The Art Of A Great Bamboozle

 

This season the essence of C.S. Lewis is alive and well on stage.  One incarnation of the atheist turned Christian apologist, novelist, lay theologian and academic was in the form of the man himself in Freud’s Last Session, a drama depicting a fictional meeting between Lewis and Sigmund Freud.  The other appears in an adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, one of his most popular works, by the Fellowship for the Performing Arts.  The book, published in 1942, is a series of letters authored by Screwtape (a senior demon in the dominion of hell) to his nephew Wormwood (a junior tempter just recently sent into the world).  Screwtape’s annotations offer the young demon a guide on how to lead a man down the path of damnation towards “Our Father Below” (the Devil) and away from “The Enemy” (God).

Playing at the Westside Theatre, The Screwtape Letters is a 90-minute mental gobstopper.  As the play opens, His Abysmal Sublimity Screwtape is addressing The Graduation Banquet at the Tempters College for Young Demons.   As the spirits of Hell feast on the numerous human souls they have swayed from “The Enemy,” Screwtape reminds the neophytes that although the substance of their supper does not have quite the same zing as true evil-doers like Hitler, there are plenty of humans willing to take the slow methodical road to the underworld by committing smaller sins.  His chilling speech is an eerie reminder of the phrase, “We are in the last days,” an expression my aunt would always say when adding her two cents about the news.  But it was not until I witnessed this scene that I realized the last days did not mean the 20th or 21st century, in fact, my aunt was referring to every day after the infamous apple bite.  Following the banquet scene, the rest of the production is carried out in Screwtape’s office, which is constructed of bones. 

Besides his scowling, transforming minion Toadpipe (played by Beckley Andrews), Screwtape is the only character that appears on stage.  Wormwood, “The Enemy”, “Our Father Below”, Slobgob, “The Patient” (The young man Wormwood is attempting to beguile) and “The Woman” (The Patient’s love interest) are all unseen characters that are vividly resurrected through Screwtape’s salacious soliloquy.   The Screwtape Letters is a timeless piece of work that needed to be reintroduced to the public more than ever before.  Indeed with the global economic state, constant threat of terrorism and conflict and the slow disintegration of man’s respect for nature and his fellow man, there is not one human being that can afford to miss this production.

Max McLean co-wrote and co-directed this adaptation and brings the letters to life in glorious fashion.  As Screwtape he is evil personified.  The disdain he exhibits for humans and God as well as the lusty pleasure he receives from devouring souls is completely convincing and compelling.  I was gobsmacked by the God smack that was delivered to my state of consciousness.    In fact, amusement is only one of the functions of this show, the other (and I believe chief) reason for this production is to present a thriving, thorough account of how man can be so easily led down the primrose path.  Screwtape, Wormwood and those who work for “The Enemy” are spirits, humans, as Screwtape puts it, are “amphibians—half spirit and half animal.”   It is the animal half he instructs Wormwood to target when tempting “The Patient’s” spirit.  He outlines how pride, religion, pleasure (a device created by God) can be viable tools for manipulation.  He details how prayer can cause immediate action by “The Enemy” and a demon’s best time to strike is during quiet times of reflection.  But the most significant disclosure Screwtape shares with his nephew is the law of Undulation which is, “the repeated return to a level from which they (humans) repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.”  The satirical commentary ends with Wormwood losing “The Patient” to “The Enemy” and becoming worm bait for Screwtape and Toadpipe.

Revelations 20:20 is an idiom I say when referring to the clarity that is gained by hindsight.  Watching The Screwtape Letters brought to life on stage offered more of a revelation than I ever anticipated.  The audience learns that every transgression counts.   In the end, all of Screwtape’s devices to entice us with vices leads to one well-known (but often forgotten) conclusion, the Devil and his sycophants are liars whose misdirection is the most direct passageway to becoming tasty morsels at Hell’s buffet.  Hats off to Max McLean for reminding us that we are all soldiers in the war for our souls, The Screwtape Letters ends its New York run on January 9, FAMERS make sure this show is the only trip to Hades you ever take.

Photos:  screwtapeonstage.com/gallery

Buddy the Elf Comes To Broadway

 

Buffalo two step over Rockettes, this year Buddy the elf descends on Manhattan to spread some hilarious holiday cheer to the world’s most impatient, rude and skeptical citizens.  This Christmas, Broadway gets into the ho-ho-ho spirit of the holidays in a major way with Elf, a new musical based on the 2003 comedy starring Zooey Deschanel, James Caan and the hysterical Will Ferrell. 

Much like the movie Elf tells the story of Buddy, a human who grows up in Christmastown amongst Santa and his elves and believes he too is an elf.  Upon discovering that he is actually human, he also learns his father is Walter Hobbs – a man that does not believe in Santa, is on Santa’s naughty list and lives in New York City.  Determined to build a connection with his father and prove that he is the world’s greatest son, Buddy sets out for the Big Apple to find Walter and spread the spirit of Christmas to New Yorkers – a necessary commodity considering Santa’s sleigh is powered by the people’s belief in Christmas. 

