Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Anderson Twins Play Jerome Kern in SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

L-R: Peter and Will Anderson in SONGBOOK SUMMIT

Chalk up another win for the Anderson twins.  We have just come from the Jerome Kern program they staged in the second week of this year’s Songbook Summit at Symphony Space on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (August 14-19) and we found it to be as delightfully entertaining as was the Irving Berlin program we attended during the first week (August 7-12). (See our August 12 post: “Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space”).

If Irving Berlin was the greatest American composer of the twentieth century, Jerome Kern was assuredly the composer who had the greatest influence on the Broadway musical.  Prior to 1927, Broadway musicals largely consisted of light comedies, revues, and operettas in the European tradition but Kern’s production of Showboat that year changed all that.  For the first time, a plot-driven musical play was staged on Broadway, one dealing with racism and other serious subjects, and Broadway has not been the same since.

In the course of his remarkable career, Kern collaborated with the leading lyricists of his time including P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer and Ira Gershwin.  He wrote over 700 songs used in over 100 stage works including such classics as Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, The Song Is You, I Won’t Dance, Nobody Else But Me, and The Way You Look Tonight.

Peter and Will Anderson have taken all this material and used it to create a terrific jazz program based on Kern’s work (arrangements by Peter).  This, of course, is rather ironic given that Kern didn’t care for jazz and was vehemently opposed to altering, adapting or interfering with his work – which is absolutely essential to its jazz re-interpretation and improvisation.  But the Anderson twins have done such a great job that I’d like to think that Kern would be more than willing to forgive them.

The Anderson twins are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Peter’s arrangements are also excellent and Will does a superb job of educating his audience with narratives, video presentations, and lessons, even while entertaining them musically.  And, in the performance I attended, the brothers were also very fortunate in being backed up by three other top flight musicians: Tardo Hammer on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, and Phil Stewart on the drums.

And we cannot forget Molly Ryan on vocals whose renditions of Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, A Fine Romance, and I Won’t Dance were all exceptional.

The third program in this year’s Songbook Summit will focus on Hoagy Carmichael and will run from August 21 through August 26.  I’m looking forward to it.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Peter and Will Anderson Present SONGBOOK SUMMIT at Symphony Space

Peter and Will Anderson, 31 year old identical twins, are exceptionally talented jazz musicians (Peter on the tenor sax, soprano sax, and clarinet, and Will on the alto sax, clarinet and flute).  Together they currently are presenting this year’s Songbook Summit, a homage to four of the greatest American songwriters of the last century: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Hoagy Carmichael, and Jimmy Van Heusen.

In Songbook Summit, the twins are devoting a week of performances to each of the four composers at Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Each show runs 90 minutes without intermission and consists not only of musical performances by the twins but also video presentations, Al Hirschfeld drawings, and informative narration by Will regarding the subject of that week’s performances.  In their musical performances, the twins are backed up by Tardo Hammer or Steve Ash on the piano, Clovis Nicolas on the acoustic bass, Phil Stewart on the drums, and Molly Ryan on vocals.

The first of the four programs (which ran from August 7 through August 12) was devoted to Irving Berlin, arguably the greatest American songwriter in history and it was really terrific.  It began with a wonderful rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band and concluded with a very creative arrangement of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better, in which call and response were between Molly Ryan (vocally) and the Anderson twins (instrumentally).  Also included in the program were great performances of Puttin On the Ritz, There’s No Business Like Show Business, Blue Skies, Isn’t This a Lovely Day, White Christmas, Always, and I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.

The Irving Berlin program has now drawn to a close so if you missed it, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.  But you still can get tickets to the Jerome Kern program which will be running from August 14-19; the Hoagy Carmichael program which will be running from August 21-26; and the Jimmy Van Heusen program which will be running from August 28-September 2.  And if those programs turn out to be anywhere near as good as the Irving Berlin program was, you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Ellinor DiLorenzo Stars in BELOVED by Lisa Langseth at The Lion Theatre

Ellinor DiLorenzo as Katarina in BELOVED at The Lion Theatre.

