Monday, December 24, 2012

Off Broadway: The Golden Land

Sandy Rosenberg, Cooper Grodin, Daniella Rabbani, Andrew Keltz, Stacey Harris, and Bob Ader in THE GOLDEN LAND

The National Yiddish Theatre - Folksbiene production of The Golden Land has re-opened at the Baruch Performing Arts Center and is now scheduled to run through January 6, 2013.  So if you missed the original run (whose opening was delayed by Hurricane Sandy and which concluded on December 2), you've just been given a second chance to see it.  

The two hours long epic musical traces the Jewish immigrant experience from the 1880s to the mid-twentieth century and is performed in a combination of English and Yiddish, but even if you don't speak Yiddish, nisht geferlach (don't worry about it) - you'll still fully understand what's going on.  The musical attempts (mostly successfully) to cover an enormous amount of ground - chronicling Jewish history from Ellis Island to the Lower East Side to Harlem and the Ivy League, and touching along the way - in song and dance - on the beginnings of the labor union movement, the Triangle Fire, Jewish Borscht Belt humor, Yiddish Theatre, the Depression, both World Wars, the Holocaust, Rumania, the founding of the State of Israel, and much, much more.  

Created by Zalmen Mlotek and Moise Rosenfeld and directed by Bryna Wasserman, the musical is a very ambitious production.  The young and talented six person cast is called upon to play dozens of different roles and does so with great exuberance, belting out 49 songs in English and Yiddish along the way.  They are all wonderful but my absolute favorite was the dynamic Daniella Rabbani whose rendition of "Oy, I Like Him" and "A Khulem" ("A Dream") brought down the house.  The cast is solidly supported by Zalmen Mlotek's great seven piece klezmer band.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Off Broadway: Flipside: The Patti Page Story

Lindsie VanWinkle and Haley Jane Pierce in FLIPSIDE: THE PATTI PAGE STORY

Clara Ann Fowler (Haley Jane Pierce) was born into a large, poor family in 1927 in Claremore, Oklahoma, one of eleven children.  Her father, Ben Fowler (Willy Welch) worked for the railroad, while her mother and older sisters picked cotton.  Despite the poverty of her early years (the family home lacked electricity), she somehow evolved into the “Singing Rage” Miss Patti Page (Lindsie VanWinkle), one of the most legendary female singers in popular recording history, with111 hits on the Billboard charts and 100 million records sold to her credit.  But through it all and beneath Patti Page’s vibrant, sophisticated public persona, Clara Ann Fowler’s core simplicity and vulnerability remained. 

In 2011, the University of Central Oklahoma’s College of Fine Arts & Design’s Broadway Tonight presented the world premiere of Flipside: The Patti Page Story, written and directed by the multi-talented Greg White (artist, actor, director, playwright, producer, and professor) based on his interviews with Miss Page.  A year later, the musical was selected from among nearly 3,500 productions to attend the 2012 Regional & National Kennedy Center Festivals where it won several honors including Best Musical.  And now it has arrived at 59E59 Theaters where it is enjoying a limited run (only through year-end) in its New York premiere.

Flipside’s producers are planning a National Tour in 2013-14 and that’s a good thing – at least for the rest of the country..  But it’s too bad that New Yorkers won’t be given a longer opportunity to see this show as well, since to do so is truly is a delightful musical experience.

The musical follows Clara Ann Fowler’s trajectory from the time she first became a featured singer on radio station KTUL in Tulsa, Oklahoma at age 18 to her meeting with Jack Rael (Justin Larman), a year later. When Rael heard Page sing, he asked her to join his "Jimmy Joy Band" and the rest, as they say, was history.  After leaving the band, Rael ultimately become Page's personal manager.  (Larman, incidentally, plays multiple roles in Flipside: in addition to Rael, he depicts Howard Hillenbrand, KTUL’s Program Director; Otto, KTUL’s Station Assistant; Al Clauser, a country singer; Guy Lombardo; and various announcers – and he does a wonderful job across-the board.)

Haley Jane Pierce plays Clara Ann Fowler with great sensitivity and Lindsie VanWinkle is equally accomplished as her much more confident alter ego, Patti Page.  Willy Welch is fine as Clara’s dad, and Jenny Rottmayer and Kassie Carroll are charmingly professional in the variety of roles they are called upon to perform as Clara’s sisters and mother and any number of backup singers, radio personae, announcers, and reporters.  The all do a good job of moving the story along.  

And yet, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that the pleasure you’ll get from this show will derive mostly from the music, rather than the story line.  The life of Clara Ann Lawson/Patti Page wasn’t all that dramatic, after all, and certainly wouldn’t rival (in terms of interest) those of, say, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, et al.  But as for Miss Page’s musical renditions?  Well, those were terrific.  And this show – with an eight piece orchestra on stage - doesn’t stint on presenting them, coming up with more than two dozen in all, including “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Confess,” “Detour,” “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?,” “Why Don’t You Believe Me,” “Allegheny Moon,” “Old Cape Cod,” “You Belong to Me,””Back in Your Own Backyard” and, of course, her signature song “Tennessee Waltz.”

If you do get to see this show, I think “you’ll remember the night.”  If you don’t, you might never “know just how much you have lost.”   

