Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Amy Surprises Us; The Orphans, Less So

Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino states in the program that she was inspired to write this story, in part, by her own Aunt, who was Downs syndrome. As I reviewer, I have to point out that my Aunt also had Downs syndrome, and was born only a decade or so before the characters here. I don’t know if that effects my review, but I know that it effected my response, and making Amy and the Orphans very relatable for me. It isn’t necessary, at all, to be familiar with an individual to invest in this play – I just want to give readers full knowledge that my review may be skewed.
Amy and the Orphans is not well served by the poster for the show. It is not a happy go lucky three-person road show full of pluck and sappy sentiments. Instead it is a tough but humorous story of the response of children to their parents’ death.  Mark Blum and an almost unrecognizable Debra Monk are Jacob and Maggie, adult siblings traveling back to Montauk for their father’s service. They meet at La Guardia airport in order to drive to the pick up their Downs syndrome sister, Amy, for the service.
Debra Monk. Jamie Brewer and Mark Bloom
From the first moment, the tensions are thick and the jokes are a little too numerous. 
After her adult sons have moved out and her husband has divorced her, Maggie is tough and unyielding. She is still made at Jacob for his actions at their mother’s service. Jacob has gone full on Californian Christian, forsaking his religion, heritage and gluten, not necessarily in that order. Before being able to “get on the road” with an almost religious fervor, the duo must stop at an institution and pick up Amy, their Downs syndrome sister. Both and moved out of the area and rarely see their sister anymore. There is an unspoken dread at the prospect.
Amy, in an excellent performance by Jamie Brewer, proves to be more independent and headstrong than they remember. And Amy comes with a care-giver that mandated by the state and loved by Amy, Kathy (Vanessa Aspillaga in a wickedly funny role). Kathy bows to neither sibling in her understanding or love of Amy. The siblings project their own insecurities on Kathy and respond to them.
The play moves between the airport, the institution, the road and their father’s house with ease. In between are moments at the service and flashbacks to a couple in therapy we only understand later are the parents in their youth.
Jacob and Maggie, like their parents before them, struggle with what they owe to their sister. How much are they willing to upend their lives to do the right thing, and what is the right thing? The undercurrent, which rises up quickly, is that Amy is not party to these decisions. Amy, however, has ideas of her own.
Ms. Ferrentino has crafted a serious and funny piece about our expectations with regards to our family. She and Director Scott Ellis have crafted a show with Jamie Brewer that doesn’t seem forced, stereotypical or artificially positive. Ms. Brewer is in command of her character bringing tartness normally and a sweetness in a flashback that underscores how far she has had to grow.
I loved Amy and the Orphans, as a complete show. It was not a performance piece that allows a Downs syndrome actor to shine, which I feared it might be. Jacob and Maggie don’t travel the expected (and trite) path that they learn some life lesson from their disabled sister. Instead they have to confront their own expectations of each other and their parents to move on.

Amy And The Orphans | Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino | Director: Scott Ellis | Cast: Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk, Mark Blum, Vanessa Aspillaga, Diane Davis, Josh McDermitt

