EINSTEIN’S DREAMS

scenic design ISABEL MENGYUAN LE costume design SIDNEY SHANNON lighting design HERRICK GOLDMAN sound design KEVIN HEARD projection design DAVID BENGALI props design SEAN FRANK
                                                                                                                                                                                 Photo by Richard Termine

Book and lyrics by Joanne Sydney Lessner
Music and lyrics by Joshua Rosenblum
Based on the novel Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. All Rights Reserved.
Directed by Cara Reichel

Composed of lyrical meditations on the nature of time and the universe, Alan Lightman’s fictional account of the young Albert Einstein’s early theoretical explorations is hardly the type of book that cries out to be made into a musical. Then again, Joanne Sydney Lessner and Joshua Rosenblum aren’t your typical musical theater writing team. Best known for FERMAT’S LAST TANGO, (the very title of which is an inside joke requiring knowledge of both mathematical history and 1970’s art house cinema), this risk-taking duo has a history tackling political and esoteric subject matter. Here, their task is to explore the life of the mind (one of the most notoriously complex and extraordinary minds in human history at that) through song and spectacle, and to make the whole thing as entertaining as it thought-provoking. This is no easy task: To dumb the story down would be a disservice to Lightman’s novel and to its subject, but to craft an  inscrutable or self-consciously erudite piece of “theater art” would serve only to alienate the audience and obscure the truth of the text. Remarkably, Lessner and Rosenblum navigate this Scylla and Charybdis with admirable skill and brio, aided in their efforts by a likable and gifted cast, a rich musical palette, and a dazzlingly inventive design team.

The story begins in in Berne, Switzerland , where a discontented Einstein (Zal Owen) whiles his days away working as a clerk in a patent office. The job enables Albert to support his young family, but the work clearly doesn’t hold his interest. Quite literally a clock watcher, Albert only feels alive when attempting to codify the true nature of time, a process that requires him to subdue his conscious mind and let his dreams be his guide. As he meanders through a colorful fantasy world, he falls in love with the elegant, mysterious Josette, (Alexandra Silber), yet there always seems to be something in the way of their romance. They apparently live in different time frames, and Albert’s questions receive only cryptic replies from his new paramour. Soon it becomes apparent that Einstein’s dreams aren’t mere flights of fancy. They contain clues as to the nature of the universe. One dream examines how society would behave if time itself were about to end. In another, people watch their futures play out in several different potential scenarios, each of which seem equally plausible (physicist Hugh Everett and others would later develop this concept into the Many Worlds Theory). Other reveries show time flowing backwards, explore a world in which no one ever dies (it gets a bit crowded), or focus on the mixed emotions felt by parents who, try as they might, can’t stop time from catapulting their children into adulthood. Glimpses of Einstein’s future life appear, as he leaves the Old World charm of Switzerland for drably efficient wartime America and helps usher in the Atomic Age. While Einstein vanishes into his nightly wonderland, his situation back on Earth grows increasingly dire. Hours spent napping at the office mean less time at home, and his long absences take their toll on his marriage to Mileva (Tess Primack). His superiors at the patent office aren’t too thrilled with young Einstein either. His habit of falling asleep at his desk and his lack of attention to his work put him at odds with Mr. Klausen, (Michael McCoy) his punctilious boss. Fellow patent clerk Michele Besso (Brennan Caldwell) wonders if his friend is going crazy. But Besso’s astute wife Anna (Lisa Helmi Johanson) finds Al’s theories charming (it’s all relative). Einstein persists in his belief that the world will one day embrace his theories, but time, as it’s measured in Berne, is running out. Theories notwithstanding, Einstein’s real world problems will have to be sorted out.

The form of the play poses certain challenges, as the stakes are lower in a dream than in real life. We know Albert will wake up in one piece. Smartly, though, the writers don’t overtax the premise. The show is performed without an intermission and clocks in at a trim 95 minutes despite a good sized number of songs. Backed by Rosenblum’s classically-inspired melodies and Tim Peierls’ lush orchestrations, Lessner’s lyrics show remarkable skill and imagination. Her virtuosity is particularly evident in numbers like “Now Backwards Moving Is Time”, in which the characters express their thoughts in reverse, and “Love Is Not a Science”, which abounds with triple and quadruple rhymes as Besso and Albert whimsically bemoan the fact that mathematical postulates are useless in matters of the heart. Throughout the song catalog, Lessner manages to deftly compress complicated concepts into understandable and charming verses.

