Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Late to the Party: The Raucously Funny Party of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

Lisa O'Hare pouts in front of Bryce Pinkham
I missed the opening, and so yesterday I ventured forth into the bitter cold to see A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.  It was exceptionally fun.  Based ever so mildly on the old Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, it follows the story of one Montgomery (D’Ysquith) Navarro, as he sets out to reclaim his name (and possibly fortune) from the family that disowned his mother, who committed the sin of marrying a (gasp of indignation) Castilian.

Bryce Pinkham – so charming in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and so evil in Ghost plays the charming Monty Navarro.  Stymied at the chance to claim his family name and make even a modest income, he sets about to claim the family fortune and Lordship via a murderous route.

In his way stay 8 heirs to the family fortune – all played (for their rather short stage presence) by Jefferson Mays.  Mr. Mays manages to change costumes and personas in the blink of an eye. And Monty Navarro manages to extinguish them just as quickly.  Serial carnage has rarely been so enjoyable to watch.

It is set charmingly within a secondary stage upon the stage, so that the story and the songs can go on, while the scene is set for the next “accident”.   And yet, the dispatch of the denizens of D”Ysquith Manor is not the only plot.  That might make it a tedious, if humerous adventure.

No, there is a love interest.  In fact two love interests. Monty begins his quest in order to claim the affections of Sibella Hallward – Lisa O’Hare.  Sibella has given her hand in marriage to another, but the rest of her she serves up to Monty regularly.  
Joanna Glushak, Lauren Worsham, Bryce Pinkham, LIsa O'Hare and Jefferson Mays
As he works his way through the D’Ysquith, Monty is entranced by the young and beautiful Phoebe D’Ysquith (Lauren Worsham - charming).  Luckily for Phoebe, she sits even lower on the inheritance totem pole, he can pursue her romantically rather than plotting her demise.

The music of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is catchy and fun, if a bit Music Hall.  It captures the spirit of fun, the setting of the piece without being typical.

The reviews for this are correct, it is a hoot.
A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
Book & Lyrics: Robert L. Freedman
Music & Lyrics:Steven Lutvak
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Cast: Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays, Lisa O'Hare, Lauren Worsham, Jane Carr

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Alone With Friends – A Set of Holiday Traditions

Alone with Friends is the latest in an on-going collaboration between the Holiday House NYC and the Fundamental Theater Project.   Every year, the Holiday House invites designers to decorate a New York City home for the Holidays.  This year proceeds go to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation.  In the last three years, the Holiday House has also been home to the Fundamental Theater Company’s one act Holiday themed play.  Performed on the fourth floor in a large space, this is always a high point of the season for myself as a reviewer.  The combination of the Holiday House and a well-done one act is Christmas treat.

Rob Bradford, Allison Henning, Alison Blair & Blake Merriman in Alone With Friends

Alone with Friends is a romantic comedy, which puts a few relationship stereotypes to good use in order to weave a complex narrative together in a short amount of time.  The play explores the relationship between two long time friends; Adam and Tom, as Tom express a romantic interest in Adam’s sister.  Instead of the expected anger or sibling protectiveness, Adam is aghast because his sister Matilda is horrible relationship material.  Matilda is a beautiful, slightly out of reach woman that makes men swoon without thought or hesitancy.

Adam also has a semi-girlfriend. Bridget.  They have been together(-ish) for a long time and have fallen into some bad habits.  Adam, the child of privilege and genial good looks, is the type of all around guy that most men would like to be.  Self-confident without being arrogant, he is oblivious to his own short-comings.  A trait reinforced by over indulgent friends and family.

But Matilda is the untortured catalyst of the piece.  She has an easy beauty, natural flirtatiousness, and an elegant grace that makes the simplest of movements vaguely sexual.  There is no question why poor Tom would fall for her, and no question that it will ultimately end badly – it is the when that is still up in the air.

Writer Ben Holbrook has put a ticking clock on the proceeds by having the foursome get ready to travel to Adam and Matilda’s grandparents for the Holidays.  And director Nicola Murphy does a good job of moving the action without forcing the pace.

