Take a Bow, Broadway!

We’ve seen two stage musicals in the last month to take note of: The Outsiders and Days of Wine and Roses—both with fine pedigrees as movies, and, in the case of The Outsiders, the popular young adult book by SE Hinton.

The Outsiders

Playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, The Outsiders’ director, Danya Taymor, and her team brought together a terrific cast of young actors to play the teenage antagonists—the socs (pronounced sohsh, an abbreviation for “social,” denoting the teens from wealthier families) and the greasers (their opposites). Actor Brody Grant received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Ponyboy Curtis, as did Joshua Boone and Sky Lakota-Lynch for their performances. It’s a coming-of-age crime story involving the perennial friction between those on the inside of a group and those not. The book and music were strong (both nominated for Tonys), and the high-energy choreography and fight choreography were spectacular.

I’d never read the book nor seen the 1983 Francis Ford Coppola movie (maybe you remember the amazing cast–Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, et al.), so it was all new to me. It received a too-tepid review in the Washington Post, in which the reviewer seemed troubled by the musical’s occasional divergence from the story’s previous two incarnations. No problem for me, of course. Nor for those who selected it as a nominee for a Tony Award for best musical, best direction, best book, best original score, and, no surprise—best choreography—this year! Among other nominations. Well worth seeing.

Days of Wine and Roses

Studio 54 has mounted a nicely staged production of The Days of Wine and Roses, based on the 1962 movie classic (Jack Lemmon, Lee Remick, et al., directed by Blake Edwards). Directed by Michael Greif, the musical version stars Kelli O’Hara and Brian D’Arcy James, both of whom received Tony nominations for their roles. This is O’Hara’s twelfth Broadway show, and she’s been nominated for seven Tony Awards (winning for The King and I), an Emmy, an Olivier, and two Grammys. Jones is a four-time Tony-nominated, Grammy-winning actor, also with more than a dozen Broadway appearances on his resume. Needless to say, they’re up to the musical demands.

You may recall the story. Farm-girl Kirsten Arnesen (O’Hara) is working in San Francisco and meets city slicker Joe Clay (James). He talks her into taking her first drink, and it’s all downhill from there. Since the pivotal role of brandy alexanders in the story is the main thing I remember about the movie, I can’t say how closely the musical tracks the film.

The sets are cleverly done for a smallish stage, and the book by Craig Lucas and music/lyrics by Adam Guettel are pretty good. In 90 minutes, no intermission, the cast has to take you through some dramatic and heart-wrenching falls. Byron Jennings does a memorable turn as Kirsten’s father too. It won’t leave you laughing, but it’s a fine show.

The Scarlet Letter

Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, brings to thrilling life the world premiere of Kate Hamill’s adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, directed by Shelley Butler, from February 9’s opening night through February 25th. In the hands of Hamill, Butler, and a superb cast, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s poignant story moves along with both speed and passion.

Hamill has made something of a cottage industry out of adapting classic works, becoming one of the country’s most-produced playwrights. While Hester Prynne has numerous feminist fans, and while Hester’s story set almost 400 years ago reverberates loudly today, Hamill has not written a polemic. Instead, her Scarlet Letter is a story of love and revenge, almost equally thwarted.

Hester Prynne (played by Amelia Pedlow), a member of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, is a presumed widow, her husband lost at sea for some two years. When she becomes pregnant, she’s accused of adultery, whipped, and must wear a scarlet A, always. Despite efforts to humiliate her, she remains a dignified, affectionate mother.

Resplendent and full of his authority, Governor Hibble (Triney Sandoval) cannot persuade Hester to say who baby Pearl’s father is. Hester’s husband (Kevin Isola) unexpectedly returns in the guise of a doctor and blackmails her to keep his true identity secret. He’s determined to discover the father, not out of love or loyalty, but a desire for control. Meanwhile, the town’s clergyman, Rev. Dimmesdale (Keshav Moodliar) sermonizes about guilt and sin. Addressing the theater audience as his congregation, Moodliar’s delivery is pitch-perfect, and his portrayal of the conscience-stricken Reverend inspires great sympathy.