Director Cara Reichel and associate director Dax Valdes move the actors in and out of the play’s real and imaginary locations with the precision of a Swiss clock, while Herrick Goldman’s lights and David Bengali’s projections nimbly create a series of specific color palettes and symbolic touches for each of Einstein’s miniature odysseys. Sidney Shannon’s costumes reflect the last vestiges of a quaint, early 20th Century Europe that will soon be energized by innovation and consumed by the tides of war and barbarism. Last but far from least, Isabel Mengyuan Le’s set delights the eye and gives a physical form to the circular, linear, multilayered  and evanescent nature of time that so fascinated the show’s namesake.

Audiences desiring a more conventional protagonist-vs-obstacle take on the musical form may find the show a bit wanting in meat-and-potatoes storytelling. But for those who crave a nourishing and tasteful mezze plate for the mind, an evening spent attending EINSTEIN’S DREAMS will be time well spent.

EINSTEIN’S DREAMS continues through December 14 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/einsteins-dreams/#schedule-and-tickets

CONTACT HIGH

Gabriella Marzetta, Kyle Reid Hass (1)

Book, music & lyrics by Kyle Reid Hass & Jeremy Swanton
Directed by Kyle Reid Hass

Nothing comes easily for the students at Fairview High School. In today’s failure-phobic climate, senior year is an acid test, a chance to take hold of the future before it takes puts a choke hold on you. Benjamin (Jeremy Swanton), has a good enough grade point average to get into his dream college, but the only way he can afford ivy league tuition is by peddling heroin to his fellow students. His partner in crime Jean Simon (Gabriella Marzetta), has a less lofty goal in mind. She wants to take back the $10,000 adult gangster Trix (Dana Norris) has shorted her and Benjamin during one of their transactions. Adding to the atmosphere of anxiety is the mysterious disappearance of Fairview student Tommy Wheeler. No one seems to know what happened to him (or if they do, they’re not talking), and only Tommy’s best friend Karen (Laura Thoresen) makes much effort to get to the bottom of it.

Karen and Benjamin belong to the Science Alliance, an elite club in which brainy students prepare to showcase their game-changing inventions at a big statewide competition. The most brilliant of the scientific hopefuls is Hayley Walter Keys (Kyle Reid Hass). But the Science Alliance has voted to boot him out of the club for his flaky behavior. Too bad he’s already spent thousands of dollars on illegal parts for his project, and now owes money to a shadowy weapons dealer named The Warlock. Desperate for cash, he pleads with Jean to put in a good word with her boss, gun-toting drug lord  Landon Casey.  As Jean soon learns, Haley’s scientific mind makes him an ideal co-conspirator.  As they cook up a plot to reclaim  Trix’s closely guarded loot, Jean and Haley discover they have more in common than meets the eye. He suffers from haphephobia, a rare disorder which causes him to react violently when another person, even accidentally, physically touches him. This condition has made him a pariah at school and a convenient suspect in the Wheeler case. Jean suffers from a more common affliction: she has become addicted to the heroin she slings. Although the two may not seem like natural allies, their shared struggle with inner demons (contact for him, high for her), puts them on the path to friendship. While their bond deepens, Benjamin becomes more embroiled in Landon’s criminal syndicate. Back on campus, the impending science fair brings out the best and worst in the clubbers, while grief counselor Brandi Orphan (Norris) sets up shop, ostensibly in an effort to help the kids cope with Tommy’s disappearance but more likely hoping to advance a hidden agenda. All these tensions inevitably erupt with tragic consequences, although there  does appear to be hope at the bottom of this Pandora’s Box of 21st Century problems. The kids, those left standing, learn that sometimes being good is a worthier goal than trying to be perfect.