 

Upon arriving in New York City Buddy finds that his father has a new family, a demanding job publishing children’s books and has no time for them or him.  Eventually, Buddy does develop a relationship with his family, and along the way he delivers Christmas cheer to Macy’s, falls in love with a girl, gives his dad a great idea for new Christmas tale and helps raise Santa sleigh after he crashes in Central Park by convincing New Yorkers to believe in Santa and the true meaning of Christmas.

Elf is not just a regurgitated story with song and dance routines crammed haphazardly throughout the show, instead it is a cultivated production enhanced by super cute music and lyrics.  Songs like “Christmastown”, “A Christmas Song”, “Never Fall in Love” and “The Story of Buddy the Elf” are catchy tunes that will add to your roster of favorite X-Mas jingles.  The simple choreography works well with the upbeat music.  Elf is not overly complicated theatre.  It is a feel good family musical about the most wonderful time of the year.  And the cast help to make this make this musical an above average film to theatre adaptation.

 

Sebastian Arcelus is a delight as the naïve, sugary sweet Buddy.  His childlike demeanor is endearing and hilarious.   Amy Spanger is entertaining as Jovie, Buddy’s love interest.  Mark Jacoby as amusing as Walter Hobbs, the hard-ass that discovers he has a new son and a heart.  Beth Leavel and Matthew Gumley are equally enjoyable as Emily and Michael Hobbs.  Their duets are two of the best numbers in the show.  George Wendt as Santa can bring a smile to anyone’s face.  The sets are interactive and animated and are reminiscent of a children’s 3D pop up book.

 

 

The true charm of this production is that it is giddy, warm-hearted and leaves you with cozy, nostalgic feelings about Christmas – a necessary commodity since Christmas today seems more about ensuring retailers make their bottom line than spending time with loved ones, showing kindness to your neighbor and the birth of Jesus.  Elf is playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre until January 2 and will bring out the kid in everyone.  I recommend it for anyone that needs a good ole dose of Christmas spirit.  You will have Sparklejollytwinklejingley time!

Photos: Joan Marcus

Time Is On Their Side

In some ways a trip to the theatre can be compared to a photograph – it is a moment that encapsulates a specific period of time and emotions.   The only difference is one image is recorded in your mind, the other recorded on a glossy sheet of paper.  After the moment is over, life goes on and like other memories that fade or become altered with age, the image one captures from a theatre experience will not change, nor will a photo.  Inside the Cort Theatre awaits an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible impression on the consciousness.  Time Stands Still is a timeless piece of art that will leave viewers captivated and questioning the world around them.  Written by Donald Margulies, the play premiered in February 2009 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles with Anna Gunn, David Harbour, Robin Thomas and Alicia Silverstone performing the play’s four characters.  In January 2010, it began its initial run on Broadway with Laura Linney, Brian d’ Arcy James, Eric Bogosian and Alicia Silverstone as the only cast member to reprise her role.

When I first heard about Time Stands Still it was creating quite a stir and receiving rave reviews.  Tickets were as hard to find as the Willie Wonka golden chocolate bar wrapper.  By the time its first Broadway incarnation at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater ended on March 27, the play had garnered two Tony Award nominations for Best Play and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Laura Linney.  I had thought I might have been jipped out of one the best shows of 2010 and was ecstatic to read that the show would resume in September after a brief hiatus to allow Ms. Linney to fulfill scheduling commitments for The Big C, a new series on Showtime.  Now playing at the Cort Theatre, the original Broadway cast has reprised their roles with the exception of Alicia Silverstone; Christina Ricci was cast in her stead.

With Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies has crafted a modern masterpiece; it is a sociology exposition done right.  He scrupulously places the elements of new millennium relationships, beliefs and society under a microscope, dissecting each aspect until its essence is exposed and theories are challenged.  The play involves two couples Sarah (Laura Linney) and James (Brian D’Arcy) and Richard (Eric Bogosian) and Mandy (Christina Ricci), but centers on the relationship between Sarah and James.  Sarah and James are war correspondents; she is a photographer and he is a reporter.  For nine years they have been shacking up together and documenting the most gruesome aspect of the human condition.  As the play opens, Sarah had just been severely injured in a car bomb explosion in Iraq and has returned to their Brooklyn apartment to convalesce.  James recently survived a jarring experience which led him to leave Sarah in the Middle East and is now wracked with guilt.  Shortly upon their arrival back from a hospital overseas, they are visited by Richard, a photo editor and friend, and his newest love interest Mandy.  Richard suggests that since Sarah is recuperating, her and James should collaborate and create a coffee table book of their experiences in Iraq with her photos and his commentary.  But as Sarah and James begin working on the book, infidelities are revealed and life as they know it also questioned.  James is ready to try a more conventional life and Sarah is addicted to the adrenaline rush and is reluctant to change.