Monday, December 18, 2017

Farinelli Charms the King and the Audience

Farinelli and the King, now at the Belasco, is a wonderous play. It is slightly magical, beautiful musically, a little funny and utterly charming without being twee. By way of ingenious use of staging, candlelight and proscenium build out, the Belasco feels intimate, although I would avoid the balcony for this show.
Mark Rylance plays the King of Spain who suffers from delusions and depression. The show opens with Mr. Rylance having a discussion with a goldfish, a moment he can’t distinguish between dream or nightmare. The audience can feel the weight of his position in the soliloquy. As King he is as trapped in his role as the goldfish is trapped in the bowl.
Farinelli (Sam Crane), left, and King Philippe V (Mark Rylance
Mr. Rylance is once again charming in a period role. He can transition from funny to enraged to incompetent in a flash. The Queen (a lovely tempered Melody Grove) wants to help her King recover and keep the monsters, imagined and real, at bay.  The royal court, embodied by Edward Pell as his chief minister – in over the top outfits and wigs, but a measured performance, is ready to force the King to abdicate. The chief minister dispatches the Queen to take over the court.
In London, the Queen hears the Opera star Farinelli, and is convinced that his voice will help to stabilize the King. When Farinelli does arrive and sing, the moment is transformative. Watching the King listen to the music the audience can see the beauty and calmness spread across his face, and the relaxation in his carriage. Farinelli is played by Sam Crane in a touching performance as he grows to love the King and the Queen. Farinelli is sung, marvelously, by Iestyn Davies (or the equally sublime James Hall). During the moments of song, the actor and the singer concurrently play Farinelli shadowing one another: they dress the same, and Mr. Crane follows the singer’s lead in demeanor and gesture.
Farinelli joins the King and Queen both in court and later when they take up residence outside Madrid. The King is able to recuperate, and Farinelli drops his mask as performer to embrace his full personality. Of course, Kings have responsibilities, and their time away from court must come to an end, but it was a moment that was precious to the three and a joy to watch.
Farinelli and the King feels like a moment captured in amber, a bit dreamy and otherworldly in the best possible sense. Director John Dove gives the play room to grow organically from the actors involved. Jonathan Fensom’s designs enhance the feeling of being let in on a small secret performance. I am not an Opera fan, but Mr. Davies’ performance of Handel’s pieces are like small presents from the past to us today.
Farinelli and the King | Playwright: Claire van Kampen| Director: John Dove | Cast: Mark Rylance, Sam Crane, Melody Grove, Huss Garbiya, Colin Hurley, Edward Pell, Iestyn Davies, James Hall

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Deal Comes Away with Laughs, But No Easy Answers

The world premiere of A Deal at Urban Stages occurs just as the play is staged also being staged in China and one can’t help but wonder what lessons the Chinese audience will take away. A Deal depends on looking at stereotypes and assumptions with fresh eyes. That is a tough, but valuable, thing to ask audiences to do.
The funny comedy is deceptively simple. Wei-Yin Lin plays Li Su, a Chinese national who has just recently graduated from Colombia’s Master of Fine Arts program. Her parents, only known as Mr. and Mrs. Li, are played by Alan Ariano and Lydia Gaston. Mr. Li is a relatively high-ranking member of the Communist Party and he has put away some money to buy an apartment in New York for his daughter. He and his wife come to New York to buy an apartment and surprise their daughter. Mrs. Li has found memories of the stage when she was a younger woman and sympathizes with her daughter's dreams. They play then follows the child and her parents on concurrent paths.
Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin and Alan Ariano in A Deal
Li Su gets to opportunity to play the lead role in an off-Broadway play about a tragic abandoned Chinese girl and the system she struggles to grow up in. In order to sell herself to the producers, she convinces the backers and show-goers that she herself is an orphan, a product of the very system they are exposing. It is a poorly sold tale, but one the American backers are happy to exploit. This leads not just to Li Su getting the part, but to  television appearances, panel discussions and relative fame. Her parents, who don’t understand English, are none the wiser.
Mr. and Mrs. Li, after being cheated out of a down payment in Shanghai, engage the services of Peter (Pun Bandhu) an old flame and acting partner of Mrs. Li, to help them find an apartment in New York. Peter left China years ago, and is now a real estate agent in New York. Their interaction revolves around trying to get them settled in the city and Peter’s devotion to Mrs. Li. Mr. Li is annoyed at the country, the city, his wife’s ex-partner and the lack of order that China provides. He also cannot understand the idea of “becoming” an American. The pull of understood versus unexpected and stability versus opportunity is amplified by the undercurrent of Peter’s affection for Mrs. Li and the conflict that creates with Mr. Li.
A Deal looks at the dichotomy of choices and outcomes between the old and the new. Not just defined as old equals China, but generation versus generation. The China which Peter left isn’t the China that Mr. and Mrs. Li live in now. Their stereotypes of America are reinforced, just American’s expectations of China are self-reinforcing. Playwright Zhu Yi does a great job of exploiting these assumptions for laughs, but still leaving enough steel underneath the laughs to make us question our assumptions.
Helen Coxe and Seth Moore pick up multiple roles in the show, and their great acting – as with the entire troupe, is critical for making the show work so well.
It is a very good play, and Zhu Yi will do great things. That said, there are some rough edges that will hit viewer. A Deal is made up of a series vignettes, and there are a lot of them for such a short show. Occasionally this makes the show a little choppy. Director John Giampietro does a great job of making them seamless, but there are still a lot of changes. The longer scenes just pack a deeper punch.
A Deal | Playwright: Zhu Yi | Director: John Giampietro | Cast: Alan Ariano, Pun Bandhu, Helen Coxe, Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin, Seth Moore | website

