Posts Tagged ‘review’

Theater/Cabaret Review: ‘Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

I don't know about you-all, but I started my holiday season off just right with a trip to Don't Tell Mama for Vickie and Nickie's holiday show.

I hadn't been to the legendary cabaret spot for years and was glad to find the place still going strong. A full house turned up for real-life sisters Lisa and Lori Brigantino, who play Vickie and Nickie, two busy Midwestern moms who take to the stage to delight and entertain with humorous banter (abundant), multi-instrumental musical talents (considerable), and big ol' personalities (wickedly twisted, if all in good family-friendly fun).

Straight from "the prison circuit" and the land of lutefisk – Garrison Keillor fans will know what that is – the pair poke good-natured fun at middle-of-the-road American culture while revving up the crowd with perfectly executed vocal harmonies and musicianship (keyboards, guitar, uke, sax…). In this edition they got the balance between spoof and sincerity just right, heavy on the former, belting out Christmas favorites ranging from straight-up takes on "Feliz Navidad" and "Blue Christmas" to Springsteen and Streisand versions of classic carols, supplemented by a couple of punchy original Vickie and Nickie numbers. Amidst the holiday cheer they also worked in hilariously non-jokey versions of "Under Pressure" and that new camp classic, Beyonce's "Single Ladies," which got the audience shouting along in delight. They've discovered, and nailed, the big secret: playing things more or less straight can get more laughs than a lot of horsing around.

Undercurrents of anger and competitiveness make Vickie and Nickie both campier and realer than they'd otherwise seem, while the Brigantino sisters' high-end musical skills allow them to make the act, with its unflagging energy and common-denominator humor, look easy.

'Tis the Season with Vickie and Nickie had two performances last week at Don't Tell Mama. Visit their website for news of upcoming shows, or just hang around the local women's prison till they show up, bewigged and besparkled, spreading good old-fashioned cheer whatever the time of year.

Theater Review: Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Based on the Grimm fairy tale, this colorful kids' show with music is a decent hour-long holiday amusement for the little ones.

It could have been more. Like much children's theater, it suffers from over-sweetification rooted in an assumption that anything potentially disturbing or even strange must be excised, like a suspicious freckle, from entertainment designed for children. In this case, though, the result is not so much simplification as scattering; the production is all over the place.

Some of this is for the good, from a theatrical standpoint. The story has been changed in a number of ways, including the addition of a framing device, and given some modern cultural twists having to do with identity.  There's no slaying of monsters or beasties in this version, which is nice, especially for the holiday season. And a number of new characters provide amusing scenery-chewing opportunities for some good actors.

The most random-seeming addition is the Scarlet Pimpernel, shoehorned in from a completely different story but played with pleasingly foppish vanity by Brian Barnhart. A threatening Ogre turns out to be more Shrek-like than dangerous, a witch proves far less scary than that Wicked One of the West, and another feared monster turns out to be something quite smaller and meeker.

In the Grimm (and grimmer) original, a little tailor kills seven flies with one strike, and as a result comes to fancy himself a great hero. Stitching himself a belt bearing the motto "Seven in One Blow," he goes off to seek his fortune. It's a great kids' story because it's all about imagination. Folks all around, including the royal family and some mean giants, believing the motto refers to seven men, honor and elevate the tailor for his battle prowess, but still betray him at every possible opportunity. Like any good kids' hero, he's both brave and clever, defeating powerful enemies by outwitting them. (He also gets the girl.)

In this play the tailor is, reasonably enough, turned into an actual kid, and rather than killing the baddies, as in a traditional quest saga like the Twelve Labors of Hercules or The Wizard of Oz, this hero wins their respect and turns them into allies. It's a questionable plot change, as a) the real world does contain real baddies, and b) sometimes one does have to live by one's wits. But it's a nice excuse for songs, bright costumes, and amusing mugging.

All in all this is a diverting show for kids up to about eight years old. (The nine-year-old I brought gave it the equivalent of one thumb up.)

