Category Archives: Musical

Mr. Saturday Night on BroadwayHD

Launched in 2015 by veteran producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the intention of online platform BroadwayHD is to replicate the Broadway experience for those who do not have access to the Great White Way.  Added to initial listings like She Loves Me are now hundreds of shows including family favorites like Kinky Boots and classics from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The service provides a comfortable entry for those who don’t want to gamble $125 per person to introduce family members to the theater as an entertainment option.

Their latest addition is Mr. Saturday Night, a musical comedy starring the always amiable Billy Crystal who also serves as Executive Producer.  Filmed live at the Nederlander Theater on August 31, 2022, the production is based on Crystal’s self-directed 1992 movie of the same name.  It follows the career of Buddy Young Jr., a fictional Borscht Belt comedian who rose to stardom hosting a Saturday evening television variety show.  His reputation in tatters after an on-air incident, he is now performing before disengaged nursing home residents.  But his mistaken inclusion in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Emmy’s brings him much needed attention from a surprising source.

Whether this offering leaves you kvelling or plotzing will depend in large part on the level of admiration you hold for classic comics such as Phil Silvers, Totie Fields and Buddy Hackett.  (Thanks to YouTube, this admiration needn’t be restricted to those of a certain age.)  The revised script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel doesn’t solve the problem of the original film and Buddy remains a character that is hard to like much less root for.  However, Mr. Crystal’s live performance allows the audience to bathe in his suburb timing and delivery.  In his hands, even the broadest of jokes makes it easy to admire the craft even if it’s not your preferred style of humor.  It should be noted that some of the material is quite blue and may not be suitable for younger family members. 

Crystal has surrounded himself with a terrific, energetic cast.  Shoshana Bean lends her soaring expressive voice to the role of Buddy’s struggling daughter, Susan, while Randy Graff brings deep dimension to Buddy’s loyal-to-a-fault wife Elaine.  The reliable David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated performance in the more stereotypical role of jealous brother, Stan.  Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull do a lot of heavy lifting playing several roles apiece and giving variation to each.  While the charming Chasten Harmon overflows with warmth as Annie Wells, a young and exuberant agent trying to help Buddy rise again.  In a wonderful twist on the original casting, the adults play their teenage selves.

The company of Mr. Saturday Night; photo by Matthew Murphy

As is true with most streaming productions, the show has two directors.  Tony winner John Rando handled the stage production and Matthew Diamond translated it for the home screen.  Sometimes presenting camera angles that would not be seen by a live audience, Diamond— who previously directed The Wiz Live for NBC — employs a style more similar to a television show than a recreation of a theatrical experience.  But this is a musical that relies more on exchanges among two or three characters and less on big production numbers.  Clever projections by Jeff Sugg that enhance a set designed by Scott Pask are well incorporated by the camera work.  And Diamond’s more intimate framing allows home viewers to observes details such as the framed photo of Crystal and his Comic Relief cohorts on the walls of the Friar’s Club set as well as enjoy the moving facial expressions of the entire ensemble.  There are also moments when the live audience is included in a shot and their enthusiastic responses are contagious.  Putting the end credits over individual actor’s faces is a nice touch.  Uptempo music by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green supply enjoyable interludes in the storytelling.  The players’ annunciation is excellent, but there are easy-to-read captions available.

Though modestly produced by Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday Night is lifted by Billy Crystal’s generally appealing performance.  And the central theme of second chances is given unusual spin.  Runtime is two and a half hours, though Act II is clearly marked if you need a stretch break.  Exclusive to BroadwayHD subscribers, this production was made possible by a special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.  Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com to sign up for a special holiday offer of $99.99 for one year (available through December 8) or dip your toe in their stream for $11.99 a month.  The fees make it possible to offer the entire catalogue ad and interruption free.

