THE EVOLUTION OF MANN

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Book and lyrics by Dan Elish
Music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen
Directed by Joe Barros

The setup Dan Elish and Douglas J. Cohen’s bright new musical romp reads like something from the indie-film relationship comedy playbook. Aspiring author Henry Mann (Max Crumm) is down in the dumps after a bad breakup. His ex-girlfriend Sheila (Allie Trimm) is clearly over it: She’s all set to marry a handsome financier, and has even invited Henry to the wedding. But Henry can’t seem to move on. Luckily, he has a couple of staunch allies in his corner. The first is his therapist mom (also Trimm), who’s always there to lend a sympathetic ear and offer commonsense advice. The second and more proactive member of the support team is Henry’s best friend Gwen (Leslie Hiatt), who’s been crashing at Henry’s place after an extramarital dalliance being kicked out her wife kicked her out for cheating. Plucking up his courage – and spurred by the fact that everyone around him seems to be getting married – young Mann wades back into the dating pool.

A romantic at heart, Henry has an irrational tendency to slip into matrimonial reveries, imagining a perfect marriage with almost every eligible woman who crosses his path. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a first date, and Henry’s quest for love gets off to a rocky start.  Sweet schoolteacher Christine (Trimm again) seems to be a good match, but the awkwardness of their first evening out doesn’t square with Henry’s far-flung fantasies. Soon he falls under the spell of Tamar (Trimm yet again) an exotic downtown fashionista.  Eager to impress a glamorous Henry becomes a pretentious bonehead. He gets over it, but by the time reality knocks him off his high horse, it may be too late to get Christine back. Worse, he risks alienating Gwen, without whom he would have no emotional rudder.  Still, as the title suggests, Henry isn’t done growing. If he can learn out his daydreams aside and learn to start living in the less-glamorous but ultimately more fulfilling real world, he just may have a chance at finding something like true love.

Woven in with plot are some spot-on parodies of  performance art, pseudo-profound musical theater, open mics, and a host of other Gotham phenomena. This this sprinkling good-natured satire helps keep this rather simple story moving briskly through its  intermissionless 90 minutes. Cohen and Elish’s songs, while not wildly melodic, sport agreeable chord sequences and sophisticated lyrics that establish the characters and wine laughs in all the right places.

Perfectly cast, Crumb has just the right balance of awkwardness and charisma to make Henry’s foibles believable and charming. Hiatt pushes Gwen beyond her function as a story catalyst, making her own maturation process as compelling as Henry’s. Trimm is appealing in all her myriad roles, some of which require physics-defyingly quick costume changes, and seasons her songs – including evening’s most moving ballad –  with warmth and vulnerability. In keeping with the show’s vignette structure, costume designer Siena Zoë Allen and scenic designer Libby Stadstad have fun transmogrifying the Cell’s tight, rectangular space into a series of colorful tableaux  that give an extra visual boot to the show’s eccentric brand of romanticism.

THE EVOLUTION OF MANN continues through Saturday, October 27, 2018, at The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street, New York, NY 10011. Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-evolution-of-mann-a-new-musical-tickets-47973627411

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HOPE

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Written & performed by Hope Salas
Directed by Erika Latta

A cast of one: check. Autobiographical: check. Dysfunctional family: check. Quick changes of accent and costume, all designed to showcase the performer’s remarkable versatility: check and check.  New York theatergoers have seen this type of one-person presentation so many times that it’s hard to respond with anything other than an eye roll at the prospect of yet another performer running through a menu of eccentric characters and using the stage as a therapist’s couch. Thankfully, the occasional entry in the My Journey genre really does manage to be original and compelling. Thanks to the intriguing visual tone of the show, and the striking stage presence of its star, HOPE rises above the level of the average solo effort.

In the aftermath of a failed marriage, Hope (Hope Salas) self-medicates with booze, casual sex, and compulsive tidying of her tiny Manhattan apartment. This toxic routine is interrupted by an urgent phone call from Hope’s father:  Alice Mae, Hope’s mom, is in the hospital, and the prognosis isn’t good. The incident kickstarts an emotional odyssey for Salas, who, as she confronts her parents’ mortality, feels an intense need to understand what their lives were all about. Matching her childhood recollections with newly discovered details, Hope begins to answer painful questions, like why her mother felt the need to stifle young Hope’s performing aspirations. It turns out Alice, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her drunken father, worried that her energetic daughter would attract the wrong kind of attention.  As Hope’s understanding of her parents’ world increases, she gradually finds the strength to meet her own life challenges.

Salas doesn’t shy away from from the harsh realities of her subject matter, but much of HOPE is also extremely funny. Under Erika Latta’s metronomic direction, Salas develops a self-deprecating tragicomic persona, embellished with fluid physicality and commedia dell’arte style asides. The ever-shifting moods and locations of the story are aided by Marsha Ginsberg’s efficient scenic design and Yuki Nakase’s painterly lighting. The video projections serve the story well in some scenes, such as old photos of Alice smiling through her pain. At other times, though, the projections feel superfluous. The live performance is all that is needed to hold our attention.

HOPE continues through October 13, 2018 at the Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street
New York, New York, Tickets: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1535774400000