The Band’s Visit Review: Egyptian Police in the Israeli Desert, Making Music

The members of the creative team behind “The Band’s Visit,” a delightfully low-key musical starring a memorably paired Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk, have taken a 2007 Israeli film that is off-beat, and supplied their own beat.

Click on any photograph by Ahron R. Foster, to see it enlarged

David Yazbek, best-known as the composer of the Broadway musicals “Dirty Rotten Scoundrel” and “The Fully Monty,” here has come up with a terrifically tuneful Middle Eastern-inflected score (the musical instruments used by the eight-member orchestra include the stringed oud and the percussive darbuka) that veers from witty to wistful, sweet to swinging.

Writer Itamar Moses (“The Fortress of Solitude“; “Back Back Back”) is faithful to the quirky story in the film about the unformed members of the Alexandria, Egypt Ceremonial Police Orchestra who have been invited to the Israeli city of Petah Tikva to perform at a new Arab Cultural Center, but wind up in the small, isolated (fictional) town of Bet Hatikva in the middle of the desert. “There is not Arab Center here,” one of the perennially bored residents explains to them. “Not Israeli Culture, not Arab, not culture at all.”

Moses, Yazbek and the show’s director David Cromer, whose triumphs include widely and wildly praised Off-Broadway productions of Our Town, Tribes, and The Effect, keep the deadpan drollery of the film, but also produce through the individual Israelis and Egyptians alike a collective portrait of yearning.

With the seven Egyptian musicians stranded in the wrong town until they can take a bus the next day, the local café owner, Dina (Katrina Lenk, in what should be a star-making performance), organizes the effort to put them up in different households. This results in three principal stories, not of culture clashes, but of cultural exchange, often lighthearted but always laced with sadness. Despite the small scale and credible nature of the interactions, they take on the feel of fable.

A married couple Iris and Itzik (Kristen Sieh and John Cariani) who no longer get along, and Iris’s father Avrum (Andrew Polk) who still mourns the death of his wife, put up Simon (Alok Tewari), the visiting clarinetist. While his hosts argue in the other room, Simon plays his unfinished concerto to lull their baby to sleep.

The band’s Lothario, the trumpeter Haled (a splendidly and hilariously sexy Ari’el Stachel), who is always ready with a pick-up line, helps the neurotically shy Papi (Daniel David Stewart) make the necessary overtures towards a girl at the local roller skating rink. Even Haled’s bright flirtatiousness is lined with shadow; his family will soon force him into an arranged marriage.

The story that gets the most attention is that between Tewfiq the dignified/stuffed shirt conductor and commander of the orchestra (Tony Shalhoub giving his usual pitch perfect performance), and Dina, sexy and cynical and provincial all at once. There are some lovely moments between them, such as his teaching her how to conduct. As the night proceeds, it becomes clear how much their lives are circumscribed by their sorrows and regrets.

The cast of 14 (several of whom are also in the orchestra), who swirl around on Scott Pask’s deliberately barren set, are employed in other stories as well — small, often odd, but telling moments. There is the man who waits patiently each and every night by the town’s telephone booth for his far-away girlfriend to call him. There is a machine-gun toting roller rink guard who barks at Haled, refusing to let him enter, until Papi slips in between them, and says in Hebrew: “Hey, it’s okay, he is a friend of mine, okay?” The tensions between Arabs and Israelis are thus acknowledged, like everything else in “The Band’s Visit,” in an understated way, delivering no artificial happiness but suggesting reasons to be hopeful.

 

The Band’s Visit

Atlantic Theater

Book by Itamar Moses, based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin; Music and lyrics by David Yazbek; Directed by David Cromer

Sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Sarah Laux, choreography by Patrick McCollum, lights by Tyler Micoleau, projectons design by Maya Cirrocchi

Cast: George Abud, Bill Army, John Cariani, Katrina Lenk, Erik Liberman, Andrew Polk, Rachel Prather, Jonathan Raviv, Sharone Sayegh Tony Shalhoub, Kristen Sieh, Ariel Stachel, Daniel David Stewart and Alok Tewari

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets: $91.50 – $111.50

The Band’s Visit is scheduled to run through January 1, 2017. It’ll be surprising if it’s not extended.

Update: Extended to January 8

Advertisements

Tiny Beautiful Things Review: Nia Vardalos Dramatizes Dear Sugar Advice Columns

While watching “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a stage version at the Public Theater of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling book, I started to wonder whether it made sense to try to adapt a collection of advice columns on stage, even ones as literate and touching as Strayed’s Dear Sugar columns, and even in an adaptation by an artist as talented as Nia Vardalos, best-known as the writer and star of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

I stopped wondering when Alfredo Narciso, one of the three actors portraying the various letter-writers, recited the letter from an advice-seeker that was in the form of a list of 22 items. The list stopped at 22; that was the age at which his son was killed by a drunken driver. He signed it “Living Dead Dad.” Vardalos as Sugar then replies with a list of her own, containing 24 items. I can tell you that she talked about her own mother’s death at a young age; I can quote an especially striking comment on her list:

“Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.”

