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Last Ditch Playlist Review: Kiss and Break Up

Last Ditch Playlist pic 1b

Aaron and Wes have broken up, but Aaron can’t seem to let go, in “Last Ditch Playlist,” Brad Baron’s semi-autobiographical play about his first love and his first breakup, which is running through Sunday at TheaterLab. Baron, an actor and writer, stars as Aaron, an actor and a writer, who is writing a play about their relationship and their break-up, entitled “Last Ditch Playlist.” Aaron tells Wes what he’s doing.

“It should make for a good ten minute story,” Wes says, superior-sounding to the end.

“Glad you can condense the story of our entire relationship into just ten minutes,” Aaron replies.

If only. Brad Baron’s play is some two hours long, which feels perhaps twice as long as it should be.

Baron has said that his play asks the question: How do you put back together a broken heart? But the play provoked other questions for me as well. Is it possible for an artist to be detached enough to bring theatrical clarity to the personal confusion in the aftermath of a lost love? And how do I offer constructive criticism about an ambitious, germinating Off-Off Broadway play that straddles the line between brave candor and self-indulgence?

On paper at least, “Last Ditch Playlist” has an intriguing structure, which we’re clued into from the title. Aaron has made a playlist of the songs that Wes told him he should be listening to, which he labels a Last Ditch Playlist. Aaron calls it that because Wes sees Aaron’s efforts at learning these songs as a last ditch effort to maintain the relationship. Near the end of the play, Aaron says: “My memories of you are like a Playlist on Shuffle: Scattered. Arbitrary. Shuffled. I replay the memories of you like they’re my favorite songs.”
And so, like a mixtape, the scenes of the play are presented in some kind of emotional rather than chronological order, introduced by the projection of a lyric or title from a popular song. The songs are from The Beach Boys and the Beatles, Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, Joni Mitchell circa 1971 and EMA circa 2011.
One senses there must be an intelligent correlation between songs and scenes, but this might have been easier to grasp fully if this were a novel. The arbitrary shuffling of the timeline also winds up keeping the audience less invested in Aaron and Wes as a couple
On stage, too many of the scenes feel like filler. There are arguments over films and singers; scenes with secondary characters whom we never see again; an entire subplot of sorts involving the ghost of Aaron’s best friend, who committed suicide in high school. There is even a scene in which the Big Bad Wolf tries to blow down the house of the Three Little Piggies, which is meant to be a dream by Aaron (who performs in children’s theater), incorporating arguments Wes and Aaron have had, but isn’t as clever or funny as it’s supposed to be .
For all these barriers, there are moments in “Last Ditch Playlist” that may stay with you. This is thanks in part to the appealing four-member cast. Aaron (Baron) and Wes (Ross McCorkell) spend as much time smooching as arguing. The play is particularly strong in chronicling familiar events that occur in almost any breakup — Aaron’s friend Lexi (Amy Stringer) talks about how she never liked Wes – and in capturing the swirl of indecision and confusion and pain that at one time or another has pegged all of us as Aarons.

Last-Ditch-Playlist-Production-Photo3

Last Ditch Playlist

Aaron: Brad Baron
Wes: Ross McCorkell
Zara/Lexi: Amy Stringer
Kellan/Willie: Dontonio Demarco
Choreographer: Casey Bagnall
Graphic Design: Sarah Cuneo
Lighting Design: James Johnson
Music and Sound Design: Jason Pomerantz
Video Design: Joseph Prestamo

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The Government Inspector Review: Michael Urie Triumphs Once Again, as Venal Bureaucrat

 

The vain, reckless son of a rich man is suddenly thrust into power by a venal group of citizens marked by their “ugliness, stupidity, greed, cowardice, corruption and sheer unpleasantness.” That’s the premise, more or less, of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play “The Government Inspector,” as interpreted by Red Bull Theater’s broad, bawdy production.

What saves this play from a depressing relevance is the phenomenal physical clowning by Michael Urie.

Michael Urie entered into pop culture consciousness as the catty fashion editor’s assistant Marc St. James in the TV series Ugly Betty a decade ago, but the Juilliard graduate has proven with each successive New York stage role that he was born for theater — The Temperamentals, How to Succeed in Business, Homos or Everyone in America, Show for Days, and especially Buyer and Cellar, the play by Jonathan Tolin in which he plays every part, including that of Barbra Streisand.

Urie is certainly not by himself in “The Government Inspector.” Every one of the 14-member is positively vaudevillian in their portrayals, a testament not only to their own talents but to that of director Jesse Berger. But I was struck by Urie’s singular gift for physical comedy, which I don’t remember seeing from him before — gracefully and athletically bumbling around the stage drunk or suicidal, or full of lust or greed.

