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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Conflict

The wonderful people at The Mint have done it yet again. They have gifted us with a beautiful production of a lost gem of a play, complete with smart and clear direction, wonderful performances, and impeccable design elements. The Mint's batting average is extraordinary.

Jeremy Beck and Jessie Shelton 
Photo: Todd Cerveris

Specifically, the play is Conflict, written in the 1920s by Miles Malleson, author of Unfaithfully Yours (presented by The Mint in 2017). In both plays, Malleson uses characters as mouthpieces for particular points of view; however, the ratio of ideas to emotions is more effective in Conflict. Here's a description of the play from the press release:
Conflict is a love story set against the backdrop of a hotly contested election. It's the Roaring '20s in London. Lady Dare Bellingdon has everything she could want, yet she craves something more. Dare's man, Sir Major Ronald Clive, is standing for Parliament with the backing of Dare's father. Clive is a Conservative, of course, but he's liberal enough to be sleeping with Dare, who's daring enough to take Clive as a lover, but too restless to marry him. Clive's opponent, Tom Smith is passionate about social justice and understands the joy of having something to believe in. Dare is "the woman between" two candidates who both want to make a better world — until politics become personal, and mudslinging threatens to soil them all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lonesome Blues

Akin Babatundé, with the outstanding support of guitarist David Weiss, is giving a heck of a concert in Lonesome Blues at the York Theatre Company. Babatundé's voice travels from pure falsetto to rumbly bass and back again, and it can thrill every step of the way. Babatundé's interpretation of the blues offers a wide palette of emotions, and he's charming.

Akin Babatundé, David  Weiss
Photo: Carol Rosegg

However, Lonesome Blues is billed as a musical rather than a concert, and on that level it is less successful. Based on the life of Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), it takes place on the day of his death as he reminisces about his life and his music. Unfortunately, his story is not clear as written (by Alan Govenar and Babatundé), performed, and directed (by Katherine Owens), and it can be hard to tell who he's talking to and what he's saying. As a  result, the show is never really engaging.

The authors write in the program that "Lonesome Blues is not a literal bio-musical, but instead a poetic rendering of Blind Lemon's memories." Unfortunately, the poetic renderings just don't track. It's also unfortunate that Babatundé wears dark glasses, because it puts a barrier between the actor and the audience, a barrier that is particularly damaging in a one-man show. (Yes, I do understand that Jefferson's blindness necessitates those dark glasses, but they still come at a cost.)

Here's the thing, though: Akin Babatundé really is giving a heck of a concert in Lonesome Blues. For all its flaws, the show offers a dynamic and rewarding evening in the theatre.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket, sixth row)
Show-Score: 80

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Secret Life of Humans

Presented as either a lecture nestled in a drama or a drama nestled in a lecture, Secret Life of Humans focuses on whether evolution is an unbroken line of progress, with each living iteration superior to the one before, or considerably more messy. It also provides some tricky conundrums about the meaning of superior and of good. The first topic--evolution--is discussed in the lecture parts and in conversation. All of the arguments are laid out neatly and clearly. The second topic--what it means to be superior/good--unfolds in compelling, if contrived action. (Basic story: Female lecturer with contemporary ideas about evolution meets someone via dating app. She finds out that he just happens to be the grandson of the person most famous for older ideas about evolution.)

Richard Delaney, Olivia Hirst
Photo: David Monteith Hodge

The theoretical parts of Secret Life of Humans are smooth and well-done, but they tell us nothing new, nor do they ask new questions. (I say this as a 63-year-old with a strong interest in evolution. When I was younger and knew less, I would have found the show considerably more impressive.) The show was worth 90 minutes of my time for the acting and some truly charming stagecraft. I would not be happy to have spent $70 on a ticket.

Secret Life of Humans is written by David Byrne [not the Talking Heads David Byrne, BTW] and directed by David Byrne and Kate Stanley. Starring Richard Delaney, Olivia Hirst, Andy McLeod, Andrew Strafford-Baker, and Stella Blue Taylor.