What is harder to communicate is how unbearably moving Narciso and Vardalos made these recitations.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” inspires such strong emotional reactions that the awkward set-up winds up not mattering much. Vardalos putters around an elaborate re-creation of Strayed’s home, one that’s better furnished and (almost) more cluttered than my own. She absentmindedly goes about her household chores — washing dishes, folding laundry – while the three other actors stand around in her home, looking weirdly out of place, as they take turns reciting the various letters, to which she then responds. The letters and the responses are largely faithful to the text of Strayed’s book, although they are sometimes trimmed, and they are put in an artful order; on rare occasion, the actors more or less act out a scene from a letter or a response.

Strayed’s approach to advice is to find stories from her own life, and so “Tiny Beautiful Things” functions as a kind of memoir. We learn that the last word her mother said to her was “love” – she was too sick and weak to muster the “I” or the “you.” We learn that Strayed’s grandfather sexually abused her when she was a toddler, and that Strayed got pregnant by a heroin addict while she herself was using the drug. What’s most startling and rewarding about her stories is not just that they are told well, but that they are applied to advice-seeker’s dilemmas to which they don’t on the surface seem relevant. To “Stuck,” who writes that she can’t get over her miscarriage, Sugar tells the story of a job she had as a youth advocate for “at risk” middle school girls. Their families were so abusive to them that she called the police and child protection services, but “no one did anything. So I told the girls something different. This will not stop. It will go on and you have to find a place within yourself to not only escape the shit, but to transcend it, and if you aren’t able to do that, then your whole life will be shit, forever and ever and ever. You have to do more than hold on. You have to reach….You have to reach for your desire to heal.”

“Tiny Beautiful Things” ends with Sugar, as portrayed by all four actors, offering a string of advice to her younger self, concluding with: “During the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus one hot afternoon and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are. A little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.”

Is it too schmaltzy to call this play a tiny beautiful thing?

 

 

 

 

 

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
Based on the Book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the Stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-Conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kailand Nia Vardalos
Directed by Thomas Kail
Featuring Phillip James Brannon, Alfredo Narciso, Miriam Silverman, Natalie Woolams-Torres and Nia Vardalos (Sugar)

Scenic Design by Rachel Hauck
Costume Design by Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by Jill BC Du Boff

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $95

Tiny Beautiful Things is scheduled to run through December 31, 2016

Rancho Viejo Review: Life in the California Suburbs

Rancho ViejoAt one of the continual neighborhood get-togethers in “Rancho Viejo,” Dan LeFranc’s new play at Playwrights Horizons about the residents of a fictional California suburb, one of the characters says he likes the weird books his college graduate son left in his garage: “They’re not exactly the kind of thing that’s gonna catch your attention from the start…they’re kinda like what I guess you’d call like a slow burn?” He then compares them to surfing: “I mean nothing’s happening out there for hours, but then if you’re patient the waves come rolling in one after the other….”

With this passage, the playwright is obliquely making a promise to the audience. And yes, waves do eventually roll in at “Rancho Viejo” – or at least the sounds of waves, during a nighttime scene at a beach. But “Rancho Viejo” is largely a tease of a play that is three long hours full of deliberate banality. The play, with a stellar cast portraying nine characters plus a dog, is subtitled “a suburban sprawl.” It mocks, or perhaps just reproduces, the desultory rhythms, affluent ennui and existential anxiety and loneliness of middle class, middle aged California suburban life. The design emphasizes the monotony; there is no effort to make the various living rooms look any different from one another.

Yet, at the same time, there are moments from the start that seem slightly off-kilter, leading to an accretion of weirdness that keeps us hoping it all will wind up meaning something.

While all nine characters (plus the dog) get their moments, “Rancho Viejo” focuses on the couple Pete (the always reliable Mark Blum) and Mary (Mare Winningham, the screen actress who has quietly triumphed as a regular on the New York stage.) They are the sort of couple so bland that their neighbors Gary and Patti (Mark Zeisler and Julia Duffy) keep on asking about Pete and Mary’s kids, not remembering that they don’t have any.

Gary and Patti do. We learn early that their adult son Richie (never seen on stage) is getting a divorce. This startles Pete, and then it obsesses him. His obsession with Richie’s divorce, which drives him to take odd action, is the closest that “Rancho Viejo” comes to a plot.

LeFranc is best known for “The Big Meal,” his 2012 play, also at Playwrights Horizons, that depicted one family at dinner over several generations. Rather than compressing decades of significant events into 90 minutes, as he did in that play, LeFranc now does the reverse, taking twice as long to stretch out minutia. One feels tempted to compare “Rancho Viejo” to “The Flick,” which also started at Playwrights Horizons, where it provoked complaints from some theatergoers that it was too long, but went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Both plays take their time to offer small details about everyday life and emotions that feel well observed, both have moments of quiet amusement, and both, despite extraordinary casts and fine direction, are probably better reads than physical excursions for many theatergoers.