Urie portrays Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, a drunken, whoring wastrel who was fired from his job as a low-level bureaucrat and travels through two-bit towns in 19th century Russia spending his father’s money. The officials and administrators of the particular town in which he is at present visiting get the false intelligence that he is a Government Inspector rooting out corruption and incompetence. They do all they can to win his favor – they wine him, dine him and incessantly bribe him.

The school principal uses as bribe money what he was going to use to buy new books for the school board meeting, but he becomes philosophical: “They can burn old books just as easy.”

The townspeople are even dumber than they are corrupt – it’s a town, as the mayor’s wife points out, “where people eat soup with their hands.” The wife (portrayed by the extravagantly bedecked and hilarious Mary Testa) thinks herself above the rubes with whom she is forced to associate: “Mine was a very cultured upbringing. We had a book, and my mother whistled.”

Her husband the mayor (Michael McGrath at the performance I saw, since replaced) is certainly dumb – given the ceremonial hat to wear, he puts on the hatbox instead – but he may be the only one even more cruel and corrupt. Before he curries favor with the false inspector, his calendar for the day (as read by a minion) consisted of: “Evicted the corporal’s widow. Had the corporal’s widow jailed for vagrancy. Flogged the corporal’s widow.”

Their daughter Marya, as Hlestakov puts it, “talks like she wears a chastity belt, but she acts like she knows a lot of locksmiths.” Her mother chastises her for her blunt language. “Men don’t like a woman with a tongue like yours” she says.

“Oh, really? Ask around.”

Such banter is courtesy of the 2008 adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, which is so consistently funny that he’s excused for adding a twist at the end that doesn’t make very much sense. After all, so little in the world makes much sense these days that The Government Inspector feels almost as much documentary as farce.

The Government Inspector is on stage until August 20, 2017.

Tickets and details

NYMF Review: Freedom Riders, A Civil Rights Musical

 

I ran into Congressman John Lewis, one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, on my way to see “Freedom Riders,” the inspiring gospel and soul-flavored musical about the courageous efforts by black and white activists in 1961 to desegregate interstate travel in the South. Rep. Lewis was going to the same show, as it turns out, and he was also in the show – one of the characters.

For two hours, the actual John Lewis watched Anthony Chatmon II as John Lewis persist in the face of beatings and jailings; arguments over strategy with Martin Luther King Jr. (Guy Lockard) and Stokely Carmichael and other movement leaders; temporary setbacks and ultimate triumph. And he sings …many songs, with lyrics like:

We choose today to make history,

If you’re not willing to die for this, what good is life if not living for it?

I focus on John Lewis because the real person was in the audience at Theatre Row. But the character of John Lewis is far from the only focus of “Freedom Riders,” written by Richard Allen and composer Taran Gray. Fourteen performers portray some three dozen characters over 30 short scenes, from May 3, 1961 — a non-violent training session in Washington D.C. for those who will be riding the buses down South – to November 1, 1961, at a bus station in Birmingham, Alabama, newly integrated by order of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Alternating with scenes of the civil rights activists are those with federal officials, primarily Robert Kennedy (Barry Anderson), the Attorney General of the United States, who at first is simply indifferent to the Freedom Rides, then worried about the potential for violence and bad publicity for the nation, and then finally embraces the cause.

It is not surprising, given the many short scenes full of incident and huge cast of characters, that Allen writes primarily for film and television.

But the musical must make room as well for Taran Gray’s songs, 15 of them (some sung twice.) They are rousing soul, gospel, r&b, pop…and the performers deliver them like a major gale force rarely below a category 3.

Indeed, each and every one of the singers are such powerhouse talents that it can seem almost amusing: Even white actor Mike Nigro (!), whose characters include a convincingly thuggish white bigot and a nebbishy student activist, lets loose like a star soloist in a gospel choir.

They all sound like soloists, even when the entire cast is singing together. The result is intense, and exciting, but the experience as a whole feels largely…. unmodulated. (The most noticeable exception is Brynn Williams as movement leader Diane Nash, who besides the powerhouse songs is also given some lovely ballads.)

This musical is running for just a few performances through Saturday, August 5, as part of the New York Musical Festival. It may be worth it for the creative team to consult a dramaturge, and consider working on focus and pacing in the next production. And “Freedom Riders” is sure to have another production. It deserves an audience.

 

 Photographs by Mia Winston, except the photograph of (the real) John Lewis, by Jonathan Mandell.

Really Rosie: Maurice Sendak + Carole King Musical

A musical written by Maurice Sendak, with a score by Carole King?! Why isn’t it better known?

That question would seem to make “Really Rosie,” which is on stage at New York City Center through Sunday, a good choice for Encores Off-Center, whose aim is to allow audiences to give old musicals another look.

“Really Rosie” began life in 1975 as a half-hour animated special on television, but an expanded stage version ran Off-Broadway five years later. So the show qualifies for Encores Off-Center. But that doesn’t make it a great choice.

