Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Christmas Carol at the American Shakespeare Center

"Marley was dead, to begin with. ...This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story (the American Shakespeare Center is) going to relate."   The American Shakespeare Center puts its own distinct spin on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  Adapted by Artistic Director Jim Warren, this version uses the Blackfriar's Playhouse and Shakespeare's staging conditions to tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas redemption in a clear concise manner that is a perfect introduction for families and first time theatergoers not only to A Christmas Carol but to the American Shakespeare Center itself.

This is an adaptation that strips away the special effects, caroling casts of thousands and additional scenes other productions use to pad out the story to two or more hours.  Here, the taut ensemble of fourteen uses a bare minimum of set pieces to briskly keep the action to just over ninety minutes.   While this is not a perfect production, it still manages to convey the heart and soul of Charles Dickens' ghostly tale.

At the American Shakespeare Center members of the ensemble may perform several different roles. Both men and women can play roles of the opposite gender. The lights remain on, meaning the actors can see and more easily engage the audience.  Audience members can sit on the stage or in the balcony behind the audience.  Music is a big part of the American Shakespeare Center experience.  For A Christmas Carol songs of the season are sung before the show and during the interlude.  Music is also used to inspired effect within the performance particularly in the Fezziwig Christmas Party scene.

Jacob Marley rattles his chains, but there are no menacing lighting and sound effects, so the very young should not be too frightened of him.  Patrick Earl, bound to the depth of hell courtesy of the trap door, creates a pitiable Marley, yet he uses just a bit of makeup and an urgent tone to convey Marley's warning of the doom that awaits the unrepentant Scrooge,

The Ghost of Christmas Past is portrayed by Allison Glenzer with a light frivolity. When she forces Scrooge to relive his painful past she does so firmly yet compassionately. Andrew Goldwasser's Christmas Present fills the stage not with a large stature.  Mr. Goldwasser commands both Scrooge and the audience with dynamic stage presence as Christmas Present conveys the ways in which those with means do not always heed the spirit of the season.  David Millstone must use only physical means to portray the foreboding Christmas Future, yet it is quite effective.

Jake Mahler is meek and gentle as the poor clerk Bob Cratchit.  There was not a sound from the audience as he related the Cratchit family tragedy in Christmas Future.  Patrick Midgley is vibrant as nephew Fred who no matter what never gives up on his grumpy Uncle.  Rick Blunt narrates the story jovially and has a great time keeping the audience engaged in the story and lovingly teasing Ebenezer Scrooge.

Rene Thornton, Jr. is a more physically robust Ebenezer Scrooge than you may be used to seeing.  There is nothing in Dickens' original tale that says he has to be elderly and frail and in many ways casting a relatively young Scrooge has its advantage.  In Mr. Warren's script this Scrooge plays his younger self in the Past scenes and delights in engaging with nephew Fred's parlor games.  Mr. Thornton is a thoroughly detestable old grump and he torments cast and audience alike.  His transformation to an adherent of the true spirit of Christmas is a delight to behold.

The minimal staging conditions and lack of spectacle may bother veteran theatergoers who have seen many, many A Christmas Carols with a bit more stage pizazz.  Yet this brisk production, well acted and brimming with audience engagement is a great introduction to the American Shakespeare Center for young and old.

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol adapted by Jim Warren is playing in repertory with David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries and Jenna Hoben's The Twelve Dates of Christmas through December 27, 2012.  Please note that the latter two plays are intended for mature audiences only.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Christmas Story - The Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

If it is the holiday season on Broadway the inevitable limited runs of holiday movies turned into musicals appear.   In 2012 both Elf: the Musical and How The Grinch Stole Christmas return to New York City and White Christmas is touring to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.  New to the mix is A Christmas Story-The Musical.  The difference with the newcomer?  It's not just another pedestrian transfer from film to stage.   Yes, the majority of the classic scenes from the film are recreated on stage. What's different about A Christmas Story - The Musical is that it manages to maintain the heart of Jean Shepherd's story.

You would have to be a very young child or someone who doesn't come across the annual TBS 24 hour broadcast of the film to not be familiar with the story of Ralphie Parker and his quest for a Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas. (You'll shoot your eye out, kid!).  Adapted from Mr. Shepherd's stories and the screenplay he co-wrote with Bob Clark and Leigh Brown, the book by Joseph Robinette is not afraid to tinker with the beloved memories of the iconic moments forever preserved on celluloid.  Some elements are cut, other are shaped in ways that that focus the story on the relevant plot points.   Best of all the Parker family comes across as a real family with struggles and fights that make them real.   Benj Pasek and Justin Paul's score is for the most part fun where it needs to be and heartfelt in ways that enhance the characters.   In short, if you have to pick one of the holiday films to musicals, A Christmas Story - The Musical should be at the top of your list.

Director John Rando has assembled a cast that contains a lively children's ensemble, good support from the corresponding adult ensemble and at the center of the tale a wonderful quartet as the Parker family.  Choreographer Warren Carlyle turns most of the large production numbers into whimsical fun. Only a couple of numbers seem to cross the line into oddity for the sake of spectacle, particularly the 1930's speakeasy fantasy "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out," despite a heroic performance by Caroline O'Connor's Miss Shield's and her tap dancing pint-sized gangsters.   On the brighter end is the genius of "Ralphie To The Rescue" as our hero images all the criminals he will thwart once he has his trusty BB gun.

Johnny Rabe has terrific stage presence as he takes on the iconic role of Ralphie, forever immortalized by Peter Billingsley in the film (he is a producer of the musical).   Zac Ballard channels the annoying little brother Randy.   John Bolton plays The Old Man as just this side of mugging to the audience, but his delight in his "A Major Award." is a highlight of act one.  Erin Dilly is the quiet center of the Parker family storm.  A nice touch is her "What A Mother Does" which should bring recognition from every mother in the theater and a poignancy to the character that wasn't given this much depth on film.

Dan Lauria is our trusted guide as he narrates the story as Jean Shepherd performing his old radio program.   Mr. Lauria makes you believe the story is the story of his childhood and he just might elicit a few moist eyes before the evening is through.

Go see A Christmas Story-The Musical.  You'll see dancing leg lamps, Flick with his tongue stuck to the flagpole and Randy hiding under the sink.  You'll see a warm family musical that will bring a smile to your heart.

A Christmas Story-The Musical is in a limited run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City through December 30, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.achristmasstorythemusical.com.

Pullman Porter Blues at Arena Stage

A little history, a little family drama, a whole lotta blues.   Those are the building blocks in Cheryl West's compelling drama with music, Pullman Porter Blues.  This production originated at Seattle Repertory Theatre earlier this fall and Washington, D.C. audiences who are looking for a thrilling evening of theater should definitely go to Arena Stage. Pullman Porter Blues will leave you with not only the songs in your heart, but perhaps a better understanding of the incredible lives of the men and women who worked for generations for the Pullman Company.

It's the train from Chicago to New Orleans, June 22, 1937 when Joe Louis had his controversial title bout with James J. Braddock.   Three generations of the Sykes family are working the train.  The incredible Sister Juba and her Band are providing the entertainment.  There are conflicts between the generations, with the white conductor and a potentially dangerous stow-a-way.  By the time the evening is through we have traveled to the segregated south and the consequences of present day events bring up horrible memories from the past.   While the resolution is unclear, by not tying up the story in a neat little package Pullman Porter Blues leaves the audience to ponder the lessons of the past.

Ms. West has written a compelling tale and her choice of music to emphasize the plot is inspired.  Director Lisa Peterson has shaped the story in such a way that the audience is taken along on a journey that is anything but sentimental.   The casting is masterful.   Sister Juba's band provides the accompaniment and James Patrick Hill, Chick Street Man, Lamar Lofton  and JMichael are simply incredible musicians.  Richard Ziman as the white conductor Tex starts out as a genial if naturally a racist character of the time period. As the journey goes on and alcohol and the outcome of the Louis/Braddock fight fuels his rage Mr. Ziman compelling changes into a menacing threat.   As Lutie the stow-a-way, Emily Chisholm appears at first to be stereotypical poor white trash.   Yet, when she expresses herself through her harmonica, her soul burns with fire.

E. Faye Butler's Sister Juba dominates the proceedings nearly overwhelming the focus of the play.  She sings with raw emotions and her dependence on the bottle masks a horror story of a past that the character would love to bury forever, but circumstances force her to relive.   It is a performance that will be recognized come Helen Hayes award season.