The cast brings this stellar story to life with compelling conviction.  Sarah finds solace in the square of the lens.  The moment she clicks the chaos of her surroundings, the world is silent (hence the title Time Stands Still).  She finds excitement and a sense of duty by showing the world the atrocities of war.  Most of all she is unabashedly unconventional.  Laura Linney is one of the most inspiring actresses of this century.  Her talent enriches the complex relationship Sarah and James share.  She is able to penetrate the core of Sarah’s personality and bring across all her fearlessness, flaws and vulnerabilities in a poetically human performance.  Laura Linney’s Tony nomination was well deserved; her depiction of Sarah is one of the most riveting displays of acting prowess that was offered this year. 

Brian D’Arcy’s acting chops have been well-honed on stage and his portrayl of James is another magnificent testament to a skillful Broadway veteran.  James is a man who has hit a wall going 100 mph and is on the precipice of change; in fact, he needs it in order to move forward.  The subtle desperateness D’Arcy exudes as he struggles to hold on and fix a relationship that is slowly disintegrating is genius and vividly sets up the tug-of-war aspect as the future of Sarah and James’ relationship is explored.

Eric Bogosian is probably best known from the 1988 film Talk Radio and his role on Law &Order: Criminal Intent as Captain Danny Ross, but he is also an accomplished novelist and playwright. His understanding of character development has served him well with an engaging portrayal of Richard.  In the wrong hands Richard could easily become a less memorable character, but Bogosian brings him alive with wittiness and grace.

 

 

Charm and exuberance are two traits Christina Ricci has in ample supply; she is one of the most interesting young actresses in Hollywood.  She could not have made a better Broadway debut than the role of Mandy.  Mandy’s youthful, naïve way of seeing the world and her devotion to Richard is the catalyst that inspires the questions and sparks the conflict in Sarah and James’ relationship.  Ricci turns a character that could be perceived as a bubblehead into a sweet, profound young lady.  She and Eric Brogosian’s performances are the perfect compliment to acting superiority of D’Arcy and Linney.

This play lacks nothing.  By the final curtain close I was rushing to my feet to give this show and its cast an enthusiastic standing ovation.  Time Stands Still has all the elements of 007 martini – all the best ingredients shaken to perfection.  Mature and momentous, to miss this show is to deprive yourself from a truly enthralling and entertaining theatre experience. 

Photos:  Joan Marcus

First and Triumph

Baseball is America’s pastime, but football is America’s obsession.  The National Football League amalgamates the combat of Roman gladiatorial games with the dramaturgy of a Greek tragedy, all played out in front of hordes of screaming fans in a huge amphitheater.  From September to February, Sunday belongs to the pigskin and its disciples. Vittles that are served at a Superbowl or tailgate party can easily eclipse a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.  Nothing unites families around a television like football, and fantasy football can create virtual warfare at the jobsite. 

The NFL, originally named the American Professional Football Association, has spawned many titans and gods since its inception in 1920, but of all the immortal figures that have been a part of the NFL’s history, none is as legendary as Vince Lombardi.  And finally all the theatrics of football’s greatest coach have been brought to Broadway in Lombardi.  Vince Lombardi was Brooklyn born, Bronx made and had the attitude of a winner wired in his DNA.  Raised in the Sheepshead Bay area in Brooklyn, Lombardi began his lifelong journey with football at Fordham University after accepting a scholarship and becoming part of the famous Seven Blocks of Granite, the nickname given to team’s offensive line.  He is most well known for being the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, but he was also the assistant coach and head coach for St. Cecilia High School in Englewood New Jersey, assistant coach for West Point and the New York Giants and head coach for the Washington Redskins.

Based on the book When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss, Lombardi mainly takes place during a one week period in December 1965 as Vince Lombardi and his Packers pursue another championship (Lombardi had lead the Packers to a championship in 1961 and 1962 but had not been to the big show in two years).  Look Magazine reporter Michael McCormick goes to cheese-head country and stays with the Vince and his wife Marie observing Vince at home and on the field with his family, which includes his wife and his players, in the hopes of returning to Manhattan and writing a breakout article that will finally showcase his abilities.    

Playwright Eric Simonson crafts a beautifully poignant script and an excellent testimonial to a great man.   Vincent Lombardi’s love and passion for winning, football and his family are well represented.  Most football novices know the legend of Vince Lombardi and his single-minded drive to succeed, but the play also provides the audience with a sense of what Lombardi was like at home.  Yes, he was a monolithic figure that ruled with a steel fist and iron shooting from his larynx, but through his harsh language the audience sees and feels the love and passion that made him equally flawed and brilliant. Vince Lombardi not only wanted those he loved to be the best, he desired to be the best for them. 

