Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Musical Theater Page 1 of 4

Review | Shakespeare’s As You Like It | Directed by John Doyle | Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, Long Island

…  without enchantment …

As You Like It is a wonderful play so that, even with this disappointing production, it’s not a wasted evening.  The language is so powerful and some of the scenes so funny that they surpass the flat interpretations they receive here, and in particular two actors —  André de Shields and Leenya Rideout – are satisfyingly perfect!

But all in all, this is an As You Like It without enchantment.

The play rests on a contrast between life at court with its envies, intrigues, and self-protection and, as Shakespeare envisioned it, life in the magical Forest of Arden, free and close to nature.  In these ways it’s like Midsummer Night’s Dream.

We spend just enough time at court to learn that the younger son, Frederick has usurped the right of his older brother, Duke Senior, to the duchy and sent him into exile.  While Frederick tolerated having Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, around for a while, the play begins as he sends her into exile, too, shortly after she and Orlando briefly meet and fall in love at first sight.  The Forest of Arden (think Eden) quickly fills up as Rosalind flees there along with her beloved cousin Celia who is Frederick’s child, and with them Touchstone the court fool.  And — as Shakespeare’s wonderful chance would have it – Orlando, sent away by his mean, jealous older brother, heads there too.

It should be easy for Rosalind and Orlando to discover one another in Arden and enjoy their love, right?  Wrong.  Because Rosalind disguises herself as a young man, and takes on the name “Ganymede,” so that when Orlando, love-sick over that very Rosalind, meets up with her, he believes she is the young man she appears to be.  And she doesn’t disabuse him.  She’s also in love but — coy? testing? seeking experience? ambivalent?  — sticks to her disguise as Ganymede.  She doesn’t let him off the hook, though.  Instead, Rosalind says she will allow Orlando to woo “Ganymede” as if she were Rosalind, and the young man agrees to play the game — to act at wooing the person he believes is a young man.  With this game, Rosalind/Ganymede claims she can cure Orlando of being in love, while she gets to be wooed by the man she loves.

At any rate, the situation in which Rosalind/Ganymede and Orlando play the courtship game with a her as a him and he doesn’t know it opens up the play to hilarity, suspense, and gorgeous love poetry.

Their impassioned if eccentric romance is only one of the wonders in Arden, Shakespeare’s characters being among the greatest wonders of all.  As so often, the fool has some of deepest insight.  Touchstone, played by the actor, dancer, and man of theater André de Shields, lets us sense the truths that lie behind his sprightly mask, dancing away with a jester’s wariness when his hits come too close to home. He speaks his lines with strength and clarity and lets us hear all the poetry.  He fairly dances his way through the part and is fascinating to watch as his movements express his character and emotions.  His costume is a witty combination of argyle and knickers in keeping with the more or less modern (1950’s ?) costuming of the play by Ann Hould Ward.  De Shields is the most powerful presence on stage.

Among the denizens of Arden is another of Shakespeare’s great characters, Jacques, the melancholy courtier.  The award winning actress Ellen Burstyn plays the role, and while it’s impressive to see her move herself to tears by the end of the tragic monolog on the ages of man (“All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players…” ), her thin voice , here and elsewhere, is at odds with the depth of the character and resonance of the language.

A special feature of this production is that the very well-known composer and writer for musical theater, Stephen Schwartz has written music for it.  The nearest to enchantment in this production’s mundane Forest of Arden is when Phoebe, the shepherdess, circles the stage with her solo violin, playing insinuatingly lovely Schwartz music, all the more because Phoebe  is played by the enchanting actress Leenya Rideout.

The easy listening jazz grooves well with the theme of freedom in the forest, and when the ensemble comes together to sing it radiates a sense of joy.  It’s pleasant to listen to Bob Stillman, who plays Duke Frederick and Duke Sr., performing cocktail bar music at the spinet on stage.  The idea of setting Shakespeare’s songs and song-like passages to music is a wished for and welcome idea.  At most times, though, when there is singing, solo or ensemble, the words can’t be heard well or fully understood, and when it comes to Shakespeare, you don’t have to be a “purist” to want to hear all of the words.

Beyond those I’ve mentioned, others of the performers are able and others need more experience.  As for “chemistry” between these famous lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, you won’t find it here.

The set design is somewhat experimental.  The backdrop looks like a wall of red bricks, as if we’re in a theater without a set – not a forest for sure, but perhaps an interesting element for teasing the relationship between illusion and reality which is a theme of the play. The main design features, however, are many globular lights above the stage that, at certain points, change color, but the overall effect is not enchanting but, unfortunately, barren.

As You Like It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through September 3, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Thoroughly Modern Millie | Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan | Music by Jeanine Tesori | Lyrics by Dick Scanlan | North Fork Community Theatre, Mattituck, Long Island

A delightful musical filled with laughs — that’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, presented with youthfully energetic and thoroughly enjoyable performances at the North Fork Community Theatre.