Sister Juba nearly dominates the play, but Ms. West and Ms. Peterson manage to keep the main story on the three generations of the Sykes family.   Grandfather, father and son represent not just the generations of a family, but the generations of struggle within the African American community.  Yet their story is a universal one, for within most families there are always the older generations that strive to create a better world for the generations to come and a younger generation that rebels against their plans.   Grandfather Sylvester, played with charm and spirit by Cleavant Derricks shows the most deference to the white conductor, Tex.  However, Sylvester represents those whose seeming compliance with the status quo quietly find ways to rebel.   Father Monroe played with fire by Larry Marshall is the radical.   Monroe risks organizing for the union which could lead to losing his job or his life.   Both men have made sacrifices so that grandson Cephas can go to college and break the cycle of the Pullman Porter life.  Naturally, Warner Miller's Cephas struggles to break free from the family plan.  Mr. Miller is vibrant and in some ways naive to the ways of the world.  It is the lessons of the real world which Cephas brings on himself on his rookie ride on the rails that brings disaster to this family.

While the drama becomes intense the audience is left with questions and an ambivalent ending.  The music leaves us that there might still be hope.

Pullman Porter Blues is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theater through January 6, 2013.   For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.arenastage.org.

Glengarry Glen Ross at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Always be closing.

David Mamet's 1984 Pulitzer prize-winning drama, Glengarry Glen Ross receives a sometimes electric revival at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.   Headlined by Al Pacino as Shelly Levene and Bobby Cannavale as Ricky Roma, this production directed by Daniel Sullivan builds slowly, with pacing that could use a boost in the opening act. The tensions among the storied salesmen remain high and the comedic moments sure fired and appropriate.  Yet, perhaps because of the fact that we are have gone through one of the world's worst recessions, this Glengarry Glen Ross seems to focus more on the washed up salesman Shelly Levene and less on the riveting, sleaze sales tactics of the current real estate selling king, Ricky Roma.  Still this is justly one of the hottest (and most expensive) tickets in New York.

The story concerns Chicago real estate salesmen, working on commission to sell risky land development ventures.  The top salesmen wins a Cadillac, second place a set of steak knives, third place gets fired.  We first meet the majority of the characters in the setting of a local Chinese restaurant.   For the salesmen, it is clear that getting the best leads is key to success.   Failure will lead to unemployment.  This cutthroat business leads to desperate acts and a break-in, the aftermath of which is dealt with in act two and leads to a powerful denouement.

This is a play in which the sales leads and the pitch are king.  The small ensemble is, quite simply perfectly cast.  From Jon C. McGinley as Dave Moss who suggests the robbery of the office and his scene partner Richard Schiff's George Aaronow as the burned out salesmen tempted to follow through with it, to Murphy Guyer as the detective Baylen, there are no weak links in this cast.  David Harbour as the office manager John Williamson exudes sleaze trying to push out the older, has-been Levene while being willing to consider taking a bribe to let him stay in the business.   As the put-upon customer James Lingk, Jeremy Shamos has a mild-mannered persona that clearly shows how easily he comes under the mesmerizing Ricky Roma's spell.

Bobby Cannavale is certainly mesmerizing as Roma.  In his hypnotic first act scene he reels in both Lingk and the audience before coming in for the kill.  Sophisticated in his clothing and his bearing, Roma is the king of the office.  Yet, he shows a softer side when he defends Shelly Levene at Levene's nadir.

To see Mr. Cannavale and Mr. Pacino pull a brilliant con to prevent Mr. Lingk from canceling his purchase is to witness a work of art.   Mr. Pacino was memorable as Roma in the film version.   Here he takes on the desperate Shelly "the machine" Levene.  Mr. Pacino shines when he shows Levene's euphoria when he thinks he's worked his magic and has crawled back to the top of the sales chain.  Yet, his underlying desperation as Levene begs, borrows and steals in order to simply stay in the game is painful and pitiful to watch.   It is an emotional arc that cements this production as a must see in its limited run on Broadway.

Glengarry Glen Ross is being performed at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway through January 20, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.glengarrybroadway.com.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dead Accounts at The Music Box Theatre

Theresa Rebeck's new family comedy Dead Accounts has its fun moments.   Set in the Cincinnati suburbs the play contains many jokes at the expense of the differences between midwestern sensibilities and the alleged snobbery of Manhattanites.   At the heart of the tale is family in particular the loss of innocence and familiarity when a wayward family member comes home forever changed.  Unfortunately the purpose of the play is muddled and the ending is ultimately an unsatisfactory one.

Scenic designer David Rockwell creates a spacious kitchen set with a beautiful backdrop filled with trees in autumnal glory.  The sound design features prominently Sentimental Journey, a good theme for our main character, but used so often that it becomes a bit of a cliche.   Director Jack O'Brien brings forth good performances from his small ensemble of five, but in a few instances the characterizations suffer from being underwritten.

Son Jack returns home in the middle of the night clearly harboring a secret.  Flashing a lot of cash and with a pharmacy in his pockets and an compelling need to overcompensate for his cravings of good old fashioned Ohio food Jack claims that he's returned home simply to get away from the wife he's divorcing and his job as a banker.  His sister Lorna lives at home helping their mother Barbara take care of their never seen ailing father.  High school buddy Phil harbors a crush on Lorna.   Jack's story blows apart when his wife Jenny shows up revealing the real reason for Jack's flight from New York.

The play has its fun moments particularly from the manic performance of Norbert Leo Butz.  Impulsive,  Mr. Butz makes Jack an engaging character very sympathetic despite the revelations that his wife brings  at the very end of the first act.  As Jenny, Judy Greer is a willowy pillar of ice and contempt.  Her putdowns of kitchen floor coverings and Brooklyn are sharply funny.   Jayne Houdyshell is perfect as the supportive mother who is trying to deal with her son's crisis as well as the challenges of caring for her seriously ill husband.   Josh Hamilton was absent from this performance but his understudy Haynes Thigpen portrayed Phil as the gentle lug who represents that friend who never changes from high school.   As Lorna, Katie Holmes gives a good performance as the sister who has to put up with her brother's antics while giving up her own life to care for her parents.   While it may ironic to hear Ms. Holmes' character say she's watching her weight as she scarfs pints of ice cream and cheese coneys, haven't we all had that woman in our circle of acquaintances?

The play would benefit from the appearance of the off-stage father.  Jack claims to be too frightened to speak to him and the character affects everyone onstage, but not enough to justify being only an off-stage figure.   The play would also benefit from making a decision about Jack's activities one way or the other.  Having one character who takes the viewpoint that what he has done is morally wrong would be a vast improvement.   The ending doesn't feel satisfactory as the play simply seems to end with little resolution. Yet, the performances from the curiosity seekers wondering about Ms. Holmes' acting ability (she's fine) and the tornado that is Norbert Leo Butz make this an acceptable choice for a night at the theater.

Dead Accounts is being performed at The Music Box Theatre on Broadway through February 24, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.deadaccountsonbroadway.com.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Dreamgirls at Signature Theatre in Virginia

The holiday season brings out the crowd-pleasing shows.  Signature Theatre gives us a vibrant revival of Dreamgirls, the story of a Supremes-style girl group navigating their way to fame and the heartbreaking consequences of such a rise.   The book by Tom Eyen and score by Henry Krieger provide terrific roles for an ensemble briskly directed and choreographed by Matthew Gardiner.  The simple two-story set designed by Adam Koch provides a platform that dazzles the eyes whether giving a glimpse of show-biz from the wings or the backstage drama.   The incredible costumes designed by Frank Labovitz are an architectural marvel.   As pointed out in an interview in the Washington Post, the Dreamgirls have eleven performance costumes some of which require very fast changes.  One of those changes is six seconds.   Using a variety of techniques from layering to having an evening gown double as a top those quick changes flow.  If an occasional glimpse of a foundation garment happens it can be forgiven given the monumental task at hand.

Signature Theatre has cast this show with an incredible ensemble of performers who do more than justice to this score.   David Bazemore grows from mild-mannered songwriter to a mature man capable of standing up for himself.   Cedric Neal burns up the stage as Jimmy and his character's flameout is sad to watch as Mr. Neal does an excellent job of charming the audience during all of his numbers.  As Curtis, Sydney James Harcourt has all the persuasive charm of a snake.  Curtis can be a one-note slime ball in lesser hands, but Mr. Harcourt makes you see Curtis as genuinely caring for the ladies in the beginning.  He manages to make Curtis less a hissable villain than the misguided controlling Svengali that is the character's actual nature.

As for the ladies themselves, like the Supremes there are four rather than three.  Kara-Tameika Watkins as the replacement Michelle Morris is the least developed character, but she exudes charm and wins the audience over as her situation is not her fault.  Crystal Joy as Lorell is sweetly naive, but gains inner strength as she must handle her disappointments as she breaks free from Jimmy Early's spell.  Shayla Simmons Deena" is physically gorgeous.  Ms. Simmons shows us there is much more to Deena than a pretty face and lovely voice.  Deena's journey from shy mama's girl to lead singer to a woman capable of breaking free from Curtis' control is simply wonderful to watch.   If that was the main story of Dreamgirls she would have nailed all the emotional points.   This is not Deena's story.  It's Effie's.

