Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guest Review by Naomi Hornik: The Audition

On Sunday afternoon, we took our granddaughter Naomi (age 9 1/2) to see the Adam Roebuck production of The Audition by Don Zolidis at the Roy Arias Theater Center.  Since the show is both about and performed by schoolkids who are aspiring actors and since Naomi is herself a schoolgirl and aspiring actor, I thought it would be most appropriate to ask her to review the show.  Here is her review:

When I went to see The Audition, I thought all the actors did a great job though I particularly thought Sarah Groginsky (Yuma) did an outstanding job. Though the show did not reach all my expectations, I still thought with all the work the actors put into the production the show was pretty great. I didn’t expect the theatre to be so small but it was a nice little theatre. The Audition is about these teenagers all auditioning for the show A Chorus Line and they all have very different personalities. I think this is a show any person would like because there are no parts that are unclear or difficult to understand. I didn’t love it but my grandpa did. I don’t think everyone will love it but I think a lot of people will love it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

FringeNYC: The Swearing Jar

When The Swearing Jar by Kate Hewlett was first produced at the 2008 Toronto Fringe Festival, it garnered Best of Fringe and Best Ensemble awards. Now it is being revived at this year’s New York Fringe Festival, with two of the actors from the Toronto production - Kate Hewlett, the playwright (Carey) and Christopher Stanton (Owen) - reprising their Toronto roles and with two new actors – Vince Nappo (Simon) and Mimi Quillin (Bev) – rounding out the cast. And while I never saw the Toronto production, I can assure you that, if it was similar to this one in New York, it surely deserved the awards it got. This is one FringeNYC production certainly worth seeing.

The play begins with Simon and Carey, a loving, trusting couple happily married for twelve years, eagerly informing each other that they have really big news to impart. Carey gets to go first and her news is what one might expect: she’s expecting. In his joyous reaction to Carey’s news, Simon never does get to disclose what his news was but I can tell you this: if he had gone first, this would have been a very different play.

Over the course of the next hour, Simon and Carey exchange expletives (for which they agreeably contribute $5 per word to their “swearing jar,” whence derives the title of the play). They bask in the ultrasound photos of their unborn child and argue over baby names. Carey meets Owen, a bookstore employee and sometime guitarist, and she and Owen immediately hit it off – perhaps a little too well. Carey composes songs expressing her love for Simon and entertains at Simon’s fortieth birthday party - to the accompaniment of Owen’s guitar. Bev, Simon’s mother, gets into the act too, at one point coming upon Carey and Owen picnicking in the park.

But what does it all mean? Unfortunately, that’s what I can’t (or at least won’t) tell you lest I spoil all the surprises for you. This is a difficult play to review since it is nuanced and multilayered with a number of surprising twists and if I were to fully explicate it, it would ruin the pleasure you’ll derive from seeing it fresh. But suffice it to say that it all does tie together; that it deals with a slew of classical themes ranging from love and trust to life and death; that the temporal transitions necessary to make it all work are deftly handled; and that, in the final analysis, this is a most satisfying production.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

FringeNYC: Bunked! A New Musical

The arrival of Bunked! at this year’s Fringe Festival is the kind of event I thought I'd only get to dream of: a new musical with music, book, lyrics, direction and performances all by relatively unknown youngsters that bursts upon the scene as a full-fledged smash production. But that is exactly what has just occurred: Bunked! A New Musical is a smash production that may prove to be the show to see at this year’s FringeNYC.

This tale of five camp counselors, all just having recently graduated from high school and all typically apprehensive over what the future might have in store for them, is both exuberantly joyful and deeply serious. Anabel (Amanda Jane Cooper) is the wholesome good little girl next door, somewhat insecure and conscientious to a fault, on the verge of discovering her own sexuality, personality and true worth as she approaches womanhood. Oliver (Tim Ehrlich) is Anabel’s fraternal twin and as different from she as it is possible to be: he is overtly homosexual and proud of it, highly sexual, self-assured and the “bad” twin (to the extent that smuggling a bit of malt liquor and marijuana into Camp Timberlake is really “bad”).