We’re in the flapper age!  Millie Dillmont, the girl from Kansas, arrives in New York City in 1922 with her head filled with a “modern idea” — she’s going to get a job and marry the boss so she’ll be rich.  If you think about it, marrying for money rather than for love isn’t a very modern idea to say the least but marrying the boss — that takes us to the time when women were first entering the work force in force.  And Millie is an independent modern woman — we’re drawn  to her self-confidence, practicality and determination to set her own course – to say nothing of the adorable modern hair bob cut she gets for herself soon after arriving in what today’s called “The Big Apple” – and it was a big bite back then too.

We follow Millie through her exciting experiences – speakeasy bars and high society cocktail parties — and we share in her disappointments – the boss she has her eye on to marry can only think of her as a typist/stenographer.  She skirts danger in the form dreaded “white slavers” ready to prey on young girls and spirit them away to the mysterious orient for horrible reasons.  And everywhere we go with her, we’re enchanted by wonderful singing, dancing, and some of the funniest scenes written for musical comedy.

Specifically, if you’ve never seen the scene in Millie’s office with the bank of tap dancing typists, here’s your chance, and if you have seen it, here’s your chance to laugh again!

The cast is by-and-large excellent.  In particular, Ashley Hilary gives an all-out terrific performance as Millie.  Aria Saltini is enchanting as Miss Dorothy Brown, the sweet, long-curly-haired foil to feisty Millie.  Kiera Prentiss is beyond perfect as the wily, wicked Mrs. Meers – what a character!  And what a character actress the North Fork Community Theatre has in Kiera Prentiss.  And what a makeup job!

And if you’ve never laughed – or laughed before – at the shenanigans of the two Chinese men who – with varied enthusiasm — assist Mrs. Meers in her nefarious white slavery plot, here’s your chance to see Eric Momente as Bun Foo and Alex Bradley as Ching Ho on their knees singing with all their hearts like that early 20th century all-time popular singer A – But no, I won’t mention his name so as not to spoil the – hilarious – joke.

The dancers are a highlight of this production – some among them dancing on an exciting professional level though their names aren’t separated out in the program for me to mention – but Thank You!  The dancers and others provide a feast for the eyes of glamorous flapper dresses and 1920′ style.

And where else but at the outstanding North Fork Community Theatre will you have a fine, live twelve-person orchestra, led by Musical Director and pianist Karen Hochstedler!

Ad for the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967.

1967 Ad for the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie.

The stage production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which first opened on Broadway in 2002, has an interesting history in that the movie — with quite a cast — came first in 1967 (see the illustration), based on a British musical, Chrysanthemum, of 1956.

The North Fork Community Theatre production of Thoroughly Modern Millie is directed by John Bradley.  It plays Thursday through Sunday in Mattituck, Long Island, through August 6, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


Jules Feiffer's "The Man in the Ceiling" at Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, L.I., NY

Review | The Man in the Ceiling | Book by Jules Feiffer | Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… segregation … 

The idea of this new musical show is that the world can be rough on for a little boy with a big imagination. Unfortunately this show can be rough on the audience.

“Inca Binca,” Jimmy’s imagined character inspired by Father.  Outside Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor

Young Jimmy has a talent for drawing comics, creating fantastic characters like Inca Binca and Lightning Lady.  A boy busily making up characters and drawing comics — this show, based on Feiffer’s book The Man in the Ceiling is autobiographically inspired

Jimmy’s conventionally-minded father is impatient with this childish and artistic pursuit and pushes Jimmy to become a regular guy who plays baseball and studies for his school tests.  Jimmy’s mother is a busy professional woman who offers weak protection– when she has time, and his older sister Lisi, though she has moments of sympathy mainly dwells in a teen-age manic state.  Charley Beemer, a loose-limbed teenager who’s good at baseball, is a threat as he tries to exploit Jimmy’s talent for his own benefit.  Only Uncle Lester, with a history of writing unsuccessful songs, understands Jimmy, artist-to-artist style.

“Horror Head” — Jimmy’s imagined character inspired by his sister Lisi

The show has some positive aspects.  Jimmy’s imagined comic characters, drawn from his family and his (false) friend Charley, are Jules Feiffer’s witty exaggerations of the types each of the characters represents.  The way Father, Mother, and the other characters alternate between donning their cartoon selves they carry like a shield when Jimmy’s imagining, and their real selves, is effective.  The drawings are charming and sophisticated– well, you’d expect that.  After all, they’re the drawings of a mature artist who has a career based on the allure of his drawings — Jules Feiffer – and not those of a little boy, a talented child, whether Feiffer or otherwise.

