Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Alice Ripley brings The Pink Unicorn vividly to life

The Pink Unicorn is a one woman show, with Alice Ripley delivering a stunning performance as a young mother of a gender neutral child. Ripley plays Trisha Lee, a single mother in a conservative Texas town, where her child challenges the town’s norms.

The play, written by real Texan Elise Forier Edie, lays out the story of Trisha in a confessional manner. Her child, Jolene, decides she is genderqueer and then plans a Gay Straight Alliance at her high school. This being Texas, a number of roadblocks rise in their path. First the school bans the club, then the school district steps in to ban all clubs. Throughout this, Trisha is forced into an activist role, because it is her child that is being discriminated against.

Alice Ripley in The Pink Unicorn - Jazelle Artistry
The Pink Unicorn is the story not just of a mother defending her child, but also of the growth of Trisha. She confronts her past as her family weighs in on the changes happening. And she confronts her second family, as the controversy roils her church, where friends and acquaintances stake out different positions. The subtly of Ripley’s performance is perfect and measured. She brings the audience along on this roller coaster, prompting laughs, tears and introspection.

Directed by Amy Jones, The Pink Unicorn is played on a tiny stage at The Episcopal Actors’ Guild at a church. The location gives The Pink Unicorn the intimate feel of a share at a small group meeting. Ms. Jones and Ripley use this space to pull an immediacy into the proceedings. It is a wonderful experience. 

The Pink Unicorn
Playwright: Elise Forier Edie | Director: Amy Jones | Cast

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

God Show Up, and He Has Notes

The theater has a varied relationship with God. He is a remote, but powerful motivator in some Shakespeare and a play like Joan of Arc. He is a presence off-stage, influencing the actions of men in plays across the ages. In God Shows Up, he is a direct character, appearing on the television show of a popular televangelist.

God makes an appearance on the non-denominational, but quite capitalistic, Dr. Thomas Issac Rehan show, live from St. Louis, in the ex-home field of the Rams to answer questions, participate in some give and take, and generally boost the ratings of the show. It is a unique event, one that Dr. Rehan takes full advantage of. As for God, his motivation is only slowly reveled. He has come back to correct some mistakes and characterizations in the holy books and set the record straight with regards to many things said in his name.

Lou Liberatore and Christopher Sutton in God Shows Up
Christopher Sutton plays the televangelist with the easy cadence and charm of a snake-oil salesmen. He handles an obnoxious role extremely well, bringing a genial confidence even when he is discovered to be lying. Lou Liberatore does a great job with the character of God. He is easy going, charming, and bemused by Thomas’ television act. After a bit expectation setting by his character, Mr. Liberatore settles in to the role of God excellently.

The final actress is LeeAnn Hutchison with a rather small part, but it grows in ways I don’t want to spoil.

Most of Gods Shows Up proceeds with humor and a breezy confidence. The play does mock religions’ capitalistic tendencies and the inconsistencies of doctrine, but goes out of its way to be positive about the adherents motivations and actions. It is clever, funny and intelligent without being condescending.

But the play steps into some questionable territory towards the end by drawing a direct connection between Satan and our crop of self-interested televangelists that is a bit over the top and unnecessary. However, that connection does make Christopher Sutton's final words a bit chilling.

Directed by Christopher Scott, God Shows Up moves along nicely. It is aiming for a nice off-Broadway shelf life and it would be well earned, albeit not with evangelical southerners.

God Shows Up
Playwright: Philip Filichia | Director: Christopher Scott | Cast: LeeAnn Hutchison, Lou Liberatore, Christopher Sutton | Website

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Music Hall visits 59E59

At the 59 E 59 Theaters, a very funny throwback show is going on. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, is a Music Hall style review that travels from humorous to hilarious. The piece plays off a 1942 US Army pamphlet of the same name that tried to explain the British to American servicemen.

L-R: James Millard, Dan March in Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain. Photo by Lidia Crisafulli 
The audience is treated as a newly arrived squadron of Army Air Corps being briefed on the traditions of the British. The three man cast is excellent and also wrote the story: Dan March, James Millard and Matt Sheahan. They each play a main character and occasionally bring secondary characters to life.

