THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Directed & conducted by Albert Bergeret

The third in the duo’s legendary series of collaborations, Gilbert and Sullivan’s exuberant sendup of Victorian pomp wastes no time in plunging its audience into the world of topsyturvydom. The title alone radiates sheer silliness, as Penzance, a cheery seaside resort town, was hardly a breeding ground for bloodthirsty privateers. Of course, that’s only the beginning of the show’s many spins on Victorian narrative conventions.

In keeping with the customs of the time, loyal nursemaid Ruth (Angela Christine Smith) has dutifully consigned her young ward Frederic to a professional apprenticeship. Due to Ruth’s impaired  hearing, though, the lad did not become a pilot-in-training, but rather a pirate-in-training. Lucky for him, the buccaneers, led by the Pirate King (Matthew Wages), are hardly the most murderous of men. They look impressive, but their gentlemanly nature prevents them from harming the defenseless. Nevertheless, adult Frederic (Carter Lynch), having just turned 21, feels he must repudiate his pirate pals and join the ranks of polite society. He even plans to marry but, having never laid eyes on any female personage other than Ruth, doubts his ability to select an appropriate bride. No sooner has he voiced his lament than a bevy of eligible maidens cheerily alights on the shore. Naturally, they’re as curious about Frederic as he is about them. He and Mabel (Katie Dixon) fall in love, and are Ali set to sail towards a sunny future. But complications lurk around every turn. It turns out Frederic’s contract with the pirate crew runs out on his 21st birthday, not his 21st year. Since he was born on a leap year, the wedding plans will have to be put on hold for about, oh, 63 more years. Little help comes from Mabel’s dad Stanley (David Macaluso). Though he’s the very model of a modern major general (you might say he’s also the father of the modern patter song), he isn’t quite sure he and his men are up to a scrimmage with the infamous Pirates. Of course, there are more twists to come, some involving the bungling, if vocally gifted, police force commended by a melancholy sergeant (David Auxier).  

Given its age (140, this year), it’s remarkable how modern PIRATES feels. The production boosts the plays’s relevance by adding a few anachronistic touches (bunny slippers, New Years Eve hats, even a sly Trump reference), but for the most part it’s the cast’s commitment and confluence of talents, coupled with the opulent set and costume design, that brings the evergreen material to rollicking life. From Auxier’s Ray Bolgeresque dance moves to Malacuso’s verbal dexterity, Wages’ charismatic roguery to Smith’s winsome sauciness, the cavalcade of wit and slapstick keeps coming. Of course, all this drollery would mean little if it weren’t counterbalanced by a sincere approach to the show’s romantic storyline.  Lynch’s beguiling innocence and pluck make him an ideal protagonist, while Dixon’s agile soprano turns ballads like the lilting “Poor Wandering One” into showstoppers. Director/conductor Albert Bergeret moves his baton at the ideal tempo: allegro, but never rushed.

THE PIRATES OF PENANCE ran through December 30, 2018 at the Kaye Playhouse. Check here for information on upcoming shows: https://nygasp.org

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THE NEW ONE

THE NEW ONE
Written & performed by Mike Birbiglia
Directed by Seth Barrish

This won’t be a long review. A plethora of words wouldn’t help explain why Mike Birbiglia’s new one-man effort works as well as it does. The show’s strength lies in its simplicity, and its charm comes less from its rather garden-variety premise than from Birbiglia’s unaffected performance style.

Basically, THE NEW ONE is about a lovably insecure guy (Birbiglia) who sees himself as something of an overgrown adolescent and therefore can’t imagine being a dad. Yet when the day arrives, he rises to the challenges of parenting, finding unexpected joy amid all the chaos and exhaustion. That’s pretty much it. So even at an intermission- less 80 minutes, there needs to be plenty of anecdote and invention to put flesh on such a basic narrative skeleton. Thankfully, Birbiglia goes at the task with an expert touch. Though his monologue appears to be stream-of- consciousness, it’s clear that he’s been through numerous drafts, selecting just the right details to stir into the mix and what to leave out. He pokes gentle fun at the baby industry, and confesses that he feels like and intern in his own home as things constantly need to be fetched for mother and baby. And in addition to the usual parenting ordeals, Mike brings his own set of quirks and conditions. We learn, for example, that he suffers from a disorder called RBD (a dangerous form of sleepwalking) and has to sleep in a harness, further complicating the new family’s domestic arrangements. His relationship with his wife, poet Jen Stein, is inevitably upended by the arrival of the new one, but ultimately deepens as they learn the ropes of co-nurturing.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

Birbiglia has spent years, both as a standup comedian and a frequent contributor to non-fiction storytelling programs like The Moth Radio Hour and This American Life, honing a comic persona that is both erudite and self-effacing. His ease on stage helps establish an instant rapport with the audience, and though we more or less know where he’s going, we’re still happy to follow along as he takes his first baby steps into the overwhelming universe of fatherhood.