Beloved by Lisa Langseth was originally produced in Sweden and subsequently adapted into the film Pure - which won the 2010 Guldbagge Award (Sweden’s equivalent of our Academy Award) for Best Screenplay.  The play, in an English translation by Charlotte Barslung and directed by Kathy Curtiss, has now arrived in New York where it is enjoying its US premiere in a fine production by Scandinavian American Theater Company at The Lion Theatre at Theatre Row on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan.

Katarina (Ellinor DiLorenzo) is a culturally and socially unsophisticated young woman, employed at the mall, and living with her boyfriend Mattias in a mundane and barely satisfactory relationship.  It is not that there is anything really wrong with Mattias: he is a “nice guy” with a regular job as a fork lift operator who treats Katarina decently and both of Katarina’s parents like him. It is just that he is pretty much of a couch potato and while sex with him is OK, that’s all it is, just OK.  And Katarina is convinced - or at least hopes – that there is more to life than that, that there can be more “truth,” more “freedom.” After all, one only lives once.

And then Katarina discovers classical music and has a true musical epiphany. Which in turn leads to her entering into a relationship with Adam, an acclaimed conductor at an opera house - and the consequences of that relationship are more disastrous than epiphanous.  Unsurprisingly, Adam is a married man whose family invariably takes precedence over his relationship with Katarina.  (The child seat installed in the front of Adam’s car inevitably relegates Katarina to the back seat alone whenever Adam has occasion to drive them anywhere.)

Beloved is a one-woman show.  Neither Mattias nor Adam nor anyone else ever makes an appearance.  Rather, Katarina delivers an extraordinary monologue describing her social, cultural, intellectual and sexual growth while in thrall to Adam – and the price she pays for it.  Or as the playwright herself describes what she has written: The self-destructive person is interesting and terrible. Beloved is about a person who searches for her own destruction.

Elinor DiLorenzo’s performance as Katarina is spot on, capturing the passions, the frustrations, the aspirations, the resentments and the ambivalences of a young woman in today’s politically correct yet still largely patriarchal society.  It is a performance not to be missed.

Sunday, August 5, 2018


R-L: Molly Groome and Jake Robinson in THE PLOT, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays, produced by Thoroughline Artists and hosted annually at 59E59 Theaters, consists of six one-act plays performed in repertory in two parts.  This year, the first part, Series A, consists of The Living Room by Robert O’Hara; Kenny’s Tavern by Abby Rosebrock; and Grounded by Chris Bohjalian.  The second, Series B is comprised of The Plot by Claire Zajdel, Ibis by Eric Lane, and Sparring Partner by Neil LaBute.

As we indicated in our last post, we were rather disappointed by the plays in Series A.  We have just seen the plays in Series B, however, and we found them to be far more entertaining.

In The Plot, a creative and artfully contrived take on the intra-familial dynamics attendant on their parents’ divorce, two adult siblings are forced to confront their mother’s attempt to control their lives even after she is gone - and their budding awareness of their own mortality.  Frankie (Molly Groome) is a 26 year-old no-nonsense associate at a law firm; her 28 year-old brother, Tyler (Jake Robinson), is a freer spirit. At their mother’s behest, they meet in a cemetery to view the final resting place she has arranged for herself – only to discover that she has arranged for theirs as well.

L-R: Lindsey Broad and Deandre Sevon in IBIS, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Ibis is far and away the most convoluted and intricate of the three works – perhaps even a bit too much so for a one-act play.  Victor (Harold Surratt) abandoned his family twenty years ago when his son, Tyrone (Deandre Savon), was only seven years old.   Over the years, there were a slew of rumors about Victor – that he had opened a jazz club in Paris, that he was electrocuted in a freak accident, that he hanged himself out of remorse.  Now in his late 20’s and with his mother just having died of cancer, Tyrone determines to discover the truth about his father.

