THE YEOMAN OF THE GUARD

Written by W.S. Gilbert & Arthur Sullivan

Directed by Albert Bergeret

If the kickoff show is any indication, the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players are set to have a grand 44th season. Both in terms of production values and the level of performance, YEOMAN OF THE GUARD serves as a reminder of the enduring warmth and brilliance of the G&S catalogue and as a master class for aspiring musical theater practitioners. YEOMAN, though no less erudite than the boys’ more iconic pieces, represents something of a departure from their customary cocktail of social criticism and farcical derring-do. Here, Gilbert controls his urge to syllable-binge and rarely uses the story to hold a mirror to the hypocrisies of late Victorian society. Instead, he spins a fanciful, bittersweet yarn about the machinations of love, requited and otherwise. Sullivan’s score is rich with soaring arias, catchy melodies and even a nod here and there to English folk and madrigal traditions.

Set in 16th Century England the story concerns the dashing Colonel Fairfax (Daniel Greenwood), whose interest in alchemy has landed him in the Tower of London (one man’s science, is apparently another man’s sorcery). It’s all part of an evil scheme perpetrated by Fairfax’s avaricious cousin Sir Clarence Plotwhistle, who stands to inherit the entire family estate if Fairfax dies unmarried. As the Colonel awaits execution, his buddy Sergeant Merryll (Richard Holmes) cooks up a plan to sneak him out of the tower and find him a bride, thereby foiling Plotwhistle’s plot. The Sergeant’s daughter Phoebe (Abigail Benke) is only too happy to volunteer, as she has a thing for Fairfax. As complications ensue, more characters are roped into the scheme, including head jailer Wilfred (Matthew Wages), who has a thing for Phoebe, and then there’s the tower’s housekeeper Dame Carruthers (Angela Christine Smith), who has a thing for Sergeant Merryll, and of course roving Jester Jack Point (James Mills), who has a thing for his bandmate Elsie Maynard (Laurelyn Watson Chase). As the folderol thickens, identities are switched, passions intensify and unexpected allegiances are forged. No heads are severed, of course, but not all hearts escape unscathed.

The mellifluous voices and razor-sharp comedic skills of the cast are matched only by the painterly splendor of the scenic design, costumes and lighting (the day I saw it, the set itself got a round of applause). David Auxier’s seamless choreography and Albert Bergeret’s assured direction highlight both the robust and somber turns of the story with equal skill.

Up next, THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE promises to provide a spirited antidote to the between-the-holidays doldrums. Both diehard fans and the G&S curious are urged to check it out. Click here for affordable ticket options and subscriptions: https://nygasp.org/current-season/

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE

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Written by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Directed by Jeff Wise

Though the term “toxic masculinity” wasn’t in wide usage in 1970, there’s little doubt as to where Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was aiming his rage when he penned this absurdist meditation on war, gender and class in mid-century America. In a nation battered by defeat in Vietnam, political assassinations at home, and a host of other social upheavals, it’s easy to understand why Vonnegut – himself a WWII veteran and POW- sought to blow up the outdated norms that had gotten us into this mess.

In a luxury New York festooned with hunting trophies, Penelope Ryan (Kate MacCluggage) struggles to move on with her life. Her husband, big game hunter and decorated war veteran Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell) has disappeared while searching for diamonds in the Amazon. He’s been gone long enough to be considered legally dead, and Penelope is open to the idea of remarrying. Her suitors include boring-but-decent vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (Kareem M. Lucas) and peacenik intellectual Dr. Norbert Woodley (Matt Harrington). Penelope’s son Paul (Finn Faulconer) doesn’t approve of either of the guys, especially the “fairy” doctor. He believes his dad will come home someday. This seems unlikely, as Harold and his trusted pilot Looseleaf Harper (Craig Wesley Divino) can hardly survived eight years in the rain forest. As fate would have it, though, Paul is right. Ryan and Looseleaf come marching home again and Penelope is forced to adjust yet another set of unexpected circumstances. Part John Wayne, part British Imperialist Explorer (and more than a hint of Hemingway, the dominant image of Great American Author at the time), Ryan seems to be expecting a hero’s welcome. But he’s in for a rude awakening. In his absence, the world has changed in ways he could never have predicted. No longer interested in playing the beta female, Penelope refuses wait on Ryan and locks the bedroom door when he tries to initiate sex. Likewise Dr. Woodley, whose hands have never held anything more dangerous than a violin, seems to be the kind of guy that gets respect these days. Unlike Nazis and rhinos, these new social foes can’t simply be felled with a bullet or a knife. Ryan will have to adopt new strategies, or face the fact that his societal species is now on the endangered list. As these conflict simmer, a few fanciful touches are thrown into the mix.  Several scenes take place in heaven, where Hitler, Jesus, Einstein and a little girl named Wanda June (Charlotte Wise/ Brie Zimmer) engage in a lively game of shuffleboard (apparently the admission requirements aren’t as high as we’ve been led to believe).

