By Karen Isaacs
Take two Broadway stars – both genuine stars beloved by musical fanatics and a story of two powerful women – and you have War Paint.
The two stars, Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole each have two Tonys plus numerous nominations. The two powerful women are Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Both were pioneers. Each built a corporation in her own name, and together made the wearing of cosmetics respectable for “ladies.”
The bulk of War Paint takes place in the 1930s and 40s, the heyday of the Arden and Rubenstein brands. They were NOT friendly competitors. Each had overcome an impoverished background: for Rubenstein it was the shtetl of Poland and for Arden it was a farm in Ontario. Rubenstein promoted the image of the scientist who created her own products; Arden’s image was of the society, WASP blue blood.
The show alternates between the two of them, showing their successes, their problems, their competitive urges, and their downfalls. Both faced challenges when WWII limited the availability of ingredients needed for their cosmetics; Arden created a red lipstick to match the red on the Marine Corps chevrons. Women in the Corps were required to wear the “Victory Red” lipstick and nail polish as part of their uniforms. Rubenstein also succeeded during the war after appealing to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Afer the war, each faced questioning by a Congressional committee about the ingredients in their products and the sometimes extravagant claims made for them. It led to regulations requiring ingredient labels on the products. Women learned that the products themselves often cost only pennies while the elaborate packaging (Arden’s included silk ribbons and glass jars) cost much, much more.
Both ended up losing the companies they had built in part because in the 1950s they refused to change and accept the more youth-oriented culture and the need for lower price lines. Soon Charles Revson had outshone them with Revlon. Yet both brands continue today; in fact, Arden’s headquarters are in Stamford and her famous “Red Door Spa” still is on 5th Avenue in NYC as well as other places.
Each also faced discrimination due to the gender and to their backgrounds. In a poignant moment towards the end of the show, Rubenstein is rejected for a co-op apartment because of her Jewish heritage and Arden is rejected for membership in an exclusive “society” club for her lower class background.
In addition, each found that men often assumed that they were figureheads whose
successes were engineered by the men who surrounded them. For many years, Arden’s husband (Tommy Lewis) was head of marketing, but she was careful to keep publicity about the relationship to a minimum. As she said, “The moment they credit you, they discredit me – you’re in pants.”
Two men figured prominently in both their lives. Arden’s husband eventually went to work for Rubenstein after Arden replaced him with Rubenstein’s former head of marketing (Harry Fleming) and they divorced.
The show depends on the two leading ladies and they both deliver. Lupone plays Rubenstein with a heavy eastern European accent that can make it difficult to understand lines. It is especially noticeable in the songs where Lupone has always had a tendency to garble words. But she creates a feisty woman willing to be direct and make difficult decisions. Her competitiveness is born out of her background of being denigrated for her religion in Poland and her immigrant status in the U.S.
Ebersole’s Arden is equally competitive but cloaked in a more genteel ladylike garb. While she can belt with Lupone, her voice is also more lyrical to match the character. If Lupone’s Rubenstein is dramatic and “artistic,” Ebersole’s Arden is gracious and polite.
Yet underneath the exteriors, each had steel core. It is what led to their downfalls; neither was willing to acknowledge the changes in society. Both stuck with their original concepts of making cosmetics acceptable to middle class women. At one point one of them says that teens and young women did not need make-up they had youthful beauty on their side.
The show was written by Doug Wright, a Tony (and Pulitzer) winner in his own right with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. They are best known for the Tony nominated musical Grey Gardens.
If you don’t walk out of the theater humming the tunes, it may partly be due to the lack of reprises. You don’t have the opportunity for a melody to be reinforced. It will take hearing the CD to decide it the score is merely serviceable of it goes beyond that.
The two ladies are ably assisted by Douglas Sills as Harry and John Dossett as Tommy, each of whom has his own Tony nominations. Sills has the more flamboyant role as the handsome and gay Harry. Both men hold their own on the stage with these to magnetic women.
The remainder of the ensemble play multiple roles. Erik Liberman stands out as Charles Revson, who saw the marketing possibilities of television and created his own brand.
Michael Greif’s direction minimizes the confusions as we go back and forth between the
stories of the two women. By using a small ensemble, the minor characters are unable to develop any specifics; they seem interchangeable – shop clerks, society women, customers, etc. He keeps the spotlight firmly on the two leads.
Christopher Gatelli did the minimal choreography but is also responsible for the choreographed walks on the stage.
The set by David Korns features a backdrop of various cosmetic bottles, vials and others which are cleverly lighted by Kenneth Posner; Posner also creates several other interesting effects.
Catherine Zuber must have had a ball creating the numerous costumes which reflect trends from the late’20s to the ’50 and for a variety of personalities. Rubenstein was more dramatic in her apparel while Arden fitted into the upper class society matron style.