Also on the plus side, there’s a funny skit in the second act based on taking the words of a love song Uncle Lester has written to their literal, humorously absurd conclusion.

The set by David Korins, with clever projections by Daniel Brodie and Feiffer, is witty – I enjoyed the effect of torn-out-of-the-book pages from a spiral notebook, magnified.

Jimmy’s imagined character “Lightning Lady,” inspired by Mother.

The performers do their professional best with the material.  Young Jonah Broscow is impressive as Jimmy, going well beyond being “cute” in his believable emotional responses to the highs and lows of his quest to create. Danny Binstock as Father has a beautiful singing voice. Nicole Parker is believable as frantic Mother.  Brett Gray as charismatic the sly teen-aged neighbor Jimmy looks up to and has a fine singing voice.  Erin Kommor is vivacious as Jimmy’s sister Lisi – I’d guess the eye-popping hysteria of her performance was the director’s idea.  Andrew Lippa is amusing as Uncle Lester.

Jimmy’s imagined character ” Toledo Jackson” inspired by Uncle Lester

The show’s book as a whole, however, is disjointed and there’s a loud and garish tone throughout that’s tiresome.  Except for Jimmy, the characters seem there just to make a point about what Jimmy’s up against to protect his talent, and don’t give any sense of having lives of their own.  This is probably intended, as suggested by the fact that Jimmy’s parents are unnamed, just called Father and Mother – which leads to Jimmy addressing his father as “Father” where we expect “Dad.”

When the “man in the ceiling” finally appears as a visualization of Jimmy’s imagination, he’s rendered as a puppet high up maneuvered with sticks by the actors on stage, dynamically less complex than many other puppets used in theater.  Above all, what what the man in the ceiling says doesn’t amount to anything.  The music is sing-song repetitive, with banal lyrics and rhymes are of the “moon/June variety.”  The choreography – such as some ancient Egyptian art stylization to represent imagined Maya gods – is flat.

Jimmy’s imagined character “Winman,” inspired by his neighbor Charley Beemer.

And I found it troublesome the tricky neighbor Charley, the one really bad guy (Father gains redemption but not Charley), is cast as a “cool cat” Black.  Even at the curtain call, most of the cast was posed together stage right as in a family photo, and Charley was isolated stage left, far off on his own. That seemed pretty gratuitous.

The Man in the Ceiling is directed by Jeffrey Seller.  It plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through June 25th, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Cabaret | Book by Joe Masteroff | Lyrics by Fred Ebb | Music by Joe Kander | North Fork Community Theatre, Mattituck, Long Island

…  for sure come to Cabaret

If you want to see a top-notch production of  one of the best American musicals, see Cabaret at the North Fork Community Theatre.  The songs, the musical splendor, the theatrical extravaganza and the powerful story are wonderfully realized in this production, and with an orchestra of eight fine players – you don’t always get live music like that on Broadway.

We’re in 1931 and the waning years of the Weimar Republic in Germany, a time of great creativity,  cultural daring and the freedom to fulfill it – as at the Kit Kat Klub in cosmopolitan Berlin.  There, it seems anything goes – an attitude, a spirit, a world view embodied in the insinuating, fascinating, sexually ambiguous Emcee of the Kit Kat Klub who oversees the events and holds the show together.

A young American would-be writer from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Cliff Bradshaw, gets a quick immersion in let-loose eroticism thanks to the British expatriate singer-dancer Sally Bowles. She’s thrown out of her job at the Kit Kat Klub – but thank heavens not before starring in the show’s dazzling, irresistible opening number, “Wilkommen”!

Needing a place to stay, she moves right in on the astonished Bradshaw, providing a quick introduction to the relatively naïve American on:  unmarried people living together, sex as a way to make a living, abortion, and … romance.

Their elderly, wise-to the-world landlady, Fräulein Schneider, a survivor in an eternally tough world, sings the tough-minded song, “So What?”  Sheer Brecht. So what anything.  So while she seems proper, it’s in character that she, too, is having an affair, with Herr Schulz, a successful fruit-seller widower who plies her not with roses but – even better — with Italian oranges.  Romance, it turns out, is for older people, too.  A theme of this show is that romance is for everybody – mix and match, boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls, threesomes, not to mention me and my gorilla.  I wonder if Woody Allen had Cabaret in mind when he wrote Whatever Works.

With all that, it’s not a big surprise that buxom Fräulein Kost in her Japanese silk dressing gown has a series of sailors visiting her at Fräulein Schneider’s rooming house. It’s all a bit over the top for the American from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but not for long — he adapts quickly.

Why then does he leave Berlin?  Because he can’t adapt to the Nazis.