Sympathetic characters and a solid structure keep the show moving briskly. In the  second act especially,  the writers neatly wring comedy relief from Brandi’s hollow shrinkspeak and from the antics of the overzealous science kids (especially the underutilized Iyana Colby).  But there are missed opportunities here as well. The story  suffers a bit from Breakfast Club Syndrome, in which grownups, seen only through a teenoscope, appear to be either uncool clods or one-dimensional antagonists. The score, too, could stand to take more risks. To be sure, Swanton and Hass  know their craft. The lyrics elucidate the characters’ wants and the rhymes are clean (a rare pleasure in a time when HAMILTON’s dollar-father, hungry-country  near rhymes are considered the gold standard). Nevertheless, too many of the songs focus on adolescent self-seriousness, and  most are built around familiar pop-hymnal chord sequences. Rarely do the numbers soar to memorable melodic heights or descend to the down-and-dirty depths of rock and roll. With all the influences at play in contemporary popular music, one would think the youth of today would move to a more varied and vivid soundtrack. 

All in all, CONTACT HIGH adds up to a sincere effort by a promising young creative team—not quite the emotional journey or generational anthem contained in the seeds of its premise. Like their protagonists, though, Swanton and Hass, if they persevere, will get where they need to go .

CONTACT HIGH continues through September 7, 2019 at Theater 511, located at 511 West 54th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://ci.ovationtix.com/35107/
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MIDNIGHT STREET

Emily Afton, Rafael Jordan, Lenny Wolpe

Created and directed by Arnold L. Cohen

Musical theater is notoriously one of the most collaborative of all popular art forms. Finding the right creative chemistry is challenge, and many efforts fail simply because there are too many cooks in one kitchen. Now and then, though, a show comes along that serves as a reminder of the dangers of having too few chefs. Arnold L. Cohen, though clearly talented, has set himself a daunting task by taking on the duties of composer, lyricist, librettist and director of a new musical. With no collaborators push against him and no source material to help him shape the show’s narrative, Cohen’s imagination is both unfettered and unfocused. As a result, MIDNIGHT STREET’s bright spots and strong lead actress are overshadowed by its lack of structure and selectivity.

The first act of the show is essentially a songbook, with the numbers loosely tied together by a series of soliloquies in which Danielle (Emily Afton) reflects on the life a New York City streetwalker. Both in her songs and her interstitial monologues, she celebrates the independence the job grants her, but also bemoans the loneliness that comes with it. She wraps men around her finger, but prefers to be with other women when she’s off the clock. She rhapsodizes thusly for quite some time before the play’s inciting incident occurs. Two Biblically-named pimps, King Saul (Lenny Wolpe) and Antipas (Rafael Jordan) express their discomfort with Danielle’s enterprise. They run the rackets in this part of town and threaten to harm her if she doesn’t get with their program. They have clearly underestimated Danielle, whose smarts and bravado put her on the winning side of the turf war (though not before Antipas sings and ode to his own badassery and Saul, rather inexplicably, synopsizes the entire history of Jewish persecution in a snappy  monologue).

That’s about all the plot we get. There are moments when specifics are deftly used to make Danielle’s monologues  more vivid: We learn that she began turning tricks in order to find an escape route from her abusive marriage, and we see her brighten when she talks about the ballet classes that afford her a brief respite from stresses of the streets. For the most part, though the show, like its protagonist, seems to walk in circles. It’s hard to believe that only two men, both easily subdued, constitute the only real threat  Danielle has ever had to reckon with.  And she makes little mention of vice cops, venereal disease, competition from other hookers, or johns who get violent or try to  walk away without paying. With those less-than-poetic details missing, she often comes across as an idea of a sex worker rather than a true survivor of the city’s back alleys.

As a melodist, however, Cohen, a Juilliard graduate, exhibits considerable gifts. The show’s tunes range from Tin Pan Alley brightness to moody modernism, and give Afton’s warm soprano voice plenty of blue and dulcet notes to sing. His lyrics, however, could stand to incorporate more of the vernacular of the streets. There are lessons to be learned from Hart, Hammerstein, Porter and other pioneering  rhymesmiths, who energized their verses by keeping their verbal antennae tuned to the language of common speech.

As the saying goes, making a great musical requires its creators to “sweat till the sweat doesn’t show.”  When a lyric feels spontaneous, when a libretto integrates seamlessly with group of songs to move a story forward, it’s a safe bet it took hours of arduous revision to get it to look so easy. In its current stage of development, MIDNIGHT STREET is still a few drafts, and several pints of perspiration, away from Broadway. 