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Off Broadway: 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti

Penny Fuller in 13 THINGS ABOUT ED CARPOLOTTI at 59E59 Theaters

It didn’t take very long before Ed Carpolotti’s untimely death threw his widow’s life into turmoil.  Virginia Carpolotti (Penny Fuller) discovered that under the terms of his will, she was now president of Ed Carpolotti, Inc., her late husband’s construction company, about which she knew next to nothing.  But she quickly learned that business at the company had been rather slow (not good news) although the company did appear to have substantial assets (much better news).  But, unfortunately (and this was much worse news) those assets had been pledged against hundreds of thousands of dollars in bank loans (according to Bob O’Klock from the bank) and the loans were six months in arrears.

And then it got even worse.  Turns out that Virginia unwittingly signed papers assuming personal responsibility for those loans, as a result of which the bank has now frozen her bank accounts and threatened to seize all her personal assets – her checking account, savings account, CDs, IRAs….  And then it got worse yet: Dino Disperbio, the owner of Smith Trucking (a company with no trucks and no one named Smith in its history) has just contacted her to say that Ed had borrowed another half million dollars (at a 50% interest rate, no less!) from him and, because of other papers Virginia signed, she’s on the hook for that too.  And so, naturally, Virginia turns to family – Ed’s brother, Frank – only to learn that Ed owed Frank another $300,000 but that soft-hearted Frank, being family and all, is willing to settle with Virginia by just taking her house.  Could she be out by March?

It doesn’t seem that Virginia’s plight could get any worse, right?  Well, it does.  She receives an anonymous note from a blackmailer threatening to reveal thirteen embarrassing and scandalous things about her late husband and others unless she gives him a million dollars within a week.  At her wit’s end, Virginia pours out her heart to her friend, Tootie Vaughn (despite having been warned to say nothing to anyone).

We learn all of this and more from Virginia herself in what turns out to be something of an hour long monologue interspersed with music, without ever really meeting Ed or Bob or Dino or Frank or Tootie or Danny (Ed and Virginia’s attorney) or Debbie (their daughter) or Debbie’s husband or children or Joy (Ed’s secretary) or Virginia’s parents - all of whom are talked about, but none of whom actually shows up. In fact, the only character other than Virginia herself to actually appear in this musical, 13 Things About Ed Carpolotti, now premiering at 59E59 Theaters, is the very accomplished pianist (Paul Greenwood) who plays a double role as her musical accompanist and her unconscious mind.

Virginia’s problems and all the chicanery and mysterious goings-on ultimately are resolved but I won’t tell you how for that would ruin all the fun.  Suffice it to say that the original play by Jeffrey Hatcher, on which this musical is based, is very cleverly constructed and charmingly written and that, to the extent that the musical sticks to the original play, it is fun to see.  Penny Fuller does a first rate job in a demanding role and Paul Greenwood brings a light hearted charm to his part.  But, unfortunately, converting the play into a musical didn’t bring anything special to the mix.  The score is pleasant but derivative and the lyrics sophomoric at worst and unmemorable at best.  The show is definitely worth seeing and if you go, I think you’ll enjoy it, but that will be despite the music, not because of it.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lincoln Center: Golden Boy

Golden Boy, one of Clifford Odets’ least politically charged and most commercially successful plays, originally opened at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway in 1937 where it ran for more than 250 performances.  The play had a short-lived revival in 1952, served as the basis of a musical starring Sammy Davis Jr., and was twice adapted for the movies, but otherwise was seldom revived.  Now it is receiving a well-deserved long overdue revival by Lincoln Center at the Belasco Theatre where it first premiered three-quarters of a century ago.  As it turns out, this revival is terrific and it was well worth having waited for.
The plot revolves around young Joe Bonaparte (Seth Numrich), who is torn between pursuing a career as a musician (he is a highly talented violinist) and a potentially much more lucrative career as a prizefighter (which could result in injury to his hands thereby limiting or even destroying his ability to play the violin).  Complicating matters, Joe and Lorna Moon (Yvonne Strahovski) fall in love.  Lorna, a self-described “tramp from Newark” is the mistress of Tom Moody (Danny Mastrogiorgio), Joe’s manager.  Tom is married and Lorna has been waiting patiently for him to divorce his wife so that she might marry him; the entrance of Joe on the scene complicates her emotional life enormously.
Numrich, Strahovski, and Mastrogiorgio are wonderful in their respective roles but it is Tony Shaloub in the role of Mr. Bonaparte, Joe’s father, who really steals the show.  Shaloub’s acting range is extraordinary: best known for his memorable television roles (as Adrian Monk in “Monk,” as Antonio Scarpacci in “Wings,” and as a cabdriver in “Taxi”), Shaloub, an Arab-American, proves equally adept in his depiction of Joe’s tortured, loving Italian father on stage in this, his Lincoln Center debut.
The play is rife with sub-plots and secondary attractions, mostly of a two-dimensional nature: as Odets has written them, none are particularly creative but taken for what they are, they are mildly entertaining.  Anthony Crivello plays the part of the gangster Eddie Fuseli seeking to wrest control of Joe from Tom Moody in classic grade B tough guy gangster movie fashion. Lucas Caleb Rooney plays the part of Frank Bonaparte, Joe’s union organizing brother, in similar caricaturish fashion.  And Jonathan Hadary brings a measure of comic relief to the play as Mr. Carp, Mr. Bonaparte’s neighbor and friend.
This is not a deep play and it breaks no new ground.  But given the limitations of the play itself, it is highly entertaining and this production (including set design, acting and direction) is as good as it gets.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lincoln Center: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), Masha (Sigourney Weaver) and Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) in VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE 