In the more diffuse “Rancho Viejo,” however, the playwright is playing games with our expectations. Weird things happen to Pete and Mary. Somebody calls them each morning and hangs up without speaking; it’s part of their morning ritual. They (and we) are mystified by the presence of a teenager named Taters (Ethan Dubin) at the various get-togethers of their middle-aged friends; their encounters with him weird them out, and, in the most gripping scene, scare Pete. In the most accessible action of the play, Mary, whose best friend has moved away, tries to become better friends with the other characters.

What does this add up to?

One senses that the characters are questioning (mostly unconsciously) the meaning of their lives. But the playwright seems more interested in exploring the meaninglessness of their lives, or perhaps of lives in general; there’s an absurdist and nihilist bent to “Rancho Viejo.” It’s not surprising that LeFranc has expressed his admiration for Samuel Beckett. Somebody might remind LeFranc that as Beckett got older (and wiser), his plays got shorter.

 

Rancho Viejo
At Playwrights Horizons
Written by Dan LeFranc
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Set design by Dane Laffrey, lighting design by Matt Frey, costume design by Jessica Pabst, sound design by Leon Rothenberg
Cast: Mare Winningham, Mark Blum, Julia Duffy, Bill Buell, Ruth Aguilar, Ethan Dubin, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Lusia Strus, Mark Zeisler.
Running time: Three hours, including two intermissions.
Tickets: $39 to $89
“Rancho Viejo” is scheduled to run through December 23, 2016.

 

December 2016 New York Theater Openings

Four shows are opening on Broadway this month, three of them new musicals: “A Bronx Tale” marks the Broadway debut of Robert De Niro as a “co-director,” although Jerry Zaks is reportedly doing the heavy lifting.  “Dear Evan Hansen,”  a cult hit Off Broadway by the team of Pasek and Paul, is transferring to the Music Box.  And “In Transit,” another Off-Broadway hit, is co-written by Kristin Anderson-Lopez, who went on to compose the music with her husband Bobby Lopez for “Frozen.”

But some of the most thrilling theater in December is happening Off-Broadway — including “Othello” directed by Sam Gold, starring David Oyelowo and Daniel Craig; Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) in an adaptation of the bestseller “Tiny Beautiful Things” directed by Hamilton’s Tommy Kail; and “The Dead, 1904,” starring Boyd Gaines and Kate Burton, a re-creation of the dinner party at the center of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” in which theatergoers are among the dinner guests.

And then, this being December, there are Christmas plays up the wazoo — too numerous to include here.

Below is a selection of the plays, musicals and less easily categorized theater pieces opening in December, organized chronologically by opening date. Each title is linked to a relevant website. Also included are links to buy tickets (if you can’t get them at the box office.)

Color key: Broadway: Red. Off Broadway: Purple or Blue. Off Off Broadway: Green.
To look at the season as a whole, check out Broadway Preview Guide 2016-17 and Off-Broadway Fall 2016

Ad: Click here to sign up for discount ticket offers

December 1

A Bronx Tale (Longacre)

A Bronx Tale The Musical Pre-opening information; subject to change A Bronx Tale The Musical View More Images Longacre Theatre, (12/01/2016 - ) First Preview: Nov 03, 2016 Total Previews: Opening Date: Dec 01, 2016 Closing Date: Total Performances: Category: Musical, Drama, Original, Broadway A Bronx Tale The Musical tickets Official Website Opening Night Credits Production Staff Theatre Owned / Operated by The Shubert Organization (Philip J. Smith: Chairman; Robert E. Wankel: President) Produced by Tommy Mottola, The Dodgers and Tribeca Productions Book by Chazz Palminteri; Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Glenn Slater; Musical Director: Jonathan Smith; Music arranged by Ron Melrose; Music orchestrated by Doug Besterman Directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks; Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by William Ivey Long; Lighting Design by Howell Binkley; Sound Design by Gareth Owen; Hair and Wig Design by Paul Huntley; Make-Up Design by Anne Ford-Coates Musical Supervisor: Ron Melrose Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Press Representative: Boneau / Bryan-Brown; Fight Coordinator: Robert Westley Cast Richard H. Blake Lorenzo Nick Cordero Sonny Ariana DeBose Jane Lucia Giannetta Rosina Bradley Gibson Tyrone Bobby Conte Thornton Broadway debut Calogero Hudson Loverro Broadway debut Young Calogero Athan Sporek Young Calogero Alternate Gilbert L. Bailey II Joe Barbara Michael Barra Broadway debut Jonathan Brody Ted Brunetti Brittany Conigatti Kaleigh Cronin Trista Dollison David Michael Garry Rory Max Kaplan Dominic Nolfi Christiani Pitts Broadway debut Paul Salvatoriello Broadway debut Joseph J. Simeone Joey Sorge Cary Tedder Kirstin Tucker Swings: Michelle Aravena, Gerald Caesar, Charlie Marcus, Wonu Ogunfowora and Keith WhiteThe Bronx Tale, about a youth in the Bronx who against the wishes of his father gets involved in organized crime,  began life as a one-man show written and performed by Chazz Palminteri. It was then made into 1993 directed by and co-starring Robert De Niro. De Niro is co-directing the musical with Jerry Zaks, marking De Niro’s Broadway directorial debut.