War Paint may not be a great musical but it gives us the opportunity to see two great stage performers show off their talents, with two strong supporting men in the cast and a story about the obstacles women have faced. That makes it worth seeing.
It is at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
Thank heavens for Kevin Kline! His performance in the revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, now at the St. James Theater is worth studying over and over again.
This play, written when Coward was in his early forties, is a comedy about an actor who is a leading man known for romantic comedies. In a few days he is leaving on a tour of Africa but before then there are various complications including a young woman who thinks she is in love with him, a young playwright who wants advice, his estranged wife, and his director, producer and the producer’s wife. His secretary, butler and a housekeeper try to keep things running smoothly.
It is half romantic comedy, and half farce and Kline and the fine cast assembled by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel are all up to the task.
Garry Essendine (Kline) is an aging romantic lead who has incorporated the mannerisms and life style of the characters he plays into his own life. That is to say, he is not only almost always “on” but he can overdo it a bit with affected gestures.
The play opens one morning with a young woman (Daphne) coming out of the guest bedroom in his pajamas and robe. She has obviously stayed the night, because as she explains she had lost her “latch key” (house keys) and he had let her stay. When he finally emerges from his bedroom, he has no recollection of the young woman and it takes him a while to get her to leave. She proclaims undying love and it is clear that Essendine had said some such dialogue to her the night before. But he acts the scene of his renunciation of her as though it were a stage play.
During this time, the stoic secretary (Monica) has arrived to try to keep things in order and the valet is on hand. The apartment is soon bustling as the estranged wife arrives from France. She’s concerned that the wife of the producer is having an affair with the director. The five of them – Essendine, his wife, the director, Morris and the producer, Henry – have been friends and colleagues for years. Essendine and Liz, his wife are afraid that Joanna, Henry’s wife, will destroy the group.
Soon, Roland Maule arrives. It seems that Essndine answered his own phone and made an appointment to see the young playwright. Maule really seems very strange – high strung, nervous and vacillating between attacking Essendine for doing “just light comedy” and groveling. His play is quite bad and he is told to go away, write twenty plays, discard them and perhaps the 21st will be good enough to be produced.
But that are not all of the complications that begin to exasperate Essendine. Maule
returns unexpectedly and refuses to leave. He is fascinated observing the goings on. It also seems that Johanna has arrived the night before, having “forgotten her latch key” – she is wondering around in his pajamas and robe but is much more demanding than Daphne was and seems to have no intention of leaving. Of course, Liz, Monica and Essendine try to hide her presence as her husband and Morris arrive – her husband and lover. Added to the developing chaos is the return of Daphne who has convince her grandmother to arrange an audition for her with Essendine.
Soon, everyone is proclaiming that they have booked passage and will be accompanying him to Africa.
Coward’s drawing room comedies require a deft hand. They are easily overplayed or the sophisticate witticisms can seem pretentious. With this cast, they sound utterly natural. The dialogue must be conversational and not feel forced in any way.
Kline, Kate Burton and Liz, Kristine Nielsen as Monica and the rest of the cast excel in carrying it off. It’s high comedy, it’s farce, but it must seem natural. Timing is everything, but it must not seem forced.
Kline is the ideal actor for this role; he has the good looks to be a romantic leading man, and he can lift an eyebrow to make a point with the best of them. He doesn’t sound like Coward (who originated the part) yet gets all the laughs without seeming forced or trying. Just watching him sit and listen to the others is a class in acting and reacting.
Kristine Nielsen as the unflappable secretary – she’s seen it all before – is the counterpoint to the mayhem that is going on. Yet she manages to not let her stoic nature become unresponsive or boring.
As Liz, Kate Burton has a difficult job – she must convey amusement at Essendine’s peccadillos, but also concern and motherliness as she and Monica must manage the goings on. Underneath you must wonder if she is still in love with him. Although hampered by some unflattering – but period appropriate hats and costumers – she manages it all. She seems cool, calm and collected at all times.
As Roland Maule, the young aspiring playwright, Bhavesh Patel creates the wild eyed demeanor of a potential madman.
Cobie Smulders conveys how dangerous to the five-some is Johanna, Henry’s wife. She is sophisticated and cool and calculating; you must understand why Essendine and Liz have feared her but she must also convey a sense of determination to get her own way and to settle old scores. She has never felt accepted by the group.
Tedra Millan captures the essences of Daphne with a high pitched voice, the enthusiasm of a school girl and the determination of an English debutante.
David Zinn has created a beautiful duplex as Essendine’s home complete with 1930-40’s details. It seems so appropriate for the character. The costumes by Susan Hilferty reflect not only the styles of the period, but the glamour of the characters. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds to the show though I would have preferred some Coward songs to those used. Justin Townsend’s lighting is very good.
I’ve seen several productions of this play including Frank Langella’s performance in 1997. Kevin Kline is the best Essendine that I’ve seen. I would gladly see this production again and again.
