Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of "Nuncrackers"

It’s the holiday season and the nuns of Mount Saint Helen’s Convent are taping their first Christmas special in the cable access studio built by Reverend Mother.  Thus begins Nuncrackers, another Nunsense sequel from the fertile mind of writer and composer Dan Goggin.

The entertaining show, playing at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through December 17th, is a series of humorous skits and songs performed by the nuns—Reverend Mother, Sister Mary Hubert, Sister Robert Anne, and Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia)—from Hoboken, NJ.  They are joined by Father Virgil and a gaggle of young school kids.

Some of the vignettes can be quite funny as when Father Virgil and Reverend Mother spoof The Nutcracker as bumbling Sugar Plum Fairies and when the two hawk some rather unusual items on the Catholic Home Shopping Service.

The score by Dan Goggin, like with his other Nunsense efforts, are silly, lively, and jolly.  The song titles leave no room for doubt on the nature of the show.  There is the opening “Christmas Time is Nunsense Time,” “Santa Ain’t Comin’ to Our House,” “Jesus Was Born in Brooklyn,” and…well you get the idea.  They are accompanied by a marvelous three-piece band under the musical direction of JT Thompson.

The cast is a merry group, led by Michelle Goray as the businesslike, but affable Reverend Mother.  The actress has excellent comic timing and a droll sense of humor.  Cathy Wilcox-Sturmer is quite funny as Sister Robert Anne.  She is like the class clown, always going the extra mile to get a laugh or elicit a heavy groan.  Marcia Maslo as Sister Mary Paul (Amnesia) and Cat Heidel as Sister Mary Hubert round out the quartet of joking, good-natured nuns.  Mr. Waterbury himself, Tom Chute, is sufficiently daffy as Father Virgil.  He really knows how to wear a tutu and is quite extraordinary with his fruitcake recipe.  The young children in the cast add a down home flavor to the show.

Directors/Choreographers James Donohue and Semina De Laurentis keep the musical light and breezy, whether a scene is filled with song or a dialogue filled sketch.  They nimbly mix schtick-laden moments with poignancy and unabashed sentiment.

The Scenic Design by Daniel Husvar is suitably tacky, perfect for a local cable access production.

Nuncrackers, a different and diverting holiday show that, at the very least, will put a smile on your face and a twinkle in your heart.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Review of "The Chosen"

Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen, is a beloved classic.  Twenty years ago, playwright Aaron Posner brought the story to life in a stage adaptation.  That work, in a slightly new form, is receiving a satisfying production at Long Wharf Theatre through December 17th.  This poignant, and sometimes powerful, play delves into such universal themes as friendship, father-son relationships, developing identity and purpose, and religious adherence and tolerance. 
Steven Skybell and Max Wolkowitz in "The Chosen."

Set in the 1940’s, near the end of World War II, we are introduced to two young Jewish teens, Reuven Malter (Max Wolkowitz), a Conservative adherent and Daniel Saunders (Ben Edelman), a follower of Hasidism.  Living only five blocks apart in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York their spheres--primed by their religious faiths--are light years apart.  In the aftermath of a baseball accident the two boys become acquainted and quickly become fast friends.  Soon, the pair is introduced to each other’s world--a strict, solitary life for Daniel, overseen by his distant, scholarly father, the rabbi Reb Saunders (George Guidall); and a more nurturing, loving household for Reuven, who lives alone with his father, David Malter (Steven Skybell), a modern day intellectual, writer and champion of Jewish causes.  Through their interactions, and as the years pass, the two young men begin to assert themselves, both personally and academically, as they forge new and unfamiliar terrain.  They also learn the truth behind sometimes difficult life lessons their father’s taught, both overtly and furtively.

George Guidall, Ben Edelman, and Max Wolkowitz in "The Chosen."
A central question for non-Jewish theater-goers might be is The Chosen too much of a Jewish show.  While individuals with a Jewish background may find more meaning and identification with the characters, setting, and events of the show, the themes it addresses are so universal as to, fortunately, make the inquiry almost irrelevant.

