By Karen Isaacs
Broadway has an absolutely delightful new musical, The Prom.
Even better it is an original – not based on a film, TV shw, novel or biography of a music industry legend. No raiding the song catalogue of some well-known hits and squeezing them in to fit a plot.
No it is totally original.
Part of the plot was based on a news item from several years ago about the reaction of a small town and a group of parents that cancelled the senior prom rather than let a girl bring her girlfriend.
Though that is the only one part of the plot, it is handled in a way that avoids demonizing the entire town.
Keeping it from becoming a “message musical” is the equal plot about four B list Broadway actors who arrive in the town with their agent to take up the girls’ cause. They are very funny in their inept attempts to help and their total egotism and cluelessness.
The creative team behind this, isn’t as well-known as Lin Manuel Miranda (who is?), but they have solid track records. Co-book writer Bob Martin is best known for The Drowsy Chaperone but he was also responsible for the delightful Elf – the Musical. Chad Beguelin co-book writer and lyricist has credits that include Disney’s Aladdin, The Wedding Singer, Elf and others. Composer Matthew Sklar was responsible for Elf and The Wedding Singer.
This team has skillfully treated the serious plot about Emma and her closeted girl-friend, Alyssa, as well as the Alyssa’s mother, the other senior girls and boys and the high school principal, Mr. Hawkins. But they have combined it with the other plot about Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, two performers whose egos are ginormous and their sidekicks, Trent Oliver (Julliard trained actor who’s mainly a waiter), Sheldon Saperstein (their agent) and Angie, who’s been in the chorus of Chicago for 20 years.
The four performers are shocked to learn that others view them as narcissistic so they decide that a “cause” would help their images. When they learn of Emma’s plight, they descend on the small Indiana town, to exert their power. Of course, they are horrified to learn that most of the townspeople don’t know who they are. The principal who does is also not thrilled since he was working on an agreement that the four scuttle with their activism.
It helps that the four playing the actors are deft handed when combining seriousness with a send-up of the stereotype. Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas seem to be having the times of their lives playing Dee Dee and Barry. You can’t help smiling as they sing “It’s Not About Me” knowing full well that they think it is. Despite their egos, Leavel, Ashmanskas as well as Christopher Sieber as Trent, Angie Schworer as Angie and Josh Lamon as the agent, Sheldon, also let us see a more vulnerable side to these performers. All too well, they understand how uncertain their futures are and how fleeting stability is.
It takes talent to balance the two sides of the show – the serious situation about Emma and the funny actions of the actors. The writers manage this by allowing those narcissists glimpses of their pasts.
Ashmanskas in particular manages to connect to Emma and in doing so, lets us see the man who was undoubtedly bullied as a teenager. Sieber as Trent Oliver also shows us this more vulnerable side. Leavel’s character is a harder nut to crack, but even she begins to learn something about herself.
It may be clichéd to say that the outsiders learn as much as the townspeople but it is true. The authors also haven’t projected a totally rosy ending. While there is a prom and Alyssa does “come out” there is not hint that all will be fine and dandy.
Martin, Beguelin and Sklar have managed to combine more “Broadway” tunes with songs that reflect the younger generation. Emma’s has two lovely (and heart-breaking songs) “Dance with You” and “Unruly Heart” that should become standards. Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma and Isabelle McCalla as Alyssa are touching as the romantic couple.
Of course, the show biz types have some rousing numbers from Angie’s “Zazz” to Dee Dee’s “The Lady’s Improving” and Barry’s “Barry Is Going to Prom.” Trent’s “Love Thy Neighbor” is also terrific.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has added his magic touch to the production. He keeps it moving, integrates the teenagers and others fluidly. He has blended the satire of the actors with the more serious story of the two girls in a balanced way.
Are there flaws? Yes, few musicals achieve near perfection. That should not deter you from seeing The Prom. You will laugh, applaud and have a really good time.
The Prom is at the Longacre Theatre, 247W. 44 Street. For tickets contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Gladys Green is an elderly woman who runs a small art gallery on Waverly Place in New York City. A former lawyer, she started the gallery years so; it hasn’t had much success but it gives her a place to go each day from her apartment upstairs in the building. Her grandson, Daniel lives in another apartment.
