Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Head Over Heels is a Feast of Fun

A good recipe can make a fine dish, be it food or musical theater. Just the right amount of Act I intrigue with lyrical exposition and Act II redemption with swooning love songs, built on a recycled movie can brew up a sweet and charming (if expected) story. But, like a great cook, Head Over Heels throws out the recipe book and tosses all kinds of unexpected odds and ends into the pot. Sixteenth century pastoral story, check. Music by a 1980s new-wave girls band, check. Modern update to a sex comedy, done. And out of this eclectic grab bag, Heads Over Hells tears off the stage to grab your interest and rarely let it go.
Taylor Iman Jones opens Head Over Hells with a snap and a bang
The word exuberant seems designed for this evening of entertainment that will put a smile on your face; a smile that doesn’t leave until hours after the curtain comes down. It is headed by a trio of young women who discover their strength and their loves. The voice of these three will stun you as they grow to take over the stage.

The story, for those of us not up to date on 16th century pastoral romances, is thus. The King of Arcadia faces a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi that he will lose his kingdom after 4 conditions come to pass. Two concerning his daughters and two concerning him. To avoid this fate, he takes the entire court on a fanciful march into the woods on a flimsy lie. The King and Queen (Broadway veterans Jeremy Kushner and Rachel York) set out bickering in word and tune.

They are joined by their daughters Pamela (Bonnie Mulligan) and Philoclea (Alexandra Socha), the subject of two of the prophecies.  Pamela has rejected all suitors to date and depends on her servant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones) for company. Philoclea, alternatively, has had her love, lowly shepherd Musidorus (Andrew Durand) rejected by her father. These three women, Bonnie Mulligan, Alexandra Socha and Taylor Iman Jones give Head Over Heels its fantastic voice. They can sing sweetly or belt out the songs of the Go-gos with heart, edge and flair. They can sound like the young lady rockers when they want to and yet can interpret songs in a way you never heard, so that words tell a fresh story. These three are what kicks Head Over Heels into overdrive.

Andrew Durand carries much of the comic weight (with an amazing assist from Bonnie Mulligan) as Musidorus who will go to any lengths for his beloved. The Oracle is played, well over the top, by Peppermint, an actor who honed their skill’s on Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Bonnie Mulligan rips it up as Pamela
It is pure old style hokum rendered new by the talented cast, including a chorus of sexual mischievous dancers and actors. Spencer Liff provides quite a modern twist for the choreography. Arcadia is rendering in cartoon glory by Julian Crouch’s scenic design and Kevin Adams’ lighting. Tom Kitt has rearraigned some of the Go-go’s tunes and kept others which sound as fresh as you remember. This mélange of ingredients has been masterfully directed by Michael Mayer, making the show glide along quickly.

Had I not seen the audience, I would wonder who this show appeals to. I know that fans from the 1980’s would embrace the music, and LGBT fans would embrace the heart of this show (and the dynamic turn of Peppermint). But everyone in the theatre loved this show and had a great time, from the young girls and out of towners who weren’t sure what to expect to the locals who might be a bit apprehensive of another jukebox show. Head Over Hells delighted us all.

Head Over Heels | Book:Adapted by James Magruder Original Book: Jeff Whitty | Director: Michael Mayer | Cast: Andrew Durand, Taylor Iman Jones, Jeremy Kushnier, Bonnie Milligan, Peppermint, Tom Alan Robbins, Alexandra Socha, Rachel York

Friday, July 20, 2018

Edward Gero Brings Scalia to Life in The Originalist

The Originalist has a lot to say about the Constitution, the Supreme Court and our country’s inability to discuss politics and find a middle ground. In this, it is more relevant now that it was when written in 2015. It is also a bit harder to watch now than in 2015.

Edward Gero inhabits the role of Judge Antonin Scalia, and brings him to life with vitality, humor and panache. Scalia loudly believes in ruling from the court on the original intent of the authors of the constitution, not any interpretation. Mr. Gero sells Mr. Scalia’s ideals with forcefulness and self-assurance and deals with liberals with contempt. Like the real Justice Scalia, he invites a liberal into his den, but only one smart enough to engage with him.

Tracy Ifeachor plays Cat, the liberal law clerk that becomes sparring partner, sounding board and, ultimately, friend. Ms. Ifeachor does a great job with the part, challenging the Justice enough to work with him, but not enough to truly offend him. This is not the dramatic stretch it might seem; Justice Scalia did often employ one liberal clerk on his team.

L-R: Edward Gero and Tracy Ifeachor in  THE ORIGINALIST. Photo by Joan Marcus
In the course of The Originalist, Scalia and Cat banter back and forth, the conservative judge and the liberal clerk. If they don’t always find a middle ground, and they rarely do, at least they are honest enough to listen to each other and understand their viewpoints. Throughout Cat’s year with the Judge, she proves her intellectual value repeatedly.