The adaptation by Aaron Posner, who has also successfully transformed Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev, for the stage, hits upon the major junctures and stirring moments of the book.  He has crafted a drama that is at times compelling and heartrending.  He has modified the play somewhat by eliminating the character of the narrator, who was an older Reuven Malter looking back at his teenage years.  This revision helps streamline the show, allowing the audience to more focus on the four central characters.  The playwright has also fleshed out the presentation by adding an ensemble of four students—played at times as part of Danny’s movement or Reuven’s arm of Judaism.  This revision adds some volume to certain scenes such as the opening baseball game.
Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders in "The Chosen."
The cast is professional and well-tuned to their characters.  Max Wolkowitz’s Reuven Malter shows inquisitiveness and determination.  He ably straddles the world of the secular and religious as he forges a new and, at times, complex friendship.  Ben Edelman as Daniel Saunders, with his awkwardness and at times labored interactions, radiates an inner torment as he tries to balance duty, honor, and the realities of a new age.  George Guidall gives a nuanced performance as the stoic and contemplative Reb Saunders.  He aptly portrays the leader of his Hasidic community, a man with the weight of multitudes on his shoulders.  Steven Skybell renders the character of David Malter with optimism, compassion as well as a degree of thoughtful studiousness. 

Director Gordon Edelstein nimbly guides the four performers through the ebb and flow of the production and seamlessly integrates the ensemble at strategic points of the play. The scenes that focus on the father/son relationships are strong and convincing.  Even though there can be a lot of philosophical ruminations and some abstract concepts discussed, as with the Gematria, a form of Jewish numerology, the director nimbly keeps the pace brisk and pulsating.  My only criticism is the way Danny is presented.  Yes, he is a member of a close-knit, insular group, but he comes across as too mannered throughout the production.  It would seem, through his ongoing exposure to the outside world, he could have developed a less stilted affect over the time frame of the play

The Chosen, a dynamic and crowd-pleasing drama at Long Wharf through December 17th.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Review of "Junk"

Playwright Ayad Akhtar is one of the most compelling dramatists writing for the stage today.  His Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.  During the past few years, his work has been performed at Connecticut regional theaters, winning numerous awards including the 2016 Best Play from the Connecticut Critics Circle for The Invisible Hand.  His new play, Junk, continues his exploration of the intersection of human nature, religion, politics, morality, and finance, but on a much grander scale.  While in his previous works there were just a handful of actors, in Junk the cast has over 20 speaking parts.  It is more of an English state-of-the-nation play, which playwright and author Jeffrey Sweet describes as a play that tackles the “big political picture.”

The focus of Junk is the rough and tumble times, beginning in the early 1980’s, of Wall Street’s infatuation with high-yield bonds, known as junk bonds.  Robert Merkin is a financier who has come up with the idea of how a company can take over another through the issuance of junk bonds.  In his words, debt is an asset.  His target is Everson Steel and United and his conduit is the company run by an up-and-coming businessman named Israel Peterson.  The machinations portrayed in the production can be riveting at times as strategies and intrigues take shape.  A host of players—on both sides of the battle for Everson’s survival--become involved in the gambit as does the F.B.I. who begin investigating Merkin for securities fraud and other illegal activities.  In the end, the resolution is equal parts satisfying and bittersweet.

Akhtar states in an author’s note that the play is “a fictionalized account suggested by events in the historical public record.”  This makes the work both captivating and, at least for the non-Wall Street professionals in the audience, somewhat off-putting as greed and arrogance take center stage.  But this is not a simple story.  The playwright succeeds in placing the narrative in a much larger historical context that has produced profound and lasting changes in society.  He has skillfully woven into the drama many connecting parts, alternating allegiances, and hypnotizing twists and turns.  Sometimes the action and language on stage is hard to follow as the vocabulary and business jargon will be unfamiliar to most individuals.  However, Junk is anything but dry and tedious.  The gaps in understanding are greatly overshadowed by the sheer exhilaration of the production.

The sizeable cast, led by Steven Pasquale as Robert Merkin, is superb.  Pasquale, known more for his musical theater roles, is a fervent zealot, almost evangelical in his pursuit of rewriting the take over textbook.  The actor is at times charismatic, frightening and unforgiving as he stalks his corporate prey.  Other notable members of the Lincoln Center troupe are Matthew Rauch as the brash and boastful Israel Peterman; Joey Slotnik as the sleazy, not-to-be-trusted Boris Pronsky; Rick Holmes as Thomas Everson, Jr., the upright, dedicated president of the doomed Everson Steel; and Michael Siberry as Leo Tresler, an old-school financier wavering between the new reality and conventional traditions.

Director Doug Hughes has the numerous scenes moving at a crackling pace, paralleling the swift maneuverings of the big deal.  He brings forth both a vigor and forcefulness to the production, with characters flitting in and out of the turmoil in rapid succession, as well as providing intervals for explanatory flourishes.  The director deftly builds a palpable tension as the climax of the show nears its conclusion.  Hughes also elicits exacting portrayals by the cast, which gives the overall production an epic quality.