MIDNIGHT STREET opens June 5, 2019 at at Theatre Row Theaters, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Midnight-Street/Overview?&aidTic=ven000193900

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.

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.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

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Book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens

Music by Stephen Flaherty

Based on the novel My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl by Rosa Guy,

Directed by Michael Arden

First produced in 1990, this darkly hopeful fairy tale sports an impressive list of cultural ingredients. The story incorporates a Shakespearean duo star-crossed lovers, a cast of powerful figures from Caribbean mythology, a dash Zola-esque social realism, and a nobly-doomed heroine worthy of Hans Christian Anderson. Book and lyric writer Lynn Ahrens, working from a novel by Rosa Guy, skillfully blends these disparate flavors into a satisfying narrative stew. The musical menu is, unfortunately, not so zesty, but it’s solid enough to hold the story together and give the singers something to work with.

The eponymous island, located somewhere in the Antilles archipelago is populated by two distinct. The  wealthy side of the island is inhabited by the light-skinned descendants of French colonialists, who live lives of luxury and sport. Down in the village, the indigenous people cling to their own traditions while earning a livelihood for the earth and sea. Though they have little in the way of material goods, the peasants possess a rich tradition of storytelling. On a stormy evening, to comfort a little girl frightened by thunder the townspeople (Darlesia Cearcy, Rodrick Covington, Tyler Hardwick, Cassondra James, Grasan Kingsberry, Loren Lott T. Oliver Reid, and Aurelia Williams) gather together to spin the yarn of a young woman who dares to challenge the island’s never-the-twain-shall-meet attitude towards class.

The tale begins when water god Agwé (Quentin Earl Darrington), unleashes a bitter squall which causes the rivers to overflow. Many towns are destroyed in the deluge, but the life of little a little girl (Emerson Davis) is spared. Safely ensconced in a tree, the child is discovered by villagers Mama Euralie (Kenita R. Miller) and Tonton Julian (Phillip Boykin). Figuring the gods must have their reasons, the couple adopts the girl and school her in the ways of island life. As she grows to womanhood, though, the inquisitive Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore) desires to know more about the outside world. Fascinated by the rich young people who whizz through town in sports cars, Ti Moune beseeches the gods to let her be more like the grande hommes. Hearing her prayer, the gods scoff at Ti Moune’s lofty ambitions. But love goddess Erzulie (Lea Salonga), sees no harm in letting the girl have the happiness she desires. Not to be outdone, death deity Papa Ge (Merle Dandridge), places a bet with Erzulie: we’ll see weather love or death is the stronger force. The wager gets interesting when Agwe arranges for Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell), the son of prosperous hotelier, to crash his car while driving through Ti Moune’s neighborhood. Against her parents’ wishes, Ti Moune insists on nursing the unconscious Daniel back to health. She falls in love with the lad, and when Papa Ge comes to claim his life, Ti Moune offers hers instead. When Daniel is returned safely to his family’s estate, Euralie and Julian breathe easier. Ti Moune will forget him in time. As usual, though, the young woman has her own ideas, and insists on taking a journey to the rich side of the island. Here, Ti Moune  believes, she and Daniel will live happily ever after. Earth goddess Asaka (Alex Newell) sees to it that Ti Moune reaches her destination safely, but that’s only half the battle. In her zeal, the young woman has reckoned without the rivalry of Daniel’s promised bride (Alysha Deslorieux), the interference of his stern father (David Jennings), and a secret curse that has haunted the Beauxhomme family for generations. And, of course, there’s that rash promise she made to Papa Ge, who isn’t likely to let a debt go uncollected.

Wisely, Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty forgo the typical musical-comedy happy ending in favor of a more sublime finale. Director Michael Arden and choreographer Camille A. Brown use Circle in The Square’s round space creatively, creating a functioning village – replete with live animals – in which to ground the story-within-a-story. The shifting moods and changing locales of the plot are handled with confidence and imagination by set designer Dane Laffrey and lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Costume designer by Clint Ramos uses a palette of rich, warm colors that evoke the exotic flora of the Caribbean. The actors radiate warmth and emotional honesty, and go at the songs with sensitivity and impressive vocal prowess. Innovative casting choices, such as the Dionysian Dandridge in the usually male role of Papa Ge, help to give the material a fresh interpretation.

