Author Archive: Two on the Aisle

“The Parisian Woman” – Elegant Play of Political Manipulation

Parisian Woman 3 by Matthew Murphy

Josh Lucas and Uma Thurman. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes when I start to write my review, I feel torn. I know the work wasn’t that good or that some of the performances could have been better BUT I really enjoyed the show.

That’s the case with The Parisian Woman which marks Uma Thurman’s Broadway debut. The play won’t stand the test of time and her performance won’t go down in the history of Broadway greats.

YET….I am very glad I saw it.

The plot is familiar; a wife who will do almost anything to help her husband gain a position of prestige and power. In this case, it is Chloe (Uma Thurman) whose husband is being considered for a judgeship on the Court of Appeals, but things are not progressing as quickly or surely as both would hope.

In a series of scenes we see Chloe operate behind the scenes to ensure the appointment. From using charm (and more?) on a wealthy admirer to talking up an influential woman at a party to engaging in some not-so-subtle blackmail.

The play is by Beau Willimon, not only a playwright but the creator of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” It is loosely based on a French play la Parisenne by Henri Becque first produced in 1885. The play scandalized Paris.

So, if the plot isn’t really new, what makes it modern? First of all there is a twist which I don’t want to reveal about Chloe’s private life. Let’s just say it was an “open marriage.”)

But this is a play about politics. The politics of getting what you want and the political situation in the US today. The play is set in the Trump Administration and several of the characters are high powered Republicans who are trying very hard to convince themselves that all will be well.

This leads to lines that will make both supporters and detractors of the administration laugh.

What makes this play enjoyable is seeing a character so confidently and expertly maneuver and manipulate. Thurman may not be a great stage actress, but with gorgeous costumes, beauty and sophistication, it is a pleasure to watch her operate.

Director Pam MacKinnon has surrounded her with a cast of fine actors. Blair Brown is a delight as the woman, Jeannette, who becomes the ultimate target. Brown’s intonations and body language reveal both how uncomfortable she is with the administration but also how she hopes to benefit from it. It is a fine, well defined performance. Marton Csokas has the less interesting role of Chloe’s admirer. Playing a relatively boring businessman/millionaire is challenging; if you make him too interesting you defeat the purpose of the part. Philliipa Soo plays the daughter of Jeannette and the one who provides the “twist.”

Josh Lucas has the difficult job of helping us understand, Tom, the husband. He needs to convince us that the two are in love and couple, while at the same time, convincing us that he is accepting of Chloe’s admirers, many of admirer from very close range. It’s difficult and made more difficult because Thurman seems at times so remote. (Think Grace Kelly). It’s hard to feel that there is any chemistry. Lucas does the best he can with the role.

Derek McLane has given us a variety of sets including the very comfortable living room of Tom and Chloe. It reveals their economic status without being pretentious. Jane Greenwood has had the task of creating the elegant costumes for Thurman – which she wears beautifully – as well as the others.

The Parisian Woman is not a great play and Thurman’s performance is lacking, BUT (and this is a big but), I had a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing it.

It’s running through March 11 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W 44th Street. Tickets are available through TheHudsonBroadway.com.

Parisian Woman 2 by Matthew Murphy_edited

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown and Phillipa Soo. Photo by Matthew Murphy

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‘Woody Sez’ at Westport Playhouse — You’ll Want to Sing Along

Woody Sez posterBy Karen Isaacs

“This Land Is Your Land” is a song almost all of us know. School children learn it.  But do you know who wrote it?  If you’ve forgotten, it was Woody Guthrie, a man who helped revive and popularize folk music in America.

Woody Sez- the life & music of Woody Guthrie — now at Westport Country Playhouse intersperses his life story, mostly told by David M. Lutkin as Woody, with renditions of the music he made so famous.

Guthrie lived a hard-scrabble life.  He was born in Oklahoma but lived in both Texas and California as well as New York City.  While he had brief periods of affluence, for the most part his life was the same as the farmers, oil rig workers and dust bowl refugees. He hopped rails, went to bed hungry, did whatever manual labor was available.

Yet while doing that Guthrie was a wandering minstrel who helped preserve classic folk songs as well as creating new ones that touched on social protest and political observation.  A staunch member of the political left — and a good friend to many who were blacklisted in the ’40s and ’50s, Guthrie also wrote a newspaper column, “Woody Sez” — hence the title of the show — that commented on political and social issues in a rural dialect.

He wrote of the dust bowl, the Okies and Arkies who went to California to try to survive, to the union members who fought the bosses and even the merchant marines who helped win World War II. He was one of them.

Along the way he collected folk songs and wrote hundreds of others.  Alan Lomax, the great folklorist recorded him for the Library Congress series.

