Enter Laughing: The Musical

Sweet and frothy as an egg cream, Enter Laughing: The Musical  opened tonight as part of the York Theatre’s 50th anniversary season.  Loosely based on Carl Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel as well as Joseph Stein’s play of the same name, it charts the initial baby steps to stardom of David Kolowitz.  Disinterested in his mother’s goal of getting him into pharmacy school, David jumps at the opportunity to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor by responding to an ad placed by the Marlowe Free Theatre.  While he doesn’t lack passion, his knowledge of theater is so scant that he doesn’t know the difference between dialogue and stage directions.  Despite this dearth of experience or apparent talent, the hormone driven lad attracts the attention of leading lady Angela and lands the role. The complications that evolve from his big break go beyond the challenge of learning his lines before opening night.

We are plunged into David’s world from the outset, with scenery by James Morgan built to resemble a typical backstage area.  Set pieces that suggest the Kolowitz’s kitchen, the Marlowe Theatre, the repair shop where David currently works and more are wheeled in by the supporting players to keep up the frenetic pace.  Clever costuming by Tyler M. Holland and wigs by Kenneth Griffin help embellish the atmosphere and provide additional comic moments.  The lighting by Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz and sound by Julian Evans regularize the more far-fetched moments.

Taking a stylistic queue from New York circa 1938, director Stuart Ross ratchets up the screwball elements.  The entire 2 1/2 hours are filled with high energy.  David’s active imagination often colors what we see.  The comedy is so big and broad you can practically hear the rimshots.  Fortunately the flexible cast handles the pratfalls and double takes with ease.  Those in smaller roles also fill out the musical numbers written by Stan Daniels and played by a trio (Phil Reno, Perry Cavari and Michael Kuennen) on stage left under Mr. Reno’s musical direction. Simple choreography which echoes that of MGM’s grand days is provided by Jennifer Paulson-Lee.  Every word is crisply pronounced, the better to appreciate the good humor.  A few of the highlights like The Man I Can Love and The Butler’s Song are included just for laughs rather than plot development.  For those unfamiliar with the early days of Hollywood, a glossary of the famous people incorporated in the lyrics is included in the program.

Pictured (left to right): Chris Dwan, Dana Costello. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

Pictured (left to right)/ Chris Dwan, Dana Costello. Photo Credit/ Carol Rosegg

Several of the actors sing with trilling tones, though there are an equal number who rhythmically speak the lyrics Rex Harrison style. In the former camp, Chris Dwan imbues young David with a warm voice, a rubbery face, and buckets of boyish charm.  He is particularly well supported by the women in David’s orbit: Allie Trimm who brings just enough feistiness to the role of Wanda his loyal girlfriend, Alison Fraser whose sly style takes Mother beyond the passive aggressive stereotype, Dana Costello who provides the alluring Miss B with Carole Lombard’s wit and knowing flirtiness, and Farah Alvin resembling the best of Madeline Kahn in her portrayal of the sexually charged Angela.  The men (Raji Ahsan, Ray DeMattis, Magnes Jarmo, Robert Picardo, and Joe Veale) are more two dimensional as if to bolster the concept that David is a leading man in the making.  Theatrical treasure David Schramm rounds out the cast as the way over the top Marlowe.

Though short on plot, this return engagement of Enter Laughing is long on heart, smiles, and quality song styling.  A lighthearted escape from these thornier times, the piece also incorporates a lovely message that each generation has something to teach the other.  It plays through June 9 at Saint Peter’s Church, 54th Street just east of Lexington Avenue.  Tickets are priced with accessibility in mind [$67.50 ((evenings), $72.50 (matinees), $25 (under 35 years of age), $20 (students and senior rush].  To purchase and for more information visit https://yorktheatre.org.

