Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: West Side Story

Sumptuous Storytelling and Love at First Sight

By Lauren Yarger
I just met a girl named Maria and it was love at first sight and suddenly that name will never be the same for me—really.

She’s Josefina Scaglione, the charming actress from Argentina starring at Maria in the fabulous new revival of West Side Story on Broadway. She looks and sings like an angel and puts to rest an inability to buy into the “love-at-first-sight” plot device (among other less-than-believable things we’re asked to believe) to make this classic work.

If you don’t know the plot, it’s an update of the classic Romeo and Juliet story. Maria and Tony (Matt Cavanaugh), from two opposing families (in this case gangs and races) fall in love at first sight. There is a fight between the two rival gangs and Tony of the Jets kills Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Akram), leader of the Sharks. The couple plans to go away together, but are thwarted through miscommunication and Tony is killed.

Under the direction of Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original book, Scaglione personifies Maria in this updated version love and angst on New York’s West Side infused with the hauntingly beautiful music (Leonard Bernstein, score; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics) and original choreography by Jerome Robbins. While most of the story remains the same, one of the most notable updates involves incorporating Spanish dialogue. The Puerto Ricans converse with each other from time to time in their native language. Two songs, “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” are sung entirely in Spanish.

Sumptuous sets designed by James Youmans paint a stark backdrop for the colorful costumes by David C. Woolard which combine ethnic purples, greens, oranges and swishing skirts with the oranges, browns, jeans and sneakers of street gangs. The underside of a bridge, the setting for the tragic gang rumble that seals the star-crossed lovers’ fate, especially impresses.

The choreography remains explosive and tight, guided by reproduction choreographer Joey McKneely, and expresses the lyrics of the songs in visual, yet subtle ways, so that we see and feel the emotions of the characters before we hear them expressed in the words. Young Nicholas Barasch leads off a moving rendition of “Somewhere,” a thoughtful ballet in which members of the rival gangs dance together in a place Tony and Maria dream might one day be real, where they can be together, some day.

Karen Olivo shines as Anita, the feisty girlfriend of Bernardo. Akram and Cody Green, who plays Riff, leader of the Jets, deliver solid performances. Cavanaugh, however, seems unsure of himself, singing in a thin high tenor with lots of vibrato which seems miscast for the oomph desired for classics like “Maria” and “Tonight.”

The large supporting cast and stage full of dancers is supported by an orchestra split between the pit and located in boxes above either side of the stage.

Overall, it’s a sumptuous production, with the kind of singing and dancing that make Broadway Broadway. And then of course, there’s beautiful Maria. Her rendition of “I Have a Love” will give you goose bumps.

West Side Story is at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100/(800) 755-4000 or visit http://www.broadwaywestsidestory.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Lord’s name taken in vain
• Attempted rape
• Sex outside of marriage (although they perform their own ceremony…)
• One of the characters cross dresses
• Suggestive dancing

Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Impressionism

Play Fails to Make a Good Impression

By Lauren Yarger
Imagine a couple you’ve just met hasn’t made a great impression. He’s pompous, she’s uptight and they both seem to be spoiled rich people who have nothing better to do than sit around being discontent. Suddenly, he sets up a projection screen and starts showing slides of a trip he took and she whips out a family photo album. A few far more interesting acquaintances of the couple stop in, but they don’t stay long enough for you to get to know them or offer an escape and you’re stuck looking at your watch wondering whether you’ll make it through 90 minutes.

Congratulations, you have just experienced Michael Jacobs’ play Impressionism, wasting the fine acting talents of Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen and Marsha Mason directed by Jack O’Brien at the Schoenfeld Theater on Broadway.

Katharine Keenan (Allen) owns a fine art gallery where Impressionist works are displayed. A photograph of a young boy in Africa taken by her employee, Thomas Buckle (Irons), also has a place on the wall, but he has vowed never to snap another shot until he sees something of “real joy.” Their days are filled with a light banter as Thomas shares endless stories about coffee (believe me, I didn’t need to know where those coffee beans come from), and Katharine gets really excited about her favorite muffins at the bakeshop on Tuesdays.

Occasionally a client comes in: Julia Davidson (Mason) wants a Cassat painting of a mother and child for her daughter who is getting married; Douglas Finch (Michael T. Weiss) has commissioned a nude for Katharine to sell; a young engaged couple (Aaron Lazar and Margarita Levieva) wants a painting of an elderly couple on a park bench as the first purchase for their new home.

Katharine refuses to sell the art, however, (she must have a private trust fund to support the gallery, Thomas’ salary and costume designer Catherine Zuber’s chic business suits), because they evoke memories for her. The Cassat reminds her of when she was 6 when her father walked out on her and her mother. The memory is recounted in a flashback with Hadley Delany playing the young Katharine and Irons and Allen playing the parents. All of the memories connected with the paintings are told with the same technique: an awkward attempt to freeze the action while set pieces (Scott Pask, design) and projections of paintings on a scrim and in frames (Elaine J. McCarthy, design) along with recorded music by Bob James are introduced to tell us we’re taking a trip down memory lane. In case we don’t get it, a script message telling us that this is a memory of Katharine at age 6, etc., is projected on the scrim as well.

The nude triggers a memory of Katharine at age 30, falling in love with a painter who wants her to pose for him. She realizes she’s been led on by the artist (played by Irons) when his mistress (Levieva) shows up, followed by his wife (Mason). The park bench painting, it turns out, is his work.