Effie White has been an award-winning role for many actresses.   Do not be surprised to see Nova Y. Payton add herself to that list.  Her Effie is a force of nature.   A woman of strength who knows that she is not one to stay in the background.   Yet Effie is complex, occasionally not likable as she is always thinking of herself.   When Effie reaches the crucial point of the show, Ms. Payton's rendition of  "(and I am telling you) I'm Not Going" is electric, heartbreaking and powerful.

Dreamgirls is being performed in The Max theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through January 13, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Theatre Dining Review: The Catwalk Cafe at Arena Stage

As part of the multi-milion dollar renovation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC a wonderful dining area was created.   Located on the rooftop of the Kreeger Theatre, the Catwalk Cafe provides cafeteria-style service with menus inspired by the current shows.   New to the menu this season is a prix fixe three course meal which can be a bargain compared to the a la carte offerings.

The prix fixe menu is available pre-ordered and pre-paid for $19.  The regular price is $29.  For this price you get soup or side salad as a starter, entree, entree salad or panini as a main course and dessert.   If you are ordering the main entrees they alone cost $18.  So for an additional $1 you get the salad/soup course and dessert.

For the current productions of My Fair Lady and Pullman Porter Blues your choices include:

Cockney salads -  Country English Salad, Asian Salad or Classic Caesar Salad.  The English and Caesar salads can have chicken or shrimp added for an additional cost.

Soups - Chicken Noodle or Minestrone.

Pullman's Panini"s - Three Cheese Grilled Cheese, Roasted Portobello, Blackened Chicken & Fresh Mozzarella or a Kids Grilled Cheese.

Loverly Entrees come with a choice of three sides - Chicken Marsala or Hearty Beef Stew, the later served in a bread bowl.

Sides - Braised Red Cabbage with Apples, Honey Glazed Carrots, Parsley Boiled New Potatoes, Buttered Egg Noodles or a Dinner Roll.

Locomotive Desserts - Arena Stage Poster Cookies, Individual Sticky Toffee Pudding, Red Velvet Cupcake or Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Children's meals are available and include Kids Grilled Cheese or Bowl of Soup, one side and a choice of the cupcake or chocolate chip cookie for dessert.

The only downsides are that the entrees come with possibly too much food, particularly the beef stew in the bread bowl, which really doesn't need additional starchy sides.   It would be nice if there was a steamed vegetable available as a side dish for those who do not want a glaze or a sauce.

If you order the panini it does not come with any additional sides.   So you must either purchase an additional side or bag of chips.

Drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic are extra, although cups for complimentary ice water are available.

It is essential to make reservations to guarantee seating.  The Cafe is available for dining two hours before curtain time.   To save money, definitely reserve the three course prix fixe menu in advance.  A list of those patrons who have pre-paid is kept at the cashier's where you pay for your meal.

For additional information and to reserve the Catwalk Cafe please visit www.arenastage.org.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My Fair Lady at Arena Stage

Arena Stage presents a simply lovely production of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady.  With radiant performances and a design palette bursting with color, this classic tale adapted from Pygmalion the play and film by George Bernard Shaw has settled into the Fichander Stage for the holiday season.

This is the story of a poor Cockney flower girl who seeks to improve her life by learning to speak English more gentile and the phonetics professor who agrees to do so to win a wager that he can pass her off as a duchess in six months time.  Their journey exposes the prejudices of the English class system and leads to insights and understanding as both characters discover their humanity and an abiding affection grows between them that transcends their initial student/teacher relationship.

Artistic Director Molly Smith has made some brilliant choices in bringing her vision of this show to vibrant life.  In particular the design choices are  fanciful yet clearly delineate the different classes portrayed in the play.  The Cockney characters are a riot of steampunk color, the palette for Professor Higgins, Colonel Pickering and the servants staid muted earth tones and sensible black.   Most welcome is the famous Ascot scene forever linked to the black and white scheme of the Broadway and film's award-winning designer Cecil Beaton.   Here, costumer Judith Bowden provides a stunning array of jewel tones and pastels, the hats, many executed by Arena Stage's milliner Deborah Nash, are more than worthy of the Alexander McQueen runway-style inspiration.

Molly Smith's other inspired move is to embrace the multicultural casting which she used to great effect in her 2010 production of Oklahoma!  Her choices of casting not only give opportunities to actors who might not be considered for major roles in the classic musical canon, but are thoughtfully applied and justified by historical research.

It is terrific to see many performers that are well-known to Washington, D.C. theatergoers. Sherri L. Edelen steers the Professors household as the housekeeper Mrs. Pierce, adapting comedically well to the disruptions in her well-ordered routine.  Thomas Adrian Simpson has an edge of charm to his occasionally obtuse Colonel Pickering.  Catherine Flye commands the stage in her all too brief appearances as the disapproving mother of Professor Higgins.  James Saito adds a bit of a wink and a sly nod attitude to the famed philosophical dustman, Alfred P. Doolittle.

Nicholas Rodriguez makes a welcome return to Arena Stage as the ardent Freddy Eynsford-Hill.  His rendition of On The Street Where You Live elicits a few sighs as Mr. Rodriguez charms the audience.  His physical transformation during Show Me as he strips the veneer of his stiff upper class bearing to match the ardent passion of Miss Doolittle is delightful.

Benedict Campbell is not the first Henry Higgins to largely abandon the speak-singing style of Rex Harrison but the decision to do so is wise.  Mr. Campbell shades his Higgins' arrogance with the simple cluelessness of a man who simply has few social skills.  When this Pygmalion is confronted by his growing feelings for his Galatea Mr. Campbell breaks down his barriers in a manner that does not betray the nature of Professor Higgins' character.   Mr. Campbell's rendition of I've Grown Accustomed To Her Face is deeply affecting, a true revelation of human emotion.

This production truly belongs to the incredible Eliza Doolittle of Manna Nichols.  Eliza is a dual-natured woman and it is hard to find an actress who can equally portray the survalist gutter snipe and the refined lady.  Ms. Nichols manages this task by never allowing the refined Eliza to completely lose her true self.  When Eliza proclaims that she is no longer fit for anything other than to sell herself in marriage, it is a genuine cry of despair as the consequences of the transformative experiment hit home.  Ms. Nichols has a soaring soprano voice that does marvelous justice to the many beautiful songs in Lerner and Loewe's score.

If there is any flaw in this production it may come from your fellow audience members.  My Fair Lady is so well known that you should not be surprised to hear those around you humming or not so quietly singing along with the actors.  It is a very minor irritant that should not distract from a loverly evening of theater.

My Fair Lady is being performed in the Fichander Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through January 6, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ultimate Christmas Show (Abridged) by the Reduced Shakespeare Company

Twas a cold night in Reston on a warm cozy stage....

The bad boys of abridgment are in fine comedic form with their newest production The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged).   Framed as the Multicultural Interfaith Holiday Variety Show and Christmas Pageant held annually at St. Everybody's Non-Denominational Universalist Church, this rollicking romp lovingly skewers every holiday tradition you can imagine.

Our three intrepid fellows, Austin Tichenor, Reed Martin and Matt Rippy try desperately to entertain their stranded audience when bad weather prevents the Pageant's other performers from arriving.   Using found props they tackle everything from caroling to English panto.  Ramadan, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa do not escape the parody express, but it is the many, many, many traditional and not so traditional Christmas events that are the target of witty barbs laced with snowflakes and eggnog.  

The audience will be roped in to the merriment.  Do not be surprised to find yourself singing along to a familiar carol, participating in a white elephant gift exchange or screaming out the responses to the first authentically Christmas English pantomime.

The three members of the RSC give their All Lang Syne in their performances.  As a matter of fact Mr. Tichenor and Mr. Reed bare their souls and a few other parts that will sear an image into your mind that you will never forget.

This production is only touring for a brief few weeks this 2012 holiday season.  If the Reduced Shakespeare Company is coming to a theater near you make sure you do not miss this delightful show.

The Ultimate Christmas Show (abridged) is being performed by the Reduced Shakespeare Company on selected dates in November and December 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.reducedshakespeare.com.

The Conference of the Birds at the Folger Theatre

Imagination and creativity are in full bloom in the Elizabethan theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Director Aaron Posner mounts a delightful production of Jean-Claude Carriere and Peter Brook's adaptation of The Conference of the Birds.   This 12th century Sufi poem by Farid Uddi Attar uses the birds of the title as a metaphor.  Their long arduous quest to find their king stands in for mankind's longing to attain enlightenment.

The birds of the world are sad as they have no king.  A wise hoopoe (a type of kingfisher) advises that the birds do have a king, the mythical Simorgh, but they will have to undertake a long difficult journey to find him.  Many of the birds are frightened and come up with various excuses as to why they should not undertake the journey.  Some birds give up, others die, but those who succeed are given the reward they seek.

Interspersed with fables that illustrate the challenges the birds face, The Conference of the Birds invites comparison with The Arabian Nights or The Canterbury Tales.  In fact, anyone who has witnessed Mary Zimmerman's adaptation of the former or her Ovid's Metamorphosis which is being mounted at Arena Stage in 2013 will find a great deal of similarity in The Conference of the Birds staging methods.  