As the Weimar Republic fades, the Nazis rise to power.  The signs are there.  Swastikas appear on arm bands.  The song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” is sung in a sweet soprano by a Young Boy, wearing a brown shirt, on his way to being a Hitler Youth.  Thugs break the window of Her Schultz’s store.  We only learn toward the end that Herr Schultz is Jewish because it hadn’t mattered before but now it does. Backing out of their marriage engagement– and before you get a chance to judge her — Fräulein Schneider sings, “What Would You Do?”  Well, what would you do?

Brianna Kinnier as Sally Bowles takes over the stage with her dancing and singing in the first rousing number, “Wilkommen.”  She sings that marvelous music while kicking up her flexible legs, from the floor the chair tops!  She’s joined by an excellent chorus, of singer-dancers, professionally trained, and wittily individualized:  Chelsea Chizever, the show’s talented choreographer, dances gorgeously in the role of Texas, Tamara Flanell, David Lopez, Katrina Lovett, Julia Pulick, Lisa Rasmussen, Haley Unger and Ryan Slatniski.   Chizever’s  choreography throughout is original, varied, creative, and captures the spirit of the times.

Justin Harris is astonishing as Emcee.  He seems always there – as the cabaret of life is always there, and he delivers his alluring songs, alone or ensemble,  “Wildommen,” “Two Ladies,” “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” “I Don’t Care Much,” with a worldly-wise irony that makes you want more.  “If You Could See Her” is a number that has to be seen to be believed – what a creative moment that was for the writers of this show.  Harris’s rendition of “Money,” with the ensemble, designed aptly and wittily circular by choreographer Chizever, is a show stopper.

Linda Aydinian puts across the songs of Fräulein Schneider with a warm intelligence and  a rough but tender pathos.  While no one sings the role with the sardonic catch in the voice Lotte Lenya brought to it in the original 1966 production (heard on YouTube), Linda Aydinian is terrific in her own way.

Michael P. Horn is touching as Fräulein Schneider’s lover, Herr Schultz, a man you can depend on to solve problems, but now we have to worry about him.  He’s got the Nazis to deal with — like Ernst Ludwig, whom Colin Palmer plays as a rapacious wolf in the clothing of urbane civility.  It looks like those are problems even Herr Schultz won’t solve.

Nick Mozlenski as Cliff Bradshaw sings well in the duet with Sally, “”Perfectly Marvelous.”  Jennifer Eager is a humorous and practical Fräulein Kost.

John Hudson as Max, the Kit Kat Klub’s owner, is a convincing brute who uses politics as an excuse to dole out the beatings.  Tom Del Prete brings intriguing delicacy to the Dancing Gorilla.  As the Young Boy, Joseph Podlas’s pure voice heralds an ugly future in “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.”  Matt Eager is a persuasive bureaucrat as the Customs Officer/Official.

John Kander’s witty, powerful music for Cabaret, with lyrics by Fred Ebb, is rendered by the strong orchestra directed by George Moravek, who plays the piano, and with Bob Blank on the guitar, banjo and ukulele, Crystal Crespo on the trombone, Ben Eager on the violin, Will Green on the drums, Ryan Nowak on the tenor and alto saxophone, Colin Van Tuyl on the trumpet, and Marie Varela on the alto and soprano saxophone and flute.

Cabaret is inspired by and derives much of its magic from The Threepenny Opera, with book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and music by Kurt Weill.  It’s based on the play I Am A Camera by John Van Druten that draws upon stories by Christopher Isherwood.  Thank you, North Fork Community Theatre, for this outstanding production of an important American musical.

Cabaret, so well directed by Manning Dandridge, plays at the North Fork Community Theatre in Mattituck, Long Island, through  June 4, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


An artist’s view of the big city and its nightlife during the Weimar Republic.  Otto Dix, German, Metropolis, 1928, wood, distemper, 181 x 404 cm., Kunstmuseum, Stuttgart.


Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Review | Antigone | By Jean Anouilh | Translated by Lewis Galantière | Fusion Theatre

                                                … the force of destiny …

Here’s an amazing experience!   You walk into a small off-Broadway theater.  The stage is about as minimal as can be – mainly there’s a baffle board at the back and an upright piano to the side.  Early on  Antigone, kneeling, agonized by Creon’s order forbidding burial for the body of her rebellious brother, expresses her anguish with an operatic soprano aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”  from Verdi’s La Forza del destino.  What a shock!  And what a way to convey intense emotion in a play.

Eilin O'Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother in Antigone by Jean Anouilh, presented by Fusion Theatre. Photo Jonathan Staff

Eilin O’Dea as Antigone, holding dirt from the burial of her brother. Photo Jonathan Staff

The Fusion Theatre, originated by Eilin O’Dea, who directs the production and plays Antigone, is dedicated to the idea of merging classical theatre and opera.   This production  presents the text of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone of 1944 with the addition of four arias, and choral music from Saint-Saëns’ opera Antigone.   The impact is powerful.  The story, that Anouilh drew from Sophocles’ great drama written in the Fifth Century B.C., is famous for pitting the will of a girl against a king.