The audience bears witness, watching him interact with his players –pushing and praising all from the same heartfelt place.  But I believe Lombardi’s “push and praise” attitude is best represented in the relationship he develops with the young reporter.  During the play the audience discovers that Vince knew McCormick’s father, who was an editor for a paper in New Jersey.  Absent from the production are Vince’s children.  As the week progresses, Michael has trouble following Lombardi’s rules as well as authoring an uncompromising story that will surely land him in peril with his editor and Lombardi.  The tension, love and acceptance that a father and son experience as the son struggles to find his voice in the world is impressively explored through the bond between Vince and Michael.  For one week they provided each other with the stand-in each needed to heal past hostilities each may have had for their family member, and gives audience members a possible peek into the mind of Vince Lombardi the father.  The fallible side Lombardi is displayed when the play briefly goes back in time to New Jersey. Vince contemplates the idea of leaving football for a bank job, and shows even an individual whose destiny is clearly mapped out can sometime wrestle with doubt.  More obvious, is the stomach pain that pops up and rears its head during the production – a tell-tale sign of shadows to come.

Lombardi is as fascinating to watch as Brett Favre bomb to Randy Moss in the end zone during a Monday Night game, only this show is played with no time outs.  There is definitely a certain mana permeating in the Circle in the Square Theatre that the cast absorbed and used to perform masterful portrayals of their characters.  Dan Lauria, best known as the dad from The Wonder Years, is truly exceptional as Vince Lombardi. The devotion he gives to his performance is evident through each growl and command.  I could wax poetic for another paragraph about the authenticity of his depiction, but NFL legend Floyd Little, who was in the audience the night I attended, provided the confirmation that Lauria scored a touchdown.  During the brief Q&A after the show, Little stated he thought he was watching Vince, a compliment sure to be uttered several times over as other members of the NFL see the show.  Judith Light is simply a joy to watch.  As Marie Lombardi she has all the great one-liners and she delivers each time.  She and Lauria are the heart and soul of this show, their banter is energizing and intruiging to watch.  One of the most hilarious points in the show is when Marie breaks out an atlas to try to find out where Green Bay is.   Keith Nobbs portrayl of eager reporter Michael McCormick is a refreshing departure from the sell your soul for the exclusive approach in which journalists is sometimes depicted.  His exchanges with Lauria are some of the best in the show.  Bill Dawes, Robert Christopher Riley and Chris Sullivan round out the cast as the devil-may-care Paul Hornung, hardworking Dave Robinson and non-talkative Jim Taylor, with each of these Packers, the audience views another side of Vincent Lombardi the coach, slightly adapting his no-nonsense methodology to deal with each of the players. 

Like Vincent Lombardi’s Packers, this cast works like a well-oiled machine and like the championships Green Bay garnered for their efforts I am sure there will be nominations and awards in Lombardi’s destiny.  Another reason why this show will be successful is due to the support of the other star of this production, the NFL.  During the Q&A the actors expressed how the league and the players have assisted with this production.  In fact, the audience walks into a shrine with Lombardi memorabilia and photos littering every inch of the lobby.  Adding to the experience is The Circle in the Square Theatre itself.  The open stage of the auditorium is similar to a football field and provides a 4-D theatre experience.  You do not have to know what a nickel defense or west coast offense is to see this play.  The love of football is not necessary.  This play crosses over gender, chronological and ethnic lines because at its heart it is a great story.  This production is filled with raw emotion and hits harder than a 250 pound blitzing linebacker.  Well worthy of the man who exemplified the will to win, Lombardi succeeds in glorious fashion.

 

What Lies Underneath

In 1965 a teenage girl and her polio riddled sister entered the Indianapolis home of Gertrude Baniszewski.  As the landscape of America radically shifts with the Vietnam War, civil rights movement and the Beatles, the reality of this 16-year-old girl also dramatically changes, she is systematically tortured for three months by the woman who was suppose to take care of her and her sister.  Baniszewski also enlists neighborhood kids and her own children to assist in the torture.  On October 26, the young girl died of a brain hemorrhage, shock and malnutrition; her name was Sylvia Likens.