When he came to New York he “hung out” with Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, Burl Ives and other great singer/writers.  He was a founding member of the Almanacs, a folk group that helped lead to the Weavers and the folk revival.

Woody Sez started life at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2007 and has since been performed in both the US and England where it was nominated for a “best musical” award. It recently finished a successful run at NYC’s Irish Rep.

David M. Lutken, who plays Woody, not only devised the show (with Nick Corley and Darcie Deaville, Helen J. Russell and Andy Teirstein) but also serves as the music director. Lutken has the lean look that we associate with Guthrie and a casual friendly manner that brings the audience into the story of Woody’s life.

His life had many tragic elements.  His mother, who ended her life in a mental institution, is thought to have set several fires, one of which killed his older sister. She is believed to have suffered from the genetic neurological Huntington’s Disease. His father had both economic ups and downs and ended up leaving his children in Oklahoma while he went to work in Texas. Some people suspect the father also suffered from the disease, for which there is no cure. Woody himself developed Huntington’s Disease and died in 1967 after having spent years in a variety of mental institutions. The disease causes both physical ailments and mental disorders.

The show opens with “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and ends with “This Land Is Your Land’: but in between are over 20 other Guthrie songs from “Why Do You Stand There in the Rain”, “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh,” “Union Maid,” and “Do Re Mi” and lesser known works (to me) such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Oklahoma Hills,’ “Dust Storm Disaster” and more.

Lutken is joined by three talented musicians/actors who not only play a variety of roles — Will Geer, Guthrie’s mother and his sister, Pete Seeger and his radio partner Lefty Lou — but play multiple folk instruments including mandolin, banjo, violin and others.

David Finch, Leenya Rideout and Katie Barton all bring charm and musicality to the show. All have performed the show before, with Russell a member of the original cast.

The set by Luke Cantarella is flexible and simple — some large photos of Woody, instruments placed around the stage, and a barnlike feel.

This is a well performed and fascinating remembrance of an important man in American musical history.  It would be an excellent show for teens and young adults who would find the stories of America in the ’20s and ’30s more compelling than any history book.

Woody Sez runs through Jan. 20. For tickets visit Westport Country Playhouse

My Favorite NYC Shows of 2017

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By Karen Isaacs

 Of the 40 or so shows I saw in NYC in 2017, which were my favorites

 Musicals

Come from Away

COME FROM AWAY, Jenn Colella Photo by Matthew MurphyIn 2017, I needed a show that reminded me of people’s goodness and caring. Come from Away did just that without being manipulative nor saccharine. The show combined extraordinary direction by Christopher Ashley, fine cast with Jenn Colella as a standout and a enjoyable score by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. I was delighted it was a hit.

 

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka_edited-6 I had missed the various off-Broadway incarnations of this show, but the one at the Imperial Theater was amazing. I loved how the theater was totally transformed into a Russian café and the cast was all around me. I thoroughly enjoyed the mixture of musical genres and was delighted with Josh Groban’s performance as the depressed and lonely Pierre. I only regretted the limited awards it won and the producers’ missteps that led to its early departure.

The Band’s Visit

           

THE BAND'S VISIT, Photo by Matthew Murphy the band

Tony Shalhoub and the band. Photo by Matthew Murphy

David Yazbek’s score and this sweet, gentle story—though occasionally slow – again reminds us of people’s innate kindness. Plus it featured an astounding performance by Katrina Lenk.

Hello, Dolly!

I won’t say this is a definitive production of this classic musical, and Bette Midler may not be the perfect Dolly, but what a show it was. She is an amazing performer and the rest of the cast was able to hold own against her star power. Brava!

My runner-up Musicals

War Paint 
Goodman Theater

 Of, the Broadway musicals that opened or were revived, I enjoyed War Paint the best. To see Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole together was wonderful. Plus I found the score delightful.

Off-Broadway, John Kander (with new partner Greg Pierce) tackled a tough subject in Kid Victory. The return of a teen boy who was abducted and held captive by a predator before being returned to his conservative, religious family. Karen Ziemba as the mother and Jeffrey Denham as the predator were terrific.

My Top Plays

 Oslo

         oslo _jenniferjefferson.jpg__50000x390_q85_subsampling-2 The back story of the Israeli-Palestine Peace Accords signed in 1993 might not seem made for theater, but playwright J. R. Rogers, director Barlett Sher and a top notch cast led by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle turned this into a fascinating and suspenseful drama.

Indecent

          

indecent topol and lenk rosegg

  I saw this play at Yale Rep and was entranced; the magic continued on Broadway with this spectacular ensemble cast and a fascinating look at a piece of forgotten American theater history.

 Sweat

           

Sweat 
Studio 54

Lynn Nottage play about blue collar workers losing their economic footing in 21st century America made me want to cry. It was real, it touched the economic issues and the personal ones.  It featured another terrific ensemble cast.

