Reviews Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Anthony Rapp’s Without You Engages Joyfully

Without You is based on Anthony Rapp’s 2006 book, Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss and the Musical Rent. The show is not a quick recap of his time in Rent, but about the emotions that Rent brought up and the story of his mother’s illness.

Anthony Rapp is stunning in Without You

The book and play Without You is centered on this time when Rent was beginning and was a massive hit AND at the same time Anthony’s mother was sick and getting sicker. Rent is a great play, yet one also with great tragedy. The parallels with his mother being sick are offset against the the play going through sickness and pain.

Anthony Rapp recalls his journey with Rent, from readings to Off-Broadway to Broadway. He doesn’t add a lot of new information that wasn’t in the book Without You, but the information was new to me.  I found it entertaining and interesting. I confess on traveling to New York (from Los Angeles) to see Rent with the original cast. I loved the show. To hear these new stories was fun and engaging. Without You is peppered with songs from the show, along with other tunes. Only 2 or 3 of the songs are sung completely, most are snippets used to relate to parts of the play.

Rapp’s tie of the story of Rent to the story of his mother’s illness is jarring at first, but little by little Without You pulls us into the analogies he is looking for. 

Anthony Rapp is stunning in the show. It is quick, tight and focused. The musical choices are absolutely perfect. Anthony Rapp’s voice is unique, and may not be your favorite. It isn’t my favorite, either as singing is such a personal thing. But Rapp’s voice work is stunning in the show. It pulls out emotion and pathos. His singing is the compliment that makes this show work.

Director Steven Maler understands the movement and stage business to emphasis the story, without being distracted. I absolutely loved the show, and left on a high.

Without You

Playwright: Anthony Rapp | Music: Jonathan Larson and others
Director: Steven Maler | Cast: Anthony Rapp


Friday, January 20, 2023

Heaven: Lost and Found in Ireland

There is a distinctive way many Irish theater productions play out, and your enjoyment of Heaven might depend on if you love, hate or are indifferent to that style. Heaven is a two hander, where the actors speak directly to the audience. Often, in Irish plays, one character talks to the audience for the entire show. But in this one, both characters talk one on one to the audience, albeit never at the same time.

The characters are a married couple, Mairead (May) and Mal. May is played by Janet Moran in a wistful but lovely turn. Mal is played by Andrew Bennett with more self-loathing and awakening but the same skill. They each describe their marriage and their feelings and questions to the audience. Both partners are separately challenged at the reception of a wedding they are attending.

Janet Moran and Andrew Bennett in Heaven (photo: Ste Murray)

May discusses the rut her marriage is in, the bitterness of having a daughter that fights with her every time they talk, and the disappearing hope for the future. At the party, her assumptions about her complacent life are challenged by the return of an old beau. One with which she had fantastic sexual chemistry.

At the same party MAL, a sober alcoholic, reflects on his hidden sexuality, hidden even from himself in many cases.. A sexuality that manifests itself it some very interesting fantasies about Jesus freeing him from his repression. His internal struggles are deeply felt as are May’s.

The story uses the background of the wedding to illustrate May’s struggles. The story uses a background sexual frustration and then a man's inducements to have Mal to partake of liquor and cocaine to illustrate Mal’s struggles. Neither analogy is as heavy handed as it sounds. And both May and Mal build the tension slowly until it grows to consume them.

I enjoyed the show very much, despite my dislike of the format. Few shows handle this setup as well at Heaven – the last I saw done this well was A Steady Rain on Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. Janet Moran and Andrew Bennet are not nearly as famous as that pair, but these two also inhabit their characters fully and believably.

Written by Eugene O’Brian and directed by Jim Culleton, the timing of the soliloquies and the passion of them is a credit to both. It is a simple set and design in order to bring the characters front and center with lighting and subtlety. I enjoyed it very much.

Playwright: Eugene O’Brian | Director: Jim Culleton | Cast:

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Joy & Fun & Juliet

I admit that I had low expectations for & Juliet. The premise just sounds clumsy, “What if Juliet didn’t kill herself after Romeo?” And a jukebox musical at that, with songs written Max Martin and collaborators. It sounds like the show was cobbled together to try to mimic the success of Moulin Rouge crossed with SIX. I was wrong that it would not be a ton of fun. It is. And, if it is Moulin Rouge and SIX mashed together, it works

& Juliet is energetic, fun and what people expect a musical to be: big, loud, colorful, and overwhelming. It isn’t perfect, but it a blast.