Seven in One Blow, or The Brave Little Kid runs weekends through Dec. 13 at the Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, just off Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village, New York City. The Dec. 11 performance is a benefit for St. Jude Children's Hospital.

Theater Review: She Like Girls by Chisa Hutchinson

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

This smartly observed play about inner-city kids focuses on the sexual awakening of one in particular. Unlike some "ghetto kid" dramatizations, it avoids the sin of trying too hard. In language that's spicy and realistic, playwright Chisa Hutchinson crafts believable characters who are vividly realized by an excellent cast of mostly newbies. The one thing Ms. Hutchinson can't seem to do is think of an ending. But until that disconcerting, disappointing five seconds, the neatly plotted She Like Girls is an entertaining and affecting journey through the troubled life and psyche of Kia (Karen Eilbacher).


Karen Eilbacher as "Kia" and Karen Sours as "Marisol" in the Working Man's Clothes production of She Like Girls. Photo credit: Julie Rossman

A sullen, sensitive teen, Kia befriends an ebullient, outgoing cheerleader, Marisol (Karen Sours), who has discovered a lump in her breast. The relationship develops through a series of concise, well-played scenes. With the help of a kindly teacher (Adam Belvo) and no help at all from her macho old friend Andre (Paul Notice II), Kia finds some ground to stand on. Though plagued by nightmares – including one brilliant scene in which Marisol brings her in for a show-and-tell session that turns into a gay-bashing horror show – Kia discovers first ideals (it shouldn't matter what you're called, just who you are) and then the insane cruelty of the real world when Marisol is beaten and and thrown out of her house by her homophobic mother.

Wisely, Ms. Hutchinson keeps things earthy, leaving the poetic language to the poet Adrienne Rich, who is quoted and invoked as a lesbian icon and guiding spirit – and who actually materializes, because why not?

This isn't a "gay play." It's more or less a traditional (and often quite funny) story about growing up, finding first love, and experiencing the pain and despair of young adulthood. That there's no ultimate redemption isn't what's wrong with the ending; redemption is only one possible conclusion for the human condition.  What's wrong is that the play just stops abruptly, with a violent act that feels neither shocking nor truly sad, just baffling, which snaps off the till-now well-crafted story arc.

Ms. Eilbacher and Ms. Sours give fine, heartbreaking performances, backed by a strong supporting cast. Lavita Shaurice is brilliant as Alia, an alienated straight friend with awesome comic timing. Amelia Fowler scores as Kia's sarcastic but generous mother, bathed in her own complexities, and Mr. Notice is sympathetic and solid in the tough role of Andre. With no weak links in the cast, efficient direction by Jared Culverhouse, an effectively garish graffiti-drenched set (by Kelly Syring and a cast of artists), well-chosen music and sound (Ryan Dorin), and a bit of energetic choreography (Sabrina Jacob), there is, as I said, only one thing missing:

She Like Girls plays through Dec. 30 at the Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster St., New York. Tickets at Theatermania.

Theater Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at BAM Starring Cate Blanchett, Directed by Liv Ullman

Friday, December 4th, 2009

No one does women like Tennessee Williams. It's widely accepted that some of his flamboyantly faded female characters stand in for the playwright himself; perhaps that has something to do with their vividness. Whatever the case, any of these roles provide a field day for a fearless actress.

Few present-day movie stars show such consistent bravery in their performances and their choice of roles as Cate Blanchett. Unlike some transformational actors, Ms. Blanchett has the option, when in a role in which she doesn't have to do much (such as Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings cycle), of seeming to relax and taking over the screen by simply glowing. But there's little call for mere radiance on the stage; there wasn't in the 2006 Hedda Gabler, another Sydney Theatre Company production starring Ms. Blanchett that played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, nor is their any holding back in the company's current production of A Streetcar Named Desire.