Meanwhile, Thomas’s photograph triggers a scene change to Tanzania, Africa where a kind and joyful villager, Chiambuane (Andre De Shields) poses for Thomas' photos. Mason has a few lines as a doctor treating a terminally ill young boy (the one in the photo) whom Thomas wants to bring home. Why Thomas is unable or willing to help any of the other children in Africa when the one featured in the photo dies, we don’t know.

Will Katharine and Thomas be able to step back from their memories, squint at each other and see each other in a different light? Is life impressionism or realism? The reality here is that the minor characters are much more interesting. Mason lights up the stage for the brief moments she’s there, like a splash of color stroked across a white canvass. DeSields brings to life Chiambuane and, in a second role, the elderly baker of Katharine’s coveted muffins, but they aren't around long enough to develop. Even Lazar’s brief stint as the groom-to-be stirs more interest than the main characters.

The opening of Impressionism was postponed a week for extensive rewrites and restructuring. It still doesn’t work. The choice of another play to showcase the talents of Irons, Allen, Mason and the rest, would have made a better impression.

Impressionism, originally scheduled to run through July 5 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., New York, will close May 10. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250 or visit http://www.impressionismtheplay.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Many of the paintings are of nude women

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: God of Carnage

Jeff Daniels and James Gandolfini. Photo Boneau Bryan-Brown.

Bad Manners, but Staged in Oh, So Good a Manner

By Lauren Yarger
Tribal drums open the curtain at the beginning of God of Carnage on Broadway and it’s soon apparent that war indeed is about to erupt as two sets of parents meet to discuss a fight between their schoolboys.

Veronica and Michael (Marcia Gay Harden and James Gandolfini) whose boy had some teeth knocked out in the incident, invite the other boy’s parents, Annette and Alan (Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels) over to their home. The meeting begins with a forced politeness as the four attempt to find mutually agreeable wording to describe the incident for insurance claims (Annette and Alan object to their boy being described as “armed with a stick”). Things quickly go from bad to worse.

Attorney Alan clearly is here against his will and interrupts discussions by taking frequent cell phone calls about a possibly harmful drug produced by a company he represents. His lack of respect for hardware salesman Michael and lack of interest in the discussion, as well as in his son, it would seem, erodes the congenial atmosphere Michael and his wife have tried to create by serving a special dessert and decorating with fresh tulips.

Veronica wants to know how Annette and Alan will punish their instigator son and the conversation soon turns ugly, aided by the tongue-loosening effects of some aged rum (the first thing Alan seems genuinely interested in). All manners go out the window and the carnage abounds, including diminutive Harden’s hilarious flying-leap attack of bulky Gandolfini, one of the best puking scenes you’ll ever see on stage, a constant running joke about the plight of a hamster, the drowning of the cell phone and a violent shredding of the tulips. All this takes place in a civilized living room surrounded by towering blood-red walls from set and costume designer Mark Thompson.

While playwright Yasmina Reza’s script (translated by Christopher Hampton) might have a few holes (there’s no reason evident for why Annette and Alan would agree to the meeting in the first place or stay once it gets unwieldy among other nit picks), it plugs them with non-stop laughs throughout the show. We can’t help but see ourselves a little in the characters, even if we never would be brave enough to say or do what we witness.

Director Matthew Warchus blends four terrific performances and scores some extra points for casting Gandolfini, whose facial expression, especially during the puking scene, are priceless. Naturally funny lines about having belonged to a gang who would beat people up for him, for example, are enhanced when delivered by the former head of HBO TV’s Soprano Mafia family.

Daniels is slickly sublime, Harden is deliciously frustrated and Davis is really funny as the peacekeeper turned violent.

God of Carnage is on a break through the summer until September 2009 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York. For tickets,
call 212-239-6200.

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

Review: Exit the King

Embracing Death Amidst the Absurdity of Life

By Lauren Yarger
It’s time for the king to go. Permanently, that is, and before the play is over, his first wife keeps reminding him. His second wife thinks there’s hope, however, so a battle of the wills in a comedy of the absurd ensues in Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King on Broadway.

King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) doesn’t have long to live according to the doctor (William Sadler). Young Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose) wants him to focus on their love and to shelter him from reality. First wife Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), more practical, belittles Marie’s focus on feelings and advocates for preparing him for the inevitable.

Berenger’s kingdom is in ruins, his subjects are disappearing and even the earth’s elements themselves no longer respond to his commands. The walls are cracking, the palace washing machine has been hocked and the royal radiators are on the blink, but two faithful servants, the Guard (Brian Hutchinson) and the maid, Juliette (Andrea Martin), try their best to keep things running normally. Ah, but what’s normal? “Nothing is normal when the abnormal has become normal,” we’re told and that’s the crux for the conflict between the wives.

Director Neil Armfield (who co-translated the work with Rush) guides the actors around and through scenic and costume designs from Dale Ferguson and even uses aisles in the house to create a very real study of a man forced to come to grips with the end of his life amidst the absurdity of life.

Rush displays physical comedy skills as the king’s body deteriorates. He also does some nifty sight gags with his scepter. Sarandon mixes a polished, royal-sounding stage voice with body language that says “common” as the seemingly unfeeling Marguerite watches Marie’s efforts from a distance, then takes over to become Berenger’s sole focus and guide in the end.