“Really Rosie” is strictly for kids, and, while sitting through its 70 minutes, I have never felt less “young at heart” in my entire life.

But that’s not the main problem. It’s that Sendak was beloved as a children’s book illustrator, who was best known for the hauntingly beautiful drawings in “Where The Wild Things Are” – and there’s nothing to look at in this concert-version of “Really Rosie” except kids, wearing pink feather boas and big professional smiles, showing off their impressive skills at dancing and singing like a juvenile America’s Got Talent.

Sendak cobbled together “Really Rosie”  from several of his books, most notably “Nutshell Library,” a collection of four related stories.

One of the stories from the collection is Pierre, and he gets his own song in “Really Rosie”:

 There once was a boy named Pierre
Who only would say “I don’t care”

Pierre keeps on saying “I don’t care” even to a lion who asks him whether he would mind being eaten. So the lion eats Pierre, his parents bring the lion to town, and the doctor shakes Pierre out of the lion’s digestive tract. The trauma apparently did some good, because Pierre’s alienation has been cured and he just wants to go home.

“If you would care to climb on me, I’ll take you there,” the lion says.

“Yes indeed I care!” — and the lion takes Pierre home on his back.

What makes this Maurice Sendak story so  charming on the page are the illustrations. Remember this?

Here’s what it looked like in the musical:

Pierre Rosies

Lost on stage is Sendak’s complex tone, dark and full of dread, defiantly subversive, but at the same time beautiful and somehow gentle.

Instead, we get cuteness and ….razzle dazzle.

It’s accomplished razzle dazzle, helped along by King’s snappy melodies and Ayodele Casel’s choreography, sung and danced  by a cast of first-rate diminutive performers many of whom are already Broadway veterans —  of School of Rock, On Your Feet, Fun Home.

It doesn’t help that the various stories are tied together in a loose plot that involves Rosie (Taylor Caldwell) returning to the old neighborhood from stardom in Hollywood, and enlisting the other children from the neighborhood –Alligator, Chicken Soup (Rosie’s little brother), Johnny — to put together a Hollywood movie.

We know that Rosie and the other characters are just playing at being stars. The neighborhood stoop where they play is on Avenue P, which resembles Sesame Street. Indeed, several of King’s songs even count numbers or list the alphabet. Unlike Sesame Street, Avenue P  actually exists in Brooklyn, running through Bensonhurst and Midwood, close to where Sendak grew up. But if the characters live in Brooklyn, there’s barely a moment in “Really Rosie” when you’re unaware that the performers portraying them work on Broadway.

 

Really Rosie

New York City Center

Book and Lyrics by Maurice Sendak

Music by Carole King

Choreography by Ayodele Casel

Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick

Music Directors Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Carmel Dean

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Cast: Swayam Bhatia, Kenneth Cabral, Taylor Caldwell, Ayodele Casel, Jaiya Chetram, Eduardo Hernandez, Nanyellin Liriano, Chris Lopes, Zell Steele Morrow, Charlie Pollock, Ruth Righi, Anthony Rosenthal, and Nicole Wildy

Midsummer Night’s Dream Review: Public Theater Upstaged and Upstaging

Director Lear deBessonet’s production in Central Park of Midsummer Night’s Dream is star-studded and jazzed-up, but the first thought on passing through the gates of the Delacorte Theater is that it’s also been upstaged. The first show of Shakespeare in the Park this summer, ‘Julius Caesar,’ with its Trump-like Caesar, made national news and caused an angry blacklash. This led to disruptive behavior by some who attended, which explains why the Public has now hired security guards who check our bags.
That “Midsummer” has proven uncontroversial – except perhaps to Shakespeare purists – is surely all to the good by almost any measure.

But it suddenly struck me that there was actually a lot of upstaging going on within the production.

Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom the weaver more or less upstages everybody else in nearly all the scenes that he’s in, hamming it up as a hammy amateur actor. So does Phylicia Rashad as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, in all the scenes she’s in – except the scenes they’re in together, when he’s turned into an ass and she’s been bewitched into falling in love with him.

Annaleigh Ashford’s performance as Helena upstages the rest of the quartet of lovers, whose fickleness in love is aided by mischievously sprinkled fairy dust. Her Helena, first spurned by both Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) in favor of Hermia (Shalita Grant), then madly pursued by both, gives a broad, physical performance — leaning on her would-be lovers like a large plank of wood, sliding inertly as they drag her across the stage, hopping up and down, shrugging, making faces – all of which call to mind both her Tony winning performance as the clumsy ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You and her eager puppy dog in Sylvia.

Maybe it would be more polite, perhaps even more accurate, to say these performers stand out, rather than that they upstage. Besides, these are the biggest names in this production, and isn’t a star by definition supposed to stand out?