To that end, he retains a female private detective, the aptly-named albeit pseudonymous “Sam Spade” (Lindsey Broad) – who he meets at The Blue Parrot but who, rather unexpectedly, alleges no awareness of who Humphrey Bogart or Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet were nor what The Maltese Falcon nor Double Indemnity referred to – in order to solve the mystery and, if possible, track down his father.  Sam succeeds and Tyrone eventually does meet with his father, only to question Victor more about Victor’s own childhood and Victor’s own absent father than his own.

Tyrone, as it turns out, seeks answers to the world’s mysteries and the meaning of life in numbers, in alphanumeric codes, and in the quantification of the unquantifiable.  And, surprisingly, there may have been more to his apparent foolishness than one might have expected.  As for Sam, she seems to have been struggling with her own childhood demons.

One of the play’s main themes is the cyclical repetition of history as Victor reprised his own father’s effective abandonment of him in his own abandonment of Tyrone.  A second theme is Tyrone’s contrived mathematical exposition of coincidences.  And a third relates to Sam’s own mysterious background, about which we are left largely in the dark.  That’s a lot to deal with and the playwright’s surfeit of material might well have been utilized even more effectively in three different plays, rather than having been crammed into just one.

L-R: Joanna Christie and Keilyn Durrel Jones in SPARRING PARTNER, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES B.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Sparring Partner is quintessential Neil LaBute, a sharply written and insightful two-hander exposing some of the more tragicomic aspects of our human existence.  A woman (Joanna Christie) and a man (Keilyn Durrel Jones), her boss, meet frequently for lunch in the park.  He is married, she is divorced, and they both are movie aficionados, using the lunchtime opportunity to play Hollywood Names. Theirs has been a long time flirtation, but only of the mind.  Or almost only so.  There have been the occasional touches or hugs or even dances but nothing that might even remotely be considered sexually inappropriate.  And yet there is no doubt that their feelings for one another run deep, that he considers his marriage to be a failure, and that she’d hop into bed with him in a moment if he really were available.  But is it commitment to his marriage or just a lack of courage that prevents him from taking the next step?  And will she be willing to go on this way with him forever?

I found Sparring Partner to be the best of the three plays, not only because of LaBute’s writing but equally importantly because of Joanna Christie’s and Keilyn Durrel Jones’s sparkling performances.  They were both absolutely terrific.

If you’re planning on seeing only one series in this year’s production of Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays, I recommend that you make it Series B.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

SUMMER SHORTS 2018 SERIES A at 59E59 Theaters

L-R: Kate Buddeke and Adam Landon in THE LIVING ROOM, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.

For the past twelve years, Thoroughline Artists has staged an annual program of Summer Shorts: A Festival of New American Short Plays at 59E59 Theatres.  Each year’s program generally consisted of six short plays by both established and emerging playwrights, divided into two series of three one-act plays each.  And each year’s program generally proved to be extremely entertaining.

This year’s program again consists of six one-act plays, three in Series A and three in Series B. The plays in Series A are The Living Room by Robert O’Hara; Kenny’s Tavern by Abby Rosebrock; and Grounded by Chris Bohjalian.  The three in Series B are Sparring Partner by Neil LaBute; Ibis by Eric Lane; and The Plot by Claire Zajdel.

I have not yet seen Series B which won’t open officially until August 5 but I have just seen Series A and I must say I was rather disappointed.

For starters, I thought that The Living Room jumped the shark and was largely incomprehensible.  It has been presented as a satire about Frank (Adam Landon) and Judy (Kate Buddeke), white people in a living room who simply do what white people do but who come to question the very nature of their reality – in the course of which they break down the fourth wall, engage in Brechtian absurdities, endow the playwright (or director) of the play in which they just happen to find themselves with God-like attributes, and blur the distinction between actors and audience - and all with gratuitous racial overtones.  I found the entire play to be a mash-up of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…,” Becket’s Waiting for Godot, The Truman Show, and Westworld.  I’m really not certain what the playwright’s intentions were but I didn’t find the work interesting enough to try even harder to find out.

