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

Category: Musical Theater Page 3 of 4

Musical Review | Once/Twice | Two One-Act Musicals | Adaptation, Music and Lyrics by Paul Dick | Directed by Celine Rosenthal | Music Direction by Ming Aldrich-Gan | PASSAJJ Productions | Roy Arias Stage IV

… a show of sheer joy …

Thank heavens for Off-Off-Broadway!  It gives you the chance to see a superb work by Paul Dick who has written over 15 musicals based on classical works of literature, among them, Wuthering Heights at the Mint Theatre Space, and Madame Bovary reviewed here.  Still, his work hasn’t yet received the broad recognition it deserves — it’s awaiting!  And now’s your chance to come to know him, and see a moving, song-filled exciting show.

Once is adapted into musical theater from a one-act play, A Sunny Morning, by Serafin and Joacquin Quintero, and Twice is based on Anton Chekhov’s short story The Bear.  Each in different ways reminds us that, given half a
chance, love can overcome the distance between people and how tremendously lucky we are when we let it happen, whether for the first time or … twice.

ONCE with, L, Joseph Robinson as Gonzalo, R, Carmella Clark as Dona Laura, with jBrandon Grimes, behind, as Gonzalo’s servant. Photo: Louisa Pough

ONCE with, L, Joseph Robinson as Gonzalo, R, Carmella Clark as Dona Laura, with Brandon Grimes, behind, as Gonzalo’s servant. Photo: Louisa Pough

In Once, from the Quintero play, a proud, elegant elderly lady, Dona Laura (Carmella Clark) and a dour, feisty elderly man, Gonzalo (Joseph Robinson) engage in a tug-of-war over a park bench in Madrid.  Irritable conversation leads to revelation: she realizes they were once lovers “Thirty Years Ago” (the title of one of the beautiful songs) but doubts he knows it.  And if he doesn’t should she tell him? or let him remember her as the beautiful young girl she once was?   And .. .vice versa.  Will they pass as ships in the night?  Hope not!  A luscious abundance of songs … from “Changing Seasons,” “His Dream,” “Once,” “In A Villa In Valencia,” and more radiate naturally from their feelings and experience on this wondrous “Sunny Morning” (the song, “A Sunny Morning,” sung in its reprise as a musically exciting quartet).

A bold segue signaled by a large bottle of Smirnov vodka moves us to Russia and Twice, after Chekhov’s The Bear: Immediately we’re in a very funny song, “Woe!” another  stunning quartet in which servants and the bereaved widow, Elena (Emily Leonard) all sing, together but apart, just how they each really feel about last night’s sudden death of the master of the house.

Time passes — “A Year Of Mourning In Approximately Two Minutes” — and Smirnov (Brandon Grimes), a big bear of a man, arrives looking for repayment of a loan that Elena can’t pay until the day after tomorrow — not soon enough for Smirnov.

TWICE with Brandon Grimes as Smirnov.  Photo: Louisa Pough

TWICE with Brandon Grimes as Smirnov.  Photo: Louisa Pough

In a show-stopping song and performance, Brandon Grimes as Smirnov sings  out the names of all those who owe him money in the song, “If The Answer Is No” — as fast-paced and unstoppable as Figaro’s aria in The Barber of Seville, and thrilling.  What a tour de force of baritone singing by Mr. Grimes.  But all the performers in this beautifully produced and directed show have fine voices, heard directly without any mikes to intervene, and with Ming Aldrich-Gan’s piano expressing the beauty and vitality of Paul Dick’s music.

From the first moment to the last, this show has you smiling with sheer delight.

Once/Twice plays at Roy Arias Stage IV at the Times Square Arts Center in Manhattan through June 1, 2014.

Review | The Threepenny Opera | Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | Music by Kurt Weill | English Adaptation by Mark Blitzstein | Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke | Atlantic Theater Company

Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.