There is only one respect in which ONCE ON THIS ISLAND falls short of the greatness it might have achieved. The score, though perfectly pleasant, isn’t particularly memorable. There are few catchy melodies and, with the exception of an exhilarating dance sequence, little exploration of Afro-Caribbean musical idioms. Most of the score sounds a bit like Jimmy Buffet: agreeable pop chord sequences with a light seasoning of calypso. It works, but with a more powerful musical spine, ISLAND could go from a great evening of theater to a classic.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND continues in an open run at Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W 50th St, New York, NY 10019 Tickets: http://www.onceonthisisland.com/tickets/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fringe report: TAKE ONE

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Written by  Jeff Ward

Directed by Michael Schiralli

As Ernest Hemingway famously stated, “The first draft of anything is s**t.” Apparently playwright-songwriter Jeff Ward agrees, as none of TAKE ONE’s hapless heroes gets anything right on the first draft. Even Jehovah himself finds the creative process exasperating. But thanks to a tuneful score, bright dialogue and clever lyrics, the tribulations of history’s frustrated geniuses are extremely fun to watch.

Somewhat reminiscent of David Ives’s short play collections, the play comprises three separate thematically linked once acts. The evening begins at the Beginning, as God (Tom Alan Robbins) endeavors to create a world in which something interesting is liable to happen. His intentions are somewhat perverse, however, as he secretly hopes that Adam (Rob Brinkmann) and Eve (L.R. Davidson) will sneak a taste of the fruit he has forbidden them to touch. Even when the Serpent (Caroline Schmidt) sashays around the garden in slinky green gown, she cannot tempt the first couple into doing the wrong thing. Fearful that his Book of Genesis is going to end up a very dull read, God next attempts to turn Cain (Corrado Alicata) against his brother Abel (Carl Howell). The result of His efforts are, again, confounding.

Flash forward to the Florentine renaissance, where Michelangelo (Keith Varney) labors tirelessly on the Sistine Chapel. Then as now, the artist is perpetual conflict with the money man. Pope Julius (Alicata) complains about everything from Michelangelo’s personal hygiene to the sluggish pace at which he paints. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Michelangelo’s first ceiling is a little too far ahead of its time. Much to the delight of his rivals Leonardo (Robbins) and Raphael (Brinkmann), Mich is badly out of favor with the Vatican. Thankfully, a muse arrives in the form of a young apprentice. Ludovico (Howell) isn’t the sharpest chisel in the box, but his youth, beauty and good-hearted innocence give the master a new lease on life. Alas, even their happiness is short lived, as politics inevitably clashes with both art and love.

Fittingly for a musical theater writer, Ward chooses Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! as his next major event in the story of civilization. In an era when Broadway spectaculars had always featured lighthearted ditties and leggy chorus girls, Oscar Hammerstein (Varney) is ready to break new ground. In order for a plot-driven musical to work, however, certain songs will have to be cut. Dick Rodgers (Howell), will have none of it. Insisting that the song must stay, he meets with resistance from everyone from his wife Celeste (Schmidt) to producer Rouben Mamoulian (Robbins).  Killing one’s darlings has never been an easy task, but Oscar’s powers of persuasion are not to be underestimated.

All three mini-musicals are as solidly crafted and sport unexpected twists as well as clever cultural references. Of the three, the middle piece has the most heart. Michelangelo’s resigned self-assessment (“I’m 28, and nearly dead”) stands out in sharp contrast to 17 year old Ludo’s purity of spirit. Their ill-fated effort at mutual redemption forms a narrative through line on which they pin the piece’s satirical conceits. Director Michael Schiralli adds a touch of visual wit with sly references to the iconic poses Michelangelo’s masterworks.

The actors, hip to the quirky rhythms of Ward’s David comic sensibility, are committed to their roles and strong on vocal dexterity. Betsy Rugg-Hind’s costumes Lauren Page Russell’s set and prop designs add opulence and graphic whimsy to the proceedings.