Both Max (Jake Lowenthal) and (Carmen) Lizzie Klemperer are attempting to come to grips with the various consequences of mortality that they recently have encountered. And Stewart (Ben Moss) is grappling with his own sexual ambivalence and the pressure of having conformed all his life to the wills of his demanding parents. Thrust together during a summer that may represent a final brief respite before they are forced to embark upon their adult journeys, the five come together and drift apart, explore and form relationships, and make major decisions that are likely to affect the rest of their lives.

All five actors do a superb job, both in playing their roles and in belting out the songs that make this show such a success but if I were to single out just one for special praise, it would by Ms Cooper who is an explosive firecracker of a singer and actor. In doing such a grand job, all of the actors/singers are fortunate in having such good material to work with. The book and lyrics by Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor and the music by Bradford Proctor are creative, witty and memorable. The tunes are hummable and the lyrics sharp and clever.

What was most astonishing (and immensely gratifying) to me was that all of this was accomplished by such young and otherwise relatively inexperienced thespians. Ms. Cooper, who just received her BFA this year, is making her New York theatre debut in this show. Ms. Klemperer is also making her New York stage debut in Bunked! Mr. Erlich is making his Fringe debut in this show, Mr. Lowenthal will be entering his final year at Fordham College this year, and Mr.Moss is a sophomore at Harvard. Ms. Kunin received her Masters Degree just three years ago and Mr. Proctor his BA in Music just a year before that. Wow! What will these people be doing a decade hence?

Friday, August 20, 2010

FringeNYC: Platinum

I saw the Fringe production of Platinum at the Lucille Lortel Theatre today and very much enjoyed it. It's wasn't a great show by any means, but it was a lot of fun.

When Platinum was originally staged on Broadway in 1978, it ran for just 12 previews and 33 performances. And although two of the actors in that production (Alexis Smith and Richard Cox) were nominated for Tony Awards, the play otherwise was panned unmercifully by the critics, with Walter Kerr writing: "I have a feeling that if Platinum could just get rid of its book, its songs, its microphones and its almost arrogantly messy setting, it would be light miles ahead.”

In this developmental production at this year’s FringeNYC, Ben West, the Artistic Director of UnsungMusicalsCo, has accomplished much of what Mr. Kerr facetiously advocated more than thirty years ago. He has pared down the cast from thirteen to five, cut four songs and added two others, and generally focused, tightened and streamlined the whole production. Mr. West has been working on this project with an eye toward returning Platinum to the stage, and his pruning efforts appear to be bearing considerable fruit.

Having never seen the original 1978 Broadway production, nor the 1983 Off Broadway revival starring Tammy Grimes which had an even shorter run, I am not in a position to comment intelligently on the degree to which Mr. West’s pruning and revisions have improved this musical. But from what I saw today and the reviews I’ve read of past performances, I think it likely that Mr. West has been responsible for a vast improvement in this show.

That is not to say that this is now a terrific show. It is not. The story line is a bit of a cliché, revolving around Lila Halladay (Donna Bullock), a 1940’s movie star hoping to make a comeback in the music industry in 1976. The other four characters are equally predictable: Crystal Mason (Sarah Litzsinger), the young former back-up singer, possibly now on the cusp of stardom herself, but, oh, with so much yet to learn; Jeff Rollins (Bruce Sabath) Lila’s former lover and now a hard-nosed intransigent record producer; Dan Riley (Jay Wilkison), the once successful rock star, half Lila’s age and her new love interest; and Jamie Bradbury (Wayne Wilcox), the audio engineer and songwriter wannabe. All five actors perform their roles with great skill but that does not change the fact that, although it is no fault of theirs, the plot itself remains rather pedestrian.