According to the ancient legend, Antigone, her sister Ismene, and their brothers, Polynices and Eteocles are the children of the fateful marriage of Oedipus with his mother.  Now Oedipus is dead, and his rivalrous sons have killed one another fighting for mastery of the city of Thebes.   Creon, now King of Thebes, has decreed that the insurgent brother who rose up against the city, Polynices, be deprived of the important rite of burial.  Antigone rebelliously contrives to bury him, incurring Creon’s wrath and risking dire punishment.

I knew that Anouilh’s Antigone had been written during World War II and produced in France as a protest against the German occupation, the censors not recognizing in the garb of a “classical” play that Creon’s dictatorship was a stand-in for the fascist occupation, and that Antigone stood for the spirit of resistance.  I didn’t expect, though, that to get the play past the censors, Anouilh had altered Antigone’s character.  Instead of the high-minded woman that she is in Sophocles’ play, challenging Creon with her brilliantly wrought arguments, here Antigone is quixotic, not principled.

Antigone’s statements of how she makes her decisions and why she acts as she does range from unclear to unconvincing.  I’ve heard her rationales in this play called “existential” but by the time Creon has earnestly, even desperately said everything he knows to save her from disaster and she ignores him, she seems just plain nutty.  Creon, on the other hand, and to my surprise, comes across as a sympathetic character, anguished by the conflict between what he thinks he ought to do for the safety of his city and his unwillingness to harm Antigone.

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi's Don Carlo in Fusion Theatre's Antigone by Jean Anouilh. Photo Jonathan Staff

Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, singing Ella Giammai from Verdi’s Don Carlo: “If the Prince sleeps, the traitor is awake.” Photo Jonathan Staff

The sympathetic Creon brings us to a high point of this production– Paul Goodwin Groen, the magnificent bass, singing “Ella Giammai,” the aria sung by an equally distressed King Philppe II in Verdi’s Don Carlo.  Omigosh.  What an experience, to hear this full, operatic bass not in a vast opera house but in the intimate setting of, yes, off-Broadway!  Groen’s interpretation of the aria, his acting, his strength and his pathos – again, seen close – are thrilling.  If there were no other reason to see this play – and there are many others – Groen’s “Ella Giammai” would be of itself worth all.

The acting is for the most part of high caliber.  In particular, the multi-talented and creative Eilin O’Dea brings the maximum of dramatic tension to the role of Antigone. Byron Singleton

L-R Byron Singleton as First Guard, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Jason Wirth, Music Director and Accompanist. Photo Jonathan Staff

combines down-to-earth self-interest with a touching sympathy in his role as First Guard, and with his fine tenor voice he provides a thoroughly enjoyable rendition of Manrico’s aria, “Deserto Sulla Terra,” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  Sue Ellen Mandel is touching as the Nurse, and Igby Rigby is cleverly insinuating as the Page/Chorus – the young “innocent” boy who’s already wise to the world.  Music Director Jason Wirth provides strong accompaniment to the singing, and plays a solo, on an upright piano to the side of the stage.

I can imagine that some may find it a little jarring for Fusion Theatre to pull in operatic arias to Anouilh’s script – perhaps, one may say, rather than “borrowing,” the group should have a composer write the music specifically for this play.  That would be a great idea if there happens to be a Verdi around – one willing to do it on a shoestring.  The operatic music was  thought-provoking, enriching and a pleasure to hear, and did a good job of advancing the Fusion Theater’s point that there’s value of merging classical theater and opera.

After all, we don’t even know what the music was that accompanied Sophocles’ Antigone around 441 B.C. – but we know there was music!

Fusion Theatre’s Antigone plays at the Studio Theatre on Manhattan’s Theatre Row, West 42nd Street, through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

Antigone cast. L-R Allison Threadgold as Ismene, Pauline Yeng as Messenger, David Gran as Haemon, Sue Ellen Mendel as Nurse, Eilin O’Dea as Antigone (foreground), Paul Goodwin Groen as Creon, Igby Rigney as Page/Chorus, Adam Shiri as Second Guard, Byron Singleton as First Guard. Photo Jonathan Staff

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston

Review | Prince of Players | Opera by Carlisle Floyd | New York Premier | Little Opera Theatre of NY

… what a difference a king makes …

In Prince of Players, a private, personal and intimate story – that of an actor thrown out of work by a King’s decree — plays out against a canvas of broad historical meaning.  Although I’ve seen thoughts to the contrary, I found it monumental, and Carlisle Floyd’s swelling, varied music, performed by a cast of fine singer-actors supported by a full orchestra fulfills and amplifies the strong emotions and large resonances.