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The Brothers Paranormal

Being unmoored feels as haunting as any creature to the characters in The Brothers Paranormal, opening tonight at Theatre Row.  Max left behind a fulfilling life in California and moved to the midwest to look after his mentally ill mother Tasanee and alcoholic brother Visarut.  Attempting to restore his financial stability, Max has partnered with Visarut in a ghost-hunting venture.  Delia and Felix have come to the same town after being forced out of their home in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.  They are all brought together when Delia hires the brothers to rid her apartment of a malicious spirit only she can see.  Though Max is a non-believer, he is a pragmatic businessman and more than happy to take Delia’s money for an easy night’s work.  Felix goes along with the plan hoping to prove his wife’s visions are real and not the onset of madness.

Pictured (left to right): Vin K ridakorn, Dawn L. Troupe. Photo credit: John Quincy Lee

 Vin Kridakorn and Dawn L. Troupe. Photo credit/ John Quincy Lee

The timing of this world premiere production by Pan Asian Repertory is auspicious. Modern audiences have been primed to experience the blend of comedy, social commentary, and horror that are entwined throughout Prince Gomolvilas’s script.  The lifespan of a typical play makes it unlikely that the playwright was inspired by Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking Get Out, but the sensibility is similar if not as artfully executed.  There are chills, chuckles, and deep reflections on displacement, along with family-oriented conversation.  The second act begins to drag with too much exposition and the ending is a disappointing “specter ex machina.”  But the overall journey is an entertaining and surprising one.

Talented director Jeff Liu does his best to navigate the many moods and styles, which are in near-constant transition.  The gasp-inducing horror elements are achieved with well-crafted lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan and perfectly-timed sound by Ian Wehrle, along with a magical assist from special effects expert Steve Cuiffo.  It is the logic behind the hauntings that is flawed.  It is explained to us that ghosts follow their own rules, but horror purists will be particularly frustrated by the inconsistencies of the other-worldly occupants.  Gomolvilas fares much better in the comedy realm where his zingers are delivered with flair, most especially by Emily Kuroda as the sly and insightful Tasanne. 

Sheryl Liu’s sparse set allows us to focus most of our attention on the characters.  Gomolvilas has chosen to explore the intersection of African American and Thai American cultures, particularly as they relate to superstition and the afterlife. Common ground is found and differences acknowledged and respected.  There are also interesting distinctions made between the viewpoints of Max who was born in America and the rest of his family who immigrated from Thailand.  It is especially in the heartfelt moments that Gomolvilas’s writing skills shine.  The chemistry between Dawn L. Troupe’s warm Delia and Brain D. Coats as her charming husband feels genuine.  More astonishing is the connection formed between her and Vin Kridakorn’s seat-of-his-pants Max. The relationship that develops between client and hoaxer is fresh and ultimately brings about extraordinary feelings of hope.  Natsuko Hirano and Roy Vongtama round out this strong cast.

As the month in which we recognize both Asian Pacific American Heritage and Mental Health Awareness, May is the perfect time to bring the unusual and twisty The Brothers Paranormal to our consciousness. The play is currently at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) for a limited engagement through Sunday, May 19, 2019.   Runtime is 2 hours plus an intermission.  Content is intense and may be inappropriate for children under 8. Ticket prices range from $62.50 – $102.25.  For more information and to purchase, visit https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Brothers-Paranormal/Overview.

Fruiting Bodies

The fog-bound woods of Bolinas are the setting for the Midsummer Night’s Dream-like meanderings of the characters at the center of Fruiting Bodies.  In reality, this town is as described by Asian-American playwright Sam Chanse: deliberately secluded from the rest of the Northern Bay Area by the townspeople who removed the highway signs that marked the exit.  Though there is no fairy Puck, there is a sprite of sorts: A Boy who by turns is the brother/son, an abandoned 10-year-old, and a giant talking mushroom.  All of them influence the actions of Ben and his daughters Mush and Vicky.  Their environment functions as a fifth player.  The bare trees that spin as the people are drawn deeper into the landscape are paired with soft welcoming rocks in the evocative set by Reid Thompson.  Lighting design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew brings out a magical quality and Kate Marvin provides nature’s moody background music.  Costume designer Sara Ryung Clement provides Vicky’s Instagram-ready outfit and the rest of the workhorse wardrobe.

