Categories

“Rocket to the Moon”

Susan Granger’s review of “Rocket to the Moon” (Theatre at St. Clement’s)

 

Set in New York City during the Great Depression, this rarely performed play by Clifford Odets is a moralistic drama, revolving around a middle-aged dentist who falls in love with his naïve, idealistic assistant. With his career and loveless marriage in shambles, he must decide whether to “Take a rocket to the moon. Explode!”

Directed by Dan Wackerman, this revival by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Theatre at St. Clements on West 46th Street is set in the sweltering summertime in dreary waiting room of an office shared by two dentists. Dr. Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), who is dominated by his wife Belle (Marilyn Matarrese), and money-strapped Dr. Phil Cooper (Larry Bull).

When Stark hires a new, 19 year-old dental assistant, Cleo Singer (Katie McClennan), she quickly makes herself indispensable not only to him but also to his wealthy father-in-law, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary). Plus there’s the wolfish choreographer, Willy Wax (Lou Liberatore). Stark’s multi-leveled inner conflict propels the play.

While filled with good intentions and capable, if not memorable, performances, “Rocket to the Moon” seems to be missing the intimate, emotional connective tissue between the characters. It skims the surface while exploring the power and pain of love, along with the need for psychic freedom, which dilutes the ultimate effect of the problematic conclusion.

The stagecraft by Harry Feiner, David Thomas and Amy C. Bradshaw serves to authenticate this play as a time capsule to the past.

Historically, playwright Clifford Odets (“Golden Boy,” “Awake and Sing!”) is perhaps best remembered for his appearance before Joseph McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, when he named Elia Kazan as a card-carrying Communist.  Reportedly, he regretted making that accusation until his premature death in 1963 at the age of 57.

Originally produced on Broadway in 1938 by the Group Theater, “Rocket to the Moon” starred Morris Carnovsky, Ruth Warrick, Luther Adler, Eleanor Lynn and Sanford Meisner. In 1986, it was adapted for television by the BBC with John Malkovich, Judy Davis, Eli Wallach, William Hootkins and Connie Booth.

“Lives of the Saints”

Susan Granger’s review of “Lives of the Saints” (Primary Stages, the Duke on 42nd Street)

 

David Ives is one of the most inventive, off-beat playwrights in the American theater today. With “All in the Timing” and “Venus in Fur,” among others, to his credit – he’s now assembled an evening of six one-act skits.

But the collection is disjointed, despite a versatile five-person performing ensemble – Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth – expertly directed by John Rando (“On the Town,” “Urinetown”).

It begins with “The Goodness of Your Heart” in which a neighborly friendship is threatened when one asks the other to buy him a new big-screen TV with all the newest technology. “Why?” he inquires. “’Cause you like me” is the reply.

“Soap Opera” finds a washing machine repairman (Carson Elrod) grappling with a snobbish maitre’d as he tries reserve a table at a fancy French restaurant for himself and his new love, a ‘Maypole’ appliance, who observes, “In my experience, everything is a cycle.”

Double identity-themed jokes are rampant in “Enigma Variations,” in which a woman goes to see a doctor with both characters represented by identical dopplegangers to act and speak in perfect unison. Remember Doublemint gum?

In “Life Signs,” a son discovers that his recently deceased mother (Kelly Hutchinson) may not be dead. To his utter chagrin, she begins a vividly candid discussion of her sexual past.

“It’s All Good” depicts an encounter between a New York-based writer (Rich Holmes) and a friendly stranger who invites him home for dinner after they meet on a train bound for Chicago. As it turns out, the hospitable host’s wife turns out to be the writer’s old girlfriend.

The titular piece concludes the evening; it’s a sweetly touching diversion featuring two church ladies preparing a post-funeral collation.

Despite its obvious appeal for people with short attention spans, it’s a far-from satisfactory sampler that’s only intermittently amusing.

This limited engagement runs through March 27 at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street,

 

“Kill Me Like You Mean It”

Susan Granger’s review of “Kill Me Like You Mean It” (Fourth Street Theater: 2014-15 season)

 

Billed as a “film noir for the stage,” this silly Off-Off Broadway parody follows hard-boiled Detective Ben Farrell (Nathan Darrow) as he tries to prevent his own murder. If he looks familiar, Darrow is best known as FBI agent Edward Meechum on TV’s “House of Cards.”

Farrell’s convoluted quest begins when he reads a realistic and eerily specific description of his own impending murder in a popular pulp serial by writer Tommy Dickie (David Skeist). Not surprisingly, the life-imitates-art concept involves leggy femme fatales, laconic dialogue and spiritual corruption. The duplicitous dames are bodacious blonde Lydia Forsythe (Natalie Hegg) and sassy brunette Vivian Ballantine (Sarah Skeist).