THE NEW ONE continues through January 20, 2019 at the Cort Theater.,
 138 W 48th St, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: Broadway.com.

HYPE MAN

Written by Idris Goodwin
Directed by by Kristan Seemel & Niegel Smith

Whether 19th Century dramatist Christian Friedrich Hebbel would enjoy waving his arms in the air to the infectious hip-hop beats of HYPEMAN is anybody’s guess. But he would certainly have to agree that his most famous maxim, “in a good play, everyone is right”, is adroitly and compassionately embodied in Idris Goodwin’s touching and timely exploration of the rigors of friendship, the power of art and the struggle for social justice.

Rapper Pinnacle (Matt Stango) is on the brink of success. But he feels a little lost without his longtime friend and collaborator Verb (Shakur Tolliver), who‘s gotten into some trouble lately. Thankfully, the hype man (backup rapper and call-and-response leader) has been able to sober up and return to the studio ready to work. Not much music will be made, though, until beatmaker Peep One (Tay Bass), arrives. She’s stuck in traffic, which is not an unusual occurrence. But this time the mess on the highway was caused by a tragic incident. Unarmed teenager Jerrod Davis, in a hurry to help his grandmother with a medical emergency, led the cops on a highspeed chase. When he tried to surrender, he was shot to death by the police. Verb has had enough. There have been far too many Jerrods, and somebody needs to do something. Pinnacle’s reaction is different. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the issues, but right now his focus is on making sure everything goes well when the team travels to New York for a Tonight Show spot.

The performance is a hit, but as the song is wrapping up, Verb throws the audience a curveball by taking of his jacket to reveal a tee shirt with “justice for Jerrod” scrawled on it. Pinnacle finds himself inundated with hateful reactions posted on Twitter and indignant feedback from the law enforcement community. He and Verb, once as close as brothers, find themselves on opposite side of a rift. The hype man’s argument is a valid one: Does the world really need another rap song about girls and money, another braggadocious reboot of the hackneyed street-to-elite-and-rhyming-all-the-way narrative? All the great MC’s spoke truth to power. Why can’t Pinnacle? The rapper’s perspective makes sense, too. The team has struggled in obscurity for years. If they blow it now, they may not get another shot. No one wins if their talents go unrecognized.

Seeing value in both agendas, Peep feels torn. And in her quiet way she, too, has been fighting an uphill battle for equality and inclusion. She loves hip hop, but with all the hypersexualized, even misogynistic, lyrics spat by male rappers, she doesn’t always feel that the genre loves her back. She’s also tired of getting hit on, treated more like a sexual commodity than a colleague. She can’t be sure whether Pinnacle and Verb are part of the solution or of the problem.

As the trio disbands, things take a dark turn. Without his collaborators, Pinnacle is a hollow shell. And Verb, protesting in the streets and clashing with police, wonders if he’s really making a difference. Perhaps the mic is mightier than the picket sign after all. He and Pinnacle would be stronger together than they are apart, and they both know it. But bridging the divide – if it’s even still possible — will take courage and commitment. 

Under Kristan Seemel and Niegel Smith’s economical direction, the show’s quiet beats are as compelling as its high octane musical numbers. Bass, Stango and Tolliver are so deeply in sync as musicians that it would be no surprise to learn thar a record label had signed them on the spot. They bring the same deep connection and joy in performing to the complex, vibrant characters they portray. 

HYPE MAN continues through December 18, 2018 at the Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, New York, NY 10007. Tickets http://theflea.org/for-audiences/current-season/ 

LIFE X 3

Written by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jerry Heymann 

A kind of Groundhog Day for the smart set, Yasmina Reza’s jaundiced take on marital relations shows a foursome of educated Parisians reliving the same failed soiree over and over. There are subtle variations in each of the replays, presumably meant to help us see the same events from a different angle. The trope has potential, but the playwright seems to lack a strong sense of purpose. It’s never quite clear what the audience is meant to learn from watching the same petty people keep repeating the same mistakes, or, more importantly, why we’re supposed to care.