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Petunia’s Big Day – Streaming On Demand

Children experiencing everyday anxiety and stress have a fluffy new role model.  With her fuchsia skin and sky blue ponytail, Petunia (creator Laura Kay Clark) is a sweet relatable “Everychild.” Chatting with her friend Pumpkin Duck (puppeteer John Pickup; voice T.J. Bolden) she is excitedly picking out a jacket for her first day of school.  But before she can eat her chocolate chip pancakes, the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano) arrives with his alluring backup troupe.  He conjures images of mean teachers and unfriendly classmates until all she wants to do is get back into bed.  Fortunately Mom (Renee Titus), who has regular doubts of her own, comes to the rescue with a series of mindfulness exercises. Petunia is only too grateful to learn new skills and even experiences the joy of passing them on to a new friend (Amanda Spencer). 

Petunia (Laura Kay Clark) confronts the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano); photo provided by Party Claw Productions

After regrettably having to cancel in-person performances for safety reasons, New Ohio Theatre has made Petunia’s Big Day available On Demand.  The Party Claw co-production is warm from the first note, with the cast greeting us at the door and leading us through the auditorium accompanied by upbeat piano.  The book by Laura Kay Clark is based on her own Petunia’s Playhouse, an award-winning web series she created to give young children tools to better cope with the stress brought on by the COVID pandemic.  With the shift to an online format, this lively show can now be experienced by families around the country.

On Safari, the video streaming was very stable and the audio well mixed with just a slightly muted mic on Petunia.  While some of the opportunities for interactivity with younger audience members has been lost, the ability to see the details of the puppets (designed by Puppet Kitchen artist Eric Wright with additional puppets by designer Myra G. Reavis) and the fabulous touches in Petunia’s bedroom are improved from the cameras’ vantage points.  As directed by Christina Rose Ashby, Petunia is in a window above the tiled stage so that she and her human cast-mates can see eye to eye.  The brightly colored bedroom set designed by Reavis with its drawn-on doors and bed frame build on the musical’s storybook feel.  The company of six (Puppeteer Julia Fein also lends a hand… BOTH) ably delivers the serviceable songs by Billy Recce.  And there are still moments when a child at home can breathe along with the heroine or warn her of approaching Tummy Butterflies.  

Aimed at theater-goers aged 6-12, Petunia’s Big Day is childlike, but not childish. The demonstrated tools are practical and easy to apply.  It contains an important reminder that the practice of self-care isn’t only essential when there’s a virus circling. The common events depicted may even stimulate conversation about how to manage other uncomfortable emotions. 

Running less than half an hour, the production is streaming On Demand through February 6.  Tickets are $25 per household and can be purchased at https://watch.eventive.org/newohiotheatre/play/61d8bc1cc9d1230044fa7ff2.  You’ll have 7 days from the time of purchase to start watching, and 24 hours to complete your viewing.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas – NYC and On Demand

In 1977, Jim Henson showed the world how expansive his unique puppets’ universe could be by developing a charming television special based on the book Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban.  Well-meaning Emmet and his devoted and somewhat naive Ma are scraping by: taking in laundry and doing odd jobs around their town of Frogtown Hollow.  When they hear about a Christmas Eve talent contest, they each take a risk in order to try to win the $50 grand prize and buy a special present for the other.  

31 years later, the Jim Henson Company expanded Emmet’s world again by creating a live adaptation with iTheatrics.  Henson’s wondrous Creature Shop creatures performed alongside humans outfitted in imaginative woodland costumes.  With folksy songs by Paul Williams and a straightforward book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, this musical production is currently playing for a reduced capacity audience at the New Victory Theater on famed 42nd Street.

Under Gattelli’s direction, the work makes full use of the New Victory’s space.  The beloved Henson Creatures add humor, with bits that also serve to break the story into bite-sized chunks easily digested by younger audience members.  The characters are all appropriately sweet including puppeteer Anney Ozar’s crusty old Mrs. Possum who shows a caring side while at her piano.  Even the members of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band are more mild bad boys than genuine hoodlums.  Likewise, the actors are warm and low key.  While newcomer Colin Trudell’s Emmet and Cass Morgan’s Ma ground the center of the story, it is LaVon Fisher-Wilson who kicks up the energy singing “Born In a Trunk” as Mrs. Mink, the Ma Rainey of Waterville. (She also takes on the role of Mrs. Squirrel whose puppet children perform the other show stopper, “Trust That Branch.”) 