The play doesn’t have an overarching theme, but plays off a series of vignettes that flow as information to the new troops. All are funny, but some are hilarious. Matt Sheahan’s explanation of the British monetary system in the forties - the time of shillings, pence and farthings - is confusing, impenetrable and wildly funny.

Dan March’s American Colonel is the epitome of a period of US bluster and self-importance. He is the ugly American that makes you laugh both with and at him.

James Millard plays a perfect American guide, trying to bridge the differences, keep the peace and move the training along, without offending either side. Mr. Millard also indulges in the odd British tradition of dressing up in female drag and acting with broad farcical effect. It is dated and silly, but still oddly charming and humorous. 

The audience loved the show, despite a wide range of ages. The three man troupe engages in a lot of audience banter. To their credit, they are able to work both when the audience joins in, and when they have a bunch of stiffs sitting there.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a slight and dated show, but somehow it works even better as a period piece. Today the jokes would be stereotypes and not funny, but here, taking the piss out of both sides, it is all obviously in good fun.

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain
Director : John Walton / Playwrights & Cast: Dan March, James Millard, Matt Sheahan

Friday, April 19, 2019

Norma Jean Baker of Troy (an impression, not a review)

Well, that was weird as hell!

I went (to the Shed) and saw a show last night. It was called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. And starred one of my all-time favorites, Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming, an Opera Star in the best sense with an amazing voice.

It was a show, not a play. More a poem of dance and obsession. It reminded me of the movie Howl, where James Franco recites the poem, as Alan Ginsberg, and the poem plays out around him in action, occasional cartoon and history. Howl is great.

Norman Jean Baker of Troy is not great. It has some great moments. Ben Whishaw is great as always. He has an intensity and voice and movement that is mesmerizing. It is used here to a hypnotic effect. Renée Fleming’s voice is similarly hypnotic and haunting. Her voice is pure energy, rising and falling like a third person in the room.

Putting them together should yield something that is completely different, which NJBOT is. But it should also yield something inviting and urgent, which NJBOT is definitely not.

Renée Fleming as the Transciber

Ben Whishaw recites the lines to a transcriber, Renée Fleming. He describes the fall of Troy substituting Norma Jean for Helen. But is a reflection, a simulacrum, a cloud of Norma Jean (the cloud analogy is used over and over and over again). One that Arthur of Sparta and New York (Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe’s 3rd husband), attempts to recover.

Norma Jean is, according to this told rendition, is held by the gods – not in Egypt as in Euripides poem, but at the Chateau Marmont. NJBOT continues in this tale for ninety minutes. The story-teller brings in the story of Persephone as well. All of these women loved and hated and held for their beauty.

As the poem progresses, Whishaw is slowly, very slowly, transforming into Marilyn in her iconic seven-year itch white dress. And Renée moves from simply transcribing to telling the tale and transcribing and singing and helping with make-up.

A shot probably from the second row. I sat in "D" and barely saw their faces.

It ends, as it must, with Whishaw overdosing and going to sleep.

How is it? Well, I loved it and hated it at the same time. Ben Whishaw and Renée Fleming are unimaginably good, because you simply cannot believe it could hold your attention, and it does. Ms. Fleming’s voice is like nothing I’ve ever heard, but I am not an Opera fan.

And the same time, more than a few people walked out.

