When Stage Productions Fail

Rose, red

photo: Vineetha Nair, creative commons license

Ouch. When a stage production doesn’t really work for you, who’s at fault? Are you having a bad day? Is it the play itself? Is it the production? We’ve all found ourselves at stage events where we thought—what??? This is Supposed To Be Good?? Remind me, how much did I pay for these tickets?

The Tony-award-winning Book of Mormon, was incessantly advertised as the best musical of the 21st century, after only one decade of that century had elapsed, but I didn’t even bother to review it. I found it so offensively racist and, this is a technical theater term, moronic, why bother? The problem was not the fault of the hard-working cast, but the cupidity of the original writers and producers.

This last weekend we saw a local community college production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s 1932 classic tragedy, Blood Wedding, immensely popular in Spain, I’m told. The plot of the original is probably a bit simplistic and over-familiar for modern audiences. There’s a deadly feud between two families and the daughter of a third family is involved with young men on both sides. Nothing good results.

What drew me to it was the promise of dance—tango, Argentine tango, and flamenco—integrated into the production. Plus, I’d never seen the play. A bad case of too-high expectations.

My notes for the producers:

  • The dancing is interesting, both the ensemble numbers and the sexy tango between the bride and her lover – good job!
  • Don’t conceive of staging that is beyond the capacity of the technical staff to implement; the moving curtains were tricky and slow
  • Yes, the mother of the groom bears great grudges, but let her develop a broader palette of emotions. Constant kvetching doesn’t maintain audience interest.
  • Eliminate redundancy. Even Shakespeare is trimmed for modern audiences. The mother doesn’t need to describe her complaints more than twice. Respect your audience. We get it.
  • Pick up the pace. Show you value the audience’s time.

Of course, I don’t know what happened in Act II with this production, because we cut our losses and went home. (Would that we had done that with Book of Mormon.) We weren’t the only ones.

This isn’t a complaint about Garcia Lorca, who wrote in and of a particular culture and time, and I’ve appreciated his House of Bernarda Alba, with Blood Wedding, part of his unfinished rural trilogy. You’ll recall that Lorca was only 38 when he was assassinated at the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Nor is my complaint about the mostly student cast, who soldiered gamely on with material so foreign to modern life, language, and ways of thinking. A number of them did fine jobs. Rather, my disappointment is with the theater director and producers who needed to shape a production enabling the whole team—cast and crew—to be part of a big success.

Does a play or musical come to mind that seriously disappointed you? How did it let you down?

Come from Away

ComeFromAwayLogoThe affirming new Broadway musical Come from Away is lively and warm-hearted, with a special tug at the heart for every American remembering 9/11. On that terrible September morning, dozens of planes carrying thousands of passengers were en route to the United States when the country closed its airspace. Those planes had to land somewhere else, and 38 of them landed in Gander, Newfoundland, the rock in the sea.

Suddenly, Gander’s population nearly doubled. The nearly 7,000 passengers and crew were from all over the world. They had all sorts of issues. They—and the 19 animals with them—needed food, places to sleep, their medications, phones, and . . . someone to talk to. Come from Away tells how the people of Newfoundland rose to this unprecedented occasion with amazing generosity.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics based on hundreds of  interviews with the people of Newfoundland, as well as many of the stranded passengers. A cast of twelve plays multiple parts—both townspeople and passengers—and most have been with the ensemble continuously since its first production at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2015. The cast is uniformly strong, with good singing voices, good energy, and a well-honed ability to switch from one role to another so there’s never any confusion.

Although the production has many characters, there are definite stories and relationships. One is the experience of an American Airlines pilot. She wanted to fly since childhood, because when she flew, “nothing was between me and the sky.” She gets a job flying corpses at first, then corporate jets, and ultimately became the airline’s first female pilot. Now, to think her beloved airplanes were used as bombs, “something’s come between me and the sky.”