 

 

Jitney

           

Jitney

A strong ensemble cast led by John Douglas Thompson and Brandon J. Dirden plus superb direction by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and a great set by David Gallo brought out all the strengths in this August Wilson play.

Shadowlands (off-Broadway)

 

SHADOWLANDS 3 photo by Jeremy Daniel (2)

This revival of William Nicholson’s play about the unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis and Joy Gresham was intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving. It also featured a fine cast and set – that easily would have garnered praise on Broadway.

The Little Foxes

        

LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THE LITTLE FOXES
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
With Laura Linney, Cynthia Nixon
Darren Goldstein, Michael McKean, Richard Thomas
David Alford, Michael Benz, Francesca Carpanini, Caroline Stefanie Clay, Charles Turner

    I saw Laura Linney as Regina and Cynthia Nixon as Birdie and wished I had also seen them in the opposite roles. They were terrific as were the entire cast including Richard Thomas as Horace. The production was both chilling in its depiction of greed and spell binding.

In the runner-up category, I’d include

The Price

           

The Price

Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Jessica Hecht were all terrific in this revival of Arthur Miller’s play, directed by Terry Kinney.  I found that Danny DeVito was over-the-top as the antique dealer, detracting from the piece.

Present Laughter

           

Present Laughter
St. James Theatre

Kevin Kline made this revival a must see. He WAS the perfect actor to play Gary Essendine. Of course, the fabulous set and the strong performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nielsen, Cobie Smulders and Bhavesh Patel added to the fun.

The Home Place

It isn’t Brian Friel’s best play, but this production at the Irish Rep was so good and focused on such interesting topics that any failings of the play were easily overlooked.

 

The Man from Nebraska

          

MAN FROM NEBRASKA
By TRACY LETTS

Directed by DAVID CROMER

  Pitch perfect performances by Reed Birney and Annett O’Toole as a conventional man who loses his faith and his wife, made this Tracy Lett’s play at Second Stage riveting. Lett shows us what happens when those who always follow the rules, stop doing so, but he doesn’t provide easy answers. Birney and O’Toole also did not take the easy road in their performances.

My Top Ten Connecticut Shows in 2017 Plus the Runners-Up — What do you think?

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By Karen Isaacs

 Next to Normal at TheaterWorks.

next to normal 2You could criticize practically nothing in this production. Rob Ruggiero cast it brilliantly with Christiane Noll, David Harris, Maya Keleher (in her professional debut), Nick Sacks and John Cardoza. Ruggiero used the aisles to add to the intimacy; it was remarkable.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Hartford Stage

This Shakespeare play is done so often, it is easy to say “oh no, not again.” But Darko Tresjnak’s production was outstanding. He balanced all the elements and did not let any one of the multiple plots overtake others. His handling of the play put on by “the mechanicals” at the ends was terrific.

Fireflies at Long Wharf

 

Fireflies LWT 10-17 133

Jane Alexander, Judith Ivy and Denis Ardnt gave touching performances, creating real people in this sweet romance about an older, retired school teacher, her nosy next store neighbor, a drifter. Gordon Edelstein kept it moving and preventedit from becoming saccharine.

 

 

 

 

Rags at Goodspeed

            RAGS posterThis story of Jewish immigrants on the lower east side of New York was completely revamped for this production: extensive revisions of the book, lyrics and songs. The result wasn’t perfect but with Rob Ruggiero’s sensitive direction, this show touched the heart.

 

 

 

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Plekey at Hartford Stage

absolute brightness by matthew murphyThis may have been a touring show, but James Lecesne not only was brilliant in turning his novel into a one actor play but did so much outreach in the community on the issues of teens facing bullying due to sexual orientation.

Diary of Ann Frank at Playhouse on Park

anne frank 5David Lewis made full use of the large and sometimes awkward stage area to create the attic in which the Franks and others hid for many years. Director Ezra Barnes cast the show almost perfectly from Isabelle Barbier as Anne to the entire ensemble. It was touching and real.

 

 

 

A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage

the-comedy-of-errors-hsc-1-17-192_edited  It is perhaps Shakespeare’s silliest play and director Darko Tresnjak emphasizes it beginning with his own colorful Mediterranean village set, a canal with real water and more. Who cares if the lines sometimes gets lost in the process?

 Seder at Hartford Stage

Seder HSC 10-17 035How do you survive in a repressive regime? How do you make others, who have not lived through it, understand your choices? That was at the heart of this new play which thoroughly engaged me. Plus it had Mia Dillion once again showing her skills.

 

Wolves at TheaterWork

TW Wolves 2Wolves was a sensitive and insightful look into both the world of girls’ sports (in this case a soccer team) but also into the society that teenagers create for themselves. Though a few of the young actresses looked a little too old, we become totally engaged in them and their lives.

