Sunday, May 24, 2015

Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project

The questions asked by Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project are fascinating ones. How did certain women in history to break away from stifling expectations and become pirates? How did these women survive traveling on ships full of men? Money helped (Jeanne de Clisson, 1330-1359; Grace O'Malley, 1530-1603; Ching Shih, 1775-1844). If you owned the fleet, you didn't have to answer to anyone. Another option was to pass as a male (Anne "Bonne" Bonney, 1697-1720; Mary "Mark" Read, 1700-1782), hiding in plain sight. 

Why would a woman take this unusual and dangerous road? According to Blood Red Roses, presented by Drama of Works, the reasons include, respectively, revenge, honor, power, escape, and survival. These are juicy motivations, and these are fascinating women, Unfortunately, the amiable, intermittently clever Blood Red Roses doesn't begin to do them justice. 

The show is broken into five parts, each focusing on one or two of the women. The sections begin with brief songs of introduction, using the melody of "Rolling Sea" (based on "Sailor Laddie") with new lyrics. Sometimes three-syllable words are jammed into one-syllable spaces; sometimes one-syllable words are stretched to three beats. The results are awkward and difficult to understand.

The stories are told with the help of shadow puppets, some of which (e.g., the sailboats) get old fast. There is a lot of narration and little in the way of scenes, and the women's great adventures end up reduced to little more than shadows themselves. (The brief bios of the women in the program have more depth.) In addition, the pacing is uneven; the show occasionally grinds to a halt. On the positive side, there are many songs, nicely sung, and the occasional good joke.

The overall quality of Blood Red Roses is that of a high school show, but I'm not sure why. There are moments here and there that reveal both writing and acting talent; why weren't these skills used to a fuller extent? I wonder if the ensemble--who also created, wrote, and designed the show--simply aimed too low, settling for friendly and cute. I can't help but think that Blood Red Roses could have been a much more enjoyable--and meaningful--evening in the theatre if the ensemble had taken the time to write real scenes, hone the lyrics, and polish the pacing. (Also, six pirates may just be too many for one show.)

These amazing women pirates--and the audience--deserve  that extra effort.

(press ticket; first row)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Permission

Jenny Anderson
Permission, Robert Askins' new play at MCC, is an entertaining if undercooked tangle of ideas that don't fully cohere. Using, as a springboard, the apparently real and squirmingly icky subculture of couples who practice Christian Domestic Discipline, the play ponders--if, ultimately, not all that deeply--broader questions about religion, power relationships, personal happiness, and marital bliss.

Act I opens on two couples--Zach and Michelle (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Nicole Lowrance) and Eric and Cynthia (Justin Bartha and Elizabeth Reaser)--gathering for dinner at Zach and Michelle's well-appointed Waco, Texas, home. Zach, a slickly confident sporting-goods salesman, informs Eric that business is so great that he'll be opening a second store. Eric is not as happy or as sure of himself as Zach seems. A professor at the nearby university, he wants the Dean to make him chair of the computer science department, but doesn't have the self-esteem to fight for the position. (Look, I've got insider information here, but seriously, Askins needs to spend maybe five minutes learning about the way college administrations function, because no, that's just not even how it works a little bit, ever.) Also, his marriage isn't at its best: Cynthia drinks too much and has been spending her days actively avoiding the novel she's supposed to be writing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project



Yo ho ho ... here be the tales of some of the most infamous women pirates known. Staged on the 100-year-old Lehigh Valley Barge No. 79 in Red Hook, also home to The Waterfront Museum, Blood Red Roses: The Female Pirate Project uses shadow puppetry and sea shanties to tell the stories of six fierce females.

The location adds to the experience, and requires attendees to walk along a pier with a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline, up a gangway wrapped with sparkling green lights. Throughout the show, the barge gently rocks and rolls as the story unfolds. The five-member ensemble enthusiastically sings a dozen traditional, but slightly modified songs, clearly enjoying themselves and the material.

The shadow puppetry is fun to look at,  but often seems unsophisticated -- there's beating hearts to signify love and simple boats with sails ... a lot. Some of the stories engage more than others. Grace O'Malley, an Irish lass, who reportedly met with the Queen Elizabeth I over a cruel governor's treatment of her family, and successfully navigated the seas as a merchant/pillager in the 1500s, is a fascinating enough character that several shows have been written about her, including the musical, The Pirate Queen, by Les Mis collaborators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (with Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey).  Also, interesting was the portion on two cross-dressing pirates that spent many years disguised as men, Anne "Bonne" Bonney and Mary "Mark" Read, who remarkably ended up on the same ship.

