The Return of Whisperado

Whisperado is back in action!

Big news: My band, Whisperado, is back in action. After a hiatus, we’ve been booked to play a set of our NEW songs at a NEW venue, Goldsounds in Brooklyn, on June 8 at 7:30 PM. See the Whisperado website for details.

Meanwhile, I’m covering all four of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings” productions at BAM, beginning with Richard II starring David Tennant. In between, I’ve reviewed a concert featuring the great Ute Lemper singing songs from the Holocaust and the Jewish ghettoes of World War II; a wonderful production of Nathan the Wise starring F. Murray Abraham at Classic Stage; a great CD recording of a jazz-band version of Porgy and Bess; and more.

And I’m working, slowly, on my book based on my Park Odyssey blog. Tentative title: PARK ODYSSEY: AN URBAN EXPLORER’S QUEST TO VISIT EVERY PARK IN NEW YORK CITY. I’m up to well over 200 parks, if anyone’s counting. On the blog, not the book. Onward!

The Morton Report and More

I’ve begun freelancing for The Morton Report, from celebrity biographer Andrew Morton. It’s a website of literate pop culture from both sides of the Atlantic, and I’m the New York City columnist keeping an eye on Broadway theater and related showy matters. My columns are here.

There are also some new entries at the Park Odyssey blog. So check them out too.

And everywhere you go, leave a comment!

The Shows Must Go On

Nineteen-inch snowfalls can’t stop the theater. I’ve seen some good shows recently—check out my reviews (and my other articles) on Blogcritics.

Snow can’t put a halt to the Park Odyssey, either, though winter does slow things down a bit. Check out the latest in my ongoing project to visit and blog about every New York City park.

And Whisperado’s still working on that long-promised first full-length album. A couple of gigs coming up.

On the Fringes of Fringe

A batch of Fringe Festival shows ran the gamut from very good to just plain disappointing.

FringeNYC 2010 is drawing to a close. I caught a handful of shows, mostly ones that happened to be playing at days and times when I happened to be free. Here are links to my reviews:

One of the best I saw was The Hyperbolist, a one-man puppet-non-puppet show by Joe Mazza.

Alas, the gospel of the Rev. Bill & Betty failed to ignite.

But I was happy the Amsterdam Abortion Survivor survived to tell the tale.

A welcome performance of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans, a play I’d never seen, boasted a couple of fine performances but overall it disappointed.

However, Jeff Kreisler’s Get Rich Cheating, while hitting mostly easy targets, added up to entertaining and effective satire.

And in Jen and Liz in Love, Jesse Weaver cooked up an honestly touching story of love and regret.

Book Review: The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry

In Chicago, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became the biggest celebrities of the day.

Though subtitled “Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago,” this concise and fascinating piece of social history by no means requires a familiarity with the Bob Fosse musical. It’s about crime in Chicago. It’s an effective portrait of the golden age of newspaper reporting. It’s a multiple character study. But more than anything it’s about the cult of celebrity. We tend to think idol-worshipping exploded in the late twentieth century, but it ran rampant in the 1920s, juiced up by the many competing newspapers that once graced major cities — and nowhere more so than in the Second City.

There, during Prohibition, a crop of female killers became celebrities. Maurine Watkins, a talented greenhorn reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered the trials, filing incisive and sarcastic reports that made her a popular correspondent. Disgusted by the way all-male juries kept acquitting glamorous female criminals, Watkins then wrote a successful play based on her reporting. The stage play Chicago established her career (though she never again matched its success). Two movie versions followed. The first was silent; the second starred Ginger Rogers but bastardized the story to comply with the morality code of the 1940s, which didn’t allow characters to commit bad behavior and get away with it.

Not until after Watkins had died, though, did the Bob Fosse musical come about. Its current Broadway production has become the longest-running revival in Broadway’s history, and between that, the tours, and the Best Picture-winning 2002 movie version of the musical, an awful lot of people know the story, however obscure the original play may be today. But you need not know it at all to get a lot out of this book.

Perry neatly tracks the stories that splashed across the front pages of the Chicago papers in 1924. “Beautiful” Beulah Annan, immortalized in the play as Roxie Hart, and sophisticated Belva Gaertner, the inspiration for the character of Velma, were only the most glamorous of a number of female prisoners who had murdered men, usually lovers or husbands. Perry’s account of their crimes and their trials shines a light on the attitudes of the time, so different from now. Women weren’t thought fit to serve on juries — they couldn’t be objective enough. And they weren’t tough enough to be trial lawyers, though the book also profiles a trailblazing young attorney named Helen Cirese who successfully represented the unglamorous convict Sabella Nitti.