Present Laughter is at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. It runs through July 2. For tickets visit ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
A clever idea that goes on for two hours when it would work best if it were 30 minutes at most, is the problem with The Play That Goes Wrong, now at the Lyceum Theater. BUT some will find it a riotous laugh fest. It depends on your enjoyment of extreme slapstick.
The British hit (it won an Olivier award, the equivalent of a Tony) with its cast intact, can provide some silly fun. But even silly fun can become tedious if it is over-extended.
Last year’s revival of Noises Off is a much better play than this concoction.
The conceit is that a student theatrical group is putting on a production of a typical Agatha Christie-like murder mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. It is opening night and not only are the actors pretty untalented but parts of the set keep falling down.
The show really focuses on physical comedy. Doors slam into people more times than you can count; people trip, fall, doors stick, windows are climbed through, and just about every other type of pratfall occurs, not once, not twice but multiple times.
I can only hope the cast has good health insurance; several have suffered multiple concussions doing the show in England.
The show opens with the “director” played by Henry Shields, appearing before the audience to welcome us and to apologize that the expected show is not the one we will see. Of course, that show is professional and better known. Even before he is doing this, we see various stage hands and the lighting/sound board operator running about trying to prop up the flimsy set of an old-fashioned English manor house. They even enlist an audience member to help.
Into the mystery we go. It appears that Charles Haversham has been murdered in his study on the very night of his engagement to Florence Collymore. So who could have killed him? The suspects include the fiancé who really loves Haversham’s younger brother, Cecil; Cecil himself; Florence’s brother, Thomas, an old friend of Charles’; and the long-time butler, Perkins.
Soon the detective, Inspector Carter, arrives to start trying to solve the case.
Simultaneously, the entire production begins to totally fall apart.
Let’s first talk about the actors. It’s difficult for a good actor to play someone who can’t act; but this young group of well-trained and experienced performers, pull it off.
We have the butler, Perkins, who not only has an emotionless voice but tends to put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, after looking at his hand where it is obviously written. Jonathan Sayer carries it off with deadpan accuracy.
Then there is David Hearn who plays Cecil Haversham. It is delightful to see him react to the audience’s reaction. At first startled, he soon begins to bask in the glow of the approval and attempts to maximize it, adding bits of stage business and communication with the audience.
Bob Falconer plays Trevor, the sound/stage board operator who too often misses cues because he is looking on his phone, the computer, or trying to locate a CD. He finds it when it accidently plays during the production.
Of course, Shields turns up as Inspector Carter; he is very good. The two women are Charlie Russell who plays the fiancé (Florence); she manages to get dragged through the window among other things. Plus, when she is knocked out, the stage hand Annie, played the night I saw it by Bryony Corrigan, takes over. When Florence comes to, Annie refuses to give up the role; they battle on stage, often echoing themselves.
In fact the entire cast is very good.
Special applause should go to Nigel Hook who created the scenic design as well as the stage hands who must keep putting the set back together. There is one scene where the balcony begins to tilt; it hangs in the air through shaking and slowly angling like the Titanic.
If you love physical, silly comedy and enjoy it for extended periods, you will find The Play that Goes Wrong hilarious. If that is not your favorite OR if you like it only in small doses, then you may find the play goes on too long.
It is at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Tickets are available through Telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Bravo – Rob Ruggiero! Bravo to the outstanding cast of Next to Normal now at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, May 14.
This is a fabulous production of a musical that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. The more intimate TheaterWorks venue increases our involvement in the story and our emotional attachment to the characters.
Next to Normal tells the story of Diana, a wife and mother who has battled bipolar disorder and depression for years. Her illness has impacted both her teenage daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Dan. She’s tried multiple therapies, physicians and medications; some of them work, some of them cause serious side effects and most of them cease to be helpful over time.
Her illness is characterized by seeing visions of Gabe – their son who died at 8 months of age, nearly 18 years ago. He seems to constantly be around her and he comments on the action.
This is, as one audience member said at intermission “not ‘My Fair Lady.’”
But in the capable hands of the cast and Ruggiero it is a show that will tug at your emotions. No one is the “bad guy” – not the doctors, not Diana, not Dan and not Gabe. Each is trapped in his or her own world.
Tom Kitt (composer) and Brian Yorkey (libretto and lyrics) have crafted a tight story that propels us along. In the beginning it takes time for us to realize that Gabe is his mother’s vision and not a real character and longer for us to learn what had happened.
As with any serious and chronic illness, the entire family feels the impact. Natalie feels overlooked and ignored because so much of the attention is on her mother and the mother’s mental state. She feels unloved by her mother who, perhaps as a defense mechanism after her son’s death, was reluctant to form an attachment with the baby. Diana has missed multiple events in Natalie’s life.
Dan has tried to compensate to Natalie, but his energy is also focused on helping his wife get well, accompanying her to various doctor’s appointments and trying to balance job, marriage and family.