L-R: Francesca Fernandez MaKenzie and Stephen Guarino in KENNY'S TAVERN, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo be Carol Rosegg.
Unlike The Living Room, both Kenny’s Tavern and Grounded were comprehensible but had the depth of #MeToo hashtag messages.  Both plays again explored the sad truth that women have frequently been sexually exploited by mentors, married men, and men old enough to be their fathers, but neither play brought any new insights to the issue.  In Kenny’s Tavern, the exploited woman is a school teacher, Laura (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), who would readily have slept with her married man exploiter, Ryan (Stephen Guarino) if he’d only been willing and who analogizes her relationship with Ryan to that of Monica Lewinsky with Bill Clinton.  And in Grounded the exploited woman, an airline stewardess, is Emily (Grace Experience) who was the victim of years of statutory rape, the traumatic aftereffects of which don’t seem to have left her with anything worse than a surmountable fear of flying over the ocean.

L-R: K.K. Glick and Grace Experience in GROUNDED, part of SUMMER SHORTS 2018.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The actors in all three plays do as effective a job as might be expected in their respective roles, given the material they have to work with.  I only wish that material were better.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

THE POSSIBILITIES by Howard Barker and THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE by Caryl Churchill

L-R: Kathleen Wise and Madeleine Russell in THE POSSIBILITIES.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Now in its thirty-second repertory season, PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) is staging an engaging double bill at Atlantic Stage 2 in Manhattan, featuring a portion of Howard Barker’s The Possibilities together with Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke.

The Possibilities was written in 1986 and consists of ten short plays that explore the illogical, irrational, counter-factual, and counter-intuitive aspects of the human condition within a variety of different contexts and at various times in history.  It does so in a manner that Barker referred to as “Theatre of Catastrophe” but which I see as a more traditional example of “Theatre of the Absurd” or “Theatre of the Ridiculous.” In this production, only four of Barker’s ten vignettes are staged but they are more than enough to keep your head spinning.

In the first, The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, Judith (Kathleen Wise) seduces her enemy - and decapitates him.  In the second, Reasons for the Fall of Emperors, Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle) relates to an Officer (Adam Milano) and to a Peasant bootblack (Christopher Marshall) in unexpected ways.  In the third, Only Some Can Take the Strain, an itinerant bag-lady Bookseller exhibits a surprising attitude toward her wares - and a bit of paranoia which might well be justified. And in the fourth, She Sees the Argument But, which was far and away my favorite of the four pieces, a Woman (Madeleine Russell) is reprimanded by an Official (Kathleen Wise) for the promiscuous act of exposing her ankles – and rather than expressing remorse, suggests that her promiscuity might extend well beyond that.

L-R: Jonathan Tindle, Tara Giordano and Kathleen Wise in THE AFTER-DINNER JOKE.  Photo by Stan Barouh.

Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke was written originally in 1978 as a television play before its subsequent adaptation for the stage.  It is the story of a young girl, Selby (Tara Giordano), eager to do good as a charity worker and scrupulously avoiding entangling her charitable work with politics.  As she puts it: “
By definition charity is non-political. By definition, politics is uncharitable”. 
The play introduces a multitude of characters - including Selby’s philanthropic boss, Price (Jonathan Tindle)  as well as assorted rock stars, food columnists, and politicians - and features impressive multi-media effects,  unfolding in 66 short, episodic scenes, in the course of which Selby learns that separating charitable and political issues really is an impossibility.  Or as the Mayor (Chris Marshall) proclaims: “There’s something political in everything.”

The play is a scathing indictment of charitable institutions, much of it justifiable. But it then often devolves into a gratuitous attack on the free market capitalist system as a whole, which I found to be far less justifiable.  In any event, the play is sharply written, well-directed, and beautifully performed.

And so, in sum, this is a double bill well worth seeing.   

Friday, July 20, 2018

Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST

L-R: Edward Gero Stars as Antonin Scalia in THE ORIGINALIST.  Photo by Joan Marcus.