Vanya (David Hyde Pierce), Sonia (Kristine Nielsen), and Masha (Sigourney Weaver) were named after characters in Chekhov’s plays by their now deceased parents who had been college professors and lovers of community theatre in their prime.  Vanya and Sonia devoted their lives to their parents care, remaining in their ancestral home and foregoing any other meaningful personal relationships, while Masha established herself as a successful actress (although she was somewhat less successful on the marital front with five failed marriages to her credit).  Sonia and Vanya are resentful toward Masha who, as they see it, left the entire burden of caring for their parents to them, while she was gallivanting about on the world’s stages and enjoying a glamorous life.  True enough, perhaps, but to be fair to Masha, it was she who provided all the money to maintain her parents’ and siblings’ home and to support them all while she was away; absent her financial support, who knows what might have come of them all.  Now Masha has returned to visit her brother and sister, with her latest boy toy, Spike (Billy Magnussen) in tow to let them know that she intends to sell the house.

The play that Christopher Durang has constructed around these premises, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, now playing at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is replete with heavy-handed allusions to Chekhov’s work.  Vanya’s and Sonia’s ethereal next door neighbor Nina (Genevieve Angelson) might have just wandered in from Chekhov’s The Seagull and then takes to calling Vanya “Uncle Vanya.”  The siblings quibble over whether or not the ten or so cherry trees on their property constitute a true “cherry orchard.”  (And there is at least one allusion to Ibsen as well: Sonia may not see herself as a “wild duck” but she does persist in referring to herself as “a wild turkey.”)  And yet, according to the playwright, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is not a parody of Chekhov at all; rather, as Durang puts it “The play takes Chekhov characters and themes and puts them into a blender.”  And, Durang might have added (though he didn’t), he threw a big dollop of comedic good humor into the blender as well.

The net result is a play that gets off to a slow start but then turns out to be rollicking good fun.  The first half of the first act is a bit flat with the characters coming across more as two dimensional caricatures than fully fleshed out individuals.  But by the second half of the first act, and especially in the second act, Durang hits his stride and at least some of the actors are given the opportunity to turn in truly superlative performances.  Which two of them – Nielsen and Hyde Pierce – do with a vengeance.

Nielsen’s impersonation of Maggie Smith playing the role of the Evil Queen in Snow White is absolutely priceless and is one of the play’s high points.  So too is Hyde Pierce’s Chaplinesque portrayal of Doc, one of Snow White’s seven dwarves.  But the play’s finest moment occurs in the second act when Hyde Pierce goes off on a rant about how much better things used to be back in the fifties, when families gathered together in front of their black and white TV sets, sharing the experiences of watching “I Love Lucy” or “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” or “Bishop Sheen” or “Howdy Doody.”

Nielsen and Hyde Pierce really do steal the show although Magnussen and Angelson turn in perfectly adequate performances as Spike and Nina, respectively.  I was a bit disappointed in Weaver’s portrayal of Masha which struck me as rather pedestrian.  But Shalita Grant, the sixth actor in the play, did a fine job as Cassandra, Vanya’s and Sonia’s cleaning lady who is also a soothsayer and voodoo practitioner.

In sum, this is a good (albeit not great) play, providing a couple of hours of cheerful entertainment.  And while a familiarity with Chekhov isn’t absolutely required to enjoy the play, such a familiarity would, I think, enhance your experience.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Our Brief Italian Holiday: 10 Days in Venice and Florence

The Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
The timing of our recent trip to Italy was most fortuitous: we flew out of JFK for Venice on Monday, November 5, just a couple of days after Hurricane Sandy ravished the Northeast; had we planned to leave any sooner, we never could have gotten out.  As it turned out, however, our flight left right on time, was without incident (which is just the way we like it), and arrived early.  We flew Aer Lingus (an airline we hadn’t flown before) from JFK with a two hour layover in Dublin because that was far and away the most economical way for us to travel: the cost of our two tickets came to $1,223 whereas non-stop flights from New York to Venice would have run us well over $2,000.

The flight from JFK to Dublin was OK but nothing to rave about.  Seats are closely aligned in coach and there’s not much room to stretch out.  And our ravioli dinner was no great shakes (although today that’s true of virtually all airline food).  Our flight from Dublin to Venice on the other hand was much more comfortable.

View from the window of our room at the Hotel Arlecchio in Venice, Italy
Upon our arrival in Venice on the morning of November 6, we took a cab to the Hotel Arlecchino which overlooked the Grand Canal.  We chose our hotel based on the positive reviews it had received on both Trip Advisor and Expedia and we were generally satisfied.  Here are the pluses: the location, overlooking the Grand Canal, is terrific – it’s less than a 10 minute walk to the train station (which was important to us since we planned to travel by rail from Venice to Florence) and only a 20 or 30 minutes walk to the Rialto area and, in the opposite direction, the Jewish quarter; a number of reasonably priced restaurants were only steps away; the hotel’s personnel were most accommodating; and it was very well priced (with continental breakfast included in the room rate).  The only negative, and it was a minor one, was that the room was relatively small.

