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:

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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