Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

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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Monday, March 11, 2019

A Fantasia of Balkan Awaking (Gay Division)

What is the best way to present a tale of gay liberation in a very conservative society? If you want to reach a wide audience, and have them listen, then make it entertaining. The theater company Quendra Multimedia has done just that with 55 Shades of Gay: Balkan Spring of Sexual Revolution.

55 Shades is set in Kosovo, a small and struggling country, where European Union money comes with an expectation of European values. In a small town, Italian aid money supports the building of a new condom factory that will provide much needed jobs for the population. An Italian working on the project has fallen in love with a local Kosovan man and requests permission for marriage. The problem, they are both men in a deeply homophobic town and country.

The request for marriage sets off a furious search for some reason, any reason, to outlaw it. But the town mayor and then the country’s Prime Minister realize that the Constitution, created by the EU and signed to stop the war of independence from Serbia, includes a clause that allows marriage between couples of the same gender. 

To explore that frustration of the locals, the plays produces a series of vignettes, songs and media displays trying to distract the Italian from marrying the local man. That frustration is not reserved for the gay couple, but spreads to the European Union representatives that try to impose their values, the bourgeois artists that back the family laws of heterosexuality, and the Catholic and Muslim churches, finally united in opposition to something.

55 Shades is presented primarily in English with some Albanian and with English dialog is projected on the rear wall during the show. The 5 players are frenetic and focused, bringing a sense of energy and playfulness that softens the possible hard edges of the show. It is billed as a contemporary burlesque and uses the variety format to skewer the bigotry of the locals, the smugness of the EU and the stubbornness of everyone involved.

But first and foremost, the company knows this show has to entertain, and 55 Shades does a great job of it. The pace is fast and quick. Some of the techniques hit their mark excellently, like the tree outside the mayor’s office which listens on the proceedings and a few others don’t. But the play more often takes flight than not. It is definitely not a piece for those that like their shows deliberate and linear. But if you are looking for a flight of fun and expression of freedom, 55 Shades of Gay: Balkan Spring of Sexual Revolution provides that.

55 Shades of Gay: Balkan Spring of Sexual Revolution
Playwright: Jeton Neziraj | Director: Blerta Neziraj | Cast: Tristan Halilaj, Bujar Ahmeti, Shegyl Ismaili, Semira Latifi, Alketa Sylaj and Luan Durmishi (vocals)

Friday, March 1, 2019

Superhero Fades in the Stretch

Superhero, premiering at the 2nd Stage Theater, with a book by John Logan and music & lyrics by Tom Kitt (composer of Next to Normal) promises a heady ride. And the show starts off fast and interesting, before getting lost. The second half meanders around a bit before just running out of ideas. It is too bad because there is some amazing singing by Kate Baldwin and (one of my personal favorites) Bryce Pinkham. The debut of Kyle McArthur also starts out strong, before winding down.

Superhero is the story of a 15 young man – Simon (Kyle McArthur) trying to pull his high school life together after the death of his father and the remoteness of his mother (Kate Baldwin).  They have moved to a new city, generic high-rises and problems, where Simon attends school. Whenever he can he draws. He draws superheroes in comic stories that take off on the stage, an interesting idea that is used well early on. 
Kyle McArthur as Simon, in Superhero

Simon sleep-walks through life, looking up only to see the cute environmental activist at school (Salena Qureshi) and his comics. Until ... he happens to see his neighbor flatten a fire hydrant with a single punch. The elusive neighbor, Joe (Bryce Pinkham) might really be a superhero. After Joe gets closer by dating mom and befriending Simon, Joe admits (to Simon only) that he is a real Superhero. Sent from another planet to protect people of earth, when he can. We see Joe use super strength, and we see him bolt out on a beam of light.

Is Joe a sad, pathetically lonely man spinning stories to make friends? Is Joe mentally ill? Is Joe really a superhero?  Oddly, those questions don’t seem to matter in the story. Joe is ultimately unable to be there for Simon and mom because either, a) the demands on a superhero are constant or, b) he is too emotionally damaged to be physically available.

In any event, Joe flakes on being there for Simon and mom. He moves out of the city, and Simon and mom move on with their lives.  It isn’t much of a story for over 2 hours of theater. This is surprising because writer John Logan was the Tony winning writer of Red, and the screenwriter of Skyfall, Hugo and a host of other great stories. Superhero could use a rewrite, or use some deep trims. 

Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham
The songs from the wonderful Tom Kitt are not wonderful. Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham lend their amazing voices, but still can’t give most of these songs flight. A fantastic writer and fantastic composer have collaborated to give us a superhero story that is flat and boring.

I enjoyed Superhero, because listening to Kate Baldwin and Bryce Pinkham sing live, even not the best songs, is a thrill for me. But I cannot recommend it to others. The rewards are few, and spread out over a too long, too dull play.

Book: John Logan, Music & Lyrics: Tom Kitt | Director: Jason Moore | Cast: Julia Abueva, Kate Baldwin, Jake Levy, Kyle McArthur, Bryce Pinkham, Salena Qureshi, Thom Sesma, Nathaniel Stampley