Just in time for Halloween, Axis Company resurrects the spirit of Sylvia Likens and the events surrounding her death in Down There.  From the moment you receive the program (a blank white sheet with the words “down there” written in lowercase and outlined in red crayon) the awareness that the production will not be a regular night at the theatre becomes heightened. Down There is playwright Randy Sharp’s chilling, dark multimedia showcase of an individual’s spiraling descent into madness and violence.  Although the play is based on the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens, the plot mainly centers on Pat Menckl (Gertrude Baniszewski).   A sickly, unhappy woman, Pat Menckl and her boyfriend Frank appear to be on the edge of destruction and the hint of abuse is apparent in the opening scene.  Her kids Jim and Paula and Rickie and John (the other teenagers entrusted to her care) are the poster children for dysfunction.  This thrown-together family unit appears to be experts on the trickle down theory – Frank humiliates Pat who demeans Paula who degrades John.  The only time the audience is presented with some modicum of family harmony is when forced smiles are presented as Casey Kindens (Sylvia Likens) and her sister Joyce are dropped off and later when Casey becomes the object of their abuse.

Pat is woman who has clearly grown up and lived “the hard way.”  Her frail figure, red lipstick and vacant eyes look more macabre under the naked spotlight and she wears her dysphoria like a church frock.  Casey’s bubbly, talkative personality not only clashes with Pat’s “misery loves company” approach, but seems to set Pat on her path of terrorism.   She seems hell-bent on breaking Casey’s spirit and showing her the harsh reality of life.  The violence Casey endures in the basement of the Menckl home is not graphic, but the suggestions of torture coupled with visions of Casey’s innocent smile on the monitor and her voice as she recites a note she is forced to write her parents explaining her bruises, haunt the audience with the reality of Casey’s demise.

The cast is comprised of Axis Company members; they deliver fright better than any modern horror flick.  Laurie Kilmartin portrayal of Pat combines all the elements of a villainess – she is Mrs. Bates, Mrs. Voorhees and Cruella De Vil rolled into one.  Lynn Mancinelli gives a convincing depiction of the Casey, her naivety and her eagerness to make the best of her situation is as compelling as her smile.  David Crabb and Brian give the scariest performance in this production as Rickie and John.  The willingness to participate in Casey’s torture and the fiendish pleasure they take in doing so tingles the skin with itches that cannot be stratched.  Britt Genelin and Jim Sterling are equally as troubling as Paula and Frank.  They give stark portraits of unbalanced people.  The set displays a dreary home and the mute Joyce, played by Regina Betancourt, becomes part of the bleak backdrop.  Her somber disposition and unwillingness to speak adds another layer of torture to this production.

Morbid and uncomfortable to witness Down There leaves the audience without a cathartic experience or sense of understanding as they rise from their seats.  Other than the fact of pure lunacy, the reason for their heinous acts remains a mystery.  But what is clear is that sometimes what lurks below a smile and display of normalcy can be a beehive festering with evil – a thought more disturbing than the boogeyman under the bed but necessary to know.  Down There will be playing at Axis Company, located at 1 Sheridan Square, until October 30.

 Photos courtesy of Axis Company

Jordin Sparks Reignites In the Heights

Or at least that was the title I envisioned in my head as I strolled in the misty rain to catch the Sunday matinee at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.  So imagine my surprise when I was told Ms. Sparks would not be playing the role of Nina as I had greatly anticipated.  Disappointed, I pouted to my seat, sat down and waited for the curtain to rise.

In the Heights blew onto Broadway in 2008 like a breath of fresh air tempered with a hint of Sazón.  Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator and the first incarnation of Usnavi, shined a spotlight on the Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights and struck gold.  The mix of salsa and hip-hop set to an orchestra was a concoction critics ingested well.  The show won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Original Score, Choreography and Orchestration.   The cast recording won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.   In November 2008, Universal Pictures announced plans to make a film adaptation of In the Heights with Kenny Ortega slated to be the director.  By January 2009, the musical had recouped its $10 million investment and began a national tour in October.  On August 2, 2010, the production marked its 1000th performance.  The whirlwind of success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ground-breaking homage to his childhood community ushered in a new era on Broadway and paved the way for musicals that fused more vibrant genres of music and choreography such as Fela! and Rock of Ages.

Since its debut, several members of the original cast have left the show.  Miranda’s last performance on Broadway was in February 2009.   Lin-Manuel is the heart and soul of this musical and with the replacement of several cast members I wondered had the show lost its mojo.  Jordin Sparks would undoubtedly make a great addition.  The “American Idol” winner has great vocal range and is guaranteed to fill seats just from her fan base alone.  But with the musical’s newest cast member sitting out this performance, would the show just be a ghost town filled with espiritus of what used to be?