The five characters do all inter-relate but, with all the paring that Mr. West has done, sometimes the relationships are difficult to fathom. Indeed, in focusing, streamlining, simplifying, and paring as much as he has, Mr. West may have gone a little too far: before attempting to move this production to off Broadway, it might be necessary for him to flesh it out a bit more, perhaps by bringing back one of more of the discarded characters and/or one of more of the excised songs.This is an enjoyable show but, with a little more work, it could be even better.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

FringeNYC: Just In Time - The Judy Holliday Story

I may have been disappointed in the Fringe Festival production of Running that I saw yesterday but the performance of Just In Time - The Judy Holliday Story that I saw today more than made up for it. I loved this show.

Much of the credit for its success must go to Bob Sloan, the writer and director, who created an intricate interwoven tapestry out of a variety of events in Judy’s life, ranging from her high school graduation to her beating out Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Eleanor Parker and Gloria Swanson for the 1951 Academy Award for Best Actress; from her appearance on the television show What’s My Line to her appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee; from her work in standup comedy with Adolph Green and Betty Comden to her playing opposite Katherine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib; and from her relationship with her mother to her relationship with Peter Lawford. And he has done it all with a deft light touch which preserves the basic comedic brilliance of Judy’s life.

But if much of the credit for this show’s success should go to Bob Sloan for having created this vehicle in the first place, an equal amount must go to Marina Squerciati who brings the role of Judy Holliday to life. A bleeding heart kneejerk liberal on matters of world affairs but a distant uninvolved mother when it came to her own son, an intellectlually gifted woman but a ditzy blonde when it suited her, a wannabe writer and director contending a disdain for the acting profession who nonetheless achieved her greatest success as a comedic-actor, Judy incorporated in her persona all the confusing, infuriating, contradictory attributes that define humanity. And Marina Squerciati has done a superb job in bringing all this out.

The other three cast members are all deserving of considerable praise as well. Mary Gutzi plays the role of Helen, Judy’s mother, with humor and charm – and boasts a wonderful singing voice to boot. Catherine LeFrere plays all the other women in the show – no easy task when the list ranges from Katherine Hepburn to Betty Comden and from Dorothy Kilgallen to Gloria Swanson – and she succeeds deliciously. And Adam Harrington plays an even greater number of men - including Adolph Green, Harry Cohn, John Daly, Peter Lawford, Orson Welles and Jimmy Durante - and does so with equal success and considerable aplomb.

FringeNYC: Running

Arlene Hutton, the author of Running, is certainly a talented playwright: her earlier work, Last Train to Nibroc was the first FringeNYC production to transfer Off-Broadway and her plays have since been produced around the world. Seth Barrish (Stephen) and Lee Brock (Emily), for whom Running was written and who are husband and wife in real life, are also excellent actors. Understandably, then, it was with great anticipation that I attended an early performance of Running at FringeNYC.

Alas, I was sadly disappointed. To be sure, Ms. Hutton created interesting characters in Stephen and Emily and a mildly intriguing situation at the outset of her play and she does have a fine ear for dialogue. And both Mr. Barrish and Ms. Brock played the roles that were written for them extremely well. But having said that, I found that the play rapidly petered out with any number of loose ends not being tied up and my not really caring that they hadn’t been.

The story line is rather simple. Emily arrives unexpectedly from London at Stephen’s home in Manhattan on the night before he plans to run his first marathon and while Stephanie, Stephen’s wife and Emily’s former roommate, is out of town (in London, herself, as it turns out). When Emily comes on to Stephen, the questions rapidly proliferate. Will he sleep with her and jeopardize his race – and maybe his marriage and self-image as well? Why did Emily show up in the first place: does she have some hidden agenda or ulterior motive? Why weren’t Emily and Stephanie in touch with one another in London? Indeed, what is Emily’s relationship with Stephanie anyway? Are Emily’s recollections of the time she smoked pot and lost her virginity true memories or just fantasies or outright lies? What really is the state of Stephen’s and Stephanie’s marriage? Is Emily fragile or traumatized or kooky or outright crazy? Is Stephen a “good guy” or a nebbish or a mildly agoraphobic loser himself?

