Tag Archives: Off-Broadway

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.

Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson

On a soundstage, a talented production team is preparing to shoot an AT&T commercial featuring beloved Luke Wilson.  The creative concept is to drop red gumballs around the star to symbolize all of Verizon’s dropped calls.  Despite a lack of time to test the hastily put-together rig, prop lead Rob is able to toss the small projectiles just shy of Luke’s shoulder and the first few takes go smoothly.  Then a case of nerves sets in and a few of the hard objects hit Luke squarely on the head.  The actor sees stars; the director —award-winning documentarian Errol Morris — sees excitement and orders the crew to deliberately aim for the performer on the next take.  

This is the set-up of the aptly named Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, which is based on true events.  Though the Directors Guild of America takes set safety very seriously, sadly there are occasional incidents of a director demanding a dangerous shot, as happened in this case.  Rob Ackerman accurately has commercial Assistant Director, Alice, threaten to report Morris to the Guild.  The script also provides enough background to realistically make her vulnerable to manipulation.  It’s a creative stand-in for any project on which a concerned would-be whistleblower has instead been made complicit through intimidation.  If only the playwright had trusted his audience to get his very clear and impactful message.  Instead, after a lively and thought-provoking 55 minutes, he burdens the additional 20 with outright lectures on broader issues and political topics ranging from gender discrimination to Nazis.  It’s an unnecessary departure from the previous territory that mars an otherwise engaging production.

First time director, famed playwright Theresa Rebeck, does an imaginative job of bringing us deep inside the physical set of the commercial and the mind set of each participant.  The results are visually stimulating and often laugh-out-loud funny.  The assorted screens that are employed by Morris for playback at the shoot are also used to show us the crew’s previous experiences that have brought them to this critical moment.  (Yana Birkukova provides the ideal video design.)  The nearly all-white set designed by Christopher and Justin Swader shows off these projections to great effect.  Emphasis is achieved by Mary Ellen Stebbin’s well-placed lighting, which often shifts to a befitting green-screen green.  The look is completed by the essential craft service table.  Costumes designed by Tricia Barsamian will make any production pro feel right at home.  All-important clever props are provided by Addison Heeren. 

the cast of DROPPING GUMBALLS

The Cast of Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson; Photo by Carol Rosegg

As a former prop person, Rob Ackerman makes the prop man, also named Rob, his spokesperson.  George Hampe does a fabulous job of growing increasingly manic as character Rob struggles to remain the voice of reason and the closest thing we get to a hero.  With a get-on-with-it gruffness, Dean Nolen is well cast as his boss and seasoned rigger, Ken.  Reyna De Courcy is less successful at maintaining an appropriate emotional build in the role of their assistant, Jenny, becoming akin to a cartoon character with jerky motions and high-pitched yelps of displeasure.  With enough charm and swagger, Jonathan Sale could easily be Luke Wilson’s deliberately pudgy body double.  It’s less easy to know how well David Wohl impersonates Errol Morris.  The part is written in one obnoxious note, though the theater vet certainly manifests a typical ego-driven artist.  In the toughest role, Ann Harada swings rightly between assuredness and fear as Alice, but she struggles to differentiate the other small parts she takes on in memory and flashback.

Ackerman’s love of television production and those who strive to keep it creative and truthful shines through despite a dip in the ending.  It is easy to see why both Luke Wilson and Errol Morris have given the project their blessing.  With a little reworking of the last section, Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson has the makings of insightful modern satire.  Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.  It plays through July 6, 2019, in the Mezzanine Theater at at A.R.T./ New York Theatre (502 W. 53rd Street). Tickets are $25 for union card holders, $30 general admission and $40 for reserved seating.  For purchasing and additional information, visit TheWorkingTheater.org or call the Box Office (Ovationtix) at 866.811.4111.