The Games Afoot at Ivoryton

Games Afoot Beverley Taylor as Daria Chase_editedSometimes just seeing actors have a great time with a so-so play is more than enough. That was the case in this comic thriller by Ken Ludwig. It succeeded because of director Jacqueline Hubbard, set designer Daniel Nischan and a cast that just had fun.

 

 

The runners up

  “Trav’lin’the 1920s Harlem Musical at Seven Angels.

travelling 2  It may not be a great musical, but this show introduced me to a lesser known composer – J. C. Johnson who wrote “This Joint is Jumpin’” and many others. The plot is simplistic but the cast was wonderful.

 

 

 

 

Noises Off at Connecticut Repertory Theater

            CRTNoisesPR5sm_edited by Gerry GoodsteinMy favorite farce got a fine production this summer with some inventive touches by director Vincent J. Cardinal, terrific casting and timing that was just about perfect.

 

 

 

 Million Dollar Quartet at Ivoryton

Million Dollar Jerry Lee Lewis_editedThis show lives and dies on the quality of the performers and here Ivoryton Playhouse and executive director Jacqui Hubbard hit the jackpot. All six of the major performers are experienced and the four “legends” have all played their roles before.

 

The Bridges of Madison County at MTC

Bridges of Madison -4-by heather hayesThe music is glorious and Kevin Connors created a production that worked very well on his three sided stage. While the chemistry didn’t seem to be there, musically the cast was strong.

 The Great Tchaikovsky at Hartford Stage

our great tchaikovsky 1_edited Hershey Felder combines his talents as pianist, actor and director to create shows about the lives for well-known popular and classical composers. This show about Tchaikovsky was a delight.

 Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage

Heartbreak House HSC 5-17 114_edited  Darko Tresnjak directed this version of Shaw’s masterpiece. It might have made the top ten BUT for one decision that Tresnjak made:  he decided to make Boss Mangan a Donald Trump look/act alike. The similarity would have been recognizable without it and it distracted from the play.

 Endgame at Long Wharf

         

endgame-4_edited

   Samuel Beckett writes difficult plays requiring an audience to understand his pessimistic world view and his abstract characters and plots. Gordon Edelstein directed a production that may not have been definitive but gave us outstanding performances by Reg E. Cathey, Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi.

 

Biloxi Blues at Ivoryton

This Neil Simon play, part of the Eugene trilogy got a fine production directed by Sasha Bratt that focused less on the laughs and more on the situation.

 Native Son at Yale Rep

           

NATIVE SON

This production boasted a terrific performance by Jerod Haynes as Bigger, an urbanset by Ryan Emens and jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy that produced a taut, film noir feel to this story about race and prejudice.

 

 

Romeo & Juliet at Westport Country Playhouse

Romeo 2 Mark Lamos, who is a fine director of Shakespeare gave us a pared down version of this classic tragedy that featured some fine performances – including Nicole Rodenburg as Juliet, Felicity Jones Latta as the Nurse, and Peter Francis James as Friar Lawrence, plus a magical set by Michael Yeargan. Lamos emphasized the youth and energy.

west side story 6 - ivoryton by anne hudsonWest Side Story at Ivoryton

This production had many more plusses – Mia Pinero as Maria, Natalie Madion as Anita, good direction by Todd L. Underwood – than minuses.

 

“Once on This Island” Immerses You in the Caribbean Culture

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By Karen Isaacs

 No one would blame you if, upon entering Circle in the Square, you had an irresistible urge to kick off you shoes, take off your coat, and order a tropical drink.

That’s the kind of atmosphere that Once on This Island inspires. This revival of the 1990 musical, now at Circle in the Square immediately creates the Caribbean atmosphere. Not the atmosphere of the wealthy residents or the port areas where the cruise ships dock, but the other side of the island, where the residents live. As you walk in you see clothing hung along the walls of the theater, as though they are on clotheslines or trees.

Circle in the Square features a large rectangular playing space with the audience seated all around and above it. Here as you settle into your seat, you see sand everywhere. You are looking down on a village, with various ramshackle buildings, clotheslines and more. Before the show starts, various cast members are on the beach and even a goat makes an appearance. It certainly sets the mood.

Unfortunately what follows is only partially successful. That may be due to the source of this musical – a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy entitled My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. The plot seems bifurcated. Is it the telling of an island myth? Is it a Romeo & Juliet story? Some have said it draws on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” With so much going on it is easy to get confused.

As a huge storm blows through the island, a small girl is frightened. From there we are cast into another story of a young woman, Ti Moune who falls in love with one of the wealth islanders after saving him from drowning and nursing him back to health. Four gods and goddesses are involved in the story of Ti Moune and Daniel Beauxhomme which, as many myths must, ends both unhappily and yet inspiringly.