All of the acting is very good, with Rob Bradford’s Adam and Blake Merriman’s Tom doing some great work as long time friends who are breaking out of well-established patterns.   Alison Blair’s Bridget is played so well that the audience immediately identifies with her joys and frustrations. Allison Henning handles the difficult role of Matilda perfectly, walking a tight rope of indifference, bemusement and jest.  As played in the Holiday House, it seems a stolen holiday moment from a family that is familiar.  The combination of the Holiday House and Alone With Friends makes for a great destination this season.
Alone With Friends
Playwright: Ben Holbrook
Director: Nicola Murphy
Cast: Alison Blair, Rob Bradford, Allison Henning, Blake Merriman

Bedlam’s St. Joan is a Whirlwind of Power

Clocking over two and a half hours, George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan can rarely be described as breakneck, but the Bedlam theater group upends all expectations and brings a vibrant and joyful St. Joan to life. The four actors tear into the play with the enthusiasm and restraint of a 5 year old on Christmas Morning.  This is no tale of a woman laboring under the heavy shadow of God, but the story of a 14 year old girl caught up in the jubilation of the moment.

Andrus Nichols plays the young Joan with boundless energy, limitless optimism, deep faith and no restraint.  The characters around Joan respond to this infectious girl warrior by being swept up in the moment, ready to follow her anywhere.  I came into the show with visions of historical exposition and leaden monologues, but in moments my fears proved entirely unfounded.  This Saint Joan is a force of nature, if not God.  She wears her heart on her sleeve.  And though we can question her decisions, we cannot question her devotion to them.  Joan of Arc can come off as a dull, pious scold, limited by her single-minded determination.  Ms. Nichols plays this role so differently that you wonder if you ever seen the role before.

She is supported by three wonderful actors, who play all the other roles.  Each of these men has a signature role (or two), but in each and every case, they contribute to racing the play along

Edmund Lewis brings a diffident and cautious demeanor to the role of the Dauphin, and a hungry bloodlust to the role of John de Stogumber.  The tie between the two characters is a single-minded purpose, free from any intellectual reflection or doubt.

Eric Tucker as Warwick must carry the author’s moral and lesson.  He does this so well that Warwick doesn’t seem lecturing, but rueful.  He laments the passing of the feudal system as a passage to anarchy.  And Mr. Tucker’s opening Robert de Baudricourt sets the manic energy perfectly in the opening scene.
Eric Tucker, Tom O'Keefe and Edmund Lewis
The final actor is Tom O’Keefe who brings to life various characters from the church.  These pious men are content to let Joan lead troops into battle, but unwilling to allow her to rejoice in her faith.  The physical reality of her, she who dresses like a man and claims to speak directly with God and the Saints, is too much of a heretic against the structure church and it’s monopoly on the Lord.

There are no sets as such in this wonderful St. Joan.  A chair is used here, a sign there.  But the beauty of the staging is the wild use of the space.  At both intervals, the seating is altered so that the audience is confronted with the characters in a new way.  What starts as a traditional “stage front” arraignment morphs and the audience is swept into a new interaction with the piece.  With other shows, it would often seem gimmicky, but with this show and these actors, it works completely.  Kudos to Director Eric Tucker (the actor mentioned above) and the entire company for throwing themselves so wholeheartedly into this piece.
St. Joan
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Eric Tucker
Cast: Andrus Nichols, Edmund Lewis, Tom O'Keefe, Eric Tucker

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

John Jeffery Martin Rocks It in Kinky Boots as Charlie Price Understudy

As a reviewer, I always find understudies and replacement players fascinating in a show.  Sometimes they simply fill in, not quite managing to provide the star power needed for a role; for example, everyone noticed the absence of Kristin Chenoweth in Promises Pomises or Nick Adams in Priscilla.  Other times they can change the entire tone of the show in novel and unexpected ways, as with Kyle Dean Massey in the role of Gabe in Next to Normal.  But most of the time, the depth of talent on Broadway allows another actor to shine in a role.

John Jeffrey Martin
It was with these questions in mind that I watched John Jeffrey Martin filling in for Stark Sands in Kinky Boots, as Charlie Price.

Full disclosure, I have seen Mr. Martin over the years perform in various venues, like the New York Musical Theater Festival and NY Fringe and my expectations were high to begin with.  (If you haven’t attended one of these festivals, you are missing out.  These are amazing locations to see some of New York’s best and newest talent up close and inexpensively.)