The Piazza San Marco in the Rialto area of Venice, Italy
That day we just wandered the area around our hotel, lunching and dining at neighborhood restaurants (leading to the excess of pasta, pizza, wine and gelato we consumed – but hey, it was Italy so what would you expect?).  The next day (Wednesday, November 7), we strolled across town to the Piazza San Marco in the Rialto area, the heart of Venice and the oldest settled area of the city.  Had we wanted to, we could have made the walk in 20 minutes or so but we chose to wander in and out of side streets and it probably ended up taking us an hour or longer.  Ditto our return to the hotel.  But it was worth it.

On Thursday, November 8, we took advantage of a promotional offer to visit the Isola di Murano (the island of Murano), renowned for its production of Murano glass.  We were picked up at our hotel by water taxi  and brought to the island where we saw some incredible glass sculptures.  We wandered about the island a bit, then returned to our hotel via water bus.

Sue at the synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Venice, Italy

On Friday, November 9, we visited the Jewish quarter of Venice, home to what was once the Jewish ghetto in that city.
The Jewish Quarter in Venice, Italy
The next day, Saturday, November 10, we walked to the train station and boarded a fast train to Florence.  When we arrived in Florence, we discovered that the Hotel Globus, was less than a 10 minute walk from the train station so we eschewed a taxi and made our way to the hotel on foot.  We had selected this hotel, too, based on the positive reviews it had received on both Trip Advisor and Expedia and again we were generally satisfied.  These were the pluses: the location - a short walk to the train station and well within walking distance of the sights we most wanted to see (the Ponte Vecchio, the Pitti Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, and the Accademia, home to Michaelangelo’s David); a number of good but inexpensive restaurants in the neighborhood; and a clean, well-furnished and spacious room.  The only negative here was that we had to climb a long flight of steps to get to the first floor reception area and that, once there, we had to travel via a claustrophobia-inducing elevator to our room on the third floor (you actually had to keep your finger on the elevator button the entire time you were ascending or descending or the elevator would stop; additionally, the elevator itself was only enclosed on three sides!).  But this hotel’s personnel were also most accommodating; and our room here, too, was very well priced with a continental breakfast and drinks during “Happy Hour” included in the room rate.
View of the Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy
That day we bought two “Firenze Cards” for 50 euros apiece.  These cards would allow us to enter dozens of museums throughout Florence over the next three days at no additional cost and, more importantly, to do so without having to wait on interminable lines.  We ended up using the cards to visit six sites – the Pitti Palace, the Uffizi Gallery, the Galileo Museum, the Archaeology Museum, the Paleontology Museum, and the Accademia Gallery – so the cards did end up saving us a few euros compared to what we would have spent had we purchased admission tickets to those six sites individually.  But much more importantly, having the cards saved us considerable time.

The Uffizi Gallery is wonderful (one of the best museums in the world with an exceptional collection of Botticelli works) and there is really nothing that can compete with Michelangelo’s works in the Accademia Gallery – especially his awe-inspiring statue of David.  We enjoyed the small Galileo Museum as well, with its collections of telescopes and other scientific instruments from Galileo’s time.  We’d seen the Pitti Palace half a century ago and again we were not disappointed.  And the Paleontology Museum, with its excellent collection fossils not only from Italy but from all over the world was a real surprise.  In fact our only disappointment was the Archaeology Museum with its rather mundane collection of Etruscan works. 
View of the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy
Of course we made it to the Ponte Vecchio as well but time was passing quickly and, before we knew it, it was time to return to the States.

Our return was exhausting.  We took an early train from Florence to Rome, then transferred to another train that took us from the Rome train station to the Rome Airport.  At the airport, we boarded our Aer Lingus Flight to Dublin where we transferred after a short layover to our flight from Dublin to JFK.

And so, ten days after leaving New York, we returned home, having consumed too much pasta, too much pizza, too much wine, and way too much gelato!  And we'd do it again in a New York minute!


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Off Broadway: Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation

L-R: Tyrone Flowers, Sandra Huff, Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Bettina Pennon, and the Gospel for Teens Choir in MAMA, I WANT TO SING: THE NEXT GENERATION.  Photo by Jasmin Williams.
Mama, I Want to Sing by Vy Higginsen and her husband, Ken Wydro, opened at the Heckscher Theatre in East Harlem in 1983 and went on to become the longest-running off Broadway black musical in American history.  It tells the story of Doris Winter, one of many African-African performers who got their starts in church choirs before going on to make their marks in the commercial world of popular music (think Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer and Patti LaBelle).  The role of Doris Winter is based largely on that of the real life Doris Troy, Ms Higginsen’s own sister: in the musical, Doris Winter emerges from the choir in her father’s church, performs during Amateur Night at the Apollo, and capitalizes on her Apollo performance (despite her mother’s initial objections) to achieve a successful musical career.  In reality, Doris Troy parlayed her own appearance at the Apollo into a successful singing career in London.

Then, in an example of life imitating art, the real Doris Troy eventually performed in Mama, I Want to Sing in the role of her own mother.

Life has now come full circle: the musical is currently being revived by the Mama Foundation for the Arts at the Dempsey Theater on West 127th Street in Harlem with the appropriate sub-title “The Next Generation” appended and the role of Donna Winter is being played by Ahmaya Knoelle Higginsen, the real life daughter of Vy Higginsen and Ken Wydro.  Nor is this an example of opportunistic nepotism.  Far from it!  Ahmaya Higginson is absolutely terrific in the role of Donna Winter: she not only exhibits a vocal range that is truly extraordinary, but she acts brilliantly as well, providing a performance in which she gradually evolves from her childhood self as a shy, gawky adolescent to her adult self as a poised professional singer.