Martin shines as the clumsy, trying-so-hard Juliette. Clad in a tattered black dress with sarcastic white pumps and evening dress gloves, she carefully places used hankies on statues and tries to courtesy while straightening or hopping over the enormous trains dragged around by the royals as part of their vestments.

Trumpeters herald entrances and exits that enhance music by composer John Rodgers. A sort of humming sound throughout the performance, presumably to enhance the impending doom nature of the play, is rather distracting (sound by Russell Goldsmith), though.

Exit the King plays through June 14 at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, 243 W. 47th St., New York. For tickets,
call 212-239-6200 or visit www.ExitTheKingonBroadway.com.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language

Review: Rooms a rock romance

Leslie Kritzer and Doug Kreeger. Photo by Carol Rosegg

An Effervescent Burst of Energy

By Lauren Yarger
The question “your room or mine” takes on new meaning for a couple trying to find common ground in Rooms, a rock romance featuring great performances from Leslie Kritzer and Doug Kreeger who belt out contagiously catchy tunes from Paul Scott Goodman at New World Stages Off-Broadway.

The book from Goodman (Bright Lights, Big City) and Miriam Gordon follows the relationship of a Glasgow, Scotland couple who find fame in the punk music scene of the late 1970s. Ian (Kreeger) is a moody composer, content to stay in his room with his companion: a guitar; Monica is an energetic lyricist who can’t be contained by the door on any room (a door from scenic designer Adam Koch is moved around on stage creating the rooms they are in or forming a barrier between them). Director Scott Schwartz uses space well to define the characters’ personalities and development and gives the knock out vocal performances from both performers a stage.

When the two meet, it’s instant chemistry and synergy for a personal and professional relationship. Their story of success in London and New York is walled by different life goals, Ian’s alcoholism, an unexpected pregnancy and their split up and is recounted through choreography by Matt Williams and Goodman’s lyrics and music (a catchy pop style with punk sounds featured only briefly when the couple performs as The Diabolicals: “Lilly Filth” and “Perry Comatose”).

Fame, like their relationship, is short-lived, however, and after they separate, Ian strives to get his addiction under control while Monica makes a decision about the baby and whether to follow fame as a solo act. Her song “My Choice” is probably one of the most honest, moving, pro-life songs dealing with the emotions of an unwanted pregnancy you’ll ever hear on a New York stage.

The band under the direction of music supervisor Jesse Vargas, is terrific and you’ll have trouble leaving the theater without humming the tunes and wondering when the cast recording will be available so you can listen to it all again. Kritzer, whose Broadway credits include A Catered Affair, Legally Blonde and Hairspray, has found her breakout role. Her vocal range and effervescent energy burst on the stage and fill the room with an excitement that has the audience cheering.

Rooms a rock romance plays through May 10 at New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St., New York. For tickets,
Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.roomsarockromance.com/.
Christiuans might also like to know:
  • Suggestive Dancing
  • Language
  • Lord's Name Taken in Vain
  • Bisexual Reference

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: 33 Variations

Review: 33 Variations

A Harmony of Music, Life, Purpose

By Lauren Yarger
Jane Fonda’s return to the stage, beautiful music, layered dialogue from playwright Moises Kaufman, the past and the present all join to strike a harmonic chord in 33 Variations playing at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theater.

Fonda plays musicologist Katherine Brandt, diagnosed with a fatal degenerative disease and obsessed with using the time she has left to discover why Beethoven (Zach Grenier) wrote 33 variations of an insignificant waltz composed by his publisher, Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia). She travels to Bonn, Germany where the original compositions are stored (in a wonderfully engineered set from Derek McLane which features a sumptuous music library with screens of the compositions (projection design Jeff Sugg) and stack upon stack of boxes, which when lighted in greens and bronze hues by David Lander, take on a treasure-box-like glow and draw in the color scheme from the theater itself, pulling the audience into the action on the stage.

The library’s caretaker, Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman), is reluctant at first to entrust the works to Katherine, but their mutual admiration for Beethoven and Gertrude’s history of caring for an aunt who has the same illness soon forge a strong bond between the women. Kellerman’s nifty comedic timing and delivery of lines in a guttural German accent make for some lighter moments of relief in the play. Meanwhile, Katherine’s daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) and her boyfriend Mike (Colin Hanks), who was Katherine’s nurse at home, follow her to Bonn. Mother and daughter try to find a way to breach the walls of an uneasy relationship. Katherine is critical of her daughter’s choices of boyfriends or career. The embodiment of variation, Clara is a “costume designer who excels at changing careers,” a trait perhaps emphasized by the show’s actual costume designer Janice Pytel since Clara’s clothes hardly reflect the taste one expect from someone with an artistic flair. Clara doesn’t know how to reach out, nicely made visible by Kaufman, who also directs, by physical distance and reluctance of the characters to touch.

Meanwhile, back in the 1800s, Beethoven frustrates his assistant Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and Diabelli by continuing to write variations on the same waltz. It interferes with his work on the Ninth Symphony and Beethoven is fighting the clock any way as his hearing and health deteriorate. Past and present take place next to and around each other, sometimes transcending barriers. At the end of the first act, both Katherine and Beethoven join their voices in saying they need “more time to finish the work.” In a funny bit, Gertrude comes and takes a conversation book she and Katherine need for research out of the hands of Schindler as he is writing in it. In one of the most moving and beautiful moments on stage, Katherine, being X-rayed, and silhouetted against the blinding flash of the lights, leans back on Beethoven for support.

