Monday, December 16, 2013

Handle With Care Starring Carol Lawrence

L-R: Jonathan Sale, Sheffield Chastain, Carol Lawrence, and Charlotte Cohn in HANDLE WITH CARE.
What may appear as “happenstance” or “coincidence” to one individual well may be seen by another as “fate” or “destiny.”  Or, what is known in Yiddish as “b’shert” - at least in regard to one’s divinely fore-ordained spouse or soul-mate.

Ayelet (Charlotte Cohn) had little desire to accompany her grandmother Edna (Carol Lawrence) on a trip to America but she really had no good reason not to.  She had been relatively depressed for the last year, ever since her boyfriend Haguy left her, and she had been dreaming of her own “b‘shert” – who looked nothing like anyone she had ever met before.  So why not make her “safta” (grandmother) happy and go along with her?  It might even give Ayelet a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument.

But Edna, it seemed, had other ideas.  This was not to be a trip to see the sights in New York or Washington.  No, it was to be a trip from one tawdry motel in one God-forsaken town in Virginia to another – from Roanoke to Goodview - never staying in any one for more than a day or two and sometimes for no more than a few hours.  Why Edna chose to stay at the motels she did wasn’t immediately clear - although all did seem to be located in proximity to Food Lions’ supermarkets.

As it turned out, Edna ended up getting less out of her trip than she had bargained for.  Not only did she never find whatever or whomever she may have been seeking, but then, just to add insult to injury, she upped and died.  That, as you might imagine, was something of a downer for Ayelet as well – but then Ayelet got more than she bargained for.

In attempting to arrange for the return of Edna’s body to Israel for burial, Ayelet makes the mistake of retaining the services of Terrence (Sheffield Chastain), a good-hearted but bumbling deliveryman employed by DHX who immediately “loses” Edna’s body.  Confronted by a crisis over which he feels he has no control, Terrence enlists the aid of his childhood friend, Josh (Jonathan Sale), to extricate him from his predicament.  And so Josh, who is still mourning the loss of his wife in an automobile accident more than a year ago (and who, despite being Jewish, speaks little Hebrew himself) is thrown together with Ayelet (who speaks little English) and matters take a turn for the better.  How difficult, after all, can it be to resolve linguistic differences for a God capable of stretching out a day’s worth of oil for eight days or precipitating a virgin birth?

Handle With Care by Jason Odell Williams, currently playing at The Westside Theatre Downstairs on West 43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, is a slight and rather predictable, but nonetheless entertaining, comedic love story that, apropos of this holiday season of miracles, does just that: it resolves the mystery of Edna’s quest and brings love to the lovelorn – and all in a manner that some might say was truly miraculous or even “b’shert.”  (Others, of course, might still contend that the play’s subsequent miraculous turn of events wasn’t a matter of fate or destiny at all but rather was an example of mere coincidence, but then, what do they know: there’ll always be some spoilsports, non-believers and Grinches among us.)

Not surprisingly, the legendary and Tony-nominated Carol Lawrence is absolutely delightful as Edna, the Israeli grandmother, torn between her own nostalgia and her love for her granddaughter.  Charlotte Cohn is equally good in a very demanding role requiring her to transition rapidly and seamlessly from Hebrew to English and back again.  Sheffield Chastain plays the most comedic role of Terrence with great physicality and Jonathan Sale conveys a wide range of emotions from grief to joy and from irritability to dismay with professional flair.  All in all, the play may be inconsequential but it is fun. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Anderson Twins in Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz

L-R: Peter Anderson (clarinet), Will Anderson (sax), Luc Decker (drums), Clovis Nicolas (bass) and Alex Wintz (guitar) in LE JAZZ HOT: HOW THE FRENCH SAVED JAZZ.  Photo by Eileen O'Donnell.

I first saw the Anderson twins (Peter and Will) at 59E59 Theaters some fifteen months ago when they channeled Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey in The Anderson Twins Play the Fabulous Dorseys That production was a multi-media work consisting of film clips of the Dorseys, some stilted dialogue by the Andersons (intended to suggest the Dorsey’s own sibling rivalry), and remarkably good musical renditions by Peter and Will (accompanied by four other very talented musicians).  I loved the music but was less impressed by everything else about that production.

Now the Anderson twins are back at 59E59 Theaters in another multi-media production of their own making – Le Jazz Hot: How the French Saved Jazz – and this time they have done everything just right.  This is, in short, a terrific show in all respects.  Not surprisingly, the music again is wonderful (the Anderson twins are extremely talented, after all, and they are accompanied here by three other very accomplished musicians (Randy Napoleon or Alex Wintz on guitar, Clovis Nicolas or Neil Miner on bass, and Luc Decker or Phil Stewart on drums).  But what really distinguishes Le Jazz Hot from Fabulous Dorseys is the way in which the film clips in this production have been integrated into this work in a manner that enriches and enhances its musical aspects rather than detracts from them.