Playwright Kiran Rikhye, director John Stancato and composer/multi-instrumentalist Sean Cronin encompass every detective cliché imaginable, including references to classic movies like “Laura” and “The Maltese Falcon.”

Cleverly, they directly include the audience, with limited “Director’s Cut” seating directly on the stage.  As a result, the show’s conceit encompasses different point-of-view. No one can see everything, but everyone views something intriguing – with credit going to set designer Michael Minahan, lighting expert David Bengali, costumer Angela Harner and Ava Meyer’s props/graphics.

Beginning during the early 1940s, coinciding with the end of W.W.II, a new genre of American films emerged. These dark, melodramas dealt with issues of obsession, addiction and jealousy, delving into the dark, haunted mysteries of human nature.  While their antecedents can be traced back to German Expressionism of the 1920s, they borrowed elements from the gangster, detective and mystery genres, combining them into a new cinematic form, known as film noir. Indeed, the darkness that characterized most scenes was a deliberate embracing of oppressive shadows, utilizing the claustrophobic effect of a lack of light.

This is the latest absurdist production of Stolen Chair, the innovative theatrical troupe that previously scored with “The Man Who Laughs.”

“Kill Me Like You Mean It” plays at the Fourth Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, between Bowery and 2ns Avenue, through March 8. For more information, visit www.stolenchair.org.

“Let the Right One In”

 Susan Granger’s review of “Let the Right One In” (St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn: 2014-15 season)

 

The National Theatre of Scotland has adapted the popular Swedish horror film, “Let the Right One In” (2008), transferring it to the stage of St. Ann’s Warehouse, 29 Jay Street in Brooklyn.

Combining an examination of teenage alienation with a chilling vampire fable, this thriller revolves around lonely, socially awkward Oskar (Christian Ortega) and wan, mysteriously agile, eternally adolescent Eli (Rebecca Benson).

Set near a housing project in a Stockholm suburb in the 1980s, their bleakly compassionate story begins in a wintry forest, where a serial killer, Hakan (Cliff Burnett), drains his victims’ blood into a plastic jug.  “Forgive me,” he mutters, slicing his latest prey’s throat.

Procurer/enabler Hakan and his ‘child’ Eli have just moved next door to Oskar and his embittered, alcoholic single mom (Susan Vidler). While creepy Eli is obviously a vampire, she shuns that label, saying, “I’m not that. I choose not to be that…so I am not that.”

Yet, when meek Oskar is abused in the school’s locker room by a sadistic bullies led by cocky Micke (Andrew Fraser), feral Eli uses her supernatural powers to come to his rescue, resulting in bloody carnage.

Rebecca Benson’s performance is remarkable, using her voice to alternate between innocent, childlike sincerity and weary, ancient wisdom.

Originally based on John Alvide Lindqvist’s 2004 novel and screenplay of the same name (remade in English as “Let Me In”), it’s been adroitly adjusted for the stage by Jack Thorne and stylishly directed by collaborators John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett (“Once,” “The Glass Menagerie”).

Christine Jones’s icily sparse “Scotlandavia” production design sets the haunting atmosphere, as does Olafur Arnalds’ cello-laden musical score, Gareth Fry’s sound design, Chahine Yavroyan’s phosphorescent lighting and Jeremy Chernick’s special effects.

Running 140 minutes with one intermission, the miraculously effective “Let the Right One In” has been extended through March 8.

“The River”

Susan Granger’s review of “The River” (Circle in the Square 2014-2015 season)

 

Without Hugh Jackman, Jez Butterworth’s murky new play might run in a tiny off-Broadway theater for, perhaps, two weeks. Because Jackman’s charisma is what keeps it afloat, particularly given the intimacy of Circle in the Square, where audience members have an up-close-and-personal connection.

Jackson plays an intense, unnamed Man who is obsessed with finding love and fly-fishing.  To that end, he has brought a Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his isolated cabin on the banks of a river to join him on a very special, moonless, late-summer night when the sea trout are running.  Despite his romantic entreaties, she’s peevishly reluctant, yet she agrees to accompany him, only to slip away in the dark. Enter the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), a mysterious presence from the past who complicates matters in the present.  Love – it appears – is as elusive as the silvery trout that the Man envisions.

Playwright Jez Butterworth scored big with the cryptic tragicomedy “Jerusalem” back in 2009, so this 85-minute lyrical meditation on the tenuousness of love seems trivial in comparison. And since it’s so realistically staged by director Ian Rickson, including the Man’s gutting and stuffing a fresh fish, the narrative flights of fancy – quotations from the poetry of Ted Hughes and William Butler Yeats – seem even more stilted and artificial, along with the symbolic Celtic imagery. What’s missing is a sense of mystery and, perhaps, menace – which would have made it far more compelling.