All of this becomes harmony with an intermittent underscore of the original waltz and some of the variations played by music director Diane Walsh, down stage right on a piano. As Katherine deteriorates (Fonda plays the physical limitations well, but looks pretty darn healthy), she finds new meaning in Beethoven’s work. Maybe he wasn’t just trying to mock the inferior composition, or trying to change it. Maybe he was transforming it into its better self and appreciating it for what it had to offer.

The ending of the story, complete with a minuet (choreography by Daniel Pelzig), is one of the most satisfying conclusions to a play I’ve ever seen.

33 Variations is at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St., NY through May 24. For tickets call 212-239-6200.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sex Outside of Marriage
• Assisted Suicide discussion

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Theater Community Mourns Natasha Richardson

Our condolences and prayers go out to the friends and family of Tony Award winning actress Natasha Richardson who died yesterday following a ski accident.

She was the wife of actor Liam Neeson, the daughter of actress Vanessa Redgrave and film director Tony Richardson and the niece of actress Lynn Redgrave. Her grandfather was Sir. Michael Redgrave.

Broadway's lights will dim for one minute tonight in her memory.

For the obituary, click here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review: Heroes

Jonathan Hogan, Ron Holgate and John Cullum. Photo by Theresa Squire.
An Offensive on Old Age

By Lauren Yarger
Three WWI veterans battle to pull off one last offensive, ostensibly to take a hill and a group of poplar tress they can see in the distance, but in truth, the siege is one last assault against old age in Keen Company’s production of Heroes at the Clurman Theatre, Off Broadway.

Henri (John Cullum), Gustave (Ron Holgate) and Philippe (Jonathan Hogan) fall into a convenient camaraderie as residents of a veterans' home in 1959 France. They visit each day on “their” terrace, created by scenic designer Beowolf Boritt.

Gustave, pompous and a little miffed that the others don’t recognize his superior pedigree, pretends he is a fearless leader, but in truth, has been afraid to venture past the front gate of the grounds. He finds companionship in a stone statue of dog on the terrace. Philippe suffers from frequent fainting spells, the result of shrapnel remnants. He thinks he sees the dog moving and is convinced that the nun in charge of the retirement home is trying to kill him. Henri tries to keep the peace while enjoying his “daily constitutional,” a walk to catch a glimpse of the head of a young girls’ school nearby. He’s too shy to skrike up a conversation with her, though.

Spurred into action by the suicide of the home’s oldest resident and by the rumor that their terrace may soon be invaded by other residents, Gustave tries to incite his brothers in war to join him in a daring escape to Indochina. Henri suggests a picnic on the grounds as a more practical alternative. The men plan a defensive including rigging the terrace with barbed wire and machine guns. When that doesn’t seem practical, they finally agree to make a run for the stand of poplars on top a hill where they dream of standing free “where the wind blows.”

The play, written by Gerald Sibleyras and translated by Tom Stoppard, is full of good humor. A running joke about the dog remains funny throughout and builds to an unexpected punch line. A scene where the four tie themselves together in preparation for their hike is endearing. The men are likable and we feel like we want to pull up a garden chair and join them for an afternoon on the terrace.

The character development is deftly handled by the playwright. Interestingly, we don’t know a whole lot about these men. They all dress in three-piece suits, differing only in their selection of tie (Theresa Squire, costumes) and Henri’s display of a few medals. We learn Philippe has a sister and an obnoxious brother-in-law, with whom Gustave corresponds in Philippe’s stead. He wanted to be a concert pianist, but passing out frequently “was a handicap.” Gustave’s wife left him for a pharmacist and Henri wanted to be a picture framer once.

The lack of backstory is significant, because we come to understand that it really doesn’t matter what the details of their lives were, because the point is, that for the most part, the best part of their lives is over and they all now share an existence defined by old age. Gustave doesn’t attend a party for one of the residents and finds that no one missed him. Philippe has a fainting spell and falls into the open grave at a funeral, a metaphor of what they all fear: being gone and not missed.

It’s a touching story delivered by three skilled actors with years of stage experience amongst them. As they are directed through the emotions of complacency, hope, fear and resilience by Carl Forsman, we find ourselves really routing for them to make it up the hill.

Heroes runs at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th), NY through April 11. For tickets call 212-279-4200 or visit www.KeenCompany.org.

Christians might also like to know:
Minor language
Minor sexual dialogue

Review: Ruined

Human Spirit Triumphs Over Atrocities of War

By Lauren Yarger
Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s tale of war and rape and the triumph of the human spirit over those atrocities is a rich, wonderfully written play that puts faces we care about on the tragedy and transports an off-Broadway audience at New York City Center to Africa.

Set in a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ruined revolves around the lives and events at a bar/brothel in the Ituri rainforest (effectively rendered by scenic, lighting and costume design from Derek McLane, Peter Kaczorowski and Paul Tazewell). Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Sophie (Condola Rashad) are brought to the establishment’s formidable owner Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) by Sophie’s profiteering uncle Christian (Russell G. Jones). The girls have been turned out in shame by their families after being raped by soldiers. Sophie’s attack, including the use of a bayonet, was so brutal, she was “ruined” and she walks with a limp, her legs slightly apart.