Once the curtain rose, I was pleased to discover that the spirit of In the Heights is still bursting with energy and is as entertaining as the original incarnation that debuted on Broadway over two years ago.  The torch was well handed from Lin-Manuel Miranda to Kyle Beltran who now plays Usnavi, the narrator who owns neighborhood bodega.  His portrayal of the character is sensitive, funny with a sick flow and cadence that does justice to Miranda’s lyrics and is sure to keep the audience heads’ bopping.  Gabrielle Ruiz was an impressive Nina.  She was so convincing that I almost forgot that she was the understudy.  Clifton Oliver is irresistible as Benny; one can not help but root for him to win Nina’s heart.  Olga Merediz is sensational as Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood matriarch.  Her performance is both endearing and captivating.  And although Merediz is a scene stealer, Andrea Burns commits highway robbery on stage as the vivacious salon owner and barrio gossip Daniela.  With a beautiful voice and hilarious one-liners, Burns transforms a busybody into one of the most engaging characters in the show. Rick Negron and Priscilla Lopez shine as Kevin and Camila Rosario, Nina’s parents.  Their portrayals exude pride and integrity and are relatable to anyone in the audience that has known hard times or experienced parenthood. 

The book by Quiara Alegria Hudes was slightly slammed when In the Heights first debuted.  Critics have called the book “overstuffed and oversimplified” and “sentimental and untruthful.”  I find these critiques to be inaccurate.  In fact, I thought the book to be an authentic portrait of life in an inner-city neighborhood.  I know cast In the Heights well.  I am familiar with people who dream of scoring a big hit playing the lottery, desire to move somewhere different, gossip at the neighborhood beauty parlor, struggle through hard times while trying to hold a family together and watch their neighborhood change as decades, generations and traditions change.  Where I am from there are a mixture of salsa, hip-hop, house, reagge and R&B blasting from the windows of cars rolling down the street, the bodega on the corner services the needs of the residents of the block and around the corner I can get my touch-up, manicure and laundry done.  If there is anything to criticize, it would be that book was not a big enough leap for those that may have grown up in a similar environment.  People go to Broadway to escape their everyday lives; it is hard break away when your reality is onstage staring back at you.

Essentially it is the music and choreography that draws an audience to a musical; the reality that is woven into the story only adds to a stellar production.    At times I wanted to jump on stage, roll my hips and heel, toe right along with them.  The songs are memorable; I find myself humming them sporadically.  “No Me Diga” and “Carnaval del Barrio” are audience pleasers and “Paciencia y Fe” (Patience and Faith) is a showstopper. I wish I could provide 96,000 reasons to go see this musical, but I can only offer three – great music and lyrics, likable characters and high-powered dance moves.  After two years and counting, In the Heights is still a winner.

Photos:  Joan Marcus

Duel on the Couch: Freud’s Last Session

When attending the theatre, the audience expects to be entertained and enlightened.  Whether it is a musical, comedy or drama, patrons want to see a fresh, live perspective of the human experience.  Freud’s Last Session is the epitome of entertainment and enlightenment keeping the audience firmly glued to the edge of their seats.   It is sophisticated fiction at its finest, a production worthy to be seen again and again.

Based on a suggestion proposed by Harvard’s Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. in The Question of God, Freud’s Last Session turns a simple query into an engaging theatrical sensation.    Playwright Mark St. Germain probes one of the greatest “what if” questions of the 20th century and tackles some of the most debated questions in human history with immense insight and savoir vivre.  The “what if” is whether or not Dr. Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis ever met.  Dr. Nicholi points out in The Question of God that a young Oxford professor visited Dr. Freud after he arrived in England, although it was unclear if the professor was C.S. Lewis.  But the speculation of such an event is of no consequence, Freud’s Last Session will satisfy any curiosity one might have when wondering how an epic encounter of two of the most intelligent minds to ever set footprints on this earth would go. 

The play is set in Dr. Freud’s home office in London on September 3, 1939, the day England enters World War II.  C.S. Lewis arrives at Freud’s home believing their meeting is to be a chiding by Freud about Lewis’ depiction of him in a book, but what really intrigues Freud is C.S. Lewis’ transformation from an atheist to a Christian.  Their meeting evolves into an awesome intellectual standoff that would have Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef shaking in their boots.  As the threat of annihilation looms like plumes of smoke from a newly shot cannon, these men go back and forth on the subjects of sex, love, and most importantly, does God truly exist.   As Freud and Lewis introspectively grapple, both revealing details about their childhood and experiences, they gain greater insight about one another and develop a profound bond.  Evidence of the intimacy of their new and brief relationship is displayed when Lewis is allowed the sacred task of removing Freud’s prosthetic jaw as he begins to choke, a duty that is only performed by Freud’s daughter Anna.   

Everything about this production is limited – limited characters, limited set and limited theatre seating, but the constraints serve as advantages in this production.  The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater adds another intimate layer to this meeting of the minds.  Instead of feeling like an audience member viewing a conversation, one feels more like a fly on the wall privy to an exclusive event.  The set is a beautifully decorated replica of Freud’s office in Austria complete with an assortment of books, couch, and various deities, which could reveal some contradictions in Freud’s belief structure as Lewis cleverly points out.  The set inserts a material richness that compliments the dialogue and compelling portrayals of C.S Lewis and Dr. Freud by Mark H. Dold and Martin Rayner.  Portraying a historic figure can be a difficult endeavor for an actor; especially individuals that are considered demigods, Dold and Rayner are so believable that I left the theatre feeling as if I had personally met Dr. Freud and C.S. Lewis.  These two men played off of each other extremely well; together they gave a performance so concentrated an addition of another character would have weakened the harmony of the show.  In a nutshell, the components of this play have all the classic quality of a Channel suit and exemplify the theory that less is more.

