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.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Theater Comes to Life: Literally

Eugene O'Neill describes the setting for "A Long Day's Journey into Night" and suddenly dark wood panelling, a bookshelf under a portrait of William Shakespeare, a round table and chairs with three windows from which you can overlook the water surround me, not because I'm imagining the room as I read, or admiring set work while viewing the play, but because I'm sitting in the room itself, where J Ranelli directs a reading from the classic.
The room, exact in detail as described in the stage directions of the play, is in O'Neill's boyhood home and the reading is the first event in which I'm participating as a fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT.
Ranelli, one of the most skilled directors I've ever worked with, brings O'Neill's words to life as he guides the actors through selected scenes. The idea is for us critics, who review plays, to get a better understand of how a performance comes to be. I get even more than that out of the experience.
Ranelli suggests that the two actors playing Edmund and Jamie go out into the kitchen and enter the room laughing, just as described in the play's stage direction. They do, and the effect is chilling. I feel as though I'm living inside the pages of O'Neill's autobiographical work and expect to hear the melancholic foghorn. I can feel his pain, the frustration of a disfunctional family trying to make it through the day while denying, then trying to deal with the mother's drug addiction.
It's gripping and I realize that this is why I do theater: to move the people watching. To try to touch them with the material in a personal way and, in our case at Masterwork Productions, where our projects carry a message of hope, to offer them something to think about and in some cases, a solution.
The experience leaves me with a strong sense of confirmation and a bag full of directing techniques gleaned from Ranelli's years of experience in theater and television that hopefully will make me a better director, both of theatrical endeavors and of this performing arts organization. He stresses a mentoring relationship between director and actors and I realize that this type of relationship is what brought me here in the first place. Friend and Broadway critic Retta Blaney has encouraged me to pursue writing reviews of Broadway shows from a Christian perspective. A few of those reviews earned me a spot as a follow at the institute and now God has opened the door for mentoring from some of the nation's top critics.
It's amazing how many doors God can open and not surprising that he uses mentors like Retta to turn the door knob.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Learning From the Best

I have been accepted as a fellow at the 2008 O'Neill Critics Institute in Waterford, CT and will be learning from some of the best arts writers in the country during the next two weeks. The institute is held in conjunction with the National Musical Theatre and Playwrights Conference. Two weeks on the beautiful Connecticut shoreline talking and writing theater with writers, performers and directors; what's to criticize?
Because of the schedule and possible limited internet access, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to post regularly through July 22, but check back often as I'll write about the experience as soon as possible.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Review: Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy

Flying creatures, breathtaking acrobatics and delighted children come together in "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy," an unusual Broadway offering at the Broadway Theatre.

The creation of Neil Goldberg, Cirque toured the country before landing on Broadway to the delight of all the children who were seated near me. It's an exotic encounter in the jungle, brought to vivid life by a cast of 28 aerialists, contortionists, acrobats, jugglers and musicians dressed in more than 150 of Lenora Taylor's every-color-imaginable costumes.

Less cerebral than Cirque de Soleil, Cirque Dreams has a story you can follow, lyrics in English and is specifically geared toward kids. We were treated to some spectacular jump roping, a slow crawling turtle, a juggling frog and ribbon flyers. At intermission a dad next to me wondered what else could be presented in the second act and whether his children would remain entertained during it. The answer was lots and yes.

A giraffe balancing act had the audience gasping and covering their eyes as Vladmir Dovgan and Anatoliy Yeniy added a fourth platform to their balancing tower. And cleverly, the second act is set in the jungle at night, so the millions of colors glow with a neon-like effect.

The choreography by Tara Jeanne Vallee is great, with performers in time to the music, even on the trapeze. The Broadway belt voice of Jill Diane (Mother Nature) felt a little heavy for Jill Winters' score and lyrics, but didn't distract from the fun. Jared Burnett, a classically trained violinist, stands out as the character Soultree Violinist, who serenades through the show on a six-string electric violin Viper created for Cirque.

A couple of brief attempts at humor involved some more mature movements that seemed out of place in a show geared toward the little ones. Offering the man bracing a pyramid with his head a few aspirin, for example, might have brought more laughs than more mature movements that hopefully went over the heads of the youngsters.

The limited engagement runs through Aug. 24.

Christians might like to know:
A great family fun show with characters appealing to children, minus the usually "dark" villains most children's shows feel they must include.

Gracewell Prodiuctions

Gracewell Prodiuctions
Producing Inspiring Works in the Arts
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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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