Salima, who becomes pregnant, and another of Mama Nadi’s girls, Josephine (Cherise Boothe), who was the daughter of a chief, are forced to entertain the men who frequent the bar while Sophie, unable, earns her keep by keeping the books and singing (original songs by Dominic Kaza accompanied on guitar and drum with lyrics by Nottage and music and sound direction by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen).

Soldiers from both sides of the civil war seek out the pleasures of the establishment, and with both leaders, Jerome Kisembe (Chris Chalk) and Cmdr. Osembenga (Kevin Mambo) showing their evil sides, it’s hard to tell who the enemy is. Mama, whom theatergoers will liken to Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, won’t take sides. She saw her family lose everything in the conflict and she is determined to hang on to her own land, which represents independence, at all costs.

“Mama’s doors are open to everyone, so trouble doesn’t settle here,” she reasons. She hides away a raw diamond which Mr. Harari (Tom Mardirosian), an Englishman connected with the diamond mines and one of Josephine’s regulars, tells her is quite valuable. Representing the dreams of freedom and a better life, it is her insurance policy.

“No one is going to show up at the door and take my life away again,” Mama resolves.

The price of holding on to her land might include losing a chance for happiness with Christian, however. They enjoy friendship full of banter and some laughs when he stops by to deliver hard-to-obtain supplies like chocolate, cigarettes and condoms, but she rebuffs his repeated poetic attempts to declare his deeper feelings. She demands that the soldiers surrender their bullets at the door and leave the conflict outside as she tries to keep her dealings with the two sides secret from each other. The escalating conflict and the murder of a nearby missionary suggest that the juggling act might not protect the bar much longer.

“Eventually you must fly your colors; take a side,” Harari tells Mama.

Salima’s husband, now a soldier, searches for her, but she refuses to see him when he finds her. Bernstine’s dynamic portrayal as Salima explains that decision is one of the most moving scenes you’ll see on a New York stage this year. She recounts her tragedy which started out a beautiful day like any other with a clear sky and garden tomatoes to be picked. There is not a dry eye in the house when she finishes and exclaims, “Oh, please God, give me back that morning.”

She blames herself for not seeing or hearing the soldiers until they were upon her. It’s a metaphor for Nadi and all the people of the country and the world who stand by silently and ignore what’s going on around them. They are like a parrot left at the bar by the last member of a tribe. The bird is the sole voice for the tribe’s history and when it is silent, the tribe will exist no longer.

Finally, it appears Sophie might have a chance to escape. The storytelling skills of director Kate Whoriskey and the playwright have so fully engaged the audience at this point that theatergoers lean forward on the edge of their theater seats in a united effort to will the girl onto a waiting truck. The portrayals by all of the actors, including the ensemble, are riveting. It’s powerful theater leading to an ending with a testament to hope and to the human spirit’s ability to triumph.

The Manhattan Theatre Club offers Ruined as a co-production with Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. It has been extended through Sept. 6 at NY City Center, 131 West 55th St, NY. For tickets visit http://www.nycitycenter.org/.

Christians might also like to know:
Sexual activity
Suggestive dancing

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review: Distracted

Cynthia Nixon

This Look at ADD Keeps Your Attention

By Lauren Yarger
Jesse is acting up in class and at home and showing classic symptoms of ADD (officially Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD), but what’s causing it and what should his parents do about it?

In Distracted, playing at the Roundabout Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway, playwright Lisa Loomer takes a humorous, sensitive and thought-provoking look at the issue affecting an increasing number of kids and their families every day in this country.

Cynthia Nixon of TV’s "Sex and the City” fame stars as the unnamed “Mama” who tells the audience about her search for answers to help her son (the very talented Matthew Gumley who is heard from offstage, but not seen for most of the show). A cast of characters materializes to enact the experiences with several actors playing multiple roles and often hilariously letting the audience know exactly what they are thinking in the situations. It’s a clever device under the skillful hand of director Mark Brokaw.

Mama hears from Jesse’s teacher (Aleta Mitchell), his psychologist (Natalie Gold), a psychiatrist, a homeopathic doctor and the head of a holistic clinic (all Peter Benson). She even takes advice from neighbors (Lisa Emery and Mimi Lieber) and a slew of other characters. about the disorder's cause is genetic, chemical or “all your fault," they tell her as Mama discovers that no one seems to know for certain what causes the problem, but the most common fix seems to be the drug Ritalin.

Dad (Josh Stamberg) is in denial, attributing Jesse’s behavior to just being a 9-year-old boy and threatens to divorce Mama and sue for custody if she insists on medicating him. Meanwhile, Mama tries to juggle finding a solution for Jesse with other demands for her attention like the always-ringing phone, keeping up with her sole interior design client, helping Jesse’s emotionally troubled babysitter who cuts herself (Shana Dowdeswell) and trying to have sex or a conversation with her husband without distractions.

Constant attention grabbers are visualized in Mark Wendland’s simple two story set separated into six frames containing video projections (Tal Yarden) of web pages, headlines, news, television programs and clocks (lighted by Jane Cox). The chaos is highlighted with toys littering the place, props sliding on and off and original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem.

Loomer expertly uses humor throughout the play. Highlights are Benson, stepping out of character as the psychiatrist who also happens to have ADHD to assume the role of an actor with ADHD playing the psychiatrist, and Emery as obsessive-compulsive Vera. All of the performances are dynamic, including Nixon’s touching portrayal of a mother willing to do whatever it takes to help her son.