What I enjoyed most about the production was that Freud’s Last Session left my mind swirling with all the right questions, but none of the answers.  It challenged me to seek them out and discover my own conclusions.  In the wake the 9th anniversary of September 11 and the controversy surrounding the ground zeromosque, I realized the questions Freud and Lewis toil over during the play are more relevant than ever.  We may never find the answers, just as Freud’s and Lewis’ deliberation ends in a stalemate, but the fact that we still seek the answers means that as a society we are still able to grow past our current understanding of the world, a notion that I believe would please both Dr. Freud and C.S. Lewis very much.

Photos: Kevin Sprague

A Little Night Liaison with Sondheim

It is safe to say that 2009-2010 has been the season for Stephen Sondheim on Broadway.  His newest production, Sondheim on Sondheim served to be a musical walk down memory lane.  West Side Story was a successful revival that brought new and experienced theatergoers to the Great White Way.  When the revival of A Little Night Music opened in December 2009, the likelihood of its success was undebatable – Catherine Zeta-Jones starring as Desiree Armfeldt, Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt and the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, total no-brainer.   Catherine Zeta-Jones, who revealed her singing and dancing chops in the film adaptation of Chicago, won Best Actress in a Musical at this year’s Tony awards.  The production was also nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Sound Design and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Angela Lansbury.  The show took a brief hiatus in June after Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Angela Lansbury’s contracts ended.  On July 13 the production resumed with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch portraying Desiree and Madame Armfeldt. With new cast members in place, A Little Night Music turned a page in this revival’s story without losing any of its potency. 

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, A Little Night Music brings the elegance and sexual repression of the Victorian era to life with the same cultivation as a waltz.  With the sparse furniture and rotating sets, director Trevor Nunn shines a spotlight on the undercurrent of love rather than the romanticism that accompanies this emotion.  The loss of love…longing…the sport of love…wasted times are all themes that reveal themselves like lit streetlamps at dusk.   The sets seamlessly transition from one act to the next and offer a balance as “the young” and “the fools” stumble over self created roadblocks on their trek to true love.

 The cast carries the melancholy tone that accompanies the story just as beautifully as they deliver the dialogue and musical numbers.  Alexander Hanson is enjoyable as Fredrik Egerman, the middle-aged lawyer that had a love affair with Desiree and is now in a sexless marriage with Anne.  So clever, he appears to know everything but really knows nothing.  Ramona Mallory is delightful as Anne Egerman; the 18-year-old virgin married to Fredrik.  She holds her chastity with the same constriction as she holds her secret love for Henrik, Fredrik’s son.  As Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka gives a convincing performance of a young man tortured by desire and morality. The breakout performance is given by Erin Davie.  As the Countess Charlotte Malcolm she is jocular and tragic, and comes close to stealing the spotlight from Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  But the combination of Peters and Stritch is hard to eclipse, both are absolutely radiant and can bring all the luminosity of the moon on stage.

The real question I had as I waited for the curtain to rise at the Walter Kerr Theatre was if the addition of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would go over well with Generation X and Y.  Both accomplished actresses are Broadway veterans, but box-office superstar Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury (who introduced herself to these age groups while playing Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS series Murder She Wrote) are far more recognizable faces.  It was Sondheim that suggested Bernadette Peters take over the role of Desiree; his foresight would pay off tremendously for this revival.  

 

The role of Desiree Armfeldt was tailor made for Bernadette Peters.  She is a Broadway baby literally that can translate the bohemian life Desiree has lead as famous stage actress extremely well.   Her presence on stage can only be compared to a breath of fresh H2O.  She brings an effervescent charm to Desiree without losing any of the maturity and complexity of the character.  Her performance is like sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame champagne – delectable from beginning to end.  She is beyond familiar with Sondheim’s work starring in productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Gypsy.  His music and lyrics and her voice fit like the famous Versace dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy’s – exposing all the best emotions and features of the other.  This pairing comes to a crescendo when Bernadette sings “Send in the Clowns.”   The emotion Bernadette delivers exposes the lament in this song so exquisitely that by the last bar my eyes were swelling with tears. 