In biology, the “fruit body” is the sexual phase in the lifecycle of fungi.  At their most literal, the mushrooms on the forest floor are the fruiting bodies of Chanse’s visionary world.  Each grows from a rotting tree, releasing spores into the air as it attempts to start new life.  The family members are also struggling to leave a mark on the world, one quite literally.  Yet each one has a passion that is met with disapproval.  They were at some point connected, but that body has been rotted by disagreement and negative judgment.  It’s a melancholy but recognizable sensation that Chanse evokes beautifully and poetically.  

As the piece opens, the sisters are in Vicky’s treasured Tesla on their way to Bolinas to pick up their father who has gotten lost in the woods. The third generation Japanese American has gone mushroom hunting, a pastime that according to his Japanese tradition can bind family members together.  But fittingly for the increasingly addled Ben, he has forgotten to bring younger daughter Vicky as promised.  Instead, he has meet up with a young boy whom he mistakes for his son Eddie, the first sign that Ben’s mind isn’t what it once was.  The sisters are also disconnected.  The gulf that started to form years ago when their Finnish mother left has deepened now that Vicky is proudly at work on a communication app and activist/artist Mush has the lofty goal of cleansing the world of preconceived notions of beauty and power.

Fruiting Bodies is still developing, having been fostered by the creative environment of  the Ma-Yi Writers’ Lab.  Along the way to opening night, the work shed about 35 minutes and an intermission, leaving a still leisurely 100 minute experience.  Like mushrooms in a pan, there are many concepts being tossed about. Big themes including homophobia, ethnicity, and the power of celebrity are introduced alongside more everyday family conflicts.  The play is as much about mood as it is about substance. Throwing morels, buttons, and chanterelles into his paper sack, Ben quite literally goes through the day with a mixed bag and in a fog.  For all his intentions to serve as model head of the household, he can’t seem to see his son and daughters clearly enough to genuinely bond with them.  Some may find the ending less a conclusion and more a stopping point on a longer path.  The playwright seems to have done this deliberately given that two of the most heated arguments are given simultaneously, sometimes blending, but just as often drowning each other out. 

Kimiya Corwin, Emma Kikue, Jeffrey Omura and Thom Sesma

Kimiya Corwin, Emma Kikue, Jeffrey Omura and Thom Sesma; Photo by Carol Rosegg

Director Shelley Butler knows how to get the most from her nimble cast and wonderland scene.  In Thom Sesma’s hands, Ben is both sympathetic and maddening, taking joy in some moments while completely oblivious to others.  Kimiye Corwin and Emma Kikue don’t yet have the chemistry of the sisters, though both are highly skilled and may find the right rhythm.  The role of The Boy and his many facets is the most challenging and Jeffrey Omura flits expertly among them.  His shifts from teenage exasperation to slightly menacing creature of the dark are executed with ease and limberness.  

Though a little thin on plotting, Fruiting Bodies make for an entrancing event.  For a brief time, you’ll be pulled away from your everyday experience and into these enchanted woods.  It is playing through May 19 in the Beckett Theater in Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) in Manhattan  Tickets range in price from $32.25 to $42.25 and can be purchased by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com.  More information is available on The Ma-Yi Theater Company website at www.ma-yitheatre.org.

All Our Children

At a time when the US government has been separating families at the border, All Our Children sends an impassioned message about the responsibility we share as a society to protect the most vulnerable among us.  The play by Stephen Unwin is a work of fiction based on true events that took place in Germany between 1939 and 1941.  In a lesser-known chapter from that time, the Nazis sent 100,000 mentally and physically impaired people to the gas chamber.  It was felt that their deaths were efficient and even compassionate since these citizens could never properly contribute to the development of the Third Reich.

The intentionally claustrophobic piece is set entirely in the office of Victor Franz, a doctor whose clinic has been repurposed to quickly diagnose and dispatch the children under his care.  Director Ethan McSweeny has staged the work in the round so that the audience encircles the doctor, witnessing the slow dismantling of the acceptance he has maintained of his role in these casual murders.  The audience in turn is enveloped in a wall of file cabinets which contain the children’s medical files, a powerful image in the minimalist set by Lee Savage. Somber radio music, part of Lindsay Jones’s sound design, is used to effectively illustrate the passage of time.  Simple period costumes by Tracy Christensen complete the look and tone, sending us back to that horrible period.