Quincy Jones once said that “If it weren’t for France, jazz would be dead,” alluding to the fact that in the post World War II period, hundreds of American jazz musicians (including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, and Kenny Clarke) performed in France before larger audiences than were available to them in America.  In Le Jazz Hot, the Anderson’s quintet delivers top flight renditions of some exceptional pieces composed by or associated with the greatest jazz artists of all time, including Django Reinhardt’s Nuages, Sidney Bechet’s Promenade aux Champs-Elysees, Josephine Baker’s There’s a Small Hotel, Louis Armstrong’s C’est Si Bon, Duke Ellington’s Degas Suite, and Dizzy Gillespies’s Tour de Force – all performed against a backdrop of film clips of interviews with or performances by the historic artists themselves.

In the show’s penultimate set, the quintet delivers an unusual jazz interpretation of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune while on screen we are treated to a six minute segment from the film The Red Balloon.  It is a delightful and charming juxtaposition that adds emotional depth to the evening’s performance.

And what better way to end the show than with Cole Porter’s I Love Paris?  If you already love jazz or Paris or both (and, really, who doesn’t?), you’ll love this show.  And if you are one of the few who doesn’t love jazz or Paris or both, I’d be willing to wager that once you’ve seen this show, you will.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Richard Pryor Jr. Stars in Welcome Home Sonny T

L-R: Richard Pryor Jr., Verna Hampton and Levern Williams in WELCOME HOME SONNY T.  Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation.
Welcome Home Sonny T, currently playing at the Theater for the New City on First Avenue in lower Manhattan, is a powerful politically correct polemic in favor of gun control and the rights of illegal aliens, expressing the utopian dream that someday all men, whether white, black or Hispanic, will learn to live in peace.  The playwright, William Electric Black, a seven time Emmy Award winning writer, is best known for his work in family television (including such shows as Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic Productions), and this play, his first in a planned series of five addressing inner city violence and guns (to be collectively called Gunplays), appears to be directed at a similar young audience.

A few years ago, Sonny T and his friend Jasper held up a store and Jasper killed a man.  Jasper is now serving time in prison for his crime but Sonny T, as a result of the fortuitous intervention of Reverend Miller (Richard Pryor Jr.), has managed to avoid incarceration: Reverend Miller cut a deal with the authorities whereby Sonny T was permitted to enlist in the Army rather than be prosecuted for his involvement in the crime.  Now Sonny T is returning home from Afghanistan and the entire community, including his mother, May (Verna Hampton), his sister, Lashon (Brittney Benson) and his brother, Rodney (Kadeem Ali Harris), are planning a welcome home celebration for him at the Community Center run by Reverend Miller.

As luck would have it, Rodney is currently running with Jasper’s brother, Big Boy (Brandon Mellette), a truly bad apple.  Big Boy has provided Rodney with a gun that he persists in urging him to use.  Moreover, Big Boy not only resents the fact that his own brother is in jail while Sonny T avoided imprisonment by joining the Army but he also is violently bigoted against the Mexicans who have moved into his neighborhood and who, as he sees it, are taking jobs away from blacks.  When Carlos Mendez (Nestor Carrillo) delivers food to the Community Center for Sonny T’s party, Big Boy is livid.  When it develops that it was Carlos’ brother Hector who was shot the previous week and when Carlos organizes a march in his honor to occur at the same time that Sonny T’s party is scheduled, we just know that there is an accident waiting to happen.

Reverend Miller has attempted to tamp down the Black/Mexican ethnic tensions that threaten to destroy his community and to put an end to the gun violence that permeates it but he cannot help but be somewhat ambivalent in his approach.  A one time black activist prone to violence himself in the 1960s, he retains his identification not only with the black community but with all who are oppressed, including the Mexicans, and he can even understand their resorting to gun violence.  But he has grown since then and he realizes that guns are not the right answer and cannot provide a permanent solution to our problems.

The cast of seven does a fine job of depicting the pressures affecting the residents of our inner cities and their resorting to gun violence that is often the unfortunate consequence of those pressures.  I was particularly impressed by Kadeem Ali Harris’s portrayal of Rodney, torn between his love for his brother and his loyalty to Big Boy, and by Brandon Mellette’s portrayal of Big Boy, the angriest of angry young men.  Nestor Carrillo also did a fine job as Carlos Mendez, the young immigrant Mexican trying to make it in his new home.  Brittney Benson evolved in her role as Lashon, a good girl struggling to survive under difficult conditions.  And Levern Williams deserves special mention for his Sherman Hemsley-like portrayal of Funkygood.

One final note: the jazz/blues background saxophone music provided by Harry Mann was just terrific.