HAPPY 50ISH

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Book, music & lyrics by Lynn Shore, Mark Vogel & David Burnham

Directed & choreographed by Paul Stancato

As Generation X hits the half-century mark, a rich vein of comedy material is being mined by theater folk of (ahem) a certain age. Smartly written and charmingly performed, HAPPY 50ISH sports a rich array of witty ditties on the topic of getting older. Thanks to an ingenious framing device, there’s also just enough of a storyline to raise the show to the level of a full evening of theater rather than a themed revue.

Mike (Mark Vogel) a cool musician who sports an even tan and a retro hairdo, sets up a keyboard and a bunch of balloons in his best bud’s backyard. It’s all part of a surprise party for his Bob (Lynn Shore), who is turning the big five-o. Bob’s wife Pam has orchestrated the whole affair, but because of a cake-related crisis, she’s stuck on the road. That leaves Mike and the audience (we become Bob’s surprise guests) to get the party started. Luckily, when Bob shows up he’s in festive, funny and creative frame of mind. And there’s plenty for him to play with onstage, including a giant stack of humorous birthday cards and a magical cooler containing a limitless supply of cold beer along with a cavalcade of colorful props.

With Mike providing musical accompaniment, the birthday boy launches into a series of comedy songs and skits on such pentagenarian concerns as Viagra, midlife cravings for sporty vehicles, sudden onslaughts of junk mail aimed at the old-dude demographic, and (although Bob hates the G word), the welcoming one’s children’s children into the world. It’s a predictable list of topics, but Vogel, Shore and collaborator David Burnham manage to keep the songs fresh, clever and often gut-bustingly funny. Shore goes at the material with indefatigable zest, combining a beguiling confidence with a self-deprecating comic persona. Vogel proves an apt foil, adding his own bits of drollery without upstaging his partner. In addition to the shtick, there’s just a touch of sentiment, deftly handled, as Bob meditates on father-son relationships.

The intermissionless evening is the right length for what is has to say, and director Paul Stancato smoothly navigates the shows’ real-time format (audience participation is, thankfully, kept to a tasteful minimum). Christopher Ash’s bright set encapsulates the mythic suburbia in which the Bobs, Pams and Mikes of the world keep on rocking as the decades roll by.

HAPPY 50ISH continues through August 30. 2015 at The Beckett Theatre @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th & 10th Avenues. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Happy-50ish/Overview

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NYMF Report: Three new musicals examine different aspects of American life

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THE COBALTEANS

Sporting a strong cast, solid production values, and a well-constructed book, THE COBALTEANS explores themes of loss, guilt and coming of age. Creators Yianni Papadimos, Andrew Bridges, and Ben Chavez should be commended for going places many musicals fear to tread. Unfortunately, their efforts only partially succeed, as the disparate elements of the show don’t quite coalesce.

As the play begins, Davey (PJ Adzima) returns to the empty lake house that once belonged to his parents. He had many great times there before the untimely death of his older brother Gabriel (Andrew Bridges). A year has passed since the accident, and Davey seeks to commemorate his big bro by bringing the old gang back together. Fun-loving Noah (Alex Walton) is always down for a party. Christian (Aleks Knezevich) tears himself away from his settled, married life and makes it to the gathering. But there’s one member of the crew who’s MIA. When Mike (Nicholas McGovern) finally overcomes his reluctance and drags himself to the house, it’s clear that he is not okay. Through flashbacks, songs and dialogue we find out what really happened on the night Gabe died – and whether the tragedy will push the survivors closer together or tear apart the bonds they once shared.