Meghan Raham's scenic design enhances the Elizabethan-style stage succeeding in disguising the pillars and balcony in an unobtrusive way.  Olivera Gajic's costumes flow over the actors' bodies.  They are not literal bird costumes, which is a good thing.   Yet, some of the pieces which are added to the basic earth-tone garments, such as the beautiful robe donned by the peacock are suggestive of the bird theme.  Tom Teasley provides a one-man musical accompaniment that is rich in its themes and perfectly balanced without overpowering the actors' words.

The ensemble of eleven led by Patty Gallagher's Hoopoe are a unit.  Whether flying as a flock or listening as a few tell a story, they embody the birds they represent with a clarity of motion and feeling that makes this a worthy evening of theatrical storytelling.

The Conference of the Birds is being performed at the Folger Theatre through November 25, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.folger.edu/theatre

Friday, November 9, 2012

Annie at the Palace Theatre

The popular 1977 musical Annie has returned to Broadway.   While this production contains some truly wonderful performances, particularly our beloved leading orphan and the billionaire whom she enchants her way into his heart, this current incarnation feels uneven and flat.   This is a shame as there is the kernel of a truly brilliant show lying tantalizing out of reach.

Annie, based on the comic strip with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin  tells the tale of our intrepid heroine.  Left in an orphanage as a baby with half of a heart locket and a note promising to return one day, Annie dreams of being reunited with her parents.  To that end she frequently runs away from the man-starved, alcoholic Miss Hannigan who runs the orphanage. During one of her escapes she finds a stray dog, whom she names Sandy. The two bond as Annie sings that Tomorrow will be a better day.  Returned to the orphanage by the coppers, Annie is about to be punished when Grace Farrell, assistant to the billionaire Oliver Warbucks arrives to invite an orphan to spend Christmas with the richest man in America.  Once there, Annie charms her way into Warbucks heart and he asks if he can adopt her.  Annie declines saying that she will someday find her real parents.   A national appeal draws the attention of Miss Hannigan, her shady brother, Rooster and Rooster's gal pal, Lily who plot to claim the reward money by posing as Annie's parents.  Exciting adventures and even a visit to FDR eventual lead to a happy ending for everyone.

Despite a terrific set and costume design, director James Lapine and choreographer Andy Bankenbueler never seem to let this production fill the cavernous Palace Theater.  Large production numbers such as NYC and New Deal for Christmas don't raise the roof.   Some character interpretations seem out of place in a storybook musical.   You know you have a problem when Clarke Thorell's Rooster Hannigan is a much more compelling character when he is impersonating Annie's father than he is when he's playing the slippery con man.   Easy Street the villains' signature number usually stops the show.   Here it just feels flat and uninspiring.

Katie Finneran like every subsequent Miss Hannigan has the ghost of Dorothy Loudon haunting the minds of theatergoers or those with access to You Tube.   It is refreshing that she is trying a different interpretation.  However, her Miss Hannigan seems mired in natural realism instead of the comically evil foil we are dying to love to hate.

The orphan girls are charming and each has a distinct personality.  They do seem to have had their voices infected by the Noo Yawk dialect of the Newsies newsboys from the other side of Times Square.

Lilla Crawford's Annie is tough, but utterly charming and her smile lights up the far reaches of the Palace's highest balcony.   She has a clear belting voice and shows genuine emotion particularly in her signature tunes Maybe and Tomorrow.   She is well matched by her Daddy Warbucks.  Anthony Warlow equally commands the stage and has great poignancy in his second act Something Was Missing.   When the two combine on I Don't Need Anything But You the potential of this revival is fully realized for probably the only time in the entire two hours plus running time.

A special nod must go to famed animal trainer William Berloni who has once again worked his magic in finding a very special dog to portray Sandy.  Young Sunny is a rescue dog who, as stated in her biography has the "soulful eyes" of the original Sandy.   Mr. Berloni's amazing work over the decades since the original production of Annie to find incredible animals for the theater has given so many abandoned animals a chance at an amazing life.  Sunny and her understudy Casey are ambassadors for the thousands of shelter animals that need a second chance.

Annie is playing the Palace Theater on Broadway.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.anniethemusical.com or www.ticketmaster.com.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

War Horse - U.S. National Tour at the Kennedy Center

Michael Morpurgo wrote the novel War Horse in 1982.   He was deeply moved by stories he had learned from relatives and acquaintances about their experiences in World Wars I and II.   When he moved to Devon in the mid-1970's he became interested in the compelling stories of the horses that served in wartime.     It is known that  tens of millions of men lost their lives or were wounded on all sides during World War I.   The cost to the civilian population was equally devastating.    Through conversations with local Devon villagers, Mr. Morpurgo learned of the loss of the horses pressed into service.  8 million horses died serving in the Great War.    Used as cavalry mounts and to pull ambulances and guns, the British army alone used approximately 1 million horses in the war effort.   Of those million, 62,000 returned home, the rest died or were sold after the war, usually to be used in the devastated areas of France and Belgium as meat.     Mr. Morpurgo made the bold decision to tell the story of World War I from the point of view of one of those horses.    By doing so, he was able to tell a balanced story of the war from the point of view of the British and German forces and the French civilians caught in the middle.    The difficulty becomes how does one translate such a work to the stage.    

War Horse began in the United Kingdom as a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain.   In 2011 the Broadway production opened at Lincoln Center in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.   In New York, the creative staging coupled with the relatively intimate feeling the Beaumont Theatre created led to an emotionally engaging evening of theater.  How does War Horse work when adapted for the variety of staging conditions inherent in a national tour?  At Lincoln Center the stage was equipped with a turntable and the thrust stage and initmate raked balcony placed the action of the play close to the audience.  The Opera House at  Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center is cavernous.  As a result, some of the more intimate moments are lost.   Yet, the operatic nature of this play's scope becomes more apparent.  The cast may not be able to bring Joey and the soldiers into the audience as they did at Lincoln Center.   The National tour's cast still manages to create a compelling heart-felt tale of the ravages of war, told through the experiences of an amazing horse.

The original novel told the story entirely from the point of view of Joey the horse.  The script by Nick Stafford opens up the story to include not only Joey, the beautiful thoroughbred and draft mix who remains the focal point, but also the coming of age of the young Devon farm boy who loves him,  Albert Narracott.    This is not just a story of World War I, it is truly the story of Albert and his family and how they deal with the difficulties in life.    Albert's father, Ted is an alcoholic who is bound and determined to prove himself to be as successful as his brother, Arthur.   Ted was unable to serve in the Boer War and has a huge chip on his shoulder in the mistaken belief that because he stayed home no one in the village respects him.   Ted is a foolish man and risks his family's security by outbidding Arthur in a horse auction for young Joey the colt, but imperils the family farm as he spends the mortgage money to buy the horse. 

It is through this foolish act that Joey and the young Albert meet.    Through gentle persuasion Albert gains Joey's trust and trains him and soon they are galloping the countryside.   Arthur cannot stand that Ted bested him and by plying him with alcohol gets him to bet that Joey can learn to plow a field in one week's time.    Albert is furious with his father, but agrees to try on the condition that if he succeeds then Albert will become Joey's owner.    Yet, Ted betrays his son when shortly after the contest, Ted learns that the British Army will pay 100 pounds for an officer's cavalry mount and sells Joey.    Joey is sent to to France where he will see the carnage of war, first as a British cavalry horse.  Then in the ensuing chaos of battle Joey ends up on the German side, alongside another British horse, Topthorn.    Respite is little and Joey sees and suffers many torments.   Meanwhile, young Albert runs away from home, lies about his age and  joins the army to find his beloved horse.     Will Joey and Albert ever be united again?

The set design by Rae Smith is deceptively simple.  The few set pieces are easily manipulated by the actors whether in the trenches at the front or the Narracott farm.  There is a large scrim-like gash across the top of the stage. Upon this scrim projections of  marvelous sketches are drawn in front of our eyes showing everything from the Devon countryside to the growth of Albert and Joey's bond to the haunting skies over a battlefield.   Rae Smith also designed the wonderful sketches and the perfect costuming.   

Adrian Sutton has created a stunning score reminiscent of the time period.  The score is equally intimate as needed and at times lushly epic to accompany the scale of the war scenes.  John Tams original songs are timeless and could easily be of the time period.  Those songs are poignantly sung by John Milosich accompanied by the instrumentation of Nathan Koci.  The direction adapted from the original by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris by Bijan Sheibani emphasizes the emotions inherent in the story.    Adrienne Kapstein's movement and choreography for the horse sequences must be witnessed in person to see their effectiveness.