Natalie does develop a healthy relationship with Henry, a teenage boy who provides some of the support and attention she obviously needs. But she is fearful that she may follow her mother’s path.
The story of Diana’s struggle with mental health leads to her trying ECT, what is often called electro-shock therapy which seems to help some. But who know what the long term prognosis will be. The doctors say her condition is chronic and can only be managed, not cured.
What makes this production so outstanding is the cast and the atmosphere developed by Ruggiero. He has used the aisles of the theater to bring us closer to the action. We see characters standing in the aisle observing the action just as we are.
The only time I have seen the show was the touring production that played the Bushnell several years ago. While well done, the huge theater and the huge stage created a gulf between the characters and the audience that diminished the emotional impact. That and the amplification of the sound made everything feel disembodied.
Here, we are close to the stage. We can see the expressions on the faces of the characters, we do not need blaring amplification to catch every word of both dialogue and songs. While the show is often described as a “rock” show, here much of the music seems gentler and softer.
Christane Noll who has received Tony nominations gives a subtle performance as Diana and makes the most of every song from the humorous “My Psychopharmacologist and I” to the touching “You Don’t Know” and “I Dreamed a Dance”.
Her performance is matched by David Harris as Dan, her husband. You may remember him as Billy Crocker in Goodspeed’s Anything Goes or Valjean in the Connecticut Rep’s Les Mis. Here he is tender and caring yet weary of the burdens. He and Noll are terrific in the duet “A Light in the Dark”
Maya Keleher who plays Natalie is making her professional debut. Based on this
performance of the often uncertain teenager, you can predict a successful career for her. She shows us all sides of Natalie and handles the songs well. Nick Sacks who plays Henry is also a relative newcomer (a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon) and also displays great talent. He makes Henry both gawky and touching. You believe their young love. The duet between Sacks and Keleher, “Perfect for You” and his with Harris “A Promise” are terrific.
John Cardoza has the difficult role as Gabe, Diana’s vision. It would be too easy for Gabe to become “creepy” with his often silent, hovering presence, but Cardoza doesn’t let it happen. He is a benign memory or “ghost”. J. D. Daw plays two of the medical people that Diana sees.
Wilson Chin has created one of TheaterWorks’ most elaborate sets with a turntable that allows the scenes to flow smoothly. The set features many household items including multiple table lamps, perhaps signifying the need to bring into the light the issues involving mental illness. He is aided by the lighting design of John Lasiter.
Tribute must be given to musical director Adam Souza who has helped the singers make the most of the songs as well as conducting the six piece orchestra that is hidden back stage. Ed Chapman has balanced the sound system beautifully.
Next to Normal may not be the show for everyone due to its subject matter, but it is a show for anyone who wants to see an outstanding production of a touching and moving theatrical work.
Next to Normal is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Sunday, May 14. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.
This material is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.
By Karen Isaacs
Charming is a word that can sometimes be used to damn something with faint praise.
Amélie, the new musical based on the successful French film, is — there is no other way of putting it — charming. Not in a cloying way, but with a sweet innocence.
The movie — which was released in 2001, told the story of a young waitress who goes about helping and doing good deeds for others. Her goal is to bring happiness to others and with her imagination and personality she not only succeeds but finds love herself. It became a worldwide hit and was nominated for a number of Oscars, yet audience reactions were mixed. Some loved it for its sweetness and charm (there’s that word again) while others hated it for its simplicity.
The new musical was adapted by Craig Lucas (book), Nathan Tyson and Daniel Messe (lyrics) and music by Daniel Messe. Messe is the founder of the musical group Hem and Tyson wrote the lyrics for the recent Broadway show Tuck Everlasting.
The show also tries to maintain a Gallic sensibility.
The problem with Amélie is that nothing really happens. I never saw the film, so I can’t say if the musical adaptation is the problem. But there is no conflict, no problems, not even any deep-seated yearnings by Amélie. She seems like a pleasant young lady with an active imagination and the soul of a Girl Scout.
That and the eccentric characters that habituate the Montmartre café where she works are not enough to fill two hours of entertainment.
Perhaps if the show featured outstanding music, or innovative music, or if dance had played a major role, the show might have been better.
You can’t fault the performers. Phillipa Soo, who won acclaim in Hamilton and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) has a lovely singing voice. Unfortunately she has been saddled with a character that needs a large dose of charisma to keep our attention. She just doesn’t radiate star power.
With the exception of Adam Chanler-Berat who plays Nino, the love interest and Maria-Christina Oliveras who plays a fellow waitress, all the other performers play multiple roles. Too many of these are brief cameos that leave little room for character development; the blind beggar, the rock star, and more.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the musical is Dufayel played by Tony Sheldon. Dufayel is a painter whose studio Amélie can see from her room. He paints over and over again a replica of Renoir’s Luncheon at the Boating Party, but he is never satisfied with the girl drinking a glass of water.