Tickets

Iluminate (New World Stages) 

ILUMINATE 2

Acrobatic dancing by performers wearing glow-in-the-dark costumes

My review of Iluminate  at a previous venue

Tickets

December 3

Sgt. Stubby (St. Lukes Theater)

st-stubby

Subtitled “The Great American War Dog Musical,” the family-friendly show is inspired by the true story of a stray from New Haven, Connecticut who became a hero in World War I.

Tickets

December 4

Dear Evan Hansen (Music Box)

dear-evan-hansen-for-calendar

A high school student pretends to have been best friends with a classmate who committed suicide in this musical by the songwriters of A Christmas Story: The Musical. This was a cult favorite Off-Broadway.  My review when it was Off-Broadway.

Tickets

The Illusionists (The Palace)

the-illusionists-2016-for-calendar

On Broadway for the third holiday season in a row, The Illusionists will present magic from the early 20th century,

My review the first time around.

Tickets

Sing (Theatre at St. Clements)

sing

A South African and American Holiday Musical celebration starring and directed by Thula Dumakude.

December 5

The Babylon Line (Lincoln Center)

the-babylong-line

A play by Richard Greenberg about a writer from bohemian Greenwich Village who commutes to Levittown to teach a creative writing class that includes one student that reawakens his own artistic impulses. The cast includes Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser.

Tickets 

December 6

Rancho Viejo (Playwrights Horizons) 

Rancho Viejo

In Dan LeFranc’s comedy of anxiety and awkward neighbors, the residents of the (fictional) affluent suburb of Rancho Viejo drift from one gathering to the next, wrestling life’s grandest themes while fending off existential despair — set against the lustful, yearning strains of a distant bolero. The cast includes Mark Blum and Mare Winningham.

December 7

Tiny Beautiful Things (The Public) 

Tiny Beautiful Things for calendar

Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) plays Sugar, an anonymous online advice columnist in a Vardalos’ stage adaptation of the book of the same name by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton.)

Tickets 

December 8

The Band’s Visit (Atlantic Theater)

the-bands-visit

This musical with a book by Itamar Moses (Fortress of Solitude) and music by David Yazbek (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), and directed by David Cromer (Our Town), with a cast including Tony Shalhoub and John Cariani, is an adaptation the 2007 film about an Egyptian Police Band that arrives in Israel to play a concert but is sent by mistake to a remote village in the middle of the desert.

Tickets

Anna Christie (The Wild Project) 

anna-christie-for-calendar

Eugene O’Neill’s drama of a woman torn between the expectations of men and the secrets of her past, gets a timely retelling under the direction of Peter Roberts.

The Dead, 1904 (Irish Rep)

boydgainesinthedead1904ataihs1

Based on the novella by James Joyce, “The Dead,1904 is a new adaptation in which an audience of 40 guests will themselves attend the Misses Morkan’s holiday party, move from room to room with the actors, listen to the music, watch the dances, dine on a meal inspired by the menu in the novella, and observe the characters in their interactions.  The production will take place in an authentic Victorian mansion.” It stars Kate Burton and Boyd Gaines.

December 11

In Transit (Circle in the Square)

I

I

Broadway’s first a capella musical — no orchestra — chronicles the intertwining lives of 11 subway riders. It was a  hit Off-Broadway in 2010. Co-written by Kristin Lopez-Anderson, now known for Frozen. Its 16-member cast includes Justin Guarini, Telly Leung and Erin Mackey.

Tickets

December 12

Othello (NY Theatre Workshop)

othello-for-calendar

 

Sam Gold directs David Oyelowo (Selma) in the title role and Daniel Craig (Betrayal, Spectre) as Iago in Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Tickets

December 14

Nina Conti In Your Face (Barrow Street Theater) 

nina-conti

With handcrafted masks that transform audience members into “live puppets,” along with her sidekick, the “foul-mouthed” Monkey, Conti creates a hilarious new show nightly. This is ventriloquism for a new generation

Martin Luther On Trial (The Pearl)

martin-luther-on-trial-for-calendar

With Satan as the prosecutor and Luther’s wife for the defense, witnesses including Adolf Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Rabbi Josel, St. Paul, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Francis take the stand. Even as 2017 marks 500 years since Luther ignited the Protestant Revolt against Rome, he continues to spark intense debate

December 19

Bright Colors and Bold Patterns (Barrow Street Theatre) 

bright-colors

A one-man show written by and starring Drew Droege. “Josh and Brennan are about to get married in Palm Springs on a lovely Saturday afternoon. However, the night before becomes a drunken, drug-fueled scream riot, because their friend Gerry has arrived, furious that their invitation says “please refrain from wearing bright colors or bold patterns.”

Ride the Cyclone Review: Glee in Purgatory

“Ride the Cyclone” begins with six teenagers from the high school choir of a small Canadian town dying on a roller coaster called the Cyclone. Then, one by one, we hear their stories – or, more accurately, we get a show-stopping musical number out of each one of them.

If the musical feels largely derivative, it features an appealing, talented cast, a dozen witty, energetic songs in a variety of popular styles, and a spectacular design for such a small-scale show. Although the characters are dead, that doesn’t stop them from being fun and funny, albeit in a familiar way. Viewers might immediately think of “Glee,” or any number of peppy musical comedies.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

But I thought of Thornton Wilder.