Jiffy Squirrel, Skippy Squirrel, Nutella Squirrel, and Tiny Squirrel (Anney Ozar, James Wilson, Jordan Brownlee and Matthew Furtado) join Emmet (Colin Trudell) Photo Credit: Richard Termine

The entire look and feel of the show is in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s trademark style.  Anna Louizos’s set of dusky sky over rippling water, Matt Kraus’s soundscape of whispering winds, Gregg Barnes’s whimsical wardrobe and Melissa Munn’s clever make up design all work together to bring Emmet’s world to colorful life.

Like cocoa topped with marshmallows, Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will warm up a wintery afternoon.  It is recommended for family members age 5 and older.  Tickets start at $25 and there are no bad seats in the house.  Proof of full vaccination is required for everyone over 12 (one dose for children 5-11) and face masks must be worn at all times.  A 72 hour On-Demand pass is also available for $25.  Although you may miss the electric charge of sharing the experience with strangers, with the four camera streaming version you get close-ups of those delightful puppets and sign interpretation and audio description are easily accessed.  Running time is 75 minutes live and 80 minutes on demand with a brief introduction and outro.  The production runs through January 2, 2022.  For more information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org/tickets-and-events/2122-live-performance-emmet-otters-jugband-christmas/.

Estella Scrooge – Streaming on Demand

A sophisticated entry in the field of holiday offerings, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist is a Christmastime musical with plenty of Easter eggs for Dickens fans.  The production was meticulously shot using green screen and video effects to blend a seasoned cast with eye-popping images.  The result combines the best elements of a Broadway show with a movie spectacular.

The story hits all the well-known beats of the classic about a miser who learns a lesson, but frames them in a way that is fresh and original.  In this reimagining, Scrooge is the CEO of Bleak House, a predatory financial company.  Their health insurance policies never pay out and their mortgages are designed for easy foreclosure.  The overworked and underpaid Cratchet makes an appearance in the form of Scrooge’s devoted assistant, Betty, mother to the sickly Tammy.  But in this instance, Estella’s journey to enlightenment begins when she returns to her childhood home of Pickwick.  She arrives unannounced on Christmas Eve in order to foreclose on a hotel that has been serving as housing for those in need.  The current owner is her old flame Philip “Pip” Nickleby.  When a snow storm strands Ms. Scrooge at his establishment, Philip and the other residents — who include the usual ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future — seize their opportunity to change “Esty’s” hardened heart.

Lauren Patton as Dawkins in Estella Scrooge

John Caird  and Paul Gordon flesh out the book to reflect the current socio-economic challenges that sadly echo those of Dickens’ time. Rising well above many modern musicals, Gordon’s score contains a wide variety of song styles, each well suited to the person who performs it.  The recurring ballad “Almost a Family” is a captivating earworm that eloquently describes the bonds that can form between people who are not necessarily blood relatives.  In “Trickle Down,” economics are showcased in a jazzy number.  And the Ghost of Christmas Past uses hard rock to hammer home her point.  Many of the lyrics are calls to other Dickens’ classics including Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities

The production’s look has been skillfully retooled for the online world.  Caird’s careful direction helps mimic the sense of connection and of space you would get at a live performance.  Fanciful costumes provided by Somie Pak cleverly combine period with high fashion.  Hair and makeup make use of Dena Olivieri’s experience with SFX.  Production design by Zach Wilson fittingly fuses elements of realism and fantasy.  The green screen is high quality and the actors do appear as if on the set.  Some of the special effects add zest, though the work in the ghostly scenes is inferior and distracting. The sound is too low for a laptop and the work as a whole is probably better enjoyed cast onto a larger screen.