In some way Amélie touches everyone’s life, even his. But it is all so gently done that the show lacks drive.
What is good about the show? First of all, the cast is talents and achieves as much possible from the material. Tony Sheldon adds an acerbic bite to his portrayal of Dufayel. Adam Chanler-Berat is earnest as Nino, the love interest. But it is telling that a few hours after leaving the theater it is difficult to remember details of the characters, the performances or the songs. They have all faded away.
Pam MacKinnon has directed this and has tried to maintain some Gallic sensibility but even that seems lost. The scenic and costume design by David Zinn is serviceable as if the lighting and sound. Puppets – including a garden gnome – are well designed by Amanda Villalobos. But just the inclusion of the puppets seems like a bit of misplaced whimsy.
As I was watching the show, I recalled another show, Amour, that was big on French charm and had a plot that seemed to defy reality. But that show had a some conflict and sadness in it.
Amélie is a show where the biggest question is why does someone collect photos discarded from those substation photo booths, and who is the man in multiple photos that have discarded all over the city.
Amélie is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 19 W. 48th Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.
By Karen Isaacs
Please get to Hartford Stage to see T”he Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” which is running through April 23.
It is an absorbing and touching play that will leave you shaken at the wasted lives. But it will also make you appreciate others more.
It is a one man show, but you will think the stage is populated by many people. That’s due to the brilliance of James Lecesne who both developed this play and performs it.
He frames this story as an old-fashioned detective story which helps to keep you totally engaged. He plays Chuck DeSantis, a detective in a quiet southern Jersey shore town. One day, a local hairdresser and her teenage daughter show up to report that Leonard Pelkey, the teenage nephew of the woman, has been missing for almost 24 hours.
In the next taut 70 minutes, the detective pursues first the missing person case and later, unfortunately, the murder case; the boy is found dead in a lake. During the process of investigating the case, he meets and interviews a number of people; the widow of a local mobster, the British man who with his wife runs a local drama school, some teenagers, and of course the aunt and her daughter.
Each time, Lscesne with just a change in voice, posture, accent and a few gestures, turns himself into each character. And we learn more and more about this boy, who was too “out there” for his own safety. He not only was gay but embraced a flamboyant lifestyle.
What we also learn is how Leonard touched the lives of all of the people interviewed. Yes, he was outrageous, but he also was himself. He wasn’t going to tone down or hide who he was. He was comfortable with himself and he wanted others to be also.
It is not that he radiated goodness, but that he had, as Lecesne says “an absolute brightness.” He helped people be more comfortable with whom they were; they received a measure of courage from his willingness to be so true to himself.
It wasn’t that his life was perfect. As an outsider, he was bullied and made fun of, yet he did not return it in kind; instead he helped others be there better selves.
All too often, one person plays are static. One character talks to the audience with the occasional artificial interruption of a telephone call or doorbell. Yet, the best one-person plays, have multiple characters and dialogue that makes us believe two or more people are conversing.
This is what Lecesne gives us. In the program notes, Lescene explains that in the young adult novel of the same name which was published in 2008, the story was told by Phoebe, Leonard’s cousin. When he wrote the play, he decided to make the detective the story teller. It gives the show the added bonus of seemingly being like one of the great Hollywood film noir stores; the experienced detective, who can tell us his impressions of the people he meets. Plus we get some great lines reminiscent of any Phillip Marlowe novel.
Lecesne explains that the title refers first to the astronomical term defined as “the total amount of light produced by a star irrespective of its distance from an observer.” But here, he is using it a metaphor for how each of us “brings a particular brightness to every situation, and regardless of whether other people notice it or not, it’s still there.”
In this production is not only the absolute brightness of Leonard Pelkey that shines; it is the absolute brightness of James Lecesne that also shines.
You leave the play emotionally moved by the story and excited by the outstanding production.
It runs through April 23 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. For tickets visit Hartford Stage.
By Karen Isaacs
“Sweat” – Lynn Nottage’s new play that has transferred from off-Broadway is a chilling tale of the plight of working class people. It is a story all too familiar to residents of “the rust belt.”
A family owned industry that has provided good paying jobs with benefits for generations to the working people of a community first tries to force draconian union concessions, then locks out the workers and hires cheaper, non-union replacements, and finally, almost inevitably departs for a foreign location.
So what happens to the people on the plant floor? They, and their parents and grandparents have given their blood and their sweat to the company, making the executives rich and gaining a secure middle class life for themselves.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, mostly in the local bar where a number of the workers hang out. But it opens in 2008 in a drab, office like setting with cinder blocks walls. In two separate rooms we meet two young men: Jason and Chris, an African –American. Each is being questioned and talked to by a man, who we realize is their parole officer. Each has just gotten out of jail for an incident in 2000. Somehow these two young men – in their early twenties – know each and were both involved in the incident. Each is having difficulty adjusting to life on the outside and to getting a new start. But Jason has Aryan nation symbols tattooed on his face and neck, while Chris has almost completed his bachelor’s degree.