But Gladys is exhibiting disturbing symptoms. Her short-term memory is failing, she repeats herself endlessly, and focuses on past events. Her hearing has also deteriorated and she keeps turning down or off her hearing aids.
In Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, Gladys is the center of the story as her grandson, her daughter and son-in-law and a young artist she has befriended deal with this decline over a two year period.
As played by Elaine May, making a rare stage appearance, Gladys at first seems competent with a few minor lapses that are perhaps caused by her hearing loss. She keeps thinking her grandson is a reporter (sometimes it is for The New York Times), but she remembers many details about her physician husband, her daughter (Ellen) also a physician and even that she and her husband had put Ellen’s first husband and Daniel’s father through medical school.
Early in the play, Don Bowman, stops in the gallery; he’s an aspiring artist from Massachusetts who has come to the big city to try to achieve his dream. He offers to show Gladys some paintings and when she learns he has no place to stay, she invites him to stay in a small room at the back of gallery.
As time goes by, Daniel, Ellen and her second husband, Mark must consider the options: can Gladys stay in the gallery? What if the hotel next door who owns that space wants it? Ellen and Gladys have not had the best mother-daughter relationship, so the thought of moving her into Ellen’s house terrifies Ellen.
During the two years of the play, in multiple scenes set in the gallery and Ellen’s dining room, we see the problems worsen and the tensions increase. Like so many middle-aged people, Ellen is becoming her mother’s parent. For Daniel, he is shouldering more of the burden since he lives near Gladys. As she worsens, she takes to knocking on his door at all hours of the night.
Don becomes almost a part of the family but his emotional distance provides him with insulation. He refuses to realize what is actually happening and instead keeps insisting that she needs better hearing aids. You are never sure when it dawns on him that her hearing is not the main problem.
Elaine May gives a touching performance as Gladys; she seems oblivious to her problems, and yet you sense that underneath it all, she is aware. Her interactions with her grandson are tender and real.
She is surrounded by an excellent cast. Lucas Hedges who is making his Broadway debut, is outstanding as Daniel. He is caring, concerned and, at times, exasperated. It has been said, that the play is based on Lonergan’s friend, Matthew Broderick’s experience with his grandmother.
Joan Allen is excellent as Ellen; this over-worked and over-achieving professional is concerned about her mother; she just doesn’t want her to live with them. It would, as she puts, “drive her nuts.” She also understands how much of the burden her son is shouldering. David Cromer has her husband, Mark has a less developed role. He seems to mainly be a bystander to the family drama. Michael Cera is the somewhat naive Don.
The play has some laughs and some in the audience may find these uncomfortable. Are we laughing at Gladys’ mental deterioration and mistakes? Are we laughing out of fear that we may become her someday? The situation isn’t funny, so the laughter makes us question our own empathy. Yet, if we can’t laugh at the absurdity of life, how do we get through it?
Director Lila Neugebauer has done a fine job at keeping the balance between the tragedy of a deteriorating mind and the ridiculousness of it all. Scenic designer David Zinn has created the gallery, Ellen’s apartment and the upstairs. His set is aided by the fine projections by Tal Yarden and the lighting (Brian MacDevitt) and sound (Leon Rothenberg) designs.
As the play ends, Daniel tells us about what happened after Gladys moves into Ellen’s apartment.
The Waverly Gallery is at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street though January 27. For tickets, contact Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Every parent has a nightmare about something bad happening to his or her child. As that child becomes a teenager, the nightmares often become more frequent. Drugs, car accidents, runaways, alcohol, sexual assault – so many things can derail hopeful young lives. So many possibilities can go through the mind.
In the searing new drama American Son, Kendra’s nightmares are influenced by her childhood in a violent neighborhood. She may now be a professor of psychology, but the nightmares remain. They are stronger because her son, Jamal is a 17-year-old black teenager in Miami.