Wendy Caster
(press tickets, 5th row)
Show-Score: 75

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

2018 Tonys: How'd We Do?

Well, we didn't do too badly this year, although we're not going to win any prizes for theatrical prescience. It was very nice to be wrong about Ari’el Stachel and Lindsay Mendez! They both truly deserve their prizes. And as for my own two seemingly smartest predictions (Once on This Island and Tony Shalhoub), both were complete guesses. Wendy


Liz Wollman
Sandra Mardenfeld
Wendy Caster
Musical The Band’s Visit
X
X
X
Leading Actress in a Musical Katrina Lenk, The Band’s Visit
X
X
X
Leading Actor in a Musical Tony Shalhoub, The Band’s Visit


X
Revival of a Musical Once on This Island


X
Revival of a Play Angels in America
X
X
X
Play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

X
X
Original Score The Band’s Visit, Music and Lyrics: David Yazbek
X
X
X
Direction of a Play John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X

X
Direction of a Musical David Cromer, The Band’s Visit

X

Sound Design in a Play Gareth Fry, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Sound Design in a Musical Kai Harada, The Band’s Visit

X
X
Leading Actress in a Play: Glenda Jackson, Three Tall Women
X
X
X
Scenic Design for a Musical: David Zinn, SpongeBob SquarePants
X

X
Scenic Design for a Play: Christine Jones, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Featured Actor in a Musical Ari’el Stachel, The Band’s Visit



Featured Actor in a Play Nathan Lane, Angels in America
X
X
X
Book of a Musical The Band’s Visit, Itamar Moses



Featured Actress in a Musical Lindsay Mendez, Carousel



Choreography Justin Peck, Carousel
X
X
X
Featured Actress in a Play Laurie Metcalf, Three Tall Women

X
X
Orchestrations Jamshied Sharifi, The Band’s Visit
X
X

Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play Andrew Garfield, Angels in America
X
X
X
Costume Design of a Play Katrina Lindsay, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Costume Design of a Musical Catherine Zuber, My Fair Lady

X

Lighting Design of a Play Neil Austin, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
X
X
X
Lighting Design of a Musical Tyler Micoleau, The Band’s Visit



TOTALS
15
18
19



Friday, June 08, 2018

Spring roundup: Mean Girls, Our Lady of 121st Street, Paradise Blue, Dance Nation

Mean Girls
Mean Girls is cute and funny, well-staged, a little too long for what it is, occasionally miked too loud, and ultimately better than getting a cavity filled. I wish I'd been thrilled by it, but again, it was hardly an ordeal. Some of my tepid reaction has to do with my own preferences, one of which is not to shell out serious buckage to see something from the rear balcony that I saw from a better seat in a movie theater fifteen years ago. I also didn't dig the score, which struck me weirdly as a thin interpretation of Broadway musicals in some vague generic sense but without a real grasp of the blood and guts that make some representations of the genre work way better than others do. And honestly, some of it was just that I was knee-deep in the end of my semester when I saw it, and thus even more overwhelmed and grumpy than I usually am, especially when it comes to encountering such sweet, well-meaning baubles.


The performers were game and some of them were really terrific. The audience I saw it with seemed to love it. It's apparently selling very, very well. And truly, whatever, it was fine, I've never written a film or adapted one into a Broadway show, so what the hell do I know? I can't help but wonder how it would have fared had Fey and her husband not been behind it, but we'll never know, and anyway, that's just not how show biz works.


Our Lady of 121st Street
Stephen Adly Guirgis's Our Lady of 121st Street, in colorful revival at Signature Theater, is an imbalanced work, but ultimately its strengths win out over its weaknesses. I wish like hell I'd known before I'd seen it that it's wonderful when it comes to affectionate, deft character analysis, but that it doesn't tie up all its loose plot threads in nice little bows by the end of the swift two hours. Or maybe I'm just a moron for having expected such a sprawling piece to resolve so completely in the final minutes. Either way, I felt momentarily disoriented when the play just kind of ended.