TAKE ONE has completed its run at the Fringe, but will likely be transferred to another venue. Check http://www.takeonethemusical.com for updates:

 

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL

 

labuteWritten by John Doble, Peter Grandbois, Nancy Bell, GD Kimble, Neil LaBute, JJ Strong, and Lexi Wolfe

Directed by  John Pierson and  Milton Zoth

Brewed at the at the St. Louis Actor’s Studio, the LNTF is now bringing the best of its one act entries to East Coast. The selections, culled from some hundreds of cold submissions, range in tone from whimsical to disquieting. But they all reflect the rawness, wit and theatrical ingenuity that exemplifies the LaBute aesthetic.

STAND UP FOR ONESELF centers on a chance encounter at a London house party. Afflicted with a wasting disease, Lucas (Mark Ryan Anderson) doesn’t see himself as catnip to the opposite sex. Winsome Lila (Alicia Smith) begs to differ, but getting past Lucas’s cynical veneer will take persistence and ingenuity. Playwright Lexi Wolfe could stand to put her characters through a bit more strife before they reach their resolution. But her take on the male-female dynamic is a refreshing one. Lucas and Lila are on an equal footing, neither one more valid than the other. Anderson and Smith handle their UK accents well and share an appealing chemistry.

On a similar theme, Nancy Bell and Peter Grandbois’ PRESENT TENSE looks at the challenges of intimacy in the digital age. Though they seem to be meeting for an illicit tryst in a hotel room, two lovers (Justin Ivan Brown and Jenny Smith) are actually miles apart.  The two engage in some hot verbal exchanges, but the minute they get too physically close, they jump back and turn their attention to their electronic devices. They’re “connected” through the internet, but face-to-face communication is a skill that has atrophied from disuse. Brown and Smith are tenderly comic as they slowly find the courage to take a few baby steps back into the real world.

Another troubled couple drives the show’s funniest entry, THE COMEBACK SPECIAL by JJ Strong. On a cross road trip, Jesse (Michael Hogan) reluctantly visits Graceland with his girlfriend Bonnie (Alicia Smith). A music snob, Jesse  cares nothing for the “derivative” music of Elvis Presley, and wants to make haste to jazz-centric New Orleans. But Bonnie, who lives in the moment, wants to savor the historic kitsch of the Presley mansion. Their argument is about to reach a stalemate, when out of the restroom comes the King himself (Neil Magnuson). Is he really an undead Elvis? Or just a crazed impersonator who lives in the bathroom? Whatever he may be, the sequined apparition needs something from the young couple, and Jesse finally opens his suspicious mind to new musical and emotional possibilities. Magnuson’s marvelously accurate impersonation is balanced by Hogan and Smith’s deadpan reactions, and enhanced by Carla Evans’s colorful costume design.

John Doble’s COFFEE HOUSE, GREENWICH VILLAGE, offers a more macabre take on relationship dynamics. Jack (Brown), and Pamela (Jenny Smith) are on a blind date. In between interruptions from an obnoxious waiter (Anderson), they struggle to find common ground. As layers of inhibition fall away, it turns out Jack and Pamela do have a shared interest– one that may land them in a federal prison. The premise is a provocative one, but the tone isn’t quite right for the material. The opening beats are directed in a farcical key, which ultimately makes the play’s twist ending harder to believe. A more realistic, unaffected approach would have pulled the audience along more effectively.

In contrast to the relationship-driven vignettes, G.D. Kimble and Neil Labute deliver weighty examinations of political violence. Kimble’s TWO IRISHMEN ARE DIGGING A DITCH takes place in Northern Ireland, where the ghosts of The Troubles refuse to stay buried despite all the recent peace accords. In a darkened cell, a naked, badly beaten prisoner (Anderson) laughs madly as he faces a panel of unseen judges. Accused of collaborating with the IRA, the young man protests that all he did was have a few of the old-timers over to his house and let them tell their war stories. Yet his interrogators show him no mercy. In the next scene, what appears to be a casual encounter between two other neighborhood men (Magnuson and Brown), turns out to have a darker purpose. When a life is taken, the other side retaliates, and the blood feud continues. Without preaching, Kimble’s unflinching drama offers a bracingly human portrait of the impact of war on everyday lives.