The sprawling cast is uniformly terrific.  Betsy Wolfe’s Estella softens in both look and tone as she is confronted with the impact of the life she has chosen.  There is a sweet relationship displayed between Clifton Duncan’s caring Nickleby and his vulnerable residents, including Em Grosland’s delicate Smike and Lauren Patten’s punkish and very artful Dawkins.  The rest of the stand-out line-up includes Patrick Page, Carolee Carmello, Megan McGinnis, Adam Halpin , Sarah Litzsinger, Tom Nelis , Phoenix Best , David Bryant , Gabrielle Reid , Samuel Lee Roberts, Michael Francis McBride , Michele Lee, Kristen Faith Oei , Meg Gibson, William Youmans, Kevyn Morrow, Joziyah Jean-Felix , Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy and  2020 Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein as Estella’s great great great great grandfather Ebenezer.

The irresistible work of Charles Dickens has long made a good springboard, but not every iteration flies this high.  Estella Scrooge is a captivating family entertainment that couldn’t have returned at a better time. It is available to stream on Broadway on Demand (www.BroadwayOnDemand.com and Streaming Musicals (www.StreamingMusicals.com). A 48 hour rental is $14.99 (a more sensible price than the original $29.99).  The 2 hour runtime flies, though may make it unsuitable for very young children.

Starting Here, Starting Now – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Closing out the San Francisco Playhouse’s 2020-2021 season is Starting Here, Starting Now, comprised of 24 songs with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire.  The lively and upbeat musical review was originally created to save the Manhattan Theater Club’s then-new nightclub space.  The songs are taken from shows that either never got produced or closed prematurely, so they have that familiar-yet-not feel.  Maltby directed the original production while Shire shored up the work with newly created connective tissue.  Performed in this instance by a cast of four (one more than the original production) the show is an often humorous exploration of relationships of various dimensions, some made modern with a gender-bending twist.  Each piece is sung in character — though those change throughout — so they require solid actors to make them work.  Equally important to their success is the jazzy trio, placed behind them right on the stage.

Directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, this incarnation moves breezily along for 90 minutes not including intermission.  Though the cast members are all seasoned performers, it is Keith Pinto who demonstrates the most strength from his perfect articulation of rapid lyrics to his physical antics and sincere engagement with the audience.  He elicits laughs in We Can Talk to Each Other and knowing nods in I Don’t Remember Christmas. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony Award for his turn as Angel in Rent, provides a gentler and more touching tone in solos including A Girl Should Know.  Rinabeth Apostol adds bad ass energy in I’m Going to Make You Beautiful and several duets.  Melissa Wolfklain rounds out the ensemble with quick wit, though she sometimes missed a note. (She sings my favorite in the line-up, Crossword Puzzle.) 

Starting Here Starting Now Cast sings “I Don’t Believe It”; Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Costume designer Rachael Heiman has wisely outfitted the cast elegantly in pure white, the better to project whatever is needed as they move swiftly from character to character.  The set designed by Heather Kenyon has a touch of nightclub flair, especially as lit by Kurt Landisman in an array of rainbow shades.  The musical trio, under the musical direction of David Dobrusky on piano with Amanda Wu on bass and Russ Gold handling percussion, is top notch and well suited to sharing the spotlight.

Like aural chicken soup for your tired soul, Starting Here, Starting Now goes down easy and leaves a warm feeling behind.  There is no twisted plot to follow or deep roles to keep straight, just pleasing harmonies, light movement, and plenty of charm.  It is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse at 450 Post Street in San Francisco with strict COVID-19 protocols in place ( https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/covid-safety/. )  It is also available to stream online, which is how I was able to enjoy it all the way in New York City.  Tickets are available for either format at sfplayhouse.org for performances though October 2.  In-person tickets are $30-$100; with access to the On Demand video starting at $15.

Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn

A much-needed good time can be had at Romeo & Bernadette, a lighthearted musical spin on Shakespeare’s tragic love story.  At opening, a Brooklynite is attempting to get his date back in the mood for love after a performance of Romeo and Juliet leaves her teary eyed.  He spins a tale of Romeo’s post-curtain exploits, weaving himself into the plot as Romeo’s newfound best friend, Dino Del Canto.  In this new and evolving chapter, the young lover is propelled out of place and time to 1960s Brooklyn in search of Bernadette, a woman with whom he crossed paths in Verona.  Bearing an uncanny resemblance to his deceased beloved, she stole his heart during their brief encounter.  Upon arrival on Bernadette’s shores, Romeo learns that she is the daughter of famed mob boss Sal Penza.  Now he once again finds himself torn between two warring families, this time with Dino at his side for guidance.

Nikita Burshteyn and Michael Notardonato Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Nikita Burshteyn (Romeo) and Michael Notardonato (Dino) in Romeo & Bernadette. Photo credit: Russ Rowland

With a book and lyrics by Mark Saltzman, the piece is filled with the good natured sweetness you’d expect from someone who began his New York career with the Muppets.  The script blends iambic pentameter, modern colloquialisms, and humor as broad as Interstate 278.  The music, adapted from classic Italian melodies and wonderfully orchestrated by Steve Orich, is tuneful and uplifting.  Story and song are delivered smoothly by the adept cast.  Making his Off-Broadway debut as Romeo, Nikita Burshteyn hits both literal and figurative high notes.  Recent college graduate Anna Kostakis manages to soar even while bringing a slightly nasal whine to Bernadette’s solos.  And Michael Notardonato, also making his Off-Broadway debut, gives us plenty to wink and nod at as Dino and our narrator.  Also doing double duty is newcomer Ari Raskin as Bernadette’s edgy BFF Donna and the Brooklyn Girl on a date observing the action.  The more seasoned veterans in the company    Carlos Lopez, Michael Marotta, Judy McLane, Troy Valjean Rucker, Zach Schanne, and Viet Vo    are strong in their supporting roles.  The story sags at the beginning of Act 2 with too many side bits allowing some of the good mood felt at intermission to dissipate.  But just like its plucky heroine, the production pulls itself together to deliver a satisfying finish.

Currently running in the black box Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T., the work is given plenty of room to breathe.  The direction and dance moves provided by Justin Ross Cohen are energetic and appropriately playful.  Walt Spangler’s striking all white set has several purposeful sections including a small second story that serves as additional rooms and (naturally) a balcony.  Costumes designed by Fabio Toblini and Joseph Shrope capture the spirited mood of the 1960s and give key scenes their own color coding.   Fabulous hairstyles top off each look.

Romeo & Bernadette: A Musical Tale of Verona and Brooklyn delivers on its implied promise of mixing styles to humorous effect.  The limited engagement is scheduled through February 16 at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./NY Theatres (502 West 53rd Street between 10th and 11th.)  Runtime is approximately 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission.  Tickets are priced at $49-$69 and can be purchased online at www.amasmusical.org/romeo-bernadette or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Modern Māori Quartet’s Two Worlds

Modern Maori Quartet Two Worlds

If you already feel the glow of your holidays fading, consider a trip to Two Worlds, the latest offering from the award winning Modern Māori Quartet.  In a swiftly moving 70 minutes, four delightful performers will take you on an exploration of indigenous New Zealand culture through storytelling, song and movement.  

At opening, WWII veteran Koro (Matu Ngaropo), 1960s gadabout Uncle (Jamie Mccaskill), and 1980s lounge musician Big Bro (Maaka Pohatu) have been trapped in limbo for decades.  The unseen Miss (Kura Forrester) introduces them to the newly arrived Bub (Matariki Whatarau), a small town boy.  They must now must work together as a quartet to earn the right for each one of them to pass on. Only the truth can truly set them free.  This set-up emphasizes the need for cooperation represented in the strong harmonies that bind this heartwarming work together.  

Though pieces are performed in both English and Māori, all of the emotions are so genuinely expressed they are not only understandable but relatable.  The culture these men share brings distinction to their back stories, shedding light on the struggles of an indigenous people whose culture has been marginalized and submerged.  But their tales also encompass universal themes of seeking connection and acceptance.