But what should we make of Bhavesh Patel  as Theseus the Duke of Athens and De’Adre Aziza as Hippolyta the Amazonian, who is his bride to be? They are more or less upstaged by their elaborate, exotic costumes, designed by Clint Ramos – and by the huge dead animal (is it a wolf?) that Theseus slaps on the stage as the play begins.

One can argue that the director’s staging — all that clowning around, along with the original music by Justin Levine (a mixture of snazzy and soulful jazz) —  sometimes upstages Shakespeare’s language. (I’ll say here that, for all his comic business, Burstein stands out for his clarity in speaking Shakespeare’s verse.) But if Will’s words do sometimes seem to be pushed aside for deBessonet’s direction, such a dynamic is certainly nothing new — either for Shakespeare in the Park nor for Midsummer Night’s Dream (e.g. Julie Taymor’s production of the play, which opened the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center .)

Kristine Nielsen, like Burstein, delivers her Shakespearean verses like a pro, which is ironic, because her performance otherwise baffles me.  She plays Puck,and is  the least puckish Puck I’ve ever seen – daffy sometimes, shambling at times, but lacking the impish energy one (ok, I) associate with the character. Nielsen occasionally seems almost to be sleep-walking, an impression helped along by her pajama-like costume. I’ve loved Nielsen in everything I remember seeing her in, from “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to “Hir” to “Present Laughter.” so I’m tempted to see her as being upstaged by herself.

All this talk of upstaging may give the wrong impression. “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park offers the kind of fun and free summer evening’s entertainment that the Public has been providing at the Delacorte for 56 summers — that my parents first took me to when I was four years old, that I went to every day as a teenager, working there summers as an usher, and that I will be attending no matter who’s offended, until I am indeed slumbering there while those visions do appear.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Choreography by Chase Brock
Directed by Lear deBessonet

Featuring Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta); Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom);Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer);Austin Durant(Snug); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Keith Hart(Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Patrena Murray (Snout); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Phylicia Rashad (Titania); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye(Changeling Boy); Rosanny Zayas(Understudy)

 

Scenic Design by David Rockwell
Costume Design by  Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Original Music by Justin Levine

Running time: 2 and a half hours, including one intermission.

Free

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage through August 13, 2017.

 

Bubbly Black Girl, Oak vs. Mandy, and the Continuing Relevance of Race on Broadway (and the World)

 

On the day I saw Nikki James give a star turn in “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” the Off Center Encores two-day revival of the musical by Kirsten Childs that is in part about the challenges facing a black performer, the producers of “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet” announced that Mandy Patinkin would take over the role of Pierre for three weeks starting August 14, replacing Okierete “Oak” Onaodowan. Oak Smash, as he’s nicknamed, an actor who was in the original cast of “Hamilton,” had assumed the role just on July 11th (taking over, after an unexpected delay, from Josh Groban) and was scheduled to perform through September 4. But, in an effort to boost ticket sales, which had declined after Josh Groban’s departure, the producers were ending Oak’s already brief run three weeks early.
Most publications hurrahed Patinkin’s return to Broadway after 17 years. But Broadway Black observed: “…the abrupt replacement of [Oak’s} role to boost ticket sales raises questions about how Black actors are valued and supported within Broadway.”
Prominent voices agreed on social media

(Tony nominee for Shuffle Along)

In response to the outcry, Mandy Patinkin announced, in an e-mail to the Times and a series of four Tweets, that he was withdrawing from the role:
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor. I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.”

But Oak has announced he’s still leaving August 13.

oak1

oak2

The controversy gave added resonance to Kirsten Child’s semi-autobiographical musical, making ‘Bubbly Black Girl’ if anything even more relevant now than it was when it debuted at Playwrights Horizons in 2000 starring LaChanze.

Nikki James portrays Viveca Stanton, nicknamed

Bubbly, a sunny middle class black child living in L.A. withdreams of being a dancer – and also of being white, like her favorite doll, blonde, blue-eyed Chitty Chatty. Nearly everything in her world as we see her growing up encourages her in her second dream, if not her first. She learns about the bombing death of four little girls in Birmingham from Gregory (Korey Jackson), the little boy next door, who taunts her that she looks just as ugly as one of the victims. A teacher tells a black classmate, “act your age and not your color.” A police officer accosts her and Gregory for no reason on the street outside her home, singing a chilling refrain:

You have the right to remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Remain silent remain silent
Hands up against the wall
You’re about to take a fall

Even her mother, who talks about black pride, insists she straighten her hair.
In dance class, Bubbly gets an early lesson in the racial politics of casting. The teacher, deliciously named Miss Pain, picks the light-skinned Yolanda to dance the princess. Bubbly is cast as the dancing Bramble Bush. Her classmate Emily had warned her in song:

You’re pathetic if you’re figurin’ that darker skin
will ever help you win
Now you can be the court jester,
the scullery maid, or the monster

When she moves to New York to become a dancer – “a place where f—ked-up folks can make their dreams come true” — director Bob (Josh Davis) tells her during an audition “Don’t go white on me, Bubbly.”
Bubbly then shares with us her inner monologue: “Okay – don’t panic – black, black, black, black, black, black…lot’s of black people in the South …okay…Southern accent, but not like a slave…’cause If I do get this job, I don’t want to offend the few black people that are gonna be in the audience any more than I have to…”

Her blackened second try brings down the house.