The problem for me was that the more I thought about this story, the more confused I became. Was the young frightened girl at the beginning the reincarnation of Ti Moune?  What were the four women Goddesses of? Was one a God? Why did one of them wear a stethoscope at the beginning of the show? What was the point – that we sacrifice ourselves for love?

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (she also wrote the book), is tuneful and captures the feel of the Caribbean.

Director Michael Arden has used the playing space extremely well. The scenery by Dane Laffrey extends up some of the aisles; Arden uses the aisles extensively for entrances and exits. When we left the theater, evidence of sand was everywhere. This uses of aisles and even some interaction with the audience keeps us involved and brings an intimacy to the piece. You are both spectators but also feel like participants, when performers are singing next to you.

Chris Fenwick, the music director does an outstanding job with this mainly sung-through piece. For a 90+ minute show, there are over 20 songs plus some reprises. It is well sung.

Two other members of the production team did exceptional work.  The costumes by Clint Ramos are spectacular. Plus lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer created wonderful effects on this stage.

It is mainly an ensemble show, with one major exception. Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune is the central character and she must grab us. Kilgore does. She displays a fine singing voice and the optimistic and romantic nature of the character. She is a new face, that I hope to see in other shows.  The primary “name” performer is Lea Salonga who plays one of the Goddesses. She is more like a Cinderella fairy godmother. But her one solo, “The Human Heart” is lovely.

Two other songs stood out; “Forever Yours” a love song sung by TiMoune and one of the Gods and “Mama Will Provide” which stopped the show the night I saw it. It’s given a rousing performance by Alex Newell.

Isaac Powell as Daniel is fine as a person that is hard to like – he is entitled and snobbish, rejecting true love in order to up-hold family expectations. Powell could bring more strength to the role.

Overall, your reaction to Once on This Island may depend on how you react to this fairy-tale, mythic story that attempts much symbolism. You will either be totally enchanted by the characters and the island or you will walk away with a shrug.

It is at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

“The Chosen” at Long Wharf Is a Coming-of-Age Drama

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By Karen Isaacs

 Two boys and two fathers. Aaron Posner, in his revised adaptation of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen now at Long Wharf through Dec. 17, explores two variations of that relationship.

It is 1944 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and two teenage boys become friends despite being very different.  Reuven Malter, who sometimes serves as the narrator, attends a Yeshiva (private religious school for Jewish boys) and plays baseball. His father, David, is an editor and writer. They have a close relationship that includes a good measure of friendship.

At the game, Reuven is hit in the eye with a baseball when Danny Saunders hits a comebacker to the pitcher’s mound. Danny is an aggressive and powerful hitter. He also attends a Yeshiva, but his is a Hasidic school; his father is the rabbi. The Danny and his classmates view Reuven and his classmates as “apikorism” of Jews who are educated in the faith but deny its basic tenets.

Despite these differences, Reuven and Danny become fast friends and both fathers approve, though Reb Saunders has to “test” Reuven first.  Danny does not seem happy with having to follow in his father’s footsteps. He is secretly reading secular literature including Freud which he finds fascinating. But he is obedient to his father’s word, even when he orders Danny to not talk to Reuven.

We follow these two boys – and to some extent their fathers – through the end of the war, the liberation of the concentration camps, college and the fight over the creation of Israel.

Besides the major world issues that go on around them, this is a classic story of two boys growing up, finding their own place in the world, and learning how to separate themselves from obedience to parental authority.

This central conflict is universal. But the play also explores other issues as well – the breach between these two branches of Judaism – the Hasidim, often considered ultra-Orthodox and those who are considered observant conservative. The two view each other with suspicion and their religious views influence their world views.

As a coming-of-age story, The Chosen is excellent. It is only when it ventures into some of the other areas that this two act play comes up short. Most obvious is that we don’t learn enough about David Malter, Reuven’s father, so that some of both his actions and those of Reb Saunders do not make sense.  The two fathers have a history which would be helpful to understand.

The other area that could use more is the divergent views on the founding of Israel. You would think that Reb Saunders would be an adamant supporter of the founding of the Jewish state. He isn’t and the reasons could be clearer.

But this production directed by Gordon Edelstein does illuminate some of the issues of the play. He has gotten excellent performances from the four principal actors. Four others appear occasionally as students and others; they are mainly walk on roles with little character delineation.

It’s hard to select a standout performance from among the four principals. Each is excellent and each embodies his character. George Guidall who plays Reb Saunders returns to Long Wharf after a too long absence. He gives this character the certainty and sternness needed but shows that underneath it is an amazing understanding and warmth. He is matched by Steven Skybell as David Malter, though having to suffer two heart attacks on stage is a little much. Skybell embodies the character’s reasonableness which allows him to co-exist in this conflict neighborhood.