Two Worlds developed from a production written by James Tito, Matariki Whatarau, Maaka Pohatu, and Francis Kora and originally presented in 2012.  The current incarnation fits the cast as well as their snazzy black and red suits.  The music is tuneful and transportive.  Accompanying themselves on guitar and percussion, each voice is pure and well blended for the space by Matthew Eller + Square.  Well produced sound effects successfully fill in for scenery.  Movement choreographed by the troupe uniquely combines smile-inducing boy band steps with traditional Māori gestures creating something that is simultaneously fresh and familiar.

Modern Māori Quartet’s Two Worlds runs through January 18, 2020.  This moving and joyful cabaret-style musical is currently playing at The Soho Playhouse (15 Vandam Street near 6th and Spring) as part of their annual Fringe Encore series.  The curated festival presents the best of the Fringe from around the world, offering the artists opportunity for an extended run in New York City and perhaps beyond.  Upcoming performances of Two Worlds are January 11 at 5:00 PM, January 12 at 5:00 PM, January 14 at 7:30 PM, January 16 at 9:00 PM, January 17 at 9:00 PM, and January 18 at 9:00 PM.  It is running in repertory with two other productions with Kiwi flair and perspective.  To view the entire lineup and purchase Individual tickets ($39) visit FringeEncoreSeries.com.  Reduced-price ticket packages are also available.

Einstein’s Dreams

Alan Lightman’s novel, Einstein’s Dreams, follows a fictionalized Albert Einstein during the period he was developing his theory of relativity.  This literary exploration of time and our relationship to it has in turn inspired a number of artists including Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum.  Their musical version — also called Einstein’s Dreams — is currently making its off-Broadway debut at 59E59 Theaters, produced by Prospect Theater Company.

A theoretical physicist may seem odd subject matter for song and dance.  Indeed the numbers that are the most tuneful and consequently memorable — such as the spirited Relativity Rag — are those that portray universal feelings.  The all too human desire to hold onto a special moment or to feel stuck in an unpleasant one are sensations that are easily translated to a musical language.  It is when Lessner and Rosenblum move into storytelling mode that the quality of the lyrics suffers and the piece becomes problematic.

To convert the book — which centers on 30 varied dreams — to a manageable structure for performance, this retelling focuses on a relationship Einstein develops with Josette.  The tantalizing and intriguing woman only comes to him when he is asleep.  Their conversations supply him with fresh insight and inspiration.  Alexandra Silber gives soaring voice to this muse, set off from a sea of earth tone clad players by a fiery red outfit designed by Sidney Shannon.  Zal Owen counterbalances Silber’s flamboyance with his sensitive portrayal of a genius with no peers who is bored in his job and troubled by his deteriorating marriage.  

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LEcostume design SIDNEY SHANNON

lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN

sound design KEVIN HEARD

projection design DAVID BENGALI

props design SEAN FRANK

l-r- Zal Owen, Vishal Vaidya, Michael McCoy in EINSTEIN’S DREAMS at 59E59 Theater. Photo by Richard Termine

Even this central relationship isn’t given much spark by Cara Reichel’s clunky direction.  The biggest contributing factor to the unwieldiness of the work is the wideness of Isabel Mengyuan Le’s dramatic set.  While it is eye catching and brilliantly brought to life by David Bengali’s projections (the production element that makes the most of the theatrical medium and the dreamscape environment), it takes up so much of the stage that actors are sometimes forced to scoot awkwardly between sections.  Movement contributed by Dax Valdes is often limited to stunted waving of arms while the actors’ feet remain planted.

Of the supporting cast, Brennan Caldwell is a standout, providing comic relief and a blast of humanity as Einstein’s closest friend Besso.  Caldwell even manages to make physics sound conversational.  The rest of the company members (Talia Cosentino, Stacia Fernandez, Lisa Helmi Johanson, Michael McCoy, Tess Primack, and Vishal Vaidya) move mechanically from scene to scene.  Those who play multiple characters struggle to find meaningful differentiation.  Thankfully everyone in the cast has a pleasing voice and articulates clearly and the overall sound is comfortably modulated for the space.