The other principal actors are similarly outstanding and have backgrounds that would seem to have uniquely qualified them and conditioned them for their roles.  Bettina Pennon, a Reverend’s daughter herself who has been singing since the age of four, plays the role of Mama Winter, Doris’ protective mother who is so reluctant to let her daughter go; she has an exceptional voice herself and plays her role with the sensitivity and understanding that she obviously derived from her own life experiences.  Tyrone Flowers, who plays the role of Reverend Winters, Doris’ father, is an ordained elder at Pilgrim Cathedral of Harlem and that background is evident in his own singing and portrayal of his part.  Sandra Huff, who plays the role of Sister Carrie, Doris’ aunt and godmother, is the worship leader for the Agape Family Worship Center in Rahway, New Jersey and, wow, she really can belt out a song.

Which brings us to Elijah Ahmad Lewis who plays the role of Minister of Music at Doris’ church and who, in that position, is responsible for training and leading the choir.  He is simply sensational.  He moves with the grace of a dancer and the sensuousness of a circus contortionist.  He moves his body in ways that I would not have thought possible if I hadn’t seen them for myself.  Imagine an accomplished break dancer with bones of rubber.  And the exuberance he conveys is absolutely infectious.

In addition to the lead players, Mama, I Want to Sing: The Next Generation also features several wonderful performers from the Gospel for Teens Choir, the award winning choir that Vy Higginsin founded to pass the tradition of gospel music on from one generation to the next.

At the performance I attended, the overwhelming majority of the members of the audience were of African-American descent and it was obvious from their response to the show that many, if not most, shared the gospel music tradition therein depicted.  To that extent, they probably could derive even greater pleasure from this production than could the small minority of us there who do not share that heritage.  But in a broader sense, this show has universal appeal in terms of the basic family values it espouses.  White or black, Christian or Jew, Italian, Irish, Chinese or whatever – all can recognize, understand and empathize with the pain associated with a young daughter’s loss of her father, with a mother’s reluctance to let go of her child in a dangerous and uncertain world, and with a girl’s desire to strike out on her own and follow her dreams.  This show has captured all that and, whatever your background, I urge you to see it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Yentl

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic short story, “Yentl The Yeshiva Boy,” is subject to many interpretations.  On a politically correct feminist level, it is the story of Yentl, a strong-willed young Jewish girl whose love of learning is so great that she rebels against the strictures of her male-dominated society, posing as a boy in order to enter a yeshiva and study Talmud (something that only Jewish men and not Jewish women were permitted to do in Poland in the 1800s). A deeper alternative interpretation, however, focuses on Yentl’s transgender issues: as she saw herself, she was “neither one sex nor the other” and she had “the soul of a man in the body of a woman.”
Singer and Leah Napolin adapted Singer’s story for the stage and in 1975 Yentl premiered on Broadway starring Tovah Feldshuh.  Less than a decade later, the play was adapted for the screen and starred Barbra Streisand.  The play remained true to the original short story but the motion picture did not: in the play, Yentl, even after being found out, opts to live out her life as Anshel, her male alter ego, despite her obvious strong emotional attachment to Avigdor, her male yeshiva study partner; in the movie, on the other hand, she expresses her true feelings for Avigdor and re-assumes her female personae.
The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective is currently staging a revival of Yentl at the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street in lower Manhattan and, to its credit, it is the play, not the movie, that is being revived.  And to its further credit, Beautiful Soup has managed to blend both the politically correct and the psycho-sexual interpretations into one seamless whole.
The principal actors in this revival are Mallory Berlin as Yentl/Anshel; Peter Oliver as Avigdor; and Kim Sweet as Hadass, Avigdor’s first love.  All three are excellent in their respective roles but Ms Berlin is truly outstanding , exhibiting both her sexual ambivalences and her religio-socio-political rebellion.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Off Off Broadway: 1931-

Eighty years ago, the very talented and very left-leaning Group Theatre (its avowed mission was to express "propaganda for a better life" and its members included Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Clifford Odets) staged the play 1931 – , a one-dimensional cartoonish depiction of the unemployed during the Great Depression.  Written by Claire and Paul Sifton, the play wasn’t very good and ran for only twelve performances, which may explain why no one ever thought to revive it until now.

The relatively new ReGroup Theatre Company (formed less than three years ago) has now taken it upon itself to revive 1931- at The Living Theatre on Clinton Street in downtown Manhattan, as part of its mission to re-publish and re-produce “lost” Group Theatre plays. Given that 1931- wasn’t a very good play to begin with, ReGroup Theatre should be commended for what it has managed to pull off. With 13 actors playing more than 65 different roles and weaving in and out onstage, the play is not so much directed as choreographed. But it is all accomplished relatively seamlessly and Allie Mulholland, the director, deserves credit for a tough job well done.

The play's plot is a simple one. Adam (Stephen Dexter), having been fired from his warehouse job over a minor squabble with his boss, strives relentlessly to find another job. But in 1931, that is no easy task. Millions of others are out of work as well and Adam’s life spins out of control. He loses his home, his health deteriorates, he risks losing the girl he loves. He resorts to begging, joins breadlines, sleeps in parks, even contemplates crime. And he is but a symbol of the millions of others who are in the same predicament. It is all to no avail. By the end of the play, it seems that revolution is the only solution.