Scenic Designer John Lee Beatty has created a sleek two-tiered set that, along with Mark Benett’s Original Music and Sound Design and Ben Stanton’s Lighting, pulsates with intensity while at the same time aptly compartmentalizes the action into highly charged vignettes.

Junk, an engrossing and gripping drama, playing at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review of "The Band's Visit"

This critique is adapted from my review of the Off-Broadway production.

When a hit musical transfers from Off-Broadway to Broadway there is always the trepidation of whether it will succeed artistically and commercially. Fortunately, these fears are unwarranted for the captivating musical, The Band’s Visit, which reopened this month uptown. There is still the poetic charm and dreamy quality of the original production that does not sacrifice the show’s intimacy and warmth.
Members of the cast of "The Band's Visit."

The musical centers on the Egyptian musicians of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra who are invited by the Arabic Cultural Center an Israeli town. However, through a miscommunication, the group ends up in the wrong locale in the middle of the Israeli desert. With no bus service until the following day, the group ends up stranded in the sleepy town with little money and options. Thus begins the 24-hour odyssey of the Arab entertainers as they become warmly and enchantingly intertwined with the lives of some of the residents.

The show, based on the 2007 film of the same name, focuses on three ongoing vignettes between some members of the band and the Israeli citizens. They are poignantly portrayed, sometimes amusingly and at other moments with deep wistfulness. What comes forth is how much alike people are, no matter what their background and beliefs.
Katrina Lend and Tony Shaloub from "The Band's Visit."
As he has demonstrated throughout his theatrical career, composer David Yazbeck’s score is inventive and full of surprises. There is no full-throttled production number like “Great Big Stuff” from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or “Jeanette's Showbiz Number” from The Full Monty or “Tangled” from Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The songs form a gratifying whole that come across as more heartfelt and revealing with influences of Arabic and Klezmer music from beginning to end.

The cast is led by Tony Shaloub as Tewfiq who, at first, appears as a gruff, autocratic leader of the police orchestra.   As the play progresses and the actor begin interacting with the residents, especially the beautiful and alluring Dina, he subtly begins to change, becoming more reflective and reminiscent under the desert moon. While not endowed with the most dynamic vocal chords he, nonetheless, suitably conveys his plaintive yearnings and passionate longings. Katrina Lenk, an absolutely enchanting performer, has a lovely and seductive voice. She plays the shop owner, Dina, who is a resilient, no-nonsense Israeli. As with Tewiq, she initially comes across as dispassionate and tough. But as the magic of the day progresses the actress becomes more absorbing and reflective, delivering a nuanced, fuller portrayal of a woman stuck in time with little options open to her. John Cariani is a little too over-the-top as the husband Itzik, whose man-child antics cause a seemingly irreconcilable riff in his marriage. Ari’el Stachel comes across, initially, as a lumbering, boorish Casanova as the trumpeter Haled. Yet, as with the other characters in the play, the actor deftly sidesteps our introductory thoughts and develops into a more ingratiating and charming person.
Tony Shaloub and members of the cast from "The Band's Visit."
Director David Cromer plays up, at first, the drama caused by the sudden confluence of the two disparate groups. But as the wariness quickly dissipates he brings into focus the relationships that slowly develop among the denizens of the small town and the traveling troubadours. It’s the stories that draw the audience into the rhythms and flow of the action on stage. This is an intimate piece of theater and Mr. Cromer, smartly, does not incorporate any unnecessary embellishments.

Scott Pask’s scenic design of an austere, unadorned, rotating structure in the center of the stage reminds us of both the plainness and stark nature of the resident’s lives and that life is a circle that continually revolves. Sometimes we have the option of getting off, but other times the choice may just be fleeting.

The Band’s Visit, a heartening and bewitching new musical.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Review of "The Phantom of the Opera"

The national tour of The Phantom of the Opera, playing at the majestic Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT, is a extravagant triumph. The production is big with an impressive scenic design and immersive orchestral sound.  The venue itself, with its grand marble staircases, ornate interior and sumptuous drapery, is the ideal theatrical setting for the musical, which is set in the opulent Paris Opera House.

When the show opened on Broadway in 1986 it was part of the British invasion of sweeping, over-the-top musicals with a signature set piece that included 1980’s Les Miserables (the barricade) and Miss Saigon (the helicopter), from the early 1990’s.  Phantom, of course, has The Chandelier.  These shows were criticized, at the time, for their scale, but their grandeur and magnitude added a lavishness, which has all but vanished from the musical stage.  In this production, however, the richness and immensity are stunning and at times breath-taking, making the show a truly spectacular event.