The show takes a personal look at one family’s experience with ADHD. You’ll either relate or understand a friend’s situation better and enoy a few laughs along the way.

Distracted runs at the Pels, 111 W. 46th Street, NY through May 17. Tickets are available by calling 212-719-1300 or at http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language (lots of it from Jesse)
• Meditation form of prayer
• The babysitter's cutting disorder is discussed at length
• Lord’s name taken in vain.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: The Unseen

Steven Pounders and Stan Denman. Photo by Matthew Minard

Be on the Lookout for What Really is Hidden Here

By Lauren Yarger
Torture takes on a new meaning, not only for the two men enduring it in Craig Wright’s The Unseen playing Off-Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theater in New York, but for the audience members who have to endure the play.

The playwright, who has popular TV shows like “Lost”, “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Brothers and Sisters,” among his credits, tries to make us think we’re watching a slick psychological study about the nature of men and the concept of reality, but what’s really hidden in this American Actor’s Company production directed by Lisa Denman, is some anti-God, anti- religion thought masked as enlightenment.

Prisoners Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman) have been held by unknown captors for unknown reasons for seven years. Though unable to see each other, they can hear each other from their stark cells (nicely staged by set designer Sarah Brown and lighting designer Travis Watson) and they tell each other tales of the horrible torture they have endured while keeping each other’s minds stimulated by playing word games.

During their conversation, Wallace monitors a series of undefined, increasingly annoying and seemingly un-ending buzzes (sound design by Dustin Chaffin) by moving some items around on the floor (his food tin and a spoon are identifiable, the others are not). Suddenly he concludes that the buzzing is the key to figuring out a plan for the layout of the prison and a means of escape. His excitement is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Smash (Thomas Ward), their torturer. It seems he’s having a bad day. It’s really hard torturing people, you know, so he has come to talk about his frustrations with Wallace and Valdez who lend sympathetic ears. (Yes, you just read that sentence correctly. It gets worse). He’s also very upset about a birthday party he missed.

“We’re here for you,” Wallace tells Smash.
“We love you just the way you are,” Valdez adds.

Jump ahead three years. Valdez has a theory. He’s convinced a woman prisoner occupies the cell between the men and for more than a year, has been tapping out news of a 10,000-year struggle taking place in a world full of tunnels outside of their prison cells. It’s a good-vs.-evil story. The totalitarian regime in charge wants people to stay prisoners, but the resistance believes freedom is possible.

Wallace’s skepticism angers Valdez who demands he extend an ear to his theory the same way he listened to Wallace’s thoughts about escaping from a prison designed like a giant beehive of individual cells. Meanwhile, Smash, shares some thoughts he has for inventing little machines that would cut out his victims eyes and tongues so he doesn’t have to suffer by seeing their fear or hearing their screams while he tortures them.

While humor sometimes can be used successfully as counter to a horrible reality (take the television series MASH, for example) the attempts here fall flat, partly because they’re not funny and partly because it’s hard to take any of it seriously. The two men, though dressed in tattered, dirty clothes (costume design by Carl Booker), appear fit physically and in good spirits for two guys who have endured 10 years of the kind of torture we hear about in graphic detail.

The problem is that the play isn’t as much an attempt to study the characters, as it is propaganda for the theory that suggests that there is no reality or truth, that all beliefs, particularly those of a religious nature, are the result of stories someone made up. The intrinsic failure of such theories however, is that they negate themselves when they claim to be the truth. The result is a wasted 75 minutes watching the play fail to make its case.

The Unseen plays through March 28 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., NY. For more information, go to http://www.unseentheplay.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Torture is described in very graphic detail, though not depicted. Blood makeup.
• Language.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: Guys and Dolls

This Revival Can’t Do, Can’t Do

By Lauren Yarger
It’s a musical with a terrific Frank Loesser score and decades of successful stagings from New York to the high school auditorium near you, but the latest revival of Guys and Dolls at Broadway’s Nederlander Theater just can’t do.

The first musical number, “Fugue for Tinhorns,” from which we alter the “can do” lyrics in the headline for this review, tells the story of the show’s problem right from the start: too many individuals without a blend. The three-voice popular song in which the characters speculate on the best bets at the race track sounds like three guys trying to make sure they stand out individually instead of working together to create one tune. And so it goes with the musical, as the four leads try to create characters different from those we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

The usually excellent Oliver Platt seems ill at ease and plays floating crap-game organizer Nathan Detroit as though he’s trying to do an imitation of Harvey Fierstein. Lauren Graham as Miss Adelaide, who can’t get Detroit to the altar, abandons the character’s traditional nasal accent and adopts one that doesn’t quite work. Kate Jennings Grant’s Sarah Brown is hardly retiring, rigid or naïve, as we've come to expect. Instead, she is brash and entirely capable of holding her own against the advances of Craig Bierko’s slick Skye Masterson (indeed, Bierko is the only one of the four stars who appears confident in the skin of his character), so it seems a bit silly that the whole plot revolves around a bet that Masterson can’t woo the Salvation Army prude and convince her to accompany him to Cuba for dinner.