Review | A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum by Burt Shevelove & Larry Gelbart | Inspired by Plautus’ play | With Peter Scolari | Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim | Directed & Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

Set in ancient Rome as its appealing title suggests (that title being one of the best things it has going for it)  A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a zany comedy with music.  A slave, Pseudolus, makes the deal to acquire for his master, Hero, the beautiful Philia, in return for which Hero will set him free.  Philia is held in the house of the pimp, Marcus Lycus, who purchased her on behalf of the Great General, Miles Gloriosus whose arrival is imminent.   With Hero’s parents out of town, Pseudolus sets to work keeping Philia away from Miles Gloriosus and nabbing her for Hero, the slave’s on-the-spot inventiveness conjuring various ruses involving potions, hideouts and disguises leading to humorous false hopes and a romp of mistaken identities.

This show is so wacky and so silly and so camp that its success depends on a great comic star in the central role of Pseudolus.  The three performers who have played Pseudolus on Broadway, Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane all won Tony’s for Best Actor in a Musical  — no accident, because that’s the level of performance it takes. Bay Street’s production doesn’t quite get that level of magnetism and force from the center from Peter Scolari as Pseudolus, and so much of the time the play veers toward just silly.

It doesn’t help that the songs are bland — Stephen Sondheim’s first Broadway show — and the rampant, coarse sexism gives the show a dated feeling that the “it’s all in good fun” spirit doesn’t erase.

Still, there are some good laughs, funny site gags, clever word play and, among steady competence, a couple of outstanding performances that keep you watching and hoping which is a good thing because the second act is a lot more fun than the first.  This production also benefits from a wonderful, colorful, tone perfect set of three houses on a Roman street by Michael Schweikardt, and several talented performers, including Scolari who, if not inspired, has good comic timing, energy and agility.

Nathaniel Hackmann is perfect in the role of Miles Gloriosus, the physically impressive, tough guy Roman general.  Broad-stanced and pompous, he opens up his stunning operatic voice, exciting to hear, in the song “Bring Me My Bride.”  He’s an excellent comic actor, too, and his recoveries from the play’s mix and match befuddlements are great fun.  Hackmann is the only performer, as far as I could see, who isn’t wired with a microphone — what a relief — it’s a pleasure to hear a natural voice after scenes of miked singing, dialogue, and much screaming (I guess that last is intended as “antic comic energy” but there sure is a lot of it).

Jackie Hoffman is equally irresistible as the loud-mouthed and over-bearing Domina, Hero’s mother and wife to Senex who can’t stand her, well played by Conrad John Schuck.  What comic flexibility in her face — mask-like and expressive at the same time!  Think Carol Burnett — Jackie Hoffman is as good or better!  One of the more effective interludes in the play is when this shrewish woman nobody likes is briefly overcome with tenderness toward her husband — which she quickly vanquishes in her song “That Dirty Old Man.”

A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum @ Bay Street Theater

Tom Deckman brings a lot of comic variety to his role of Hysterium, the over-anxious slave in the Senex family and a good foil to the manipulative Pseudolus.  Among the lightly clad girls girls girls who dwell in the house of Marcus Lycus and parade periodically around the stage with uninhibited gyrations, Gymnasia, played by Terry Lavell is for statuesque height and gender ambiguity — well, nobody in the audience could take eyes off Gymnasia.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum  plays at the beautiful Bay Street Theatre on the Wharf in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through September 1, 2013.

Roger Rathburn as Charles, Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma. Photo: Andrew Nuzhnyy.

Musical Review | Madame Bovary | Based on the Novel by Gustave Flaubert | Adaptation, Music and Lyrics Paul Dick | Direction and Choreography Marlene Thorn Taber | PASSAJJ Productions

This musical adaptation conveys to a remarkable extent the epic scope and compelling narrative force of Flaubert’s novel.  One is intent, watching the musical, on catching every word and the meaning of each episode in the personal saga of Emma Bovary, beautiful and given to romanticism but in other ways not truly remarkable.  What a lot of havoc romanticism can cause!  The songs are abundant, and carry us effectively through the emotional phases of the narrative;  musically they were somewhat expectable.  For me, the best of the songs are the ones that are tough and “realistic.”

Emma Bovary is a provincial French woman with a sense of wanting something larger, more  upper class, more all consuming — hard to put a finger on it but something different from the stifling middle class existence fate has handed her.  In the musical we first meet her, and her fantasy romanticism, at her wedding to the dull, unimaginative, and much older doctor Charles Bovary where, in the midst of the ceremony she — as a theatrical aside — is wishing her marriage were taking place at midnight.

