White Guy on the Bus

WhiteGuyontheBus

Photo by Matt Urban/Mobius New Media

It’s been disquieting to hear a certain level of weariness creeping into the general dialogue about racism.  Headlines covering people of color unfairly detained or even killed may be a near-daily occurrence, but that doesn’t make any individual event less worthy of attention or thoughtful discussion.  White Guy on the Bus provides a gripping reminder that behind each incident is a person with hope for the ones they love and a potential for fear of those who are different.  Though Bruce Graham wrote the script over two years ago, it is shockingly appropriate for a time of deepening gulfs between people of varying races, socio-economic backgrounds, and opportunities.

The time-shifting plot is beautifully constructed.  Each twist that pulls us deeper into the story also jolts us into confronting our own racists thoughts.  How many of us make quick judgements about where to sit or walk based on what we feel about a certain neighborhood?  Yet how can we deny that while such reputation is based on generalizations and stereotypes, those in turn are based on facts and figures?  What happens when we push common ground to the side and focus on differences?  It’s hard not to become as unnerved as the characters we are watching, especially if you are white as most of the audience at 59E59 is.  It is worth noting that the director is another white man.  On the audience hand-out, Bud Martin confesses to being drawn to the play primarily because the story made him uncomfortable.

Two magnetic central performances rivet our attention for the two hour run.  Tony nominated for Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Cuccioli once again displays both calm professionalism as well as a more controlling dark side.  His non-white seat-mate Shatique is played with strength and grace by Danielle Lenee´, previously nominated for a Barrymore Award for this role.  Their supporting cast is a perky Jonathan Silver as devoted like-a-son Christopher, a steady Susan McKey as Ray’s feisty wife Roz and a far weaker Jessica Bedford as Christopher’s righteous wife Molly.

The simple yet clever set is designed by Paul Tat DePoo III and enhanced by Nicholas Hussong’s projections.  Together they move us from Ray’s stunning suburban home, to the critical public bus and to points beyond.  Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes fit the characters in all meanings of that word and help sell important details of the story.

As a five character one-set piece, White Guy on the Bus is attractive to small theater companies with tight budgets.  It has already played Wilmington, Trenton, Denver and Chicago and I imagine it will hit other cities with mixed populations.  That it should also spark discussion wherever it lands is exciting.  You can grab your chance to participate in the conversation by catching it at 59E59 through April 16.  For tickets and information visit http://www.59e59.org/moreinfo.php?showid=252.

Come From Away

[4]_Jenn Colella and the cast of COME FROM AWAYWhen the air space above New York closed on 9/11, nearly 7000 passengers were diverted to Newfoundland off the coast of eastern Canada.  That airport had retained several large runways dating from a time when flights between the United States and Europe had to stop and refuel.  Suddenly inhabitants of this 43,000 square foot island had to prepare to double their population for an unknown duration.

A new musical, Come From Away, follows some of their stories, as weary and frightened travelers engage with small town residents.  There aren’t many unexpected plot twists here.  But following their emotional detour is a generally delightful experience.  Frankly in our current often divisive climate, it feels good to be reminded that even at the darkest moments strangers can find many ways to come together.  Perhaps with this in mind, the production has added a page to their website where audience members can dig deeper into the history that inspired such an unlikely Broadway offering.  (I recommend at the very least pulling up the photo of the air strip with 38 jumbo jets parked nose to tail.)

This is very much an ensemble piece.  Each actor portrays multiple characters, usually switching roles with the addition of a hat or jacket and a change of accent.  (Special acknowledgement goes to dialect coach Joel Goldes for helping the actors capture the special Newfoundlander cadence and to costume designer Toni-Leslie James for supplying the perfect wardrobe pieces.)  The entire cast is strong and it is to their credit that within a short period we feel for each and every one.  Past Obie winner Joel Hatch represents two mayors who pitch in with different styles and equal verve.  Jenn Colella takes on a pioneering airline pilot and an oft-smitten assistant principal with the same amount of compassion and insight.  It falls to Q. Smith as Hannah to carry the weight of the desperate mother who doesn’t know the whereabouts of her firefighter son.  One by one the voices of many cultures are heard.

Christopher Ashley’s staging is remarkably clever, using mostly lights and a few chairs to convey many locations from inside a plane to inside a schoolhouse.  Lovers of big musical numbers may be disappointed, however.  The work by Irene Sankoff and David Hein is more of the storytelling-set-to-tunes variety.  Dance Captain Josh Breckenridge has provided some movement, but nothing that could be called a dance number.   Lyrics do their job in moving the plot forward, but aren’t particularly clever or catchy.  Songs are nicely executed and have wonderful echoes of the Irish ancestry shared by the majority of Newfoundlanders, but there isn’t a great deal of variation.  In fact, it wasn’t until the post-bow jam session that I was able to fully appreciate the band’s talent.