When they argue and Jamal goes off in his car, (a used BMW) and doesn’t come home, his mother goes to the police station to report him missing at 4 a.m. Calls to the cell phone have gone unanswered and texts have had no replies. Jamal has been brought up in an affluent atmosphere, attending private schools, accepted at West Point; he has learned to be well spoken and polite.
What happened to this polite, young man headed for West Point?
That is how the stunning new play, American Son begins. A rainy night with thunder and lightning and her sitting alone in a police station lounge.
Officer Paul Larkin doesn’t have any answers. Apparently he’s new, but tries to help despite the fact that he should wait for the duty officer to come in which will not be until the morning. What he initially learns is that there has been an “incident” involving the car. No other details but he tries to assure Kendra that that terminology is usually used for minor things such as broken tail light, failing to stop at a stop sign, or some such.
But Kendra is not mollified and becomes more and more frantic, to the point that when Scott arrives and Larkin assumes he is the duty officer, he makes comments about her being “out of control.” To his surprise, but not mine, Scott is Kendra’s estranged husband and father of Jamal. He is white and also a FBI agent.
The tension builds as they wait. The tensions between them: why he left six months earlier. Jamal’s recent behavior. He has recently started wearing “street” clothes, dreadlocks, and has some new friends. Her tendency to see the world in black vs. white terms. She seems militant and strident. He seems almost clueless. Jamal has rebelled at being a representative of his race to his almost all white classmates.
As the early morning hours progress, the tensions continue to build. Scott’s brother who works at a local TV station sends them a link to a video and asks if that is Jamal’s car.
The arrival of the duty officer, Lieutenant John Starks doesn’t seem to help at all. A long time officer and a black man, he seems to have little empathy for the frantic parents whose emotions are out of control. In fact, he arrests Scott and tells Kendra to basically “shut up and site down.”
The play does have some stretches of credibility – why do the police have her wait in a private area? Why does the station seems so understaffed and quiet in a city? Why would the newbie officer Larkin not get a more experienced officer to assist him? Why is there no watch commander or supervisor on duty? Wouldn’t officers be more accommodating to Scott, an FBI agent? Wouldn’t he have sources he could contact?
Yet, because of the fine performances, while you are watching this you don’t really think of these.
Kerry Washington as Kendra gives a portrait of the frantic mother who is also very aware of the realities of our urban society. Steve Pasquale as Scott is her equal as he becomes more and more agitated. In their disagreements, Scott wonders why Kendra allowed Jamal to have a particular bumper sticker on his car, and she justifies it as “picking her battles” with her rebellious son.
Jeremy Jordan makes the new officer by turns helpful and poorly trained. As Stokes, Eugene Lee has the least sympathetic role; he gives us a hardened officer who has seen too much in his years on the force and in all likelihood experienced too much racism himself. He seems almost resentful of the upper-middle class Kendra and Scott.
Kenny Leon, who has directed many August Wilson plays, has done a fine job directing this. His direction and the acting covers up some of the questions with the plot. The play is written by Christopher Demos-Brown, who is making his Broadway debut.
Adding to the effectiveness is the spare waiting area designed by Derek McLane, the torrential rain (with thunder) created by Peter Kaczoroski and the sound by Peter Fitzgerald.
American Son is a drama that will totally absorb you and break your heart. That it is set “this coming June” makes it clear that this problem in our society will not go away soon.
It is at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street though January 27. Tickets are available through Telechargee.
By Karen Isaacs
Sports, championships and betting shenanigans are often in the headlines, from legalizing sports betting, to the various point shaving scandals in college basketball, to “tanking” games and sets in tennis matches.
The Nap the British play by Richard Bean is now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre to Nov. 11.
The title refers to the nap of snooker table; snooker is a British variation of billiards that is extremely popular. Like a billiard table, the fabric on the table’s surface has a nap – touch in one direction and it is smooth, but touch it the opposite direction and it feels rough.
It’s set in a smaller English town that is hosting a national championship match. A local boy, Dylan is an up-and-coming star of the sport who hopes to break in to the top tiers – and the top money with a win. He is surrounded by dysfunction: his father Bobby, and mother, Stella as well as the mother’s boyfriend, Danny, and Dylan’s so-called agent/manager, Tony, plus his backer, Waxxy, a transgendered person with a metal hand.