Karl Kenzler brings a combination of gruffness and vulnerability to his role of Dr. Franz as he ping-pongs between professional obligation and personal discomfort.  But the actor cannot escape the circular emotional arc with which the character is burdened.  Unwin is a seasoned director and teacher and this is his first time as playwright. The results are heartfelt but thinly executed.  The other four characters are drawn in stark black or white, a weakness that often plagues stories that involve the Nazis.  Furthermore, Franz’s tolerance for many of his encounters isn’t properly explained or realistically motivated.

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER Photo by Maria Baranova

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER, Photo by Maria Baranova

Among Franz’s foils are his pious maid, Martha, (a fluttery, sweet Jennifer Dundas) a genuinely caring woman who tries to reconnect him with his sense of responsibility to heal and give comfort to his young patients.  There is also Elizabetta (a too broad and harsh Tasha Lawrence) representing all the grieving mothers who love their children no matter their limitations.  Most important is Bishop von Galen (the always excellent and engaging John Glover) who attempts to appeal to Franz’s long-lost soul.  Counterbalancing them all is the clinic’s administrator, Eric (an appropriately oily Sam Lilja), who is not only a member of the SS, but also guilty of statutory rape.  He’d be twirling his mustache if only he had one.  It is only his embodiment of pure evil that eventually breaks through Franz’s trancelike state.

Recommended for ages 13 and older, All Our Children lacks nuance, but delivers on its examination of a particularly shameful practice. It is playing through May 12th in the versatile Black Box Theater at The Sheen Center, a project of the Archdiocese of New York.  Runtime is a scant 90 minutes with no intermission.  Tickets are $65 and $80 for general admission and can be purchased at https://www.sheencenter.org/shows/allourchildren/2019-04-06/. For those wanting to delve deeper into the topic, post-performance talkbacks are scheduled throughout the run.  The play is also accompanied by an exhibit in the Sheen Center gallery, Little Differences: The Portrayal of Children with DisABILITIES Throughout History.

The Owl Girl

Many writers have examined tensions in the Middle East, a particularly thorny issue.  Playwright Monica Raymond does so with a poetic eye in her new work, The Owl Girl.  Taking the conflict to an absurdist extreme, she distills the historic schism down to two families — one Arab and one Israeli — and places them in the same dwelling.  Both can reasonably claim ownership of the home.  Zol and Leedya were raising their teenagers, Joze and Anja, in the house when they were all sent to a camp in the West Bank.  Rav and Ora then purchased the property for their family, which includes daughter Stel and young son Capi.  

Stel still feels the spirits of the other children in her room, where she chooses to keep two marks on the wall that indicate Joze and Anja’s heights at the time they were forced to leave.  Meanwhile in the camp, Joze has also started to feel a draw, eventually convincing his father to give him the key to the old front door so he can visit one last time.  He happens to choose a night when Stel is home alone and the two form an instant connection.  Stel invites Joze to come back, but when he does, his parents and sister follow.  Rav, Ora, and Capi return, and the eight decide to share the space as a cultural experiment.

OwlGirl

Yaara Shilony and Julian Alexander as Stel and Joze in The Owl Girl

Raymond employs a number of metaphors to make her points about battles ideological, cultural, and territorial.  The most graphic of these symbols is the Owl Girl of the title. Anja stopped developing at the age of 13, literally stunted by losing her place in the world.  Stuck in exile, she fell under the spell of her rage-filled grandmother. Since Anja hasn’t matured into a woman, she tries on a number of animal personas, settling on the owl.  These birds represent power and destruction in her culture, but also possess vision and insight.  Returned to her rightful station, she not only starts menstruating, but swoops about the house, eventually sprouting literal wings in order to gain a better vantage point.

