Category Archives: Musical

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.

EPIC Players’ Little Shop of Horrors

The American Theatre Critics Association (of which I am a member) promotes theater as a resource to communities throughout the country.  EPIC Players takes this goal a step further by opening the craft to an underserved company of performers.  An acronym for Empower, Perform, Include and Create, this talented troupe is neuro-diverse: composed of actors over the age of 16 who are on the spectrum of autism.  Casting calls are open, though priority is given to company members. Rehearsals are conducted over an extended period, which allows the cast and crew to co-create a particularly supportive environment.  The results are not only empowering for the artists, but expansive for the audience as well.

With its sprawling cast and blended genre of horror and comedy, Little Shop of Horrors is a masterful choice for EPIC’s current season.  The story follows Seymour Krelborn and Audrey, two fragile outsiders working in a skid row flower shop, and presents them with wit and affection.  The pair is brought together by a demanding plant named the Audrey II, who has troubling intentions.  The music is by Alan Menken with lyrics and a book by Howard Ashman, the team behind Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.  While the work can be viewed as a piece of social commentary, it is unquestionably a wildly good time.

LittleShop

EPIC Players’ Nicole D’Angelo and Ben Rosloff in Little Shop of Horrors

Equity member Ben Rosloff performs the underestimated Seymour with the gentleness this lead role requires. Slipping into Audrey’s leopard prints is Nicole D’Angelo, who replicates Ellen Green’s ultra-high-pitched speaking voice and sweet singing style.  Her sadistic boyfriend is played with glee and a touch of menace by Dante Jayce, who also makes the most hysterical entrance.  Michael Buckhout takes on flower shop owner Mr. Mushnik with appropriate slapstick asides.  In many productions, the Audrey II is represented by a series of ever-larger puppets.  Here, a booming Nick Moscato appears to be having a blast portraying the full grown plant, which heightens the character’s ability to engage.  The chorus of street urchins has been expanded to five expressive and funny singer/dancers (Imani Youngblood, Justin Phillips, Aria Renee Curameng, Melissa Jennifer Gonzalez and Kathryn Cristofano) who enliven every moment they are on stage.  Music is performed by a live four piece band under the direction of keyboardist Jonathan Ivie.  Whitney Blythe, Gianluca Cirafici, Brianna Freeman, Jessy Leppert, Samantha Elisofon, Nick Amodio, Gideon Piankor, and Eric Zimmer are the supporting players with Andrew Kader, Kim Carter, Meggan Dodd, and Amaker Smith making up the ensemble.

The performance I attended was a final dress rehearsal and there were a few timing and technical issues.  Even with those difficulties, the production sparkled with imagination.  Directed by EPIC’s Executive Artistic Director Aubrie Therrien with assistance from Max Baudisch and Zach Lichterman, the staging makes fabulous use of the Black Box space.  Aisles and overhead platforms are filled with residents of the downtown streets and Audrey II’s many admirers.  You might even be offered a bag of “cocaine” or gifted with an Audrey II plant clipping.  Clever costumes by Cat Fisher include Audrey II’s enticingly and colorful garb.  The effective set by Tim Catlett is topped with projection screens that enhance the play with classic horror clips and horticulture documentaries.

This production of Little Shop of Horrors radiates joy from its very roots, serving to shatter any preconceived notions held by uninitiated theater-goers.  Noise canceling headphones are available for sensitive audience members, and anyone needing a break is invited to decompress in the lobby.  Runtime is 94 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.  It plays  through Sunday, June 16 in the Black Box Theater at the Sheen Center on Bleecker Street.  Tickets are $27-$57 and can be purchased at https://ci.ovationtix.com/34409/production/1007814?performanceId=10390542.  EPIC — a 501c3 non-profit — holds auditions year round and provides professional development classes and workshops free of charge to all who are accepted.  You can also support their work by visiting https://www.epicplayersnyc.org/support.

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.

Head Over Heels

Like one of its stars, Peppermint, Head Over Heels has a refreshing sense of self.  A blend of 16th Century verse, music by 1970s pop stars The Go-Go’s, and an ultra modern “love is love is love” message, Broadway’s newest musical eludes “pegging”.  Based loosely on The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, the story follows King Basilius as he attempts to defy a prophecy delivered to him by Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi. She declares four tragedies will befall his kingdom, each one signaled by a veil falling from the sky. Should all come to pass, the land is doomed. Determined to cheat fate, Basilius packs up his citizens and travels deep into the woods.  Anyone who knows their way around a Greek myth can predict how successful the well-meaning ruler’s plan will be.

The Go-Go’s repertoire —including Mad about You, Cool Jerk and Vacation — contains many catchy ear-worms, but they are hardly known for their deep meaning.  While the dialogue is often witty, characters sometimes tee-up the next production number by delivering forced lines. If hearing that what makes this kingdom distinctive is that they’ve “got the beat” makes you cringe, you should have second thoughts about purchasing tickets. On the other hand, if you find yourself going along with the playfulness, there is more where that came from.