We are in 1661, in the period of the restoration of King Charles II of England after the dictatorship of Cromwell and the Puritans – with both a capital and a small “p”.  The theater-loving King Charles II – following the latest French fashion — decrees that women’s roles must no longer be played by male actors, as they had been, but must now be played by women.

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston

The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston. Mezzotint, R. B. Parkes, engraver, R. Cooper, artist, perhaps after an original painting by Sir Peter Lely. From “An Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber, new edn. by Robert W. Lowe, 1889

This may seem like a step in the direction of naturalism and perhaps of fair play, but it sure pulls the rug out from under the career of Edward Kynaston, a male Shakespearean actor of androgynous beauty who built his fame playing women’s roles, such as Desdemona.  A victim of collateral damage, he loses everything – career, livelihood, status, and love.  He’s thrown to the lowest levels of degradation but he claws his way back to triumph again on stage – to play Othello.

A particularly complex character, Margaret Hughes is an underling who comes to the fore, starting off as Kynaston’s dresser in the years of his success in playing women’s roles. She holds in her heart two passions impossible of fulfillment: a desire to act on stage, forbidden to women, and desire for Kynaston, whom she’s in love with while knowing he’s erotically drawn to men.  Charles’ decree turns her desire to act on stage into a real possibility:  seizing the day.  she rises  to become a fine and important actress, her success paralleling Kynaston’s fall from grace.  And, still in love with Kynaston, she uses her new empowerment to empower him.  She enables him to revise his great acting talent now to play successfully the roles open to him — male roles.  From having once played Desdemona, he now plays Othello.

The heart of the matter that comes with a surprise and gives this narrative an inspiring character is what we, and Kynaston, learn about Kynaston’s talent for acting.  It’s gender independent.  The question which at first seemed fundamental — will he play a female or male role? — turns out to be incidental in the face of his great artistic gift.  I found this moving in its operatic development (although I didn’t find Kynaston’s fundamental personality upheaval that came along with it convincing.)

I’m struck by close parallels in the story of Prince of Players and that of the Academy Award winning film, The Artist, of 2011, discussed here below.   While The Prince of Players takes us the world of 17th century British theater, The Artist takes us to the world of movie-making in 1927 when the new talkies were taking over from silent films. Valentin is a great silent film actor, but he’s over-confident of his star power and lacks confidence in his ability to use his voice as an actor so he refuses, like Kynaston, to even try to relearn his craft. Failing to adapt, he’s swept to the bottom of the barrel, as Kyaston had been, and is eclipsed by the success in the talking films of the young actress, Peppy, who had always loved him.  Peppy, like Margaret, in love with the great artist that she knows Valentin to be, finds a way around his pride, enabling him once again to rise and fulfill his great artistic gift.  (Unlikely, but worth mentioning – since the best known source for modern adaptations of the story of Edward Kynaston is Samuel Pepys, one wonders if the name Peppy in The Artist is an elaborate if obscure in-joke, pointing to sources.)

Larger roles in this production were double cast.  The cast in the performance I saw Saturday, February 25, 2017 were for the most part fine singers and always tone-perfect actors. Edward Kynaston was played by baritone Michael Kelly whose rich voice filled the ample Kaye Playhouse, and magnetic stage presence filled the full range of emotions in the part.  Soprano Maeve Hoglund was thrilling as a dramatic singer in the intricately drawn character of Margaret.  These two played off one another with crackling excitement, above all in the final intensely dramatic, suspenseful and cathartic final scene.

Prince of Players is based on a play made into a movie, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty by Jeffrey Hatcher, both drawn loosely upon references to characters and incidents of the period, and on references to Edward Kynaston in Samuel Pepys’ diary.  The opera premiered at the Houston Grand Opera March of 2016, and, produced by The Little Opera Theatre of NY, played at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, in Manhattan, where I saw it, February 23 – 26, 2017.

Review | The Band’s Visit | Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek | Book by Itamar Moses | Atlantic Theater Company

…. cultural ambassadors …

A travel weary Egyptian ceremonial police band on their way to play a concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva get off the bus by mistake at the small town of Bet Hatikva (you can see how that mistake can be made). There won’t be another bus until morning.  Thank heavens for the mistake – or we wouldn’t have this wonderful musical!

The inhabitants of this relative cultural backwater are edgy and cautious about their unexpected visitors but ultimately do what decent humans do:  they take them in for the night.  And that’s what this show is about:  being human, in the better senses of the word.

Language and cultural barriers are bridged in the brief time the Egyptians are marooned in Bet Hatikva.  With plenty of hesitation and resistance on both sides, conversation begins to flow.  Recognition, understanding, true wit, and music flower.