Ms. Raymond has been developing this piece for 15 years, and some sections flow with the passion she obviously feels for her subject.  Her understanding of the thin line that can exist between enemies is well articulated, at one point represented by a literal string running down the kitchen.  Her use of magic helps her reveal emotions that can be difficult to articulate.  But she defuses her message by adding too many layers.  There are aggressive chess matches, a hellish hidden room, and a jar of mysterious ointment.  Then in the middle of the second act, Raymond introduces a subplot involving the lust Rav feels for Anja.  Eventually, like a child’s painting, the metaphors are so thick that they turn muddy.    

The Owl Girl is presented by THML, a majority female-run theatre company that promotes stories by and about women.  It is therefore unsurprising that the exchanges that have the most rhythm are the ones between the two mothers. They share a frustration with their sexists husbands and are both raising challenging younger children. Ora and Leedya bond as almost any two women will eventually do, finding common ground and poking a little fun at their differences.  Director Bryan Raanan Kearney who plays Ora has good timing and provides some comic relief.  The other relationships don’t work at least in part because many of the actors are miscast.  One in particular is the wrong age and ethnicity and has not gained mastery over an unnecessary accent. The exception is Julian Alexander, who brings a delightful softness and sense of wonder to Joze.

Having  received awards from the Castillo Theater, Peacewriting, Portland (Maine) Stage, and the Jewish Plays Project, The Owl Girl is a promising work that still needs to find a clear voice.  It is playing through March 20 at The Center at West Park, upstairs in the Balcony Theater.  Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-owl-girl-tickets-53977563345.

The Cake

The Cake is like one of those imperfectly filled jelly donuts: a few sweet spot surrounded by too much bland.  At a time when we could use serious conversation and considered insight into the critical issues that divide us as a nation, this comedy by This Is Us producer Bekah Brunstetter offers too little that is satisfying.  Though it concludes with some timid steps towards a “love is love is love” message, it gets there via worn out arguments on both sides of the issue of gay marriage.

Fans of That 70s Show may delight in seeing Debra Jo Rupp as Della, the owner of a sweet shop in Winston-Salem North Carolina (Brunstetter’s home town) about to find fame on a national baking show.  Her opening monologue cleverly lays the groundwork for the rigid discipline Della applies to all areas of her life.  Soon after, she is reunited with Jen, her deceased best friend’s daughter, who is in town preparing for her October wedding.  Initially Della is thrilled when asked to provide the wedding cake.  But when she discovers Jen’s intended is another bride, she clumsily rescinds the offer.  Their ensuing awkward discussion leaves both Della and Jen rattled and searching for the roots of their beliefs and accompanying feelings of shame.

Director Lynne Meadows does her best with a space that is too wide for a story this intimate.  Rupp is her usual perky self, delivering most of the better lines with comic flair.  To some ears, Della will simply come across as a bigot (though a chirpy petite one) who uses someone else’s pleasure and pain to mend her own relationship.  But there are moments when Della’s turmoil feels genuine.  Rupp is most grounded in her scenes with Dan Daily, who has the most joyful character arc in the role of her domineering husband, Tim.  (Daily also provides the voice of the appropriately oily George, the host of the American Baking Show who functions as Della’s conscience.) 

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The relationship of the lesbian couple is more problematic. Disappointingly, though the words are often there — particularly in Jen’s vivid and horrifying description of her heterosexual encounters — there is no palpable connection between the two actresses. The fresh-faced Genevieve Angelson brings a sweet restlessness to Jen as she is tossed between the realms of her conservative childhood and newly found freedom discovered in New York.  As her betrothed, Marinda Anderson gives Macy some well-earned rough edges, though the script occasionally requires her to speechify.  But as a couple, they never seem to click.

The overall look of the piece is spot-on.  Scenic designer John Lee Beatty has chosen candy colors to surround his baker, with mint green and strawberry cream pink swirling through her shop and home.  In contrast, the engaged couple is staying in the only earth toned room on the set.  Wardrobe by costume designer Tom Broecker follows a similar scheme, with Jen alternating palates.  Philip S. Rosenberg’s ’s lighting sharpens the intensity of Della’s inner dialogue and softens the conversations between lovers.  