The governor’s prunish wife, Goody Hibbins (Mary Bacon), is not sympathetic. She’s embittered by unsuccessful pregnancies, and claims Hester has bewitched her. We know, as Hawthorne did, what a dangerous accusation this is, only a few decades before the Salem witch trials. (One of the presiding judges was Hawthorne’s great-great grandfather, John Hathorne—the only one of the judges who never repented his actions.)

Most of the play takes place when Pearl is about four, and special mention must be made of the puppet that plays Pearl, animated and voiced by Nikki Calonge. As Hamill said about the decision to use a puppet, “In some ways a real child is too real. The magical thing about puppets is that they accomplish the real and the otherworldly.” Feisty, stubborn, uncharming Pearl seems determined to displease the Puritans, chanting, “I love sin! I love sin!” By clever staging, Calonge becomes Pearl’s shadow. You don’t forget she’s there, but it’s Pearl who shocks Goody Hibbins.

The admirable but minimalist sets work hand-in-hand with the sound design to move you quickly from scene to scene, town to country. A memorable production, beautifully presented!

Two River Theater in Red Bank, N.J., is easily reachable from NYC by New Jersey Transit. For tickets, call the box office at 732-345-1400 or visit the Box Office online.

A Man for All Seasons

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, directed by Paul Mullins, opened October 21 and runs through November 5, 2023. The story of Sir Thomas More, a man who not only has principles but sticks to them, seems a timely offering for our more elastic era. Of course, you may conclude that, in his case, that virtue went too far. Here a strong cast and excellent production provide much to consider.

Hewing closely to history, More (played by Thomas Michael Hammond) has become the Chancellor of England during the reign of Henry VIII (Roger Clark). Henry is determined to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. He has several reasons for this, but the most powerful may be that she has failed to produce a male heir. (Centuries later, science would prove that a child’s sex is determined by the father. Henry should have been looking in the mirror.) The Catholic Church, of course, opposes the divorce, and Spanish officialdom, represented by its emissary Sigñor Chapuys (Edward Furst), regularly pleads Catherine’s cause. More’s conscience won’t let him support the King’s plans, despite the loyalty he demonstrates by various other actions. Nor does he speak out against them.

The principal cast includes several additional notable characters, which the cast plays with great skill and gusto: the always a bit dodgy Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble), More’s devoted wife Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) and her fiancé William Roper (Ty Lane), whose political views shift with every wind. Also, rising politician Richard Rich (Aaron McDaniel) demonstrates his convincing slipperiness, Thomas Cromwell is less admirable here than in Wolf Hall (James McMenamin), and “The Common Man,” (Kevin Isola). Isola makes the most of the array of often-comic characters he plays—More’s servant Matthew, a boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer. His every appearance is welcome. Additional cast and production credits in my review at TheFrontRowCenter.

In general, a readiness to compromise or to achieve the King’s desired ends by whatever argument necessary characterizes Rich, Norfolk, and Cromwell, in direct contrast to More. The play challenges you to think about the role of a counselor. Is it solely to follow the leader’s dicta or is it to help a leader onto a more conciliatory and constructive path? For all his staunch refusals to speak out on the era’s great questions—the divorce and the establishment of the Church of England with the King at its head—More does have opinions about these matters. He simply believes his silence will protect him from accusations of treason. In my view, he’s splitting legal hairs too.

STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

The Pianist

The world premiere of Emily Mann’s theatrical adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s memoir, The Pianist, opened at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick last weekend and will run through October 22. Directed by Mann, the show has an original score by Iris Hond.

The Pianist is Szpilman’s recounting of the annihilation of the Jews of Warsaw, and how he—a leading young Polish pianist and composer—survived. He had many dark days, but his music both consoled him and inspired him to keep living.