The result is that there’s no chemistry and a show with a fill-in-the- gaps-around-the-great-songs book (Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows) needs chemistry. It feels as though director Des McAnuff has taken a hands-off approach and hopes that Robert Brill’s massive moving, ever-changing sets (made even more elaborate by Dustin O'Neill's video design), Paul Tazewell’s dazzling 1940s-era costumes with splashes of contrasting color, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and Loesser’s wonderful music and lyrics (Ted Sperring, music director) will distract us enough to keep us from realizing that there’s something missing. One welcome addition would be additional vocal coaching for Graham whose voice sounds strained. A large ensemble cast of characters and dancers seems disconnected from the whole as well, except for Jim Ortlieb, who plays Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's bass-drum beating grandfather who gives a really nice rendition of "More I Cannot Wish You."

The musicians, housed in a three-story platform behind the action on stage and conducted by Jeffrey Klitz, are great and it’s wonderful to hear old classics like “A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before” "Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat.” The latter, led by Titus Burgess who plays crapshooter Nicely, Nicely and the Graham-Grant duet “Marry the Man Today” are the strongest numbers, but they’re also two of the last, so when things finally seem like they’re coming together, it’s time for the final bows.

The show plays at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, NY. For tickets, call (212) 307-4100 or visit http://www.guysanddollsbroadway.com/.

Christians might also like to know:

  • Scantily clad showgirls
  • A large painting in a restaurant in Havana depicts a man and woman nude
  • One character depicts masochistic behavior (in what is supposed to be a humorous revelation)

Review: Blood Type: Ragu

Frank Ingrasciotta "drives."

A Recipe for Reflection

By Lauren Yarger
Take a little family, add some humor, stir in 20 characters, flavor with a little dysfunction and you’ve got the recipe for Blood Type: Ragu, Frank Ingrasciotta’s one-man reflection on growing up in a Sicilian immigrant family trying to make its way in America.

Skillfully directed by Ted Sod, Ingrasciotta gives distinct personalities to the multitude of characters, including his overbearing father who works long hours to put food on the table (eating being an important “liturgy” in the home), his worrying, superstitious seamstress mother, a bunch of unflatteringly nicknamed neighbors, a host of Sicilian relatives and his non-Italian stepmother, who comically asks whether he’d like some more sorelli (mozzarella).

Bubbling just under the surface of the brew is a deeper story: that of Ingrasciotta’s coming to grips with and forgiveness of his father’s shortcomings. It’s this more poignant ingredient and Ingrasciotta’s vulnerability in sharing the not-so-comical memories of his family that provide a base for the show and keep it from deteriorating into a saucy ethnic parody.

Through clever staging (John McDermott) that incorporates projections of video and drawings (designed by Joshua Higgason), Ingrasciotta at times appears to walk through the rooms of his childhood home or dance in the fields of Sicily.

Written by the actor and based on his own experiences growing up in New York, the script is full of good humor as well as pathos and invites the audience in like guests encouraged to sit at the family table and manga! The script would benefit, however, with the chopping out of one lengthy and graphic description of Ingrasciotta’s first experience of manhood with a Las Vegas prostitute. It plays like an ingredient added to spice up the sauce, but which, in its deviation from the locales and flavor of the rest of the show, instead leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Blood Type: Ragu plays at The Actor’s Playhouse, 100 7th Avenue South (between Grove and Barrow), New York. For tickets call 212-868-4444 or visit www.BloodTypeRagu.com.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sexual dialogue
• Language

Monday, March 9, 2009

So, You Want to Be A Producer

The Commercial Theater Institute offers its three-day intensive program for prospective producers, general managers and investors in New York City May 15-17. A special discounted rate is available until March 27.

The program, which I attended a while back and highly recommend, is open to anyone interested in producing, co-producing or investing in the commercial theatre, Broadway, Off Broadway, Touring Broadway, and elsewhere. Each session consists of presentations and panel discussions with experienced producers, general managers, entertainment attorneys, and managing directors.

The program is of special interest to anyone exploring relationships between commercial and not-for-profit sectors in the development of a theatre project.

Additional sessions are offered in Chicago March 13-15 and at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT July 8-12

To register and for more information, click here.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright Horton Foote Has Died

Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote died here in Hartford where his daughter Hallie is performing in an adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird," for which his screenplay won an Oscar. For the obituary in the New York Times, click here. For a review of the show at Hartford Stage, click here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Review: The Savannah Disputation

Apologetics Without Apologies
By Lauren Yarger
Good and evil lock horns in battle for immortal souls in The Savannah Disputation, running at Playwrights Horizons in New York, but who sports the horns of the lamb and who has the horns of Satan? Well, that’s what the battle is all about.

Melissa (Kellie Overbey), a Christian missionary thinks she has all of the answers and sets out on her quest to “convert” Catholics. She arrives on the doorstep of elderly Savannah, GA sisters Mary (Dana Ivey) and Margaret (Marylouise Burke) and the battle begins. Margaret, as sweet and simple as they come, invites Melissa in and reads some of her pamphlets raising questions about whether the Catholic Church is the one true church.

“Your whole church is founded on a grammatical error,” Melissa says, citing original Latin text from the bible and Margaret starts to question her faith. Mean and feisty Mary wants no part of Melissa and her teachings and throws her out making Melissa question her calling as a missionary. When Margaret defies her sister’s command not to see the evangelist again, Mary concocts her own plan. She invites her unsuspecting priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), over for dinner on the same night Margaret invites Melissa back for another talk.

Mary fills the priest in on her plan minutes before Melissa arrives. “We want you to crush her,” she says with glee.