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meteor Shower is Comedic Comet – Luminous and Lovely, then Over

Meteor Shower is hilarious. It is one of the funniest shows I have seen on Broadway and one that fully utilizes the medium. It isn’t a transfer or remake or reimaginering of some other piece. It is a wholly unique show.
Writer Steve Martin has produced sympathetic roles that are stereotypical, somehow both over the top and completely believable. Director Jerry Zaks has let this perfect cast loose on these roles, letting them play broad without dissolving into farce.
Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos play married couple Corky and Norm, a married couple from Ojai (a small spa town in the foothills of the California Coast). Corky and Norm are aggressively normal, neurotic South Californians, complete with moments of confessional discussions of marital and personal aggressions. They even start the evening with a pre-wine, you know, the wine before the guests arrive - so it doesn’t count. They both play the “straight man” to the high wire act of craziness provided by Keegan-Michael Key and Laura Benanti.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumber & Laura Benanti (photo: Michael Murphy)
Key and Benanti play Gerald and Laura, the supersaturated ids of competitive marriage. Gerald and Laura have been invited up to Ojai to watch a coming meteor shower, the darkness in the country more conducive than the city lights of Santa Barbara. They arrive with mayhem on their minds. There is pure joy watching Keegan-Michael Key pontificate on the relationship of the cosmos to his own self-worth. You are swept up in the pure, uncomfortable oddness of the moment.
Meteor Shower provides a bountiful accounting of how far very normal and nice people are willing to go to accommodate the unexpected. Then, after the first third or so, the play tilts your expectations and reruns some of the previous interaction from a slightly different angle, with slightly different results. The replay signals that the audience is in for an multilayered experience rather than a singular narrative.
Gerald and Laura enter again, with more exposition, but different results. The confusion of both Corky and Norm is now reflected by the audience. Here the play spins off into ever more dubious realities, which Schumer and Shamos struggle to cope with. The audience has no problem following, because each moment is funnier than the last.
Go see Meteor Shower to watch fantastic comedic acting. Amy Schumer is simply hilarious as Corky, but is matched by the cast. Everyone involved seems to bring out the best in each other. The laughs will stay with you a long time, the memory of the show might not.
Meteor Shower | Playwright: Steve Martin | Director: Jerry Zacks | Cast: Laura Benanti, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer, Jeremy Shamos | website