That brings us to the horses.   Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for Handspring Puppet Company has created utterly amazing life-size puppets to portray Joey, Topthorn and all of the other horses in the production.    Each horse takes three actors to bring to life.  Due to the exertion required, multiple actors portray the horses.  At the performance this reviewer attended Joey was portrayed as a Foal by Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick Lamedica, Joey as a stallion by Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui, Topthorn by Danny Yoerges, Brian Robert Burns and Gregory Manley, Coco by Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger and Heine by Grayson DeJesus and Jason Loughlin.    The performance by these actors requires a Herculean effort over the course of the 2 hour and 40 minute running time.  These actors more than deserve their in costume and out of costume curtain calls. 

And what a performance it is.   These puppets are steps beyond the most effective puppetry that used on on the stage (yes, including The Lion King)    These horses not only must move in a stylized, yet realistic fashion but they manipulate their ears, mouths and tails, must be able to bear the weight of the human characters and they breathe.    It is incredible to watch and draws applause from the audience at moments early in the performance, but quickly the audience forgets the artistry of the puppets and accepts them as the leading characters of the story.

As for the human characters the ensemble is a wonderful cohesive unit, whether portraying soldiers, villagers or, upon occasion the fences of a horse pen or the barbed wire of No Man's Land.  Ultimately this is a story of a boy and his horse.   As the boy, Albert, who must learn the cruelties of the world through his foolish father's behavior and later during his insane decision to go to war to find his horse, Andrew Veenstra delivers a nuanced emotional performance despite the great distances the Opera House keeps between the actor and the audience.    It is through Mr. Veenstra that the puppet Joey becomes a living horse in the audience's eyes.   We love Joey because Albert loves Joey.   We root for their reunion, but the journey is long and we must witness, along with Albert the terror of war and the senseless losses along the way.     We are invested in this story because of the performances of Mr. Numrich and the actors who bring Joey to life.

This production premiered at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre in South Bank, London in 2007 and transferred to the West End in 2009.   The Broadway production will close in early 2013.  If you have a chance, please see the National Tour as War Horse is the embodiment of theatrical event.

Parental advisory:  While this play is based on a children's novel, bear in mind that it depicts scenes of war.   It contains gun shots and strobe lighting and very loud sound effects.  There are also a few instances of profanity in the context of battle scenes.    Some young children may be upset by the deaths of humans and horses alike.

The National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse concludes its performances at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC on November 11,2012.  For additional performances on the schedule for the national tour and ticket information please visit www.warhorseonstage.com/tickets/us_tour

Grace at the Cort Theatre

Craig Wright's play Grace, first performed in Washington DC at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2004 is now making it's Broadway debut at the Cort theatre.  Grace is a challenging work for the average audience member.    Beginning with its shocking ending and then winding back so that we see how this tragedy came to be, Grace can be slightly off putting.   Add in that it takes place in two identical Florida condominiums and that scenes take place at the same time within both spaces and Grace could be a muddy mess in the wrong directoral hands.   Dexter Bullard shapes this story in such a manner that an attentive audience will catch on to the script's eccentricities.   Briskly paced Grace builds from a hopeful second scene until it reaches the breaking point.  It becomes inevitable that the tragic scene which opens the play cannot be avoided.

The Grace of the title has a great deal to do with religious faith.  The married couple Steve and Sara have sold their business and moved from Minnesota to Florida to open a chain of gospel motels.  They have done so with the honest belief that what they are doing is God's work and that the persons who have agreed to finance the venture will follow through on their promises.  Grace also refers to an acceptance of the horrors of the past for the plays other two characters.  Sam, Steve and Sara's reclusive neighbor, is recovering from an accident which killed his fiancee and left him with extensive burns.  The fourth person in this tale is Karl, the elderly exterminator who does not believe in God because of the events he took part in as a young man in World War II Germany. His family tried to help the Jews which led to a terrible incident which haunts Karl to this day.  

Paul Rudd takes what could be an insufferable character and makes him somewhat sympathetic through pure honesty.   Steve is that born-again Christian with the capital C who uses every opportunity to share his faith with everyone he meets.  Mr. Rudd is so friendly and engaging that, despite the fact that Steve is one of those people you just want to slam the door on for being compelled to always discuss religion and seem oblivious to other people's discomfort, that you almost forgive him his transgressions    His spiraling out of control as his Job-like trials overwhelm him is the train wreck you cannot stop watching.    Yet his inability to not see what his blind focus on the hotel chain and not on the needs and desires of his wife clearly lets the audience see how the devastating finale will come to pass.

Kate Arrington as Steve's wife Sara is a more compassionate character.  Sara is just as religious, fervently praying with her husband.  She is increasingly left out of the business decisions and thus seeks meaning in her uprooted life by attempting to befriend the reclusive Sam.  Michael Shannon portrays Sam with deep intensity.   Sam in his hands is a man filled with anger and regret, lashing at the world, yet really punishing himself for deeds and words he cannot take back.   As Sara becomes alienated from her husband a close bond grows with Sam.  The release of pent-up emotions becomes a state of Grace for these two characters.

The fourth character, Karl only appears briefly in the play, but his appearances are significant.  Ed Asner takes on what seems to be at first a simple busy-body workman role designed for comic relief.  Yet, when confronted by the well-meaning Steve to share why he no longer believes in God, Mr. Asner delivers a harrowing tale of the nightmare that was World War II.  When Karl finds redemption for the horrific act he was forced to partake in so long ago, his acceptance of what he sees as God's grace becomes the catalyst for the play's finale.

Grace is a challenging work. The play does have some flaws in its confusing structure yet in the hands of these four actors and the capable direction of Dexter Bullard  ultimately leads to a satisfying evening of theatre.

Grace by Craig Wright is being performed at the Cort Theatre in a limited engagement through January 6, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.graceonbroadway.com or www.telecharge.com.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Heiress at the Walter Kerr Theatre

Ruth and Augustus Goetz' drama The Heiress based on the novel by Henry James receives a thoughtful revival under the sure direction of Moises Kaufman.   A tale in which the conflicts simmer to a slow boil can appear tedious and old-fashioned in lesser hands.   The revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre provides a satisfying evening of theater that can only come from good pacing and perfect casting.

Dr. Austin Sloper lives in an mansion in Washington Square in 1850's New York City with his only surviving child, the plain and awkward Catherine.   Catherine can never live up to the dazzling accomplished beauty that her mother was, and her father makes it clear that he believes that no one will ever wish to marry Catherine except to gain the immense fortune she will inherit.  At a social gathering Catherine meets Morris Townsend a charming young man and the two quickly fall in love and make plans to marry encouraged by Catherine's romance and intrigue-loving Aunt Lavinia.   Dr. Sloper makes it clear that he questions young Morris' intentions as Morris has already squandered a small inheritance.   Dr. Sloper reluctantly takes Catherine to Europe for six months to quash the romance.  Upon her return, Catherine makes plans to elope with Morris despite her father's decision to disinherit his daughter of 2/3rds of her income.   Whether Morris genuinely loves Catherine or is the fortune seeker her father claims leads to the climax of the tale and a life lesson Catherine never forgets.

The Heiress is a riveting tale.  The scene is perfectly set with the opulent scenic design of Derek McLane matched with the period costumes of Albert Wolsky.   The ensemble of ten actors is outstanding, led by the four well-known actors who portray the leads.   Judith Ivey is charming as the romantic Aunt Lavinia.  She conveys a genuine warmth for her socially inept niece.  Her defiance of Dr. Sloper in the hopes that despite Morris' motivations Catherine can achieve personal happiness provides needed comic relief from the drama.   As Morris Townsend, the suitor, Dan Stevens quickly gets the audience on his and Catherine's side.  It is only when the text dictates it that the unsavory aspects of Mr. Townsend surface.   It is a credit to Mr. Stevens that this character maintains some sympathy even as his motivations burble to the surface.

David Strathairn is appropriately stern and matter-of-fact when it comes to the life lessons he is forced to give his daughter Catherine.  At times cruel in his contempt for his disappointing daughter the audience still has some understanding of this unsympathetic man.  Jessica Chastain at first seems to adopt a few very artificial mannerisms in her depiction of Catherine's awkwardness.  However, her commitment to those mannerisms makes them a natural part of this sheltered young lady's persona.   Her growth as Catherine travels from shy girl who embraces her first chance at romantic happiness is delightful to watch.   When Catherine turns on the other characters as she harshly learns the lessons her father has drummed into her head leads to a commanding performance as Catherine transforms before our eyes into a confident woman who knows well what her life's sad destiny will be and fully embraces that destiny.

The Heiress is being performed at the Walter Kerr Theatre through February 10, 2013.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.TheHeiressOnBroadway.com or www.telecharge.com.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dying City at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia

A soldier volunteers to serve in the War on Terror shortly after the 9/11 attacks.  He dies under mysterious circumstances leaving behind a widow and a twin brother both of whom struggle to come to terms with their loss.   One year later, the brother unexpectedly shows up at the widow's apartment.   Memories surface and emotions that lie buried are forced to surface with neither party finding a satisfactory catharsis.