Bean is known for throwing curve balls at us and approaching subjects with an off-beat sense of a humor. His hit play, Young Marx, exhibited all of these traits, and One Man, Two Governors was pure farce.
These show up in The Nap. Tony the so-called manager/agent is a typical stereotype of British comedies: the twit.
Early in the play, Dylan is visited the two investigators (one from the police, the other from a sports agency) about possible collusion with gamblers. Dylan is shocked and vehement in his denials. As his mother arrives with her boyfriend in tow, it becomes possible that she supplied some information to Waxxy. As the play goes on, we learn more about the alleged plot to fix a match while Dylan becomes charmed by the police officer. The stakes get raised substantially higher when his mother and her boyfriend are kidnapped by people working for Waxxy. It seems there are some Asian gamblers that are upset about some “mistakes.”
It’s hard to describe much more of what happens without spoiling the plot. Let’s just say that some things aren’t what they seem.
Bean has included many references to classic films, starting with Moonstruck and the Nicolas Cage character. How Bobby and Tony try to recall the names of the films from weird clues is a running joke. That’s just one example of the parallels to classic films.
The acting is excellent. Ben Schnetzer captures Dylan perfectly – he’s a young, naïve, and a snooker nerd. Johanna Day is the blowsy, garish mother, and John Ellison Conlee the profane father. The snooker opponents – yes, we do see parts of a game – are played by Ahmed Aly Elsayed, both an actor and a real life snooker champion. We can’t forget Max Gordon Moore as the agent/manager.
Alexandra Billings plays Waxxy as literally a woman with velvet glove concealing steel underneath.
The production directed by Daniel Sullivan has a wonderful set that includes the seedy club where Dylan practices, the hotel room that is an altar to a snooker great, and Waxxy’s country house. Each is just right.
Sullivan might have upped the pace a bit at times: it seemed as though things were slower than this type of comedy should be.
Some of the humor is typically British which may not appeal to everyone. But you don’t have to know snooker to enjoy The Nap.
The Nap runs through November 11. For tickets contact Telecharge
By Karen Isaacs
If you don’t get the opportunity to see Bill Irwin in On Beckett at the Irish Rep, and I’m told that the remaining performances are sold out, you have missed a master class on fine acting.
Irwin conceived and performs this almost one person show (a young boy joins him on stage near end for the closing scene from Waiting for Godot). The rest of the time, it is just Irwin holding the stage.
The 90 minute show, is not, Irwin says and academic discussion of Samuel Beckett but an actor’s perspective on the Nobel winning author. He intersperse his thoughts and memories of Beckett and his works, as well as some personal memories, with performances of excerpts from Beckett’s works.
What is such a joy is that while he talks and does parts of Waiting for Godot, which Irwin has done twice on Broadway, he also brings to life \non-plays by Beckett.
I suspect that only someone who has studied the author extensively would have read the novels, The Unnamable and Watt. He gives us fine selections from each.
But three of the pieces are from Texts for Nothing, numbers 1, 9, 11. In each he brings the text to life and creates a character that you will identify with and be interested in.
Of course, Irwin connects Beckett to clowning and in addition to his fine acting, his incredibly skilled clowning is used effectively.
On Beckett is one of the finest performances I’ve seen in many years. Perhaps he will bring it back to the Irish Rep for a longer run.
By Karen Isaacs
If I had to name an underrated American playwright – A. R. Gurney would immediately be on my list. Yes, Gurney had a number of well received plays, yet the critics always seem to diminish his accomplishments because he is dealing with the WASP class.
You know, the old or older money, prep school, Ivy League people who are known for decorum (except when they aren’t) and keeping a tight lid on emotions. Somehow people fail to recognize that in showing that dying culture, Gurney is making some very meaningful points about the world today and are relationships.
Thus I was delighted to see Primary Stages’ production of Final Follies, three one act plays by Gurney from three different periods of his writing. If you can, see this show before it closes on Oct. 21.