For similar reasons, many people believed women couldn’t commit crimes unless something — drink, passion, the loose living that was blamed for so many problems at the time — had led them astray. “Violence, after all, was an unnatural act for a woman. A normal woman couldn’t decide to commit murder or plot a killing…The violent woman was by definition mentally diseased, irreparably defective.” Beulah had been “lured into the world of jazz and liquor, had broken her marriage vows, like so many young married women forced by financial necessity to work outside the home.” A “respectable lady [like Belva Gaertner] who shot her husband or boyfriend…didn’t scare men: She was a romantic figure, a representation of how much women in general, with their overflowing emotions, loved and needed their men.”

Maurine Watkins, intelligent, moral, and religious, couldn’t accept this, and crusaded in print for the women she believed guilty to get what they deserved. But, though the string of acquittals had been broken in another case, both Beulah and Belva got off despite strong evidence against them. In the process, even their lawyers became celebrities. Hearst’s sensationalizing papers, according to Perry, “sought to mold news to their liking, which meant the commonplace blown up bigger and better than in any of their competitors.” The “commonplace blown up”…just like today’s reality shows. Tens of thousands of strangers swarmed upon the funeral of Wanda Stopa, another beautiful killer who’d avoided trial by committing suicide — “group madness, a sight so incredible, it stayed with the reporter for years.” It led Watkins from Chicago to Chicago, “a deeply cynical satire of the celebrity mania that she saw as the dominant feature of twentieth-century urban life.” Perry’s analysis of the play’s genesis sums up both its theme and, to a degree, that of this book:

From her experiences as a reporter in Chicago, she’d determined that human imperfections, individual and collective, had become monstrous. Real life had become farce…traditional comedy and farce…comedy and tragedy…were all one and the same in a superficial modern world of mass communication and overpopulated, spirit-crushing cities, a world that produced anonymous men and women seized by insecurity and a frantic desire for money, status, and attention.

We know how straight-laced society reacts. From Mae West’s 1927 conviction for doing a “kootchie dance,” through Jim Morrison’s 1969 arrest in Miami for exposing himself, to the bizarre excoriation of Janet Jackson for her “wardrobe malfunction,” America has always been an uncomfortable mix of the puritanical and the freewheeling and licentious.

Maurine never wanted her play made into a musical. Perry isn’t sure why, but he makes a convincing case against a commonly supposed reason: that she’d become a born-again Christian and ashamed of having sensationalized the lurid stories she’d reported on. Maurine Watkins was religious all her life; she was never “born again.” And she hadn’t sensationalized and glamorized the murderesses; to the contrary, she’d tried her hardest to turn the tide against Beulah and Belva. This book, among its other accomplishments, restores and buttresses the reputation of Maurine Watkins, who for a brief shining moment was the top crime reporter of her day, and then turned her experiences into a bitter, cynical, but eternally fresh and powerful piece of our culture.

Originally published as “Book Review: The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago by Douglas Perry” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”

We need more thought-provoking theater like this. But come prepared to listen closely.

Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.

Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”

Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.

The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest’s] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”

It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.

What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems ran in repertory through August 1.

Photo by Stan Barouh

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Barker Poems: “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna”” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Lovesong of the Electric Bear

A highly intelligent, half-fantastical trip through the life of Alan Turing, the father of artificial intelligence.

Alan Turing—mathematician, code-breaker, war hero, homosexual, victim of state-sponsored chemical castration, suicide—comes across as a tragic figure in just about any telling. But the English playwright Snoo Wilson has done what students of 20th century history might have considered impossible: turned the life of this visionary, who died by cyanide in 1954 just shy of his 42nd birthday, into an epic celebration.

He does it through an episodic, half-fantastical trip through the stations of Turing's life, guided by the stuffed bear, Porgy. Turing really did have a Porgy Bear. It even has its own Facebook page. But here Porgy comes to life as an antic, touchy jester who speaks with a quasi-Shakespearean flair. The script refers to Turing as a genius, but Porgy, played with unflagging energy and broad humor by Tara Giordano, is the genius (in the original sense) of this tale, the representative spirit who draws Alan, Scrooge-like, through scenes of boyhood, the cruelty of public school, hesitant then confident sexuality, cloak-and-dagger war action, and, of course, his work.