Why now? You may recall that Tony Award-winning Mann’s career has emphasized social justice, through such works as Having Our Say and Gloria: A Life. Szpilman’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale, and taking it on now is a timely move, as surveys show the Holocaust receding in public memory and as anti-semitic rhetoric and attacks are on the rise. It’s dangerous to ignore those past lessons, when around the world extremist leaders grow increasingly prominent. Who might their net targets be?

A terrific cast has been assembled for this production, including Russian-born actor Daniel Donskoy, who makes his American stage debut as Szpilman, bringing both passion and intelligence to the role. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In Szpilman’s nuclear family are his father (played by Austin Pendleton), mother (Claire Beckman), sisters Regina (Arielle Goldman) and Halina (Georgia Warner), and brother Henryk (Paul Spera).

Henryk can’t stop warning his family about fascism’s deadly implications, as the dark cloud descends on Warsaw. The parents don’t want to hear—or believe—it. Much like Szpilman, his father loses himself in music, almost obsessively playing his violin, but bit by bit, the ability to maintain the illusion of normalcy or that it can ever be regained, disappears along with the city’s food supply.

Several other actors—Charlotte Ewing, Jordan Lage, Robert David Grant, and Tina Benko—take on multiple roles as resistance fighters, people who try to help Szpilman or not, and Nazis. The play’s short scenes build and deepen Szpilman’s despair, as the whole is knitted together by the piano score of Iris Hond, which combines her original music, classical pieces, and Szpilman’s own work.

Anyone who needs evidence of the significance of this production need only read the biographical sketch for actor Claire Beckman, which concludes with her gratitude to Emily Mann for including her in this work of art “and by extension my great grandmother Anna Frankova Pickova, murdered in Terezin in 1943.”

The Pianist is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717.

On Stage: And A Nightingale Sang . . .

A business trip to Las Vegas kept me from attending the opening weekend of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s new production, And A Nightingale Sang . . ., but I didn’t want to go without mentioning it to friends in the area, and encourage you to see it. A not-very-often produced play by Scottish playwright C.P.Taylor, it’s on stage for only one more week (through Sunday, July 30). Taylor was a native of Newcastle upon Tyne, and his characters speak with the broad Geordie dialect that must have been a bear for the actors to master (which they did!). This accent will be familiar to viewers of the television mystery series, Vera.

And a Nightingale Sang . . .the story of a northern England family during the Blitz and how, as one character says, Hitler changed their lives. There are lots of funny moments and sad ones too. The actors, particularly Monette Magrath whose role involves breaking the fourth wall and helping the audience understand how the pieces fit, do a remarkable job keeping up. Something—often more than one thing—is always happening.

Older sister Helen (played by Monette) believes she’s plain until she meets the friend (Benjamin Eakeley) of younger sister Joyce’s (Sarah Deaver) fiancé, Eric (Christian Frost). The men are in the army, training for battle, and the play’s six scenes take place at pivotal points in the war. The mother (Marion Adler) is religious—to a fault you might say—and her husband (John Little) distracts himself with playing the piano, including the title song, and politics. The grandfather (Sam Tsoutsouvas) always weighs in where he’s not wanted.

Retiring Shakespeare Theatre artistic Director Bonnie Monte chose this play for the aptness of its moment “as I read about what the Ukrainians are dealing with on a daily basis,” she says. Big world events affect individual people and families in a personal and private way.

Mention must be made of the set design by Brittany Vasta, economical in space for the small stage, but with multiple areas to hold the disparate action and suggestions of the war’s destruction. The lighting (Matthew E. Adelson) and sound (Drew Sensue-Weinstein) designs effectively evoked the terror as planes overhead drop their bombs nearer and nearer. Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, contact the Box Office.

The Rose Tattoo

Tennessee Williams’s “heart-breaking and heart-soaring” story, The Rose Tattoo, launches Bonnie J. Monte’s final season (33rd!) as Artistic Director of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. And Monte’s long-standing affinity for Williams’s work shines. A full cast of 16 adults and three children is rare these days and brings this beautifully conceived and executed production to life through June 18.