The music is provided by an eight-person band, split on either side of the stage and featuring instruments you might associate with Irish music—pipes, and the Bodhran (flat drum)—as well as guitars, a violin, and percussion. Occasionally, the musicians join in the dancing, and most of the songs are sung by the whole cast, with only brief solos. This creative choice emphasizes the show’s theme of community pulling together.

Christopher Ashley directed the 100-minute show, which is performed with no intermission. Ian Eisendrath is the musical supervisor and Kelly Devine, the choreographer. The simple and versatile set is by Beowulf Boritt, with costumes by Toni-Leslie James.

Come from Away has been performed at the La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and, the program says, the hockey rink in Gander, Newfoundland. It’s now at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away.”

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Incident at Hidden Temple

Incident at Hidden Temple, Pan Asian Rep

Dinh James Doan & Briana Sakamoto – photo: John Quincy

Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s current production—the world premiere of Damon Chua’s Incident at Hidden Temple—is an evocative reminder of a pivotal piece of World War II history, and its title reminiscent of my favorite mystery novels—the Tang Dynasty adventures of Judge Dee. Part noir murder mystery and part political showdown, the play takes place in Southwest China in 1943. Under the direction of Kaipo Schwab, the production opened January 26 at Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row.

U.S. Flying Tigers squadrons are helping the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Dinh James Doan). In the first of the play’s many short scenes, an American pilot (Nick Jordan) is murdered by a Chinese woman (Rosanne Ma).

Nearby, a train stops at a place called Hidden Temple, and journalism student Ava Chao (Ying Ying Li) disembarks to stretch her legs. She meets Chinese-American pilot trainee Walter Hu (Tim Liu) and a mysterious blind man (also played by Dinh James Doan).

Ava’s younger sister Lucy (Briana Sakamoto) also talks to the blind man, who tells her a story. In one of the play’s most charming moments, he and she act out the story using classical Chinese gestures and body movements. When Lucy disappears, Ava seeks help in finding her from U.S. General Cliff Van Holt (Jonathan Miles), head of a Flying Tigers squadron.

Soon, several mysteries are in play. Why was the pilot killed? Why is Walter Hu pretending to be someone else? What happened to Lucy? Will any of the characters ever be pure enough in heart to see the hidden temple?

Meanwhile, on the stage of world power politics, larger issues are unresolved. Van Holt wants to cooperate with Chiang and build a forward air base in the eastern region of China from which U.S. planes can attack the Japanese islands directly. General Stillwell, through his aide (Nick Jordan), opposes this plan. The Japanese are the immediate threat, but Mao’s Communist forces in the north also must be reckoned with.

Act One does a good job in setting up the multiple conflicts and questions. While Act Two has resonant moments, it isn’t as strong, relying on some unlikely coincidences and encounters. Ultimately, though the story questions are answered (except the biggest one, which the playwright leaves to the audience), there’s almost too much to bring together smoothly.

The staging and the acting overall are excellent, with Dinh James Doan and Ying Ying Li deserving special mention. Set designer Sheryl Liu, in tandem with Pamela Kupper (lighting), creates just the right amount of moody atmospherics on a stripped-down stage.

For tickets, call Telecharge: 212-239-6200 or telecharge.com. Special performances and discounts are detailed at the Pan Asian Rep website.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Andrus Nichols & Eric Tucker in Saint Joan; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Bedlam Theater Company is presenting, in rotating repertory productions, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through February 12. Each of the plays is done with the same four cast members playing all the parts, which makes for some quick persona changes.

Due to scheduling difficulties, I’ve seen only the Saint Joan—a difficult choice, because Hamlet is always revelatory, and the experience of each is meant to shed light on the other. As with any Shaw, a good twenty minutes near the end could be ditched. Good old G.B.S. seems determined to bang audiences over the head with his messages. Still, you’ll never see a more vigorous interpretation of this work, one that easily keeps you going through a full three acts (in direct contradistinction to the growing trend for one-act, 90-minute affairs), as religious dogma and divine inspiration cross swords.