Ms. Blanchett's Blanche DuBois is certainly a lovely creature – sparkly-eyed, regally erect, monster-sexy – but thoroughly convincing as the insecure, childish, flirtatious, ungracefully aging southern belle who, having "lost" her family's country estate under mysterious circumstances, comes to live with her pregnant sister Stella (a superb Robin McLeavy) and her husband Stanley Kowalski (a seismic Joel Edgerton) in their humble New Orleans apartment.

Its two rooms separated only by a flimsy curtain, the apartment stands before us in its entirety. Ralph Myers' set, evocatively lit by Nick Schlieper in garish electric yellows and spooky Cajun blues, snugly suggests the Kowalskis' limited working-class horizons. At first startled by the humble surroundings, Blanche adapts handily, if passive-aggressively, and soon takes up with Stanley's friend, the highly moral Mitch (an excellent Tim Richards), who, charmed by Blanche's nighttime glamour, has a rude awakening in store when details of her past emerge.

Streetcar is a somewhat schizophrenic work. The first half plays as an expertly constructed ensemble piece. Unlike most of his zillions of imitators, Williams can do a prodigal-relation-arrives-to-shake-things-up plot without any sense of strain or cliche. His magical ability to fuse consummate craft with utter sincerity reached an apex in a handful of plays, Streetcar being one of them.

But the second half turns into Blanche's show, and while Blanche may be a faded flower, Ms. Blanchett is no shrinking violet, giving us a spectacular, galvanic Blanche. During scene changes, her silhouette can be made out prancing across the stage fully in character. Coming out with the cast for the five curtain calls the audience demanded last night, she looked like a sailing ship that's been dashed against the rocks a few times and is still bobbling upright only through some sort of miracle.

Mr. Edgerton as Stanley, another great Williams role, matches Blanche note for harsh note in their scenes together, trying his damnedest to take her down, using his magnetic masculinity as fervently as she wields her feminine charms. Equally strong is Ms. McLeavy as Stella, embodying sexiness and earth-motherhood in equal measure, holding down the emotional and moral center, often tearful but never weak. Despite no physical resemblance, the two actresses convince as sisters, long-separated but knowing each other all too well.

Is Cate Blanchett's a Blanche for the ages? Hard to say, this soon, but it's powerful and memorable, and this triumphant production is a highlight of the season. From all the way on the other side of the world, the Sydney Theatre Company, run by Ms. Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton, bravely brings this most American of plays back to America in its full faded glory. The New Orleans accents may be a touch touch-and-go, with lines occasionally hard to make out and Ms. Blanchett's southern drawl marked by a curious semi-lisp (not that these accents are much easier for American actors to master). But the three-plus hours of this nearly flawless production – helmed in inspired, fluid fashion by Liv Ullman (firmly established in a second career as a director) – dash by, leaving us both shaken and stirred.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through Dec. 20 at BAM.

Theater Review: In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl

Monday, November 30th, 2009

To imagine a time before humans understood that there was a connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy, you have to go back pretty far through the mists of time. The relationship between sexuality and the female orgasm, however, which seems just as obvious to us today, a mere century ago hadn’t been made – at least not in uptight Victorian culture. Unhappy upper- and middle-class women, women who today would be simply described as dissatisfied with their lives and/or sexually frustrated, were “diagnosed” as “hysterics” and “treated” – sometimes with vibrations that led to a release, or “paroxysm” as it is so cutely called in Sarah Ruhl’s engrossing but not thoroughly baked new play.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play takes us back to the late 18th-century home office of a fictionalized doctor-inventor (Michael Cerveris) who uses the new miracle of electricity to create vibrating machines capable of stimulating women – and the occasional man – to orgasm, now you can check out sites like lovegasm and find those machines in abundance. The doctor’s wife (Laura Benanti), a frustrated free spirit, craves romantic love, sensuality, and excitement but gets at most deference from her buttoned-up husband, who has more passion for science than for, well, passion. To make matters worse, poor Mrs. Givings can’t provide adequate milk for their new baby and feels she’s a bad mother, yet has little to distract her from her unhappy state except the taking of long walks in all kinds of weather.