This look is exemplified in Paul Brown’s set designs.  There are towering pieces that recreate the gold gilded glamor of the Opera House, an imposingly massive backstage tower, a mirrored ballroom, and the Phantom’s underground lair.  Paule Constable’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design give both an atmospheric eeriness and luster to the production.  Maria Bjornson’s costumes still look fresh and luxuriant.

The special effects and pyrotechnics add a menacing aspect to the production.  Fire leaps from the stage, stairs ominously appear from nowhere, and then there is the chandelier which I actually found to be one of the lesser effects of the musical.

The book of the show, adapted by Richard Stilgoe and Lord Webber from the Gaston Leroux novel, Le Fantome de l’Opera, is part love story and part horror story.  It centers on Christine Daae, a young singer who is thrust into the limelight after diva Carlotta Giudicelli walks off a production at the famed Opera House.  The young soprano has been secretly and mysteriously tutored by a shadowy figure who has big plans for his pupil.  At the same time, the man known as the Phantom, a disfigured musical genius, threatens the management of the theater with tragic consequences if they do not obey his demands for his protégée and the operation of the theater.  Into the fray enters Raoul, the theater’s new patron.  He knew Christine when the two were young and now yearns for her love.  The Phantom, obsessively jealous, has other plans.  Christine is both put off and enamored with the ghostlike persona.  A back and forth with all protagonists produces a thrilling series of events where love ultimately wins out.

The score, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics, mostly, by Charles Hart, melds Broadway styled songs with more operatic influenced melodies.  The musical contains such iconic numbers as the title song, “Think of Me,” “The Music of the Night,” and the Act II opener, “Masquerade.”  They are presented by a sizeable orchestra, augmented by local musicians, whose sound is beautifully enhanced by the flawless acoustics of the theater.

The entire cast is outstanding, possessing powerful and rapturous voices that resonant magnificently throughout The Palace.  The notable cast members are led by Derrick Davis as the Phantom.  He has a striking presence on stage and brings a multi-layered interpretation to the role.  We are repulsed and seduced by his performance.  He is horrific, arrogant, but also pitiable.  Kaitlyn Davis, stepping into the role of Christine in place of the laid up Emma Grimsley, is marvelous, with a brilliant singing voice and stage presence.  You would never know this petite actress was the understudy.  Bravo.  Jordan Craig is a dashing Raoul, the love interest of Christine.  There is not as much depth in his role—more the bounding hero constantly rescuing his imperiled beau.   Trista Moldovan is wonderfully feisty, contemptuous, and haughty as the displaced diva Carlotta.  She adds a delicious impetuosity to the mix of characters.

Director Laurence Connor has kept this substantial multi-faceted production humming.  Even though the musical has been on the road for a couple of years it remains crisp and lively.  The show is like a well-oiled machine, running seamlessly on all cylinders.  Even for such a large production, the director is still able to elicit a certain amount of humanity from the characters, especially the Phantom.

The Phantom of the Opera, an iconic show not to be missed, playing at The Palace Theater in Waterbury, CT through November 26th.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review of "The Last Match"

A semi-final match of the United States Tennis Open is the unique setting for playwright Anna Ziegler’s drama The Last Match.  On one side is the American ace Tim Porter (Wilson Bethel), a seasoned veteran who has been at the top of the game for years.  His opponent, Sergei Sergeyev (Alex Mckiewicz), is a younger Russian upstart with a volatile temper and serve to match.  On the surface the two opponents talk trash, pound out winners, and try to psyche each other out.  But the show is more than just the two antagonists battling for a berth into the finals.  We learn about their backstory, their personal relationships, what drives them, their joys and personal demons.
The cast of "The Last Match."
Ziegler has crafted a drama that is absorbing and engaging.  She skillfully paints both a picture of the on-court intensity and gamesmanship as well as the behind-the-scene glamour and spotlight of big time sports.  By integrating Mallory, wife of Tim, and Galina, the girlfriend of Sergei, into the mix she humanizes the tennis stars and adds depth and complexity to the characters and story.  The playwright has a good, working knowledge of tennis vernacular and does a convincing job of incorporating appropriate banter into the production.
Alex Mickiewicz and Wilson Bethel from "The Lat Match."
The cast is outstanding.  Wilson Bethel is athletically built, self-assured, and introspective as Tim Porter, the long running number one player in the world.  He can also come across as vulnerable, self-doubting, and flawed.  Alex Mickiewicz gives the character of Sergei Sergeyev, a hot-blooded and impulsive player rapidly moving up the world rankings, an authentic sheen.  The actor, full of bravado, also convincingly shows his anguish and pain when out of the limelight.  Zoe Winters as Mallory has an endearing persona with a winning smile.  Playing a former member of the professional tennis circuit, she has a toughness and determination as she searches for her own identity within the glare of her husband’s brilliance.  Natalia Payne’s Galina is gruff, self-confident, and loud but, like her impassioned partner, tempers her performance with melancholy and insecurity.
Wilson Bethel and Mickiewicz from "The Last Match."
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch deftly handles the tennis action on stage.  The combatants seem at home on the faux court, swinging and serving with authority and finesse.  She adroitly weaves in the side stories, primarily, with the players’ significant others.  The intimate interactions can be playful, honest, yet also full of tension and heartache.  During the continuous interplay between the on-court match and off-court activity Ms. Upchurch slowly and nimbly builds up the drama of, what turns out to be, a tightly, hotly contested tennis clash.