The score, reminiscent of the male ballads that populated the poppier end of the alternative charts in the 1990s, has some good brooding numbers. Lyrics-wise, though, they lack specificity. There’s some sloppy rhyming (“fates/mistakes”, etc.), but more importantly, the songs largely don’t integrate with the story. The end result is that the show feels more like a concert and a play sharing the same stage, rather than a fully-realized musical theater piece.

http://www.thecobalteans.com/

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HEADVOICE

Putting minimal elements to maximum use, Ethan Andersen’s autobiographical song-collage captures both the fun and the frustrations of the creative process. Eric (Andersen) has a burning desire to write a great musical. Finding a subject, though, is no easy task. Like most writers, Eric has been admonished to “write what you know”, and sets about trying to musicalize his real-life experiences. To get an idea how the songs will sound, he conjures up three imaginary performers: Perky Izzy (Katie Emerson) likes big upbeat numbers that allow her to bounce around the stage. Affable Ian (Matthew Summers) is open to almost anything (especially if it involves kissing Izzy). But Susan (Nicole Dalto) is a different ball game. She’s the voice of resistance, steering Eric clear of clichés and pushing him to be honest about his life. Unable to silence her, Eric delves into darker parts of his psyche. His love affairs have not had fairy tale endings, and his relationship with his single mother is already rife with tension even before their hometown of New Orleans is devastated by the hurricane. Reluctant at first, Eric soon realizes that delving into uncomfortable territory is the only way to make art of any lasting value.

Andersen takes the craft of songwriting seriously. His lyrics are clean, expressive, and well-tailored to their melodies. And though the story is simple, the emotions it explores are complex and ambiguous. Director/Choreographer Charlie Johnson keeps things humming, and the energetic cast nails the comic beats and heartfelt ballads with equal skill and conviction.

http://www.ethan-andersen.com/

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SINGLE WIDE

Happiness is hard to come by in minimum-wage America. Yet hope and dignity still prevail in the tiny trailer park Katy (Emma Stratton) calls home. Thanks to her son Sam (Matthew Miner) and her mom Amanda (Stacia Fernandez), Katy has a fulfilling home life. She’s not so lucky when it comes to men, and rather than settle for another deadbeat, she’s decided to put the whole dating thing on hold. Likewise Guy (Derek Carley), a loner carrying the baggage of some unspoken trauma, comes to the park seeking solitude. Good luck with that. Curious Sam wastes no time getting up the new stranger’s business, and sexy Flossie (Jacqueline Petroccia) begins comparing this Guy to the guys who cross her path (versatile Maclain Nelson in a double role). Like a Greek chorus, neighbors Freddi (Maya Landau) and Ali (Alex Lanning) are always on hand to provide commentary. It’s not hard to predict how this story will end, but thanks to a George D. Nelson’s nuanced book and Jordan Kamalu’s lively country-pop score, the audience has an enjoyable time watching the two shell-shocked leads overcome a host of obstacles and give love another chance.

Unlike the many shows that merely ridicule the “trash”, who live in rural poverty, SINGLE WIDE offers a refreshingly compassionate (though by no means humorless) portrait of working class Americans. Director/choreographer Jeff Whiting strikes just the right tone, leading his actors to balance realism with the bigness required for the show’s impassioned numbers. Scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West and lighting designer John Demous juxtapose the grit of rusty mobile homes with the lyricism of starlit open skies. Sarah Cubbage’s costumes embody the characters’ agendas and enhance the show’s color palate, while music director Alan Schmuckler delivers the score with punch and soul. The one area where there’s plenty of room for improvement is in the lyrics department. The songs are deftly interwoven with the plot, but they are so awash with false rhymes that the lyrics seem out of keeping with the show’s overall level of professionalism. A bit of fine tuning would allow the numbers to  land even more effectively, and help push this remarkable show towards the mainstream success it deserves.

http://www.singlewidemusical.com/

AWAKE AND SING

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By Clifford Odets

Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried

Groundbreaking in its day, Clifford Odets’ 1935 family drama brought the tribulations of the proletariat and the poetry of everyday speech to the Broadway stage. Though its style and rhythms haven’t dated well, the issues at the center of AWAKE AND SING are still prevalent in today’s world. The immigrant experience, intergenerational strife, and the ever-present tension between the promise of America and its economic realties are all part the fabric of daily life in the 21st Century. With plenty of heart and a modern approach to stagecraft, this lively revival minimizes the script’s shortcomings and highlights the relevance of its content.