Beneath all its jokiness and spirited (teen-scented) score, “Ride the Cyclone” seems to be trying to capture the mix of the unabashedly cornball and the cosmic that Wilder achieves in “Our Town,” with its theme of the importance of appreciating everyday life. But even more than “Our Town,” I thought of an earlier Wilder work, for which he won his first Pulitzer, “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” a novel that begins with the death of five people crossing a bridge in Peru, and then backtracks to focus on each of the characters. In the novel, a Franciscan monk spends years studying the lives of these dead to try to answer the question – why were they the ones who died?

In place of the Franciscan monk, the creative team of “Ride the Cyclone” conjures up the Amazing Karnak, a mechanical fortune-telling machine common to old carnivals and last seen in the movie “Big.” Karnak (a convincingly spooky and  robotic Karl Hamilton) knows when everybody will die, but he never tells those seeking their fortune at the carnival. (As he explains: “Being told the place and time of your death in front of your family, with a mouthful of corndog at a fairground, is the very opposite of fun.”) Feeling guilty that he didn’t warn the teenagers of their impending death, he has decided to hold a contest that will allow one of the teens to return to the living.

What are the rules of the contest? Karnak changes them arbitrarily from scene to scene (the fickleness of fate?)

The premise winds up being little more than the frame for a series of entertaining musical numbers. But the cast makes the most of them – demonstrating terrific skills not just in singing and dancing, but in forging strongly etched characters out of teenage archetypes.

(Their personalities are cleverly established from the get-go, in a song that reveals their reaction to the news that they are dead:

Mischa: Sex? Oh God, why did I wait?

Ocean: Now I’ll never graduate

Noel: I hope I wiped my browser clean.)

Kholby Wardell is memorable in his portrayal of Noel Gruber, “the only gay man in a small rural high school,” which, he says, “is kind of like having a laptop in the Stone Age. I mean sure you can have one, but there’s nowhere to plug it in.” A would-be French New Wave nihilist who aspired to be Marlene Dietrich in Blue Angel, he actually worked at Taco Bell. For his show-stopping number, he sings a sexy French song, as in a black lace negligee, imagining himself “a hooker with a heart of black charcoal.”

Gus Halper is hilarious and sexy as Mischa Bachinski, a Ukrainian immigrant who calls himself “best rapper in all of North Eastern Saskatchewan.”

Emily Rohm is haunting and ethereal (and a little creepy) as a teenager whose corpse was neither claimed nor identified: “Jane Doe is what the coroner said, They found my body, not my head.”

Alex Wyse, who was on Broadway in both Spring Awakening and Lysistrata Jones, is Ricky Potts, disabled in life by a degenerative disease, freed in death. He lets loose in a number imagining himself “a prophet from the Zolarian Starcluster, supreme leader of those that evolved from cats.”

Lillian Castillo is perfect as Constance, the nice girl everybody ignores, which makes her seethe – which anybody would notice if they noticed her at all. They definitely notice in her rousing number, which comes closest to driving home the Wilder-like themes.

And then there is Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg, an obnoxiously ambitious straight A, type A student. (Think Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry from Glee.) Even her supposedly supportive comments are irksome: “Some of us are left wing, some of us are right wing… but the last time I checked it takes two wings to fly!! We are community! We are Family! We are the World!” Yet she somehow manages to charm most of her classmates, grudgingly, as well as the audience.

Making her New York stage debut, Tiffany Tatreau is superb, all the more so for apparently taking over the part just a week ago, after Taylor Louderman, who had been cast as Ocean, announced on her Twitter feed that she was leaving “due to creative differences.”

Tatreau had played the part in the Chicago production, which was well received, as was its original productions in Canada. Now “Ride the Cyclone” has hit the big time – that’s the impression left from the spectacular stagecraft overseen by director Rachel Rockwell. Her design team has shoved into the Lucille Lortel, a small Off-Broadway house that customarily presents straight plays, the sort of imposing set, flashing lights, intricate and well-integrated projections and special effects that usually make up what I’ve previously catalogued as The Broadway Effect. One wonders: Is there more life in store for these lively dead characters?

 

Excerpts from the show begin at 14:46, at 28, and 39:30

Ride the Cyclone

MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel

Written and composed by Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell

Directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell

Set design by Scott Davis, costume design by Theresa Ham, lighting design by Greg Hofmann, sound design by Garth Helm, projection design by Mike Tutaj, wig design by Leah J. Loukas

Cast: Lillian Castillo, Gus Halper, Karl Hamilton, Emily Rohm, Tiffany Tatreau, Kholby Wardell, Alex Wyse

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Tickets

Ride the Cyclone is scheduled to run through December 18. I’ll be surprised if it’s not extended.