An extended monologue, LaBute’s KANDAHAR also features a character on trial, facing the audience as if we were his accusers. A young G.I. (Hogan) slowly recounts the actions that may cost him his life. Without overselling the paradox, LaBute explores society’s double standard. When the young man slaughters Afghans, he is considered a war hero, but when he turns his violent instincts on his fellow soldiers and his unfaithful wife, he’s reviled as a murderer. Hogan is frighteningly convincing as the plainspoken perpetrator who unaffectedly unpacks the details of the carnage he has caused and the thoughts that ran through his head as he did so. LaBute exhibits his customary economy of form, using a theatrically simple palette to paint a complex, haunting picture of a disjointed world.

LABUTE NEW THEATER FESTIVAL continues through February 7, 2016 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or online at 59E59.ORG.

 

 

 

AMAZING GRACE

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Book by Christopher Smith & Arthur Giron

Music and lyrics by Christopher Smith

Directed by Gabriel Barre

AMAZING GRACE has almost all the ingredients it needs to be a topnotch show: high seas adventure, romance, historic content, a humanistic message and a feel-good ending. The one thing it lacks is a strong marriage between music and story. Far too often the insertion of songs into the narrative feels arbitrary rather than essential. The result is something of a mixed bag: It doesn’t quite gel as a musical, but the show’s narrative energy, talented cast and epic production values make it enjoyable evening regardless.

Thomas (Chuck Cooper), narrates the story of his friend and former master John Newton (Josh Young). Itching for adventure, young John goes out to sea. This does not sit well with his stern father, Captain Newton (Tom Hewitt), who has a more staid life in mind for his son. John persists in his pursuits, soon becoming a player in the profitable slave trade. His childhood friend Mary Catlett (Erin Mackey), is appalled at the sight of human beings sold like animals, and reaches out to help an escaped slave after activist attack the auction site. Mary senses that something big is happening, and over the protestations of her house slave Nanna (Laiona Michelle), she begins flirting with the burgeoning abolitionist movement. As her antislavery convictions solidify, John’s propensity for drunken rudeness worsens. Rival suitor Major Archibald Grey (Chris Hoch) takes advantage of the rift between John and Mary, and his chances look brighter still when John is waylaid by sailors and forced to serve on a slave ship as an ordinary seaman. Captain Newton refuses to intervene on his son’s behalf, although John is allowed to bring Thomas along as a fellow seaman. Insubordination is not tolerated aboard the ship, and John soon finds out what flogging feels like. In a brilliantly staged sequence, a storm at sea topples the vessel, and Thomas and John are plunged into the depths of the ocean. They survive the wreck, but are held captive in West Africa by Princess Peyai (Harriet D. Foy), a sinister collaborator who callously sells her own people into bondage. After experiencing life as a slave, Newton sees the system through different eyes and seeks to free the very people he once oppressed. Meanwhile, back in Europe, Mary speaks truth to power in an effort to end the slave trade once and for all. Many more obstacles exist, but both Mary and John are emboldened by their newfound convictions and they unite in their struggle to smash the shackles of slavery once and for all.

This gripping (if melodramatic) narrative is given epic visual panache by Gabriel Barre’s bold direction and the lavish achievements of the gifted design and effects teams. All of the performances are solid: Young and Mackey both have clear, impassioned voices, and are adept at capturing the internal conflicts as well as the youthful impulsivity of their characters. Led by the always-stellar Cooper, the supporting cast gives depth and power to the arc of the story. Unfortunately, though, their efforts aren’t consistently matched by the score. There are a few strong entries, such as Thomas’s powerful “Nowhere Left to Run” and an ironic patter song in which the pompous Major Grey extols the virtues of propriety while ruthlessly engineering his next conquest. Most of the ballads, though, feel generic and fail to move the story forward or to tell us much that we don’t already know about the characters. Make no mistake, AMAZING GRACE is worth the price of admission in spite of its flaws, and is certainly recommended for parents looking for something on Broadway that’s appropriate for kids and offers both substance and spectacle. But audiences should go in with the right expectations: you’ll walk out enlightened, but not humming.

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/