In a small Bronx apartment, several generations of the Berger family struggle to make the best of things during the Great Depression. Myron (Henry Yuk) has been to law school, but lacks the drive to get ahead. His wife Bessie (Mia Katigbak) is the real leader of the family, and frequently butts heads with her strong-willed daughter Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim) and restless son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider). Bessie’s father Jacob (Alok Tewari) feeds his dream of a better world by listening to Caruso records and voraciously reading both the Bible and Karl Marx. His polar opposite is Bessie’s brother Morty (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) a successful businessman who cheerily extols the virtues of free market capitalism. Wounded war veteran Moe Axelrod (Sanjit De Silva) is in love with Hennie, and part of her feels the same way. But Bessie stands in their way. The star-crossed lovers’ problems worsen when an unwanted pregnancy forces Henni to settle into a marriage of convenience with Sam Feinschreiber (David Shih). With all these feelings and agendas thrust together under one roof, there are bound to be conflicts, and sure enough even the building’s superintendent (Mel Duane Gionson) is quick to clash with headstrong Bessie. Yet somehow the younger (and more deeply Americanized) members of the Berger clan manage to tune out the din long enough listen to the still, small voice within their hearts.

Under Stephen Brown-Fried’s sensitive direction, the members of the National Asian American Theatre Company coalesce into a believable, lovingly fractious family. Every member of the large cast gets a turn at center stage, and each of their arias are delivered with passion and precision. Like her character, Katigbak forms the center of the ensemble, potently embodying the primal, protective drives beneath Bessie’s wheedling tactics. The family’s aspirations are further illustrated by Anshuman Bhatia’s house-proud set design and the five-and-dime elegance of Alexae Visel’s period costumes.

AWAKE AND SING continues through August 8, 2015 at the Public Theater, 475 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003 Tickets: (212) 967-7555

RUTHLESS!

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Written by Joel Paley

Directed by Marvin Laird

The title evokes images of vintage Hollywood melodramas. And indeed, RUTHLESS! pays campily affectionate tribute to a host of female-driven cult classics like Mildred Pierce, All About Eve and The Bad Seed. Send-ups of Broadway culture and mid-century kitsch are tossed into the mix as well, resulting in an onslaught of hip lampoonery that rarely slackens over the course of two acts. The show’s success is largely due to the fact that lyricist/librettist Joel Paley and composer Marvin Laird have wisely chosen to string their satirical conceits on a coherent – if wacky- plotline.

In picket-fence suburbia, housewife Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca) enjoys a life of perfect contentment. Although she never seems to know where Mr. Denmark is, she keeps blissfully busy looking after her precocious daughter Tina (Tori Murray). Tina exhibits both talent and ambition far beyond her years, and has caught the eye of acting guru Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land). Sylvia believes that with a little training, the kid can become a megastar. Tina thinks so too, and is literally willing to kill the competition when Miss Thorn (Andrea McCullough) casts a less gifted girl as the lead in the school play. Clearly, Judy needs to take action, but she’s distracted from her parental duties by the arrival of vitriolic theater critic Lita Encore (Rita McKenzie). Lita divulges a long-held secret that causes Judy to trade in her apron for a sequined gown, change her name to Ginger, and hustle off to Broadway for her own shot at the limelight. Ginger’s troubles are from over, though, as her conniving maid Eve (Tracy Jai Edwards) keeps concocting her own back-stabbing schemes. And of course, we haven’t heard the last of Tina…

Paley, who also directs, maintains an engagingly quirky tone throughout the evening and delivers sharp lyrics along with some well-timed one liners. The actors are all ideally cast in their archetypal roles, with 10-year-old Murray stealing the show with her prodigious gift for comedy and remarkable vocal prowess. The production’s only serious flaw is a technical, rather than an aesthetic one: A little amplification is par for the course these days, but most of the players don’t need the kind of excessive enhancement they’re getting here. Their powerhouse, brassy voices can already fill the St. Luke’s intimate space, and over-miking only results in a distractingly ruthless treatment of the audience’s eardrums.