The Rose Tattoo, like Streetcar, focuses on two couples, Serafina Delle Rose (played brilliantly by Antoinette LaVecchia), haunted by memories of her dead husband, Rosario, and reluctant to capitulate to the outlandish wooing of Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Anthony Marble), a would-be suitor whose patronymic is even ridiculous. The physical comedy between them is laugh-out-loud perfect.

The other couple is Serafina’s 15-year-old daughter Rosa (Billie Wyatt) and her recently met sailor, Jack Hunter (Isaac Hickox-Young). Rosa is determined to be deflowered, despite the mores of her Sicilian community; Jack is tempted, but unwilling to risk decades in the brig. Their longing for each other is palpable.

In Serafina’s all-consuming grief, she stalwartly believes her lusty marriage was absolutely perfect. The audience knows better. Serafina also subscribes to a superstitious Catholicism and waits for the Virgin Mary to tell her what she should do with her life. These beliefs tether her to the past and warp her relationship with the here-and-now and with her daughter. Nosy neighbors, a hapless priest, and a malevolent “witch” are among the secondary characters who keep the plot racing along. Offstage, Sarafina’s garden is frequently threatened by a neighborhood goat—traditional symbol of unbridled lust—that continuously needs to be corralled, both literally and figuratively.

In all, The Rose Tattoo is a fine start to an exciting season! STNJ productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Two River Theater: Romeo and Juliet

Solid appreciation is needed for the decision by Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, and its new artistic director, Justin Waldman, to present a radical reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, running through April 30. Contemporary playwright Hansol Jung has transformed not only the work, but the theater itself. Jung and Dustin Wills direct the production, presented in partnership with the National Asian American Theatre Company.

On one hand, like any project making massive changes to a beloved classic, some aspects will be more successful than others. On the other, this play is so familiar that the creative deviations are immediately recognizable. The circular platform that serves as the stage allows some audience members to sit behind it and on the sides. While it isn’t quite theater-in-the-round, it’s a good way there. Members of the cast engage with some audience members before the show, and occasionally even during it. At one point, Romeo (played by Major Curda) walks up an aisle for the balcony scene. At the performance I attended, he sat down next to an audience member and gave his line, “What light through yonder window breaks?” and the audience member replied, “I have no idea.”

That actually sums up parts of the experience for a number of audience-members. It’s as if we were watching two plays. The thread of the original goes throughout, and substantial sections of Act II are presented fairly conventionally. On those theatrical bones, Jung has constructed a farce—antic behavior, dashing about, plain silliness, and some truly comical moments. Music is brought in nicely. In the early scenes, during Romeo’s mopey period, he plays a guitar and sings woefully. Other characters occasionally sing too. Various instruments make themselves heard from time to time. Near the end, Jung included spoken and sung allusions to Prince’s “Purple Rain,” with its references to perfect, unattainable love.

The staging was done with an eye to engaging audiences on all sides, but that creates a few complications. Since the actors are unmiked, at times they are speaking with their backs to part of the audience. While the speeches by Capulet (Brian Lee Huynh) were always clear, I had trouble understanding the fast-talking Juliet (Dorcas Leung). In the last act when all the baskets and boxes from around the edge of the platform are put up onto it, friends sitting lower down said their sight lines were blocked.

The energetic cast gleefully shook the cobwebs off the audience’s preconceptions about their roles. In addition to those mentioned are Purva Bedi (Friar Lawrence), Jose Gamo (Mercutio), Zion Jang (Benvolio), Mia Katigbak (Nurse), Rob Kellogg (Paris/Tybalt), and the notable Daniel Liu (Peter/Lady Capulet). His scene trying to gently persuade Capulet not to banish the willful Juliet was heartbreaking and truly memorable.

Brushes with Literary Fame

On a recent 10-day trip to south Georgia and Alabama, we covered a lot of ground. The trip had many profound highlights. These are the literary ones.