Judging from the prolonged standing ovation, I’m not the only one who thinks Come From Away is a welcome addition to lineup for this season.  The show is recommended for ages 10 and over and for a change I can say that entire age range will be engaged by what they see and hear.  Running time is a compelling 100 minutes.  Tickets for the run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater are available for the remainder of 2017 at http://comefromaway.com.

Waitress

Waitress MUSICALORIGINAL BROOKS ATKINSON THEATRE 256 W. 47TH ST.The sweet story of a sorrowful originator, the soaring melodies of Sara Bareilles, and the soulful voice of Jessie Mueller blend like butter, sugar, and flour. Together they produce a tasty joy-inducing creation that was nominated for four Tony Awards in 2016. Regular readers of this column know I am not the world’s biggest fan of modern day musicals, but I honestly can’t wait to see Waitress again. And I’m not just saying that because the entire theater smells like pie.

The movie on which it is based is among my favorites.  It may not possess a philosophical depth worthy of extensive examination, but at its core is some spirited girl-power.  I was therefore quite trepidatious when I heard it was coming to Broadway at all much less in musical form. But Bareilles’s music and lyrics along with the book by Jessie Nelson have preserved all of Adrienne Shelly’s original laughs, aches and gentle twists and added an extra layer of celebration in song that — puns aside — hits all the right notes. The numbers are so genuinely stirring, it’s fitting that the cast hosts regular karaoke nights for audience members who want to take a turn singing one.  (Remembering my mishap while attempting to replicate Baby’s leap at the end of Dirty Dancing, I refrained.)

In the lead role of Jenna, the unhappy pregnant waitress who escapes into her pie recipes, is Mueller, still with a touch of Carole King in her phrasing.  Despite her radiance, the rest of the company is so terrific that she’s in constant danger of being upstaged.  Her inappropriate love interest is portrayed with endearing charm by Drew Gehling.  The perky Caitlin Houlahan and booming Charity Ang´el Dawson play her two co-workers Dawn and Becky like perfect bookends.  Each has a solo that threatens to bring down the house.  But it is Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle winner Christopher Fitzgerald as Dawn’s besotted beau Ogie that elicits the loudest round of cheers for his eccentric rhymes and original dance moves.

The team is in the mighty hands of director Diane Paulus, who also steered the Tony winning revival of Pippin.  Using Scott Pask’s welcoming diner setting as an anchor, she moves her cast fluidly through their small southern town, adding wonderful touches of physical comedy to each performance.  Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Jonathan Deans’ sound keep the audience focused.  (At least that’s why I think I missed seeing an entire band on stage for the first 15 minutes.)  Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes are appropriately whimsical.

The inclusion of decidedly PG-13 material causes the show to be a little awkward for some families, but the blend of playfulness indulged and lessons learned makes Waitress a generally appealing choice in these overwhelming times.  Tickets for the open-ended run are available at http://www.brooksatkinsontheater.com.

The Liar

Set Design ALEXANDER DODGECostume Design MURELL HORTON Lighting Design MARY LOUISE GEIGER Original Music ADAM WERNICK Sound Design MATT STINE

Kelly Hutchinson and Carson Elrod in The Liar Photo Credit: Richard Termine

Decidedly cute, The Liar, is currently brightening the Classic Stage Company just off Union Square.  This quick-paced farce is adapted by David Ives of Venus in Fur fame from a comedy written by Pierre Corneille, a man known better for his well-received tragedies.   The light-hearted (and one could say well-timed) story centers on Dorante, a man who tells lies as easily as he skewers his friend with an invisible sword.  Written in iambic pentameter — including a few lines purloined from mighty Shakespeare — the crafty script is dotted with modern references to personal ads, fraternity handshakes, and general self-awareness.  This keeps the 17th century spirit intact while making the work relevant and entertaining for a broad audience.

Director Michael Kahn commissioned the piece in his role as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, where it received a world premiere in 2010.  A quick perusal of the Who’s Who reveals a seasoned cast well connected with both the director and the writer as well as a number of quality Off Broadway houses.  The results are surefooted if not stunningly original or particularly generous to audience members seated on the sides of the 3/4 round.

As portrayed by Christian Conn, Dorante is smooth if somewhat lacking in the necessary magnetism to fully hold the center.  He keep things flowing as fluidly as the falsehoods roll off the rogue’s tongue.  As the object of his current fancy, Clarice, Ismenia Mendes delivers too many of her lines at a high pitch squeal, leaving her nowhere to go as her situation escalates in intensity.  Amelia Pedlow in the role of Lucrece has slight advantage as her character is silent for much of play’s first half, allowing her to step into her own power in Act Two.