By the end of “Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin,” Bubbly sheds her ever-smiling persona, and her nickname. After another audition in which she is no longer trying so hard to please other people, Director Bob tells her: “For this show, I need you to give me something a little less…dark.”

She replies: “You know, for the longest time, I’ve been trying to do exactly that— be a little less dark. But I can’t run away from who I am anymore. And I don’t want to.”

Viveca winds up opening her own dance studio. Kirsten Childs, who danced for Bob Fosse on Broadway and on tour (Director Bob is an obvious, satirical stand-in for Fosse), has become a composer and playwright, whose latest musical “Bella An American Tall Tale” was at Playwrights Horizon this season,)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Childs’ debut musical is that the racism that Bubbly witnesses and experiences is woven into a show that is full of satire, given hilarious expression in this production by the director, Robert O’Hara, who knows a thing or two about satire (as a playwright of such edgy comedies about race as Bootycandy and Barbecue.) But the satire is folded into an all-around entertainment. Childs melodic songs range from jazz to funk to gospel to Broadway ballads. And though Off-Center Encores is supposed to be a concert version of old Off-Broadway shows, another highlight of this production was Byron Easley’s choreography.

The show at City Center, in another words, was a triumph and a delight in every way. And, like Oak in The Great Comet, it’s a shame it had such a brief run.

 

NYMF Review: A Wall Apart. Love and Rock N Roll vs. The Berlin Wall.

“A Wall Apart,” a production at the New York Musical Festival, has a catchy score by Graham Russell of the Australian rock group Air Supply, sung by an eminently watchable cast of steel-voiced Broadway professionals. But its story, about two lovers separated for 28 years by the Berlin Wall, opts for a sentimental and frequently simpleminded version of history.

 Click on any photo by Michael Schoenfeld to see it enlarged 

 

Ironically, it begins with a black and white newsreel, which straightforwardly explains the events that led to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 — how the Allies after World War II divided Germany up into sectors, with the Soviet Union turning its sector into the “German Democratic Republic”….East Germany. But immediately afterward, we get a loud, Les Mizish rock anthem in which three brothers – Hans, Kurt, and Mickey – sing over and over about “liberty, the pillar of our city/we’re going to build our city like new,” which is forcefully sung and sort of rhymes but is never explained.
It’s soon clear that the three brothers have different views of East Germany. The oldest, Hans Ostermann (Darren Ritchie), is a captain in the border patrol and a Communist out of gratitude for the government’s support after the three of them were orphaned. Mickey (Josh Tolle), the youngest, is frontman for a rock n roll band with a standing invitation to play in a West Berlin club called The Bunker; he is determined to move to the West with his bride Suzanne (Emily Behny.) The middle, Kurt (Jordan Bondurant), is ambivalent – until he meets Esther Wilson (Maddie Shea Baldwin), an American citizen living in West Berlin. “A Wall Apart” follows the family and the two lovers from 1961 to 1989, the years that the Berlin Wall stood, dividing the city of Berlin, and the nation of Germany, and the characters of this musical.
Had “A Wall Apart” appeared on stage six months ago, or maybe even three, it might have been easier for one to view it more narrowly as a cautionary tale, nearly an allegory, about politicians building walls, and not been bothered as much about what’s left out of the history it is supposed to be depicting.
Esther Wilson explains when she meets Kurt that she is half-American and half-German, her “German refugee” mother having met her American father after she arrived in the United States in 1934. Other than these oblique clues and the fact that she named her daughter Esther, we are given no indication that Esther’s mother is Jewish, much less any sense that Esther is even aware of the Holocaust.
At another point, Tante (Leslie Becker), the aunt who raised the three boys after their parents were killed, reminisces about the “miseries” of 1945 – by which she means when Soviet soldiers (“Stalin’s murderers”) “overran Berlin.”
Why did the creative team omit any real references to the Third Reich and its lingering effects?  It would be difficult for them to argue that the Nazi past is irrelevant to the story they’re telling: Students of history know that East Germany justified its existence by claiming the mantle of anti-Fascism while accusing West Germany of failing to confront its Nazi past.  It’s unlikely to be because the creative team is unaware or indifferent. Co-book writer Sam Goldstein has told interviewers that Zero Mostel was his “god uncle.” Did they worry that any explicit mention of the Nazi past could undermine our identification with this wholly decent family or get in the way of the feel good narrative? Would it needlessly complicate the musical’s Manichean view of Berlin Wall history?
There is a scene where Hans urges Kurt to join him in working for the border patrol, and they debate the merits of the job, and of East Germany as a whole. Hans makes a few weak but rational arguments — they’ve fed us; security is important; you can work within the system to change it – while Kurt says things like: “What’s the point of security if there’s no liberty to go with it?”
Is there anybody sitting at the Acorn in Theatre Row on 42nd Street who is going to side with Hans against liberty?
This stacked deck approach might have been more tolerable if there didn’t exist the vastly more sophisticated examples of Doug Wright’s play “I Am My Own Wife,” or even the current FX TV series “The Americans,” which present alternative viewpoints from the same era that challenge our worldview rather than lazily confirming it.
Some of this may be fixable. “A Wall Apart” is, after all, a work in progress. That status is most obvious by the sudden shift about three quarters of the way through the show, when a character comes back from the dead to narrate the remaining quarter century that has yet to be dramatized (“…Esther began teaching dance at an orphanage. In her spare time she worked for the reunification movement….”) Although three decades have passed, neither Esther nor Kurt have aged when, in one scene, they talk through the cracks in the wall, like the scene of Pyramus and Thisbe, the silly play-within-the-play, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, except we’re meant to take the scene in “A Wall Apart” seriously.
If it’s easy to pick the script apart, it’s hard to dismiss Russell’s music, which holds some surprises, such as a lovely lullaby in German, “Forlorn Fraulein,” and “Son of the Father,” performed by a late-arriving character portrayed by Matt Rosell (who was in the cast of Les Miserables, natch.) It’s one of the musical numbers that feel hard-charging enough in and of themselves to tear down that wall.