Uncomfortable with Mary's manipulation, he keeps quiet while Melissa begins her anti-Catholic instruction, but soon Murphy’s identity is revealed and he and Melissa engage in a spirited battle of apologetics. Before the evening is over, Mary seeks excommunication from the church and starts tossing statues and other religious relics in the trash while Margaret, who riotously flees the room at each warning shot of battle, can’t find anyone who can answer her questions.

Evan Smith’s play is full of humor and allows the debate to rage without anyone seeming preachy. Weapons of information fly from both sides as each makes a case for having the only straight shot to heaven. The characters are interesting and real without becoming caricatures of what they represent. Mary is both ornery and vulnerable; Margaret is naïve, yet unwavering; Melissa is abrupt, but caring and Murphy is tolerant, yet convicted. And in a nice turn, Mary keeps deleting phone messages from her doctor’s office reminding her that her test results are back. The possibility of a life-threatening illness gives the debate about the need for eternal salvation increased meaning.

The performances, under the direction of Walter Bobbie, are top notch. Ivey is irrepressible as the mean-spirited Mary who tangles with nuns and doesn’t care if she offends anyone because, as she reminds us, she doesn’t have any friends any way. Burke is thoroughly engaging as the sweet and humble Margaret who brings to mind a favorite aunt, school teacher or someone else whose kindness has touched you. Her questions, it turns out, don’t really stem from disbelief, but from concern about whether Mary will end up in heaven or not. Overbey and Birney hold their own against and fuel the performances of the powerhouse spinsters.

It’s a near heavenly production, enhanced by the technical elements (scenic design John Lee Beatty; costumes David C. Woolard; lighting Kenneth Possner and sound, Tony Meola). The apologetics are without apology and are the impetus for greater understanding of why you believe what you believe.

Christians might also like to know:• Good information on tenets of the Catholic faith and on original bible texts

The Savannah Disputation runs through March 15. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 8pm; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8pm; Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30 pm. Tickets may be purchased by calling 212- 279-4200, online at http://www.blogger.com/www.playwrightshorizons.org or at the box office, 416 W. 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th Avenues).

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: This Beautiful City

Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brandon Miller, Alison Weller, Brad Heberlee, Stephen Plunkett & Emily Ackerman. Photos by Graig Schwartz

Dreams Built, Dashed as 'Evangelical Capital' Emerges
By Lauren Yarger
The aerial view of rooftops, streets and other elements appears to represent any typical American city, but just like Colorado Springs, the real Evangelical Capital of the world represented in This Beautiful City running Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, not everything is what it seems.

The rooftops in Neil Patel’s slick set suddenly become video screens or flashing lights in a youth service and the “city transformation” evangelical Christians hope will take place in Colorado becomes literal.

Created for documentary theater company The Civilians by writers Jim Lewis and Stephen Cosson (who also directs), Beautiful City is the compilation of interviews they and cast members conducted with residents of Colorado Springs. Their stories are intermingled with songs and lyrics from Michael Friedman who combines simple, pleasing tunes that disguise a vocally challenging score. The lyrics are atypical, from time to time offering email texts, and are more conversational than lyrical in nature:

“I just try to be friends with people who wouldn’t judge me for being like, not Christian, you know, but it’s not like I, ya know, go around saying, ‘Oh, I’m not a Christian, cause that would be like, you know, whatever,” sings one teen struggling with finding her identity.

At right, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, and Stephen Plunkett

What emerges are thoughts and dreams of the people of Colorado Springs, Christians and atheists alike with some focus on three larger churches: Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, Ben Reynolds’ African-American Emmanuel Baptist Church and Pentecostal Revolutions House of Prayer, aka RHOP. A superb cast of six plays a multitude of roles under Cosson’s direction.

Standing out is Marsha Stephanie Blake who plays the gamut from a confused teenager to Pastor Reynolds to his replacement (who delivers a terrific sermon complete with brow mopping) to a brief stint as President George W. Bush and a CNN reporter questioning him.

Emily Ackerman, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett and Alison Weller round out the cast of other church members and townsfolk who aren’t so thrilled about the Christian movement in Colorado Springs (the action takes place leading up to the 2006 election where both a ban against gay marriage and a proposition for gay rights were on the ballot).

Their stories unfold skillfully without apparent prejudice and with commendable attention to detail including lyrics projected on screens while the praise team leads worship and pinpoint lighting (designer David Weiner) illuminating the faces of the Pentecostals praying in tongues. A political battle fought with balloons is particularly creative. John Carrafa’s choreography and Alex Hester’s costumes complete the picture.

Colorado Springs does emerge as an evangelical headquarters, but not all of the dreams come true. Haggard eventually resigns as New Life’s pastor and as president of the National Association of Evangelicals when he admits to purchasing drugs and to homosexual behavior. Pastor Reynolds tells his congregation he’s gay and steps away from his pulpit and the leader of RHOP heads toward Kansas City and “Plan B” after things don’t go quite the way he envisioned in Colorado Springs.

This Beautiful City deals with timely topics set to music and invites discussion of the issues. It runs through March 15 at the Vineyard, 108 E. 15th Street, New York. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays through Saturday at 8pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit www.vineyardtheatre.org.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• A panel discussion is planned to discuss issues of gay marriage and separation of church and state.

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 http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She was a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com 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- 2024 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


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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