These leading players are greatly upstaged by the stars of the subplot, starting with Carson Elrod as the loyal and eternally truthful Cliton.  His joyful performance perfectly balances physical and verbal humor to delightful effect.  Even better is Kelly Hutchinson who by all appearances is having the time of her life playing twin sisters Isabel and Sabine. Kudos to wig and hair designer J. Jared Janas for finding the perfect clip-on to aid Ms Hutchinson in her rapid changes between the two.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge supports the lively pace, keeping settings simple with a few flown-in paintings and chandeliers and other set pieces pushed into place by the characters.  Award winning costumer, Murell Horton, decks the cast in easy to move in gowns and tunics with a nod to the proper period.  Original music, which adds a frothy layer, was developed by Adam Wernick in his CSC debut.

Great for a date and a safe bet for Mom, The Liar provides a carefree, low stakes two hours.  Tickets are available through February 26, 2017 at http://www.classicstage.org/season/the-liar/

The Present

(Note: This review is based on the December 24, 2016 preview performance.)

The PresentThe supremely talented Cate Blanchett has come to Broadway.  Unlike many film celebrities who flounder on stage, Ms. Blanchett is the former co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, where she also made her theater debut nearly 25 years ago.  The same incredible nuance she brings to her on-screen characters is alive and in proper proportion in her role as Anna in The Present, a modern reinterpretation of an unpublished play by Anton Chekhov.  I would recommend this show simply for the opportunity to bathe in her deeply considered and exceptional work.

Furthermore, there are additional elements to be enjoyed here.  Just as her character has invited friends to celebrate her birthday, Ms. Blanchett and playwright/husband Andrew Upton called upon close associates to share in this production.  Richard Roxburgh — who is technically the star as the pivotal Mikhail— has played opposite her many times including in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Seagull.  When I say he makes a terrific libertine, it’s meant to be a compliment.  The cast is rounded out by other actors who have collaborated frequently at STC and elsewhere.  There is an easy flow among them that only intensity over time can produce.  The range of feelings comes across as genuine even when the words sound less so.  Of particular note is Chris Ryan who gives the fragile and naive Sergei remarkable depth in his few scenes.

If you‘ve ever slogged through a so-called lost work, you can imagine that the finding of the play itself is a mixed blessing.  The original piece is a 300 page rambling tale which was locked away in Chekhov’s desk where it was unearthed after his death.   Upton is certainly skilled at updating classics, giving them new life for a modern audience.  This is a more challenging task when the piece in question has been deliberately set aside by its creator after being rejected by its intended leading lady.  Particularly adroit at restyling pre-revolutionary Russian drama, Upton has previously adapted Uncle Vanya plus two Gorkys and a Bulgakov.  For this unnamed tome, Upton chose to move the period to the more accessible 1990s and age the characters to add believable complexity to their emotional lives.  (I recommend reading his author’s note provided in the program to help you jump into the world and understand the relationships he has sculpted out of Chekhov’s rock.)

The first act of The Present is nearly two hours long, yet it moves steadily on waves of insightful conversation and palpable emotion.  It is surprisingly the far shorter second act that gets bogged down when the vodka-soaked characters more consistently speechify and the plot turns frustratingly soapy.  Director John Crowley has added a naturalness – if also an aural challenge – to the action by having his talent move about without any conventional awareness of the placement of the audience.  Alice Babidge provides a clean canvas for the colorful characters with stark scenic and costume design.  Only sad balloons and tacky streamers are employed to communicate the less-than-festive air surrounding Anna’s birthday bash.  Stefan Gregory’s edgy music and sound design add several strong jump-out-of-your seats moments.

If you relish the opportunity to see deeply connected old friends *play* deeply connected old friends, make time to catch this somewhat uneven endeavor.  Limited engagement ends March 19, 2017.  For tickets and information visit http://thepresentbroadway.com.  Shorties like me should note that the mezzanine of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre has those high hand rails attached to each aisle seat and along the edge of the balcony.  At 5’1” I was just able to see over them from the third row.

In Transit

In Transit Circle in the SquareIn Transit is a delightful bon-bon box of a musical.  A loose structure of interconnected stories holds together 11 appealing New Yorkers and 16 catchy production numbers.  A prerecorded introduction by the producers reminds us that all the sounds we hear are created by human voice.  The pieces are performed a cappella and the “orchestra” is a beatboxing whiz appropriately named Boxman.

As evidenced by the many hearty laughs and heartfelt claps, the tales told are highly relatable.  It’s not so much new ground broken as old ground covered in a fresh way.  A few of the jokes might be missed by those unfamiliar with the eccentricities of the New York subway.  But the human elements touched on are universal.