And love.  The beautiful central love story involves Dina owner of the local café, a dusty oasis in the desert, and Tewfiq, the Conductor of the Egyptian Band.  Dina’s hospitality is grudging on the surface but never in doubt, and that’s the kind of woman she is:  gritty and vulnerable.  How fascinating to watch the gorgeous Katrina Lenk in the role of in the role of Dina allure Tewfiq, played with perfect uptight military correctness by Tony Shalhoub.

But like these, all the characters in The Band’s Visit are humanly complex – even the small parts convey fully rounded personalities.  The acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental playing are in all ways perfect, intelligent and exciting.

The music – and there are fourteen musical numbers — has a thrilling, seductive near-eastern tonality and the lyrics are full of originality and wit.  There’s a lot to laugh at and much that is bitter-sweet in the songs and in the unrolling of the characters’ stories.  This is a “you couldn’t want more” kind of show.  But dominating the whole is the nuanced acting, full-throated singing and smart, wise beauty of Katrina Lenk’s Dina.

A particularly enchanting interlude finds Dina and Tewfiq on a park bench:  Tewfiq, encouraged by Dina, sings a profound and introspective song in Arabic as Dina, in a surreal touch, dances around him,  her arms moving with independent grace, as she sings the questions in her mind, wondering what’ s behind the stern, sad mask of the man who so draws her to him.

The set is as perfect as everything else, conjuring up a small town bus station, Dina’s café with its faded sign, a roller skating rink with colored lights (a key aspect of Bet Hatikva night life), and that miraculous park bench — with movement between scenes achieved with deceptive simplicity.  A stage floor with a rolling panel has never been set to better use.

The show is set a decade or so ago, when Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges were in play, and the story is based on an incident that really happened.  And so nostalgia meets with what-if in as bittersweet a romance as that between Dina and Tewfiq.  The Band’s finale persuades that music – perhaps even more than love – is the universal language.

The Band’s Visit is based on a screen play by Eran Kolirin, and is directed by David Cromer.  It plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district in an extended run through January 8, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Life is for Living, Conversations with Coward, 59E59Theaters December 13, 2016 - January 1, 2017 Noel Coward cabaret evning

Review | Life is for Living | Conversations with Coward | Simon Green with David Shrubsole | 59E59 Theaters

… cabaret with Coward …

Not so much “conversations” with Noel Coward — think cabaret.

Life is for Living, Conversations with Coward, 59E59Theaters December 13, 2016 - January 1, 2017 Noel Coward cabaret evning

David Shrubsole on piano and Simon Green performing Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016.

Seating is at intimate round tables.  Simon Green, tall, slim, totally charming and with a wonderful wry smile sings Noel Coward’s songs, with a few by other songwriters, and songs developed from some of his letters and other writings by Green and beautifully turned to music and played by the exciting pianist David Shrubsole.

What a civilized intimacy these performers create!  The cabaret mode is apt – there’s almost nothing Noel Coward, an actor and prolific and successful playwright, didn’t do in theater and that includes, in and around the 1j950’s famously appealing cabaret performances.

Particularly compelling is the way the darker shades of Coward’s spirit emerge. Though not to the manner born, Coward loved associating himself with the upper classes, and hobnobbing with others who were, at the time, at least as famous as he was.  He’s often thought of in terms of a style rather than substance, of surface rather than depth.  But in the choices of material, and in the nuance and ambiguity with which Simon Green delivers the songs, one glimpses more of Coward than the man with in the dressing gown, an elegant cigarette holder between his fingers.  Shading in a two-dimensional persona, they reveal Coward as a man of resonant and eerie depths.

Noel Coward's life ... not an open book. Simon Green singing in Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

Noel Coward’s life … not an open book. Simon Green singing in Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

A brilliant interlude is Green’s rendition of the song “I went to a Marvelous Party,” music and lyrics by Coward. The early incidents at the Gatsby-like party seem amusing – first we laugh, and then we laugh because we feel we should, but as successive vignettes become more exaggerated, with creep toward the grotesque, the tragic ironies emerge and our laughter stutters..

Green also takes on a few songs by others, including Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, and these immediately seem more musical and less philosophical than Coward’s songs.  I’m taking a guess, with some clues from the patter, that Green and Shrubsole hope Berlin’s and the Gershwins’ songs may seem lightweight compared to Coward’s, but oh no, that’s not the impact.  Berlin’s “Always,” the Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” – these are superb here, delivered with Green’s particular delicate amusement, and elsewhere.

It takes some daring to juxtapose Coward “The Master,” as he’s called, with the masters. Taking on that challenge works – Green and Shrubsole illuminate the particular value of Coward’s talent and bring us the pleasures he holds in store for his listeners – a pleasure we wouldn’t have without them.

Life is for Living is a stimulating, thought provoking and delightful evening of cabaret.  Hearing what Noel Coward thinks, says and sings in his particular venue is a rare treat.