Mr. Martin’s Charlie Price did not disappoint.   The artistic differences between Mr. Sands and Mr. Martin are minor.  Stark Sands infuses the role with slightly more lightness and humor, making some of the earlier interactions with Lola a bit funnier.  Mr. Martin infuses Charlie with a bit more resignation, making the later interactions with Lola a bit more poignant.  The changes are subtle and the audience reacts to both actors jubilantly.   They are both excellent in the role.

Really excellent. 

Subway shot as a member of the Ensemble
When John Jeffrey Martin finishes the first act, people return to their program, surprised to see that the actor playing Charlie is an understudy.  

The role, the production and the very fine cast, all hum along without missing the slightest beat.  Mr. Martin’s cast mates, particularly Billy Porter, Annaleigh Ashford and Lena Hall, maintain the same vital connections to Charlie when played either by Mr. Sands or Mr. Martin. 

The high point for Mr. Martin in the role of Charlie occurs during the song “The Soul of a Man”. In this number, he lets his harder edged vocal chops run free and raises the roof.  It is a great moment, moving immediately to Mr. Porter’s song, “Hold Me in Your Heart” which also grabs the audience.  These two songs whip the audience into the finale of the show, never letting them catch their breath.

If you happen to see Kinky Boots, and find John Jeffrey Martin is playing the role of Charlie Price, don’t worry in the slightest.  The kid rocks it.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Twelfe Night in Rare Form at the Belasco

Richard Shakespeare’s Twelfe Night is a comically complex piece of puffery, executed to perfection onstage at the Belasco Theatre by Shakespeare’s Globe productions.  The synopsis should be read before the piece begins, but pre-performance stage rituals prevent most of the audience from doing so.  Never mind, the Twelfe Night, in this abridged format, takes pains to keep the audience up to speed on the current identity of the many characters.

In short, there is a shipwrecked young woman, Viola, who is one of only 2 survivors of a disaster at sea.  Stranded in Illyria, she disguises herself as a young man, Cesario, and enters the service of Duke Orsino.  Duke Orsino is bewitched by the beauty of fair Olivia, but Olivia is in mourning and will not receive any suitors.  The Duke sends Cesario to plead his case, but Olivia falls in love with the messenger, not the sender.
Samuel Barnett as Viola (as Ceserio) & Mark Rylance as Olivia

Meanwhile, Olivia’s house is full of shenanigans.  She has a suitor in residence, Sir Andrew Aguecheck, a housemaid, a fool, the steward Malvolio, and a cousin, Sir Toby Belch all visiting the estate.  As celebrations of twelfth night festivities begin, Malvolio enters to scold the household at the frivolity - while the lady of the house is in mourning.  The party, unfairly chastised, concocts a plan to embarrass Malvolio in front of his mistress Olivia.

Meanwhile elsewhere, Viola’s twin brother was not, as thought, drowned.  The brother, Sebastian, and his friend Antonio proceed to Orsino’s court, and thereafter he is introduced to the lady Olivia’s company.  Chaos ensues, as if it hadn’t ensued already.

As it would be in Shakespeare’s time, the sparkling cast is all male. Mark Rylance proves wonderful as Olivia, a woman who is delighted to find inappropriate passion and annoyed at the inability to quench it.  Samuel Barnett somehow pulls off Viola pretending to be a man, and uncomfortable with the duplicity.  His is a strong performance, necessary when playing opposite Mr. Rylance.

Stephen Fry as Malvolio and Mark Rylance
I would be remiss not to mention Stephen Fry as Malvolio.  Having been a long time fan, his New York premiere was a fantastic surprise to me (I should have investigated more thoroughly, but sometimes the best gifts are the unexpected).  His Malvolio was given the flare of Lord Melchett, and was a joy to behold.

The set was created as homage to the great halls of the aristocracy, flanked with audience members.  Director Tim Carroll made wonderful use of the space, the play and this most excellent cast in this wonderful performance of Twelfe Night.
Twelfe Night (in rep with King Richard The Third)
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Tim Carroll
Cast: Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, Stephen Fry, Liam Brennan, Colin Hurley, Paul Chahidi, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Jospeh Timms, Angus Wright