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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.

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Fire in Dreamland

There is a burning spark at the center of Fire in Dreamland, Rinne Groff’s new play which opened at the Public Theater last night. It comes in the form of Rebecca Naomi Jones who pours everything she has into the central role of Kate. Kate is sad and frustrated, desperate to fulfill her promise to her father to do something meaningful with her life. She finally finds inspiration and hope when she meets Jaap, a European would-be filmmaker in New York on a student visa. In total contrast to Kate, Jaap is completely focused on a passion project: a film he’s conceived based on the true story of the fire that destroyed the flashy Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island in 1911. Kate is consumed by Jaap’s enthusiasm and charisma, throwing herself body, soul, and bank account into his vision.

The mostly linear story opens with a direct confession to the audience and is interspersed with startling glimpses into the past, punctuated by bright lights and the sound of a film clapboard. As Kate struggles to find her life’s purpose, she identifies first with Dreamland’s Nubian lion who escaped a fiery circus tent only to be shot by police and also with the mermaid-clad carnival worker who led a herd of ponies to safety. Similar to last season’s film and critical darling Florida, there is also a more important story on the edges of Coney Island involving a housing project damaged in Superstorm Sandy.  The metaphors keep piling up until — to add one more — the play becomes a large Amazon box filled with air bubble cushions protecting a six pack of batteries and a pair of tube socks. It’s a lot to unpack for a somewhat disappointing outcome.

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones; Photo by Joan Marcus.

Ms. Jones is on stage for almost the entire hour and 40 minute run time. The amount of energy and dedication she gives to sharing her character’s process of reinvention is impressive. Enver Gjokaj does not quite match her in intensity,  bringing insufficient magnetism to the role of Jaap. Rounding out the cast, Kyle Beltran is outstanding as the idiosyncratic Lance, Jaap’s dedicated assistant director who appears to be on the spectrum sexually and emotionally. (It’s a shame he does not join the action until an hour into the performance. I could have enjoyed an entire play about this multi faceted character.)

Groff’s script has the same uneasy mixture of the random and the planned that is swirling around in Kate’s brain. There are moments of humor as the playwright makes good use of the communication gaps that stem from both language and gender differences. Unfortunately there is also a credibility gap in a filmmaker having envisioned every shot seemingly without any knowledge of how to bring any of it to fruition.  It is hard to believe Jaap could be Kate’s catalyst for change. There are moments of truth that shine through, but a number of scenes seemed forced and contrived. Director Marissa Wolf making her New York debut has a clever touch and uses the three-quarter round space beautifully. The weaker plot points are propped up by the imaginative lighting design of Amith Chandrashaker, whose work also gave clarity to [Porto]. Susan Hilferty’s boardwalk inspired set and whimsical wardrobe lend an appropriate carnival vibe to the proceedings. Original music by Brendon Aanes is invaluable, particularly in orchestrating a vivid soliloquy that becomes more of a movie than anything Jaap is ever likely to produce.

While there is a great deal of artistic merit to this production of Fire in Dreamland, it still seems like a project in development. Whether like Kate you wish to take a leap into this story will depend on how much you value the creative process even when the results are mixed.  It plays through August 6 at The Public Theater.  For tickets and information visit https://www.publictheater.org/Public-Theater-Season/Fire-in-Dreamland/

Mary Page Marlowe

What makes Mary Page Marlowe such a fascinating character study is that she could easily be someone you know. She often feels as if her life is not of her own making, a dread hidden in the hearts of many. We witness notable moments of her life from birth through the age of 69, while crisscrossing through time.  It is not always a pleasant journey, but at a moving 90 minutes it is never boring.

Mary Page’s path is laid out by the brilliant Tracy Letts, a playwright who often centers his work on those who act out in pain and anger. Here Letts treats his lead character with more compassion. Though she has her dark moments involving struggles with addiction, a Letts’ hallmark, at intervals she is funny and is often downright likable. He also takes advantage of the magic of the theater by having Mary Page portrayed by six different actresses. Each interprets her slightly differently, yet there is a clear through-thread from promise to exasperation, and finally acceptance.