In the living room of a prim, middle class apartment, astrophysicist Henry (James Patrick Nelson) and Sonia (Claire Curtis-Ward) bicker over how best to get their young son to go to sleep. Henry seems to think it’s okay to give the boy a few chocolate fingers if it will get him to quiet down. Sonia believes in being firm with kids, and finds Henry’s wishy-washy parenting style annoying. Even more repulsive, in her eyes, is the way her husband sucks up to Hubert Finidori (Dominic Comperatore) a successful fellow scientist whose influence could make or break Henry’s chances for a promotion. As a matter of fact, Hubert and his wife Ines (Leah Curney) are on their way over for dinner. Apparently, neither Sonia nor Henry bothered to mark the date. Or perhaps it’s the Finidoris whose calendar is off. Either way, the surprise is not a welcome one. Sonia is still in her housecoat, there’s nothing in the fridge but Sancerre, and no hors d’oeuvres other than whatever chocolate fingers the child hasn’t already consumed and few bags of a Cheese Doodle-ish snack food called Wotsits. It’s a hostess’s nightmare, made worse by Henry’s groveling and Hubert’s thinly veiled disdain for his struggling colleague. The turning point comes when Hubert coolly delivers the news that Henry’s research paper, the result of years of work, may be irrelevant as another physicist has just published a similar treatise. It’s devastating blow for Henry, and for Sonia it’s further evidence that her husband is an epic schlimazel. In scene two, our Rashomonsters are at it again, with Hubert and Ines are already bickering before they even arrive at the doomed dinner party. As the wine flows, Hubert and Sonia, both so disappointed in their spouses, appear to be kindling an affair. In the third go-round, a more mature, confident Henry takes the publication of a rival research paper in stride. Yet despair still hangs over the scene, perhaps because the universe, reduced to numbers and theories, seems meaningless. (or maybe they’ve all just had too many chocolate fingers).

There are many unanswered questions in this drama, and not in a good, make-you-think, kind of way. Sonia and Henry live in Paris, for heaven’s sake, the very citadel of culinary achievement, yet we’re supposed to believe they can’t figure out how to get food delivered. And why can’t any of these smart people manage enter a social event correctly in their datebooks? It all feels a little too engineered. Likewise, the career and matrimonial frustrations these First Worlders face don’t seem profound enough to warrant all the histrionics. To be fair, many modern dramatists, Chekhov and Beckett among them, are known for having based great works on the dynamics of emotional paralysis. But they understood stuck-ness in a way that Reza doesn’t seem to, or at least they found a way to poeticize the melancholy of thwarted dreams.

That said, the material does offer its superb cast something to work with. In Nelson’s hands the bungling Henry seems more vulnerable than weak, someone we’re willing to root for even at his low moments. Comperatore neatly encapsulates the suave exterior and inner ennui of the disillusioned Hubert. Curtis-Ward manages to find genuine pathos between the beats of Sonia’s I-deserve-better irritability, while Curney is a joy to watch the neglected spouse who grows drunker – and more uncomfortably truthful – as the evening wears on. Director Jerry Heymann nimbly orchestrates their talents,while the painterly set design, costumes and props add an extra layer of luster to the production and highlight distinct moods of each re-exploration of a life measured out it in Whotsits and wine bottles.

LIFE X 3 continues through December 8, 2018 at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street (bet 7th and 8th Avenues) For tickets, call Ovationtix, 1.866.811.4111. 

KING KONG: ALIVE ON BROADWAY

Book by Jack Thorne
Music and Lyrics by Eddie Perfect
Directed & choreographed by Drew McOnie