Scenic Designer Tim Mackabee is on-target with the dark, sky blue and green color scheme of a center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, home of the U.S. Open.  The array of flood lights and life-sized score board off to the side of the stage add a touch of authenticity to the set.  Bradley King’s Lighting Design impressively changes the backdrop from a late summer sky to a warm twilight glow.  Bray Poor’s Sound Designer contributes well-timed, accurate sounding pings of tennis balls booming off tennis rackets.

The Last Match, an engrossing drama being played out at the Laura Pels Theatre Off-Broadway through December 24th.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of "What We’re Up Against"

Twenty-five years ago playwright Theresa Rebeck penned What We’re Up Against, a show that dealt with sexism in the workplace.  Unfortunately, the premise portrayed in the play is as true today as it was in 1992.  It is receiving a satisfying, well-expressed production at the WP Theater on the Upper West Side through December 3rd.

The cast of "What We're Up Against," (l - r) Damian Stuart, Marg Helgenberger, Skylar Astin, Krsta Rodriguez and Jim Parrack.

The storyline concerns Eliza (Krysta Rodriguez), a young, determined newcomer to a small architectural firm.  She is eager to show her skills to Stu (Damian Young), the boozing office manager who is not too keen to involve the strong-minded self-starter.  She doesn’t receive much support from Ben (Jim Parrack), another employee; Weber (Skylar Astin), an obtuse, talent-less, recent hire; or Janice (Marg Helgenberger), the only other female employee of the company.  The problem for the firm is how to solve a thorny renovation job for a local mall.  Eliza, supposedly, is the only person that has resolved the troublesome issue, but no one wants to listen to her solution.  At least not officially.  But, with a lot of squabbling, shouting and posturing by the characters, along with some savvy deviousness by Eliza, there is a gratifying conclusion to the show and, maybe, the beginnings of some sensible dialogue between the combatants.
Krysta Rodriguez and Skylar Astin in "What We're Up Against."
Rebeck’s play doesn’t come up with a complex or sophisticated scenario on sexism on the job.  However, its straightforwardness gets the point across and provides focus on this disconcerting issue.   The characters she has created lack a well-rounded persona, coming across as more one-dimensional.  But, nevertheless, they can be quite funny.  Maybe lamentable is a better description.

Every cast member offers a superb, well-hone portrayal of their character.  Krysta Rodriguez imbues Eliza with a fiery resolve.  She is patient, playing the game to a point, before literally screaming her frustrations to the world.  Damian Young’s Stu comes across as one of those beloved boozers that talks and talks, but who’s logic is suspect and slightly askew.  Jim Parrack’s Ben is an interesting character.  You can feel the actor having an internal debate on whether to buck the office trend to ignore Eliza’s ability and acumen or to embrace it.   Skylar Astin is hysterical as the dim-witted staff member Weber, who as Eliza states is great at “archi-talk,” but nothing else.  Marg Helgenberger’s Janice, at first, is more concerned about not upsetting the apple cart, but by the end of the show comes across as a touch more complicated and heartrending.
Marg Helgenberger and Krysta Rodriguez in "What We're Up Against."
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt steers the focus of each scene to the characters, their dogmatic ramblings, and silly digressions.  Her main concern, it seems, is to position each actor appropriately on-stage and having them wander around the office every so often to break up the static activity.  This isn’t a negative observation on Ms. Campbell-Holt’s directorial prowess.  It’s more a critique based on what the playwright has presented.

Scenic Designer Narelle Sissons has crafted a two-level set that suitably represents two every day, functional offices.  Nothing special.  Uncomplicated, but effective.

What We’re Up Against, a humorous, thought-provoking primer on sexual discrimination in the workplace, playing through December 3rd.