And I will start by saying the cast is fantastic. I don’t want to be redundant and complement each actor, but the singing, acting and casting were first rate from top to bottom. 

The story begins with Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway (Betsy Wolfe). She questions why Juliet has to die in Romeo and Juliet. When Shakespeare (Stark Sands) gives a waffling answer – That is what makes it a tragedy – she convinces him to try a new tack. Let Juliet decide to live and see where it goes. And so, Juliet (Lorna Courtney) escapes her parents plans to send her to a nunnery by running off to Paris. A nunnery is where fallen women are sent. Since Juliet is no longer a virgin , she no use to her parents. Escaping with her are two new friends, May (Justin David Sullivan) and Ann, plus one old friend, the nurse (Melanie La Barrie) from Shakespeare’s original play.

In this show, the star-crossed lovers are the non-binary May and Prince François (Philippe Arroyo) and, The Nurse and King Lance - Paulo Szot lending a adult air and voice to the proceedings. Shakespeare and his wife Ann share the stage as feuding couple with different expectations of marriage. The late arrival of Romeo (Ben Jackson Walker), freshly not dead, complicates the happily ever after for all concerned.

The & Juliet songs, mainly bouncing and upbeat, add to the carnival like atmosphere. With one or two exceptions, the songs fit and and add a layer of comedy. & Juliet adds an inside joke or two that everyone who has seen or heard Romeo and Juliet will understand.

The story here is more gender inclusive with love stories between men and women, non-binary characters and a freedom from stereotypes. But the main moral of the story is that self-empowerment gives a person the freedom to choose who to and how to love. And how being true to yourself might be the greatest superpower we all have.

If this all sounds preachy, do not worry, & Juliet is infused with joy and life. Veteran London Director Luke Sheppard balances the razzle dazzle of the show as expertly as he does the moments of love and heart. Instead of a preachy show about gender, he allows this musical to spread the joy throughout the audience without losing engagement in the story. 

& Juliet is good story, great acting and a positive message.

& Juliet
Playwrights: Max Martin & Friends, Music | David West Read, Book | Director: Luke Sheppard | Cast: Lorna Courtney, Paulo Szot, Betsy Wolfe, Stark Sands, Justin Davie Sullivan, Melanie La Barrie, Ben Jackson Walked, Philippe Arroyo | Website: & Juliet

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Stephen McKinley Henderson rules Between Riverside and Crazy

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2015, Between Riverside and Crazy comes to Broadway with most of the cast repeated their award-winning roles. Stephen McKinley Henderson once again rules the stage as Pops.

I did not see the play off Broadway eight years ago, so I cannot comment on the changes. But from Mr. Henderson’s own interview, the original thrust of the play was Pops dealing with the death of his wife. The thrust of the story now centers around Pops’ police work and his retirement – the change brought on by acknowledgement of police brutality in the intervening years.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon, and Common
(C) Joan Marcus

The famous new member of this experienced troop is the musician Common. He is excellent in the unlikeable role of Junior, Pops’ son. His performance is restrain when needed and agitated when appropriate.

The story centers around a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside drive, a very nice part of town. Pops houses a group of three young people: his son, Junior’s girlfriend, and Junior’s recovering friend, Oswaldo. But a rent-controlled apartment in this part of town is an endangered species. And Pops was offered a good price to move out 8 years ago. He fought the city as a decorated veteran, injured police officer and older man. And Pops is still fighting to stay in the apartment 8 years later.

Change comes when Pops is visited by his old partner on the force and her fiancé. They talk about old times and reminisce before she and her husband try, once again, to have Pops take a deal to get money and leave the apartment with a nice payout. He stubbornness and pride don't allow whim to take the offer. Then entire process of kicking him out of his home is indicative of the racism in the gentrification of the neighborhood.

But trouble brews in his home with the family. Junior has left, his girl-friend may be pregnant and Oswaldo has fallen off the wagon.