 

 

 

This Day Forward Review: Selfish Mother, Gay Son Again

In Nicky Silver’s new play at the Vineyard Theater, “This Day Forward,” we’re back again in Silverland — a gay man who has trouble with relationships must deal with his selfish, acerbic mother, who regrets her unhappy marriage and resents her children. Similar characters have appeared frequently in Silver’s work, most notably in “The Lyons,” starring Linda Lavin, a black comedy that was both hilarious and pointed, the only one of Silver’s plays to transfer to Broadway. If “This Day Forward” is not as strong, the playwright once more creates a play that deftly mixes funny and dark.

Click on any photograph by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged.


It is 1958 when the play begins in an elegant honeymoon suite of the St. Regis Hotel, on the day of the wedding between Martin (Michael Crane) and Irene (Holley Fain.) While Martin is eager to engage in their first lovemaking, Irene is intent on revealing something to her new husband that she fears will make him “very,very angry.”
“Irene, listen to me,” Martin replies. “I’m your husband and I love you. You can tell me anything. I’m your safe place.”
So, she tells him: “I don’t love you.”
We eventually learn that she’s in love with a car mechanic named Emil (Joe Tippett), with whom she had sex just that morning.
All of this is drawn out and played for laughs, and feels like one of those sex farces from the era, which dissolve into what used to be called comic mayhem. I suppose it’s too literal-minded of me to wonder why Irene waited until immediately after they were married to tell Martin that she didn’t love him. Little fake moments like that help make most of “This Day Forward” either silly and sitcomish or surreal and absurdist (depending on how much cachet you wish to give the playwright.)
A Polish hotel maid (June Gable) and her bellhop son (Andrew Burnap) help Irene decide which of the two men to choose to spend her life with, and what criteria she should use – attractiveness, money, sex?
The second act skips ahead a half century, with a new cast of characters (played by the same actors.) Noah (Crane) and his sister Sheila (Francesa Faridany), are in Noah’s hip downtown loft (kudos to set designer Allen Moyer.) They have to figure out what to do about their mother Irene (now played by June Gable), who has mentally deteriorated after the death of her husband, even though their marriage was an unhappy one. Also in the loft is Leo (Burnap), who has been in a relationship with Noah for a year, although Noah seems to take him for granted.
Silver has a talent for comic dialogue that carries us through even an aimless-seeming play like this one. But then, at the very end, it suddenly, subtly, quietly becomes clear — it’d be easy to miss – that “This Day Forward” has something to say about love and commitment.
This Day Forward
Vineyard Theater
Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Scenic design by Allen Moyer, costumes by Kaye Voyce, lighting by David Lander, original music and sound design by David Van Tieghem
Cast: Andrew Burnap, Michael Crane, Holley Fain,
Francesca Faridany, June Gable, Joe Tippett
Running time: 2 hours, including intermission
Tickets: $79 to $100

This Day Forward is scheduled to run though December 18, 2016

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World Review

African American types and stereotypes crowd the stage in the striking revival of Suzan-Lori Parks surreal and cryptic 1990 play at the Signature – a man in sharecropper overalls holding a watermelon (his character in the program is listed as “Black Man With Watermelon”) , a woman in a do-rag (“Black Woman With Fried Drumstick”) and nine others, including a minstrel performer (“Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork”), and a kid in a black hoodie (“And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger.”)
“The black man moves his hands,” says Black Man With Watermelon, the first line in the play. And then he doesn’t move his hands – because, after all, he is holding a watermelon.
“The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, AKA The Negro Book of the Dead” is reminiscent of both Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 Funnyhouse of a Negro, which was revived at the Signature earlier this year, and Gertrude Stein’s libretto for the 1934 all-black opera on Broadway “Four Saints in Three Acts.” Like its predecessors, “Last Black Man” offers searing imagery mixed with repetitive auditory gibberish, words that exist far more for their effect as sounds than for their meaning — words as jazz.
“Yesterday today next summer tomorrow just uh moment uhgoh in 1317 dieded thuh last black man in thuh whole entire world. Uh! Oh,” says Black Woman With Fried Drumstick.
I am sure a studious undergraduate could not only make sense of the text, but detect patterns of significance in it, beneath the obvious one of black oppression in America.
Parks, Pulitzer Prize winner for “Topdog/Underdog,” who is the resident playwright this season at Signature, recently offered her own two-tiered take on her early play in the Signature’s free magazine. On the surface, “it’s about a man, and his wife, and the man is dying….This man is dead and his wife is basically trying to find his final resting place…And what they find at the end is that his final resting place is a play called ‘The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World.’ It’s like a funeral mass in a way.” Even she, however, in effect advises theatergoers not to focus on such surface concerns as discernible plot or coherent dialogue: “…think of jazz music first of all…slam poetry, hip hop, like a poetry slam.”
There is humor here if you look for it: The only character dressed in a modern business suit, who says things like “Good Evening, this is the news,” is named “Voice On Thuh Tee V.” The characters’ names as a whole, if often opaque, can be amusing. (Read them all in the credits below.)
But for most of us, I suspect, the appeal of “Last Black Man” rests largely with the production values. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has assembled a first-rate design team — Montana Blanco’s costumes range from vivid and playful to disturbing, Yi Zhao’s lighting is evocative and haunting, Palmer Hefferan mixes lively music with ominous sounds. There is an impressive level of commitment from the 11-member cast, led by Daniel J. Watts, an eight-time Broadway veteran last seen in Hamilton, as the Black Man with a Watermelon. There are startling moments casually inserted upstage, like Reynaldo Piniella as the hoodie kid lurching and gasping in an electric chair. Some of these moments from a play written in 1990 feel alarming in their continuing relevance. Watts, in and out of a noose, never far from a hanging tree, at one point says, again and again: “Can’t breathe.”