Dexter plays his role with considerable passion but there is nothing he can do about the limitations of the role itself, the shallowness of the play, and the playwrights’ failure to provide any real character development. The play’s other actors have even rougher rows to hoe, with even less to work with and, considering how little they have been provided, do a more than adequate job of communicating their cliché-driven, redundant messages.

One finalfinal aside: the play 1931– glorifies the struggling unemployed masses who suffered during the Great Depression and that is a noble, understandable and commendable sentiment. But some have compared the plight of those proud and independent Great Depression casualties with today’s Occupy Wall Streeters and assorted protesters and that is not merely wrong-headed but an insult to the memories of those who suffered so during the 1930s. The unemployed workers featured in 1931- sought only one thing: jobs of any kind so that they might earn money with dignity, avoid the government dole, raise their families with pride in their own abilities, and take responsibility for their own lives. To that end, they left New York and travelled all over the country seeking work. By contrast, today’s Occupiers, the self-proclaimed 99%, aren’t seeking jobs so much as government handouts; they don’t protest over lack of work but over lack of longer unemployment benefits; they leave jobs elsewhere in the country in order to travel to New York to sit in and protest, not the other way around; they want others’ wealth redistributed to them because it’s just not “fair” that they don’t have as much as others even if they never earned it; and their sense of victimized entitlement has replaced their sense of independent self-esteem. We have made enormous economic strides since 1931 but the direction our moral principles (regarding individualism, independence, property rights, redistribution of wealth, and self-esteem) since then is open to much greater question.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Off Broadway: Ten Chimneys

L-R: Julia Bray, Byron Jennings, Carolyn McCormick, and Michael McCarty in TEN CHIMNEYS.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
The title of the play Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher derives from the name of the Wisconsin estate to which Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne repaired every summer.  Staged by The Peccadillo Theater Company, the play is currently receiving its New York premiere at Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street.  The play is an ambitious one, touching on everything from Lunt’s youthful homosexual longings to the threat that Uta Hagen might have represented to the Lunt’s unconventional marriage; from Lunt’s half-brother’s pool hustling to his half-sister’s self-sacrifice for the sake of her family; from Sidney Greenstreet’s compassion for his institutionalized wife to Lunt’s mother’s demanding and suffocating behavior toward her son.  Such ambition in a playwright often is a good thing but here Hatcher may have bitten off more than he could chew: none of the play’s many themes are fully developed and one leaves the theatre mildly disappointed that one has not seen the less intricate but more developed play that Hatcher might have written.

To be sure, Ten Chimneys does provide two hours of cheerful entertainment and some insights into the personae of Alfred Lunt (Bryon Jennings); Lynn Fontanne (Carolyn McCormick); Alfred’s mother, Hattie Sederholm (Lucy Martin); Alfred’s half-brother, Carl Sederholm (John Wernke), Alfred’s half-sister, Louise Greene (Charlotte Booker); Uta Hagen (Julia Bray); and Sydney Greenstreet (Michael McCarty).  Hatcher has written a backstage comedy with some interesting story lines and some clever repartee between the principals.  Moreover, theatre buffs, in particular, should appreciate the way in which he has managed to elucidate how actors can make overlapping dialogue work and how makeup ought be applied to create particular illusions.

And yet, when all is said and done, it is the ghost of Noel Coward (who is mentioned but does not actually appear in this play although he had been a guest at Ten Chimneys himself and was rumored to have engaged in a menage a trois with the Lunts) hangs over this production – to this play’s disadvantage.  Maybe it’s unfair comparing Hatcher to Coward because we have no reason to believe that Hatcher was seeking to compete with Coward in the first place but, given the theatrical personalities involved, such a comparison would seem to be inevitable and, once the comparison is made, it is Ten Chimneys that comes up short.

The play’s principal story line relates to the arrival of Uta Hagen at Ten Chimneys to rehearse her role in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  Her subsequent relationship with Lunt is mildly disturbing to Fontanne – not for what it migh portend between Alfred and Uta in the bedroom but rather for the challenge it might raise to the relationship between Lunt and Fontanne onstage.  For as we are reminded again and again, the Lunts have a rather inverted view of the stage and reality: their reality, and therefore their love for one another, is what takes place on stage; it is everything that is not on stage that is secondary.

A sub-plot entails Alfred’s meeting up again with his old college roommate, for whom he still might long.  But this sub-plot goes nowhere.  Finally we are treated to some minimal explorations of what might make Hattie, Carl, Louise and Sydney tick.  Hattie, based upon the Freudian beliefs of the 1930s and 1940s, the period in which the play is set, would seem to bear responsibility for Alfred’s homosexuality or sexual ambivalence.  Carl, the pool hustler, is presented as being as much an “actor” in his own sphere as Alfred is in his.  Louise is the play’s passive-aggressive victim.  And Sydney is the obsessively compassionate husband.

All of the actors are to be commended for their performances but the one standout for me was Michael McCarty as Sydney Greenstreet.  His depiction was spot on and watching him was like watching the “fat man” being brought back to life from Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Broadway: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?  Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Coming on the heels of successful runs in Washington D.C. and Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s terrific revival of Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will be opening officially at the Booth Theatre in New York on October 13, 2012 – just 50 years to the day after it first opened on Broadway.  The original production starred Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen as George and Martha; a 1976 revival featured Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in the same roles; in 2005, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner reprised the viciously combative couple; and a film version released in 1966 starred  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.   We’ve been around long enough and have been fortunate enough to have seen all of those productions – and we very much enjoyed them all.  Assuredly, those were tough acts to follow.  But now that we’ve had the opportunity to see a preview performance of this latest revival starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, I can tell you this: this production of this play is as good as any we’ve ever seen before.