Enter Laughing: The Musical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brothers Paranormal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruiting Bodies

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

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

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

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

Kimiya Corwin, Emma Kikue, Jeffrey Omura and Thom Sesma

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

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

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

All Our Children

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

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

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

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER Photo by Maria Baranova

KARL KENZLER and JOHN GLOVER, Photo by Maria Baranova

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

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

The Cake

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

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

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

Rupp and Angelson in The Cake. Photo by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

Ajijaak on Turtle Island

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

Ajijaak © 2018 Richard Termine

Ajijaak on Turtle Island © 2018 Richard Termine

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

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

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

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

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

The Price of Thomas Scott

Long before there was Reverend Moore in Footloose, there was dance adversary and forceful chapel congregant Thomas Scott. Scott has been offered a small fortune for his declining neighborhood textile business.  The problem?  The new owners would turn the desirable corner location into a dance hall: a devil’s playground as far as Scott is concerned.  A righteous Protestant Nonconformist, he must now weigh his family’s future against his steadfast convictions.

Despite being written in 1913 by rising star Elizabeth Baker, The Price of Thomas Scott is brimming with modern dilemmas.  Class still dictates potential opportunity for education and career.  Our highly divided social climate is filled with the voices of strong convictions that have soured into prejudice.  Many become even more entrenched in the familiar and pass judgement on those who are open to differing opinion.  Yet as time moves forward, the seemingly outrageous and unusual can find more acceptance.

Scott’s family in question includes his far-sighted and talented daughter Annie (a radiant Emma Geer), whose creativity is stifled by her tasteless clientele.  Her brilliant brother Leonard (Nick LaMedica who does his best to come across as a teenager) has the potential to become upwardly mobile.  Their mother Ellen (an underutilized Tracy Sallows) longs to retire with her husband to Tunbridge Wells where they first met.  While Scott himself (a crackling Donald Corren)  has built his life around his chapel and now seems driven to protect everyone’s prospects for entrance to heaven.  Temptation is provided in the form of Wicksteed (a polished and eloquent Mitch Greenberg) a former friend now employed by the successful Courney Company.  The story is made richer by the Scott’s friends and neighbors played by Andrew Fallaize, Josh Goulding, Jay Russell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz, Ayana Workman and Arielle Yoder.

THE PRICE OF THOMAS SCOTT by ELIZABETH BAKER Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer Photo by Todd Cerveris

Tracy Sallows, Donald Corren and Emma Geer.  Photo by Todd Cerveris.

Director Jonathan Bank is constrained in his approach, relying heavily on Tracy Bersley’s choreography to pick up the momentum.  All the action takes place in the back parlor of the Scott’s shop, represented by the perfectly rundown set created by Vicki R. Davis.  The charming mostly muted costumes by Hunter Kaczorowski tell the story of period and class in pre-WWI England.  The hats on display illustrate the gap between Annie’s instinct for style and her clients’ misguided requests.  Shifts in the lighting by Christian Deangelis and music and sound by Jane Shaw help set mood and pace. 

All are in service to the clever and often humorous words of Ms. Baker.  Growing up in a household similar to that of the Scotts, she took in her first play at the age of 30.  In short order she had transformed from an obscure stenographer to recognized playwright.  At first you may need to navigate the various accents and a few older expressions, but then the flow is established and the characters come into focus. However, the ending will feel extremely abrupt to a modern audience.  (Those around me failed to clap for a full 30 seconds, though they appeared stunned more than unhappy with the performance.) The production team seems to have recognized Baker’s departure from what has become an acceptable character arc and tacked on a post-curtain call “coda” to better manage expectation. Your reading of the Artistic Director’s statement and dramaturgical notes will help you better appreciate the work.

The Price of Thomas Scott poses some deep questions through pleasant voices.  It is Mint Theater’s latest project in support of giving new life to neglected women playwrights.   Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission.  It is playing through March 23 at the Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row.  Full priced tickets are $65, though there are several discount options including $32 day-of Rush.  For more information and to purchase seats visit http://minttheater.org/current-production/