The play then flashes back to a series of scenes over months of 2000. Over the course of months, we see the all-too-familiar events play out. Three women hang out at the bar, celebrating birthdays and other events: Cynthia is Chris’ mother—she’s hardworking and ambitious, but married to Brucie who has fallen into addiction. Tracey is Jason’s mother; she too is hard-working but has an “attitude.” Jessie, the third friend seems more like a mediator between the two though she does tend to drink way too much. The bartender is Stan, who had worked in the plant until he was injured on the job.
This is a working class bar. People come in after work and the talk mostly is involved with the work. Brucie, Cynthia’s estranged husband, had worked at another plant until the owners demanded concessions, the union went on strike, the workers were locked out, replacements were hired, and now the company refuses to talk with the union, even though it is willing to capitulate.
In the months that follow – the same scene begins at the plant where Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie work. Even Chris and Jason get jobs there; Chris for the summer to make enough money to go to college and Jason sees it as his future.
For them, it seems like a way into middle class. For Oscar, the bar assistant who is Colombian but born in the U.S., it seems like a closed system. To get a job you have to know someone. The jobs tend to go to the families who have spent their lifetime in the plant.
The rumors begin of the plant owners asking for concessions. Then there is an opening for a supervisor which both Cynthia and Tracy apply for. Cynthia gets the job which creates a fracture between the three women. Tracey believes Cynthia was promoted because of her race.
As the rumors flow, machines begin disappearing until the day the employees are locked out. Soon replacements are hired, including Oscar.
Jason reacts with increasing anger until, one night when Oscar comes back to the bar to get his remaining things, violence occurs. Unfortunately, Stan is an unintended victim.
This is why Jason and Chris were in jail.
In the last scenes, we see what has happened to Cynthia, Tracey, Chris, Jason, Oscar and Stan, as well as Jessie.
All have suffered devastating losses.
Director Kate Whoriskey has assembled a terrific ensemble for this play and then directed them with a master’s touch. They work seamlessly as an unit. Johanna Day has, perhaps, the showiest role as Tracey who is outspoken and abrasive. She speaks her mind. Day creates a character who we are both annoyed with and sympathetic towards. Michelle Wilson gives as a Cynthia who is more refined and determined. With that determination, she and her son, Chris (played by Khris Davis) seem cut from the same cloth. You know why Chris is striving to better himself. Will Pullen’s Jason also seems so obviously related to his mother, Tracey. Pullen gives us the angry and impulsive young man whose resentment seems to ooze from every part of him.
James Colby as the bartender, Stan, is the voice of reason while John Earl Jelks as Brucie is the warning of what can and is about to happen. Carlo Albán gives us a sensitive Oscar, the outsider who just wants a piece of the dream.
The set by John Lee Beatty creates the typical neighborhood bar – a little run down – yet a place the workers feel at home. It is bolstered by the lighting by Peter Kaczorowksi, the sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen and the costumes by Jennifer Moeller.
Sweat is a disturbing and moving portrait of working class America today. It is at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th Street for a limited run. For tickets visit telecharge.
By Karen Isaacs
Combine four talented singers/performers, a terrific musical trio backing them up and a truckload of classic American popular songs, and you have the formula for a very enjoyable evening in the theater.
My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra, now at Ivoryton Playhouse through Sunday, April 9, is exactly that. Practically all music.
So why quibble that most of the songs could be in a review honoring Peggy Lee, Fred Astaire or Judy Garland? They are great songs.
First of all you will find all the Sinatra standards from the ‘50s on up: “Strangers in the Night,” “Love and Marriage,” “All the Way,” “That’s Life,” “New York, New York” and more. Even some of the less worthy numbers are included. So the Capital and Reprise years are well represented.
Since Sinatra recorded over 1300 songs, not all are identified solely or mainly with Sinatra. The classic songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern may remind you of other performers.
But that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show. My one quibble is that very few of Sinatra’s early hits – those that came during his stint with the Big Bands, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James – are included. These songs such as “Oh Look at Me Now,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Everything Happens to Me,” could have replaced some of the songs less specifically identified with Sinatra. Also missing are some of the big hits from early in his solo career – “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” “I Couldn’t Sleep a Wink Last Night” and many others.
But the songs included are worth it.
The show was created by David Grapes and Todd Olson, who wrote the minimal dialogue that ties the various song segments together. Sometimes it seems forced with attempts at humor and other times it simply drops interesting factoids about Sinatra.
The songs are grouped in various categories – from Broadway, to a city medley, a young love medley, a moon medley and others, ending, appropriately enough, with a “Survivor’s Medley,”
The four performers do not attempt to imitate Sinatra, though the two men do adopt a few of his more famous gestures, including how he wore his hat.