The multiple story lines are easy to follow since a bell is rung and the song, "Rolling Sea," is sung each time there's a switch. Whether that decision was from Director Gretchen Van Lente or Music Director Amy Carrigan, it works beautifully since the catchy "Oh my rolling sailor, when she's on a rolling sea" lyrics are quite hummable and some audience members were singing along by the end of the show. Plus, there is an excellent version of "What Do We Do With a Drunken Sailor" - that slightly deviates from the one you may have learned in elementary school chorus.

Blood Red Roses is divided into five parts: Revenge, Honor, Survival and Escape, Power and Adventure, defining the main theme of each women's life--the construct doesn't work as it insinuates that these female pirates were one-dimensional, something their stories show as untrue. Their tales fascinate, and the further reading list in the program will certainly be used by many audience members. The show, except for some indecent language (they are pirates, after all), is appropriate for older children. My 11-year-old sang the "Rolling Sea" song all the way home.


Runs through May 31. Shows are Friday, Saturday and Sunday and begin at sundown (around 8:15 p.m.) For tickets: http://bloodredroses.brownpapertickets.com/

(Press tickets)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Doctor Zhivago


Doctor Zhivago closes today after just 49 performances (including previews) ... and that's a shame. Because even though it mostly deserves the mixed to negative reviews it received, the show has its merits, including some stellar performances and musical numbers. It didn't get any Tony nominations, but Tam Mutu as Yurii Zhivago was nominated for a Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance and Paul Alexander Nolan as Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov got an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.

Two well-deserved nods since both gave rich performances at the show I saw on Thursday night, especially Mutu, known for roles in the West End productions Les Miserables and City of Angels and who made his Broadway debut in the show. As Dr. Zhivago, a poet/doctor, he convincingly shows the conflict he feels for loving Lara Guishar (Kelli Barrett) while married to childhood sweetheart and mother of his son, Tonia (Lora Lee Gayer).

The show, based after the 1958 Boris Pasternak novel, offers lovely ballads--although a few more upbeat numbers would enliven the show more--from composer Lucy Simon (The Secret Garden) and lyricists Michael Korie (Grey Gardens) and Amy Powers (Lizzie Borden). The book is written by Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends). "Watch the Moon," a romantic duet between Yurii and Tonia, before he leaves for war, and "Love Finds You," a summary of the mismatched loves of the major characters beautifully describe the power and despair that love offers. The one truly upbeat piece, "It's a Godsend," is a fun send-off piece that features the traditional Russian squat dancing.

Still, the show's bulky source material trimmed down often leaves plot holes (SPOILER ALERT HERE: What exactly happens after Lara escapes? How does Pasha go from earnest school boy to ruthless dictator? Why does everyone love Lara so fiercely when her character is written mostly as a milquetoast?) Plus, is the CSI-style depiction of war, with its bloody wounds and loud pepper of gunfire, necessary?  Perhaps Director Des McAnuff wants to show the brutality of war, but what is most evocative of the despair such battles render is seen in the quieter moments of the musical--when the displaced people show their sorrow and bewilderment over everything they've lost.

Perhaps the show will get a second chance in touring productions. Producer Anita Waxman offered such possibilities in a statement, saying such: "We look forward to this soaring and beautiful new musical having a long future with productions playing not only North America, but also around the world." 

(Press tickets, front mezzanine)


Merrily We Roll Along

The Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC) is presenting an excellent production of Merrily We Roll Along, and you've got two more weekends to catch it. With a top ticket price of $18, it's quite a bargain.

Park, Bonino, Mosbacher, Rhodes-Devey, Horton
As you likely already know, Merrily was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth (based on the drama by Kaufman and Hart), is told backward, and was a huge flop when it opened on Broadway in the 1980s. It has since been rewritten in ways that both add to and take away from the original, but the basic story has remained the same: Franklin, Charley, and Mary are three best friends, artistic and ambitious, whose lives fly off into different trajectories that tear the friendship apart.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (movie review)

Since Encores! Off-Center is presenting Little Shop of Horrors in July, I thought it would be an interesting time to revisit the movie and see how it holds up.

It holds up very well.