A Wall Apart
Theatre Row
Music by Graham Russell, book by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews,
Musical Direction and Arrangements by Jonathan Ivie; Scenic and Lighting Design by David Goldstein; Costume Design by Dustin Cross; Sound Design by Shannon Epstein;

Cast: Maddie Shea Baldwin as Esther, Leslie Becker as Tante, Emily Behny as Suzanne, Jordan Bondurant as Kurt, Darren Ritchie as Hans, Matt Rosell as Mickey Jr., Josh Tolle as Mickey, with Mili Diaz, Jamal Christopher Douglas, Amanda Downey, Lindsay Estelle Dunn, Sean Green, Jr., Emily Kristen Morris, and Vincent Ortega.

Running time: 2 hours, including an intermission.

A Wall Apart is on stage through July 30, 2017

NYMF Review: The Goree All Girl String Band. Prisoners Fiddling Their Way to Freedom.

Six women inmates, in a Texas jail for crimes ranging from cattle rustling to murder, form a country music band in order to get on the radio, get famous, and get pardoned by the governor. That is what happens in this show at the New York Musical Festival, a musical so tunefully entertaining that one could make allowances for such an outlandish plot. But we don’t have to: “The Goree All Girl String Band” is based on a true story.

Click on any photograph by Shira Friedman to see it enlarged

Inmates at the Goree State Farm for Women learned to sing and play string instruments well enough in 1940 to land on “Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls,” a surreal but real weekly program on WBAP that featured musical performances by Texas prisoners. The Goree group became famous throughout Texas – and, yes, the governor eventually pardoned them.

In the retelling of this history, we are first introduced to inmate Mozelle McDaniel (Ruby Wolf), just 17 years old and new to Goree, which allows the audience to get to know the jail along with her. Her fellow prisoners describe their crimes in a jaunty song, “Did It Cuz I Had To,” We meet Captain Marcus Heath (Nick Plakias) and his wife Clyde (Tamra Hayden), who run the jail. Clyde is warm-hearted; the Captain initially seems stiffer but fair and well meaning. When rowdy inmate “Cocaine” Nora Harris (Miche Braden) acts up, however, Heath has a guard force her to the infirmary for what the inmates call a “Mississippi Appendectomy” – an operation that makes her sterile. “Don’t want no more deviants; they think we’re deviants,” inmate Bonnie (Lizzie Hagstedt) explains.

But “Goree” is not gory; this is no Caged. The misery is played down. The music is what matters, 16 original songs composed by Artie Sievers, orchestrated by Max Gordon, and sung by all 13 members of the cast, who also play the musical instruments. Theatergoers are likely to remember Nora’s off-stage sterilization much less than Braden’s later bring-down-the-house blues solo, “How They Leave You.” Hers is just one of several memorable solos, most of them by performers portraying characters who are not among the six members of the Goree band – besides Braden’s, Hayden’s lovely “Great Big World” and Nattalyee Randall’s powerhouse “I Don’t Mind.”

The six-member band gets most of the attention. Reable Childs (Lauren Patten, veteran of “Fun Home” on Broadway and “The Wolves”) is the central character, the inmate who comes up with the idea of forming the band, after listening to Thirty Minutes Behind the Walls. Then Clyde the warden’s wife teaches the women how to play the musical instruments. By the end of Act I, they’ve made it to the radio show. By the beginning of Act II, they’ve become celebrities.