But there is a problem with The Originalist, and it is that the world has changed in ways that were unexpected. Justice Scalia was often on the wrong side of very close decisions and the play gives him a voice, trying to explain to future audiences what motivated this man and what made him tick. Yet less than one year later Justice Scalia passed away. His replacement was appointed by President Obama, whom Scalia hated, but that man was never confirmed or even interviewed. Rather the seat was stolen and given to another believer in original intent. Throw-away comments that would be funny if history proceeded according to precedence, are now arrows at the heart of our system.

Edward Gero’s irascible Justice Scalia was endearing because he was the last stand of an embittered, privileged group of angry white men. Now that he isn’t the last stand, but perhaps at the forefront of the next few decades, the show isn’t nearly as funny. In trying to find a middle ground, Scalia mocks Cat as lacking the killer instinct which will doom liberals. She notes back that history is on her side. It turns out Justice Scalia was right.

The cast here is fantastic, both Mr. Gero and Miss Ifeachor are brilliant. Brett Mack, in a small role, was so perfectly loathsome I wanted to smack him from his entrance in annoying preppy boots. Author John Strand gives us a wonderful play that strives to make the point that we need to value the opinion of the other side, and Director Molly Smith brings it to life on stage. Unfortunately for the country, they are signing (Opera) to the choir.

The Originalist | Author: John Strand | Director: Molly Smith | Cast: Edward Gero, Tracy Ifeachor, Brett Mack | website

Trainspotting Live Splashes Down In New York City

For those audience members that might not have visited the Roy Arias Stage before, the walk up to the second floor for Trainspotting Live NYC is a bit of a surreal experience. The staircase winds up through a tall, nondescript stairwell and drops you into a warehouse like interior, a bar behind you and the greeter the only indications you’re in the right place. Grab a drink, and line up to enter the (graffiti filled) black box theater to the flashes of neon, the beat of 1990s dance music and the exuberant cast and you know you’re in for something wildly different.
Trainspotting Live is an immersive experience not just of light, music, and the occasional liquids but of joy, despair and elation. It is based on the book, not the movie, so some scenes may seem out of sequence or lacking altogether - if your only experience with Trainspotting is the 1996 movie of the same name. But in the moment, alive with intensity, it doesn’t really matter.
Andrew Barrett as Renton in Trainspotting Live
Many of the set pieces are funny, gross and rude. The audience is treated occasionally as a coconspirator, sometimes as an enemy and sometimes simply as voyeurs. But the audience never feels forgotten or superfluous.
For those that have no connection to the book or movie, some of the surprising moments can be jarring.  Trainspotting Live is the story of Renton and his group of friends, surviving in the heroin scene in Edinburgh in the 90s. Andrew Barrett does an amazing job anchoring Renton inside this immersive funhouse of a show. Renton is ring master, bedrock and sounding board for his friends: Tommy and Sick Boy. Greg Esplin (Tommy) and Tariq Malik (Sick Boy) are, like Mr. Barrett, excellent in holding our attention in the course of the evening. Mr. Esplin is particularly effective as his good boy spirals off the rails after a bad love affair.
The other cast members, Lauren Downie, Pia Hagen, Tom Chandler and Oliver Sublet, pull duty as multiple characters, bringing the story to vibrant life. Each and everyone of them have standout moments that bewitch, enthrall or jar the audience into attention. To watch Lauren Downie seamlessly switch from an uptight mum into a frightening date who is demanding to lose her anal virginity is quite an impressive sight (if a bit scary).
Andrew Barrett, Lauren Downie, Pia Hagen and Olivier Sublet
Renton’s journey is documented from party boy to heroin enthusiast to detox, to the one sober member of his team, as his friends take paths that are sometimes parallel and sometimes skew far away from Renton’s own.
There are some scenes that are designed (in the book and the show) to gross us out. In particular, the embarrassing morning after a night of sex and the most disgusting toilet in Scotland scenes, will put some people off. But for the audience I was with, those scenes somehow morphed into bonding moments that brought us along with the storytellers.
Trainspotting Live is crazy fun entertainment. I love the immersiveness of a show like Sleep No More, but Trainspotting Live takes it up a few notches as the actors acknowledge and revel in the audience, blithely taking us on a youthful, embarrassing and exhilarating trip most of us have long since outgrown.
Trainspotting Live | Playwright: Irvine Welsh (novel) Harry Gibson (Adaptation) | Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher, Greg Esplin | Cast: Andrew Barrett, Tom Chandler, Lauren Downie, Greg Esplin, Pia Hagen, Tariq Malik, Olivier Sublet | website