The title piece, was written closer to his death in 2017. I enjoyed it the most. But the other two, written earlier are both very good. David Saint has ably directed each of the pieces.
Each exposes a different aspect of Gurney’s talent and world view. The middle piece, The Rape of Bunny Stuntz is one of his earliest plays, written in 1965. It has some typical Guerney elements – upper middle class, a woman who is proper and up-tight, but he takes it to a very different place than usual. Deborah Rush was excellent as Bunny who slowly reveals an entirely different side of her to us.
The Love Course, written in 1969 skewers certain types of academics. I certainly recognized the types – the artsy woman professor who slowly becomes unhinged, the male professor who is caught up in climbing the ladder, the young female student who is earnest and protective of the woman and the boyfriend who gets caught up in it all. Each actor was excellent but Piter Marek as the professor and Betsy Aidem as the other professor carry the piece. That doesn’t mean you won’t admire the subtle performance of Colin Halon.
The title piece was written late in his life; it returns to his themes of the extinction of the WASP class. It’s also the most fully developed piece – it has characters that you do care about. We have Nelson, the ne’er-do-well son of old money, his up-tight, conventional brother (Walter), grandfather (Greg Mullavey) who holds the purse strings and Tanisha (Rachel Nicks) who works for a film company. Saying too much would spoil the fun. Let’s just say that the brother is shocked and hopes he can use that to convince grandfather to cut the money flow. Colin Hanlon is terrific as Nelson as are all of them. The seen between grandfather and Walter is priceless.
So get yourself to The Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce Street, New York to see this delight.
For tickets, visit Primary Stages.
By Karen Isaacs
For a brief while, it seemed like a sure fire formula for Broadway musical success. Take a popular movie, perhaps one that appealed to women, add music and voila! Sold out houses.
The formula has worked in the past. Think of Hairspray and The Producers. But more often than not it hasn’t worked; recently such well-loved films as Rocky and Groundhog Day couldn’t make it. Even Bronx Tale wasn’t a smash. The verdict is still out on Mean Girls.
The producers of Pretty Woman probably thought they had a sure fire hit. After all, the 1990 movie made Julia Roberts a major star and Richard Gere more of a star. It combines familiar elements: the hooker with a heart of gold, a Cinderella story, and the redemption of a man consumed by greed (think Scrooge).
But they forgot that there is a lot more to creating a hit musical: outstanding music and lyrics, a book that includes major elements of the movie but also does something more. The creative team must walk a fine line between giving audiences who loved the film what they expect and creating something unique and different.
It’s those things that are missing in the new musical which opened at the Nederlander Theatre recently.
The producers tried hard. Andy Karl looks a great deal like Richard Gere. Samantha Banks is Julia Roberts down to the smile and the hair. Why must she be a brunette like Roberts? But though Karl is very talented and Banks tries hard, they are weak versions of the original.
So the result is a pale imitation of the film. If you loved, loved, loved the film you will enjoy the musical. If you found the movie entertaining once, or if your views have evolved to a more realistic view of streetwalkers and their lives, you will find much of this show problematic.
The role of Vivian’s friend, Kit – the older hooker who got her in the business and advises her seems to have been beefed up. The role, played by Orfeh has most of the rousing songs in the show. Eric Anderson plays a narrator like character – at first call Happy Man, a sort of street person a la Hair style and later some other minor characters.
But when a supporting character seems the most interesting, as Anderson is, it reflects the problems in the show.
Jason Danieley is under used as the “heavy” in the show, playing Edward’s lawyer who is not happy with his change of heart and business practices. Danieley is a fine musical performer who has no songs except one ensemble number. He does a good job with the villain’s role, but it is a major waste of talent.
The production elements, set, costumes, lighting, sound design are professional but not exciting. At least one time the women in the ensemble, portraying sophisticated society types at a polo match look more like hookers than the streetwalkers do.
Director Jerry Mitchell, who also choreographed doesn’t do anything exciting.