As the two young men, Ben Edelman as Danny Saunders uses the posture of the perennial submissive and depressed to illuminate the character’s inner dilemma: obedience to his father and his destiny versus his own desire to break out. Equally good is Max Wolkowitz as Reuven who is trying to make sense of this world.

Eugene Lee has created a terrific set; I especially liked how he handled the baseball game that begins the play. In that, he is aided by the sound design by John Gromada. In addition the lighting by Mark Barton and the costumes by Paloma Young thoroughly create the world of this play.

The Chosen succeeds as a coming-of-age story and mostly succeeds in revealing truths about this conflict within the Jewish community.

It is at Long Wharf, Long Wharf Theatre or 203-787-4282 or 800-782-8497 through Dec. 17.

 

A New Scrooge Adds His Touch to “A Christmas Carol” at Hartford Stage

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By Karen Isaacs

 A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas has returned to Hartford Stage for its 20th year of performances through Saturday, Dec. 30. Over that time, Bill Raymond was Scrooge 17 years.

But now, the role is in the very capable hands of Michael Preston and director Rachel Alderman.

If this is the first time you are seeing this show, it is as wonderful as ever. For the long-time fans of this production, there are some subtle changes.

Preston is terrific as Scrooge. Calling on his background with the Flying Karamazov Brothers he throws in a bit of juggling and some judicious physical comedy to the delight of the audience. He also makes Scrooge sterner in the beginning. Though he prepares us for Scrooge’s well known redemption, he doesn’t soften the man at the beginning. When he begrudges Bob Cratchit a lump of coal, his wages or refuses to donate to help the needy, there is no sense that this is a game that we should be in on. It is the man.

Over the years, Raymond had added too many winks to the early scenes; he made it not only more difficult to believe Scrooge was so nasty, but also made the redemption seem less like a “miracle.”

With Preston you are amazed at the transformation. While some of the cast from previous years return to their roles, new cast has joined the group. Yet even the returnees have evolved their characters in response to the new Scrooge. Noble Shropshire is even more tart as Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and Robert Hannon Davis’ Bob Cratchit seems even more put-upon. Alan Rust returns as both Bert, the cider vendor and the Spirit of Christmas present. His good humor is in sharp contrast to Scrooge.

Added to the cast this year are Rebecka Jones as Betty Pidgeon, the doll vendor as well as the Spirit of Christmas Past and Old Josie. Her portrayals are spot on.

Director Rachel Alderman has used multi-racial casting throughout the production with Terrell Donnell Sledge playing both Scrooge at 30 and his nephew, Fred. His performance and those of Shauna Miles as Mrs. Fezziwig and Vanessa R. Butler as both Fred’s wife, and Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancé are good. Yet some audience members may be disconcerted by it all or wonder about the genetics involved.

It seemed to me that this production was crisper than usual; the credit goes to Alderman.

Once again the special effects – the lighting by Robert Wierzel, scenic design by Tony Straiges, costumes by Alejo Vietti, sound and original music by John Gromada and choreography by Hope Clarke are all excellent. And of course, the marvelous flying effects by ZFX, Inc. I hope they figure out a way to let Scrooge fly also. It is a matter of logistics since he is on stage so much but casn’t be in the flying harness the entire show.

Quibbles? That the voices of the children were hard to hear. But that is a minor complaint.

If you have never seen this production, remember the subtitle: A Ghost Story of Christmas. Ghosts play a major role in the piece and their masks and actions can be appropriately eerie. This may not be the right production for younger children or any child easily scared.

For all the rest of us, this is a wonderful gift to Connecticut. Even if you’ve seen it before, you should definitely see it again this holiday season.

It is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street through Dec. 30. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06

Yale Rep’s “Native Son” Is Compelling

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By Karen Isaacs

The Yale Rep production of Native Son as written and adapted by Nambi E. Kelly is at times chilling but also confusing. It runs through December 16.

Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, is said by some to have opened the door to African-American literature. It certainly was an important and best-selling work that is still often taught in schools. The novel cast a harsh light on the effect of societal racism has on individuals.

This adaptation, first performed in 2014 is the third such attempt. It’s hard to tell if it is more successful than the others, but for some in the audience, while well produced and well-acted, it was basically unsatisfactory.

The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African American living with his mother and younger sister and brother in a Chicago slum. He and his friends are planning a holdup of a white owned store. More importantly he is interviewed and hired by a white couple to be their chauffeur. On his first evening on the job, he is driving the young adult daughter to the university where she is a student. Instead she asks him to pick up her boyfriend, the communist organizer Jan; the two of them ask Bigger to take them to a dinner in his neighborhood. Jan and Mary drink quite a bit, and when Bigger takes her home, she can barely stand. He helps to her room and when Mary’s blind mother appears, he puts a pillow on Mary’s head. By the time the mother leaves, Mary is dead. The rest of the play deals with the snowball effects of that act.