Roger Rathburn as Charles, Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma. Photo: Andrew Nuzhnyy.

Roger Rathburn as Charles, Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma. Photo: Andrew Nuzhnyy.

From there on the marriage continues to disappoint:   “Tick tock, tick tock” she sings with ironic monotony, bored on the marriage bed.   But how to create that something better, more luxurious, more outstanding for herself?

Roger Rathburn as Charles,  Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma.  Photo:  Andrew Nuzhnyy.

The musical does a fine job of developing Flaubert’s theme  that for a woman of her time and station, the road to something better — whatever better is — lies not in herself but in finding — and hooking — the right man.  Her brief concerns about the import of “holy matrimony” don’t stop her from entering into an erotic though at the time unconsummated relationship with Leon, a young student — they share a meeting of the minds and a picnic basket — and when he leaves to study law in Rouen (not Ruen as in the program), she’s easily seduced by a wealthy landowner, Rodolphe  — who won’t, however, “save” her either.

As a salve to her yearnings and disappointments, Emma takes to buying luxuries for herself and her lovers — on her husband’s credit.  Faced with bankruptcy for her husband, she pulls on her old sexual self-confidence once again to lure money out of her lovers but, it turns out, they’re not that interested.  Eventually, though, as the tradesman Homais sings in a wonderfully nasty show-stopper song, the piper must be paid.  It’s fascinating that whatever our assumptions about 19th-century provincial France, the final disaster is caused not by her infidelities but by money.

The focus on that fiscal bottom line reminds that Flaubert set this story during the monarchy of King Louise Philippe I in the period of 1827-1846, characterized by the rise of the middle class.  (Why, according to the program, the musical is set in the 1890’s is beyond me, and makes the reference to the King irrelevant.)

Naturally the adaptation of a long, famously and beautifully detailed novel into a viable musical requires enormous condensation and leaving out, and an important reason the musical retains its narrative thrust is Paul Dick’s skill in doing this.  I think, though, that omitting Emma and Charles Bovary’s daughter was carrying streamlining too far:  the daughter is truly essential to understanding Emma’s character, conflicts and actions, and to the story as a whole.

Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma sings with skill and strength and acts with uninterrupted focus, elements in this main character largely responsible for the unremitting vitality of the musical.  Perky as she is, though, I feel she’s miscast in this show:  her accent, movement style and expressiveness speak much more of the American west or mid-west than of 19th-century France, and her contemporary hair bob is so notably anachronistic it’s distracting.  (During the show, I kept thinking she’d be great in Oklahoma and I’ll be darned — according to the program notes which I first read after, as I usually do, she received herBA and Master’s in Music Theater Performance from Oklahoma City University).

L-R Eyal Scherf as Rodolphe, Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma, Roger Rathburn as Charles. Photo: Andrew Nuzhnyy

L-R Eyal Scherf as Rodolphe, Hayley Hoffmeister as Emma, Roger Rathburn as Charles. Photo: Andrew Nuzhnyy

Among the good roster of performers, those who best transport us across the Atlantic to 19th-century France are Eyal Sherf and Christopher G. Tefft.  As the seducing landowner, Sherf conveys wittily, while always staying in character, a fascinating snaky allure and a European flavor:  he convinces us that for

Rodolphe, Emma is never more than a plaything and yet, at the same time, how deeply he’s affected by her beauty.  You believe his desire.

There’s an allure all its own, and a big, satisfying  voice, in Christopher G. Tefft’s calculating, leering, and bottom line realistic Homais.  He brings both brutality and poignancy to another of his show-stoppers, “Why Not Me?”

Madame Bovary, the musical — a rich evening of theater!

Madame Bovary plays at the Roy Arias Stage IV Theater on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street through June 2.

Review | Donnybrook! The Musical of the Movie The Quiet Man | Music and Lyrics by Johnny Burke | Book by Robert E. McEnroe | Directed by Charlotte Moore | Based on The Quiet Man, Short Story by Maurice Walsh | Irish Repertory Theatre

The world doesn’t need this musical.  Set in a fictional Irish village, Innisfree, in the 1920’s, it’s about the “cute Irish,” and their quaint ways including the great fun of settling conflicts with a brutal, free-for-all fight — a “donnybrook.”