Antonin Scalia was the son of an Italian immigrant father and first generation Italian-American mother; a devout Roman Catholic; the father of nine children; an opera-lover; and a law professor who taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Stamford University.  But he is best remembered as one of the most brilliant, influential, principled, conservative and controversial Supreme Court justices in recent history.

Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the Senate (98-0) in 1986, serving on the Court with great distinction until his untimely death 28 years later.  One of the most conservative members of the Court, he vigorously opposed treating the Constitution as a “living document” whose provisions could be re-interpreted by the judiciary over time to reflect changing times.  Rather, he saw the Constitution as a document fixed in its meaning whose words were no more subject to re-interpretation than were the notes of a musical score (which remained for all time as they were first written).  Thus, he described himself as an “originalist,” by which he meant that he sought to interpret the Constitution as he believed it had been understood when it was first adopted.  As he expressed it: “it’s what did the words mean to the people who ratified the Bill of Rights or who ratified the Constitution.”

It was this approach that led Scalia inexorably to his conclusions that the death penalty (clearly recognized in the original Constitution) was constitutionally permissible but that the Constitution did not recognize any inherent rights to abortion or same-sex marriage (which were not even referenced in the Constitution).  It was not that he necessarily believed that the death penalty was a desirable punishment nor that he thought that abortion or same-sex marriage were undesirable (although he very well might have), but rather that he felt that it was not up to the judiciary but to the legislature to make such decisions.  In his opinion, if the people wanted to ban capital punishment or legalize abortion or same-sex marriage, that was their right – but they had to do it through legislation, not through judicial activism.

It was also this approach that led Scalia to uphold an individual’s Second Amendment right to own a firearm, determining that the term “militia” as used in that amendment would have been understood, at the time of the amendment’s ratification to have meant “the body of all citizens.”  It was this approach, too, that led Scalia to oppose “reverse racist” affirmative action programs or policies that accorded special status to favored classes on the grounds that such programs or policies were clearly unconstitutional (being inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law).  And it was this principled approach that sometimes led Scalia to decisions that he, himself, said he “deplored,” such as his upholding the constitutionality of flag-burning as an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The Originalist, written by John Strand and directed by Molly Smith, is a truly mesmerizing and thought-provoking play.  Set during the 2012-13 term of the US Supreme Court and focusing on the complex persona of Antonin Scalia (with all his strengths and weaknesses), the play premiered in Washington, DC in 2015, less than a year before Scalia’s untimely death.  It is currently being staged at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan at a most appropriate moment, with our nation as politically polarized as I can ever remember it being and with the Senate on the verge of debating the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace the retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Edward Gero is truly remarkable in his channeling of Antonin Scalia – body and soul.  He does a fine job expounding Scalia’s judicial philosophy but, even more importantly, he communicates the man’s underlying sense of fairness and deeply-rooted humanity, as evidenced by the close relationship he shared with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Court’s most liberal members and in many ways his polar opposite – and by his decision to select a liberal to challenge him as one of his four law clerks.

Cat (Tracy Ifeachor) is the liberal law clerk Scalia chose for this term – and she may be more than even he bargained for.  She is a self-described socialist, a top-of-her-class Harvard Law School graduate, a black woman, and a lesbian to boot - and her values and beliefs, on everything from gay marriage to gun control to abortion - are diametrically opposed to Scalia’s.  And she is determined to influence Scalia as much as he might influence her, thereby helping to restore the political middle to our polarized society.

The Originalist is basically a two-hander, with Scalia and Cat sharing the stage as sparring partners.  Cat gives as good as she gets, a tribute to Tracy Ifeachor’s own considerable talents.
The only other character in the play is Brad (Brett Mack), a Republican, white male who had been Cat’s contemporary at Harvard.  His more limited role in the play seems to be to act as something of a foil to Cat and to re-raise the issue of affirmative action from another perspective   It is a role which he handles very effectively.