MARY PAGE MARLOWE By TRACY LETTS Directed by LILA NEUGEBAUER With DAVID AARON BAKER, BLAIR BROWN, KAYLI CARTER, AUDREY CORSA, MARCIA DeBONIS, NICK DILLENBURG, RYAN FOUST, TESS FRAZER, EMMA GEER, GRACE GUMMER, MIA SINCLAIR JENNESS, BRIAN KERWIN, TATIANA

The sprawling cast has 18 members leading to a frustrating amount of brief appearances by quality supporting talent.  These include Kayli Carter as Mary Page’s maturing daughter, Marcia Debonis as a patient therapist and Brian Kerwin as the most compatible of Mary Page’s husbands.  Fans of the brilliant Tatiana Maslany will enjoy seeing her focus on a single role. She brings an intensity to Mary Page at ages 27 and 36, when the character is self-aware though sadly self-destructive. Emma Geer sparkles with enthusiasm as Mary Page age 19, optimistically holding on to a future she feels she can manifest. And the remarkable Blair Brown  — a holdover from the play’s Chicago incarnation — gives tenderness and warmth to Mary Page as she eases into ages 59, 63, and 69.  The downside of the casting is that we don’t get sufficient time to bathe in the glow of any of these performances.

The various Mary Page manifestations and the family and friends central to her development are brought together by the sure hand of Lila Neugebauer, last seen receiving rave reviews for The Wolves. She creates opportunities for Mary Page to briefly pass herself along the road from past to future, giving her an opening to quite literally find herself. Many on the behind-the-scenes team have previous collaborative experience with Neugebauer.  The character’s ability to float through life stages is supported by the clever scene design of Laura Jellinek, who starts with a two story white landscape and adapts it with sliding islands of simple set pieces. Kaye Voyce’s costumes capture period and place, not to mention visually connecting the Mary Pages. Tyler Micoleau‘s lighting design works alongside sound provided by Brandon Walcott and original music by Bray Poor to emphasize appropriate year and mood.

The unusual structure of Mary Page Marlowe allows us not only to see cause and effect, but the even more complex and interesting effect and cause. How does each bend in the road lead to arriving at the ultimate destination? The minimal action culminates in a quiet scene built around an accurate and subtle metaphor.  If you can tolerate the deliberate gaps in what is shared — a technique critical to the expression of the character’s experience — there is much to enjoy in this well-crafted a piece.  The production plays at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater through August 19. For tickets and information visit https://2st.com/shows/current-production/mary-page-marlowe.

Plano

All fans of quirky theater are encouraged to flock to Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks, which typically runs from mid-May to the end of June.  Each season, the Clubbed Thumb artistic team — currently spearheaded by Producing Artistic Director Maria Striar (who has been with Clubbed Thumb since their 1996 debut) and Associate Artistic Director Michael Bulgar — pore over hundreds of submissions seeking unique voices with something funny  and insightful to say.  Each final selection is carefully cultivated with precision and vision.  As the company’s reputation has grown, so has their ability to attract superior acting and behind-the-scenes talent that can rapidly bring these challenging pieces to fruition.  Many of these plays go on to lead fuller lives, including Men in Boats at Playwrights Horizons and The Wolves at Lincoln Center.

Their current production is Plano, which was commissioned by Clubbed Thumb for the 2017-18 Directing Fellowship.  The director in question is Taylor Reynolds who, along with her outstanding cast, brings out every magical beat of Will Arbery’s script.  Surreal  images including a red ribbon independently descending a staircase and a Faceless Ghost (played with acrobatic aptitude by Brendan Dalton) are blended into the often funny story of three fairly realistic sisters.  This authenticity is no doubt made possible by playwright Arbery being the only boy in a family of eight siblings.  Genevieve, the eldest, is a stereotypical know-it-all.  The youngest, Isabel, is coddled to the point of thinking she might be a saint.  In between them is Anne, the often-overlooked middle child struggling to establish identity.  Their simple lives of work and family are intruded upon by strangeness that might be a curse. The town of Plano is used almost Mad Lib-like to represent alternative mindsets which are open to interpretation. Time passes through the use of the phrase “it’s later.”  And husbands split into multiple parts so that they can do the dishes while also dancing the night away.