The central idea, from Maurice Walsh’s 1933 Saturday Evening Post short story, is interesting — an Irish-American boxer, having killed a man and determined never to fight again, returns to his Irish village where he’s forced into a fight mandated by custom (the “donnybrook”) in order to uphold the honor of his village bride.

Sean, arriving in town, immediately falls in love with the feisty Mary Kate who immediately falls in love with him.  But Sean angers her brother, Will, by topping his bid for some land, so Will tries to prevent the marriage and –when it does take place through some chicanery — withholds Ellen’s dowry.  Sean doesn’t care about the money but — Irish custom — the dowry is bottom line, because it represents her honor.  When Sean refuses to fight Will for the withheld dowry, Mary Kate, with an implausible lack of interest in her beloved’s state of mind about fighting, resorts to sexual blackmail, refusing to consummate the marriage.  Through the machinations of a subplot things work out but not before there’s a — yes! — donnybrook, where Sean manages not to kill anybody including his wife’s brother — that would have been a problem — but the outcome is never in doubt, and we’re not really worried about this or anything in this show, in which the stereotype characters don’t engage ones concern.

The cast doesn’t have much to work with in these trite characters, although there are flashes of dramatic tension in James Barbour ‘s performance as the American boxer, particularly when he’s singing, but the show seems too small for him.

The songs and music, some traditional and others written for the show, are largely predictable although a few, such as “But Beautiful,” have more character and are familiar — the musical had a short run on Broadway in 1961.  The song “The Loveable Irish,” with its refrain “I hate the Irish,” is offensive;  Sean lists everything he finds wrong with the Irish until, at the end, he sings “but I’m Irish, too” as if that makes it OK to pour out so many negative stereotypes on a group of people, but it doesn’t.

Donnybrook! plays at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through March 31. Extended through April 28th

Review | Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

… singing about work …

People talked about working in Studs Terkel’s oral history book of 1974, Working:  People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do — in Working, the musical, they sing about it.

It’s a great idea — as composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz — of Godspell and Wicked —  thought when he first brought Working to the stage not long after the publication of Terkel’s book.  Revised and performed through the years, in its current version it’s an engaging and at times moving series of fine musical numbers (though I wish there were no rhymes, see below), beautifully performed by a cast of six who, all in all, take the parts of twenty-six characters and sing in the ensemble.

Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

 

With the words taking the lead, as they should here, and with some excellent music by leading professional composers, we catch the poetry, the accuracy and the deep feelings behind what people said to Terkel:  a fireman (L), a felt dyer in a luggage factory (what a hard, messy, grinding job that is) , an interstate trucker, a cleaning lady, a housewife and others — now singing what they like and don’t like, and what meanings they find and don’t find — in their workaday work.  All except for Joe, retired, who has that to tell us about.  The performers segue in and out of their sung vignettes on the lower part of the handsomely designed stage as a fine foursome of musicians play behind a scrim above.

Work has ground down some of the workers:  through Marie-France Arcilla’s singing of the assembly line dyer of felt pads, I felt empathy with her, caught in a messy, exhausting trap.  Some workers are weary but Maggie Holmes (R), singing the cleaning lady, let me share her hope that there will be a better life for her daughter — to be addressed by her last name (I wondered how that daughter’s doing, 38 years later).  Jay Armstrong Johnson as the mason conveys an inspiring pride:  stone lasts, and leaves you “Something To Point To,” the title of the last — uplifting — song in the show.

Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

On the other hand, Joe Cassidy, as the publicists who made more money than most, conveys the emptiness of not having anything to point to after years of work (maybe; it’s ambiguous).  Nehal Joshi (below L) gives an hilarious edge to the ex-newsroom assistant who makes plain to the audience what he himself can’t see, that is, why he can’t keep a job: in all his parts he touches the heart with his blend of sadness and wry humor.   Saving the best for last (my best but my friends had other favorites):  the performance of Donna Lynne Champlin (R) as the gutsy waitress proclaiming of her job, “It’s an Art;”  it’s memorable — a first rate musical theater moment.  (I looked after seeing the show and sure enough, that was one of the few songs written by Stephen Schwartz himself.)

Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

Two things troubled me about this production, the microphones, and the rhymes.

These six performers are all fine singers and actors:  why oh why were they miked???  There’s no need for it — as professionals, they know how to make themselves heard.  (And the show is in a rather small theater.)  The microphones the performers wear diminish the sense of immediacy that draws one to “live theater:”

I found that the rhymes in the songs, though often clever, undercut the authenticity that Working depends on.  The strength of the show lies in our awareness that we’re hearing the very words spoken by real people from different walks of life — and real people don’t (at least not very often!) talk in rhymes.  Without that sense of the genuine, this already loosely jointed musical thins out toward a series of show songs.

Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

Though it doesn’t quite gel as the unified musical the creators intend, Working is highly entertaining and satisfying, like an exceptionally varied and unusually thought provoking evening of cabaret.

Working, A Musical | From the Book by Studs Terkel | Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso | Contributions by Gordo Greenberg | Prospect Theater Company | 59E59 Theaters

Working plays in midtown Manhattan at 59E59 theaters through December 30, 2012.

Review | Odyssey, The Epic Musical | Matt Britten Director, Book and Lyrics | Dimitri Landrain Composer, Vocal Arrangements | Daniel Sefik Music Director, Additional Lyrics | Marianne Ward Set Designer, Scenic Paint Charge | Araca Project | American Theater of Actors

… a big musical on its way …

Odyssey calls itself an epic musical and it is.  It has the look of a musical headed to Broadway and — with some strengthening — it will get there. Meanwhile, it’s tremendous fun!

First of all, the set is gorgeous.  The show is playing in a fairly small theater but the stage is vast and the set uses all of it in a seemingly serendipitous, free flowing way to suggest the sea, the islands in it, the voyages across it, and the high realm of the gods and the earthy realm of humans.  It’s a set that conveys the complexity and exhilaration of existence – it’s wonderful, and keeps you on the journey even when occasionally the play gets a little waterlogged.  Nets, sails and figureheads — it has lots of blue and turquoise and one wants to be there.  (You can even get the flavor in the design of their web page.)

The show begins with a little boy reading the first lines of The Oydyssey where Homer invokes the Muse to sing to him Odysseus’ tale:  “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course … ” and the singing begins.  It’s very moving … and it ends with the boy and the book, too.  A beautiful frame.

The story takes Odysseus from the time he is a boy, and then a king of Ithaca, married to Penelope, through to the war at Troy, and like the Odyssey, the weight of the story is on Odysseus’ long voyage home, when he’s “driven time and again off course” into a serious of famous and wonderfully inventive adventures.  We visit the Cyclops’ cave, resist the Sirens (though the rest of Odysseus’ crew meets its end there), visit Circe’s magical island, and sojourn with the seductive nymph Calypso.

We also voyage with Odysseus through some adventures not part of Odysseus’ story, in particular a lengthy episode in which, because Athena has fallen in love with Odysseus, Zeus and the other gods offer him the gift of eternal life in a kind of rapturous Age of Aquarius scene.

The music is generic musical comedy, not very original, the only exception I noticed being the appropriately beautiful music of “Siren Song,” but the lyrics are often witty, intriguing and hilarious.  The musical number “Nobody,” a riff from Homer’s joke about how Odysseus tricked the Cyclops, is a show stopper [Odysseus told the Cyclops his name was “Nobody” so after Odysseus had stuck a poker in the monster’s one eye, the Cyclops cried out in useless vengeance “Nobody injured me!”]

For a stronger musical Odyssey, the character of Odysseus and the narrative as a whole need to be more consistent, and the hero less dithering.  Uncertainty may be a strength, but Odysseus looks inept rather than heroic in scenes such as that where his Ithacans look to him as their King to ease their current miseries, and the “clever Odysseus” has no resources to help them and not a clue what to do.  One senses in this instance the reason for including a crisis that isn’t in the Odyssey was to justify a very good song with a contemporary ring to it, “Everything to Fear.”  Even within this show’s narrative, it’s inconsistent because we see that Odysseus was in fact very rich – it takes decades for Penelope’s free loading suitors to make a dent in his grand estate, and still there’s plenty left.  This inconsistency among others weakens the believability and impact.

