Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Euan Morton at Castle On The Hudson

photo: Juan Jose Ibarra

I’ve been nursing a mad man crush on Euan Morton’s voice ever since he starred as Boy George in Taboo, so I was especially pleased that he opened his delightful set at Castle On The Hudson with that show’s “Pretty Lies”. (Bonus for Taboo fans: Liz McCartney in the audience. See picture.) Accompanied by a single piano, Morton sailed through an eclectic set of songs – the Nat King Cole standard “Smile”, “Danny Boy”, Roy Orbinson’s “You Got It”, the Eurythmics’ “Why”, a song from the musical Caligula - with assured seamlessness, partly thanks to the easy, unpretentious charm of his banter but also thanks to the depth of feeling in each interpretation. I laughed, I cried, I got wood. His voice may be smooth and pretty and his tone sweet but what is especially outstanding about his singing is how much emotion he puts into his interpretations while judiciously maintaining a vocal restraint and a gorgeous tone; it’s not for nothing that he counts Karen Carpenter among his vocal influences. I’m not often a cabaret person, but this was bliss.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009



Photo: Carl Skutsch

Three residents and two staffers of a group home for the disabled coalesce into a bickering but affectionate "family" in this witty and entertaining one-act. On some level, as playwright Kristin Newbom demonstrates, the disabled and the staffers aren't so different. The cast shines, Ken Rus Schmol directs smoothly, and Kirche Leigh Zeile's costumes are hilarious. But the real star of this show is the sparkling script. Ms. Newbom has a surefire sense of rhythm. Watching this Clubbed Thumb production is like listening to a brilliant piece of music executed with precision and filled with surprises, funny, touching, and sometimes both.


Tom Stoppard can be a problematic playwright. While his brilliance is undeniable, his shows can be tough slogs through encyclopedic swamps of (not always compelling) information. However, Arcadia, arguably his masterpiece, boasts a perfect balance of math, history, satire, love, sex, compassion, humor, ego, and witty repartee. It demonstrates, in a fascinating, funny, and heartbreaking three hours, that humans' ability to understand anything (particularly each other) can be severely limited by their circumstances, prejudgments, and, well, humanity.

The plot can't really be done justice in less than a few hundred words, but, in brief: Arcadia takes place in the same room in the early 1800s and the late 1900s. In the early 1800s, the gawky, insatiably curious, child genius, Lady Thomasina, is being tutored by Septimus Hodges, who is smart enough to recognize her genius but not quite smart enough to understand her discoveries. In the 20th century, academicians are trying to understand the people in the 19th through the clues/detritus they left behind: notebooks, poetry, blueprints, letters. Multiple assignations are carried out, much plotting is done, discoveries--correct and incorrect--are made, and enough funny lines are said to fill a dozen plays written by ordinary mortals (for example: "Her chief renown is for a readiness that keeps her in a state of tropical humidity as would grow orchards in her drawers in January").

The recent production of Arcada at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, did full justice to this wondrous work. It would be lovely if someone brought it to New York.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Twelfth Night

Sign me up as a member of the Twelfth Night fan club. It's a magical evening in a magical setting.

Nothing Like a Dame

Photo: Walter McBride/Retna Ltd

The yearly benefit for the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative, Nothing Like a Dame, hit a new high this year. In the past, Nothing Like a Dame featured dozens of women; this year, the focus was on only six, but what a wonderful six! Stephanie J. Block, Betty Buckley, Andrea McArdle, Audra McDonald, Bebe Neuwirth, and Kelli O'Hara were interviewed by the always-funny Seth Rudetsky, who knows how to listen (a surprisingly rare trait among interviewers). Each woman then sang a song or two. In an evening made up almost totally of highlights, the staggeringly talented Audra McDonald stole the show with her effortlessly lovely rendition of "Bill." Keep an eye out for this wonderful yearly event--rarely in life can one have such a great time while supporting a good cause.