The skill needed to pull off clipped dialogue that is based more on timing than on story cannot be overstated.  Crystal Finn as Anne, Miriam Silverman as Genevieve and Susannah Flood as Isabel stay perfectly in tune with each other throughout the 75 minute runtime.  They are wonderfully supported by Mary Schultz as their religious fanatic mother, Mary, Cesar J. Rosado as Anne’s gay husband, John, and most especially by Ryan King as multiple Steves all of whom are married to Genevieve.  The far-seeing Ms. Reynolds pushes their characters’ oddball boundaries by using nearly every inch of the theater, including the exit aisle and the area beneath the stage.  Elaborate fight scenes are expertly choreographed by Kelly Bartnik.

Plano

Susannah Flood, Miriam Silverman, and Crystal Finn in Plano.

The rest of the creative team has kept things delightfully simple.  The suggestion of a ranch house by scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman is given necessary mood changes by Isabella Byrd’s lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design.  Stephanie Levin’s costumes are casual and, most importantly, move well.  

With its basic human experience infused with mystical adventure, Plano is unlikely to be confused with anything else you’ve seen.  It is being presented at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St.  This column is based on the June 21 performance, at which point performances were being added to the schedule and it was anticipated there would be a few modifications made to the production.  For tickets and the latest information visit https://www.clubbedthumb.org/productions/2018/.

First Love

When seeing Charles Mee’s First Love at the Cherry Lane, take your emotional cue from Edward Pierce’s Magritte-influenced set.  From its cloud covered doorway, to the leaf-shaped tree, to that end point that wraps itself around the side curtain, everything here is inspired by the natural world and simultaneously fanciful.  If you can get yourself firmly in that mind space there’s a pleasant ride ahead, witnessing two people who could benefit from their shared time.

The phrase first love is nearly synonymous with young love, but in this case the lovers are closer to 70.  They initially connect over memories of activism in the 1960, though from the beginning their idea of involvement is wildly different.  Edith was an eager and active participant while the biggest impact that tumultuous period had on Harold occurred when he wasn’t even present.  Though this disparity persists, their relationship takes root, nurtured by a Young Woman who appears to have powers similar to those of Cupid.

Taylor Harvey, Michael O'Keefe and Angelina Fiordelissi. Photo by Monique Carboni (3)

Taylor Harvey, Michael O’Keefe and Angelina Fiordelissi. Photo by Monique Carboni

The romance is portrayed in a series of clipped scenes, some with moments of tenderness and others largely cruel and cutting.  Throughout their story, the two essentially hold true to their 1960s selves.  Edith initiates, entices and at one point boogies down to the whoops and hollers of the audience.  Harold reacts and expresses his inner thoughts and turmoil aloud, both to himself and to us. Though Edith professes that Harold is changing her life, there is little character growth, which is perhaps realistic for a tale of two people who are farther down the path of life.  The couple occasionally engages with the Young Women, but more often she is an outside observer, floating in with a prop or playing the piano on stage left.

Mee’s dialogue is excessively flowery, at points sticking to the roofs of the actors’ mouths.  Edith and Harold sometimes speak Braavos-like of “a man” and “a woman”.  While potentially distancing, these artistic flourishes also bring an air of old love poetry to their exchanges.  The opening scene is thick with cultural references to luminaries from 1960 counterculture, culminating in Edith and Harold shouting the lines from “Howl” at one another.   No context is given and it might be tough going for someone not familiar with Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman and Jack Kerouac.  A gleeful rant about the very opinionated John Simon received the biggest laugh, but it is doubtful that many newer theater goers are familiar with a critical column that hasn’t been published in 13 years.  Mee also makes questionable choices with the music used  to connect beats of the script.  The selection of classics from the 1940s  — crowd-pleasers though they are — undercut the common ground from 20 years on that has been laid.