Other narrative decisions, such as the interloping “real life is better for mortals than eternal life” episode and related themes that run through the show seem governed by the desire to put across a world view.  The philosophy is trendy-murky and doesn’t derive from the characters.

There’s no reason why a creative team in 2011 working with the story of Odysseus that goes back to many centuries BC, have to include the most famous incidents in the Odyssey (although those who chose to come might be disappointed not to see what they expected — OK, fact is, I missed his sojourn with Nausicaa a lot!)

And I suppose (though, look, Homer did create a really great fundamental story, mess with it at your peril) that they’re free to include incidents that the Muse never got around to telling the Bard.  But such interpolations, like everything else in the story, need to flow within a consistent world view led by a consistently and plausibly developed character.

The plot of the musical hinges on Athena’s crush on Odysseus, but perhaps we could be given a little more clue as to why she is the goddess of wisdom.

It’s a big cast — 28 performers and several have multiple roles, and they’re very professional and charismatic.  Josh A. Davis as Odysseus leads the way through with strong acting and singing and goes a long way toward creating the sense of the whole.  Emma Zaks is a vigorous, adorable Athena.  Janine Divita brings a strong dramatic voice to Penelope.  Eddie Korbich is so funny as Poseidon you want to hug him!

Why mike these and other good singers, especially in a small theater?  They’d sound better without the electronic barrier.

Odyssey the Musical has begun its voyage: avoiding the self-indulgent seductions of the Sirens, chances look good for its making it to Broadway but as it launches from its off-off Broadway port, it’s already great fun.  It’s a short run — this time — but try to see it!!

Odyssey plays at American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street in Manhattan through October 30.

Josh Grisetti and the cast of Enter Laughing, The Musical.  Photo by Jerry Lamonica

Review | Enter Laughing, The Musical | Book by Joseph Stein | Music & Lyrics by Stan Daniels | Music Direction by Phil Reno, Music Arrangements & Orchestrations by Matt Castle | Direction & Musical Staging by Stuart Ross | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

I never saw anything funnier than Enter Laughing. The situations are hilarious, the songs are witty, and the cast is out of sight perfect.  If you enjoy laughing, really, you have to see this.   It has  only one “message”:  the life-affirming power of pure fun.

Set in the 1930’s and based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing tells the story of David Kolowitz, a boy from the Bronx who aspires to be an actor against the wishes of his over-protective parents who are plotting his career as a pharmacist, “almost a doctor”.  Kolowitz, who’s given to fantasizing success and seeing his name in lights, is played by Josh Grisetti , a major talent and — it’s easy to see from this show — a star in the making:  he sings, he dances, he acts, and he is so funny.  David in the play, however, not only lacks talent but generally hasn’t a clue, yet somehow bumbles through to an onstage debut, bounding from stage fright to worldly pronouncements in the voice of Ronald Coleman.

He gets to kiss the girl, too, the show-girl gorgeous Kate Schindle playing Angela Marlowe, who delivers the tongue-in-cheek torch song, “The Man I Can Love,” with the absolute seriousness of true comedy from atop a piano, her feet entangled with the keys — one of many show stoppers. She has a liberated, to say nothing of open minded, view of the man she can love.

Richard Kind, surely one of the funniest men alive today (the others being Josh Grisetti and Geoffrey Rush) plays the theater impresario Harrison Marlowe, Angela’s father, with a combination of takes, timing, dead pan, and rational/nutty thought processes that’s delicious.  He’s fascinating — I could watch him forever.  I’d urge you to see this show if only to hear how he answers the phone as David’s butler when Greta Garbo calls (“The Butler’s Song”).

The singing and dancing of the two old guys in the play, David’s boss in the machine shop and his father, in their dual number, “Hot Cha Cha”, is  another — touching — show stopper.

And so it goes … hilarity after hilarity … witty song after song … and just when you’re feeling a little sorry it’s over too soon, Grisetti comes up with one more gift — his bow — so you can Leave Laughing.

Enter Laughing plays at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through September 4.