Amy Morton, who starred in the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning August: Osage County and who received a well-deserved Tony nomination for her performance in that play, surely merits a similar nomination for her performance as Martha in this production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Martha is the wife of George, a burnt-out associate professor of history at a small college, and the daughter of the college’s president.  While she plays her role as George’s bitter, shrewish, mentally unbalanced, and emasculating wife in a somewhat lower register than did her predecessors, we mean that as a compliment, not a criticism.  It has allowed her to create an even richer, more nuanced, and more complex character on stage than we have come to expect.  And it has allowed Tracy Letts, the highly regarded Chicago actor who wrote August: Osage County and who is making his Broadway debut here as George, to play his role even more dynamically that had his very talented predecessors.

And Mr. Letts has taken full advantage of that opportunity by turning in a truly powerful performance.  Indeed, if it was Martha who dominated earlier versions of this work, it is George who dominates this one.  Surely that is a credit to Mr. Letts, but it is a credit to Ms. Morton and to Pam MacKinnon, the play’s director, as well.  They all have contributed to what must be deemed a true ensemble success.

Carrie Coon as Honey and Madison Dirks as Nick round out the ensemble cast and do so brilliantly. Nick has just joined the college’s faculty in the biology department and seems to have all the drive that George once may have had but no longer does. (When Martha first married George, both she and her father thought that George someday might succeed his father-in-law as the college’s president but as things now stand, it appears likely that he won’t even make it to the chairmanship of the history department).  Honey is Nick’s mousey wife.

As the daughter of the college’s president, Martha has taken it upon herself to welcome new faculty members and their families – which is why she invited Nick and Honey to her home following her father’s late night faculty reception.  When Nick and Honey arrive after 2 AM, they already have had too much to drink (as have George and Martha) but that doesn’t stop any of them from imbibing even more.  One thing leads to another and the sexual tensions, pent-up emotions, and long held secrets that are released are explosive.  Distinctions between reality and fantasy are increasingly blurred and the inevitable crisis toward which the play has been building is…well, inevitable.

If you’ve never seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, don’t miss this opportunity to see this outstanding production of Albee’s masterpiece.  And even if you have seen it, here’s your chance to see it again as you’ve surely never seen it before.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Off Off Broadway: Something Wild...

Semantha Steinmetz and Jack Haley in 27 WAGONS FULL OF COTTON.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak
Pook’s Hill, a new theatre company dedicated to the production of classic plays, is currently staging Something Wild…, three one act plays by Tennessee Williams, at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex on West 36th Street.  The three plays - 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Hello From Bertha, and This Property Is Condemned - share a common theme: in each, the protagonist is a woman who has been victimized, brutalized, exploited, or abused and who, as a consequence, is now mentally deranged, on the verge of death, or both.
In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, the first and by far the best of the three plays, Jake Meighan (Jack Haley) burns down the cotton mill of his rival, Silva Viccaro (Brian Gianci).  Jake then pressures Flora (Semantha Steinmetz), his childless, sexually submissive, somewhat masochistic, and simple-minded wife, to provide him with an alibi but, whether inadvertently or purposefully, she fails to do so.  When Silva realizes that Jake is responsible for the fire, he seeks revenge by seducing (or raping – it’s not clear which) Jake's wife -  the first of Williams’ three victimized women.  (We meet the other two – Bertha and Willie, in Hello From Bertha and in This Property Is Condemned).  Only this time we can’t really be sure that Flora is a victim after all.  Given her submissive nature, her mild masochism, and her apparently long-festering resentment of her husband, one can only wonder whether her “accidental” betrayal of him was truly accidental or not and whether her succumbing to Silva wasn’t what she really intended in the first place.
In Hello From Bertha, the second and not nearly as successful play on the program, the victimized female protagonist is Bertha (Andrus Nichols), an aging whore in a run-down brothel who is not only sick but probably paranoid as well and ostensibly on her deathbed.  What little plot there is revolves around Bertha’s tentative reaching out to a former lover, but nothing comes of that and, relative to Williams’ other works, the play itself proves to be a meandering disappointment.
David Armanino and Tess Frazer in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED.  Photo by Cecilia Senocak.
Which brings us to Willie (Tess Frazer) the almost preternatural sylph in This Property Is Condemned.  Having been abandoned sequentially by both of her parents only to lose her older sister to tuberculosis, Willie is a street urchin who scavengies for food, fantasizes about following in her sister’s footsteps by trading sexual favors for a more glamorous life, and otherwise spends her days tightrope walking along a railroad track with the sole goal of going a bit farther than she had before without falling off.  When she comes upon Tom (David Armanino), a callow youth playing hooky from school so that he might fly his kite, nothing very dramatic occurs but we are treated to Williams’ marvelous literary exposition of the almost surrealistic life and mind of this third in his series of victimized women.