Given a script long on elements of the fantastic, director Kim Weild focuses attention on the more human elements of Edith and Harold’s interaction.  Angelia Fiordellisi brings terrific exuberance to Edith while Michael O’Keefe has a realistic blend of vulnerability and soft sex appeal.  Taylor Harvey makes a graceful spirit of love, though she falters in her unnecessarily lengthy tug of war with Harold over his selection of dessert.  All three characters are buoyed by Theresa Squire’s costumes: flowing earth motherly layers for Fiordellisi, baseball cap and whatever is closest to the bed for O’Keefe, and sparkle, hearts, and flowers for Harvey.  The back of Edward Pierce’s set is a delight, but the piece that functions as a bench, sofa, restaurant booth and more is not as clever as it should be to complete the vision.  Paul Miller and Christian Frederickson are responsible for sturdy lighting and sound design.

The concept of developing a story of first love taking place between two people who came of age in the 60s in an intriguing one.  While this First Love doesn’t quite fulfill the assignment, there is enough beneath its outer shell to provoke exploration. Performances continue at the Cherry Lane though July 8.  Tickets are $65-$95 and are available at www.cherrylanetheatre.org or by calling Ovation Tix at 1.866.811.4111.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

Caryl Churchill is a witty, often brilliant playwright who is sometimes ahead of the curve on intriguing issues.  Her plays delved into gender fluidity, female empowerment, and environmental crisis long before those themes made the covers of popular magazines.  It is therefore particularly frustrating that New York Theater Workshop reached into the back of Churchill’s vault to remount Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a piece that examines the failures of both church and state during the English Civil War.

The scant story intertwines the lives of a variety of English citizens during the mid 1600.  Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians imprisoned King Charles I, who is still supported by Royalists.  Strict Puritanism has enveloped the Church, though there are whiffs of free consciousness and individualism in the air.  Most of the action takes place off-stage leaving the bulk of the dialogue as passive conversation and exposition.  A chunk of the play reenacts the Putney Debates: an attempt to rework the British constitution.  Some historical knowledge is helpful for following all the verbiage and a brief outline is provided in an addendum to the show’s program.

As staged by the often whimsical Rachel Chavkin and her creative team, this production is particularly rough going.  She employs what has become her trademark of having the actors in the aisles, but mostly keeps them arguing from chairs.  The lack of physical interaction keeps the pace maddeningly slow.  The first act is made almost literally airless by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s decision to lower the ceiling.  Isabella Byrd’s lighting includes faux candlelight for the shadowy Act I and florescence for Act II when illumination seems more in reach.  The soundscape designed by Mikaal Sulaiman is thick and sometimes distorted.  The wardrobe designed by Toni-Leslie James starts off mildly period, then moves to jeans and T-shirts for Act II.  This section also includes anachronistic use of an iPhone, diet soda, and plastic bags.  These may all be nods to today’s struggles with class and power, but the metaphors aren’t clear enough and the props by Noah Mease feel more like empty gestures.

Light Shining in BuckinghamshireNYTW

The cast of LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE at New York Theatre Workshop, Photo by Joan Marcus

The make up of the cast is as broad and eclectic as possible.  While this is fitting for the work, they are not equally strong performers.  Mikéah Ernest Jennings is the standout, blessed with the most compelling through-line from household servant to preacher serving mankind. It is easy enough to see Matthew Jeffers’ magnetism as well as his dwarfism, though in stretches he speaks too swiftly and softly.  Seasoned actress and activist Vinie Burrows really gets the play going, speaking up from the audience to interrupt a particularly paternalistic sermon.  Evelyn Spahr is also given occasions to show her range, with opportunities to sing as sweetly as a nightingale and mewl Eliza Doolittle style.   But performers Rob Campbell and Gregg Mozgala mostly get lost in waves of sameness. At several points the audience relies on the projected captions to tell them which of their characters is speaking.