Things of Dry Hours

Photo: Joan Marcus

The plot of Naomi Wallace's Things of Dry Hours does not stand up to examination--actually, the word "flimsy" comes to mind. The characters are odd amalgams of traits, inconsistencies, and political stances. But the plot and characters are sturdy enough to support Wallace's beautiful language and thought-provoking ideas, Ruben Santiago-Hudson's pleasingly theatrical direction, and a couple of superb performances. In brief: a white man with dubious motives forces an African-American father (the superb Delroy Lindo) and daughter (the equally superb Roslyn Ruff) to take him in after he (maybe) commits a serious crime. The father is a Communist and uses the forced proximity to the white man to try to win him over to the cause. The daughter is smart and angry and at loose ends. The white man is lonely. Stir in some magic realism, racial tensions, a few not-terribly-convincing plot points, and genuine emotion, and you have a deeply flawed but excellent evening in the theatre.

Twelfth Night

Though only a week into previews, Daniel Sullivan's fun, fluid and refreshingly traditional production of Twelfth Night, or What You Will stands as one of New York Shakespeare Festival's most satisfying productions of the past decade. It may come as a surprise to some that Anne Hathaway, playing the lovelorn lady-in-disguise Viola, has stage presence to spare, but she makes one of the most assured Shakespearean debuts I've ever seen. It will come as no surprise that Audra McDonald is an ideal Olivia--her aloofness opening up into positive glee upon meeting Viola, dressed as the page Cesario--or that Raul Esparza registers deeply in the usually one-note role of Duke Orsino. The heart and soul of the production, however, are the brilliant comedians: Julie White's lacerating Maria; Jay O. Sanders' uproarious Toby Belch; David Pittu's hilarious (and remarkably sung) Feste the Fool; and, in what may be the comic performance of the season, Hamish Linklater as the blithering, clueless Sir Andrew Aguecheek. A word to the wise: if you want tickets, I'd start queueing at the crack of dawn. This is going to be a huge hit.

The Wiz

photo: Robert J. Saferstein

The tornado-sized vacuum at the center of this Wiz is pop star Ashanti, a pretty, pleasing-toned singer who has been pitilessly stunt-cast as Dorothy. From her first scene you slump in your seat and settle in for a long evening - she doesn't have the training to even make calling after Toto believable. It isn't that the role absolutely requires a skilled actress - undertrained teens have done all right by it with little more than thoughtful pretending in the past - but it does need energy and heart, and Ashanti hasn't been urged in that wide-eyed direction. (An understatement; after The Wiz rewards Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man but comes up empty for Dororthy, Ashanti has been directed to plead "What about me?" with the outraged indignation of an entitled teen rather than with the fragile anxiety of a child.) With a void where its heart should be the musical, one slice after another of 70's black-tastic retro, can't amount to more than concert and dance pageant. As such it has two enormous virtues in its favor - the strength of the City Center Encores orchestra, and Andy Blackenbuehler's electrifying, often thrillingly inventive choreography. To my mind, Blackenbuehler is one of the most interesting and exciting of the newer choreographers and a lot of his work here wows. Not all, however - the production, with a playing area cramped by the on-stage orchestra and a not especially useful unit set, relies almost entirely on Blackenbuehler for its spectacle and "less is more" comes to mind. I assume that Blackenbuehler is responsible for having the performers repeatedly "Ease On Down The Road" mostly up and down the stage rather than across, a very curious choice that halts any illusion of an ongoing journey.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Musicals in Mufti

With the spring 2009 edition, the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series continues to delight and amaze. The Muftis are five-performance staged readings of forgotten and/or neglected musicals. In the tiny York Theatre, with no scenery, minimal costumes, one piano (occasionally two), wonderful unmiked voices (occasional exceptions), and superb casts somewhere between on-book and off-book, the Muftis are intimate adventures in raw talent. Past highlights include 70 Girls, 70 (with Jane Powell, Helen Gallagher, Mimi Hines, George S. Irving, and Charlotte Rae!), Cyrano, Enter Laughing, Lucky Stiff, and my particular favorite, Carmen Jones. This season started with The Grand Tour, Jerry Herman's stab at a serious musical, in which life-threatening events are bizarrely alternated with the usual, generic, cheery Jerry Herman songs. Jason Graae's wonderful performance made it well worth seeing, and hearing James Barbour sing unmiked in a small theatre was a treat. The second show, High Spirits, was a total delight, with Howard McGillan, Veanne Cox, Carol Kane, Kristen Wyatt, and, in particular, Janine LaManna as good a cast as one could ask for. Coming up is Knickerbocker Holiday.