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead
Signature
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Riccardo Hernandez, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Palmer Hefferan, projection design by Hannah Wasileski
Cast William DeMeritt as Voice on Thuh Tee V, Nike Kadri as Yes and Green Black-Eyed Peas Cornbread, Patrena Murray as Ham, Reynaldo Piniella as And Bigger and Bigger and Bigger, Julian Rozzell as Old Man River Jordan, Roslyn Ruff as Black Woman as Fried Drumstick, Mirirai Sithole as Prunes and Prisms, David Ryan Smith as Before Columbus, Daniel J. Watts as Black Man with Watermelon, Jamar Williams as Lots of Grease and Lots of Pork, and Amelia Workman as Queen-Then Pharoah Hatshepsut
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $30 through December 4; $35-65 afterwards.
The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA the Negro Book of the Dead runs through December 18, 2016

Othello The Remix Review: A Rap Adaptation

Othello vs IagoThe question hanging over Othello The Remix, 80 minutes of often entertaining and inventive raps written, composed, directed by and co-starring the Q Brothers, is how much it has to do with Shakespeare’s tragedy. A strong hint comes out of Othello’s mouth from his very first line:

“I gotta lotta drama, hotter than Madonna in a sauna
when she let you do a body shot of vodka on her. “

So, not Shakespeare’s language.

Now, The Remix certainly works as a fast-paced rap concert, with dramatic lighting and a fine dj spinning while four delightful performers spit out witty couplets and  execute synchronized choreography. But what makes it “Othello”?

Well, the plots are parallel, more or less, although there’s been some…updating. Othello is no longer a Christian Moor who’s become a powerful general in the armies of Venice; he is a “child of the ghetto” who’s become a rich and famous rapper. Desdemona, his wife, is a singer. Iago is a rapper in Othello’s crew, but he’s been pushed aside in favor of the more popular Cassio, whom Iago dismisses contemptuously as a “candy rapper” who belongs in a boy band. This envy is what motivates him, as in the 400-year-old play, to seek revenge.

Before dismissing this remix in the way Iago does Cassio, some background: The Q Brothers are in fact brothers – GQ (Gregory James Qaiyum) has been working as a professional actor on stage and screen for more than 15 years; he has collaborated just as long with his beat boxing dj younger brother JQ (Jeffery Ameen Qaiyum), on everything from the MTV series “Scratch & Burn” to several well-received rap adaptations of the Bard’s comedies, “Funk It Up About Nothin’” and “The Bomb-itty of Errors.” “Othello the Remix” was commissioned in 2012 by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and has been performed internationally and in Chicago. It is the Q Brothers first foray into Shakespearean tragedy.

And therein lies the rub.

Postell Pringle is a powerfully-voiced Othello who credibly descends into jealousy and rage. But the other three men play multiple parts, and have fun with them.   JQ is super-nerdy Roderigo as well as Loco Vito (renamed from Lodovico in the play), who is the head of First Folio Records. This is one of several satisfying inside jokes.  JQ and Jackson Doran also play female characters, in silly half-costumes. This helps signal that what we’re watching is a comedy, or a parody…. certainly not a tragedy. The weirdest choice is to cast Desdemona as a disembodied voice. We don’t see her; we only hear her in voiceover. It’s choices like this that rob us of the full force of Othello’s wrongful actions, and the full horror in his realization of what he’s done

We yearn for Shakespeare’s words. Instead, Othello raps:

All this death and it’s all because of me.
Now I see clear what I was seein’ fuzzily.

To be fair, there are moments – such as Othello’s final, deeply felt rap – that indicate the Q Brothers are surely capable of adapting a tragedy in such a way as to move and even enlighten us…if that’s what they really want to do. “Othello The Remix” doesn’t convince me that they do.

Othello The Remix

Westside Theater Downstairs

Written and directed by the Q Brothers, based on William Shakespeare

Set by Scott Davis, costume design by Christine Leinicke, lighting by Keith A Truax, sound design by Dave Ferdinand

Cast: Postell Pringle, GQ, JQ, Jackson Doran, DJ Supernova

Tickets: $85

Running time: 80 minutes no intermission

Tickets for

Party People Review: The Black Panthers and Young Lords,Viewed 50 Years Later

“Party People,” a look at the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, is powerful and intelligent documentary theater — although the documentary theater part struggles for attention amidst all the other elements of this lively, sprawling, overlong play/musical/multi-media hip-hop performance art piece.

Although we’re told in the program that “Party People” is based on dozens of interviews with former members of the two activist organizations from the 1960s, the characters we meet are fictional, and the play is framed as an imagined 50th year reunion of the activists at the opening of an art show – called Party People – put together by two young hip-hop artists who grew up long after the organizations’ demise.