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life On The Road As Therapy

The Mad Ones, now on-stage at 59 E 59 Theaters, is a musical of both youthful exuberance and heartbreak. In a very non-New York centric way, it uses the analogy of cars and the road for freedom. For most of America, it is an obvious metaphor.  The title itself refers to the characters from Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The RoadThe Mad Ones are the freewheeling group that speaks to our heroine.
L-R: Emma Hunton (as Kelly) and Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown) in Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s THE MAD ONES at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Richard Termine
Samantha (Krystina Alabado) is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and all the emotional baggage that entails. She longs to be crazy and free - in general terms like the characters in Kerouac’s novel and, in specific, like her friend Kelly (Emma Hunton). She and Kelly have taken road trips, stayed out late talking through the night, and planned to chuck it all and just drive away. Kelly was Samantha’s best friend and instigator. But Kelly was killed right before graduation, and Samantha has been frozen since.
Samantha’s mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking), is a dynamic professor, brilliant woman and overly protective single mother. She wants Samantha, High School Valedictorian, to attend an Ivy League school and become a success. Samantha is pulled between the future her mother wants and the future her friend Kelly offers. Thrown into the mix is her unobtrusive and supportive, if a bit dim, boyfriend Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Adam is just “there” for Samantha, the sweet boy without an agenda, unloved both Kelly and her mother.
These competing forces converge one night as Samantha is about to drive away from home, maybe to college, maybe just drive away. She sits caught between the competing visions of her future. The Mad Ones is a musical set against these competing visions, and the cast has the pipes to carry the show beautifully. Each actor has at least one moment in song that is touching, but the stars of this show are Krystina Alabado and Emma Hunton. Their voices are wonderful and their scenes together are a joy.
But this combination is also key to the drawback of The Mad Ones. Together, Kelly drives Sam into action. However, when alone, Samantha is a passive character. True, she longs for something, that something is frustratingly undefined. Samantha is a reactive creature: reacting to her friend, her mother or her boyfriend in turn. When alone, her youthful confusion has a tendency to turn into whining.
Most of the songs (Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk) are very good: catchy and fun or serious and soulful. There is an overreliance on the metaphor of a car as freedom, which grinds after a while. The sparse direction of Stephen Brackett is perfect for the space here. It is a spare story in a spare space and he allows the actors to fill it with pathos and song. The Mad Ones may not make you wish for a road trip, but you definitely want the best for our little Sam, all grown up now.
The Mad Ones | Book, Lyrics & Music: Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk | Director: Stephen Brackett | Cast: Krystina Alabado, Leah Hocking, Emma Hunton, Jay Armstrong Johnson | Website

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Off Broadway News Nov 15, 2017

The Drama League has revamped and expanded their “DirectorFest” festival. Taken place from January 13 – 22nd, it will showcase the new directors that have been working with the Drama League for the past year. In its 34th year, the festival will include five fully-staged productions, a showcase evening of new musicals, staged readings, discussion panels, books signings, workshops and conversations with America’s most notable directors.
Taking place over two weeks in venues across Manhattan, highlights of the festival include rarely-seen plays by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Enda Walsh (Once: The Musical), new works by Gabrielle Reisman, Alejandro RicaƱo and more, all directed by the 2017 Drama League Directors Project Fellows: Laura Brandel, Bonnie Gabel, Matt Dickson, Flordelino Lagundino, and Rebecca Martinez.  Chosen last spring from over 330 applicants nationwide, these five visionary emerging directors recently completed their year of mentorship, assistantships, training and career development as part of The Drama League Directors Project.

Interesting Small Work “Foreign and Domestic” to play LES Nov 17 – 19
This looks interesting:
"Foreign & Domestic" is a 20-minute play that follows Lucy, an Argentinian immigrant living in NYC, who is forced to introduce her new boyfriend, all-American Jake to her closest friends - all of whom happen to be aliens.
Power play, immigration talk and war of the accents ensue!
There are FIVE consecutive shows each night, starting at 8pm. Tickets are $5 and are sold at the door (cash only). Please make sure to get there with enough time since the space only allows FIFTEEN audience members for each show.”
David Hyde Pierce Headlines a Benefit Reading of A Christmas Carol
David Hyde Pierce is doing a benefit reading of a Christmas Carol on Dec 11th.  There is some amazing talent with him: John Glover, Harriet Harris, Edward Hibbert, Julie White, Kathryn Meisle, Brian Reddy, Richard Topol and the Brooklyn Boys Choir. It is a benefit for The Acting Company.

Sam Underwood Reprises Losing Days

Sam Underwood, a favorite from stage and television, will be at 54 Below on Monday Dec 4th in Losing Days. Losing Days is a one man musical theater piece Mr. Underwood performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It gives New York audiences a chance to see this well received show and another chance to hear Mr. Underwood's voice - always welcome.
The show at 54 Below has been updated to include “The Boxroom Larrys”. And, part of the proceeds will go to a mental health organization.  See it if you can.