each other on the stage. "Natalie, age 23, manic depressive," he tells us as he piles garments representing "women at a food pantry."

As files, pictures and garments representing the hungry overwhelm the stage, you begin to get a sense of how big the problem really is. In fact, Jaffe spells it out, literally, for us on a white board.

"Rhonda works 40 hours a week, 160 hours a month, and takes home about $400 each week, netting about $10 an hour," he tells us. "To pay her bills, Rhonda has to work 115 hours a month to pay her rent, 26 hours a month to pay gas and electric, eight hours a month for her medical co-pays, 12 hours a month to put gas in the car to get back and forth to work."

He shows us the white board with his computations.

"That adds up to 161 hours and she hasn't paid for food yet."

The show had its premiere at Trinity Rep in Providence. It plays the Fringe Aug. 14 at 9:45pm, Aug. 15 at 5:15pm and Aug. 17 at 2:30 pm at Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street, New York. For more information, visit

"But for the Grace" will be performed here in New England at the University of Rhode Island in North Kingstown on Sept. 13 and 14.

For more information about the show, email

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

But I Don't Have Time!

Time flies, or so the saying goes, and it never seems so evident as during the summer when in the blink of an eye, it's August and I always hear myself say, "What happened to July?"

The ephemeral quality of time was brought home to me recently when I was on deadline. At midnight, I decided I needed sleep and after a short rest, I intended to get up, finish the article and send it by the 7 am deadline. At 6:50am, I glanced at the clock, leapt out of bed and completed some of the fastest writing I've ever done. All the while, the clock in the lower right hand corner of my computer whirred away the minutes with a speed I didn't think possible. Life really is that short. The seconds are whizzing by.

Yet the bible is full of assurances that life is full of time. In fact, we have all the time in every day to accomplish everything necessary. It's only when we don't manage our time well, or when we add unnecessary tasks to our schedule that we start to feel as though we need God to add a few hours to the day.

A quick search for the word "time" in the bible brought an abundance of entries. Some phrases seemed to leap out at me:

“in the course of time”
Sometimes we have to wait, but over time, God speaks or the answer becomes clear.
• “at that time”
We want the solution now, but there is an appointed time.
“in the times of trouble”
We don’t want or like them, but troubled times are part of our journey. They’re not a surprise to God who provides instruction and comfort to help us go through them
A number of times
Many references mention specific numbers of times like three times, or seven times, or seventy times seven times. Life is full of repeats. Solutions don’t always happen the first time.
“at all times”
All kinds of times collide to make one giant timeline speeding by on the clocks of our computers. And God has an answer for that too. There’s a time for everything, so give it all to Him.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 NIV)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: [title of show]

Heidi Blickenstaff, Jeff Bowen, Hunter Bell and Susan Blackwell. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Insert: [If You Stage it, They Will Come]
Boisterous laughter greets the jokes, or anything resembling a joke, in the opening minutes of [title of show], the phenomenon about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, and it appears that this might be a show only for those already fans of the off-Broadway production. But sharp wit, entertaining tunes and engaging characters win over the skeptic and prove that this “stage of dreams” has what it takes to compete in the Broadway big league.

In real life, as well as on the stage, the show starts as an entry in the 2004 New York Musical Festival. Faced with a three-week deadline and few ideas, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) decide to write a musical about writing the musical. They interest friends Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff in the project and the show, which features the four performers playing themselves, is a virtual recording of their conversations during its creation. The set (Neil Patel) is bare except for four chairs, spike tape and a keyboard on which all of the songs are accompanied by sole musician Larry Pressgrove (musical direction/arrangements).

We get to know the foursome (they’re fun to hang out with) as they share their adventure and innermost thoughts. Jeff, hopes to get the words “Wonder Woman for President” included in the musical; Hunter wants to strangle the wordsmith who’s always correcting his grammar; Heidi wonders whether “downtown” Susan really likes her and whether she'll ever be more than an understudy on Broadway; Susan, who has been told that her voice isn't good enough for the Great White Way, worries about being in the show.

"Don’t worry," Hunter tells her. "We’ll replace you when we get to Broadway."

A warm rush of laughter comes from the audience which realizes she's standing on the stage of the Lyceum Theater. The scenes are linked by humorous phone messages detailing rejections from noted Broadway actresses asked to star in their musical and angst turned into musical numbers with deft direction and choreography by Michael Berresse.

Following the festival, the show enjoyed a cult following off-Broadway. Bowen, Bell and Berresse each won 2006 Obie Awards for their work. The run ended, but Bell wouldn’t give up on Broadway and gave the show new life in an internet video series. The wildly popular “The [title of show] Show” chronicled the musical’s “if you stage it, they will come” dream and springboarded the production to Broadway.

The joke about writing a musical about writing a musical can only go so far, however, so some of the 90-minute, no intermission presentation seems a little forced, like an unnecessary kiss shared by the two women, and a self-aggrandizing number to show off Heidi’s voice that seem to stop the flow of an otherwise entertaining romp.

Overall, [title of show] is a fun look at the inside world of creating musicals and a pat on the back to the indomitable spirit which pursues a dream despite the odds.

Christians might also like to know:
* The dialogue is peppered throughout with language and sexual references. Interestingly, however, the creators discuss whether or not to include it and decide to keep the dialogue real to avoid ending up with “two tight paragraphs about cuddly kittens.”
* The two male characters are gay, but not involved with each other.
* One actress removes her shirt to reveal her bra.

Gracewell Prodiuctions

Gracewell Prodiuctions
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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 concept, "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. Shifting from reviewing to producing, Yarger owns Gracewell Productions, which produced the Table Reading Series at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT. She trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Intensive and other 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 wrote 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 was 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. She is a former vice president and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (producer of the annual awards ceremony) and a member of The League of Professional Theatre Women, serving as Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter. Yarger was a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly 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- 2022 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 or people of a certain race 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. 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 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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