Ellen Greene
[many spoilers to come]

What luck that various stars said no, and the lead role of Audrey, the sweet and ditsy floral arranger, was given to Ellen Greene. Greene originated it Off-Broadway and owns the part. (It will be interesting to see her at Encores!, years too old for the character yet likely to be wonderful.) I wish that Lee Wilkof, the original Seymour, had also been cast, but Rick Moranis acquits himself nicely as the good-hearted, murdering nebbish whose life improves drastically when he starts taking care of the "odd and exotic" plant he names Audrey II. The rest of the cast is pretty wonderful: Steve Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Levi Stubbs, James Belushi, Christopher Guest, John Candy, Bill Murray, and Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell as CrystalRonette, and Chiffon, the Skid Row Greek chorus girl group.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Skylight

photo: Sara Krulwich
Every theater season has a "snob hit," according to William Goldman's classic 1969 insider's guide to Broadway, The Season. It's a play--usually British--that cultured New Yorkers flock to en masse, out of a sense of obligation. They don't want to see it, per se, but feel they have to, in order to preserve their cred as serious art lovers. This season's snob hit is almost certainly the revival of David Hare's 1995 play Skylight, currently at the John Golden Theatre after a successful, sold out, screened in movie theaters worldwide run in London. Directed by the supposed wunderkind Stephen Daldry and starring heavy hitters Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan, it's attracting droves of the well-heeled denizens of the Upper West Side and Park Slope, who dutifully applaud, laugh when appropriate, nod appreciatively, and feel grateful that they managed to wrangle up a ticket.

Skylight is a talky, boring play meant to comment on the perilous class divide in post-Thatcherite England. However, it really boils down to nothing more than a charismatic older man talking his way into a fragile young woman's knickers. Tale as old as time, with or without the pretense of liberal politics to make it seem more palatable. Tom Sergeant (Nighy), a successful restaurateur, shagged his former employee, Kyra Hollis (Mulligan), for six years while she lived with him and his now-deceased wife as a de facto family member. When Mrs. Sergeant discovered the affair, Kyra fled to North London, to begin a self-prescribed penance as a teacher in a slum school. When Tom turns up round her flat after three years of silence, it's not long before they are back in the roles they once inhabited, and back in bed.

And did I mention they talk? And talk. And talk. And talkkkkkkkk. About everything. Which amounts to nothing.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

When the classic verismo double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci last appeared at the Met, in 2009, it was clear that Franco Zeffirelli's war-horse production was badly in need of retirement. Six years later, a new production has arrived, helmed by Sir David McVicar, who's easily the most reliable director currently working in the Gelb Met. As seen over the weekend (at a performance that was also simulcast into movie theaters), McVicar's stagings scored a success, with the Mascagni appropriately dark and impassioned and the Leoncavallo brimming with passion and pain just underneath its brightly-colored surface.

Marcelo Alvarez and Eva Maria Westbroek
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Aside from the creakiness of the previous production, the raison d'etre for this new production was star tenor Marcelo Alvarez's desire to sing the leading tenor roles in both operas. However, the first opera--set here in 1900--really belongs to the soprano. Santuzza, excommunicated (a faith worse than death in a repressive Catholic society) and scorned, longs for her former lover, Turiddu, who has returned to the bed of his married former flame, Lola. Lola's husband, the rich driver Alfio, is a vengeful and violent man; when the jealous Santuzza informs him of his wife's activities, she signs Turiddu's death warrant.

In McVicar's production, Santuzza remains onstage throughout the entire hour-long opera, silently watching from the periphery when the action doesn't involve her. It's a wise, striking choice, a reminder that she lives on the margins, integral to the life of the village though shunned by her neighbors. Especially striking was the staging of the central Easter mass (the opera takes place on Easter Sunday), which Santuzza hears from outside the church. As she prays and sings the stirring "Inneggiamo, il Signor non é morto" ("Rejoice, the Lord is not dead"), the audience is reminded of the opera's important context: though it takes place on the Catholic calendar's holiest day of forgiveness, it is something Santuzza will never receive from her supposedly pious neighbors.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Grounded

Photo: Sara Krulwich
A 2011 one-character play about a fighter pilot who transitions from combat to an assignment on an Army base as a drone pilot, Grounded, by George Brant, has been produced around the country and last ran in New York in January 2014. As Charles Isherwood's review of that production points out, the show examines the life of one woman facing "particular traumas," but "ultimately doesn't provide much fodder for larger reflections on American foreign policy or the changing mores of a changing military." An interesting profile of one woman's descent into severe PTSD, the production at the Public nevertheless doesn't pack quite the punch I wished it would.