The cast members manage to be simultaneously energetic and nuanced, and they wring every bit of humor out of the play’s early scenes. Bedlam founder Eric Tucker was terrific in Saint Joan, especially as the Earl of Warwick, but then all the actors (Andrus Nichols as Joan), Edmund Lewis and Tom O’Keefe (both in numerous parts) keep your interest and your intellect on their toes. I’m as much a fan of gorgeous sets and inspired costumes as anyone, but Bedlam’s stripped-down, bare-stage version has the virtue of showing how brilliant actors can conjure people and relationships to life unaided.

Bedlam has a commitment to using “all the house,” and for Saint Joan, the first few rows of audience seats were on the stage, and a cast member occasionally emerged from somewhere in the main house. Not to worry, audience members aren’t called upon to do more than observe.

Despite having been a patron of the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Shaw Festival for more than 20 seasons I’d never seen Saint Joan. And, if you also feel this classic is worth getting to know, you might never find a more approachable and engaging mounting of it than this one.

For tickets, call the McCarter box office at 609-258-2787, or visit the box office online.

The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has long been a staple of family holiday celebrations in Central New Jersey. Even 18 years  after the previous version premiered, the show routinely drew huge crowds during its December run. Still, it was time for a new approach, and the revamped 2016 production has been eagerly anticipated.

Director Adam Immerwahr sought a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling new production, which premiered December 10 and runs through December 31. Immerwahr’s intent was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.”  Then he filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era” (carol playlist). Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,”  whose music was composed by Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Warner Miller) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively, including: Fred/Undertaker (JD Taylor), Lily/Belle (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Fan/Miss Kate (Kelsey Carroll), Solicitor Matthew/Young Scrooge (A.J. Shively), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Lance Roberts), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters and many parts amount to a cameo, but all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivy Cordle) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Elisha Lawson) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective (frightening a child sitting in front of me) and has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

A Christmas Carol

photo: T. Charles Erickson

The cast is augmented by a 27-member community ensemble, which greets theatre-goers, carols and rings bells from the stage, the aisles, and the boxes, and dances exuberantly! Members of this adult group, plus a dozen-member children’s ensemble were recruited through partnerships with ten local organizations and schools. The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Also underscoring the community nature of this production are the theater’s plans for sold-out Fezziwig Parties, a drama workshop for children on the theme of kindness and generosity (called Cratchit Kindness) on December 28, engagement of local businesses in developing unique refreshments for patrons, as well as its usual audio-described and American Sign Language interpreted performance (December 17) and an open captioned performance (December 18).

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

A Child's Christmas in Wales

John Ahlin & Greg Jackson; photo: Jerry Dalia.

Every Christmas Eve our family reads out loud this beautiful Dylan Thomas paean to the season, so I was excited to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production (opening night 12/3, through 1/1). Several different stagings of this heartwarming story are now on stage in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area.

STNJ’s is the early 1980’s musical adaptation by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, which the theater has produced three times previously. Under the direction of Joseph Discher and musical director Robert Long, the large cast plays multiple roles, keeps the story flowing, and the music and laughs coming.

Set in Thomas’s home town of Swansea, Wales, in the early 1900s when the author was a young boy, the story is simultaneously a celebration of small town childhood, family, and the season’s simple delights. However, the events of the play are different from those of Thomas’s original. No firefighting with snowballs in Mr. Prothero’s parlor, no caroling with a ghostly ancient, no face-off with a sugarfagged contemporary.

Instead, new scenes are created. When Dylan’s mother incinerates the Christmas turkey in her new gas oven, Auntie Bessie miraculously produces a turkey dinner from the hotel (available because of the timely cancellation of a Christmas party that one suspects was also Auntie Bessie’s doing). Brooks and Mitchell wrote new characters and many new lines to fit their expanded story and occasionally tried to replicate Thomas’s lyricism. I wish they hadn’t. “Thomas lite” is risky.