All three of the actors in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton – Samantha Steinmetz, Jack Haley, and Brian Gianci – are truly outstanding in their respective roles but special recognition must be accorded Ms Steinmetz whose nuanced portrayal of a mentally challenged, sexually confused, and alternately submissive and manipulative woman is really extraordinary.  And Tess Frazier in This Property Is Condemned deserves similar praise for her exceptional rendition of the otherworldly Willie. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Off Broadway: The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys

Tommy Dorsey, born in 1905, was an immensely talented jazz trombonist, trumpeter, composer and big band leader.  His brother, Jimmy, born in the following year, was an equally talented jazz clarinetist, saxophonist, trumpeter, composer, and big band leader in his own right.  Together they reached the pinnacle of success as co-leaders of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra until a falling out between them prompted Tommy to walk out in 1935 to form his own band.  And so the brothers re-climbed the heights, this time each on his own with his own band.  After a decade of estrangement, the brothers ultimately reconciled: Jimmy joined his brother’s band which became known as “Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra Featuring Jimmy Dorsey.”  Upon Tommy’s death in 1956, Jimmy assumed leadership of the band but his leadership was short-lived: Jimmy died in 1957, less than seven months after his brother passed away.
Pete and Will Anderson, twin brothers who are very musically talented in their own right – they both play the saxophone, clarinet and flute and co-led the Anderson Brothers Sextet – are now channeling the Dorsey brothers in their unusual multi-media work The Anderson Twins Play The Fabulous Dorseys, premiering at 59E59 Theaters.  Against a backdrop of videoclips from the once popular “What’s My Line” TV show in which the Dorseys appeared as mystery guests and the United Artists 1947 fictionalized biographical film,” The Fabulous Dorseys,” in which Tommy and Jimmy play themselves, Pete and Will Anderson lead a terrific jazz sextet in reprising many of the classics that the Dorseys had played in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  Bantering over their differing jazz interpretations and styles, Pete and Will also exhibit their own simulated sibling rivalry in an attempt to bring to life the passions and attitudes that motivated the Dorseys in the last century.
As far as the music goes, this is one terrific show.  Both Pete and Will are outstanding on all three of the instruments they play: saxophone, clarinet, and flute.  And they are backed up by four other very talented musicians: Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Ehud Asherie on piano, Devin Dorn on drums, and Clovis Nicolas on bass.  I was especially impressed by Jon-Erik’s trumpet-playing and Ehud’s virtuosity on the piano.  But so far as everything else about this production goes – the TV and movie video-clips, the artificially created similarity between the Dorseys and the Andersons, the dialog on stage – well, not so much.  Indeed, I don’t think anything would have been lost had the show simply consisted of this Anderson Brothers Sextet playing a variety of Dorsey Brothers classics, without the schtick.
The space at 59E59 Theaters in which this show is performed has been reconfigured as a cabaret with too many audience members crammed into uncomfortable seats around small tables in too small a space.  Again, simple tiered seating might not have been as clever or creative but it sure would have been more comfortable.  But enough of my nit-picking.  When all is said and done, despite my complaints about the show’s structure or the theatre itself, the jazz musical performances themselves are so good that nothing else really matters.  If you’re into jazz, this is one show worth seeing. 


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Off Broadway: Fly Me to the Moon

A little more than a decade ago, when we first saw Marie Jones’ best known and multiple award-winning work, Stones in His Pockets, in its London debut, we realized that we had come upon a remarkably talented playwright with an exceptional gift for dialogue.  And so it was that we eagerly anticipated seeing her latest work, Fly Me to the Moon, in its New York premiere as part of 1st Irish at 59E59 Theaters.
Well, we’ve seen it and the good news is that Fly Me to the Moon does confirm Ms Jones’ considerable talent.  The play is well constructed and sharply written.  And there is more good news: the two actors, Tara Lynne O’Neill (as Loretta Mackey) and Katie Tumelty as (Frances Shields) are supremely talented in their own rights, both delivering wonderful comedic performances as two care workers looking after Davy, a wheelchair-bound octogenarian , unable to speak and paralyzed on one side as the result of a stroke.  And the bottom line (of the good news, that is) is that the play does provide one with an hour and forty minutes’ worth of genial entertainment.
But, sadly, there is some bad news too: this play is not anywhere near as good as Stones in His Pockets.  The plot of Fly Me to the Moon is little more than a minor variation on a hackneyed Grade B movie theme.  Davy, whose only real passions were Frank Sinatra and playing the horses, dies as the play begins (we never actually do get to meet him) and Loretta and Frances are presented with an opportunity to steal his racetrack winnings and last pension check.  Loretta and Frances are basically decent women but they live hardscrabble minimum wage lives and they succumb to temptation.  Who, after all, will be hurt and who is to know?  Certainly not Davy – he’s dead.  His bookmaker – who cares about him?  And the Government – don’t make me laugh.  But as plots of this sort always do, one thing leads (or rather descends) to another and Loretta and Frances find themselves sliding down a slippery slope toward self-destruction.
Here’s where I’d normally be issuing a “spoiler alert,” before saying much more about the play’s plot – if there was much more to say.  But there isn’t and there’s the rub: the play’s resolution involves some half-hearted attempts to come up with some creative O’Henry-ish twists but to no avail.  There are no truly unanticipated surprises and so the real bottom line is that despite some clever dialogue, excellent acting, and amusing moments, the play turns out to be a disappointment.  Or maybe, having seen Stones in His Pockets, my expectations for Fly Me to the Moon were simply too high.