Anne Hathaway plays a nameless, swaggering, aggressively unsentimental fighter pilot, who loves being in the air--the blue--more than anything else. She brags at the beginning of the show about her speed, stealth, and ability to drop bombs on suspicious "military-age males" from miles above. One evening, while drinking with the fellas while home on leave, she meets a man, Eric, who doesn't flinch at her tough demeanor or feel threatened by the traditionally macho work she does. She takes him home for a weekend of what confides is enormously satisfying sex. When she realizes, after redeployment, that she's pregnant (she intuits that it's a girl), she reluctantly takes leave, because as much as she loves the blue, she just "can't kill her"--and also, she's in love. After marrying Eric and giving birth to Samantha, she is reassigned to what she sneeringly refers to as the "chair force": a team of trained pilots who work out of a trailer on an Army base in Las Vegas, directing drones to drop bombs on targets thousands of miles away. While skeptical and unhappy at the thought of sitting and staring at a computer screen for 12-hour shifts instead of taking to the skies, she finds some comfort in the fact that she doesn't have to separate from her family, and that the threat of her own injury or death no longer exists.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Salvage

When all is lost, what is left? What can be salvaged? In the Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's new play, Salvage, these questions are faced by survivors of a regional apocalypse. (New York City is basically gone, but Idaho and Japan seem to be okay.)

Akiko, Noma, and Mandy are searchers. Each day they put on Hazmat suits and go into the ruins of New York to find anything of value. A cobbled-together meter then registers whether the found items are likely to cause "the Tox," which is never described but clearly to be avoided.

 Mihm, Tanenbaum, Hip-Flores, Crespo
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Akiko was a teacher and the daughter of a poet; she records an audio diary addressed to her father, who did not make it through the devastation. Noma was (and is?) an actor. She explains:
Well, like, I’m still an actor even if there’s not, you know, opportunities to do it, that’s like the thing about actors, you’re still an actor even if you’re not acting, which most of the time you’re not, even when there isn’t a, you know, catastrophe, so. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Home

Photo: Sara Krulwich
There's very little to say about Fun Home that wasn't enumerated by Wendy's spot-on comments, so I'll simply say this:

I am glad that Alison Bechdel decided to tell her story ten years ago. It meant a lot to me then, as a young person coming to terms with my own sexuality and place in the world, and it continues to mean a lot to me now. And it's meant a lot to a hell of a lot of people for a hell of a lot of reasons.

I am glad that Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori decided to adapt Bechdel's memoir for the stage. They were the absolute right people to do so, and their deep understanding of the beautiful and painful intricacies of Bechdel's story is reflected in the brilliant musical they created.

I am glad that the Public Theater had faith in this musical and saw it through workshops, development productions, and the wildly-acclaimed, multi-extended full production that opened in the fall of 2013. The Public has given voice to a wide array of artists and stories over the course of its sixty year history, and Fun Home is another sparkling panel in their rich and diverse tapestry.

I am glad that there are artists like Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, Emily Skeggs, Beth Malone, Joel Perez, and Robert Colindrez to bring these deeply flawed, tragic, staggering, and beautiful characters to life. I am glad that there are young performers like Sydney Lucas in the world, for she embodies Alison Bechdel better than I ever imagined anyone could.

I am glad that there are still producers who aren't afraid to bring a musical like this to Broadway. A musical with complicated, adult themes. A musical with a lesbian central character. A musical that rejects easy answers and unearned cheerfulness. A musical that recognizes how messy, how tragic, and how magnificent life really is, and isn't afraid to to reflect that. To the producers who moved this show uptown, to greater visibility and a wider audience, I say thank you.

I am glad that Fun Home exists. Plain and simple.