Monroeville, Alabama, was the hometown of author Harper Lee (1926-2016) and the setting for her indelible novel To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s where her long friendship began with Truman Capote (1924-1984), who lived in Monroeville for most of his childhood and became the model for Lee’s character Dill.A fascinating and quirky (in the way of small museums) tribute to Lee and Capote is housed in the Old Courthouse Museum, site of “the most famous courtroom in America” (pictured).

The actual courthouse wasn’t used for the Mockingbird movie, but the set designers arrived from Hollywood to inspect and measure, and their recreation copies the original almost exactly. Apparently Lee thought Gregory Peck was too youthful to play Atticus Finch—that is, until he went into a dressing room to try on his costume: three-piece suit, glasses, and pocket watch. “He came out a middle-aged man,” she said, realizing he’d be perfect.

Montgomery, Alabama, is where Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald (1900-1948) grew up and where, in 1931-1932, she and her husband Scott (1896-1940) lived. That house, in the Old Cloverdale neighborhood, is called a “museum,” but it’s more impactful for knowing you’re walking where this star-crossed literary couple walked, seeing what they saw, knowing he worked on Tender Is the Night in that period and she on her only novel, Save Me the Waltz. Some gilded age clothing (pink suit!) and evening gowns, Gatsby edition memorabilia, and biographical profiles of people they hobnobbed with are on display, along with handwritten pages, and Zelda’s artwork. Is it really 98 years since The Great Gatsby was published?

The house is an Airbnb and a party venue, so it’s enduring quite a bit of wear. We arrived at the same time as a trio of women and were put off by the “closed for private party” sign, but they’d encountered that a few days before. We collectively decided not to take it seriously and all walked in. No problem. No party.

Montgomery is also home to the Hank Williams Museum, a magnet for country music fans. It has a few nice touches: his music plays throughout. On view are his baby blue Cadillac, some of his gorgeous Western-style suits, and a selection of the romance comics he liked to read. “Why do you read that junk?” friends would ask, and he’d say they gave him most of the ideas for his songs. “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” comes to mind. Is this stretching the notion of “literary” too far?

Milledgeville, Georgia, was home to one of the greatest Southern Gothic authors, National Book Award-winner Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). We visited Andalusia, the farm where she lived in the last years of her life and where she raised her prized peacocks. There’s now a museum there dedicated to her work. We also saw from the outside the house in Milledgeville where, as a teenager, she lived with her mother’s family while her father’s health declined.

When her letters were published in 1979 (The Habit of Being), I read them and it was painful to see in the museum the kind of typewriter she used. Like her father, O’Connor had lupus, and in the days before word processing, revisions to stories and novels required retyping—a massive chore for her. However, the trials of the disease were integral to her experience. As writer Alice McDermott said, “It was the illness, I think, which made her the writer she is.”

In Atlanta, Georgia, we saw Roundabout Theater’s production of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning (1982) story, A Soldier’s Play, directed by Kenny Leon. The production has a great cast, with Norm Lewis and Eugene Lee in the leads. Some of the themes are a little dated, but the overall message about the effects of racism is not. Even if the play hadn’t been so good, it would have been worth it to see the renovated Fox Theatre, with its fabulous Moorish interior. The picture can’t do it justice!

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All photos: Vicki Weisfeld

George Street Playhouse: Clyde’s

© T Charles Erickson Photography tcharleserickson@photoshelter.com

Opening night of the dramedy Clyde’s at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a lively evening, despite the chill outside (minus 4 on our way back to the train!). The original Broadway production of Clyde’s received multiple awards and is one of two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage’s trilogy of stories set in Reading, Pennsylvania. She calls Clyde’s the series’ “grace note.” Directed by Melissa Maxwell, the New Brunswick production opened February 3 and runs through February 19 and is great fun!.