Instead each segment allows each performer a solo number plus an occasional duet or quartet. Each segment also includes a dance interlude of some sort. The performers do attempt to create characters for their songs, but they are necessarily limited.
The success of this show depends on the performers, director/choreographer and musical director. Here Ivoryton has found talented people.
The show is directed and choreographed by Joyce Chittick and Rick Faugno, who appeared at Ivoryton in Fingers and Toes. Faugno is a talented dancer who, with Vanessa Sonon, does most of the dances.
Lauren Gire and Sonon are the two women in the cast. Gire plays a slightly older, more sophisticated person with a ladylike demeanor. Her voice has a richness that is welcome in her songs. Sonon, projects a livelier demeanor and a more humorous manner.
Faugno has a light baritone/tenor voice that works well with the variety of music and contrasts nicely to Josh Powell’s richer, deeper baritone.
The four change off into various combinations: Powell, Faugno and Gire are terrific in “Here’s to the Losers” and Powell and Sonon are great in “You Make Me Feel So Young.”
I particularly liked the quartet in “Indian Summer” and “Dream” – one of the few songs from the big band era.
The set by William Russell Stark gives a cocktail lounge/bar to the left leaving much of the stage available for both singing and dancing. The costumes recall the 1950s; white dinner jackets for the men in the first act and tuxes in the second. The women wear short cocktail dresses – one very bouffant—in the first act and long gowns in the second. I only wished the white dinner jacket that Powell wore, fitted him better. Christopher Hoyt handled the lighting, creating various moods and sound designer Tate R. Burmeister did a good job balancing the combo the rear of the stage with the singers.
Special praise must be given to musical director Andy Hudson and his fellow combo members — Matt McCauley on bass and Gary Ribchinsky on drums.
My Way is tuneful evening of theater well performed by this talented group. You will enjoy it.
It is at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton, through Sunday, April 9. For tickets call 860-767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.
This content is courtesy Shore Publications and ziip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
One of the hardest things for most people to do, is to realize that the choices we made in life were not forced but voluntary. That often they satisfied some deep-seated need.
In Arthur Miller’s The Price which is getting an outstanding production at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Victor Franz, a NYC police officer is forced to confront those truths. He must let go of the resentment and belief that the choices he made in life were forced upon him by others. He willingly made them.
It is 1968, Victor Franz is waiting for an antique dealer to arrive. He is finally selling the furniture and artifacts that were his father’s, though the father died 16 years before. But for some reason, it has been undisturbed until now the building has been sold and will be torn down. All he wants is a “price” for the collection of tables, chairs, bureaus, lamps and more that remain. It is clear that at one time, his father was prosperous.
Soon his wife, Esther, stops by and from the conversation we learn a lot: He and his brother have not spoken since the father’s death, the brother (Walter) is a successful physician. Esther, more than Victor, harbors resentment towards the brother, but also envies his affluence. She argues that Victor should not share the proceeds from the sale with Walter. Victor has been trying to contact Walter to let him know about the appointment with the dealer, but he is unsure if Walter got the message or will bother coming.
Soon, Gregory Solomon arrives. He is the dealer though he is in 80s and retired. He is also a talker. He talks in circles, frustrating Victor who wants him to “give me the price.” Through this talk we learn that the father had gone bankrupt during the depression and after his wife died had seemed unable to care for himself; Victor had moved him to take care him, but there was little money. He says they ate garbage.
Act one ends with the arrival of Walter. Act two explores the dynamics between these two estranged brothers. Victor dropped out of college to take care of his father and joined the police force for the security. He had given up the opportunity to pursue his interest in science. Walter, the younger, had stayed in school, contributed little to the father’s upkeep and become successful. But he had suffered a crisis a few years earlier and has developed a different perspective.
The climax of the plot is that at one time Victor had asked Walter for a loan of $500 to continue in school. Walter had told him to ask his father. Walter knew, though Victor would not acknowledge, that the father had managed to keep some money – several thousand dollars. Yet he did not offer it to Victor.
This 1968 play revisits themes that Miller developed in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. Except in this play the father is dead, although there is a father figure. The play revolves around father-son and brother relationships. How parents often favor one child over another and what that can do to both of them. How brothers can become estranged.
But the play really deals with the choice we make and how often we convince ourselves that there was no choice.
Victor slowly begins to realize that he sacrificed for his father, not because it was the right thing to do or that there was no other option, but because it satisfied some need of his.
This production is blessed with four outstanding performances. Each of the performers mines fully the emotions, the baggage and the back stories of their characters. While you may initially view one of the brothers as the hero and the other the villain, by the end you see them as both complex human beings and feel compassion for both of them.
That is due to the find performances of Mark Ruffalo as Victor and Tony Shalhoub as Walter. They get far below the surface of their characters and show us every aspect through their gestures, voices, bodies and eyes. Too often, Walter is portrayed as both selfish and self-involved. Here you see him as a man shaken by the events of the last few years. You also see that he had more realistic view of his father than Victor had. Ruffalo burrows beneath the self-righteousness of Victor as he slowly begins to acknowledge truths that he had suspected but had pushed down.