I won’t ruin the play for you by telling you whether or not Stephen sleeps with Emily and what happens with his big race but I will tell you this about the other questions: most of them remain unanswered but, by the time the play ends, I don’t think you’ll care. Ms. Hutton, Mr. Barrish and Ms. Brock are all highly talented professionals but, unfortunately, their talents are not evident in this production.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Broadway on the Hudson: Beauty and the Beast

Today I had the pleasure of seeing Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Jr., a Broadway on the Hudson production, at the Riverside Y. With a cast and company of more than 40 talented kids, ranging in age from six to fourteen, this delightful musical provided me with a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment.

I was somewhat surprised to see Joseph Lieberman, the Independent-Democratic Senator from Connecticut and former candidate for Vice President of the United States, in the audience, suggesting that this theatrical production was important enough to justify his taking time off from his Congressional responsibilities. But then I realized that of course it was, since he had come to kvell over the performance of his granddaughter, Eden – just as I had come to kvell over the performance of my granddaughter, Naomi Hornik.

And kvell I did, and justifiably so, because Naomi’s performance as the Hat Seller was (if I do say so myself with grandfatherly pride) just perfect! Congratulations, Naomi, on a terrific performance and congratulations, too, to all the other members of the cast and company who made this such a memorable experience. I look forward to seeing your next show in 2011.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Broadway: Come Fly Away

Last night, we saw Come Fly Away at the Marquis Theatre, and it was wonderful. Conceived, choreographed and directed by Twyla Tharp and with recorded vocals by Frank Sinatra, it is a music, song and dance extravaganza paying homage to Ol' Blue Eyes with some amazing choreography by Twyla Tharp.

Twyla Tharp’s choreography is incredible, requiring of the show’s dancers a level of balletic grace, athleticism and gymnastic skill, seemingly beyond normal human ability to execute – and yet, without exception, every member of the troupe was up to the task. If I had to single out anyone for special praise, it would be the comic couple Laura Mead (Betsy) and Charlie Neshyba-Hodges (Marty) and the sexy Laurie Kanyok (Kate) who filled in for Karine Plantadit on the evening we saw the show. (Amazingly, Ms. Kanyok usually dances an entirely different role, that of Babe, in matinee performances.) (My singling out Ms. Mead, Mr. Neshyba-Hodges, and Ms. Kanyok for special accolades is not meant to disparage any of the other performances, all of which were absolutely first-rate.)

The show consists of more than thirty musical numbers, all set in a 1940s style bar-nightclub and danced to the recorded music of many of Frank Sinatra’s classic songs including “Body and Soul,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,””Witchcraft,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Just Friends,” “One For My Baby,” and dozens more, culminating, as you might have guessed, with “My Way” and “New York, New York.” Sinatra’s recorded vocals are also supplemented by wonderful live musical renditions of some of his tunes by Hilary Gardner, the evening’s Featured Vocalist, sometimes as solos and sometimes as duets with Sinatra. Ms. Tharp’s genius is reflected in the manner in which she has seamlessly married Sinatra’s recorded music and Ms. Gardner’s live renditions and then integrated those vocals equally seamlessly with her dances.

The Come Fly Away Band, conducted by Russ Kassoff, is also deserving of considerable praise. Several of the brass soloists were truly outstanding.

One caveat: despite everything I’ve said, not everyone will be as enthusiastic about this show as I am. The show has no plot, no real structure and no dialogue and those who insist that a “Broadway Musical” must have those attributes may be disappointed and feel shortchanged. But if you go to this show not expecting a traditional “Broadway Musical” but rather an exciting musical event, a great song and dance entertainment, if you will, then I think you’ll agree that this is simply one fine show. And that goes for everyone, “seniors” and “juniors” alike - although if you are of an age to recall “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” you will probably enjoy the experience even more.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Off Broadway: Freud's Last Session

Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain, now playing at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at 10 West 64th Street left me with a disappointing sense of déjà vu. Some months ago, I saw The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis at the Westside Theatre and commented then that although the acting, set design and language of that play were impressive, the play itself “vastly disappointed me on two levels: first, because it is not really a play at all but rather a Christian apologia…[with] little dramatic interaction…[and] second …[because] the substance of the play itself…[is]…rather superficial, glib and sophomoric” (see my post of May 26, 2010).