Before the action even starts, the audience is treated to the “backstage” view of a diner (named Clyde’s), which specializes in sandwiches. The clever use of neon, the battered kitchen equipment, mop pail, staff lockers, and other accoutrements—the set’s terrific. But if it jibes with what you imagine a diner kitchen might look like, the staff may surprise you. The diner owner, Clyde (played by Darlene Hope) served prison time for something her employees are not quite sure what. What they do know is that somewhere along the way, her compassion for others was knocked out of her. She’s a terrible and terrifying boss.

Clyde’s four staff members are all ex-cons too, but a decade or so younger than she is. Don’t mistake her hiring them for a generous heart. She’s hired a staff that doesn’t have many other employment choices, and she knows it. There’s Montrellous (Gabriel Lawrence) who sees sandwich-making as an art and tries to elevate the sandwich-making (and life) aspirations of the rest of the staff—Letitia (Sydney Lolita Cusic), Jason (Ryan Czerwonko) and the fry-cook, Rafael (Xavier Reyes). The lettuce flies while a lot of sandwiches are made, troubles explained, and secrets shared. They’ve had troubles, but at Clyde’s they can be an uneasy team, with an abundance of witty banter. One recurrent bit: they try to outdo each other in describing ingredients of the most “perfect” sandwich. (Don’t go to this show hungry!)

Despite the many genuine laughs, Nottage reveals how hard they have to work to make a life outside prison. She lets you see a very specific world you won’t soon forget. Entertaining and indelible.

Production credits to Riw Rakkulchon (set designer), Azalea Fairley (costumes; something must be said about the awe-inspiring skin-tight costumes and high-heel boots Clyde wears that fit her perfectly, in every sense), Cheyenne Sykes (lighting), Scott O’Brien (composer/sound designer), Fre Howard (wig and makeup design) and Cristina (Cha) Ramos (fights and intimacy).

Clyde’s is on stage at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Tickets available here or by calling 732-246-7717. Check the website for current information on NBPAC’s covid requirements.

Tent Revival: Online Theater

Last Monday was the premiere of Tent Revival, a play by Majkin Holmquist directed by Teddy Bergman, as part of the series, Bard at the Gate. This is the third season for the series, which is co-curated by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel and McCarter Theatre Center Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, and co-produced by McCarter. Its goal is to create an audience for groundbreaking new plays that are “ambitious, quirky, and smart.

Tent Revival takes place in rural Kansas, 1957. The strong cast is led by Robert (played by Michael Crane), a farmer unable to make a go of it who turns to preaching. He’s strongly supported by his wife, Mary (Lisa Joyce), injured in an auto accident a decade earlier. Daughter Ida (Susannah Perkins) is the most interesting of the three, because she’s the most up-front with her doubts. She isn’t sure she buys into all the professions of faith and “Jesus is sitting right beside me,” and spends her Sunday mornings roaming the farm fields looking for snakes to have as pets. When Mary, in a frenzy of defending her husband from doubters, rises from her wheelchair and walks again, Ida’s convinced. For a time.

Someone who doesn’t share these doubts is the extremely vulnerable teenager, Joann (Allegra Heart). Joann willingly fakes a stutter so Robert can “heal” her, in order to convince people he truly has a gift. In addition to the four cast members mentioned, a fifth actor (Amy Staats) takes on multiple roles, usually as a skeptic.

The crowds grow, the pressure mounts, the demand for healing intensifies. When Mary relapses and ends up back in her wheelchair, Bob tries to exile her from the show (bad publicity). But he has to produce something to satisfy the crowds of people coming to be healed, and he talks Ida into snake-handling—with rattlesnakes. Mary has other ideas and decides to test Robert’s faith. Is it real? The ending is ambiguous, but I think he does have faith, just not in the way the tent revival audience believes.

The performances were filmed in a particular way—in closeups projected side-by-side, in color and, when Ida is narrating rather than participating in a scene, in black and white. This gives a feeling of action in what is a minimalist production. You can access Tent Revival (video on demand) through Broadway on Demand.

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