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.