Enter Laughing, The Musical :  Richard Kind (standing) as Harrison Marlowe;  L-R, Erick Devine as Mr. Pike, Josh Grisetti as David Kolowitz, Kate Schindle as Angela Marlowe.  Photo by Jerry Lamonica

Enter Laughing, The Musical :  Richard Kind (standing) as Harrison Marlowe;  L-R, Erick Devine as Mr. Pike, Josh Grisetti as David Kolowitz, Kate Schindle as Angela Marlowe.  Photo by Jerry Lamonica

I Married Wyatt Earp

Review | I Married Wyatt Earp | Musical and Book by Thomas Edward West and Sheilah Rae | Lyrics by Sheila Rae | Music by Michelle Brourman | Prospect Theater Company and New York Theatre Barn

I Married Wyatt Earp

Throwing convention to the winds, a girl from a well-to-do San Francisco Jewish family joins a traveling theater troupe to get herself to the wild west, where she meets and marries, well, common law, Wyatt Earp — what a promising idea for a musical!

And in many ways the promise is fulfilled.  There are great production numbers, beautifully performed — see I Married Wyatt Earp and you’ll have a good time.  And the idea’s original, too — a Western with no men!  Instead, the story, loosely based in real characters and events, is told through a cast of 11 women, the idea being to place the women’s lives center stage, although that doesn’t work quite as well as it might.

The wives (common-law and otherwise)  of the three Earp brothers are living together as a tight knit family in the silver boom-town of Tombstone, Arizona when Josie Marcus, the San Francisco outlier, arrives.  She creates quite a stir as a singer-dancer, and in giving up another man for Wyatt Earp, “the love of her live.”

Earp’s common-law wife of the time, Mattie, a laudanum addict, tortured now by jealousy, is driven to violence first directed at Josie and then turned inward.  In an ironic turnaround of a traditional Western, Mattie, the weakest of the women, is the one who brandishes the long barreled silver revolver.  But she dies of a suicidal overdose, leaving Josie with Wyatt and a sense of guilt — though not enough to shake her sparkle.

I Married Wyatt Earp is framed as a play within a play:  at the start, we see Josie, now 81 years old, and Allie, widow of Wyatt’s brother Wilbur, age 90, in Josie’s apartment for an evening of settling old scores and — booze at hand — finding some amicable resolution to their conflicts.  Allie blames Josie for Mattie’s death, and for creating the myth of Wyatt Earp as the toughest law-man, fastest gun and greatest entrepreneur of the West when the crown should have gone to her husband.

As they reminisce, scenes of their young lives — the loves, the drama, humor, workaday pleasures and pains — rise up vibrantly before our eyes.  One of the most powerful aspects is the way the old Josie and Allie move among their young selves, bending over them, observing, and sometimes — it’s absolutely beautiful to see — singing along.  Of course they can’t change anything – even if they wanted to.  This is marvelously done.

Other great strengths are the musical numbers, and there are lots of them, this is a real musical and a feast of singing — solos, duets, quartets and ensembles.  Some of the titles give the flavor:  “High Class Attraction,” “They Got Snakes Out Here,” “Pins and Needles,” “Didya Hear?” (gossip!).  Some of the rhymes are too obvious, still, often I felt I was watching the next great musical.

There’s a problem with the musical’s book, though.  The intent is to focus on the women’s lives but the depiction of their lives is incomplete and confused.  It’s implied constantly that they work hard, but at what and why is not clear.  At running the bar?  We first meet the wives at the Earp-owned bar where Josie has just arrived and performs with the theatrical troupe (in a rousing number!).  We do see young Allie carry in a crate of bottles but that’s it:  there are no customers, nobody serves a drink, wipes a table or mops a floor … and after that scene the bar pretty much disappears.

Later we find the wives singing about the hard work they do to pay the rent by sewing tents for miners (“Pins and Needles”).   Pay the rent?  Maybe everyone had to pitch in, but we know their husbands are well employed in law enforcement and own a silver mine:  surely they’d be paying the rent, not their wives.  Here and elsewhere, touches of pathos are arbitrarily planted trading on the assumption that we all know that women were exploited and had to work hard so we’ll be sympathetic automatically and it doesn’t much matter what they’re shown working hard at doing.