The vast concepts that Einstein’s Dreams sets out to explore feel constrained by this production.  Yet those who love musicals as a means of expression will find enough here to keep them engaged for the swift 95 minutes of running time.  This limited engagement runs through December 15 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison). Tickets are $25 – $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members) and can be purchased by calling the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or
visiting http://www.59e59.org. 

I Spy A Spy

Undocumented Mexican immigrant José Rodriguez is working hard at two jobs while awaiting  his big break as an actor. He wants to be seen, though he’d settle for entering a room without being mistaken for the waiter or the janitor.  Alina Orlova is striving to blend in in order to continue her family’s tradition of spying for Russia.  Unfortunately she is so stunning that she gets noticed no matter which of her worker-bee costumes she dons.  When the two are brought together by proximity and chicken tikka pizza, they cook up a plan to collaborate in hopes of fulfilling each other’s missions.  But with coyote Prisciliana Espinoza making threats against José and pressure on the Orlovas from new local asset “Beef Stroganoff” the pair must leverage every possible opportunity, including the mayor’s upcoming Face of New York contest. 

This is the set-up of I Spy a Spy, the clever new musical which just started a two month Off-Broadway run in the Theater at St. Clements.  It was inspired by headlines from eight years ago when a beautiful Russian agent found she enjoyed the local nightlife more than her assignment to bring down America.  That germ of an idea has blossomed into a funny and insightful two hours of entertainment.  Featuring a pop score by Sohee Youn and witty lyrics by Jamie Jackson, it combines a sincere and relevant immigrant story with some Get Smart level spy craft, touching on our culture’s obsession with all that is beautiful along the way.  Set against the backdrop of the diverse Hells Kitchen neighborhood, the cast is purposefully multi-ethnic.  At its most sincere moments, the piece is an anthem to the blend of cultures that sustain the American Dream.

I SPY A SPY Production Photo 6

Andrew Mayer (center) and company members in I Spy a Spy; PhotoCredit: Russ Rowland

Director and choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the adept cast of twelve on their toes as many of them “shape shift” to take us through the layered plot.  The hyper-reality is captured in the whirling movement of the actors as well as the illustrated set pieces by James Morgan.  Costumes by Tyler Holland keep the look from becoming too fantastical with lights by Michael Gottlieb amping up the effects at key points.  It is to be hoped that the issues with sound design during the July 16th preview will be resolved to complete the unique picture.

Anchoring the production is Andrew Mayer’s José.  With a powerful voice and expressive face, he makes you root for the character from his first entrance dressed as a Times Square Statue of Liberty.  Emma Degerstedt matches his talent as a singer, but she could use more assistance from hair and makeup to take her from sweet looking all the way to Alina’s required irresistibility.  Her father Cold Borscht is played with cartoonish perfection by Bruce Warren.  Filling out the spy team, John Wascavage has cranked it up to 12 as Beef Stroganoff, a step too far when the humor is apparent in the script.  In a secondary plot, the sensational Hazel Anne Raymundo alternately soars and snarks as deli owner Sunny Park.  Sorab Wadia is a great counterpart as Abdul Makhdoom, the sweet and socially clumsy owner of the fusion restaurant across the street.  Their duet decrying the behavior of tourists is among the show’s audience-pleasers.  Of the flexible ensemble (including Grace Choi, Taylor Fields, Connor McShane, Nicole Paloma Sarro, and Lawrence Street) James Donegan does an especially fantastic job of playing multiple hosts with different degrees of swagger and smarminess.  It should be noted that in the spirit of the work, Sarro is donating to Families Belong Together.

I Spy a Spy makes for an engaging family-oriented outing or a fun date night at a reasonable price. It’s currently scheduled to run through September 21 at The Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street – between 9th & 10th Avenues).  Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm and 7pm, Thursday at 2pm and 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm.  Tickets are $79 with premium seating available for $99.