One would think, in the age of Kavanaugh, that the play’s vitriolic lampooning of male entitlement would make seem as relevant ever. Unfortunately, thought much of the script’s heavy-handed satire feels dated. Overinflated machismo is hardly the world’s most challenging target and, while some of HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE is inventive and funny, it ultimately feels longer on indignation that inspiration. Vonnegut’s humor lands more forcefully when he focuses on more downbeat characters like Colonel Harper. Unlike the colorful Ryan, Loose Leaf exhibits no bravado and little to say about his military service. Yet it was he who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing 80,000 people. Here, the playwright makes an intriguing point about society’s numbness to the horrors of war. It’s often the Regular Joes, the decent-hearted Harpers of the world rather than the swashbuckling Ryans, who are sent to do society’s most gruesome tasks. When it’s all over, they shrug and get on with their lives. And so it goes. Another provocative  moment occurs when Dr. Woodley goes toe to toe with the bellicose Harold in a verbal sparring match. The great proponent of piece seethes with a fierce desire to obliterate his rival, if only intellectually. Even pacifists, it appears, have a killer instinct.

Regardless of the script’s unevenness, at least it affords its cast an opportunity to display their stellar skills. O’Connell, whose voice and physiognomy recall a young Orson Welles, finds the arch humor and glimpses of vulnerability between the beats of Harold’s bloviation. He also does a delightful turns as one of Ryan’s felled foes, a German S.S. officers who recounts atrocious war crimes with the casual tone of raconteur entertaining friends at a cocktail party.  The rest of the remarkable ensemble, though not served as big a helping of scenery to chew,  prove themselves adept at balancing caricature with emotional authenticity. Director Jeff Wise, aided by an inventive design team, evokes Vonnegut’s surreal universe with imagination and panache. 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE continues through November 29, 2018 at the Duke, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets and information: tickets.dukeon42.org

 

 

POP PUNK HIGH

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Book by Anderson Cook
Music and lyrics by Ben Lapidus
Directed by Felicia Lobo

Believe it or not, the generation that went to high school in the early 2000s is now old enough to have its own nostalgia culture. What the creators of GREASE did for the 50’s, librettist Anderson Cook and singer-songwriter Ben Lapidus are attempting to do for the era when songs by Good Charlotte and Blink 182 dominated the alternative airwaves. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the genre: pop punk gave kids with the best of both worlds. It borrowed the raw vocals, power chords and rebellious spirit favored by the likes of Rotten and Ramone, but traded in the bitter nihilism of early punk for catchy hooks and relationship-based lyrics. The new(ish) sound provided perfect soundtrack for coming of age at the strip mall.

In keeping with the rock and roll energy of the score, POP PUNK HIGH is not presented as a traditional theater piece, but as an immersive event at the downtown club Le Poisson Rouge. Audiences are free to grab a drink at the bar, mill around the venue, and interact with cast members as they float through the crowd. A rousing opening number introduces us to the seniors of Pop Punk High, who are gearing up for a much-anticipated battle of the bands. The underdogs here are nerdy Derek (Lapidus) and his high-achieving but socially awkward best friend Tib (Amanda Centeno).  Derek is consumed by envy as his nemesis Skeet (Patrick Sweeney), seems to have everything: mad guitar skills, a cool skateboard and a dad (Jacob Grover) who can use his power as high school principal to punish Skeet’s enemies.  Worse, Skeet’s girlfriend is Amanda Bunkface (Jess Kaliban), on whom Derek has a desperate crush.  The unfairness of the situation hurts all the more because Skeet treats Amanda like a roadie for his band, never acknowledging the fact that she has musical ambitions, too.

Derek’s begins to change when he and Tib discover a can of Axe body spray in the principal’s office. Inside the can is none other than the soul of pop punk priestess Avril Lavigne (Jess Kaliban), who has been slain and replaced by a lookalike. Avril (who seems to be something of a genie as well as a ghost) promises that, if Derek can find the identity of her killer within 24 hours, she will grant him three wishes. The Pop Punk kids are in for quite a shock when Derek is suddenly able to skateboard like a champ, “shred” his guitar, and, well, show off a startling new anatomical enhancement. As with many such fables,  though, the moral is, “be careful what you wish for”.  All the things Derek thought he always wanted only serve to swell his head. He screams at his parents, turns his back on Tib, pushes Amanda’s band off the stage, and basically loses sight of all the things in life that really mater. Luckily, the cosmos isn’t done with Derek, and an unexpected development offers our hero an opportunity to redeem himself before it’s too late.