Dramatizing this work is not easy. Kelley has decided to describe it as “a split second insider Bigger’s mind when her runs from his crime, remembers, images, two cold and snowy winter days in December 1939 and beyond.”  You can parse that sentence many ways and come up with many possible interpretations.

Is what are you seeing, what happened?  What he imagines will happen? The novel was more linear in its story telling.

The audience is left to try to figure out not only what is happening, but is it true or some sort of nightmare. In addition, a character called “The Black Rat” is omnipresent; sometimes he seems like a narrator, at other times Bigger’s conscience and sometimes as the adult version of Bigger. It definitely adds some confusion to the story telling, especially for those unfamiliar with the original novel.

Bigger – and at times The Black Rat – often talk about how African Americans have two views of themselves. The view they see and the one reflected back to them from the white society. Digger believes that he becomes what that reflected view says he is. Certainly the whites in the play view Bigger as someone less than equal and sometimes less than human. His employer Mrs. Dalton suspects he may never have slept in a bed. Her daughter, Mary and Jan, her communist boyfriend, may claim to have his interests at heart, but there is a large measure of condescension in their professed support. They know best and he should follow along; after all he can’t be expected to understand.

Of course, the detective the family hires to find their missing daughter, and the police exhibit stereotypical racism.

Overall the production is excellent.  Scenic designer Ryan Emens has created a cityscape of iron fire escapes, while lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge has given us the moody and dramatic lighting. Combined with the jazzy sounds by Frederick Kennedy, the total result is a very film noir feel to the piece.

As Bigger, Jerod Haynes combines the rashness of youth and the anger of a disenfranchised young man. He portrays the bravado but also the lack of confidence. His portrayal is riveting.

Director Seret Scott has is given this piece a film noir atmosphere which is most appropriate. She has not sugar-coated the actions or the feelings in this piece. The result is a play that will encourage to confront your own understandings about our society.

Native Son is running through Dec. 16. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.

“Christmas on the Rocks” Is a Comic Look at “What Ever Happened to?”

 

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By Karen Isaacs

Christmas on the Rocks has become a holiday staple at TheaterWorks. This year it runs through Saturday, December 23; additional performances already have been added.

Why the appeal? At first glance it simply seems like a clever twist that adds a bit of cynicism to the usual holiday fare. But after seeing it several times, I’ve realized that there are hidden depths in these delightful pieces.

Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero called upon a number of playwrights with whom he had worked and gave them a challenge. To write a short scene about whatever happened to some of the classic children characters from various Christmas movies, TV shows and literature. Most of these works ended on an up-beat note. But what really happened afterwards?

The playwrights created a series of short scenes – many of them mainly monologues. And along the way they added in not only humor but lessons of how we go on and how we can always recapture the optimism of youth.

It is set in what is described as “a local bar in a lonely corner of the cosmos, Christmas Eve.” This is your typical run-down neighborhood bar, worn and out of date. The bartender is switching between Christmas films on TV as the bar is empty.

In seven scenes, two talented actors become some of the very well-known children from these stories and occasionally a lesser known character. In the last two years, two of the stories have changed. One original piece, based on The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and about Cindy Lou Who, was turned into a longer piece by its playwright Matthew Lombardo and is now playing off-Broadway.  It’s been replaced by piece written by Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkas.

That piece, “My Name is KAREN!” is about the girl who created Frosty and saved him. She’s now a self-involved, angry young woman with her own live internet show. She resents all the attention that Frosty has gotten and her own obscurity. Even on her show, her followers mostly ask questions about Frosty and not her. She has taken her revenge.

New this year is a scene by Connecticut’s own Jacques Lamarre called “A Miserable Life”. You can guess that it is about one of the Bailey children, in this case ZuZu Bailey. It seems that she has been traumatized by the notion that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.”

John Cariani has written an ironic piece about Ralphie from A Christmas Story while Jeffrey Hatcher has a hysterically funny piece about Hermie, the elf who wanted to be a dentist in the TV version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

 In a piece by Theresa Rebeck, we see a cynical Tiny Tim who believes that Scrooge had a mental breakdown; Tim also seems to have adopted some of Scrooge’s miserly attitudes. Then there’s the piece about Clara, from The Nutcracker.  She is now an aging beauty still in love with the ageless Nutcracker. And the show ends with a tender piece by Lamarre about Charlie Brown. His revelations are surprising, but the ending is sweet.