Turing was always inventing or conceiving something. Wilson's Turing, intensely logical, can't see the point in celebrating more than one Christmas (why was the fact that the Earth had revolved around the Sun one more time significant?) and insists there's no difference between a human and an equivalently smart machine. Yet he can cavort at a drag bar in New York and cultivate a friendship—even something of a platonic love affair—with a young female colleague. A realistically complex human? Or a cipher for a playwright's imagination? If there's something missing here, it's that Turing's genius is more referred to than shown. We get mostly a babe-in-the-woods version of him, and just his personal half. Fortunately, Alex Draper is so charming in the role that we quickly grow to love him and hope for the best, even as we know the worst will come.

As for the work, it appears in projections as falling numbers, codes, photos of machines. In one lovely scene the actress Cassidy Boyd (part of the excellent ensemble cast) appears before Alan and his father as if out of the ether, covered in numbers, like an angel from heaven. An opposing vision comes a bit later in the form of a female graduate student (Lilli Stein), grimy from working in the bowels of Turing's giant computer, who emerges to hear the tale of woe—the accusation of "gross indecency"—that will lead to his ruin. The great man, it turns out, has never spoken to her before.

Another issue is that we don't really see what leads to the act which frames the story: Turing's suicide. The death seems just another episode. The fairy-tale style in which it is presented matches the tone of the rest of the play, so it didn't bother me at the time, but on reflection, the fundamental question remains: what was Turing really like? We're asked to take it on faith that he was a socially isolated weirdo, not "comfortable with existence." The Turing we actually get to know here is, with the exception of a scene or two, merely a bit eccentric, and sweet as can be.

It would be wrong, however, to ask the play to be something it doesn't set out to be. It's meant, I think, to be a corrective to the tragic aura that suffuses our awareness of Turing. As such it thoroughly succeeds. Director Cheryl Faraone displays a virtuosic touch with quick changes of scene and the blurring of fantasy and reality, aided by fine sound, lighting, and projection and an extremely economical but thoroughly functional set.

Wilson has a great time making fun of theatrical conventions—Shakespearean bursts of elevated language, comedic slow-motion running, the way Porgy puppet-masters a school bully off the stage when his scene is up. "Read your Hamlet," an old doctor friend advises Turing shortly before his untimely end: his problem is "this mortal coil—existence." But that's the problem we all have. This slick production at Atlantic Stage 2 is a fine place to come and forget about it for a couple of hours.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear played in repertory through Aug. 1. 

Photos by Stan Barouh

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Lovesong of the Electric Bear” on Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Father of Lies

This tale of violence and a church cover-up offers a disturbing glimpse into the worst depths of human possibility.

Director Jose Zayas's adaptation of Brian Evenson's thriller/exposé Father of Lies is not for the faint of heart. A slowly curdling psychological horror story of sexual abuse, murder, and mutilation, it plunges past merely common evil into that region of nothingness described in the play as making hell seem like "a picnic."

PS 122's uncomfortable seating and lack of air conditioning somehow suit the increasing press of fate around the central character, a young Mormon churchman and new father named Fochs. (The name, pronounced "Fox," is frequently commented upon in the text. That's one of a number of ways the play reflects the experimental nature of some of Evenson's writing). The excellent Evan Enderle plays Fochs acutely, clearly conveying the impression the clergyman makes upon his wife and superiors as a mere man, if a serious and vaguely troubled one. His demonic side is so distinct it appears separately as The Man, played with delicious, subtle creepiness by Richard Toth.

Zayas's nuanced script comes alive through the mouths—and bodies—of his well-chosen cast. The superb Jocelyn Kuritsky thoroughly convinces as the trusting wife gradually realizing that the accusations of child abuse brought against her husband by two pious mothers may not be lies, and that Fochs may have even worse within him.

Zayas's taut, thoughtful direction and Bruce Steinberg's pointed lighting bring out physically the conflicts in the souls of not only Fochs but his church superior, Bates, played sympathetically—considering the negative light the play casts on the church overall—by Peter McCabe. (McCabe, as it happens, co-produced last year's Lizzie Borden musical, a much different but equally effective psychological nightmare involving murder and mayhem.)