Someone In Florida Loves Me

photo: Sue Kessler

A short-notice reunion between two somewhat estranged friends - Annie (Lisa Louttit), living in depressing squalor in a Brooklyn boarding house, and Nicole (Ana Perea), a chatty flight attendant on a layover - brings tensions slowly to the surface in this low-key but mostly credible play by Jane Pickett. Although the playwright (who also directs) means for Annie to be shut down - she even has Nicole sprawl "Annie-body home?" on the bathroom mirror - the character is a bit too blank on the page, and an essential, late-in-the-play interaction with an unnamed third character (played by T.M. Bergman) isn't convincingly written. But the bulk of the play, in which the two women slowly recognize their distance from one another, is involving and sometimes affecting. Ana Perea is attention-getting as the fully fleshed-out Nicole, and especially scores with her tightly written exit monologue.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Photo: Monique Carboni

Ah, the strangeness of New York theatre. On Broadway, God of Carnage, a faux-meaningful piece of nasty fluff, in which the highlight is on-stage vomiting, walks off with a couple of Tonys. Off Broadway, Groundswell, a flawed but intense, compassionate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking drama, sells discounted tickets and may well vanish into the theatre ether with barely a ripple. It's not fair. Of course, the unfairness that South African playwright Ian Bruce examines in Groundswell is of a more serious sort: the unfairness of racism, of lack of opportunity, of ignorance, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Groundswell takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. Thami (Souleymane Sy Savane), who is black, works in a lodge and sends money home to his family, who live in a tin-roofed shack that is freezing in cold weather and searing in hot. His dream is to make enough money to be able to live again with his family in reasonable comfort; he is willing to work hard to make his dreams come true. Johan (the amazing David Lansbury), who is white, is an ex-cop, a deep-sea diver who has been injured by the bends, and an alcoholic. He dreams of a big win that will allow him to have a huge farm and never have to deep-sea dive again. Smith (Larry Bryggman), who is white, is a financially-comfortable widower roaming the country since he no longer has his job, which was given to a black man after Apartheid ended. His dreams are mostly in the past tense; right now, he just wants to play golf. One foggy evening, the three men end up as the sole inhabitants of the lodge, and their personalities and pasts clash as they fight to make their dreams come true. This very-well-acted show is unfortunately not well-directed. Director Scott Elliott must have been glued to the center of the second row during rehearsals--in much of the rest of the theatre, it is often difficult to hear and see what is going on. Significant exchanges are lost with actors facing upstage or standing in each other's way or simply speaking too softly. Other, less important, flaws include a slow start to the show and a certain "by-the-numbers-ness" to the plotting, but they matter little next to the vivid depiction of what a lack of options can do to people, particularly men, when they reach the end of their ropes.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Preview: Twelfth Night

It was only the second preview performance of this Shakespeare In The Park production yet it's obvious it's going to be a huge crowd-pleasing hit once word is out. In other words, go sooner rather than later because by the end of the run you'll need to get on line at the crack of dawn for tickets. It may be too early to properly review the show, but I'm comfortable saying that the performances are delightful: Anne Hathaway, who seems entirely at ease with the text and who gets to sing one of the production's handful of songs, is thoroughly beguiling as Viola; her scenes with the wonderful Audra McDonald as Olivia, who falls madly in love with Viola when disguised as her brother, are a real kick and are the show's comic highlights. That's saying a lot, with brilliant comedy talents like David Pittu and Julie White also on stage as well as a quirky-funny turn by Hamish Linklater as the foolish, cowardly Sir Andrew. Raul Esparza, Jay O. Sanders, Michael Cumpsty and Stark Sands round out the principal cast.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Amish Project