Ruggiero has directed this with a sure hand. Jenn Harris and Matthew Wilkes are returning for the third or fourth year playing all of the famous characters. It is remarkable how they use voices and gestures to create totally different characters. Harris goes from the self-involved Karen, to the neurotic Zuzu and ends as the tender “Little Red-Haired Girl.

Wilkes is funny and over the top as Hermie. After that, you almost don’t recognize him when he is Tiny Tim or later as Charlie Brown.

Tom Bloom has joined the cast this year as the bartender. Like any good bartender, he listens, he reacts and occasionally he adds a succinct comment or suggestion. He is part therapist and part grandfather. It is this character that often helps the others to leave more optimistic than when they came in.

As you leave Christmas on the Rocks, you may ponder the ideas that what we assume will happen often doesn’t, but that other possibilities open to us, if only we will take advantage of them.

This show is geared to adults or near adults.

Christmas on the Rocks is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publications Weeklies and zip06.com.

“A Band’s Visit” Is a Wonderful, Gentle Broadway Musical

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By Karen Isaacs

 It’s generated buzz since its debut off-Broadway last fall. Now The Band’s Visit has made it to Broadway and it lives up to all of the hype.

It is a warm story about people learning about themselves and about people they have viewed as very different from them.

The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli film that won acclaim and prizes throughout the world. The film told the story of the eight member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center in PetahTikva. Due to a language mix up (it isn’t important to understand the how) the group arrives at Beit Harikva in the Negev Desert.

In this small “no wheresville” town, there are no hotels, but a few of the residents take the band members in and provide food, shelter and companionship for one night. Bonds of friendship are formed in the few hours before the band departs on a bus to take them to their correct location.

It’s a gentle story. Yes, there is an occasional brief instances of prejudice by one or two townspeople, but other than that, the dramatic conflict is minimal.

This musical is more about people getting to know each other, than about disagreements and conflict.

Director David Cromer must be given credit for not trying to make this piece more “Broadway” then it should be. He moves the scenes along without rushing them and allows the audience to involve themselves in the characters and the story.

Each of the characters is finely drawn and beautifully performed. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the very proper leader of the group. Though he only has one number, “Something Different” which is a duet with Dina, his performance is the backbone of this piece. It’s all in his reserve, his posture, his gestures – it is he who sets the tone and acts as the parent to the others in the orchestra.

If he is the backbone, then Dina, played by Katrina Lenk is the soul of the play. Dina is the owner of the café where the band comes to ask for directions. It is she who organizes the food and accommodations for the night. She is the leader among her group of friends. Lenk, who was brilliant in Indecent last year, is equally brilliant here. She conveys her concern for fellow humans in every way. It is she who sets the tone with the songs, “Welcome to Nowhere” and “It Is What It Is.” And it is she that that breaks through the reserve of Tewfiq.

While many of the other characters begin as “types” – they soon emerge as much more than that type. John Cariani as Itzik begins as the “man-child” who is abdicating responsibility for his wife and child, but by the end has gained new ambition.  Haled, played by Ari’el Stachel is the lothario in the band, but he too becomes much more than that as he spends the evening wondering the town with Papi, played equally well by Etai Benson. Even though some of the band members have few lines, they still create unique characters.

Each of the characters have known loss and disappointment. From the band member who started a concerto only to stop after the first few bars, to the young man who sits waiting for an out-of-service phone (in a phone booth) to ring.

These characters are separated by language, distance, nationality, religion and sometimes politics though that is not the focus on the piece.  Yet they forge human connections and learn about each other while discovering things about themselves.

It is difficult to say too much about the magnificent music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Once again, he has adapted to his environment. This score pulls from the tonal palate of both Arabic and Jewish music while still being totally accessible to American audiences. I can’t wait for the cast CD to be released.

Itamar Moses’ book is smooth and handles the transitions and changes in mood adeptly. It is not obvious but it is important.

Scott Pask has created a turntable set that allows for the multiple locations – the café, the street, Itzik’s home, Dina’s apartment, and more. The set combined with the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Sarah Laux, immerse in the small town evening/night. Her costumes for the band makes a statement all by themselves. They are humorous, self-important, and yet with their powder blue color, non-threatening. This may be a police orchestra, but you can’t imagine any of them actually being police officers.

The Band’s Visit is a musical that will captivate many. It is gentle, romantic, wistful and regretful. Those who want high energy dancing, chorus numbers and more in their musicals, will be disappointed unless they are willing to accept the quiet depth of this piece.

In some ways it reminds me of Come from Away last year’s surprise hit. Both deal with ensemble casts, both feature the band as much as the singers, both leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about people. They are different, but they are also both excellent.

A Band’s Visit is a tender, thoughtful musical that is so very worth seeing. It is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, Tickets are available through Telecharge.

 

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