There is none of the over amplification which dominates rock musicals and every word is clearly articulated. Many eyes will be on the aforementioned Peppermint, a fierce RuPaul Drag Race competitor and first “out” trans  actress to develop a lead of a Broadway musical. Her Pythio may be the only character to literally sparkle, but she is not alone in that quality of performance. The cast – some of whom have been with the production since its early days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – is uniformly strong and everyone seems to be having one heck of a good time. In particular, Andrew Durand steals every scene he’s in as the sweet shepherd Musidorus on his road to self discovery and empowerment. Bonnie Milligan making her Broadway debut is another standout as the difficult and vain Pamela, the older of the king’s two daughters. She ably avoids becoming a tedious “fat joke” by infusing her character with gentle confusion which elicits compassion. She is well paired with Taylor Iman Jones’s Mopsa, her several-steps-ahead admirer.

Head Over HeelsA New Musical

Taylor Iman Jones in the San Francisco Production of Head Over Heels

Director Michael Mayer has his cast members veer towards the hammy, a superfluous move with this broad book created by Jeff Whitty and adapted by James Magruder. The moments that are less heavy handed are also more visually exciting, including a seduction scene accomplished in shadows. The production design wonderfully captures the glow and fizz of The Go-Go’s heyday as well as the bejeweled styling of the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Scenic designer Julian Crouch’s amusing backdrops include fake curtains and two dimensional trees in a pallet that is pure disco. Arianne Phillips picks up this mixture in her costume design in which half naked male suitors are topped with metallic ruffs, and bows are painted onto the princesses’ elaborate dresses.  Hair and makeup by Campbell Young Associates complete the look to whimsical perfection.

Familiarity with The Go-Go’s is not essential, but it adds to those moments when distinctive guitar licks foreshadow an upcoming production number. Sadly, though, something is off with Kai Harada’s sound. It is admirable that the creative team chose to use only female band members, but their output lacks sufficient depth and energy.  This becomes particularly noticeable upon exit when the original article can be heard throughout the lobby.

Perhaps because it’s a fun and flashy romp, Head Over Heels is attracting a particularly undisciplined audience to the Hudson Theater. The young woman next to me crackled her way through a large bag of gummy bears throughout the 2 hour 15 minute runtime, while the 60-something woman behind me got so drunk that by Act Two she was discussing the quality of the house wine with her friends in what can only be described as her outdoor voice. It may help you get into the proper mood by imagining yourself at the Globe with sawdust under your feet and jolly old England just outside the door. Tickets are on sale now through June 30, 2019 at https://headoverheelsthemusical.com.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians.  In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco.  Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy.  What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment.  The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story.  She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices.   Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.

Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

Adam Heller and  Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs  in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland

The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness.  Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context.  There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside.  What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk.  He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits.  Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks.  Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere.  Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.

Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story.  As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis.  And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream.  Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with.  Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles.  The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor.  He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.

Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments.  The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window.  The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance.  The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.

While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck.  Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile.  It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row.  Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day August Wilson TheatreAs Broadway musicals go, the small scale charmer of a flick Groundhog Day doesn’t seem the most obvious of inspiring sources.  The comedic drama relies heavily on Bill Murray’s ability to deliver a stinging blow that is somehow forgivable.  With the film’s move to the stage, that burden falls on Olivier Award winner Andy Karl as weatherman Phil Conners.  He is charismatic and a joy to watch, but his wonderful performance isn’t quite enough to balance out the slightness of the material.  The overall experience is theatrical cotton candy: ultimately sweet and instantly vanishing.

Director Matthew Marchus has done a wonderful job of bringing to life the near cartoon-like nature of the movie.  It is rare in the second paragraph of a review to call out those in tiny print such as video designer Andrzej Goulding, Finn Caldwell who created the car chase movement, and Paul Kieve who conceived the illusions.  Yet it is those behind-the-scenes team members who best exploit the story’s limitations with imaginative results that are in direct conflict with the general “wowness” one expects to see on the Great White Way.

Karl pulls off the slights of hand and other body parts with wonderful energy.  His song-styling brings out the most in the accompanying gleeful lyrics.  Unfortunately, Barrett Doss as Connor’s love interest Rita Hanson does not reach his level of skill.  Despite a number in which she recites the highlights of her story, the character remains thinly drawn.  It is simply not believable that this woman could pull this man out of his destructive cycle.  The rest of the cast is solid and there are some terrific running gags.

The lack of balance between the two main characters is one of several key points in Danny Rubin’s book that seem to rely on memories of the original (which Rubin co-wrote with Harold Ramis) to bring them to fruition.  I’m not at all sure that someone who has no familiarity with the movie would completely follow the plot.  The content is also problematic in that it is too risqué for general family viewing and it doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to be a full adult experience.  Additionally, I had a personal problem with the scenes poking fun at alcoholism.  Surely we live in a time when drinking and driving is not the stuff of lighthearted jesting.

The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are spirited, although there are a few numbers that add to the running time more than the storyline.  I was not alone in questioning the selection of “Seeing You” as the song chosen for the Tony broadcast.  I can understand not wanting to give away the funnier moments including “Stuck” (featuring some hilarious healers).   But there are other songs that reveal Phil’s slow evolution from his sarcastic womanizer beginnings that are more entertaining and well executed by the company.

Groundhog Day offers plenty of smiles and a striking lead in Andy Karl.  It’s important to remember that the movie version was a modest success that earned about $70M in its initial run.  It  has been only through the eyes of film history that it became a classic and gave rise to the term “Groundhog Day” meaning the feeling of repeating the same experience.  It should therefore not be a surprise that the show is a mild entertainment and perhaps not the best fit for $200 per ticket territory.  It is scheduled to play at the August Wilson theater through January 7, 2018.  (http://www.groundhogdaymusical.com/tickets/).