Friday, May 29, 2015

Nice Girl

What does it mean to be a "nice girl"? And is it really a positive label? In Melissa Ross's Nice Girl at the Labyrinth, Jo (the smart and subtle Diane Davis) doesn't feel nice at all. She knows that she is angry and even bitter, and that she only carries out the actions that make her seem nice because she's too passive not to.

Diane Davis
Photo: Monique Carboni
Jo lives with and takes care of her mother, Francine (Kathryn Kates), a woman who rarely changes out of her housecoat and whose only exercise is pressing Jo's buttons. Although Jo was once student at Radcliffe, her father's death and her mother's neediness truncated her education. She is now a secretary at an accounting firm, depressed and lonely. She is 37 and stuck.

One day Jo's coworker Sherry (the wonderfully vivid Liv Rooth) reaches out to her. Where Jo is turned inward and doesn't even know what she wants, Sherry explodes outward, with a loud voice, overdone makeup, and strong appetites that she fulfills whenever she can. Sherry tells Jo that has been dating--and loving--a man who just recently mentioned that he has a wife (they're separated) and child. Sherry is furious at him, but she is also angry at herself for the general messiness of her life. She sees Jo as, yes, a nice girl, and she thinks that a friendship might be good for both them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The King and I

The King and I is an odd classic. Full of wonderful songs, it features a dumb plot with a cutesy approach to female enslavement, a condescending view of Siamese culture, unconvincing scenes that rely too heavily on the charms of the leads to cover their flaws, and a truly bizarre combination of cheerfulness, silliness, seriousness, and weirdness.

Kelli O'Hara
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Say we're willing to buy that a king would show so much interest in a teacher of his children. Say that we dismiss the ickiness of his receiving a woman as a gift as a cultural difference. Say we even give him credit for doing the best he can. We're still supposed to be pleased that the teacher--a smart and independent woman--is attracted to him, even though he's basically a slave owner who has sex with dozens of women whether or not they want to have sex with him.

And then, the teacher kills him by calling him a barbarian and making him look weak by stopping him from whipping a wayward wife--and in front of other people!

In the production of The King and I at Lincoln Center, Kelli O'Hara (lovely but not all that interesting as Anna) and Ken Watanabe (chewing the exquisite scenery as the king) lack the charm and chemistry to distract from the show's weak points. It doesn't help that Ashley Park as Tuptim and Conrad Ricamora as Lun Tha are more interested in the sounds of their own voices than each other. Nor does it help that Bartlett Sher blocks the show with constant and distracting movement.  I respect that Sher is (I assume) trying to make sure that everyone in the difficult Beaumont Theatre has a chance to see what is going on, but the show starts to look busy for busy-ness' sake. In particular, the King and Anna circle each other like boxers in the ring, which is effective up to a point but becomes annoying.

The show doesn't lack strengths. O'Hara's singing is often wonderful, and "Getting to Know You" is a pleasure. Ruthie Ann Miles is a formidable and excellent Lady Thiang. And the show is gorgeous to look at, from the second you set foot in the theatre. The sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, are downright scrumptious.

(third row, to audience left of center, member ticket)

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project

The questions asked by Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project are fascinating ones. How did certain women in history to break away from stifling expectations and become pirates? How did these women survive traveling on ships full of men? Money helped (Jeanne de Clisson, 1330-1359; Grace O'Malley, 1530-1603; Ching Shih, 1775-1844). If you owned the fleet, you didn't have to answer to anyone. Another option was to pass as a male (Anne "Bonne" Bonney, 1697-1720; Mary "Mark" Read, 1700-1782), hiding in plain sight. 

Why would a woman take this unusual and dangerous road? According to Blood Red Roses, presented by Drama of Works, the reasons include, respectively, revenge, honor, power, escape, and survival. These are juicy motivations, and these are fascinating women, Unfortunately, the amiable, intermittently clever Blood Red Roses doesn't begin to do them justice. 

The show is broken into five parts, each focusing on one or two of the women. The sections begin with brief songs of introduction, using the melody of "Rolling Sea" (based on "Sailor Laddie") with new lyrics. Sometimes three-syllable words are jammed into one-syllable spaces; sometimes one-syllable words are stretched to three beats. The results are awkward and difficult to understand.

The stories are told with the help of shadow puppets, some of which (e.g., the sailboats) get old fast. There is a lot of narration and little in the way of scenes, and the women's great adventures end up reduced to little more than shadows themselves. (The brief bios of the women in the program have more depth.) In addition, the pacing is uneven; the show occasionally grinds to a halt. On the positive side, there are many songs, nicely sung, and the occasional good joke.