Clocking in at an intermissionless 90 minutes, the show just enough plot to support its pop-culture inside jokes and give each of its talented cast members a turn at the mic. Director Felicia Lobo keeps the energy high throughout, while choreographer Aubyn Heglie has the cast fist pumping and head banging with brio.  Designers Andrew DG Hunt (Lighting) Olivia Vaughn Hern (Costumes) and Hannah Levesque (Sets) add just enough color and kook to frame the show in a fittingly cartoony universe.  The one thing POP PUNK has too much of is, well pop punk. Lapidus has a natural feel for the genre, but after an onslaught of songs played mainly in the same style, the freshness of the score begins to diminish. The show could use more selections like the comedy song sung by Derek’s hopelessly square parents (Eric Wiegand and Mclean Peterson), which provides a welcome respite from the high decibel, anthemic tone that animates the bigger numbers. There have been quite a few iconic musicals, like CABARET, HAMILTON, THE BOYFRIEND and the aforementioned GREASE, that stick closely to a specific musical idiom and yet provide their songbooks with a satisfying level of variety. There are worse things Lapidus and Cook could do than to emulate their example.

POP PUNK HIGH continues its engagement at Le Poisson Rouge,  158 Bleecker St, New York, NY 10012, through November 1, 2018. Music and merchandise at https://www.poppunkhigh.com.

GOODBODY

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Written by J.C. Ernst
Directed by Melissa Firlit

A soupçon of Sam Shepherd, a sprinkling of Tarantino, a touch of Grand Guignol and a generous dollop of Martin McDonough: these are some of the many ingredients that make up the oddball world of The Crook Theater Company’s new spin on the heist-gone-wrong subgenre. Make no mistake, though. Joseph C. Ernst’s script (remarkably, his first) tosses some original flavors l into the mix as well. The result is not for the faint of heart, but for audiences who enjoy hanging out at the corner of Crime Drama Boulevard and Theater of the Absurd Street, GOODBODY provides a satisfying evening of suspense, dark humor and wild twists.

In a remote barn house somewhere in upstate New York, low level gangster Spencer (Raife Baker) finds himself staring at the business end of a loaded pistol.  The weapon is held by Marla (Amanda Sykes), a seductive amnesiac who is somehow mixed up in whatever debacle just went down. Bound to a chair and badly beaten up, Spencer has only his words to get him out of this situation. A quick thinker, he manages avoid execution. But his troubles are far from over. For starters, there’s a dead body in the corner. It seems that Marla, who has no memory of the incident, has just killed Burt O’Leary, one of two brothers who run the New York crime syndicate that employs both Spencer and his corrupt cop Charlie Aimes (Alex Morf), who’s known Spencer since childhood. As Aimes and Spencer try to piece together what just happened,  a picture emerges: Taking sibling rivalry to violent extremes, Burt has been muscling in on the illegal gambling enterprise run by his brother Chance (Dustin Charles). The resulting turf war forces Spencer and Aimes to side with one brother over the other.  It’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-do situation, not helped by the trigger-happy shenanigans of volatile interloper Marla. And when Chance, know for his “ultra violent tendencies” walks through the door, it’s a safe bet things are only going to get uglier from here. I won’t spoil the finale by telling you whether Chance or Marla turns out to be the bigger psychopath. Suffice it to say that viewers who crave explosive endings won’t be disappointed.

Sykes is both cuddly and terrifying as the unpredictable Marla, while Charles exudes quiet menace as a kingpin in danger of losing his empire. Morf and Baker pick up on each other’s cues with expert timing, turning their characters into a kind of underworld Abbot and Costello. Ernst and director Melissa Firlit smartly start the play in the middle of the action, trusting the audience to catch up on the back story as more and more details come to light. Exposition is entertainingly interwoven with comic tension as smooth Spencer and anxious Aimes carry on the cool-dude-vs-loser dynamic they’ve been acting out since grade school.

There are a few areas where the show could benefit from further development. Chance’s big entrance veers dangerously close to a gangster film cliché and could use more of the eccentric spin that enlivens the earlier scenes. And Marla, at times, seems a little too conveniently crazy. Understanding the method in her madness might make her even more compelling.  These, however, are minor complaints. Over all, GOODBODY more than lives up to Crook’s stated promise to deliver “inspiringly ambitious and criminally surprising work”.

GOODBODY continues through November 4, 2018 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street,  between Madison and Park Avenues. Tickets: 646-892-7999.