LadyShip at the New York Musical Festival

The 16th New York Musical Festival (NYMF) is underway.  This line-up of diverse and daring musical productions, concerts, and readings has given rise to 23 commercial Off-Broadway productions and catapulted four more (including the acclaimed Next to Normal and clever In Transit) all the way to the Great White Way.  It’s a specular opportunity for budding artists and audiences alike to experience fresh thinking in a nurturing environment.

This weekend’s offerings included the tuneful LadyShip, with book, music and lyrics by sisters Laura and Linda Good of The Twigs.  Inspired by true events that took place from the 1780s to the 1860s, it tells the tale of a sampling of the 25,000 women sentenced by London courts for petty crimes to serve out their time in Australia.  The concept was that the city could simultaneously reduce overcrowding of their prisons and accelerate the colonization process by sending females of marriageable age to the new land.  The journey was harrowing and many of these women found themselves forced into prostitution in order to afford housing and basic necessities in their new home.  

LadyShip does a good job of encompassing many of the grimmer facts.  All of the women depicted are victims of a male dominated culture and were reduced to stealing by drunken fathers, gambling husbands, or complete abandonment.  The focus is on the orphaned teenage Reed sisters, Alice and Mary, who were caught shoplifting in an effort to feed themselves.  As performed by Maddie Shea Baldwin and Caitlin Cohn, their soaring duets such as “No Matter Where We’re Bound” well-represent the tight and loving bond that keeps them moving forward under the most bleak of circumstances.  Unfortunately we learn less about the other four convicts.  Jennifer Blood’s educated Lady Jane Sharp biggest number is “I Need An Anchor” alongside Quentin Oliver Lee’s Captain, which seems a lost opportunity given her character’s potential for a superior life in an officer’s household.  Also sublimated is Lisa Karlin’s bold and witty Abigail Gainsborough, whose know-how might just help her escape traditional fate.  The potential for 11 year old Kitty MacDougal (an angelic voiced Noelle Hogan) comes into sharper view with her dreamlike solo “So Many Stars.”  Rounding out the group is Brandi Knox as the defeated Mrs. Pickering, who tells rather than sings most of what we learn of her backstory.

Ensemble Cast of LadyShip photo by Russ Rowland

Ensemble Cast of LadyShip; photo by Russ Rowland

All of the women develop variations of relationships with the male crew  — exemplified by Trevor St. John-Gilberts’s swaggering Lt. Adams and Justin R.G. Holcomb’s perpetually wasted Zeke Cropper — bargaining for writing paper or bribing them with rum.  One even establishes a true connection with Jordon Bolden’s charming and sweet Marcus “Finn” Findley, something which did often occur on these transportation voyages.  Clear ties are also made to current events including the notion that women and children will be separated upon arrival in their new land and that tougher levels of justice are meted out for the poor.  But there is little light shown on the few more hopeful stories of women who were permitted to marry emancipated men and lived more traditional married lives, much less any inclusion of the inspiring rebels such as entrepreneur Mary Reibey.  More emphasis on these story elements would have made the optimistic ending feel more earned than it currently does. 

The level of talent that went into this production is obvious.  Coming from the pens of an indie rock band, the music and lyrics are surprisingly subdued.  Under the direction of Simone Allen with Christopher Anselmo on guitar, Charlotte Morris on violin and herself on piano, most of the numbers are dulcet, easy to listen to and filled with luscious harmonies.  Karlin leading the women in the rollocking “Only the Strong Survive” is the closest we hear to the anticipated battle anthem.  Director Samantha Saltzman keeps the women realistically contained with scenic designer David Goldstein deftly providing the no-frills pieces that make up the dreary London jail, the dark bowels of the ship, and the sparse dockside.  Costumes by Whitney Locher appropriately telegraph class and rank, though they all stay a bit too clean throughout.  Sam Gordon’s lighting and Patrick Calhoun’s sound go a long way to completing the picture of life at sea.

NYMF continues through August 4 at Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in Pershing Square  (480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036) and other nearby venues.  This is a not-to-be-missed affordable and rewarding chance for fans of musical theater to indulge their passion.  Passes for four or more tickets as well as individual tickets are available at http://www.nymf.org.