There are faint and feint stabs here and there at character development and complications and subplots; these are no more fleshed out than the set, which uses wooden ladders to suggest jail cells, and different color lights to mark a change of location. Michael Bradley’s book and lyrics play second fiddle to the fiddles …and the voices, guitar, banjo, drum, mandolin, cello and bass, as well as accordion, saw, spoons, and washboard — and to the musician/actors who play them.  I would be remiss not to single out Hagstedt’s masterful bass playing. Ensemble member Titus Tompkins is the most spectacular player of a washboard that I’ve ever heard. That’s in the number called “Daddy Wore Boots,” when all stops are out, the entire cast is playing or singing, and the instruments and instrumentalists both seem to be flying in the air.  These musical numbers are so damn fun that, while “The Goree All Girl String Band” may have its flaws, like the governor of Texas, I pardon them.

The Goree All-Girl String Band
Theatre Row
Book and lyrics by Michael Bradley, music by Artie Sievers
Directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe
Music direction by Max Gordon, choreography by Brandon Powers, scenic design by Brett J. Banakis, costume design by Tina McCartney, lighting design by Isabella Byrd

Cast: Lauren Patten, Elizabeth Hagstedt, Kendra Jo Brook, Ruby Wolf ,Titus Tompkins, Lauren J. Thomas, Robert Ariza, Tamra Hayden,Luke Darnell, Nattalyee Randall ,Chanel Karimkhani, Nick Plakias,and Miche Braden

Running time: Two hours including an intermission
Tickets: $29.75
The Goree All Girl String Band is on stage through Saturday, July 29, 2017

 

To The End of the Land Review: An Israeli Love Triangle Defined By War

 

A love triangle that lasts 35 years is at the heart of “To The End of the Land,” but the lives of the three main characters of this Israeli play, being presented in Hebrew with English supertitles at the Lincoln Center Festival, are less defined by love than by war.

This stage adaptation of David Grossman’s celebrated novel begins when Ora and her two eventual lovers, Avram and Ilan, are all 16 years old and meet in a hospital during the Six Day War in 1967.

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Avram is captured and tortured, and, after he’s rescued, he wants nothing more to do with Ora nor Ilan; when he finds out Ora is pregnant with his child, he wants nothing to do with his son either. Ilan marries Ora and raises the son, Ofer, as his own.

Then, in 2002, the grown-up Ofer is now in the Israeli army, and decides to re-enlist. An anxious Ora comes up with a unique and cockamamie way to keep her son safe. She decides to leave her home and hike to Galilee (“the end of the land” of Israel), so that nobody can come to her door to deliver the official news if her son has been killed.

Estranged though not divorced from Ilan, Ora locates Avram, and takes him on the hike, where they go over their lives, their past, the waxing and waning of their relationship. They reveal secrets they’ve kept from one another.

That is more or less the essence of this two and a half hour play, boiled down from Grossman’s 2008 novel, which runs 674 pages in its English translation. Director Hanan Snir, who wrote the adaptation, chops this story into pieces, and presents the pieces in an order that makes it more dramatic, and at times less than clear. He also spices it with an anti-naturalistic theatricality, harnessing the dozen cast members to populate the various scenes and even depict the sundry landscapes using minimal props, their own bodies, and occasional musical instruments. Although the creative team makes apparent attempts to help the audience — sometimes a character speaks directly to us, narrating – the play often feels geared to people who’ve read the novel, with short scenes inserted that feel shorn of the context the novel might provide them (or at least deprived of the extra time the readers get to figure out these eerie, lyrical scenes.)

Yet, there are enough moments in “To The End of the Land” that hit hard enough to compensate for the confusion, such as an effective combat scene and what one can call an anti-combat scene – when Ora (standout Efrat Ben Zur) lets out her frustration at leaders, both Arab and Israeli, while chopping a salad, calling out a different name with each angry chop of her knife.

“To The End of the Land” is produced by two Israeli theater companies, the Ha’Bima National Theatre and The Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv.

 

To The End of the Land

Based on David Grossman’s novel

Adaptation and Direction Hanan Snir

Set Design Roni Toren

Music Ori Vidislavski

Movement Miri Lazar

Costume Design Polina Adamov

Dramaturg Noga Ashkenazi

Lighting Design Roni Cohen

Cast: Efrat Ben Zur as Ora, Dror Keren as Avram, Amnon Wolf as Ilan,  Daniel Sabbag as Ofer, David Bilenca as Akiva, Guy Messika, Rinat Matatov, Amos Boaron, Harel Murad, Nir Barak, Eldar Brantman, Vitaly Podolsky

 

 

Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes, including intermission

To The End of the Land runs through July 27, 2017

 

And She Would Stand Like This Review: LGBTQ House of Euripides, Snap

“Greek tragedy meets Harlem ball scene. Fantastic,” RuPaul Tweeted succinctly after seeing “And She Would Stand Like This.” The Harlem-based Movement theater company’s adaptation of Euripides’ “The Trojan Women,” which has opened at A.R.T./NY, is inspired by “Paris is Burning,” the 1990 film documentary by Jennie Livingston that chronicled the elaborate culture of drag balls by LGBTQ+ people of color in the 1980s.