Stephen McKinley Henderson,  Common

Pops deals with these troubles, and a beating, with anger and bluster. But he and his son ultimately have a heart to heart. It is clear this open and honest relationship has been something Junior has wanted since his mother died. And it is equally clear that intimacy and openness come dear to them both. It is hard to open up after a lifetime of stoicalness. 

Between Riverside and Crazy is a story about forgiveness, stubbornness and love. None of these emotions come easily – except stubbornness – and it takes a life change for these to occur.

I very much enjoyed the show. The acting is wonderful with no bad performances or weak links. The sets are complex, but somehow add a simplicity to the show. Kudos to Production Manager John C. Moore. Austin Pendleton is the director and moves multiple story lines together seamlessly.

Between Riverside and Crazy
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis | Director: Austin Pendleton | Cast: Stephen McKinley Henderson, Common, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colon, Victor Alamanzar, Liza Colon-Zayas

Monday, December 12, 2022

Hypnotic Euphoria at the Armory

I often go to a Park Ave Armory show on the spur of the moment. Seeing the new installation / movie Euphoria occurred in just this way. A happenstance look for something to do on a cold winter’s day lead us to the Park Avenue Armory this past Saturday.

Euphoria is an installation art piece that hooks you into philosophical piece of entertainment. 

You enter the dark Grand Drill Hall into a circular space. Surrounding the viewer are the members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, projected in 360. Above the images of the choir are 5 large and 1 massive screen. The 5 ancillary screens show five jazz drummers which provide the music as well as the background sounds from the main screen.

The main screen flows from vignette to movement to vignette to movement etc, in a 1 hour 50 minute loop.

The dialogs are discussions about greed and capitalism, the pros the cons, the requirements and impacts of constant growth, and how this effects people. But the speaker’s words, sentences and thoughts are from history. To quote the program: 

Thoughts and musings from a variety of sources from economists, business magnates, writers, and celebrities from the likes of Warren Buffet, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman to Audre Lorde, John Steinbeck, Donna Haraway, and Snoop Dogg take on new meaning as they are reinterpreted as poetic monologues in real and imagined scenes of euphoric production and consumption...

And the conversations or monologues occur in spaces that are usually imagined to be pockets of hopelessness and stunted thinking. Be it kids getting high in a communist bus depot, or homeless men around a trash fire, or women working an endless distribution center or even a tiger in a supermarket – they are surrealistic spaces for an economic discussion.

But these conversations engage us and slip into our internal dialogs so easily that the situations stop seeming forced almost immediately. The viewer loses themselves in the imagery and the topics and explanations. Most of these conversations bring up thoughts that have lived in the corners of your mind – arising rarely.

I expected to be done and leave the venue well before the nearly 2 hour loop was done. But when I came to the moment I walked in, I was shocked to see how quickly the time moved. 

I was pretty much mesmerized by thoughts and images.

The show plays until January 8th. Go see it!

Artist: Julian Rosefeldt

Monday, December 5, 2022

Jim Parsons lets others shine in A Man of No Importance

A Man of No Importance is the last show at the Classic Stage Company with John Doyle as Artistic Director. Mr. Doyle also designed and directed this show, and it displays most of the hallmarks associated with him. The bare stage, the cast playing many of the musical instruments, and a marvelous cast working as one.

A.J. Shively and Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons is Alfie Byrne, the titular man of no importance. Alfie is the leader of a community theater group in Dublin made up of friends and neighbors. The local members aren’t particularly good actors, but they are supportive and enjoyable people. They have fun and enjoy their time together. As for Alfie, he seems to come alive when presents these plays in the town. Alfie is enthralled by “art” and “honesty”. In particular he loves John Keats, a famous gay poet. A single man of a certain age, Alfie and his sister live together as she tries to marry him off. In part so she can begin her own life and loves. Mare Whinningham plays Alfie’s sister with a combination of love and exasperation.

The Theater Group meets in a church basement, and the resident Father has pushed back on some of Alfie's more controversial choices. But Alfie is not deterred. He wants to stage Salome by Oscar Wilde. Including the provocative dance of the seven vails. The cast knows this might antagonize the church more, but they agree to follow Alfie.  Alfie finds his perfect Salome, Adele Rice (Shereen Ahmed), one day will working the bus. Through sheer persistence he convinces Miss Rice to join the group.  Alfie’s sister dreams of setting Alfie up with Miss Rice, and moving on with her life. Alfie, on the other hand, dreams of having her as Salome and his friend Robbie Fay (a great A. J. Shively) as John the Baptist.