Jessica Hecht balances Esther’s resentment of Walter and of Victor, with her realism. She keeps repeating a line that “she did not believe what she knew.”
As the antique dealer, Danny DeVito has the comic role and it makes good use of it. While, occasionally he goes overboard – spitting pieces of hard cooked egg repeatedly, it does help to break the tension.
Director Terry Kinney has managed his talented cast with expertise and has assembled a fine production crew. Each element – set design by Derek McLane, costumes by Sarah J. Holden, lighting by David Weiner and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen—make major contributions to our enjoyment and understanding of this play.
The Price may be considered by some to be “lesser” Miller, but it reminds us that even “lesser” Miller is so much better than so many other works.
It is at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd Street through May 14. For tickets visitRoundabout Theatre.
By Karen Isaacs
The Yale Rep is producing the musical that Steven Sondheim considers one of his best – Assassins through April 8.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have interwoven the stories and motivations of eight individuals who either attempted to or succeeded in assassinating the President of the U.S.
Through this, they explore both our national inclination to violence, our celebrity culture and the alienation of these individual to our society.
Some of these people you will know but others have become mere footnotes in history books or totally forgotten.
The show is set in an arcade with a shooting gallery like those that give out stuffed animals and other cheap prizes at carnivals. But here the gallery says “Shoot a President” and the prize is fame or infamy. The assassins all have a grudge of some sort and lashing out at the office of President is one way they think that they can assuage it. For some, the grudge is more a result of mental illness or delusions than any reality. The reasons often have nothing to do with politics or policies.
The musical – which is one act, approximately 100 minutes long – opens and closes with the two most famous assassins – John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. In “The Ballad of Booth” we envision his last moments before he is shot and killed. His rationale is very clear: to him, Lincoln destroyed the South and became both a dictator and traitor. Booth famously said, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,”) after shooting Lincoln. But the Balladeer (a folk singer character who comments on much of the action) wonders if Booth didn’t do it because he was losing his acting talent and was envious of his brother, Edgar who was the first great American actor.
It seems as though Booth is often on the scene either commenting on the action of the others or egging them on.
As the musical progresses, the lives and actions of the other assassins intertwine. We meet Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami and did kill the mayor. We meet Charles Guiteau who killed President Garfield; he wanted to be ambassador to France and to sell his book. Then there is Leon Czolgosz who killed McKinley. His motives seem to concern the plight of the working man of the period.
Of course, there are the more recent assassination attempts: these are represented by four deluded individuals. Samuel Byck planned to kill Nixon by high jacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. Both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore tried to kill Ford, in almost laughable attempts and John Hinckley did shoot, but not kill Reagan out of love for the actress Jodi Foster.
The final episode is Booth and the others urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Booth tells him it is the only way he will be famous and the others believe his act will revive their fame.
Sondheim’s music often reflects the popular music of the period, with Booth getting a ballad and Guiteau a cakewalk. The songs reflect the attitudes – Booth and the others sing at the end “everybody’s got the right to be happy.” Hickley and Fromme sing of their love for Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.
Despite the dark subject matter there is humor. Sara Jane Moore seems to constantly be either losing her gun in her voluminous purse or shooting it off accidently, frightening all around her. Guiteau swings between religiosity (“I am going to the Lordy”) to desire to promote his book. Samuel Byck carries on long imaginary conversations with Lenny Bernstein and other celebrities of the late ‘60s.
A group of bystanders comment on the action and at times play the various victims.
James Bundy, the director has used a variety of visual effects to create the scenes. On the sides of the University Theater, are projections often of the targets of the assassins. The shooting gallery is dark – no flashing neon lights drawing people in.
Casting is crucial for this piece, and Yale has assembled a fine cast of actor/singers. Robert
Lenzi has the good looks of an actor for Booth as well as a fine voice; Stephen DeRosa overplays the humor as Guiteau but P. J. Griffith gives a touching portrait of the immigrant working man, Leon Czolgosz. As the two women, Lauren Molina creates a fanatical “Squeaky” Fromme and Julia Murney is convincing as the more maternal but equally scattered Sara Jane Moore. Lucas Dixon shows us a bland John Hickley, while Stanley Bahorek presents Zanagara as a man who attempted to kill FDR because he had a constant stomach ache. Richard R. Henry is talkative Samuel Byck.
All of them sing well. Credit should go to the lighting by Yi Zhao and sound by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts and the projections by Michael Commendatore. David Dorman did the choreography; I would have liked more references to the dances of the period in which the assassinations occurred.
Assassins is both entertaining and chilling. It should encourage all of us to consider what the American dream is and how those who cannot achieve it react.
For tickets, visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.