Signature Theatre presents an intimate drama that shows the trauma of unexpected loss.    Yet, while Dying City shows us the effects of death in wartime upon the two closest relations to the deceased, these two characters show us in vastly different ways how this death has effected them.  This is a briskly paced three character play that last just over an hour.   Yet, within that hour this taut character study reveals a great deal.  

While this is a three character play it is acted by two individuals.  Thomas Keegan portrays both of the identical twin brothers, Peter and Craig.  These natural leads to a device in which excuses must be made for one brother to exit the stage and reappear as the other.   This could become tiresome, yet because the playwright wisely chose not to have every exit lead to a character change, it simply becomes a narrative device that is quickly accepted by the audience.   Mr. Keegan creates two very different brothers,Craig is revealed in flashbacks on the final night before his deployment as a man with a cruel streak, yet in his emails to his brother far more eloquent than he was in life to his wife.  Peter, the surviving twin is absorbed in his own grieving, so focused on his craving to reach out to the one other person he assumes is suffering the loss as much as he is that he cannot see the trauma his unexpected and unwelcome visit is causing.

Rachel Zampelli portrays the widowed Kelly as a woman who guards her true emotions. A therapist by trade, she is cautious and wary with Peter.  Yet, as the evening wears on and she is forced to relive the devastation that her late husband's deployment had on her and her marriage, she peels away her emotional layers.  

All three characters behave in a passive agressive manner when it comes to revealing their true emotional core and by the end of this emotive evening of theater the revelation of those feelings will leave you with more questions than the play can answer in its brief one-hour running time.

Dying City by Christopher Shinn is being performed in The Ark Theatre at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia through November 25, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.

The Lion In Winter at the American Shakespeare Center

The contemporary classic tale of an aging King fighting to control the inheritance of his kingdom receives a rousing production at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia.   James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is a natural fit for this classical repertory company and the decision to pair this play with its natural sequel, William Shakespeare's King John is inspired.   If you wonder how a company dedicated to the staging practices of Shakespeare's time period translates those staging practices  when the play is a twentieth century classic that seems wedded to a traditional proscenium theater, worry not.   Just as this company proved with last season's production of Oscar Wilde's The importance of Being Earnest, this production seems to naturally lends itself to the Blackfriars' stage.    With the lights on, the audience becomes the courtiers of King Henry II's court, witnessing more intimately the troubled family dynamics of the King's melodramatic relationships.   The myriad scene changes appear seamless, thanks to the use of those company members who are providing the music for this production making the scene changes as deftly as chess players setting up a high stakes game.   With the vocal stylings of Chris Johnston providing Christmas carols in a manner reminiscent of the renaissance, the audience is completely enveloped in this tense family gathering.

It is Christmas 1183.   King Henry II has summoned his imprisoned wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine and his three sons to attend the festivities.  His eldest son, Henry, the young King, has died.  Richard, the eldest remaining son, is favored by his mother to succeed the throne  and is best known for his military prowess.  The teenage John, is favored by his father.   The middle son, Geoffrey, knows that while he will not inherit the throne he can use his intellect and craft to be the power behind the throne.   Into this mix enters the young Phillip, King of France who has come to settle territory disputes with King Henry and solve the betrothal of his sister, Alais.   Alais, raised at the English court since she was a child, is Richard's intended bride, but has become the mistress of King Henry.   A battle of wits and grave emotions ensues.

The Lion In Winter is a most satisfying historical drama.   The family dynamics of the first Plantagenet king has provided dramatic fodder for generations.  It is a credit to the writing of James Goldman that the amount of historical material revealed within the play does not bog down the proceedings.  Instead it provides for high stakes drama.   Here, the perfectly cast ensemble brings this family to exciting life.

Tracie Thomason portrays the gentle Alais.  In love with her King, Alais is a political pawn who knows that at the drop of a hat her destiny will be decided most likely without her consent.  Ms. Thomason shows a genuine affection for the much older Henry, yet when he betrays her love and trust the beginnings of an awareness of political reality grows.  Not for nothing does Alais warn that she could cause a great deal of trouble if she so chose.

As her brother, Philip, Rene Thornton, Jr. clearly demonstrates that this young king is a force to be reckoned with.   In the climatic scene of act one, it is Philip who orchestrates the shattering of the king's delusions involving the loyalties of his scheming sons.  Mr. Thornton relishes proving to the old lion, Henry that he is no mere boy to be schooled in kingship.

John Harrell portrays Prince John as a spoiled teenager, but Prince John should not be underestimated.   Willing to do anything to remain his father's favorite and inherit the throne, Mr. Harrell shows that the young John is the serpent in King Henry's bosom.    

Geoffrey, the middle son, is usually portrayed as a cynic who is well aware that he is overlooked by his parents in the quest to inherit the throne.   What makes Gregory Jon Phelps portrayal much more nuanced is how Mr. Phelps makes it clear that Geoffrey craves his parent's approval.   His Geoffrey is genuinely hurt that he does not have his parents' love and affection.  It is a very interesting perspective on a character known for his wit and sarcasm in the text.

Benjamin Curns Richard is the plainest spoken son.   His Richard is the strong warrior, the natural leader and shows great piety when needed.   Mr. Curns bravely embraces Richard's darker nature as he is forced by King Philip to acknowledge Richard's inner demons.

Tracy Hostmyer and James Keegan are well matched as Queen Eleanor and King Henry.   These fiercely dynamic monarchs wage war with their words, yet the love and lust that is hinted at in the script always lies just beneath the surface.   It is certainly true with these actors that love and hate are but two sides of the same emotional coin.   The battle for control is a tight game of chess, yet even though, in the end, King Henry proves that the old lion still has his mettle, Eleanor is just as strong, the caged lioness who will be leashed upon the world again once Henry breathes his last.

James Goldman's The Lion In Winter is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and King John through November 24, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information, please visit, www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

Please note:  The production of King John being performed as part of this repertory has Tracy Hostmyer, John Harrell and Rene Thornton, Jr. portraying the same characters from The Lion In Winter.  Benjamin Curns portrays the bastard son of his character Richard the Lionheart.  It is a rare opportunity to see both of these plays performed in the same season with the same actors.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

One Night With Janis Joplin at Arena Stage

One Night With Janis Joplin is a crowd-pleasing biographical concert that brings its audience to its feet.  It is a rousing evening filled with high-energy performances of the greatest works of the late Ms. Joplin interspersed with the music of the great ladies of American blues and jazz that influenced her style.  It is a production that would be at home in the great tourist drawing towns of Las Vegas or Branson.  However, if you are looking for insight into Janis Joplin's life and the inner demons that led to her death by overdose at the age of 27, One Night With Janis Joplin is probably not the show for you.

Arena Stage's Kreeger Theatre has been transformed into an intimate club reminiscent of the 1960's with lots of carpeting and mix-matched lamps strewn about.   A band, heavy with brass is loud enough to give the audience a real sense of the electric atmosphere of a Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company session.   The script conceived and written by director Randy Johnson with musical direction and arrangement by Len Rhodes tries to give insight into the influences in Janis Joplin's life.   In that aim they have received the "full support of the estate of Janis Joplin & Jeffrey Jampol for JAM, Inc."   Possibly that is the reason that this production ultimately feels slight.   Ms. Joplin was notorious for her drinking, yet in this production the character only takes a few token swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort. The dialogue provides transitions between the 24 songs performed during the evening, but one leaves this show roused by the musical performance, yet somehow feeling as if Ms. Joplin life remains unexamined with any depth, just a mournful sense that it ended too soon.

There are two incredible performances in this concert play.  Sabrina Elayne Carten portrays the Blues Singer, the embodiment of every African American blues singer that Janis Joplin says influenced her singing style.   Ms. Carten has incredible range which is well showcased whether singing the operatic tones of Gershwin's Summertime or the raise the rafters of Aretha Franklin in Spirit in the Dark.  Mary Bridget Davies channels the vocal and physical qualities of Janis Joplin.  She should having played her through several incarnations not only in this production, but also the tour of Love, Janis and with Janis' band Big Brother and the Holding Company.  She is a performer with a lot of charisma and one wonders what she could accomplish if the dramatic material were on par with the musical material.

Despite anything that any critique might say about the merits of this work, the audience attending One Night With Janis Joplin will have a good time.   Bear in mind the warning that the lighting effects may cause problems with those with sensitivities to strobe or pulse effects.

One Night With Janis Joplin is being performed in the Kreeger Theatre at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through November 4, 2012.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www. arena-stage.org.

Friday, October 5, 2012

King John at the American Shakespeare Center

For the dozens of productions of Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream there are maybe a handful of productions of the lesser produced Shakespeare plays.   That is particularly true for the history plays.   The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia set out five seasons ago to produce all ten of the history play.  We are in the homestretch now with the ninth production.   If you have never seen a production of King John, get yourself to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia pronto.