The overall quality of Blood Red Roses is that of a high school show, but I'm not sure why. There are moments here and there that reveal both writing and acting talent; why weren't these skills used to a fuller extent? I wonder if the ensemble--who also created, wrote, and designed the show--simply aimed too low, settling for friendly and cute. I can't help but think that Blood Red Roses could have been a much more enjoyable--and meaningful--evening in the theatre if the ensemble had taken the time to write real scenes, hone the lyrics, and polish the pacing. (Also, six pirates may just be too many for one show.)

These amazing women pirates--and the audience--deserve  that extra effort.

(press ticket; first row)

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Jenny Anderson
Permission, Robert Askins' new play at MCC, is an entertaining if undercooked tangle of ideas that don't fully cohere. Using, as a springboard, the apparently real and squirmingly icky subculture of couples who practice Christian Domestic Discipline, the play ponders--if, ultimately, not all that deeply--broader questions about religion, power relationships, personal happiness, and marital bliss.

Act I opens on two couples--Zach and Michelle (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Nicole Lowrance) and Eric and Cynthia (Justin Bartha and Elizabeth Reaser)--gathering for dinner at Zach and Michelle's well-appointed Waco, Texas, home. Zach, a slickly confident sporting-goods salesman, informs Eric that business is so great that he'll be opening a second store. Eric is not as happy or as sure of himself as Zach seems. A professor at the nearby university, he wants the Dean to make him chair of the computer science department, but doesn't have the self-esteem to fight for the position. (Look, I've got insider information here, but seriously, Askins needs to spend maybe five minutes learning about the way college administrations function, because no, that's just not even how it works a little bit, ever.) Also, his marriage isn't at its best: Cynthia drinks too much and has been spending her days actively avoiding the novel she's supposed to be writing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project

Yo ho ho ... here be the tales of some of the most infamous women pirates known. Staged on the 100-year-old Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79 in Red Hook, also home to The Waterfront Museum, Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project uses shadow puppetry and sea shanties to tell the stories of six fierce females.

The location adds to the experience, and requires attendees to walk along a pier with a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline, up a gangway wrapped with sparkling green lights. Throughout the show, the barge gently rocks and rolls as the story unfolds. The five-member ensemble enthusiastically sings a dozen traditional, but slightly modified songs, clearly enjoying themselves and the material.

The shadow puppetry is fun to look at,  but often seems unsophisticated -- there's beating hearts to signify love and simple boats with sails ... a lot. Some of the stories engage more than others. Grace O'Malley, an Irish lass, who reportedly met with the Queen Elizabeth I over a cruel governor's treatment of her family, and successfully navigated the seas as a merchant/pillager in the 1500s, is a fascinating enough character that several shows have been written about her, including the musical, The Pirate Queen, by Les Mis collaborators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (with Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey).  Also, interesting was the portion on two cross-dressing pirates that spent many years disguised as men, Anne "Bonne" Bonney and Mary "Mark" Read, who remarkably ended up on the same ship.

The multiple story lines are easy to follow since a bell is rung and the song, "Rolling Sea," is sung each time there's a switch. Whether that decision was from Director Gretchen Van Lente or Music Director Amy Carrigan, it works beautifully since the catchy "Oh my rolling sailor, when she's on a rolling sea" lyrics are quite hummable and some audience members were singing along by the end of the show. Plus, there is an excellent version of "What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor" - that slightly deviates from the one you may have learned in elementary school chorus.

Blood Red Roses is divided into five parts: Revenge, Honor, Survival and Escape, Power and Adventure, defining the main theme of each women's life--the construct doesn't work as it insinuates that these female pirates were one-dimensional, something their stories show as untrue. Their tales fascinate, and the further reading list in the program will certainly be used by many audience members. The show, except for some indecent language (they are pirates, after all), is appropriate for older children. My 11-year-old sang the "Rolling Sea" song all the way home.

Runs through May 31. Shows are Friday, Saturday and Sunday and begin at sundown (around 8:15 p.m.) For tickets:

(Press tickets)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago closes today after just 49 performances (including previews) ... and that's a shame. Because even though it mostly deserves the mixed to negative reviews it received, the show has its merits, including some stellar performances and musical numbers. It didn't get any Tony nominations, but Tam Mutu as Yurii Zhivago was nominated for a Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance and Paul Alexander Nolan as Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov got an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.

Two well-deserved nods since both gave rich performances at the show I saw on Thursday night, especially Mutu, known for roles in the West End productions Les Miserables and City of Angels and who made his Broadway debut in the show. As Dr. Zhivago, a poet/doctor, he convincingly shows the conflict he feels for loving Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett) while married to childhood sweetheart and mother of his son, Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer).