Elaine Stritch is uproarious as Madame Armfeldt; her comedic timing is as infinite as her talent.  During the performance Elaine had to have a few lines read to her; her savvy as a comedic actress placed a lovely veil over her forgetfulness.  In fact, it added another layer to Madame Armfeldt, a sharp-tongued woman that seems to be stuck in the past.  Watching Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch on stage together was like unearthing rare gems.  My question had been answered; no member of the audience, regardless of their age, could feel cheated if they missed the performances of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.  Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and the rest of the cast are worth the price of admission and then some, but despite the celebrities on stage, the eternal star of A Little Night Music is the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  Like the moon, his compositions smile upon us all; it is an essential component in making this revival and any future productions a triumph.

Photos:  Joan Marcus for Broadway.com

Under the Sea

There is something about a puppet show that seems to resonate with the child in all of us.  Regardless if you are seven or 70, live in a penthouse or a one bedroom walk up or are mother and father of 10 or singles looking to relive your childhood for just a brief moment, a puppet show equalizes all playing fields with smiles and laughter.  And pure joy is what awaits anyone that spends 50 minutes in the undersea world that John Tartaglia creates.

John Tartaglia’s Imaginocean! is a delightful sub-aquatic excursion that brings the three dimensional world of the deep to life with a musical that is treat for children and adults.  The main characters in this romp of currents and discovery are a fish named Dorsel, his sister Bubbles and their friend Tank.  Through their quest for treasure these friends find more than money, they meet new friends and learn lifelong lessons.

The freshness of John Tartaglia’s Imaginocean! comes in the form of black-light, which makes the color puppets pop and become animated.  The audience feels as if they are below the depths of the sea with the fishy friends and experience every laugh, song and dance in a much livelier way than other puppet productions.  Filled with good music and good times, John Tartaglia’s Imaginocean!  is one of off-Broadway’s best productions for a family.  This show is smart, innovative and cool, I have no doubt it will continue to swim in a wave of success.

Stomping Through the Decades

Thumping, bumping, jumping, banging, crashing, ripping, prancing, dancing and running literally, Stomp has been entertaining audiences at the Orpheum Theatre since 1994 and is one of the theatre world’s longest running productions.  It is also one of the world’s most recognizable productions.

Stomp is an anomalous theatrical sensation that unifies its cast and the audience through rhythm, energy and movement.  This non-traditional dance collective was created in the U.K. by Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell after first working together in 1981.  In the summer of 1991, a decade after their initial union, Stomp premiered at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms.   From 1991 through 1994 the original cast, which had been expanded to 30 members, brought this unique multi-dimensional experience to audiences in Sydney, Hong Kong, Barcelona and Dublin, and also began its run in New York.  Currently, Stomp is still running in the U.K. and Manhattan and has tours in the U.S., Europe and Japan. 

After 19 years abroad and 16 in New York City in particular, Stomp continues to wow audiences with its dynamic brand of performance theatre.  Last weekend I decided to start of my July 4th celebration by finally seeing this production for myself.  Sure, after all the buzz Stomp has created over the years I have seen excerpts of performances on television, but nothing is like seeing the real thing live.  I was not prepared for the stunts I saw.   Talk about spectacle …Macy’s 4th of July fireworks looked like a Lite-Brite exhibition compared to the electrifying commotion displayed on stage.

The walls of the Orpheum Theatre were littered with a hodgepodge of discarded items included traffic, subway and street signs,  huge plastic garbage cans, fans, pipes, mannequin tops and bottoms, fans, hub caps, ski boots, car grills and computer keyboards.  The components, dilapidated and carefully hung on the walls, appear to regain their value and look more like a collage about movement and the way humans interact with inanimate objects than a bunch of junk.  The show runs without an intermission and is a mind-bending ride of pure adrenaline.  There is no dialogue, recognizable musical score or traditional choreography.  But there is plenty of synchronized velocity.  The show has a rotating cast and unlike some productions the sum of the cast’s vivacious exchange on stage is greater than its parts.  Using their feet, hands, pipes, sinks, plastic bags aluminum trash cans and lids, newspapers, matchboxes, brooms and Zippo lighters, the cast turn random objects into a symphony of beats even getting the audience involved.  Through clapping and snapping of fingers and hands, the swapping of energy comes full circle and the cast and audience becomes one.

At its core, Stomp is about fusing diversity and commonality. The dancing and music that is created possesses a very tribal feel and through the rhythmic and comedic elements in the show the audience realizes that no matter where we come from, we are all from the human tribe.  A revolution then and a revolution now, Stomp is still one of the most unique theatre experiences on off-Broadway.   Entertaining on multiple levels, great for families as well as couples and singles, Stomp is a shot of fun made for everyone.  After experiencing it for myself, I completely understand why this pulsating production has had such longevity.  If all these sci-fi films are correct and space is the final frontier, I predict Stomp and its many incarnations will still be around clanging on hulls of old spacecrafts and bouncing on crevices of the moon.

Photos:  Junichi Takahashi and Steve McNicholas courtesy of Stomponline.com