Simon Green performs, with David Shrubsole, Musical Director, at the piano.  The work was created and compiled by Green and Shrubsole, with research by Jason Morell.  It plays at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan through January 1, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


East meets West: rehearsing for Devdas in production of Hypokrit Theatre Company and Junoon Performing Arts

Review | Devdas & Chokher Bali | Indian Classics Reimagined | Directed by Arpita Mukherjee | Hypokrit Theatre Company and Junoon Performing Arts

Two Indian classics re-imagined 

First on the program,  Devdas (The Lover)  is a feast of dancing and music, choreographed with originality and variety by Swarali Karulkar, and with exciting music by Aalap Desai. The dancing blends  aspects of traditional Indian dancing with modern, contemporary pop, and ballet.   With the use of photo projections, the set shifts from visions of romantic and exotic beauty to stunning images of bare practice halls.  The costumes, too, blend contemporary western with a traditional Indian sense of  intense color and shine.  The stage is filled with dancing of high quality, filled with youthful energy and idealism.  It all comes together in a joyous, spirit-lifting performance.

East meets West: rehearsing for Devdas in production of Hypokrit Theatre Company and Junoon Performing Arts

East meets West: rehearsing for Devdas.

Devdas is based on a novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, written in Bengali in 1917.  The plot is a complicated tale of love, rivalry, passion and loss and unless you know the story in advance, you won’t catch on to the narrative details through this dance performance but the emotional truths in the individual episodes come across.

This re-imagination transforms a rivalry among women for love of a man into a competition for “Best Dancer in India.”  All the dancers in the program are professional and fine to watch:  Adam Bourke as Mr X is exceptionally dynamic, and Sonia Mukerji as Paro gives us gorgeous glimpses of classical Indian dance.  Swarali Karulkar, the choreographer, performing Chanda whose heart is set on winning the prize, is sensational.

Second on the program is Chokher Bali (The Passion Play), a drama adapted by Partha Chatterjee from Rabindranath Tagore’s novel, with musical direction by Shubhra Prakash and choreography by Rujuta Vaidya.  The title means “sand in the eye,” that is, a constant irritant, referring to the rivalry of two women who become friends in the course of the play and rivals for the love of the same man.

The story is clear in Chokher Bali, even to the uninitiated, and the intermittent use of western pop music to convey emotional situations is effective.  Generally, the play is diffuse and not strong on dramatic tension, and the acting is uneven.

Produced by the Hypokrit Theatre Company and Junoon Performing Artsand playing at Theater for the New City through November 20, 2016, Devdas and Chokher Bali are each stand-alone productions and tickets can be purchased for each separately.  They can also be seen together, as I saw them, with tickets for the two available at a special combined price.  For more information, including performance schedules and tickets, click here.


Review | The Folk Singer | Book & Lyrics by Tom Attea | Music by Arthur Abrams | Theater For The New City

 … a good idea but … 

The idea of The Folk Singer is intriguing:  a new musical about a young folk singer and composer who, wanting to revitalize people’s interest in folk singing, gathers a group of his folk singer friends to write new folk songs about current issues. These are to be as relevant for our time as those of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were back when….  The five singers put on an evening featuring their new songs, with Don’s girlfriend Kim videotaping it, hoping the video will go viral and spread their messages about the value of folk singing and their takes on the contemporary issues via YouTube and perhaps beyond.

The songs they come up with do range through contemporary issues such as depersonalization through social media, climate change, terrorism, redefinitions of gender roles, and others.  The problem is that the songs are over-simple and undistinguished.  They don’t take up these issues with any bite or particular insight, the rhymes lack wit or pungency (one song hammers on the rhyme “Terror is error” which is, among other things, a simplistic view of the problem to say the least) and in general the vision is unimaginative.  The music is derivative without bringing anything fresh or newly vibrant to the great tradition of folk music.

Above the stage photographs and videos pertaining to the subject matter are projected:  some of these are fascinating, illuminating, and much more powerful than what takes place on the stage directly below.

The fine four-person band does all it can to draw the most possible from the music and they’re so excellent that at times they make for really good listening – transcending the music they have to work with.

Mark Mercante directs the cast that includes Andy Striph as Don, the folk singer and organizer, Micha Lazare as Kim, Don’s girlfriend, Matthew Angel, Mary Adams, Nick McGuiness and Oliva A. Griffen as folk singers, and Larry Fleischman as Frank, who owns the bar.

The band – and thanks to them! — consists of Arthur Abrams (Piano), Susan Mitchel (Violin), Ralph Hamperian (Bass) Art Lilliard (Drums).

The Folk Singer plays at Theater For The New City in Manhattan’s East Village Thursdays through Sundays through October 23, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

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