photo: Geoff Green

The real-life 2006 shootings of young Amish girls at their schoolhouse in Pennsylvania are the inspiration for this extraordinary and deeply affecting sixty five minute solo show, written and performed by Jessica Dickey. While always dressed as an Amish schoolgirl, a choice that not only unifies the production but also emphasizes some of the play's themes, Dickey plays a variety of characters - the shooter, his wife, neighbors, etc. - who are directly or indirectly affected by the crime. Her portrayals are detailed and distinct - Dickey can shift with lightning speed from one of the fresh-faced innocent youngsters to an outraged neighbor and register each so vividly that we recognize them again without a word. As a playwright, she avoids easy sensationalism - there is some needed expository information, but her focus is not simply on exactly what happened nor even on why but on the spiritual challenge presented in the crime's aftermath. The Amish Project gently asks enormous questions about our cultural capacity for forgiveness and grace; it's generous, thoughtful and nourishing for the soul.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side

pied pipers

Photo: Larry Cobra

Playwright Derek Ahonen has a finely tuned ear for the way his Communist-Anarchist-Environmentalist heroes and heroines talk. The play skewers their free-love and pop-psychology platitudes, while loving the characters to death at the same time. I say "the play" because while Mr. Ahonen may be responsible for the dialogue, the Amoralists truly are, as their mission statement proclaims, an "actor driven" company. It feels as if these actors were born to play these parts. The play is a perfect whole -- not for a second is the theatrical spell broken.  And somehow the political and moral message survives all the mockery. Each member of this outstanding cast can dominate the stage in one way or another; together they're an ensemble of scary intensity, one minute boiling in anger, the next erupting in crazed funnyness, yet always, in their overcooked way, seeming to truly love one another. In the end they send us reeling into the street feeling provoked, enlivened, even a little bit enlightened.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Things Of Dry Hours

photo: Joan Marcus

If poetic dialogue alone made a play, this one (at NYTW) would be one of the best shows in town. The language is so rich and evocative that it's transporting, and the cast (under Ruben Santiago-Hudson's direction) deliver it with the precision and sensitivity of finely composed music. The play (by Naomi Wallace) opens up the soul through the ears. It's a pity then that it is weakened by its narrative construction - it's hard to track the logic in the shifting dynamics between an African-American father and adult daughter and the mysterious white fugitive who forces them to give him shelter, circa the early 30's in the Deep South. Example: the stranger is almost instantly attracted to the daughter - he advances clumsily, rudely, and she keeps him at bay with hostility and poisonous world-weary one-liners - but right after a scene that would seem to indicate that she's shut him out entirely, the next begins as if they've softened toward each other. There are similar missteps in the depiction of the relationship between the father, a member of the Communist Party, and the stranger, who he (with a bit too much dramatically static speechifying) sets out to recruit. The playwright seems to aim to keep us guessing about the stranger - are his motives essentially good or bad? - but she hasn't effectively dramatized him for that purpose, which puts limits on Garret Dillahunt's effectiveness in the role. Delroy Lindo conveys both commanding strength and thoughtful sensitivity as the father; as the daughter, Roslyn Ruff is deservedly embraced by the audience partly for her sharp, seen-it-all line readings.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


You think of words like "uncompromising" and "integrity" as you watch Stephen Merritt's musical of the enormously popular children's tale. The score's strange, angular melodies as primarily played on a single tinkling keyboard, the casting of mature Jane Houdyshell as the adventure-seeking nine year old heroine, the avoidance of anything that smacks of gratuitous crowd-pleasing: a unique artistic vision has been rigorously followed and realized. But it's hard to feel anything besides detached appreciation for the show's uniqueness: despite a uniformly wonderful cast and many isolated performance moments that tempt the imagination, the production is curiously remote and short on the inventive theatricality that would showcase the very special material to advantage.

Next Fall

Reviewed for Theatermania.