King John the play highlights two major events in the life of this scorned monarch of England.  King John the character has been dramatized numerous times, usually as the usurping prince during the reign of his crusading brother King Richard the Lionheart.   Here Shakespeare places him firmly on the throne working hard to secure his place by capturing a rival claimant to the throne and then fending off a French invasion after King John defies Papal authority.  

As in history, King John succeeds his brother Richard to the throne over the true heir by primogeniture Arthur, Duke of Brittany.  Arthur's mother, Constance conspires with King Philip II of France to invade and place Arthur on the throne. John gains an unexpected ally when he is called to settle an inheritance dispute between two brothers Philip and Richard Faulconbridge.  Recognizing that the elder brother is the bastard son of Richard the lionheart, John knights him and the bastard Faulconbridge soon becomes his greatest military asset.  John with the aid of his formidable mother Eleanor strives to get King Philip on their side and eventually an agreement is made between the French and the English in which Philip's son and heir Lewis will marry John's niece Blanche.  Arthur is captured to his mother Constance's deep anguish.   Just as John seems to have secured his throne, Cardinal Pandulph arrives upon the scene demanding that John show fealty to the Pope.  When John refuses the Cardinal excommunicates John and threatens to excommunicate Philip if the French king will not break the alliance.  This leads young Lewis to invade England.  John flounders as his kingdom is threatened. His lords abandon him after young Arthur's suspicious death, and his greatest confidant, his mother dies.  Forced to reconcile himself to the church, the English then miraculously defeat the invading French army.  Yet despite this triumph John cannot escape his fate.

This play is filled with fully realized emotionally engaging characters.   The acting company of the American Shakespeare Center seem to embrace the opportunity given them to give deeply satisfying performances.  Even the smallest role is given full life.  A prime example is Chris Johnston as the Duke of Austria.  Not many actors can carry off having to wear the pelt of a lion as part of his costume, but Mr. Johnston makes this awkward accessory a natural part of his character's bravado.   Grant Davis as the hot-headed dauphin Lewis seems as eager to engage in battle as he is fervent in the few lines he is granted to woo the beautiful Blanche.  Rene Thornton, Jr. is imposing as the French King Philip, playing the game of diplomacy to the French advantage.

As the mama grizzly Constance, Allison Glenzer shows why it is such a treat when this natural comedienne is given a dramatic role.   Constance is written with her emotions bare upon the surface, and there were signs of tears in the audience as this proud woman is brought to despair over the fate of her beloved son.   Ronald Peet makes young Arthur a bright angel of humanity.   It is easy to embrace the melodrama inherent in the role, but Mr. Peet makes Arthur wonderfully human.

King John surrounds himself with strong characters who carry out his wishes.   Tracy Hostmyer is formidable as the elderly Eleanor yet, while she advises her youngest son, she still gives moments when  the dynamic vibrant flirtatious woman of her younger years shines brightly.  James Keegan as the loyal Hubert is heartbreaking as he makes the choice whether to obey the king or save the life of the trusting Arthur.  Gregory Jon Phelps is completely self-serving as Cardinal Pandulph only caring that the wishes of the Pope reign supreme.

Benjamin Curns is mesmerizing as Philip the Bastard.  Channeling his royal father, Mr. Curns embodies the gallant warrior, always remaining loyal to the king, despite the shady circumstances.   And John Harrell makes this weak and paranoid king completely fascinating to watch as his travels from threat to threat, seeming to triumph only to make fatal errors that lead to the downfall of this troubled monarch.

There is another wonderful opportunity this season as the American Shakespeare Center is also performing James Goldman's The Lion in Winter, the prequel of sorts to the events in King John.  Queen Eleanor, King John and Philip are played by the same actors, Mr. Curns plays Richard the Lionheart in the earlier play.   While it is not necessary to see The Lion in Winter before seeing King John, by doing so you may gain additional insight into the characterizations of these older incarnations.

William Shakespeare's King John is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Cymbeline and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 24, 2012.  You can see The Lion in Winter and King John performed on the same day on November 3 and 24.   For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

Cymbeline at the American Shakespeare Center

Once Upon A Time.....

there lived a King named Cymbeline.   King Cymbeline had three children by his first wife.  Two boys, Guiderius and Belarius were kidnapped as toddlers by the banished general Belarius and were raised by Belarius as his sons.   Cymbeline's  beautiful daughter, Imogen, known for her loyalty and chastity incurs her father's wrath when he she marries the poor nobleman, Posthumus Leonatus, who was brought up by King Cymbeline as a part of the family, yet is considered too poor to marry Imogen.  Posthumus is banished to Rome.   He leaves behind his faithful servant Pisanio to act as a go-between for him and his beloved Imogen.

Following his first wife's death King Cymbeline married a beautiful woman as his second Queen and she wishes her son, Cloten to succeed to the throne.   To that end, she plots to marry Cloten to Imogen, and when that doesn't work orders her physician to prepare a poison to kill the princess.   She also plans to murder the King to hasten the path to the throne for Cloten..  The physician mistrusts the Queen and prepares instead a potion that will make the user merely appear to be dead for a short while.

In Rome, Posthumus quickly finds himself with a posse of drinking buddies.   He bets them that Imogen will always be faithful to him.  The Italian rascal Iachimo takes Posthumus up on the bet.  He travels to the court of Cymbeline where his attempts to seduce Imogen fail.  Unwilling to lose the bet, he conspires to gain access to Imogen's bedchamber without her knowledge.  Gazing upon her as she sleeps he notes a mole upon her breast that will prove his tale of successful seduction and he steals a bracelet from her wrist that was a gift from Posthumus.   Devastated at what he believes is his wife's betrayal, Posthumus writes to Pisanio and demands that Pisanio lure Imogen to Wales and kill her.    Unwilling to kill Imogen, Pisanio persuades her to dress as a boy and travel to Milford Haven where Pisanio is supposed to kill his innocent mistress.

Before the play is through we will have a Roman invasion of Britain, a princess unknowingly reunited with her lost siblings, a decapitated corpse, ghostly apparitions, and a visit from the King of the Gods.   Confused?   As long as you remember that you are watching a sprawling fairy tale designed to please the tastes of the King of England you should do fine. The talented company of actors at the American Shakespeare Center do their best to keep the audience spellbound.   The problem lies with the myriad twists and turns in the plot, the disappearance of the most interesting characters for lengthy periods of time, and an ending that even the best production would have difficulty pulling off without the audience having a few "what the blazes was that about" moments.

If you are familiar with Renaissance History, in 1603 King James VI of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth as King James I of England.   James loved spectacle and in addition to sponsoring the Lord Chamberlain's Men acting company that William Shakespeare belonged to making them the King's men, he loved masques at court with fanciful elements be they the witches that conjure apparitions in MacBeth or the Goddesses that entertain Miranda and Ferdinand in The Tempest.   Cymbeline, dated by historians to near the end of Shakespeare's writing days clearly shows how a playwright is writing to his patrons taste.   The best example is the stage direction in Act 5 "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle: he throws a thunderbolt."   Jupiter may not throw a thunderbolt on the Blackfriars' stage, but the spectacle of ghosts and gods is preserved.

Helping to set the fairy tale scene are the beautiful costumes designed by Victoria Depew who has chosen to dress the actors in costumes that evoke the 19th century romantic period.   Director Jim Warren tackles the sprawling story with, what seems like a cast of hundreds, expertly helping his company of 13 work their way through the convoluted story.   Yet, Cymbeline still feels, especially in the incredibly long resolution, to need a bit more cutting or a more urgent pace.

Despite its minor flaws, Cymbeline boasts many memorable performances.   The juiciest roles are those of the villains and Tracy Hostmyer, Benjamin Curns and John Harrell clearly relish their wickedness.   Ms Hostmyer portrays a Queen who is written as if she came straight out of the Brothers Grimm.   She has the drive and passion of a woman on a mission to see her son gain the throne.   As Cloten, that son, John Harrell is simply an arrogant ass.  That is a supreme compliment.   Cloten is the blowhard who believes in his own pomposity.   Mr. Harrell is clearly enjoying playing this delightful to watch over-the-top idiot.  

Benjamin Curns finds the right amount of slime as the lascivious Iachimo.  The bedroom scene is one of the most uncomfortable scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote.   Mr. Curns arrogance over the ease of seducing women coupled with the unscrupulous way Iachimo wins the bet sends shudders throughout the audience.  

Alison Glenzer is the loyal Pisanio.  Genuinely caring about both Posthumus and Imogen it is wonderful to watch Ms. Glenzer as she wrestles with her loyalties to her master and her love to her mistress.   As the wronged and wronging Posthumus Grant Davis has a difficult task as he goes from banished lover to a frat boy betting on his wife's chastity to a repentant warrior on a suicide mission.  Mr. Grant manages to regain the audience's favor despite Posthumus' flaws.