And so the show begins with the fierce members of the House of Hecuba bedecked in fabulous attire posing down a runway one by one to pulsating house music, flashing disco lights, and deafening whoops and applause from the audience.

After that prologue, the runway becomes a hospital waiting room and the dancers, characters in an updated tragedy. In Euripides’ play, the Greeks have conquered Troy, killed the men, and imprisoned the Trojan women, who await further atrocities. In playwright Harrison David Rivers’ adaptation, the Greek killers have been replaced by an unnamed disease.

In Euripides’ play, Talthybius is a herald informing the dethroned Queen Hecuba what the Greeks will do to her and her children – death or enslavement. In Rivers’ adaptation, Talthybius (Reggie D. White) is a doctor delivering unwanted diagnoses.

The Greek chorus are a group of LGBTQ+ people of color whom Hecuba (Julienne Brown), once queen of the ball, had taken under wing. They are given the names Baby, Miss Scott, and Grace. They tell stories of their childhood.

Each of the ten characters in “And She Would Stand Like This” correspond in more or less clever ways to the characters in “The Trojan Women,” some more of a stretch than others. Menelaus, King of Sparta, becomes Elena (Florencia Lozano), the hospital’s administrator – and a woman who knew Hecuba before she transitioned to a woman. In Euripides, Menalaus was the husband of Helen, the “face to launch a thousand ships.” Here, the high-heeled Elena is mother to Honesto (Michael-Anthony Souza) who has a second identity, unknown to his mother…as Helen.

In his adaptation, Rivers gives implicit respect to his characters — poor, queer New Yorkers of color – by placing them in a classic tragedy that for 2,500 years has been populated by gods and goddesses, kings and queens. Director David Mendizabal has assembled a cast that does justice to Rivers’ conceit; some of the performers are themselves trans, all are people of color. Stand-outs include the three members of the Greek chorus — Darby Davis, Tamara Williams and Cornelius Davidson — who werk it to Kia LeBeija’s vibrant choreography in the prologue and then tell Rivers’ stories with a simplicity that makes them all the more moving. The star of the show is Julienne “Mizz June” Brown, who persuasively carries the weight of Hecuba on her shoulders. It’s refreshing to see such characters, and such performers, on a New York stage.

The fusion of Ancient Greece with 1980s Harlem doesn’t always play well. It takes some adjustment to go from the high-energy prologue to the staid pace of the tragedy. And the mix of dictions can be jarring. One moment Hecuba proclaims: “I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash present grandeur down.” Another moment, she says: “A bitch can’t catch a motherfucking break!”

There is too much of the high diction, which can sound like a bad translation, and at the same time too much shouting. The most striking moments are told quietly and plain. Baby (Cornelius Davidson) tells us he got his nickname from his mother, who would hold his head between her hands and say “Make sure you don’t lose this”; she would put her ears to his heart and say “Make sure you listen to it beat, because it’ll always tell you the truth.”; she would grab his penis in the tub and say “This ain’t no weapon. Your Daddy ain’t figured that out yet.”

And occasionally, the mix of the Ancient and modern, the Queens and queens, feels just right:

“Have you ever noticed how a word begins to lose all meaning when it is said over and over again?” all three members of the chorus say in unison.
Grace: “A word like grief.”

Baby: “Grief.”
Miss Scott: “Grief.”

All: “Grief.

Grief

Grief

What a funny sounding word.”

 

And She Would Stand Like This

A.R.T./NY Theatres

Written by Harrison David Rivers

Directed by David Mendizabal

Choreographed by Kia LaBeija

 

Set Designer: Paul Tate DePoo III

Lighting Designer: Brian Tovar

Costume Designer: Anitra Michelle

Sound Designer: Sinan Refik Zafar

DJ/Prologue Composer: Byrell the Great

Cast: Julienne “Mizz June” Brown as Hecuba, Cornelius Davidson as Baby, Cherrye J. Davis as Andromache, Darby Davis as Miss Scott, Florencia Lozano as Elena, Ashton Muñiz as Cassandra, Michael-Anthony Souza as Honesto/Helen, Dasan Turner as Astyanax, Reggie D. White as Talythybius, and Tamara Williams as Grace.

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: $20-$25. “A minimum of 15 tickets per performance will be pay-what-you-can.”

“And She Would Stand Like This” is on stage through  August 6th, 2017