Conveying the lives of women whose lives are inextricably tied to those of men, without men, accounts for some of the problems.  So much so that for the episode of the famous Shootout at OK Corral where the Earp brothers wipe out their rivals, the play resorts to the actual presence of males, but as shadowy, silhouetted, forms, all in black, faces hidden by western hats.  Still, I think that with the loose ends more carefully tied, and the women’s activities and relationships with the men (even unseen) clarified,  the all-female cast could be maintained.

Take the idea of focusing on the lives of the women to its conclusion — and really do it!

Also, we need to have a deeper sense of Josie — a cliche like “he’s the love of my life” is not enough to bring us close to this feisty woman and the unusual choices she makes.

All the roles are sung, danced and played beautifully – this is a well cast show.  Mishaela Faucher has the singing, dancing and acting strength to hold the play together as its main character.  I was particularly fascinated by the wry wisdom of Carolyn Mignini as the older Josie.  Tina Stafford is irresistible — tough and extraordinarily graceful in the “pants role” of leader of the theatrical troupe.  Karla Mosley is a great showgirl, with charismatic vitality and beauty.

With some strengthening of the book, this could be the next great musical but here and now it’s an engaging, fun-filled delight.

I Married Wyatt Earp  plays at 59 E 59 theater in NYC through June 12.

I Married Wyatt Earp

 

 

Opera Review | Seance on a Wet Afternoon | Opera with Music and Libretto by Stephen Schwartz | New York City Opera

I thought an opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, would likely be an exciting stretch for a talented musical theater composer and lyricist like Stephen Schwartz, author of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked, but that’s not how it turns out.  The singing and acting, especially that of Lauren Flanigan as the medium and Melody Moore as Rita Clayton, is on a high level and the two children, Bailey Grey as Adriana and Michael Kepler Meo as Arthur, are impressive, but everybody could use a better opera.

The medium, Myra Foster, with the aid of her husband, Bill, kidnaps a young girl, Adriana Clayton, with the idea of ultimately leading the authorities and parents, as if by spiritual intuition, to where she will deposit the still alive girl and garner a big ransom and recognition of her spiritual “gift.”  But kidnappings have a way of going awry, the Fosters keep Adriana quiescent with liberal doses of chloroform and eventually Myra suffocates her with a pillow.

That’s not the only dead child in Seance:  Myra takes directions from Arthur, her poltergeist son of about 8 years in a white space-travel type of suit whom, we eventually learn, was stillborn “without a face.”  Seance is very hard on children.  The young couple sitting next to me, with the wife pregnant, had the wits to leave at the end of the first Act and I’m glad they never heard, in Act II, that Arthur was born faceless.

Perhaps on some level anything can be transformed into significant art if some requisites are in play, as when emotions and motivations of the characters are expressed with depth, and the issues have a universal dimension but … Do we really need an opera about the abduction, chloroforming and murder of a child?  Many dramas hinge on the effect of a dead child on survivors, but that’s very different from a drama in which the focus is on a child’s abduction and murder.  Are there any other operas or plays focused on a fictional child murder in this way?  (I suppose Adriana is murdered in the screenplay by Brian Forbes based on the novel by Mark McShane, on both of which the opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon is based.)

The music is hybrid of operatic and show music but the mix tends to weaken each.  It’s surprising that, given the significant recognition Schwartz has achieved for his lyrics, the libretto of Seance is notably flat.  “Tell me you love me,” Myra says to Bill.  “Do you still love me?”  And Bill answers:  “Yes.”  And, “I still love you.”  There are also a lot of astonishingly tepid rhymes of the croon/moon variety, often as triplets.

Also — and how easily this could have been avoided — the plot movement is sloppy.  A frantic Mrs. Clayton persuades her resisting husband to come with her to ask Myra whether she has any spiritual intuitions about Adriana’s whereabouts, at which point the police Insector, who’s been standing in his “time is of the essence” posture sits down and Mrs. Clayton embarks on a lengthy aria.  Once the Inspector has Myra under arrest, instead of taking her off in a squad car, he takes her for a promenade, during which he leaves the stage so she can engage with a batch of paparazzi — and meet up with Arthur.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon plays at the Koch Theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center through May 1.

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