As for The Shed, it is way too cavernous for this play. The props were human sized and yet so far from most of the people you knew who the pictures were only because you knmow it is Marilyn Monroe. They need to understand how to use the space. The shows at the Park Avenue Armory give me hope for the space.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Hadestown Tempts, Give In

Hadestown takes the audience on a journey from New Orleans to Hell and back, weaving an entrancing spell all the way. It is almost impossible not to be swept along on the ride with Eurydice and Orpheus as they fall in love with spring, each other and life. Eva Noblezada stars as Eurydice and Reeve Carney as Orpheus, the son of a muse and expert with the lyre and song. They meet as Persephone (Amber Gray, simply killing it) rises from Hell to herald Spring back into the world. The celebratory mood is infectious and joy leaps from the talented cast. When Hades (Patrick Page) summons Persephone back to the underworld, darkness descends. And there, in the cold and dark, Eurydice struggles to survive. Orpheus is too busy writing a song to lure springtime back to notice Eurydice’s plight. And so, she makes a literal deal with the devil giving up freedom for food and warmth.
Eva Noblezada, André De Shields, Reeve Carney
 Guiding us on this journey is André de Shields as Hermes. He moves smoothly, bringing the narrative a sultry and seductive voice. That Andre De Shields still commands the stage isn’t a surprise, but the ease of his performance and casual elegance is a pleasure to behold. No less entertaining, albeit harder working, are the spectacular Fates, the three women who entice and direct the actions of mere mortals. These singers, Jewelle Blackman, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Kay Trinidad move with timing, energy and familiarity of a jazz trio (with an admitted nod to the Pointer Sisters). They are the voice of both doubt and hope.
The early mood of Hadestown is light and breezy, but with the undercurrent of deeper forces. And when those deeper forces rise to the fore, bringing us to Hell, we are confronted with a different reality. Hades rules an underworld that embraces productivity and production, without worrying about an output. It is a terrifying and stark place.
Amber gray as Persephone

Hades and Orpheus are both energized by love to create a world to impress and honor their intended partners. But both lose sight of their partners’ desires in their drive to impress them. Both are so infatuated by their creation, Hades in the industrial behemoth and Orpheus in his song, that the original reason for creation is ignored. Recovering the affections of the women then becomes paramount.
The voices and song are excellent. Mr. Carney’s first tentative steps are part of Orpheus finding his voice. Mr. Page’s amazing bass is all about Hades’ knowing his strength. Eurydice and Persephone’s joyful journeys move from revelry to tenderness in the opposite direction.
Even the chorus of five players is exceptional both vocally and visually. Their expressiveness in dance and voice enhanced the show in great ways, and they move as the audience's surrogates.
Rachel Hauck’s scenic design enhances emotions throughout the journey, but Orpheus’ descent into hell is particularly interesting, done with simple lighting effects. Director Rachel Chavkin has brought Anais Mitchell’s songs and book to life magically. Go see it now, while you can still get tickets.
Music, Lyrics & Book: Anaïs Mitchell / Director: Rachel Chavkin | Cast: Reeve Carney, André de Shields, Amber Gray, Eva Noblezada, Patrick Page / website

Monday, March 18, 2019

Picking Up the Pieces in After

After is a gut punch that sneaks up on you. The play is set in an upscale house, typical of something you would see in Westchester or the Hamptons, smoothing blues and tasteful furniture. And it is populated by the nice mid-upper class semi-repressed white inhabitants you expect. The very normality is what lulls you into the expectation of a simple story with simple answers. Author Michael McKeever gives a straightforward, albeit not simple, story and then delivers the raw emotions that go with it.

The central dynamic of After is the conflict between two sets of parents who are long acquaintances, but not friends. Connie and Alan Beckman (Denise Cormier and Bill Phillips) are visiting the home of Julia and Tate Campbell (Mia Matthews and Michael Frederic). The Beckman’s son was bullied by the Campbell’s son and they have been invited over to discuss the situation. Julia Campbell has also invited her sister who is an old friend of Connie’s. Sister Val (Jolie Curtsinger) comes to the discussion as a referee of sorts.

Mia Matthews, Jolie Curtsinger, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Michael Frederic in AFTER at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by John Quilty Photography
What follows is a series of three scenes, each dealing with more complexity from the original incident. The emotions drive into and then past the stereotypes of the characters. Denise Cormier is an over-protective mother of a sensitive son. Bill Phillips plays her husband as a beta male, a man who just lost his job in the cut-throat world of finance. In contrast, the Campbells are the power couple. Mia Matthews is the perfect housewife and mother, perfect to the point of obsession. Michael Fredric is her husband, an alpha male who sees anything less that outright injury as boys being boys as they become men.