So I'm doing you the favor I wish someone had done me, whether you want it or not: Go. See it. Enjoy the very fine production and the numerous three-dimensional characters (as well as a few two- and one-dimensional ones who are still worthy of your time and consideration). This is a very good episodic, day-in-the-life play. It is well acted, insightful, and often genuinely hilarious. Enjoy the ride, don't expect resolution, and you'll have a wonderful time.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Desperate Measures

I love meaningful musical theatre. I adore Sondheim. Caroline, Or Change is one of my favorite shows. But sometimes an old-fashioned, well-done, energetic, deeply silly musical is the perfect way to spend an evening. As in: Desperate Measures.

Joseph Wallace, Lauren Molina, Justin Rothberg
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Desperate Measures is sorta, kinda based on Shakespeare's Measure by Measure. Most of the plot is gone. It takes place in a Old Western world of saloon girls and handsome, rugged sheriffs. All the characters have different names. In fact, it's so little like the original that I suspect that the creators just wanted an excuse to use iambic-pentameter couplets. And that's fine with me: they are extremely funny iambic-pentameter couplets (book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg; the listener-friendly music is by David Friedman).

Shows of this sort live and die by the direction and performances, and both are swell. Director Bill Castellino paces the show perfectly, and the cast throw themselves whole-heartedly into the crazy goings-on. I recently learned the phrase "commit to the bit": these performers commit to every single bit with fervor and skill. They are Gary Marachek, Lauren Molina (particularly fabulous), Sarah Parnicky, Conor Ryan, Peter Saide, and Nick Wyman; beside their comic talents, they all sing beautifully. The wonderful musicians are Anthony Festa, Celia Hottenstein, and Tom Souhrada.

As a woman in the lobby after the show summed up Desperate Measures, "You may get here grumpy, but you won't leave grumpy."

Wendy Caster
(discount ticket; 7th row)
Show-Score: 95

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

This Is Modern Art

As a reviewer, I get invited to dozens of shows each month, and it can be difficult to decide which to see. Sometimes the choice is almost random. I picked This Is Modern Art because (1) it was called “irresponsible” and “potentially damaging” by Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times, and (2) I wanted to see the new theatre space being used by "Next Door  at NYTW."

Clockwise from top left:
Andrew Gonzalez, Landon G. Woodson,
Nancy McArthur, Shakur Tolliver
Photo: Maria Baranova

I really lucked out on this one. This Is Modern Art is compelling, thought-provoking, sometimes funny, and often sweet. The writing (Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval) is subtle and smart; the direction (Jessica Burr) is creative and smooth; and the acting (J. Stephen Brantley,  Andrew Gonzalez, Ashley N. Hildreth, Nancy McArthur, Shakur Tolliver, and Landon G. Woodson) is excellent. I found it neither irresponsible or potentially damaging. In fact, I found it necessary and important.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

the hollower

I saw Liza Birkenmeier's the hollower three days ago and I have been avoiding writing a review because I don't know what to say. Well, yes, I know that the cast is excellent. And, yes, I know that the writing is often wonderful. But I can't figure out what the damn thing is about, and that's even after reading the script. However, I need to write a review, so here goes.

Patrena Murray, Reyna de Courcy
Photo: Hunter Canning

The show starts with a middle-aged African-American woman staring into a window and maybe talking to herself. This is Otto (Patrena Murray) who is sweet, forgetful, and strangely passive. In totters Bit (Reyna de Courcy), on insanely high heels. Bit lives with Otto. She is white, 16, creative, needy, and damaged; she dresses in bright and odd combinations of clothing and wears candy-colored wigs. The relationship between Otto and Bit is unclear. What is clear is that Bit needs Otto's attention desperately and that Otto gives her as much as she can, in her foggy way. It is not enough for Bit.