The basic problem with this show falls on book writers Garry Marshall (who directed the film) and J. F. Lawson (who wrote the film) for giving us a weak version of the film, rather than exploring the story more. The music and lyrics by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance are not memorable either.
So it all comes down to how much did you love the film Petty Woman? That will determine how you feel about the musical.
Pretty Woman is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, the Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane musical, is getting a delightful production at the Irish Rep under the skilled hand of director (and adaptor) Charlotte Moore.
This show has had a checkered past. It opened in 1965 on Broadway, Lerner’s first show without longtime collaborator Fritz Loewe. It ran under a year, garnering only three Tony award nominations and winning none. A 1970 movie version had significant plot changes from the original and starred Barbra Streisand. Since then – even more changes in the plot including the 2011 short-lived Broadway revision that changed the sex of one leading character and the time periods!
Along the way, not only songs, but scenes and supporting characters have come and gone.
This production keeps most of the basic elements of the original plot, removing two ancillary characters, some ensemble numbers that were required in the 1950s and ’60 in musicals, and a few songs.
The result is a clearer show that lets the fine performances of Melissa Errico and Stephen Bogardus, plus the singing of John Cudia shine through. For this show, the Irish Rep has a small musical ensemble including a harp off to the side.
The plot – which even Lerner said couldn’t be considered realistic in anyway – has some connection to Brigadoon: the attraction of the idealized past to the imperfect present.
Set in the 1960s, Daisy Gamble is having difficulty getting a job at a high end NYC law firm because she can’t stop smoking. So at the urging of some friends she goes to a session conducted by Dr. Mark Bruckner who specializes in hypnosis to overcome various problems. When she quickly and accidently goes into a trance (Bruckner was hypnotizing someone else), he becomes intrigued. Over the course of some days/weeks, under hypnosis she reveals a previous life as Melinda Welles, a wealthy heiress in 18th century London who defines convention by marrying a portrait painter for love and later dies tragically. (Theater lovers may catch the references to other plays in the names of characters and things.)
Bruckner finds himself attracted to Melinda (more so than Daisy) and doesn’t tell Daisy about her previous life. Is reincarnation possible? His colleagues at the Institute warn him to stop his investigation; none believe it is real. Of course, the story hits the press, Daisy discovers the truth about her previous life and Mark’s attraction to Melinda and not her, and Mark realizes that Melinda is just part of Daisy whom he really does love.
The scenes switch between NYC in the ‘60s and England during Melinda’s lifetime. The ensemble (eight people) play multiple roles as Daisy’s friends, Mark’s colleagues and secretary as well as Melinda’s father, mother, potential suitors and others in that period.
This adaptation removes some of the original songs, but keeps those that are most memorable – “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” “He Wasn’t You,” “Melinda,” “What Did I Have that I Don’t Have,” and “Come Back to Me,” plus the title song.
The highlights of this production are the three leads, the ensemble and many elements of the production. The set is defined mainly by projections by James Morgan who establishes location through the use of post-impressionistic drawings somewhat reminiscent of Rouault’s work. The sound design by M. Florian Staab is also excellent.
Less successful is the costume design by Whitney Locher. The 1960s dresses worn by Daisy seem neither attractive nor representative of the period – I lived through it. Though Daisy is a “quirky” character, her ‘60s costumes seem on the conservative side. In addition, though the idea of having her don a 18th century gown like a dressing gown is clever, it doesn’t always work well.
Stephen Bogardus and Melissa Errico are terrific as Mark and Daisy/Melinda. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Bogardus in musical and I was once again impressed with his voice and his overall performance. His Mark shows us the uncertainty, the growing awareness, the stubbornness and much more. Errico once again impresses with her voice and the dual dimensions of the character. Both deserve to be back on Broadway in major shows.
Cudia as Melinda’s husband has a gorgeous voice for the “She Wasn’t You” but he seems overly stiff.
The result is a very nice production of a show that will never be considered a top ranked musical.
The pluses – fine performances, some very tuneful songs, and a nice production – makes this show well worth seeing.
It has been extended to Sept. 6.
For tickets visit Irish Rep or call 212-727-2737.