Malik (Christopher Livingston) a videographer who goes by MK Ultra, is the son of a member of the Panthers who is in prison for life. Jimmy (William Ruiz) is a rapper known as Primo the Clown, whose uncle Tito (Jesse J. Perez)  was a member of the Young Lords. But, despite their familial ties and their interest in the movement, it soon becomes clear that they are skeptical of the older generation.

As Malik puts it, their aim vis a vis the movement and its legacy is to be unafraid “to look deep in its eyes, deconstruct it, analyze, optimize, finalize, cut and paste it, Photoshop it back together again and then click share.”

Clara (Gizel Jiménez), the daughter of two Young Lords, who was raised by an aunt, puts her skepticism more simply and more personally: “You sacrificed everything, even us, and still you failed,” she tells her elders.

Indeed, a major theme running through the show is the conflict between the 60’s generation and today’s. The criticism doesn’t all flow in one direction.

“You think wearing a hoodie and calling yourself Trayvon means something? Or throwing on a t-shirt that has a great tag line, like Hands Up,” Amira (Ramona Keller) tells them. “There were no ‘hashtags’ then.When there were issues of people being hungry, we fed the people. When we saw people needed health care we started our own free clinics. So action is the real thing.”

But pride is not the only emotion the characters feel. When we meet them one by one as they prepare to attend the reunion, we learn that they all joined as teenagers, inspired by Malcolm X and Puerto Rican independence fighter Don Pedro Albizu Campos, but that they now distrust and resent one another, blaming each other as much as the F.B.I’s infiltration,  dirty tricks and outright killing for the organizations’ destruction, and for so many of its members winding up in prison, in exile, in drug dens, in the cemetery.

Nevertheless, few of the survivors we meet regret having been involved. “Here’s something I do know,” Tito says at one point. “The Party may have failed, but the struggle for justice is always worth it.”

It is to the credit of the show’s creative team – the theater collective Universes, and director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) – that, like Malik and Jimmy, “Party People” itself doesn’t shy away from the mixed legacy of the parties and their members. One of the most compelling scenes in the play is the confrontation between Donna (Robynn Rodriguez), the widow of a murdered police officer, and Blue (Oberon K.A. Adjepong ), one of the Panthers imprisoned for his death

“My conviction was overturned because of evidence that was withheld by the prosecution,” Blue says.

“You may have fooled some people, maybe even convinced yourself, but you will not fool or convince me,” Donna replies.

“Party People” is full of intriguing historical tidbits, exciting choreography, rhythmic singing and chanting, clever spoken word poetry, stirring speeches, galvanizing fist-pumping, suspenseful encounters and poignant moments – too full, actually. It’s overstuffed and unfocused. One can sympathize with the creative team’s resistance to trimming such rich material, but still wish they had done so.

“Party People,” which the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned for its U.S. History cycle and was first produced there four years ago, has abruptly gained new relevance in the past week, acknowledged by an obvious update in Amira’s last speech in the play:

“The Party was a continuation of the first slave uprising, and we are still fighting that fight! It’s my only fight. Why do you think that the FBI and the CIA unleashed their dogs of war on us. Why do you think Donald Trump is the president? This country has never wanted us to be free.”

 

Party People

Public Theater
By UNIVERSES: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja
Composed by UNIVERSES with Broken Chord
Choreography by Millicent Johnnie
Developed and Directed by Liesl Tommy

Featuring Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Blue);  Michael Elich (Marcus, FBI Agent); Gizel Jiménez(Clara); Ramona Keller (Amira); Christopher Livingston (Malik); Jesse J. Perez (Tito); Sophia Ramos (Maruca); Robynn Rodriguez (Donna, Fina); Horace V. Rogers (Solias); William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja (Jimmy “Primo”); Mildred Ruiz-Sapp(Helita); and Steven Sapp (Omar).
Scenic and Lighting Design Marcus Doshi
Costume Design Meg Neville
Sound Design and Vocal Direction Broken Chord
Projection Design Sven Ortel
Wig Design Cookie Jordan

Running time: two and a half hours, including an intermission.

Tickets: $30 to $100

Party People is scheduled to run through December 11.

Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From The Field: Review, Pics, Video

One of the first things we learn in “Notes from the Field” — in a projection on the curtain — is that nearly six million voting-age people can’t vote in the 2016 presidential election because of state felon disenfranchisement laws.

Anna Deavere Smith  portrays 17  disparate characters with her usual dazzling virtuosity. It is her most diffuse and digressive work so far, less of a subject than an argument—that in the United States there is a school to prison “pipeline” for poor people and people of color.

Full review on HowlRound

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged

From “Brother”

CONGRESSMAN JOHN LEWIS
U.S. Representative (D-GA 5th District) Washington, D.C.

From “The Shakura Story”
NIYA KENNY
Student, Spring Valley High School Columbia, SC

From “Breaking the Box”
JAMAL-HARRISON BRYANT
Pastor and Founder of
Empowerment Temple AME Church
Spoken at the funeral of Freddie Gray, April 27, 2015