The open-sided setting designed by Ultz is interesting with lighting by designer Charles Balfour and intriguing night sounds by Ian Dickinson of the Autograph design team.

Jez Butterworth splits his time between stage and screen. This year he also wrote the James Brown biopic “Get On Up” with his brother John Henry, along with Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow.”

FYI: While ardent Jackman fans are told to shut off (not just silence) their cellphones and cameras during the performance, they’re given ample opportunity to snap away when the genial, gracious actor comes forth to do an AIDS charity pitch for Broadway Cares after the curtain calls.

“The River” will run at Circle in the Square through February 8, 2015.

“The Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis”

Susan Granger’s review of THE BIG APPLE CIRCUS: METAMORPHOSIS – Lincoln Center (2014/15)

 

The Big Apple Circus has never been more magical than this all-new show, “Metamorphosis” – which means “possibility.” It is the power that turns the everyday into the extraordinary, like when the lowly caterpillar wondrously becomes a butterfly.

Butterflies are everywhere in this family-friendly production. There’s a big one on the jacket of ringmaster John Kennedy Kane, another on cavorting Francesco the Clown, and a swarm of illusionary butterflies projected on the tent walls, as the Circus Band plays high above the signature single ring.

First, Mongolian contortionist Odbayasakj Dorjoo gracefully folds herself into a tiny Lucite cube.  Then Jenny Vidbel frolics with playful farm animals, followed by an astonishing aerial act as Giovani Anastasini & Irene Espana spin with a whirling spaceship and their sons Guliano and Fabio are a wonderful diabolo juggling duo. And that’s just the first act.

After intermission, Jenny Vidbel returns with a Living Carousel (the exotic alpacas, loping camels and scuttling porcupine elicited the most murmurs) and clowns indulge in Musical Moments. Founded by graduates of the Moscow Circus School, the amazing Aniskin Troupe has added a trampoline act to their repertoire. Also from Russia, quick-change artists Olga and Vladimir Smirnov entertain. But the biggest thrills come once again from the fearless Aniskins with their skillful trapeze act. The entire show runs 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission – and every seat is a good seat.

Now in its 37th year, the not-for-profit Big Apple Circus provides entertainment year ‘round to thousands who are not able to get to the show. There’s Clown Care, as professional clown doctors bring laughter and joy to the bedsides of 250,000 acutely and chronically ill children in 19 leading pediatric hospitals nationally. Circus of the Senses is a unique performance for children who are vision or hearing-impaired. Circus After School gives at-risk children the opportunity to develop teamwork and commitment skills by learning and performing circus acts. And Circus For All annually distributes 50,000 free and discounted tickets to public schools and organizations serving economically disadvantaged children.

Catch the Big Apple Circus: Metamorphosis at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park through Jan. 11, 2015. Learn more at www.bigapplecircus.org.

 

Sting’s “The Last Ship” on Broadway

Susan Granger’s review of “The Last Ship” (Neil Simon Theatre – 2014/15 season)

 

Can Sting’s wistfully haunting score save this dreary, mournful musical? That’s the question.

Inspired by Sting’s childhood memories in northeast England, it’s set in Newcastle’s close-knit, seafaring Wallsend neighborhood, where young Gideon Fletcher (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) refuses to step into the well-worn boots of his father (Jamie Jackson) and become an apprentice shipbuilder.  Instead, he bids farewell to his forlorn girl-friend Meg (Dawn Cantwell) and heads off to find his fortune as a merchant seaman. The prodigal son doesn’t return until his father’s funeral – 15 years later – only to discover that the local shipyard is closing and that Meg (Rachel Tucker) not only bore him a son, Tom (Collin Kelly-Sordelet),  but has also – in the meantime – found an ardent, dependable suitor, Arthur (Aaron Lazar), who wants to settle down with her. Encouraged by the terminally-ill parish priest, Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate), who dips into the church’s building fund to finance the ambitious project, grown Gideon (Michael Esper) joins the gruffly righteous foreman, Jackie White (Jimmy Nail), and his proud workers in their defiant determination to build one last ship and launch it on the River Tyne.

Although multi-talented Sting has written excellent music and melancholy lyrics about loss and letting go, the show’s bloated narrative is bogged down by John Logan and Brian Yorkey’s tediously ponderous book, filled with cardboard characters, uttering tiresome, clichéd dialogue. Director Joe Mantello’s testosterone-propelled staging is lively and polished but there’s far too much loud foot-stomping that Stephen Hoggett passes for rugged choreography, while the unemployed workers wallow at the local pub. Production designer David Zinn’s modestly symbolic sets, consisting of metallic scaffolding, are appropriate as are his costumes.