The show, based after the 1958 Boris Pasternak novel, offers lovely ballads--although a few more upbeat numbers would enliven the show more--from composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden) and lyricists Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and Amy Powers (Lizzie Borden). The book is written by Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends). "Watch the Moon," a romantic duet between Yurii and Tonia, before he leaves for war, and "Love Finds You," a summary of the mismatched loves of the major characters beautifully describe the power and despair that love offers. The one truly upbeat piece, "It's a Godsend," is a fun send-off piece that features the traditional Russian squat dancing.

Still, the show's bulky source material trimmed down often leaves plot holes (SPOILER ALERT HERE: What exactly happens after Lara escapes? How does Pasha go from earnest school boy to ruthless dictator? Why does everyone love Lara so fiercely when her character is written mostly as a milquetoast?) Plus, is the CSI-style depiction of war, with its bloody wounds and loud pepper of gunfire, necessary?  Perhaps Director Des McAnuff wants to show the brutality of war, but what is most evocative of the despair such battles render is seen in the quieter moments of the musical--when the displaced people show their sorrow and bewilderment over everything they've lost.

Perhaps the show will get a second chance in touring productions. Producer Anita Waxman offered such possibilities in a statement, saying such: "We look forward to this soaring and beautiful new musical having a long future with productions playing not only North America, but also around the world." 

(Press tickets, front mezzanine)

Merrily We Roll Along

The Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) is presenting an excellent production of Merrily We Roll Along, and you've got two more weekends to catch it. With a top ticket price of $18, it's quite a bargain.

Park, Bonino, Mosbacher, Rhodes-Devey, Horton
As you likely already know, Merrily was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (based on the drama by Kaufman and Hart), is told backward, and was a huge flop when it opened on Broadway in the 1980s. It has since been rewritten in ways that both add to and take away from the original, but the basic story has remained the same: Franklin, Charley, and Mary are three best friends, artistic and ambitious, whose lives fly off into different trajectories that tear the friendship apart.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (movie review)

Since Encores! Off-Center is presenting Little Shop of Horrors in July, I thought it would be an interesting time to revisit the movie and see how it holds up.

It holds up very well.

Ellen Greene
[many spoilers to come]

What luck that various stars said no, and the lead role of Audrey, the sweet and ditsy floral arranger, was given to Ellen Greene. Greene originated it Off-Broadway and owns the part. (It will be interesting to see her at Encores!, years too old for the character yet likely to be wonderful.) I wish that Lee Wilkof, the original Seymour, had also been cast, but Rick Moranis acquits himself nicely as the good-hearted, murdering nebbish whose life improves drastically when he starts taking care of the "odd and exotic" plant he names Audrey II. The rest of the cast is pretty wonderful: Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, John Candy, Bill Murray, and Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell as CrystalRonette, and Chiffon, the Skid Row Greek chorus girl group.

Sunday, May 03, 2015


photo: Sara Krulwich
Every theater season has a "snob hit," according to William Goldman's classic 1969 insider's guide to Broadway, The Season. It's a play--usually British--that cultured New Yorkers flock to en masse, out of a sense of obligation. They don't want to see it, per se, but feel they have to, in order to preserve their cred as serious art lovers. This season's snob hit is almost certainly the revival of David Hare's 1995 play Skylight, currently at the John Golden Theatre after a successful, sold out, screened in movie theaters worldwide run in London. Directed by the supposed wunderkind Stephen Daldry and starring heavy hitters Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, it's attracting droves of the well-heeled denizens of the Upper West Side and Park Slope, who dutifully applaud, laugh when appropriate, nod appreciatively, and feel grateful that they managed to wrangle up a ticket.

Skylight is a talky, boring play meant to comment on the perilous class divide in post-Thatcherite England. However, it really boils down to nothing more than a charismatic older man talking his way into a fragile young woman's knickers. Tale as old as time, with or without the pretense of liberal politics to make it seem more palatable. Tom Sergeant (Nighy), a successful restaurateur, shagged his former employee, Kyra Hollis (Mulligan), for six years while she lived with him and his now-deceased wife as a de facto family member. When Mrs. Sergeant discovered the affair, Kyra fled to North London, to begin a self-prescribed penance as a teacher in a slum school. When Tom turns up round her flat after three years of silence, it's not long before they are back in the roles they once inhabited, and back in bed.

And did I mention they talk? And talk. And talk. And talkkkkkkkk. About everything. Which amounts to nothing.