Jessica Pohly too is doubly wrenching as not one but two of the demon's victims, while Matt Huffman makes an effectively pallid, ineffective psychiatrist who never gleans the remotest clue what he's up against: not just real evil, but a powerful, authoritarian church that endeavors to cover the evil up, even to the point of excommunicating uncooperative members. Violence not just physical but gleeful. Worst of all, the very real possibility of evil triumphing.

The play is presented as a long one-act, and its deliberate pace and detailed story leads to a few scenes during the latter part where ennui threatens to sink in. The horrific climax is more than enough to rescue us from any doldrums, though, and to be completely honest, now and then it was a little hard to pry apart the effects of the seating and climate discomforts from those that came from what was happening on stage.

But it was the story, and most of all the graphic intensity of the telling, that left this reviewer shaken as he left the theater. Hard to take, beyond cathartic, Father of Lies provides a disturbing glimpse into the worst depths of human possibility. In that way, it's a little bit beautiful.

Father of Lies played at PS 122 as part of the Undergroundzero Festival.

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Father of Lies” at Blogcritics.

Theater Review: The Little One by James Comtois

This original vampire tale only partly realizes its potential.

Soon this wave of everything-vampire will pass, right? It has to. But for the nonce, pop culture marches on to the unbeat of the undead, and I can't say I'm immune.

Vampires are everywhere on the big and small screens and the bookshelves. It's somewhat rarer that we get to see them on stage. Nosedive Productions, who've specialized in bringing us the bloody and lurid for a decade now, aim to remedy that with James Comtois' new full-length play The Little One.

Unlike most vampire tales, which turn on supposedly surprising similarities beteen mortal humans and immortal bloodsuckers, this story fully takes the vampires' point of view, stressing the strong pull upon them of the monstrous sides of their natures. Comtois and director Pete Boisvert explore some of the intriguing implications of eternal life. For example, time speeds up for these vamps, so as the centuries pass they have trouble keeping up with the evolution of fashion and, most entertainingly, language. There are also interesting spins on some of the details of vampire lore. Here, religious symbols repel only vamps who were believers as humans.

The always limber Becky Byers rises above sometimes awkward dialogue with a driven performance as Cynthia, the "Little One" of the title, a "doormat" turned into a vamp just after breaking up with her boyfriend. Her crawling, clawing emergence into her new, bloodthirsty world is one of the most affecting and effective scenes in the play. Another transcendent theatrical moment is a clever set-piece showing us the dizzying (to Cynthia) passage of time via a round of disjointed conversations between the new vamp and the humans of her former life, with whom the rebellious newbie is trying to maintain relationships. The finest moment of the second act is, once again, a wordless one, as the vampires mourn the death of one of their number with a kind of vampire-specific self-flagellation ritual. These moments and other smaller ones carry the potential of the troupe's vision.

They only partly realize that potential. The uneven acting isn't the main problem, nor is the slow pacing of some scenes; rather, it's the workmanlike quality of much of the vamps' dialogue. This contrasts with the facility Comtois evinces in the scenes with humans, and with the joyful fun he takes with their future dialects. The vamps' talk is functional but without sparkle, sometimes burdened with clichés that might work in a campier tale—but despite its gothic touches, this isn't camp, it's fundamentally a serious story. As such it's absorbing enough that (until the last couple of scenes) it held my interest. But I wished for more.

Jeremy Goren and Melissa Roth acquit themselves well in multiple supporting roles, and Byers is always a pleasure both as a performer and a choreographer—in fact, more dancing would have been a plus, as she's great at expressing nuanced feeling and layers of meaning through movement. But Rebecca Comtois and Patrick Shearer struggle to make their powerful, immortal characters fully convincing—she, because we don't understand what drives her suave, culture-loving character, and he because his is basically a cartoon. The suspense element—what's the nature of the dangerous feud that simmers between Cynthia's two mentors?—fizzles. And the big-ideas debate that crops up late in the proceedings falls flat, partly due to the leaden direction of the scene in which it takes place, but mainly because it doesn't add anything to the story.

Overall, The Little One is an enjoyable show with a distinct point of view and some excellent scenes—an interesting addition to the vampire canon, but not a home run.

If you go, take heed: there will be blood. The Little One ran through July 10 at the Kraine Theatre, NYC.

Photo credit: Daniel Winters

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): The Little One by James Comtois” on Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Modotti by Wendy Beckett

Tina Modotti’s fascinating life deserves a much better telling than it gets in this very bad play.

The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.

Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.

I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.  

Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.

Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Modotti by Wendy Beckett” on Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman

Will and Grace‘s Sean Hayes turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot.

Excuse me, but…Sarah Jane Everman? Not Kristin Chenoweth? That's right, the understudy was filling in for the star at the performance I saw. Chenoweth didn't receive the greatest reviews for this production, and now, having seen the show, I can understand why: the role of Fran Kubelik simply isn't the kind of dazzling one that best plays to her "LOOK-AT-ME!!!" strengths. But this thoroughly enjoyable revival doesn't need her.

The sweet-voiced and comically gifted Everman filled in quite ably. But really the show belongs to its main character, Chuck, played with elastic vivacity by the brilliant Sean Hayes, who though best known for TV's Will and Grace turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot. And a big chunk of the second act is blown up to bursting by the hilarious Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the inebriated sexpot Chuck meets in a bar after things have really spiraled down for him.

With Burt Bacharach's spirited, lightly eccentric music, lyrics by Hal David, and Neil Simon's smart book, the show is based on the 1960 film The Apartment. Chuck, a hapless but vaguely ambitious accountant, climbs the corporate ladder by allowing the married, middle-aged executives at his company to use his bachelor pad for illicit trysts. He's good-hearted but severely flawed, which is what gives the show much of its bite. The production manages to be both supremely cynical and humorously high-stepping, with a happy ending that only slightly relieves the story's sour attitude towards love and especially marriage.

The show was first staged over 40 years ago, and director-choreographer Rob Ashford has left many anachronisms intact: "Good thing I have 'hospitalization,'" says Chuck's neighbor, the old GP Dr. Dreyfuss (played with easy charm by veteran Dick Latessa). But it resonates almost as much with the recent, dystopian Adding Machine as with the Go-Go Era's glittery sheen. Without any great depth of emotion, the story mostly keeps us at arm's length, but the production compensates with witty dialogue, engaging music, fabulous choreography, and magnificent production values. I haven't seen such impressive moving sets since my last visit to the Metropolitan Opera: a huge, Christmas-decorated spiral staircase appears seemingly out of nowhere; a fully stocked bar, an elevator, Chuck's cozy apartment, various offices, all rotate smoothly in and out. Hayes' funny business with a piece of too-modern-for-its-own-good furniture and the opening number's office-chair dance extravaganza are just a couple of the show's physical highlights.

Because the part of Fran is relatively small, a couple of numbers were added for the revival to give Chenoweth more spotlight time, including the Bacharach-David hit "I Say a Little Prayer." Though sweetly staged, it feels shoehorned in. "A House is Not a Home" works better, reflecting the psychic homelessness that afflicts both Chuck and Fran. (Fans of TV's Glee heard Chenoweth dueting the song with Matthew Morrison a couple of weeks ago.)

But what you'll probably exit singing is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which was part of the original score. Prior to seeing the show I could have easily done without ever hearing that song again, it was so overplayed during my childhood. But it's a fitting, tuneful sum-up of this big, rather acidic show. With or without Kristin Chenoweth, Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre is a winner.

Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman” on Blogcritics.

Opera Review: Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas at the Met

The Met hadn’t staged this excellent example of Parisian grand opera in 113 years.

I learned quite a bit from seeing Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas.

The Met hadn't staged this opera for 113 years. Critics in the English-speaking world apparently hadn't been able to deal with the fact that it wasn't Shakespeare's play. With less death, a drinking song, and originally a "happy ending"—and a revised one that feels like Romeo and Juliet superimposed onto Hamlet—it certainly isn't.

What it is: a fine example of 19th century Parisian grand opera, with much beautiful music. In scene after scene, lovely lyrical arabesques lead into macabre and dramatic passages, all here brightly rendered by the impeccable Met orchestra under the swiftly paced direction of Louis Langrée. The Hamlet story, much of the essence of which is retained, turns out to be excellent material for this sort of music, which while it may not be absolutely the most divine opera music ever written, has many virtues that are showcased extremely well in this production.

The slinky clarinet (or what I thought was a clarinet) solo accompanying the first part of the "Murder of Gonzago" scene, which sounded remarkably like a saxophone, turned out to be—a saxophone! Apparently Thomas felt the newly invented instrument was perfect for the leering pantomime with which Hamlet endeavors to catch the conscience of the king. The play-within-a-play scene was the climax of the production—funny and spectacular.

Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, lived up to his hype. The charismatic British baritone slips into Hamlet like he's played the role all his life. Slumping, drinking, raging, he positively seethes with the moral paralysis at the center of the story, his voice fluting between passion and control. In the Hamlet-Gertrude scene he addresses his mother repeatedly, bitingly, as "Madame," then softly and sadly as "ma mère"—just one example of the way Thomas's music effectively conveys the characters' psychology; and with a singer whose acting skills match the high standards of his singing, the creators' skills are effectively highlighted—both Thomas's music and the affecting libretto, by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, who were also responsible for the books of much better known operas like Gounod's Faust and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

However, Marlis Petersen as Ophélie nearly stole the show, first in her early love scene with Hamlet and especially in her long, showstopping solo mad scene, which is so over-the-top I started to laugh even while appreciating her liquid tone and wonderful passagework. I'd heard about her last-minute casting, replacing the ill Natalie Dessay with only three days to prepare, but you'd never guess Ms. Petersen hadn't been on tour with the show all along (it originated in Switzerland, at the Grand Théâtre de Gèneve). She was absolutely delightful.

The intense Jennifer Larmore's grave, dark tones suited the role of Gertrude well, and tenor Toby Spence did a nice job as Laërte. In fact the entire cast was strong, right down to the gravediggers.

Hamlet runs for two more performances, April 5 and April 9, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo of Marlis Petersen by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Theater Review: Alice in Slasherland

This flashy, good-natured send-up of everything geeky and gory and youthful and fun is a knockout.

The latest horror-geek gorefest spoof from playwright Qui Nguyen, director Robert Ross Parker, and the Vampire Cowboys company is more tightly plotted than their spectacular but somewhat scattershot Soul Samurai was, and has shorter fight scenes. These are both good things. Otherwise, it's the same sort of hilarious romp through the Fangoria/slasher/Buffy wing of pop culture, bursting at the seams with nervy whimsy and nutty abandon.

This time out, a creature who looks and moves like the nightmare from The Ring appears in an archetypical American town, presaging havoc. Aside from the interloper's name, which is Alice, and her arrival from another world, nothing about this tale resembles Alice in Wonderland; in case we're looking for parallels, our high school heroes helpfully inform us not to bother. But does this monstrous yet curiously sympathetic and kinda sexy Alice (Amy Kim Waschke) actually have a heart of gold, or just melted lead? A touch of Buffy-back-from-the-grave confusion moderates her menace; so does her clingy attachment to the nonplussed Lewis.

As hellish minions murder their way through the townsfolk, Alice and a sassy teddy-bear demon (a puppet brilliantly operated and voiced by Sheldon Best) help shy, intellectual Lewis (Carlo Alban) and his unrequited love, cheerleader Margaret (Bonnie Sherman) stay one step ahead of the marauding beasties. But the absurd plot isn't at all the point. The clever videos and the spot-on use of pop music (from Bonnie Tyler to Lordi) are key, but what makes this production a knockout is a one-two-three punch: the skilled and scarily energetic cast; the stylized, silly gore; and Nguyen's hilarious and pointed dialogue.

Edgar: You're mom's hot…I think she wants me.
Margaret: You're a stuffed animal.
Edgar: Yo, that's racist.
Margaret: That's not racist.
Edgar: You're suggesting that your mom wouldn't date me because of something as small as my genetic makeup.

Besides the abovementioned actors, Andrea Marie Smith and Tom Myers each steal the show at various points in various roles. But there's no point detailing the great moments. Just catch this flashy, good-natured send-up of everything geeky and gory and youthful and fun. Visit the HERE Arts Center website for tickets.

Theater Review (Boston): Adding Machine: A Musical at Speakeasy Stage

Schmidt and Loewith have crafted the words of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play into melodies and meters that pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought.

My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.

Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.

"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.

And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.

The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.

I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.

But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.

On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).

In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.

Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.

Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

Theater Review: Happy in the Poorhouse

The Amoralists shift the action from the Lower East Side to Coney Island, with mixed results.

Playwright/director Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists specialize in "going there" – that is, where other troupes usually dare not tread. In Happy in the Poorhouse "there" includes constipation, an unconsummated marriage, a half-infantile little sister, and a fight involving a paraplegic. It also – like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel – means going to Coney Island.