The temptation to reinvent the quintessential creature feature, billed in its day as “The Most Awesome Thriller of All Time” is understandable. After all, the original King Kong defined movie magic and captivated audiences with its groundbreaking special effects and a story that mashed up mythic allegory and crude Darwinism with emblems of modernity like the Empire State Building. But the world has turned a few times since Kong was billed as its eighth wonder, and any contemporary author attempting to reboot the classic story is faced with two daunting challenges. Firstly, how in the hell do you keep the plot of the original while making it acceptable to today’s sensibilities? Even by 1933 standards, Kong’s gender politics are old-school. Many pre-Code Hollywood films featured street-smart, independent female protagonists,whereas Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) does little but writhe fetchingly as the ape, a raging male libido incarnate, sniffs, ogles, fondles and abducts her: no courtship or consent required. And then there’s the problem of Skull Island’s natives,those drum-pounding, spear-brandishing savages who are so impressed with Ann’s blonde locks and milky skin that they kidnap the “golden woman”and serve her up as an antipasto to appeasement their simian god. Clearly, none of this would fly today, but once you jettison the story’s racism, sexism and imperialism, is it still King Kong? Secondly, in a time when IMAX 3D movies are playing at the mall and hyper-real graphics are available on X Boxes and smart phones, is it still possible to concoct a spectacle capable of filling an audience with awe?

The creative team behind the great ape’s latest incarnation struggles valiantly with the first of these two conundrums. Their efforts yield, to put it gently, uneven results. When it comes to the second question, though, the show is truly breathtaking, so much so that the sense of wonder its gargantuan star provokes almost compensates for the inconsistencies in its score and script.

Like the movie, KKAOB takes place in Depression era Manhattan. But its heroine is decidedly more proactive. Ambitious Ann Darrow, (Christians Pitts) a farmers’ daughter from the Midwest, dreams of being a Broadway star. She auditions tirelessly, but finds the competition fierce and the jobs scarce. Down to her last few pennies, she is loitering in a greasy spoon one night when a waiter tries to get fresh with her. She gives the chap a well-deserved biff on the chin, and the commotion attracts the attention of impresario Carl Denham (Eric William Morris). Denham buys Ann a hot meal, and presents her with an offer to star in his new movie. There’s a catch, of course. The picture will be shot on Skull Island, uncharted terrain rumored to be populated by primordial beasts. It’s sure to be a treacherous journey, but with few prospects on the horizon, Ann decides accept Denham’s proposal. No sooner has the boat launched than tensions begin to simmer. Ann puts up resistance when Denham wants to shoot a test reel of her screaming. Uncomfortable in the role of damsel in distress, she’d rather roar with power than screech in terror. The sailors, too, get tired of doing Denham’s bidding, and Ann again asserts her strength by quelling a potential mutiny. The only person who doesn’t seem to have a problem with Denham’s tyranny is his faithful factotum, Lumpy (Erik Lochtefeld) a gentle soul who takes a liking to Ann. When the crew comes ashore, they find no indigenous people (and therefore no offensive stereotypes) on Skull Island. There are, however, sentient trees, and Ann finds herself bound by grasping vines, unable to escape when the big primate comes to call. As the giant King slowly emerges from the sultry darkness, Ann is awed but not afraid. When he roars, she roars back. More protector than predator, he rescues her from a giant serpent  and she, in turn, uses her homespun wisdom to remedy a wound he has acquired during the fight.

Their bond deepens when Denham has his people tranquilize Kong and ship him to New York, where he’ll become the center piece of a new musical extravaganza. Ann, heartbroken at seeing the majestic animal in chains, wants to walk out on Denham, but the avaricious showman threatens her into fulfilling her contract. Thus, like Kong himself, she is held captive and put on display. Inevitably, though, the need for freedom proves stronger than any psychological or physical bonds imposed by an exploitative system. Liberty may have its price, but both Ann and the King are (and Lumpy, too, in the show’s most skillfully written scene), are willing to take their chances.    

Christiani Pitts is passionate and appealing as the spirited Ann, and impressively holds her own even when playing opposite her 20-foot costar. Lochtefeld, amid the production’s noise and derring-do, manages to turn a small, quiet moment into one of the show’s few poignant beats. They could do better still with stronger material: the songs aren’t particularly memorable, and some of the dialogue is so on-the-nose that the characters begin to feel more like polemics than people. But when the magnificent brainchild of creature designer Sonny Tilders takes the stage, these shortcomings recede into the distance. Kong is not merely a mechanical marvel, but a living, breathing creature endowed with soul. In one particularly heart-stopping moment (in a word, a gorilloquy), the orchestra goes quiet and Kong is alone onstage, his penetrating eyes taking in the audience, his guttural noises expressing more truth than can be found in any of the play’s homilies. It’s the beauty of the beast that keeps this show from becoming the most dreaded of Broadway monstrosities: a colossal turkey.

KING KONG continues through April 14, 2019 at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, between 52nd & 53rd Streets. Tickets @ Telecharge.com.

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.

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