Dr. Givings’ new patient (the fabulous Maria Dizzia) and her gruff husband (Thomas Jay Ryan) arrive to put a little kick into the proceedings, and a race/class issue is raised with the possibility of hiring a black wet nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). But stilted dialogue and caricatured personalities (especially the doctor’s, his character being the least colorful) prevent Act I from registering as more than an amusing trifle powered by easy laughs derived from the various characters’ excited reactions to the machine. It isn’t that the script makes light of their ignorance; it’s simply that it seems to be coasting on a cloud of the obvious.

Act II is immediately livened up by the presence of Leo Irving (a delightful Chandler Williams), a rare male patient suffering from melancholy after a romantic disappointment. With his sweeping gestures, fascinating conversation, and sexy artistic temperament, he’s an almost too-easy foil for the preoccupied doctor. But the characters deepen as the plot thickens over the course of the long second act, which culminates in a beautiful set change as the perfectly appointed but stuffy rooms flip into a magical snowy garden.

By the time this snow-globe ending rolls around, the play itself has transformed from a mildly clever comedy of manners into an old-fashioned comic romance, with sad partings preceding something resembling a wedding (or a wedding night, anyway). In spite of the thoroughly charming performances, including a sprightly and touching turn from the always effervescent Ms. Benanti and dignified, graceful work from Mr. Cerveris and Ms. Bernstine, I found the plot turns, the character development, and (in the first act) the dialogue formulaic.

Yet after a while as the play deepened it won me over, like a hit pop song with a predictable hook and a fancy arrangement, a song which proves, after several listens, to contain depth charges of honest feeling beneath its shiny surface. It wasn’t merely the funny moments, the nifty set and the absolutely stunning costumes. Sexual content aside, there’s a heartwarming fairy-tale sparkle to the story, and at the same time it provokes us to think about how malleable is the human nature that we tend to think is so fundamental. When society straitens us into particular, narrow channels, we become creatures almost alien to ourselves – yet still comically (and often, though not here, tragically) recognizable.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, plays on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre.

Photo by Joan Marcus.

Theater Review: Disillusioned

Friday, October 23rd, 2009

Susan Hodara's new one-act has a number of the elements of a good dramatic yarn. Unfortunately it also bears the marks of an incompletely integrated and realized vision. The story has promise as a semi-fantastical tale: Bernie, a small-time magician who is seemingly friendless except for an arthritic rabbit, befriends Jane, an even more lonely orphan; in time he adopts her and trains her as his assistant. Their new act and his magic shop are successful enough to keep them in business. Alas, fate has sadder plans for the pair; the theatrical blindness our heroine affects for the magic act becomes real, and that's not the worst of it. Eventually Jane is left destitute, but in the end gets a chance for redemption.

Georgie Caldwell's appealing performance as Jane can't debug the problematic script, however. A string of clichés spoils the awkward opening section, in which Bernie imparts his hard-earned showman's wisdom to his new protégé. Scarves are a dime a dozen; Jane has a fire in her belly; Jane also, like spunky orphans everywhere, is a piece of work.

Voiceovers connecting successive scenes seem both unneeded and cheap, and some lines come out of nowhere, as when Jane tells Bernie she "never meant to break your heart," apropos of nothing I could identify. In a voiceover, after we've seen that Bernie has suffered a stroke, Jane asks, perplexingly, "How could I have known it was a stroke?" Finally, the overall structure is weighed down by a disconnected and too long scene in a shelter, where homeless Jane meets a sympathetic caseworker (Keith Manolo Embler, who, like Mr. Powers, hasn't much to work with).

The character of Jane and Ms. Caldwell's effective performance in the role are the main strong points of this production. With better structure and sharpened dialogue, there could be a powerful story here. You can sense it, like the string of scarves hidden up Bernie's sleeve, itching to come out in shabby, multicolored glory.

Disillusioned has two more performances, 10/22 and 10/25, at Where Eagles Dare Studios in New York.