Fresh off their critically acclaimed (including by this critic) Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, the Amoralists have picked up and re-settled in Coney, where pugilist Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz), an over-30 would-be pro fighter trying to make ends meet as a bouncer, and his wife of eight months, Mary (Sarah Lemp), are preparing to welcome home Paulie's old buddy Petie "The Pit," who is also Mary's ex-husband, from the war in Afghanistan.

Ahonen is very skilled at writing characters and dialogue that are larger and louder than life yet reflect with an awkward accuracy the universally recognizable aches and pains of the human heart. In the long opening scene Paulie and Mary hash through their inability to truly unite despite loving each other, a battle with which she's clearly losing patience. And it's not just Paulie's unwillingness to have sex, it's what lies behind it, in both of their pasts.

Paulie: "…it's like I'm thinking of you when we was kids. Back when we was building them forts and hiding from them imaginary bad guys. I'm seeing you at six…skipping around on the pogo stick across the street. That's when I first knew I loved you…"

And shortly thereafter:

Mary: "The only reason I don't wander around with the lustful eyes is because I know it will destroy your sad heart and I'm a good person who don't want to see your cookies crumble down the fire escape."

This is Ahonen at his best, and he has two fiery actors making it all shine.

Now, "going there" is all very well. Pied Pipers went where it went with enough focus to sustain itself. Happy in the Poorhouse, though, goes too many places. It has a lot of fun getting there, with memorable characters, much humor, and the kind of elevated working-class writing, self-conscious yet honestly poetic, that marks this playwright as a writer of great talent, and an evident nostalgia for the unsubtle big style of writers of the 1930's. And the troupe is up to the challenge of living his words, allowing the writing to transform their bodies into giants: often shouting, often laughable and stereotyped and overcooked, but acutely touching in the way the best cartoon characters can be.

What's missing – not throughout, but for significant stretches of both acts – is focus. More characters pile on, announcing themselves with overdone aria-like bombast, and some seem to be there just for local color. Rochelle Mikulich is delightful as Paulie's country-singer little sis, and Matthew Pilieci deserves notice as Mary's preening mailman brother. But the structure feels imposed, the flow uneven.

The satisfying ending and the attention-grabbing fun on the way there make this, on balance, a show I can recommend, but with distinct reservations. Happy in the Poorhouse runs through April 5 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, NYC. Visit that Theatre 80 St. Marks website for tickets.

Photo by Larry Cobra

Theater Review: Glee Club by Matthew Freeman

At least there’s a good song.

With the popularity of Fox's TV show Glee, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a "glee club" traditionally meant an all-male choir (often based at a college) singing witty arrangements of pop and traditional songs, chorus-style (i.e. without choreography). That's the sort of glee club Matthew Freeman shows us in his new one-act play by that name.

This particular glee club consists of a group of grown men in a small town in Vermont who meet weekly to sing under the leadership of pianist Ben. This club has one thing going for it: an excellent new song, actually written by Stephen Spieghts, who plays Ben, which they're preparing to sing for a group of retirees — one of whom is the club's main financial sponsor. So the stakes are high. The problem: Hank (Tom Staggs), the group's star singer and soloist, has just decided to quit drinking, and it turns out he can sing only when drunk.

It's an absurd but potentially amusing premise. As an increasingly angry Ben tries to lead the group through a rehearsal of the song, he's repeatedly interrupted by his own pickiness and the men having various failures. This first scene has a number of funny bits, some earmarks of a zany ensemble piece to come.

But that impulsive energy screeches to a halt once the men discover and start dealing with Hank's not-drinking problem. The play devolves into a couple of modestly funny jokes stretched over much too long a time. There's lots of yelling and cursing, without the development of character that makes such moments anything but annoying. Yes, we're shown that Mark is going through a bitter divorce, Stan is a milquetoast, and Nick has a mean streak, but not to the point that they earn their moments or our sympathy.  The only really appealing character is Paul (Steven Burns), an apparent serial killer whose chilling non sequiturs always draw a laugh.

The situation makes little sense; for one thing, who'd stay in a community glee club run by such an angry, bitter man as Ben? For another, he keeps stopping the rehearsal to criticize the men for flaws that we, the audience, can't hear; that's funny (or at least telling) once or twice, but fast loses its power to amuse us or drive the story. The actors do their best with the weak material, but little good results besides some isolated funny lines.

On a positive note, the song, though too long in coming, is delightful when we finally hear it. Half earnest and half silly, it perfectly captures the spirited zaniness the script only hints at, and sends us into the street with a happy tune in our hearts.