The foot-tapping melodies are filled with clever rhythmic wording. The feel-good energy comes from proven sources.  The book, music and lyrics come with a warm and friendly pedigree having been created by Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame along with James-Allen Ford, Russ Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth.   Deke Sharon who worked on Pitch Perfect — the movie that brought “aca” to a wider audience — developed the splendid vocal arrangements, which tease out all the details.

In the central part of inspiring actress Jane, is the engaging Margo Seibert.  Last seen on Broadway in Rocky, she fittingly knows when to punch a note.  As her agent, Trent, Justin Guarini brings sensitivity and thought to his every line.  James Snyder is her slightly beaten-down puppy of a love interest with the gentle tone.  Their emotionally spot-on duet “But, Ya Know” is a highlight.  Providing abundant humor and attitude is Moya Angela in her roles as a boss, a mother and a station agent.

Every other part is brought to life by a large cast gifted singers.  There is unmatched support needed when every lead is also someone else’s backup. Holding them all together is Boxman, alternately played by Chesney Snow and Steven “HeaveN” Cantor.  I saw Snow handle the immense and intense responsibility of this Greek chorus/human sound machine and can well understand why it would take at least two sets of vocal chords to cover 8 performances a week.

The production is directed and choreographed with high energy by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall.  She makes terrific use of her deep bench and the 3/4 round stage.  Donyale Werle creates myriad public and private spaces, and of course train cars, using brightly colored plastic seats, lighted stairways and a moving belt.  And costume designer Clint Ramos has provided easy looks plus a show-stopping gown of MTA cards.

If like me you are more than ready to inject a little joy in your day, In Transit is the perfect pick-me-up.  Running a lively 100 minutes, the show is a fit for many tastes and ages.  Tickets are currently available through June 25, 2017 at http://www.intransitbroadway.com/.  All seats at The Circle and the Square have terrific sightlines, so $89 will get you there.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

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photo by Chat Batka

When it comes to Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, I am of two minds. My first mind was captivated by the elaborate and imaginative stagecraft. The scenic design by Mimi Lien reaches all the way to the back row of the theater, with drapery-covered walls dotted by family portraits.  Throughout the mezzanine, golden end tables adorned with  artificial candlelight are placed every fourth seat. Down below, the stage is divided into several sections representing Pierre’s study as well as the salons and ballrooms of other aristocratic homes in Moscow.  Each area has audience and orchestra members interspersed. A maze of platforms and ramps allow dancers and singers to encircle viewers with ecstatic performance.  This has the added benefit of ensuring an immersive experience no matter where you sit. For Rachel Chavkin’s inspired undertaking of direction alone, I would recommend this upbeat event to some.

However, my second mind was numbed by Dave Malloy’s pedantic and instantly forgettable musical numbers. I have experience playing in a Renaissance orchestra and I’ve studied jazz piano, so I’m pretty good at picking up a tune. Yet there was not one number from this show that I could remember by the time I reached  7th Avenue. Using phrases from Russian folk tunes is clever, but it is simply irritating when long stretches of dialogue are set to the same five note pattern.

I attended on a night that Josh Groban was unavailable. His standby Scott Strangland, who sang the role of Pierre in Boston, is a more solid figure with a similar vocal style. (To those thinking perhaps this is why I am less praiseful than some, I quickly add that this is very much an ensemble piece.) Standouts in the cast include the expressive Amber Gray who purrs as Hélène a manipulative  adulteress and a delicious Lucas Steele as her rakish brother Anatole.  Both are holdovers from the Ars Nova production.  On the other end of the spectrum is Grace McLean who for her Broadway debut has been taught that a pitchy screech is a great way to communicate high emotion in her role as matron Marya D.

To the credit of the entire cast, I heard each and every line.  I would still recommend that anyone unfamiliar with War and Peace read the synopsis and study the family tree provided in the program.  The primary source for the libretto is a 1922 translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude.  Covering a mere 70 pages of the classic work, the plot stops at a major turning point for the lead characters, which isn’t a very satisfying place at which to end.  While I admire Malloy’s ambition, his lyrics are insipid with little clever turns of phrase beyond the opening number.  I don’t expect everyone to be Lin-Manuel, but I did anticipate shrewder storytelling.

There are times when Bradley King’s lighting and Nicholas Pope’s sound are so frantic their design feels like being on a date with someone who’s already won you over but keeps trying so hard that you start questioning your initial impressions.  Paloma Young’s costume topped off with Leah J. Loukas’s hair and wig design are as period-punk-playful as necessary to support Ms. Chavkin’s creative vision as well as the exuberant movement of the ensemble.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812  is certainly a joyful one-of-a-kind experience though built around a sadly bland musical score.  It is playing at the newly curtailed and quite comfortable Imperial Theater.  A new block of tickets through September of 2017 is on sale at http://greatcometbroadway.com.