Bottom Line: Buy the concert version.

“On the Town”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Town” (Lyric Theatre – 2014-2015 season)

 

This rousing revival of the 1944 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, gets the audience to its feet immediately – with “The Star Spangled Banner” overture.

Set during W.W.II, it follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in the Big Apple. Warbling “New York, New York” with its “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…,” they’re searching for Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild) – a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles – a beauty contest winner who has caught the fancy of naïve Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), who spies her face on a subway poster and immediately falls in love with her. As their quest progresses, macho Ozzie (Clyde Alves) hooks up with an aggressively amorous anthropologist, Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), who picks him up at the Museum of Natural History, confessing “I Get Carried Away,” while nerdy Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) rides around with Hildy Esterhazy (Alysha Umphress), a sassy, sex-starved cabby who boasts “I Can Cook Too.” Eventually, the three couples meet up for the Coney Island finale before the guys return to the pier, board their ship and head off to sea.

Exuberantly directed by John Rando (“Urinetown”) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (TV’s “Smash”), it’s a helluva frothy, dance-dominated show with the melancholy “Lonely Town” and memorable “Lucky to Be Me” remaining the most haunting songs.  Developed last year at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., it makes the transition to Broadway with high hopes and simplistic, candy-colored sets by Beowulf Boritt, period costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Jason Lyons.

Although whirling, twirling Megan Fairchild hails from the New York City Ballet, her dancing still cannot compare with Gene Kelly’s in the 1949 M.G.M. musical. And she can’t act.  Indeed, despite their youthful enthusiasm, the Broadway cast pales in comparison with Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen. Back in 2006, this film version was ranked No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.

“Pippin”

Susan Granger’s review of “Pippin” (Music Box Theater)

 

Cleverly shifting the casting, the flashy Broadway revival of “Pippin” ups its exhilarating razzle-dazzle with the addition of Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, the high-spirited grandmother.

Originally conceived with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, it’s been impudently enhanced by visionary director Diane Paulus (“Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”) with circus gymnastics and acrobatics created by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).

Choreographed by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse, this insightful, coming-of-age pop musical revolves around befuddled Prince Pippin (Kyle Dean Massey), the son and heir of medieval King Charlemagne (John Dossett). Having graduated from university, Pippin earnestly embarks on a search for meaning in his life as a lively carnival – filled with tumblers, jugglers, aerialists, contortionists and magicians – swirls around him, eventually finding true love with a widowed mother Catherine (Kristen Beth Williams) – much to the dismay of his manipulative step-mother, Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who fancies her warrior son Lewis (Mike Schwitter) on the throne.

But – before that – Pippin is led astray by the devilishly seductive Ringmaster/Leading Player (Carly Hughes); unfortunately, Hughes’ performance seems formulaic and calculated, almost robotic, in stark contrast with the rest of the exuberant case. FYI: in the original 1972 production, the Leading Player was charismatic Ben Vereen, who did a variation on the ominous role in Bob Fosse’s autobiographical “All That Jazz” (1979).

Straddling a flying trapeze, Lucie Arnaz almost stops the show with her playful, sing-along rendition of “No Time at All.” Daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she was raised in show business. Lucie made her Broadway debut in “They’re Playing Our Song,” followed by “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune, along with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and Terrance McNally’s “Master Class.”

When Lucie Arnaz departs to resume the National Tour of “Pippin,” taking Kyle Dean Massey with her, Josh Kaufman, winner of NBC’s “The Voice,” steps in as Prince Pippin from Nov. 4 to Jan. 4, 2015.

“A Broad’s Way”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Broad’s Way” at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT

 

Sizzling Jodi Stevens rocked the roof of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater with her one-woman show, “A Broad’s Way,” tracing her peripatetic life as a singer/actress, wife and mother.

Clad in black sequins and displaying her long, to-die-for legs, Jodi displays not only a talent for choosing the right material but also handling it with taste, singing a repertoire of pop and cabaret songs that includes familiar favorites, like “More Than You Know,” “You’d be So Nice To Come Home To,” and “That Old Devil Moon” from “Finian’s Rainbow,” to contemporary hits like Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and patter ditties like “Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?,” detailing the perils of dating in Manhattan.

Jodi’s background includes participating in the original casts of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Urban Cowboy: The Musical,” along with playing Marlene Dietrich in the New York production of “Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical.” She was also featured in “Annie,” “Harmony” and “Dracula: The Musical.”

Because she’s such an astute and accomplished actress, Jodi can be sexy, sultry and sensual one moment – then delicate or sweetly spicy the next.  Her versatility is astonishing – her range awesome.  Basically, Jodi Stevens owns the stage, displaying great synergy with her three-piece band.

Jodi Stevens doesn’t just sing the music – she becomes it.