Glee Club is presented by Blue Coyote and runs at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, through April 3. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Forgotten by Pat Kinevane at the Irish Arts Center

A strange blend of Irish character studies and Japanese Kabuki theater, this is more than a play, it’s an immersive poetic experience.

Every now and then you see something truly unique, and Pat Kinevane's one-man show Forgotten qualifies. A blend of Irish character studies and Japanese Kabuki theater, it is a superb showcase for this exceptionally warm and generous performer. Under the firm direction of Jim Culleton, he casts an effective spell, mingling the sadness of growing old without due respect (all four characters are over 80) with joyful recollections of youth and moments of high grief.

Some segments work better than others; for one thing, the female characters come across more richly than the male. And in spite of a helpful glossary in the program, some of the references to Irish culture and language will elude typical American audiences. Too, the beauty of the Kabuki movements Mr. Kinevane uses to transition between scenes doesn't seem quite enough to explain their existence. But on the whole, this disjunction didn't bother me; the happy temptation is to always give this work the benefit of the doubt, swept up as one is in its imaginative evocations of the lives of these aged survivors.

The insistent music (by Brian Byrne) and sensitive lighting function almost as characters in themselves. So does Mr. Kinevane's heaving, shiny, nearly naked body, painted in black Japanese figures. So does his face, gradually painted into a white mask by one of the characters, the make-up obsessed Eucharia, once scullery-maid to the other female character, Dora. But the real star of the show, besides Mr. Kinevane himself, is his language; he both captures and heightens the thrum and sigh of these folks' speech, from gruff Flor to mild Dora. All live now in separate nursing homes.

Flor sees visions: "Holy Mary is under me bed. She is, under. I saw her last Monday, over there in a long white coat and a blue band on her neck. Snowey skin, and a head of the darkest hair. She was crying like a girl and kept saying she was lonely." Later, Dora recalls the preamble to her youthful affair with man married to a woman perfectly named Petra: "…he positively altered the hue of the spaces about him. Absorbed everything. A piece of chess. Soot hair. Hands unspoiled. Face, flawless. But she teased him down the path of middle age and emptiness. Expertly."

More than a play, it's poetry, and it's an immersive experience. That's no mean trick for one performer to pull off. Forgotten runs through March 7 at the Irish Arts Center in New York, and then returns to Ireland, with further international dates to be announced. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Charles L. Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit

Almost magically, these characters whom we only glimpse come brightly alive, exuding sorrow, angst, joy in turn.

Naked Goddess France in a tub, three silent Graces, and a stately tango usher us into the romantic arena of Charles Mee's Paris. To use two appropriately French-derived words, Fêtes de la Nuit is a collage of vignettes on the theme of love, but it's more visceral, and rewarding, than the typical movie of intertwined stories like Valentine's Day.

We'll call it a play for want of a better word, but it's more of a theatrical celebration, scene after scene of a richly observed and finely sketched world where romantic love is subject number one, with sex, art, and the character of a great city clustering close behind. A woman waits in a café for the love of her life; she hasn't met him yet but is saving a seat for as long as it takes. A roué leads a rapt group on a tour of the gardens of Paris and other important places in the history of his colorful love life. An art class, a fashion show, a lecture on the history of coffee – these are just a few of the show's elements, but the less stagy moments are just as affecting. Three people on a park bench grope each other sensuously until the middle one slips away, satisfied she's brought the other two together. A spurned lover tried to re-seduce her ex. A lonely man dances with his coat. Almost magically, these characters whom we only glimpse come brightly alive, exuding sorrow, angst, joy in turn. 

The large ensemble cast includes singers, dancers, and deaf actors, and is virtually without a weak link. Kim Weild's intimate yet expressive staging moves us effortlessly from café to park to catwalk to dreamscape. Of special note is the smoky score and sound design, by Brian H. Scott, but all the technical elements measure up to the high quality of the performances. With no intermission, the show goes on a touch too long. I wouldn't want to be the one to have to choose what to cut, though.

I highly recommended this show for anyone with an appreciation for life's pleasures. Only small children and people who don't like nudity on stage should stay away. It's a perfect valentine for yourself, your lover, your friends. Fêtes de la Nuit runs through Feb. 27 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.

Photos by Jill Usdan. 1. (L-R): Catherine dies of love: Jessica Green (Catherine) and Khris Lewin (Roland). 2. (L-R): Lartigue (Babis Gousias) leads the merriment.