With The Cake, Ms. Brunstetter has tried to make the point that recent cultural shifts have occurred too quickly for some goodhearted people to catch up.  The irony is that since the time the play was first produced, those same shifts have given rise to a slate of superior projects with bolder things to say.  From our current cultural vantage point, this work is a disappointing use of Rupp’s comedic talent as well as a waste of several delectable-looking cakes.  

The Cake is playing through March 31 at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I.  Theater-goers under 30 qualify for special $35 tickets.  Full priced tickets begin at $89 and can be purchased online at www.nycitycenter.org, by calling CityTix at 212-581-1212, or by visiting the New York City Center box office (131 West 55th Street).  

Ajijaak on Turtle Island

In Ajijaak on Turtle Island, chicks are hatched, buffalo dance, and butterflies flutter overhead to the delight of young theater-goers.  The multimedia piece is the creation of Heather Henson in collaboration with an array of First Nations performers and her famed father Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.  Storytelling is imparted through song, dance, and projections in addition to the expected marvelous marionettes.

Ajijaak © 2018 Richard Termine

Ajijaak on Turtle Island © 2018 Richard Termine

A synopsis is included in the program and should be shared with children before the curtain rises to help them get the most from the experience.  We are on Turtle Island — now known as North America — at a time when animals could talk to one another.  A young whooping crane named Ajijaak has been separated from her parents during a fire.  Her journey to find them on the Gulf Coast puts her in touch with deer, buffalo, coyotes, crabs and a few two-legged beings.  Each interaction teaches her something valuable and contributes to her “medicine bundle.”  These lessons will help her heal the world when the time comes to confront Mishibizhiw, the violent creature who is awakened from sleep whenever the earth is being exploited.

The visuals are quite stunning and work in harmony.  Multimedia images of nature are combined with music and movement in support of the environmental message.  Indigenous pieces by Dawn Avery & Larry Mitchell, Kevin Tarrant and Ty Defoe are punctuated by two drummer/chanters along with conventional instruments.  The script —  also by Ty Defoe based on a story by Heather Henson — is episodic, as is typical of a work geared to children.  The narrative breaks down in spots and some of the dialogue is stilted.  These weakness are largely overcome by the charm and warmth of the narrator Grandma Moon as embodied by Joan Henry.  Mishibizhiw’s entrance happens without an inciting incident, which seems a lost opportunity to really hit home the overarching theme. A highlight comes shortly after when the audience participates in the unique song meant to restore balance to the world.  It is a tune you will hear little voices continuing to sing throughout your walk to the subway, briefly pushing Baby Shark to the back of your mind.

Complementing Ms. Henry is Henu Josephine Tarrant who gives Ajijaak a soaring angelic voice worthy of a bird.  The remainder of the performers — Tony Enos, Wren Jeng, Adelka Polak, Sheldon Raymore — are uneven in skill, but all provide enthusiasm and heartwarming interaction with the audience.  Dancers Jake Montanaro, Jennifer Sanchez, Euni Shim and Dormeshia Ward fill the background and theater aisles, uplifting spirits, sometimes with the aid of kites representing, birds, butterflies and such.  Traditional dances choreographed and performed by Tarrant, Raymore and Enos add spark and authenticity.

The set by Christopher and Justin Swader features six drum heads representing the heartbeat of Turtle Island. These also function as screens for the dramatic projections designed by Katherine Freer.  Rather than the all-black garb favored by most puppeteers, these artists sport bright colors in their wardrobe designed by Lux Haac with some pieces by Donna Zakowska.  This is in keeping with the cultural roots of the characters and plays up the relationship between the animals and their handlers.  

Presented by Ibex Puppetry, an entertainment company founded by Heather Henson that creates spectacles promoting themes in support of a healthy planet, Ajijaak on Turtle Island is intended as family entertainment.  Adults firmly in touch with their inner child should find enough to engage with here.  The recommended age is 7 and up, though I saw many pre-schoolers in attendance..  Your child should be able to sit still for 75 minutes, not interfere with performers in the aisles, and hold questions until the curtain falls.  There is an opportunity for them to participate in support of Aijijaak in the way past generations clapped in order to keep Tinkerbell alive.  Performances run through March 10 at the New Victory Theater.  For information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org.