Jolie Curtsinger is the woman in the middle. She is Julia’s sister, but an old friend of Connie. She exists to give us voice and insight into these people who, left to their own devices, would simply bluster and leave. She is the catalyst that moves them past their own viewpoints. It sounds a bit forced, but in practice it is an organic element that greatly benefits After.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot because After should be a bit of a surprise for the full  effect, even when it feels a bit predictable. But rest assured, the performances are uniformly flawless. Michael Frederic can never drop his alpha demeanor and yet he still brings a depth to the performance that is shocking. And the transformation of Mia Matthews as the perfect housewife is harrowing. By contrast the transformation of Denise Cormier and Bill Phillips seem at first a shorter journey. But the depth they bring to the characters is wonderful. And Jolie Curtsinger never feels anything but critical to the action.

I loved After. I was surprised and touched by this show. It is a bit of a throwback to peal at the emotions of an upper middleclass privileged family but in using these characters the commonality of emotions is explored. It is wonderfully directed by Joe Brancato allowing his actors freedom to feel, and never letting it feel over the top.

Playwright:Michael McKeever | Director: Joe Brancato | Cast: Mai Matthews, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier, Jolie Curtsinger, Michael Frederic

Friday, March 15, 2019

Kiss Me Kate is Revived Right

I was skeptical about a revival of Kiss Me Kate. It is a fairly sexist show based on a very sexist play. It probably did not seem sexist or questionable when first performed. Both Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Porter’s Kiss Me Kate are classics, but they are problematic in their treatment of women. Somehow director Scott Ellis has put together a fun, massively entertaining, high spirited show that manages to avoid the stereotypes that inhabit both pieces. This Kiss Me Kate glides effortlessly through and around the problems, while preserving the energy and excitement of the original. 

The company gets Too Darn Hot
The plot of the show is a device to hang some magical Cole Porter songs on. A theater is putting on Taming of the Shrew. The show within a show stars Lilli Vanessi (Kelli O’Hara) and Fred Graham (Will Chase) a formerly married couple. They are still in love - which is obvious to the audience, if not the couple involved. The secondary couple in Shrew, Bianca and Lucentino are played by Lois (Stephanie Styles) and Bill (Corbin Blue), a couple who are dating and still in the discovery phase.

Kelli O’Hara’s voice is enthralling, and she is given full voice in most of the numbers. This brings new heartbreak to So In Love and an adult’s hesitancy to I Hate Men. Will Chase is no match for her voice-wise, no one is, and instead brings an adult perspective and weariness to his numbers Where Is The Life That Late I Led and So In Love.

If that were all that was great here, I could highly recommend Kiss Me Kate, but this revival shines far beyond these two. The ensemble numbers stand out with amazing voices and dancing. Adrienne Walker steals Another Op’nin’, Another Show and James T. Lane leads the ensemble in bringing the audience to their feet in Too Darn Hot.

Corbin Blue, more mature than you might remember, tears up the floor, the stairs, the railings and a ceiling dancing and tapping through Bianca. And Stephanie Styles blazes through Always True to You in My Fashion with a lot of stage business to cover the rather mercurial morals of the song. Only Brush Up on Your Shakespeare falls a little flat, and only due to repeated repetition. 

Corbin Blue tears it up
Amanda Green is credited with the additional material, and her material turns the show from a relic that one is a bit embarrassed to enjoy, into a flat out fun study of the growth of love in both sexes. Admirably directed by Scott Ellis, who has experience with revivals like She Loves Me and You Can’t Take It With You, this production playfully pulls you in.

Kiss Me Kate
Music and Lyrics: Cole Porter | Book: Sam and Bella Spewack | Additional Material: Amada Green | Director: Scott Ellis | Cast: Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Blue, Stephanie Styles, Adrienne Walker, James T. Lane, John Pankow, Terence Archie, Mel Johnson Jr., Lance Coadie Williams

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase ignoring each other
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