Much the same thing now can be said, I think, about Freud’s Last Session which, like The Screwtape Letters, is based in large part on the Christian philosophical-theological ideas of C. S. Lewis, in this case counterposed to the atheistic ideas of Sigmund Freud. The acting in this play by Mark H. Dodd (as C.S. Lewis) and Martin Raynor (as Sigmund Freud) is also first rate. The set is also handsome. And the language is also sharp and clever.

And yet, in the final analysis, this play, centering on an imagined meeting between Freud and Lewis shortly before Freud’s death, suffers from the same shortcomings as did The Screwtape Letters: there is little dramatic impact and the ideas expressed come across as more of what you’d be likely to hear at a college sophomore bull session than in a conversation between two men considered to have been intellectual giants.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Off Off Broadway: In God's Hat

This has been a great weekend for us for Off Off Broadway theatre. Yesterday we saw The Shape of Things which I thoroughly enjoyed (see my last post). And today we saw In God's Hat which I enjoyed just as much.

In God's Hat is an intellectually satisfying, powerful and menacing drama involving the interrelated themes of strained familial relations, child abuse, sexual predation, racial supremacy, violence and murder and the philosophical-theological concepts of nihilism, atheism and free will.

In the play, Mitch (Rhett Rossi) has just completed a ten years sentence for child molestation, during which time he has not once been visited or even contacted by his brother Roy (Tom Pelphrey). Why then has Roy just traveled 1500 miles to meet him upon his release from prison with the intention of returning him to a home he has no desire to revisit? And when Arthur Cruter (Dennis Flanagan), the white supremacist skinhead who viciously attacked Mitch in prison before his release, is himself released shortly thereafter, only to appear at the very motel that Mitch and Roy are at, the mystery deepens further and the sense of menace becomes palpable.

Confrontations among Mitch, Roy and Arthur appear inevitable and do, in fact, occur. Violence begets more violence and the squeamish might find some of the theatrics disturbing. But the violence and gore is not gratuitous, is necessary to move the story along, and is tinged with considerable humor, making it all quite worthwhile.

Tom Pelphrey, Rhett Rossi and Dennis Flanagan are all superb in their roles, as is Gary Francis Hope, who plays the part of Early Boyle, another white supremacist skinhead. The play itself, which is being produced by Apothecary Theatre Company and is having its world premiere at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, is very well written and structured by Richard Taylor, reminding me of some of the work of Martin McDonagh. The director, Kevin Kittle, who has worked with Richard Taylor for a decade, can also take considerable pride in this production.

Off Off Broadway: The Shape of Things

Variations Theatre Group (VTG) was founded by Rich Ferraioli and Kirk Gostkowski less than a year ago and has achieved a great success with its first production, Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. Originally launched by VTG in April of this year in Long Island City, I missed it when it first opened there but, fortunately, VTG has now brought this production to the Access Theatre in Manhattan and this time I made sure to see it.

Wow! This is a very professional production of an excellent play. Originally staged in 2001 with Paul Rudd, Rachel Weisz, Gretchen Moi and Frederick Weller in the roles of four college students in a small college town and directed by Neil LaBute himself, the play was turned into a motion picture two years later with the same cast. The play has been reprised several times since and this latest incarnation starring Deven Andersen (Philip), Alice Bahlke (Evelyn), Kirk Gostkowski (Adam) and Melissa Haley Smith (Jenny) and directed by Rich Ferraioli is just about as good as it gets.

I won’t disclose the plot because I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure I think you’ll get from the very well-crafted surprise ending. Suffice it to say that the play provides intriguing allusions to such classical themes as those depicted in Shaw’s Pygmalion, Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the direction and acting are first-rate across-the-board, and the set design is more than serviceable.

This production augurs well for the VTG. It is a terrific multi-layered exploration of the limits of art, the development and manipulation of a young malleable personality, sociopathy, sexual obsession, loyalty and betrayal, reality and fantasy, objectivity and subjectivity. Try to get to see it if you can.