Abbi Hawk makes a bold and delightful Imogen.  The amount of peril that Imogen must travel in the play is immense yet Ms. Hawk takes each and every beat of Imogen's journey with her heart upon her sleeve.   Not once do we think of our plucky heroine as a victim of her circumstances, but as a brave lady who finds in adversity the road to happiness.   For while the story winds its way through many paths and obstacles, eventually Imogen and Posthumus do reach a well-earned happily ever after.

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is being performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, King John and James Goldman's The Lion in Winter through November 25, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Globe Theatre U.S. Tour Hamlet

The recreation of the Globe Theatre in London has led to some very dynamic productions of William Shakespeare's plays.   Using elements of original staging practices including a small company of actors that play multiple parts, brisk pacing and leaving the lights on so that a more intimate relationship exists between the audience and the actors, the Globe Theatre's touring production of Hamlet is now making several appearances in the United States.

This energetic company of eight actors presents Hamlet in a very brisk two and half hours.  The language and story are clearly spoken and very accessible.   Although some of the doubling can lead to confusion when an actor quickly grabs a costume piece or prop and instantly becomes another character, this is a rousing production that does not find all of the nuances of Shakespeare's great revenge tragedy.   The tour began in the Elizabethan theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC.  This theater has hosted professional classical theater for decades, but it was a nice change to see the Elizabethan theater's stage stripped bare exposing the natural lines of the balcony and posts that designers seem so eager to mask with contemporary design flair.   That is not to say that the Globe Theatre's production does not have a set.   It does, but it is an unobtrusive one that must by the nature of touring be flexible and portable.   A simple wall with hooks for costume changes and seats for when the actors double as musicians and sound effects artists is coupled with curtains strung up with ropes across the stage.   Simple scene changes are mostly unnoticeable with one glaring exception when the removal of a graveyard completely distracts from the scene played upon the balcony above the stage.

The company of eight are clearly well trained in classical renaissance theatre as one would expect.  Yet, the fast pace hinders some of the performances.   In particular, Michael Benz in the title role, does not show true depth in Hamlet's supposed madness, doubting nature or revenge until well into the second half of the performance after he kills Polonius (the appropriately buffoonish Christopher Saul).   Miranda Foster and Dickon Tyrrell as Gertrude and Claudius are appropriately regal and the decision to have them double as the Player King and Queen turns out to be masterful.   Carlyss Peer embraces the recent trend of making Ophelia's madness the embodiment of angry grief rather than anguish.   The rest of the company in their myriad roles are delightful, yet the limitations of only using eight actors means that the subtitles of in-depth performance are not always there.

This is a rare opportunity to see members of the Globe Theatre company on this side of the pond.  If you have the means to see this production make sure that you do so.

The Globe Theatre's touring production of Hamlet played the Folger Shakespeare Library's Elizabethan Theatre from September 8-22, 2012.   For additional tour dates and other performance information please visit www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/on-tour/Hamlet and click on the links to the venues on the right side of the web page.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chaplin: The Musical at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Charlie Chaplin certainly lived a life that would seem a natural one to be dramatized as a musical.  Born in London in poverty, the son of a mentally ill music hall singer and an absent alcoholic father, his rise to stardom as the brilliant comedian and star of the silent screen is the classic rags to riches storyline.   Mr. Chaplin's complex personal life and the political beliefs which led to his exile from the United States during the height of the Red Scare is reminiscent of the classical tragic hero brought to ruin by his character flaws.  At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Chaplin: The Musical tries to channel both scenarios and therein lies its own flaws.   For despite the marvelous performance of Rob McClure in the title role Chaplin: The Musical is suffering from an identity crisis.

In many ways the first act of the play brings memories of another fanciful biographical musical, Barnum.   The audience is greeted with a film projection of the famous Little Tramp which seques into our hero balancing upon a tightrope high above the stage.   Designed to resemble the films of the silent era with a color scheme of black, white and gray that includes the set design of Beowulf Boritt, the costumes designed by Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz and even the make-up designed by Angelina Avallone the audience is immersed into a well-thought out iconic look that is nostalgic of the time.    The first act tracks Charlie Chaplin's rise to fame framed in several scenes as if his life were a film.   One of the frustrating parts of this production is that using film clapperboards to announce the scenes is only used sporadically which unfortunately foreshadows the inconsistant style of this well-meaning show.

There are several excellent performances in this first half of the tale of Chaplin's life.  Christiane Noll is poignant as Charlie's melancholy mother, Hannah and her performance has an appropriate haunting quality.  Zachary Unger has grave presence for one so young in his dual roles as the Young Charlie and  Charlie's famous child co-star Jackie Coogan.   Wayne Alan Wilcox as Charlie's older brother Sydney Chaplin is the rock steady support for his talented and reckless brother.  Michael McCormack gives us a glimpse of the filmmaking on a shoe-string budget that was Keystone Pictures as the impressario Mack Sennett.   The audience is charmed as we witness the birth of the Little Tramp and the immense popularity of one of Hollywood's most famous early stars.

Yet, act two, which covers the downfall of Charlie Chaplin caused by both his womanizing with women, and let's face it teenage girls, as well as his sympathy for socialist and communist causes that led to the revoking of his visa in 1952 seems like a completely different play.  The play runs a brisk two hours and fifteen minutes plus intermission and yet act two feels bogged down by sluggish pacing. The tone is naturally more somber, yet Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan's book feels slight to the potentially rich material.   The age of Chaplin's first wife is fleetingly mentioned (seventeen when she met him), and his first three marriages are treated with as little care as the boxing match that represents the financial support that the three women received upon their divorces.   Mr. Chaplin is depicted as longing to be a father, yet the musical implies that he only had children with his fourth and final wife, Oona O'Neill, which is fine for an artistic choice but is not reality.

Similarly the crusade of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played with scene stealing verve by  Jenn Colella, is made to seem the petty revenge of someone angry that the great star Charlie Chaplin won't consent to appear on her radio program.   Hedda is given a tantalizing motivation when she says of the Hitler-spoofing film The Great Dictator that she wonders about the reaction to the film by the good German people.   This is a very provocative statement implying that Ms. Hopper might have fascist sympathies but it is a mere throw-a-way line.   The late in act two romance of Charlie and the charming Erin Mackay as Charlie's fourth wife, Oona O'Neill feels like a brief respite from the drive to hit all the biographical points so that we can reach the drama of Charlie's late in life redemption.

This is not to say that the musical is not worth the price of admission.   Seeing Rob McClure in the title role is reason enough to see this ambitious, flawed musical.  Mr. McClure has spark and charisma and when he transforms himself into the iconic Little Tramp it is a moment that well deserves any applause that it might gain from the audience.   The title role is a physically demanding one and Mr. McClure has gamely mastered the staging challenges of his director and choreographer Warren Carlyle.   Whether recreating scenes from Chaplin's films, balancing on a high wire or tap dancing on roller skates, Mr. McClure is definitely a star actor on the verge of Broadway success.

Chaplin: The Musical is being performed on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.chaplinbroadway.com or telecharge.com.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Red Hot Patriot : The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Arena Stage

What is it about liberal Texas political women that makes such entertaining theater?  Last season we were treated to Holland Taylor as Texas Governor Ann Richards at the Kennedy Center.   This season we have Kathleen Turner as the firebrand columnist Molly Ivins in Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins at Arena Stage.   The latter play does invite brief comparison to the earlier work.   Both are one-woman shows about strong very political women who left behind a wealth of insightful commentary on the challenges of becoming a powerful woman in their respective fields coming into their own by breaking barriers in their fields.   Both subjects call Texas the home of their heart and soul.   And both women are unabashed liberal Democrats.

What sets Red Hot Patriot apart is that Molly Ivins was not a politician, she was a journalist.   In fact the play is written by two journalists, Margaret and Allison Engel who in an interview with Arena Stage's Literary Manager in the program attest to their admiration for not only Ms. Ivins' skills and humor as a reporter, but their strong belieft that following her death in 2007 from cancer that they needed to create a one-woman play that would celebrate her eclectic life showcasing not only the ground-breaking journalist but the prolific writer and commentator of forty years of American political life.

Kathleen Turner proves a perfect choice to theatrically honor Molly Ivins. The small Kogod Cradle is the perfect setting for this show.   In a larger setting the intimacy that Ms. Turner creates with her audience would be swallowed up.   It is essential that Ms. Turner be able to engage with her audiences and she does so in with Texas charm edged with piss and vinegar.   Ms. Turner is delivering a vibrant performance that is a testament to no only her abilities as an actress, but the respect and love for Molly Ivins and the material the playwrights have crafted.   It is not a perfect show, but in this political town, Red Hot Patriot is the perfect way to laugh heartily at the political scene rather than rant about it, even if for a brief 80 minutes of theater.   And to ponder, as one leaves the theater, what would Molly say about it all now.

Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins will be performed in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage's Mead Center for American Theatre through October 28, 2012.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org.