Jim Parsons and Mare Winningham

But then, two things turn Alfie’s world upside down. First a member of the company tells the church about the play, and the cast is kicked out of the basement. The Father refuses to have a "pornographic" play performed in a church. And then Alfie, for the first time in his history decides to talk to a man that seems to have been flirting with him. And the man instead beats Alfie and outs him to the entire town as a poofter.

Jim Parsons brings a truth of character to Alfie. His outing is less surprising that it is inevitable, and he knows what his theater group will say. And, at first, they live down to his expectation.

The show does suffer a few lulls, whether by design or not. But in the main, A Man of No Importance moves well in a simple story and setting. Mr. Parsons singing is fine and clear, but some of the other voices move with an ease that is enviable.

Shereen Ahmad  as Adele Rice

It is a moving piece and the payoff is well worth the time involved. The show itself is a fitting farewell to John Doyle in his final show with the Classic Stage Company. 

A Man of No Importance
Book: Terrance McNally | Music: Stephen Flaherty | Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens | Director: John Doyle | Cast: Shereen Ahmed, Justin Scott Brown, Alam Cuervo,
Lee Harrington, Benjamin Howes, Beth Kirkpatrick, Kara Mikula,
Da'Von T. Moody, Jim Parsons, Mary Beth Peil, Thom Sesma,
A.J. Shively, Nathaniel Stamply, Jessica Tyler Wright,
Joel Waggoner, Mare Winningham, William Youmans

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Love, Death and Linda Lavin

You Will Get Sick at the Laura Pels Theater brings an unflinching but tender look at the process of one man’s death. Or is it all men? And the play begins up a cascade of questions. How do we approach death? How do we ask for understanding as our support? And what are the limits of freedom we give towards the dying?

Linda Lavin, Daniel K. Isaac, and Marinda Anderson in You Will Get Sick Joan Marcus

You Will Get Sick begins with a phone call from Callahan (Linda Lavin) to a man with a secret. Daniel K. Issac plays the sick man. He has posted flyers and offers to pay someone, any random stranger, to call hear his secret. His secret is that he is sick. The “sick” in You Will Get Sick is death. As much as we don’t want to face it, we will all die.

Lavin’s Callahan turns out to be the right person to call his number. She moves him, and the play, out of the tragic and into the slightly surreal. She is interested in the money, but hesitant to get into anything weird. Callahan does not want the burden, per say, but the money for her chosen career and dream. She wants to play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it seems their conversation will stay a one-time, financial, transaction. 

But it doesn’t. Daniel calls Callahan again to help him tell his sister he is sick. It is a burden he doesn’t want his sister to share, since their brother has already passed away. And his sister took care of their brother. So Callahan shares his secret.

 Daniel calls Callahan again, when he collapses. And again, when he is afraid of his mind collapsing.
At each point Callahan negotiates a price of her services. What starts as an annoying mercantilism on her point, morphs into a familiar and normal process that Daniel appreciates. He appreciates the idea that she treats him normally and the entire trade a transaction. It grounds him.

Ultimately, he pays her to take a trip, back home to the Midwest and wheat fields and open spaces and air. And moving on.

Daniel K. Isaac, and Nate Mill in You Will Get Sick Joan Marcus

You Will Get Sick gives the answers to life’s big questions in allegory. Not because it hides from the questions, but to bring the universality to the situation. And it works. Wonderfully.

The debut of Noah Diaz’ play explores not death, but the limits of personal autonomy; including the right to live as one desires. It explores the claustrophobia of death, the limits of love between family members, and the fellowship of strangers. 

Production Manager Mary Duffe brings together the claustrophobic life of the city and the dream of the wide-open spaces. It works wonderfully. Director Sam Pinkleton balances You Will Get Sick in the tricky area between moving, funny and honest. The play could have easily fallen into maudlin, but instead we get an uplifting story somehow. It is great.

You Will Get Sick
Playwright: Noah Diaz | Director: Sam Pinkleton | Cast: Marinda Anderson, Daniel K. Issac, Linda Lavin, Nate Mill, Dario Ladani Sanchez