The aunts—Auntie Bessie (played by Tess Ammerman), Auntie Nelllie (Clemmie Evans), Auntie Hannah (Alison Weller), and Auntie Elieri (Carey Van Driest) are charming, with great singing voices. And Uncle Gwyn (John Ahlin), dour Uncle Tudyr (Patrick Toon), and relentlessly political Uncle Glyn (Andy Paterson) are perfect comic types. Dylan’s mother (Tina Stafford) is harried and musical, and his father (Peter Simon Hilton) delivers some of the poet’s most memorable lines.

Greg Jackson has a difficult challenge, playing both the adult and youthful Dylan. As an adult reminiscing about Christmases past, he’s great, but he rarely seems like a child. Most kids are perpetual motion machines. It doesn’t do to have him stand around, attentively listening while adults talk. He could sit, scratch his elbow, pull up his socks, retie his shoes, look distracted. When he’s with his pals—all also played by adults—Jim (Thomas Daniels), Jack (Julian Blake Gordon), and Tom (Seamus Mulcahy), and they are larking about, he’s perfectly believable. Jackson is a fine actor whom I’ve admired in other STNJ plays, so this casting or direction is somehow off.

That aside, the audience loved this production! While the Brooks/Mitchell play is both more and less than Thomas’s lyrical language and indelible images, you just have to go with it. It isn’t a production for the head, but for the heart, and I found myself smiling and laughing along, and I hope you will too.

For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the box office online. (Free tickets for kids 18 and younger.)

The Lion in Winter

lion-in-winter-cast

Rear: Dee Hoty, Michael Cumpsty; front: Hubert Point-Du Jour, Noah Averbach-Katz; photo: Amanda Crommett

It’s Christmas 1183. The succession to the English throne is in disarray.

The reasons are well laid out for you in this production at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, which I recently saw in preview (opening night is November 18). If you go—and for many reasons the play is well worth seeing—the problems in the second act will most likely have been resolved by director Tyne Rafaeli.

James Goldman’s 1966 play exposed deep schisms in the English court as Henry II (played by Michael Cumpsty) reached the “advanced” age of 50. He is intent upon preserving his empire, which includes England and provinces in France, especially the jewel, Aquitaine, acquired through his marriage to the elegant, passionate Eleanor (Dee Hoty). While he holds court in France, she has been imprisoned in an English castle for the past decade for treachery against Henry. She’s just arrived at the Chinon castle, released temporarily to celebrate Christmas in the viper-riddled bosom of her family.

The couple’s oldest son has died, and they are left with an unpromising trio of sons: Richard (KeiLyn Durrel Jones), Geoffrey (Hubert Point-Du Jour), and the youngest, John (Noah Averbach-Katz). Sullen warrior Richard (the Lionhearted) is the queen’s choice to succeed Henry, but the king wants the childish and rather dim John to follow him. For some reason that even he cannot understand, the scheming Geoffrey is overlooked by everyone, a non-entity in a family of manipulative power brokers.

All five of them are plotting and counter-plotting, negotiating and undermining, and trying their best to strike secret deals with the visiting 18-year-old French King Philip (Ronald Peet). Philip agrees to every plot. Why not? This is first-rate entertainment. If they tear each other apart, as every indication suggests they will, he can step in and pick up the pieces.

Henry and Eleanor’s relationship is the real heart of the play, and it has been complicated by Eleanor’s young step-daughter Alais (pronounced “Alice” and played by Madeleine Rogers), who has a long-running affair with Richard. Cumpsty and Hoty are strong in their roles, and play off each other beautifully—believable antagonists whose love still breaks through, time to time. He was a teenager when she first saw him at the French court, “with a mind like Aristotle and a body like Mortal Sin.” Were their sons ever more than pawns in their dangerous game?

Despite the deadly seriousness of the characters’ plotting, the play has quite a few lines intended to draw laughter and they did. Under Rafaeli’s direction, Act I perked along smoothly. Act II lost energy and felt over-long. I trust they will tighten that up.

Kristen Robinson’s scenic design nicely reinforces the king’s reference to the family as “jungle creatures,” and Andrea Hood’s costumes—especially for Eleanor—are gorgeous. Alais is a pale waif beside her. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the box office online.