[TDF, rear side orchestra]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hamlet

Photo: Carol Rosegg
Hamlet's a real pain in the ass, if you ask me. I don't mean the titular protagonist, though he's a pill, too. I'm talking about the show itself, which is so well-known, so riddled with famous phrases, so regularly referenced, and so often staged that, in CSC artistic director Brian Kulick's words, Hamlet "is really not a play anymore--it's kind of a sporting event: You come, you watch, you know it, and you wait--you see, well, how does Hamlet do 'to be or not to be?' How does this Hamlet do 'O this too too solid flesh?'" Hamlet might be a challenge to seasoned performers and directors in this respect, but I'm neither, so I don't feel like a total moron admitting that the very thought of tackling a show everyone knows so well--one whose lead character comes off as maddeningly mopey and indecisive; whose plot doesn't really progress all that much; and whose characters mostly stand around brooding for three-plus hours, uttering lines so familiar that they've become cliches, only to end up in an orgiastic hamster-pile of death in the last scene--seems to me like a nightmare.

The production of Hamlet at CSC, however, shook me out of my own trepidation. It is sleek and engaging, well-staged, and solidly performed. I am not convinced that the production, which takes a highly stylized, contemporary approach, will appeal to everyone (and indeed, a handful of people left during intermission at the matinee I saw). But at least as I see it, for all the glum indecision, confusing character motivations, and lack of taut pacing that this particular Shakespeare play packs into its lengthy five acts, the CSC production pays off in the end. There are very few sudden moves and no stage gore (though the deliciously scenery-chewing Glenn Fitzgerald, as a slow-burning Laertes, finally pops off at the end by racing around the house while bellowing madly, which is awesome). Yet the show never drags, thanks to the intensity of the company and the shrewd, careful direction of Austin Pendleton.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Living on Love

Renee Fleming, Jerry O'Connell, Douglas Sills
Photo: Sara Krulwich
Full disclosure: I left Living on Love, the wretched attempt at drawing room comedy improbably playing at the Longacre Theatre, at intermission. Even fuller disclosure: I would have fled after the excruciating first scene had I been seated on an aisle.

How this made it to Broadway is truly a puzzler. I imagine the producers put a fair amount of stock in the hypothetical selling power of their star, the opera singer Renee Fleming, in her first non-musical role. That Fleming--perhaps the most recognizable soprano of her generation--would be playing a temperamental diva surely seemed like synergy. Yet at the performance I attended, there were a lot of empty velvet seat-backs, despite a preview deal offering tickets for $19.57 (the price reflects the year the play takes place).

Living on Love was adapted by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) from a third-rate play by Garson Kanin called Peccadillo. A fiery Italian conductor (Douglas Sills) seems more interested in wine and women than dictating his memoir to his ghostwriter (Jerry O'Connell). When the maestro fires his scribe, his wife (Fleming) hires him to write her own autobiography, while the maestro sets his sights on a mousy young copy-editor (Anna Chlumsky).

Hilarity is meant to ensue, I suppose, but the jokes aren't just old enough to vote--they're old enough to collect social security. The actors do their best with some truly crappy material; for a first time actor, Fleming manages not to embarrass herself, despite the script's many attempts to embarrass her. Still, I don't see this as the beginning of a fruitful second career.

And I also don't see this play hanging around Broadway for long after the reviews are published. Addio--molto rancor.

[Rear orchestra, way more than it's worth]

Friday, April 03, 2015

Fun Home

The brilliant Fun Home opens at the Circle in the Square on April 22nd, and the big question is, "How does it fare in the round?"

This is a classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation, but the glass is both half-full and half-empty. (For my review of the Off-Broadway production--a rave--see here.)

Glass half-full: Fun Home made it to Broadway! This is wonderful news all around: it will become better known; it will likely have more future productions; the creators and cast may receive some well-deserved awards; and we all get to see it again (or for the first time) and maybe again (I already have my tickets for next time).

And Sam Gold has staged Fun Home about as well as I could imagine it being staged in the round (oval, really). He is aware of the whole audience, and he uses the space in some satisfyingly creative ways. (I don't want to spoil them by describing them here.)

Wolf Hall

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall is a simple yet gorgeous production based on Hilary Mantel's best sellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Gracefully adapted by Mike Poulton and elegantly directed by Jeremy Herrin, it gives us Henry VIIIth, some of his wives, Thomas Moore, Cardinal Wolsey, and that whole world from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. It is beautifully designed (sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lighting by Paule Constable and David Plater), and the acting is of the high caliber you would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And I just didn't care.

Wolf Hall is an exquisite but empty pageant. Scenes that should be heart-breaking fly by, and the show never gives the audience a moment to just feel. It is the proverbial well-oiled machine, admirably efficient but lacking heart.

(tdf ticket; 2nd row center for Part I; row N on the far side for Part II)