Dour, preachy and repetitive, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was an intriguing experiment written before Caryl Churchill found her true voice and rhythm.  While the challenges of the English Civil War may have been compelling in the mid 1970s with its parallel rise of disenfranchised young people, the lines to the relatable aren’t clearly drawn.  It is also difficult to become emotionally invested in any of these characters.  There is insufficient differentiation between their roles and there is no one we get to know well.  Though not completely lacking artistry, at 2 hours and 40 minutes this production is a test for even the loyalest of Churchill’s fans. The play continues through June 3 at New York Theater Workshop.  Visit https://www.nytw.org/show/light-shining-buckinghamshire/ for tickets and information.

This Flat Earth

“Are you there,” implores 13 year old Julie at both ends of This Flat Earth to anyone who’s listening Nine students were recently killed in a school shooting, disrupting her feelings of peace, safety, and normalcy.  This topic should be the springboard for compelling discussion.  Indeed there are some threads about socioeconomic conditions and adolescent turning points that click.  But for the most part, this is a ninety minute missed opportunity that ultimately promises that trauma will be all but lost beneath the unrelenting waves of everyday life.

This Flat Earth

Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie) and Lynda Gravátt (Cloris), Photo by Joan Marcus.

The piece is set in the recent past, and yet somehow Julie has no idea that hers is not the first school to have gone through such an experience.  She believes that her persistent jealousy of a talented and popular girl who died might have caused the tragedy. In her program notes, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino tells how she experienced a similar sense of misplaced power when the incidents of 9/11 occurred the day after she had written a diary entry about the joys of peacetime.  The transference of those feelings to sadly more common circumstance are diminishing to her main character.  The excuse provided for Julie’s ignorance is that her father is too poor to have purchased a laptop.  But even her best friend/would-be-boyfriend Zander seems to think the girl just hasn’t been paying attention.

The casting of Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie doesn’t do much to shore up the character as an interesting representative of her generation.  While speaking too quickly at a very high pitch and slurring key words is all too realistic, it also left many of the audience members trying to keep up as they attempted to fill in the missed dialogue. Faring much better is the gifted Ian Saint-Germain, who captures the natural flow of Zander’s assuredness and awkwardness.  Lucas Papaelias has trouble navigating the clumsy role of Julie’s father, Dan, but it is hard to tell how much of the difficulty is in the lines and  how much in his interpretation.  While no parent can protect a child from all dangers, widower Dan comes across as particularly ill-equipped and Papaelias often flails around in his skin.  In the role of Lisa, a mother who lost a child in the tragedy, Cassie Beck is also constrained by her character’s limited responses.  The only adult providing any constructive contribution is Lynda Gravátt’s upstairs neighbor Cloris.  Naturally she can’t answer the impossible, but she delivers sincere and often amusing descriptions of effective coping mechanisms.

The talented director Rebecca Taichman does her best to underscore the truer emotions in the script by matching it with genuinely motivated physicality.  Dane Laffrey’s two story set works wonderfully, though it could use a few more tonal touches.  Costume designer Paloma Young has put together a fitting wardrobe, particularly with a bag of clothes that plays a critical role.  Adding to the mood as well as forwarding the story is cellist Christine H. Kim under the musical direction of Christian Frederickson.

This Flat Earth is one of several recent productions that poses probing questions about the world we are leaving to the new generation.  The Artistic Director claims it was never conceived as a production about gun violence, but opening just a month after events at Parkland it’s impossible to view it separate from that issue.  Even when evaluated as an artistic expression, the play is wan when compared to similar offerings. While there are moments when the authentic psyches of the teens shine through, there are too many uninspiring stretches.  Performances of this world premiere continue through April 29 at Playwrights Horizons.  For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/flat-earth/.